The Ballad of Fr. William Tirry
On the map of Tipperary you will find Fethard situated some eight miles out from Clonmel. Beside it is Slievenamon-and one may say that the little town is always conscious of 'the Mountain's' presence. Today Fethard might be called a brooding place, and I suppose that like many such towns in Ireland it suffers in many ways from its proximity to a larger, more industrial centre. (There are gains, too, of course. For example, with the motor car Fethard people can easily get to work in Clonmel).
However, Fethard has its long, rich memories and relics of more lively days. It once had its own charter from Edward I, and still preserves part of its ancient defence walls. It received its second charter from the boy-king, Edward VI, Who reigned after his father, Henry VIII, and this was confirmed and extended by James I. It was once, then, a modest power in the land, a garrison town, with its own historic ruins to prove it. In common with all Ireland, it also remembers Cromwell, though it must be said that he spared the town and passed on after what he considered to be an honourable settlement.
But that is not the whole story. Today, Fethard has its Presentation and Patrician schools, its graceful Catholic parish church, and its venerable Protestant one-the latter being once part of a thriving monastery of the Canons Regular of St. Augustine. The remarkable 'flame' tower of this latter church still stands, burning into the sky-and When the evening sun is on it, the stone flames turn golden, and remind one (as I believe they are supposed to) of either Hell fire, or the Holy Spirit. In this vicinity, there also stood the great Castle of the Knights Templar of St. John. -A good portion of which still braves the weather. And also there around the centre of the town, the Canonesses of St. Augustine had their hospital.
And so one comes to the Augustinian Abbey, which also had its hospital, and which lies to the south-east beyond what was the town-wall. This Abbey dates back to 1306. The original church is still in use, and attached to it are the ruins of the remainder of the foundation. (More strictly, the title 'Abbey' should be reserved to places governed by abbots, v.g. the Cistercian Monasteries. But many priories and friaries of medieval times were also given the title. So one has the Black Abbey in Kilkenny, St. Mary's Abbey Ballyhaunis, St. Mary's Abbey, Galway, and so on).
The Augustinian Hermits, or Friars (as distinct from the Canons Regular) first came to Ireland around 1300. For the record, I give the full list of their twenty-two, pre-Reformation foundations-as far as historians can establish. (The dates of some are quite certain, while others are approximate. But even the probable dates are backed by substantial historical data, which places the foundation within a definite period). They are:
Dublin (c. 1280),
To those were later added priories in places like Limerick and Athlone, and for a period the Order also took over some abandoned monasteries. Only two of the original sites are occupied today, i.e. Fethard and Ballyhaunis, but the Irish Augustinians have priories and public churches in most of the above-mentioned places, and a few besides. The full list is: Grantstown (near Clonmines), Callan, Drogheda, Galway, Dungarvan, Limerick, Cork, Abbeyside (Dungarvan), New Ross, Fethard, Ballyhaunis, Dublin (John's Lane, Thomas St.), Orlagh (the Noviciate, Co. Dublin), Ballyboden (House of Philosophy); Rome (with House of Theology and Irish National Church). There is no public church in Abbeyside, but there is a college attached, as there is in New Ross. There are parishes attached to the churches in Galway and Ballyboden, and the Augustinians also run the Meath St. parish in Dublin. From these houses, then, the Augustinians conduct their various apostolates in Ireland. They also have a Mission Territory in Nigeria, where they direct the two dioceses of Yola and Maiduguri.
The Augustinians first came to Ireland with the Normans. At first, then, they were very much part of the invading forces, and so did not move into the strictly Gaelic parts of the country in the south and north and west. Thus at the beginning of their history they were ruled from Norman-England. But inevitably, as time went on, the now Anglo-Irish Augustinians (in keeping with the general trend) began to seek more 'independence'. This resulted in limited 'local government', which was officially granted at a General Chapter of the Order held at Rimini in 1394.
From about 1400 onwards, a bigger change took place, which, as it turned out was mostly responsible for keeping the Order alive in Ireland in later years. Sometime before 1400, a Priory was built at Ardnaree in Co. Sligo, and from then onwards the Augustinians pushed further into the Gaelic parts of Sligo, Mayo and Galway. And so it came about that soon the native element predominated in Ireland. This was officially recognised in 1457 when Hugh O’Malley, the superior of Murrisk (Co. Mayo) was appointed Vicar of the Irish Chapter, by the Father General.
