In September 1606 King Philip III of Spain wrote to his brother-in-law Archduke Albert (1559-1621), co-ruler of the Spanish Netherlands with Philip’s half-sister, Isabella (1566-1633), from the royal monastery of El Escorial de San Lorenzo:
Most Serene Lord, Friar Florence Conry, Provincial of the Province of Ireland of the Order of Saint Francis has represented to me that by reason of the persecution this order has diminished greatly in number in the kingdom …Because studies have been forbidden the old preachers are worn out; therefore he beseeches me to grant them an annual alms during the persecution so that a number of young friars of that nation may be helped to study at the University of Louvain in order to ensure that preachers may not die out and that the Catholic religion may flourish, helped by learned persons of that order.
Philip III’s letter records in brief the story of the foundation in May 1607 of the Irish Franciscan College of St Anthony of Padua in the university city of Louvain, now Leuven in Belgium. In September 1606 he donated 1,000 ducats to the Irish Franciscan Florence Conry and wrote to the Archduke Albert directing him to see to it that the Irish College be established with links to the University of Louvain. The king had responded to the petitions of a remarkable Irish Franciscan, Florence Conry, churchman, diplomat and theologian. Papal sanction for St Anthony’s College was granted by Pope Paul V in April 1607.
Life had been made difficult in Ireland for the Franciscans particularly
with the suppression of their friaries by the English administration in
the early seventeenth century. In their own words, expressed in the great
chronicle known as the Annals of the Four Masters,:
“Heresy and new wandering from the right path in England as a result of pride and arrogance, of averice and evil disposition …Englishmen turned against the Pope …they broke down the monasteries …sold their roofs and bells … they burned and broke the famous images, shrines and relics of the saints … they burned the celebrated image of Our Lady of Trim …and also the Staff of Jesus in Dublin …although the persecution of the Roman emperors against the Church was great, it is doubtful if Rome ever produced a persecution as great as this.”
This view of what had happened in Ireland during the chroniclers’ own lifetime was influenced by personal loss. Mícheál Ó Cléirigh, the chief chronicler and many others who came to Louvain, came from Donegal and had been effected by the destruction of the Franciscan friary in Donegal in 1601.
Florence Conry (c. 1560-1629), the founder of the Irish Franciscan College
in Louvain, was a man of many parts whose influence on Irish affairs extended
throughout Europe. Originaaly from a family of professional poets from
the west of Ireland, Conry joined the Franciscans in Salamanca in Spain
and was appointed Papal Legate to Ireland. He returned to his native land
during the nine years’ war between the English administration and Irish
lords led by Hugh O’Neill, Earl of Tyrone and Red Hugh O’Donnell, Earl
of Tyrconnell. He was with them was at the battle of Kinsale in December
1601 where they and their Spanish allies were defeated. Following Kinsale
he returned to Spain to act an as ambassador in the Spanish court and
ministered to Red Hugh O’Donnell on his death in 1602. The situation in
Ireland was causing much grief to the Spaniards as thousands of Irish
were landing in northern Spain seeking stipends and to join the Spanish
army. Not only did Conry deal with processing all these claims and use
his influence to find Spanish patrons for many of the Irish, he continued
his mission of arranging another armed invasion of Ireland. He was instrumental
in establishing an Irish regiment in the Spanish army under the captaincy
of Henry O’Neill, Hugh O’Neill’s son. He continued his political and military
efforts throughout his careeer of ten irritating both Spaniards and English
alike in his fervour. One English ambassador was driven to call his ‘that
perfidious Machiaevellian friar’!
Conry was equally intensely active as a churchman and Franciscan. From his early days in Spain he was embroiled in controversy especially with the Irish Jesuits who he accused of being prejudiced against students from the north and the west of Ireland. Even his appointement as Provincial of the Irish Franciscans in Toledo in 1606 caused unrest as it was done outside the province itself. However, he put his position and influence to good use and secured the money from the King of Spain to found St Anthony’s College in Louvain. Louvain, the city of the great medieval university, at the time was live with intellectual activity associated with the Counter-Reformation, and Conry, and his fellow Irish Franciscans, threw themselves into the intense theological and philosophical debates being conducted there at the time. Among those in the university at the time was Cornelius Jansesius whose treatises were to spawn controversies in the Catholic church to the present day. Conry knew Jansesius, corresponded with him and wrote his own works on topics such as the defence of the Catholic faith and questions of the state of grace and pre-destination.
Life, however, for Conry’s new Franciscan college of St Anthony’s, was precarious from the beginning. Their first home was provided for them by the Faculty of Arts in the university. So ppor were they that the same Faculty had to give them all that was necessary for the celebration of the Mass, vestments, a chalice, wine and candles. Their need to obtain alms brought them into constant conflict with local friars who objected to these Irish friars knocking on the doors of the citizens of Louvain seeking assistance. This conflict even caused tension within their own walls as some Irish friars tried to accommodate their fellow Belgian friars. Donagh Mooney, first Guardian of the College, was so incensed by his successor, the scholar Hugh McCaughwell’s efforts to come to an agreement with the local friars, that he described him as having ‘the heart of a hen’.
