Clonmel: Its Monastery, and Siege by Cromwell

Duffy's Hibernian Magazine
August 1861
Vol. III, No. 14

The monastery of St. Francis, at Clonmel, justly ranked among the most splendid of the many houses belonging to that order in Ireland, and even to the present day a small community of the friars retain a portion of their ancient church, where they continue to celebrate the divine mysteries.

The history of its foundation is involved in obscurity; for some say that it owes its origin to the family of the Fitzgeralds of Desmond, whereas others affirm that it was founded by Otho de Grandison, who in 1269, not only gave the friars a considerable sum of money to erect the church, convent, and its appurtenances, but also bestowed upon it a rich tract of land, sites for mills, and two or three fishing weirs on the Suir.

At the dissolution of the monastic houses, that of Clonmel shared the fate of all similar establishments in the province of Munster, for by an inquisition taken 8th of March, 31st King Henry VIII., it appears that the then guardian was “seized of a church and steeple, dormitory, hall, three chambers, a store, kitchen, stable, two gardens of one acre, together with four messuages, six acres of arable land, four gardens, a fishing-pool and weir in Clonmel, all of which was parcelled out, May 19th, 34th of same King, between the sovereign and commonalty of Clonmel, and James Earl of Ormond, to be held for ever in capita by the said grantees at a small annual rent.”

Nevertheless, although the friars were dispossessed of the lands, weirs, etc. with which de Grandison had endowed them, the inhabitants of Clonmel insisted on retaining the church, cemetery, and sacristy, of which they held possession in the year 1615, when Father Mooney, then provincial of the Franciscans, visited the place. To this zealous friar, on whose valuable manuscript notices of the convents of his order, we have heretofore drawn so copiously, we are indebted for the following particulars regarding the monastery of Clonmel.

At the period of his visitation, already specified, he found the church in good repair, the architecture very magnificent, and nearly all the requirements of a conventual establishment in as good condition as if Henry VIII., Elizabeth, and other plunderers of the religious houses had never thought of Clonmel.

In fact, Mooney tells us, that the altars were still standing in the church, and that in the centre of the choir there was a very gorgeous monument, consisting of groups of marble statues to the memory of the lord baron of Cahir, together with many other memorials of the same character, to mark the last resting-place of the nobles who were wont to bury within the sacred precincts.

Father Mooney, however, tells us that he was greatly scandalized by the conduct of some Jesuits, and other ecclesiastics, who (in the absence of the Franciscans) allowed the remains of the Protestant sovereign of Clonmel to be interred close by lord Cahir’s monument in the choir; so much so, that he caused the body to be exhumed in the night-time and buried elsewhere. This, he informs us, he did with the permission of the archbishop of Cashel.

At the period of Father Mooney’s visitation it would appear that the Jesuits and secular clergy had possession of the conventual church, the former alleging that they had got a grant of it from Pope Paul V., and the latter supporting them in their pretensions, so much so, that the citizens, acting under the influence of the Jesuits and secular clergy, on two different occasions refused to receive a community of Franciscans into their town.

The provincial, however, a very sturdy man, took active measures to re-establish the claims of his brotherhood, and it was finally decided by a papal rescript that they should take possession of their ancient church, the opposition of the Jesuits and secular clergy notwithstanding.

Father Mooney’s next effort was to get back from the representatives of the Earl of Ormond, the original grantee, same portion of the ancient endowments of the monastery, but we need hardly say that he was unsuccessful.

He insisted that the friars were entitled to the building called the “Aula Comitis” or Earl’s Palace, standing hard by the monastery, and that the fishing-weir and mills on the Suir should be restored to them.

But, despite all his instances, he could get no redress from the heirs of Lord Ormond, and the lands, mills, weirs, and fishing-pools were escheated for ever from the friars.

Of the “Aula Comitis,” or Earl’s Palace, we believe there has been no vestige in the memory of the oldest inhabitant of Clonmel; but it may interest some to know that it stood within the precincts of the convent grounds, in Kilshelan Street, and was one of those edifices which some of the Irish nobility built in the vicinity of the religious houses to serve them for a temporary residence while going through a course of penitential exercises.

