There is only one Franciscan Province in Ireland. It held the thirteenth place in the order of antiquity and precedence in the lists of the Cismontane Provinces, approved of by the General Chapters of Mons Lucii, in 1467, and Palentiola, in 1470. At present however, it occupies the seventeenth place, as appears from the catalogues of the Reformed Provinces, published in the Statutes of Barcelona, and sanctioned by the General Chapter of Toledo, in 1583. After careful inquiry, I can find no cause for this change of order but the following. Some Provinces of Germany and France were divided Saxony into the Provinces of the Holy Cross and St. John the Baptist; France into those of France and of Paris; Tours into those of Tours and Poitiers. The number of Provinces being thus increased, it may have happened that some of the newly erected were placed immediately after those from which they had been separated. The order of precedence may have been changed in this manner, whether rightly or wrongly I leave others to decide.
The Franciscans arrived in Ireland and founded the Province in 1231. This is the date given in an ancient manuscript which I had an opportunity of consulting. The Dominicans had reached our shores a few years before, in 1226. Tradition, however, has it, that in 1214, while St. Francis yet lived, certain Franciscans, who had left Compostella while a convent was being built, landed in Ireland. Whether this tradition, which is more generally received, or the authority of the manuscript I have quoted, is to be preferred, I leave to the investigation of others.
From the day in which the order of St. Francis took root in Ireland, it flourished exceedingly, and bore ample fruit, through the edifying lives and profitable teaching of its members. It drew towards it the devotion of the people in a greater degree than the other religious orders. This is evident from the fact that it possessed more convents than any of the others, and was distinguished by a greater number of eminent men, many of whom were raised to the episcopal dignity, while others, not less pious and learned, humbly refused all ecclesiastical preferment. I may add that the principal nobility of the kingdom were so attached to the Franciscan Order, that it held at all times the first, and, in a certain sense, the only place in their love and veneration. Moreover, neither the tumult of war, nor confusion of civil strife (and Ireland has suffered most grievously from both since the coming of the English into the country) could disturb the religious peace, or relax the regular observance of community life among the brethren. This was true of city and country alike. They passed their lives in great austerity, detached from the world, but united among themselves in holy intercourse. Thus parties and factions who fought against each other with deadly hatred, respected the Franciscans, in all their quarrels, and never ceased to treat them with veneration.
This was especially remarkable some years past when Queen Elizabeth attempted to compel the Irish people to discard the Catholic Faith, when the Religious Orders were suppressed by law, and their monasteries and other property confiscated for the benefit of the Royal treasury. The Franciscan Order passed through that storm almost unscathed; whereas the members of the other Orders either took to flight or sought refuge outside the monastery, each with his own private friends. They received no novices, and in course of time had almost died out. In some of the chief cities, indeed, our convents were seized upon and profaned, by being converted to secular uses, our friars expelled by force, and in some cases offered violence, or even put to death. They remained undisturbed, however, in country places and in the more remote districts. They lived as before in their convents, celebrating the Divine Office, preaching to the people, and discharging all their other duties. Novices were received and educated; the churches and other buildings were kept in good repair; and they looked upon it as a crime to conceal or put off the religious habit, even for an hour, no matter what the cause of fear might be. They held without fail their Provincial Chapters every three years, and fulfilled all the constitutions of the Order as perfectly as in the most peaceful times. If you ask me how this regularity could exist in the midst of such confusion and wickedness, I can only assign the following and such-like reasons.
First, then, as now, our Order possessed no temporal goods, while the chief motive which led the English Government to supress the Religious Orders was greed for riches. The Royal treasury could gain little from the confiscating of our houses, and the avaricious courtiers who scrambled for the spoils naturally preferred an abbey with farms, demesnes, and rich revenues to one of our poor monasteries, where his sole gain would be the few acres occupied by the site, and naked walls. Our convents in the more important cities were, as I have said, seized upon at the first outburst of persecution. Some of them were reduced to a heap of ruins, others converted to secular uses, while the friars were expelled or murdered. But in many places there was scarcely anyone who would think of molesting us. In others, certain of the more prudent Catholics anticipated the malice of the heretics by making terms with those whom they considered most likely to obtain possession of our convents, and redeeming them at their own expense. This they did to preserve the graves of their ancestors from desecration and to secure for the friars, so far as they possibly could peace and safety.