But the Gaelic element came to the fore, not only because it reflected the general Gaelic resurgence the whole country was experiencing in those years, but also because the newly-founded western houses belonged to the Observant Movement, that was spreading through the Order at the time, and that, increasingly, had official Roman backing. This movement looked for a more strict observance of the Rule and Constitutions. Banada, which was founded in 1423 belonged to it, and soon the ideal spread to the other western houses, and indeed to others too. In 1479 these Observant houses received their independence from England.
So, by the eve of the Reformation, it can be said that practically all the Augustinian Houses in Ireland were free from English direction. Most were in a sound religious condition. But the Reformation did come, and with it the scattering of the Augustinians in Leinster and Munster. As there were no houses in the North, the Order depended for survival on priories in the West. As it happened, Dunmore could have been suppressed, but was allowed continue, by a special concession of the Lord Deputy. (This was prompted by Lord Bermingham whose ancestors had founded the House). And for a while the other Connacht houses also remained open, since they were outside the reach of government officials. But by the death of Queen Elizabeth, or the early years of James I, these too had been confiscated-again with the exception of Dunmore.
On paper at least, the Order was now at a low ebb in Ireland, but Dunmore continued as a beacon, and no doubt, all over the country there were some Augustinians on the run. But what is more important still, on the Continent men were rallying to come back to Ireland and revitalise the Order here. And so in 1613 a new era began, when Dermot MacGrath arrived with a mandate to restore the Irish Augustinians.
And so by the death of James I, in 1625, we know that the Order was rapidly organising itself. There is historical evidence that Dunmore was thriving. In 1641, the Prior and some thirty friars did not fear to appear openly in their habits. This was the era of Father Tirry of Fethard. It was also the time of the Confederation of Kilkenny, and so of comparative religious freedom in many parts. The Order now succeeded in getting back some of its lost foundations, depending on their location. It did so in Cork and Fethard, for example. Around this time, too, it got permission to occupy monasteries of the Canons Regular, who were no longer in Ireland. This happened in Limerick in 1632, and later in places like Derry, Killagh, Lorrha (Co. Tipperary) and Holy Island (Lough Rea).
Cromwell and After
And then Cromwell came on his destructive way, and there followed the centuries of religious persecution and suppression, until things eased off at the end of the century before Catholic Emancipation (1829). During those years the Augustinian fortunes again ebbed and flowed. However, we know that the Irish Augustinians survived to found a student house in Rome and build a national church, to send priests (some of whom became bishops) to England, America, India, Newfoundland, Australia, and in our own time to Nigeria, while all the time maintaining the home houses and extending the apostolate.
The Augustinian Friars first came to Fethard in 1306 (or rather their establishment was confirmed by the King on that year).
Already they had been in the town, possibly staying with the Canons Regular, at Holy Trinity. However, a generous man named Walter Mulcote gave them an acre and a half of his land on which they could build their priory and church. For this they received the blessing of Maurice MacCarwell, archbishop of Cashel. However, in the King's interest the grant was brought to court, but the King's pardon was obtained on 22 July (1306) and the friars were confirmed in their foundation. In the same century there were two more royal grants to the priory. And so it grew, and by the time of the suppression it seemed to have been a valuable property. Different accounts enumerate things differently, but the Abbey would seem then to have had a reasonable amount of land outside the town, and some nine acres around the church itself, together with an orchard, two gardens, a cemetery and so on. Today there is still an orchard, a cemetery, and some grounds around the church, together with one field, an unused farmyard, and of course the church and ruins themselves. Across the road there is a temporary priory.
At the time of the Abbey foundation, Fethard was a fairly typical Anglo-Norman town, with its own mayor, who acted as governor. In common with the European towns of the day, it had its own laws and tolls and customs and courts, and its own elected town council. As we have seen, it also had its charters. Now, we have no documentary evidence to guide us through the history of the Abbey from its foundation up to its suppression in 1540, but we can see that it prospered. On 8 April, 1540 it was surrendered by the then Prior, Father William Burdon, and four years later Sir Edmund Butler obtained a grant of the property. And so the community was disbanded. However, the Order members, still believing themselves the rightful owners, would have left some men in the district to keep an eye on things, as well as to administer to the people. They waited their opportunity to return again to full residence. In fact this did happen in the Confederate era, and as we have seen the Augustinians were once again so well established in Fethard by 1649 that a Provincial Chapter could be held there.
