Clonmel Friary enters new era with restoration of the tower

700 years of history unveiled

Clonmel Friary

Fr. John Harty and Fr. Tom Russell (seated) and Fr. Larry Mulligan (back) were joined by The Friary staff in admiring the restored tower wall at the church in Abbey Street, Clonmel.

The Franciscan Church (The Abbey of St. Francis) has always had a special place in the hearts of the people of Clonmel.

Generations and generations of citizens have gone to the church in Abbey Street over a period of 700 years, in good times and bad, in times of personal joys and sorrows.

They found there a place of tranquility and prayer, a place of hope and endurance.

The very fabric of the building itself reflects that hope and endurance. It has survived wars and suppression, persecution, social and political changes.

The modest bell-tower is a metaphor for that survival. It is, with sections of the town walls, the oldest building in the town, built by Clonmel masons back in medieval times.

Bell Tower

The Franciscans have been in Clonmel since 1269, probably at the invitation of the then Lord of the Manor, Otho de Grandison. They were given a patch of land equivalent to the area now bordered by the river, Dowd’s Lane, Mitchel Street and Sarsfield Street.

Within this space they built a church and some domestic structures. In time, they acquired a fish-pool on the river and a small area of land at Inchnambraher, in the parish of Killaloan, presumably for the growing of vegetables.

The bell-tower, which is similar to almost all the towers in the other Franciscan abbeys in Ireland, stood in the centre of a long narrow church, of which the present northern aisle, the original choir, with its Gothic windows, is the only survivor.

The nave extended into the current car park towards Sarsfield Street. It, then in a ruinous state, was demolished in 1789, when the town entered a period of prosperity and development, at which time the modern Abbey Street and Bank/Friary Lanes were opened.

Unlike many of the monastic Orders of the time, who favoured the isolation of the countryside in which to build their monasteries, the Franciscans chose centres of population for their ministry.

They gave that ministry to the people of Clonmel, without interruption, from the 13th to the 16th century, and then all changed on 8th March 1540 when an inquisition was held in the town and the abbey was suppressed, and the Friars banished. The property was divided in two and sold to the Sovereign and Commonalty of Clonmel (the equivalent of the Mayor and Corporation) and to the 9th Earl of Ormond.

But the Friars, though officially banished, did not disappear from Clonmel. A few, sometimes only one or two, stayed in or around the town. They were subject to levels of persecution, depending on the implementation of various punitive laws, and at least one was martyred.

Nevertheless they endured, a fact that became so embedded in the psyche of older Clonmel citizens that, even into the early decades of the last century, they would say: “The Friars Never Left Us.”

Sections of the old abbey grounds became the burial places for the people of the town who, again according to tradition, would gather there on Sundays to pray.

The buildings were adapted for various purposes, residences, stores, business. But all changed again when Oliver Cromwell came to town in 1650, and in the subsequent Cromwellian decades, with the banishment of the prosperous, property-owning Anglo Norman Catholic citizens, the Old Order passed away, and the character of abbey buildings was changed forever with the conversion of the area into the Fort of Clonmel.

The bell-tower, which once called citizens to worship, now became a military fortress. A Friar or two still survived in, and found shelter somewhere “around” Clonmel.

But with the Restoration of Charles II, and some consequent relaxation in the suppressive laws, the Friars came back again, not quite within the walls, but not far from the important West Gate, in a “thatched chapel” in Irishtown. The choir of the abbey church (the present north aisle) was repaired and became a Dissenters’ chapel.

In 1789 the Dissenters moved to their new building in Nelson Street (now the site of the South Tipp Arts Centre).

Workers on the restoration

Above: Anthony Morris, Martin Morris and Barry Cloona Morris Construction

The passing of the Catholic Relief Act a few years before (in 1782) brought some freedom to Catholics, and the few Friars in Irishtown gradually obtained access to their old and now ruinous home, where the choir was opened in 1828.

It is recorded that citizens, so long excluded from worship, were so happy that “In spite of low walls, damp floors, over-crowded benches and wretched approaches, Sunday after Sunday it was full to over-flowing and in the churchyard in all weathers were to be seen a crowd of worshippers who could not gain access to the interior.”

The re-building of the abbey extended over many decades and involved the re-design of the old church and the rescue of some of the very few original monumental and architectural features that remained, including the tower, which reverted from its fortress status into its function as a bell-tower, where a new bell was installed in 1878.

And so we come to modern times when, a few months ago, a chunk of lime-render plaster fell from the east wall of the tower, in an area where the original stonework had been covered in the 19th century restoration.

It transpired that considerable work was necessary to repair the damage caused by dampness. Professional advice was sought from Margaret Quinlan, the Clonmel-born architect who is an expert in the restoration of historic buildings. The repair and conservation work has now been completed by Morris Construction. The expenses involved were sizeable but only one appeal for funds was necessary, to which citizens generously responded.

The tower, which has stood tall in Clonmel for nearly 700 years, is now set on yet another phase of its history. Generations of the town’s citizens have lived in its shadow, sometimes through turbulent and dangerous times.

How often they must have wished for those miracles for which that most beloved of all saints, Francis of Assisi, prayed: the blessing of turning injury into pardon, despair into hope, and darkness into light.