Plunket, Oliver, St.
PLUNKET, OLIVER, ST.
Martyr, archbishop of Armagh, primate of Ireland;b. Loughcrew, near Oldcastle, County Meath, 1629; d. Tyburn, London, England, July 1, 1681. Oliver Plunket (Plunkett) was a member of a prominent Irish family that was related to the earls of Fingall and Roscommon. The young Oliver was educated by his kinsman Patrick Plunket, Benedictine abbot of St. Mary's, Dublin, later bishop of Ardagh and Meath. In 1647 Father Pier Francesco scarampi, who had served as Innocent X's envoy to the Irish Catholic Confederacy (1643–45), returned to Rome accompanied by Oliver and four Irish seminarians. Plunket was enrolled in the Irish College, where he made an outstanding record. After his ordination in 1654, Oliver, instead of returning to Ireland, received permission to remain with the Fathers of Charity in Rome. He worked among the poor and also took degrees in canon and civil law at the Roman College. Plunket was appointed Roman representative of the Irish bishops and served as professor of theology and apologetics at the College of Propaganda until 1669. In that year Edmund o'reilly, the exiled archbishop of Armagh, died in France, and Pope clement ix chose Plunket as the new archbishop.
Irish Mission. Plunket was consecrated in Ghent on Nov. 30, 1669. Clement also appointed bishops for the sees of Cashel, Tuam, Ossory, and Dublin. Plunket's cousin Peter talbot was named archbishop of Dublin. Plunket returned to Ireland by way of London. There he remained for several days as guest of Philip howard, OP, almoner of Queen Catherine of Braganza, wife of Charles II. Plunket reached Ireland in the spring of 1670 after an absence of almost 25 years. Not only was Armagh a large and long-neglected ecclesiastical province, it was also a difficult area to administer. Fortunately, English Lord Lieutenant John Lord Berkeley of Stratton, whose wife was secretly a Catholic, was on friendly terms with Plunket and his priests; even a new school, conducted by the Jesuits, was opened in Drogheda. Berkeley's successor, Arthur Capel, earl of Essex (1672), was also considerate of Plunket's interests. Essex did not persecute Catholics, but he did stir up dissensions among the Catholic clergy over precedence and jurisdiction. Plunket and Talbot exchanged written arguments concerning Armagh's primacy over Dublin. Likewise, the franciscans and dominicans engaged in rancorous disputes over parishes, foundations, and churches. The Franciscans, who had remained in Ireland during the persecutions of the 1650s and 1660s, were somewhat resentful of Dominican efforts to re-establish former Dominican foundations that they had abandoned when they had withdrawn from Ireland a few years before. The Franciscans had kept the faith alive, but their growth had been hasty and not carefully regulated. Plunket was fearful that the Irish province would become a dumping ground for undesirable friars. Plunket tried to restore peace by adjudicating the dispute between the Franciscans and Dominicans. The problems of begging and questing were as important as jurisdiction. Plunket resolved the conflict in favor of the Dominicans. He also tried to improve the character and discipline of the Franciscans by making formal recommendations to the Franciscan provincial chapter. The archbishop, a strict canonist, was anxious to eliminate irregularities and laxity. Shortly after Plunket began his efforts, the persecution of 1673 against Catholics changed the favorable attitudes of officials to hostile repression. Stemming in part from the passage of the Test Act of 1673, the persecution led to the closing down of religious houses, which dispersed friars, monks, and priests throughout the country. Plunket, along with Dr. John Brennan, later archbishop of Cashel, was forced to go into hiding.
Pastoral Work. Before the renewal of the persecution of 1673, Plunket had addressed himself to problems other than the squabbles and discipline of religious orders. One of his first actions was the summoning of the Synod of Clones (1670). Plunket set down rules for the education and ordination of priests. He also tried to raise money to overcome the dire poverty of the Church and its clergy. The primate warned his flock against cooperation with Tories, Irish outlaws who had turned to brigandage and robbery after the English had confiscated their property. Since the Tories were mostly Roman Catholic, Plunket was torn between sympathy for his coreligionists and his firm belief in law and order. The archbishop himself frequently went into their hiding places to plead with these outlaws to abandon their illegal activities. That Plunket knew that these criminals were often sentenced to exile in America far from the comforts and consolation of their religious faith did not make his task any easier. The English, however, held the clergy responsible for the rebellion and political activities of their parishioners. The persecution interrupted his work and forced Plunket to carry on his pastoral duties in disguise and secrecy.
