Sunday 11 July 2021



 Today on the feast of Saint Oliver Plunkett a paper by Father Myles V. Ronan (1877–1959) provides an overview of the martyred Archbishop's life and career. It was published in 1920, a few months after Pope Benedict XV had beatified Blessed Oliver. Father Ronan had a keen interest in Irish Church history and was author of a number of books and articles including the pioneering studies The Reformation in Dublin 1536–1558 (1926), The Reformation under Elizabeth (1930) and a volume on Irish Martyrs of the Penal Laws (1935). In this paper Father Ronan provides a window into Archbishop Plunkett's career in Rome which prepared him for his Irish mission:



BORN in Loughcrew, near Oldcastle in the Co. Meath, in 1629, Oliver Plunkett belonged to the noble family of Plunkett, which included the Catholic Earls of Fingall, Barons Louth and Dunsany, and Dr. Patrick Plunkett, Bishop of Meath. He was kinsman also to the Earl of Roscommon. Being deprived of both parents in early life, his education was undertaken by his relatives. Providence, however, bestowed on him in early life a great friend, who became likewise a father to him. Father Scarampi, the learned Oratorian, had been sent by Pope Urban VIII on a mission to the Confederation of Kilkenny in 1643. Before his return to Rome, in 1645, five youths were introduced to him, as they had expressed a desire for the priesthood. One of these was Oliver Plunkett. Father Scarampi shielded his little flock from many dangers on their perilous journey, and later introduced Oliver to the Irish College, where he paid his fees for him until a free place should be vacant. One of Oliver's fellow-travellers was young Brennan, who afterwards became the first Bishop of Waterford and Lismore and Oliver's life-long companion and helper. His strong and warm attachment to his friends became a remarkable trait in his character. According to the testimony of his Rector ' he was justly ranked amongst the foremost in talent, diligence and progress in his studies. . . . Everywhere and at all times he was a model of gentleness, integrity and piety.' After a brilliant course of eight years he was ordained in 1654.

 After his ordination he longed to return to the work of the mission in Ireland, the work for which he was ordained. But there were perils on land and on sea. There was little use in returning to his native land if he were not allowed to do priest's work for his people. Consequently he addressed a letter, which is still preserved in the archives of the Irish  College, Rome, to the General of the Jesuits, who was at that time Rector of the College, asking to be allowed to remain in Rome and to dwell with the Fathers of San Girolamo della Carita, and promising to return to Ireland whenever his superiors should command.

Besides attending lectures at the Roman University, commonly known as the Sapienza, for his doctorate in Canon and Civil Law, he shared in the works of charity which had made the priests who lived at San Girolamo known as men of remarkable zeal. This church, dedicated to St. Jerome, on the site of the house in which he lived when he came to Rome to revise the Bible, was frequented by prelates and nobles of the Papal Court in the fifteenth century to satisfy their devotions. They held meetings in a house close by, and, on the advice of Cardinal Giulio dei Medici, formed themselves into a brotherhood of charity in 1519. When the Cardinal became Clement VII, he gave them charge of the church of San Girolamo. They were, what we call now, a Vincent de Paul Society. But, besides visiting and helping the needy, they looked after two prisons, assisted the prisoners in their sickness, and helped them, when set free, to lead an honest life. They maintained homes for penitents, and gave dowries to poor, respectable girls. They visited the sick in the hospitals, especially those in the great hospital of Santo Spirito, and saw to the wants of their families. Thus the Institution came to be known as San Girolamo della Carita. It had no rules or constitution, charity was the only bond of union. To this house belonged the Venerable Cacciaquerra and his biographer, Marangoni, who, in his Life, wrote some interesting particulars of Oliver Plunkett. But most remarkable of all the members was Philip Neri, who came to reside there in 1551. Philip Neri and his companions soon discovered the necessity of looking after patients when discharged from hospital, and set up a convalescent home in connexion with the Confraternity of San Girolamo.

