Catholic World – An Irish Martyr

detail of a portrait of Oliver Plunket, by Edward Luttrell, early 18th century; National Portrait Gallery, London, EnglandTowards the close of the year 1645, the venerable oratorian, Father Peter Francis Scarampo, who had spent two years in Ireland on a special mission from the Holy See, was permitted to resign his position and return to Rome. He was accompanied thither by five young students whose relatives desired that they should complete their theological studies in the colleges of the Eternal City. Of these, the most distinguished for early proficiency and gentleness of disposition was a youth named Oliver Plunket, then in his sixteenth year, having been born at Loughcrew, county of Meath, in 1629, a near relative and protégé of the Bishop of Ardagh, Doctor Patrick Plunket, and closely connected by ties of kindred with some of the noblest families of Ireland, and with many distinguished ecclesiastics at home and on the Continent. Father Scarampo had borne himself so wisely and with so much charity and discretion while in Ireland, that his departure was regarded as a public misfortune, and his retiring footsteps were followed to the sea-coast by thousands of pious and grateful people; and, though his humble spirit would not allow him to accept the distinguished post of Papal Nuncio, and so remain among them, he never ceased to remember their hospitality and long-suffering and to befriend their cause at Rome upon all occasions. On the young men entrusted to his care he bestowed every possible favor, and especially on young Plunket, in whom he took a fatherly interest up to the day of his untimely death on the plague-stricken Island of Saint Bartholomew, even to the extent of defraying that student’s expenses for the first three years of his novitiate.

Soon after his arrival in Rome, Oliver Plunket entered the Irish College of that city, then under the charge of the Jesuit Fathers, and for eight years devoted himself with great industry and success to the study of philosophy, mathematics, and theology, subsequently attending the usual course of lectures on canon and civil law in the Roman University. Previous to his appointment to the See of Armagh, the Rector of the Irish College, in response to an enquiry of the Sacred Congregation of Propaganda, presented the following honorable testimony of the character and abilities of the future Primate:

“I, the undersigned, certify that the Very Reverend Dr. Oliver Plunket, of the diocese of Meath, in the province of Armagh, in Ireland, is of Catholic parentage, descended from an illustrious family; on the father’s side, from the most illustrious Earls of Fingal; on the mother’s side, from the most illustrious Earls of Roscommon, being also connected by birth with the most illustrious Oliver Plunket, Baron of Louth, first nobleman of the diocese of Armagh; and in this our Irish College he devoted himself with such ardor to philosophy, theology, and mathematics, that in the Roman College of the Society of Jesus he was justly ranked among the foremost in talent, diligence, and progress in his studies; these speculative studies being completed, he pursued with abundant fruit the course of civil and canon law under Mark Anthony de Mariscotti, Professor of the Roman Sapienza, and everywhere and at all times he was a model of gentleness, integrity, and piety.”

Having at length received his ordination in 1654, Dr. Plunket was obliged by the rules of the college either to proceed forthwith on the Irish mission or to obtain leave from his superiors to remain to further perfect his studies. He chose the latter course, and at his own request the General of the Society of Jesus, to whom he applied, permitted him to enter San Girolamo della Charità, where for three years he quietly devoted himself to the accumulation of knowledge and the duties of his sacred calling. Marangoni, in his life of Father Cacciaguerra, speaks of Doctor Plunket’s conduct while in that secluded retreat in the following eulogistic terms:

“Here it is incredible with what zeal he burned for the salvation of souls. In the house itself, and in the city, he wholly devoted himself to devout exercises; frequently did he visit the sanctuaries steeped with the blood of so many martyrs, and he ardently sighed for the opportunity of sacrificing himself for the salvation of his countrymen. He, moreover, frequented the Hospital of Santo Spirito, and employed himself even in the most abject ministrations, serving the poor infirm, to the edification and wonder of the officials and assistants of that place.”

