Walsh, Thomas (1580–1654), catholic archbishop of Cashel, was born at Waterford, the son of Robert Walsh, merchant, and his wife Anastasia Strong, sister of Thomas Strong, bishop of Ossory. The Walshes were one of the most powerful merchant families in Waterford and were also noted for their staunch catholicism: Thomas's father was imprisoned in 1580 for recusancy. For two years during his youth Thomas engaged in his father's business, but he then left Ireland in 1600 for Compostela in Spain, where his uncle, the bishop of Ossory, was co-adjutor to the archbishop. After two years of preliminary religious studies at Compostela and Lisbon, he entered the Irish college at Salamanca on 15 September 1602. There he read philosophy and theology and was ordained a priest. He also joined the order of St John of Jerusalem.
By about 1608 Walsh had returned to Ireland; though he was based mainly in Waterford, he is said to have travelled all over the kingdom ministering to the catholic laity. In 1613 he is recorded as bishop-elect of Waterford, but renewed government persecution of catholicism appears to have caused Rome to cancel the appointment. Instead he acted as vicar general of Waterford, a role he carried out with great zeal and efficiency. Around 1624–5 he travelled to Rome, probably to lobby for his appointment to a bishopric. On the way he appears to have stopped at Madrid and secured Spanish support for his promotion. This was a shrewd move because his previous patron and fellow Waterfordman Peter Lombard (qv), the moderate archbishop of Armagh, had lost influence at Rome. The outbreak of war between Spain and England in 1625 meant that more hard-line clerics were being advanced to Irish sees and that Spain was taking a greater interest in Irish affairs. With the support of the Spanish ambassador at Rome and the majority of the Irish clergy there, Walsh was appointed archbishop of Cashel on 27 April 1626; he was consecrated, probably at Rome, on 5 May.
By March 1627 Walsh was at Madrid, where he enjoyed the patronage of the cardinal archbishop and was granted a pension. In autumn 1628 he travelled to Ireland via London to take possession of his see. At first he struggled in his role as archbishop. He could not rely, as he had done in Waterford, on the patronage of wealthy relatives and friends, and he spent most of his time in hiding or on the run. He resented having to dress himself and prepare his own meals, tasks which he felt were beneath the dignity of his office. Moreover, he was dragged into the chronic infighting that bedevilled the catholic church in Munster. The bishops and the secular clergy were envious of the popularity, wealth, and independence of the regular clergy. In 1629, therefore, Walsh and other Munster bishops launched a campaign designed to impose their authority on the regular clergy in the province. The regulars responded by defying the bishops and many of them felt that Walsh had betrayed them. In 1631 his attempt to impose a priest on the abbey of Holycross met with furious resistance, and in the same year he became involved in disputes with his suffragan bishops, who were annoyed by his decision to conduct visitations of their dioceses. By September 1632, however, he had come to an accommodation with the regulars in his diocese and relative tranquillity prevailed thereafter.
Despite these difficulties, as the 1630s progressed he appears to have become more effective as archbishop, holding a number of synods in remote locations. Particularly after Thomas Wentworth (qv) became lord deputy of Ireland in 1633, the government permitted the catholic clergy greater latitude. In September 1637 the king heard that Walsh was in receipt of a Spanish pension and ordered Wentworth to arrest him. The lord deputy executed these orders with little enthusiasm, and it was not till summer 1639 that Walsh was apprehended while presiding over a synod. He was taken to Dublin where he managed to convince Wentworth that the pension was barely enough to meet his needs and he was promptly released.
Initially Walsh regarded the outbreak of the October 1641 rebellion with great misgivings, particularly as a number of atrocities were committed against protestants in the Cashel area. But as the catholic clergy were the main beneficiaries of the uprising and Hugh O'Reilly (qv), archbishop of Armagh, decided to support the rebellion, Walsh changed his view. By the close of 1641 most of Ireland, including Walsh's diocese, was in rebel hands, and he was able to claim Cashel cathedral for the first time. The reconsecration of the cathedral in December 1641 attracted a huge crowd, all of the leading catholic nobles and gentry of Munster being present. A large sum of money was raised to refurbish the cathedral and make it suitable for catholic worship. During the 1640s Walsh devoted himself to repairing other churches in his diocese and to ensuring that the catholic rite was conducted in all its splendour.
