Saint Oliver Plunkett

English Martyrs

by Malcolm Brennan

OLIVER PLUNKETT'S career provides glimpses of many things: the progress of the reformation heresies, the vitality of the counter-reformation Catholic Church, Ireland and the Church in Ireland devastated by persecution, and Plunkett's own career toward sanctity.

Oliver was born into the tight network of Anglo-Irish gentry in 1625, and he was educated by his kinsman, Patrick Plunkett, later bishop of Meath, whom Oliver venerated all his life. In his teens he was sent to Rome to complete his education. Upon ordination to the priesthood in 1654, when he would normally have returned to Ireland, he requested and received permission to remain in Rome because of the severe Cromwellian persecutions still raging at home.

He stayed in Rome fifteen more years, but not idly. An apt administrator and teacher, he was perfectly attuned to the extensive, canonically systematized bureaucracies of the Holy City, and he was moving comfortably up the ladder of ecclesiastical success. Outside of office hours he gave himself up to good works, especially at the hospital of Santo Spirito. It seemed for all the world that he would live out a useful and blameless life there.

But then, surprisingly, the legalistic and orderly minds of counter-reformation Rome selected Oliver, at the age of 44, to be Archbishop of Armagh, a position which also carries the title Primate of All Ireland. He was an administrator and a theologian almost totally without pastoral experience as even a parish priest much less as bishop and head of a national hierarchy. And, while he no doubt knew the intra-mural politics of the Curia and had kept in touch with events in Ireland, he had little experience of national and international affairs.

THE condition of the Church in Ireland when Archbishop Plunkett landed in 1670 was desolate. Besides the regular havoc wrought by the Reformation, the Irish had suffered centuries of oppression and abuse at the hands of the English. In addition, Ireland had been a main battleground between the royal armies of King Charles I and the Puritan Parliament's "army of saints" led by the fanatic Oliver Cromwell. Cromwell's final victories were followed by measures to suppress the Anglican church, and a fortiori, the Catholic. There were repeated bloody attempts to eradicate the Catholic clergy and to obliterate the Faith. Part of Cromwell's final solution to the Irish problem was to drive whole populations of native Irish from the lands of their fathers into the stark wildernesses of Connaght, west of the Shannon, populations already debilitated by war, famine, religious persecution, and plague, and to give their lands to those who had financed or fought for Cromwell. Thousands of the orphans thus produced, and others, were sold into slavery for plantation labor in the West Indies, not by a few enterprising renegades but by official policy of the Puritan conquerors.

When the Puritan extravaganza collapsed and a king was restored to England's throne, Ireland returned to the less consistent persecution of the English monarchy. The confused state of political affairs is indicated by the fact that while King Charles II was executing harsh laws against Catholics (under pressure from his Parliament), his Queen, Catherine, lived a full Catholic life with a numerous Catholic clergy in her retinue.

IT was into this state of affairs that Oliver returned to his homeland after an absence of 23 years. A good measure of the still inhospitable climate is that the Primate of All Ireland donned the disguise of a soldier for his first few months home. He was later criticized for this—dashing around the countryside on a fine horse and in a blond wig, stopping at a tavern, drinking the host's health, bussing a barmaid on the cheek, and clattering off again with swords and gear rattling. (Strange stuff these Roman bureaucrats were made of.)

After learning where he could operate safely—for, despite the policies of the central government, the hereditary aristocracy still exercised extensive rule in their own feudal domains—he got down to the serious business of building up the Church. First, and constantly through his career, there were confirmations, hundreds and thousands of them, for bishops had not operated freely for many decades. Next he established schools for boys and clergy. They were a great success obtained at enormous personal sacrifice, but the government shut them down in less than four years.

The clergy was numerous but mostly of very low calibre. Education was scant among them, strong drink a blight, concubinage common, and at least one pastor supplemented his income by highway robbery. Dominican and Franciscan friars were at each others' throats, sometimes literally and at the very altar. Archbishop Plunkett was necessarily severe in dealing with these matters, but never unfair. The interesting thing is not that he made bitter enemies in dealing with refractory clergy—one deposed cleric hired assassins to kill him—but that his orderly, clerical, canonically oriented, Romanized mind was adequate to the job . . . and more than adequate, because the results were immediate, solid and enduring.