This was the atmosphere of holiness, charity, and zeal which Oliver Plunkett breathed for fifteen years after he had left the Irish College. He was introduced to it by his old friend Father Scarampi. It is scarcely necessary to say that he followed in the footsteps of Philip Neri, and that he lived a life remarkable amongst the remarkable men who passed their lives there. For particulars in this respect, in the social work of Oliver Plunkett in Rome, which has hitherto not received its due attention, we are deeply indebted to the zealous research of the late gifted Monsignor O'Riordan, Rector of the Irish College, Rome. [Catholic Bulletin, May, 1920.]  Marangoni in his Life of Venerable Cacciaquerra says that
Dr. Plunkett should be ranked amongst the most illustrious personages whose virtuous lives adorned the Institute of San Girolamo della Carità. The zeal which consumed his heart for the salvation of souls is beyond belief. He devoted himself to works of piety within and without the house. He paid frequent visits to the sanctuaries bathed in the blood of so many martyrs, and he longed to sacrifice himself for the salvation of his countrymen. He frequently visited the hospital of Santo Spirito, where his devotion to the sick in the lowliest works and ways was a wonder and an edification to the physicians and other officials of the place.
Such a testimony, coming from one not of his country, brings out into bolder relief the reputation that Oliver Plunkett had earned for himself in this field of Christian charity in Rome. This wonderful charity, begotten of deep faith, was a striking thing in the midst of the paganizing influences around them. It united those princes and theologians in the closest friendship which years could not diminish or seas obliterate. They breathed the spirit of Philip Neri, who had impressed the institution of San Girolamo with his own character, and given it a tradition. His spiritual ideal was the sanctification of self through a life spent for others. Charity entirely ruled the work that was done there. The active and ardent temperament of Oliver Plunkett easily fitted into the ways and works of such an Institution, and, as we have seen, he was soon well known at the hospitals and at the prisons where he ministered. It was a fitting preparation for his life of self-sacrifice in his own land.

Such was the personality of Dr. Plunkett that it procured him friends among the great as well as among the lowly. Princes and prelates, Popes and Cardinals, valued his friendship and appreciated his qualities of mind as well as of heart. Several letters of Dr. Plunkett's are extant, in which his goodness of heart is revealed. They were written when he was Primate of Armagh to his old friends in Rome. When Monsignor Odescalchi became Pope Innocent XI, Dr. Plunkett wrote a letter to the Cardinal Prefect of the Propaganda to express his joy. The Pope's brother, Prince Odescalchi, was one of the Confraternity of San Girolamo della Carita. In his letter the Primate  recalls the charity of the Prince, and in doing so he gives us, by accident, a view of his own:
Whilst I was Professor of Theology and Controversy at Propaganda, for many years I had an opportunity of witnessing the holiness of the new Pope, and the great esteem in which his prudence and wisdom were held by all. I was particularly intimate with Don Marcantonio Odescalchi. I often assisted him when he served the poor and ragged and needy, many of them covered with vermin. He gathered them into an asylum and clothed them at his own expense. He washed them with his own hands, fed them, etc. I am sure that God gave to the Church so holy a Head mostly through the merit of the saintly Don Marcantonio.
  This letter was written on August 11, 1677, less than four years before his martyrdom.

Two other letters of Dr. Plunkett show that he had not forgotten his benefactors in Rome. He was not one who forgot a kindness. The sadness that overcast his young life (some of his relatives were dead, others had been sent into exile) remained with him in manhood, and his heart went out, with all its warmth and ardour, to those who befriended him. Monsignor Cerri was his fellow-student at the Roman College. He belonged to a family of influence and importance in Rome. Through him Cardinal Barberini, who was Cardinal Protector of Ireland, had Dr. Plunkett appointed to the Chair of Theology in the Propaganda. When Plunkett had been some years Archbishop of Armagh, hearing of the death of Monsignor Cerri' s father, he wrote:
A little while before his death, Father Scarampi wrote to your father recommending me to his protection. Through his influence I soon afterwards obtained the Chair of Theology and subsequently that of Controversy at Propaganda, where I continued to teach till I was appointed to the primatial See of this kingdom, about nine years ago. I, in these remote quarters of the Christian world, make continual remembrance of Don Tommaso in the Holy Sacrifice of the Mass; I pray for the prosperity of the whole house of Cerri, and I get other priests to do likewise.
Again, when he had heard of the death of Monsignor Cerri, the memory of past kindness made him write:
 I am extremely sorry for the death of Mgr. Cerri. He was my fellow- student in Rome ; his father, Don Francesco, was a very dear friend of mine. I shall have the Holy Sacrifice of the Mass offered up for him and prayers said for him by the priests of this province of Armagh. They are under an' obligation to him for all he did for them when he was Secretary of the Sacred Congregation of the Propaganda.
Plunkett was ever ready to acknowledge his indebtedness, and to show his gratitude and his remembrance of the debt.

