Archer, James (1550–1620), Jesuit priest and administrator, was born at Kilkenny and belonged, it can be deduced, to a patrician family prominent in that city. To prepare for an ecclesiastical career he went (c.1564) to the Spanish Netherlands, to Louvain, a hotbed of the new militant catholic theology and a strong influence on attempts at extending the counter-reformation to England. On his return to Ireland (1577) he was considered by the English authorities there to be a danger to the Elizabethan church settlement. Undoubtedly he had some sympathy with principals of the Desmond rebellion.
In 1581 Archer entered the Society of Jesus in Rome, continuing his studies there before moving (1585) to Pont-à-Mousson in the duchy of Lorraine, where there was a small seminary for Irish and Scottish students. Showing talent mainly as a confessor and administrator, he was sent (1587) to minister to the 1,200 Irish, English, and Scottish soldiers in the so-called Irish regiment, whom their commander, Sir William Stanley (qv), had persuaded to forsake the English service for the Spanish. The activities of Stanley and his entourage were an aggravating circumstance in the Spanish threat to Elizabeth I's England. Archer was said to have been involved in an alleged plot to murder the queen.
At the close of 1592 he went to Spain. After visiting the royal court at Madrid, he settled in Salamanca, the seat of Spain's foremost university, and took over the administration of the Irish college being founded there. In 1596 he returned to Ireland to seek money for the college and to explore the possibility of re-establishing a Jesuit mission. He was obliged to lie low in the countryside and eventually to join Hugh O'Neill (qv), whose rebellion had been raging since 1593. On all sides he acquired a legendary reputation. Summoned to Rome (1600) to give an account of his mission, he acted also as an envoy of O'Neill. In 1601 he was back in Spain, involved in planning the Spanish military expedition to Ireland as well as settling differences among the Irish at Salamanca. Archer was a member of the force numbering 4,432 men that headed for Kinsale in September. For the defeat of the expedition he blamed the commander, Juan del Águila (qv). Archer left Ireland for Spain in July 1602; his views about the failure of the enterprise were heeded at first, but when Águila was exonerated and peace was made with England (1603) his career as a negotiator for Spanish aid for Irish rebels was over. Although his Jesuit superior would not allow him to return to Ireland, rumours abounded there of his presence.
The rest of his life was given, as ‘prefect of the mission’, to the Irish seminaries in the Iberian peninsula. Once again Archer had to deal with differences among the Irish catholics: the Old English were accused by the Old Irish of unfairness towards them, and the Jesuits were accused by other clerics of self-preferment. Archer's work in Spain bore fruit in 1610 when the Spanish authorities built a new college for the Irish in Salamanca, the Colegio de los Nobles Irlandeses, to which the king gave his support. Archer spent his last years at Santiago de Compostela. It was at the Irish college there that he died on 15 February 1620.
Although he was a man of no more than moderate ability and an indifferent scholar, Archer had qualities that served to make him an important figure in the Irish counter-reformation: he was phlegmatic and a good administrator; he had some influence at the Spanish court and, thanks to his experience in Ireland in the 1590s, the confidence of both of the rival groups of Irish catholics – Old English and Old Irish. Only a few letters of James Archer survive, and there is no known portrait or even a verbal description.