Taaffe, James (1623/4–1681), Franciscan friar and papal envoy, was a son of Sir John Taaffe, 1st Viscount Taaffe, of Coreen, Co. Sligo, and his wife, Ann Dillon, daughter of Theobald (qv), Viscount Dillon. The Taaffes were a distinguished and long-established Old English family with large landholdings in counties Louth and Sligo. Around 1639–40, Taaffe joined the Franciscan order, entering a friary in Connacht. By February 1651 he was studying theology in the Irish Franciscan college at Prague, and was ordained there on 30 March 1652. He was still a student at Prague in summer 1653. At some point during his youth, he studied at St Isidore's College, Rome.
In 1654 Taaffe appears to have gone to live at the Irish Franciscan residence in Paris, which had been established the previous year at the prompting of his relatives the Dillons. There he lectured in theology, and from 1659 to 1666 served as superior of the house. His contemporaries regarded Taaffe as intelligent and urbane, but noted that he was pompous, vain, and rather worldly. From 1654 to 1666 he was confessor and chaplain to the exiled queen mother of England, Henrietta Maria. Moreover, his eldest brother, Theobald (qv), was easily the most powerful catholic nobleman in Ireland, being a close confidant of King Charles II of England, who created him earl of Carlingford. During 1664–6 both Henrietta Maria and Carlingford lobbied for James's promotion to an Irish bishopric. However, his connections aroused suspicion among many Irish catholics and papal officials, who felt he was too close to the English royal family. As a result, his efforts to secure a see came to nought, but events in Ireland were about to provide him with a chance to impress his superiors.
Since 1661 the crown had been trying to intimidate the Irish catholic clergy into signing a document known as the Remonstrance, which pledged loyalty to the king in a fashion that infringed the pope's temporal authority. The pope had condemned the Remonstrance and the bulk of the Irish clergy had accordingly opposed it. However, spearheaded by the Franciscan Peter Walsh (qv), an influential minority of the catholic clergy and laity vociferously championed the Remonstrance and enjoyed the covert support of the lord lieutenant of Ireland, James Butler (qv), duke of Ormond. A synod of the Irish clergy held in Dublin in summer 1666 had rejected the Remonstrance, but had infuriated Rome by agreeing to three Gallicanist principles that had been condemned by the pope.
The papal internuncio in Brussels, Giacomo Rospigliosi, decided that a representative of the pope should be sent to Ireland to impress upon the Irish clergy that they had no authority to make such concessions without the pope's permission, and to restore unity to the Irish church by explicitly denouncing Walsh and his followers on the pope's behalf. However, the mission could not succeed if the chosen representative was harassed by government officials. Taaffe's connections with the royal family meant that he would probably be an effective envoy, but there were concerns over his reliability. Some of his relatives had signed the Remonstrance and his enemies alleged that he had tried to persuade the university of Paris to approve it – something Taaffe hotly denied.
In December 1667 Taaffe travelled to Brussels to discuss the proposed mission with Rospigliosi. He requested that he be made bishop or vicar apostolic and be given extensive powers over the Irish clergy in order more effectively to prosecute his mission. The nuncio did not entirely trust him and was aware that the Irish clergy who were most strongly opposed to the Remonstrance would be angered were such favour to be shown to Taaffe. He told Taaffe that the mission was an opportunity for him to demonstrate his worth to the pope and hinted strongly he would be promoted if it proved a success. In the end it was agreed that it was too dangerous for Taaffe officially to go to Ireland as a papal envoy and that he should travel as the representative of Henrietta Maria, who provided him with accreditation.
By February 1668 Taaffe was in London, where he spoke at great length and in private to the king. He appears to have bragged that he had been given supreme power over the Irish clergy by the pope. Instead of going to Ireland, he wrote repeatedly to Rospigliosi, asking that he be given those very powers, but to no avail. At Rospigliosi's insistence, he finally left for Dublin, reaching the city in March 1668. On his arrival he contacted Walsh and attempted to arrange a meeting with Ormond. Ormond was aware of the rumours surrounding Taaffe and refused to meet him, threatening to arrest him for exercising papal authority in Ireland. At this point Taaffe appears to have promised that he would use his powers to favour the supporters of the Remonstrance, which seems to have satisfied Ormond. Walsh and Taaffe then came to an agreement: Walsh and other leading remonstrants signed a declaration repudiating the Remonstrance and in return Taaffe would use his authority to favour and promote them.
