The Life & Times of St. Oliver Plunkett
Early life in Ireland: 1625-1647
Oliver Plunkett was born in Loughcrew, Oldcastle, Co. Meath on the 1st of
November 1625. His Father John, was Baron of Loughcrew and the family had
excellent connections with many of the other well known families of the day.
Nearby, is Sliabh na Caillaigh the site of Loughcrew
megalithic burial grounds which dates back five thousand years and contains
important megalithic art. Of considerable historical importance, the monument
is one of the main four passage tombs in Ireland today. Oliver as a young boy,
would have known the site well.
He was tutored by a cousin, Fr. Patrick Plunkett, titular Abbot of St. Mary’s Cistercian Abbey in Dublin, who ministered from the chapel at Killeen castle.
Chapel at Killeen Castle
From a young
age Oliver had wished to become a priest and as a young man he was chosen along
with four others to attend the Irish College in Rome. However he could not
leave Ireland immediately, due to the upheavals and atrocities of the Ulster
rising, with some reports speculating that up to twelve thousand people may
have lost their lives around this time. Early in 1647 he and his fellow
students finally set out on their journey to Rome, under the care of Fr. Peter
Scarampi the Papal Envoy, who had been in Ireland attending the meetings of the
Confederation of Kilkenny. Prior to sailing from Waterford, they had been
delayed for several weeks waiting for a favourable wind.
Travel was a perilous adventure, given that it was strictly forbidden for young men to travel to the continent to enter seminaries. While out at sea, misfortune struck, they were pursued by two English privateer warships, which were rapidly closing in on their boat. If caught they were sure to be imprisoned or possibly meet a worse fate. The group prayed for deliverance from their plight, promising that they would undergo a pilgrimage to Assisi in return for a save arrival. Shortly afterwards a terrible storm blew up, which lasted for two days and when the storm eventually subsided, the warships were nowhere to be seem. In thanksgiving Fr. Scarampi renamed the ship St. Francis and they eventually landed at Ostend, having been blown many miles off course. Shortly after landing, they survived a second perilous adventure when robbers abducted them. Penniless, they were then allowed continue on their journey and fulfilled their promised pilgrimage to Assisi.
Life in Rome: Seminarian, Priest and University Student: 1647-1657
After three months of exhaustive travel they finally reached Rome in May 1647. They would have been most impressed with their first sightings and experience of Rome, as its fine churches, gardens and fountains would have contrasted greatly with their homeland. Life was not going to be easy for Oliver; the Irish college could not accept him straight away so it was the good will of Fr. Scarampi who organised and paid for Oliver’s studies and accommodation. After his abduction, Oliver had become a pauper student; indeed he would have to endure a shortage of money on almost a continuous basis when he would return to Ireland many years later. Having enrolled in the Irish college, Oliver took the customary oath to return to Ireland after ordination. Throughout his years of study, Oliver proved to be an exceptional student; the Rector of the Irish College is reported to have deemed Oliver amongst the foremost in talent, diligence and progress. Oliver was ordained on the 1st of January 1654, a joyous occasion for him and those close to him.
The Old Irish College located in the Street of the Irish
Due to the great danger for priests in Ireland as a result of the Cromwellian conquests, Fr. Oliver and his fellow clergymen were naturally released from their promise to return home at that time. Irish Catholics were given the choice of faith or possessions, and to their eternal credit; they choose by an overwhelming majority to give up their land, property and positions, rather than to relinquish the great treasure of their Catholic faith. Fr. Oliver then undertook higher studies at Sapienza University in Rome, studying law. All the while, he served as a chaplain with the Oratorian fathers and ministered in the Santo Spirito hospital. It is known that Fr. Oliver dedicated a good deal of time to visiting the poor in hospitals and feeding and cleansing those who were ill. Some years later, Oliver wrote about the pious practice in Rome of visiting the Seven Churches including the catacomb and obviously he himself undertook this pilgrimage regularly, undoubtedly praying for the intentions of his greatly troubled homeland at this time.
Life as a Professor in Rome: 1657-1669
Fr. Oliver obviously earned an excellent reputation from his higher studies, as in 1657 he joined the staff of Propaganda College as Professor of Theology and later Professor of Apologetics or Controversies.
College was an impressive establishment located in the same building as the
Sacred Congregation for the Propagation of the Faith and as such the whole
complex was a hive of activity. He toiled as professor for twelve years and it
is said that he helped to improve standards in the college a great deal.
Meanwhile, news arriving from Ireland continued to be grim; the Cromwellian
conquests were proceeding at pace and Oliver’s family had been deprived of
their estate at Loughcrew. Irish bishops appointed him as their agent in Rome
and as a result he was kept well informed of the difficulties and harshness of
the conditions back home.
After Cromwell’s death and the subsequent restoration of the monarchy; the situation for the church in Ireland eased somewhat. Rome finally felt confident towards the end of the 1660’s to appoint a few new Bishops, who could actually be sent on the Irish mission. The Archbishopric of Armagh became vacant in 1669 due to the death of Archbishop Edmund Reilly, who had spent his remaining years in exile in France. At a meeting in Rome to decide upon his replacement, Pope Clement IX stated that there was no need to discuss the matter any longer as Oliver was the ideal candidate and he so declared his appointment. Oliver clearly understood that the task he was about to undertake was a daunting one fraught with danger, but he was willing to give up a relatively comfortable lifestyle in Rome, all in the service of the Church back home. Like St. Patrick before him, he was willing to leave a secure and regular way of life, to answer the call of Ireland, so as to work amongst an impoverished Church and people, knowing of course that countless hardships and dangers awaited him as Primate of Ireland.
In his spare time, Oliver continued to distinguish himself in works of charity and he kept up his visits to the Santo Spirito hospital, adjacent to the Vatican. Some years later in a letter from Ireland, Oliver would express his joy at the election of a friend, Cardinal Odescalchias Pope Innocent XI: “While I was a professor of theology and controversies for many years in Propaganda College I had first hand experience of the saintly life led by his Holiness, and of the high reputation for wisdom, prudence and piety which all had of him. I also rendered special service with Mr. Marcantonio Odescalchi, often assisting him when he served the wretched beggars, needy and full of vermin, whom he gathered together in a house with all expenses paid by him, even to their clothing, often he cleaned and fed them with his own hands. It is recorded that when Oliver went to say his farewells at the Santo Spirito hospital, Fr. Mieskow the superior wished Oliver well, along with the prophetic words: “My Lord you are going to shed your blood for the Catholic faith.” Oliver left Rome during the first week of September 1669, travelling via, Bologna, Innsbruck, Munich and Mainz from where he travelled by boat down the Rhine into Cologne and further on into Holland; then on to Brussels on his way to receive his episcopal ordination.
It was decided that Oliver would be ordained Archbishop of Armagh, in Flanders, Belgium on his journey home to Ireland, as it was thought that a well publicised ceremony in Rome might antagonise the government and result in further persecution of the Catholic community. His episcopal ordination took place on the first Sunday of Advent, 1st December 1669 in a quiet ceremony at St. Bavo’s Cathedral, Ghent. A week after his episcopal ordination, Archbishop Oliver set off again on the next part of his journey home to Ireland, via Ostend, London and Holyhead. Before leaving he wrote: “I am thinking of passing myself off as an Italian tourist who is going out of curiosity to see the sights of London” and he added that he had given his papers and letters to an English gentleman to be brought to London. (To read more in depth about St. Oliver and Ghent, visit our Shrines Section / Belgium.)
St. Bavo’s Cathedral, Ghent
As the newly
ordained Archbishop of Armagh, Archbishop Oliver arrived in London on 13th
December 1669. Before travelling to England he had written: “I shall not delay
long there, but shall go to my diocese where until my last breath I shall live
in obedience to the Holy See and the service of souls, even if it should cost
me my life.” He actually stayed for some time incognito in the Royal Palace
under the protection of Fr. Philip Howard the confessor to Queen Catherine, who
was a Catholic. Hiding out in St. James’s Palace had a certain irony as there
were already agents on the look out for him, so perhaps this was one location
where he could best remain unnoticed. The day after his arrival he was
presented to the Queen by Fr. Howard and he gave her a letter from Cardinal Barberini
Because of harsh weather, he was obliged to stay in the London area much longer than he had intended as a result of the impossibility of travelling with snow and ice, so he stayed there for most of the winter. He recalled that it was so cold while in London that the wine in his chalice had frozen, which would indicate an indoor temperature of minus five or six degrees. The winters were very much colder than in modern times, the seventeenth century being among the coldest of what has been termed a mini ice age. Archbishop Oliver was to suffer from the effects of this harsh weather on many occasions subsequently, either on his long journeys, at mass-rocks, or in unheated hiding places or prisons.
Fr. Howard brought Oliver in his carriage to see the sights of London, and no doubt they witnessed the after-effects of the great fire of London, which had occurred only three years earlier. During the hysteria of the Popish Plot, which was yet to come, Catholics would again be accused of starting the fire. Indeed a monument was erected to commemorate the event and a plaque was placed on it in 1681 blaming the Catholics for the fire, where it would remain for almost two hundred years. During his stay, Oliver also met many priests resident in England including Fr. Humphrey Ellis the Dean of the Chapter along with several other members, and he found them all devoted to the Holy See. He also met many of the leading Catholic families in the London area.
Due to the harshness of the laws towards Catholics, there was no resident bishop in England for the previous thirty-eight years; the Catholics of England were forced to rely on the services of Irish bishops who would be passing through, or from continental bishops who might make the occasional short visit. In light of this it would be extremely surprising if Archbishop Oliver did not first exercise his role as a bishop over that time period of three months, which he spent in England. It is unlikely that he ordained any priests, but it is quite possible that he confirmed. Indeed, during the last fortnight of his life as a condemned man in Newgate Prison, he was allowed countless visitors including children and he may well have confirmed in England at this time also. So perhaps Archbishop Oliver’s first and last exercises as a bishop, were performed in the London area.
