12 January 2018
A search for former
Franciscan sites on
the streets of Limerick
Earlier this week, I visited the Limerick City Museum, housed in the former Franciscan Friary in Henry Street. The Franciscan Church next door has been closed since for ten years, and at present is closed to the public.
So, after my visit to the museum this week, I went in search of the earlier Franciscan sites in Limerick, who may have first arrived in Limerick in the 1240s.
Their first friary is said to have been founded in Limerick within the next few decades. Although nothing remains on the site of their mediaeval friary near Sir Harry’s Mall, the site is parked with a plaque on the façade of a house in Goal Lane, off Mary Street.
Some historians say the friary was founded by Donogh Cairbreach O’Brien before 1241, others say was founded by William de Burgho, the son-in-law of Donald O’Brien, King of Thomond, before 1287, or in 1350 by Mary FitzGerald, Countess of Desmond. De Burgho was the son-in-law of Dermot O’Brien.
The Limerick historian Thomas Johnson Westropp argues 1241 is the correct date is 1241, and that the later dates refer to times when the original buildings were restored.
The friary stood in ‘English Town,’ between Sir Harry’s Mall and Athlunkard Street, on Goal Lane off Mary Street. It was also known as the Franciscan Abbey and gave the name Abbey to the surrounding area. There was also an oratory dedicated to Saint Anthony on the island in what is now called Saint Mary’s Parish.
The Franciscan friars in Limerick did not adopt the Observant reforms until 1534.
At the Reformation, like most religious orders in Ireland, the Franciscans were suppressed between 1539 and 1548, and most of their buildings were demolished. Their abbey in Limerick was granted to Alderman Edmond Sexton in 1543, and this grant later confirmed by King James I.
Meanwhile, the Franciscan friars in Limerick went into hiding, but the area around their old building retained the name ‘Saint Francis Abbey’, and the river came to be called ‘The Abbey River.’
Some Franciscans remained in the city, and a community of four friars re-established a formal residence in 1615. In time, years three chalices were given to the order – the Farrell Chalice (1619), the Creagh Chalice (1627) and the Rice Chalice (1626). The Creagh Chalice came into the possession of the Bishops of Killaloe, while the other chalices continued in use by the Friars in the centuries the followed.
During the Confederate war, this community took possession of their house in 1642. On 14 June 1646, the standards captured at the Battle of Benburb were displayed in their friary chapel before being deposited in Saint Mary’s Cathedral.
On 17 July 1651, the Virgin Mary reputedly appeared over Saint Mary’s Cathedral with Saint Francis and Saint Dominic as well as other friars from the two orders. Local lore said the vision in the sky then moved onto the Dominican Priory and finally to the Franciscan church.
But the Franciscans were expelled from the city in October 1651. However, after the end of the Cromwellian era they returned and recovered possession of their little chapel in 1687, when they rented the site of their old abbey from the Revd Stacpole Pery, a descendant of Edmond Sexton and father of both Edmund Pery, 1st Viscount Pery, and William Pery (1721-1794), 1st Baron Glentworth and successively Bishop of Killala (1781-1784) and Bishop of Limerick (1784-1794).
It is believed the Franciscans remained at this site until 1691. But by 1698, they had been expelled with all other religious orders from Limerick city.
In the 18th century, a country court house and a county hospital were erected on the site. But these have been long demolished, and the site is now occupied by two houses.
By 1732, four friars were living in Bourke House near the corner of Nicholas Street and Athlunkard Street. This also became known as the Castle Friary, and there Father James White erected a small chapel in 1745. By 1766, two friars were also doing parish work in the chapels of Saint Nicholas and Saint Mary.
In 1782, the Franciscans leased a site in Newgate Lane, behind Saint Mary’s Cathedral. On Christmas Day, the community opened a small chapel at this small friary.
The Limerick historian Maurice Lenihan described the chapel as being ‘spacious and it had a piece of ground attached to it on which a house for the Franciscan Fathers was soon afterwards built. The liberal spirit of the times gave an impetus to the erection of the chapel to which not only ... Catholics gave munificent aid, but to which Protestants, Dissenters, Quakers, Methodists, etc. largely contributed.’
This chapel remained in use until 1822 when the lease expired and the landlord, Major George P Drew, told the Franciscans that he was not renewing the lease. The Franciscans took the church fittings with them and the building was destroyed. A window from this chapel is now in Kilrush church ruin on the North Circular Road in Limerick.
The Franciscans then moved to Bank Place, where they remained until they moved to Henry Street in 1827.
They acquired a site on Henry Street in 1824, a new church was built in 1826 and they moved to the new friary in 1827.
Next: The Franciscan Church on Henry Street, Limerick.