The medieval ruins of Buttevant’s Franciscan Friary are located to the rear of St Mary’s Catholic Church on the Main Street. The Friary, clearly visible from the Main St, housed a thriving, vibrant religious community from the middle of the thirteenth to the sixteenth century.
The Normans appreciated the importance of religious belief in people’s lives. They had built an abbey for the Augustinian Order in nearby Ballybeg in 1229 and in 1251 work commenced on the Franciscan Friary. Professor Tadhg O’Keeffe, of University College Dublin, identifies a number of phases in the friary’s development. It was rectangular at first; later a transept was added, with a fashionable triumphal arch that faced southwards, towards Barry’s Castle. The Bell Tower, always integral to the overall plan, was built in the final phase and placed equidistant from both gables of the friary.
While the Franciscan Friary was home to a mendicant order that lived by preaching and begging, their patrons, the Barry family, financed several major redevelopments of the friary. Over the centuries, these expansions showed the growing wealth and power of the Barrys. But, the Friary also reminds us of the cycles of history. The Friary had major calamities during its history, and one stands out over the others: in 1814 the great Bell Tower collapsed.” Even though silent for a long time, the Bell Tower had dominated the ruined Friary for centuries. Before that, the Bell Tower regulated the monks’ daily lives: its tolling called them to regular prayer and worship. Now, it is a lasting reminder of the monastic religious lives of the Brothers of St Francis.
The collapse of the Bell Tower greatly damaged an already fragile and crumbling structure. Fortunately, during the 1850s, groups of people were inspired to promote an appreciation of what our ancestors had bequeathed to us in the way of language, music, games and our built heritage. Among these were eminent architects and antiquarians. With the enthusiastic co-operation of Canon Buckley, who built St Mary’s Catholic Church, the rubble in the interior of the Friary nave and chancel was removed and architectural remnants or spolia were collected and inserted in the north wall, as a “sort of medieval museum for the curious,” as the antiquarian, Richard Brash described it. As well as architectural fragments, they also collected a large quantity of human remains and bones, and for some years these provided a ghoulish interest for visitors. In the fairly recent past, the bones were reinterred in the crypt under the friary.