Betagh, Thomas (1738–1811), Jesuit priest and educator, was born in May 1738 in Kells, Co. Meath, into a family of tanners whose ancestors had lost their estates in the Cromwellian confiscation. He received his early education at Kells, but was enrolled in the Jesuit academy in Saul's Court newly established by Fr John Austin (qv) when his family moved to Dublin. In 1755 he entered the Jesuit seminary at Pont-à-Mousson in Lorraine, France, where he taught theology and languages following his ordination in 1762.
Betagh returned to Ireland in 1769 and began his ministry as a teacher at Saul's Court. His arrival in Dublin coincided with the revival which characterised late eighteenth-century Irish catholicism; Fr Betagh was in the vanguard of this movement. Throughout, his priority remained education. In 1784 he succeeded Austin as rector of Saul's Court, and his graduates included Daniel Murray (qv), later archbishop of Dublin, and the Jesuit Peter Kenney (qv), founder of Clongowes Wood College. In addition to this academy for the ‘better sorts’, Betagh founded evening, day, and Sunday schools, first in Schoolhouse Lane and finally in Smock Alley. In this ‘Free School’ he was, in the words of his funeral oration, ‘father, physician and director’ to three hundred boys.
Following the suppression of the Jesuits by Clement XIV in 1773, Betagh served as a priest of the diocese, first as a curate in SS Michael and John in Rosemary Lane. In time he became a vital collaborator of successive archbishops, as vicar-general to the reforming Archbishop John Troy (qv) and advisor to Archbishop Daniel Murray, his former pupil. In Jesuit history he forms a bridge between the Old Society, of which he was the last survivor and guardian of their funds, and the restored Society, whose revival, in 1814, he facilitated by sending a number of his students, including Peter Kenney, Bartholomew Esmonde, and Charles Aylmer (qv), to Stonyhurst and Palermo. A renowned preacher, he was also influential in nourishing the vocation of the young Catherine McAuley (qv), who founded the Sisters of Mercy.
Betagh lived through troubled political times. In the radical politics of the revolutionary age he was ranked, in 1796, among the ‘moderates’ by Dublin Castle informer William Corbet (qv) (d. 1838?). Recommended to the English traveller William Reed as ‘the most learned and best informed man in Ireland’, he was prominent in the anti-veto faction of the post-union era.
Betagh died 16 February 1811 at his home in Cook Street. In an age of increasing sectarianism, an obituary in Walker's Hibernian Magazine celebrated ‘this truly great man . . . as much esteemed by the Protestants as he was beloved by his own flock’. His funeral, attended by upwards of 20,000 people, was among the largest seen in the city. His remains were placed in the Jesuit vault in old St Michan's church. In 1822 they were transferred to the crypt of the new SS Michael and John chapel, Essex Street, the foundation of which he laid in 1810. His resting place was marked by an elaborate monument executed by Peter Turnerelli (qv). In 1990, when that church was deconsecrated, his remains were removed to the Jesuit plot in Glasnevin cemetery.
A stipple and line engraving likeness by John Martyn (d. 1828) (after William Brocas (qv)), published in 1811, is in the NGI, as is a pencil drawing by William Brocas; while the monument by Turnerelli in SS Michael and John, Dublin, has been dismantled, the medallion remains.