Cusack (Cusacke, Cusake), Thomas (c.1505–1571), government official, was eldest son of John Cusack, a wealthy landowner of Cushington, Co. Meath, and his wife, Alison Welesley. Some sources put his birth in 1490, but c.1505 seems a better estimate, given that he entered Middle Temple in London in 1522. He appears as a senior member of the inn in 1530. By autumn 1531 he was reporting on events in Ireland to Thomas Cromwell, soon to be chief minister of King Henry VIII. He owed Cromwell's favour to their agreement on the need to reduce the power of Garret Óg FitzGerald (qv), earl of Kildare and sometime lord deputy of Ireland. Around July 1533 Cromwell authorised Cusack's promotion to an office in the Irish exchequer, but Kildare blocked the appointment until 1534. Cusack was to hold this office until 1561. In May 1534 Cusack arrived in Dublin from London to order ‘Silken’ Thomas FitzGerald (qv), governor of Ireland in the absence of his father Garret Óg, to come to London. Silken Thomas defied this order and soon after rebelled against the crown.
A new lord deputy, Sir William Skeffington (qv), was sent to Ireland with royal reinforcements in late 1534 to quell this uprising, and Cusack won his confidence, being appointed chief justice of the court of common pleas in May 1535. By mid 1535 the rebellion had been all but defeated, but Skeffington became concerned about the growing power of the Butler family of Ormond and tried to placate the supporters of the fallen FitzGeralds. Cusack shared these concerns and may have been the main inspiration for this policy, which angered the Butlers and their supporters in London, including perhaps Cromwell. Further, Cusack was later accused of embezzling royal funds under Skeffington's indulgent gaze. Such behaviour was the norm among royal officials in Ireland at the time, but Cusack may not have provided Cromwell with a share in these gains. In any case, he lost the chief royal minister's favour and was abruptly dismissed from his chief justiceship on 12 August, having held the post for under three months. Skeffington's death in December 1635 and replacement by Lord Leonard Grey (qv) further reduced Cusack's political stock.
For a time he kept a low profile, although he sat as MP in the 1536–7 Irish parliament. Mainly, he focused on his duties as deputy to William Brabazon (qv), vice treasurer of Ireland, in administering the vast amounts of land confiscated by the crown from the FitzGeralds of Kildare. Brabazon valued Cusack's efforts, particularly as Cusack aided the vice-treasurer in seizing much of this land for himself. With Brabazon's help, Cusack was restored to Cromwell's favour by 1537. This partnership between Cusack and Brabazon was ironic in that while Brabazon was already the most vocal advocate of a policy of conquest and confiscation in the Dublin administration, Cusack would in time become the most prominent promoter of a policy of accommodation with the native Irish. A consummate and flexible politician, he nonetheless tenaciously pursued his long-term goal of peacefully reconciling a very traditional Irish society with a modernising and centralising renaissance state. He kept his views to himself for the moment.
The execution of Silken Thomas and his five uncles in summer 1537 brought out the cynical opportunist in Cusack. Matilda Darcy of Platten, Co. Meath, was one of a group of FitzGerald widows who were allowed to retain sizeable estates and had thereby become much prized on the marriage market. Cusack was already married to Joan Hussey, with whom he had a son and two daughters, but he proceeded to divorce her on the grounds of consanguinity on 6 July 1537 and to marry Matilda soon after. They had three sons and eight daughters.
The same year, he impressed Sir Anthony St Leger (qv), who was in Ireland as part of a royal commission to inquire into the government of Ireland. He accompanied St Leger back to London in April 1538, remaining there for a year, to complain on behalf of his political patrons in Dublin against the rule of Grey. However, it became clear that the king retained confidence in his lord deputy, leading Cusack to declare his support for Grey. In 1539 he was appointed to the commission for carrying out the suppression of the religious orders in Ireland and was occupied as such into 1540. In July 1540 St Leger arrived in Ireland as lord deputy. Cusack was knighted soon after and became St Leger's most trusted adviser.
