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The Fethard Story


In last week’s Leisure Pages, Frances Gleeson in a most interesting article ‘Fethard Revisited’ wrote of visiting amongst other places the Augustian Abbey there. She recalled “the mitred head over the arch inside the beautiful altar rails is thought to be that of Bishop Butler of ‘The Penny Cathecism’ fame who died as Lord Dunboyne and is buried in the Abbey grounds”. In this she understandably confused two Bishops Butler, both of the one family. There was Bishop James Butler who wrote the catechism in 1777 and Bishop John Butler who inherited the family title of Lord Dunboyne, resigned as Bishop of Cork to marry so that he might beget an heir to preserve the title, was received into the Protestant Church and subsequently died fully reconciled to his Roman Catholic faith, having in his will handsomely endowed St. Patrick’s College, Maynooth. In the following article Lt. Co.;. W. J. Bergin recounts the strange and chequered story of Fethard-born Lord Dunboyne whose mortal remains are interred in the ancient abbey of his native town:

The object of this article is to briefly outline the history of John Butler, bishop of Cork and 22nd Lord Dunboyne. John Butler was born in 1730 at Grange, Fethard, Co. Tipperary. His Branch of the Butler family remained Catholic. He became a priest and later bishop of Cork. Subsequently he inherited the title of Lord Dunboyne. To produce an heir to the title he appealed to the pope for permission to marry. He wrongly believed that being especially of honourable decent the permission would be granted. He married and was established Church (Protestant) but failed to produce an heir. He died a Catholic and is buried in Fethard, Co. Tipperary. John Butler who was born there was the third of his sons. His brothers- Pierce and Edmond joined the French Army while John decided to become a priest. Facilities for studying for the priesthood were not considered good at the beginning of the 18th century and he went to Rome at the age of 19 in 1749. He was ordained there on 20th December, 1955. He studied at the Propaganda Fide and obtained a Doctorate of Divinity. Before his ordination he had lost his left eye but got a dispensation to allow him to take Holy Orders. Having spent some time in Florence he returned to Ireland.

During the 18th century three Archbishops of Cashel were Butlers- Christopher 1712-1757; James I 1757-1774; James II 1774-1791. All of which were related to Father John Butler. After about a year back in Ireland, Father John Butler became Parish Priest of Ardmayle (1759) now Boherlahan parish. He remained in Ardmayle for four years and while there he became Secretary to the Archbishop and an Archdeacon. His activities also included cultivation of his friends of the ‘landed class’ including Catholic and Protestant.
The See of Cork became vacant and nine candidates were considered for the appointment. It was recommended that someone from Cork would be acceptable, particularly the brother of Lord (19th) Dunboyne, an archdeacon and parish priest in the province of Munster. In the list of candidates with their qualifications Cardinal Spinelli placed Father John Butler first. He was described as a former student of the Irish College in Rome and of Propaganda fide, aged 33 years, a brother of Lord Dunboyne, and an Archdeacon and Parish Priest of Ardmayle in the diocese of Cashel. Many Religious and lay representative were made to the pope on his behalf. His high personal quality and extremely noble blood was stressed by the Archbishop of Cashel, by Edmond Butler brother of the Archbishop, and by Lord Taaffe. At that time it was an advantage to be of ‘noble blood’ to be appointed Bishop.
On 16th April 1763 Archdeacon John Butler was nominated by Pope Clement XIII as Bishop of Cork and he was consecrated in June 1763. He lived in Monkstown outside Cork and he also had a house on Popes Quay in the City where he was PP of St. Mary’s Parish. Bishop John Butler held the See of Cork for 23 years. For Catholics nationally it was a period of gradual emergence from Penal Times into public affairs. Bishop John Butler performed his duties diligently as a bishop.

At that time it was very much considered that titles should be passed on and remain directly hereditary within the immediate family. The Butler family were of ‘noble blood’ and well known land owners. As mentioned Bishop John Butler was the third son of the 18th Earl of Dunboyne. On the death of the 18th Earl in 1772 his eldest son, James, became the 19th Earl. Pierce, brother of James who died in 1768 became the 20th Lord. Pierce died in 1773 and his son also named Pierce became the 21st Lord. The 21st Lord was nephew of Bishop John Butler. He died in 1786 and the title of Lord Dunboyne was passed to Bishop John Butler certainly raised a problem which he was very concerned about. As he was a Bishop of the Roman Catholic Church he could not legitimately beget an heir.

He finally decided to apply to the Pope for permission to get married to beget an heir and considered that being a Butler permission would be granted. He also resigned as Bishop of Cork on 12th December, 1786.
In the Parish of Drom; Co. Tipperary tradition has it that at Brookley House, a Butler residence, the Bishop while under the influence of drink met Miss Maria Butler, a Protestant from Wilford who encouraged his attentions. This girl whom the Baron wished to make his Baroness and mother of his heir was Maria Butler aged 23, younger daughter of Theobald Butler Wilford, Co. Tipperary. Wilford House is about four miles NW of Mullinahone. Lord Dunboyne (John Butler) spent the Christmas of 1786 at Wilford House and before he left Theobald Butler told his daughter Maria that his Lordship had asked him for her hand in marriage. Maria said she understood Roman Catholic Clergy could not marry. Lord Dunboyne said he had petitioned the Holy Father and he felt that in view of the circumstances and being a Butler that he would get a dispensation.

