O'Reilly, Edmund (1598–1669), catholic archbishop of Armagh, was born 2/3 January 1598 in the Dublin district. He may have belonged to one of the O'Reilly families of Breifne stock resident in Timothan and Saggart, Co. Dublin, in the seventeenth century. He appears as ‘Edmund Garratt Reelie’ in an informer's report to government in 1663, perhaps indicating that his father's name was Gearóid. Col. Philip mac Hugh O'Reilly, MP, of Ballynacragy Castle, a Cavan leader in the 1641 rising, who married Rose, sister of Owen Roe O'Neill (qv), was a relative, possibly a cousin.
Resident in Rouen in 1618 and then in Dieppe, O'Reilly studied philosophy and theology c.1620 in the Irish College in Douai. John Lynch (qv), author of De praesulibus Hiberniae, who was a companion in the college, says that he had already studied the humanities in Ireland. O'Reilly's early education was probably in a catholic school in Dublin; he proceeded to the Irish college in Antwerp and was ordained priest before 1626 by the archbishop of Tuam, Flaithrí Ó Maolchonaire (Florence Conry (qv)), OFM, then resident in Louvain. Though arrested on his way to Ireland as priest and imprisoned in Exeter (26 April 1626–28 March 1628) for refusing to take the oath of supremacy, O'Reilly took up parochial ministration in Dublin. In 1636 Archbishop Thomas Fleming (qv) appointed him vicar general of the diocese of Dublin. He went to Louvain, probably in 1637, to pursue further studies at the University of Louvain and resided in the Irish pastoral college, where he acted as prefect. His close friend in Louvain was Fr Thomas Fleming, OFM, nephew of the archbishop. There is no evidence of his taking a university degree.
O'Reilly resumed vicar generalship from 1641 to 1654, a task more onerous when Archbishop Fleming resided in Kilkenny after the establishment of the supreme council of the confederation in October 1642. Being of Old Irish stock O'Reilly was drawn into politics after the rising in October 1641. In December 1642 he was in the vicinity of Black Castle, Wicklow, when it was captured by insurgents and the garrison slaughtered. He attended the general congregation of the Irish clergy in Kilkenny in May 1645, and was appointed to a commission to consider loyalty to the king. O'Reilly became an ardent supporter of the papal nuncio, GianBattista Rinuccini (qv), and Gen. Owen Roe O'Neill when they split with the marquess of Ormond (qv) and his supporters after the Inchiquin truce and Rinuccini's edict of excommunication of those who accepted it. In the ensuing civil war O'Reilly acted as intermediary with the two bishops of Clogher, Heber MacMahon (qv) and Henry Jones (qv), in negotiations between O'Neill and Col. Michael Jones (qv) of the parliamentarians who held Dublin. He was among the leading party of O'Neill's supporters proclaimed traitors by the general assembly of the confederation (30 September 1648). Fr Peter Walsh (qv), OFM, a strong anti-nuncioist and royalist, sent to Fleming the letter addressed by O'Neill to Jones's brother Henry, bishop of Clogher, which Ormondists had intercepted on 20 August 1648. The letter had been superscribed by O'Reilly. Fleming removed him from the vicar generalship but he continued his support for O'Neill and was tolerated by the Cromwellians. Royalists believed he was responsible for the defeat of Ormond's army under Maj.-gen. Purcell at Rathmines (2 August 1649), either by betraying their camp or by instructing the guides to lead Purcell's men astray.
Restored to vicar generalship in 1650 after the unifying effect on clergy of Oliver Cromwell's (qv) arrival in Ireland (14 August 1649), O'Reilly was confirmed as vicar general by Bishop Edmund O'Dempsey (qv), OP, senior suffragant, after the death of Fleming on 2 August 1651. After a gathering of the Ulster clergy at Cloghoughter at the end of July 1651, he attended meetings of the Leinster clergy, at Ballydrohid in September 1651 and later at Glenmalure in the winter of 1651–2, which supported the protectorate of the prince of Lorraine and a plan to set up a new confederation. After the victories of the Cromwellian army, including the surrender of Wicklow under proclamation of protection, O'Reilly and other clergy surrendered. He was tried in September 1653 on a capital charge relating to the capture of Wicklow castle. Though he claimed he was at Rathdown, ten miles from Wicklow, and had denounced the killings, he was found guilty on less than convincing evidence but mysteriously escaped execution, probably because of his previous relationship with Jones. He spent twenty-one months in prison and was banished from Ireland to the Continent towards the end of 1654 or early in 1655. In June 1655 he was considered for appointment as vicar apostolic of Dublin, but no appointment was made.
