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Franciscan Faith: Sacred metalwork in Ireland, 1600 - 1750

The Franciscan Order was established in Ireland in the first half of the 13th Century...

This exhibition was planned and prepared to coincide with the 400th anniversary of the founding, in 1607, of the illustrious Franciscan college at Louvain in what was then the Spanish Netherlands, and now Belgium. Its purpose is to note and commemorate the work of the Franciscan Order in Ireland during the period in question. It includes religious silver and other material from several of the Franciscan houses, displayed together for the first time. Indeed, many of the pieces have never been publicly exhibited previously. The exhibition opened in Collins Barracks, in early November 2007 and is still on display today.

Before examining the actual content of the exhibition it is necessary to look briefly at the historical context. The Franciscan Order was established in Ireland in the first half of the 13th Century. It spread quickly, particularly in those parts of Ireland controlled by the Normans. The Franciscans experienced for a long time the same tensions between Irish and Norman as existed in other orders and the ecclesiastical establishment in general. By the middle of the 15th Century, however, the Irish element had become dominant. The order played a major part in opposing the Reformation in Ireland and suffered accordingly, many of its houses being suppressed and its members dispersed. They continued to serve their communities through the periodic persecutions of the 17th and early 18th Centuries and continued to be supported and patronised by the Catholic landed class until it was virtually wiped out by confiscation and plantation.

The Franciscans also played a highly significant role in the provision of educational facilities for Irish Catholics in Europe. They set up the Irish College at Louvain in 1607 and St Isidores, Rome, in 1625. These were followed by several other colleges across Europe, including Paris and Prague. The great driving force behind this movement was Luke Wadding, the scholar and historian. The Franciscan colleges not only prepared and educated people for the religious life but also played an important part in preserving Irish language, history and culture, which were under extreme pressure in Ireland at this time.

The exhibition traces the history of the Franciscans and their houses during the turbulent period of the 17th Century and the penal laws of the early 18th Century. It does so in the main through the medium of religious silver, the chalices, monstrances, processional crosses and other religious items that were protected and revered amid the upheavals and uncertainty of the time. The quantity of religious silver that has survived is considerable and the pieces selected for exhibition are but a representative sample of the extant material. One of the earliest and most important exhibits is a processional cross, c. 1500 AD, from Multyfarnham in Co. Westmeath, one of the most important Franciscan friaries. The beautiful Malachy O’Queely chalice, from the same house and dated 1640, is also part of the exhibition. O’Queally, Archbishop of Tuam was killed in 1645, during a skirmish with Scots Covenanter forces in Sligo. There are also chalices and monstrances from Franciscan houses in Clonmel, Galway, Limerick, Dublin, Rossnowlagh and Athlone, and a beautiful ciborium from Cork dated 1614. Probably the most impressive piece is the Boetius Egan chalice, made for the Bishop of Elphin in 1634.

As is usually the case with Roman Catholic religious silver from this period, the majority of those chalices are not hall-marked but are inscribed with the name of the benefactor and the date. In some cases they are noted as being ‘for the use of’ a particular friary, church or pastor. They are therefore useful sources of information, historical documents in a sense, and have a significance beyond their religious or stylistic importance.

Not all the objects are silver. Several friaries and houses hold pewter chalices, many of them from the early 18th Century, emphasising the poverty of the Franciscans and indeed other Roman Catholic religious orders in the grim period after the Williamite War.

The exhibition helps to give us a glimpse into a shadowy world where the relationship between Catholic religious orders and the state varied, not only from decade to decade but from county to county. In the case of the Franciscans, it helps to throw some light on the geographical spread and religious activities of one of the most determined and resilient of the Catholic religious orders. Most importantly, the exhibition brings together for the public, albeit temporarily, a body of material that has until now been dispersed and largely hidden away from public view.