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Ballysaggart Friary

GPS: 4.594158, -8.392848

Historical Context

The emergence of the little religious fraternity at Ballysaggart in the early 1500’s on St John’s Point owes its origins to a larger secular Third Order of Franciscan lay people that dated back to 1221. This Third Order was so called to distinguish it from the first and second orders.

The Third Orders were made up of lay men and women who followed a rule of life inspired by saints like Francis of Assisi. They strived to live this rule in their family and ordinary working lives. They were attached to the first order but independent from them. (The second Order refers to the Franciscan women such as the Poor Clares).

Some of the Ballysaggart new fraternity may well have been members of the Donegal men’s Third Order attached to the first order at the Franciscan friary in Donegal town. It was established in 1475 and its ruins are still extant.

The growing movement in the 1400’s for a more dedicated spiritual life led many of these third order single men to seek a more intense way of life in common. They retained their own familiar title of Third Order and modified their Rule to form a basis for living a more committed religious life.

The new rule they introduced was for men who were clerics and lay brothers to live in

common, lives of poverty, chastity and obedience to the Third Order Regula or rule. Their

full title was The Third Order of St. Francis of Asissi of Pennance.

They brought with them from their parent lay Third Order the practise of praying the Prayer of the Church or Divine Office hours repeatedly during the day and at night. They followed the rule and life of Francis of Assisi which was essentially to live the Gospel or the good news of Jesus Christ.

The arrival of these Third Order Regular Franciscans to Ballysaggart were part of a greater spiritual reform movement sweeping across southern Europe and Ireland.

The reform’s success was witnessed in its steady growth. In the fifteenth century there were about forty friaries of these Third Order Regulars in Ireland. They were made up of small

groups of clerical and lay brothers. Another feature of their popularity was that they identified more with the native Irish as opposed to the Anglo Irish. Hitherto many of the first order Franciscans in Ireland were led by English or Anglo-Irish friars.


The Third Order Regular Rule

They had their rule approved in 1412 by the papacy. It’s not clear which Pope granted it as this was the period of the great scandal of the multiple feuding popes in Avignon and in Rome.

The adoption of this third order rule was typical of the new European spiritual movement for reform that was distinguished by its choice of small, isolated communities where they could lead lives of quiet, prayer and contemplation. This reform sweeping Italy, Spain and France was characterised by an austerity that held poverty as a virtue and demanded a strict disciplined routine.


The Work

The friars served the spiritual needs of the local people and helped in the surrounding parishes.

They supported themselves by farming the nearby land. The present pier at Ballysaggart seems like an extension of the Friary site suggesting it may have dated back to or was in use in the sixteenth century. Fishing would have been an

obvious choice for provisions for the fraternity.

Even without a constructed pier there is a natural harbour inlet here which would have been a necessity. Roads were either non-existent or crudely primitive so sea or river travel would have been the norm.

Each friary of this Third Order Regular held a school and they have contributed to the education of Irish

people for centuries down to the present day.


Avoiding Dissolution

In 1536 the Irish Parliament declared Henry VIII to be Supreme Head of the church in Ireland. Most of these Third Order friaries were abolished for their refusal to recognise the Kings religious authority.

The suppression of the monasteries took place nationwide. Ballysaggart seemed to escape the dissolution and continued to operate up until 1602. Even then, a few individual friars remained, although clandestinely. They appear to have evaded the worst of Henry VIII atrocities.

While their remoteness may have aided their escape from the monastery dissolutions the fact that Donegal came under the protectorate of the O’Donnell clan may have been a greater deterrent to the Crown forces. Under O’Donnell protection the First Order of Observant Franciscans in Donegal town escaped suppression until raided by the English in 1588 who then occupied the friary as a fort.

They were expelled by the Red Hugh O’Donnell but in 1592 it was again seized for the English occupation in 1601.  The Ballysaggart Third Order Regulars lasted over a hundred years in the John’s Point area from 1500 to 1602.

The Franciscan Brothers of the Third Order Regular are noted for their having secretly taught the children of the Catholic population of Ireland for decades in the underground "bog schools”.

Who Was The Founder?

The Ballysaggart foundation on John’s Point was at the invitation of the local chieftain Mc Sweeney. The Mac Sweeney clan list Eoghan Mac Sweeney as building the church and friary . Yet it is his son Niall Mor Mc Sweeney who was buried in 1524 in the friary grounds and whose grave was marked by a remarkable tombstone there.

Brid Ward (2) also favours the Sweeney Clan view that it was Niall Mor’s father who invited them.

Also, Michael Cunningham (3) favours the father Eoghan as the builder of the church and friary.

The time of the foundation of the church and friary is given by the Franciscan historian Conlon as 1500. Conlon (4) states that 1500 was the date for the invitation to these Franciscans to Ballysaggart.

Its puzzling if Eoghan had built the friary and church that there is no gravestone to his memory in the foundation there. Could Niall Mor have been the founder and patron of the foundation and not his father? The 1500 date seems to favour Niall Mor as we know he died and was buried in the precincts of the friary in 1524 from the gravestone found there. This tombstone is now at St. Mary's Church in Killybegs.

Either way the great Mac Sweeney chieftains of this Banagh Barony like their counterpart noble families all down along the west coast of Ireland were favouring and establishing this new reforming religious movement of Third Order Regulars. These native Irish nobles acknowledged the zeal, commitment, and simple way of life of the friars in service of the local people. But the Franciscans’ popularity is also an acknowledgement of the piety and faith of both the ruling noble families and their local people.


Article by: Sean Cassin

May 2023 





  2. Ward, B.2010. St John’s Point County Donegal. Brown Printers

  3. Cunningham,M 2021. A History of Dunkineely, Bruckless, Killaghatee and St. John’s Point DCL Publication.

  4. Conlon P. 2002 The Franciscans in Donegal 2002 Temple Print.

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