English monarchs of the Reformation all but extinguished Catholicism in England. Their effort to do the same in Ireland was far less effective. Nevertheless, after Oliver Cromwell, England’s uncrowned Puritan ruler, invaded Erin (1649-1653), the religious clergy and the bishops had to flee the country, and the functioning of the Church was disrupted.
During a period of less tension, in 1669, Pope Clement IX named the exiled Irish priest, Dr. Oliver Plunket, to the post of Archbishop of Armagh, the primatial see of All Ireland. His duty was to reestablish good order and fervor among the confused Irish Catholics. Plunket was able only to make a beginning at this huge task, but his martyrdom would make the work of his successors that much easier.
Oliver Plunket was a native of Ireland’s County Meath. He was closely related to the Anglo-Irish nobility, who were loyal to the Stuart kings of England but also to the Catholic Church. Sent to Rome at age 16 in 1645, he studied for the priesthood. After a brilliant course in theology, he went on to civil and canon law. He was ordained in 1654, but conditions in his homeland made it impossible for him to return there. Hence he was named a professor of theology of the missionary college of Propaganda Fide and also assigned tasks in the central offices of the Pope. In both school and officialdom he impressed all as a priest of learning, wisdom and virtue.
In 1669, Archbishop O’Reilly of Armagh died in exile. The Pope decided that Oliver was the best choice for successor–one who would actually go to Ireland and begin its revival. Plunket was consecrated in Ghent, passed thence secretly through England, and reached Ireland. When he set foot in Dublin there were only two bishops left and one was too old to function.
The new Primate promptly convoked a synod of his clergy to set rules and regulations, and he held two ordinations of new priests. For long want of bishops, thousands had not received confirmation. In a short time, the new prelate had confirmed 10,000. But that still left 50,000 to receive the sacrament, and there was so much more to do as well!
For instance, he had to dissuade angry dispossessed Irish landowners from brigandage; to reconcile a divided secular and religious clergy; to counter rigorist spiritual tendencies; and to enforce church laws in general. And he must do all this in utter poverty and in constant fear of being arrested as a traitor for acting in the name of the pope.
Fortunately, the local British authorities did not molest Plunket for a couple of years. In 1673, however, a new persecution was launched and he had to go into hiding. Then in 1678 the royal government accepted as true the report brought in by an unscrupulous English clergyman that Catholics in the British Isles were preparing to welcome a Catholic invasion of Britain. Some worthless Irish ex-priests denounced Dr. Plunket as one of the conspirators. When a pro-British tribunal in Ireland could not find grounds to convict him, the royal government brought the archbishop to England, lodged him in the Tower of London, and in a mock trial brought in a verdict of treason and a sentence of death by hanging, drawing and quartering. The presiding judge revealed the real motive for the condemnation when he told the prelate in the open court, “The bottom of your treason was your setting up of your false religion.” But true to the prayerful, resigned spirit Dr. Plunket had displayed throughout his captivity, he simply replied with joy, “Thanks be to God!”
At Tyburn gallows, Oliver inspired the vast crowd by his dignity and serenity. In the traditional speech that was allowed him before execution on July 11, 1681, he asserted his innocence of treason. He prayed for the king, he said, and for all his own enemies as well. Oliver Plunket was the last Catholic to be executed for his faith on the scaffold of notorious Tyburn Hill.
His mutilated remains were eventually taken to Belgium for Catholic reburial, and then brought back a century ago and enshrined in the Catholic Benedictine Abbey of Downside, England.
Pope Benedict XV beatified this heroic bishop in 1920; Pope Paul VI canonized him in 1975. He was one of the most glorious of the holy men and women bred in the “Isle of Saints and Scholars”.
–Father Robert F. McNamara