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Butler, John, styled twelfth Baron Dunboyne (1731–1800), Roman Catholic bishop of Cork, was the third son of Edmond Butler, styled eighth Baron Dunboyne (d. 1732), of Grange, co. Tipperary, and Anne Nagle, née Grace, widow of Richard Nagle, and daughter of Oliver Grace, of Shanganagh, co. Tipperary. The Grange Butlers, a landed family, were part of the network of Butler families and dependants which covered much of south Leinster and Munster. The title of Dunboyne had been forfeited by James, fourth Baron Dunboyne, for his implication in the Irish rising of 1641; he was outlawed, yet the title continued to be used and the estates were retained by the family. Butler's older brothers, Pierce and Edmond, were already soldiering in France when he decided on a career in the church. He travelled to Rome via Cadiz, Genoa, and Leghorn, and took up residence in the Irish College in the via degli Ibernesi. During his student years he attended lectures at the Congregatio de Propaganda Fide, and, in an obscure incident, lost his left eye. He was ordained priest on 20 December 1755 in the Lateran basilica, and appears to have completed his doctoral studies before returning to Ireland in 1758. On his way home he was delivered over to a justice of the peace at Whitehaven in Cumberland, but was not detained. He returned to his native diocese of Cashel and was appointed parish priest of Ardmayle in 1759. He also took up duty as bishop's secretary and was made an archdeacon. During the following four years he re-established himself in the Butler social network.

When the diocese of Cork fell vacant, Butler, supported by local bishops, emerged as a strong candidate. He was nominated bishop by Pope Clement XIII on 16 April 1763, and his consecration in June elicited a praise poem in Gaelic by Eadbhárd de Nógla. He took up residence at Monkstown, outside Cork city, had a city house at Pope's Quay, and was parish priest of St Mary's. The beginning of his episcopal ministry coincided with the gradual emergence of the Catholic community from civil and economic disadvantage. The Catholic church underwent reorganization, following the Tridentine model, as it adapted to more tolerant conditions. Butler was heavily involved in this process and, in the first ten years of his episcopate, three new chapels were built in Cork. He was, however, careful not to alienate the protestant establishment, with whom he had many contacts. When the pioneering local educationist Nano Nagle engaged to introduce the Ursuline Sisters to the city, Butler delayed their arrival until 1771 so as not to offend protestant sensibilities. His episcopate witnessed widespread urban and rural agitation which often turned into violence. He condemned the coopers' riots in Cork in an ‘exhortation’ published in the Hibernian Chronicle (2 July 1766). Rural Whiteboy anger in Munster was sometimes directed against Catholic clergy over stole fees and other dues, and, in his Statuta synodalia pro dioecesi Corcagiensi (1768), he declared that association with the Whiteboys was a reserved sin. He subscribed to the Test Act of 1774 and gave strong financial support to the Catholic committee.

In December 1785 Butler inherited the title and estate of Lord Dunboyne, following the death of his nephew Piers Butler, usually called the eleventh Baron Dunboyne. As a Catholic priest he had taken a vow of celibacy but, if he did not produce an heir, the direct line in the lordship of Dunboyne was in danger of extinction. He resigned his see in December 1786, petitioned the pope for a dispensation from celibacy, and married in 1787 Maria Butler (1764/5–1860), of Wilford, co. Tipperary, daughter of Theobald Butler and Elizabeth Lee. His request to the pope was rejected and he took the oaths of allegiance, abjuration, and supremacy in Clonmel on 19 August 1787. His is the sole authenticated instance of the apostasy of a member of the Catholic Irish hierarchy. He moved to the family seat in Dunboyne, co. Meath, shortly afterwards. A daughter was born to the couple but died young. They later moved to Lesson Street in Dublin. Butler's attitude towards the rising of 1798 is unknown, though the village of Dunboyne was burned in the disturbances, including the Catholic chapel, which was later rebuilt on land granted by the Butler family. In 1800, worn down by age and illness, he addressed a letter of repentance to the pope and made his will. He was confessed by the Augustinian preacher William Gahan, and died in Lesson Street, Dublin, on 7 May 1800. He was interred in the Augustinian friary in Fethard, co. Tipperary. Litigation over his will, by which he left his Meath estates to the Catholic college at Maynooth, commenced almost immediately. A compromise between the college and the Butler family was reached in 1808 which permitted the setting up of the Dunboyne establishment at Maynooth College to maintain and endow selected scholars for additional studies. The title of Dunboyne was restored on 26 October 1827 when the attainder was reversed and James Butler (1780–1850) was confirmed as thirteenth Baron Dunboyne.

Thomas O'Connor


C. Costello, Faith or fatherhood? Bishop Dunboyne's dilemma: the story of John Butler, Catholic bishop of Cork (1763–1787) (2000) · GEC, Peerage · DNB


Cashel diocesan archives · Sacra Congregazione di Propaganda Fide, Rome, scritture riferite mei congressi, Irlanda |  Dublin diocesan archives, Troy MSS · Blackrock, Cork, annals of Ursuline convent

Wealth at death  

see will, Costello, Faith or fatherhood?, 163–71