Two nations, one order: the Franciscans in medieval Ireland

Published in Features, Issue 2 (Summer 2004), Medieval History (pre-1500), Volume 12

The tomb of Thomas and Elen Butler in the Franciscan friary at Clonmel, Co. Tipperary, founded in 1269. (PDI Photography, Dublin)

The tomb of Thomas and Elen Butler in the Franciscan friary at Clonmel, Co. Tipperary, founded in 1269. (PDI Photography, Dublin)

Niav Gallagher outlines how the Franciscans arrived in Ireland c. 1231 and enjoyed over a century of expansion and consolidation despite racial tensions.

According to the thirteenth-century chronicler Thomas Eccleston, the first Franciscan friars to arrive in the British Isles landed at Dover on 10 September 1224. Within a few years houses of the order had been established in most of the major towns of England, Ireland, Scotland and Wales, heralding a new period of reform in the church and marking the beginning of the ascendancy of the mendicant orders over their monastic brethren. The two principal orders, the Order of Friars Minor and the Order of Friars Preachers, became known colloquially by the names of their founders, Francis and Dominic, and from their inception they differed from their monastic predecessors in several ways.

Their vow of poverty was not merely personal but institutional: friars did not own, and therefore did not require, formal foundations before they established themselves in a given place. By virtue of their mendicancy they were dependent upon the general populace for their support, and so they naturally gravitated to urban centres rather than to solitary foundations chosen for their isolation from the material world. From their inception they were in conflict with the established clergy because of their unique position in society. As friars they were attached to the order rather than to an individual house, which allowed them a greater degree of freedom than their monastic contemporaries. A friar’s freedom in secular society was essential to the Franciscan ideal of ‘serving God by serving man’ and, because the order was subject directly to the pope, the friar was virtually outside the jurisdiction of diocesan authority. Yet as religious they were granted preaching and confessional rights and so were in competition with the parish clergy for the ears of their parishioners.


Their arrival in Ireland

The arrival of the Franciscans in Ireland is a matter of some controversy and several eminent historians of the order have failed to agree on the exact year. The mendicant orders in general have left us few extant records, and the Franciscan contribution to this material is particularly sparse. Consequently we must piece together evidence from contemporary governmental records, the few Franciscan texts that have survived, and seventeenth-century histories pertaining to the order. The tradition among the order is that the first friars arrived from Compostela in Spain in 1214, and that their first foundation was at Youghal, Co. Cork. This is the earliest date proposed—by Francesco Gonzaga, author of De Origine Seraphicae Religionis Franciscanae (1587), who asserted that


‘this province of Ireland, though it does not lack antiquity, produced no other province in the Order, nor did it derive its origin from any other, but had as its founder one of the companions of the seraphic father, Francis, who, crossing thither from Compostela, built some monasteries on the island and at length died there with the greatest reputation for holiness’.


Luke Wadding, one of the foremost historians of the order, included Gonzaga’s account, obviously believing it to be reliable. Another seventeenth-century historian of the order, Francis Matthews, agreed with Wadding. This is unsurprising as he was a friend and correspondent of Wadding’s while provincial of the order from 1626 to 1629. His near contemporary, Donagh Mooney, also reported this tradition but he ultimately dismissed this date and gave 1231 as the year of the friars’ arrival in Ireland. Canice Mooney, a modern historian of the order, believes that the tradition cannot be dismissed lightly:


‘Irish pilgrims were in the habit of visiting the shrine of St James at Compostela, and some of them, meeting the friars there, may have inspired them to send a few of their members to Ireland’.


Contact between Irish prelates and Continental Franciscans may indeed have inspired Irishmen to join the order, but it seems that the seventeenth-century accounts were written with an agenda. Wadding and Matthews were writing their histories at a time when the Observant reform of the late fourteenth and early fifteenth centuries had all but replaced the Conventual friaries of the earlier expansion. Youghal was one of the most prominent Observant houses and it has been suggested that these later Franciscan historians, as part of this reform, wished to further the reputation of the house and so willingly accepted this ‘tradition’. Eccleston, writing in the thirteenth century with no apparent agenda other than to record the early history of his order in England, testified that the Irish province was of English provenance, and as he has been judged accurate in the other details of his account there is little reason to believe that this is the exception.


