The Closure of Esker Monastery

Esker monastery is to be closed. The community, to which I belong, is to be moved out before the end of the year, and then an attempt will be made to offload the building.

It was obvious for many years that this day was coming. Twenty five years ago I wrote a book, The Death of Religious Life?, which predicted that we would probably live to see the collapse of monasteries and convents, and now we are witnessing it.

It is a sad time. The closure of Esker is especially sad for myself, because I grew up close to the monastery, and it played a major part in my life, and that of my family. As children we used cycle over to Esker, cutting in by the sand pit, and cycling along a path through the fields, while navigating two small timber bridges over streams. Esker then was a vibrant place, with a large community of priests and brothers, and big attendances at the Saturday evening novena to Our Lady. Later, when I joined the Redemptorists, I did the first year, the noviciate, in the monastery. During my years of active priesthood I was stationed in Esker for many years, working on missions and novenas around the west of Ireland.

I’m sure the news of its closure is being greeted with sadness by people all around county Galway, and farther away. Esker has been a monastic site since the sixteenth century, when the Dominican abbey in Athenry was destroyed, and the monks escaped to what was then a remote forested place, and settled there. They were there for about three centuries, and it is believed that their dead were buried at the top of Dominic’s hill, though there is no evidence of that remaining. We arrived there at the beginning of the twentieth century.

Over the past fifty years we have conducted an annual nine day novena in Esker during the month of June. I worked on it many times, and loved it. Crowds gathered from all over the county, filling the church and large areas of the ground floor of the monastery. It had a special quality all it’s own, different from the work I did in so many other churches around the country. In fact, people often said to me that Esker has an ‘aura’ about the place. They used many words in attempting to describe it, words like peace, calm, tranquility, somewhere they could come with their troubles and worries, and go home with a new sense of hope and lightness of spirit. I used like to question people about this experience, and very often they would eventually put it like this: “There is a Presence in this place, and it is good, it is holy”.

Also it had a reputation for having a priest with the gift of healing. In my time there it was Fr. Tom Creagh, an old Limerick man. He had a relic of St. Gerard, and people came to him from all over, many going away believing they were cured. His method included rubbing the relic on whichever part of the body was ailing. As a young priest, one day I was asked to go to the parlour to see an old lady, because Tom was away. I found myself in a situation that seminary training did not prepare me for, as the lady began to undress. I gave her a hasty blessing from the door, and many a rapid escape. I don’t think she would have felt healed after that encounter.

And now Esker is closing. The few remaining members of the community are old, and many of them invalided. They will be relocated to other Redemptorist houses.The absence of new recruits for many years now, means that there is no one to take their place. So we are left with no choice. The building is large, old and expensive to keep, and most of it has protected status, so we are told it will be difficult to get anybody interested in it. If that is what happens, it will have to be ‘mothballed’ and it will be our responsibility to maintain it. That will be an impossible task, and I hate to think of a possible future when the windows will be broken, and the wind and rain blowing through it. I pray that will not be the case, and that some future use may be found for it.

In the meantime this will probably be a year when many people will pay a visit, and many stories will be told of previous generations, and what the place meant to them. I would love to be able to say a public Mass there before the end, and speak of what Esker meant to me, to my relations, neighbours, and so many people around. Due to my current suspension that will, unfortunately, not be possible.

Life moves on. The biggest lesson, and the biggest challenge, of ageing is learning to let go. It happens both at a personal and institutional level. Right now we are experiencing both.

Tony Flannery