The Irish Franciscans, 1534-1990

By O'Connor, Thomas | The Catholic Historical Review, January 2011 | Go to article overview

The Irish Franciscans, 1534-1990


O'Connor, Thomas, The Catholic Historical Review


The Irish Franciscans, 1534-1990. Edited by Edel Bhreathnach; Joseph MacMahon, O.F.M.; and John McCafferty. (Dublin: Four Courts Press. Distrib. in the United States by ISBS, Portland, OR. 2009. Pp. xviii, 413. euro27,00; $39.95 paperback ISBN 978-1-846-82210-0.)

This volume, intended to commemorate the 800th anniversary of the foundation of the Franciscan Order, was conceived and produced by the Franciscan Province of Ireland in partnership with the Mícheál Ó Cléirigh Institute in University College Dublin. Although described in the foreword as a "complete history of the Irish Franciscans," it is, in fact, something at once more modest and representative of the current state of research on the Irish Franciscans: a set of essays in two parts, the first providing a narrative overview of the Irish Franciscans since 1534, the second a number of more technical essays on specific aspects of the Irish Franciscan legacy, ranging from material culture to foreign missions.

The essays authored by Franciscan historians, especially the three by Patrick Conlan, O.F.M. (his offering on "Reforming and seeking an identity, 1829-1918," being, perhaps, the most important in the book), are distinguished by a concern to identify a purpose distinctive to the Franciscans in Ireland and by the assumption that their role and identity were clearer at some times than at others. Although the non-Franciscan contributors to the volume are less ostensibly exercised by these concerns, their very titles (Mary Daly's "A second golden age: The Irish Franciscans, 1918-63"; Bernadette Cunningham's and Pádraig Ó Rian's "The Louvain achievement I and ?"; and M. W F. Stone's "The theological and philosophical accomplishments of the Irish Franciscans") seem to assume a similar temporally calibrated understanding of the Franciscan experience in Ireland and its diaspora.These concerns, whether apparent or tacit, would probably have been alleviated by the consideration of the international Franciscan phenomenon and Ireland's place within it, and also by comparisons between the Irish and other geographically peripheral provinces. This would probably reveal that the Irish were not really so special after all and that identity problems are by no means a uniquely Celtic appanage.

The first section of the collection takes the reader from the Reformation to the 1990s.The essays by CoIm Lennon, Raymond Gillespie, and Mary Ann Lyons span the centuries of Reformation and religious wars. There are useful summaries of recent and current research that set the Franciscans firmly in their context in Irish history. Prima facie, Gillespie's description of Archbishop Oliver Plunkett's 1681 execution as the removal of an "important flash point" (p. 71) might appear somewhat glib, even partisan, but it is set in the context of the secular-regular tensions of the early-modern period that so blighted ecclesiastical politics and pastoral provision, state persecution notwithstanding. The secular-regular nexus certainly needs sustained attention and would greatly benefit from more complete statistical representation if some doctoral students could be persuaded to put their shoulders to the wheel. Gillespie's generational change model (p. 45) works well for the seventeenth century, tying periods to personalities without losing sight of the broad sweep. The general absence in this section of an international context, in the sense of awareness of and constant reference to the Irish province's inclusion in the international Franciscan movement and the universal Church, weakens causal explanations for the order's success or failure, expansion or contraction in any given period. Joseph MacMahon explains the eclipse of the order in the eighteenth "silent" century in terms of falling numbers, the spirit of the age, indiscipline and insubordination (pp. 81-84) but does not test these with any convincing international comparisons. Patrick Conlan gives the international context more attention on page 102 and goes to the heart of the issues pitting the declining nineteenth-century Irish province against externally inspired reform efforts. …

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