Saint and sinner: Who was St Oliver Plunkett?

Saint and sinner: Who was St Oliver Plunkett?
Bust of St Oliver Plunkett outside Saint Peter’s Church, Drogheda, County Louth

What do an award-winning street in Cork, an oak tree in Ardpatrick, and a church in Blackrock have in common?

They’re named after Oliver Plunkett, that’s what, says Robert Hume. But who exactly was this man?

Three hundred and fifty years ago, Oliver Plunkett from Co. Meath was consecrated Archbishop of Armagh and Catholic Primate of All Ireland.

Twelve years later he would meet a grisly end as the last Catholic priest to be executed at Tyburn.

Escaping his war-torn homeland

Born in 1625 into a well-connected family from Loughcrew, Oldcastle, Plunkett was set on becoming a priest.

With no seminaries in Ireland, he knew that he would need to go to Rome.

As reported in his memoirs, early in 1647 he left Waterford with four other students on a perilous journey, facing pirates, “mountainous seas”, and attacks from robbers.

After three months they arrived in Rome where Plunkett studied law at the Jesuit University, and theology, philosophy and mathematics at the Irish College.

A brilliant student, he was later appointed Professor of Theology at Propaganda College.

In 1654, he was ordained a priest. Facing Cromwell’s soldiers in Ireland was not a cheerful prospect, and Father Oliver was granted permission to stay in Rome as a representative of the Irish bishops.

Much of his time was spent visiting Santo Spirito hospital, feeding and washing the sick, “needy and full of vermin”.

His return as Catholic Primate

In Ghent on 1 December 1669, Plunkett was consecrated Catholic Primate of All Ireland, and Archbishop of Armagh.

Storms and heavy snow blighted his return journey to Ireland. In London, wine froze in his chalice.

Disguised as Captain William Browne, carrying a sword and two pistols, Archbishop Oliver secretly disembarked at Ringsend, Dublin.

Two months later, the appointment of a more tolerant viceroy meant Plunkett could safely appear in public.

The Catholic Church in Ireland was leaderless and divided, the clergy allowed to go their own way. Many regarded the “Italian Primate”, an Anglo-Irish Meathman with “sullen resentment”.

Travelling on horseback from village to village, Archbishop Oliver claims he confirmed 48,655 Catholics, often in the open air at Mass-rocks, and ordained 200 priests.

In Drogheda he set up a college to train priests, and a school for 150 boys, forty of whom were Protestant. It was the first integrated school in Ireland.

The actual head of St Oliver Plunkett in a glass case in St. Peter’s Roman Catholic Church in West Street, Drogheda town centre
The actual head of St Oliver Plunkett in a glass case in St. Peter’s Roman Catholic Church in West Street, Drogheda town centre

By developing friendly relationships with Protestant leaders, such as Archbishop James Margetson of Armagh, he helped solve disputes in several dioceses.

In Tyrone, he got a group of outlaws to renounce a life of plundering.

His special focus was to reform the clergy whom he found “ignorant in moral theology,” and prone to drinking. “No priest should frequent public houses or drink whiskey,” he stated.

Barely six months after his arrival, the vicar generals of six dioceses wrote thanking the Vatican for sending a man who had won the love “even of the enemies of our faith”.

Such “untiring” work led a Catholic prayer group as recently as 1997 to name him patron for peace and reconciliation.

But in London Plunkett’s reforming zeal was regarded with horror. When he refused to take Church of England Communion as required by the Test Act (1673), his colleges were demolished, chapels closed.

Rather than go into exile, he chose a life on the run, frequently hungry and cold, hiding in barns, or in an old oak tree in Ardpatrick.

Arrest in Dublin and trial in Westminster

In 1678 Plunkett was arrested for planning to bring 20,000 French soldiers to Ireland, as part of a fabricated ‘Popish Plot’ to assassinate King Charles II and replace him by his Catholic brother James.

Charged with high treason, and exercising papal jurisdiction, Plunkett was taken to Dublin Castle.

When his trial in Dundalk fell through, he was shipped to London in October 1680 and flung into Newgate Prison.

At a second trial in Westminster on 8 June 1681 he was not allowed a defence or call witnesses, and fake evidence from suspended priests was used against him.

In a mere 15 minutes the jury found him guilty of promoting a “false” and “pernicious” religion, and he was sentenced to execution.

King Louis XIV of France pleaded that he be spared, but King Charles II – though a Catholic sympathiser – thought it too politically dangerous.

Execution

The manner of execution at Tyburn Oliver Plunkett (‘A life of continuous sacrifice’, Intercom magazine, July/August 2017)
The manner of execution at Tyburn Oliver Plunkett (‘A life of continuous sacrifice’, Intercom magazine, July/August 2017)

On July 1, 1681, 55-year-old Plunkett was tied to a wooden sledge and drawn by horse to Tyburn tree, Marble Arch.

His gaoler stated that he was “as unconcerned as if he was going to a wedding”.

Calmly addressing “an immense multitude” of spectators, he swore his innocence and forgave his accusers – evidence of a saintly, compassionate nature that resulted in his canonisation in 1975.

Plunkett was hanged by the neck until on the verge of death, then cut down, and his intestines “drawn” out.

His bowels, guts and genitals were cut off and cast into the fire, his head lopped off, singed in the fire, and his body chopped into pieces – “quartered”.

Initially, his parts were buried in two tin boxes in the courtyard of St Giles-in-the-Fields Church.

Nowadays they lie in Downside Abbey, Somerset.

After a brief stint in Rome, in 1684 his head was brought to the Benedictine monastery of Lambspring, Germany.

Since 1929 it has rested in an ornate golden shrine in St Peter’s Church, Drogheda, where a recent visitor captured on video a ghostly face peering out from the cell where Oliver Plunkett once lay in hiding.

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