Another well-travelled medieval figure from Co. Tipperary and one that is closer to home for me is the fourteenth century Franciscan friar Symon Semeonis. In the company of Hugo the Illuminator, he left the Franciscan friary in Clonmel, (which still remains in the heart of the town and retains both the original tower and part of the choir wall) on the 16th March 1323, embarking on a pilgrimage to the Holy Land. This friar’s travels are recorded in the Itinerarium Symonis Semeonis ab Hybernia ad Reeram Sanctam and survives in one manuscript, MS 407, the library at Corpus Christi College, Cambridge.
Leaving Clonmel, the two friars travelled to Dublin and then continue on to Wales. They travelled extensively throughout England, visiting sites such as Chester, Rochester and Canterbury to name but a few. Symon’s descriptions are detailed and reflect his observational skills. The two friars then travel from Dover to France and from there they journey extensively through Europe, Alexandria and Egypt. In Cairo, however, Symon’s companion Hugo dies and he is forced to continue on his pilgrimage alone. Despite this pilgrim’s attention to detail throughout his travels, we are denied a complete depiction of Symon’s reaction to Jerusalem as the manuscript ends abruptly.
Symon’s account of his travels offers the only detailed description of a pilgrimage from Ireland to the Holy Land during the Middle Ages. It provides important details on the economic and social position of both Europe and also Eastern countries while also providing the personal views of an Anglo-Irish Franciscan friar. His desire to place his pilgrimage within the biblical context, a technique often seen with pilgrims (for example the female pilgrim Egeria who reads her bible in specific locations in the Holy land) is seen in his writing, comparing himself with Abraham and wishing to see the actual landscape where Jesus himself walked.
Two years ago, I attended a play entitled “With my Bare Hands” in the Granary Theatre in Cork, drawn in to its reference to medieval pilgrimage. This play, written by Frances Kay, consisted of one character – Symon. This was my first contact with the friar, despite his Clonmel connections and the fantastic production instilled desire to find out more about this globe-trotting Franciscan.
For more information on this play go to http://www.irishplayography.com/play.aspx?playid=3596