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Edel Bhreatnach, Joseph MacMahon, OFM, and John McCafferty (eds), The Irish Franciscans 1534-1990.

Edel Bhreatnach, Joseph MacMahon, OFM, and John McCafferty (eds), The Irish Franciscans, 1534-1990 (Dublin: Four Courts Press, 2009, 411 pp., 60.00 [euro] hardback, 29.95 [euro] paperback).

About two-thirds of the essays presented here examine the early modern period; the remainder cover the penal era and the nineteenth and twentieth centuries. The collection opens in 1534, thereby building on the solid foundation laid by Colman O Clabaigh in The Franciscans in Ireland, 1400-1534: from Reform to Reformation (2002). From the start of the Reformation in these islands, the friars took a consistently defiant stance against the state's interventions. The evolution of the Franciscan profile down to the early seventeenth century is treated in two essays, one outlining the Irish setting, and the other (in Irish) providing a neat exercise in 'New British history', whereby Franciscan developments in Ireland are located within a three-kingdom perspective; we learn of the prominent role accorded the friars by several generations of the early Tudors, and the ineffectual resistance of the friars to the English Reformation in the 1530s. The Gaelic world embracing Ulster and Scotland was the setting for the translation of John Knox's book of prayer (the first book printed in Irish, published in 1567), a work designed for use in Ulster as well as Scotland; in it the friars were noted as the main obstacle to the advance of reformed religion. Political alliances in the 1560s, between the O'Donnells of Donegal and the Calvinist Campbells, Earls of Argyll, hinted at possibilities for the success of the reformed faith in Ulster. In this survey of the century preceding the opening in 1607 of St Anthony's College, Louvain, the author also adduces the influence of ethnic and cultural tensions in the formation of the famed college. Its founder, Flaithri O Maolchonaire, OFM, while a student at the Jesuit-run Irish college of Salamanca, felt that the fathers were neglecting those of Gaelic background, like himself. The new college, by contrast, was to have a clear focus on preparing young friars for the mission to the majority Irish-speakers in Ireland.

This collection marks a considerable advance on our appreciation of the broad Franciscan presence in early modern Ireland and its diaspora. A series of detailed, sharply focused studies, often rooted in original research in materials in several languages, offers fresh insights which cumulatively serve further to delineate the Irish Franciscan profile. A study of the surviving Franciscan chalices from the first half of the seventeenth century illustrates a pattern of lay patronage, embracing the social elite of the towns, and the landed gentry; networks of metalworking and styles of devotion are illuminated, linking the Catholic community in the port towns with trends in the Spanish Netherlands and the English Catholic community. Thus technical exposition is anchored in the broader social and devotional world of the communities which the friars served. The volume opens with a survey of sixteenth-century developments, delineating the slow process of official dissolution of the convents, which varied with the extent of royal rule, and highlighting the sometimes hidden nature of Franciscan survival. The evolution of the group profile of the friars in Ireland over the seventeenth century provides a helpful overarching context, showing a steady growth down to the Cromwellian dispersal which left the friars, as it left the Irish Church in general, a mere shadow of their former selves. Thereafter a steady increase ensued, until the further disruption of the 1697 Act exiling clergy in religious orders. A series of maps aids in presenting these trends. Based on the archives of their order, an essay on the Poor Clare nuns breaks new ground in tracing the origins and vicissitudes of this group of women, from the Spanish Netherlands to pre-1641 foundations in Dublin and the Athlone area, and their penal era survival in the city of Galway, before concluding with a survey of modern developments; a statistical chart giving the numbers professed by decade for the period 1701-1870 accompanies the text. The extant ruins of late medieval and early modern friaries provide the theme of another original, detailed and technical study, integrated into the body of architectural studies covering both England and Ireland. This essay is richly complemented by a series of colour photos (which also includes the chalices), a considerable addition to the text.

The establishment of an Irish Franciscan network of Continental colleges, and the presence of the Irish friars in the intellectual world of seventeenth and eighteenth-century Europe, are treated in several essays. The writings of these men, largely dating to the seventeenth century--historical, hagiographical, philosophical, theological and pastoral--are beginning to receive scholarly attention. While recent studies have illuminated the historical and pastoral works, the contribution to the revival of Scotism in European philosophy and theology has been little explored. One essay serves to highlight this neglected area, contextualising it within scholarship on this major trend of early modern thought.

Essays on the modern era (including one covering the century prior to Catholic Emancipation) are more largely chronological in scope, outlining the internal development of the order as it emerged from the restrictions of the penal era and moved towards the expansion associated with the early decades of independent Ireland. There was a dramatic evolution, from a small group living and ministering close to the model of secular clergy to a large group increasingly (if sometimes reluctantly) shaped by the movement for Franciscan reform emanating from Belgium and Germany from the mid-nineteenth century. The diversity within the Franciscan movement in this era is addressed: Poor Clare nuns, largely contemplative, but from whom an active strand emerged, involved in the education of the poor; Franciscan tertiaries, a lay group which numbered 30,000 by 1940, responsible for one of the first organised Knock pilgrimages, in 1937, and from whom in the nineteenth century there emerged a group of Franciscan brothers involved in education in the west of Ireland; and the brown-robed friars, with a range of pastoral, educational and cultural engagements, not least a major contribution from the late 1920s to Irish historical scholarship. Missionary commitments flourished in the mid-twentieth century, in Australia, China, South Africa, Zimbabwe and Central America. It would be interesting to examine what influence these involvements in often turbulent and violent situations exercised on Irish life. A link is posited (p. 285) between the presence of Irish Franciscans in Central America in the 1970s and 1980s and the emergence of human rights as an issue in Irish foreign policy. Thus the influence of liberation theology on the Church in Ireland is one of many areas raised in the collection which points to the need for continuing research.

The various contributions indicate the range of material, printed, in manuscript, in the Franciscan archival heritage, and point to possibilities in drawing on this resource for further explorations in Irish social, religious, cultural, educational and intellectual history. These essays afford a solid overview of Franciscan life in Ireland over five centuries, with a helpful glossary to aid readers navigate this particular field.

Brian Mac Cuarta, SJ
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Author:Cuarta, Brian Mac
Publication:Irish Economic and Social History
Article Type:Book review
Date:Dec 1, 2010
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