24 January 2017

Strolling through the beautiful
cloisters in Askeaton Friary

The cloisters in Askeaton Friary are among the most complete and best preserved in Ireland (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2017)

Patrick Comerford

On the east bank of the River Deel, just a short walk the north of Askeaton, Co Limerick, stand the ruins of the Franciscan Abbey or Friary, with some of the most magnificent mediaeval cloisters I have ever seen.

This monastic site is one of the most beautiful complete ruins in Ireland, and as well as the magnificent cloisters with 12 arches on each of the four sides, there are mediaeval carvings, a beautiful east window, a chapter room, refectory and the remains of tombs of key people associated with the history of this part of Munster.

The first date given for its foundation is 1389, when the first friary at Askeaton is said to have been founded by Gerald FitzMaurice FitzGerald, 3rd Earl of Desmond and Lord Justice of Ireland, who died in 1398.

The suggestion that the friary was founded before 1400 relies on a grant of indulgence by Pope Boniface IX (1389-1404) to anyone who visited or gave alms to the friary of ‘Inisgebryny’ in the Diocese of Limerick, which may refer to Askeaton. This may suggest that the 3rd Earl of Desmond brought the Franciscans to Askeaton.

Gerald FitzGerald was a poet who composed courtly love poetry in the Irish language. The legendary poet earl is said to still sleep in a cave, waiting to ride back on his silver-shod steed in Ireland’s time of need.

Other sources suggest a more likely foundation date of 1420, when the friary became a burial place for the Desmond FitzGeralds. If so, Gerald’s son, James FitzGerald FitzGerald (ca 1380-1462), 6th Earl of Desmond, was the friary’s first main benefactor.

James FitzGerald, who known as ‘the Usurper Earl’, was the youngest son of Gerald FitzGerald, 3rd Earl of Desmond, and Lady Eleanor Butler, daughter of James Butler, 2nd Earl of Ormond. He deprived his nephew, Thomas FitzGerald, 5th Earl of Desmond, of his title and dispossessed him of his estates in 1418 for marrying a woman of Gaelic origins in violation of the Statutes of Kilkenny. This nephew was forced into exile in France and died at Rouen two years later.

Although James was not acknowledged as the new earl for another four years, by 1420 – the year he probably founded the friary in Askeaton – he was appointed Seneschal of Imokilly, Inchiquin, and the town of Youghal, by James Butler, 4th Earl of Ormond. In 1423, he was made Constable of Limerick for life. Along with his son-in-law, Thomas FitzGerald, 7th Earl of Kildare, James was a prominent Irish supporter of the House of York, and he was also the godfather of George Plantagenet, 1st Duke of Clarence.

The FitzGeralds were associated with founding many mendicant and monastic houses throughout Ireland, including Youghal, Clane, Clonmel and Kildare for the Franciscans and Sligo, Tralee and Youghal for the Dominicans. If it is uncertain who founded the friary in Askeaton, it was, nevertheless, closely associated with generations of the FitzGeralds of Desmond, whose fortunes rose in the 14th and 15th centuries, before they were wiped out during the failed Desmond Rebellion of the 1580s.

The Friary in Askeaton was built between 1389 and 1420 (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2017)

The friary was built between 1389 and 1420, although the present buildings are of a slightly later date. The extensive remains of the friary and its surroundings represent an imposing mediaeval architectural landscape that was probably planned intentionally in the early 15th century.

The friary was founded for the Conventual Franciscans. Saint Francis of Assisi, who founded the Franciscans, expected his friars to follow a vow of poverty and objected to them building houses or churches. However, by the time this impressive friary was built in Askeaton, they had become a powerful and wealthy order.

In 1441, Matthew MacEgan, a member of the prominent family of lawyers, returned from studying in Bologna and became the friary’s lector, or the friar charged with the formation and training of candidates for the priesthood. In 1491, the friars of Askeaton won a case against the friars of Ennis who were accused of hindering their fellow Franciscans in seeking alms.

