MacGeoghegan, Ross (Rossa Mac Eochagáin) (c.1577–1644), catholic bishop of Kildare and sometime Dominican provincial, was the sixth son of Rossa Mac Eochagáin, lord of Moycashel, and Sheila O'Dempsey, sister of the 1st Lord Clanmalier; he was born c.1577 at his mother's ancestral home, Clonygowan castle (‘Clunagunia’), Co. Offaly, or at one of his father's residences in the barony of Moycashel, Co. Westmeath. The Moycashel MacGeoghegans were one of five flourishing houses of the MacGeoghegan princely sept, claiming descent from the Cinél Fhiachach, a branch of the southern Uí Néill, whose genealogy has been traced from the thirteenth century. Rossa had been given a grant of all the lands of Kinelagh, with the title of seneschal and sheriff of Co. Westmeath. The family landholdings in Westmeath and King's Co. (Co. Offaly) are estimated to have been between 5,000 and 10,000 acres.
Ross MacGeoghegan had a first cousin, Niall Anthony MacGeoghegan OFM, later bishop of Clonmacnoise (1648–57) and then of Meath (1657–64), who was a son of the head of the Castletown branch of the family. Their family background placed them centrally within the MacGeoghegan clan, since both were grandsons of Conla, lord of Moycashel and ‘captain of the nation’ of Kineleagh, and therefore belonged to the ruling branch of their clan; as direct lineal descendants of their chieftain, they came within the deirbhfhine, which under the ancient Gaelic system meant that they were eligible for election as chieftain. Ross MacGeoghegan's elder brother was Captain Richard MacGeoghegan of Tinnamuck, who was slain in 1602 during the defence of the castle of Dunboy, Co. Cork, at the end of the nine years war. Several MacGeoghegans combined the family characteristics of priesthood, love of Gaelic learning, and scholarship. One of Ross's nephews, Conall, preserved in translation the annals of Clonmacnoise and left a genealogical description of the MacGeoghegan family branches and their whereabouts in 1627. It was MacGeoghegan's letters of approbation (1637) that were prefixed to the first editions of Annála Ríoghachta Éireann (Annals of the Kingdom of Ireland or Annals of the Four Masters) and the Calendarium sanctorum Hiberniae (otherwise the Martyrology of Donegal). In 1638 he forwarded a valuable account of Kildare place names in Latin to John Colgan (qv) OFM at Louvain.
MacGeoghegan's early upbringing was in the Gaelic tradition. His education in the humanities (Latin and Greek literature) commenced under Master Humphrey Powell Walsh at Fertullagh, Co. Westmeath, and Master Thomas ‘a Gargia’ at Clonmel, Co. Tipperary, and continued with a Master Brok, a protestant, perhaps in a state-sponsored school. Later he was taught for about two years by John Power, a priest and bachelor of theology. His study of literae humaniores was completed early in 1600 at the Irish college, Lisbon, and he was admitted to the Irish college at Salamanca on 1 June 1600. Having come under Dominican influence at Salamanca and Coimbra, he joined the Dominican order at the novitiate of Peña de Francia, together with Richard Caron (qv), was given the name Rochus de Santa Cruce (Roque de la Cruz), and made solemn profession there on 8 November 1602. As a student at Salamanca he was an assiduous learner, and was often present to hear sermons and scholastic disputations; his delight in scholarship and the university was to be an abiding influence in his life. Ordained priest before 1609, he took the lectorate in theology and taught for many years until he was appointed superior of the Irish Dominicans at some time between 1614 and 1616.
About 1614 MacGeoghegan went to Ireland to reorganise and reconstitute the Irish province. Surveying its sad and weak condition, he consulted, in particular, with some Dominicans representing the ancient foundation of Athenry. Through their cooperation and that of their patron, Richard Burke (qv), 4th earl of Clanricard and 1st earl of St Albans (1628), he obtained an obscure place (Coillascail or Brosk) on the earl's estate outside Athenry; a simple house was built there for the reception of a new generation of novices. Early in 1618 MacGeoghegan returned to Spain, accompanied by six young Dominicans who were to commence their studies. In May–June 1618 he attended the Dominican general chapter at Lisbon, which gave unqualified approval for his continuing reorganisation of the province. Returning to Ireland in 1619, he brought with him eight Dominicans trained to teach philosophy and theology. He was resident at Dublin as prior provincial in 1622 when the general chapter of Milan gave full provincial status to the Irish congregation (which was represented on that occasion by John Fox) and made MacGeoghegan, hitherto vicar, its prior provincial.
