Franciscan Friary, Killarney

The Dawning of Better Days

Towards the second half of the 1700's there came an easing of the Penal Laws. The English Government felt more secure in their grip on Ireland. Priests were allowed to operate more openly so the friars came down from their remote dwellings to settle on the banks of the Flesk river, to the townland of Faughbawn ( ca. 1760) .Among them was the Guardian of Muckross, Fr. Anthony Daly.

In 1780, the friars settled in the town of Killarney itself. They set up a school for boys at the back of what is now Scott's Hotel. This institution may have given College Street its name.

It was a humble and unpretentious kind of place, but nothing else was possible. It served to educate boys from the various parts of the county, many of whom became secular priests in the diocese of Kerry.

Early in the 1840's, the school was burned down accidentally. It had served its purpose well. The superior, a Dingle man, Fr. James Fitzgerald, moved the location of the school to the end of New Street beside the Cathedral gate. This took place in 1844.

Fr. James was the last of the Muckross friars and was very conscious of his roots. Each year he conducted ceremonies at the old Abbey on a very special Franciscan feast, that of Our Lady of the Angels of the Portiuncula, 2nd August. (The Portiuncula, or 'little portion', is a small church in Assisi which was particularly beloved of St Francis). Many of the faithful attended this ceremony, coming from as far away as Dingle, on foot and fasting. Fr James eventually retired to Athlone where he died in 1880.

New Beginning

Because of prolonged oppression the strict observance of the Franciscan Rule underwent great strain. From their very earliest years, young Franciscans learned to live alone. Community observance did not and could not apply. Religious training and education suffered. Personnel decreased. By the end of the l8th century the Irish Franciscan Province was at a low ebb.

The early 19th century brought a breathing space, with Catholic Emancipation. However, many still felt within themselves the caution born of former times and continued to live a mitigated form of Franciscan life.

In Rome, the Minister General eventually became concerned by this slow return to regular observance and sought to re-establish a more strict form of life. With this in view he sent a Belgian friar, Fr. Bernard Van Loo, as Visitator General to Ireland in September, 1857.

Little enthusiasm was shown by the Irish friars towards Fr. Van Loo's mission. They were quite firmly of the opinion that the political climate rendered pure observance of the Rule impossible. Fr. Van Loo was not convinced and during his Canonical Visitation he threatened to have Belgian Franciscans sent over to prove his point. Providence was to work in his favour!

Belgian Friars

In 1858 a certain Mr Ram of Ramsfort near Gorey, County Wexford, offered land for the establishment of a religious order in his neighbourhood. His application to the Congregation for the Propagation of the Faith in Rome was referred to the Belgian Franciscans. The Provincial of that Province, Fr. Archangelus Vendricks, to the delight of Fr. Bernard Van Loo, the former Visitator, agreed to send some friars to Ireland. The reform of the Irish Franciscan Province by example and by persuasion had begun.

Three Belgian friars arrived in Gorey without ceremony on the 25th October, 1858: Fathers Victor Douterluigne and Willibrord Van den Neucker and Brother Lambert Heltzen. Fr. Victor was appointed superior of this new residence, which was entitled St Mary of the Angels. The small community was joined a year later by Fr. Patrick Verherstraeten, a young priest just four years ordained.

Although dedicated and eager, their stay in Gorey was not very productive. While welcomed by the Bishop of Ferns, Dr Furlong, and given temporary faculties in the diocese, it soon became clear that no permission would be granted to open a public church in Gorey. This was a severe set-back, as a public church was essential to their plan for reform. If they were hidden away, they felt little could be achieved.

By early 1860, it was apparent to the Belgians that a foundation would have to be made elsewhere. This decision was made easier by an invitation from the Bishop of Kerry, Dr David Moriarty, to erect a friary in Killarney. Negotiations were begun without delay and completed on the 7th June, 1860.

The Belgian friars left Gorey as quietly as they had come and made their way to Killarney, arriving on the 12th July, 1860, led by their new superior Fr. Patrick Verherstraeten. The other members of the little community were Fr. Eustace Princen, Fr. Victor Douterluinge and Brother Lambert Heltzen. Their first lodgings were beside the Church of Ireland at Kenmare Place and they remained there until December of that year. Meanwhile, the Bishop, Dr. Moriarty, was delighted at the arrival of the friars. In a letter to the Rector of the Irish College in Rome, Dr. Kirby, he delivered himself of one of his more memorable quotes: "We have the happiness of getting a foundation here of true and real Franciscans... Now they must build a monastery, and it must be a facsimile of Muckross to show the faithful and the faithless that nothing dies in the Catholic Church, or dies only to live again”. When the new Friary was built, it was to bear some physical similarity to the old Friary of Muckross. Even today, many visitors looking at it from the outside think it is an old medieval building refurbished in the last century.

By December of 1860, the friars had left Kenmare Place and moved into an old house and school owned by the Presentation Brothers in College Street, where the Arbutus Hotel now stands. This school was converted into a small chapel. It is from here that the friars ministered for the next several years until a permanent home was finally acquired.

At last, a suitable site was found for their Friary and Cnocan na gCaorach or Fair Hill. In October 1863 Fr. Patrick purchased the site from Richard Murphy for £400 stg., on a lease of 999 years through a Mr Lyons of Tralee.