In 1615 all the buildings of the Convent, with the exception of the church and cloister, were entirely dilapidated; but the then Earl of Ormond remodelled the infirmary, and converted it into a dwelling-house, which was subsequently given as a marriage dowry to the lady Helen de Barry, whose second husband was Thomas Earl of Somerset.

Mooney petitioned to have this edifice given to the Franciscans, but his memorial was rejected, and the friars were constrained to fix their abode in a house which they rented.

To this Convent of Clonmel belonged a far-famed statue of St. Francis, which Father Mooney tells us was rescued from the iconoclasts of the days of King Henry and Queen Elizabeth,—a statue in presence of which no one could commit perjury without incurring the penalty of sudden death, or, at all events, without having the whole truth brought to light by a special interposition of Heaven.

This statue or image was enshrined in the sacristy of the church when Father Mooney visited Clonmel—and we would suggest that some one should look after it, as it is likely enough that a relic so venerated may be still in existence, secreted somewhere in or about the remains of the old monastery.

To these meagre details regarding the Franciscan Convent of Clonmel, we have only to add what Father Mooney says of its site, namely, that it was most happily chosen—picturesque and commanding, though built inside the town wall, and in an angle of the city—in angulo civitatis.

With this venerable edifice we must naturally associate the memory of a highly distinguished Franciscan, of whom his native land and Clonmel in particular may justly be proud; for, indeed, his voluminous writings and the esteem in which he was held by the celebrities of his day, must always entitle him to our respect and veneration.

How very few of the many who frequent the little church of St. Francis in Clonmel ever think that more than two centuries ago there lived a townsman of their own who, when a mere stripling, was wont to kneel and pray within the same hallowed precincts, and who in his maturer years acquired a world-wide renown as a profound metaphysician, theologian, poet and historian!

And yet each of these attributes has been freely accorded to a native of Clonmel, whose numerous and learned works are the clearest evidences not alone of a master mind, but of industry which has seldom been equalled before or since the time in which he flourished.

Father Bonaventure Baron, the individual to whom we have been alluding, was born in Clonmel early in the seventeenth century, and after completing his preparatory studies in that city, proceeded to Rome, probably in 1636, just eleven years after his uncle, the celebrated Luke Wadding had founded the convent of St. Isidoro for Irish Franciscans.

Wadding soon perceived that his sister’s son possessed grand abilities, which were destined to reflect honour on the order of which be himself was even then foremost among the great, and he accordingly resolved to spare no pains in forwarding the education of his kinsman and protege.

Congeniality of tastes, and a never-wearying love of research in the wide domain of history and speculative science, endeared those ardent students to each other, and caused them to concentrate all their energies on one grand object equally valued by both, namely, to revive the literary glory of the Franciscans, and preserve from oblivion the memories of the great men of the same body, who conferred such signal service on mankind during that long and dismal period when knowledge and civilization could find no hiding-place outside the cloister.

It would be superfluous to recount all that Wadding achieved in this wonderful self-imposed task, of which he has left us so many valuable monuments evidencing genius of the highest order, and industry which challenged the encomiums of Sir James Ware,[1] who, his Protestantism notwithstanding, could appreciate such gigantic labours, amounting to thirteen or fourteen tomes, eight of which (the Annals) are large folio, to say nothing of other works which this great Irishman projected.

As for Baron, it would appear that he had made up his mind to rival his preceptor and kinsman, and, indeed, it may be said that in some respects the pupil outstripped the teacher in the rapidity with which he produced some of his earliest works.

Considering the various duties that devolved on him after his ordination, when he was appointed to teach theology, in the school of St. Isidoro, and discharge other offices connected with that establishment, we cannot but wonder how any one man could have written so much, so learnedly, and on such a variety of topics, before he had yet hardly passed that period which Dante calls the mid-term of life. And yet, such is the fact, for we have it on the authority of Father Wadding himself, that his nephew (“nepos meus ex sorore”) had actually written in Latin, singularly remarkable for its elegance, some five or six volumes, while he was yet considerably under thirty-three years of age.

