Returning to core principles

Published in Early Modern History (1500–1700), Early Modern History Social Perspectives, Features, Issue 1 (Jan/Feb 2007), Medieval History (pre-1500), Medieval Social Perspectives, Volume 15

Moyne friary, north Mayo, near Killala, as seen from the west. The west doorway was the main public access to the friary. The domestic ranges can be seen to the north (left) of this entrance.

Moyne friary, north Mayo, near Killala, as seen from the west. The west doorway was the main public access to the friary. The domestic ranges can be seen to the north (left) of this entrance.












In mendicant orders—Franciscans, Dominicans, Carmelites and Augustinians—monastic life and outside religious activity are combined; neither personal nor community tenure of property are allowed under their original regulations. They shared the characteristics outlined above but were individually distinct owing to such factors as the founder’s influence, the rules of the order and the particular focus that each adopted in their work. Indeed, the orders were also distinguished by the colour of the habits their brethren wore. Commonly held, however, was a belief in combining prayer and devotion with preaching and pastoral work in the community. Under their rule of poverty the friars would beg for alms to sustain themselves.

The mendicant orders

Of all the mendicant orders, the origins of the Franciscans are most widely and popularly known. St Francis of Assisi, born Giovanni Bernardone (c. 1181–1226), founded the order. The son of a prosperous cloth merchant, he renounced this wealth in favour of a life of poverty and prayer sustained by begging. He attracted a group of followers and received official sanction from Pope Innocent III in 1209. St Francis himself composed the rules by which his followers should live, but this first version has been lost, as was a second. The third rule (1223) became the definitive constitution of the order. It insisted on personal and corporate poverty for the order. It even advised the friars that they ‘must not ride on horseback unless forced to do so by obvious necessity or illness’. It decreed that the friars’ clothing must be the colour of ashes, hence the Franciscans became known as the ‘grey friars’.
The Dominican order was founded by Domingo de Guzmán, St Dominic (1170–1 221). He too rejected his privileged background and turned to a life of poverty and preaching. The order was granted papal approval by Honorius III in 1216. The friars adopted the Augustinian rule, dedicating themselves to a life of poverty and strict observance. Of central importance to the Dominicans was the defence and preaching of the faith, and thus they are known as the Order of Preachers. St Dominic strongly emphasised the importance of education and learning as he believed that these would enable his followers to preach more effectively. In contrast, St Francis did not especially encourage study, fearing that it might have a negative impact on his followers, making them susceptible to pride. This attitude subsequently changed, however.
The Augustinians have a more obscure early history than either the Franciscans or the Dominicans. They do not have a single identifiable founder or commanding figure. They adopted St Augustine’s rule, but their foundation was not due to the saint’s direct personal influence. Rather they are thought to be descended from semi-eremitical communities formed in Italy in the twelfth century. These groups were united under the rule of St Augustine by Pope Innocent IV in 1243. They adopted mendicancy owing to the ‘great union’, a papal decree of Alexander IV. Theological study, charity and devotion to the church were the core tenets of the order. The Augustinian friars are also known as the ‘Austin friars’ or ‘eremites of St Augustine’. They should not be confused with the Augustinian canons regular, who were not mendicant friars and who could more favourably be compared with the Cistercian order than with the mendicant orders.
Arrival and early expansion in Ireland

The mendicant orders arrived in Ireland in the thirteenth century. The Dominicans founded their first houses in Dublin and Drogheda in 1224, while the Franciscans based their first foundation in Youghal in 1234. Dublin was also to be the home of the first house of the Austin friars, founded c. 1282. Certain features characterise the early phase of mendicant settlement in Ireland. Their houses were based predominantly in urban areas. They were especially popular with Anglo-Norman families, although Franciscans and Dominicans also enjoyed support amongst the Gaelic community.
Following the initial flurry of activity, the growth of the mendicant orders started to tail off. This was a reflection of the instability of life in fourteenth-century Ireland, where such factors as famine, climatic change, the unrest caused by the Bruce invasion and the impact of the Black Death conspired to produce circumstances unfavourable to the foundation of new religious houses. Thus the establishment of new friaries all but ceased for a time. The writings of Friar John Clynn, a Franciscan based in Kilkenny, illustrate the sharp decline in numbers experienced by the urban friars owing to the plague. Clynn himself is believed to be amongst those who succumbed to the disease.

