It is difficult to visualize today, but the mediaeval friary in the centre of Ennis, County Clare originally stood on an island at a point where the river Fergus divided. The exact date of its establishment is uncertain, but the Franciscan order is believed to have been invited to open a new house here towards the middle of the 13th century: Donnchadh Ó Briain, King of Thomond is often credited with being responsible for this shortly before his death in 1242. Thereafter the friary and its grounds became the preferred burial place for generations of O’Briens and MacNamaras, the two ruling families in this part of the country. Frequently in reparation for their misdeeds over the next three centuries they gave the friars, who had little source of income, many gifts such as vestments, chalices, stained glass and books.
The advantages of having rich and generous patrons can be seen throughout what remains of Ennis Friary. As the community expanded, so the building work continued. In 1314, for example, Maccon Caech MacNamara added a sacristy and refectory to the site. And a the start of the 15th century, the handsome cloister – only sections of which survive – was constructed along with the south transept: the belfry tower dates from around 1475.
Ennis Friary contains many fine limestone carvings, mostly dating from the 15th and early 16th centuries. One of these depicts St Francis, founder of the Franciscan order, with his stigmata on display. Another shows the Virgin and Child, and a third is an affecting image of Ecce Homo, the words uttered by Pontius Pilate in St John’s Gospel when Christ, having been scourged and crowned with thorns, was presented to a hostile crowd. One of the most interesting features in the building is a series of carved panels with scenes from Christ’s Passion dating from a late-15th century tomb erected by the MacMahon family and recycled in the 1840s for a monument to the Creagh family. Unfortunately this has been placed behind glass and spotlit – making it almost impossible to photograph. A copy of the tomb stands on the site of the original in the former chancel.
Ennis Friary, like other such establishments, was suppressed in the 16th century but seemingly members of the Franciscan order continued in residence until at least 1570, thereafter being obliged to remain secretly in Ennis. In the early 17th century, Donough O’Brien, fourth Earl of Thomond handed over the site to the Church of Ireland, and services began to be held in the old church. Other parts of the site were used for legal proceedings, the former sacristy becoming a courtroom. The Church of Ireland remained here until 1871 when a new church elsewhere in the town opened and within a couple of decades the friar’s church had lost its roof. It was returned to the Franciscan order in 1969 but is now managed by the Office of Public Works which ten years ago embarked on a somewhat controversial programme of restoration when the decision was taken to re-roof the main body of the church and, as mentioned, to place the MacMahon/Creagh Tomb behind glass.