Beggars and Artisans: A Cultural History of Cork’s Franciscan Friary / A Lost Medieval Friary

Student Exhibition, MA in Medieval History

Beggars and Artisans: A Lost Medieval Friary

Historical maps of Cork city give a clear indication about the location of the medieval Franciscan friary. UCC’s Special Collections houses a copy of the Civitates Orbis Terrarum or Cities of the World, a six-volume work, first published in Cologne and Antwerp between 1572 and 1618. The publication presents bird’s-eye views, maps and plans of all major cities of the world and its sixth volume contains a page with maps of the four Irish cities, namely Dublin, Galway, Limerick and Cork, the latter is pictured below and was the subject of the online exhibition created by the MA in Medieval History students in 2020.

A map of Cork from the early 17th century. The map is oriented west-east. The city is walled and surrounded by marshes and river. The city encompasses North Main Street and the various laneways.
Map of Cork, Civitates Orbis Terrarum, Cologne, 1618, edited by Georg Braun, engravings by Abraham Hogenberg. Special Collections, UCC Library.

The Civitates map of Cork marks the Franciscan friary with number 3 and shows it as being positioned on the north bank of the river Lee, in the vicinity of the bridge. The map is oriented east-west, so the Franciscan church features on the left, which is north, with two other mendicant churches of the Dominicans (number 4) and Augustinians (number 9) being located on the right side of the map, which corresponds to the south side of the city.

The size of the medieval Franciscan friary was restricted by topographical features of the river to the south and the red sandstone cliff to the north of the friary complex. Evidence concerning the medieval structure of the friary is limited, but its size and appearance can be discerned from documentary sources, archaeological excavations and early modern maps.

A 17th century map of Cork oriented west-east. The Franciscan friary is on the right of the map. The city is walled and surrounded by river.
Map of Cork, published in Pacata Hibernia, London, 1633 (detail). The text of Pacata Hibernia deals with the Elizabethan wars in Ireland. The map of Cork is oriented west-east with the city’s north side shown on the right side of the map. The Franciscan friary (‘Sanden Abby’) is on the right side of the map. Map from the 1810 reprint, Special Collections, UCC Library.

On the Pacata Hibernia map, the church of St Francis is visible on the north side of the city (right side of the map), where it is labelled as ‘Sanden Abby’ meaning Shandon Abbey. As on the Civitates map, here the church also appears as a simple structure, possibly having one nave. The Civitates map displays a side transept and the Pacata Hibernia map indicates the existence of a tower. Early modern sources, such as Annales Minorum compiled by a Franciscan historian Luke Wadding (1588-1657) state that the church was a notable one, divided in two parts by high columns, which may imply that columns separated the nave from the transept. In 1541, following the dissolution of the monasteries, the church and its tower were to be demolished: this confirms that the friary indeed had a bell tower, which was a typical architectural feature of mendicant Irish churches. The seventeenth-century Pacata Hibernia map retains the tower, in spite of chronological discrepancies regarding the tower’s demolition.

Archaeological surveys of Cork’s medieval Franciscan friary are limited, however the findings on the site of the Dominican friary of St Mary’s of the Isle provide important comparative information on the architectural structure and decorative elements of mendicant houses in medieval Cork. In both cases, a friary complex consisted of a church, most likely with one nave and a tower, and conventual buildings that were grouped around a central cloister. Cork Public Museum houses a collection of architectural fragments from St Mary’s Dominican site, such as parts of ornate window arches and funerary stone slabs.

A fragment of a double ogee-headed window, now inserted into the wall of the Distillery House on Wise’s Hill, was found in the nineteenth century near the site of the medieval friary and probably came the Franciscan house.

Drawing of a double ogee-headed window, now inserted into the wall on Wise’s Hill. The letters S, B, M and C are present on the stone.
Drawing of a double ogee-headed window, now inserted into the wall on Wise’s Hill. From Michael Holland, ‘The Monastery of St. Francis at Cork’, The Journal of the Cork Historical and Archaeological Society 23 (1917), 122.

In 1804, during the construction of houses on the North Mall, which was the site of the medieval Franciscan friary, some stone coffins were found and subsequently recorded in 1852. The description of burials was cited in the 1917 volume of The Journal of Cork Historical and Archaeological Society: ‘The red stone rock which rises perpendicularly at the back of the buildings had on ledges at various heights coffins cut out of the solid stone, and the lid fitting so closely that to the casual observer it would appear to be part of the original rock’. The now-lost medieval Franciscan friary is still remembered in the street names, such as North Abbey Street and North Abbey Square.