One leading priest whom he met was Fr. Pulton, who had previously been an army officer and probably for reasons of disguise was still known as Captain Pulton. In a series of letters addressed to Captain Pulton, Oliver signs himself as William Browne, his first use of the nom-de-plume, and within weeks he himself would adopt the costume and accoutrements of an army captain, calling himself Captain Browne. Using such a disguise had many advantages, as army officers were a common sight on the roads, had the freedom to travel and would usually not draw any suspicion. No doubt Fr. Pulton sowed this idea with Archbishop Oliver and perhaps even supplied the uniform with all its trappings.
The English leg of his journey proved to be the most traumatic part of his overall passage from Rome, and he wrote: “I suffered more between London and Holyhead, where I boarded ship, than during the whole journey from Rome to London, severe cold and strong winds and then heavy snow and finally as the snow melted, the rivers were so high that three times I was up to my knees in water in the carriage.”
Returning to Ireland: 1670
Waiting a further twelve days in Holyhead for a favourable wind, he
finally landed after an overnight sailing, at Ringsend, Dublin, on Monday 7th
March 1670 at 9am. As England and Ireland had not yet adopted the Gregorian
calendar and were still ten days behind the continent, this date was
coincidentally celebrated on the continent as St. Patrick’s Day, feast of the
National Apostle of Ireland and founder of the See of Armagh. Perhaps it was
more than a coincidence, that his many friends in Rome would around that very
hour be remembering him in a special way in their prayers on that feast-day morning.
Upon returning to Ireland, Archbishop Oliver was invited to stay with several of his relatives, including the Earl of Fingal and the Baron of Louth. He was anxious to travel to his diocese where he received an overwhelming welcome, arriving in time for the Holy Week and Easter ceremonies. Aware that he was in a perilous situation as Viceroy Robartes had spies on the look out for him; Archbishop Oliver felt it prudent to keep a rather low profile, so he travelled about in a disguise. When he left Ireland, as the young Don Oliverio, while under the protection of the Papal Envoy, Fr. Scarampi, he was waved off by thousands of people in procession at the quayside at Waterford. Now as the Primate of Ireland, Archbishop Oliver disembarked in secret at the tiny little promontory of Ringsend in Dublin, almost certainly dressed as the military officer Captain Browne. Later recounting in one of his letters, that for some months he adopted the disguise of a Captain William Browne, with a wig, sword and a pair of pistols as befitted an officer and disclosing that on one occasion he broke into song in a tavern so as not to reveal his true identity.
Within two months of Archbishop Plunkett’s return to Ireland, Viceroy Berkley replaced the more hard line Robartes and this appointment greatly eased the tension. The laws on the statue books were strongly anti-Catholic and it very often depended on the Viceroy or a local official or dignitary as to how strictly they were enforced. During these times in Ireland, the Duke of Ormond was a powerful figure; a previous viceroy in the past and a man of great wealth and many would say he was the power behind the Viceroy. Ormond’s policy was one of divide and conquer and he would support and encourage any group who had ideas which would cause trouble between the Irish, all in the interest of protecting his considerably swathe of property.
Freedom and very high work rate: 1670-1673
The climate of toleration having changed for the better with the new viceroy, Archbishop Oliver could at last discard the disguise and proceed with his work more openly while still maintaining a certain degree of caution. This was the beginning of the period in which he would experience his greatest freedom, which was to last for approximately three and a half years. He took advantage of this short period of toleration with an extremely high work rate. This period also corresponded to the time when King Charles might have conceded, freedom of conscience to Catholics, but was thwarted in this by an increasingly troublesome Parliament. Oliver promptly set up his headquarters, alternatively in Ardpatrick and Ballybarrack just outside of Dundalk, these areas being central in the diocese and also in a rural area where locals could possibly warn him of any approaching search parties. Local tradition can still point to an ancient oak tree at Ardpatrick where Archbishop Oliver is believed to have hidden to avoid capture. His brother Edward and family who were displaced from Loughcrew also lived here.
St. Oliver Oak Tree at Ardpatrick
The Shrine at Ballybarrack
Ruins of Ardpatrick Church
At the time
of his return, Oliver had lived more than half of his lifetime in Rome,
twenty-two years in total, as a student, a priest and then a teaching
professor. In many respects he had become Roman and in his numerous letters
from Ireland, he felt most comfortable when writing in Italian. He now faced
huge challenges however as the Primate of Ireland. Most dioceses had not had a
bishop in a generation, some dioceses had not even seen the sight of a bishop
in forty years and Archbishop Oliver became the only active bishop in the whole
of the northern province for some time. Undaunted, he
saddled his horse and travelled extensively across the broad expanse of the
eleven dioceses under his care, an enterprise which would have been a real act
of stamina for him. Even today with good roads and every modern means of
transport, this would still be quite an exhausting undertaking. Within months of his return, he held a meeting of
national bishops in Dublin, two diocesan synods of priests and a provincial
synod at Clones. So as not to attract undue attention to himself, he then went
from village to village across the province confirming. This meant having a much
greater number of such ceremonies rather than just a few in the larger centres of population. He was obviously happy to increase
his workload for this reason and it would not be uncommon for two Confirmation
ceremonies to be held on the same day.
He conducted two ordination ceremonies, completed a diocesan visitation of parishes in his own diocese and visited six dioceses including an area in north Antrim to plan a visit to the Hebrides. From Anglo-Irish stock there was some opposition initially among the Gaelic-Irish to his appointment, but these were soon won over, largely by his example as a good pastor, an able administrator and by his incredible work rate, irrespective of hardship. The six vicar generals wrote a letter of thanks to Rome within a half year of his arrival: “For sending such an illustrious Primate to Ireland, he is so untiring in good works and so exemplary in his life and conduct that he has won for himself and the clergy, the love and reverence even of the enemies of the faith”.
There were barely a handful of church buildings allowed across the province, so his many confirmation ceremonies were invariably held at moss-coated mass-rocks and he wrote: “There are bearded men of sixty who have not yet received the sacrament of Confirmation.” Exposed to all weathers, it is recorded that he was sometimes barely able to stand with weakness after his weary journeys and the long open-air ceremonies. Warned to protect his health, he replied: “When a sailor has a fair wind he sets full sail.” Later he would write: “I shall not spare myself fatigue” and also: “I did not give repose to brain, pen or even horses these four years, in a vast province of eleven dioceses.” A pioneer in many respects, he said that he would forego alcohol as an example to the clergy. Oliver put his undoubted language skills to good use, leading the faithful in prayer, administrating the sacraments and preaching the good news to them, all in their native language.
He appointed a new vicar to the diocese of Raphoe and it was he who accompanied him on the long journey to Donegal to show him the passes and to introduce him around the diocese. Writing about his travels in his own diocese and around Donegal, he wrote in a letter to Rome: “What Alps and Apennines I have crossed the Lord knows.” His congregations, although they were impoverished in terms of material wealth, but in terms of spirituality, he recognised them as rich indeed. This was an all-encouraging sign for Oliver in terms of continuing in his work.
Under the law of ‘Premunire’ it was illegal to exercise any authority from an outside jurisdiction and especially from the Pope. This law was an all encompassing one and meant that Archbishop Oliver had to be always very careful lest a complaint would be made against him to the authorities. Several efforts had been made previously to remove the scandalous Vicar of Derry, all of which failed; he then reported his dismissal by the new Archbishop under this law. Oliver had probably already foreseen this and may have cleared the way with the Governor of Ulster, but at any rate the case was thrown out of court. Oliver’s cousin, Sir Nicholas Plunkett was then the leading Catholic lawyer in the country and his advice would have proved invaluable to him on this and many subsequent occasions; he was a brother to Bishop Patrick Plunkett of Meath who was Oliver’s tutor of old at Killeen.
was a diplomat, who astutely steered clear of politics, kept on good terms with
many leading citizens, including Lord Charlemont the President of Ulster, who
allowed him the use of his courtyard in Armagh for confirmation ceremonies and
Henry Moore the Earl of Drogheda who allowed him a public church with bells on
estates, which were exempt from the jurisdiction of the royal ministers. Later
when arrested, Archbishop Oliver was brought to London to face trial there,
because of the common belief that no Protestant jury in Ireland would ever
believe the trumped up charges of treason, which had been levelled against him.
His Work for Peace and
Reconciliation, symbolised by the Broken Pike in the Canonisation Picture, now
located at the Shrine in Drogheda.
Upon his return, Archbishop Oliver found the Irish Church in a disorganised state, having been leaderless for some decades. There were serious divisions in the Church between the Gaelic-Irish and the Anglo-Irish, between the diocesan clergy and the religious orders, and finally between the religious orders themselves. Some religious communities even had two superiors living in the same house, one for each faction. On his many visitations, Archbishop Oliver proved successful in bringing order and peace to each diocese in turn. In a letter dated the 10th October 1670, he reported to Rome: “I found serious divisions in them, but by the grace of God, all is now quiet in the dioceses which I have visited”.
Significantly, he also brought peace to the province when he brokered a peace agreement between the Government of the day and the Tories/Raparees. These were the descendents of some of the displaced Irish who had resorted to banditry and robbery. They were the cause of untold misery as many of the law abiding Catholics were fined or made to suffer for any incidents committed. These fines were often un-payable by families who were landless poor and had barely enough to live on. Archbishop Oliver arranged a meeting with the Tories/Raparees; going to the hill country of Armagh/Tyrone, where he spoke in Irish to their leaders and persuaded them to accept peace terms with the Government. Soon he could write: “The province has not had greater peace in thirty years.”
Throughout the years of his ministry, Archbishop Oliver worked tirelessly for peace in Ulster, hence his adoption in 1997 as a Patron for Peace and Reconciliation in Ireland.” Many people recite the enclosed prayer daily for this intention. Cardinal Tomás O’Fiaich in his biography of St. Oliver states: “It is worthy of note that the Truce which brought to an end the War of Independence came into force on his feast-day in 1921.” Oliver’s Peace Agreement has many similarities with the more recent Good Friday Agreement of 1998 as it also included the laying down of arms and the release of prisoners. Perhaps it is also more than a coincidence that the momentous first meeting of the new Northern Ireland Assembly took place on a feast-day of St. Oliver. Early in the twenty-first century, we give thanks to God that we can now repeat those words of St. Oliver, when he stated: “The province has not had greater peace in thirty years.
schools were outlawed and Dr. Plunkett, a former professor in Propaganda
College, recognised a great need for schools to educate both young boys and
priests in Ireland. Young Catholic boys had no opportunity for any type of
formal schooling and the scholarship of those priests who had been solely
educated in Ireland, left a lot to be desired. Over the previous three decades,
good men were ordained in their hundreds; the lucky few went to seminaries on
the continent, but the vast majority, often got little chance of a proper
spiritual formation. In recognition of this fact, he diplomatically obtained
permission to set up a school, which he himself paid for in Drogheda.
