Tuesday 11 July 2023

The Life and Death of Oliver Plunkett

Memoir[s] of Oliver Plunkett (1861)

Art. VII.—The Life and Death of Oliver Plunkett, Primate of Ireland, the last Victim of the Popish Plot, and the last Martyr who was put to Death by public authority for the Catholic Faith in the British Dominions. By the Rev. George Crotty. Dublin, Duffy, 1850. 

THERE are few Catholics in Ireland to whom the name of Oliver Plunkett is unknown. It is sacred in the recollection of all who reverence excellence, and love the holy and the good; and it has long been a matter of just reproach, that no generally available record existed of a life which was spent amid the vicissitudes of a troubled and a disastrous time, but which is capable of affording us many a lesson of rare and exalted virtue. There have been many such lives in every period of our past history; and if our ecclesiastical biography is not so copious as that of other nations, it is not because there is a want of subjects to be noticed, but because so few have devoted themselves to the arduous but meritorious duty of chronicling the labours and virtues of those who have gone before them. Our ecclesiastical biography is miserably meagre. The inmates of our ancient monasteries seem to have been more anxious to realize holiness in themselves than to describe it in others, and for the histories of some of our greatest and most glorious prelates, we are indebted to the natives of other countries. We trust that henceforward the reproach will cease to be applicable, and that the industry and talent of the future will more than compensate for the comparative unproductiveness of the past.

And yet, while we lament the paucity of our ecclesiastical records, we consider it as a misfortune, and not as a fault. There is no one who reads the pages of the volume before us, who will not admit, that for the last two centuries at least, literary occupations were altogether out of the question. A desperate votary of knowledge, like De Burgo, might venture on the forlorn hope with a zeal that no peril of fine or imprisonment could dismay, but the great body would shrink from the task, where secrecy and concealment were the dictates of ordinary prudence. But the time is past, and we trust for ever, when such fears need be entertained. "The storms are over, and the voice of the turtle is heard in the land." The work which has suggested these remarks, is but one of a class that promises to rescue the fame and virtues of our great men from the oblivion to which they have been unfortunately so long consigned. There are few more competent to the task he has undertaken than the learned and amiable author, and there are few works which will be received with a more hearty and cordial welcome by the public, than the Life and Death of Oliver Plunkett.

The illustrious and martyred primate of Ireland was not only remarkable for the excellence of his individual character, but the circumstances in which his lot was cast were calculated to develop to their full extent, the great qualities which he possessed. The period at which he lived, was one of the most eventful in the whole history of the Irish Church.

“Oliver Plunkett,” says our author, “was born at Loughcrew, in the county of Meath, about the year 1631. He was descended from one of the most ancient and illustrious families in Ireland, and was a near relative of the earls of Fingal. From his earliest youth, he was equally distinguished by the purity of his morals and the excellence of his understanding. Without being of an age to take any active part in the scenes of blood which were enacted in his unhappy country from 1641 to 1649, he was old enough to appreciate these horrors, and to remember the miserable dissensions which paralyzed the efforts of the Irish nation, and left it a chained victim, unable to resist the arm that was raised to immolate it for the vengeance of its enemies. It was not, however, pusillanimity, nor want of affection for his native land, that induced him to seek knowledge in a foreign clime; but having resolved to embrace the ecclesiastical state, he determined to qualify himself for the discharge of its important duties, by acquiring in the capital of the christian world, that learning which the cruelty of penal laws and the turbulence of the times prevented him from finding in his own country. He left Ireland in 1649,—the year of Cromwell’s arrival,—and the tales of woe which resounded through all Europe, and followed him to Rome, far exceeded the worst horrors which had occurred before his departure.

“Sad indeed was the condition of the Church and people of Ireland at this period. The young and the old, the venerable bishop and the youthful priest, were torn from under the very altar, dragged from their holes in the earth, where they burrowed like vermin, or caught as they crept from them to administer the sacraments to some dying sinner, and instantly put to death. O’Brien, bishop of Emly was, in 1651, bound in chains and cast into prison, in Limerick, and neither threats nor promises were spared in order to induce him to abandon the Catholic faith. These, however, proving unavailing, he was hanged, and his head being taken off, was placed on a pike, and raised on the citadel, where it remained until after the Restoration. About the same time, Egan, bishop of Ross was tortured and put to death in that town, He had for a long time been concealed in a cavern of a neighbouring mountain; but having left his retreat to visit a dying person, he was discovered on his return, and on his refusing to renounce the faith, was given up to the fury of the Puritan soldiery. His arms were struck off his body on the spot, and he was then brought to a neighbouring tree, amid the jeers and scoffs of his tormentors, and then hanged on one of the branches by the reins of his own horse. Emir Mathew, Bishop of Clogher, being loaded with irons, was cast into a dungeon in Enniskillen, where he was at length freed from his sufferings by being hanged. His bowels were afterwards taken out and burned, and his head placed on a pole in the market-place. Arthur Maginnis, bishop of Down, being old and infirm, died at sea, endeavouring to escape his enemies.