By the time Father Donatus Mooney, OFM, Ireland’s minister provincial, visited all Franciscan houses in Ireland possibly between 1615 and 1616, the friary had been mostly dismantled following the dissolution of the monasteries. All that remained by that time were the ruined walls of the church and as Mooney recorded the place was ‘inhabited by an English Protestant, who has erected a dwelling house within the precincts’. As a result of the friary’s destruction, the friars of St Francis were forced to inhabit a rented house in the city.

Later maps of Cork allow us to trace the subsequent history of the friary building. The 1801 map does not show the Franciscan friary, as it was no longer extent at that time, yet it displays the area where it had been originally positioned by retaining the name of North Abbey.

Beauford's Map of Cork, 1801.
Map of Cork, 1801. The site of the medieval Franciscan friary is noted only by the name of North Abbey, seen on the enlarged detail of the map (below). Special Collections, UCC Library.
Detail from William Beauford's map of Cork focusing on the North Mall which includes a reference to 'North Abbey.'
Map of Cork, 1801 (detail). Special Collections, UCC Library.

A sketch pictured below and dated to 1831 shows the remains of the Franciscan friary, which were demolished in 1836 during the construction of buildings on present-day Abbey Square. The arches pictured in the centre of the sketch were identified as remnants of the medieval friary building and may have been part of a cloister arcade.

A sketch showing arches from the old medieval friary on the now North Mall in Cork. These arches are surrounded by buildings.
Sketch by T.C. Croker dated 1831, showing arches that were identified as part of the medieval friary. From Michael Holland, ‘The Monastery of St. Francis at Cork’, The Journal of the Cork Historical and Archaeological Society 23 (1917), 121.

A map below (created on OpenMap ) shows archaeological sites located in the area of the medieval Franciscan friary. The two red dots mark the sites of archaeological importance: the dot placed closer to the river references the friary, the red dot north of that shows the location of the holy well.

Map created on OpenMap showing archaeological sites in the area of the medieval Franciscan friary. A dot closest the river references the firary and a dot further north references a holy well.

The photograph below, reproduced in the 1953 Franciscan Cork, shows the houses on the North Mall and suggests the location of medieval sections of the friary: number 1 indicates the place of arches noted in the 1831 sketch and number 2 shows the site regarded as the entrance to a Franciscan well.

Photo of North Mall in Cork. Two points are placed on the photograph to indicate where remains of the old medieval friary were.
Photo taken from North Gate Bridge, c.1953. Number 1 indicates arches seen in T.C. Croker’s sketch (above), and number 2 indicates the entrance to a well. Image from Franciscan Cork: A Souvenir of St. Francis Church, Cork (1953), 10. Special Collections, UCC Library.

Although there is no longer a physical structure on the site of Cork’s medieval Franciscan friary, place names on the North Mall recall this once prominent building that Luke Wadding described as ‘a mirror of the whole Ireland’.

Morgan Hole

Further reading

Cork City Council, Heritage Churches of County Cork (Cork, 2015).

Holland, Michael, ‘The Monastery of St. Francis at Cork’, The Journal of the Cork Historical and Archaeological Society 23 (1917), 121-125.

Hurley, Maurice F. and Sheehan, Cathy M., Excavations at the Dominican Priory: St Mary’s of the Isle, Crosse’s Green, Cork (Cork, 1995).

Kelleher, Hilary, McCarthy, Fintan and Brett, Ciara, ed., Cork City’s Burial Places: A Study of the Cemeteries, Graveyards and Burial Places within Cork City (Cork, 2011).

Mooney, Canice, ‘Franciscan Architecture in Pre-Reformation Ireland (Part I),’ The Journal of the Royal Society of Antiquaries of Ireland 85 (1955), 133-173. 

Mooney, Canice, ‘Franciscan Architecture in Pre-Reformation Ireland (Part II),’ The Journal of the Royal Society of Antiquaries of Ireland 86 (1956), 125-167. 

Mooney, Canice, ‘Franciscan Architecture in Pre-Reformation Ireland (Part III),’ The Journal of the Royal Society of Antiquaries of Ireland 87 (1957), 1–38. 

O’Callaghan, Jerome, Franciscan Cork: A Souvenir of St. Francis Church Cork (Killiney, 1953).

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