It was to Father Scarampi, who had brought him from Ireland and who had secured a place for him in San Girolamo, that Dr. Plunkett owed a further favour. When stricken with the plague whilst attending the hospital of St. Bartholomew, Scarampi wrote on his death-bed to his brother recommending Plunkett to his care. He loved Plunkett and Plunkett loved and venerated him. It was through the influence of Father Scarampi's brother and of the Cerri family that Plunkett was appointed professor at the Propaganda. This was a work of love for Plunkett. The Propaganda had mothered the Irish Church during the days of persecution. Many of Ireland's sons had been educated at its college when they were deprived of that education at home. Many of his countrymen were at the time in the Propaganda. He devoted all his talents to the task he undertook. He filled the Chair of Theology and of Controversy for twelve years, from 1657 to 1669. The School of Controversy held at that time a place in the course of Theology similar to that which the School of Apologetics holds to-day. It had to defend the principle of Authority in religion against the supposed divine right of private judgment, together with those particular doctrines that Protestantism had assailed. The principles and the doctrines of the Catholic Church had to be explained and defended against the new heresy that had arisen in the sixteenth century. That was the scope of Dr. Plunkett's duties for twelve years. But, more than this, he raised the standard and extended the course of studies at the Propaganda. He was likewise busy preparing works, probably of religious controversy, for the press. But no trace can be found of them either in manuscript or book form. The Pope appointed him Consultor of the Congregation of the Index, at that time a useful instrument for guarding faith and discipline, and a necessary one in those times of religious rebellion and theological strife. This appointment was a token of confidence shown by the Pope in Plunkett's theological acquirements and orthodoxy. We may be sure that he devoted himself to the work with the same zeal as he showed in his works of charity and in his professional duties. Monsignor O'Riordan says: 'It is 'possible that some of the dissertations which he wrote as Consultor when submitting his Votum are still preserved in the archives of that Congregation.' [Catholic Bulletin, May, 1920].


 Oliver Plunkett, in a petition which he presented to the Propaganda whilst he was yet Roman agent of the Irish Bishops, said that there were 2,000,000 Catholics in Ireland, 1,000 secular priests, and 600 members of religious Orders. But they were constantly in the presence of the danger of imprisonment, exile, or death. The Penal Law was on the Statute Book. Peace or persecution depended on the Viceroy. Of the priests and bishops who were left in Ireland, hardly any had a fixed residence which he could call his home:
 Bishop French, of Ferns [says Mgr. O'Riordan, Catholic Bulletin, August, 1920], had been living in Ghent for 20 years ever since the departure of Rinuccini, and he dared not go back so long as Ormond had power or influence to keep him out. In 1668 the only Bishops in Ireland were Dr. McSwiney, Bishop of Dromore, whom old age and many trials had made weak in mind as well as in body, and Dr. Plunkett, Bishop of Meath, whom family influence had left free to administer his diocese, as long as he did it on the quiet. He was the only Bishop in Ireland, in 1668, and for a few years before, who was able to perform episcopal functions.
The convents of religious were in ruins or turned over to profane uses, and the religious had to live here and there, apart and in private houses, or in communities of two or or three, in little temporary dwellings. Again, quoting from Monsignor O'Riordan's article,
On the 21st January, 1669, the Sees of Dublin, Cashel, Tuam and Ossory were provided for. In the following March Edmond O'Reilly, Archbishop of Armagh, died in Paris, after years of exile from his diocese. The Holy See, on the advice of the Bishops, did not wish to fill any other vacant sees without some special need. It might do more harm than good. The appointment of many might, in fact, leave the country with fewer than there were, or none at all ; for bigotry would call the attention of the civil authorities to the audacious Roman intrusion, and the Bishops would be searched for and banished. Peter Talbot, the newly-appointed Archbishop of Dublin, writing to Propaganda two months after the death of the Archbishop of Armagh, pointed out to the Holy See the need of appointing a successor to him without delay ; for the Protestants were numerous in the North, and the strings of Catholic discipline had been loosened during the exile of the late Primate and his predecessor. It is urgent ' although it is not expedient for the present to make any new Bishop, lest Ormond should say that the Papal authority had received a sudden and dangerous increase in Ireland since his withdrawal.'

