The Irish Augustinians in History
The above image is of Fr. Gleeson OSA who was an Augustinian Friar and Priest. The image depicts Fr. Gleeson blessing the troops before a battle in WWI. However, his extraordinary story does not end there. When he worked in Dublin's inner city parish of Meath Street he saw the poverty that people lived in, so he and the community responded by setting up the Little Flower Penny Dinners. The Little Flower was and is a place where the people in need in the area can come for a warm meal, and still to this day its work continues as an essential part of the fabric of Dublin's Liberties.
However, stepping further back in history the Augustinians first came to Ireland with the Normans. Around 1280 they established their first Irish foundation in Dublin. In the course of the next 150 years, the Augustinians will establish a further 21 Friaries throughout Ireland during the pre-Reformation period. Dungarvan followed shortly after Dublin in 1290, while Galway was the last to be founded, in 1500.
Initially, however, they were very much part of the invading forces, and so did not move into the strictly Gaelic parts of the country in the south and north and west. Thus at the beginning of their history the Augustinians were ruled from Norman-England. But inevitably, as time went on, the now Anglo-Irish Augustinians (in keeping with the general trend) began to seek more 'independence'. This resulted in limited 'local government', which was officially granted at a General Chapter of the Order held at Rimini in 1394.
From about 1400 onwards, a bigger change took place, which, as it turned out was mostly responsible for keeping the Order alive in Ireland in later years. Sometime before 1400, a Priory was built at Ardnaree in Co. Sligo, and from then onwards the Augustinians pushed further into the Gaelic parts of Sligo, Mayo and Galway. And so, it came about that soon the native element predominated in Ireland. The Augustinians were now Gaelic Augustinians. This was officially recognised in 1457 when Hugh O’Malley, the superior of Murrisk (Co. Mayo) was appointed Vicar of the Irish Chapter, by the Father General.
But the Gaelic element came to the fore, not only because it reflected the general Gaelic resurgence the whole country was experiencing in those years, but also because the newly-founded western houses belonged to the Observant Movement, a reform movement that was spreading through the Order at the time, and that, increasingly, had official Roman backing. This movement looked for a more strict observance of the Rule and Constitutions. Banada in Co Sligo, which was founded in 1423 belonged to it, and soon the ideal spread to the other western houses, and indeed to others too. In 1479 these Observant houses received their independence from England.
So, by the eve of the Reformation, it can be said that practically all the Augustinian Houses in Ireland were free from English direction. Most were in a sound religious condition. But the Reformation did come, and with it the scattering of the Augustinians in Leinster and Munster. As there were no houses in the North, the Order depended for survival on priories in the West. As it happened, Dunmore could have been suppressed, but was allowed continue, by a special concession of the Lord Deputy. (This was prompted by Lord Bermingham whose ancestors had founded the House). And for a while the other Connacht houses also remained open, since they were outside the reach of government officials. But by the death of Queen Elizabeth, or the early years of James I, these too had been confiscated-again with the exception of Dunmore.
On paper at least, the Order was now at a low ebb in Ireland, but Dunmore continued as a beacon, and no doubt, all over the country there were some Augustinians on the run. But what is more important still, on the Continent men were rallying to come back to Ireland and revitalise the Order here. And so in 1613 a new era began, when Dermot MacGrath arrived with a mandate to restore the Irish Augustinians.
And so by the death of James I, in 1625, we know that the Order was rapidly organising itself. There is historical evidence that Dunmore was thriving. In 1641, the Prior and some thirty friars did not fear to appear openly in their habits. This was the era of Father Tirry of Fethard. It was also the time of the Confederation of Kilkenny, and so of comparative religious freedom in many parts. The Order now succeeded in getting back some of its lost foundations, depending on their location. It did so in Cork and Fethard, for example. Around this time, too, it got permission to occupy monasteries of the Canons Regular, who were no longer in Ireland. This happened in Limerick in 1632, and later in places like Derry, Killagh, Lorrha (Co. Tipperary) and Holy Island (Lough Rea).
Cromwell & After
And then Cromwell came on his destructive way, and there followed the centuries of religious persecution and suppression, until things eased off at the end of the century before Catholic Emancipation (1829). During those years the Augustinian fortunes again ebbed and flowed. However, we know that the Irish Augustinians survived to found a student house in Rome and build a national church, to send priests (some of whom became bishops) to England, America, India, Newfoundland, Australia, and in our own time to Nigeria, while all the time maintaining the home houses and extending the apostolate.