14.05.06, Ó Clabaigh, The Friars in Ireland

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Dianne Hall

The Medieval Review 14.05.06

Ó Clabaigh, Colmán, OSB. The Friars in Ireland, 1224-1540. Dublin:Four Courts Press, 2012. Pp. xxv, 389. ISBN: 978-1-84682-225-4.

Reviewed by:

Dianne Hall
Victoria University, Melbourne

Between the thirteenth and sixteenth centuries, members of mendicant orders were common sights throughout Irish communities. These friars, distinctively dressed, lived communally and actively engaged with lay communities through preaching. They connected urban and rural Irish faithful with wider European religious culture and movements and at the same time became integral to a distinctively local Irish pastoral landscape. In histories of later medieval Ireland, the mendicant friars are often visible although not on the central ecclesiastical stage. That centre has been taken by the major traditional enclosed monastic orders such as Benedictines, Cistercians, Augustinians and by the episcopal hierarchy. These men controlled the large monastic estates, positions of secular power and have been easier for historians to track through the complex weave of difficult and fragmentary source materials left by centuries of civil and religious turmoil.

Colman Ó Clabaigh OSB, has worked hard to redress this imbalance in the historiography of the medieval Irish church and religious landscape. His earlier work on the Franciscans was the first modern full length study devoted to that order, whose foundations, works and memorials were the best documented of all the mendicants in Ireland. While at Mícheál Ó Cléirigh Institute for the Study of Irish History at University College Dublin, he widened his field of research to encompass all the mendicant orders operating in Ireland during the latter medieval period, 1224-1540. This period, still somewhat neglected in Irish historiography of the church in favour of the dramatic era of early church and the upheavals of the Elizabethan reformation, was fundamental in shaping the Irish religious landscape, both spiritually and physically with the building of many of the stone church buildings that still survive. By taking a long and broad view of the topic, Ó Clabaigh can draw out comparisons and continuities that are not possible when focussing on a single order.

Ó Clabaigh divides the book into two, with the first half tracing chronologically the arrival and histories of the different mendicant orders within both ecclesiastical and secular contexts. This section of the book fleshes out the material scattered in older narrative histories and compendiums such as A. Gwynn and R. N. Hadcock Medieval Religious Houses: Ireland (Dublin, 1970). While the establishment and growth of the mendicants in Ireland shares many features with the trajectories in England and the continent, there are local specificities which Ó Clabaigh outlines with great clarity. Some of these stemmed from the different cultural, linguistic and social backgrounds of Gaelic Irish friars and those of English descent. Other monastic orders also had to accommodate, often painfully, to divisions among their members and the lay communities from which they were drawn. Ó Clabaigh's findings of relative harmony and stability among the Irish mendicants until the latter thirteenth century is in contrast to the bitter divisions among the Cistercians. The mendicants, like the rest of the medieval Irish communities, were also battered by events such as the Bruce wars (1315-1318) and the Black Death, the progress of which was documented so eloquently by Friar Clyn in Kilkenny who wrote that he was "among the dead expecting death when it should come, I have brought together in writing just as I have truthfully heard and examined" (41). The social and economic changes that occurred after the Black Death played out in Ireland in similar ways to the rest of Europe--decreased population, shifts in economics and eventually in the latter fifteenth centuries in calls for reform and renewal.

Ó Clabaigh's second and longer section of this book examines the history of mendicant orders thematically, looking at the lay patrons who ensured the survival of the friars, the lifestyle of the friars, the many writers who criticised the friars, what is known of their devotional practices, a study of the places in which they lived and worshiped and their pastoral roles. This approach allows Ó Clabaigh to tease out as rounded a picture of the mendicants and their lay supporters as is possible from the relatively fragmentary surviving sources. He has made full use of the annals kept by the different mendicants as well as the manuscripts which are known to have been part of their libraries. The library catalogue of the Franciscan friary at Youghal with its list of 150 volumes is testament to the emphasis on learning and devotional literature among the Franciscans.

A particularly interesting focus of Ó Clabaigh's is his analysis of material culture. The archaeological evidence for fish farming and agriculture give useful evidence for diet and lifestyle, while Ó Clabaigh uses architectural analysis to supplement the literary sources on devotional practices. Architectural and archaeological evidence comes to the fore in discussing the buildings and art of the friars. As Ó Clabaigh mentions, the buildings of the various friars remain some of the most remarkable and best preserved of medieval Irish buildings (202). The chapter where he describes and analyses the sites and buildings would be a wonderful companion on a tour of the surviving Irish friaries. He explains the uses and appearances of the major features of the buildings, the cloister, domestic buildings, the different ranges, chapter room, dormitory, garderobe, library, kitchens and churches. Included in his descriptions are the gardens, water supply, bells and soundscape of the friaries. These buildings dominated the landscape, providing a spiritual and practical focus for the communities in which they operated. While the bare grey stone now gives some idea of their dominance, Ó Clabaigh is also able to assemble evidence of hints about the colour and vivid decoration of the churches, often with coloured glass, tiles, wall painting and tapestries.

The book's thematic chapters mean that it will be useful to consult and dip into for information on specific aspects of the organisation and life of the friars. The black and white and colour illustrations add considerably to the book's appeal and to the power of Ó Clabaigh's descriptions. A solidly comprehensive bibliography will also prove useful to future scholars who will surely use this book as the basis from which to explore and analyse different aspects of the history of the Irish friars and their communities.

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Dianne Hall

Victoria University, Melbourne