Several names were remanded to the Holy See, and their merits were discussed. At length the Pope said: 'There is no reason why we should spend our time dealing with uncertainties, whilst we have a certainty before our eyes. There is Oliver Plunkett, a man of approved virtue, of consummate learning, of long Roman experience, with all the qualities needed for the vacant Primacy; I therefore name him Archbishop of Armagh.' He was appointed on the 9th July, 1669. His name does not appear amongst those recommended from Ireland; but when his appointment became known letters of rejoicing were sent to Rome from many quarters. From Ghent wrote the exiled Bishop of Ferns, from Paris wrote Dr. Dooley, the new Vicar-Apostolic of Limerick, on his way to his diocese; from Paris also wrote Dr. O'Mahony, Professor at St. Sulpice, soon after made Bishop of Killaloe. And the Archbishop of Dublin wrote to the Secretary of Propaganda:

 Most agreeable to me were the Roman letters by which I learned of the presentation of the Most Illustrious and learned Oliver Plunkett to the See of Armagh .... Certainly no one could be appointed better fitted than he is. I myself would have proposed him in the first place, but that he had written to me expressing his desire not to enter for some years on the Irish Mission until he had completed some works which he was preparing for the press.'

Having been consecrated by the Bishop of Gand, in his private chapel, on the first Sunday in Advent, 1669, Dr. Plunkett set out for Ireland. He wrote to the Propaganda the day after his consecration, 'I am thinking of passing for an Italian who goes from curiosity to see London. I have found an Englishman who will send my Bulls and Letters to London. My articles of devotion I will leave with the Bishop of Ferns, until a ship is sailing direct to Dublin.' He did not find his way to London as easy as he expected. He remained in London to do some work, to prevent a proposed penal enactment. To influence the Court was to influence Parliament. He had a letter from Cardinal Barberini, the Cardinal Protector of Ireland, to the Queen. He had 'a very favourable audience.' In a letter that he wrote to the Cardinal to tell him of his audience he says that he was 'secretly lodged' by Father Howard, the Queen's Almoner, 'for ten days in his private apartments in the royal palace.' In 'bitter cold, strong wind, and a heavy fall of snow,' he arrived in Dublin. His enemies were on the look-out and were aware of his landing, for the King wrote to the Viceroy, 'If you can dexterously find them (Plunkett and Agretti) out and apprehend them it will be an acceptable service.' Plunkett knew of the danger, and having remained three days in the house of Sir Nicholas Plunkett, by whom he was brought up in boyhood, he went directly to his diocese. He wrote to the Secretary of Propaganda:
 I had hardly arrived in Dublin when the Valesians told the Council of State, in order that the Viceroy, apprised of my presence, might have me imprisoned and sent out of the country. But as the Earl of Roscommon is in Dublin, who is a relative of mine, and to whom I showed some kindness when he was in Rome, he set the Viceroy at rest about me, pledging his honour in my favour.
From March, 1670, when Dr. Plunkett took possession of his see in Armagh, until his death we are able to follow the vicissitudes of his life through his letters to the Cardinal Protector of Ireland in Rome, or to the Inter-nuncio in Brussels. There must be many of these letters in various archives in Rome. It is to be sincerely hoped that some one will continue the splendid research work begun by Monsignor O'Riordan and bring these documents to light. It is very fortunate that Oliver Plunkett was such an indefatigable letter writer. But it was his filial devotion to the Chair of Peter that prompted those letters. He tells of his labours and difficulties in his episcopal work, his wearisome journeys, his poverty, the suspicions, opposition, and persecution he had to encounter. In all these we see him the true servant of his Master, self-sacrificing, with no thought of self, and full of courage. His activity and zeal seem to have known no bounds. Within a month and a half of his arrival in Ireland he confirmed 10,000 persons. He held two Synods in his own diocese within two months, and presided over a general Synod of the Irish Bishops in Dublin in June, 1670. Other provincial Councils and Synods soon followed ; all for the correction of abuses and the enforcement of ecclesiastical discipline. Witness, too, his zeal for education and his establishment of houses and schools, at his own expense, in the various dioceses of Ulster. And yet he himself slept many a night beneath the stars, 'refreshed,' as he terms it, by the rains that fell on him.

Hunted from place to place, he spent the next nine years of his primacy seeking hiding in woods and mountains, adopting various names and disguises. Yet, in spite of edicts and rewards, he writes, 'I will remain in the kingdom, though retired in some country place. ... I am morally certain 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 they drag me to a ship.' These are indeed the words of the good shepherd who lays down his life for his sheep. It was the very spirit of self-sacrifice he had breathed at San Girolamo. It was after a mission of charity, on visiting his relative, the aged Bishop of Meath, who was dying, that Dr. Plunkett was taken prisoner in Dublin on the 6th of December, 1679.

