Question: Where in the world did the fate of friars depend on a majestic abbey literally built on no man’s land?
Answer: Ennis, Ireland.
The O’Brian Dynasty of the 10th-15th centuries was ruled by men who called themselves Kings: Kings of Munster, Kings of Thomond, and, for a brief time, a High King of Ireland. They had power, ambition, and money—but they didn’t always keep their paperwork. Such was the case when they established the Ennis Friary.
Dermot O’Brian ordered the building of a Franciscan friary in 1241 as a bit of penance for his bad behavior in a family feud with brother Finn. Over the next 50 years, the structure took fuller shape, with succeeding O’Brians adding all the bells and whistles. (Seriously: Turlough O’Brien added bells in 1306.) A sacristy and refectory were attached, followed by a cloister and transept; stained glass was imported and limestone sculptures installed. Generations of royal O’Brians were buried at the site.
The monks held services for a growing flock and provided education for the local population but their existence was a threadbare; the O’Brians felt that building the church for the monks was enough and thus didn’t pay them. The monks didn’t even have a deed to the land, which the O’Brians had simply claimed by fiat. As a result, the monks relied on charity and goodwill; King Richard II even granted the monks permission to travel and raise more funds to keep things going.
The 16th century brought Henry VIII’s suppression of monasteries. The friary passed between several hands, but continued holding services until 1570, when it was seized to use as a court. At that point, the remaining monks were forced to go into hiding, with some fleeing to other countries.
Enter Donogh, a next-generation O’Brian, an Anglican convert elected to Parliament. He hated seeing the friary used for secular purposes and convinced the government to make it a house of worship for the Church of Ireland. When an escaped monk returned from Spain and was arrested, O’Brian had him declared insane, which would spare him jail time and allowed him to be confined in his room. Where was the room? In his old friary, of course.
There was no formal deeded owner of the land until the end of the 17th century, when it was awarded to one of Cromwell’s officers. Nonetheless, services last another hundred years. By the dawn of the 20th century, the friary was abandoned, the roof was off, and the mighty O’Brian’s chapel exposed to the elements. In 1969, what was left of it was finally returned to the monks to let them determine its future.
They still don’t own the land.
10 Things to Look for at Ennis Friary
- Triple-light windows are in Irish mendicant pattern, with all panes in sets of three: three rectangles, three half-moons, three arrowheads, and three diamonds.
- The cloister is partially surrounded by its original arcaded stone walls, featuring arches, sculpted capitals, and mix of spiral and polygonal columns.
- In the nave, remnants of 15th-century McMahon tomb include sculpted scenes from the Passion on alabaster panels.
- At the east end of the nave, St. Francis, the patron saint of the order, is depicted in a limestone frieze, one hand raised to show stigmata.
- A pair of 15th-century wall tombs with inset stone canopies look like brick ovens in the nave.
- A skeletal Man of Sorrows, bleeding and exhausted, leans out from a sculpted panel in the transept.
- The 15th-century tower boasts some of the widest and tallest arches of in Ireland from that era, but has 19th-century pinnacles at the top added by the Church of Ireland for flair.
- In the chancel, a double piscine contains basins where the unused sacraments were left, theoretically to be absorbed into the church itself.
- The ominous-looking barrel vaulted sacristy was used as a prison during the era of suppressed monasteries.
- Throughout the church, medieval worshippers have carved drawings in the original plaster, not as graffiti but as prayers (such a ship to ask for safe travels).
Discover the handiwork of generations of kings and monks in Ennis during your Irish Adventure: Belfast, Dublin & the Northwest Counties adventure.