French, Nicholas (1603–78), catholic bishop of Ferns, was born in the town of Wexford. His father, John French, was a younger son of a landed family settled at Ballytory in the barony of Forth since the thirteenth century. His mother, Christina (née Rossiter), came from a family of similar status based at Rathmacknee about half way between Wexford and Ballytory. Nothing is known of brothers and sisters, but he would have been closely related to many of the long-established gentry families in the barony of Forth. His first cousin, also Nicholas French, was heir to the lands of Ballytory, from which he was expelled in the 1650s.
By this time the gentry families of the barony families of Forth and the merchant families of the town of Wexford had, with very few exceptions, committed themselves to the catholicism of the counter-reformation. Priests were active, and in 1607 Daniel Druhan was placed in charge of the diocese of Ferns as vicar apostolic. Schoolmasters were also active, and it may reasonably be presumed that young Nicholas French received an adequate education. It was unsurprising that he should decide to study for the catholic priesthood. This involved going abroad. On 13 December 1627 he was matriculated in the Collège du Porc of the university of Louvain, residing in the Irish seminary founded there in 1624, known as the Collegium Pastorale.
He returned to Ireland after a few years, at the end of his philosophy studies, it would appear. Here he was ordained priest by John Roche, who had been consecrated bishop in 1627. French returned to Louvain at the end of 1630 to complete his studies. The period following is not well documented. There are references to his being a professor in the seminary, and to his giving thought to becoming a Cistercian. What is certain is that in 1641 he was in charge of a parish in Wexford town, and seemingly for quite some time.
By the end of 1641 ‘English Wexford’, that is, the town and the southern part of the county, had joined in the general insurrection that had begun in Ulster on 22 October. This step was taken with some hesitation, for loyalty to the crown was deep-seated. On the other hand, the disabilities suffered by ‘recusants’ had been felt very keenly. It was natural that a leading part should be taken by the catholic clergy, and Nicholas French displayed a competence and eloquence that marked him out as a leader. He was a delegate to the meeting of the catholic clergy in Kilkenny in May 1642. Thereafter he was inextricably linked with the history of the Irish Confederate Catholics, as they struggled with the inevitable problem of reconciling a commitment to the catholic religion with loyalty to a protestant ruler. Catholics were coming to accept that they should content themselves with toleration and discreet private practice of their religion, leaving all temporalities, including tithes and churches, to the legally established church. However, the continental-educated clergy were disposed to seek for more. This approach was strengthened by the establishment of the Catholic Confederacy, and even more by the arrival of the papal nuncio, Rinuccini (qv).
The first crisis came in 1646, when the nuncio flatly opposed a settlement reached between the supreme council of the confederates and the king's representative, the marquess of Ormond (qv). By now Nicholas French was bishop of Ferns, having been consecrated on 23 November 1645. He was chosen to preside over the ecclesiastical synod convened by the nuncio at Waterford. Here it was decided to oppose the settlement by interdict and excommunication. These tactics were successful, and the bishops, led by the nuncio, were for the moment in control. Unfortunately, the confederates went from one failure to another, and after a series of military reverses it was decided to send envoys to Rome and Paris to seek help. The envoys to Rome were Bishop French and Sir Nicholas Plunkett (qv). They sailed from Wexford on 10 February 1648.
At Rome they were received with due honour, but got neither help nor satisfaction. Papal material resources were indeed slender, but, even after long delays, they were refused any answer to their query as to the terms on which they might reach agreement with a protestant ruler. They left Rome empty-handed at the end of August, and made their way slowly home, arriving at the end of November. They knew that they were returning to another crisis. The confederates were again in the process of making peace with the crown, and the nuncio had again replied with interdict and excommunication. This time his weapons failed him and he had to retire from Kilkenny to Galway.
The envoys did not go to him, but to the confederate headquarters at Kilkenny. They had returned through a Europe where tortuous negotiations between catholic and protestant had just ended in the peace of Westphalia. This had been opposed by the papal nuncio, but to no effect. At Kilkenny, the negotiations between the confederates and Ormond were equally tortuous. When Bishop French addressed the assembly on the failed mission to Rome, he certainly gave the impression that in changed times the papacy would acquiesce in less than Rinuccini was demanding. Nevertheless, negotiations still seemed on the verge of breakdown when news arrived of the decision taken in London to put King Charles I on trial. In an emotional reaction an ambiguous and unsatisfactory agreement was signed on 17 January 1649. Problems were compounded by the arrival of Oliver Cromwell (qv) with his army on 15 August. In Bishop French's graphic phrase, he went ‘like a lightning through the land’ (Unkinde desertor (1846 ed.), 13). The bishop counted himself lucky to have escaped after the sacking of his native Wexford. Cromwell's opponents made a last desperate throw in an appeal to the duke of Lorraine. Lorraine was a mercenary leader who had failed to win back his inheritance at the peace of Westphalia. Bishop French was one of the Irish catholic envoys who approached him. The approach could only raise false hopes, for the envoys were divided and Lorraine had scant resources, and the war in Ireland petered out at the end of 1652 and the beginning of 1653.
French joined the large number of Irish exiles. He went to Paris and to Rome, seeking reconciliation with the king and the pope, but in both places he failed. After some years of wandering in France he found asylum with the bishop of Compostella in 1659. He had high hopes of returning to Ireland after the restoration in 1660, but it became clear there was a price he was not willing to pay, namely, his signature to the ‘remonstrance’ formulary drawn up by the Franciscan Peter Walsh (qv). The hope of return had induced him to leave Compostella in 1666. When this was disappointed he found asylum as assistant to the bishop of Ghent in Flanders. By now he had the status of a kind of elder statesman, routinely consulted when at the end of the 1660s it was decided to appoint catholic bishops in Ireland. He was gradually giving up the hope of returning himself, even though his own cousin, Luke Wadding (qv), was appointed his coadjutor bishop in 1671. He busied himself in writing a number of political tracts: A narrative of the earl of Clarendon's settlement and sale of Ireland (1668); The bleeding Iphigenia (1674); and an attack on Ormond, The unkinde desertor of loyall men and true frinds (1676). All three were published in Louvain (all were reprinted and published in 1846 by James Duffy (qv) of Dublin). The bishop of Ghent seems to have provided for French reasonably well, for he was able to leave a small burse producing 180 florins a year to his old seminary, the Collegium Pastorale. He died 23 August 1678 and was buried in the church of St Nicholas in Ghent.
There is extensive material on French in the papal archives, both of the Vatican and Propaganda. Most of it has been published or calendared, especially in P. F. Moran's (qv) Spicilegium Ossoriense (3 vols, Dublin, 1874), and in the journals Archivium Hibernicum and Collectanea Hibernica, passim. French inevitably figures in the voluminous documentation on the Irish Confederate catholics, of which the main published works are listed below.