The Plunket Family

Plunket family crest

(Crest No. 6. Plate 67.)

THE Plunket family is of Danish descent, and came to Ireland in the year 980. The Plunkets in time became powerful in Dublin, Meath, and Louth. They were created barons of Killeen and earls of Fingal, and branches of them barons of Dunsamy, in Meath, and barons of Louth.

There have been many distinguished members of this ancient family. Among them may be mentioned Rev. Richard Plunket, the last abbot of the famous Abbey of Kells, founded by St. Columba, in the year 550. The abbey being very rich in landed property, Abbot Plunket was compelled to surrender it to Henry the Eighth in the year 1539, such surrender being, writes Cobbett, “precisely of the nature of those ‘voluntary surrenders’ which men make of their purses when the robber’s pistol is at their temple, or his blood-stained knife at their throat.”

Christopher Plunket, Earl of Fingall, was a notable actor in the war of 1641-1652. He was brought up in England, where he was taken by his father, the first Earl of Fingall, who went to London as an agent for the Irish. He sat in the Parliament of 1639, and joined the Catholic side in the great rebellion of 1641. He commanded the cavalry at the siege of Drogheda, and was taken prisoner at the battle of Rathmines in 1649. He was outlawed seven times during his career, and finally died a prisoner in Dublin Castle. Another member of this family, Nicholas Plunket, was speaker of the Confederate Parliament, Kilkenny, in 1642.

In the war of Earl Desmond against Elizabeth, in 1580, an Irish nobleman named Plunket acted a prominent part at the siege of Smerwick, in Kerry. The garrison consisted of seven hundred Spanish and Italian troops who had come to the aid of Desmond. The Lord Deputy, Earl Grey, invested the fort, and being unable to carry it by assault he proceeded to accomplish by treachery what he could not effect by force. He displayed a flag of truce and asked for a parley. The garrison being well supplied and winter approaching, there was no necessity for surrender, and Plunket vigorously opposed either capitulation or compromise, declaring that the English “possessed neither probity nor honor, and could not, therefore, be relied on.”

Sebastian, the Spanish Governor, opposed this advice, and met the Deputy. Plunket acted as interpreter, but was so opposed to surrender that he gave wrong versions of what both sides proposed. On discovering this fact he was arrested, and an Englishman acquainted with the Spanish language acted as interpreter in his place. Lord Grey stipulated and sealed his agreement with his oath, that, on surrendering the fort and their arms, the garrison would be allowed to march out with all the honors of the war.

The day after the surrender the six hundred soldiers were slaughtered in cold blood, and their naked bodies laid out in a ghastly row on the sands by the barbarous English. The officers were reserved for ransom. Plunket was reserved for a more cruel fate. His arms and legs were first broken with hammers, after which he was hanged on a gibbet on the walls of the fort. A priest who was with the garrison suffered a similar fate, and a few women who were in the fort were hanged. This inhuman massacre was reprobated throughout the Continent as an outrage on humanity and the laws of nations, but it was in perfect keeping with the policy and action of the English in Ireland during the entire reign of Elizabeth. It is worthy of remark that one of the officers who commanded the party who executed this atrocious slaughter was that accomplished buccaneer, Sir Walter Raleigh, who fleshed his maiden sword on that occasion. By a just retribution, this act was made one of the charges against Raleigh by his enemies, when he finally lost his head after eighteen years’ imprisonment in London Tower. Lord Deputy Grey was afterward one of the commissioners that sat in judgment on Mary, Queen of Scots, in Fotheringay Castle.