On a national level Walsh was an influential figure in the catholic confederacy of Ireland, sitting in all but one of its supreme councils between 1642 and 1646, though he spoke rarely at confederate assemblies. He appears to have been on the moderate wing of the confederacy and, in autumn 1642, opposed the efforts of the regulars to recover confiscated monastic lands. However, he was also determined to advance the interests of the catholic church, and in summer 1645 he supported the stance taken by the majority of his episcopal colleagues to insist on retaining the church property they held, even at the cost of a breakdown in negotiations for forming an alliance between the confederacy and the royalists. That autumn the papal nuncio, GianBattista Rinuccini (qv), arrived in Ireland, and Walsh greeted him at Limerick. Although frequently in disagreement, the two men developed a good relationship, and Walsh often entertained the nuncio at Cashel. In summer 1646 Walsh initially supported the supreme council's decision to agree an alliance with the Irish royalists under the leadership of James Butler (qv), marquess of Ormond. However, by assuring him of financial and military aid from the pope, Rinuccini persuaded Walsh to assent to his excommunicating any who adhered to that alliance.
Walsh had been fearful of the effect that a continuation of the wars would have on Ireland, fears that proved justified when in September 1647 (in his absence) protestant forces brutally sacked Cashel, killing many hundreds and desecrating the cathedral. The impact of the war can be gauged by the fact that the cathedral was not reconsecrated until July 1648, an occasion which was in stark contrast to the previous reconsecration six and a half years earlier. By now another showdown between the nuncio and the supreme council had ripped the confederacy apart. Walsh half-heartedly supported Rinuccini's excommunication in May of those confederates who adhered to the truce with the protestant forces in Munster, while urging the nuncio to compromise and reunite the catholics; his attempts to persuade Rinuccini to convene a national synod under his chairmanship came to nothing. In the event the Ormondists carried the day and Rinuccini left Ireland ignominiously in January 1649. In the same month the supreme council formalised its alliance with Ormond at Kilkenny, where Walsh was on hand to give his support. On the continent Rinuccini claimed that Walsh had been forced to consent to the alliance, though it is probable that he was simply trying to paper over the loss of a key ally.
The arrival in Ireland of Oliver Cromwell (qv) at the head of a large English army in autumn 1649 meant that Ormond and his adherents did not enjoy their triumph for long. As Cromwell's forces established themselves, Walsh convened a synod at Limerick in late 1649 to exhort the catholic clergy to stand by the Irish people to the end. By summer 1650 Cashel had fallen to the English forces, and Walsh had gone into hiding. Probably in summer 1651, as English troops advanced on Limerick, he went to the city to encourage resistance; after Limerick fell in the autumn he escaped and hid at Ballygriffin, Co. Cork. He was captured there in January 1652 and imprisoned in Clonmel, Co. Tipperary. Conditions were very poor in the prison, where a number of priests were being kept pending transportation to Barbados. Walsh was offered his freedom if he would renounce his position as archbishop, which he refused to do. In mid July, when he was moved to Waterford, he was clearly in poor health. Further attempts to induce him to renounce his see having failed, the authorities bundled him onto a ship bound for Spain in October 1653. Walsh believed that the English deliberately did not give him enough food or water for the voyage, wanting him to die quietly at sea so that he would not be hailed as a martyr. But he arrived alive at Coruña in mid November, albeit broken in body and spirit.
Walsh settled at the Irish college at Compostela, where he spent the last months of his life bedridden. During this final exile he repented of his failure to support Rinuccini more whole-heartedly in 1648 and petitioned for absolution from the nuncio's censures. Neither Rinuccini (who died in December 1653) nor his supporters – the idiosyncratic author of the Aphorismical discovery aside – harboured any particular bitterness against Walsh and, accepting that he had acted in good faith, said that such an absolution was not required. He died 4 May 1654 at Compostela and was buried in the cathedral of Santiago.