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History of the Lieutenancy

An Historical Note on the Equestrian Order of the Holy Sepulchre of Jerusalem in Ireland

Selskar Abbey

The ruins of Selsker Abbey stand close to Wexford town. This ecclesiastical site was the location of the brief presence of the Order of the Holy Sepulchre in Ireland at the time of the Crusades. It does seem probable that Selsker Abbey (also spelt Selskar, a name derived from St. Sepulchre) at Wexford was an early House of the Order, with a brief existence between the years 1140-1190, after which it reverted to the Augustinian Black Canons up until the dissolution.

There is a tradition that the first Bishop of Connor, St. Aengus Mac Nissi, consecrated by St. Patrick himself, made a pilgrimage to Jerusalem in the latter half of the 5th century. St. Adomnan wrote what could be called a 'Guidebook' to the Holy Land at Iona about the year 670 AD. Various chroniclers of the time specifically mention the Irish presence in the first Crusade. The thirteenth century scribe, Robert of Gloucester noted that: "Yrland was amongst the nations that took part in the First Crusade: quaintly adding that: "All the concerts of Europe would have made no music if the Irish harp had been absent".

The Franciscan Custody of the Holy Land included some Irish Friars from at least the seventeenth century. In 1680, Fr. Bonaventure Burke ofm, a member of the Irish Province, left for Jerusalem and the following year became 'Superior of the Holy Sepulchre'. He died in Jerusalem in 1706. Fr. Patrick McAuley was 'Superior of the HolySepulchre' in 1734. During the long vacancy of the Latin Patriarchate of nearly 400 years, the Franciscan Custos of the Holy Land was the Rector of the Order who was authorized to admit Knights. Such admissions included James Walsh, doctor in January 1841 and Bernard Morgan in 1683. With the restoration of the Latin Patriarchate in1847by means of the Bull Nulla Celebrior, Pius IX restored the rectorate to the Patriarch and set up the four classes of Knighthood in the Order.Pope Leo XIII authorised for the first time the conferring of honoursof theOrder upon women who were to be styled Dames of the Holy Sepulchre and to share in all the rights and privileges of the Knights.

Pope St. Pius X by Papal decree honoured the Order by attaching the military trophy to the decoration known as the Cross of Jerusalem or the Cross of the Five Wounds, and granted the use of the great white cape, reserving for himself the title of Grand Master of the Order. In 1940 Pope Pius XII transferred the headquarters of the Order from Jerusalem to Rome, and in August 15, 1946 he named the Church of St. Ononfrio on the Janiculum Hill in Rome as the priory church of the international Order.

In more recent times Irish members included Comte Florimond de Basterot Kinvara (1836–1904), John Heney (1821–1909) from Killeshranda Co Cavan was admitted in 1889 and founded the Irish Temperance Society in Ottawa; Jacob Kennedy, Knight, invested in April 1870; John Delaney, invested as Commander in September 1881 (seeVolI Issue 3 of the Lieutenancy Newsletter, a prominent builder from Cork); Thomas Aloysius Burke as a Grand Cross in June 1894; Senator Sir Thomas Henry Grattan Esmonde (1862-1935) invested in March, 1908 as a Knight Commander and promoted to Knight Grand Cross in June, 1924; the Marquis Vincent MacSwiney (1870-1945)with the rank of Knight Grand Cross; Papal Count George Noble Plunkett(1851-1948), father of the revolutionary poet Joseph Mary Plunkett, created a Knight Commander in January, 1910; Dr. Joseph Redmond (1852 -1921) consulting physician to the Mater Hospital and St. Patrick's College Maynooth, created a Knight Commander in 1912 and Michael John Cahill created a Knight Commander March 1936.


Three members of the Order from the United States who accompanied the Papal Legate, H.E. Richard Cardinal Cushing, at the solemn dedication of Galway Cathedral in August 1965

There was an abortive attempt in the early 1950's to erect a Lieutenancy. The current Lieutenancy was established in July 1986 and had as its original seat Holy Cross Abbey, Co. Tipperary. The first investiture of postulants in St. Patrick's College,Maynooth,tookplacein1998.




The founding Lieutenant, pictured above, was Tom Sheahan (1922 – 1996) who was an architect by profession. The Sheahan name has been synonymous with architecture since 1919 when Tom’s uncle Patrick J, KSS, set up practice. Tom was involved in the design of the altar for the  papal visit to Limerick in 1979. He executed the redesign of the high altar of St John’s Cathedral in Limerick and designed buildings in Ireland, Cyprus and Nigeria. He was a Governor of Thomand College of Education and Great Southern Hotels. Subsequently he was a member of the Grand Magisterium and was appointed by Bl. John Paul II a Knight Grand Cross of the Pontifical Order of St Gregory the Great. Tom was followed by Michael Desmond McGrath and from 2000 by M Joseph McDonnell. Nicholas McKenna was appointed Lieutenant by the Grand Master in January 2008.

 In the 20th century the Latin Patriarch conferred honorary canonrics on a number of Irish clergy. Amongst these was Fr Denis O’Shea (1904 – 1961) of St Mary’s, Tang, Co Westmeath, a well-known author on the Holy Land.  In 1955 he published an authoritative guide to the Holy Land called "In the Land of Jesus". Another canon was Kerryman Canon Michael Troy (1895 – 1972), parish priest of Ballyfermot, Dublin. Canon Troy’s brother. Msgr James Troy of Minneapolis, United States, who held the rank of Knight Commander of the Holy Sepulchre was also an honorary canon.

In the last number of years the Lieutenancy has taken on the financial support of Christian students at Na'our Primary School, which is a village 5kms south of Amman in the Kingdom of Jordan; and co-financed an extension to that School in 2010. It has also been involved in 2007/2008 in financing the extension to a school in Rameh in Northern Israel and in an extension to the Patriarchal Seminary in 2009.


H.E. Nicholas McKenna (pictured on the left of this photograph) is the fourth Lieutenant since the Lieutenancy was formed in 1986. Chairman of his own business with over 120 employees, he is married to Italian-born Greta, is father to three sons and two daughters and has an expanding group of grandchildren. The Lieutenancy has grown from circa 45 members in 1986 to in excess of 200 currently.


The book: Deich mBliana ag Fas, is an illustrated history of the Order in Ireland. Written by Vy Rev'd Fergal McGrady KCHS, the Lieutenancy Archivist, it is copiously illustrated and contains a mine of information within its 114 pages. It is available from Chev Peter Durnin, GCHS, Rosaire, Moneymore, Drogheda, Co Louth, Rep of Ireland at the following post inclusive rates:  

  • Island of Ireland, England Wales and Scotland:            €15.50             or £14.00stg
  • Other Europe:                                                                        €18.50             or us$21.50
  • Remainder of World                                                             €20.00             or us$23.00

Joseph_Mary_PlunkettRevolutionary poet Joseph Mary Plunkett, created a Knight Commander in January, 1910; Dr. Joseph Redmond (1852 -1921) consulting physician to the Mater Hospital and St. Patrick's College Maynooth, created a Knight Commander in 1912 and Michael John Cahill created a Knight Commander March 1936." Centre it and place the following text under the picture Overseas members attending the Eucharistic Congress 1932 (by courtesy Chev Gerald Tallon).

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