Sunday, September 19, 2010

The Irish Franciscans, 1534-1990

The Irish Franciscans: 1534-1990
Edel Bhreathnach, Joseph MacMahon & John McCafferty, editors
Four Courts Press: Dublin.
464pp, illus. c. 2009
ISBN: 978-1-84682-209-4

This epic and epochal work is the third and presumably final volume of an historical trilogy tracing the history of the Franciscan friars in Ireland from their arrival in the thirteenth century through to the 1990s. Its publication in 2009 makes it an appropriate festschrift commemorating the Irish contribution within the context of 800 years of the Franciscan order’s existence. In his foreword, the current Minister Provincial for the Irish province, Caomhin O’Laoide, notes that this work is a cause great delight, gratitude and consolation: “Consolation—in that however difficult our own times are, there have been worse periods from which the Franciscans emerged with life and vitality.” The ensuing collection of 18 essays by 14 separate authors proceeds to chart, in quilt-like fashion, the varying fortunes of the Franciscans in Ireland over the past half-millennium. A scholarly work, brought about by the collaboration of the Irish friars and a team of experts, this compendium of current research is nevertheless quite accessible to the nonacademic reader and makes for stimulating reading.

The volume is divided into two distinct sections—the first charting the history of the Irish friars chronologically over the past five hundred years. The second half of the volume consists of a series of discrete articles of topical interest, ranging from such diverse themes as the contributions of exiled Irish scholars in the area of Franciscan philosophy and theology (Bernadette Cunningham)—the evolution of the Irish Poor Clares (also, Cunningham), the founding of the Secular Franciscan movement (Patrick Conlan), and the development of Irish Franciscan friary architecture (Michael O’Neill). An essay on St. Anthony College, Louvain, by Micheal Mac Craith ofm, is written in the Irish language; an English summary would have been helpful.

The authors offer quite literally a ‘blow by blow” description of the Franciscan experience from the initial effort to suppress monastic (and mendicant) life in Ireland under the English King Henry VIII (starting in 1539) to the struggles and challenges of contemporary religious life. One comes to appreciate the complexity and nuance of the various struggles the friars were engaged in over time. Suppression of religious orders and houses in the 16th century, for example, as described in essays by Colm Lennon, Mary Ann Lyons, and Raymond Gillespie--was by no means a straight-line, unidirectional development. Rather the trajectory of the friars’ fortunes is perhaps more aptly described in terms of a two-step-- as both well-placed benefactors and even, at times, civil authorities colluded to create a “protective network of well-wishers” which made the survival of the friars possible. The fortunes of the friars appeared to rise and fall as well, according to the course of least and/ or greatest military resistance to English rule, culminating in the ultimate re-conquest of the island by Cromwell’s Puritan-led troops in 1649-50. In the face of the subsequent imposition of the notorious penal laws (not to be relaxed until the late 1770s) the Irish friars once more faced the threat of virtual extinction.

In the face of such daunting domestic oppression, the friars adapted a number of strategies for survival, most notable among which was the establishment of a network of Irish colleges on the Continent (St. Anthony’s College, Louvain, 1607; St. Isidore’s, Rome, 1625; and, the College of the Immaculate Conception, 1629). These offshore institutions—along with other efforts which did not survive long-term-- served several vital functions: they allowed for the training of Irish friars who would return home, often surreptitiously, to engage in essential pastoral work. They also provided spiritual support and succor for exiled Irish troops and nobility. They further provided for the preservation of Irish language , identity, and culture—a culture which was being systematically decimated in the homeland. Finally, they provided an intellectual arena in and from which Irish friar/scholars could engage as full participants in debate and dialog on the major theological, philosophical, and ecclesial issues of the Catholic Church at large in the post-Tridentine era. No mean achievement for an exile community.

Ironically, though not surprisingly, the friars seem to have shone most brilliantly in their very darkest hour, and under the most trying of circumstances—the life and scholarship of friar Luke Wadding serving as a parade example. Conversely, in times of relative peace—during the course of the 18th century, for example—the friars appear to have lost their way. As author Joseph MacMahon – a friar himself-- writes: “Many external factors—the penal legislation, the prohibition on receiving novices and the assault on the colleges—had a detrimental impact upon them, but the main cause of their decline was the fact that they did not have a clear vision of their identity and mission. They gave the impression of drifting helplessly through choppy and unfamiliar waters not knowing when, and where they would land, if ever.” A sobering reflection upon any era.

Through their reference to source materials-- some of which have only become available in the past few decades through the close cooperation of the Franciscan friars and the University College, Dublin-- this team of scholars has provided an objective and detached historical overview of the order in Ireland. The friars’ relative progress—or lack of progress at times—provides both an inspiration and cautionary tale as contemporary Franciscans in Ireland and internationally seek to discern the movement of the Spirit in these demanding times.

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