Callan Augustinian Friary

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Order: Augustinian friars (OESA, Hermits of St Augustine)
Founded in 1461-1472
Founded by James Butler (d.1487)

The Place


Callan Augustinian friary was founded between 1461 and 1472 by the Butler family.  Today, only the friary church survives, standing in a meadow by Kings River – known locally as the ‘Abbey Meadow’ – across from where the medieval town was founded by William Marshal in 1207.  In 1461, Edmund Butler (d. 1464), a grandson of James, 3rd Earl of Ormond, obtained an authorisation from pope Pius II to establish a community of Augustinian friary in Callan, Co. Kilkenny. However, since Edmund was buried in Kilkenny Franciscan friary, it is more likely that his son James Butler (d. 1487) officially founded and built the friary.  This would have had to occur before 1472, the date when the order’s Prior General officially authorised the introduction of the Observant reform to Callan’s community.

The People


Sir Edmund Butler (d. 1464) was a grandson of James Butler, 3rd earl of Ormond (d.1405).  Like his father Sir Richard Butler (d.1443), Edmund served as the Lord Deputy to his cousin James Butler, 5th earl of Ormond who spent much of his career in England.  James was a staunch supporter of the House of Lancaster during the War of the Roses, and was eventually beheaded in 1461 by Yorkists after the Lancastrian defeat at the Battle of Towton.  Edmund was a powerful lord and munificent builder, constructing numerous castles, as well as the bridge of Carrick-on-Suir in 1447 – the first over the estuary. In 1462, during the Wars of the Roses, Edmund was enlisted by his second cousin John Butler, 6th earl of Ormond (d.1476), in his plan of opening another front against the Yorkists. Unfortunately, Edmund suffered a heavy defeat against the forces of the Earl of Desmond and was captured at the Battle of Pilltown. The story goes that Edmund’s ransom was paid with manuscripts from his own library, including the Psalter of Cashel and a Glossary written by Cormac mac Cuilennáin, tenth-century King-Bishop of Cashel, said to be the first comparative dictionary written in Europe.


Despite having obtained an authorisation from the pope to establish an Augustinian friary in Callan, historians believe his military setbacks and his death in 1464 prevented him to act upon it and see the foundation through, as he was buried at Kilkenny Franciscan friary and not in Callan.


His son sir James Butler is believed to have founded and built the friary, where he was buried in 1487. James fell in love with Sabh Kavanagh, whom he was related to, and lived with her unmarried for a number of years before he obtained a dispensation from Rome allowing him to marry her in 1467.  It is believed that James established the friary as an act of atonement for the sin of living in concubinage (the keeping of a concubine/ mistress) with a relative.


The community must have been well established by 1472, when the Prior General of the Augustinian friars, Giacomo D’Aquila, granted Callan friars Dermot O’Kane and Eugene O’Gavigan the permission to introduce the Observant reform to the friary, and to be affiliated with the great Augustinian monastery of Santa Maria Del Popolo in Rome, the head house of the Lombard Observant congregation. Callan became the centre of the Irish Augustinian Observant movement and was noted for its rich library and care for the poor.


Why visit?


At the Dissolution, the Callan friars were found in possession of some lands and of a church and domestic buildings typically associated with religious foundations, today only the church remains, standing in the middle of a meadow. But what survives is quite impressive and worth a look. The tower in particular, has tall and wide arches with an unusual feature underneath its north pillars, a fireplace, which might have been used to provide the burning charcoal needed in the use of the thurible during services and celebrations. Other notable elements include curvilinear tracery, and a carved and moulded west doorway. The most impressive features however, are the stunning piscina and sedilia located in the south wall of the chancel, with their ogee-headed, moulded arches decorated with carvings of elaborate foliate motifs. The friary was noted for its learned community and care of the poor, but also for its rich library, which contained duplicates of nearby Jerpoint abbey’s own books, and its beautiful altar plates. These, along with the architectural features described above, suggest that the friars were successful in attracting the patronage of wealthy benefactors in and around late-medieval Callan.


What happened?


1461:  Pope Pius II granted permission for the foundation of a house of Augustinian friars at Callan in response to a petition from Sir Edmund Butler


1462: Edmund Butler died and was buried in the Franciscan friary in Kilkenny City


1468-69: The friary was likely built at this time by James Butler, eldest son of Edmund, possibly in atonement for living in sin with a relative prior to 1467


1472:  Observant reform was introduced to Callan


1479: Callan became the centre of the Irish Augustinian observant congregation following a decree from prior general Ambrogio da Cora


1487: James Butler died and was buried in Callan friary as its founder


1499:  Fr Richard O’Knavin died in this year, and is commemorated on a tombstone in Callan friary


1502: Prior Donagh O’Maly and Friar William Barred bore witness to the authenticity of James butler’s will from 15 years prior


1540:  The friary was suppressed.  At the time, William O’Fogarty was the prior and the 3 acre site contained a church and belfry, dormitory, hall, three chambers, kitchen, gardens, etc


1541:  The friary was regarded as necessary for a local farmer and useful for the defence of the area and was not pulled down


1548: The friary was held by the executors of the late 9th earl of Ormond, James Butler, who had been poisoned while attending a feast at Ely House, Holborn in London


1557-8:  Sir Thomas Butler, 10th earl of Ormond (d.1614) was granted possession of the friary at Callan


1619: Patrick Comerford was elected prior and was succeeded by Nicholas Kearney


1648: The Augustinian friary at Callan were presented with the Comerford Kearney chalice, a gift from Henry Comerford and his wife, Ellina Kearney – likely relations of the recent priors.  The inscription read:

“Deo & Conuentui Dni Augni Callaniae Dnus Henricus Comerdord & Dina Ellina Kearney Uxor eius hunc Calicem dederunt : Ano 1648”

with a later inscription on the foot of the chalice reading:

“Priore tunc fre Nicholas Kearney” 

1658-9: Nicholas Kearney, prior of Callan in 1648, returned to Ireland to carry out missionary work, having been deported from Ireland in the 1650s, during which he had broken his foot


1661: The Augustinian friars returned to Callan after the restoration of Charles II


1673: William O’Shea, a native of Callan who had studied at the Irish College of Salamanca, was appointed prior of Callan friary


1766: A new monastery was built in Callan