BY 1673 the favorable winds—shifted again. All Catholic clergy were ordered to register and report to seaports for exile. Oliver Plunkett had long since learned the art of compromise, of making the best of a bad situation, but at this juncture he counselled resistance. He and his old friend from student days in Rome, John Brennan, now Bishop of Waterford, found a dilapidated shack in a remote district and endured a harsh winter in it, sick and near starvation. These events marked a major turning point in St. Oliver's spiritual development and are the true beginnings of his real saintliness.

Heretofore he had always worked for God and His Church, diplomatically adapting the circumstances before him to the cause of religion. But now he had taken a posture of defiance of the circumstances before him, abandoning diplomacy for a prophetic stance. Heretofore he had suffered willingly, as for his beloved schools, but now the sufferings were in a way absolute, uncompromising, because they could not be calculated as proportional to some worthwhile earthly project.

He had reached a new kind of battle ground and, thank God, he was equal to the struggle. Dr. Brennan and I, he wrote, "are resolved to die from hunger and cold rather than abandon our flocks. It would be a shame for spiritual soldiers, educated in Rome, to become hirelings." He knew that his present sufferings were not now for schools and synods and confirmation schedules but were rather in imitation of the Good Shepherd who lay down His life for His sheep—that somehow they worked for the glory of God and the salvation of souls in the purely spiritual order now that the ecclesiastical order was in ruins.

Yet he did not, thank God and thanks to his theological formation in Rome, adopt a silly Anabaptist or Lutheran aversion or condescension to the "institutional church." When the wave of persecution fizzled out and a sort of normalcy returned, Oliver resumed his episcopal ministry with customary zeal and busyness—but now with a fuller sensitivity to the supernatural and a more complete abandonment to Providence.

This temporary calm was broken by a fanatic outburst of anti-Catholic feeling cultivated in ill-disposed minds by the devilish imagination of Titus Gates and his patron, Lord Shaftsbury. Oates concocted an elaborate Popish Plot, a scheme supposedly engineered mainly by Jesuits to take over the whole country, replace the king with his Catholic brother, and massacre the Protestants. Oates suddenly became the "saviour of the nation," and his mere accusation was practically sufficient to send men to the gallows. He is conservatively credited with thirty-five such judicial murders.

An important part of the Plot was the Irish connection: a 40,000 (or sometimes 70,000) man army was supposedly waiting there to invade England. When Archbishop Plunkett, again in hiding, was arrested on orders from London in 1679, the prosecution strategy was to show him to be a leader in the Popish Plot. The course of his imprisonment and trial is a tale in itself—the trial's illegal removal from Ireland to London, the consequent impossibility of assembling defense witnesses, the testimony of Catholic clerics against him, the shameful scheming of politicians, the incredible gullibility of otherwise sober men, the fanaticism of Catholic-haters, and the like. But more cogent than that tale is the story of St. Oliver's growth in sanctity.

THE idea of dying for the Faith could never have been very far from the minds of Catholics in the British Isles during the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries. But martyrdom is a good bit more than just being done in because one is Catholic—though that might fit some minimal definition of the term. Rather, it is a stupendous event in the supernatural order, an imitation of and an extension of and a participation in the redemptive passion of Christ. In some cases—like that of the innocents slaughtered by Herod—the victims seem unaware of their role as martyrs; nor even in retrospect can we fully understand why Our Lord's advent required their bloody sacrifice. In other cases, the victim is required over and over again to face agonies of decision to follow Our Lord. In either case, anguished or not, what seems to be essential is a total abandonment of oneself to God. But this emptying of oneself, this passivity, this passion like Our Lord's, is not finally obliteration, but it is, paradoxically, a highly personal act of heroic courage. Christ promised to his martyrs, "In patience you shall possess your souls" (Gospel, Second Mass of Several Martyrs, Roman Missal)— that is, to give the soul up to suffering is somehow to be pre-eminently self-possessed.

