The Franciscans in Donegal


On the Occasion of the Golden Jubilee of the Franciscans in Rossnowlagh, this piece was compiled by:

Fr Liam Costello OFM
Fr. Philip Deane OFM
and Siobhan Keating


  1. Being Called - 1474

  2. Founding of Friary in Donegal

  3. Troubled Times

  4. Persecution

  5. The Four Masters

  6. Lough Derg

  7. Traditions

  8. Being Called - 1946



St. Francis of Assisi died in 1226 and was canonized in 1228. By that time, or within a few years at most, Franciscan friars were in Ireland. It has been remarked that St. Francis and the Franciscan spirit quickly became popular here. Dedication to the gospel, penance, respect for creation, harmonious relations with the whole family of creatures; all these touched a chord in the Irish psyche, for these were characteristics of the native Irish saints too, whose lives were remembered and their names invoked in every townland in the country.

In Donegal there are local associations with many saints such as Columba, Eunan, Conall, Ernan; and a tradition of religious life in community. Just down the road from the present Franciscan friary is the ancient church of St. Barron, from which the parish of Ballyshannon (Kilbarron) takes its name; while in the other direction it is but a short distance to the site of the great monastery of Drumhome, founded by St. Ernan, which gives its name to the present parish of Ballintra. Benedictine monasticism flourished in the same locality, with the great Cistercian Abbey of Assaroe in Ballyshannon.

We mark the coming of friars of our order to make a foundation here in Donegal Town in 1474. It is interesting, however, to note that a Franciscan bishop was appointed to the Diocese of Raphoe in the year 1261, an Italian, though within a few years he resigned. Moreover, it is clear that communities of the Third Order of St. Francis (Third Order Regular) e.g. in Inver and in Magherabeg on the outskirts of Donegal Town, were already well- established within the diocese when the Friars Minor came, or shortly thereafter.

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It was in 1474, so the story goes, that Nuala O'Connor, mother of Aodh Rua O'Donnell and sister of Con O'Connor of Offaly, went in person to the Franciscan Chapter being held at Ross Friary, near Headford, Co. Galway, and appealed to the friars to open a house in Donegal. They explained their difficulty in taking on any new commitments just then. She persisted as she was familiar with the friary of Killeigh, Co. Offaly, founded by her family, and had admired the work of the friars. The friars eventually agreed to come to Donegal, and the building of the friary was almost complete when Nuala died.

Aodh Rua was married to Nuala O'Brien from Ennis. Her family founded the Franciscan Friary at Ennis and she also proved to be a friend and benefactor of the new community at Donegal. The friars were very well supported.

The friary was a large building with a fishing weir and indeed the friars could catch salmon from the infirmary window. In l488 a Franciscan Provincial Chapter was held there. Their numbers increased, with many vocations, and they even sent sixteen friars to introduce the Observant reform in the friary of Carrickfergus, and another group to found a new friary at Dromahaire. The O'Donnells also used the friary for some of their important meetings, and, because of their power and wealth, the Donegal fraternity and the friary flourished. In 1530 friars came from every part of the country to attend a second Provincial Chapter.

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This scene changed with the growing power of England in Ireland, and in 1588 an English army pillaged the monastery and killed the Guardian, Fr. Tadhg O'Boyle. English soldiers then garrisoned the place and the friars had to hide in the woods and the hills. O'Donnell became weak and finally only retained the castles of Donegal and Ballyshannon.

In 1592 Red Hugh O'Donnell escaped from Dublin Castle and returned to Tir Conaill. With Spanish help he was able to restore the friary in 1600 and once again it was in a flourishing condition. There were forty friars in residence.

However, among the state papers at this time was a letter from Captain Thomas Lee to James Blake making detailed suggestions as to how he could poison Red Hugh O'Donnell in the friary at Donegal. James Blake subsequently went to Spain to poison Red Hugh. On the death of Red Hugh, Rory, his brother, succeeded him. However, Sir Oliver Lambert of Connaught in many raids weakened him, and, on one occasion in 1601, captured the vestments and valuables of Donegal. He turned the chalices into drinking cups.

