Caulfield, James (c.1732–1814), catholic bishop of Ferns, was born at Saltmills, Co. Wexford. He was educated at a classical school at Saltmills conducted by a Church of Ireland minister under the patronage of Caesar Colclough (qv). In 1757, in keeping with the custom of the penal age, he was ordained to the priesthood by Bishop Nicholas Sweetman (qv) before travelling to the Dominican college of St Thomas Aquinas in Seville, where he studied philosophy and theology. Having returned to Ireland in 1763, he was appointed curate, and subsequently parish priest of New Ross in 1771.
Caulfield's return to Ireland coincided with the beginning of the end of the penal era, as bishops strove to improve discipline and practice disrupted by a century of persecution. The Ferns diocesan regulations for 1771 attempted to eradicate heterodox practices, patrons, and pilgrimages, but they also reflected the changing political climate in their condemnation of the ‘accursed Whiteboys’ as ‘vile miscreants’ who would draw the ‘odium and displeasure of Government’ upon the church. Caulfield shared these sentiments and throughout his career he remained a steady loyalist. In July 1782 he was consecrated coadjutor bishop of Ferns by Archbishop John Carpenter (qv) of Dublin and Bishop John Thomas Troy (qv) of Ossory, but remained at New Ross until the death of Dr Sweetman four years later.
Bishop Caulfield's health was not good; nor was he temperamentally suited to the political challenges of the period. His condemnation of Whiteboys and Rightboys was ignored, but in the revolutionary decade his fulminations against Defenders and United Irishmen met with open contempt. He dismissed the Wexford ‘gentry’ radicals, Edward Hay (qv), John Sweetman, and James Edward Devereux (qv), as a rabble and ‘puppies’, and in March 1792 he lamented that ‘the spirit of this town [Wexford] is now violent beyond belief and a general sullenness prevails’. Throughout the period the bishop took his cue from Archbishop Troy of Dublin, and the remains of their voluminous correspondence provide a rich insight into the radical and clerical politics of the age. Like his mentor, Caulfield urged his clergy to loyalty, and ‘giddy’ priests were transferred or suspended. On the eve of the rebellion, in April 1798, in a last vain attempt he issued a pastoral urging his people to surrender their arms.
Caulfield spent the rebellion shored up in his house in High Street, in terror of the insurgents who had occupied the town on 30 May. Nonetheless, the presence of eleven of his priests among the rebels was sufficient to give credibility to loyalist claims that the insurrection had been a popish plot in which the bishop was complicit. Caulfield was greatly compromised; he repeated his condemnation of the rebellion in a pastoral on 13 September, and in private correspondence to Troy he condemned the guilty priests as ‘the very faeces of the church’. Still, in the violent loyalist backlash which followed the rebellion, the accusations of Sir Richard Musgrave (qv) could not go unanswered. Accordingly, together with Troy, he employed J. B. Clinch (qv) and Matthew Darcy to ‘ghost’ responses for him: Veritas, A vindication of the Roman Catholic clergy of the town of Wexford (1798) and The reply of . . . Doctor Caulfield . . . to the misrepresentations of Sir R. Musgrave (1801).
Caulfield never recovered from the events of 1798; a broken man, he requested a coadjutor. In December 1804 Rome appointed as his assistant Patrick Ryan (d. 1819), a priest of the Dublin diocese who had been conspicuously loyal in 1798, riding out with the Coolock yeomanry corps. Caulfield died 14 January 1814 in his home in Wexford and was buried in the Franciscan chapel in the town.