St. Leger embarked on a radical policy of engaging in a series of indentures with Gaelic lords that provided them with security of tenure in return for their promise of loyalty to the crown. Although this policy was the brainchild of Edward Staples (qv), bishop of Meath, Cusack emerged as its most eager salesman. He was MP and speaker of the house of commons in the 1541–3 Irish parliament, where the policy of surrender and regrant was outlined and then formalised by the Irish parliament's declaration of Henry VIII as king of Ireland in June 1541. This declaration meant that the government regarded the Gaelic Irish as royal subjects and not as aliens who were to be conquered and deprived of their lands. Cusack hurried to London soon after to win the king's support for this step. Henry and his counsellors were surprised and angry at this declaration, demanding that financial compensation be extracted from the Gaelic lords for royal recognition of their right to their lands. After a series of lengthy meetings with the English privy council, Cusack allayed Henry's misgivings and convinced him to drop his demands for money. On his return to Ireland, he became a member of the Irish privy council and in 1542 master of the rolls. His influence aroused the jealousy of some of his conciliar colleagues, particularly of those who opposed surrender and regrant, but St Leger praised Cusack for his independence and declared (1544) that he was the only Irishman he trusted.
Cusack benefited from his political influence, acquiring the former monastic estates of the Dominicans at Trim and Londerstown, the priory of Augustinians at Skreen, and the abbey of Clonard, all in Co. Meath. The greatest prize was the lease in 1540 of the priory of Augustinian nuns at Lismullen, which was adjacent to his estates. In September 1547 he was granted Lismullen permanently and moved his residence there. All these properties were either purchased or leased at rates far below their true value. Moreover, he was allowed to build up large arrears on the lease payments due to the crown. He used the money this saved to purchase the abbey at Multyfarnham, Co. Westmeath, for half its value in 1547. During this period he also illegally took possession of crown lands, gained church lands in Meath for a fraction of their value, and was accused of taking bribes in executing his office as master of the rolls and in his dealings with Gaelic lords.
From the mid 1540s the policy of accommodation with the Gaelic Irish gradually broke down due to mutual mistrust and increasing political instability within both the Gaelic lordships and the royal government. Despite losing some influence, Cusack remained a valued royal official, becoming lord chancellor in 1550. In early 1551 he toured the south and west of Ireland to promote the radical protestant reforms inaugurated by King Edward VI. Although privately sympathetic to catholicism, he broadly supported the reformation in Ireland as a means of evangelising the Gaelic Irish, whom he regarded as lacking any real understanding of Christianity. Indeed, he often berated the royal government for failing to devote enough resources to the spreading of the Word in Ireland. In this regard, he did not lead by example. He controlled a sizeable number of church livings in the diocese of Meath, but does not seem to have been diligent in finding suitably qualified, or indeed any, clergymen for these posts.
In 1551 the lord deputy, James Croft (qv), installed him for a time in a military command at Athlone. In this capacity he helped the loyalist Richard Burke (qv), 2nd earl of Clanricard, achieve mastery of the lordship of Clanricard in east Galway, and toured the west midlands and south Ulster. That November, the king increased Cusack's official salary and granted him the site of the abbey of Clonard. He then served as lord justice from December 1552 to November 1553. During this time, he criticised the crown's recent belligerence and advised officials in London to avoid the extremes of colonising Ireland with English settlers or of simply leaving the Irish under the rule of their over-mighty feudal lords. Instead, these lords should be encouraged to work within the framework of the common law by appointing them to keep the peace through provincial councils.
The accession of the catholic Queen Mary in 1553 did not immediately cause him any problems, as he adroitly accepted the restoration of catholicism. However, in 1555 investigations exposed Cusack's involvement in the corrupt sale of former monastic lands during the 1540s. He worsened his predicament by objecting to the queen's decision of the same year to restore the cathedral chapter of St Patrick in Dublin. St Leger had dissolved the chapter in 1547, granting some of its property to Cusack. He was sacked as lord chancellor in July 1555 and imprisoned in London, being released around November 1557, but only after pledging to reimburse £1,500 to the crown, plunging him into serious financial difficulties for the rest of his life. These difficulties were partially offset by the considerable financial assistance he received from his third wife, Genet Sarsfield of Sarsfieldstown, Co. Meath, whom he had married by 1559 following his second wife's death.
He was readmitted to the Irish privy council in 1558 following the accession of the protestant Queen Elizabeth; but, still being in disgrace, rarely attended council meetings. He sat as MP for Athenry in the 1559–60 Irish parliament. In 1560 he travelled to Munster as a commissioner to rule on the disputes between the earls of Ormond and Desmond. The commission decided in favour of Gerald Fitzgerald (qv), 15th earl of Desmond, reflecting Cusack's long-standing support for the FitzGeralds of Desmond as a counter to the Butlers of Ormond. Indeed, the conciliation of the FitzGeralds of Desmond had been one of the cornerstones of St Leger's rule of Ireland in the 1540s.
