Carpenter, John (1729–86), catholic archbishop of Dublin, was born in Chancery Lane, Dublin, son of a tailor. Nothing else is known of his parents or family save that his sister Christian married a Dublin merchant, Thomas Lee. Irish was probably spoken in his home. The Gaelic forms (Mac an tSao(i)r) he used for his own name, if equivalent to MacAteer, would indicate a family connection with south Ulster. Between 1744 and 1747 he was the pupil at Dublin of Tadgh Ó Neachtáin's (qv), under whose influence he compiled some Gaelic texts: a grammar, a miscellany of prose and poetry, and a book of devotion for his own use, partly in Ulster Irish. In 1747 he sailed to Lisbon where he entered the Irish college, was ordained a priest (1752), and took a doctorate in divinity before returning to Dublin (1754). For fifteen years he worked as an assistant in St Mary's chapel, Liffey St. Although never promoted to a parish, he was in 1764 admitted to the chapter as prebendary of Cullen. He made his mark rather as a negotiator: first in Lisbon (1764), where he represented the four Irish archbishops at the royal court in a successful bid to prevent the confiscation of the Irish college, and then at London in the winter of 1767/8. At London, to which he was sent by the Catholic Committee, he acted as secretary to the 6th Viscount Taaffe (qv), who had travelled from Vienna to use his influence in favour of his fellow catholics in Ireland. By this time, John Carpenter was on terms of close friendship with John Curry (qv) and Charles O'Conor (qv) of Belanagare, leaders of the committee, in whose correspondence he is often mentioned. While at London he also conducted some business for the archbishop of Dublin, Patrick Fitzsimons (qv), probably with regard to Irish colleges in Spain, then threatened – as in Portugal – by the suppression of the Jesuits who directed them. Carpenter's unexpected appointment as archbishop of Dublin (16 April 1770) was due to the recommendation of Viscount Taaffe and three canons of Dublin, but more decisively to lobbying at Rome by Thomas Burke (qv), bishop of Ossory, and to the regular clergy of Dublin who lodged a veto against the four leading candidates. The friars, still smarting from their trials under Archbishop Richard Lincoln (qv) (1757–63), and suspicious of the ‘Gallican’ test-oath under secret discussion in the time of Archbishop Patrick Fitzsimons (1763–9), proposed Carpenter as one ‘who abhorred party politics’ and would prove ‘a promoter of peace and concord’. Bishop Burke described him as one who might be trusted ‘to attack the notorious illicit oaths’, injurious to the prerogatives of the holy see. When the choice was made, Burke rejoiced at ‘the primatial promotion of a poor tailor's son, an unbeneficed, inservient, and indigent priest’. ‘Now’, he declared, ‘orthodoxy will be countenanced and whiggism discouraged’.
Carpenter, who lived on Usher's Island, celebrated mass each Sunday in Francis St. chapel in his mensal parish of St Nicholas. He kept exact administrative records: an annual record of the number he confirmed; a notebook of instructions and admonitions; lists of those he ordained; lists of priests returning from abroad, and also of priests collated to parishes. Similarly he kept copies of letters sent and received. As early as 1770 he published his first book, a set of the synodal constitutions of the archdiocese. Every year he carried out at least a partial visitation of the diocese. His ‘instructions and admonitions’ (of which the original volume is now missing) show a truly pastoral concern for the poor and the sick, besides a marked aversion to drunkenness, violence, and riot. In 1780 he submitted to Rome a full report on the diocese – the first archbishop of Dublin to do so in more than a century.
As archbishop, Carpenter, who sometimes signed his name as ‘coarb of St Lorcan’, was always concerned about the liturgical celebration of the feasts of Irish saints. They were given prominence in the altar missal he published in 1777, and in the second and fullest edition of Alban Butler's Lives of the saints, which Carpenter published in 1780. His Ritual (1776) included an appendix ‘in common Irish’ of his own ‘instructions and exhortations’. Another of his enterprises was the anonymous printing at Dublin (1777) of James Butler II's (qv) Catechism for the instruction of children. He took an interest in the affairs of the foreign colleges, not only at Lisbon, but also at Louvain, Bordeaux, Nantes, Salamanca, and Rome. The Roman authorities often asked his opinion of episcopal candidates for dioceses in every part of the country. The sad state of Ulster also brought him two papal commissions. First (1772) he was named administrator of the diocese of Dromore, where the bishop had proved unsuitable. A second northern problem brought him twice (1774, 1775) to Dundalk, where two priests contended for one parish. In these and other ways, Rome treated him in effect as a national figure, as it was later to do more obviously with his successor John Thomas Troy (qv). Even at Dublin he found social acceptance, becoming in 1773 a corresponding member of the Dublin Society.
The dismantling of the penal code, begun in 1771, depended on a test oath or oath of allegiance, the wording of which caused much controversy. The stumbling-block for Carpenter was a denial of the pope's temporal power, refused by Carpenter but canvassed even in the streets of Dublin by James Butler II, archbishop of Cashel. Many took the oath in 1775, but Carpenter prudently delayed until quite sure that the holy see had no objection to the latest formula. Only then (November 1778) was he ready to take the oath of allegiance, with seventy of his priests and several hundred laymen. He thus preserved the unity of the church in Ireland and its ancient bond with Rome. Later on (1782) he opposed the plans of three bishops who had in mind a new Gallican mode of episcopal election in Ireland with little if any reference to Rome.
After a short but serious illness (1771), Carpenter's doctors said that he was ‘not destined for longevity’, and time was to prove them right. Although still young, he became less active after 1780. He died unexpectedly on 29 October 1786 at the age of 58 and was buried at St Michan's, Dublin, in a grave owned by his brother-in law Thomas Lee, a merchant in Pill Lane nearby. His impressive library of 4,000 books was auctioned off and a plaster bust of Carpenter was advertised for sale, but neither a catalogue of the books nor a copy of his bust appears to have survived.