The disturbed condition of his native country has been alleged as the cause of Dr. Plunket’s delay in Rome, and this in itself would be sufficient reason, if we reflect that at that time the soldiers of Cromwell were in full possession of every nook and corner of it, and that hundreds of priests, left without congregations, were obliged to fly for their lives to the Continent, or to seek refuge in mountains and morasses; but it is more than probable that the young ecclesiastic had an additional motive for remaining longer in the Holy City, and, having a forecast of his future eminence in the church, and of the vast benefits he was capable of rendering to the cause of religion and his country, desired, as far as possible, to qualify himself for the glorious task to which he was afterwards assigned at the fountain-head of Catholicity, before undertaking a labor which he must have known would be accompanied by many trials and dangers.

But even from the seclusion of San Girolamo his fame as an accomplished and profound scholar soon spread to the outer world, and in 1657 Dr. Plunket was appointed professor of theology and controversy in the College of the Propaganda, a position which he held with great credit for twelve years, until his departure from Rome. Though thus occupied in the responsible and laborious duties of his professorship, he was also consultor of the Sacred Congregation of the Index and of other congregations. In the performance of the high trusts thus imposed upon him, the young professor was frequently brought in contact with many of the most exalted personages of the Roman Court, some of whom subsequently filled the chair of Saint Peter, from all of whom he experienced the greatest kindness and repeated proofs of affection, as he frequently mentions with gratitude in his correspondence. Still the confidence reposed in him and the companionship of so many holy and erudite men failed to satisfy the cravings of his soul or reconcile him to his enforced exile. Of a highly sensitive and even poetic nature, his patriotism and attachment to his family were second only to his love for learning and religion, and his mind was constantly tormented by the accounts daily received in Rome of the barbarities practised on his compatriots and co-religionists by the licentious soldiery of the English Commonwealth. In writing to Father Spada, in 1656, on the occasion of the death of his friend and counsellor Father Scarampo, he exclaims in the bitterness of his spirit:

“God alone knows how afflicting his death is to me, especially at the present time, when all Ireland is overrun and laid waste by heresy. Of my relations, some are dead, others have been sent into exile, and all Ireland is reduced to extreme misery: this overwhelmed me with an inexpressible sadness, for I am now deprived of father and of friends, and I should die through grief were I not consoled by the consideration that I have not altogether lost Father Scarampo; for I may say that he in part remains, our good God having retained your reverence in life, who, as it is known to all, were united with him in friendship and in charity and in disposition, so as even to desire to be his companion in death, from which, though God preserved you, yet he did not deprive you of its merit.”

But, notwithstanding his own afflictions, he was ever ready to succor by his slender purse and powerful influence such of his destitute young countrymen who sought an opportunity in Rome to procure an education, of which they were so systematically deprived at home; and it was doubtless from a just perception of his great repute and thorough acquaintance with ecclesiastical affairs in Rome that, in the early part of 1669, he was requested by the Irish bishops to act as their representative at the Papal Court, an office which he cheerfully accepted and filled to the entire satisfaction of his venerable constituency.

But he was not long allowed to occupy this subordinate position in connection with the church in Ireland, nor even to retain his chair in the Propaganda. He had now entered on his fortieth year, his mind fully developed and stored with all the sacred and profane learning befitting one called to a higher destiny, and his soul imbued with a zeal so holy and so far removed from worldly ambition that no temptation was likely to overcome his faith, and no persecution, no matter how severe, to shake his constancy. He was therefore appointed Archbishop of Armagh and Primate of all Ireland, to succeed Dr. Edmond O’Reilly, recently deceased in Paris. Like the great apostle of his country, of whom he was about to become the spiritual successor, he had spent a long probation in the society of men remarkable for the purity of their lives and the extent of their knowledge, and as Saint Patrick longed to revisit the land of his adoption, he also yearned to be once again among the Irish people. Yet his appointment to the primacy of Ireland was neither sought nor anticipated by Dr. Plunket at this time, as we learn from a letter from the Archbishop of Dublin to Monsignor Baldeschi, Secretary of the Propaganda, in which he says:

“Certainly, no one could be appointed better suited than Dr. Oliver Plunket, whom I myself would have proposed in the first place, were it not that he had written to me, stating his desire not to enter for some years in the Irish mission, until he should have completed some works which he was preparing for the press.”