Oliver Plunkett was kept in solitary confinement from October to May in the very cold winter of 1680-81. Newgate Prison records call him "very ancient [he was 55] and subject to diverse infirmities," and they report his painful sufferings "by reason of his close confinement and want of assistance for the distemper of the stone and the gravel, which often afflicts him." He also suffered from filth and fetters. A fellow prisoner wrote:

After his transportation hither he was, as you know, close confined and secluded from all human conversation save that of his keepers until his arraignment, so that here also I am much in the dark and can only inform you of what I learnt as it were by chance from the mouths of the said keepers, viz., that he spent his time in almost continual prayers, that he fasted usually three or four days a week with nothing but bread, that he appeared to them always modestly cheerful, without any anguish or concern at his danger or strict confinement, that by his sweet and pious demeanor he attracted an esteem and reverence from those few that came near him.

This report comes from Father Maurus Corker, a Benedictine who had been found innocent of treason but was still imprisoned. The most extraordinary friendship developed between him and Saint Oliver. They met face to face only once, when they gave each other absolution, yet they carried on a lively correspondence between their cells. Father Maurus goes on:

The trial being ended and he condemned, his man [James McKenna] had leave to wait on him alone in his chamber, by whose means we had free intercourse by letters to each other. And now it was I clearly perceived the Spirit of God in him, and those lovely fruits of the Holy Ghost, charity, joy, peace, patience, etc., transparent in his soul. And not only I but many other Catholics who came to receive his benediction and were eye witnesses (a favor not denied to us) can testify.

There appeared in his words, in his actions, in his very countenance, something so divinely elevated, such a composed measure of cheerfulness, constancy, courage, love, sweetness and candor, as manifestly denoted the divine goodness had made him fit for a victim and destined him for heaven.

Saint Oliver's career, at least its busiest parts, had been characterized by determination, self-assurance, and what some had called touchiness, but in his last weeks he successfully rid himself of all vestiges of self-will. Father Maurus describes it:

After he certainly knew God Almighty had chosen him to the crown and dignity of martyrdom, they continually studied how to divest himself of himself and become more and more an entire, pleasing and perfect holocaust. To which end he gave up his soul with all its faculties to the conduct of God, so for God's sake he resigned the care and disposal of his body to unworthy me, and this in such an absolute manner that he looked upon himself to have no further power or authority over it.

For an instance of this, the day before he suffered, when I sent him a barber to trim him, the man asked him if he should leave anything on the upper lip. He answered he knew not how I would have it, and would do nothing without my order, so that they were forced to send to me before the barber could finish his work.

Another remarkable instance of his strange humility and resignation was that, about an hour before he was carried to execution, being desired to drink a little glass of sack to strengthen his spirits, he answered he was not at his own disposal but mine, and that he must have leave from me before he would either take it or refuse it; whereupon, though I was locked up, yet for his satisfaction his man and the keeper's wife came to my chamber, and then returning back told him I enjoined it, upon which he readily submitted.

ON the day of his death, Saint Oliver was allowed to say Mass with McKenna as his server, and then he awaited his execution with equanimity. Tied to a hurdle behind a horse, the Primate of All Ireland was dragged the two miles from Newgate Prison to Tyburn's 'triple tree.' He was permitted to address the crowds, which he did with a prepared speech asserting his innocence of treason. Afterwards, as he said some prayers in Latin, the cart was driven out from under him and he was left hanging. Though he may have been dead when they cut him down, the executioners proceeded with the full rigours of the traitor's death.

Archbishop Plunkett's words and his demeanor and his blood seem to have had an impact. The crowd treated him sympathetically, and throughout the country the frenzy of the Popish Plot soon abated. St. Oliver Plunkett was the last Catholic executed in England for his Faith. He died July 11, 1681, and was canonized on October 20,1975.


DR. MALCOLM BRENNAN is Professor of English at The Citadel in Charleston, South Carolina. He and the staff of THE ANGELUS are deeply grateful to those readers who have written about this column this year. We hoped, when it began last Spring, that it would be of benefit to you—and, judging from your many letters—it has, indeed!