18 April 2019

Ruins of Franciscan
‘abbey’ survive on
the streets of Nenagh

The Franciscan friary in Nenagh was founded by 1252, perhaps by Theobald Butler of Nenagh Castle and Bishop Donal O’Kennedy of Killaloe (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2019)

Patrick Comerford

The former Franciscan friary or abbey in the centre of Nenagh, Co Tipperary, may have been founded by Theobald Butler, who built Nenagh Castle. But it is also associated with Donal O’Kennedy, Bishop of Killaloe, so that Nenagh friary may have been founded before 1252 with O’Kennedy sponsorship.

The abbey is located in the centre of Nenagh, not far from the castle, the courthouse and the town’s parish churches. The site is on a lane to the south of Pearse Street, the town’s main street, and can be reached from Friar Street, Abbey Street and Martyr’s Road.

Today, the main surviving features of the friary include the walls of a large rectangular church, aligned East/West, which is 43 metres long and 10 metres wide. There is a triple lancet window at the east end and a series of 15 impressive lancet windows along the north wall. The former tower has fallen. Portions of the sacristy survive along the east end of the friary. This sacristy measured 10 x 4 metres.

The Gothic features included the doors and windows. There are sandstone dressings for the piers, jambs, and arches, while limestone was used for the main walls built of random rubble.

The crowning glory of the abbey was its east gable (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2019)

The crowning glory of the abbey was its east gable, with three large, elaborate lancet windows, with piers of solid masonry between that are deeply splayed.

There is a small gable light over the east lancet windows, above the level of the roof-slates but below the level of the ridge-piece. This was made for ventilation and for access between the inner and outer roofs to allow for repairs.

A small door in the south wall stood towards the east side that leads to the sacristy. The door has sandstone dressings and is about 5 ft high. There is only one window in the south wall. This tall window in the sanctuary had two lights, and has an eastern jamb that splays widely inwards and a western one that splays only slightly.

The rest of the light for the choir and sanctuary came from the east window and from the 11 tall, narrow, pointed, single-light windows, splaying inwards on the north wall. As well as the 11 windows in the choir, there were four smaller windows in the nave.

The ambulatory across the church divided the nave and choir. The church also had doors in the north and south walls, opposite each other.

The carvings over the west door include a carved head wearing a 15th century headdress (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2019)

The main entrance door is in the middle of the west gable wall. The original west doorway was remodelled around the 15th century with the insertion of a limestone arch and orders.

The bellcote on the apex of the west wall appears to be contemporary with the doorway. Over the west door, there is a vine scroll with a decorated finial and a carved head inserted into it. The figure is wearing a 15th century headdress,and was once thought to be part of an effigy, while the decoration it crowns formed part of an archway. The bell was supplied by Father Eugene Callanan and remains functional to this day.

There are four buttresses on the south wall. Three of these are were not original parts of the abbey and are thought to have been added in the 15th century to support and reinforce the wall. One buttress has started to separate from the wall.

There was a series of 15 windows along the north wall (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2019)

Pattress plates and tie bars run between the north and south walls at the lancet windows are. This supports the walls and stops them from falling outwards, especially the north wall which has a noticeable tilt. Along with the buttresses, the pattress plates and tie bars are keeping the wall from tilting any further.

The friary in Nenagh became the principal Franciscan house in Ireland, and a provincial synod was held at the friary in 1344.

The Annals of Nenagh, which chronicles the deaths of notable local families, was compiled in Nenagh between 1336 and 1528.

At the time of the Reformation, the friary was closed at the suppression of monastic houses throughout Ireland, and the friary was granted to Robert Collum. But it suffered a more serious assault in 1548 when the O’Carrolls burnt Nenagh, including the friary, which was then a conventual house.

The Franciscans continued to maintain a presence in Nenagh until about 1587. No efforts were made to continue that Franciscan presence for almost half a century until the Observant friars arrived in Nenagh in 1632.

The friars were expelled by the Cromwellians but returned after the restoration. A community was still living in Nenagh in the early 18th century, but this had broken up by 1766. Friars continued to work in the area as parish clergy until the last Franciscan in Nenagh, Father Patrick Harty, died in 1817.

The earliest inscribed headstone in the churchyard is for Mrs Frances Minchin, and is dated 1696.The abbey grounds continue to be used as a burial ground.

HG Leask wrote a comprehensive description of the Friary in 1937, when he described the ruin as a simple, long rectangle, without any obvious division into nave and chancel. He recorded the fine windows in the east gable, and 11 windows in the north wall of the choir.

The Franciscan Friary is known popularly in Nenagh as the Abbey, and has given its name to surrounding street such as Friar Street or Abbey Street and local businesses like Friary Iron Works, the Abbey Court Hotel, Abbey Furniture and Abbey Machinery.

Looking into the ruins from the west end (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2019)

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