- The Friars in Ireland 1224–1540 by Colmán Ó Clabaigh, O.S.B.
Ten years after publishing The Franciscans in Ireland (1400–1534): From Reform to Reformation (Portland, OR, 2002), Colmán Ó Clabaigh now offers an expansion of his previous work in a text that “constitutes the first attempt to examine the Irish mendicant phenomenon as a whole” (p. xiii) instead of as separate orders or houses. Following the same method used in his earlier work, Ó Clabaigh surveys the lifestyle, history, and impact of the Augustinians, Carmelites, Dominicans, Franciscans, and other smaller groups over a period of nearly 300 years. The author consulted internal mendicant sources, local cultural and historical sources, papal and episcopal records, local government records, and works by early-modern writers and historians.
Ó Clabaigh treats an enormous amount of detail in a very organized fashion, first presenting a chronological overview in three chapters, looking at each group of friars and their structures. Given the types of resources available, it was necessary for the author to take a synoptical view of events in these chapters. That approach will either suit or displease the taste of any given reader. This is especially true in chapter 2, which allows only twenty-two pages to recount 100 years of history.
The genuine contribution of the book is found in the seven chapters that develop topics common to all of the groups: their relations with patrons and critics, liturgy and devotional practices, art and architecture in their houses, formation structures, and the impact of the mendicants as pastoral agents. Whether dealing with royal patronage, ethnic divisions between Gaelic and English friars, and participation in mercantilism or other business arrangements, Ó Clabaigh does not dodge the truth that the friars were deeply integrated into the economy and spiritual lives of their towns and cities: the “friars’ reliance on ongoing patronage and continued almsgiving brought them into contact with a wide cross section of society” (p. 118). Such involvement was double-edged, and the author identifies struggles both caused by and suffered by the friars. “Institutional history”—in the perspective of this reviewer—requires the [End Page 766] human factor to be highlighted, and various excerpts from primary and secondary sources give the reader straightforward accounts of the blessings and the misfortunes prompted by their humanity.
Replete with details garnered from history and hagiography, the text includes selections that enliven the narrative history. For example, in the chapter on the lifestyle of the friars, Ó Clabaigh provides information on the generosity of benefactors toward the mendicants: providing money to build churches, as well as providing land, fisheries, food, agricultural products, and so forth in return for the prayers and eventual hospitality of the friars when the benefactors reached old age and death. Likewise, there are descriptions that demonstrate the level of respect granted to the mendicants:
If, on occasion, the friars halted at the houses or castles of the nobles to preach, they were held in such veneration that the earl or baron would himself bring a basin of water for the friar to wash his hands, and the lady, his wife, would in like manner, bathe his feet…. However unwilling to do so, they were compelled to accept the first place at the table of the nobles, where, instead of shafts of mirth producing wit, the tales of the Old and New Testament, or the history of the well-known holy fathers … were narrated by the senior friar….(p. 140)
The author includes numerous appealing, informative images throughout. There are maps, reproductions of woodcuts, architectural plans, and full-color plates of items such as statuary and manuscript pages. History is as richly revealed in image as it is in words in this volume.