E. E. Reynolds
The canonisation of the seventeenth-century Bishop of Armagh and Primate of Ireland takes place in Rome this weekend. The biographer of St Thomas More and St John Fisher writes of his life and martyrdom.
Oliver Plunkett was born near Oldcastle in north-west Meath, Ireland, on 1 November 1625. His parents were related to several of the dominant AngloIrish families. There are no records of his boyhood and youth which were passed in the stormy period that led to the Civil Wars. When the Irish rebellion broke out in October 1641, he was in Dublin where he was studying under a relative, Patrick Plunkett, abbot of the Benedictine monastery of St Mary's, but we do not know how early it was in his life that he recognised the call to the priesthood. He went to Rome in 1645 to the Irish College, followed by a training in canon law at the Sapienza. He was ordained in 1654, and for the next twelve years he taught theology at the College de Propaganda Fide, thus being away from Ireland during the disturbed years, and, more noticeably, the Cromwellian conquest and the land settlement.
When Archbishop O'Reilly of Armagh died in 1669, the Pope chose Dr Oliver Plunkett to succeed him; this appoint ment carried with it the Primacy of All Ireland. The new Primate arrived in Dublin in 1670 after an absence of 25 years from his native land. The situation of the Church in Ireland would have daunted a less dedicated and determined man. His predecessor had been able to spend only two years in Ireland during his twelve years' episcopate. It was not only that the penal laws were harshly enforced and that Protestantism had been greatly strengthened. by the Cromwellian settlement, but 30 years or more of violence had disrupted the organisation of the Church. Many priests had given up in despair; there was little clerical discipline, and bishops, when able to stay in the country, were unable to exert what was at best an intermittent authority. Many hundreds of thousands of Catholics had not been confirmed and the sacraments were not available in large areas of the country to the impoverished and intimidated inhabitants.
Oliver Plunkett began his episcopate by calling together as many priests as were available in his province to a synod at Clones. This helped to restore not only courage but discipline; it was a wearisome and often frustrating task to repair the damage done by years of laxity. He found it necessary to get rid of some of the most stubborn wasters and in doing so made enemies who were later to destroy him. On the positive side, he persuaded the Jesuits to establish a school and seminary in Drogheda. Within a few months of his arrival, he confirmed some 10,000 men, women and children, and this work continued throughout the nine years of his ministry. He did his utmost to get into touch with those nicknamed "tories" who had been dispossessed of their lands, and had taken to what we should call guerrilla warfare, in the wilder parts of Ulster.
During periods of comparative security, Oliver Plunkett was able to live "in a small thatched house with one manservant" on less than £60 a year, for that was all an impoverished clergy could provide. When persecution was severe, he had to go into hiding. In spite of all these drawbacks, the Synod of Clones was able to thank the Pope for sending them "a pastor so assiduous in good works, so exemplary in life and conduct, that he has won for himself and his clergy the love and reverence even of the enemies of our faith."
Ireland did not escape the baleful attentions of Titus Oates, the chief fabricator of the supposititious Popish Plot of 1678-81, nor was it difficult to find unscrupulous ruffians who were willing to perjure themselves in supporting Oates's contention that Oliver Plunkett was raising an army of 70,000 men to cooperate with a French landing-force to liquidate all Protestants. The fact that such a ridiculous charge could have been taken seriously is a measure of the hysteria that had gripped the public. Plunkett was arrested on 6 December 1679 and imprisoned in Dublin Castle. He was brought to trial at Dundalk, but the necessary witnesses failed to appear; they may well have feared the anger of those who revered the archbishop. He was not discharged, as he should have been, but was returned to prison. Meanwhile two of his accusers, a renegade Franciscan and an excommunicated priest, went to London and saw Lord Shaftesbury who was making political advantage out of the plot. He was Dryden's Achitophel.
In Friendship false, implacable in Hate, Resolv'd to Ruin or to Rule the State. It was at his instigation that Plunkett was brought from Ireland to London and lodged in Newgate prison; such a transfer was of doubtful legality but that was not exceptional at a time when so many legal safeguards went by the board.
Oliver Plunkett was in Newgate for six months, in solitary confinement, before being brought to trial. An impartial judge would quickly have sent the two worthless witnesses about their business, but their so-called testimony was accepted without the semblance of hard evi
dence. Plunkett was not allowed sufficient time to bring his own witnesses from Ireland. In condemning him to death as a traitor, the judge, Sir Francis Pemberton, declared that Catholicism was "the most dishonourable and derogatory to God and His Glory of all religions whatsoever." The usual penalty was pronounced; he was to be hanged, drawn and quartered. During the three weeks before his execution, he wrote a defence which was printed and distributed. It contained these words: "Neither will I deny to have exercised in Ireland the functions of a Catholic prelate as long as there was any connivance or toleration; and by preaching and teaching, and statutes, to have endeavoured to bring the clergy to a due comportment according to their calling; yet some who would not amend had a prejudice against me, and especially my accusers to whom I did endeavour to do good. But you see how I am rewarded, and how by false oaths they have brought me to this untimely death; which wicked act being a defect of persons, ought not to reflect on the Order of St Francis, or upon the Roman Catholic clergy."
At his execution on 1 July 1681, Oliver Plunkett was accompanied by a Carmelite priest, one of the chaplains of the Spanish Ambassador. Mercifully, the martyr was allowed to hang until he was dead before the customary butchery was carried out. The mutilated remains were taken by friends for burial in the churchyard of St Giles-in-the-Fields. On a plate on the coffin was this inscription : In this tomb resteth the body of the Right Reverend Oliver Plunkett, Archbishop of Armagh, and Primate of Ireland, who in hatred of religion was accused of high treason by false witnesses, and for the same condemned and executed at Tyburn, his heart and bowels being taken out and cast into the fire. He suffered martyrdom with constancy, the 1st July 1681, in the reign of King Charles II.
The body did not remain at St Giles. Among his fellow prisoners was a Benedictine priest, James (in religion, Maurus) Corker, who had been arraigned with others for treason but had been declared not guilty—this was the first break in the series of judicial murders; Fr Corker was afterwards imprisoned as a priest in Newgate. He was not allowed to meet Oliver Plunkett, but they were able to exchange notes and Corker learned much about the conduct of the archbishop from the warders. Fr Corker was released when James it became king, and soon afterwards he was elected abbot of the Anglo-Benedictine Abbey of Lamspring in Westphalia; he then arranged for the remains of the martyr to be transferred there in 1684. Almost 200 years later, the greater part was transferred to Downside Abbey, the head going to St Peter's, Drogheda, and one arm to the Franciscans at Taunton.