St. Oliver Plunkett

This article is about the archbishop. For the judge, see Oliver Plunkett (judge).

Saint Oliver Plunkett
Martyr, Archbishop and Primate of All Ireland
Born (1625-11-01)1 November 1625

Loughcrew, County Meath, Ireland
Died 1 July 1681(1681-07-01) (aged 55)

Tyburn, London, England
Honored in Roman Catholic Church
Beatified 23 May 1920, Rome by Pope Benedict XV
Canonized 12 October 1975, Rome by Pope Paul VI
Major shrine St. Peter's Roman Catholic Church, Drogheda, Ireland
Feast 1 July
Patronage Peace and Reconciliation in Ireland

Saint Oliver Plunkett : older spelling Plunket : (Irish: Oilibhéar Pluincéid)

When not using pseudo names, he signed himself as Plunkett.

1 November 1625 – 1 July 1681 was the Roman Catholic Archbishop of Armagh and Primate of All Ireland who was the last victim of the Popish Plot. Earlier biographers gave his date of birth as 1 November four years later, but since the discovery of an ancient reference to Oliver Plunkett’s birth in the Bodleian Library, Ashmolean, MS.436 which stated: “He was born on 1st. November 1625” biographers of St. Oliver since the 1930s agree on 1625. These include: Hanly, O’Fiaich, Forristal, Curtis, O'Higgins, Walsh, Bennett, Stokes, Concannon, Carty, Matthews, Murphy, Nowak, Burns, Meagher and the St. Oliver web-site.


Oliver Plunkett was born on the 1st of November 1625 (see above) in Loughcrew, County Meath, Ireland to well-to-do parents with Hiberno-Norman ancestors. He was related by birth to a number of landed families, such as the recently ennobled Earl of Roscommon, as well as the long-established Earl of Fingall, Lord Louth and Lord Dunsany.[1] Until his sixteenth year, the boy's education was entrusted to his cousin Patrick Plunkett, Abbot of St Mary's, Dublin, and brother of the first Earl of Fingall who later became bishop, successively, of Ardagh and Meath. 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 Roman Catholics, English, and Irish Anglicans and Protestants. Scarampi was the Papal envoy to the Roman 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 he proved to be an able pupil.[2] He was ordained a priest in 1654, and deputed by the Irish bishops to act as their representative in Rome. Meanwhile, the Cromwellian conquest of Ireland (1649–53) had defeated the Roman Catholic cause in Ireland and, in the aftermath, the public practice of Roman Catholicism was banned and Roman 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.[3] Throughout the period of the Commonwealth and the first years of Charles II's reign, he successfully pleaded the cause of the Irish Roman 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,[4] the Irish primatial see, and was consecrated on 30 November at Ghent by the Bishop of Ghent, He eventually set foot on Irish soil again on 7 March 1670, as the English Restoration of 1660 had started on a tolerant basis. The pallium was granted him in the Consistory of 28 July 1670.

After arriving back in Ireland, he set about reorganising the ravaged Roman Church and built schools both for the young and for clergy, whom he found 'ignorant in moral theology and controversies'. 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 in line with the Declaration of Breda in 1660[5] 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 48000 Catholics over a 4-year period. The Dublin Government, especially under the Duke of Ormonde ( the Protestant son of Catholic parents) extended a generous measure of toleration to the Catholic hierarchy until the mid-1670s.

Popish Plot

On the enactment of the Test Act in 1673, to which Plunkett would not agree for doctrinal reasons, the college was levelled to the ground. Plunkett went into hiding, traveling only in disguise, and refused a government edict to register at a seaport to await passage into exile. For the next few years he was largely left in peace since the Dublin Government, except when put under pressure from London, preferred to leave the Catholic bishops alone.

