The Bishop Butler Scandal.

By Peter O’Leary


In 1786 there was a great scandal in the Catholic Diocese of Cork when the Bishop resigned.


Bishop John Butler had been elected to this honour in 1762. He was born in 1731 and was a member of the powerful family of Butler of Ormonde, whose head was the Duke of Ormonde from Kilkenny.


He began his studies for the priesthood in 1750, and as was usual in those days, was sent to Spain and Italy, spending most of his student days at the Irish College in Rome. He was ordained in 1758.


After a short time as a parish priest, and a further time as Secretary to the Archbishop of Cashel, Fr. Butler was raised to the bishopric after only four years as a priest, an almost unheard of progression. This was widely believed to be more due to his powerful Butler contacts than to his great piety or efficiency.


So in 1762 a young man of 31 headed the Diocese of Cork. He appears to have overcome these early difficulties and we know little of his next 24 uneventful years in this capacity.

But in 1786 one of the minor Butler Lords, a Lord Dunboyne, died, and Bishop Butler was his heir. The Bishop immediately applied to Rome to be relieved of his office and to give up the priesthood. In his petition to Rome he stressed the importance of the Lordship of Dunboyne, and the necessity of such a superior member of Society to marry and provide the next heir for posterity. As he stated, "It is no pleasure for me after a life of celibacy, to share my bed and board." He was clearly a man who recognised his duties in the life to which he had now been called!


Sadly, the Pope did not see matters so clearly, and turned down his request. Nevertheless the new Lord of Dunboyne went ahead, resigned his bishopric, was received into the Church of Ireland and shortly afterwards married one of his cousins, Mary Butler.

The affair was treated with astonishment and disbelief in his former Diocese. Fr.Arthur O’Leary, OFM Cap. Poured scorn on him from his pulpit in Blackamoor Lane in Cork, and published a pamphlet which did not spare the man.


The new Lord Dunboyne was advised:

Nuair a bheas tú in Ifrionn go fóill,

Agus do deora ag silleadh leat,

Sin an áit a bhfuagh tú na scéala,

Cia is fearr sagairt no ministéar.


(Later when you’ll be in hell,

and your tears flowing,

That where you’ll discover,

Which is better, a priest or minister)