The Irish Franciscans in Prague 1629–1786
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published: march 2015
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At the end of the sixteenth century, Queen Elizabeth I forced the Irish Franciscans into exile. Of the four continental provinces to which the Irish Franciscans fled, the Prague Franciscan College of the Immaculate Conception
of the Virgin Mary was the largest in its time. This monograph documents this intense point of contact between
two small European lands, Ireland and Bohemia. The Irish exiles changed the course of Bohemian history in significant
ways, both positive — the Irish students and teachers of medicine who contributed to Bohemia’s culture and sciences— and negative — the Irish officers who participated in the murder of Albrecht of Valdštejn and their successors who served in the Imperial forces. Dealing with a hitherto largely neglected theme, Parez and Kucharová attempt
to place the Franciscan College within Bohemian history and to document the activities of its members. This wealth of historical material from the Czech archives, presented in English for the first time, will be of great aid for international researchers, particularly those interested in Bohemia or the Irish diaspora.
In October 1620, Imperial troops entered the southern Bohemian town of Strakonice. Dominicus a Jesu Maria, a Spanish carmelite who was spiritual adviser to the Duke of Bavaria, Maximilian I, discovered a painting of the Adoration of the Shepherds among the rubble. The retreating czech troops had deliberately mutilated the painting, slicing out the eyes of all in the scene apart from the infant in the manger. Shocked by this desecration, the carmelite vowed to atone for the insult offered to the Virgin. consciously modelling himself on John of capistrano, a fierce opponent of the Hussites, he carried the image before the troops at the Battle of the White mountain outside Prague on 8 November. Since the resounding catholic victory was attributed to the intercession of the Virgin of Strakonice, the painting became an important relic for all of catholic Europe. Following calls to bring it to Rome, Dominicus a Jesu Maria arrived in the eternal city on 9 December 1621 and deposited the image in the basilica of Santa Maria Maggiore. Five months later on Sunday night 8 May 1622, the painting was translated in solemn procession to its permanent home, the church of the discalced carmelites on monte cavallo, a church that was originally dedicated to S. Paul, but now renamed Santa Maria della Vittoria in honour of the catholic victory at the battle of the White mountain.
Luke Wadding, resident in Rome since late 1618, must have been aware of these happenings. Whether he was apprised of the savage methods employed by the emperor to suppress the Bohemian revolt, such as the ritualized public execution of twenty-seven of the most prominent rebels in Old Town Square, Prague on 21 June 1621, and the subsequent exile of nearly one quarter of the Protestant nobility, we simply do not know. Yet in little more than a decade Wadding was actively involved in aiding the introduction of the Irish Franciscans to Prague, whose foundation must be considered part of the benign and persuasive aspect of the re-catholicization of Bohemia. The serious attention he gave to this project is indicated by the fact that he put over seventy items of correspondence relating to this institution into a separate register in the archives of S. Isidore's.
Despite the fact that Wadding had founded Collegio S. Isidoro in Rome in 1625, overcrowding at Leuven led the Irish friars there to consider the need for yet another Irish college on the continent. In early 1629 Malachy Fallon was dispatched from Leuven to central Europe to search out the possibilities of a foundation in the empire. Writing back to his superior from Vienna on 13 March he recommended Prague over Vienna, adding that Cardinal Ernst Adalbert von Harrach, Archbishop of Prague, was most kindly disposed to the idea. The cardinal gave his written consent on 18 April, while Eemperor Ferdinand II issued the chart of foundation on November 29. Patrick Fleming, the first guardian of the new foundation, arrived in Prague from Leuven in the middle of November 1630 and began working on a site previously chosen by Fallon. The new college, consecrated to the Immaculate Conception of the Virgin Mary, was inaugurated on 6 June 1631. These auspicious beginnings, however, were followed by the Elector of Saxony's invasion of Bohemia. Fearing reprisals, many of the Catholic clergy, including Fleming, decided to leave Prague in advance of the Saxon occupation. As he headed for Vienna to make arrangements for the other Irish friars, Fleming and his confrère Matthew Hare were set upon by peasants and murdered near the village of Benešov on 7 November 1631.
Undaunted by this setback, the Irish Franciscans returned to Prague after the withdrawal of the invading forces, but were soon faced with fresh problems when the Capuchins objected to the Irish building a college so close to a site which they themselves had chosen for a friary. In face of the Capuchin's wish to expel the Irish, the beleaguered exiles turned to Wadding for help, who came to their aid writing a series of letters on their behalf to the emperor, his wife Eleonora Gonzaga, queen consort of both Hungary and Bohemia, Archbishop von Harrach and the nuncio. Eventually the problem faded away, no doubt helped by the fact that Archbishop von Harrach wanted the Irish friars to teach in his new diocesan seminary, then under construction.
