Multyfarnham Friary: The life of the friars in the 17th and 18th Centuries.

As far as the framing and passing of penal legislation went, friars simply could not exist in Ireland.  But it was one thing to legislate; it was quite another matter to enforce that legislation.  Repressive measures intensified the loyalty of the people to their persecuted priests, and rather than rouse the hostility of the people, those responsible for the execution of the penal decrees, namely, magistrates and sheriffs, often thought it wiser to close their eyes to the presence of priests, or friars, in the locality.  
They remained officially ignorant, as it were, of their residence in a district, until higher authorities drew their attention to the fact and even then, as we shall see, they were sometimes slow to act.
In the light of the attitude of the local authorities, there is every reason to believe that after the first fierce tempest of persecution (which broke out in 1698) had subsided, and which drove the friars from Knightswood, some, at least, of the members of the Multyfarnham community were able to come together again and settle down very quietly in a common home.  
During these years, the succession of Guardians appointed to Multyfarnham was never interrupted.  Fr Michael Conolan, OFM was appointed Guardian at a Chapter held in Dublin in 1697.  Fr Conolan was educated at Louvain, receiving tonsure and minor orders there on May 30 1681, subdiaconate on September 18 1681, and diaconate on September 18 1682.  
Two years later, and as it could not meet in Ireland, the Chapter met in Louvain and re-appointed Fr Conolan.  In 1770 the Chapter, meeting also in Louvain, named Fr Francis Delamar OFM to succeed Fr Conolan at Multyfarnham.  Thus, the succession of Guardians continued unbroken.  
It is significance that Fr Delamar OFM, was appointed to Multyfarnham in 1700.  The Delemars were still an important family in the district even though they had, in their various branches, suffered heavily in the Cromwellian confiscations.  According to the Lyons Book of Survey and Distribution for County Westmeath, twelve members of the Delemar family were robbed of 9,000 acres in the Cromwellian confiscations.  They were still respected, and the presence of one of their members as Guardian of the local friary would be calculated to ensure that some measure of security for his religious brethren.  
One piece of evidence strongly in favour of the view that the friars were settled in community at Multyfarnham very early in the 18th century is the fact that in 1713, Fathers Delamar OFM, and Cruise OFM, procured a chalice for the friars of the friary of Multyfarnham.  Fr Francis Cruise, Guardian of Dublin procured the chalice for the friars of the friary of Multyfarnham in 1713.  It is clear beyond doubt that the friars had re-established conventual life at Multyfarnham, certainly by 1713, and most probably before the first decade of the century had ended.
The friary housed the friars all through the 18th century and during the first 40 years of the 19th century and on down to the time when they restored the old friary church and later built a more substantial home for themselves on the site of the friary buildings.  Its situation can be determined exactly from the Ordnance Survey Maps for Westmeath (September 17 1838) Sheet 6.  
It stood on an elevation, on the left bank of the River Gayne, near the village of Multyfarnham and little more than one hundred meters from the ruins of the friary.  It occupied part of the friary lands that had once been the property of the friary but had been confiscated in 1540 at the time of the suppression of the friary.  
At this time (c. 1706) the Gaynors, previously among the lessees of the lands from Lord Aungier, now became the owners, and they were willing, no doubt, to let a corner of the lands as a site for a friary.
The friary, like those of other religious communities in rural areas was an unpretentious building.  It was simply a cabin built of stone, mud, and roofed with thatch.  In 1726, Thomas De Burgo, a Dominican historian, gives a brief description of one of these country friaries, and of the way of life of the members of the communities who dwelt in them.
He wrote: “In country districts, all the [religious communities] with few exceptions, rented one or two fields where they built a stone house, roofed with thatch, and a chapel; and there, by means of catechetical teaching and sermons, they instruct the neighbouring peasantry.  
Hither, to their respective convents, the members [of each community] often return; but for the greater part of the year only three or four remain at home; the others are absent helping the parish priests, or acting as chaplains to the wealthier members of the laity, or leading a fairly tough life among the peasantry, collecting barley and oats to support the house (convent), to pay the annual rent of the building, and to provide the shabby clothing [of the community].”  
Thomas De Burgo’s description may be taken as typical of every rural friary in Ireland during the 18th century, whether Dominican or Franciscan and as such it gives an accurate picture of the way of life of the friars at Multyfarnham during that century.  There was no conventual life in the strict sense, with Divine Office in choir at fixed periods, conventual Mass each day, regular times for mental prayer, or with any of the other observances inseparable from normal religious life in a community.  
Some of the friars functioned as chaplains to wealthy families.  In 1747 Fr Sylvester Nugent OFM, was chaplain to the Earl of Westmeath.  The Earls of Westmeath remained Catholics until 1754, when on the death of the Earl, his heir, a mere boy became a ward of the Chancery, and automatically a Protestant.  
That was a customary practice among regulars in the 18th century, as Thomas De Burgo points out.  And it persisted to the end of the century.  In his decennial report, forwarded to Rome on January 14 1790, Dr Plunket, Bishop of Meath, says in the section De Regularibus, that “there are some friars not living in their friaries, but officiating either as chaplains to respectable families, or assistants to the parish priests.”  Such chaplaincies were a source of revenue for the friary to which the chaplain belonged.


Other friars had to devote extended periods to questing alms everywhere for the sustenance of the community and for the payment of the annual rent.  Questing in those days was neither an easy, nor a remunerative task.  Not a little hardship, as Thomas De Burgo reminds us, had to be endured in carrying it out.  
Members of a religious community, we may surmise, had to walk warily.  They had on occasion to adopt ruses and employ disguises.  For it was not until the century had run half its course that the tide began slowly to turn in favour of the Church.  For the greater part of the century the Catholic Church had to lead a hidden life.  
It is true that the penal laws often remained in abeyance, and that for prolonged periods Catholic priests were not interfered with, but the fires of persecution smouldered, and for priests and religious there was the ever-present fear, not easily suppressed, that they might suddenly flare up again.  
Accordingly the Church had to adapt itself, as far as Catholic teaching allowed her to do so, to the new conditions, and lead, as it were, a veiled life.  Priests, religious, and the faithful passed out of the light of history into a sort of shadowland, where they moved about, real, but dim, discovered, uttering no loud voice, achieving no prominence, leaving no monuments, except the imperishable one of a living faith that nothing could quench.  
Besides the quest, no doubt their main source of income depended on voluntary alms handed in at the friary and on offerings at Masses.  When called upon, the friars of Multyfarnham readily went to the assistance of their fellow-priests in the diocese of Meath and they continued to do so until well into the 19th century, when a sufficiency of diocesan priests made the practice no longer necessary.  
Moreover, the friars were themselves parish priests of Multyfarnham for several years.  The correspondence of Fr Anselm Conway OFM (covering the years 1823-1826), makes clear how frequent were the calls upon the friars at the friary to help the diocesan clergy in their pastoral work.