Oliver Plunket

From A Compendium of Irish Biography, 1878

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Plunket, Oliver, Archbishop of Armagh, was born at Loughcrew, County of Meath, in 1629. He was descended from an old Anglo-Norman family, and was related to Dr. Plunket, Bishop of Ardagh, and Peter Talbot, Archbishop of Dublin. In 1645 he was sent to Rome under the care of Father Scarampo, Papal Legate, to complete his education, and next year entered the Irish College, where he remained eight years.

In 1654 he was ordained for the Irish ministry, but the state of the country rendered his return impossible, and he continued to reside in Rome, where he spent altogether some twenty-five years — from 1645 to 1669. In 1657 he was appointed Professor in the College of the Propaganda, where he lectured for about twelve years. Dr. Moran, his biographer, writes: "It is incredible with what zeal he burned for the salvation of souls. In the house itself, and in the city, he wholly devoted himself to devout exercises; frequently did he visit the sanctuaries steeped with the blood of so many martyrs, and he ardently sighed for the opportunity of sacrificing himself for the salvation of his countrymen. He moreover frequented the hospital of Santo Spirito, and employed himself even in the most abject ministrations, serving the poor infirm, to the edification and wonder of the very officials and assistants of that place."

In 1668 he was appointed agent of the Irish clergy at Rome. About this time he composed his Irish poem, "O Tara of the Kings." On 9th July 1669 he was nominated Archbishop of Armagh. When leaving Rome he presented a small estate to the Irish College, besides many books and pictures. He was duly consecrated in November at Ghent, it being supposed that his consecration there would be less likely to bring him into trouble with the government in Ireland than if done in Rome. While in London, on his way, he was secretly lodged for ten days in the royal palace, by Father Howard, Grand Almoner. Speaking of his journey to Ireland, he says: "I suffered more from London to Holyhead than during the remainder of the journey from Rome to London — excessive cold, stormy winds, and a heavy fall of snow... Three times I was up to my knees in water in the carriage."

During the ten years of his episcopate he was unceasing in his endeavours to re-establish and strengthen the fabric of his church, torn and shattered by the events of previous years. He presided at synods, held confirmations, established colleges and schools — travelling incessantly, not only in Ireland but the Hebrides. Writing 15th December 1673, he said he had confirmed 48,655 persons in the previous four years. "I applied myself especially to root out the cursed vice of drunkenness, which is the parent and nurse of all scandals and contentions." He bore persecution and poverty with unflinching fortitude. At times Roman Catholicism was tolerated; at other times he had to preach and administer the sacraments in forests or on remote hill sides, and to hide himself in garrets and miserable cabins. His efforts to put down the tories excited great animosity against him among some of his co-religionists.

In 1670 he says: "I am obliged to conceal myself by assuming the name of Captain Brown, wearing a sword and a wig and pistols; this lasted two or three months... No fewer than nine times have I been accused before the Viceroy on account of the schools, and for exercising foreign jurisdiction... In a certain emergency when an outburst of persecution was feared in Armagh, I had to burn all my foreign letters, even the brief of my consecration." In 1674 the clergy were everywhere obliged to fly to the woods and mountains to seek a refuge, and he wrote that in the city of Cashel there was not a single Catholic who could give lodging for one night, and that there was but one parish priest in the whole city. The Archbishop's correspondence with Rome continued even in the worst times of persecution, and is said to have cost him £25 a year — half the revenue of his see.

In 1678, Catholics, excepting such as "for the greater part of the twelve months past had inhabited," were forbidden to reside in any corporate town. In July 1679 he was arrested in Dundalk, and committed to Newgate, Dublin, on the informations of two condemned friars, MacMoyer and Duffy. [See MACMOYER, FLORENCE, p. 317.] He was charged with having compassed the invasion of Ireland by foreign powers; with having obtained money from the Irish clergy to maintain a French army of 70,000 men; and with having conspired to take all the forts and harbours in Ireland.

In October 1680 the Archbishop was removed to England, and on the 3rd of May 1681 was arraigned at the King's Bench, when he pleaded not guilty. Five weeks were allowed him to procure witnesses, and on the 8th of June he was again brought up. His messengers had been long detained at Holyhead by stress of weather, and had not had time to gather in Ireland the scattered witnesses necessary to disprove the assertions of his adversaries. The trial proceeded notwithstanding; the jury after a quarter of an hour's consideration returned a verdict of guilty, and he was sentenced to be hanged, drawn, and quartered. He bore himself with great dignity throughout the trial, and on its conclusion again maintained his innocence, and simply asked that a servant and some friends might be permitted to visit him.

He was brought to Tyburn on 1st July (1681). Captain Richardson, Keeper of Newgate, testified as to his bearing: "When I came to him this morning he was newly awake, having slept all night without disturbance; and when I told him he was to prepare for execution he received the message with all quietness of mind, and went to the sledge as unconcerned as if he had been going to a wedding." After making a long and dignified speech, pointing out the absurdity of the charges brought against him, he resigned himself to the executioner. Wood says in his Athenae Oxonienses that Archbishop Plunket's remains rested in the churchyard of St. Giles'-in-the-Fields until 1683, when they were removed to Landsprug in Germany. His head is preserved in a shrine in the convent of St. Catherine at Drogheda. Subsequent events proved his entire innocence of the charges brought against him. Fox, in his History of James II., says, Charles II. "did not think it worth while to save the life of Plunket, the Popish Archbishop of Armagh, of whose innocence no doubt could be entertained."

Sources

128b. Episcopal Succession in England, Scotland, and Ireland, from A.D. 1400 to 1875: W. Maziere Brady. 3 vols. Rome, 1877.

195. Irish Writers of the Seventeenth Century: Thomas D'Arcy McGee. Dublin, 1846.

286a. Plunket, Archbishop Oliver, Memoirs: Rev. P. F. Moran. Dublin, 1861.
Plowden, Francis, see Nos. 173a, 173b.

312. State Trials, Cobbett's, 1163 to 1820. 34 vols. London, 1806-'28.

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