29 September 2020
Two friaries in Buttevant,
Augustinian and Franciscan,
with shared name and history
During my visit to Buttevant, Co Cork, I visited the town’s two parish churches: Saint Mary’s Church (Roman Catholic) and Saint John’s Church (Roman Catholic), and also visited the remains of two mediaeval friaries are still extensive in Buttevant. The Augustinian Priory was founded at Ballybeg, 2 km south of Buttevant in 1229, and the Franciscan Friary in the centre of the town was founded in 1251. Both were founded and endowed by the de Barry family of Buttevant Castle, and both were dedicated to Saint Thomas à Becket of Canterbury.
About 2 km south of Buttevant, Ballybeg Priory was founded in 1229 by Philip de Barry for the Canons Regular of Saint Augustine.
This priory was dedicated to Saint Thomas à Becket of Canterbury, and the first prior was David de Cardigan who, like the priory’s founder, was Welsh. David Óg de Barry, the first Baron Barry, enhanced the revenues of the priory in 1251.
Ballybeg was built in the English Gothic style and was an extensive foundation. The priory church was 51 metres long and 7.9 metres wide. The cloister, on the south side of the church, was 27 metres square.
The ruins today include a long rectangular nave and chancel church with the remains of a cloister on the southside, a dovecote, a fortified tower at the west end of the church and – about 70 metres to the north of the church – a late mediaeval tower.
The most striking remaining feature is the crossing of the church. This was substantially reworked, as can be seen with the insertion of an arch that obscures the gothic windows. This arch may have been inserted to support the crossing tower.
The west wall of the church, which was incorporated into a tower that was added in the 14th or 15th century, has two fine lancet windows. There is evidence of a lean-to roof over a cloister walk on the south wall of the church. The west wall of the cloister also survives but not at its original height.
A block of masonry inside the cloister area may be the remains of a lavabo, a stone basin where monks washed their hands before communal meals.
A small circular tower near the south-east of the main priory ruins was a dovecote or columbarium, that housed 11 rows of roosting boxes for pigeons or doves. The meat and eggs of the birds were an important food source, and their droppings were highly prized as fertiliser.
Another indication of the importance of the priory is the remains of a fishpond. Unlike other manors, however, the priory of Ballybeg does not appear to have had an enclosure for deer.
The Augustinians Priory in Ballybeg owned over 2,000 acres of land, along with numerous rectories throughout the Diocese of Cloyne.
At the dissolution of the monastic houses during the Tudor Reformation, Ballybeg Priory was dissolved in 1541. In the reign of Elizabeth I, the property of the priory of Ballybeg passed into the hands of the Master of Ordinance, Sir George Bouchier.
In the reign of James I, it was held in the names of Elizabeth Norreys of Mallow, daughter of Thomas Norreys, Lord President of Munster, Sir John Jephson and Sir David Norton.
The last recorded titular Prior of Ballybeg was John Baptist Sleyne (1635-1712), Bishop of Cork and Cloyne, who died in exile at Lisbon. The priory was in ruins by 1750, and parts of the ruin are still used by a farm.
The ruins of the Franciscan Friary are in the centre of Buttevant, beside Saint Mary’s Roman Catholic Church on the Main Street. The friary was also dedicated to Saint Thomas à Becket of Canterbury and housed a thriving community from the mid-13th to mid-16th century. It still possesses some of the earliest examples of Franciscan architecture in Ireland.
The first friary of the Observant Franciscans in Ireland was founded at Youghal, Co Cork, by Maurice FitzGerald in 1224. The friary in Buttevant was founded from Youghal and was the only Franciscan house in North Cork.
The Annals of the Four Masters record it was founded and endowed in 1251 by David Óg de Barry. The townland of Lagfrancis was assigned as the glebe for its mensa.
At first, the Franciscan friary had a rectangular church. A transept was added later, with a triumphal arch that faced south, towards the Barry family’s castle. The Bell Tower was added in the final phase and was placed equidistant from both gables of the friary.