The Flight of the Earls of Tyrone and Tir Conaill in 1607 put an end to all hopes of continuing a Franciscan community in the town of Donegal. English and Scottish Protestant planters swarmed into the county. The friary was allotted as a residence to the Protestant Bishop of Raphoe, hut with the reservation of some convenient rooms for a school and a schoolmaster. It appeared to be the end of a golden age for the Franciscan monastery in Donegal. The friary subsequently changed hands a few times, and some of the stones were used to build a castle for the planters.

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The friars now lived in a little thatched cabin, but even this humble abode did not escape the diabolical work of the invader, for in 1626, it was raided and Fr. Maurice Dunleavy OFM. was taken captive. During this time many Franciscans were killed and many more imprisoned. Despite everything the Friars remained in Donegal and maintained a community in certain places of refuge in the county. In 1609 some went for safety to Lough Eske area, to the place known as the Friary. In time they built for themselves a fairly large friary there and ministered to the people of Killymard and Tawnawilly. In a letter dated 25th September 1671, St. Oliver Plunkett refers to his visit to the Franciscan friary. He records that in the community there were 18 friars, and he adds that "it is the best formed convent that I have ever seen. They have choir and sleeping quarters kept very much in accordance with the regulations of a formed house. Those among them outstanding for learning and good sense are the Guardian, Fr. Stephen Comgall, and Fr. Anthony Doherty, who was Provincial". He mentions too that Sir George Brooke, the landlord of Donegal, does not permit Franciscans to live in Donegal, where they had "a very famous convent". It is also fairly certain that the Franciscans settled for some years somewhere on the banks of the River Drowes that flows from Lough Melvin in Co. Leitrim. They had other outstations in Dromahaire and near Glenties. Between 1607 and 1740 the community did provide great service as individual friars helping out in parochial churches. As late as 1825 isolated friars were to be met in remote parts of the diocese.

Through long-sustained persecution, through penury and lack of suitable recruits they found it impossible to hold together as a community, even in a secluded place of refuge. The community in regular residence was gradually reduced to The final end of the community would have occurred in the 1740's, though the title of Guardian of Donegal Friary was still used in the Irish Province into the second half of the l9th century. This was done so that they could re-establish the Friary when and if an opportunity arose. At a Chapter held in Dublin in 1873, it was decided to discontinue this appointment.

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With the destruction of the abbey in Donegal Town in 1601 it would seem that the glorious era of the Franciscans in the county was over. However this was not the case. It has to be admitted that it was during the unsettled period of hopes and fears that the friars of the Donegal convent acted as hosts to the Four Masters, Brother Michael O'Clery, Cucoigriche O'Clery, rearfeasa O'Mulconry and Cucoigriche O'Duignan and their helpers, Conaire O'Clery who also worked just as hard on the annals, and Maurice O'Mulconry. The friary at this time must have had one of the most precious manuscript collections in Ireland. Br. Michael O'Clery in compiling texts he had previously copied in different parts of the country says he made them "by the River Drowes", and he used this formula frequently, in 1627, 1628, 1629 and 1630. He also uses the formula "in the convent of the friars of Donegal", and, in a colophon bearing the date 27th February 1630, he tells us the copy was made "in the convent of Donegal by the River Drowes". This is conclusive proof that the house of the friars of Donegal around the period 1627 - 1630 was somewhere along that short river that flows from Lough Melvin into the sea. From the beginning of 1631 onwards Michael O'Clery ceased to make any references to the Drowes in his colophons. From 1633 to 1636 we find in his colophons "in the convent of Donegal" rather than "by the Drowes".