In 1678, the so-called Popish Plot, concocted in England by Titus Oates, led to further anti-Roman Catholicism. Archbishop Peter Talbot of Dublin was arrested, and Plunkett again went into hiding. The Privy Council in London was told he had plotted a French invasion.The moving spirit behind the campaign is said to have been Arthur Capell, 1st Earl of Essex, who had been Lord Lieutenant of Ireland and hoped to resume office by discrediting James Butler, 1st Duke of Ormonde. However Essex was not normally thought to be a ruthless or unprincipled man and his later plea for mercy suggests that he had never intended that Plunkett should actually die.[6]

Despite being on the run and with a price on his head, Plunkett refused to leave his flock. He was arrested in Dublin in December 1679 and imprisoned in Dublin Castle, where he gave absolution to the dying Talbot. At some point before his final incarceration, he took refuge in a church that once stood in the townland of Killartry in County Louth, in the parish of Clogherhead, seven miles outside of Drogheda. 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, and some used the excuse, that another rebellion was being planned. The Duke of Ormonde, aware that the Earl of Essex was using the crisis to undermine him, did not defend Plunkett in public. In private he made clear his belief in Plunkett's innocence and his contempt for the informers against him: "silly drunken vagabonds... whom no schoolboy would trust to rob an orchard".[7]

Lord Shaftesbury knew Oliver Plunkett would never be convicted in Ireland and had him moved to Newgate Prison, London. The first grand jury found no true bill, but he was not released. The second trial has generally been regarded as a serious miscarriage of justice; Gilbert Burnet, an eyewitness, had no doubt of the innocence of Plunkett, who he praised as a wise and sober man who had no aim but to live peacefully and tend to his congregation.[8] Lord CampbellTemplate:Dn, writing of the judge, Sir Francis Pemberton, claimed it a disgrace to himself and his country. More recently the High Court judge Sir James Comyn called it a grave mistake: while Plunkett, by virtue of his office, was clearly guilty of "promoting the Catholic faith", and may possibly have had some dealings with the French, there was never the slightest evidence that he had conspired against the King's life.[9] Plunkett was found guilty of high treason on June 1681 "for promoting the Roman faith," [10] and was condemned to death.

Numerous pleas for mercy were made but Charles II, although himself a reputed Catholic, thought it too politically dangerous to spare Plunkett.[11] The French Ambassador Paul Barillon conveyed a plea for mercy from his King: Charles said frankly that he knew Plunkett to be innocent, but the time was not right to take so bold a step.[12] Essex, apparently realising too late that his intrigues had led to the condemnation of an innocent man, made a similar plea: the King turned on him in fury, saying " his blood be on your head- you could have saved him but would not, I would save him and dare not".[13]


Plunkett was brought from a prison cell in Dublin Castle to face trial in Dundalk, during which he made no objection to the all-Protestant jury. The prosecution witnesses were themselves wanted men and afraid to turn up in court, so the trial soon collapsed. Because of a common belief that no jury in Ireland would ever convict him, irrespective of its makeup, Archbishop Plunkett was then transferred to face trial in Westminster Hall, London. His trial has often been described as a travesty of justice as he was again denied defending counsel, time to assemble his defence witnesses and he was also frustrated in his attempts to obtain the criminal records of those who were to give evidence against him. His servant James McKenna and a relative John Plunkett had travelled back to Ireland and failed within the time available to bring back witnesses and evidence for the defence. Hugh Reily was his defence lawyer. 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 all to no avail. Lord Chief Justice Pemberton addressing these complaints said to the accused, "Look you, Mr. Plunket, it is in vain for you to talk and make this discourse here now..."[14] and later on again, “Look you Mr Plunket, don't mis-spend your own time; for the more you trifle in these things, the less time you will have for your defence".[15] 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 any thing more displeasing to God, or more pernicious to mankind in the world.”.[16] The jury returned within fifteen minutes with a guilty verdict and Archbishop Plunkett replied: “Deo Gratias” (Latin for "Thanks be to God"). He was hanged, drawn and quartered at Tyburn on 1 July 1681, the last Roman Catholic martyr to die in England. Oliver Plunkett was beatified in 1920 and canonised in 1975, the first new Irish saint for almost seven hundred years.