Remarkably, the school, which he built from the ground up and supplied with
Jesuit teachers, was in operation within four months of his return as
Archbishop. It could cater for one hundred and fifty boys, including forty who
were Protestant. A section of the school was reserved for the education of
priests and this college could accommodate up to fifty-six at a time.
Within eight months of his schools start up; Archbishop Oliver had been summoned on no less than nine occasions to the Viceroy’s court in Dublin because of the school’s existence and for his exercise of foreign or papal jurisdiction. His diplomacy and his experience as professor of controversies in Rome obviously stood to him, as he won the argument on each occasion, thus enabling the schools continuance for a little while longer. The winds of toleration soon changed for the worse however and the schools in Drogheda were levelled to the ground by the authorities in November 1673, after only three years and five months in operation. This was a terrible blow to Archbishop Oliver, having expended so much effort and resources on the school and college, now witnessing their great potential stamped out. Nevertheless their influence for good, even after such a short time in operation, would have been felt in the Irish Church and in society generally, for many years afterwards. Later he wrote: “There is nothing which gives me greater interior pain however, than to see the schools established by me thrown down after such expense. O what will the Catholic youth do now, so numerous and so talented.” (To read more in depth about St. Oliver’s schools, visit our literature Section / Drogheda - National Shrine)
Primacy of Armagh
Dublin was growing ever more powerful in size and influence and Archbishop Peter Talbot of Dublin, sought to increase its influence in Church affairs also. He contested the Primacy of Armagh and Archbishop Plunkett robustly came to its defence, writing that the Primacy of Armagh had been well established and recognised since the time of St. Patrick. The disagreement between the two archbishops was referred to Vatican authorities for a decision and the ruling from Rome, eventually confirmed the Primacy of Armagh. In 1680 when both Archbishops were imprisoned in Dublin Castle, Oliver brushed past his guards at one stage and was able to minister spiritually to the then dying Archbishop of Dublin.
His letter writing was prolific, either to Rome
via the Internuncio in Brussels, or to his fellow bishops throughout the
country. Several times he mentions that he is in weekly communication with his fellow
bishops and two hundred and thirty letters of his remain today; most of these
are preserved in the archives of Rome or in Downside Abbey in England. His
correspondence from the condemned cell in Newgate prison, probably give us the
best insight into the man, as they clearly reveal the depth of his spirituality
and faith. His letters are quite long, well over a thousand words in many cases
and most of our knowledge about St. Oliver and of his work, comes from his own
pen. He felt obliged to keep his superiors informed on a regular basis and in
total he must have written thousands of letters throughout his lifetime. The
expense of all this correspondence was considerable, as there was no postal
service as such, but a series of couriers and trusted agents who collected and
distributed the mail, each of whom had to be paid. In order to reduce the
number of letters and his costs, he often requested that his letters to Rome
would be circulated to various people there and he also requested that no
envelopes be used when writing to him because upon delivery, his charges would
then be halved.
He often wrote on one side of the paper and so as not to be wasteful he would complete the page with writing, sometimes writing sideways on the margin so as to fill the whole page and then folding it in such a way that the address would be on the outside. In one such letter, seeing that more space is available on the page, he continues the letter with another topic, beginning: “In order not to burden the post with blank paper”. He often concluded a letter by writing “the paper is at an end” and then signing off. Some letters were in his own secret code, using numbers to represent either letters of the alphabet, specific words or even named individuals; this was quite clever as it used over a hundred ciphers in total. Aware that many of his letters would be opened in the ‘The Castle’, he was always careful what they contained and he scrupulously steered clear of all political topics. He signed many of his letters under the pseudonym of Thomas Cox or Edward Hamon. He was also quick witted and sharp in his correspondence and he often included little sayings, such as: “When the cat is away the mice will play”, “The blind man is no judge of colour”, “The spirit indeed is willing but the purse is weak” or “If the whole world should come crashing down the ruins will strike an undaunted man”. An indefatigable letter writer, the cost of his voluminous correspondence added to the cost of the schools, meant that Archbishop Oliver was forever short of money because his income was so small, so he often sought help in this regard in his letters.
St. Oliver’s Personality
His letters are all fascinating; containing detailed reports of his work in Ireland or enthralling descriptions of the condition of the Irish Church and people. As reports go, it would be expected that his true personality would only occasionally break through. However over the whole series of his letters which are extant, his character, warmth and personality comes across strongly. We can say with certainty that he was a warm, compassionate man, he was a humble, forgiving man and he possessed great uprightness and integrity. He had strong courage, was obedient to authority and he was a grateful man who never forgot to acknowledge any form of kindness bestowed upon. Whenever a principle in which he believed was at stake, he would defend it robustly and courageously and his pen could be quite sharp in this regard. He had a sense of humour, which also surfaces occasionally. Through the evidence of his letters, he kept meticulous records and accounts, all of which prove he was an excellent administrator, so it must be unusual then, that he could be an outstanding worker out in the field as well. A diplomat, he built bridges between the different traditions and he was soon respected in all quarters. Despite the many hardships he endured of persecution and climate, his letters portray him continuing in his work across the province, revealing to us a man of extraordinary stamina, steely determination, devotion to duty and of personal self-discipline. A good teacher to the last, he wrote shortly before his death: “Being the first among the Irish, with the grace of God, I shall give good example to the others not to fear death”.
Loyalty to Rome
Archbishop Oliver was renowned for his love, and loyalty to the Holy See, continuing the fine tradition of the Irish Church in this regard, knowing all the while that this loyalty would guarantee the faithfulness of the Irish people in the true faith. He was obedient to any instruction or even suggestion coming to him from Rome and he wrote: “The Holy See is the chief physician, I am the under-physician and to me is entrusted a great number of patients…The will to cure this illness is not enough for us under-physicians; the proto-physician must put his hands on it”.
Dispute between the Franciscans and the Dominicans
Archbishop Oliver was asked by Rome to settle the lively controversy between the Franciscans and the Dominicans over the ownership of ruined and abandoned religious houses. The Franciscans were first to reappear in any numbers after the tyranny of the conquests and they wished to exclude the Dominicans from several of the northern dioceses as a result. After a thorough investigation, Dr. Plunkett ruled in favour of the Dominicans. The rivalry had become quite bitter between those orders and as a result of his decision in favour of the Dominicans, much of that hostility was then re-directed against himself. The religious orders to whom we owe so much, had in times of persecution the wide ranging powers of missionaries apostolic and it was inevitable that there would be tensions later when these powers were being reined in or withdrawn. Many false reports were then sent to Rome against Archbishop Oliver, who answered these calumnies point for point, adding: “Lies have short legs and time will tell who has written the truth”. Indeed two renegade priests, who were expelled from the Franciscan order for banditry and other such crimes, would later travel to London and present false evidence against him at his trial.
A key part of Archbishop Oliver’s reform was the education and high standards of priests. He recognised that the need for the education of priests should be ongoing, with the building of the college in Drogheda. A poor man himself, he maintained a high standard of decorum and through his example, he expected similar high standards from priests. As an example to his priests, he dressed in a poorer type of cloth, gave up alcohol, lived a simple type of lifestyle and his work rate despite frequent hardship was exceptional. He ordained about two hundred priests in total, only ordaining those who were worthy and who had passed a strict examination. This large group of dedicated priests, fired with the same zeal as he had, was surely one of his most important legacies. These young men knew that priesthood was a perilous vocation, but went ahead with ordination nevertheless, proving yet again that youth will not run away from an immense or a dangerous challenge.
Times of Persecution: 1673-1681
Towards the latter part of 1673, toleration for
the Catholic religion was again withdrawn, upon the insistence of Parliament
and the passing of the Test Act the previous year. To Oliver’s very great
sadness, the schools at Drogheda were then knocked to the ground by the
authorities. Bishops were ordered to leave the country; with handsome rewards
available for the capture of any prelate who did not comply and many went in
search of such a prize. Archbishop Oliver declined the easier option of exile,
preferring instead the consequential hardships of going on the run, often in
the open Irish countryside, writing: “We shall not abandon our flocks unless
compelled to do so, we shall first try out the prisons and other torments,
already we have suffered so much on the mountains, in huts and in caves, and
have acquired the habit of suffering to the extent that it will be less
inconvenient in the future.” Archbishop Oliver wrote: “In this country there
is a fixed force of eight thousand soldiers between infantry and cavalry and
these are now distributed throughout the counties and districts. It is thought
that they will be ordered to help the police to hunt down the prelates and
religious:” Refusing to
flee he also pleaded that his fellow bishops should
stay in the country and he wrote: “For if the captains fly, it is in vain to
exhort the single soldiers to stand in battle”. St. Oliver thus left a strong marker for the future that the day of an
Irish bishop living in exile should be over and he wrote that the time was then
appropriate: “To take down the sails and seek shelter in some safe harbour.” By
this time he had destroyed all his documents and it is known that St. Oliver
was quite meticulous in keeping records, having earlier recalled that he had
confirmed forty-eight thousand, six hundred and fifty-five souls. Religious
houses also destroyed their records and as such the Irish again lost a large
amount of historical data.
