Oliver Plunket

(1625—1681) Roman Catholic archbishop of Armagh

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archbishop of Armagh, martyr. Born of a noble, royalist family at Loughcrew (Co. Meath), he studied under Jesuit guidance at the Irish College, Rome, from 1645 at the expense of the Oratorian Pierfrancesco Scarampi, who had been a papal envoy to the Irish Confederate party. After brilliant academic success in theology and law, he was ordained priest in 1654, became professor of theology at the Propaganda College and procurator of the Irish bishops.

In 1669 he was appointed archbishop of Armagh, was consecrated at Ghent, and reached Dublin via London, where he was favourably received by Charles II's queen, Catherine of Braganza, whose influence he sought for mitigating the severity of the penal laws against Catholics. Oliver was one of only two Catholic bishops in Ireland: disorder and neglect had become the almost inevitable results of long-standing persecution. Even the sacrament of confirmation had been largely neglected owing to the shortage of bishops; within the first few months of his rule Plunket confirmed 10,000 people and also held a provincial synod. In face of these difficulties the Catholics were divided among themselves by long-standing disputes about the primacy of Armagh over Dublin, and later by some Franciscans who delated Oliver Plunket to Rome. He was, however, completely vindicated by the Holy See.

His policy was to promulgate the decrees of the Council of Trent, to maintain discipline among the diocesan clergy and better observance among the regulars, and to improve educational standards by the Jesuit College at Drogheda. The recognition of papal authority and jurisdiction made him liable to severe penalties, but he managed to remain on friendly terms with the Protestant clergy and gentry of Ulster; their high regard for him was a measure of the excellence of his character and achievements.

The panic caused by the false allegations of Titus Oates in 1678 resulted in the arrest of Plunket, who was charged at Dundalk with plotting to bring 20,000 French soldiers into Ireland and levying a tax on the poverty-stricken clergy to support 70,000 armed men. Such an absurd charge had no chance of sticking in Ireland; Plunket was moved to Newgate, where he was imprisoned until 1681. Although the court's jurisdiction over Irish affairs was doubtful, the false witness of two apostate Irish friars, together with the bias of the judge, resulted in a conviction for high treason. Sir Francis Pemberton, the judge, said that the foundation of his treason was setting up a false religion, which was the most dishonourable and derogatory to God of all religions and that a greater crime could not be committed against God than for a man to endeavour to propagate that religion.

The true reason for his condemnation being thus clearly stated, he was condemned to be hanged, drawn, and quartered. The sentence was executed at Tyburn on 1 July (Old Style). His body was taken to Lambspring Abbey (Westphalia) in 1684; it is now at Downside Abbey (Somerset), while his head is in the Oliver Plunket Memorial Church in Drogheda (Co. Louth). He was canonized in 1976. Feast: 1 July.


Subjects: Christianity — Regional and National History.

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