But, then, Cromwell came in 1649 and the religious were again scattered, and their places re-confiscated. In 1650 he came to Fethard and took the town, but did not interfere with the existing civic arrangements. There was no bloodshed. In a letter Cromwell mentions that in the suburbs he came across an old Abbey and some poor cabins and houses, and that there the army spent the night. And a wild one it was, by all accounts. For a long time after that, it is unlikely that there was a resident community in the Abbey, although we have a list of priors duly appointed down to 1668. However, after the example of Father Tirry and Father O'Driscoll, some friars more than likely stayed on in the district. From the Acts of the Provincial Chapter of 1724, we know that as from that year priors were certainly appointed to Fethard but a list of their names is not recorded, until 1766. In that latter year the name of James Slattery is given as prior, and from then onwards to the present day there is an unbroken line. So by that year the friars were certainly back in the area.
It was not until 1830, however, that the Augustinians again got legal possession of what remained of their land and buildings, the former altogether whittled away, the latter in ruins. The good man who restored it was William Hamilton Latham, and the Prior who received it was Father James Lonergan. And so, for a shilling a year the Augustinian friars were legally back again in Fethard.
Before the taking over of the property, the friars had been living in a little thatched house opposite the entrance to the church, and here they said Mass for the people. However, as early as 1820 they began repairing part of the church nearest the altar, and by 1823 (seven years before legal possession) this was completed. Father Condon was then Prior, and at the re-opening of the half-church, Archdeacon Laffan, P.P. of Fethard, preached. This was fitting, as he had been Father Condon's greatest support in the work of restoration. The other half was later restored, while in 1840 the friars occupied first the corner house opposite the gates to the grounds, and then in 1856 another house they bought down the road. Here they lived until 1950, when they moved into the present house that overlooks the Abbey grounds and Grove, and the countryside stretching out to Slievenamon. In our own time, under successive priors, the old mediaeval church has been further restored and beautified.
The Abbey Today
Owing to the lack of necessary expertise, I cannot here point out the noteworthy characteristics of the Church and Abbey ruins, as they exist today. About the church, I believe one can say that it is substantially the original one that was built on the site, sometime after 1306, and that it is one of the few such churches in use in Ireland today. Most of the walls remain, with the notable exception of that at the main entrance-this latter is completely new, and so the original tower that stood in this area has totally original (excepting that over the high altar, those over the main entrance and some in the Lady Chapel). The glass, of course, is gone. The design and stonework of most of the windows are all modern, as are the gallery, the sacristy, the roof, the floor, the furnishings, and so on. Apart from the walls and windows, then, the only other features of medieval origin would be the arches to the Lady Chapel, a venerable black statue of Our Lady, a 'leper's squint' and a well-preserved sacrarium (now unfortunately hidden behind some marble).
One unroofed original side-chapel still remains jutting out beside the cemetery, and what is now the Lady Chapel also belonged substantially to the original church. Beyond this chapel, through a modern doorway, one reaches the existing ruins of the Priory. It has the remains of a kitchen, a refectory(?) and a dormitory, which is reached by a stone stairway. Another steep stairway leads to what must have been an infirmary, from which one can look down on the sanctuary through the leper's squint.
Apart from all that, special mention should be made of the venerable stone grave-slabs and monuments, the oldest of which dates back to 1524. These are now mostly found in the area of the cemetery. Among them there is one to the Dunboyne family, which is dated 1640. Passing judgement on them is beyond my competence, as indeed is any enlightened comment on the strange little figure of 'Sheelah na Gig'-a stone figure now inserted into the orchard wall beside the sacristy.
Today, then, without its bell-tower, the Abbey Church does not look very imposing on the outside, and inside the floor slopes gently to the sanctuary. Still, it stands there a living witness to good days and bad, to joy and to suffering, and it is still the quiet haven of prayer at the verge of the town, that it must have been in those first bustling days after its building, when Fethard was young and eager. Today Fethard is quieter, and the Augustinian Abbey may be less a centre of activity than it used to be. But they have their memories, and what is more important still, to my mind, they have their inestimable relic in the remains of Father William Tirry, from which, in God's Providence, may there spring a new chapter, a new inspiration and a new dawn, that will echo again the glory of the past in a modern idiom.