His old friend from Rome, John Brenan, then the bishop of Waterford, hid with him in the hill country of south Armagh and they both suffered greatly at this time. One incident records them moving from one hiding place to a more secure one, having being informed that agents who were actively seeking them were getting closer. The following is just a short extract from a letter dated 27th. January 1674 and describes their predicament: “Snow mixed with big hard hailstones was falling, a cutting wind was blowing into our faces and the snow and hail blew so strongly into our eyes and affected them so much that we are hardly able to use them even yet. Finally, after frequent danger of being suffocated by the snow in the valleys, we arrived at the house of a poor gentleman who had nothing to lose, but through bad fortune he had a stranger in the house, by whom we did not wish to be recognised, and so he put us in a fine room under the roof where we have remained without chimney or fire for eight days now, may it be for the glory of God and the good of our souls and of the flock committed to us.” Oliver’s eyes suffered greatly thereafter and his friend’s arm was immovable because of the effect of the cold. In the same letter, he praises God for the grace they received to suffer on the Feast of the Chair of St. Peter and he hoped that in the long run it would break the violence of the tempestuous waves.
He recounts another interesting situation which he had to endure: “I am all alone in an old granary which belongs to a farmer who brings me some bread and a little butter from the nearby town, and whenever this man drinks too much in town, I must fast for more than one day. Milk is the usual beverage and it is dear to buy, and when I get it fresh it seems to be as sweet and delightful as the wine of Albano or Genzano. I have however two consolations, one is interior, namely that I suffer for a good cause, and this will have its result, so I hope in the Divine Mercy, an eternal reward. The second consolation is in my books, which enable me to say that I am never less alone than when alone, never less solitary than when solitary.”
Archbishop Oliver reported: “Sometimes it happens that a parish which one year has two hundred Catholic families will not have thirty the following year, as happened in various parishes of the diocese of Armagh this year, because the Catholics being as a rule, lease holders, often lose their leases.” These leases would be given to families of other religions and he added: “When a new colony of them arrives, the poor Catholics are put aside.” As a result of a wet autumn and a bad winter, it was impossible to sow and consequently most of the cattle, horses and sheep had died. He wrote that five hundred people had died in the Archdiocese of Armagh, in the famine of 1674 and that he had pawned silver candlesticks and a silver cup so as to be able to provide bread for the poor to the value of one pound each week. He recounts that one could travel twenty-five miles in his area and only find a half a dozen Catholic families within that territory, he also noted that in the previous year his income was very small and that the priests were greatly harassed, not daring to appear openly by day, especially around Armagh. Gradually the persecution eased somewhat and he could continue with his work over the next couple of years, but never again would he have the freedom, which he had experienced over the previous three years or so.
Despite often hungry, homeless and suffering from the cold, he remained determined to wear out rather than to rust, writing: “The distillation from my eyes has greatly increased because of the disastrous visitation of the northern mountains, I can hardly read or write letters as big as headlines, but there was no check on my tongue from preaching in both the English and Irish languages”. He continued nevertheless with his church reforms across the province; bringing order, peace and hope to each diocese in turn and preparing each of them for the difficult years which were yet to come.
Imprisonment: December 1679 – July 1681
again gathered and towards the end of 1678, the incredible allegations of Titus
Oates were revealed in London. Catholics and the Jesuits in particular, were
falsely accused of plotting to kill Charles II, the Protestant King, so that
James, his Catholic brother, might replace him. The Pope was then accused by
Oates and some others, of planning an invasion of England. Outlandish trials
soon took place in London, followed by cruel executions at Tyburn.
Archbishop Oliver who had secretly visited his cousin and tutor of old, Bishop Patrick Plunkett before his death in Dublin, wrote: “He died a poor man, because being a wealthy man in his lifetime he gave alms freely, his right hand did not know what his left hand did and he never denied alms to any poor person, he frequently gave secret help to the poor, ashamed gentlemen and widows, of whom we have many since the extermination carried out by Cromwell”. Shortly after writing this letter Archbishop Oliver was arrested on 6th December 1679 and jailed in Dublin Castle. The Authorities had become aware that he was staying in the house of a Mr. Meleady, in the Naul, Co. Dublin.
Archbishop Oliver was then woven into the plot and accused of plotting against the King and planning to bring a French force into Carlingford harbour. Who better to supply false evidence than some of the suspended priests, both secular and religious whom he had to deal with, over the previous decade.
Archbishop Oliver was brought to Dundalk for trial on 23rd July and although not allowed any defence counsel, he raised no objection to the all-Protestant jury, knowing that he himself was well known and respected there. He was also aware that his accusers were disreputable characters, who were themselves wanted men in Dundalk and so the trial soon fell through. Lord Shaftesbury and others in London, then decided to bring Archbishop Plunkett to London to face trial, knowing that there was probably not a jury in Ireland which would convict him, irrespective of its makeup. They also knew that as a result of the hysteria and wild reports of Catholic plots in England, a rigged jury in London would not be overly concerned with the true character of any of those involved. Brought over to Newgate prison in October, Archbishop Oliver was placed in strict solitary confinement to spend a second harsh winter in jail. Afflicted with several ailments, suffering from pain and exposed to the harshness of prison life, he aged considerable at this time. He spoke to no one except his jailors and they became impressed by his fasting, constant prayer and inherent good humour. Despite the meagre rations and hard regime, he still fasted three or four days a week; this was his opportunity for self purification and he made good use of his time.
Brought before the court on 3rd May,
he pleading not guilty; the trial proper was fixed for the 8th June
and he asked for more time to produce his defence witnesses, but this was
denied him. Oliver’s faithful servant, James McKenna and a relative John
Plunkett, travelled back to Ireland to gather evidence and to assemble
character witnesses. Due to adverse winds, their boat could not set sail for
several weeks and when they eventually arrived in Ireland the authorities in
Dublin, frustrated them in their efforts to get documents from the records
office. Consequently, they were unsuccessful in meeting the deadline of the
trial date. As Archbishop of Armagh, Oliver was straight in his dealings and
always resolute that he would have nothing whatsoever to do with politics. The
prosecution had therefore to rely totally on concocted evidence at the trial,
but it should not be forgotten that the witnesses against him were all
Catholics and all Irish, bought and brought over from Ireland. Among them were
at least four suspended priests and four lay people, most and probably all of
them with criminal records. In return for their testimony, they received money
and promises of pardon for their crimes.
On the day of the trial, Oliver who was again not allowed any defence counsel, disputed the right of the court to try him in England and he also drew attention to the criminal past of the witnesses. The Lord Chief Justice replied: “Look you Mr. Plunkett, do not waste your time by talking about these things…The bottom of your treason, which is treason of the highest order, was the setting up of your false religion and there is nothing more displeasing to God than it”. The jury retired to consider the charge of high treason and returned within fifteen minutes with a guilty verdict. Archbishop Oliver, knowing the horrible punishment for treason, was to be hung, drawn and quartered and realising that he was to be martyred for his faith, simply replied to the court: “Deo Gratias” or God be thanked.
The Lord Chief Justice pronounced sentence: “You shall be drawn through the City of London to Tyburn, there 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 be divided into four quarters.” Oliver addressed the court and said that he could easily have gained his freedom, as he had already been offered it, if he would confess his guilt and condemn others, adding that he would rather die ten thousand deaths than wrongfully take a farthing of any man’s goods, one day of his freedom or a minute of his life.
As a condemned man, the regime in prison was
relaxed for the last fortnight or so of his life and he was allowed visitors.
Fr. Maurice Corker a Benedictine monk was also imprisoned and it is believed
they got the opportunity through influence and perhaps a little bribery of the
guards to meet and to hear each other’s confession. During that time they wrote
frequently to each other. Archbishop Oliver’s servant James was also allowed
visit and he brought Mass requisites and letters to him from Fr. Corker. To
Oliver’s great joy he could again celebrate, the Holy Sacrifice of the Mass.
Throughout his lifetime, Oliver had led an exemplary life, it is documented that as a young man he had been a well-behaved and excellent student, as a priest he was devout and very compassionate as witnessed in the Spirito Santo Hospital. As a professor in Rome, even the Pope had admired his work and as Archbishop and Primate, his record speaks for itself. Yet it was in those last months, in the dark unheated dungeon of Newgate, that his sanctity had fully developed and shone forth for all to see. Many English Catholics came to visit him in prison during the last fortnight or so of his life, to spend time with him and comfort him, but it was they who came away comforted and edified by his demeanour and his blessings, as his holiness was quite apparent to them. He was also impressed and very grateful to them for their kindness and great charity towards him and he described them, as “rare Catholics.”
>Undoubtedly, Oliver’s most revealing letters about himself were the ones he penned at this time from his prison cell. Amongst these were letters and notes to Fr. Corker, each of which illustrate his deep spirituality. These are all well preserved and among the cherished possessions of the Benedictine Community at Downside Abbey. It is often said that Fr. Corker possibly enrolled St. Oliver as a Confrater of the Benedictine order. Indeed another Benedictine priest imprisoned with St. Oliver at this time, Fr. Cuthbert Wall, alias Mr Marshall, lent St. Oliver a ‘shift’ to wear on his way to Tyburn. This garb may well have been a form of habit or scapular to represent the Benedictine order. In any event, St. Oliver saw himself as coming under the obedience of Fr. Corker, who was President of the English Benedictines at the time. St. Oliver left all decisions in his hands; i.e. how the barber would attend to him, whether or not to have a fortifying drink on the day of execution, the drafting of his final speech and finally he left his clothes, possessions and his body to be at Fr. Corker’s ‘will and pleasure’.
Archbishop Oliver’s earlier decision in favour of the Dominicans in their disagreement with the Franciscans was not universally accepted, indeed it had created difficulties for him over the years. Two students purposely broke the bust of Oliver, which was in St. Isidore’s College in Rome; both were expelled at the time, but regained admission to the Franciscan order in Spain where they completed their studies. Returning to Ireland, they continued to be disobedient and highly troublesome to Archbishop Oliver, eventually giving evidence against him at his trial in London. With remarkable candour and with more than a trace of humour, Archbishop Oliver could write at his time, only two weeks before his death: “Those who once beheaded my statue have now achieved the same object in the case of its prototype.”
