MacEvilly, John (1816–1902), catholic archbishop of Tuam, was born 24 April 1816 at Bunowen, in the parish of Louisburgh, Co. Mayo, one of the family of five sons and three daughters of William MacEvilly (1786?–1872) and his wife, Sarah (née Boland, 1787?–1886), both of whom belonged to the farming class. John MacEvilly was educated at St Jarlath's College, Tuam, before going to St Patrick's College, Maynooth, to train for the catholic priesthood (1833); after his ordination (June 1840) he did further study at Maynooth's Dunboyne establishment (1842–4). As professor of scripture and Hebrew, he served on the staff of St Jarlath's (1844–57), eventually becoming president (August 1852). He never ministered in a parish. His biblical scholarship was evidenced in An exposition of the epistles of St Paul and of the catholic epistles (1856), An exposition of the gospels (1857), and An exposition of the Acts of the Apostles (1895), in which he commented on the entire New Testament excepting only the Apocalypse. These commentaries went into many editions and were evidently standard works of exegesis for catholic seminarists.
As a young priest MacEvilly was much trusted by the archbishop of Tuam, John MacHale (qv), acting as his theological consultant at the synod of Thurles (1850), being appointed by him to the presidency of St Jarlath's (1852), and sitting beside him at the guest table at a Tenant League banquet at Tuam in 1854. Then he came under the influence of MacHale's great adversary, the archbishop of Dublin, Paul Cullen (qv), who successfully supported him, at the age of forty, for the vacant see of Galway, in opposition to Thomas MacHale, who was Archbishop MacHale's nephew and the choice of the Connacht bishops. MacEvilly was consecrated bishop on 22 March 1857. A few years later, again through Cullen's influence, he was appointed administrator of the small adjacent dioceses of Kilmacduagh and Kilfenora (31 August 1866).
At Galway MacEvilly succeeded in increasing episcopal control over the local parish priests, led by Peter Daly (qv), who had enjoyed a large measure of independence, carried over from the medieval wardenship of Galway (erected into the see of Galway in 1830) and unknown elsewhere in Ireland. He forced the closure of Galway model school by introducing two religious orders to open new catholic primary schools, though he failed to impede the progress of the local Queen's College (anathematised at the synod of Thurles). And he unwittingly made a name for himself in home rule circles by his support for John Philip Nolan (qv), the home rule candidate in a by-election in Co. Galway (1872), which resulted in Nolan's being unseated and MacEvilly, MacHale, and another bishop, Patrick Duggan (qv), being prosecuted for exercising undue influence.
At the first Vatican council (1870) MacEvilly spoke for an hour and a half in favour of papal infallibility, against the views of MacHale. Cullen, as papal legate in Ireland, considered that the diocese of Tuam was being seriously mismanaged by its elderly and irascible archbishop and so obtained from the papacy the appointment (7 January 1878) of MacEvilly as co-adjutor to MacHale, who, however, refused to co-operate with him, preferring his nephew to be his assistant. Only on Archbishop MacHale's death (7 November 1881) did MacEvilly come to rule over Tuam as well as Galway, Kilmacduagh, and Kilfenora, which he continued to hold until June 1883.
During this period the Land League was formed, largely through the efforts of local Fenians such as James Daly (qv), Michael Davitt (qv), and Matthew Harris (qv), and flourished throughout Connacht. MacEvilly was from the beginning hostile. He opposed Fenians, as their object was (in his words) ‘to alienate the people from the clergy’, and resented the influence of Charles Stewart Parnell (qv), an ‘outsider’; he was vehement in his opposition to the Ladies’ Land League – ‘this abomination of female speech-making gatherings’; and he preached in Tuam cathedral against Parnell's no-rent manifesto of 18 October 1882 as contrary to ‘every principle of religion, every dictate of morality’ (Bane, 36, 100–01, 103, 105). But he cautiously instructed or allowed priests to preside over local league meetings in order to exercise a measure of control. Later, after failing to obtain any satisfaction from the Irish government over the Maamtrasna affair, in which an innocent man, Myles Joyce (qv), was hanged, he came to look more favourably on Parnell's movement, and at a meeting of Irish bishops held on 1 October 1884 seconded a proposal by Thomas William Croke (qv) to entrust Parnell's party with their business at Westminster.
By 1887 he was an enthusiast for a robust agrarian agitation, conceived by Timothy Harrington (qv) and known as the ‘Plan of Campaign’, in which tenants who were refused a rent reduction by their landlord combined with other tenants on the estate to offer reduced rents which, if not accepted, were put into a fund (usually entrusted to a priest) to be used for the upkeep of tenants consequently evicted. Like the Land League, it encouraged the boycotting of those who would not conform. Not even denunciation of the plan and of boycotting by the pope (April 1888) dampened MacEvilly's enthusiasm. He publicly supported the Tenants’ Defence Association, a body set up to collect money for tenants evicted for not paying rent to their landlords, stating privately that it was ‘of absolute necessity for the preservation of our Catholic people’ (Larkin, Roman Catholic church . . . 1888–91, 48). The principle of purchase on easy terms by tenants in the Balfour Land Act of 1896 received his warm approval, but he criticised details of the act. He was very much in sympathy with the United Irish League, formed at Westport, Co. Mayo, in 1898 by William O’Brien (qv) to campaign for the redistribution of grazing land among small farmers, and encouraged his clergy to play leading parts.
Although MacEvilly supported, after 1884, Parnell's political movement (his party at Westminster and the Irish National League in Ireland), he never warmed to Parnell himself. After it split over the O’Shea divorce case (1890) he was naturally in the anti-Parnellite camp and at odds with the local MP, J. P. Nolan, whose campaign for re-election in the Parnellite interest (which proved successful) occasioned rioting at Tuam (where the archbishop resided) and physical attacks on priests (29 June 1892). John MacEvilly died on 26 November 1902 and was buried at Tuam beside his old enemy, John MacHale. He has been judged ‘a serious, stern and austere man’ whom ‘those who crossed him found a hard and stubborn opponent’ (Bane, 10).