Saturday 11 July 2020

The Martyr Primate of Ireland: Saint Oliver Plunkett

2020 marks the centenary of the beatification of Oliver Plunkett, Archbishop of Armagh, martyred on July 1 (old style dating) July 11 (new style), 1681 at Tyburn as a victim of the Irish dimension of the 'Popish Plot'. He would be canonized in 1975, the first Irishman officially declared a saint for many centuries. The fact that Saint Oliver was martyred in England had important consequences for his cause. First, it meant that an official record of the legal proceedings under which he was condemned, dubious though they were, was made and retained. Secondly, because the investigation of the cause of a martyr falls to the Bishop in whose diocese the person died, his cause came under the jurisdiction of the Diocese of Westminster and was included with that of the English Martyrs. Yet if Saint Oliver had been tried for the final time in Ireland, it is almost certain that he would never have been condemned at all. For the reality was that Archbishop Plunkett was no rabble-rouser calling for rebellion against the King. On the contrary, he took a moderate line and was criticized by some at home for being too accommodating towards the authorities. In the paper below which was written in 1920 the author, Edward F. Carrigan S.J., presents The Martyr Primate of Ireland as a heroic man of great ability, a victim of both apostate Irishmen and unprincipled Englishmen as well as a pusillanimous King:

The Martyr Primate of Ireland

THERE took place recently in Rome an event of supreme interest to Catholics the world over, but of special significance to those with Irish blood flowing through their veins and throbbing around their hearts: the beatification of Oliver Plunket, Archbishop of Armagh and Primate of all Ireland.

The future martyr was born at Loughcrew, in the county of Meath, just two hundred years before the passing of the Act of Catholic Emancipation, a time which the mere fact of being a Catholic was looked upon as a crime, when it was considered a treasonable act for a priest to be found in the country, and when the attendance at a Catholic school was made a pretext for the confiscation of property. His early education was received from a kinsman, Dr. Patrick Plunket, himself an undaunted confessor for the faith, who presided over the See of Ardagh. Under his guidance the younger Plunket remained until his sixteenth year, when he, together with several other Irish youths, accompanied the Italian Oratorian, Father Scarampa, to Rome and became a student at the Irish College.  After nine years of arduous study he was ordained to the priesthood, and became professor of theology in the College of the Propaganda, which position he held for twelve years. When, in 1669, the Primatial See of Armagh was made vacant by the death at Louvain of the exiled Archbishop, Dr. O'Reilly, and names were recommended as possible successors, the Pope (Clement IX.) put them all aside, saying, "Why delay in discussing the merits of others whilst we have here in Rome a native of that island, whose merits are known to all of us, and whose labors in this city have already added so many wreaths to the peerless glory of the Isle of Saints. Let Dr. Oliver Plunket be Archbishop of Armagh." It was the priest's wish to be consecrated within the Holy City, but the idea was forsaken at the suggestion of the Vatican authorities, who wished to conceal the appointment from the English Government. Dr. Plunket, therefore, journeyed to Belgium, and was consecrated on the feast of St. Andrew, 1669, "without noise and with closed doors," in the private chapel of the Bishop of Ghent.

It was in March, 1670, that he entered on his apostolate in Armagh. The Viceroy at that time was Lord Roberts, of Truro, a stern Presbyterian zealot, during whose administration the new Archbishop was obliged, in order to conceal his identity, "to go under the name of Captain Bruno (Brown), with a sword, wig and pistols." It is well-nigh impossible to conceive what fulfillment of his Primatial duties meant to the Archbishop in those days of persecution. But he was not one to quail before duty; although his position was fraught with perils and hardships, no consideration of personal risk or discomfort prevented him from a most zealous exercise of the sacred ministry. In six weeks' occupancy of his see, we are told, he confirmed ten thousand persons. "What renders this more surprising," notes his biographer, the late Cardinal Moran, "is the consideration of the many toils he had thus to undergo, for often he had to seek out their abodes in the mountains and in the woods, and often, too, were the sacraments administered under the broad canopy of heaven, both flock and pastor being alike exposed to the winds and rain." By the appointment in June, 1670, of Lord Berkeley as Lord Lieutenant the penal statutes of the Tudors and Stuarts were held in abeyance, and the Archbishop of Armagh made the most of the opportunity: he not only penetrated to every corner of his own diocese, but undertook a laborious visitation of the whole province of Ulster, preaching and exhorting in both English and Irish; he crossed overseas to the Hebrides and visited the Highlands of Scotland; he summoned provincial synods, in which many wise decrees were passed for the regulation of discipline and the good of religion; and to provide for the education of the youth in the Catholic faith he established a school at Drogheda and called the Jesuits from Rome to take charge of it.

