Coigly (Coigley, Quigley, O'Coigley), James (1761–98), United Irishman and catholic priest, was born in August 1761 in Kilmore, Co. Armagh, second son of James Coigly, farmer, and Louisa Coigly (née Donnelly). In the absence of seminary education in penal Ireland, Coigly served an apprenticeship with a local parish priest. He was ordained to the priesthood at Dungannon in 1785 and went on to study at the Collège des Lombards, Paris, where he took the unprecedented step of initiating legal proceedings against his superior, John Baptist Walsh (d. 1825), which ended in a compromise after the intervention of the archbishop of Paris. Coigly, ‘no friend of the revolution’ (Valentine Derry (qv), preface to Coigly's Life (1998 ed.), 27), left France in October 1789, after a narrow escape from a revolutionary mob.
He returned to Ireland (where he held a curacy in Dundalk, 1793–6) to find ‘the inhabitants of . . . County Armagh engaged in a civil war, and religion made the pretext’ (Life, 33). There is no suggestion that his religious views were not orthodox; he saw himself not as a politician, but as a priest attempting to reconcile parties. He quickly immersed himself in the politics of the region, riding through Ulster in an attempt to unite catholic and dissenter. Yet, while Coigly represented his efforts in 1791–3 as an isolated effort to restore peace, there is little doubt that his mission merged into the ‘uniting business’ of Theobald Wolfe Tone (qv), Samuel Neilson (qv), and John Keogh (qv). Almost certainly a Defender, Coigly represented a key link between that organisation and the United Irishmen. He cooperated in their efforts to expose the tyranny of the Orange order and his profile was heightened, in late 1796, after the arrest of the Ulster leadership of the United Irishmen. He became particularly conspicuous in 1797 and, with a general election in the offing, may have written an influential anonymous pamphlet, A view of the present state of Ireland (London, 1797), attributed by Francis Plowden (qv) to Arthur O'Connor (qv).
More significantly, Coigly made several forays to England to forge alliances between the United Irishmen and British radicals. In 1796 he carried communications from the secret committee of England to the French directory, and made at least two crossings to France in 1797, endeavouring to rekindle French interest in Ireland after the failure of the Bantry expedition. His final mission (February 1798) ended in disaster when the priest was arrested at Margate, as he prepared to cross to France along with John Binns (qv) and Arthur O'Connor.
The arrests electrified government circles, since O'Connor was publicly associated with the whig opposition. No effort was spared to secure his conviction, including the manipulation of the jury; yet while O'Connor was acquitted Coigly was sentenced to die, on the slender evidence of seditious papers found in his coat pocket. The administration immediately attempted to reverse this embarrassment; Coigly was offered his life in return for the incrimination of O'Connor, and the vicar apostolic (whom Coigly called ‘bishop of London’) refused him final absolution unless he obliged. Coigly's refusal sealed his fate. Awaiting execution, he penned a propagandist narrative of his life for publication; it appeared in three editions, which Benjamin Binns (qv) claimed had a circulation of 40,000 copies. In it the priest condemned his judicial murder, Lord Camden (qv) (‘the degenerate Pratt’), his ‘Irish Sanhedrim’ (sic), and the Orange order. Coigly was executed on 7 June 1798 on Pennington Heath; his death was overtaken by the outbreak of rebellion in Ireland. Forgotten in the general narrative history of 1798, his social radicalism and diplomatic missions set him among the most significant Irish radicals of the 1790s.