It seems likely that the friars had a few places of refuge, although among the reports of St. Oliver Plunkett in the Congregation de Propaganda Fide in Rome, the letter to the Internuncio at Brussels just quoted would suggest that one of the most flourishing friaries in the country in 1671 was in Donegal. There was a novitiate there at the time and, in another report, speaking of the friary "near Donegal" he praises the regular observance of the friars, their attendance at office and choir. While the number of novitiates was reduced in the country in 1687, Donegal remained as one of the four novitiate houses for the Province of Ulster.

In 1697 when the Royal proclamation ordered all Catholic dignitaries out of the country, the friars of Donegal as in other friaries took an inventory of their possessions and handed them to the people around in case they should return. Whether the refuge at Lough Eske or at Rosfriar, Co. Leitrim by the Drowes was the location of the well-formed community, things began to disintegrate from the beginning of the eighteenth century. We have a definite reference to their being settled at Barnesmore in October, 1641. The exact year of transfer is unknown. If it was in the early thirties, then the Lough Eske area can claim the writing of the Annals of the Four Masters.

Fr. Donagh Mooney, writing in 1617, says that many eminent men came from the Donegal Friary.

In February 1612, all Ireland was shocked to learn that the Bishop of Down and Connor, Cornelius O'Devenny, then over eighty years of age, had been dragged from his prison in Dublin and hanged, drawn and quartered. He had been a member of the Donegal community. His name features among the list of Irish Martyrs beatified recently.

Midway through the nineteenth century Donegal saw the last of the Franciscans, though their memory lived on in its folklore, its place-names and in the hearts of its people; but the link had not been broken, and in 1946 the friars were to return to Donegal.

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In 1494 an Augustinian Canon Regular reported unfavourably regarding the cave at Lough Derg and the pilgrimage. By the beginning of the seventeenth century the Canons Regular became almost extinct and in 1631 it would appear the Franciscans were allowed to minister at Lough Derg. Hugh O'Reilly, Archbishop of Armagh, wrote to the Apostolic See in 1631 asking for the Franciscans to be approved for this work. From 1631 to circa 1780 they continued in this ministry. By the beginning of the nineteenth century, us stated, the friars ceased to be present in the diocese of Raphoe.

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Strong evidence of the persistent memory of the Franciscan presence in the area is still to be found to- day. We find the Four Master remembered - a large monument dedicated to them stands in the centre of the Diamond in Donegal Town, and there is another monument to them at the bridge at Bundrowes, Co. Leitrim. Near Lough Eske there is a townland named Friary, a place where the friars fled for refuge after the destruction of the abbey and where they served the people throughout most of the Penal Days. Near this place is an old graveyard called Roisin where, according to tradition, some of the friars were buried. From this area on the shores of Lough Eske, a route can be followed, (Casan na mBrathar), very dangerous in places, across the rugged hills and which eventually leads to Glenties. This served as an escape way for the friars. There is a Baile na mBrathar near Donegal Town and on the main Donegal-Stranorlar road there is a bush called Friar's Bush which is said to commemorate the killing of a friar. Many buildings and shops have the "Four Masters" as their titles and there are street names such as O'Duigeanain Avenue, O'Cleirigh Avenue and Maolchonaire Avenue.

In Leitrim, near Ros na mBrathair - Rosfriar - on Lough Melvin is an island called Inis Caoin on which it is said there was a friary. On the north west side of it, there an area of ground called Friars' Garden. Garroidh na mBrathair is a place often referred to as the Friary. The first place of refuge in Leitrim was at Tullaghan, then they moved on to a place of greater security up the River Drowes near the Friars' Well. They had a church on Inish Temple on Lough Melvin and cultivated crops on Inishkeen. The Passway onto the island is known as The Friars' Pass.

