History of the Irish Province of the Augustinian Order


The Province of Ireland was established in 1620, under the patronage of Our Lady of Good Counsel. It’s official name is ‘the Province of Ireland’ (Provincia Hiberniae). It was founded from its mother province, the Province of England as it then was. The move towards making Ireland an independent province had already begun some years earlier, when an Irish friar, Dermot McGrath was authorised by the prior general in 1612 to assess the strength of the order in Ireland with a view to establishing a separate province. Fr. McGrath travelled to the places in Ireland where the friars still lived in the vicinity of their ruined houses (religious houses had been suppressed in 1539-40 by decree of the English king, Henry VIII) and reported back to Rome that there were almost thirty members of the order in the country, with six friaries still in existence. On the strength of this report, Dermot McGrath was appointed Provincial of the new province at the General Chapter of 1620. On his return to Ireland, Fr. McGrath’s ship was attacked by pirates and he was robbed of his possessions including his letters of testimonial of appointment. Without these letters, his Irish confreres would not accept him as their Provincial. On appeal to Rome, he was confirmed in office and the Irish Province finally became a reality in 1624. The Province had some 22 communities prior to the Reformation, but following their suppression by the agents of Henry VIII, there only six remaining as already mentioned. These difficulties with England perhaps played a part in the move to establish an independent Province despite the small number of friars and friaries to begin with.

Province Activities

In the beginning, the main activities of the Province were preaching and the administration of the sacraments. Friars living in the difficult years of the 17th century tried to remain close to their people as circumstances would permit. Nowadays, the work of the Irish Province also included secondary school administration and teaching; parish ministry; overseas missionary work; hospital chaplaincy; lecturing in third-level institutions and also retreat work.

Significant Historical Events

The Order in common with other religious orders at the time suffered from the dissolution of religious houses under Henry VIII in England. In common with Irish people generally, they suffered persecution on account of their faith particularly during the Cromwellian period (1649-1651) and subsequently under the restrictions of the Penal Laws (mainly 18th century and early 19th century). It was during this period that Irish friars went in search of a house on continental Europe for the training of priests who would minister subsequently in Ireland and eventually settled in Rome in 1656. Today we have St. Patrick’s College, with our church, which is also the Irish National Church in Rome. In the late 18th and throughout the 19th century, a number of Irish friars travelled to the United States of America and were instrumental in what became to be known as ‘the American Mission’, working in Philadelphia especially and helping to found Villanova University (1840s). This mission was raised to the level of a Province of the Order in 1874. A curious circumstance in this event is that at the beginning of the American Mission in 1796, the mission itself had been officially designated ‘the province of Our Lady of Good Counsel’!! This was purely a legal term, for in reality it did not exist and when it did come into existence, it was under a different title, ‘Villanova Province’. The 19th century also witnessed the arrival of the first Augustinian missionaries in Australia. They came from Ireland and helped to establish the Order in Australia, leading to the founding of the Australian Province in 1952. In 1864, Irish friars went to Hoxton, London and began the work of eventually re-establishing the English/Scottish Province in 1977. In 1940, the Irish Province took charge of a mission territory in Northern Nigeria. A decision to found the Order in Nigeria was taken in 1973 and Nigeria became a full Province in 2001. Irish Augustinians, Bishop Anthony Dalton, Timothy Cotter, Louis Senan O’Donnell served in Maiduguri and Yola dioceses. Presently, Bishop Francis Sheehan, formerly of Yola diocese is bishop of Kano diocese. From the work of establishing an indigenous church, native Nigerian vocations have come to the Order and some together with Irish friars now serve in Nairobi in what is now the Delegation of Kenya. This work in Kenya began in the early 1990s. Earlier, in the 1980s, the Province answered a request from the Ecuadorian Province for friars to work in Chone. This work continues to the present time, although there are now just 3 Irish friars still assigned there.

Giving birth

 Irish friars worked in the United States as already mentioned and for a brief period in the Newfoundland region (19th century), and also in the ill-fated Indian Mission. Bishop Daniel O’Connor OSA was appointed bishop of Madras, but after enduring many difficulties, the mission was brought to an end and Bishop O’Connor retired to Ireland. The Irish Province had more lasting success in establishing new Provinces: the Province of Australia (founded 1952); the province of England and Scotland (founded 1977) and the Province of Nigeria (founded 2001). An Irish friar, Fr. John Bresnan OSA worked in the inter-province venture in Botha’s Hill outside Durban, South Africa, in the 1990s.

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