The Franciscans were mendicant friars who lived by preaching and on charity. But their patrons in Buttevant, the Barry family, financed several major redevelopments of the friary. Over the centuries, these expansions showed the growing wealth and power of the Barrys.
By 1324, Buttevant friary consisted of a community of Irish and Anglo-Norman friars and was important enough to maintain its own stadium or house of studies.
However, the community was divided by tensions between the Anglo-Norman and Irish friars. A Papal commission investigated a decision to transfer a Gaelic friar from Buttevant to one of the Gaelic friaries, and the Friary in the 1320s, at the time when the friary in Buttevant had been transferred to a new jurisdiction, separating it from other Irish friaries and linking it to Anglo-Norman friaries.
The Cloyne diocesan records from the 1400s show that the law courts in Buttevant operated at the door of the friary church. In mediaeval Buttevant, the friary porch was the place to make legal agreements, renew or grant leases on Lady Day and Michaelmas, to swear fealty, to do homage and to marriages. These records also record the same legal functions at the front door of the parish church of Saint Bridget, the site later of Saint John’s Church, the Church of Ireland parish church in Buttevant.
When of the monastic houses were dissolved during the Tudor reformation in the 1540s, the Franciscan friary in Buttevant included the friary church, the conventual buildings, a garden, a cemetery, and a watermill.
James de Barry (1520-1581), 4th Viscount Buttevant, obtained a 21-year lease of the friary in 1571. At the outbreak of the Desmond Rebellions, he joined the rebels and when his estates were confiscated, the friary in Buttevant passed to Edmund Spenser in the Plantation of Munster. However, by 1615 or earlier, the friary had reverted to his son, David de Barry (1550-1617), 5th Viscount Buttevant.
Evidence shows the Franciscan friars continued to live at the friary in late Elizabethan and Jacobean Buttevant. Reports in 1615 and 1629 show the large friary church was still roofed and held many of the tombs of the local nobility, and the friary buildings ‘were spacious and numerous.’
At the Irish Rebellion in 1641, the Franciscan community in Buttevant welcomed the Confederate army of Lord Mountgarret, and the guardian, Father Boetius Egan, attended the Confederate Parliament in Kilkenny in 1642. But Murrough O’Brien, Earl of Inchiquin, assembled the Parliamentarian army in Buttevant and burned the friary church.
The friars returned to Buttevant at the Restoration. Two friars continued to live in Buttevant in the 18th century, and the friary was still being used by friars in 1731, according to a report presented to the House of Lords.
By 1800, only one old friar was left in Buttevant, and he died soon afterwards. The great Bell Tower, which had been silent for centuries but continued to dominate the friary ruins, collapsed in 1814, and greatly damaged an already fragile, crumbling building. By 1820, the Franciscan presence in Buttevant had come to end after almost 600 years.
Canon Cornelius Buckley, who built Saint Mary’s Church in the 1830s, removed the rubble inside the friary nave and chancel , and collected the architectural remnants that were inserted in the north wall, as a ‘sort of mediaeval museum for the curious,’ as the antiquarian, Richard Brash described it.
A large quantity of human remains and bones was collected at this stage. For some years, they were of ghoulish interest to visitors, but were later reburied in the crypt under the friary.
Samuel Lewis noted in his Topographical Dictionary in 1837, that the tomb of the founder, David de Barry, ‘is supposed to be in the centre of the chancel, but is marked only by some broken stones which appear to have formed an enclosure.’ Other families buried in the nave and chancel included the Barrys, Fitzgeralds, Lombards, and others.
The remains of the friary today include a church with a piscina and a number of elaborate carvings. The church and transept are complete, many stones belonging to the cloister arcade are stored in the upper vault under the choir, while there are good carved stones in the lower vault, and some windows in the church have been rebuilt.