As a hunted priest during upsurges of persecution in Dublin, MacGeoghegan took refuge (c.1622) with catholic gentry, including Christopher Tyrell of Ballybark, Co. Meath. Between 1619 and 1626 he established a novitiate at Urlár (f. 1434), Urlár Loch, Co. Mayo, which (uniquely) escaped spoliation on account of its solitary location and its acquisition by Lord Dillon's family. There he spent two years instructing novices, who later joined veteran Dominicans to live conventually in houses he had restored in each of the civil provinces, or who became curates in Connacht parishes or served as chaplains to the nobility. With the intensification of persecution, MacGeoghegan's life was in danger on account of his high profile within and outside the Pale. Daniel O'Crean was selected to be vicar provincial at a Connacht chapter about 1626, which authorised MacGeoghegan, who had fled to Flanders, to seek the approbation of the Spanish king Philip IV to found a house of studies at Louvain. MacGeoghegan retained his office as provincial until the end of 1627.
While resident at a house called St John apud Castrum in Louvain, MacGeoghegan drew up a statistical report of the Irish province (1626–7). By November 1626 he had leased the Louvain house, as sixteen Dominicans were being educated there for Ireland. When he ceased to be provincial in 1627 he was appointed vicar provincial with full jurisdiction over the nascent college. In a list drawn up in 1625 by the papal collector in Portugal of twenty-three former students of the Irish college, Lisbon, MacGeoghegan was considered worthy of a bishopric, and on 29 January 1629 he and the Augustinian Patrick Comerford (qv) were nominated (respectively) bishops of Kildare, and Waterford and Lismore. He was still bishop-elect when he arranged, at the Dominican convent of Antwerp, to take out a loan of £24 from James Conall, an Irish priest. In the event of his death, the entire debt was to be met by the sale of his books in Ireland or any other property in his possession. The money was probably borrowed to purchase the costly episcopal insignia and defray the costs of his consecration and the return journey to Ireland. Between 9 September and 10 October 1629 he was secretly ordained bishop in Brussels by the archbishop of Malines.
At his first diocesan synod MacGeoghegan found that there were only three priests born in the diocese, the remainder being outsiders from Connacht and Ulster. As part of a reform plan, he introduced schoolmasters to promote the study of literature and the classics. As a result many young men went abroad for higher studies and returned as Kildare priests. Every year he made a visitation of each of his twenty-eight parishes, preached to the people, and held clergy conferences as prescribed for bishops by the Council of Trent. The disturbing affair of the ‘Irish propositions’, a calculated attempt by Patrick Cahill and other Dublin priests to malign the Irish regular clergy and sow seeds of discord within the catholic community, was condemned by the University of Paris (1631) and led Rome to appoint MacGeoghegan to an episcopal investigatory commission. This refuted the propositions and exonerated the regulars. In February 1637 he recommended his nephew Edmund O'Dempsey (qv), Dominican provincial and son of Viscount Clanmalier, for the see of Leighlin.
Later in 1637 MacGeoghegan sent a report (dated 15 November) on the state of his diocese to Rome, referring to an earlier, more comprehensive, report of 1633. Half the document concerned his troubles with Bartholomew Moore, whom he had removed as parish priest of Naas. Moore went to the viceroy, Viscount Wentworth (qv), and denounced his bishop for exercising jurisdiction deriving from Rome. Wentworth encouraged Moore to institute criminal proceedings against MacGeoghegan and made life intolerable for the bishop until he regained his freedom of movement through the influence of Queen Henrietta Maria. He was a signatory (29 July 1640) of the decrees of the Dublin provincial synod held at Tyrchogir near Portarlington. In 1641 he asserted his authority over the cathedral of Kildare and reconsecrated it. While preaching in the Franciscan church in Multyfarnham in May 1644 (n.s.) he suffered a seizure and died at Kilbeggan on 26 May 1644 in his sixty-eighth year. No reliable historical record survives to clarify the question of the bishop's burial place. In his will he left the library he had accumulated as a Dominican to the order; his episcopal library and his insignia he donated to his diocese.
The first phase (1600–14) of Ross MacGeoghegan's adult life was spent in the Iberian peninsula, where he was formed by Castilian gravitas of manner, continental religious devotion, which complemented his Gaelic Irish catholicism, the discipline of reformed religious life, and the extension and deepening of his love of learning and study. In the second phase (1614–29) he became the prime architect of the restoration of Hibernia Dominicana, inspired by his enriched continental experience. In a short time, he directed the refounding of Dominican communities and preaching, especially in Leinster, where there had been no effective presence for a century. In the third phase (1629–44), as bishop of Kildare, he demonstrated an unshakable commitment to his diocese at a time of intermittent sharp persecution, instability, and uncertainty, when he was ever on the move, seeking shelter with catholic gentry families. He was outstanding for his knowledge, sacred and secular, as much as for his compassion for the poor and for his radiant holiness of life. Philip O'Sullivan Beare (qv) had already described him c.1625 as ‘insulae nostrae stella clarissima’.