Franciscan foundations in Ireland, thirteenth– fourteenth centuries. (Sarah Gearty)

Franciscan foundations in Ireland, thirteenth– fourteenth centuries. (Sarah Gearty)

The Franciscans in Dublin

In conjunction with this is the silence of contemporary records on the existence of a friary at Youghal until 1290, when shipwrecked goods being kept there were reported stolen. While several Irish houses are known to have been founded long before they appear in the records, it does seem unusual that this first foundation would not have been mentioned in any of the records now extant. The earliest reference to a Franciscan foundation in Ireland is, in fact, to a house at Dublin. On 13 January 1233 a writ was issued to the chamberlain and treasurer of the exchequer at Dublin for a payment of twenty marks to the custodians of the house of the Friars Minor in that city for the repair of their church and houses. The use of the words ‘repair’ and ‘houses’ implies that the Franciscans were more than newly arrived in the city—indeed, that they had been there long enough to have established for themselves a church and a number of buildings. In July 1236 a further gift of 50 marks was made payable to the friars in Dublin for the construction of buildings which they had commenced in that city.

This infers that the friars in Ireland followed the pattern noted by Eccleston in his account of the English friars. He recorded that Richard of Ingworth and a companion, upon arrival in Oxford, stayed with the Dominicans for several days before hiring a house. The following year they left this house and hired one from another benefactor, who ‘within a year’ had ‘conferred the land and house on the community of the town for the use of the Friars Minor’. The friars, as mendicants, were reliant upon alms for their survival and it seems far more likely that the first Franciscans in Ireland would have headed for a major town such as Dublin, following in the wake of the Dominicans as they did in England.


If Dublin is accepted as the first Franciscan foundation in Ireland then it seems logical to assume that, upon arrival, they gratefully received whatever shelter was made available to them. Soon after, they were given twenty marks by gift of King Henry III to help towards repairs. By 1236 they were so well established within the city that they had acquired some land and were now engaged in constructing their own buildings. This would seem to tie in with the assertion that the friars arrived in 1231 or soon after.

Kilcrea friary, Co. Cork, founded c. 1465 for the Franciscans by Cormac, son of Tadhg MacCarthy, lord of Muskerry. (OPW)

Kilcrea friary, Co. Cork, founded c. 1465 for the Franciscans by Cormac, son of Tadhg MacCarthy, lord of Muskerry. (OPW)

Finally, in a list of the houses included in the province of Ireland, drawn up by Matthews in the seventeenth century but based upon the list drawn up in the fourteenth century, Youghal is not given priority.


Ireland, he tells us, had five custodies—Dublin, Cashel, Cork, Nenagh and Drogheda—while Youghal is mentioned only as a house in the custody of Cashel. Dublin is listed as the first custody, and as the first house in that custody. It seems that its pre-eminence in the Irish province was accepted by the order in the fourteenth century, and the presence of Dublin in extant contemporary records seems to prove the argument that it was the first Franciscan foundation in Ireland.


The Irish province

Regardless of when the Franciscans arrived in Ireland, the Irish province was formally established at the general chapter of the order in Assisi in May 1230 and Richard of Ingworth was named as the new province’s first minister. If Dublin is taken as the original settlement, the Franciscans expanded from there in 1232 into Kilkenny, Waterford, Wexford, Drogheda, Athlone, Cork, Ennis, Limerick, Dundalk, Castledermot, Carrickfergus, Claregalway, New Ross, Multyfarnham, Nenagh, Ardfert, Kildare, Armagh and, by 1265, Cashel. Indeed, by the middle of the fourteenth century 45 or 46 friaries had been founded in Ireland. Of these only two failed—the friary at Roscommon and that proposed for Strade, Co. Mayo.