But with Berkeley's dismissal from office in 1672 the abated storm again broke forth with all its fury: the penal laws which had fallen into desuetude were again enforced to the letter. Schools and churches were closed, rewards were offered for the capture of Bishops and priests; while the faithful were forced to fly into hiding places in woods and morasses or else be thrown into prison. No Catholic was exempt from these nefarious penal laws, least of all Dr. Oliver Plunket, the Archbishop of Armagh and Primate of all Ireland. The hardships endured by the prelate can be realized from his correspondence of this period. To the Holy See he writes:
The hut in which Dr. Brennan and myself have taken refuge is made of straw; when we lie down to rest, through the openings in the roof we can see the stars; and when it rains we are refreshed, even at the head of the bed, by each successive shower. 
And again in a letter sent to the Internuncio at Brussels we read:
The snow fell heavily, mixed with hailstones which were hard and large. A cutting north wind blew in our faces and the snow and hail beat so dreadfully in our eyes that up to the present we have hardly been able to see with them. Often we were in danger in the valleys of being lost and suffocated in the snow, till at length we arrived at the house of a reduced gentleman who had nothing to lose. But for our misfortune, he had a stranger in his house by whom he did not wish to be recognized, hence we were placed in a garret without chimney and without fire, where we have been for the past eight days. May it redound to the glory of God, the salvation of our souls and the flock entrusted to our charge. 
The "Popish plot" concocted and worked out in England by the Earl of Shaftesbury, of whom Macaulay wrote: "He was one to whose seared conscience the death of an innocent man gave no more uneasiness than the death of a partridge," was extended to Ireland with political as well as religious ends in view. Peter Talbot, the Archbishop of Dublin, who had rendered important services to the royal brothers during their exile, was thrown into prison. He was examined regarding the plot, but nothing was shown to criminate him. After two years in prison he died. It is from a letter reporting his death to the Holy See that we learn the perilous position of the Primate at this time. "I am morally certain," he wrote, "that I shall be taken, so many are in search of me; yet in spite of danger I will remain with my flock; nor will I abandon them till I am dragged to the ship."

Writs were repeatedly issued for the arrest of Dr. Plunket. It was his own zeal and charity, however, that accomplished what had proved futile by searchings and rewards. The news had reached him that his former tutor and kinsman, the aged Patrick Plunket, was dying at Dublin. Regardless of the consequences he visited Dublin and administered the rites of the Church to the dying Bishop. Here, on December 6, 1679, he was seized and cast into prison. The charge was the usual one of having received orders in the Church of Rome; but a promise of reward afterwards induced false witnesses, "strong swearers," to select Plunket for the instigator of the "plot" in Ireland. The "made-to-order" evidence for this charge is shown in an undersigned manuscript document in the London Record Office :
Coll. Fitz Patrick delivered to the Pope's Internuncio at Brussels a letter subscribed by four R. C. Bishops, two of which were Plunket, Archbishop of Armagh, and Tyrrel, Bishop of Clogher, recommending the said Fitz Patrick for the only person fit to be intrusted general of an army for establishing the R. C. religion in Ireland under the French Sovereignty.
A whole host of perjured informers were at hand to swear his life away. Among them was a trio of apostate priests, who, like their chief, John McMoyer, had been suspended by the Archbishop for their vices. Of McMoyer, Dr. Plunket states in a letter to the Internuncio that "his dissolute life was notorious, and he was always half-drunk when he appeared before the tribunals." The injustice of the whole procedure is evident from a letter of Francis Gwyn to Ormond (May 15, 1680). "Particular care," he writes, "should be taken that no Papist should be on any of the juries." The trial, however, was adjourned, because so infamous was the reputation of McMoyer and his associates that they dared not appear against the Primate in Ireland. Consequently, in the month of October, 1680, Dr. Oliver Plunket was cited to appear before the King and Parliament in London. His innocence was known to Charles, who really was a Catholic at heart, but he, sacrificed him to his abominable policy. We are told by Lingard, who is perhaps the most painstaking of all English historians, that when the Earl of Essex, a former Lord Lieutenant of Ireland, solicited the Primate's pardon, knowing the falseness of the charge, the King with indignation replied: "Then, my lord, be his blood on your conscience. You might have saved him if you would. I cannot pardon him, because I dare not."