The friary was reformed in the 1490s and the friars became Observant friars in 1497. In 1513, the friary was formally given to the Observantines by the Franciscan Provincial, Father Patrick Healy.

Although the Friary church is roofless, much of it is still standing (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2017)

The church and the north transept, sacristy, cloister arcade and domestic buildings all survive, including the top floors of the east and west ranges. The friary was built with dark grey limestone, and although it was once said the cloisters were built entirely of dark grey marble, they too seem to be fashioned in polished limestone.

The church, apart from the roof, is partly standing, including the nave, chancel and the north transept. The east end of the church, with a lofty window, has some beautiful details in the later English Gothic style.

The elaborate sedilia in the south wall (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2017)

Among the detailed features are an elaborate sedilia in the south wall, the niches of three altar-tombs of similar design, probably built for the Desmond family, carved windows and stone seats.

However, the original bell tower has collapsed, and large masses of the walls lie scattered around.

One of the most striking features of the friary is its beautiful 15th century cloister arcade (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2017)

One of the most striking features of the friary is its beautiful 15th century cloister arcade. The cloisters are almost entire, and on each side of the enclosed quadrangle there are 12 lofty pointed arches supported by cylindrical columns with richly moulded capitals.

These cloisters stand on the south side of the church, which is exceptional. Most Franciscan friaries have their cloisters on the north side of the church. In Askeaton however, the cloisters are to the south of the church.

The statue of Saint Francis in a corner of the cloisters (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2017)

In one corner of the cloisters there is a statue of Saint Francis with his stigmata or the signs of the wounds of the crucified Christ. The face of the statue has been worn away by people who were told that kissing the statue would cure toothache.

In one section of the cloisters, a sundial in the stonework may have served as a Mass dial. In the centre of the cloisters, there was once an ancient, stately thorn tree.

The refectory is a later addition to the Friary (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2017)

The refectory was added later, and although it was locked at the weekend, I believe it includes an excellent example of a reader’s desk. The chapter room later became the burial place of the martyrs Bishop Patrick O’Healy and Father Cornelius O’Rourke.

There was once a medieval hospice within the friary’s precinct. Throughout the site there are traces of outbuildings and the boundary walls.

Thanks probably to the patronage of the powerful Earls of Desmond, who lived nearby in the castle in Askeaton, this Franciscan community escaped suppression at the Reformation.

In 1546, Lady Joan FitzGerald, wife of James Butler (1496-1546), 9th Earl of Ormond, and only daughter of James Fitzmaurice FitzGerald (died 1529), 10th Earl of Desmond, was buried in the friary.

The transept contains many interesting tombs, among them the tomb of James FitzJohn FitzGerald, 14th Earl of Desmond. While he held the title, he regained favour with the Crown, and was appointed Lord Treasurer of Ireland in 1547.

James FitzGerald was married four times. His first wife, Joan Roche, was a daughter of Maurice Roche, Lord Fermoy, and his own grandniece. When this marriage was annulled because of their close kinship, it resulted in the disinheritance of their son, Sir Tomás Ruadh FitzGerald of Conna, father of James FitzGerald, ‘the Sugán Earl.’

His second wife, Móre O'Carroll, died in 1548. His third wife, Lady Catherine Butler, second daughter of Piers Butler, 8th Earl of Ormond, and widow of Richard, Baron le Poer, died in Askeaton on 17 March 1553. His fourth wife, Evelyn Mór MacCarthy, was the mother of Sir James Sussex FitzGerald, who died in 1580, and a daughter, Elinor.

The 14th Earl of Desmond continued as Lord Treasurer until his death on 27 October 1558, and he was buried in Askeaton Friary.

The continued importance of the Friary in post-Reformation Ireland is indicated by the meeting of the Provincial chapter of the Irish Franciscans here in 1564.