The Most Rev. Oliver Plunket, Archbishop of Armagh, holds one of the most honored niches in the temple of Irish martyrology. He was the last martyr who was put to death directly for professing the Catholic faith, under the Penal Laws, the death of Father Sheehy at a subsequent period being the penalty of his championship of the oppressed people, rather than of his profession of the faith. Archbishop Plunket was educated in Rome, where he was ordained in 1654, and where he continued to remain as professor in the College of the Propaganda and agent of the Irish clergy until 1669, when he was nominated Archbishop of Armagh. So untiring was his zeal that, during the first four years of his episcopacy, he confirmed 48,655 persons, although most of the time he had to remain hidden in garrets and miserable cabins, and to administer the sacraments in the woods, on remote hillsides, and other out-of-the-way places. In order to conceal himself, at one time he assumed the name of Captain Brown, and wore a sword, a wig, and pistols for two or three months. In one of the periodical outbursts of prosecution he had to burn all his foreign letters, even the brief of his consecration. In 1674 he wrote that the clergy were all obliged to fly to the woods and mountains for refuge, and in 1678 all Catholics, excepting such as “for the greater part of the twelve months past had inhabited” corporate towns, were forbidden to reside within them.

In July, 1679, Archbishop Plunket was arrested in Dundalk and confined in Newgate, Dublin. He was conveyed to London in October, 1680, and on the 8th of June of the following year was condemned to death. The Earl of Essex, who had been Lord Deputy of Ireland and knew the saintly character of the Archbishop, went to the King—Charles the Second—to apply for a pardon, but that miserable monarch answered nearly in the words of Pontius Pilate: “I dare pardon nobody. His blood be upon your head, and not upon mine.” One of the most active persons in securing the Archbishop’s death was Jones, the Protestant Bishop of Meath, who had been scout master-general to Oliver Cromwell’s army in Ireland.

Archbishop Plunket was hanged at Tyburn on the 1st of July, 1681. His head was severed from the body after death, the body divided into four quarters, and the heart and bowels burned in the fire. The body was removed to Lambspring, Germany, in 1683, and the head was sent to Ireland, where it was subsequently deposited in a shrine in the Dominican Convent in Drogheda, the first prioress of which was Catharine Plunket, a relative of the martyred primate.

Another notable representative of this family was William Conyngham, Lord Plunket, born in 1764. He entered Trinity College, Dublin, where he distinguished himself in the debates of the Historical Society. He was an intimate friend of Thomas Addis Emmet, Wolfe Tone, Bushe, Yelverton, and other Irish celebrities of the time. He defended the Sheares brothers, in conjunction with Curran, in 1798, and he opposed the Union of the Irish Parliament with great force and ability. He lost his popularity in 1803 by acting as counsel for the Government at the trial of Robert Emmet. His conduct on that occasion was nothing short of infamous. He delivered a phillipic against the accused, rank with venom and calling for the blood of the already condemned man. The most reprehensible feature of his action was the speech was entirely uncalled for. Plunket sought, or rather forced, the opportunity to drive the last nail into the coffin of his old friend’s brother. Emmet made no defense, and would not permit his counsel, John Philpot Curran, to speak in his defense. This action relieved Plunket from the necessity of speaking for the prosecution, and, in any case, he had no cause or justification to indulge in his furious, ferocious, and intemperate denunciation of Emmet, who, as has been truly observed, was only endeavoring to put into practice the principles that Plunket had been preaching for years.

Plunket was rewarded a few months afterward by being appointed to the office of solicitor-general, and two years afterward to that of attorney-general. In 1807 he entered the British Parliament, where, with Grattan, he ably advocated the rights of the Catholics. His speech in favor of Catholic Emancipation on February 1, 1821, was declared by Peel to be “nearly the highest in point of ability of any ever heard in this house, combining the rarest powers of eloquence with the strongest powers of reasoning.” He was afterward appointed Master of the Rolls for England, and was elevated to the British peerage as Baron Plunket, and in 1830 he became Lord Chancellor of Ireland. He died in 1854, at the age of eighty-nine.

Plunket’s eloquence has placed him in the first rank of the great masters of the English language. He was one of those great minds that necessarily leave their impress on their age and country. And, with the exception of the one black blot on his memory, he was one of whom any people or country should be proud.