Kirwan, Francis (1589–1661), catholic bishop of Killala, was the son of Matthew Kirwan and his wife, Juliana Lynch, both of Galway city. He was taught at Galway by his maternal uncle, Arthur Lynch, who was a priest, and subsequently studied at Lisbon. In 1614 he was ordained a priest by David Kearney (qv), archbishop of Cashel, before travelling to France where he was teaching philosophy at Rouen by 1618. Subsequently, his uncle William Lynch removed Kirwan (against his wishes) to Louvain in the Spanish Netherlands. There he impressed Florence Conry (qv), archbishop of Tuam, who sent Kirwan back to Ireland in 1620 to act as vicar general of the archdiocese of Tuam.
Kirwan was indefatigable in attending to his duties as vicar general and effective head of the catholic church in Connacht, travelling to the most remote areas of the archdiocese. His ascetic lifestyle and modest demeanour earned him the respect and awe of the catholic laity, although he was criticised for his tendency to favour the hospitality of wealthy catholics. He worked particularly hard to ensure that his clergy met strict counter-reformation standards, stipulating that each priest could have only one parish, and supervising those training to become priests. Generally the local authorities turned a blind eye to his activities and Kirwan seems to have been on friendly terms with William Daniel (qv), the protestant archbishop of Tuam. Indeed, his main opposition came from his own clergy, many of whom preferred a more lax brand of catholicism.
Conry died in 1629, but his successor as archbishop of Tuam, Malachy O'Queely (qv), retained Kirwan as vicar general. About 1637 he decided to depart for France to preside over the education of a group of Irish youths there. They settled at Caen and were maintained for several years by funds sent from Ireland. However, the beginning of a long period of warfare in Ireland in 1641 meant that this revenue source was cut off. Kirwan's scholars dispersed and he travelled again to France, where he attempted unsuccessfully to gather together the Irish students under his leadership and tried to organise the sending of arms to the catholics in Ireland. During this period he also befriended Vincent de Paul.
As early as 1625 Kirwan had been recommended for a bishopric, and on 7 May 1645 he was consecrated bishop of Killala at the church of St Lazarus in Paris. He travelled to Ireland and, after being warmly received by the supreme council of the Catholic Confederation at Kilkenny, took possession of his see in October 1646. The most powerful local lord was Ulick Burke (qv), marquess of Clanricard, a strong royalist with whom Kirwan became close. As well as attending to his pastoral duties, he frequently travelled to Kilkenny and Waterford to participate in the confederate assemblies.
In June 1646, along with the rest of the catholic hierarchy, Kirwan supported the decision of the papal nuncio GianBattista Rinuccini (qv) to excommunicate those who adhered to the alliance between the Catholic Confederation and the protestant royalists. However, his association with Clanricard put him on the moderate wing of the church and increasingly at odds with the nuncio. In May 1648 he was among the minority of bishops who opposed Rinuccini's excommunication of those who supported the truce between the confederates and Murrough O'Brien (qv), Lord Inchiquin, the commander of the protestant forces in Munster. Later that year he helped Archbishop John Bourke (qv) of Tuam celebrate mass at the collegiate church in Galway, in defiance of the nuncio's interdict. His stance was vociferously opposed by his own diocesan clergy, who complained against him to Rinuccini.
From 1649 to 1652 he was active in the last struggles of the confederates and strongly supported Clanricard, who became royalist lord deputy of Ireland in 1650, against the more hard-line members of the hierarchy. He was also involved in efforts to persuade the duke of Lorraine to intervene in Ireland on behalf of the catholics. After the Cromwellian forces had completed their conquest of Connacht in the summer of 1652, he spent nearly two years in hiding, constantly pursued by the authorities. Weary and in poor health, he gave himself up in Galway in 1654, before being freed in December that year on condition that he left Ireland within two months. In the event, he sailed into Nantes with other exiled catholic clergy in August 1655. He spent two years there before settling in Brittany. Virtually destitute on his arrival in Nantes, he was maintained by grants from the French clergy and by the patronage of noblewomen. He also repented of his past opposition to Rinuccini, and in 1655 appealed to Rome for absolution, which he received two years later. He died 27 August 1661 at Rennes and was buried in the Jesuit church there. Long an admirer of the Jesuits, he was admitted as a member of their order on his deathbed.