Ireland’s Franciscan Friars: Men in the Middle of a Divided Society
The origins of Christianity in Ireland trace back as far as the 5th century, when the Bishop Palladius was sent from Rome on a mission to convert the Irish people in 431 AD. Palladius was followed a year later by the famous St Patrick, who was ultimately credited with bringing the Christian religion to Ireland. For almost as long as there have been Christians in Ireland, there have been monks and monasteries.
The Franciscan Friars arrived in Ireland several centuries after the Augustinians, but although they may not have been the first order of monks to establish themselves, that did not mean their impact on the country and its people was any less. In fact, the Franciscans had arguably a bigger impact on Irish culture and religious practices than any other order of monks who made a home in Ireland, as well as participating in some of the most momentous events in Irish history. Why did the friars have such an impact and how did they gain so much influence in a country in which they began as foreigners? The answer lies in their unique place as “men in the middle” of Irish society.
The eastern coastline of Ireland where the first Franciscan friars likely landed to spread their message and work as men in the middle. (Jonathan Wilkins / CC BY-SA 2.0)
How the Franciscan Friars First Arrived in Ireland
The first orders of monks to establish themselves in Ireland were the Augustinian canons and the Cistercians (a sect of the Benedictine monks). These orders enjoyed a monopoly in Ireland for hundreds of years until the arrival of the Mendicant orders, from “mendicant” meaning “beggar,” these orders of monks literally begged for everything they needed for survival.
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The largest of the mendicant orders were the Franciscans and the Dominicans, who both arrived in Ireland around the same time in the 1220s and 1230s, and they were followed by other smaller orders including the Carmelites, Friars of the Sack, and the Augustinian Friars.
The Franciscan Friars were apostolic preachers and travelling pilgrims, and their order was established in 1209 by St Francis of Assisi. The Irish chapter of the friars was originally an offshoot of the English Franciscans, which established themselves at Canterbury in 1224 and then shortly after that the first house was founded in Ireland, either at Youghal in around 1224 or Dublin in 1233 (there is some contention between academics as to the exact dates they were founded). The first Franciscan province in Ireland was established around the year 1230.
The Friars arrived in Ireland during a tumultuous period, only 50 years earlier, the Anglo-Normans had invaded and colonized Ireland under the rule of King Henry II. Seeing as the order had originated from England, the Irish Franciscans had close ties to the English Crown, and it has been suggested that their presence in Ireland was designed to further England’s colonial interests and help solidify their hold on Irish land. The more likely story, however, is that the Franciscan friars came to Ireland as part of a church initiative to reform practices of preaching and hearing confessions.
The Fourth Lateran Council, held in Rome in 1215, determined reform was necessary and delegated the task to the Franciscans and the Dominicans as the most worthy “sowers of the seed of the Word of God.” These two orders of monks seemed to enjoy the favor of the papacy and would act as papal agents in many different capacities: inquisitors, examiners in disputed elections, preachers of the Crusades, legates, diplomats, commissioners, and penitentiaries.
Their presence in Ireland may have served a secondary function, namely playing a role in the so-called “ecclesiastical imperialism” of the English church. Following the Norman conquest of Wales, the English church made moves towards “colonizing” the Welsh church and bringing it under the jurisdiction of the English church. It appears that they were attempting to do the same in Ireland.
It is perhaps a coincidence that the English sect of the Franciscans arrived in Ireland so soon after the Norman conquest, but whether it was their intention or not the Friars had an important part to play in the Anglo-Norman colonization process in Ireland.
Ballincollig Castle, a Norman castle to the south of the town of Ballincollig, County Cork, Ireland, which was built after the Norman invasion of Ireland. (Corey / Adobe Stock)
Franciscan Friars On The Native Gaelic Irish Frontier
The nature of the mendicant orders was that they relied on the generosity of others for survival and so, unlike the ascetic orders, they naturally gravitated towards populated areas and as the first Irish Franciscan friars were exclusively Anglo-Normans, they settled in areas that had been colonized by their own people. These settlements tended to be in border areas, on the frontier of the Anglo-Norman territories, where allegiances were constantly shifting and tensions with the native Gaelic Irish were high.
Agents of the Crown living in these border territories were rewarded for their loyalty with gifts of land, tax breaks and other grants by charter, and often the mendicants were recipients of these gifts. Many friaries were built within town limits or just outside the built-up areas in disused castles or other secular buildings given to them by the English Crown, which were then converted into religious houses. The funds to build, maintain, or renovate their friaries came solely from donations made by the townspeople or through the patronage of wealthy aristocrats.
The Franciscans chose to live a life of poverty, as their religious ideals required them to give up worldly luxuries and accepting gifts of excessive lavishness would be met with harsh punishments. The Franciscan friars lived on donations of food, clothing, and other necessities from townspeople, even religious items such as books, statues, and candles, but in many cases this did not mean the friars lived poorly. Townspeople were usually very generous towards the friars who came to their towns because while the friars depended on the townspeople for alms, so did the townspeople rely on the friars for spiritual functions.
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The relationship between the Franciscan friars and their public was mutually beneficial, and the “public relations” aspect of their profession earned them much affection and support from the community. Franciscans could enter people’s homes to tend to the sick and perform last rites for the dying, while parish priests could not, and they could also set up pulpits in public areas such as marketplaces and squares to preach and hear confession, allowing them direct involvement in the community. The friars would also allow their benefactors to be buried in the friary cemetery and would pray for the souls of the departed, which was an incentive for people to make donations towards improvements to the friary or to leave their worldly possessions to the friars in their wills, which was most often the largest source of income for Franciscan houses.