The names of many clergymen distinguished for piety, devotion, and learning had been forwarded to Rome, from which to select a fitting successor to Dr. O’Reilly; but, while their various merits were under discussion, the Holy Father, Clement IX., it is said, simplified the matter by suggesting Dr. Plunket as the person best qualified to fill the vacant see, and to govern by his experience and force of character the hierarchy, and, through it, the priesthood of Ireland. The views of the Pope met with unanimous approval, and, the selection being thus made, it was out of the power of Dr. Plunket, no matter how diffident he might have been of his own abilities to fill so elevated a position, to decline. We have seen how this important decision of the Sacred Congregation was viewed by Dr. Talbot, of Dublin, and his opinions seemed to have been shared by all the bishops and priests in Ireland. Dr. O’Molony, of Saint Sulpice, Paris, afterwards Bishop of Killaloe, writes:

“You have already laid the foundations of our edifice, erected the pillars, and given shepherds to feed the sheep and the lambs; but, now that the work should not remain imperfect, you have crowned the edifice, and provided a pastor for the pastors themselves, appointing the Archbishop of Armagh, for it is not of the diocese of Armagh alone that he has the administration, to whom the primacy and guardianship of all Ireland is entrusted. One, therefore, in a thousand had to be chosen, suited to bear so great a burden. That one you have found—one than whom none other better or more pleasing could be found; with whom (that your wise solicitude for our distracted and afflicted country should be wanting in nothing) you have been pleased to associate his suffragan of Ardagh, a most worthy and grave man.”

The Bishop of Ferns, also, in addressing the Secretary of the Sacred Congregation, says: “Applauding and rejoicing, I have hastened hither from Gand, to the Most Reverend and Illustrious Internunzio of Belgium, to return all possible thanks to our Holy Father, in the name of my countrymen, for having crowned with the mitre of Armagh the noble and distinguished Oliver Plunket, Doctor of Theology;” and Dr. Dowley, of Limerick, adds, “Most pleasing to all was the appointment of Dr. Plunket, and I doubt not it will be agreeable to the government, to the secular clergy, and to the nobility.”

These warm expressions of esteem and regard, if known to the new primate, must have inspired him with renewed courage to accept the grave responsibilities imposed upon him, and truly, if ever man required the support of friends to nerve him to encounter dangers and unheard-of opposition, he did. But he seems to have had within himself a courage not of this world, but superior to all earthly considerations. It is recorded on the very best authority that, when about to leave Rome, he was thus accosted by an aged priest, “My lord, you are now going to shed your blood for the Catholic faith.” To which he replied, “I am unworthy of such a favor; nevertheless, aid me with your prayers, that this my desire may be fulfilled.” The condition of the country to which the primate was hastening fully justified this prophecy. It was to the last degree forlorn and full of discouragement. The sufferings of the Irish people at this period defy description; and were it not that we have before us the penal acts of parliament, numerous authenticated state papers, and the published statements of some of the highest officials of the crown and the agents of the Commonwealth, we would be inclined to believe, if only for the credit of human nature, that the relation of the atrocities at this time perpetrated by English authority on the Catholics of Ireland was the work of some diseased mind that delighted in horrors and revelled in the contemplation of an imaginary pandemonium. The Tudors and the Stuarts as persecutors of Catholics were bad enough, but their ineffectual fires paled before the cool atrocity and sanctimonious villany of the followers of Cromwell; men, if we must call them such, who, arrogating to themselves not only the honorable title of champions of human liberty, but claiming to be the exemplars of all that was left of what was pure and holy in this wicked world, perpetrated in the name of freedom and religion a series of such deeds of darkness that not even a parallel can be found for them in the annals of the worst days of the Roman emperors. So deep indeed has the detestation of the barbarities of Cromwell taken root in the popular mind of Ireland, that, though more than two centuries have elapsed since his death, his name is as thoroughly and as heartily detested there to-day as if his crimes had been committed in our own generation. Previous to the Reformation, though wars were frequent and oftentimes bloody between the English invaders and the natives, they were generally conducted in a certain spirit of chivalry and with some degree of moderation, which usually characterize hostile Catholic nations even in times of the greatest excitement. Churches and the nurseries of learning and charity were respected, or, if destroyed through the stern necessities of warfare, were apt to be replaced by others. But the followers of the new religion knew no such charitable weakness, for from the first they seemed actuated, probably as a punishment for their sin of wilful rebellion against the authority of God’s law, with an unquenchable hatred of everything holy, and a craftiness in devising measures to destroy the faith and pervert the minds of the Catholics so preternatural in its ingenuity that we can only account for it by supposing it the emanation of the enemy of mankind. That any people stripped of all worldly possessions, debarred so long from religious worship and the means of enlightenment, outlawed by the so-called government, ensnared by the spy and the magistrate, and ground to dust beneath the hoofs of the trooper’s horse, should not only have preserved their existence and the faith, but have multiplied amazingly, both at home and abroad, is one of the most remarkable incidents in all history, as well as one of the strongest proofs of the enduring and unconquerable spirit of Catholicity.