On 1 July 1681 (aged 55), Plunkett became the last Roman Catholic martyr to die in England when he was hanged, drawn and quartered at Tyburn.[17] His body was initially buried in two tin boxes next to five Jesuits who had died before 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 29 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. Some relics were brought to Ireland in May 1975, while others are in England, France, Germany, the United States, and Australia.


Oliver Plunkett was beatified in 1920 and canonised in 1975, the first new Irish saint for almost seven hundred years,[18] and the first of the Irish martyrs to be beatified. For the canonisation, the customary second miracle was waived. (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.)


As a spectacle alone, the rally and Mass for St Oliver Plunkett on London's Clapham Common was a remarkable triumph. As the Common was invaded for a celebration of the 300th anniversary martyrdom of St Oliver Plunkett. Cardinal 0 Fiaich, twenty enrobed bishops and a handful of abbots stood on a stage beneath a scaffolding shelter that shuddered in the wind on the 1st July 1981. The Archbishop of Armagh flew over in a helicopter with Oliver Plunkett’s body. It was a sort of dry run for the Pope's visit. This occasion attracted thousands of pilgrims to the park and this people's celebration masterminded by Fr Martin Bennett was a first for the parish of the Holy Ghost, Balham and which also boasts the first British chapel dedicated to St Oliver. Between the rows of the crowd, the stewards ably assisted by Liam Jung and Tony Keane wore red armbands. The stewards & the parish came to the fore once more with the offertory collection. The money was poured into black plastic rubbish sacks as a precaution against the wind. In 1997, he became a patron saint for peace and reconciliation in Ireland, adopted by the prayer group campaigning for peace in Ireland, 'St Oliver Plunkett for Peace and Reconciliation'.


  • 4 March 1651 – tonsure & minor orders
  • 20 December 1653 – ordained as subdeacon
  • 26 December 1653 – ordained as deacon
  • 1 January 1654 – ordained as priest in Rome
  • November 1657 – appointed Professor of Theology at Propaganda college, Rome
  • 1 December 1669 – consecrated as archbishop
  • 7 March 1670 – landed at Ringsend, Dublin, ending 23 years of self-imposed exile abroad
  • 6 December 1679 – arrested
  • 23 July 1680 – trial
  • 24 October 1680 – transfer from Ireland to London
  • 8 June 1681 – trial
  • 15 June 1681 – sentenced to death
  • 1 July 1681 (OS) = 11 July 1681 (NS) – hanged, drawn, quartered (the punishment for treason against the state), beheaded
  • 9 December 1886 declared venerable
  • 17 March 1918 – declaration of martyrdom
  • Pentecost Sunday, 23 May 1920  – beatified
  • 12 October 1975 – canonized

In popular culture

  • In Harold Pinter's The Birthday Party, McCann asks Stanley "What about the blessed Oliver Plunkett?"
  • In J. P. Donleavy's The Ginger Man, Sebastian Dangerfield repeatedly calls on the name of "the Blessed Oliver" and, towards the end of the book, receives a wooden carving of the saint's head.
  • In David Caffrey's 2001 film On the Nose, Nana, played by Francis Burke refers to an aborigine's head in a large specimen jar as "Oliver Plunkett".
  • In Colin Bateman's 2004 novel, Bring Me the Head of Oliver Plunkett, the head of Oliver Plunkett head is stolen from St. Peter's Church.
  • In 2011's musical comedy short film The Holy Ghost of Oliver by Les Doherty and Craig C. Kavanagh, the head of Oliver Plunkett is stolen also.


Works cited

  • Blessed Oliver Plunkett: Historical Studies, Gill, Dublin, 1937.

External links

  • Cobbett's Complete Collection of State Trials digitised by Google Books
  • Biography of St Oliver Plunket
  • St Oliver Plunkett webpage maintained by Drogheda Borough Council & St. Peter's Church
  • -logo.svg public domain: 

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