“Of the other prelates, the celebrated Nicholas French, Bishop of Ferns, escaped to Ghent, where he died, on the twenty-third of August, 1678. Walsh, Archbishop of Cashel, after being hunted for a long time through the mountains of Tipperary, at length found an asylum in Compostella, in Spain. The bishops of Cork and Cloyne, and Waterford, and Lismore, fled to Nantz; the bishops of Limerick and Raphae, to Brussels; the bishop of Clonfert, to Hungary; the bishop of Leighlin, to Gallicia; the bishop of Killaloe, to Rennes, in Brittany; the bishop of Kilfenora, to Normandy; and the bishop of Kilmacdua was screened by his friends in England. Besides these, John Burke, Archbishop of Tuam, Patrick Plunkett, bishop of Ardagh, and every other prelate in the kingdom were forced to fly from it, with the exception of the primate, Hugh O'Reilly, Geoghgan, bishop of Meath, and Mc Sweeny, bishop of Kilmore, who, however, was disqualified by age and infirmity from discharging any of the functions of his office.” —page 6.

We have quoted this passage at some length, because it shows at one view the disastrous condition to which the Irish Church was reduced at this period. We do not know that at any other time it was so utterly destitute of pastors; and if the special providence of God had not been exerted in its behalf, in this its hour of need, the succession of the hierarchy would have been broken, and the faith of her people exposed to the most imminent danger. The heart sickens at the bare recital of the atrocities perpetrated on the clergy for the sole offence of exercising their clerical functions.

It was at such a period that Plunkett applied himself to the sacred ministry. The career which he undertook, was one of labour and privation, and the doom that awaited him it was not difficult to foresee; it was that of many a priest and prelate who preceded him; it was eventually his own,—a bloody and cruel death on the gibbet or the scaffold. He made his ecclesiastical studies in the Ludovisian college in Rome, which was then administered by the Jesuits. He entered in the summer of 1649; distinguished himself in every department of science; and, having taken out the degree of Doctor in Divinity, was appointed public Professor of Theology in the college of the Propaganda. This situation he held for a period of twelve years. In 1669, O’Reilly, the Archbishop of Armagh, died at Louvain, whither he had been forced to fly for refuge from the severity of the penal laws, and after much deliberation, Clement IX, appointed Oliver Plunkett to fill the vacant See.

“If the Church of Ireland,” says Mr. Crolly, “had not been persecuted at this time, the temper and pursuits of Oliver Plunkett would, most probably, have induced him to prefer the seclusion of his college to the government of the Irish Church. But to have hesitated a moment in her present circumstances, would have savoured of cowardice, and he, therefore, accepted the office instantly, and with alacrity. Nor did he, for,a moment, think of remaining abroad, and evading the perils with which he knew he would be encompassed in Ireland, by entrusting the government of his diocese to a vicar-general; for immediately after his consecration he set out for Ireland, carrying with him particular instructions from the Pope, regarding the regulation of his own conduct and that of his clergy. On his way he visited Louvain, where he saw his countryman, Arsdekin, and was one of the first who urged that eminent man to write a theology which should be peculiarly adapted for the guidance of the apostolic missionaries in these persecuted countries.” —page 16.

The new Primate arrived in Ireland in 1669. The precise period is not known, but he could not have been very long in the country when the bloodhounds were let loose upon his trail.

“On the 20th of November, the Lord Lieutenant, Robarts, pretended to Lord Conway that the king had privately informed him that two persons, one of whom was Archbishop Plunkett, ‘had been sent from Rome, and were lurking in the country to do mischief.’ Although ‘it was very late,’ Robarts commanded Lord Conway to write that very night to Lisburn, in the county of Antrim, to his brother-in-law, Sir George Plowdon, to tell him that it would be an acceptable service if he could dexterously find out the Primate and his companion, and apprehend them.’’—page 19.

In 1670, occurred his dispute with Dr. Talbot, Archbishop of Dublin, about the right to the Primacy. Dr. Plunkett maintained that the Primacy always belonged, as a matter of right, to the See of Armagh. He offered to leave the decision of the question to the prelates of the Synod, but Dr. Talbot refused the offer, and both sent their reasons to the Holy See. After due consideration, the Propaganda decided in favour of Dr. Plunkett, and declared that the Archbishop of Armagh was made by St. Patrick with the authority of the Holy See, Metropolitan of the whole kingdom.