The friars were also known to travel a lot, as pilgrimage was fundamental to their vocation. They would travel from town to town, preaching and hearing confession and they became known for their eloquent, sermon “performances,” and the faithful would flock to hear and see them in action.
The Franciscans were highly educated, both theologically and scholastically, and they valued the learning of languages. The friars spoke English as well as Norman French and many also learned Gaelic in the decades after settling in Ireland. They were known for preaching in all three languages, which expanded their audiences and gave them better reach to gain the popular confidence of both the Anglo-Norman and Gaelic populations.
While the Friars appear to have been universally beloved among all the various peoples who inhabited Ireland, life on the frontier was far from easy and even the Franciscans could not remain above the simmering social and political tensions caused by the Norman invasion. In fact, as the “men in the middle,” the friars were often at the center of controversy.
Trim Castle in northern Ireland was originally owned by the church but was granted to Hugh de Lacy in 1172 by Henry II of England. De Lacy left Ireland entrusting the castle to Hugh Tyrrel, baron of Castleknock, one of his chief lieutenants. Trim Castle was attacked and burnt by forces of the Gaelic high king of Ireland and Tyrell was forced to flee. It was in this "warring" world that the Franciscan friars established themselves as "men in the middle." (Andrew Parnell / CC BY 2.0)
The Split Between Anglo-Normans and the Native Irish
Hostilities between the Anglo-Normans and the native Irish were commonplace in the 13th century when the Franciscan friars arrived. Friaries were not spared during attacks on colonial settlements by Gaelic raiding parties, and in many cases the friaries would act as part of the town’s defenses in tandem with the castle and its occupants - many friaries having been built in old castles or fortified buildings - as well as a refuge for the townspeople.
It was not until hostilities began to settle in the 14th and 15th centuries that the Franciscans spread out from the Anglo-Norman territories to build houses in primarily Gaelic areas of rural Ireland and even recruit Gaelic novices into their ranks.
Although open hostilities had decreased however, racial tensions remained high between the Anglo-Norman colonizers and the native Irish, and the friars were not exempt. The friars do not seem to have discriminated in their profession, ministering to both races alike, but racial divisions existed even within the Franciscan order itself.
In 1315 when Edward Bruce, brother of Robert the Bruce, invaded from Scotland, the racial lines within the Franciscan order were clearly drawn. Despite numerous brutal attacks on Franciscan friaries by Bruce’s forces, many of the Gaelic friars were very outspoken in supporting the Bruce invasion, while the majority of Anglo-Norman Friars remained loyal to the English Crown and spoke out against the Bruce invasion.
Racism was also rampant within the Franciscan chapter in Ireland, as a heated battle raged between the two races for supremacy within the church. There was a feeling of superiority among the Anglo-Normans that generated hostility towards the Gaelic elements in their midst, and there was a concerted effort to suppress the native Irish within the church, which had gained significant power by the end of the 14th century.
In 1445, Friar William O’Reilly became the first native Irishman to hold the office of provincial minister in the Irish Franciscan order. This was despite attempts by the Anglo-Norman leaders of the order to enforce rules from the 1320s which forbade the appointment of Gaelic friars to the position of provincial ministers.
Anti-Gaelic sentiments within the Irish Franciscans are perhaps best captured however, in the words of Friar Simon le Mercer, a Franciscan from Drogheda: “it is no more a sin to kill an Irishman than a dog or any other brute…and if he were to commit it himself he would none the less for that celebrate mass.”
Moyne Abbey in Ireland is one of the oldest Franciscan friaries to be built in Ireland. (Shawn / Adobe Stock)
The Irish Franciscan Friars: Men in the Middle
Despite the racial rift within the Irish Franciscans, the friars did play an important role in bringing together the disparate elements of their divided society and worked towards peace between the Gaelic and Anglo-Norman peoples. Over the decades following their arrival in Ireland, the Franciscan friars were often called upon by the English Crown to act as ambassadors, performing intermediary and negotiating roles between the English authorities and native Irish leaders.
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As a result of these “public relations” duties, the Friars earned the respect of kings and lords from both sides and were rewarded with financial support and letters of protection among other things. King Henry III and Edward I are both known to have been generous patrons of several Franciscan houses and various Irish kings also patronized Franciscan establishments such as the friary at Adare.
The friars were also known for their hospitality, with guest quarters built into most friaries to accommodate short-term guests including both Irish nobles and English officials on Crown business. Kings themselves even stayed at the friaries. In 1395, King Richard II stayed with the Franciscans at Drogheda for 18 days.
The Franciscans not only hosted guests but allowed the use of their churches and chapter rooms for all sorts of gatherings from the civic to the political. Meetings of the Irish parliament were recorded as being held at friaries, and the submission of the Irish chieftains to Richard the II in the 1390s occurred at the Franciscan friary in Castledermot.
The Franciscan Friars may have arrived in Ireland during a time of upheaval. They found themselves caught in the middle of racial and political divisions, but they were resourceful and used their position as “men in the middle” to their ultimate advantage.
The rapport the Friars built within their communities through the multitude of roles they played, from spiritual advisors and preachers to political mediators and ambassadors, brought the Franciscans much respect and affection from all members of the Irish community, Gaelic, Irish and Anglo-Normans alike.
Top image: Saint Francis of Assisi, the founder of the Franciscan friars order, as depicted in the Madonna del Sasso Sanctuary in Locarno, Switzerland. Source: lemélangedesgenres / Adobe Stock
By Meagan Dickerson
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Ó Clabaigh, Colman. 2012. The Friars in Ireland 1224-1540. Four Courts Press.