The Franciscan Abbey
(Courtesy of Tom McGettrick; retired Principal National School
teacher and local historian from Ballymote Parish)
"It is a pity there is so little known about Ballymote Abbey.Though
destroyed about 1587, the Friars must have continued to teach
school there, as two students taught at Ballymote were enrolled at
Salamanca about 1691".
This is an extract from a letter written by T.H. Canon Quin,
Parish Priest of Ballymote 1921-1943, on 24th September 1929, to
a friar at the Franciscan House, Killiney, Co.Dublin. Histories of
Sligo, published by this time, do not include any of the Abbey's
story. J.C. McDonagh's History of Ballymote and Surroundings
had not yet been published. He devotes some pages to piests,
monks, and friars in the parish but he doesn't relate any of their
activities to the story of the Abbey.
The Friary was founded in Ballymote in 1442 by three brothers;
Patrick, Andrew and PhilipO'Coleman (O Colmain), of the Third
Order of St. Francis. The tradition is that Pope Eugenius IV
granted permission for the founding. The bust with papal tiara
on the stone over the western entrance is regarded as
acknowledging his association with the coming of the Franciscans
to Ballymote. McDonagh, Chieftain of Corran, the barony in
which Ballymote is situated, gave the Franciscans his patronage.
He occupied the Norman-built castle near the sitee. Ballymote
Castle changed ownership many times during its lifetime,
depending on the fluctuating fortunes of the various factions that
sought its shelter.
I had passed the Abbey many times down the years and saw only smothering ivy, scattered
stones and headstones in weedy surroundings, all adding their share of age and neglect to
the overall scene. At a more recent time a list of the guardians of the Friary in the 17th and
18th Century came my way and this caused me to think of what went on inside the walls
when the ruin was a roofed and windowed Friary sheltering a community of friars inspired
in their vocations by the rule of St. Francis of Assisi.
I am indebted to Fr. Ignatius Hennessy at Killiney for his help in
tracing some history of the Ballymote Franciscans. He gave me a
list of the guardians and a copy of Canon Quinn's letter. The
information in available records tells of a community subjected
to all the abuses that those who promote the Reformation and
enforced the Penal Laws could heap on it. Sometimes local greed
and rivalries brought trials their way. But when they were
ruined or destroyed, as records tell, they held on or came back to
repair and continue in their mission. There were gardens and
orchards round their home and one and a half quarters of land,
suggesting long periods of peaceful rural pursuits. It was then
Ceathramha na Sagart, a name which was a recognition of the
Franciscans long service there. Today it is the townland of
In Medieval Religious Houses in Ireland, compiled by Aubery
Gwynn and R. Neville Haddock, a paragraph on Ballymote
Friary relates, "In 1483 Donald Oduda, master of the Franciscan
House of Balemouta complained that Donatus MacDonkayd, a
layman with accomplices attacked and burned the Friary and town
driving the friars into exile and plundering them of their goods".
There is no reason given for this pillage and arson, which took
place forty-one years after the Franciscans came to Ballymote.
McDonagh,Chieftain of Corran already mentioned(or his
successor) had angered some local chieftains because of his
aggressive efforts to lord it over them, and over his kinsmen, the
McDonaghs of Tirerrill. Retaliation could have brought this fate
on his town. This cannot be quoted as a historical fact. It might
have been the plunder mentioned in Oduda's complaint,that
drew the attack on the town and Friary.
That the Friars returned and put their house in order again is
clear by the next event when the Friary is desecrated once
more.The information is also from the source quoted above, 'An
Inquisition of 1584-6 found that the Friary near the castle to which
it belonged had been totally ruined by rebels'.The castle had been
taken over by Sir Richard Bingham, English Governor of
Connacht, and he placed his brother, George as constable over
it.This Bingham made enemies of the O'Rorkes of Breffni( see
O'Rorke's History of Sligo Pt.II).
According to Rev.Patk. Conlon,O.F.M., a Franciscan historian,
the Friars had already fled to the safety of Court Abbey, a
Franciscan house in the adjacent barony of Leyny. Brian Og
O'Rorke proceeded to Ballymote, and it seems the Friary was his
main target, to deprive Bingham of any advantage it might be to
him.Medieval Religious Houses quoted above states as mentioned
earlier, that the Friary at the time had "gardens, orchards,
buildings, and one and a half quarter of land." One assumes
O'Rorke saw a tactical advantage in destroying it.