The fifteenth century

The fifteenth century witnessed a second phase of expansion in the mendicant orders in Ireland. This efflorescence in friary-building was influenced by factors that included the revival of Gaelic and Gaelicised communities and the impetus of the observant reform. The very notion of a revival in the Gaelic and Gaelicised communities remains the focus of much scholarly debate. Steven Ellis disputes the phenomenon, while K. W. Nicholls states that evidence exists to support it. A revival in the Gaelic community need not necessarily have been at the expense of the Anglo-Irish community. In the fifteenth century a recovery from the upheaval of the previous century had begun and living standards had started to rise as a result of decreased population pressure.

One of the earliest representations of St Francis preaching to the birds from the thirteenth-century Chronicle majora of Matthew Paris. (Corpus Christi College, Cambridge)

One of the earliest representations of St Francis preaching to the birds from the thirteenth-century Chronicle majora of Matthew Paris. (Corpus Christi College, Cambridge)

















In contrast to the earlier phase of mendicant activity, the new friaries built in the fifteenth century were located predominantly in rural areas under the patronage of Gaelic families. The majority of these new mendicant houses were in the west and north of the country, with much less of this activity in the east. This should not be construed as an indication of antipathy towards ecclesiastical patronage in the east but rather as a reflection of the different influences that were at work in these areas. For example, while friaries were being built in the north and west, religious patronage in the Pale was being directed towards the construction of parish churches. Patronage was also being directed towards parish churches in England and lowland Scotland at this time. In the Pale some old religious houses were being refurbished, while patronage was also being directed towards the endowment of chantries and colleges. The Irish lordship was loyal to the crown so it is hardly surprising that influences similar to those in England should be at work there.

The observant reform

The fervour with which the mendicant orders initially implemented their rules and embraced their vows of poverty won them considerable popularity among the secular community. They were to become victims of their own success, however, as observed by Colmán Ó Clabaigh. Patrons admired their commitment to poverty and rewarded them with their generosity, in wills for example. This put temptation in the friars’ way and led to an accumulation of wealth that contravened those early edicts against personal and corporate possession of property.

Reader's bay in the refectory of Moyne friary. One of the friars would have read aloud here at mealtimes while the others ate in silence.

Reader’s bay in the refectory of Moyne friary. One of the friars would have read aloud here at mealtimes while the others ate in silence.




















This departure from the rules is symptomatic of a broader malaise within the church in the fourteenth century. Another contributing factor was the Avignon Captivity, when the seat of the papacy moved from Rome to Avignon. The observant reform was instituted in order to return to the original austerity that had characterised the mendicant orders. The perceived departure from the rules against which the observants reacted was known as ‘conventualism’.
The observant reform had a significant influence throughout Europe, especially in Italy, and took firm root in Ireland. It had a comparatively minor influence in Britain, however, although the presence of the Franciscan observants was documented in Edinburgh. In England three Franciscan conventual houses converted to the reform, while three houses were founded for the observants. In Ireland the means of uptake of the reform varied. While some of the new fifteenth-century friaries were founded as observant houses, others subsequently converted to the reform. The large number of new friaries founded in Ireland may have provided the impetus for the expansion of the observant reform in the north and west of the country. In contrast, in England fewer new religious houses were being founded, and thus there were fewer potential new outlets for observant teachings there.
Despite taking place independently in each of the mendicant orders, the following characteristics were evident in each one: a renewed commitment to austerity; a stricter code of discipline; and a return to the poverty that had originally distinguished the orders. No doubt accounting for the popularity of the reformed friars was their increased focus on the pastoral requirements of the laity. The popularity of the observant friars amongst all classes of society was remarked upon.
The Dominicans or Blackfriars were the first of the mendicant orders in Ireland to take up the observant reform with its adoption by their house in Drogheda in 1390. Portumna (1414) and Longford (1420) were founded specifically as observant houses. The friars of Portumna believed that a rural location, remote from the turmoil of the world, would be well suited to a life of strict observance. This may partly explain the predominantly rural location of the fifteenth-century friaries; solitude was a recurrent constituent of the monastic ideal.

Ross Errilly Franciscan friary as seen from the south-east.