When in Lille he was appointed archbishop of Armagh (16 April 1657) by Pope Alexander VII on the motion of Cardinal Francesco Albizzi, but probably due to the influence of Mgr Dionisio Massari, formerly auditor to Rinuccini and then secretary to the S. Congregation de Propaganda Fide. O'Reilly spent a year in the vicinity of Brussels, where Charles II resided. The king and Ormond looked on him as one of the ‘disloyal’ Old Irish, and the king disapproved of his appointment. O'Reilly was consecrated bishop on 26 May 1658 by Andreas Creusen, archbishop of Malines, assisted by James de la Turre, archbishop of Ephesus and coadjutor to the vicar apostolic of Holland, and Anthony MacGeoghegan (qv), OFM, newly appointed bishop of Meath. On his way through London, with letters of commendation from Cardinal Mazarin to the Cromwellian ministers (since France was in alliance with England against Spain, an alliance that split the loyalties of the Irish on the Continent), he met up again with Walsh, who was to prove an inveterate enemy. Walsh passed on information on O'Reilly's negotiations with John Thurloe, Cromwell's secretary, to the Stuart court, and also engineered his banishment from England, probably early in 1659. O'Reilly arrived in Paris at the beginning of April, and in Passage, Co. Waterford, direct from France early in October 1659.
His report of 1 July 1660 to Rome gives a clear picture of the condition of the catholic church in Ireland at the close of the puritan régime. A vigorous campaign against him was relayed to King Charles in the Netherlands who, before he returned to England in May 1660, urged his withdrawal. After further slanderous allegations he was summoned to Rome. He convened a provincial council of the Armagh clergy, which met in Clonelly in the diocese of Ardagh in October 1660. Nineteen statutes were drawn up and these were forwarded to Rome together with a list of twenty-two petitions. Documents recalling him to Rome arrived before the end of the year. On 31 December 1660 the clergy of the northern province forwarded to Rome a vigorous defence of the archbishop. On 18 March 1661 the government issued an order for his arrest, but he succeeded in sailing from Dublin on 25 April 1661 and reached Saint-Malo on 29 April. He arrived in Rome in early summer 1662 and made it his headquarters until 1665.
O'Reilly opposed the ‘loyal formulary’ or ‘Irish remonstrance’, a declaration of loyalty drawn up (1661) by Richard Bellings (qv) and a group of Old English, and propagated for the next four years by Ormond and Walsh. Most clergy found it insulting to the pope and the Holy See. In Rome he was principal consultant on Ireland to Propaganda, to whom he submitted reports and recommendations for clergy promotions. His report of 1662 to Propaganda vividly describes a priest's life: ‘Our clergy live in much patience and misery as to worldly things; they visit the sick by night; they celebrate mass before and round about dawn, and that in hiding-places and recesses, having appointed scouts to look around and with eyes and ears agog to keep watch lest the robbers, that is, the soldiers should come by surprise . . . while I was in Ireland I did not enter into the house of any catholic. I had made myself a small hut in a wood or in a mountainous district, one here, another there, so that no one should suffer for my sake.’ At home, disturbing reports from informers portrayed him as an arch-conspirator.
O'Reilly moved to Paris in 1665 and corresponded with Ormond for permission to return to Ireland, which was granted in March 1666. Ormond maintained that O'Reilly agreed to subscribe to the remonstrance as a condition. Rome advised against any breach of allegiance to the pope. The clergy met at a special national synod in Dublin in June 1666, and – including O'Reilly – signed a less obnoxious formulary than the official one. With some exceptions, they also signed the first three of the Sorbonne propositions drawn up in 1663 by the Gallican church. O'Reilly was placed under guard on suspicion of conspiracy and deported. He arrived in Brussels, to the displeasure of the internuncio, who considered that he had compromised his loyalty to the pope; O'Reilly, however, defended his position in correspondence to Rome. In the summer of 1667 he left Brussels and resided in Paris. He opposed the mission in 1668 to Ireland of James Taaffe (qv), OFM, a propagator of the remonstrance. In early 1669 O'Reilly set out for Nantes, intending to reside there, but he died 8 March 1669 at Saumur and was buried in the church of Notre Dame there on 17 March.