Oliver Plunkett

Margaret Anne Cusack
start of chapter | Chapter XXXI. concluded

Oliver Plunkett had been Archbishop of Armagh since the death of Dr. O'Reilly, in 1669. He belonged to the noble family of Fingall; but he was more respected for his virtues and his office than even for his rank. He was now accused of being in correspondence with the French; it was a favourite charge against Catholics at that time, and one which could be easily brought forward by men who did not mind swearing to a lie, and not easily disproved by men who could only assert their innocence. Lord Shaftesbury was the great patron of Titus Oates, the concocter of the plot, and the perjured murderer of scores of innocent men. It was a serious disappointment to find that no evidence of a conspiracy could be found in Ireland.

Carte, who certainly cannot be suspected of the faintest shadow of preference for an Irishman or a Catholic, says that every effort was made to drive the people into rebellion. He gives the reason for this, which, from former experience, one fears must be true. "There were," he says, "too many Protestants in Ireland who wanted another rebellion, that they might increase their estates by new forfeitures." "It was proposed to introduce the Test Act and all the English penal laws into Ireland; and that a proclamation should be forthwith issued for encouraging all persons that could make any further discoveries of the horrid Popish plot, to come in and declare the same."

Unfortunately for the credit of our common humanity, persons can always be found who are ready to denounce their fellow-creatures, even when guiltless, from mere malice. When, to the pleasure of gratifying a passion, there is added the prospect of a reward, the temptation becomes irresistible; and if the desire of revenge for an injury, real or imaginary, be superadded, the temptation becomes overwhelming. In order to satisfy the clamours of the "no Popery" faction, an order had been issued, on the 16th of October, 1677, for the expulsion of all ecclesiastics from Ireland; and a further proclamation was made, forbidding Papists to enter into the Castle of Dublin, or any fort or citadel; and so far, indeed, did this childish panic exceed others of its kind, that orders were sent to the great market-towns, commanding the markets to be held outside the walls, to prevent the obnoxious Catholics from entering into the interior.

Rewards were offered of £10 for an officer, £5 for a trooper, and £4 for a soldier, if it could be proved that he attended Mass; and how many were sworn away by this bribery it would be difficult to estimate. On the 2nd of December, a strict search was ordered for the Catholic ecclesiastics who had not yet transported themselves. Dr. Plunkett had not left the country. At the first notice of the storm he withdrew, according to the apostolic example, to a retired situation, where he remained concealed, more in hope of martyrdom than in fear of apprehension.

The prelate had never relaxed in his duties towards his flock, and be continued to fulfil those duties now with equal vigilance. One of the most important functions of a chief shepherd is to oversee the conduct of those who govern the flock of Christ under him. There was a Judas in the college of the Apostles, and many Judases have been found since then. The Archbishop had been obliged to excommunicate two of his priests and two friars, who had been denounced by their superiors for their unworthy lives. The unhappy men resented the degradation, without repenting of the crimes which had brought it upon them. They were ready for perjury, for they had renounced truth; and the gratification of their malice was probably a far stronger motive than the bribe for the capture of a bishop.

The holy prelate was seized on the 6th December, 1679. Even Ormonde wished to have spared him, so inoffensive and peaceful had been his life. He was arraigned at the Dundalk assizes; but although every man on the grand jury was a Protestant, from whom, at least, less partiality might be expected towards him than from members of his own Church, the perjured witnesses refused to come forward. Indeed, the prelate himself had such confidence in his innocence, and in the honorable dealing of his Protestant fellow-countrymen, when their better judgment was not bewildered by fanaticism, that he declared in London he would put himself on trial in Ireland before any Protestant jury who knew him, and who knew the men who swore against him, without the slightest doubt of the result.

Jones, the Protestant Bishop of Meath, was, unfortunately for himself, influenced by fanaticism. He had served in Cromwell's army,[6] and had all that rancorous hatred of the Catholic Church so characteristic of the low class from whom the Puritan soldiery were drawn. He was determined that the Archbishop should be condemned; and as men could not be found to condemn him in Ireland, he induced Lord Shaftesbury to have him taken to London. The Archbishop was removed to Newgate, about the close of October, 1680, and so closely confined, that none of his friends could have access to him. He spent his time in prayer, and his gaolers were amazed at his cheerfulness and resignation. His trial took place on the 8th of June, 1681; but he was not allowed time to procure the necessary witnesses, and the court would not allow certain records to be put in, which would have proved the character of his accusers. Six of the most eminent English lawyers were arrayed against him. The legal arrangements of the times deprived him of the assistance of counsel, but they did not require the judges to help out the men who swore against him: this, however, they did do.

The prelate was condemned to die. The speech of the judge who pronounced sentence was not distinguished by any very special forensic acumen. Dr. Plunkett had been charged by the witnesses with political crimes; the judge sentenced [7] him for his religious convictions; and, by a process of reasoning not altogether peculiar to himself, insisted that his supposed treason was a necessary result of the faith he professed. The Archbishop suffered at Tyburn, on Friday, July 11, 1681. He went to his death rejoicing, as men go to a bridal. His dying declaration convinced his hearers of his innocence; and, perhaps, the deep regret for his martyrdom, which was felt by all but the wretches who had procured his doom, tended to still the wild storm of religious persecution, or, at least, to make men see that where conscience was dearer than life, conscientious convictions should be respected. It is at least certain that his name was the last on the long roll of sufferers who had been executed at Tyburn for the faith. Blood was no longer exacted there as the price which men should pay for liberty of belief. It were well had that liberty been allowed by men to their fellow-men in after years, without fines or confiscations—without those social penalties, which, to a refined and sensitive mind, have in them the bitterness of death, without the consolations of martyrdom.

Ancient Pitcher

Ancient Pitcher, from the collection of the Royal Irish Academy, found in a cronnoge, at Lough Taughan, Lecale, County Down.


[6] Army.—Carte says "he was Scout-Master-General."—Ormonde, vol. ii. p. 478.

[7] Sentenced.—See Dr. Moran's Memoir of the Most Rev. Dr. Plunkett. This interesting work affords full details of the character of the witnesses, the nature of the trial, and the Bishop's saintly end.