Kieran McCarthy: How Cork's Oliver Plunkett Street got its name

Kieran McCarthy looks at how the renaming of one of Cork city's most famous thoroughfares was richly symbolic in breaking bonds with the British Empire

Kieran McCarthy: How Cork's Oliver Plunkett Street got its name
A near deserted Oliver Plunkett street, Cork on Easter Saturday during the Covid-19 pandemic
Picture: Eddie O'Hare

One hundred years ago today, Cork City Council renamed one of the city's main streets Oliver Plunkett Street to mark his beatification.

Up to then, the now mainly pedestrian street, which runs parallel to Patrick Street, was known as George's Street. 

The name change came within a month of the switch from -Robert- King Street to (Tomás) MacCurtain Street.

Renaming streets was a very symbolic act and another mechanism to breaking bonds with the British Empire. Cork’s George’s Street was named to celebrate the ascendency of the German Royal House of Hanover to an English royal seat. 

Its first monarch came to the English throne in 1714. The western part of George’s Street was laid out across Cork’s unreclaimed eastern marshes from 1715 onwards and historic maps such as John Rocque’s in 1759 show that the street and its buildings in its eastern sections were still being developed. 

In 1760, Mayor Thomas Newenham organised a subscription fund to erect an equestrian statue of George II on a pedestal on a specially constructed arch at the western emtrance to George’s Street on the south side of the eminently arched Tuckey's Bridge (centre of present day Grand Parade and marked by Berwick Fountain). 

Kieran McCarthy: How Cork's Oliver Plunkett Street got its name
The Berwick Fountain on Grand Parade following its recent makeover.

In late September 1760, it was further decided to enlarge this bridge so that carriages could pass on each side of statue into George’s Street.

Very little survives on the present day street from the early 18th century but there are some very fine examples of Georgian architecture. 

The side streets off Georges Street were named after prominent Protestant merchant figures – John Churchill, Duke of Marlborough, Stephen Cook who was Sheriff of Cork in 1681, William Winthrop (Sheriff of Cork in 1741 and Mayor in 1744), Thomas Pembroke (Sheriff of Cork in 1724 and Mayor of Cork in 1733), and Samuel Maylor (Sheriff of Cork in 1766). 

Caroline Street is named after Queen Caroline of Brunswick, wife of George IV. Such names added to British imperial remembering structures within the city.

The name Oliver Plunkett (1625-1681) is a far cry from the connections with the House of Hanover. He was an ideal candidate to commemorate during the Irish War of Independence. 

Oliver was born at Loughcrew, near Old Castle, Co. Meath in 1625.  Up to the age of 16, he was educated by Dr Patrick Plunkett, Abbot of St Mary’s Dublin. Subsequently he studied for the priesthood at the Irish College, Rome. He was ordained in 1654 and acted as agent in Rome for the Irish Bishops. 

In 1669, he was appointed to the Archbishopric of Armagh. In 1670, he returned to Ireland and established a Jesuit College in Drogheda. In 1679, he was arrested on a charge of high treason, which was supported by the evidence of witnesses who came forward to prove a Popish or Roman Catholic plot to kill England’s King Charles II. The king did not believe in the conspiracy and refused to get involved in the case of Oliver, and the law was allowed to take its course.

Brought to Westminster before an all Protestant jury, during the first trial, Oliver disputed the right of the court to try him in England. He was found to have pursued no crime but was not released. During the second trial, he drew focus on the criminal background of some of the witnesses, but to no avail. 

Found guilty Oliver was hanged, drawn, and quartered at Tyburn on 1 July 1681, aged 55. He was the last Catholic martyr to die in England. 

His story of a miscarriage of justice was not forgotten about in and was harnessed in many subsequent debates from condemning the Penal Laws to calling for Catholic Emancipation in the early 19th century.

Fast forward to 1920 and that miscarriage of justice resonated with the national War of Independence and in Cork with the murder of the former Lord mayor Tomás MacCurtain. 

Kieran McCarthy: How Cork's Oliver Plunkett Street got its name
Tomas MacCurtain funeral.

That connection was made at the council meeting of May 14, 1920 by Sinn Féin’s Cllr Professor Alfred O'Rahilly, who proposed: "We, the Corporation of Cork, in council assembled, hereby record the joy and satisfaction of the people of Ireland at the approaching Beatification of the Venerable Oliver Plunkett, the martyred Archbishop of Armagh, who 239 years ago, as the victim of a bogus plot, was seized and deported by the English Forces then in Ireland, and was legally murdered as a criminal and a traitor. 

"We direct that this resolution be forwarded to the Cardinal Secretary of State, to his Eminence Cardinal Logue, to his Grace Dr Harty, Archbishop of Cashel, and to his Lordship Dr Cohalan, Bishop of Cork”.

To mark the Beatification of Oliver Plunkett in Rome on 14 May 1920, Bishop Cohalan celebrated high mass at the North Cathedral where Lord Mayor MacSwiney and councillors were present. In all the churches of the city after Mass at noon the Blessed Sacrament was exposed on the High Altar.

Twenty-four hours previously, the lord mayor sent out a public call to citizens to illuminate their houses and display flags and bunting to commemorate the historic and holy event. 

On May 14, 1920 rows of houses in whole streets were all lit up. Statues and pictorial representations of the Sacred Heart were erected inside the windows and surrounded by multi-coloured lights, the Papal colours – gold and white – predominated. 

Dr Kieran McCarthy is a Geographer, Cork local historian and an Independent member of Cork City Council. His historical work can be viewed at www.corkheritage.ie.

His latest book 'Witness to Murder, The Inquest of Tomás MacCurtain' is now available to purchase online at www.irishexaminer.ie 

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