Niches in the south wall of the friary church once contained elaborate tombs of the Desmond FitzGeralds (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2017)

The friary survived until 9 October 1579, when Sir Nicholas Malby tried to capture Askeaton Castle. Having failed to take the castle, he attacked the town and plundered and burned the friary. Some of the friars were killed in a gruesome fashion, including the friars John Conolly (Cornelius) and William Tenal. The church was desecrated and the tomb of James FitzJohn FitzGerald, 14th Earl of Desmond, and other Desmond ancestral tombs were smashed in act of revenge for the Desmond refusal to surrender the impenetrable castle.

Some Franciscans continued to live in the Askeaton area, and the possessions of the friary were listed in 1586 as including: certain buildings, half an acre, a field to the north of the precinct, a watermill in the town, a fishing weir, the tithes from one of the fishing weirs in Askeaton, ‘the Earl’s weir’, namely the fish taken in the tides on one day and two nights in each week between 12 noon on Saturday and 7 a.m. on Monday.

A small number of Franciscans returned to Askeaton in 1627, repaired some of the friary buildings and revived the community. However, the new community did not reach its former numbers until 1642. There is no evidence of rebuilding at this time, and the only work at this time may have involved clearing the debris from the church, which was refurnished and reroofed.

Part of elaborate tomb of Richard Stephenson above the sedilia in the chancel (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2017)

The remains of the once elaborate tomb of Richard Stephenson, a leading member of the Catholic Confederates who died in 1646, can be seen above the sedilia in the chancel. The inscription is in in Latin, but part of it is missing. It is said his tomb was placed in this place of honour as a reward for helping the friars return to Askeaton.

In 1647, two Franciscan friars who had been executed outside Kilmallock, Co Limerick, in 1579, Patrick O’Healy, Franciscan Bishop of Mayo, and Father Cornelius Rourke, a Franciscan priest, were reburied in Askeaton friary in the Chapter Room off the cloisters.

Despite attempts by Catholic Confederates to restore the Friary at this time, and the Friary was abandoned in 1648 with the arrival of Cromwell’s forces.

The Franciscans returned to the friary a decade later, and from 1661 to 1714 Guardians of the friary were appointed with regularity. The friary permanently closed in 1740. Even after this date, some of the friars were serving as curates in Glin as late as 1766.

In the cloisters, an inscription reads ‘Beneath lies The Pilgrim’s body, who died January 17th, 1784.’ But more about the unusual story of the ‘Askeaton Pilgrim’ later today.

A mediaeval sun dial or Mass dial in the cloisters (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2017)

Part of the friary was used as a Roman Catholic church until a new church was built in the town in 1851. The Franciscans continued to appoint Guardians of Askeaton Friary until 1872, but these were only nominal appointments.

A mediaeval wooden statue of the Madonna and Child and three mediaeval bells from Askeaton are now in the National Museum of Ireland, Dublin. Four bells associated with the friary were found around 1914, buried near the entrance of the monastery by Gerald Moran, a local teacher.

Two chalices were found in the grounds of the friary. One dates from 1662 and is now in Saint Mary’s Roman Catholic Church. This chalice was commissioned by the de Lacy family of Conigar, Askeaton, commissioned the chalice.

Bishop Patrick O’Healy and Father Cornelius O’Rourke are among the 16 Irish martyrs who were beatified by Pope John Paul II 25 years ago in 1992.

The grounds of the friary are still used for burials, and among the tombs in the chapter house is the tomb of the Naish family of Ballycullen House, Askeaton, ancestors of the Hollywood character actor, J Carrol Naish (1896-1973), who had parts in 1960s television series such as I Dream of Jeanie, The Man from Uncle, Greenaces, Bonanza and Get Smart.

The Franciscan Friary in Askeaton remains an impressive foundation, due to the size, beauty and extent of its remains, including the cloisters, windows and arches, their state of preservation, and its proximity to the ruins of the nearby Desmond castle.

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