These Irish convents were invariably founded by Anglo-Irish magnates or leading native Irish families, with only one or two supposedly erected by the ordinary citizens of a town. Mooney, for example, noted that Friar Clyn in his annals claimed to have been made first guardian of the convent at Carrick-on-Suir at the behest of James Butler, first earl of Ormond. The convent of Carrickfergus was linked either to the Magennises or the Clandeboy O’Neills, although he noted that Hugh de Lacy the younger was buried there, while Matthews maintained that Hugh was the founder and was himself buried there in the habit of a friar. He also noted, however, that O’Neill of Clandeboy was buried there, as were the O’Haras and other noble families.

William de Burgh, ‘first of the family’, was linked by Mooney to the foundation at Galway, while the convent at Kilconnell, Co. Galway, was supposedly founded by a W. O’Kelly, lord of Omayne (Uí Maine). As noted above, Henry III provided alms for the repair of the Franciscan house at Dublin in 1233, and in subsequent years for the purchase of tunics throughout Ireland. This patronage continued under his son, Edward I. In December 1293, for example, he granted 35 marks annually to the Franciscans at Limerick, of whose house, the king claimed, his progenitors were founders. A further 25 marks were to be divided equally between the brethren at Dublin, Waterford, Cork and Drogheda, where, no doubt, the majority of the friars were of Anglo-Irish extraction.

In Roscommon it seems that the native ruler, Felim Ó Conchobair, introduced the Dominicans in 1253, whilst the Franciscans were introduced to the town in 1269. This foundation did not, however, survive long. It burnt down the following year and was never rebuilt because, Matthews claims, their founder was dead. Thus the fate of individual convents was very much dependent upon their patrons. The Franciscan house at Strade, Co. Mayo, best illustrates this. The Franciscans were invited there about 1250 by Stephen of Exeter, but were forced to leave within a year or so of their arrival. Basilia, wife of Stephen and daughter of Meiler de Bermingham, invited her father to a great feast there and then announced in front of all their guests that she would neither eat nor drink until her husband granted her a request. This special request was that the Franciscans be expelled from Strade and replaced with Dominicans. Embarrassed in front of his guests, Stephen had no choice and in 1252 the Dominicans replaced the Franciscans there.



The moralised hand, a template or aide-mémoire for a Franciscan sermon: thumb-‘You don't know how greatly, nor how often, you have offended God'; index finger-‘Your ending is bitter, your life brief, and you have entered the world in sin'; middle finger-‘You will take nothing hence other than your deeds, nor can you prolong your life nor evade death'; fourth finger-‘You don't know whence you came, nor how nor when you will die'; little finger-‘You will soon be forgotten by those dear to you, your heir will seldom make provision for you, nor those do any differently to whom you leave your wealth'. (TCD MS 677, p. 252)

The moralised hand, a template or aide-mémoire for a Franciscan sermon: thumb-‘You don’t know how greatly, nor how often, you have offended God’; index finger-‘Your ending is bitter, your life brief, and you have entered the world in sin’; middle finger-‘You will take nothing hence other than your deeds, nor can you prolong your life nor evade death’; fourth finger-‘You don’t know whence you came, nor how nor when you will die’; little finger-‘You will soon be forgotten by those dear to you, your heir will seldom make provision for you, nor those do any differently to whom you leave your wealth’. (TCD MS 677, p. 252)

Racial tensions 

Towards the end of the thirteenth century there was a growing division within the order that gradually defined the nature of the foundations established in Ireland. Anglo-Irish friars and native Irish friars began to divide along racial lines until by the end of the century warnings were being issued regarding the treachery of the Irish brethren. Nicholas Cusack, the Franciscan bishop of Kildare from 1279 to 1299, wrote to Edward I informing him of ‘secret counsels . . . and poisonous colloquies which certain insolent religious of the Irish tongue, belonging to diverse Orders, hold with the Irish and their princes’. He warned that secret meetings were being held in which rebellion was being instigated and advised that religious of Irish sympathies should be removed from convents in dangerous districts. In his opinion only good and select Englishmen, with English companions, should be sent among the Irish in future.

