In recent years there has been some discussion about when the Franciscan Order first arrived in Ireland. A long-standing tradition had it that the earliest friars here established a house in Youghal, County Cork in 1214 (twelve years before the death of Francis of Assisi). However, the earliest contemporaneous account of an Irish Franciscan house dates from 1233, and refers to a property in Dublin which was evidently well-established by then since mention is made of the need to repair a church and house. Whatever the facts, the Franciscans proved highly popular and over the course of the thirteenth century, some 45 friaries had been set up across the country, usually at the behest – and with the funding – of an important local family. Such was the case with the house at Ardfert, County Kerry established in 1253 by Thomas FitzMaurice who would be buried in the church close to the altar following his death in c.1280.
The remains of Ardfry Friary indicate it was a substantial building. The wide body of the church concludes in a five-lancet window. As was usual with mendicant houses, the church had no side aisles but in the 15th century a transept was added on the southern side. This has a handsome nine-lancet window removed from the building in 1670 and installed in nearby Ardfert Cathedral before being returned to its original location in the second decade of the 19th century. To the north of the church lie the remains of the cloister, only the eastern side being still intact. In the 15th century a six-storey tower was added to the complex at the western end of the church, presumably to provide secure accommodation for the friars during a period of considerable internal turmoil when even religious establishments were not safe from attack. Ultimately, like all other such houses, Ardfert Friary was closed down in the 16th century, after which it passed into the control of Colonel John Zouche, an English soldier at the time based in Munster. By the 1630s the property had passed into the possession of the Crosbie family with whom it remained until the last century.
Ardfert Friary today stands in the middle of what was once a landscaped park, with the religious house serving as a romantic ruin. It is hard to appreciate this now because the former Crosbie residence has gone. The family, originally called Mac an Chrosáin, were bards in Laois who in the 16th century moved to Kerry. There Sean Mac an Chrosáin changed his name to John Crosbie, converted to Anglicanism and in 1601 became Church of Ireland Bishop of Ardfert. It was his descendants who occupied the site of the old friary and who towards the end of the 17th century built themselves a new residence, named Ardfert Abbey. Surviving photographs give an idea of what the building looked like with the main block, its breakfront centre pedimented, flanked by two ranges that came forward to create an open forecourt (further outbuildings ran on either side). Internally the most striking room was the hall, its panelling painted in monochrome with a series of classical figures running around the walls. But there was also a fine early-18th century staircase and handsome early classical reception rooms. All survived intact until Ardfert Abbey was burnt in August 1922, the remains being subsequently demolished. As a result, visitors to the friary today only see part of the site’s history and can easily misread the setting in which the building stands. An important part of Ardfert’s history has been forever swept away so that what now remains tells only part of the tale.