Martyrdom of Oliver Plunkett

A. M. Sullivan
c. 1900


POSSESSED of supreme power, Cromwell, by a bold stroke of usurpation, now changed the republic to what he called a "protectorate," with himself as "Protector" in other words, a kingdom, with Oliver as king, vice Charles, decapitated. This coup d'état completely disgusted the sincere republicans of the Pym and Ludlow school; and on the death of the iron-willed Protector, September 3, 1658, the whole structure set up by the revolution on the ruins of the monarchy in England tottered and fell.

Communication had been opened with the second Charles, a worthless, empty-headed creature, and it was made clear to him that if he would only undertake not to disturb too much the "vested interests" created during the revolution—that is, if he would undertake to let the "settlement of property" (as they were pleased to call their stealing of other men's estates) alone—his return to the throne might be made easy. Charles was delighted. This proposal only asked of him to sacrifice his friends, now no longer powerful, since they had lost all in his behalf. He acquiesced, and the monarchy was restored. The Irish nobility and gentry, native and Anglo-Irish, who had been so fearfully scourged for the sin of loyalty to his father, now joyfully expected that right would be done, and that they would enjoy their own once more. They were soon undeceived. Such of the "lottery" speculators, or army officers and soldiers as were actually in possession of the estates of royalist owners, were not to be disturbed. Such estates only as had not actually been "taken up" were to be restored to the owners.

There was one class, however, whom all the others readily agreed might be robbed without any danger—nay, whom it was loudly declared to be a crime to desist from robbing to the last—namely, the Catholics—especially the "Irish Papists." The reason why was not clear. Everybody, on the contrary, saw that they had suffered most of all for their devoted loyalty to the murdered king. After awhile a low murmur of compassion—muttering even of justice for them—began to be heard about the court. This danger created great alarm. The monstrous idea of justice to the Catholics was surely not to be endured; but what was to be done? "Happy thought!"—imitate the skillful ruse of the Irish Puritans in starting the massacre story of 1641. But where was the scene of massacre to be laid this time, and when must they say it had taken place? This was found to be an irresistible stopper on a new massacre story in the past, but then the great boundless future was open to them: could they not say it was yet to take place? A blessed inspiration the saintly people called this. Yes; they could get up an anti-Catholic frenzy with a massacre story about the future, as well as with one relating to the past!

Accordingly, in 1678 the diabolical fabrication known as the "Great Popish Plot" made its appearance. The great Protestant historian, Charles James Fox, declared that the Popish plot story "must always be considered an indelible disgrace upon the English nation." Macaulay more recently has still more vehemently denounced the infamy of that concoction; and indeed, even a year or two after it had done its work, all England rang with execrations of its concoctors—several of whom, Titus Oates, the chief swearer, especially, suffered the penalty of their discovered perjuries.

But the plot-story did its appointed work splendidly and completely, and all the sentimental horror of a thousand Macaulays could nought avail, once that work was done. A proper fury had been got up against the Catholics, arresting the idea of compassionating them, giving full impetus to a merciless persecution of popish priests, and above all (crowning merit) effectually silencing all suggestions about restoring to Irish Catholic royalists their estates and possessions. Shaftesbury, one of the chief promoters of the plot-story, was indeed dragged to the Tower as an abominable and perjured miscreant, but not until the scaffold had drunk deep of Catholic blood, and Tyburn had been the scene of that mournful tragedy—that foul and heartless murder—of which Oliver Plunkett, the sainted martyr-primate of Ireland, was the victim.[1]

This venerable man was at Rome when the pope selected him for the primacy. A bloody persecution was at the moment raging in Ireland; and Dr. Plunkett felt that the appointment was a summons to martyrdom. Nevertheless he hastened to Ireland, and assumed the duties of his position. Such was his gentleness and purity of character, his profound learning, the piety, and indeed sanctity, of his life, that even the Protestant officials and gentry round about came to entertain for him the highest respect and personal regard. Prudent and circumspect, he rigidly abstained from interference in the troubled politics of the period, and devoted himself exclusively to rigorous reforms of such irregularities and abuses as had crept into parochial or diocesan affairs during the past century of civil war and social chaos. For the support of the "intended massacre" story it was clearly necessary to extend the scene of the plot to Ireland (so much more popish than England), and casting about for some one to put down as chief conspirator, the constructors of the story thought the head of the popish prelates ought to be the man, ex-officio. The London government accordingly wrote to the Irish lord lieutenant to announce that the "Popish plot" existed in Ireland also. He complied.