On the 1st July 1681, after celebrating
an early morning Mass in his cell, Archbishop Oliver was dragged on a sledge
from Newgate prison, before a noisy crowd, a distance of three kilometers to
Tyburn. The keeper of Newgate when asked how the prisoner was, replied that he
had slept soundly and that he was as unconcerned as if he was going to a
wedding. From the three cornered gallows at Tyburn, Archbishop Oliver in a
prepared speech, refuted his accusers point by point and forgave all of them,
including the judges, and those who had given evidence against him at the
trial: “I beg of my Saviour to grant
them true repentance, I do forgive them with all my heart.” Oliver’s theme of
reconciliation continued, by his asking forgiveness of all those whom he had
ever offended by thought, word or deed. He prayed: “I beseech your Divine
Majesty by the merits of Christ and the intercession of his Blessed Mother and
all the holy angels and saints to forgive me my sins and to grant my soul
Kneeling he recited an act of contrition, the Miserere psalm and he repeated before his death: “Into Thy hands, O Lord, I commend my Spirit.” Several priests were close by and they blessed and absolved him at the point of his death. St. Oliver worked tirelessly as Archbishop for ten years, paying the ultimate price of martyrdom without seeing the fruits of his labours, and his crowning glory was the manner of his death, humble, heroic and holy. He may have been already dead when he was taken down and the further mutilation began. A fire had been prepared to consume his remains, his head was thrown into it, but it was quickly recovered and scorch marks may still be discerned on the left cheek. His demeanour and his speech from the scaffold were well received and it was patently obvious to many that he was innocent, as the plot had already shown signs of crumbling.
In the previous few years many blameless individuals had been hanged at Tyburn, mostly priests and none had tried to gain their freedom by pleading guilty or condemning others and this had exposed a weakness in the plot. Oliver’s trial, conviction and his eventual martyrdom on 1st. July 1681, was such an outrageous episode that it greatly discredited those who brought it about and the credibility of the plot and of its advocates collapsed completely thereafter. Lord Shaftesbury the principal promoter of the plot was arrested and imprisoned on the following day and Titus Oates was arrested soon afterwards on a charge of perjury. As a result, St. Oliver became the last of the one hundred and five Catholic martyrs of Tyburn who had given their lives over the previous one hundred and fifty years and also the very last of the Catholic martyr’s, condemned by the state in these islands.
The Martyrs Altar in Tyburn Convent
Plaque on the Wall at Tyburn Convent
Peace and Reconciliation
St. Oliver, a tireless worker for peace in his day, successfully brought peace to the province and to the Irish Church. He has been adopted as a patron in Ireland, for peace and reconciliation and more especially of the Northern Ireland peace process. Cardinal Tomás O’Fiaich once wrote; “It is worthy of note that the Truce, which brought to an end the War of Independence, came into force on the Feast of ‘Blessed’ Oliver in 1921.” In the modern era, it is also surely more than coincidence, that the momentous first meeting of the new Northern Ireland Assembly, took place on the 1st July 1998, the Feast of St. Oliver. Early in the twenty-first century, we give thanks to God that we can now repeat the words of St. Oliver when he stated; “The province has not had greater peace in thirty years… God grant that it may continue.”
In 1997 a national prayer campaign began in Ireland entitled, St. Oliver Plunkett for Peace and Reconciliation. Hundreds of thousands of prayer cards have been distributed at home and abroad and many people recite the prayer daily, for peace and reconciliation in Ireland. The prayer is printed below. A saint of reconciliation this devotion has inspired the committee to form an ecumenical peace group and ecumenical services have also been organised for peace and reconciliation in that time. A relic of St. Oliver has visited every diocese in the country and many hundreds of parishes have hosted masses for peace and reconciliation under his patronage. St. Oliver was renowned for his letter writing and over twenty thousand letters have been posted far and wide, to publicise in all the parishes of Ireland, the ‘National Days of Prayer’, which were held each of those years. Many memorable events have also taken place including a Mass of thanksgiving at the Shrine in Drogheda, when Cardinal Seán Brady broke a Pike, to symbolise St. Oliver’s role in peace-making; as depicted in the Canonisation Picture.
We must not relax our efforts at this time, as our peace is always fragile, so we must work, strive and pray that this peace may continue and grow in the future. There is also an immense need for reconciliation and healing in our midst and St. Oliver would no doubt be quick to point out that true peace and reconciliation can only be attained when the ‘Peace of Christ’ enters all hearts; an ideal he spent his lifetime in the service of God, constantly working to achieve.
Here in Ireland during these early years of the twenty-first century, we give thanks to God that the Irish peace process has been so successful to date and we pray for a fulsome reconciliation amongst all the traditions on the island of Ireland. Sadly at this time, the Irish Church again finds itself in serious crisis, needing healing and reform as much as ever. St. Oliver, a man who showed forgiveness even to his enemies, a reformer, a peacemaker, a man who was no stranger to all sorts of crisis, can teach us much by his example and intercession at this critical time for the Irish Church. So let us follow his example and invoke his intercession, as he undoubtedly would wish us now to do.
Prayer to St. Oliver Plunkett
The Canonisation of St. Oliver Plunkett
Confirmed Venerable on the 9th December 1886, the campaign for Archbishop Oliver Plunkett’s beatification could then begin. Declared Martyr, by the Church on St. Patrick’s Day 1918, he became Blessed Oliver at a beatification ceremony in St. Peter’s Basilica, Rome on Pentecost Sunday 23rd May 1920, during the pontificate of Pope Benedict XV. Following the 1932 Eucharistic Congress in Dublin, there was renewed interest in Blessed Oliver and a league of prayer was initiated to pray for his canonisation.
In 1958, an Italian woman, Mrs. Giovanna Martiriggiano who was gravely ill in hospital in Naples, was unexpectedly cured of her illness. A sister of the Irish Medical Missionaries of Mary, Sr. Cabrini Quigley from Donegal who was working in the hospital, prayed with the lady’s husband Nicola, regularly throughout the night to Blessed Oliver, for a cure of the patient who was expected to die overnight.
The lady who was expecting a child and was full term, was found unconscious at home. After many hours in this state, she was brought to hospital where it was found that she had lost the large baby girl and that some of the mothers internal organs were severely damaged and almost nonexistent as a result. The surgeon attending her, knowing that death was imminent, only loosely stitched her up in theatre and he arranged that she should be placed in a side ward not wishing her to die in ‘his’ theatre. Overnight, surprise was expressed on several occasions that she was still alive and hospital staff were astonished the following day when the patient revived. She soon made a complete recovery without the need of any further medical intervention whatsoever. Within a month, some of the sisters from the Medical Missionaries of Mary order went to visit Giovanna in her home, but missed her as she was out shopping. She subsequently lived a healthy life for a further fifty years. This cure was thoroughly investigated by panels of independent doctors. It was accepted as miraculous and attributed to Blessed Oliver.
Pope Paul V1 declared him a saint in a canonisation ceremony, held on 12th. October 1975. Giovanna along with her husband Nicola and son Enzo took part in the canonisation ceremony. News of the canonisation was received with great joy by the Irish Church and diaspora. Many Irish dignitaries from Church and State attended, along with an estimated twelve thousand Irish pilgrims who had travelled out from Ireland. A combined choir from Dundalk and Drogheda had the privilege of a lifetime by performing at the ceremony. During the canonisation ceremony, Archbishop Bafile, Pro-Prefect of the Sacred Congregation for the Causes of Saints, and Mgr. John Hanly, Postulator of St. Oliver’s Cause, formally requested the Holy Father to place the name of Oliver Plunkett on the list of saints.
The Irish Episcopal Conference issued a pastoral letter to mark the occasion of the canonisation, which included the following excerpts:
“We thank God for having given him to us to show us an example in these troubled times and to be our Patron in Heaven.” “He travelled the country for ten years, often in disguise and sometimes barely ahead of his pursuers, until his capture and imprisonment put an end to his labours. During these ten years he had done as much as any man since St. Patrick to strengthen and preserve the faith in Ireland.” “We ask him today for all the graces we need for ourselves and for our country. We ask that we may be as he was, steadfast, courageous and devout, untiring in our work for peace and reconciliation, loyal to the Church and firm in our faith even unto death. St Oliver Plunkett pray for us.”
The Canonisation Picture
The Canonisation Picture displayed over the Shrine is the original one, which hung from St. Peter’s Basilica in Rome during the canonisation ceremony in 1975. Full of symbolism it was painted by Professor Alfovino Missori a noted Italian artist.
Suggestion: When coming to the National Shrine in Drogheda, stand before the Canonisation Picture and the history of St. Oliver’s life will unfold before your eyes. It now becomes much easier to remember and to explain his story.
St. Oliver is depicted as bishop: Born in 1625 near Oldcastle Co. Meath, he went to Rome in 1647 and returned to Ireland in March 1670 as Archbishop of Armagh and Primate of Ireland, after a period of almost 23 years there. A student for the priesthood at the Irish College he was unable to return home after his ordination because of the Cromwellian Conquests, which had just peaked at that time. So he undertook further studies, gaining a doctorate in canon and civil law, than becoming a professor for 12 years in the famous Propaganda College where it is said he helped to improve standards a great deal. He was ordained Archbishop of Armagh at a quite ceremony in Ghent, Belgium on his way back to Ireland, lest a well-publicised ceremony in Rome might antagonise the government back home. As spies were on the lookout for him upon his return, he travelled for some months in disguise as a Captain Brown complete with wig, sword and pistols as befitted an officer. With a halo and rays of light: This signifies that he is holy and a canonised saint of the Church.
A father is seen on the right presenting his son to the Archbishop to be educated: He built and equipped from the foundations up, a school in Drogheda, which catered for one hundred and fifty boys, also a college in the same building for the education of up to fifty-six priests. This was badly needed after the turmoil of the Cromwellian persecutions, barely 20 years earlier. No catholic schools were allowed at that time, and he was called before the Council in Dublin on at least nine occasions to defend them. Three and a half years later, they were knocked to the ground by the authorities and this action caused St. Oliver considerable sadness.
In the foreground a newly ordained priest is shown holding a chalice: He probably ordained about 200 priests in total, and he went to great lengths to ensure that they were all properly trained and educated, before and after ordination.
The kneeling figure represents the great loyalty of the Irish people to the Catholic faith over the centuries: The Irish gave up their land, property and positions, rather than give up the great treasure of their Catholic faith. On several occasions he wrote of his admiration for the deep faith of the Irish people.
