Crolly, William (1780–1849), catholic archbishop of Armagh (1835–49), was born 8 June 1780 at Ballykilbeg (about four miles from Downpatrick, Co. Down), son of John and Mary Crolly. The Swordes family (Crolly was the Gaelic version of the name), of Anglo-Norman origin, held extensive property in the vicinity of Downpatrick for centuries but forfeited it in the early seventeenth century, retaining only the townland of Ballykilbeg. John Crolly was a tenant farmer on the estate owned by his cousin George Crolly, last Baron Crolly of Swordes. It seems likely that Mary (née Maxwell) had been a protestant. They had at least one other son, who later farmed at Ballyrolly, Downpatrick, and a daughter, who married locally.
William Crolly attended first a local preparatory school and then, at 14, transferred to the classical school in Downpatrick conducted by Dr James Neilson, the local presbyterian minister. In 1801 he enrolled in the recently established seminary at Maynooth and, though his studies were cut short by illness and by the pastoral needs of the diocese, was ordained priest 24 May 1806. A month later he was appointed lecturer in logic, ethics, and metaphysics in Maynooth, and in 1810 he succeeded to the chair. In 1812 he became parish priest of Belfast, then a growing town with a catholic population somewhat in excess of 4,000.
Relations between protestant and catholics in this mainly presbyterian town were very good, and the presbyterians contributed generously to the building of St Patrick's, the second catholic church, in 1815. Crolly enhanced this goodwill by joining his clerical colleagues in supporting the work of voluntary bodies dedicated to the public welfare and to the provision of both primary and secondary education. Appreciation of his work and role in the social life of the town was most markedly manifested when, on his promotion to the bishopric of Down and Connor (1825), 170 ‘of the most respectable protestant inhabitants’ of the town, with what the Northern Whig described as ‘a liberality highly creditable to them as patriots and Christians’, entertained him to dinner.
As bishop he obtained some influential presbyterian support for catholic emancipation, and Henry Montgomery (qv), a leading minister, lent his advocacy to the cause at a meeting in St Patrick's church, Belfast. But after 1829 presbyterians, increasingly under the influence of the tory-inclined Henry Cooke (qv), Montgomery's great rival in the theological disputes that had split the synod of Ulster, turned away in greater numbers from their more liberal traditions. When the national system of education (which made grants available to locally organised schools that combined children for moral and literary education, and separated them for religious) was established in 1831, Crolly encouraged his clergy to join with protestants in seeking public funding for schools that children of all denominations could attend. And in 1833 he established St Malachy's College, Belfast, as a secondary school for boys and a junior seminary for aspirants to the priesthood.
In 1835 he was appointed archbishop of Armagh and broke with tradition by spending much of his time in Armagh rather than living permanently in Drogheda. In 1840 he laid the foundation stone of a new cathedral and visited several dioceses to collect money for it, but stopped the work when famine struck. During his tenure of the primatial see, the hierarchy was riven by three major disputes. Archbishop John MacHale (qv) of Tuam sparked off the first in 1838 when he attacked the national system of education as dangerous to the faith of catholic children. In appeals to Rome he charged that it undermined the bishops' jurisdiction; that books used during combined instruction, especially a series of scripture lessons, contained matter harmful to catholic children; that all teachers were required to train in a normal school where both catholic and protestant came under the influence of a Calvinist principal, whose interpretation of scripture was contrary to catholic teaching; that catholics were very disproportionately represented on the commission that administered the system; and, in short, that the whole system was a perfidious plot to subvert the catholic faith, invented by a government that had failed to do so by other means. Despite a response from Archbishop Daniel Murray (qv) of Dublin, one of the two catholic members of the seven-man commission, MacHale persisted with his charges and won the support of all the bishops of his province and of three others. Crolly and Murray led the majority of the prelates who maintained that the system, when properly used, was beneficial to the catholic community and insisted that the government would never replace it by funding separate denominational systems. Eventually Rome decided (1841) that, if certain precautions about the use of books and the strict division between secular and religious instruction were observed, each bishop was free to follow his own conscience on the issue.
Unlike most of his colleagues Crolly did not support O'Connell's campaign for repeal, which he regarded as ‘injudicious’ and ‘unfortunate’. This attitude brought him a good deal of abuse from some of the catholic laity and even from some of the clergy. And it helps explain some of the bitterness provoked by the charitable bequests act (1844), under which the government set up a board of thirteen members to control all bequests made for charitable purposes. Though catholics were guaranteed five places on this body, where hitherto they had had one, many of them took great exception to two clauses in the act: religious orders were barred from receiving any donation or bequest, and no donation or bequest for charitable purposes ‘to create or convey any estate in lands, tenements, or hereditaments’ would be valid unless made three months before the testator's death. The majority of the bishops vigorously denounced the act. Though Crolly and Murray called for alterations in it, they agreed to serve as commissioners.
The most bitter division among the bishops, however, occurred on the queen's colleges. Crolly, Murray, and a small minority were prepared to accept relatively minor adjustments to the academic colleges bill (1845), which was to establish three university colleges from which the teaching of theology was excluded, and which left responsibility for the religious welfare of the students to each denomination. MacHale and the majority wanted the ‘godless’ colleges (over which they felt they had neither adequate influence in the appointment of staff nor proper disciplinary or spiritual control of the student body, and which they believed would be destructive of the faith of catholic youth) condemned by Rome. After a prolonged examination Rome acceded to this request and issued two rescripts (9 October 1847, 11 October 1848) which admonished the bishops to take no part in establishing the colleges, and advised them to set up a catholic university on the model of Louvain.
This dispute took place against the background of the famine. In his own diocese Crolly worked hard to alleviate the suffering and distribute the funds he received from abroad to those most in need. He himself fell victim to the cholera pandemic that swept through Ireland in late 1848 and early 1849. He died 6 April 1849 and was buried under the sanctuary of his unfinished cathedral.