About the same time Friar Malachy, a doctor of theology and a prominent preacher, compiled his treatise on the seven deadly sins, the Venenum Malachiae. This also reveals a strong anti-Irish bias. Ireland, he tells us, was blessed in not having any poisonous animals. There was, however, present that poison which God allowed to be injected into human nature. Malachy also had a poor opinion of the sexual morals of the Irish, especially Irish women, and one of his biggest complaints was on the spendthrift hospitality of the natives—he felt that the Irish showed excessive generosity, but only in order to impress.

One of the events that perhaps best illustrates this growing antagonism is an incident that may or may not have taken place in 1291. In that year it is recorded that a meeting of the Franciscan province of Ireland ended in bloodshed, when Anglo-Irish and native Irish friars clashed, resulting in the deaths of sixteen of their brethren. The validity of this account has been questioned, not least because the only two accounts—the Annals of Worcester and Bartholomew Cotton’s Historia Anglicana—are both English Benedictine annals, and relations between friars and monks in England were strained at this time. Because of recent tensions between them in Worcester, the Worcester annalist would have been only too eager to record unfounded rumours relating to the Franciscans. According to these annals,



‘On 10 June at Cork in Ireland, there was a general chapter of the Friars Minor where the Irish friars came armed with a papal bull: a dispute having arisen regarding this, they fought against the English friars; and after many had been killed and wounded . . . the English at length gained the victory by the help of the city’.



The Norwich monk Bartholomew Cotton gives slightly more detail in his account. He tells us that ‘the minister general of the Order of St Francis, making visitation throughout the world, came to Ireland to visit there and in his general chapter, sixteen brothers with their brethren were slain, several were wounded and some more imprisoned by action of the king of England’.



There are several reasons cited by historians as to why these accounts are inaccurate: the terminology used by the annalists; the lack of evidence in contemporary Irish annals for this event; the questionable date given by both annalists; and, finally, the agenda of the two English Benedictine monks.

One piece of evidence that may vindicate their accounts, however, is a patent letter issued on 17 September 1291. In it Edward I expressed a desire that ‘peace and concord may prevail among the brothers of the Order of the Franciscans in Ireland’. To this end he commanded that ‘the justiciary and sheriffs, bailiffs and ministers in that country . . . assist Brother Reymund, general minister of that order . . . [to] correct the excesses of the brothers according to the discipline of their order, and restrain those who rebel against it’.



Obviously there was some cause for concern within the order in Ireland, and it is possible that an incident in Cork could have prompted King Edward to write such a letter. However, it was about this time that Friar Nicholas had reported the treasonous and rebellious actions of the native Irish friars, and this letter may have been a response to those warnings. Indeed, the relevance of the Cork incident may not lie in whether it is true or not; that two English annals record tension between the two nations in the Irish Franciscan province shows that the racial divide developing there was common knowledge. Even the papacy concluded that the province was not to be trusted in governing its own affairs and in 1312 withdrew the right of the Irish friars to elect a provincial minister.



The Bruce invasion


The suspicion first voiced by Nicholas Cusack that native Irish friars were not to be trusted was confirmed when Edward Bruce invaded Ireland in May 1315. There are several contemporary reports of religious orders supporting his cause, and chief among those cited is the Franciscan order. On 1 September 1315 King Edward II wrote to Edmund le Botiller, chief governor of Ireland, concerning those Irish friars and clergy staying amongst the English in Ireland, lest danger should arise to towns and cities. By the following August his concerns seem to have been fully realised and he wrote to the Franciscan minister general that rebellious friars of the Irish province were inciting men of that country to join with his enemies, the Scots. To that end he was sending to Ireland two friars of that order, Thomas Godman and Geoffrey Aylsham, to gather information against those who would preach against the king.