“In the year 1671, which was the next after that in which the convocation was held in Dublin, Dr. Plunkett was delegated by commissorial letters from the Holy See, to decide on a dispute which had been carried on with great animosity between the Dominicans and the Franciscans. The question related to the respective rights of the two orders, to receive the alms of the faithful in the dioceses of Armagh, Down, Dromore, and Clogher. Each of the orders had been settled in the province of Ulster, before the Cromwellian persecutions, and all the houses belonging to each were destroyed during these lamentable times. Whether any of the Franciscans who had resided in those places, escaped death or exile, does not appear; but De Burgo tells us (page 129) that not one Dominican belonging to the province of Ulster, was left in Ireland. The Franciscans came back very soon after the Restoration, whereas the Dominicans did not return to that part of Ireland until a considerably later period. In 1671, however, as we learn from the Primate’s letter, they had re-established three houses in Ulster —one in Clogher, one in Down, and one in Armagh. The Franciscans insisted that, in consequence of the priority of their return, they alone had a right to seek or receive the alms of the faithful in Armagh, Down, Dromore, and Clogher; they vehemently resisted the efforts of the Dominicans to re-establish themselves in these places, and induced several of the laity to take part with them, to the no small scandal of religion. The Primate taking along with him Patrick Plunkett, Bishop of Meath, Oliver Dease, Vicar- General of the same diocese, and Thomas Fitzsimon, Vicar-General of Kilmore, visited, as he himself says, with great labour and at great expense, each of the dioceses in which the disputes existed, and examined on the spot the allegations of both parties. Having thus thoroughly investigated the matter, he determined to put an end to the scandal at once, and accordingly issued his definitive sentence in favour of the Dominicans, dated Dundalk, 11th of October, 1674, and commanded the Franciscans to submit to it under pain of suspension, to be incurred without further process or appeal.”—page 43.

The archbishop directed his exertions to the reformation of the secular clergy. The number of secular priests was very considerably diminished towards the middle of the seventeenth century; but through his persevering labours and zeal many parishes that had been for a long time deprived of pastors were furnished with clergymen. Of the eighteen hundred priests registered according to act of Parliament in 1704, that is, twenty-three years after the archbishop’s death, as many as one hundred and sixteen had received orders from him. Some of these must have been ordained very shortly before his arrest.

But in the midst of these labours to improve his people and repair the evils which persecution had inflicted on the Church, the storm of the Popish plot was already gathering, and the primate was to be amongst its most illustrious victims. The circumstances of this vile and horrible conspiracy are minutely described by Mr. Crolly; as they are already familiar to our readers, we pass them over here: but the following graphic sketch of an Irish state witness of the time, will show what kind of instruments the unprincipled government of the day employed in the prosecution of its atrocious and sanguinary designs.

"The original discoverers of the plot, as they called themselves, were Edmond Murphy, parish priest of Killeavy and chanter of Armagh, and John Mc Moyer and Hugh Duffy, Francisean friars. Perhaps the most curious pamphlet in Thorpe’s whole collection is one written by Murphy..... This pamphlet proves that Murphy was throughout a most consistent character; for from a very early period in his career, he united in his own person at the same time the professions of priest, robber, and spy. The last of these occupations was disagreeable to the ‘great Tory Redmond O’Hanlon, who made edict through the barony, that whoever went to hear Murphy, should for the first time pay one cow, for the second two, and for the third his life.’ After this he hired a curate to officiate in his parish, and seldom or never resorted there himself. This is his own version of the matter, and there can be no doubt that O’Hanlon had good cause to hate and fear him; but the real cause of his being obliged to hire a curate was, that he had been suspended first, and afterwards excommunicated by the Primate. Mc Moyer and Duffy were, as I have said, Franciscan friars, and had both officiated, the former as parish priest, and the latter as curate, in the parish of Fohart, not far from Dundalk, in the county of Louth. They were the bosom friends of Murphy, and, like him, spies and robbers......

“ ......Murphy waxed powerful among the Tories; became the leader of a large band, planned the murder of Redmond O’Hanlon, whose place he desired to occupy, as well as to obtain the reward set on his head, and alarmed the quarters of the officers Baker and Smith, who were stationed near Dundalk, and had denounced him as a robber. ‘Ensign Smith (says Murphy in his pamphlet) made grievous complaints unto several gentlemen that his house was in agitation to be burnt, and himself and family destroyed by the Tories ; and that one Edmond Murphy, a priest, was the ringleader of this design:—Murphy, Moyer, and Duffy were, as I have said, spies as well as Tories. The officers to whom they betrayed their companions, were Captains Coult and Butler.’ ”—p. 91.