We are all acquainted with the trumped-up accusations brought against him, imaginary and malicious to the last degree - 'that he had enrolled 70,000 men to unite with the French on their arrival; that he exacted money from the clergy to introduce the French, and pay the army; that he had visited all Ireland, and examined and explored all the seaport towns and fortresses of the kingdom, in order to introduce the French by a sure port, etc.' We know, too, to our shame, of the despicable, perjured informers who were brought as witnesses against him, the ex-friars MacMoyer, Codd, and Gormley; the transference of the trial to London, and the deliberate delay caused to Dr. Plunkett's witnesses, who at great sacrifice and expense wished to travel. Left without witnesses or documents, and tried by judges who knew nothing of his saintly life and works, he showed that the charges of conspiracy and treason were utterly groundless. But he emphasized his fulfilment of the episcopal office: 'I will not deny that as long as there was any toleration I did exercise the functions of a Bishop, but that, by the Second of Elizabeth, is only praemunire and no treason.' And then the great Christian soul shows itself:
 I had rather die ten thousand deaths than wrongfully accuse anybody, and the time will come when your lordship will see what these witnesses are that have come in against me. I do assure your lordship that if I were a man that had no good principles I might easily have saved my life, 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.
  All the Lord Chief Justice could say in reply was: ' I am sorry to see you persist in the principles of that religion'. Yes, that was the whole front of the offence. He was an Irish Bishop, who carried out the functions of his office.

Dr. Plunkett listened with complete happiness and resignation to the death sentence: 'God gave me,' he wrote to Father Corker, his fellow-prisoner and confessor, 'though unworthy of it, that grace to have fortem animum mortis terrore carentem.' His calmness and strength did not desert him when drawn on a hurdle through the streets of London to Tyburn. The nobility of his bearing and his Christian constancy made a profound impression on Protestants and Catholics alike who crowded round the scaffold. The piety and nobility of his discourse, before the cart was drawn away, affected the spectators, so that they proclaimed with one accord his innocence, and that 'did he live for one hundred years yet never could he have gained such glory for himself, for God, for his country and for the Catholic faith ' (Father Arsdekin).

These are but a few features in the life of this saintly, courageous, charitable, and Christ-like priest and prelate. They have been put together to place on record in these pages an appreciation of them on the occasion of his happy Beatification by His Holiness Benedict XV. Our indebtedness for the material is to Cardinal Moran and to Monsignor O'Riordan. It is a matter of deep regret that the latter was not spared to finish his scholarly life of our Beatus. We owe him a deep debt of gratitude for his untiring research. We must also refer to his painstaking efforts to acquire one of the oldest pictures of Dr. Plunkett. We shall let him describe the matter in his own words:

 At the end of the corridor (at San Girolamo), on the left, is a token of the impression which Oliver Plunkett had made on the Prelates and Princes who were the Deputies of San Girolamo della Carita during his Tesidence there. After his martyrdom they had a portrait of him painted, and hung up on the wall of the corridor I have described. It hung there for nearly two centuries and a half as a witness to the esteem which his virtues had won. Under the portrait is the following inscription: 'Father Oliver Plunkett, priest of the Oratory, named by Clement IX Archbishop of Armagh and Primate of Ireland, who for having enforced ecclesiastical discipline was falsely accused before the King by renegades to their faith, and was hanged, drawn, and quartered, at London, honoured by this House of San Girolamo della Carita by his glorious death July 1st, 1681.' This original painting is no longer to be seen in that corridor: but a recent copy takes its place to preserve the continuity of the memorial. A few years ago, through the kindness of the present Deputies of San Girolamo della Carita, I got possession of the original painting, which is now beside me in the room where I am writing. As a work of art it is not of very special value, but as a memorial I hold it as sacred, and beyond price. ... I think it right to record my thanks to Archbishop Lazzareschi, (R.I.P), Prince Antici Mattei (R.I.P), His Excellency Prince Aldobrandini and Monsignor Talamo. To their influence chiefly I owe the privilege of possessing the painting.

It is pathetic to read these last words from the Monsignor's pen. He did not long enjoy the privilege of the picture. He knows the reality now. He had striven hard to know the Primate better. He had searched all over the Eternal City for the marks of his footsteps, for the records of his words. It was a labour of love and a patriotic duty. The Beatus and the Biographer know each other better now in the companionship of Ireland's saints and scholars. May their lives and works be to us an inspiring ideal in the cause of God and country! May they make our efforts generous, noble, and Christ-like in the same sacred cause.


The Irish Ecclesiastical Record, Vol XVI, (October 1920), 265-275.
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