In March 1563 he went to England and, after winning the confidence of the queen, succeeded in undermining the belligerent policy of the lord lieutenant of Ireland, Thomas Radcliffe (qv), earl of Sussex. In this he was assisted by Sussex's failure to inflict military defeat on Shane O'Neill (qv), lord of Tyrone. In August the queen ordered the release from prison of Desmond, who had been detained in London on Sussex's advice, and dispatched Cusack to Ireland with authority to negotiate with Shane O'Neill. In September the peace of Drumcree was signed between Cusack and O'Neill, whereby the crown acknowledged O'Neill as leader of his clan and withdrew its garrisons from Armagh. Sussex's influence had collapsed and Sir Nicholas Arnold (qv) succeeded him as governor of Ireland in April 1564. Cusack was promised the lord chancellorship of Ireland, which was expected to become vacant in the near future.
Arnold, with Cusack at his ear, sought to rule through the cooperation of the Old English and Gaelic Irish lords. In 1564–5 Arnold ended Sussex's policy of imposing a standing army on the Pale, pushed for reducing the salaries and numbers of the royal garrisons in Kildare and the midlands, and launched a major investigation that uncovered systematic corruption within the royal military establishment in the midlands. All of this was popular in Ireland, but disruptive forces were encouraged by the government's evident weakness.
During 1564, the peace with O'Neill began to unravel while Desmond also became increasingly bellicose. Cusack spent the year shuttling back and forth between Dublin, Ulster, and Munster in a bid to keep the peace, but by autumn English officers were openly questioning his strategy. The skeptics were proved right in late 1564 with the outbreak of open warfare between the earls of Desmond and Ormond (qv). After this fiasco, the two earls were summoned to London in spring 1565 and Cusack was appointed to a four-man commission to rule Munster in their absence. In this capacity, he continued to favour the FitzGeralds of Desmond and defended Desmond's brother John Fitzgerald (qv) from criticism after he continued to raid the Butlers. However, in this capacity he also oversaw the execution of a number of Geraldine troublemakers, including the Knight of the Valley.
Meanwhile, in Ulster O'Neill consolidated his power, winning crushing victories over the O'Donnells of Tyrconnell and the Scots of Antrim by summer 1565. Far from being alarmed by these developments, Cusack had turned away An Calbhach O'Donnell (qv) when he sought the government's help in summer 1564, and continued to praise O'Neill into 1565. Previously Cusack had broadly urged a conciliatory policy on the government, while being prepared to bow to political realities. During the final stage of his career, he continued to claim his policies were succeeding, despite all evidence to the contrary.
By mid 1565 the queen realised that the Cusack–Arnold programme of government was no longer viable and replaced Arnold with Sir Henry Sidney (qv). Perhaps believing that his services were no longer required by the queen, Cusack became an alderman of Dublin that year. In the event, he took little part in civic matters, resigning as alderman in 1569. During 1565–6 Cusack remained active in Munster, where he was a commissioner, and in 1567 he was involved in government work in Connacht. Although Sidney valued his advice and efforts, by 1567 Cusack had fallen out of favour with the queen, who reneged on her earlier promise to make him lord chancellor, questioned his generous official salary, and refused to forgive his outstanding financial debt to the crown of £400. In spring 1569 Cusack helped to shire Connacht. Later that year, after Ormond's brothers rebelled against the crown, he stiffened Sidney's determination to quell the uprising and accompanied him on his campaign in Leinster and Munster. After 1569 he withdrew from public affairs, owing either to infirmity or to disillusionment.
He died 1 April 1571 at Lismullen and was buried at Trevet, Co. Meath. As befitted someone who had conformed with each of the many shifts in the official state religion that had occurred during his life, his will declared his belief in the royal supremacy over the Irish church and used some religious formulas that are identifiably protestant. However, he also used phrases that are associated with catholic wills and provided a yearly sum to be paid to a priest to say the traditional mass for his soul. As government official, he repeatedly argued against the persecution of catholics, and most of his children – but not his heir – appear to have been catholic. His grandson Christopher (qv) was a catholic priest and founded an Irish college at Douai in 1594.
Contradicting his pleas of poverty, his heir Edward was one of the wealthiest and largest landowners in the Pale. Due to a private grudge, Edward was falsely accused of involvement in the Nugent conspiracy of 1581 and was convicted of treason. He was later pardoned and restored to his estates.