A confirmation scene is portrayed outdoors under a tree, and is set close to a ruined church: For several years, St. Oliver was the only active Bishop in the eleven dioceses of the northern province and he performed countless confirmation ceremonies, 48000 in his first three years as Archbishop, usually held at mass-rocks, as there were only a handful of catholic churches allowed in the whole of the province at that time. He wrote shortly after his return to Ireland: “There are bearded men of sixty who have not yet received the sacrament of confirmation.”
This ruined church to the left of the tree, contrasts greatly with St. Peter’s Basilica Rome, which is in its background: This symbolising St. Oliver’s strong loyalty to Rome. He willingly came back to help the Irish Church which was impoverished, and in quite poor shape with no church buildings.
The broken pike at the bottom of the picture: This symbolises the decommissioning of weapons at his request by the Raparees or Tories, having negotiated a peace agreement between them and the Government. Interestingly this has some similarities with the more recent Good Friday Agreement as it also included the laying down of arms and the release of prisoners. Without leadership for several decades, the Irish Church was often divided and there were very strong divisions and disagreements within it. He also brought peace to each diocese in turn on his many visitations.
The gallows scene recalls his death as a martyr: During his nineteen months in jail on false conspiracy charges against the government he prayed and fasted yet all the while he remained cheerful despite his various illnesses, and two incredibly harsh winters. His trial in Westminster Hall London was a travesty of justice, where the packed jury returned a guilty verdict after only fifteen minutes deliberations. St. Oliver replied: ‘Deo gratias’ or ‘God be thanked.’ His martyrdom took place on 1st July 1681 at Tyburn where he was hung drawn and quartered. In a moving speech he forgave all those who had any part in his downfall. His holiness was plain for all to see and as a result he became the very last Catholic martyr of Tyburn.
The tower on the top right hand corner of the picture: This a motif of the Plunkett family.
The shamrock on the top left hand corner of the picture:. This symbolises the faith of St. Patrick, which St. Oliver as his successor helped to preserve and to hand down to the present day. In a pastoral letter from the Irish Bishops to mark St. Oliver’s canonisation in 1975 they wrote: “He travelled the country for ten years, often in disguise and sometimes barely ahead of his pursuers, until his capture and imprisonment put an end to his labours. During these ten years he had done as much as any man since St. Patrick to strengthen and preserve the faith in Ireland.”
Legacy of St. Oliver
As a result of the Confederate wars of the 1640’s, the Cromwellian persecutions of the 1650’s and the Church dissensions of the 1660’s, the Irish Church after more than a generation of strife, was in grave danger of collapse. But into the 1670’s and not a moment too soon, by the grace of God, steps Archbishop Oliver, who wrote of these dissensions: “altar has been erected against altar.” Because of the deep divisions between Gael and Pale, the potential fault line in the Irish Church was much more pronounced in the northern province than in any other province. Providentially, it was here that Archbishop Oliver firmly took the tiller as Primate of Ireland, writing: “I imitate the Patriarch who without appearing on the stage, directs the whole show.” His strong calming presence, ensured that the Irish Church would not become ‘a house divided against itself’.
During that short window of opportunity between persecutions, he brought peace and order to the Church, thereby giving it hope. Through his many reforms, he left it on a more secure footing and better able to withstand the next prolonged assault of the penal laws, which was soon about to break. A former teaching professor, his efforts ensured that priests were educated, better organised and much more capable in their duties. The many ordination ceremonies he performed, his re-training of priests and his insistence on the high standards of those priests whether secular or religious, all of this helped in a significant way, in Oliver’s plan to rebuild the Church in Ireland and to leave it in good hands for future generations. His schools at Drogheda, although short lived, left an indelible mark for good in Irish Church and society.
Archbishop Oliver was renowned for his love and loyalty to Rome and he helped to strengthen the faithfulness of Irish Catholics to the Holy See, thereby helping future generations of Irish Catholics to remain steadfast in their faith. He re-established the principle that even in times of persecution, a bishop’s place is with his people, rather than taking the easier option of exile to the continent. Having brought peace to the Church, he also brought peace to the province by negotiating a peace agreement between the Raparees/Tories and the Government of the day. A tireless worker for peace in his day, St. Oliver has been adopted as a patron for peace and reconciliation in the Ireland of today, and we pray for his intercession in this regard. Many people recite daily the prayer to St. Oliver.
All saints have a vital role in God’s plan for our salvation, even those who may not appear important to us. Some saints however, are in the major league and have a tremendous impact on our lives. Such a saint is St. Oliver, who followed in the footsteps of St. Patrick in many respects, i.e. he was appointed in Rome and sent from there to Ireland, as the Archbishop of Armagh and leader of the Irish Church. In the centuries following St. Patrick, monks and missionaries from the ‘Island of Saints and Scholars,’ who were spiritually well prepared by an ascetic lifestyle, helped to re-conquer Europe for Christ.
Well over a millennium later, having safely survived the incessant battering of the penal laws, millions of exiles and many thousands of Irish missionaries, who were spiritually well prepared by that unrelenting onslaught, set forth from Ireland mostly in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries and helped to spread God’s kingdom throughout the world. Through the great providence of God, other nationalities also owe a huge dept of gratitude to St. Oliver Plunkett and other holy people of his day, because of the substantial fruit hard won, by those same Irish missionaries and exiles who travelled to the furthest corners of every continent, from that time on even down to the present day.
Deo Gratias for the life, example and intercession of St. Oliver Plunkett.
Drogheda and National Shrine in St. Peter's
Drogheda, known for generations as the ‘City of the Churches’ was the largest and most important centre of St. Oliver’s Archdiocese of Armagh. Protected by an extensive wall, it played a significant role in the trade and commerce of the period and St. Oliver wrote: “The city I speak of, by the way, is Pontana, in English Drogheda, in Irish Dreat. It is about five hours journey from Dublin and is the finest city in Ireland after Dublin”.
Saint Peter’s Church
The National Shrine to St. Oliver is located in St. Peter’s Church, Drogheda otherwise known as the St. Oliver Plunkett Memorial Church. The church was one of the last of the gothic churches to have been built and as such it incorporates many of the finer aspects of gothic architecture. Built by parish priest, Mgr. Robert Murphy in the late nineteenth century; it is regarded today as a masterpiece of beauty and design. Its interior was decorated by his successor, Mgr. Patrick Segrave in the early twentieth century and his work is also regarded as exquisite in both taste and in finish. A similar building of design and adornment, could not be built by the people of Drogheda today because of the astronomical costs such a project would entail.
A couple of years after St. Oliver’s martyrdom, the Relic of the Head was brought to Rome and remained there for about forty years, until it was given into the care of the new community of Dominican nuns at Siena convent in Drogheda, c.1725. The nuns were under the leadership of Sr. Catherine Plunkett a relative of St. Oliver and believed to have been his grand niece. The community had shortly beforehand moved from a mud cabin on the south side of the Boyne to a more substantial house in Dyer Street and they were living surreptitiously as a group of women, so as to avoid any difficulties with the authorities. For the following two centuries, this community proved their resourcefulness and devotion by faithfully preserving and venerating this priceless relic of the Irish Church, throughout the difficulties of penal times. During the war of independence because of a fear that some of the notorious Black and Tan forces might steal or desecrate the Relic, armed republican forces were positioned in its defence, in the locality of the Siena community at Chord Road, this being in an era of attack and reprisal. Within months and to the great disappointment of this community, the Relic of the Head was transferred in 1921 to the newly built, St. Peter’s Church, Drogheda, the Memorial Church of St. Oliver, where it was installed in a side altar.
National Shrine to St. Oliver
The Relic of St. Oliver’s Head now stands in an impressive new shrine, which was erected in 1995. Pilgrims have the opportunity to walk around the shrine and view at close quarters this precious relic of the Irish church. One can also view the original document of authentication of the relics, which was signed shortly after St. Oliver’s martyrdom, by Elizabeth Sheldon and surgeon John Ridley. After St. Oliver was hung, drawn and quartered at Tyburn, the Head was thrown into the prepared fire nearby. His friends quickly retrieved it however and scorch marks from the fire may still be seen on the left cheek of the Head. The Head is heavy and not just a bare skull and is in remarkably good condition considering that it has never been hermetically sealed. The Shrine at Drogheda also includes some bone relics of St. Oliver, donated by the Benedictine Community, Downside around the time of his canonisation. Overhead is the Canonisation Picture, which hung from the balcony of St. Peter’s Basilica in Rome during the canonisation ceremony on October 12th 1975. In a glass cabinet nearby, is the door from the condemned cell of Newgate Prison, London and St. Oliver would have been in this cell as a condemned man for the last few weeks of his life. Renowned for his letter writing, it was during this time that St. Oliver wrote his most poignant letters. He also wrote during this time, his last speech, which he delivered from the gallows at Tyburn and is famous for showing forgiveness to all those who had anything to do with his death.
Thousands of pilgrims visit the National Shrine of St. Oliver each month, making it one of the most popular attractions in Ireland. Coming from all counties of Ireland and various parts of the world; some come as sightseers, but many go away with an admiration for the loyalty in faith of those who have gone before us. Many pilgrims come to pray for various petitions and light candles. Some come to give thanks to St. Oliver for his intercession and for favours already received. Many come to kneel and pray for peace and reconciliation in Ireland, before the Shrine of our patron saint for this cause in Ireland.
Many dignitaries also come to pray at the Shrine of St. Oliver. Pope Paul VI at the canonisation ceremony in 1975, recalled a visit he made to the shrine some years earlier as Cardinal Montini. The President of Ireland, Mary McAleese has prayed at a service for peace and reconciliation at the Shrine, and there have been many other such prayer ceremonies at the Shrine. On the first Sunday of July each year, the annual celebration takes place at the Shrine, with a procession and Mass, commencing at 3pm.