Another reason was that the Franciscans were always greatly detached from the world, and looked upon almost as fools in worldly matters, while even the heretics regarded them as singularly holy in the things of God, and worthy of veneration for the piety and austerity of their lives. Thus it happened that not alone could they whistle before the robbers, like the traveller with an empty purse, but their innocence closed the mouths of the fierce beasts ready to devour them, and preserved them uninjured, as it preserved Daniel in the Lion's Den. Often was it seen that the most bitter enemies of the Catholic Faith (many of whom, however, would say that they had no desire to molest all Catholics and ecclesiastics, but only such as disturbed the peace. Whether this was really the case, or mere hypocrisy on their part, I know not) gave to the Franciscans not only kind words, promises of safety, and such-like in secret, but even in public bestowed alms upon them, without any concealment whatsoever. It was lamentable, they declared, that such good-living men should refuse to embrace the royal religion through attachment to the Popish cause, and should succeed, above, all others, in turning away from it those who might otherwise adopt it; yet their simple upright lives and untiring zeal atoned for much, and if the Government were disposed to endure the presence of any Popish ecclesiastics in Ireland, the friars of St. Francis should be tolerated above all others.
There was a third cause, which was even more efficacious that the preceding. Very many of the nobility throughout the kingdom held the monasteries of our Orders as dear to them as their own personal property. They had been founded by their predecessors. There was the burial-place of their families. There they hoped to rest themselves. The nobles themselves, moreover, united to the friars in the most intimate friendship, and could not imagine how they were to exist without them. The Franciscans, had therefore, the chief men of the nation, in peace with the English or in war, ever active in their interests. In war, they defended them by force of arms. In peace, they insisted on favourable conditions being granted them. While sometimes, with munificent generosity, they bought oil, at their own cost, the enemy that harassed them. The consequences of the late war afford abundant proof of the truth of this. Those heroes, the Princes O'Neill and O'Donnell, with other nobles of the kingdom, waged war against Queen Elizabeth in defence of the faith; for they fought not so much for their wives and children, and for their temporal possessions, as for the liberty of their country, the freedom of Catholic worship, and the protection of the priesthood, especially of the members of our Order, to whom they were most strongly attached. In this just cause there was no danger which they feared to meet. They were successful for a time, but ultimately were compelled to conclude a peace with James, the present king of England, one of the conditions of which was liberty for the practice of the Catholic religion. But the unfortunate princes were betrayed, the promises made to them broken, and they were forced to fly from Ireland. The Franciscans, as well as the other ecclesiastics, being thus deprived of the protection of these powerful friends, feel now the effects of the malice and tyranny of the heretics more severely than in any time past. So much so, that at present in most parts of Ireland the friars can with difficulty live in concealment; whereas, before the flight of these nobles, they dwelt openly in their convents, under their protection, were able to observe the usages of religious life, and perform the Divine services with becoming solemnity.
The fourth cause of the preservation of our Order in Ireland, a cause more potent than any other, is the merciful providence of our good God, who, as He ever speaketh the truth, has graciously fulfilled in us the promise He made to our Seraphic Father, that the Order would continue to exist for all time. Nor have we any doubt that God will sustain us, and even multiply us from day to day if needful, so long as we shall be necessary or useful labourers in His vineyard of Ireland, and live purely and religiously according to our holy state. Here is a proof of my assertion. Since the foundation of the Province of Ireland, we were never so few in number as at present, yet (the Lord be praised) we count one hundred and twenty, of whom thirty-five are preachers, who labour arduously and with great fruit in this vineyard of the Lord. Let me add another argument in evident confirmation of God's providence towards us in this matter, Philip III, King of Spain, has granted us the College of St. Antony, at Louvain, with a certain allowance for our support. So that at the very time in which the reception of novices and the education of our students were rendered impossible in our own country by the action of the English Government, we are enabled to do both through the generosity of the Spanish monarch. We have now more than forty members of the Order at St. Antony's, devoting themselves to study and the practices of piety, all of whom expect to return to their native land in due course. These are not included in the hundred and twenty mentioned above.