There were probably at this time in Ireland nearly a million and a half of Catholics, though Sir William Petty estimates their number at about 1,200,000; the native population having been fearfully reduced by the late war and the pestilence and famine which succeeded it, by the emigration of forty or fifty thousand able-bodied men to Spain and other countries, and by the deportation of an equal number of women and children, as slaves, to the West Indies and the British settlements on our Atlantic coast. Yet, notwithstanding the immense loss of life occasioned soon after by the Williamite war, the constant drain on the adult male population in the latter part of the seventeenth and the first half of the eighteenth centuries, to fill up the decimated ranks of the Catholic armies of Europe, amounting, it is said, to three-quarters of a million, the periodical famines to which the peasantry were constantly exposed, and the great famine of 1846-7 and 1848, which swept away at least two millions, the Irish Catholics of to-day and their descendants in all quarters of the globe number at least fifteen million souls. It is a singular and interesting fact that the Irish Catholics resident in London out-number the entire population of the city of Dublin; that in the cities and towns of England and Scotland there are more Catholics of Irish birth than existed in every part of the world two hundred years ago; and that, while the children of Saint Patrick count nearly five millions on the soil which he redeemed from paganism, many more millions of them and their descendants born within the present century are planting the cross of Christ everywhere in America and Australasia. This indestructibility of the Irish race seems to have raised an insurmountable barrier against the designs of the reformers. James I. having planted part of Ulster with some success, the Long Parliament determined to follow his example on a more comprehensive scale, and to utterly exterminate the people who persisted in adhering to their ancient faith. Accordingly, in 1654, all Catholics were ordered under the severest penalties to remove before a certain day from the provinces of Ulster, Leinster, and Munster, and take up their abodes in Connaught, the least fertile and most inaccessible division of the island. In their front a strip of land some miles in width, following the sinuosity of the sea-coast, and another in their rear along the line of the Shannon, were reserved for the victors and protected by a cordon of military posts, the penalty of passing which, without special license, was death. Thus encompassed by the stormy Atlantic and the broad river, with an inner belt of hostile settlements, it was fondly hoped that the remnant of the gallant Irish nation, completely segregated from the world, would speedily perish, unnoticed and unknown, among the sterile mountains of the west. A more diabolical attempt on the lives of a whole people is not to be found recorded in either ancient or modern history, and, to do but justice to the canting fanatics who conceived the plan, no means were left untried to carry it out to a successful issue. But Providence, with whose designs the Cromwellians assumed to be well acquainted, decreed otherwise, and no sooner had their leader sunk into a dishonored grave, and the legitimate sovereign been restored to the throne, than every part of the country swarmed again with Catholics, who seemed to spring, as if by magic, from the very soil. The people, it was found, had actually increased in numbers, and the clergy, who it was supposed had been effectually destroyed by expatriation, famine, or the sword, still amounted to over sixteen hundred seculars and regulars, as devoted as ever to the spiritual interests of their flocks.

The restoration of Charles II. in 1660 was hailed by the Catholics as a favorable omen. They had faithfully supported his father, and had lost all in defending his own cause, and hence they naturally expected, if not gratitude, at least simple justice. But Charles was a true Stuart. Opposed to persecution from a constitutional love of ease and pleasure, as much as from any innate sense of right, he had neither the capacity to plan a reform nor the manhood to carry out the tolerant designs of others. He was, moreover, weak-minded, vacillating, and insincere, more disposed to conciliate his enemies by gifts and honors than to reward his well-tried friends by the commonest acts of justice. The greatest favor that the Catholics could obtain was a toleration of their worship in remote and secret places, and even this qualified boon was dependent on the whim of the viceroy, and was soon withdrawn at the command of parliament.

