Butler, James (‘James Butler I’) (1683?–1774), Roman catholic archbishop of Cashel, was born at Kelloges in the parish of Galbally, Co. Limerick, son of Edward Butler of Killusty and his wife Catherine, daughter and heiress of Thomas Butler of Woodenstown, Co. Tipperary. Although one modern account gives his year of birth as 1691 (O'Dwyer, 2), a newspaper report at the time of his death in 1774 says that he was in his ninety-second year (Brady, 166). The details of his education are unknown, although his later provision of burses for students in Paris and elsewhere has been taken as indicating a training in France. In 1717 he became parish priest of Galbally. He subsequently became parish priest of Brigown and Marshalstown, the modern parish of Mitchelstown, in Cloyne and vicar general of that diocese. In 1746 Thadeus McCarthy, bishop of Cloyne, petitioned Rome unsuccessfully to appoint Butler as his coadjutor. However, McCarthy's successor, John O'Brien (qv), who succeeded in 1748, did not continue Butler as his vicar general, and when Butler subsequently retained Mitchelstown after becoming coadjutor to the archbishop of Cashel, the two men became involved in a lengthy jurisdictional dispute.
Butler was appointed coadjutor on the nomination of Archbishop Christopher Butler (qv) on 5/16 January 1750 and consecrated in May. Although he did not succeed as archbishop until Christopher Butler's death on 4 September 1757, he seems immediately to have taken charge of the diocese. New regulations in his name governing the examination of candidates for ordination are dated 19 May 1750, and the main record of his work as archbishop is two visitation books covering the period from 1752. These reveal him as an active and demanding ecclesiastical superior, enquiring carefully into every aspect of pastoral provision. Priests were expected to maintain chapels, vestments, and altar furnishings in good repair, ensure that local schoolmasters gave instruction in the catechism, maintain registers of births, marriages, and deaths, and deal firmly with public sinners. They were also required to attend regular conferences. A series of regulations governing the behaviour of the parish clergy, dated 1 August 1763, are described as statutes enacted at a diocesan synod in Thurles.
On 24 February 1762 Butler issued a pastoral letter reminding congregations of the duty to submit to temporal authority and ordering them to observe the public fast proclaimed by the government for a speedy conclusion of the war. However, he was strongly opposed to the declaration of catholic loyalty to the crown drawn up in 1757 by Archbishop Michael O'Reilly (qv) and others, in consultation with Lord Trimleston, and summoned a meeting of clergy at Limerick at which it was rejected. He was also highly critical of a catholic oath of loyalty proposed by the Church of Ireland bishop Frederick Hervey (qv) in 1768. Nevertheless, a sworn deposition on 26 January 1768 by Mathias O'Brien, a former priest, accusing Butler of cooperating with foreign agents in encouraging the Whiteboy disturbances, does not seem to have been taken seriously by the authorities.
On 29 August 1767 seventeen parish priests signed a petition to the papal nuncio at Brussels, complaining of Butler's mental and physical infirmity and of his capricious behaviour. The basis of these allegations is impossible to assess, since they accompanied a protest against the archbishop's supposed attempts to introduce his cousin, Edmond Butler of Ossory, into the diocese, and an appeal for the appointment instead of Dr Edmond O'Ryan, then in Madrid, as coadjutor. A second petition in O'Ryan's favour, signed by fifteen priests, followed in 1772. In December the same year, Butler himself petitioned for the appointment of his namesake James Butler (qv) (d. 1791) of Ballyragget, and it was this appointment, supported by the Munster bishops, that was approved in 1773. James Butler I (as he has become known to distinguish him from his successor) died at his residence in Thurles on 17 May 1774 and was buried in the yard of the parish chapel, his remains later being moved to the cathedral built on the same site.