But let me return to our purpose. The Irish province has been governed at all times, even to the present day, by its own prelates and other superiors in regular succession, in accordance with the usages of the Order. When the reform to more regular observance was introduced, many of the Irish communities adopted it of their own accord, and a number of new convents were built by the Observantines themselves. Some communities, however, refused to accept the reform until lately, and these Conventuals had provincials and local superiors of their own from the time of their separation from the Observantines. The latter, likewise, were governed by their own superiors, who were called vicar-provincials, until 1517, when Leo X. granted to that branch of the Order the right of electing their own general and provincials.
In course of time it came to pass that a large number of novices were received by the Observantines, and few or none at all by the Conventuals, so that they had almost ceased to exist, while the former were in a most flourishing state. Their Provincial recognised the sad condition of the convents under his charge, and proceeded, with the consent of his Council, to the Chapter of the Observantines which was then being held. He there resigned his position, handed his seal of office to the Provincial who presided, and accepted the reform for himself and his brethren. Thus the Province was once again united. The surviving Conventuals submitted themselves of their own accord, to the jurisdiction of the Observantine Provincial. There were a few, it must be said, who, unwilling to be subjected to any observance, took advantage of the liberty which the spread of heresy allowed them and became apsostates from the Order. The Conventuals were distributed among the Observantine communities, and members of these appointed guardians of some of the convents which had belonged to the former. Special mention is made of two, Armagh and Monaghan. Twenty convents which had been occupied by one or the other branch, were abandoned on account of their dangerous proximity to the heretics, who were becoming more powerful day by day. In this manner the reform was adopted, with manifest advantage, by the whole Province of Ireland, and is preserved intact to the present day. Some of the Conventuals who had thus accepted the reform lived even to our time, and were men remarkable for their holy lives and happy deaths. None of them were re-professed on uniting themselves to the Observantines, except a few, who, in any time, made new professions perhaps because they had not before understood the nature of their obligations.
The Conventuals were called by that name, it is true, but I have been unable to find that they possessed revenues or lands repugnant to the constitutions of the Observantines. The exceptions were very few, indeed. This, of course, rendered it much easier for them to accept the reform. Their records and official documents have perished by the ravages of time. So, too, have very many of ours. On this account I have been unable to ascertain, with few exceptions, the names of their superiors or the dates in which they held office. I have succeeded, however, in obtaining these particulars with regard to the Observantines, and will give later on a complete list, carried down to the present day.
In order that what I am about to write may be more clearly understood, I will first describe some of the ancient and modern divisions of the Kingdom of Ireland, then the archdioceses and dioceses, so that the situation of each of our convents may be seen at a glance. I will subjoin a list of the superiors who have governed the Province as Vicar-Provincials, and Provincials, as well as of the Commissaries who have been deputed by the General to act in his name. I will then give the number and names of all the convents, their founders, the date of their erection, and such other interesting matters as my researches have enabled me to place before the reader. I will afterwards treat the convents of the third Order, which were subject to our Provincial, in the same manner; and, finally, I will say a few words of the eminent men connected with the Order, and of some memorable facts which have come under by notice.
In conclusion, I beg of those who are better informed and who can add to what I have written, to do so for the glory of God. I also entreat my readers to hold me excused that I have not done better. The confusion of Church and State in this unhappy land is my apology. In making my visitations I have been compelled to hurry from convent to convent surrounded by the alarms of persecution, so that I have been unable to collect more than the fragments of the historical documents necessary for such a work as this.