‘Unruly, fractious, disreputable’ – Irish Franciscans in Prague
In 1629 the Irish College founded there was the third on European continent
‘From the mid-17th century – with the intensification of anti-Catholic persecution under Cromwell – the numbers of Irish religious in Prague increased. The 18 friars in 1634 had risen to more than 50 by 1654.’ Photograph: Getty Images
The story of the waves of emigration forced on the Catholic Irish by the consolidation of English Protestant power in Ireland in the 17th and 18th centuries is well-known.
Members of the Gaelic and Old English aristocracies, soldiers, priests and students fled largely to the Catholic monarchies of France, Spain and Austria. The Holy Roman Empire, a vast complex of around 1,000 semi-autonomous political units under the loose rule of the Austrian Hapsburg emperors, was particularly welcoming.
Many of them ended up in Prague, capital of the kingdom of Bohemia where, after the 1620 Battle of White Mountain ended the first phase of the Thirty Years War, a parallel process of trying to suppress Protestantism was taking place.
Numerous noble Irish Catholic families – Butlers, D’Altons, Kavanaghs, Maguires, Nugents, O’Briens, O’Donnells, Taaffes and many others – settled in Bohemia and became officers in the Austrian imperial army.
Some of those officers would be rewarded by Emperor Ferdinand II with Bohemian estates for their role in the notorious murder of Albrecht von Wallenstein, the emperor’s successful but over-ambitious supreme commander in that war.
In 1629 a group of Irish Franciscans founded the College of the Immaculate Conception of the Virgin Mary in Prague, primarily as an institution to train missionaries to minister to their persecuted co-religionists in Ireland.
This was the third Irish Franciscan college on the continent, following Louvain (founded in 1607) and St Isidore’s College in Rome (1625).
Patrick Fleming, the first head of the college (or guardian), a “resolute and fervent young man”, arrived in Prague in November 1630 to oversee the erection of the college’s first building.
He was there just a year when he was murdered on the road to Vienna by villagers who may have been acting out of religious fanaticism or just the latent mob violence that was endemic during those years of war, famine and plague.
From the mid-17th century – with the intensification of anti-Catholic persecution under Cromwell – the numbers of Irish religious in Prague increased. The 18 friars in 1634 had risen to more than 50 by 1654.
However, the problems that would come to haunt the college were already apparent. Quarrels between friars from the different Irish provinces seemed to be there almost from the beginning. As early as 1647 a row broke out between Munster and Ulster factions over who should be the new guardian.
These continued throughout the century and reached their height in the 1730s with a visitation led by the archbishop of Prague. The college had grown to 67 members by this point, but clearly they were an unruly, fractious and disreputable lot.
The visitators concluded that discipline, Masses and spiritual exercises were all very much neglected; subordinates had little respect for their superiors; and community life was not maintained (with, for example, aristocratic visitors being well fed while Brothers went hungry).
There were occasional “violent excesses” between factions and the unfortunate practice of friars being able to keep part of the alms collected for the college for their own use.
Despite this, the college continued to perform its primary role of training missionary priests: between 1756 and 1783 up to 115 of these were probably sent back to Ireland.
However, it came as no great surprise when Emperor Joseph II – as part of his new policy to deal a “final blow to the lush baroque way of life which was coming to an end in the monasteries, friaries and colleges” – moved to close the college in 1786. The college church is now a music theatre, but there is still a Hybernská ulice (Hibernian Street) in central Prague.
The English version of a new book, The Irish Franciscans in Prague 1629-1786, by Jan Parez and Hedvika Kucharová, will be launched at the Royal Irish Academy in Dublin this evening [Tuesday, April 28th] at 6 pm.
Andy Pollak was founding director of the Centre for Cross Border Studies and is a former Irish Times religious affairs correspondent