The titles of some of these works, strange as they must appear in an English translation, will show how versatile was the genius of this eminent man, and with what facility he could turn from the profounder pursuit of studies philosophical and theological to the cultivation of the muses, and, indeed, of almost every department of light literature.

The dates, too, of some of his numerous publications, will prove what we have already asserted, namely, that his industry was indefatigable, and, we might almost say, unequalled.

Thus, the “Panegyrical Orations,” the first volume which he published at Rome, in 1643, was, two years afterwards, that is to say, in 1645, followed by his “Miscellaneous Poems, including Epigrams and Eulogiums of Eminent Men.”

In 1651 he edited his “Philosophical Essays;” and in the same year “The Diatribe on Silence,” or “Harpocrates Quinqueludius,” a work in which he displays an extensive knowledge of all the ancient systems of philosophy, and profound acquaintance with the writings of the most celebrated of the Christian apologists in the early ages.

In fact, it would seem as if the energies of this wonderful man never flagged, that his active mind needed or relaxation, for not only the printing-presses of Rome, but those of Paris, Lyons, Florence, Wurtzburg, and Cologne found ample employment from his pen, which, at intervals of two, three, or more years, gave to the world no less than six volumes, three of which are large folio, devoted to theological and philosophical controversies, and a vindication of that great luminary of the fourteenth century, Duns Scotus, or the Subtile Doctor, he, too, a Franciscan, the fame of whose learning drew together upwards of thirty thousand students to Oxford, when he taught in that university.

Besides the works we have already specified, Father Baron wrote a “Course of Theology,” in six tomes; and, towards the close of his life, he published, at Rome, the first volume (folio) of the “Annals of the Order of the Most Holy Trinity for the Redemption of Captives,” commencing with the year 1198, and carrying it down to 1267. This remarkable work narrates the foundation of the various houses of the order, and, along with biographies of its most eminent men, gives us interesting details of the number of captives rescued from the horrors of Saracen bondage, by the heroic charity of a single brotherhood, who, in their day, rendered signal services to their fellow-men.

Father Baron proposed to himself to continue this history down to his own times, but, growing feeble and blind, after expending such an amount of vitality on the works we have enumerated, he was obliged to renounce the pen towards the close of the year 1686.

The remaining ten years of his life were for him a series of great bodily infirmities, rendered all the more painful by the total loss of sight, till, at length, after having spent over sixty years in Rome, he died, at a great old age, in the convent of St. Isidoro, and was buried near the grave of Luke Wadding, in 1696.

The respect in which this native of Clonmel was held by the great men of his period was such that he might well be proud of it, if a heart like his could find a place for self-esteem; but he was above all such petty weaknesses, and earned more for the honour of his Order than he did for his own glorification, nevertheless, the criticisms of his great contemporaries pronounced him to be “a man among men,” and a writer who deserved to occupy a niche in the temple of fame.

As volume after volume came from his pen, the reviewers hailed them each and all with most respectful praise; and among those who were foremost in landing the labours of the Clonmel friar we find a countryman of his own, Neal O’Glacan, a native of Donegal, who professed medicine in the Universities of Toulouse and Bologna; wrote a “Cursus Medicus” and other works on cognate subjects, and was finally appointed physician and privy councillor to the King of France.

As for Father Baron, he too had honours bestowed on him by another potentate; for Cosmo III., Grand Duke of Tuscany, selected him before all others to fill the envied place of historiographer to his court.

This brief biography of such a distinguished Irishman may obtain some additional interest from a description of his portrait, which, along with that of the great Wadding and some other Irish celebrities of his era, is before us as we write.

The picture in our possession represents him in his fifty-second year, dressed in the habit of his order, resting his left hand on a ponderous folio, and holding a pen in his right. His features are very benevolent, the nose inclining to aquiline; the eyes clear and penetrating; the mouth firm, with deep lines at the angles; and knitted brows, so characteristic of those who think much, and give the brain little rest. As for the head, like that of Wadding, it is large, dome-like, and, with the exception of a few scattered hairs above the temples, bald; in a word, such a one as denotes a man of great intellect, and indomitable energy.


[1] “Writers of Ireland.”