Florence Conry (Flaithri O’Maolchonaire) 1560 – 1629
Florence Conry (Flaithri O’Maolchonaire) (c. 1560-1629), the founder of the Irish Franciscan College in Louvain, was a man of many parts whose influence on Irish affairs extended throughout Europe. Originally from a family of professional poets from County Roscommon, Conry is stated to be a native of the townland of Figh in the Civil Parish of Tibohine (Faith and Patronage, The political Career of Flaithri O’ Maolchonaire – Benjamin Hazard. Conry joined the Franciscans in Salamanca in Spain and was appointed Papal Legate to Ireland. He returned to his native land during the nine years’ war between the English administration and Irish lords led by Hugh O’Neill, Earl of Tyrone and Red Hugh O’Donnell, Earl of Tyrconnell. He was with them was at the battle of Kinsale in December 1601 where they and their Spanish allies were defeated. Following Kinsale he returned to Spain to act an as ambassador in the Spanish court and ministered to Red Hugh O’Donnell on his death in 1602.
Conry was intensely active as a churchman and Franciscan. From his early days in Spain he was embroiled in controversy especially with the Irish Jesuits who he accused of being prejudiced against students from the north and the west of Ireland. Even his appointment as Provincial of the Irish Franciscans in Toledo in 1606 caused unrest as it was done outside the province itself. However, he put his position and influence to good use and secured the money from the King of Spain to found St Anthony’s College in Louvain. Louvain, the city of the great medieval university, at the time was live with intellectual activity associated with the Counter-Reformation, and Conry, and his fellow Irish Franciscans, threw themselves into the intense theological and philosophical debates being conducted there at the time. In September 1606 King Philip III of Spain wrote to his brother-in-law Archduke Albert (1559-1621), co-ruler of the Spanish Netherlands with Philip’s half-sister, Isabella (1566-1633), from the royal monastery of El Escorial de San Lorenzo:
Most Serene Lord, Friar Florence Conry, Provincial of the Province of Ireland of the Order of Saint Francis has represented to me that by reason of the persecution this order has diminished greatly in number in the kingdom …Because studies have been forbidden the old preachers are worn out; therefore he beseeches me to grant them an annual alms during the persecution so that a number of young friars of that nation may be helped to study at the University of Louvain in order to ensure that preachers may not die out and that the Catholic religion may flourish, helped by learned persons of that order.
Philip III’s letter records in brief the story of the foundation in May 1607 of the Irish Franciscan College of St Anthony of Padua in the university city of Louvain, now Leuven in Belgium. In September 1606 he donated 1,000 ducats to the Irish Franciscan Florence Conry and wrote to the Archduke Albert directing him to see to it that the Irish College be established with links to the University of Louvain. The king had responded to the petitions of a remarkable Irish Franciscan, Florence Conry, churchman, diplomat and theologian. Papal sanction for St Anthony’s College was granted by Pope Paul V in April 1607
In 1609 he was consecrated Archbishop of Tuam by Rome but never took possession of his see, owing to penalty of Royal Proclamation. He lived principally at St. Anthony’s Louvain. He later returned to Madrid where he died in 1629. In 1654 his body was brought back from Madrid and buried in the collegiate chapel of St. Anthony's, near the high altar, where an epitaph by Nicolas Aylmer recorded his virtues, learning and love of country:--
Ordinis altus honor, fidei patriaeque honos,
Pontificum merito laude perenne jubar.
Thomas Darcey Magee says of this patriotic scholar: "He is the leading figure in a class of exiled Catholic churchmen who were of a great service to religion and letters and not seldom powerful allies of their country. From the founding of a college to the composition of a catechism he shrank from no labour that could, according to his convictions, benefit the people of his native land."
In 1983, the College was made available for development as a resource for the Island of Ireland. With its long tradition of cooperation with the Catholic University of Leuven and its close proximity to Brussels, the College was deemed suitable for adaption as a conference and residential facility. Whilst still under ownership of the Franciscans, it is now a secular facility called The Leuven Institute for Ireland in Europe.
To honour and commemorate the achievements and accomplishments of Florence Conry a delegation of Elected Members and Officials led By Mayor, Councillor John Kelly and County Manager, John Tiernan, visited the Irish Collece in Leuven in December 2007 to unveil a plaque which was presented to The Leuven Institute for Ireland in Europe http://www.leuveninstitute.eu