The Carmelite Community
A BRIEF HISTORY OF THE CARMELITES IN IRELAND
The first mention of the Carmelite Order in Ireland is in a Charter of 1271 giving royal protection for five years. The Order’s first foundations in Ireland were at Leighlinbridge, Co. Carlow and in Dublin (very near the present site of Whitefriar Street Church) between 1274-1278. There followed a period of great development and by 1500 there were 25 monasteries in the country. The Act of Dissolution of Henry VIII took a heavy toll and by 1539 many of the monasteries were either closed or destroyed. However, some of them escaped, particularly those in the West and North because of their distance from Dublin.
On account of this the administration of the Order moved to Donegal where the O’Donnells still ruled. Red Hugh O’Donnell was a frequent visitor to the Carmelite Friary at Rathmullen, and the Flight of the Earls in the early seventeenth century took place in the shadow of its walls. From this difficult period we learn, for example, of the narrow escape of a Fr. Dillon who was within an inch of being captured by a priest-hunter and of a Fr. Egan who was betrayed by his Mass Server and had to leave the country under pain of death.
Despite the hardships of the reign of Henry VIII and the cruelties of the Cromwellian era the Order never died out. Indeed, as always in times of persecution there was great vitality and the Order actually increased in numbers. It was precisely in these years of persecution (1684-1737) that the harassed friars re-established the Irish Province. From about 1720 they made foundations in Ashe Street and French Street in Dublin. They named fourteen Superiors for 14 foundations in 1741 - among these were Kinsale, Knocktopher, Kildare and later Moate.
In the last two centuries some names were outstanding. Fr. Bennett was President of All Hallows College, Dublin and taught there. He founded secondary schools in Dominic Street and Terenure (now the oldest educational establishment the Order has) and was Chaplain to the South Dublin Union (later St. Kevin’s and now St. James’ Hospital). Fr. John Francis Spratt founded a number of schools in Dublin including a School of Industry. He was deeply involved in charitable activities in Dublin, especially the Sick and Indigent Roomkeeper’s Society. He built the church in Whitefriar Street in 1827 and salvaged the statue of Our Lady of Dublin which today is found in the Church. He opened St. Joseph’s Night Refuge and was responsible in large part for the Home for the Blind in Merrion.
Since 1881 the Irish Province of Carmelites has taken on programmes of unprecedented expansion. In 1881 a group of five Carmelites left Dublin for Australia where they made their first foundation at Gawler, near Adelaide. Today a flourishing Australian Province, which was established in 1933, is a testimony to their zeal. In 1889 another group of Carmelites left Dublin for New York at the invitation of the City’s Archbishop. This is now the Province of St. Elias.
It had been the hope of succeeding generations of Irish Carmelites to restore the old English Province, which had disappeared in the suppression of Henry VIII. It was not until 1926 that the realisation of this ambition began when Irish Carmelites took charge of the parishes of Faversham and Sittingbourne in Kent. To these were added a foundation in Walesin 1935. In 1949 their greatest dream was realised when the most famous of all Carmelite monasteries in England was returned to the Order - the ancient Monastery of Aylesford on the Medway in Kent.
Probably the most outstanding achievement was the establishment of missions in Rhodesia, now Zimbabwe, in 1946, where there is now a strong and active mission.