Further burdens came in the same year as the the foundation of the College in 1607. That same year heralded another key event in Irish history, one that has in the past two centuries been highly romanticised. This was the Flight of the Earls. Ninety-nine of the Gaelic nobility of Ulster led by Hugh O’Neill, Earl of Tyrone and Rory O’Donnell, Earl of Tyrconnell left Rathmullan, Co. Donegal on September 14th 1607 for Continental Europe. They fled Ireland when the accommodation reached by O’Neill with the English administration in Ireland crumbled and he decided to go to Spain to force the Spaniards into action again. However, an easing of tension between the English and the Spaniards along with the forces of nature thwarted O’Neill’s plans. A detailed and colourful account of the Earls’ journey from Ireland to their ultimate destination in Rome survives in a remarkable diary kept by their one of their chroniclers, Tadhg Ó Cianáin. He, like Florence Conry and many of the Franciscans of Louvain, belonged to a professional family of historians and poets. The Earls left Donegal leaving some enemies rejoincing on the shores and others lamenting the loss of so many leaders. Soon they encountered storms and feared being set upon by the King’s fleet:
“They headed out into the sea to make for Spain directly if they could…It gave them great relief when they put into the sea, trailing after the ship, a cross of gold which O’Neill had, and in which there was a portion of the Cross of Crucifixion along with many other relics”.
Forced to land in France rather than Spain, the Earls were met by Florence Conry in Douai who then conducted them to Louvain.
“O’Neill stayed in a hostel called ‘The Emperor’s House’, the Earl in another house. They remained there for ten days. Then Sir William Stanley, an English veteran warrior in the service of the king of Spain, came with many nobles to see them and pay them a visit. Afterwards they took two beautiful palaces in the city at a certain rent, payable at the end of each month.”
What must Hugh O’Neill and Sir William Stanley, an English recusant who had changed from service to the Tudor monarch to the Spanish monarch, have felt when they met in Louvain, having last encountered one another on opposite sides during the Nine years’ war in Ireland. All was not merriment and mirth for the Irish nobles in Louvain. A poet, Fearghal Óg Mac an Bháird, complains about his predicament:
“Exiled from Ireland, I did not give thanks to my Supreme King for my traveling across the sea to Louvain, my honour having declined in the west”.
The Earls held court for a winter there waiting for financial and military
assistance from the King of Spain which was not forthcoming. Leaving women
and children behind in Louvain and accompanied by Florence Conry, they
travelled to Rome in the following spring where Ó Cianáin in his diary
describes their visits to all the main pilgrim sites of the Eternal City
and their reception in style by the Pope:
“On the Thursday of Corpus Christi an order came from the Holy Father to the princes that eight of their noblemen should go in person to carry the canopy over the Blessed Sacrament while it was being borne solemnly in the hands of the Pope in procession from the great church of San Pietro in Vaticano to the church of St James in Borgo Vecchio, and from there back to the church of St Peter.
They came into His Holiness’s presence. They carried the canopy over the Blessed Sacrament and the Pope, and never before did Irishmen receive such an honour and privilege.”
With the support of the Irish Franciscans they pleaded for assistance constantly from the Spaniards and the Papacy until their deaths - Rory O’Donnell in 1609 and Hugh O’Neill in 1616. The departure of the Earls caused a considerable change in Ireland and in Ireland’s relations with Europe. It precipitated a military, religious, economic and intellectual Irish Diaspora to Continental Europe. At home the Flight of the Earls offered the opportunity to the English administration to pursue a policy of land colonization and led to the migration to Ulster of English and Scottish settlers, an event that led to a profound reworking of Irish identity and culture which remains as a legacy to this day.
The story of St Anthony’s College Louvain is not just one of political
intrigue and the foundation of a Franciscan novitiate. It also forms a
crucial chapter in the intellectual history of Ireland. Actions initiated
here were felt in Ireland and in the highest circles in Britain and on
the Continent. The Franciscans’ work had many facets and involved a group
of remarkable individuals. The historian Mícheál Ó Cléirigh, under the
supervision of his superiors Hugh Ward and Patrick Fleming, directed a
colossal programme of collecting materials relating to the history of
Ireland. This work resulted in the production of the great chronicle,
the Annals of the Four Masters, a history of Ireland from the biblical
flood to 1616 AD. John Colgan produced Acta Sanctorum Hiberniae, a significant
collection of the lives of Irish saints which was inspired by the work
of the Counter-Reformation Bollandists who were compiling the lives of
all European saints. Florence Conry, Hugh McCaughwell and Eochaidh Ó hEódhusa
spearheaded the campaign to educate Irish clergy and laity in their faith
while also participating in intellectual pursuits of Counter-Reformation
scholarship. Louvain was the focus of a substantial library of medieval
Irish manuscripts brought there for safe-keeping. The earliest continental
printed books in the Irish language were produced in the college. From
here an extensive intellectual, diplomatic and political network exerted
influence in universities, in religious orders and in the courts of France,
Spain and the Papacy in the seventeenth century.
This achievement was celebrated throughout 2007 as the Louvain 400 celebration. Exhibitions on the many aspects of the Irish Franciscan heritage and legacy took place in national cultural institutions such as the National Museum of Ireland, the National Library of Ireland and Trinity College Dublin. Many academic conferences were organised, the most significant of which was the Louvain Summer School held in Leuven from 21-25 May 2007. The Summer School covered a wide range of topics relating to Ireland and Europe in the seventeenth century. The year’s events were co-ordinated by the UCD Mícheál Ó Cléirigh Institute for the Study of Irish History and Civilisation. The Institute in University College Dublin is a partnership with the Order of Friars Minor in Ireland to oversee the transfer of the Franciscans’ archive to the university, to document and conserve their intellectual and artistic heritage and to foster a new generation of scholars trained to work on this immensely important legacy.
For further details on the UCD Mícheál Ó Cléirigh Institute see
Director: Dr John McCafferty (firstname.lastname@example.org)
Academic Project Manager: Dr Edel Bhreathnach (email@example.com)