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St.Francis's Abbey

Francis Abbey

The early history of the abbey

St Francis's Abbey is located at the northeastern end of the medieval Hightown of Kilkenny. The Franciscans came to Ireland in around 1226, and St Francis's Abbey was founded sometime between 1231, when its benefactor, Richard Marshall, succeeded his brother, William, as earl of Pembroke and lord of Leinster, and April 1234, when he died from wounds sustained in battle on the Curragh of Kildare. The first definite date for the abbey is October 15, 1245, when it received a royal grant for clothing.

The abbey started as a small rectangular chapel but then expanded as funds allowed, reaching out from the city walls to the River Nore and becoming important enough to hold the provincial chapters of the friars in 1267 and 1308. Development continued throughout the fourteenth, fifteenth and sixteenth centuries. This expansion was, however, rapidly halted with the dissolution of the monasteries in the sixteenth century.

On August 25, 1543, three years after its dissolution, the abbey was given by royal grant to Walter Archer, sovereign of the city and the Corporation of Kilkenny. In 1550, the friars were expelled by John Bale, 'bishop' of Ossory. They returned in 1553 during the reign of Queen Mary but were again expelled in 1559 when Elizabeth I succeeded her sister.

The post-dissolution recovery

During the reign of Elizabeth I, the abbey was turned to secular uses. The people of Kilkenny appealed to Walter Archer to use the church for worship, and in 1603, the city authorities voiced their request to Lord Mountjoy, the lord deputy, who refused. However, mass was being celebrated there in 1606, when a fine chalice was presented to the abbey by the Archer family. With the accession of James I, the monastery was rededicated, but the abbey had fallen into such a state of disrepair that it could not be used in 1612. Nevertheless, when the Franciscans returned to their old friary, the original high altar was still standing, and the friars continued to improve their abbey throughout the seventeenth century. There is a recorded succession of guardians from the dissolution of the monasteries up to the period of the Confederation of Kilkenny in the 1640s.

The friary's last days

Throughout the eighteenth century, the friars moved into parish work and the number of friars continued to decline. In 1766, there were only two friars left in the Kilkenny community, with a couple of other friars working as parish clergy in the diocese. The last friar was Fr Philip Forristal, who worked as a curate in the diocese rather than actually living in a Franciscan community. The Franciscan connection ended with his death in 1829.

The abbey grounds as a barracks

As the religious community of St Francis's Abbey suffered their demise so the abbey's secular interests continued to grow throughout the seventeenth century. According to the 'Clasped Book' of the Corporation of Kilkenny, the Franciscan Abbey was assigned for the building of a military barracks on September 19, 1698. On April 5, 1700, 'the waste of Francis's Abbey' was added to the former grant for building a barracks. This cavalry barracks was the first of three military barracks constructed in Kilkenny. The infantry barracks on the site of the Priory of St John was not built until 1780, and work did not begin at Ballybough Street until 1800.

Nineteenth-century developments

Writing in 1849, Reverend James Graves describes the ruins of St Francis's Abbey as 'the chancel and belfry tower, with a small fragment of the conventual buildings adjoining the south side of the latter.' At that time, the remains of the church were also used as a tennis court. During the 1880s, the abbey was sold to Mr William Morrissey, a hardware merchant, and in 1884, it was in the possession of Mrs Morrissey. As proprietor of the abbey, Mrs Morrissey took great care of her domain and had the floor of the chancel covered with a green carpet. By 1889, the abbey was no longer in private hands, becoming instead a national monument, and renovations were then begun by the Board of Works.

Early brewing activity

Originally, there were two breweries in operation on the grounds of St Francis's Abbey. In 1706, a fee-farm grant of part of the remains of the abbey was given to Richard Cole by the duke of Ormond. Cole established a partnership with John Smithwick, who came to Kilkenny in 1710. They operated as a small retail brewery and do not feature in the directories of the time, although Pigot's directory for 1824 lists Patrick Brennan as a distiller on the site of the abbey. Smithwicks Brewery expanded during the lifetime of John's son, Edmund (1800-76), who purchased a piece of freehold property through the Court of Chancery from the Ormond estate. This property was referred to as both a distillery and a brewery, indicating that at this stage Smithwicks bought out Brennan's distillery. A large nineteenth century brewery was constructed on the site purchased by Edmund Smithwick. In Slater's directory of 1856, only two brewers are listed in Kilkenny: Edmund Smithwick at St Francis's Abbey Brewery and Richard Sullivan in James Street. E. Smithwick and Sons was established as a private company in 1898 and continued to grow throughout the twentieth century. Sullivan's of James Street closed around 1914, and the property was bought some years later by Smithwicks Brewery.

The brewery continued to use a traditional nineteenth-century plant throughout the 1950s. In 1965, Smithwicks became a public company as part of Irish Ale Breweries. In the same year, Arthur Guinness, Son and Company (Dublin) Ltd. took complete financial control of the operation. A modernisation plan was launched in 1964 with the construction of a new brew house. A large fermentation block, a storage vessel block and packaging plant were also installed. This twentieth-century construction has subsequently been updated and replaced by a twenty-first century, computer-operated brewery.

The abbey site today

The remains of the abbey, as chronicled by Bassett in 1884, include the much-admired east window, which occupied nearly the whole of the gable and consisted of a cluster of seven lancet lights divided by slender mullions. This window looked out into the yard of Messers E. Smithwick and Sons, St Francis's Abbey Brewery. Due to the expansion of Smithwicks Brewery Since 1854, the nave and chancel of the abbey now survive within the grounds of the brewery. The sacristy has been restored as an oratory at the brewery. The well dedicated to St Francis, and long held in great veneration, is located about 45 metres to the northeast of the friary and is now underneath one of the brewery buildings. In 1969, excavations revealed a large transept and an aisle in the nave on the north side of the church in which some graves were found. The cloister was to the south and is now covered with buildings. There are numerous records of burials in the monastery graveyard, which has most likely been covered over by now. However, any further expansion on the site of St Francis's Abbey would present the possibility of its discovery.

(Printed by kind permission of Margaret Gowen)


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