The origin of O’Donnell spirituality can be found in the ancient accounts
of the life of St. Patrick.
He had been en route to a special gathering on an Easter Monday at Tailteann, a few kilometers from Tara, when he was obstructed by Cairbre, one of the sons of the High King of Ireland, Niall Naoigeallaigh (Niall of the Nine Hostages). Instead he made a side trip to visit Conall, Cairbre’s elder brother. Conall, unlike Cairbre, received St . Patrick "with great joy", whereupon he was baptised and his future descendants, the Cenel Conaill, blessed. Patrick also granted him the Arms of the Holy Cross to be emblazoned on his shield, promising him victory in battle "In Hoc Signo Vinces" in emulation of the conversion and labarum of Emperor Constantine the Great. Conall gave him a site for a church near his own fort.
Conall's line yielded many High Kings of Ireland and eventually the Kings and royalty of Tyrconnell, principally the O'Donnell dynasty, whose clan is known in Gaelic as Clan Dálaigh. It also yielded many saints, the most famous of whom was known as the Dove of the Church, or Colm Cille, also known as St. Columba, patron saint of the O'Donnells, and whose transcription of a copy of the Psalms led to the first codification of copyright anywhere in the world, in Brehon law, namely "to every cow its calf, and to every book its copy". Judged wrong for making his copy, after a war, he exiled to Iona, founded a monastery there which became the burial place of Scottish kings, and converted Scotland to Christianity, for which he is remembered as the Apostle of Scotland. His psalter, the Cathach, became a battle-talisman of the O'Donnells, and is Ireland's oldest surviving manuscript, presently in the custody of the Royal Irish Academy in Dublin. Its shrine, the Cumdach, can be seen nearby in the National Museum of Ireland. Centuries later, a John O'Donnell, bishop, became known as the Apostle of Newfoundland. And about a century ago, the O'Donnells yielded a Prince of the Church, Cardinal Patrick O'Donnell.
The O’Donnells have historically maintained a very close relationship with the Franciscans, ever since they were invited to establish a friary in Donegal, founded by Aodh Rua Ó Domhnaill (1st) in 1474, following the influence of his mother Nuala O’Conor, daughter of O’Conor Faly, a Leinster prince. According to an original Latin account, translated by Meehan, Nuala came to a meeting of a Franciscan provincial chapter in Ross-Rial,
"accompanied by a brilliant following of noble ladies, and a goodly escort of kerne and gallowglass, to present an humble memorial to the assembled fathers. When the latter had duly considered the prayer of the lady Nuala’s memorial, they deputed the provincial to inform her that they could not comply with her request at that moment, but that at some future time they would cheerfully send a colony of Franciscans to the principality of Tyrconnell. “What!” replied the Princess, sorely pained by the refusal, “I have journeyed a hundred miles to attain the object that has long been dearest to my heart, and will you now venture to deny my prayer? If you do, beware of God’s wrath; for I will appeal to his throne, and charge you with the loss of all the souls which your reluctance may cause to perish in the territory of Tirconnell!”
With this exhortation, she overcame the reluctance of the friars, and prevailed on them to come. Aodh Rua’s widow, Nuala O’Brien spent the last twenty-one years of her life as a tertiary there.
The Old Franciscan Friary
Engraving on stone by J.D. Harding, from a Sketch by Robert O’Callaghan Newenham, Esq.,
printed by C. Hullmandel.
Sir Hugh Dubh
O’Donnell, 23rd O’Donnell, retired here in 1592, most probably with
his grandson, Donal Oge O’Donnell to be there educated as a young man. The
friary served as a great center of learning and culture, and frequently also
for political congresses of Gaelic nobility and their Anglo-Norman allies. Evidenced by their establishment and patronage of the
Franciscan monastery in Donegal in 1474, the O’Donnells have long had a special
relationship, with the Franciscans. The friars received chalices,
vestments, furniture, and other resources. A fishing weir beside the friary
enabled them to land salmon plentifully, by just lowering a net into the sea
from the window of their infirmary.
The friars were also the confessors and spiritual counselors of the ruling O’Donnell dynasty, and educators of their children, and Donegal abbey, as it became known, became the burial place for the O’Donnell nobility, and their vassals. Their inculcation of the commandments and moral precepts, including condemnation of homicide, influenced the warriors to prefer taking prisoners than to slaughter their enemies. However, this advice was not always heeded, and remorse was not unknown, such as by Sir Hugh Dubh when he regretted the slaughter of Spanish armada survivors.
The influence of the Franciscans after their implantation in Donegal in the fifteenth century can be seen in the period of tranquility that ensued, and in the greater adherence to Christian values. Their prosperity flourished as a result of the O’Donnells’ patronage but also due to the rulers’ military strength in defending and expanding their frontiers. Their forays and plunder beyond yielded livestock and other wealth from adversaries’ territories in Connaught, Breffny and Meath. By 1288, the Friary was seen as “the hub and centre of Catholic Ireland in those days”.
With time the Franciscans’ influence also became quite political, especially in reaction to the Reformation. By the late 17th century they were feared by the English, and admired by the Spanish, for their strategic influence on the military and political aspirations of the Gaelic nobility. The role of the Franciscans is well documented and O’Donnell princes were often laid to rest in Franciscan robes.