Phelan (O'Phelan), James (c.1621–1695), catholic bishop of Ossory, was born in Kilkenny, son of Daniel Phelan and his wife Catherine Dulany. His early life remains obscure. Supposedly descended from the Fitzpatricks of Upper Ossory (whose escutcheon he retained as his coat of arms), in March 1644 he was appointed to the priesthood by special dispensation. In 1645 he was appointed a parish priest by David Rothe (qv). He was appointed chancellor (April 1647) and dean (1649) of the diocese of Ossory. Having remained loyal to the nuncio, GianBattista Rinuccini (qv), Phelan escaped to Galway after Kilkenny fell to Cromwellian forces (27 March 1650), going into exile in Paris after Galway capitulated. Having studied philosophy and theology in Paris, he later obtained a DD from Rheims. In 1656 he requested a missionary posting in Ireland. Highly regarded by figures such as Oliver Plunkett (qv), Rinuccini, and PierFrancesco Scarampi (qv), in 1659 he was appointed by Rome as missionary apostolic to Ossory. Briefly chaplain to the French ambassador in London, Phelan returned to Ireland c.1661 with Richard Butler of Kilcash, brother of James Butler (qv), duke of Ormond; the influence of the Kilcash Butlers would protect Phelan throughout his career.
Mainly resident in Garryricken, he served as chaplain to the family for eight years; he was also chaplain to Lady Mary Plunkett, a niece of Bishop Patrick Plunkett (qv). Entrusted with two parishes in Lismore, he was promoted to prothonotary apostolic, and in 1665 Plunkett recommended him for a bishopric. In 1666 Phelan represented Ossory at the national synod, and was charged with the pastoral care of Callan. In January 1669 he was appointed bishop of Ossory, being consecrated in Dublin (August) by Patrick Plunkett and rapidly convening a diocesan synod, the first of many. In June 1670 he was secretary to the national synod held in Dublin, signing the loyal declaration of June 1670 and thus repudiating the remonstrance of Peter Walsh (qv). Seen as a moderate by the then viceroy, Lord Berkeley of Stratton (qv), Phelan was assiduous in his maintenance and oversight of the diocese; his ability was matched by missionary zeal. He successfully reorganised the parish structure, imposing a rigorous discipline on his clergy; in 1672 Bishop John Brenan (qv) of Waterford testified to the exemplary condition of the diocese. By August 1675 Phelan was the only remaining bishop in the Dublin province in the wake of government repression. Despite continuing persecution he remained, organising diocesan synods in 1676–8, and by 1678 was claiming 100 converts in Kilkenny city. However, he was forced into hiding during the ‘popish plot’, but was protected by the Butlers. By 1683 he had general jurisdiction over the ecclesiastical province of Leinster, attending provincial synods in Dublin in 1685 and 1688. At some point he had declined the post of archbishop of Dublin, which, after the death of Peter Talbot (qv), remained vacant until 1683. In March 1686 he received an annual pension of £150 from James II (qv). In August 1686 he established a school in Kilkenny, drafting an exacting regulatory code for teachers.
In April 1689 Phelan welcomed James II to Kilkenny. On 23 July 1689 he was confirmed as catholic bishop of Ossory by James. His school was successful, receiving the endowments of Kilkenny's protestant college when local protestants fled after the outbreak of war. On 25 February 1690 it was erected into the ‘Royal College of St Canice’ by order of James, but was closed after the Williamite occupation of Kilkenny in July 1690. Phelan was outlawed after the war, but Butler influence facilitated his continued presence in the diocese; by September 1692 he was one of only two remaining catholic bishops in the country. Phelan was responsible for c.133 ordinations during his career, mainly in Kilkenny but occasionally in Clare, and continued to ordain as late as December 1694. He died in January 1695; his burial place is unknown. William Daton (d. 1712), his former vicar-general, was nominated to replace him by James II.