Next he was to resume energetically the statutory persecutions of the Papists. This also he obeyed. Next he was directed to arrest the popish primate for complicity in the plot. Here he halted. From the correspondence it would appear that he wrote back to the effect that this was rather too strong, inasmuch as even among the ultra-Protestants the idea of Dr. Plunkett being concerned in any such business would be scouted. Beside, he pointed out, there was no evidence. He was told that this made no matter, to obey his orders, and arrest the primate. He complied reluctantly. An agent of the Oates and Shaftesbury gang in London, Hetherington by name, was now sent over to Dublin to get up evidence, and soon proclamations were circulated through all the jails offering pardon to any criminal—murderer, robber, tory, or traitor—who could (would) give the necessary evidence against the primate; and accordingly crown witnesses by the dozen competed in willingness to swear anything that was required. The primate was brought to trial at Drogheda, but the grand jury, though ultra-Protestant to a man, threw out the bill; the perjury of the crown witnesses was too gross, the innocence of the meek and venerable man before them too apparent. When the news reached London great was the indignation there. The lord lieutenant was at once directed to send the primate thither, where no such squeamishness of jurors would mar the ends of injustice. The hapless prelate was shipped to London and brought to trial there. Macaulay himself has described for us from original authorities the manner in which those "trials" were conducted. Here is his description of the witnesses, the judges, the juries, and the audience in court:

"A wretch named Carstairs, who had earned a living in Scotland by going disguised to conventicles, and then informing against the preachers, led the way; Bedloe, a noted swindler, followed; and soon from all the brothels, gambling-houses, and sponging-houses of London, false witnesses poured forth to swear away the lives of Roman Catholics. . . . Oates, that he might not be eclipsed by his imitators, soon added a large supplement to his original narrative. The vulgar believed, and the highest magistrates pretended to believe, even such fictions as these. The chief judges of the kingdom were corrupt, cruel, and timid. The juries partook of the feelings then common throughout the nation, and were encouraged by the bench to indulge those feelings without restraint. The multitude applauded Oates and his confederates, hooted and pelted the witnesses who appeared on behalf of the accused, and shouted with joy when the verdict of guilty was pronounced."

Before such a tribunal, on the 8th of June, 1681, the aged and venerable Primate was arraigned, and of course convicted. The scene in court was ineffably brutal. In accordance with the law at that time, the accused was allowed no counsel, whereas the crown was represented by the attorney-general and Sergeant Maynard; the judges being fully as ferocious as the official prosecutors. Every attempt made by the venerable victim at the bar to defend himself only elicited a roar of anger or a malignant taunt from one side or the other. The scene has not inappropriately been likened rather to the torturing of a victim at the stake by savage Indians, dancing and shouting wildly round him, than the trial of a prisoner in a court of law. At length the verdict was delivered; to which, when he heard it, the archbishop simply answered: "Deo gratias!" Then he was sentenced to be drawn on a hurdle to Tyburn, there and then to be hanged, cut down while alive, his body quartered, and the entrails burned in fire. He heard this infamous decree with serene composure.

"But looking upward full of grace,
God's glory smote him on the face."

Even among the governing party there were many who felt greatly shocked by this conviction. The thing was too glaring. The Protestant archbishop of Dublin (who seems to have been a humane and honorable man) expressed aloud his horror, and fearlessly declared the Catholic primate as innocent of the crimes alleged as an unborn child. But no one durst take on himself at the moment to stem the tide of English popular fury. The Earl of Essex, indeed, hurried to the king and vehemently besought him to save the Irish primate by a royal pardon. Charles, terribly excited, declared that he, as well as every one of them, knew the primate to be innocent, "but," cried he, with passionate earnestness, "ye could have saved him; I cannot—you know well I dare not."

Then, like Pontius Pilate, he desired "the blood of this innocent man" to be on their heads, not his. The law should take its course.

"The law" did "take its course." The sainted Plunkett was dragged on a hurdle to Tyburn amid the yells of the London populace. There he was hanged, beheaded, quartered, and disembowelled, "according to law," July 1, 1681.

Soon after, as I have already intimated, the popular delirium cooled down, and everybody began to see that rivers of innocent Catholic blood had been made to flow without cause, crime, or offense. But what of that? A most salutary check had been administered to the apprehended design of restoring to Catholic royalists the lands they had lost through their devotion to the late king. The "Popish plot" story of 1678, like the great massacre story of 1641, had accomplished its allotted work.


[1] Few episodes in Irish history are more tragic and touching than that with which the name of the martyr-primate is associated, and there have been few more valuable contributions to Irish Catholic or historical literature in our generation than the "Memoir" of this illustrious prelate by the Rev. Dr. Moran. In it the learned reverend author has utilized the rich stores of original manuscripts relating to the period—many of them letters in the martyr-primate's handwriting—preserved in Rome, and has made his book not only a "memoir" of the murdered archbishop, but an authentic history of a period momentous in its importance and interest for Irishmen. A much briefer work is the "Life and Death of Oliver Plunkett," by the Rev. George Crolly, a little book which tells a sad story in language full of simple pathos and true eloquence.