Ross Errilly Franciscan friary as seen from the south-east.







Plan of Moyne friary. (Redrawn after Mooney 1957)

Plan of Moyne friary. (Redrawn after Mooney 1957)



















Detail from the west doorway at Rosserk. The proximity of Rosserk to Moyne friary has led to suggestions that Moyne was established owing to the refusal of the friars at Rosserk to adopt the observant reform. Moyne is devoid of decorative carvings such as this.

Detail from the west doorway at Rosserk. The proximity of Rosserk to Moyne friary has led to suggestions that Moyne was established owing to the refusal of the friars at Rosserk to adopt the observant reform. Moyne is devoid of decorative carvings such as this.























Despite their early adoption of the observant reform, it did not experience the same profusion within the Dominicans as it did within the Augustinians and especially the Franciscans. Nor did the Order of Preachers officially split into conventual and observant branches as the Franciscans did. Eight of 38 Dominican communities became explicitly observant. Some other communities no doubt incorporated aspects of the reform into their convents.
The Augustinian observants established their first house in Banada, Co. Sligo, in 1423 with the permission of the order’s prior-general, Agostino Favaroni. The observants received considerable support from the upper echelons of the Augustinians as their priors-general acted as protectors of the reformed friars. Many of those who held this office were Italian, and this helps to explain the strong Italian proclivity of the observant reform amongst the Austin friars. In the fourteenth century Irish Augustinians wishing to undertake further studies tended to travel to Oxford and Cambridge, but in the fifteenth century Italy became the favoured destination. The Augustinian friars founded nine new houses in fifteenth-century Ireland; seven of these were in areas of Gaelic control, three in the diocese of Killala and two in the diocese of Tuam. The two remaining houses were founded in areas of Anglo-Irish influence—Callan, Co. Kilkenny (1468), and Galway (1500). The former was founded with the assistance of Gaelic friars from Connacht. In addition to Banada, Callan and Murrisk, Co. Mayo (1456), were both founded specifically as observant houses, while other communities adopted the reform subsequent to their foundation.
In his Antiquities of West Mayo Corlett states that it had been recorded that the foundation of this friary at Murrisk was necessary because the people of the area had not hitherto been instructed in the faith. This seems surprising for the location of the Croagh Patrick pilgrimage. Perhaps it refers to the fact that before 1456 there were no observant houses in the area. The friary was dedicated to St Patrick and some of his supposed relics were preserved there.
The first observant Franciscan friary in Ireland was founded in Quin, Co. Clare, in 1433, followed by Muckross c. 1445. The year 1460 was such a significant one for the reform that it became known to the Franciscans as ‘the year of the observance’. The Franciscan observants in Ireland were officially recognised and the reform movement gained considerable momentum with the foundation of new observant houses and the conversion of others to the reform. Within a year of this official acceptance, new observant houses had been established in Sherkin, Bantry, Kilcrea, Lislaughtin, Donegal and Dromahair.

Entrance to the second courtyard at Ross Errilly, an unusual addition in Ireland, made necessary owing to the expansion of the friary's community.

Entrance to the second courtyard at Ross Errilly, an unusual addition in Ireland, made necessary owing to the expansion of the friary’s community.













In addition, Youghal, Timoleague and Multyfarnham had converted to the reform. Between 1460 and the passing of the Act of Dissolution in 1536, ten new houses were established specifically for the Franciscan observants, while 28 of the 48 conventual houses of grey friars adopted the observant rule. Houses were, however, known to change their loyalty from the conventual faction to the observants or vice versa, depending on such varied factors as the beliefs held by a changing friary population or the influence of a powerful patron. The Franciscan observants on occasion encountered opposition from the hierarchy of their order and had quasi-autonomous status within the order. Pope Leo X formally split the Franciscan order into conventual and observant branches in 1517.

