Butler, John (c.1731–1800), 12th Baron Dunboyne , sometime Roman Catholic bishop of Cork, was born at Grange in the parish of Kiltinan, Co. Tipperary, third son of Edmund Butler, 8th Baron Dunboyne, and his wife, Anne Grace, widow of Richard Nagle. He was ordained in Rome on 20 December 1755. Other details of his early life are sparse. According to a sworn statement made when detained briefly on his return to Ireland in 1758, he had gone to Rome at the age of 19, travelling via Cadiz, Genoa, and Leghorn. A later document confirms that he had studied at the Irish College and attended lectures at the Congregation for the Propagation of the Faith. The record of his ordination noted a defect in one eye, but a later claim that the future apostate had given early proof of his delinquency by losing that organ in a duel remains impossible to verify.
After his return to Ireland, Butler became parish priest of Ardmayle, Co. Tipperary, and secretary to the archbishop, James Butler I (qv). On 16 April 1763 he was nominated, on the recommendation of Butler and others, to the vacant see of Cork, and was consecrated in June. His administration of the diocese is thinly documented. He was presumably responsible for the diocesan statutes published in 1768. In 1772 he issued a pastoral denouncing the recent agitation by journeymen weavers and coopers in the city. In 1786 a fellow priest praised the speed with which he had defused the anti-clerical campaign of the Whiteboys in his diocese, by drawing up new regulations governing the disputed issue of the fees charged for pastoral services. He also supported Archbishop Butler in his dispute with John O'Brien (qv), bishop of Cloyne and Ross, over the right of clergy in that diocese to appeal to the archbishop, as metropolitan, in disciplinary cases.
Butler was reported to be strongly opposed to the test oath for catholics proposed in 1768 by Bishop Frederick Hervey (qv). In 1775, however, he joined Archbishop Butler and the other Munster bishops in accepting the new oath of allegiance for catholics, and himself took the oath, along with sixteen of his clergy, on 16 January 1776. Two weeks earlier he had confided to the archbishop his concern that the regular clergy of Cork would take advantage of his stand to undermine him. There was further evidence of friction with the regular clergy in 1783 when William Gahan (qv), provincial of the Irish Augustinians, complained to Rome that Butler was using his power to ‘subvert religious discipline, to strike fear into the provincials of the religious orders, and exercise despotic power over the friars within his diocese’ (Fenning, 342–3). Butler acquiesced in the introduction by Nano Nagle (qv) to the diocese of what became the Presentation Sisters, but does not appear to have played a significant role in their affairs. In Cork he kept a house at Pope's Quay in the city but also had a country residence at Monkstown outside it.
Bishop Butler's oldest brother, James, succeeded his father in 1732 and conformed to the established church. When James died childless in 1768 his brother Pierce, serving in the French army, returned home to take over the estate, once again conforming to secure the inheritance. Piers died in 1773, leaving a son, also Piers, who died in December 1785, making the bishop heir to the title and estate. On 12 December 1786 Dunboyne wrote to the pope seeking permission to resign his see, citing his declining vigour and the new responsibilities that had come with his inheritance. On 30 April 1787 Archbishop Butler reported that the bishop had married. The date and place have not been established, but the bride was Maria Butler, aged 23, the younger daughter of a Co. Tipperary gentleman. On 19 August 1787 Dunboyne went through the ceremony of renouncing the errors of popery and conforming to the established church in St Mary's church, Clonmel. His reason for marrying was presumably to provide an heir for the title and the family estates in Meath and Tipperary, which would otherwise pass to the children of his sister Catherine, widow of William O'Brien Butler. His reason for changing his religion is less clear. It was by now no longer necessary to conform in order to inherit the family estate intact. Nor was conformity required to give his marriage legal status. We can only surmise that Dunboyne preferred to exchange one establishment for another, rather than risk being rejected by both.
After leaving Cork Dunboyne and his bride initially moved to the family home at Dunboyne, Co. Meath, spending summers at a smaller property at Gracefield near Balbriggan. Later they rented a house in Leeson St., Dublin. Charles Bowden, who met them at Clonmel in autumn 1790, reported that Lady Dunboyne was ‘a most angelic creature’, although ‘her fine form’ was obscured by her advanced state of pregnancy (Bowden, 156). No offspring from the marriage are recorded, but oral traditions in Lady Dunboyne's native district apparently refer to a premature infant. When Dunboyne wrote to the pope on 2 May 1800 asking to be received back into the church, he claimed that he and his spouse had had no cohabitation, except at table, for more than five years, adding ‘nor can I assert absolutely that she is other than a virgin’ (Costello, 72). However, this last phrase, at least, is probably an evasion.
Dunboyne's letter led Archbishop John Troy (qv) of Dublin to send the ex-bishop's old Cork acquaintance, William Gahan, to visit him before his death, which took place on 7 May 1800. Under his will his Meath property, worth £1,000 a year, was bequeathed to Maynooth College, leaving Maria an annuity and further income from lands in Tipperary. The bequest to Maynooth was challenged by the O'Brien Butlers on the grounds that Dunboyne, as a relapsed convert from popery, was debarred from disposing of property. A court case at Trim assizes in August 1802 – during which Gahan was briefly jailed for refusing to testify on the former bishop's final choice of communion – ended inconclusively. A subsequent compromise allowed the O'Brien Butlers to retain Dunboyne Castle, while Maynooth received lands worth £500 a year, which became the basis of the Dunboyne establishment for the training of advanced students.
A cousin later remembered Dunboyne as ‘a tall thin man, wore a tight black wig and a black patch on his eye’ (Dunboyne, ‘Reflections’, 72). The only known painting was destroyed around 1939. Butler was buried in a vault beneath the Augustinian friary near Fethard, Co. Tipperary. Rebuilding work in 1935 is said to have uncovered both his coffin and (apparently confirming Bowden's report) a second described as that of his only child, a daughter. His widow Maria married John Hubert Moore of Shannon Grove, Co. Galway, in 1801 and died 6 August 1860.