While the Irish priority was the provision of suitable formation for their young candidates, they could not ignore the aims of their patrons, the emperor and the archbishop, both of whom wished to make use of the Irish in the re-Catholicization of Bohemia. though both men emphasised the role of education in this process, their views on what this education entailed were diametrically opposed. Whereas Ferdinand wanted the impetus to come from the Jesuit-controlled university, Ernst Adalbert, on the contrary, wished to break the power of the Jesuits and emphasise the importance of the seminary. Forced to steer a middle course between the two divergent views, the Irish friars found themselves teaching in the seminary as well as in their own college. the fact that they were well qualified was a boon to the archbishop, at a time when the other orders, due to the upheavals in Bohemia, could not supply a sufficient number of trained lecturers to staff the seminary. Furthermore, the archbishop considered the Irish attachment to Scotism an able weapon in breaking the Jesuit monopoly of Catholic education. If the archbishop considered the Irish a solution to his problems, however, they soon created additional difficulties for him. though their commitment to supplying eight lecturers was admirable, four in theology and four in philosophy, the statutes of the college required that they be chosen proportionately from the four main regions of Ireland Connaught, Leinster, Munster and Ulster, two from each province. Failure to adhere to this policy caused much unease in the college, whereas the archbishop, whose primary concern was to run his seminary as efficiently as possible, had little patience with what he considered, not unreasonably, to be local squabbles. Initially exasperated by the Irish take-over of the seminary, the other religious orders exploited this bickering to regain what they considered to be their rightful role in the seminary formation.
Whereas the irish Franciscan colleges of Leuven and Rome, founded in 1607 and 1625 respectively, have been well covered by historians, Prague on the other hand, though catering at times for over fifty students, has been almost neglected. The work under review, a translation of a monograph that appeared in czech in the year 2000, is the first comprehensive work in English to be devoted to the history of the college of the immaculate conception. As such it is to be warmly welcomed, given that Jan Pařez and Hedvika Kuchařová have consulted essential archival material in the czech language, a task beyond the capacity of most anglophone scholars. The availability of this work in English also means that a proper comparative study of the three main irish Franciscan continental colleges can now be initiated. one of the strengths of the book is the list of all the members of the college from its foundation in 1629 to its dissolution in 1786. one can easily trace in a thumb-sketch the careers of over four hundred and seventy irish friars both on the continent and back in the home province, including the various functions they filled in the service of the order. Also useful is the attention the authors give to the material culture of the college.
Since Pařez and Kuchařová's research was initially geared towards a Czech readership, some features that they have taken for granted may have warranted more explanation for anglophone readers. While the former would be aware of the fundamental role that the artist Karel Škréta played in the re-Catholicization of Bohemia, the latter would not realise just how big a coup it was to have such a renowned artist employed in decorating the chapels of the irish college. The authors were well aware of this difficulty and realised as well that incorporating the advances made in irish history in the last twenty years would have entailed writing a brand new book. This would have hindered in no small way their primary aim of making the material in czech archives available to an English speaking readership as soon as possible.
One way of confronting this challenge is to read their book in conjunction with Howard Louthman's Converting Bohemia: Force and Persuasion in Catholic Reformation (Cambridge 2009). Indeed, some of the strategies employed by the architects of the catholic Reformation in Bohemia, such as the creation of a catholic history of the country, the emphasis placed on indigenous saints, and the provision of catholic catechetical material in czech, would have found a ready resonance with Irish friars who had already served in Leuven where similar projects were undertaken for their own country. The emperors' public promotion of the doctrine of the Immaculate Conception in Czech lands, both Ferdinand II and Ferdinand III, would also have resonated well with the Irish Franciscans whose research on Scotus in Leuven and Rome led to numerous treatises on this doctrine. Cardinal Archbishop von Harrach would doubtlessly have been made aware of this when he visited Wadding in S. Isidoro in 1637. Indeed, the Irish friars' dedication of the Prague college to the Immaculate Conception in 1631 anticipated by nearly twenty years the erection of a Marian column in Vienna in 1647 and one in Prague in 1650, not to mention the oath supporting the doctrine of the Immaculate conception that Ferdinand III compelled all masters and degree candidates to swear in the universities of Vienna and Prague in 1649 and 1650 respectively.
