The local farmer who took care of the old Penal graveyard in Tisaran, Co. Offaly told us a little of the history of the place. He showed us some of the work he had done cutting the grass, and the ivy from the stone walls. He then said; “Ten monks are supposed to be coming down here for a Mass tonight.” He went on to smile; “Ye wouldn’t happen to be three of them would ye?”We were in Tisaran, in the Parish of Ferbane, Co. Offaly, to be part of the Jubilee celebrations of the local Church there dedicated to Sts. Patrick and Saran. St. Saran was a local saint who ministered in that area fifteen hundred years ago. The monastic site of Clonmacnoise is further east, on the banks of the river Shannon, the next parish in fact.
Another reason we were there was because one of the first Irish Capuchin Franciscans, Fr. Stephen Daly is buried in that small rural cemetery of Tisaran. He died at the age of 45 in the year 1620 having returned to the little parish five years before.
Stephen was born up the road in the 1570’s and left the area to join the newly formed Capuchin reform of the Franciscan Order in Europe. He was ordained to the priesthood and ministered in Belgium. He felt called to return to Ireland and landed back in Dublin in 1615 and made his way to Offaly to his home parish in the diocese of Ardagh and Clonmacniose.
Life in rural Ireland for Catholics was much different than on the continent and in Catholic Belgium when Fr. Stephen began his ministry. The Penal laws were beginning to come into force and some few years later they would be at their strongest. Many Catholics were forced to embrace the Protestant reform or starve. Priests and religious were hunted and spied upon and for generations, people who wanted to practice their faith had to do so underground. It was on ancient Irish ‘Mass Rocks’ that a priest offered the Holy Sacrifice with some of the poor congregation keeping a look out for soldiers. The friars were used to living in community and poverty in Europe and there they were very visible in their Capuchin habits and long beards. In Ireland this was forbidden and the first four friars in Ireland had to dress in secular clothes. They also lived their religious life apart from each other and in fear of capture and worse. The friars in the later years were bolstered by new arrivals from Europe but with the Penal Laws it was almost impossible to minister. Hardship, illness, and even martyrdom awaited a zealous catholic. (cf. the Irish Martyrs for example)
One famous Irish success story however in the years before the Great Famine of the 1840’s was Kilkenny Capuchin Fr. Theobald Mathew, the Apostle of Temperance. He succeeded in calling people to take the pledge against alcohol and at a time when the country was brought to its knees by famine and emigration; so many people addicted to drink were supported in the virtue of Temperance. The Capuchin order died out in Ireland and it was only when a mission left Belgium in the 1870’s that the present-day Capuchin Province was reformed in 1885.
We friars travelled to be part of the Jubilee celebrations of Tisaran Parish and to pay fraternal tribute to Fr. Stephen, our Capuchin brother among his own fellow county women and men. We were warmly welcomed by the local clergy; Fr. Frankie Murray PP. And Fr. Tom Cox CC. Fr. Frankie had a fantastic supper laid on for us and where he was expecting 10 friars (monks) 14 turned up and eat him out of ‘house and home!’ In the spirit of the rule of St. Francis; “The Friars shall eat what is set before them.” And we certainly did!
When we travelled out the road to the old grave-yard, seats were set up and an altar and candles and flowers prepared. We offered Mass with many of the local people who made us feel so welcome. At Mass, led by our Capuchin Provincial Minister, Fr. Des McNaboe, with a homily powerfully preached by Capuchin historian Fr. Paul Murphy, we paid tribute to St. Saran and the other saints of the locality; Sts. Mel and Ciarán. We also recalled the faith handed on to us by those mighty women and men who selflessly passed it on at the cradle and by the fireside here in Ireland and all over the world. We prayed with our Capuchin brother, Stephen Daly who we look up to as a trail-blazer for the faith in his time.At a time when the Irish Church is suffering once again, this time for reasons other than Penal Laws, this time acknowledging the criminal sexual abuse of children by priests and religious, and the cover-up and denial of this by many in leadership, we draw strength from people like Fr. Stephen Daly. We also drew strength from selfless and holy religious, priests, fellow women and men, our parents, and others, gone before us who inspire us to this day and who urge us on.
“Let us begin again, because up to now we have done nothing.” St. Francis of Assisi