Croke, Thomas William (1823–1902), catholic archbishop of Cashel, was born on 19 May 1823 at Dromin, Castlecor, near Kanturk, Co. Cork, the third of eight children (six boys and two girls) of William Croke, land agent there to Joseph Deane-Freeman, and of his wife Isabella, daughter of Brudenell Plummer of Mount Plummer, Broadford, Co. Limerick, and a granddaughter of the 16th knight of Glin. He attended school locally but when his father died (1834) Isabella Croke, whose protestant family had disowned her for marrying a catholic, moved with her children to the house of her brother-in-law, Thomas Croke, parish priest of Charleville, who was to have a deep influence on her son Thomas. The existence there of an endowed classical school enabled him to continue his education; and the availability of scholarships at the Irish College, Paris, provided by Matthew MacKenna (1706–91), with preferential treatment for his relations, enabled him to follow his brother, William, into an ecclesiastical career. Aged sixteen, he left Ireland to spend six years in Paris (1839–45) studying philosophy and theology. He taught at a diocesan school at Menin, Belgium, for a few months in 1845 before moving to the Irish College, Rome, to study for a DD of the Gregorian University. At the end of his first year he won both the gold and silver medals awarded to the best students in his class. On 29 May 1847 he was ordained priest.
Early career Returning to Ireland, he visited his family at Charleville and then went to Carlow, where from November 1847, as professor of rhetoric, he taught Latin and Greek. Dissatisfied with his new position, he was drawn to the Young Ireland movement, even visiting Charles Gavan Duffy (qv) in prison (July 1848). A few months later he was back in the Irish College, Paris, as professor of dogmatic theology (late December 1848). During his stay he had the heady experience of living in a republic in which elections had been held for the first time with manhood suffrage. In September 1849 Croke was back in Co. Cork as his uncle's curate at Charleville, in the diocese of Cloyne, in place of his elder brother William who had died in August of fever. On 6 November 1849, Thomas William Croke wrote the first of many letters to the press – on the rights of agricultural tenants, whose side he took in the campaign led by the Irish Tenant League, a campaign that for a while consumed much of his energy. Eventually, Croke was moved by his bishop, William Keane (qv), to curacies in other parishes in the diocese of Cloyne: Midleton (June 1853–July 1857) and Mallow (August 1857–September 1858). An uncle, James Croke, made a fortune as a law officer and judge in Australia, died unmarried in 1857 and left him a legacy of some £19,000, which he was able to invest judiciously. Early in 1858, while still at Mallow, he was appointed by Keane to be president of a diocesan secondary school he was founding – St Colman’s College, Fermoy. Croke had to supervise its construction and appoint staff, both domestic and academic, tasks in which his managerial and financial acumen served him well. Much later William O’Brien (qv) (1852–1928), an early pupil at St Colman's, in his novel When we were boys (1890), used Croke as a model for the character Marcus Harte, president of the fictitious St Fergal's.
Croke's office at Fermoy ended in February 1866 when he was appointed parish priest of Doneraile and vicar-general of the diocese of Cloyne. In his new position, which he held until June 1870, he was, despite recent poor health, most energetic, bringing the Christian Brothers to the village to found a boys’ school, for which he provided money. He enlarged the chapel of the Presentation Sisters (who had charge of catholic girls’ schooling there) and spent £700 on the catholic parish church. It was Croke whom Keane chose to take with him to Rome as his adviser at the Vatican council. Croke was in Rome from January to May 1870.
Bishop of Auckland He was only briefly in Ireland again when he was nominated bishop of Auckland. He returned to Rome for consecration (19 July) and to attend, now as a bishop, the Vatican council, which, however, came to an abrupt end with the outbreak of the Franco–Prussian war. In New Zealand he was in charge of a diocese that had been mismanaged by his predecessor, a Frenchman whose primary concern was evangelisation of the indigenous Maori population and whose bankruptcy in 1868 brought heavy financial loss for the diocese and sale of the bishop's house and belongings. Croke proved able to restore the diocesan finances and repurchase the house. While not ignoring the Maoris, he devoted himself to the Irish settlers. On 28 January 1874, considering his work completed, suffering from poor health and hoping to be appointed to the bishopric of Cloyne on its becoming vacant, he left New Zealand for Europe, arriving in Charleville late in May.
Archbishop of Cashel One month later he submitted his resignation as bishop of Auckland but it was not formally accepted and he did not get Cloyne. Instead, on 24 June 1875, he was translated to Cashel, whose archbishop, Patrick Leahy (qv), had died on 26 January. Croke's prudence, administrative ability and wide experience made him pre-eminently suitable as metropolitan of Munster. For the first few years he kept to his pastoral duties, improving clerical discipline and conditions as well as completing the interior of the cathedral at Thurles, Co. Tipperary (the seat of the archbishopric), opened for worship in 1869. He accepted the leadership of the cardinal-archbishop of Dublin, Paul Cullen (qv), who had always supported him at Rome. But throughout Ireland he acquired a reputation as a preacher who mixed nationalistic rhetoric with religious fervour. He corresponded with the leader of the Irish home-rulers, Isaac Butt (qv). In January 1878 he openly contributed to a fund for the relief of released Fenian prisoners. Privately he received a letter of rebuke from Cullen, in reply to which he defended the Fenians. At about the same time his interest in agrarian questions was rekindled by William O'Brien’s pamphlet, Christmas on the Galtees (1878), an eye-witness account of distress among tenant farmers in a part of Co. Tipperary close to Charleville and Doneraile.
