In medieval times, the oldest main road into Dublin passed through St James' Gate.
Here, just outside St James Gate, pilgrims of the Camino de Campostella worshipped at a shrine dedicated to this saint (where the junction of Thomas St and Watling St intersects today).
From 1170, the Parish of St James (outside the gate) and the Parish of St Catherine (inside the gate) was created and attached to the Abbey of St Thomas á Beckett (from which Thomas St gets its name) by Archbishop Laurence O Toole.
At the suppression of the monasteries in 1539 the people were driven away from their church and went to hear Mass, in secret, in back lanes.
The first priest we hear of in St James Parish is Fr William Donagh, in 1616, who had a Mass chamber over the house of Mr Carroll a victualler on Thomas St.
They only went to the old grave yard on James St (now in the hands of Dublin City Council) to bury the dead.Tradition tells of an old custom of circling the Fountain in James Street three times, in order to recite the burial service.
After the restoration (Cromwell) a chapel appears in Dirty Lane, a dark cul-de-sac of Thomas St and now Bridgefoot St, and remained in use use until 1782, when it was replaced by the old Church in Meath St.
In 1724 the chapel of St James was built in Jennets yard with Dolphins Barn attached. In 1745 while Mass was being celebrated in a house on Cook St, the beam supporting the floor gave way and the priest and several of the congregation were killed. After this a Fr. Richard Fitzsimons acquired a site near St James Gate at the east corner of Watling St, and built a chapel that served until the present church was built. (The site of this chapel is now the waiting room/reception of Guinness).
The large Crucifix in our present church in from this chapel and has been venerated every Good Friday ever since this time (1742).
Fr Canavan as PP of James Street in 1842, started the building of the present church of St James. Daniel O’Connell, the Liberator laid the first blessed stone on April 4th 1844, and donated £25 towards its erection.
As the work progressed the famine followed as did a cholera epidemic which played havoc with the people and struck the city. Work had to be abandoned and neither Fr Canavan or O Connell saw it finished. However their work is remembered by the corbel heads, sculptured over the front door of the church. Fr John Smyth completed the church in 1852 but without the planned clocktower and spire. Even so, the church of St James was acclaimed as”the first of purely ecclesiastical style to adorn the city of Dublin”.