On the 8th of June, 1681, Dr. Plunket, alone and friendless, was formally placed on trial before an English judge and English jury. The keynote of this mock-trial was struck by the opening speech of the Attorney General: "May it please your Lordship, and you gentlemen of the jury, the character this gentleman bears as Primate under a foreign and usurped jurisdiction will be a great inducement to you to give credit to that evidence we shall produce before you." Perjured witnesses attested on oath that the Archbishop was planning to raise an army of seventy thousand Irish to assist the French army in their invasion; that he had collected large sums of money for their maintenance, and that he had prepared for the French military authorities charts and plans of the Irish ports and fortifications along the seacoast. "The grim truth was," as Mr. Shane Leslie comments, "that it was the King himself who was secretly in league with King Louis, who had agreed under certain circumstances to send troops to England."

When asked to defend himself the holy Archbishop declared that it was impossible for him to do so. "Your Lordship," he said, "sees how I am dealt with: first and foremost, I have not time to bring my witnesses or my records, which if I had I would not weigh one farthing to leave my cause with any jury in the world. . . . My Lord, my life is in imminent danger, because I am brought out of my own country, where these people would not be believed against me." A fierce diatribe by the counsel for the Crown followed the Primate's words, and then the jury, having been charged bitterly against the prisoner by Chief Justice Pemberton, retired, and in fifteen minutes brought in, their verdict of Guilty.

Six days later the Archbishop was again led to the bar to hear the sentence of the law. After listening to another tirade against himself and the Catholic religion, he asked leave to speak. The request was granted, and the intrepid prelate spoke. "If I were a man," he said, "that had no care of my conscience or heaven or hell, I might have saved my life; for I was offered it by divers people here if I would confess my own guilt and accuse others. But I had rather die ten thousand deaths than wrongfully to take away one farthing of any man's goods, one day of his liberty, or one minute of his life." Then the usual formula of sentence was read: "You shall be hanged by the neck, but cut down before you are dead; your bowels shall be taken out and burnt before your face; your head shall be cut off, and your body divided into four quarters, to be disposed of as his Majesty pleases." With placid composure he heard this terrible sentence, and lifting his eyes toward heaven prayed: "God Almighty bless your Lordship." He was happy: the dream of years was about to be realized. It is narrated that when a holy old priest prophesied to him, before he set out from Rome for Ireland, that his blood would be spilt for the Catholic faith, the future martyr replied : "I am unworthy of such a favor; nevertheless, aid me with your prayers that this my desire may be fulfilled."

The request to treat of spiritual matters with a Catholic priest was denied the Archbishop; he was told that he could have the services only of a minister of the Church of England. But Divine Providence planned otherwise: a fellow prisoner, Father Corker, a Benedictine, with the assistance of some of the prison officials, brought the prelate the consolations of his Eucharistic Lord. To this priest we are indebted for an account of how Dr. Plunket bore himself during his days at Newgate. "It was then," the Benedictine writes, "that I clearly witnessed in him the Spirit of God and the amiable fruits of the Holy Ghost — charity, joy and peace — splendidly shining in his soul." He goes on to say that the Archbishop spent his time in almost continual prayer; that he fasted three or four days a week; and that his joy seemed to increase with his danger, and was fully accomplished by an assurance of death. In the letters, too, of the high-souled prelate himself, penned shortly before he suffered, is evinced the dauntless spirit with which he welcomed his terrible end. To Michael Plunket, a relative at the Irish College, he wrote: "I die most willingly, and being the first among the Irish, I will teach others, with the grace of God, by example, not to fear death. ... I forgive all who had a hand, directly or indirectly, in my death and in my innocent blood."

On July II, 1681, Ireland's Primate, stretched on a wooden hurdle, was dragged through the streets of London to Tyburn, the place of execution. On the scaffold he asseverated his innocence, and, like his Divine Model, forgave his enemies. As the hangman's halter was being adjusted he intoned the "Miserere" and said other prayers aloud. Then, as he spoke the words, In manus tuas, Domine, commendo spiritum meum, the cart was drawn away, and Oliver Plunket, Archbishop of Armagh and Primate of all Ireland, had won the martyr's crown.

The contemporary Archbishop of Cashel, Dr. Brennan, the faithful companion of the martyr, tells us that the vast throng that witnessed the martyrdom were greatly edified, "because he displayed such a serenity of countenance, such a tranquillity of mind and elevation of soul, that he seemed rather a spouse hastening to the mystical feast than a culprit led forth to the scaffold." "In his death," notes an eye-witness, "he gave more glory to religion than he could have won for it by many years of a fruitful apostolate."

The body of the martyr is preserved at St. Gregory's College, Downside, England; his head is with the Sisters of St. Dominic in their convent at Drogheda in Ireland, where pilgrims come from distant lands to pay homage to this staunch son of Erin, who lost his life only to find it.

Edward F. Carrigan, S. J.

The American Catholic Quarterly Review, Volume 45, April 1920, 177-182.

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