Coigly is born in August 1761 in Kilmore, County Armagh, second son of James Coigly, farmer, and Louisa Coigly (née Donnelly). In the absence of seminary education in penal Ireland, he serves an apprenticeship with a local parish priest. He is ordained to the priesthood at Dungannon, County Tyrone, in 1785 and goes on to study at the Irish College in Paris, where he takes the unprecedented step of initiating legal proceedings against his superior, John Baptist Walsh, which ends in a compromise after the intervention of the Archbishop of Paris. Coigly, who has been described as “no friend of the revolution,” leaves France in October 1789, after a narrow escape from a revolutionary mob.
Coigly returns to Ireland where he holds a curacy in Dundalk from 1793–96. He finds the inhabitants of County Armagh engaged in a civil war, and religion made the pretext – the Armagh disturbances. There is no suggestion that his religious views are not orthodox. He sees himself not as a politician, but as a priest attempting to reconcile parties. He quickly immerses himself in the politics of the region, riding through Ulster in an attempt to unite Catholic and dissenter. Yet, while he represents his efforts in 1791–93 as an isolated effort to restore peace, there is little doubt that his mission merges into the “uniting business” of Theobald Wolfe Tone, Samuel Neilson, and John Keogh. Almost certainly a Defender, he represents a key link between that organisation and the United Irishmen. He cooperates in their efforts to expose the tyranny of the Orange Order and his profile is heightened, in late 1796, after the arrest of the Ulster leadership of the United Irishmen. He becomes particularly conspicuous in 1797 and, with a general election in the offing, possibly writes an influential anonymous pamphlet, A view of the present state of Ireland (London, 1797), attributed by Francis Plowden to Arthur O’Connor.
More significantly, Coigly makes several forays to England to forge alliances between the United Irishmen and British radicals. In 1796 he carries communications from the secret committee of England to the French directory, and makes at least two crossings to France in 1797, endeavouring to rekindle French interest in Ireland after the failure of the French expedition to Ireland in December 1796. His final mission in February 1798 ends in disaster when he is arrested at Margate, as he prepares to cross to France along with John Binns and Arthur O’Connor.
The arrests electrify government circles, since O’Connor is publicly associated with the Whig opposition. No effort is spared to secure his conviction, including the manipulation of the jury. Yet while O’Connor is acquitted, Coigly is found guilty of high treason and sentenced to die, on the slender evidence of seditious papers found in his coat pocket. The administration immediately attempts to reverse this embarrassment. Coigly is offered his life in return for the incrimination of O’Connor, and the vicar apostolic refuses him final absolution unless he obliges. His refusal seals his fate.
Awaiting execution, Coigly pens a propagandist narrative of his life for publication. It appears in three editions, which Benjamin Binns claims has a circulation of 40,000 copies. In it the priest condemns his judicial murder, Lord Camden, his ‘Irish Sanhedrim,’ and the Orange Order. He is executed on June 7, 1798 at Penenden Heath, Maidstone. His death is overtaken by the outbreak of the Irish Rebellion of 1798. 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.
On June 7, 1998, a memorial was unveiled to Coigly in the cemetery at St. Patrick’s Cathedral in Armagh. In the oration, Monsignor Réamonn Ó Muirí reads from a letter Coigly wrote from prison. While he assured Irish Catholics of his attachment to “the principles of our holy religion”, Coigly addressed himself to Irish Presbyterians.
(From: “Coigly (Coigley, Quigley, O’Coigley), James” by Dáire Keogh, Dictionary of Irish Biography, http://www.dib.ie)