We cannot pursue this subject further. The details prove that the condition of society was most depraved and demoralized, and that the Government which stooped to make use of such characters, must have been utterly profligate and abandoned. It was on the testimony of such witnesses that the life of one of the best and holiest prelates that ever adorned the Church of Ireland, or perhaps any other country, was made away with. Into the history of this tragedy, so honourable to the victim, so disgraceful to his accusers and his judges, it is not our intention to enter. It is one of the darkest and most shameful pages in the annals of English jurisprudence. Of justice there was nothing save the form, kept up, as it were, in mockery of the meek and saintly personage whom it abandoned to his fiendish pursuers, without an effort to save him from their fury and fanaticism. It was not necessary for the author to have gone into the vindication of the primate’s innocence of the charge, for we believe there is not an individual in the kingdom that does not believe him to have been a victim of the foulest machinations and the most deliberate perjury.

After his execution at Tyburn on the 1st of July, 1681, his body was begged of the king, and, with the exception of the head and arms, was buried in the church-yard of St. Giles in the fields, with an inscription written by Father Corker, to whom the primate made a present of it, to be disposed of according to his pleasure. There it remained until the cropeared plot broke out in 1683, when it was taken up and conveyed to the Benedictine monastery of Lambspring, in Germany, where it was interred with great ceremony.

“The Irish witnesses soon squandered the money which they had received for proving the plot and swearing away the Primate’s life. For a time they managed to support themselves by swearing against Shaftesbury and their old employers. But even this failed them, and they were quickly brought to a state of the most wretched destitution. Florence McMoyer was so far reduced that he was obliged to pawn for £5, the celebrated ‘book of Armagh,’ which thus passed out of his family where it had remained for many centuries. Nor was this the worst evil against which these miserable beings had to contend, for they were now universally abhorred and detested even by their former abettors, and lived in daily terror of being punished, perhaps hanged, for their perjuries. They had now no friends, for they had been equally false and faithless to all parties. They were, moreover, tortured by the hell of a guilty conscience, for the crime of murder was upon their souls, ‘One of the miscreants, Duffy, old, emaciated, abhorred, and exiled from his Church, and tortured with remorse, visited a successor of Dr. Plunkett, (Dr. McMahon.) and as he approached him, exclaimed in an agony of soul, ‘Am I never to have peace? Is there no mercy for me?’ The Prelate heard him in silence, then opened a glass case, and in a deep and solemn voice said, ‘Look here, thou unfortunate wretch! The head of his murdered primate was before him, he saw, knew it, and swooned away. This miserable man was reconciled to the Church and died penitent.”—page 241.

We cannot close this notice without permitting our author to describe the manner in which the remains of the martyred Prelate were disposed of.

“Father Corker, to whom the venerable martyr had bequeathed his body, caused a surgeon named John Ridley, to cut off the arms by the elbow. He got a round tin case made for the head, and an oblong one for the arms, and enclosed them both in a chest. The head and arms were not buried with the rest of the body in St. Giles’ churchyard, But when Father Corker had it exhumed in 1683, they were taken along with it to Lambspring. The quarters of Oliver Plunkett’s body repose under a monument in the wall of the crypt of the church. His right hand is preserved in a casket in the sacristy. At the time of the translation of the relics, Cardinal Howard, better known as Cardinal Norfolk, resided at Rome, and was Cardinal Protector of England. Father Corker sent Dr Plunkett’s head from Lambspring to Rome, when it came into the possession of Cardinal Howard about the end of the year 1683.”— page 243.

Cardinal Howard gave it to Hugh McMahon, author of the ‘‘Jus Primatiale Armacanum,’’ and when the latter was appointed Archbishop of Armagh, in the year 1708, he brought with him the precious relic to his native land. It is now deposited in the Dominican convent of Drogheda, where it forms an object of the deepest historical and religious interest to the visitors of that community.

We must here draw our notice to a close. The Irish Catholic public are deeply indebted to Mr. Crolly for the able, judicious, and interesting manner, in which he has placed before them the incidents of a life that will ever be a model and incentive to every Irish Missionary. We hope he will long continue to employ the intervals of his laborious duties to the same advantage. He has conferred by the present work, a lasting benefit on the Irish nation, and paid a worthy tribute to the memory of one of Ireland’s holiest and noblest sons.


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