MacGeoghegan, James (1702–63), historian and priest, was probably born near Uisneach, Co. Westmeath, son of a prosperous catholic farmer. Educated from an early age in France, he studied at Rheims, where he obtained distinction in his theological studies, and on his ordination he preached there for some time. He served as a language tutor to the cosmopolitan émigré community in Hamburg in the late 1720s, where he published (1730) Oeuvres mêlées en Latin, Anglois et François sur divers sujets en prose et vers (trans. A miscellany in Latin, English and French on various subjects in prose and verse). Part sycophantic paean to his patrons, who included Donough MacCarthy (qv), 4th earl of Clancarty, the dedicatee, part lament on the subversive effects of ‘rationalist intellectualism’ on the Christian order, the work was the product of a fertile but as yet immature mind.
MacGeoghegan returned to France soon after the publication and was awarded an MA by the University of Paris (1733). Documents imply he was vicaire in the parish of Poissy near Paris before being appointed provisor, one of the three administrators, to the Irish College in Paris. However, factional infighting at the college on the question of the French hierarchy's adherence to Gallicanism, to which MacGeoghegan and most of the Irish clergy were opposed, led to his suspension and appointment as chaplain at the Hôtel-Dieu, the hospital adjacent to Notre Dame cathedral. Before he became chaplain to the Irish Brigade, the men to whom he was to dedicate his great work, MacGeoghegan may have ministered in a private capacity in England and may also have briefly visited Ireland. For the remainder of his career he was attached to the church of Saint-Merri in Paris, until his death there, on 30 March 1763.
He published the first volume of his Histoire de l'Irlande, ancienne et moderne, tiré des monuments les plus authentiques in Paris in 1758, followed by the second and third volumes in 1762 and 1763 respectively. The work is a chronological treatment of Ireland's past until the treaty of Limerick (1691) alongside a summary of existing historiography, including an original study of the Book of Lecan, then housed in the Irish College in Paris. As an undisguised attack on the Williamite political settlement and the subsequent penal laws against catholics, the Histoire could not be published in Ireland. Infused with clear Jacobite sympathies, MacGeoghegan struggled to reconcile the legitimacy of the Stuart claim to the Irish crown alongside his description of the callousness and overall failure of English rule in Ireland since medieval times in the first two volumes; the third volume treats the seventeenth century. Common to both the Oeuvres and the Histoire is clear support for the temporal prerogatives of the papacy, perhaps the result of MacGeoghegan's exposure to the Gallicanism of the French church.
MacGeoghegan expounded a conservative conception of a divine order requiring a wise monarch to provide stability and leadership. He offered a Jacobite, somewhat subverted, reading of the work of Geoffrey Keating (qv), on which he drew heavily. The principal historiographical significance lies with MacGeoghegan's reassessment of the early Irish church, affirming its Roman character, alongside his treatment of the politico-religious conflict of the seventeenth century. The character of early Christian Ireland later became contested ground after Edward Ledwich (qv), in his Antiquities of Ireland (1790), demolished MacGeoghegan's delineation of the Roman character of the early Irish church. MacGeoghegan took issue with the characterisation of the Gaelic Irish as barbaric, offered by Gerald of Wales (qv) and David Hume, among others. Instead he bestowed this label on the Anglo-Normans and justified the 1641 rebellion as the legitimate result of Irish catholic fears of rabid Scottish religious fanaticism then rampant, presenting the Irish catholics as long-suffering adherents to their ancient religion and legitimate Stuart king. The main theme of the work was the continued heroism and devoutness of Irish catholicism, and it implicitly expressed the hope of catholic recovery.
In the aftermath of the Seven Years War (1756–63), the improvement in Anglo–French relations led the French state censor to view with disdain the unmistakable Jacobite hue of the work. The incendiary pro-Stuart remarks in the third volume received particular attention. Compromise eventually ensued, whereby the latter volumes carried a frontispiece implying publication in Amsterdam, combined with the excision of the last paragraph of the work, a particularly inflammatory pro-Stuart lament. Moreover, neither the king's privilege nor his approval is officially noted.
Patrick O'Kelly (qv) published an English translation in Dublin (1831–2; new edition 1844), and the work became a classic Irish nationalist account during the nineteenth century. The Young Irelander John Mitchel (qv) entitled his own post-seventeenth-century history of Ireland A continuation of the history of Abbé MacGeoghegan from the treaty of Limerick to the year 1868 (New York, 1868), which he published alongside MacGeoghegan's History. Together the works went through ten American editions before 1903.