In O'Rorke's History Pt.II there is a footnote to a brief reference
to the Franciscan Monastery of Ballymote. It is "The Abbey
Church of Ballymote was a ruin in the beginning of the
seventeenth century and very probably much earlier , for in the
grant of the Abbey to Robert Leycester in 1604, it is spoken of as
the site etc., of the late Franciscan Friary of Ballymote, a church
in ruins, a churchyard and a quarter of land adjoining".It is only
twenty years since the Friary was totally ruined as reported in
the Inquisition of 1584-86. That was the damage O'Rorke
wrought on it. There is a big gap of years before the next
It is into the last quarter of the seventeenth century and the
Franciscans are back. They are celebrating Mass in thr Friary.
Their library is well stocked with books. Maybr the peace they
deserve has come to them for surely it must have been a trojan
effort to build up and replace what they had lost. The following
extract is from Irish Priests in Penal Times (Burke W.R.) It tells
a different story.
"Council to Chas. Collis at Sligo 24th May 1680.
We find that you have lately seized on two Friars in the Convent
of Ballymote, and secured a greate library, and the Friars
vestments in the said Convent and as we have given orders for
the payment of the reward for apprehending the regular Popish
Clergie, soe wee require that you take special care that the
library and vestments be secured, and that you continue the
Friars in custody." The date is 1731.
"Report on the State of Popery"
six years ago
but are related
to the best
in the barony.|
Note. "The Fryars in Emlafada: Fra.Cormack, Guardian; Fra.Brett, Fra.Cunane,Fra. King,
Hugh McDonagh, Mick McDonagh, Fra.Davey.
In the column for Mass Houses, this entry, "One built about six
years ago" is interesting. This church was built in a corner of the
grounds beside the Friary. It establishes an important point that
if the Friary was occupied in 1725, there would not have been
another Church built beside it. The Friars were dispersed
according to the Report. This new church, the Mass House, was
the parish Church over which Thady Davey,(see Ballymote Parish Clergy), a secular priest,
presided. He is not to be confused with Fra. Davey, a dispersed
Franciscan. It was the parish Church until the present church of
the Immaculate Conception was opened on 4th September 1864. It
became the town school then, It is now the Loftus Memorial Hall
in memory of Canon T. Loftus, Parish Priest of Ballymote 1894-1908, who provided funds for its reconstruction.
The stones which built the Franciscan Friary in 1442 were used
to build the "Mass House". Some marked the graves of the poor
and the famine victims of the parish. An examination into the
State of the Poorer Classes sitting at Ballymote in 1837 began its
report with: "In this parish, there are of resident beggars one
hundred heads of families". Desmond Bowen in his well
researched work, Proslytism,Myth or Reality, refers to 600
starving labourers seeking help at Ballymote. The burial ground
passed to the control of the Ballymote Dispensary Committee
formed in 1853, and they used stones taken from the ruins to
build the wall around it. What is left is today's ruin.
Most Rev Dr Thomas Flynn,Bishop of Achonry, holding the Chalice used by Franciscans Friars in Ballymote at the 550th anniversary of the foundation of the Franciscan Friary in Ballymote in 1992.
The Anton McDonagh chalice is the only memorial left today,
whose association with the Franciscan Friary at Ballymote is
stamped on it.The inscription on the base of the Chalice in
abbreviated Latin translates, "For the Convent of the Friars
Minor of Ballymote:Friar Anton McDonagh had it made:
September 1688". This precious vessel was in Ballymote for the
celebration of the 550th anniversary of the coming of the
Franciscans. Friar Anton McDonagh was a guardian of the
Friary. There was a succession of guardians from about 1640 to
1840. A guardian would serve for one year but could serve for a
longer period. Guardians were still appointed when the title was
titular only- always with the hope of returning.
The implication in the Popery report is that those friars who did
not take the Oath of Abjuration, or provide acceptable sureties
for their behaviour were being sheltered by the best Popish
families in the barony. This was true but they were keeping
ahead of the priest-hunters, and might often have to change
abode. One thing is certain, the Franciscans did not return to
Ceathramha na Sagart.
In the townland of Kilcreevin is Scealp an Aifrinn. It is sheltered
by a low cliff or bank ,rising to higher ground.Here some hunted
priest gathered hif flock to celebrate Mass. There was a watch
kept because he risked the same fate as his confreres in 1680 in
the Friary.The Anton McDonagh chalice could have been raised
at the Elevation here.