Pařez and Kuchařová are to be congratulated on the research they have conducted in czech archives on this little-known period of Irish Franciscan history and on making their work available to a wider audience. It is now up to Irish scholars to engage with them and shed further light on the Irish continental
Mícheál Mac Craith, OFM, ARCHIVUM FRANCISCANUM HISTORICUM, Annus 109, Ianuarius - Iunius 2016 - Fasc. 1-2, p. 370-373
‘Unruly, fractious, disreputable’ – Irish Franciscans in Prague In 1629 the Irish College founded there was the third on European continent
The story of the waves of emigration forced on the Catholic Irish by the consolidation of English Protestant power in Ireland in the 17th and 18th centuries is well-known.
Members of the Gaelic and Old English aristocracies, soldiers, priests and students fled largely to the Catholic monarchies of France, Spain and Austria. The Holy Roman Empire, a vast complex of around 1,000 semi-autonomous political units under the loose rule of the Austrian Hapsburg emperors, was particularly welcoming.
Many of them ended up in Prague, capital of the kingdom of Bohemia where, after the 1620 Battle of White Mountain ended the first phase of the Thirty Years War, a parallel process of trying to suppress Protestantism was taking place.
Numerous noble Irish Catholic families – Butlers, D’Altons, Kavanaghs, Maguires, Nugents, O’Briens, O’Donnells, Taaffes and many others – settled in Bohemia and became officers in the Austrian imperial army.
Some of those officers would be rewarded by Emperor Ferdinand II with Bohemian estates for their role in the notorious murder of Albrecht von Wallenstein, the emperor’s successful but over-ambitious supreme commander in that war.
In 1629 a group of Irish Franciscans founded the College of the Immaculate Conception of the Virgin Mary in Prague, primarily as an institution to train missionaries to minister to their persecuted co-religionists in Ireland.
This was the third Irish Franciscan college on the continent, following Louvain (founded in 1607) and St Isidore’s College in Rome (1625).
The early leaders of the college were impressive men. Malachy Fallon, a brilliant theologian from Louvain, had been sent to Vienna to explain the plight of Irish Catholics and to request permission from the emperor to establish another Franciscan college in his empire.
Patrick Fleming, the first head of the college (or guardian), a “resolute and fervent young man”, arrived in Prague in November 1630 to oversee the erection of the college’s first building.
He was there just a year when he was murdered on the road to Vienna by villagers who may have been acting out of religious fanaticism or just the latent mob violence that was endemic during those years of war, famine and plague.
From the mid-17th century – with the intensification of anti-Catholic persecution under Cromwell – the numbers of Irish religious in Prague increased. The 18 friars in 1634 had risen to more than 50 by 1654.
They were much in demand as teachers of philosophy and theology at the archbishop of Prague’s new seminary, where tuition had been delayed by a Protestant Saxon invasion, and knowledgeable tutors were few and far between.
However, the problems that would come to haunt the college were already apparent. Quarrels between friars from the different Irish provinces seemed to be there almost from the beginning. As early as 1647 a row broke out between Munster and Ulster factions over who should be the new guardian.
These continued throughout the century and reached their height in the 1730s with a visitation led by the archbishop of Prague. The college had grown to 67 members by this point, but clearly they were an unruly, fractious and disreputable lot.
The visitators concluded that discipline, Masses and spiritual exercises were all very much neglected; subordinates had little respect for their superiors; and community life was not maintained (with, for example, aristocratic visitors being well fed while Brothers went hungry).
There were occasional “violent excesses” between factions and the unfortunate practice of friars being able to keep part of the alms collected for the college for their own use.
Despite this, the college continued to perform its primary role of training missionary priests: between 1756 and 1783 up to 115 of these were probably sent back to Ireland.
However, it came as no great surprise when Emperor Joseph II – as part of his new policy to deal a “final blow to the lush baroque way of life which was coming to an end in the monasteries, friaries and colleges” – moved to close the college in 1786. The college church is now a music theatre, but there is still a Hybernská ulice (Hibernian Street) in central Prague.
The English version of a new book, The Irish Franciscans in Prague 1629-1786, by Jan Parez and Hedvika Kucharová, will be launched at the Royal Irish Academy in Dublin this evening [Tuesday, April 28th] at 6 pm.
Andy Pollak was founding director of the Centre for Cross Border Studies and is a former Irish Times religious affairs correspondent
Andy Pollak, The Irish Times, Tue, Apr 28, 2015, 00:01