The new year is not yet a fortnight old and already Ireland’s Franciscans have closed two of their oldest friaries in Ireland, each founded in the 13th century. Due to ageing membership and a lack of vocations, friaries at Athlone, Co Westmeath, and Clonmel, Co Tipperary, marked their departures from both towns last Sunday with Masses of thanksgiving.
It followed announcements last autumn by Fr Aidan McGrath OFM, Minister Provincial of the Irish Franciscans. On September 5th last year he described as a “sad and difficult decision for us” to withdraw from Clonmel where there had been a Franciscan friary since 1269.
It also meant that their support for the Waterford Friary, which the Franciscans left in May 2019 but continued to support from Clonmel, would also end, he said. Fr McGrath thanked “our Friars and staff for the wonderful work they have done here (in Clonmel) and the relationships they have cultivated and developed in the local area.”
He regretted having to make the closure announcement “to the people of Clonmel who have prayed with us and supported us in so many ways over the centuries”.
On October 17th Fr McGrath told friars and staff in Athlone that “regretfully we must now face our present day reality and leave a town where we have enjoyed and valued such support and friendship for close to 800 years. Like so many religious bodies, we must make these difficult decisions as we deal with and respond to our ageing and reducing membership.”
He acknowledged “with great pride all the work done and the various struggles faced by the Friars in Athlone, dating back to 1241. As many of you will be aware, the first Friary Church was consecrated in 1241; there was a major fire in 1398 and those serving here witnessed the destruction of the Friary in 1567. We were expelled from Athlone in 1651, but we came back soon after and as recently as 1930-2 built the splendid church here on the site.”
As with the friary buildings in Clonmel, he said, “we have not made a final decision on the future of the Athlone Friary and Church at this time, however, we will be exploring various possibilities in this regard in the coming months. When we have reached a decision on the future use of the buildings, I will make a further announcement.”
It is a similar story where Irish Dominicans are concerned, and for similar reasons. Last September the Dominicans in Waterford announced closure of their friary on Bridge St in Waterford city, where it has had a presence for 796 years, since 1226. Just two Dominican friars were still administering in Waterford at its friary on Bridge Street.
In 2014 the Dominicans withdrew from houses in Limerick, Athy, Co Kildare, Drogheda, Co Louth, Ballybeg, Co Waterford, and Ranelagh in Dublin.
Making the announcement about Waterford last September, Dominican Provincial Fr John Harris also said that “with fewer than 50 members under the age of 65, we physically cannot continue to staff all our existing 19 centres.” The congregation has also decided to close a retreat house in Montenotte, Cork, and a Province house they hold at Lisbon in Portugal.