St Oliver Plunkett, Archbishop of Armagh and Primate of all Ireland, was beatified in 1920 and canonised in 1975. His feastday is 1st July. Here is a short account of his life and martyrdom . . .
At the end of 1668, the Church's work in the land . . was so crippled by the persecution of those who ruled the island that of the 26 bishops who should have been there, only two were able to be in residence. The next spring there died in exile Edmund O'Reilly, Archbishop of Armagh . . .
Founded by the Apostle of Ireland himself in c. 445 A.D., Armagh had numbered among its occupants the great St Malachy, who died at Clairvaux in the arms of his friend, St Bernard, in 1148. In these troubled times, Richard Creagh, steadfastly refusing to acknowledge Queen Elizabeth as head of the Church, was carried to London and thrown into the Tower, where he died in 1585. His successor, Edmund Megauran, could not reach his diocese for six years, and was foully murdered soon after his arrival. Archbishop O'Reilly, consecrated at Brussels in 1654, had been three times a fugitive.
Now Pope Clement IX chose Oliver Plunkett to be his successor in the high and perilous seat. When the archbishop-designate was making his farewells in Rome, a priest friend said to him with sudden vision: "You are going, Father, to a place where you shall shed your blood for the Faith."
The new bishop reached his see in March, 1669. 'From the very outset,' wrote Patrick, Cardinal Moran, Archbishop of Sydney, 'he was most zealous in the exercise of the sacred ministry. Within three months he had administered the Sacrament of Confirmation to about 10,000 of the faithful, some of them being 60 years old, and, writing to Rome in December, 1673, he was able to announce that 'during the past four years', he had confirmed no fewer that 48,655 people.
'To bring this sacrament within the reach of the suffering faithful he had to undergo the severest hardships, often with no other food than a little oaten bread; he had to seek out their abodes on the mountains and in the woods, and as a rule, it was under the broad canopy of Heaven that the Sacrament was administered, both flock and pastor being exposed to the wind and rain.'
He made extraordinary efforts to bring the blessings of education within the reach of the Catholic youth. In effecting this during the short interval of peace that marked the beginning of his episcopate his efforts were most successful. He held frequent ordinations, celebrated two Provincial Synods, and was untiring in rooting out abuses and promoting piety.
Persecution at first was intermittent, depending somewhat on the temper of the viceroy of the moment. The second viceroy during his episcopate, Lord Essex, wrote in 1673:
'Here is one Oliver Plunkett, the Romish Titular [sic] Primate of this Kingdom, who seems to be one of the best men of his persuasion I have met with; and though I doubt not but he is industrious enough in promoting his own religion, yet I could never find but he was of a more peaceable temper and more conformable to the Government than any of their Titular Bishops in this Country.'
There were times, however, especially after Lord Essex had been recalled, when he was obliged to fly for his life. Like the Son of Man Who had not where to lay His head, St Oliver never had a house of his own, but he would wander from one thatched cabin to another, always safe in trusting to the loyalty of his poor.
'The storm of persecution burst with renewed fury on the Irish Church in 1673,' notes Cardinal Moran. 'The schools were scattered, the chapels were closed. The Saint, however, would not forsake his flock. His palace thenceforward was some thatched hut in a remote part of his diocese. As a rule, in company with the Archbishop of Cashel, he lay concealed in the woods or on the mountains, and with such scanty shelter that through the roof they could at night count the stars of the sky'.
It was a work of mercy that delivered the Archbishop into his enemies' hands towards the end of his ten years' episcopate. He was summoned to Dublin to console the last hours of his uncle, the Bishop of Meath. He was warned of the danger, yet he went as unhesitatingly as he had always done at the call of duty. There he was arrested on a charge of high treason and confined in Dublin Castle.
The fury of the English populace against Catholics and their insane belief in a 'Popish Plot' was at that time still raging fiercely. It is difficult for us to imagine how people could have credited the ludicrous stories that were told, and to realise that it was once seriously believed that the Great Fire of London in 1666 had been deliberately caused by the Catholics, a charge solemnly recorded on a public monument that stood in London until the 19th century!
Nonetheless, mob psychology is a strange and irrational thing, and as Lord Shaftesbury's conspiracy against the English Catholics could not be sustained without the supposition that a rebellion was being organised in Ireland, the evidence for such a rebellion had to be forthcoming. And since the Primate of all Ireland, of course, would be at the head of such a rebellion, St Oliver's days were numbered.
And so all England was launched on a mad career, hunting down treasonous Catholic plotters; even King Charles II was helpless before the power of the mob.
St Oliver's first trial was in July, 1680, at Dundalk, in his own diocese. He was accused of having obtained his see for the purpose of raising an army. But no-one appeared to testify against him except various unfrocked wretches who were seeking their revenge upon him for the discipline he had inflicted. His accusers were eager to have him in London, where they could do as they pleased with him, and so the Saint left his beloved Ireland a prisoner.
St Oliver was brought up for examination before the court of King's Bench. Since various 'untoward accidents' had prevented the arrival of the witnesses he had wished to have from Ireland, he could do little but assert his innocence throughout and point with well-merited scorn to his accusers' inconsistencies. It was no secret that his real crime lay in his being a Catholic bishop. He received his cruel sentence of being hung, drawn, and quartered with a serene 'Deo gratias!'
Lord Essex besought King Charles to pardon him, declaring from his own knowledge that the charges were false. 'Then, my lord,' replied the King gloomily, 'be his blood on your own head. You might have saved him if you would. I cannot pardon him, because I dare not.'
The day of his execution arrived. 'When I came to him this morning,' the governor of Newgate Prison noted, 'he was newly awoke, having slept all night without disturbance; and when I told him he was to prepare for execution, he received the message with all quietness of mind, and went to the sledge as if he had been going to a wedding.'
From the scaffold he delivered a discourse worthy of an apostle and martyr. An eye-witness of the execution declared that by his discourse and by his heroism in death he gave more glory to religion than he could have won for it by many years of a fruitful apostolate.
[After A. I. du P. Coleman in The Catholic World, 1920, and The Catholic Encyclopedia)]
[Above: The severed head of St Oliver in St Peter's Church, West St., Drogheda, Co. Louth. Ireland]