Politics The death of Cullen (October 1878) and completion of Thurles cathedral (June 1879) enabled Croke to pursue his political interests actively and to emerge as the most politically-conscious Irish prelate in a period when agrarian and home-rule questions were paramount and the leadership of Charles Stewart Parnell (qv) virtually unchallenged. His intervention after the Ennis parliamentary by-election (July–August 1879) did much to reconcile the ‘clerical’ and ‘Fenian’ elements among the home-rulers. On 21 September 1879 he wrote the first of his many public letters in support of Parnell and seems to have made Parnell’s acquaintance at about this time. Unlike most bishops, Croke allowed, indeed encouraged, his clergy to play an active political role. Consequently, Cashel priests were prominent in the Land League – as local patrons or organisers and in some cases at national level. Croke's public, enthusiastic support for the league brought him into public conflict with the archbishop of Dublin, Edward McCabe (qv), and with Pope Leo XIII. When, in 1881, McCabe publicly denounced the Ladies’ Land League, Croke came publicly to its defence. A year later Croke gave £50 to a testimonial fund to relieve Parnell (recently released from Kilmainham jail), declaring that the amount anyone gave was a measure of his patriotism. That the fund, together with the practice of boycotting (a salient feature of the agrarian agitation), was consequently condemned by the pope did not diminish Croke’s high regard for Parnell. It was Croke who, at an episcopal meeting on 1 October 1884, moved the crucial resolution entrusting Parnell's parliamentary party in the house of commons with promotion of the Catholic church's claims ‘in all branches of the education question’, thus forging a formal alliance between episcopate and party which lasted until the Parnell split of December 1890.
Croke was more enthusiastic than any of his episcopal colleagues, and even reckless, in his support for the Plan of Campaign – under which agricultural tenants withheld rents from their landlord, entrusting them usually to a priest until the landlord should agree to a reduction. Soon it was in progress on over a hundred estates and after some months was officially declared to be an unlawful conspiracy (18 December 1886). When John Dillon (qv) and other organisers were arrested and sent for trial (February 1887), Croke gave £10 towards their defence and issued a public letter suggesting that it would be right to withhold payment of taxes. The letter was discussed at meetings of the British cabinet (23rd and 26th). The following month a curate in Croke’s diocese, Matthew Ryan (qv), who had charge of sums of money entrusted to him by tenants on the Herbertstown estate was summoned to Dublin on a bankruptcy charge; he refused to give any information and so was committed to prison. Croke ostentatiously accompanied him to Kilmainham jail. A papal envoy, Ignatius Persico (1823–95), who visited Ireland in 1887 (7 July–24 October) to investigate the part being played by catholic ecclesiastics in agrarian agitation concluded that Croke’s ‘mania for political affairs destroys all of his good qualities’ (quoted in Canning, Bishops, 238). Croke’s ‘mania’ persisted. In June 1889 there began a campaign led, most notably, by O’Brien and by two of Croke’s priests, Richard Cahill (1820?–1903) and David Humphreys (qv), to withhold from Arthur Hugh Smith Barry (qv) rents due from his tenants (both urban and agricultural) in and around Tipperary town. Though Croke’s public support for the campaign brought him again to the attention of the papacy, he escaped censure, largely because he was deftly defended by the archbishop of Dublin, William Walsh (qv). By the end of 1890 the Plan of Campaign was in serious financial difficulty. The evidence given in support of the divorce petition of William Henry O’Shea (qv), whose wife Katharine had since 1880 been having an affair with Parnell, and the consequent division of home-rulers into Parnellites and anti-Parnellites (November–December 1890) greatly disillusioned Croke. For several years he had had serious doubts about Parnell and probably knew already of his relationship with Mrs O’Shea – ‘Parnell is not too popular now’, he told Wilfrid Scawen Blunt (qv) on 18 May 1886 (three months after Parnell imposed O’Shea on Galway as a parliamentary candidate), ‘he must not try our patience too far’ (Land war, 101). Famously he threw away his bust of Parnell. He played little part in politics during his last ten years.
Gaelic Athletic Association Croke’s nationalism was manifested in the interest he took in music and in sport. He discouraged the popular songs that were in vogue, preferring the songs of Thomas Moore (qv) and, especially, the Young Irelanders. He devoted much energy to the GAA from its inauguration in 1884. The letter he wrote on 18 December 1884 accepting the position of patron has been seen as the GAA’s charter. In the dispute between its ‘clerical’ and ‘Fenian’ wings he naturally sided with the former and when ‘Fenians’ came to dominate he no longer took an active interest. However, his championing of the association in its early years was acknowledged in 1913 when the GAA named its main Dublin sportsground Croke Park. Croke was also the patron of the Society for the Preservation of the Irish Language, though he seems to have given it little more than goodwill. He died on 22 July 1902. His biographer sums him up as ‘essentially a man of action’ for whom ‘faith and nationality overlapped; the one fostered the other’ (Tierney, pp xiv, 85).
Several of his relations have been mentioned above. His sister Isabella Croke (1825–88), brought up a protestant, became a catholic and a Sisters of Mercy nun (‘Mother Joseph’); she worked as a nurse with the British army in the Crimea (1854–6) and recorded her experiences in a diary.