The Rebellion of 1641, the Friary, its people and lands

Protestant writers have asserted that the rebellion of 1641 was conceived in the Friary of Multyfarnham. These writers base their view on the depositions of Dr Henry Jones. Jones was the Protestant Dean of Kilmore at the time he made the depositions in question and was later appointed Bishop, first of Clogher, and afterwards of Meath.

Jones’ evidence is at variance in important points. His statements as to the meeting place of the conspirators, and about the identity of his informant are deliberately vague. The one piece of evidence mentioned to support the view that the rebellion was plotted in Multyfarnham (and may merit some little consideration), comes from the pen of Sir Henry Piers. Writing in 1682, forty-one years after the outbreak of the rebellion he says:

“And here [in the Friary of Multyfarnham] it was that the fatal rebellion [which] broke out with so much fury and havoc on the English and Protestants in this kingdom in 1641, was hatched and contrived; for this place being conveniently seated almost in the centre of the kingdom and also of great receipt; that year and some years before, great and frequent were the meetings here of the Popish clergy of all kinds from all parts of the kingdom.”

In the years immediately preceding 1641, Multyfarnham Friary was among the most important Franciscan houses in Ireland. It was considered to be the most prominent religious foundation in the midlands and was a convenient meeting place for clergy and laity. Hence, as Fr. Brendan Jennings OFM writes:

“It is quite possible that after the Rebellion had broken out, suspicion was thrown back upon the comings and goings of the many Fathers and guests who came to Multyfarnham, as was usual, for St. Francis’ day, or who attended the Chapter in 1641. Such meetings and Chapters must have been objects of suspicion to the Protestants of the time, who knew too well the violence and the conditions under which the Catholics were living and were always fearful of reaction.”

Undoubtedly, no little importance was attached by non-Catholics to these meetings, ‘and the evil consequences of their great frequency dreaded,’ so much so that some of the Protestants, according to Piers, became apprehensive about their personal safety, “and particularly the late Lord Bishop of Ardagh, Dr Richardson, who, the summer before the war broke out, withdrew with all his substance into England.” If Dr Richardson really fled because of ominous reports of cabals at Multyfarnham Friary, it would be a strong point in favour of Piers’ assertion that the rebellion was plotted in the Friary; but, as Piers himself admits, such a motive for his flight rests purely on hearsay.

Furthermore, it is well known that the great struggle for religious and political freedom that filled the years 1641-1650, found the great majority of Irish Franciscans striving by every means in their power for the success of the Irish cause. The Minister Provincial of the time, Fr Anthony MacGeoghegan OFM, in a letter to Fr Luke Wadding OFM (1642), said:

“There is not an army, or a regiment, not a province or a county, not a corner of the land, not a camp or a meeting, not a single expedition or a battle that the friars are not in the midst of it which I wish to tell you, not for the sake of boasting, but for the honour of God.”

The Friary Lands 1641

The ownership of the Friary land, given as 29 acres (12 hectares) of profitable land, and possibly of the Friary itself, had passed in some way or other into the hands of one Alderman Eymes. Nothing more is known as to the identity of this gentlemen. Only his name, religion and civic status appear to have survived. It may be presumed that he was well disposed towards the friars, for they certainly remained in possession of the Friary.

The dozen years from 1641-1653 are among the most turbulent in the history of Ireland. At every opportunity, companies of English soldiers raided and looted towns and villages in the midlands, and elsewhere, and stripped the farms of the produce.

Multyfarnham, a Confederate Depot

Multyfarnham was selected as one of the Confederate depots in 1643. Though Irish troops had recently sustained a severe set-back at the bridge in Finea, great quantities of pure wheat were levied in Co Westmeath and in King’s County (now Offaly) “to make munitions bread (provide rations) for the whole army.

For this purpose, huge ovens were built in Multyfarnham, Athlone and Birr. Special bakers were chosen from all over the country, and in the varying fortunes of the campaign it was the common people, and the Church, who suffered. In November 1644, when the friars of the convent of Armagh were dispersed, the venerable Guardian Fr Henry Mellan OFM fled to Multyfarnham for safety.

He was then a man of 65 years of age. A native of Dromiskin, Co Louth.  Young Mellan entered the Irish College in Salamanca on August 18, 1602, to begin his studies for the secular priesthood. He was then 23 years of age.

Ordained at Salamanca for the diocesan priesthood, he realised that he had a vocation to the religious life and sought admission into the Franciscan Order. He received the habit of St Francis at St Anthony’s College, Louvain, on November 11, 1610.

On his return to Ireland, he was attached to various friaries, mainly in Ulster. In 1617 he was appointed Guardian of Armagh, and in 1629, of Drogheda. An outstanding preacher, he was also a man of deep piety and singular charm. On the death of Archbishop Lombard in 1625, Father Mellan was one of three friars recommended for the vacant See.

After the brief episcopate of Archbishop Hugh MacCaughwell OFM, Father Mellan’s name was placed fourth on the list of candidates nominated by the clergy of Armagh for transmission to Rome.

In July 1641, Dr Hugh O’Reilly Primate, proposed three names for the See of Down and Connor to the Sacred Congregation of Propagation of the Faith and put Father Mellan’s name first. He was elected Minister Provincial for the Irish Franciscans Province in 1632 and held the office for the customary period of three years.

In 1637, while residing in the convent of Carrickfergus, he was one of the friars, who, on behalf of the authorities of the Franciscan Province of Ireland, gave a further approbation to the Annals of the Four Masters, the Reim Rioghraide, and the Martyrology of Donegal.

He laboured in his native land for the welfare of religion and of his Order until the Lord called him and in the fullness of his days he passed to his reward before February, 1661.