The Franciscans have been in Ireland over 700 years, living out a Christian presence and action among a broken people.
In 1226, as St Francis lay dying, a small group of his followers were already on their way to Ireland. They landed at Youghal, Co Cork, and from there made progress through the country. Theirs was a simple way of life dedicated to God and to the service of the Lord in people. So great was the impression they made that within a decade or so they were being invited into the territories of local rulers and being aided financially to found friaries.
Though political upheaval and the ravages of the Black Death in the 14th century slowed down the growth of the Order, by about 1430 reform from within and the general rebirth of Irish culture added fresh momentum to the Franciscan movement. The friars ventured into new areas, especially in the north and west, so that by the end of the Middle Ages friaries in Ireland totalled 57.
The suppression of the religious houses began in 1537 at the instigation of Henry VIII and involved great hardship for the Franciscan Order and for Irish religious in general. Not only did it deprive the friars of places in which to live, it also hindered the training of new members. The accession of Elizabeth I to the English throne aggravated the situation.
Yet, in spite of these obvious difficulties and the ensuing persecution, the first half of the 17th century is rightly regarded as the Golden Age of Irish Franciscanism. The Colleges opened on the continent of Europe for the training of young friars became centres of learning and culture which contributed greatly to the Irish tradition. Louvain is associated with the Four Masters, Rome with Luke Wadding. At the same time all the old Franciscan sites in Ireland had new communities assigned to them. But before Cromwell brought a new degree of persecution and martyrdom to the whole Irish Church in the mid-1700s.
In the 19th Century renewed life and vigour saw new friaries and churches being built.
The 20th Century saw a huge increase in the number of ofm friars, reaching more than 400 friars in 1970.
In the 1920’s friars went to Australia to implant the Order there, where rapid growth saw a new Franciscan entity come into being in 1949.
December 1935 saw the Irish Franciscan mission to China begin in a formal way. This lasted until 1950 when the friars were expelled. The closure of the mission in China coincided with the founding of another mission in South Africa. A little later the friars were invited into what was then Rhodesia, today Zimbabwe. In the late 1960s the Irish province turned its attention to Latin America, becoming involved in Chile and El Salvador.
Today the Irish Province of the Franciscans has about 180 members who work in almost every corner of the country.
Almost 40 years have passed since the Second Vatican Council brought about a great deal of thought and reflection, both within the Church and the Order, as to how we may be followers of Jesus Christ in our own time.
Thus the Irish OFM Province turned its attention as to how we should best live our way-of-life today, and best serve the people of today. That reflection is still going on.