Arrest, Trial, and Martyrdom. Plunket's letters to Rome described the hardships of these years (1673–79). Priests were forced into hiding or exile. The Drogheda school was closed and the faculty driven out. Church services had to be conducted in secret. In 1677 James Butler, marquis, later duke of Ormond, replaced Essex as lord lieutenant. The suppression of convents and seminaries was ruthlessly enforced. Edicts of expulsion were widely circulated. Catholics were even forbidden to enter the city of Dublin or any other principal seaport (Nov. 20, 1678).
In the midst of these difficulties, the Titus oates plot in England (1678) caused the English government to redouble its anti-Catholic efforts. Plunket, despite increased dangers, visited his aged relative Patrick Plunket, bishop of Ardagh and Meath, who was dying. The government had him arrested and imprisoned in Dublin Castle (Dec. 6, 1679). There he was denied all outside communication for six weeks. Finally, he was shown some consideration; he was able to attend Archbishop Peter Talbot, who had been jailed and who was close to death.
Plunket was accused of remaining in the kingdom despite the edict of expulsion and of conspiring to bring a French army into Ireland. These charges were based on statements given by several informers, among them some former friars and apostate priests who had suffered from Plunket's disciplinary measures. The grand jury hearing the case dismissed the charges because of the numerous contradictions in the witnesses' testimony. The government as well as the informers, aided and abetted by William Hetherington, an agent of Anthony Ashley Cooper, earl of Shaftesbury and one of the originators of the anti-Catholic campaign, drew up new charges. A trial was held at Dundalk in July of 1680. There Plunket was accused of fomenting a revolt that would lead to the murder of Protestants and the establishment of the "Romish religion." The government was fearful that it would not obtain a conviction in Ireland; thus, over Plunket's objections the trial was moved to London. The earl of Essex pleaded for him, but to no avail. Plunket was imprisoned in Newgate. At the Winter Assizes, a grand jury refused to find a true bill of indictment; but in June, after a trial in which Plunket was unable to present all of his witnesses, he was found guilty of high treason after the jury had deliberated for only 15 minutes. One of the prosecution's chief witnesses, Henry O'Neill (O'Neale), later confessed that he had perjured himself. A number of the other witnesses against the archbishop were later hanged as robbers. On July 1, 1681 (O.S.), the archbishop was brought to Tyburn, where he was hanged, drawn, and quartered.
Before his death, Plunket had written, "And being the first among the Irish, I will teach others, with the grace of God, by example, not to fear death" (Curtis, 172). For his courageous life and example, leo xiii declared him venerable on Dec. 9, 1886, benedict xv pronounced him blessed on May 23, 1920, and Paul VI canonized him on Oct. 12, 1975. His feast is celebrated in Ireland, Australia, New Zealand, and the Diocese of Clifton, England. His head is preserved in St. Peter's church, Drogheda, Ireland.
Feast: July 11.
Bibliography: e. curtis, Blessed Oliver Plunkett (Dublin 1963). a. curtayne, The Trial of Oliver Plunkett (New York 1953). p. f. moran, Memoirs of Most Rev. Oliver Plunket (Dublin 1861). m. v. ronan, The Irish Martyrs of the Penal Laws (London 1935). r. bagwell, The Dictionary of National Biography from the Earliest Times to 1900, 63 v. (London 1885–1900) 15:1328–1333. a. butler, The Lives of the Saints, 4 v. (New York 1956) 3:73–77. e. curtis, A History of Ireland (6th ed. New York 1951). t. Ófiaich and d. forristal, Oliver Plunkett: His Life and Letters (Huntington, Ind. 1975). j. mckee, A Martyr Bishop (Houston, Tex. 1975). j. nowak, Oliver Plunkett (Hildesheim 1975). j. hanly, Oliver Plunkett (Rome 1977). j. j. meagher, Saint Oliver Plunkett (Dublin 1977).
[p. s. mcgarry]