When Pope John Paul II visited Killineer just outside Drogheda in 1979, he recalled his own attendance at the canonisation of St. Oliver in Rome, four years earlier. The Relic of the Head had been brought to the field at Killineer for his visit and after he knelt and prayed before the Relic, Pope John Paul preached his famous sermon of peace and reconciliation to the congregation of three hundred thousand people. His impassioned plea for peace to the men and women of violence received extensive international coverage and echoed around the world. It is commonly believed that his visit heralded the beginnings of the Irish peace process and sowed the seeds for a real change of heart, so that hatred and bitterness could thankfully be banished from the hearts of Irish men and women. During these early years of the twenty-first century, we give thanks to God for all the successes of the Irish peace process to date and we continue to pray through the intercession of St. Oliver, for a fulsome reconciliation amongst all traditions, on the island of Ireland.
St. Oliver in Drogheda
Barely twenty years before St. Oliver’s return in 1670 as the Archbishop of Armagh, Cromwell and his roundheads had carried out their cruel deeds in Drogheda and throughout the country. Given the choice, Catholics had chosen by an overwhelming majority to relinquish their land, property and positions, rather than to turn their back on the ancient faith, handed down to them by their forefathers. After Cromwell’s death, with the Restoration of the monarchy and King Charles II on the throne, the tactic of divide and conquer was initiated, to try and cause a split amongst the Catholics of Ireland when a remonstrance or declaration of loyalty to the King was proposed. In order to promote this agenda amongst Catholics, sympathetic priests of the Remonstrance were allowed to reopen chapels during the 1660’s in some of the leading centres in Ireland. Drogheda was included in this list and by the time of St. Oliver’s return, several such chapels were in existence, although priests more loyal to the Pope had by this time, taken charge of such chapels. Within eighteen months of his return, Archbishop Oliver wrote of the very fine, ornate chapels in Drogheda of the orders of Capuchins, Franciscans and Jesuits and of a poorer chapel of the Augustinian community. So for a period, Catholic worship was tolerated again, provided it was kept to a rather low profile and did not annoy or antagonise in any way the Government or the leading citizens or churchmen of the reform religions. Across the rest of the province however, the mass-rock was in vogue as none of the land was under Catholic control and so churches were disallowed. Despite this difficulty, it proved to be St. Oliver’s opportunity for doing good and he sprang into action during this short lull in the administration of the laws of oppression against Catholics. Indeed looking at his achievements, it is difficult to comprehend how one man could have achieved so much good in such a short period of time, triumphed over so many of life’s problems, while at the same time endured so many of life’s trials and tribulations.
Schools of St. Oliver in Drogheda
Before he undertook any new ventures, Archbishop Oliver first prepared the ground, so that by diplomacy he could smooth out a path towards success, as when he negotiated a peace agreement with the Tories/Raparees or the delicate task of removing the corrupt Vicar of Derry. The schools were another good example; despite the fact that Catholic schools were outlawed and notwithstanding the strong opposition to them, he diplomatically obtained permission to open a school in Drogheda. Without doubt he had already explained his intentions and allayed the fears of the Protestant Archbishop of Armagh and also the Viceroy in Dublin. This would have been necessary, as without their toleration, he could not have gone ahead with the project. When established, they probably hindered or remained neutral towards the many complaints, which were put forward against them. As forty Protestant boys were educated at the school, it no doubt helped to overcome some of the local opposition to them, although others were aghast, that good Protestant boys were educated in a school run by the Jesuits.
The school formed a crucial part of Archbishop Oliver’s plan of reform for the province and must have been on his mind even before his return to Ireland. Remarkably, the school and college, which he himself paid for and built from the ground up, was in operation in July 1670, or within four months of his return as the Archbishop of Armagh. Luckily for him, ‘An Bord Pleanála’ was not then in existence. He also built a ‘comfortable house’ for the three Jesuits priests and a brother who ran the school. It could accommodate one hundred and fifty boys, including forty who were Protestant. A section of the school was reserved for the education of priests and this college would later cater for up to fifty-six at a time. The expense of all this was considerable and Archbishop Oliver mentions in one of his letters that in order to help financially with the schools upkeep, he dressed himself in clothing made of inexpensive or rough material and he kept a most sparing table.
In a letter from Drogheda, dated 26th April 1671, he wrote: “Apart from three, the nobles and gentry of the whole province of Ulster were deprived of their possessions, and from being landlords and proprietors have become leaseholders. They are unable to educate their children. The young priests ordained over the past seven years to fill the parishes vacated by the death of the older priests are very deficient in learning: they do not have schoolmasters fit to teach them, nor were Catholic masters tolerated, and thus even the sons of gentlemen deprived of learning and skill grew up to become rogues and highwaymen, and many of them were hanged. Seeing this state of affairs I undertook a risky project: I called in the Jesuits into my diocese, I built for them from the foundations quite a comfortable house and two schools where they train up to one hundred and fifty boys and twenty five priests…I have supported for the past nine months two very learned and hard working fathers, a brother and a servant; one instructs the priests for an hour in the morning and an hour in the afternoon in cases of conscience, and the manner of preaching and catechising, and he also teaches rhetoric for two hours in the morning and two in the afternoon, and on feast days and free days he gives instruction in ceremonies and the administration of the sacraments, the other father teaches syntax and concordances. Besides, both of them often preach. I have kept them these nine months at my own expense, and have bought for them even the frying pan.”
Even though Drogheda Grammar School, an Erasmus school had opened a year earlier in 1669, there continued to be much opposition to the Catholic school in Drogheda and also to the fact that Protestants were being educated in a Jesuit school. Within eight months of his schools start up; Archbishop Oliver had been summoned on no less than nine occasions to the Viceroy’s court in Dublin because of the school’s existence and for his exercise of foreign or papal jurisdiction.
His diplomacy and his experience as professor of controversies in Rome obviously stood to him, as he won the argument on each occasion, thus enabling the schools continuance for a little while longer. The winds of toleration soon changed for the worse however and the schools in Drogheda were levelled to the ground by the authorities in November 1673, after only three years and five months in operation. This was a terrible blow to Archbishop Oliver, having expended so much effort and resources on the school and college, now witnessing their great potential stamped out. Nevertheless their influence for good, even after such a short time in operation, would have been felt in the Irish Church and in society generally, for many years afterwards. Later he wrote: “There is nothing which gives me greater interior pain however, than to see the schools established by me thrown down after such expense. O what will the Catholic youth do now, so numerous and so talented.”
The exact location of St. Oliver’s schools in Drogheda remains a mystery; some evidence suggests they were in Trinity Street, in the area of the Star and Crescent, although this location would have left them outside the town walls. Others believe that they were in the Shop Street or Dyer Street area. Canon Francis Carolan, PP Mellifont, in a booklet written in 1943 states that all agree the schools were located in Shop Street. He surmises they were on the grounds of the Augustinians Church/Friary in Shop Street and recounts a story that the Augustinians while building their Church/Friary in Shop Street had to get the ownership and title deeds of a certain property transferred from the Jesuits to the Augustinians before building work commenced.
The Last Speech of Archbishop Oliver Plunkett
St. Oliver wrote the speech during his final days in Newgate Prison, London, with the endorsement of Fr. Corker a fellow prisoner. He delivered it from the scaffold at Tyburn, immediately before his execution and it was printed shortly afterwards for distribution. The original manuscript, which is written in St. Oliver’s own hand, is preserved in Downside Abbey, along with his final letters to Fr. Corker. The speech was apparently well received, as the large crowd listened to him deliver it to its very conclusion and it is probable that many people may have already sensed an injustice was taking place. It is a well-structured speech and was obviously crafted with the benefit of a trained legal mind. It answered his detractors on a point for point basis, showing forgiveness even to his enemies and it must have convinced many more people of his innocence. Indeed, the tide of the wicked Popish Plot turned immediately and Lord Shaftesbury its principle promoter was arrested on the following day. St. Oliver thus became the last of the one hundred and five Catholic martyrs of Tyburn who had given their lives over the previous one hundred and fifty years and also the very last of the Catholic martyr’s who were condemned by the state in these islands. Deo Gratias.
I have, some few days past, abided my trial at the King's Bench and now very soon, I must hold up my hand at the King of Kings' bench, and appear before a Judge who cannot be deceived by false witnesses or corrupted allegations, for he knoweth the secrets of hearts. Neither can he deceive any or give an unjust sentence, or be misled by respect of persons; he being all goodness, and a most just Judge, will infallibly decree an eternal reward for all good works, and condign punishment for the smallest transgression against his commandments. Which being a most certain and an undoubted truth, it would be a wicked act and contrary to my perpetual welfare, that I should now, by declaring anything contrary to truth commit a detestable sin, for which, within a very short time I must receive sentence of everlasting damnation after which, there is no reprieve, or hope of pardon. I will therefore confess the truth, without any equivocation, and make use of the words according to their accustomed signification. Assuring you, moreover that I am of that certain persuasion, that no power not only upon earth, but also in heaven, can dispense with me, or give me leave to make a false protestation. And I protest upon the word of a dying man, and as I hope for salvation, at the hands of the Supreme Judge, that I will declare the naked truth, with all candour and sincerity and that my affairs may be the better known to all the world.
It is to be observed that I have been accused in Ireland of treason and premunire and that there, I was arraigned and brought to my trial but the prosecutors men of flagitious and infamous lives perceiving that I had records and witnesses, who would evidently convince them and clearly show my innocence and their wickedness. They voluntarily absented themselves and came to this city to procure that I should be brought hither to my trial, where the crimes objected were not committed, where the jury did not know me, or the qualities of my accusers, and were not informed of several other circumstances conducive to a fair trial. Here, after six months close imprisonment, or thereabouts, I was brought to the bar, the third of May and arraigned for a crime, for which I was before arraigned in Ireland. A strange resolution, a rare fact, of which you will hardly find a precedent these five-hundred years past. But whereas my witnesses and records were in Ireland, the Lord Chief Justice gave me five weeks time, to get them brought hither. But by reason of the uncertainty of the seas, of wind and weather and of the difficulty of getting copies of records and bringing many witnesses from several counties in Ireland and for many other impediments of which affidavit was made, I could not at the end of the five weeks, get the records and witnesses brought hither. I therefore begged for twelve days more, that I might be in a readiness for my trial, which the Lord Chief Justice denied and so I was brought to my trial and exposed, as it were with my hands tied, to those merciless perjurers, who did aim at my life, by accusing me of these following points:
First, That I have sent letters by one Nial O'Neale, who was my page, to Monsieur Baldeschi, the pope's secretary; to the Bishop of Aix, and to Principe Colonna, that they might solicit foreign powers to invade Ireland; and also to have sent letters to Cardinal Bullion to the same effect.