In April 1317 the pope, aware of religious involvement on both sides of the conflict, issued a papal bull against friars of the mendicant orders preaching rebellion to the people of Ireland, calling those who did so daemonum adjutores. Yet Franciscan support for the Scots was far from universal, despite Friar John Clyn’s assertion in his annals of Ireland that all the Irish adhered to Bruce. Indeed, this Franciscan annalist himself reported under the year 1315 that Bruce and his army had burned the town of Dundalk and, entering the Franciscan friary there, had taken books, chalices and ornaments and killed the guardian and 23 friars dwelling there.

Bruce had lost much of his support by the time of his death on the field of battle in 1318. The Annals of Clonmacnoise, for example, record that ‘there was not a better deed that redounded more to the good of the kingdom . . . than the killing of Edward Bruce’. Those who had supported him did not fare well either. The conduct of the native Irish friars during the Bruce invasion led to an inquiry into the province as a whole. In 1324 judges appointed by Pope John XXII found that Irish friars from certain houses were ‘gravely suspect and a danger to the king’s peace and the state of the realm’. It was ordered that friars from such houses be redistributed so that no more than three or four of the suspected brethren should be in any one house, and that no Irishman should ever be appointed guardian of these houses.

This was followed by a decree from the general chapter of the order held at Lyons in 1325, ordering that the friaries at Cork, Buttevant, Timoleague, Limerick and Ardfert be separated from native Irish houses because of tensions arising between native and Anglo-Irish friars. In 1331 the racial divide present in the Irish province from the end of the previous century was formalised when five custodies were erected—Dublin, Nenagh, Cork, Cashel and Drogheda—with only one of them, in this instance Nenagh, being native Irish in its make-up, and all were required to swear that they would make ‘no suggestions, incitements or secret factions’ by which the peace of the land would be disturbed.



Corbel figure from St Francis's, Kilkenny, a Franciscan friary founded in 1232. (PDI Photography, Dublin)

Corbel figure from St Francis’s, Kilkenny, a Franciscan friary founded in 1232. (PDI Photography, Dublin)

The Black Death and after


The event that had perhaps the most profound effect upon the fate of the order in the fourteenth century was the outbreak of the Black Death, and a contemporary account of its devastating effects was recorded by the Franciscan annalist Friar Clyn. Under the year 1348 he noted the arrival of a pestilence that ‘deprived villages and cities, castles and towns of human inhabitants’.



It was ‘so contagious that whosoever touched the sick or the dead was immediately infected and died; and the penitent and confessor were carried together to the grave’. His penultimate entry leaves the reader in no doubt as to how widespread the disease was, and how lethal it proved to be: ‘I leave parchment for continuing the work if, haply, any man survive and any of the race of Adam escape this pestilence’. There is then one more entry before someone has added ‘Here it seems the author died’.

Having arrived in Ireland c. 1231, the Franciscan order enjoyed over a century of expansion and consolidation despite racial fractures present from the middle years of the century. The fourteenth century, however, saw not the decline of the order but rather its failure to grow significantly. This was due to several factors, not least the conduct of the friars during the invasion by the Scots in 1315–18. It seems, though, that the Black Death marked an epoch in the direction the order was to take. From this date onwards the focus was less upon the racial tensions within the Irish province and more upon defending the Franciscan ideal from outside attack.



Niav Gallagher is a PhD student in the Department of Medieval History, Trinity College, Dublin.



Further reading:
F. Cotter, The Friars Minor in Ireland from their arrival to 1400 (St Bonaventure, NY, 1994).
A. Gwynn and R.N. Hadcock, Medieval religious houses: Ireland (London, 1970).
C. Ó Clabaigh, ‘Preaching in late-medieval Ireland: the Franciscan contribution’, in A.J. Fletcher and R. Gillespie (eds), Irish preaching: 700–1700 (Dublin, 2001).
C. Ó Clabaigh, The Franciscans in Ireland, 1400–1534 (Dublin, 2002).


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