Dixon, James (1758–1840), first prefect-apostolic of Australia, was born in June 1758 at Castlebridge, Co. Wexford, son (and fourth of five children) of John Dixon of Castlebridge, of a noted family of millers, maltsters, and brewers. His mother's name is unknown. He began his clerical studies under Fr Sutton, parish priest of Oylegate, and went to Salamanca (1778), and later to Louvain, where he completed his studies (1784). In 1785 he returned to his native diocese of Ferns and was appointed curate of Castlebridge, where the protestant rector was the Rev. Frederick Draffen, of whom Dixon became a close acquaintance. James should not be confused with another Fr Dixon: his first cousin Thomas, also of Castlebridge, who was arrested early in May 1798 and convicted of being a United Irishman and of seditious activities, on the evidence of one Francis Murphy of Wexford town. He was sentenced to transportation and incarcerated in Duncannon fort, where he shortly after died. Murphy himself was subsequently shot in Wexford (3 June) as an informer and his body thrown in the water. Another Thomas Dixon, a brother of James, also took a very active and bloody part in the rising.
After the rising in Wexford, James Dixon went to England with Col. George le Hunte (a noted loyalist squire of Altramont, Castlebridge) and Draffen. On landing at Milford Haven he was attacked by an enraged mob of protestant refugees from the Wexford rebellion, and escaped with his life only through the physical intervention of Draffen. He was arrested, brought back to Wexford, and charged with having ‘commanded a company of rebels at the battle of Tubberneering’, near Gorey. His kinship to the Thomas Dixons mentioned above, and the fact that his older brother Nicholas had also been an officer in the insurgent army, would certainly have made him guilty by association in the eyes of the authorities and would have secured his conviction. Despite an appeal for clemency to the lord lieutenant, Cornwallis (qv), from Draffen – a singular event at that time – testifying to his complete innocence of any complicity in the rising, he was courtmartialled in Waterford (1799) and sentenced to be hanged, but this was commuted to transportation for life to New Holland (Australia). While awaiting transportation, he was put in grim confinement in Geneva Barracks, Waterford. It is certain that Dixon took no part whatever in the rising: this was attested on oath by Draffen, le Hunte, Bishop James Caulfield (qv) of Ferns, and several other notable persons of Castlebridge area at the time, and by his ecclesiastical superiors when he afterwards became PP of Crossabeg.
Together with his fellow priests and transportees Harold and O'Neill, he reached Port Jackson (Sydney) on 16 January 1800 on board the Friendship. Because of his physical condition and good conduct, the colonial governor King allowed him to remain at Port Jackson and gave him conditional emancipation by order of 19 April 1803, ‘to exercise his clerical functions’ publicly. He was thus the first priest allowed (under strict supervision) to celebrate mass in the colony ‘once in three weeks in the settlements at Sydney, Parramatta, and Hawkesbury, in rotation’. On 15 May 1803 he was appointed ‘prefect apostolic of New Holland’ (later ‘of Australia’) by the Holy See – the first catholic ecclesiastical appointment in Australia. He would retain that position until 1816. He celebrated his first public mass on that day and was put on a salary of £60 by Governor King.
The permission to celebrate mass was revoked in November 1804, and an order was issued early the following year compelling all convicts to attend the services of the Church of England under pain of transportation to a penal settlement. It is not clear if these restrictions were subsequently relaxed or ignored, but Dixon laboured under covert and difficult circumstances for a further eight years in the Sydney area as a missionary to the catholic population. It has long been assumed that the revocation of permission was due to an attempted rising by Irish catholic convicts who had perhaps been using the masses to meet and develop their seditious plans. However, the 'rising' likely relates to a major convict escape attempt from a government farm west of Sydney in March 1804. Many but not all of those involved were Irish catholics, and two of the nine hanged in the aftermath were English. So the reason for the withdrawal of Dixon's right to preach cannot be categorically stated.
In an 1806 muster he was described as ‘Roman Catholic priest, self employed’. At the representation of Patrick Ryan (d. 1819), the new bishop of Ferns, Dixon was finally permitted in 1808 to return home, and arrived back in Ireland the following year, where he lived for many years with his brother Nicholas (who, despite some involvement in the rising, had escaped punishment and continued in business until his death in 1816). In 1810 he was made curate, and in 1819 parish priest, in the parish of Crossabeg and Ballymurn, Co. Wexford, where he remained for twenty-one years.
Dixon lived to see the abolition of tithes, the disbandment of the hated yeomanry, and the passage of the catholic emancipation act of 1829, which finally removed many of the provisions operating against the catholic faith. He died 4 January 1840, aged eighty-two, at the Franciscan friary, Wexford, and is buried in Crossabeg, where there is a monument erected to him. He is commemorated in a stained-glass window in Sydney cathedral.