Secondly, To have employed Captain Con O'Neale, to the French King, for succour. Thirdly, To have levied and exacted monies from the clergy of Ireland, to bring in the French and to maintain seventy-thousand men. Fourthly, To have had in a readiness seventy-thousand men, and lists made of them and to have given directions to one friar Duffy to make a list of two-hundred and fifty men, in the parish of Faughart, in the County of Louth. Fifthly, To have surrounded all the forts and harbours of Ireland, and to have fixed upon Carlingford, as a fit harbour, for the French's landing.
Sixthly, To have had several councils and meetings, where there was money allotted for introducing the French. Seventhly, That I had a meeting, in the County of Monaghan, some ten or twelve years past, where there were three-hundred gentlemen of three counties; to wit, Monaghan, Cavan, and Armagh; whom I did exhort to take arms to recover their estates.
To the first, I answer, that Nial O'Neale was never my servant or page; and that I never sent letter or letters by him either to Monsieur Baldeschi, or to the Bishop of Aix, or to Principe Colonna. And I say that the English translation of that pretended letter, produced by the Friar MacMoyer, is a mere invention of his and never penned by me, or its original, either in English, Latin, Italian, or any other language. I affirm moreover, that I never wrote letter or letters to Cardinal Bullion, or any of the French King's ministers. Neither did any, who was in that court, either speak or write to me, directly or indirectly, of any plot or conspiracy against my King or my country. Further, I vow that I never sent agent or agents to Rome, or to any other court, about any civil or temporal affair. And it is well known, for it is a precept publicly printed, that clergymen living in countries, where the government is not of Roman-Catholics are commanded by Rome, not to write to Rome, concerning any civil or temporal affair. And I do aver, that I never received letter or letters from the Pope, or from any other of his ministers, making the least mention of any such matters: so that the Friar MacMoyer and Duffy swore most falsely, as to such letter or letters, agent or agents.
To the second, I say, that I never employed Captain Con O'Neale to the French King or to any of his ministers, and that I never wrote to him or received letters from him, and that I never saw him but once, nor ever spoke to him, to the best of my remembrance ten words; and as for his being at Dungannon or Charlemount, I never saw him in those towns or knew of his being in those places. So that as to Con O'Neale, Friar MacMoyer's depositions, they are most false.
To the third, I say, that I never levied any money for a plot or conspiracy, for bringing in French or Spaniards. Neither did I ever receive any, upon that account, from priest or friar; as Priest MacClave and Friar Duffy most untruly asserted. I assure you that I never received from any clergyman in Ireland, but what was due to me by ancient custom for my maintenance, and what my predecessors these hundred years past, were used to receive. Nay, I received less than many of them and if all that the Catholic clergy of Ireland get in the year, were put in one purse, it would signify little or nothing to introduce the French, or to raise an army of seventy-thousand men, which I had enlisted and ready as Friar MacMoyer most falsely deposed. Neither is it less untrue, (fourth) what Friar Duffy attested, viz that I directed him to make a list of two-hundred and fifty men in the parish of Faughart, in the County of Louth. To the fifth, I answer, that I never surrounded all the forts and harbours of Ireland and that I was never at Kinsale, Cork, Bantry, Youghal, Dungarvan, Youghal or Knockfergus, these thirty-six years past, I was not at Limerick, Duncannon, or Wexford. As for Carlingford I was never in it but once and stayed not in it, above half an hour. Neither did I consider the fort or haven. Neither had I it in my thoughts or imagination to fix upon it, or upon any other fort or haven, for landing of the French or Spaniards. And whilst I was at Carlingford by mere chance, passing that way, Friar Duffy was not in my company as he most falsely swore. To the sixth, I answer, that I was never at any meeting or council, where there was mention made of allotting or collecting of monies, for a plot or conspiracy. And it is well known that the Catholic clergy of Ireland, who have neither lands nor revenues, and hardly are able to keep decent clothes upon their backs, and life and soul together, can raise no considerable sum; nay cannot spare as much as would maintain half a regiment.
To the seventh, I answer, that I was never at any meeting of three-hundred gentlemen in the county of Monaghan, Armagh, Cavan, nor of one county nor of one Barony. And that I never exhorted gentleman or gentlemen either there, or in any other part of Ireland to take arms for the recovering their estates. And it is well known that there are not even in all the Province of Ulster, three hundred Irish Roman Catholics, who had estates, or lost estates by the late rebellion and it is as well known, all my endeavours were for the quiet of my country, and especially of that province.
Now, to be brief, as I hope for salvation, I never sent letter or letters, agent or agents, to Pope, King, Prince, or Prelate, concerning any plot or conspiracy against my King or country: I never raised sum or sums of money, great or small, to maintain a soldier or soldiers, all the days of my life. I never knew nor heard, neither did it come to my thoughts or imagination, that the French were to land at Carlingford, and I believe there is none who saw Ireland even in a map, but will think it a mere romance. I never knew of any plotters or conspirators in Ireland but such as were notorious and proclaimed, commonly called Tories, whom I did endeavour to suppress; and as I hope for salvation, I am and I was all the days of my life, wholy and entirely innocent of the treasons laid to my charge, and of any other whatsoever. And though I be not guilty of the crimes, deposed against me, yet I believe no man ever came to this place, who is in such a condition as I am; for if I should even acknowledge (which in conscience I cannot do, because I should belie myself,) the chief crimes of which I am accused, no wise or prudent man who knows Ireland, would believe me. If I should confess that I was able to raise seventy-thousand men, in the districts of which I had care; to wit, in Ulster; nay, even in all Ireland, and to have levied and exacted monies for the maintenance of the said army, from the Roman Catholic clergy and to have prepared Carlingford, for the landing of the French; all would but laugh, laugh at me. It being well known, that all the revenues spiritual and temporal of Ireland possessed by his Majesty's subjects are scarce able to raise and maintain an army of seventy-thousand men. If I will deny all those crimes, (as I did, and do,) yet it may be, that some, who are not acquainted with the affairs of Ireland, will not believe, that my denial is grounded upon truth, though I assert it, with my last breath. I dare venture further and affirm, that if these points of seventy-thousand men, etc. had been sworn before any protestant jury in Ireland, and had been even acknowledged by me at the bar, they would not believe me, no more than if it had been deposed, and confessed by me, that I had flown in the air from Dublin to Holyhead.
You see, therefore, what a condition I am in, and you have heard what protestations I have made of my innocence, and I hope you believe the words of a dying man and that you may be the more induced to give me credit. I assure you that a great peer sent me notice, that he would save my life, if I would accuse others. But I answered, that I never knew of any conspirators in Ireland but such as I said before, were notoriously known and proclaimed outlaws, and that to save my life, I would not falsely accuse any and thereby prejudice my one soul. Quid prodest homini…etc (note 1) To take away any man's life or goods wrongfully, ill becometh any Christian and especially a person of my calling; being a clergyman of the Roman Catholic Church, and an unworthy prelate. Neither will I deny, to have exercised, in Ireland, the functions of a Roman Catholic prelate, as long as there was any kind of toleration, and by preaching, teaching, and statutes, to have endeavoured to bring the clergy, of which I had a care, to a due comportment, according to their calling; but some of them would not amend and had a prejudice for me, and especially my accusers, to whom I did endeavour to do good; I mean the clergymen: who did accuse me, (as for the four laymen, viz. Florence Mac-Mover, the two Neals, and Hanlon, I was never acquainted with them). But you see how I am requited, and how by false oaths they brought me to this untimely death: which wicked act, being a defect of persons, ought not to reflect upon the order of St. Francis, or upon the Roman Catholic clergy. It being well known, that there was a Judas among the twelve Apostles, and that among the deacons there was a wicked man called Nicholas. And even, as one of the said deacons to wit, holy Stephen did pray for those who stoned him to death; so do I, for those who, with false oaths spill my blood; saying, as St. Stephen did, "O Lord! lay not this sin to them." And I beg of my Saviour to grant them true repentance and the grace never to sin any more. I do forgive them with all my heart, and also the judges, who by denying me sufficient time to bring my records and witnesses from Ireland, did expose my life to evident danger. I moreover forgive all those who had a hand in bringing me from Ireland, to be tried here, where it was morally impossible for me to have a fair trial. I do finally forgive all who did directly or indirectly concur, to take away my life, and I ask forgiveness of all those whom I ever offended by thought, word, or deed.
I beseech the All-powerful, that his Divine Majesty grant our King, Queen, and the Duke of York, and all the Royal family, health, long life, and all prosperity in this world and in the next, everlasting happiness. Now, that I have (as I think) showed sufficiently how innocent I am of any plot or conspiracy. I would I were able, with the like truth, to clear myself of high crimes committed against the Divine Majesty's commandments, often transgressed by me, for which, I am sorry from the bottom of my heart; and if I should or could live a thousand years, I have a firm resolution, and a strong purpose, by your grace, My God, never to offend you; and I beseech your Divine Majesty, by the merits of Christ, and by the intercession of his Blessed Mother, and all the holy Angels and Saints, to forgive me my sins, and to grant my soul eternal rest. Miserere mei Deus… etc. Parce animae peccatrici meae; In manus tuas Domine commendospiritu meum. (note 2)
For a final satisfaction of all persons, that have the charity to believe the words of a dying man, I again declare before God, as I hope for salvation, what is contained in this paper, is the plain and naked truth, without any equivocation, mental reservation, or secret evasion whatsoever, taking the words in their usual sense and meaning, as Protestants do, when they discourse with all candour and sincerity. To all which, I have here subscribed my hand the first of July.
Note 1: What does it profit a man...
Note 2: Have mercy on me, God, etc. Spare my sinful soul, Lord. Into your hands, O Lord, I commend my spirit.