Reformed houses

In north Mayo, near Killala, two houses of the Franciscan order can be found in close proximity to one another. Moyne and Rosserk were both established in the fifteenth century. Rosserk dates from c. 1441 and is generally credited to a family called Joye or Joyce. It belongs to the Franciscan third order or Tertiaries, a group distinct from the Franciscan first order or Order of Friars Minor. The Tertiaries enjoyed considerable popularity amongst patrons in late medieval Ireland. It has been suggested that the refusal of the friars at Rosserk to accept the observant reform led to their being placed under interdict, causing them to desert the house. The proximity of Rosserk and Moyne friaries (the latter founded c. 1455–60) has been used to support this contention. The 1606 visit of the Franciscan provincial, Donatus Mooney, to Rosserk, however, provides evidence of the friary’s continued occupation after its alleged abandonment by the friars. Nor can the proximity of Moyne and Rosserk be taken as definitive evidence in this instance. Although both were Franciscan houses, they belonged to different parts of the order. Both houses had different founders; their closeness may merely spring from the availability of sufficient patronage and vocations in the area to support two religious houses.
An entry in the Annals of the Four Masters for 1460 records the early history of Moyne friary and its connection with the observants:

‘The monastery of Maighin in Tír Amhalgaidh in the diocese of Killala [sic] was erected by MacWilliam Burke at the request of Nehemias Ó Donuchadha, the first Irish provincial vicar of the Order of St Francis de observantia.’

Moyne was to rise to prominence within Irish Franciscan circles, with provincial chapters of the order being held there on numerous occasions between 1464 and 1550.
Moyne and Rosserk share some architectural similarities. Transepts were often added to friary churches in order to accommodate their growing lay congregations. They were also used to accommodate additional altars that were added to churches as a means to address an increasing demand for masses. An identical formation is used for this at Moyne and Rosserk, suggesting that Rosserk was used as a model for the building of Moyne. On the east side of the transept of each church there are two recesses set beneath round arches with windows at the back. Between the two arches is situated a secretarium and on the south of each recess is a piscina (a niche with a drain used for washing sacramental vessels). The altars would have been placed beneath these arches, in the thickness of the wall, as was common practice.
Despite such similarities in the design of these two friaries, a number of differences between them serve to emphasise that Moyne was an observant house. With their desire for renewed austerity and poverty, the observant friars favoured simplicity in their buildings. The east window was the largest and most important window of any friary church and tended to be the most elaborate.

Fireplace in the kitchen of Ross Errilly.

Fireplace in the kitchen of Ross Errilly.












The east window at Moyne is much simpler in its design than that at Rosserk. Furthermore, several pieces of decorative sculpture are to be found at Rosserk. These include examples on the piscina in the choir, on the arch at the crossing and a number of carved heads, usually found on the mouldings of the church windows. Moyne, in contrast, is devoid of such decorative stone carving, an illustration of the restraint practised by observant communities.
Ross Errilly Franciscan friary is situated north-west of Headford, Co. Galway. A house of the First Order Franciscans, it is widely regarded as one of the finest Franciscan houses of the late Middle Ages in Ireland. The growth of this friary’s population led to a development unusual in an Irish context, that of a second cloister or courtyard, situated to the north of the first. Ross Errilly has a widely disputed foundation date, the most commonly quoted being 1351 and 1498. Canice Mooney, however, placed its foundation in the 1420–69 period, probably towards the end of this range. Confusion also exists over whether Ross Errilly was founded as an observant house or converted to the reform at a later date. A sixteenth-century manuscript, however, records that the friars of Ross Errilly adopted the reform in 1470.

The observant reform of the mendicant orders undoubtedly had a significant influence on the church in late medieval Ireland. By embracing the original ideals on which the mendicant orders had been founded, the friars succeeded in addressing some of the abuses that were taking place in the church, strengthening it for the onslaught of the Reformation. The observant reform has been credited as one of the factors that helped Ireland to resist the Reformation. This is true to an extent, but the observant reform was not the only factor that was to be influential in this regard. Ultimately, however, the return to core principles embodied by the observant reform in Ireland and the extent to which it spread and captured the imagination of the lay populace steeled the mendicant orders to face a turbulent future.

Yvonne McDermott completed a Master of Arts by research in the Galway–Mayo Institute of Technology, Castlebar.

Further reading
S.G. Ellis, Ireland in the age of the Tudors, 1447–1603: English expansion and the end of Gaelic rule (London, 1998).
K.W. Nicholls, Gaelic and Gaelicized Ireland in the Middle Ages (Dublin, 2003).
C.N. Ó Clabaigh, The Franciscans in Ireland, 1400–1534: from reform to Reformation (Dublin, 2002).


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