In early April 1668 Taaffe called an assembly of the Irish clergy and produced what he claimed was an official copy of a papal bull, dated 20 August 1667, which made him papal commissary and apostolic visitor for Ireland. In fact this was a rather crude forgery that he had drawn up himself. The clergy were amazed at the unprecedented powers that had apparently been vested in Taaffe. However, after Patrick Plunkett (qv), bishop of Ardagh, inspected the copy and inexplicably affirmed its authenticity, they grudgingly accepted that it was genuine. On 9 May Taaffe issued a special decree in Dublin that attempted to regulate the many disputes between the secular and regular clergy in Ireland. Then, on 13 May, he appointed canonical visitors for each diocese, who were to enforce this decree, settle internal disputes, and levy a tax on the Irish clergy to cover Taaffe's expenses in Ireland and to pay for his planned journey to London and Rome. These visitors were for the most part remonstrants and quickly set about using their powers in a highly partisan fashion, dismissing their enemies from positions of authority and excommunicating those who opposed them. Predictably this sparked widespread opposition to Taaffe and a flood of complaints against him reached Rome. The Irish clergy were impressed less by the fact that Taaffe had convinced Walsh to repudiate the Remonstrance than by Taaffe's having put himself, by return, wholly at Walsh's service. By alienating the majority of the Irish clerics, Taaffe had actually deepened the divisions within the church and was betraying the purpose of his mission. Indeed, during May he seems to have tried to distance himself from Walsh, which prompted Walsh to arrange a raid by government forces on Taaffe's residence in Dublin. Around July he travelled to Connacht to meet a gathering of clergy who were angered by the behaviour of the visitors who had been sent there and by Taaffe's abrupt dismissal of John Hart as head of the Irish Augustinians. Taaffe made a number of concessions and brokered an uneasy peace.
Meanwhile, the authorities in Rome were astonished and greatly embarrassed by Taaffe's conduct. On 25 August a meeting of the cardinals decided that letters should be sent to Bishop Plunkett and to the vicars apostolic in Ireland stating that Taaffe had not been granted the powers he claimed to have. Letters were also sent to Taaffe rebuking him and ordering him to leave Ireland for the continent. The arrival of these letters discredited Taaffe. In Dublin in mid-October Plunkett confronted him with the communication he had received from Rome. Initially Taaffe tried to brazen it out, but he quickly agreed to submit. By then he was also losing credibility with the king. His erstwhile patron Ormond had been summoned to London during the summer and apparently faced imminent dismissal from office. In October 1668 the arrest of one of Taaffe's visitors, Ronan Maginn, for exercising papal jurisdiction in Ireland drew the protestant public's attention to the fact that a papal envoy, or in this case someone claiming to be so, was in their midst. The resulting outcry meant that even if Ormond and the king had been a party to Taaffe's ruse, they would not now stand by him. On 17 October Taaffe wrote to Rome admitting that he had forged the papal bull and agreeing to desist from claiming that he was a papal commissary.
Reluctant to return to the continent, Taaffe eventually left Dublin for London in March 1669, under threat of excommunication. After receiving assurance of safe conduct, he arrived at Ghent in late August. Thereafter, he made his way slowly southwards, belatedly reaching Rome in January 1671. He lived at St Isidore's College, where he was to spend the rest of his life under effective house arrest. In late May 1671 a congregatio particularis granted him absolution for his errors. The influence of the Taaffe family secured this lenient treatment, and, on 28 March 1675, his receipt of the empty titles of lector jubilate of St Isidore's and ex-provincial of his order, but was insufficient to gain permission for him to return to Ireland, despite repeated attempts. He died on 7 December 1681 and was buried at St Isidore's College.