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The past glories of the Franciscans in Donegal were very much in the minds of the people on the occasion of the Tercentary Celebrations in honour of Brother Michael O'Cleary OFM. which were held in the Gresham Hotel in Dublin on June 24th, 1944. Bishop MeNeely, who was Patron of the Tercentenary Celebrations, attended, and around this time he expressed a wish that the friars should return to the Diocese of Raphoe. A few places in South Donegal were considered as possible sites for the friary but the place chosen was Rossnowlagh probably because of its beautiful location beside the sea and, also, because of its accessibility by train at that time. In April, 1946, the "Sheil House", property of "The Sheil Trust" was bought and the Franciscans had a foundation in Donegal once again.

The friars arrived in Rossnowlagh in July, 1946 and the first little Church, made from two army huts, was blessed by Monsignor McGinley on July 22nd, 1946. On August 3rd, 1946, Very Rev. Fr. Camillus Courtney OFM. was appointed first superior of the new Franciscan community in Rossnowlagh.

Eventually the present site of the friary was obtained and, on April 23rd. 1950, the cutting of the first sod of the Church foundation took place. October 8th, 1950 is another very important day in the history of Franciscan Rossnowlagh, for on that day Monsignor McGinley blessed the foundation Stone of the new Church. The blessing and dedication of the church took place on 29th June, 1952. Present for this great occasion were President Sean T. O'Ceallaigh, Mr. Eamonn De Valera, Taoiseach, Dr. McNeely, Bishop of Raphoe and Fr. Hubert Quinn OFM., Provincial.

The friars to whom God has given the grace of working should work in a spirit of faith and devotion and avoid idleness, which is the enemy of the soul, without however extinguishing the spirit of prayer and devotion, to which every temporal consideration must be subordinate. Second Rule of St. Francis (5th. Chapter).

In establishing a friary at Rossnowlagh it was the aim of the Franciscans to provide a place where people could come to pray and to find peace. Down through the years the whole complex has been developed with this in mind, and the many beautiful shrines and gardens were built and cultivated, not merely for decorative purposes but to aid people to find the peace of God and the God of peace in the beauty of this place. Just as each of the, various features of the grounds plays its own part in influencing visitors, so, many friars and others over the years have contributed to the ethos and spiritual influence that is often experienced here now.

Due to the situation in the north and the location so close to the border, the Irish Province decided in 1990 to designate the Rossnowlagh community for a special ministry of Peace and Reconciliation, as St. Francis was the instrument of Peace and Reconciliation where there was conflict, brokenness, vulnerability, fear or rejection. Most prominent among the ministries here is the constant availability of friars for reconciliation, counselling and prayer. In the celebration of liturgy here reconciliation and healing are constant themes. For those who feel a need for a more extended stay, retreats have been organised, some directed by members of the community and some by others. To accommodate such retreats, and for those seeking peace and quiet, La Verna house has been built on the hill opposite the friary church. Friars from the Rossnowlagh community have extended their contacts by assisting in various parishes, especially in south Donegal, celebrating Masses, giving talks and other spiritual services. The normal Franciscan devotions such as the Tuesday St. Anthony Novena are also popular in Rossnowlagh. The Franciscan charism has also spread among the laity; the Secular Franciscan Order (Third Order) has been established here from the earliest years, and there are groups of members in Rossnowlagh, Ballyshannon, Donegal Town, Belleek and Manorhamilton. Ecumenical co-operation has become a cherished tradition of the friars: God's Agenda is a monthly inter- denominational meeting for Bible-sharing and prayer; our New Year service and Songs of Praise, celebrated during the Church Unity Octave in January, are special opportunities for Christians of different traditions to come together; in September each year a seminar is organised which draws together a rich diversity of people from north and south to explore themes of peace and reconciliation. The friars have also been associated with cultural events, fostering and encouraging local talent through the annual Feis na gCeithre Maistir, drama in Irish and in English; music, traditional and classical.

Whether we look back on more than 500 years of the Franciscan history in Donegal, or on the past SO years, we are grateful to God for what He has made possible. And yet we must also humbly say with St. Francis:

"My brothers, we must begin to serve our Lord and God. Until now we have done very little. " (St. Bonaventure `Major Life of St. Francis' 14:1)

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