A midsummer visit to the cathedral in Ardfert, County Kerry took place on what in Ireland is known as a ‘soft day.’; In other words, it was teeming with rain, which made the experience hard going. A village of some 750 persons, there is some discussion about what are the origins of the name Ardfert. It could mean a place on an eminence, or perhaps Ardfert derives from ‘Ard Ert’, meaning the high place of Ert or Erc, since a 5th century saint called Erc supposedly made this the seat of a bishopric, hard to imagine today in such a small spot. But the size of the cathedral remains testify to Ardfert’s former importance, as do the nearby substantial ruins of the former Franciscan friary (see An Incomplete Story, https://theirishaesthete.com/2017/11/13/ardfert).
One of Ireland’s most famous saints, Brendan is said to have founded a monastery in Ardfert in the 6th century. Believed to have been born about six miles south of here, at the age of 26 Brendan was ordained a priest by the aforementioned Saint Erc. As well as Ardfert, he established monasteries in a number of other locations but most famously his restless spirit is said to have led him, accompanied by 16 followers, across the Atlantic Ocean to the ‘Isle of the Blessed’ (what is today North America): the earliest known account of this epic journey was written around the year 900. Hence the saint is known as Brendan the Voyager. More information on his life and travels can be found in a piece written here four years ago (see The Traveller’s Rest, https://theirishaesthete.com/2015/12/14/clonfert).
Although the present cathedral at Ardfert was begun in the 11th century, the greater part of it dates from the 13th century, with battlements added to the exterior walls two centuries later again. An important surviving feature is the doorway at the west end of the building: it is a fine example of Hiberno-Romanesque decoration, with outward pointing chevrons around the doorcase flanked on either side by paired blind arches in the same style. Similar features can be found in what remains of Temple-na-hoe, a small church to the immediate north-west of the cathedral. Those battlements added in the 15th century indicate how turbulent were the times, and so it remained for almost 200 years. During the Desmond Rebellions of the 1570s and ‘80s, the building was attacked and severely damaged, but appears still to have been used for services. However, in 1641 during the Confederate Wars, the cathedral was gutted by fire and temporarily abandoned. Some thirty years later, the south transept was restored and used by the Church of Ireland congregation for services until 1871 when a new church was built in the village. Ardfert cathedral is now under the care of the Office of Public Works, with the south transept used as a visitor centre and display area for some items found on the site. It also provides welcome shelter on a soft day…
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.