Saint Oliver Plunkett (1625 – 1681) was the Catholic Archbishop of Armagh and Primate of All Ireland.
Oliver Plunkett was born on 1 November 1625 in Loughcrew, County Meath to well-to-do parents. As an aspirant to the priesthood he set out for Rome in 1647, under the care of Father Pierfrancesco Scarampi of the Roman Oratory. At this time the Irish Confederate Wars were raging in Ireland; these were essentially conflicts between native Irish Catholics, English and Irish Anglicans and Protestants. Scarampi was the Papal envoy to the Catholic movement known as the Confederation of Ireland. Many of Plunkett's relatives were involved in this organisation.
He was admitted to the Irish College in Rome and proved to be an able pupil. He was ordained a priest in 1654. Meanwhile, the Cromwellian conquest of Ireland (1649–1653) had defeated the Catholic cause in Ireland; in the aftermath, the public practice of Catholicism was banned and Catholic clergy were executed. As a result, it was impossible for Plunkett to return to Ireland for many years. He petitioned to remain in Rome and, in 1657, became a professor of theology. Throughout the period of the Commonwealth and the first years of King Charles II's reign, he successfully pleaded the cause of the Irish Catholic Church, and also served as theological professor at the College of Propaganda Fide. At the Congregation of Propaganda Fide on 9 July 1669 he was appointed Archbishop of Armagh, the Irish primatial see, and was consecrated bishop on 30th November at Ghent by the Bishop of Ghent, Belgium. He eventually set foot on Irish soil again on 7th March 1670 during a lull in anti-Catholic sentiment.
After arriving back in Ireland, he tackled drunkenness among the clergy, writing: "Let us remove this defect from an Irish priest, and he will be a saint". The Penal Laws had been relaxed and he was able to establish a Jesuit College in Drogheda in 1670. A year later 150 students attended the College, no fewer than 40 of whom were Protestant, making this college the first integrated school in Ireland. His ministry was a successful one and he is said to have confirmed 48,000 Catholics over a 4-year period. The government in Dublin, especially under the Lord Lieutenant of Ireland, the Duke of Ormonde (the Protestant son of Catholic parents) extended a generous measure of toleration to the Catholic hierarchy until the mid-1670s.
In 1673, the College was closed and demolished as persecutions again erupted. Plunkett went into hiding, travelling only in disguise. For the next few years he was largely left in peace since the Dublin government, except when put under pressure from the English government in London, preferred to leave the Catholic bishops alone.
In 1678 the so-called Popish Plot, concocted in England by clergyman Titus Oates, led to further anti-Catholic action. Archbishop Peter Talbot of Dublin was arrested, and Plunkett again went into hiding. The Privy Council of England, in Westminster, was told that Plunkett had plotted a French invasion.
Despite being on the run and with a price on his head, Plunkett refused to leave his flock. At some point before his final incarceration, he took refuge in a church that once stood in the townland of Killartry, in the parish of Clogherhead in County Louth, seven miles outside Drogheda. He was arrested in Dublin in December 1679 and imprisoned in Dublin Castle. Plunkett was tried at Dundalk for conspiring against the state by allegedly plotting to bring 20,000 French soldiers into the country, and for levying a tax on his clergy to support 70,000 men for rebellion. Though this was unproven, some in government circles were worried about the possibility that a repetition of the Irish rebellion of 1641 was being planned and in any case this was a convenient excuse for proceeding against Plunkett.
The British knew that Oliver would never be convicted in Ireland, irrespective of the jury's composition, and so had Plunkett was moved to Newgate Prison in London in order to face trial at Westminster Hall. During the trial, Archbishop Plunkett had disputed the right of the court to try him in England and he also drew attention to the criminal past of the witnesses, but to no avail.
Oliver Plunkett was found guilty of high treason in June 1681 "for promoting the Roman faith", and was condemned to death. In passing judgement, the Chief Justice said: "You have done as much as you could to dishonour God in this case; for the bottom of your treason was your setting up your false religion, than which there is not anything more displeasing to God, or more pernicious to mankind in the world". The jury returned within fifteen minutes with a guilty verdict and Archbishop Plunkett replied: "Deo Gratias".
Plunkett was hanged, drawn and quartered at Tyburn, London on 1st July 1681 aged 55, the last Catholic martyr to die in England. His body was initially buried in two tin boxes, next to five Jesuits who had died previously, in the courtyard of St Giles in the Fields church. The remains were exhumed in 1683 and moved to the Benedictine monastery at Lamspringe, near Hildesheim in Germany. The head was brought to Rome, and from there to Armagh, and eventually to Drogheda where since 29th June 1921 it has rested in Saint Peter's Church. Most of the body was brought to Downside Abbey, England, where the major part is located today, with some parts remaining at Lamspringe. His relics also rest in the Chapel of the Irish College in Rome.
Oliver Plunkett was beatified in 1920 and canonized in 1975, the first new Irish saint for almost seven hundred years, and the first of the Irish martyrs to be beatified. He has since been followed by 17 other Irish martyrs who were beatified by Pope John Paul II in 1992. Among them were Archbishop Dermot O' Hurley, Margaret Ball, and the Wexford Martyrs.
On 9th July this year, a statue of St Oliver Plunkett will be unveiled in St Patrick’s Cathedral, Armagh to mark the 350th anniversary of his appointment to the see of Armagh. But the statue is not just about a martyr of yesterday. It is also about the martyrs of today and our brothers and sisters who are being killed for their faith in Jesus around the world. Take for example Easter Sunday last when hundreds of Christians were killed by co-ordinated attacks on Christians as they celebrated Easter.
Another point to ponder. Oliver was condemned to death because of a perceived clash between Church and State or, at that time, between Pope and King. Choosing one’s faith above the King was treachery, even though Oliver acknowledged and respected civil authority. In the aggressive push today to separate Church and State, Oliver’s case highlights that complete separation is impossible because thousands of us have dual citizenship. We acknowledge civil authority but insist that this secular authority is subordinate to God’s authority and Word. On this feast day of St Oliver, we pray for all persecuted Christians, martyrs of conscience and those who try to be loyal citizens of our country but who live by God’s Kingdom which comes first.