An immediate reply was not asked of Maria, but without delay she was taken by her father to Catherine O’ Brien Butler’s at Bansha , Co. Tipperary and Lord Dunboyne came from Cork to visit them. Maria considered all the factors and reluctantly said ‘yes’ to the marriage. They were married at the end of April 1787 possibly in St. Mary’s church of Ireland, Clonmel. This event was directly reported to Rome by the Archbishop of Cashel and it caused great worry and controversy both at home and abroad. On the 11th August, 1787 the Archbishop of Cashel (Dr. James Butler II) met Lord Dunboyne - the former Bishop of Cork at the house of a mutual friend. - Dr. Fogarty of Clonmel - where the Archbishop handed over a parchment (a lengthy one) to Lord Dunboyne which the Archbishop had received from Rome showing the Holy Father’s grief and affliction at the situation. When Lord Dunboyne had finished reading the letter (dated 9th June 1787) he pleaded “I fear my case has not been fully understood. I am not a young man, nor am I seeking release from my vows for selfish reasons. The Holy Father must be told again that I am solely concerned with the continuation of our family..” It was to no avail to point out the gravity of the situation as he made up his mind that he had done the right thing.

Lord Dunboyne was received into the Established Church on the 19th August, 1787 at St. Mary’s church, Clonmel by Rev. MR. Dunlevy. A crowd assembled outside the church and protested. His apostasy gave rise to renewed intense and bitter sorrow. He never became a very active member of his new church. For the next few years Lord and Lady Dunboyne lived at home at Dunboyne Castle, Co. Meath with the summers spent at their summer residence at Gracefield now part of the Loreto Convent, Balbriggan, Co. Dublin. Maria was delivered of an infant girl which did not live longer than half and hour - tradition has it that it was a premature baby and that it is buried in the Augustinian Friary at Fethard. Both Lord and Lady Dunboyne fell into a deep depression and Maria’s father arranged a diversion of a Dublin life by renting a town house at 18 Leesons Street, Dublin. It was here that Lord Dunboyne lived out his life.
In April 1791 the first convict ship sailed from Cork to Australia and The United Irishmen were formed that same year. In May 1794 Maria was introduced to James Butler, a Grand Nephew of the Archbishop of Cashel, and the rightful heir to the title of Lord Dunboyne- she was not at all pleased as she wished that Lord Dunboyne would will his title to her brother.

Dunboyne village was burned down by the troops in the rebellion of 1798 and the little chapel destroyed. Lord Dunboyne offered the Parish Priest, Father Connell, a new site for the chapel. During a visit of Lord Dunboyne to Tipperary the Parish Priest of Kilusty near Fethard interceded with him for assistance. He gave him a chalice dated 1621. The chalice is still preserved at Fethard. Lord Dunboyne’s conscience seems to have been troubling him- his marriage barren and now in his 69th year his health was failing. He greatly longed for reconciliation with Rome and he wrote to the Holy Father through Dr. Troy, Archbishop of Dublin, on 2nd May, 1800. Dr. Troy meanwhile asked Dr. William Gahan, O.S.A. (an old friend of Lord Dunboyne) to visit him. Dr. William Gahan was at this time the best known religious writer in the English speaking world and was a former Provincial of the Augustinian Order. Dr. Gahan confessed the old man, who died at 18 Leeson Street, Dublin 2 on the 7th May, 1800. He is buried with his daughter under the Sanctuary in the Augustinian Church, Fethard, Co. Tipperary.

Even though Lord Dunboyne did not regain Kiltinan Castle, Fethard, Co. Tipperary from the Cookes he was an extensive property owner and a well-off man. He made a comprehensive and lengthy will on 1st May, 1800 in which he provided for his immediate family as well as leaving substantial property to Maynooth College including Dunboyne Castle. His will was contested by his sister, Mrs Catherine O’ Brien Butler, Bansha, Co. Tipperary at Trim, Co. Meath assizes on 24th August, 1802. Dr. Gahan gave admirable evidence at the trial. After a long hearing the will was found to be valid and the parties reached agreement subsequently.
James Butler (the cousin that Lady Dunboyne did not welcome) petitioned the Lord Lieutenant and became the 23rd Lord Dunboyne. He was a cousin of the ‘bishop of Cork’ and nephew of James I Archbishop of Cashel. The present Lord Dunboyne is a direct descendant of James Butler the 23rd Lord. Lady Dunboyne was 23 when she married Lord Dunboyne who was then 57. She outlived him by 60 years dying in 1860 aged 95 years. She remarried in September 1801 John Hubert Moore and they had one son born in 1805. Maria was widowed again in 1822. She lived at Shannon Grove, Co. Galway and is buried in the cemetery at nearby Clonfert Cathedral.

All three Butlers, Archbishops of Cashel in the 18th century, had been dedicated to the same cause - a solid contribution to the promotion of Catholic Education in Ireland. For instance Christopher established a seminary in Cashel to train aspirants to the priesthood. James II introduced the Ursiline Nuns to Thurles and bequeathed £2,000 for the foundation of the Presentation Convent there. the ‘Penny Catechism’ that excellent production, which many school children studied was written by James II Butler in 1777 and reprinted in 1929. In the same tradition did ‘John’ munificently endow Maynooth. Different readers of the history of Bishop John Butler will Form Different opinions. Undoubtedly he got married and was an apostate. He wrongly thought he would get a dispensation to get married in view of being a ‘Butler’ and the circumstances which he considered of supreme importance. He later regretted his actions and there is abundant evidence both spiritual and material of his reconciliation.

The writer of this article is grateful to Lieut Col. Costello, the author of “In Quest of an Heir” for his permission to base the article on his excellent book. “In Quest of an Heir” is undoubtedly well researched - the reading of which is most interesting, especially for anyone anxious to learn about Bishop John Butler.


This site is maintained by Joe Kenny, Rocklow Road, Fethard, Co. Tipperary, Ireland.