But the evils of the English Protestant system did not stop here. The death or involuntary exile of most of the Irish bishops and the dispersion of the clergy created a relaxation of ecclesiastical discipline, particularly among the regulars, and the impossibility of obtaining proper religious instruction at home, and the difficulty of procuring it elsewhere, necessarily lowered the standard of education among the priests of all ranks. Left for the most part to their own guidance, and only imperfectly trained for the ministry, many friars, particularly of the Order of Saint Francis, so illustrious for its many distinguished scholars and eloquent preachers, were disposed to rebel against their superiors when the least restraint was placed upon their irregular modes of living, and some were found base enough to lend the weight attached to their sacred calling to further the designs of the worst enemies of their creed and country. Ormond and other so-called statesmen, while avowing unqualified loyalty to their sovereign and a secret attachment to the church, were insidiously betraying the one by placing him in a false position before Catholics and Protestants, while vainly endeavoring to strike a blow at the other by using these apostates to create a schism in her ranks. In the latter scheme they signally failed, and their defeat was mainly due to the untiring energy and profound foresight of the Archbishop of Armagh during the ten years of his administration. The very announcement of Dr. Plunket’s appointment seems to have struck terror into the secret enemies of the church in Ireland, and to have given new hope to the friends of religion. This event occurred on the 9th of July, 1669, when the bulls for his consecration were immediately forwarded to the Internunzio at Brussels. Dr. Plunket was desirous of receiving the mitre in Rome, and even made a strong request to be granted that privilege, but the prudential motives which induced the Sacred Congregation to select Belgium in the first instance still remained, and the favor was reluctantly refused. As his first act of obedience, the archbishop bowed cheerfully to this decision, and after presenting his little vineyard, his only real property, and a few books to the Irish College, he bade a final adieu to his Roman friends in the following month, and commenced his homeward journey—his first step to a glorious immortality. He arrived during November in the capital of Belgium, and was cordially welcomed by the Internunzio, who was not unacquainted with his extensive learning and unaffected piety. At the request of that prelate, the Bishop of Ghent consented to administer consecration to Dr. Plunket, and the solemn ceremony was duly performed on the 30th of November, in the private chapel of the episcopal palace in that ancient city. Dr. Nicholas French, Bishop of Ferns, one of the few persons present on the occasion, thus describes it:

“I present a concise narrative of the consecration of the most illustrious Archbishop of Armagh. His excellency the Internunzio wrote most kind letters to the bishop of this diocese requesting him to perform it, and he most readily acquiesced. But I, on receiving this news, set out at once for Brussels to conduct hither his Grace of Armagh, bound by gratitude to render him this homage. A slight fever seized our excellent bishop on the Saturday before the Twenty-fourth Sunday after Pentecost, which had been fixed for Dr. Plunket’s consecration; wherefore that ceremony was deferred till the first Sunday in Advent, on which day it was devoutly and happily performed in the capella of the palace, without noise, and with closed doors, for such was the desire of the Archbishop of Armagh. Remaining here for eight days after his consecration, he passed his time in despatching letters and examining my writings.”

After this short delay, the Primate continued his journey, stopping long enough in London to see his friends at the English court, and to present his credentials to the Queen, who was a devout Catholic, and who received him with great cordiality. He had also leisure to become somewhat conversant with the policy and views of the leading public characters in the English capital, and to study the workings and temper of the parliament. After a tedious and fatiguing journey, he at length landed in Ireland, in March, 1670, having been absent from that country a quarter of a century, where he was joyously received by his numerous relatives and friends. Great was the change which had been wrought in his life during those twenty-five years, but, alas! how much greater had been the alteration in the circumstances of his countrymen. As a lad he had left them in the full enjoyment of their religion in almost every part of the island, their nobility in the possession of their estates, the peasantry and farmers prosperous, the clergy respected and freely obeyed, and all full of hope for the future, and sanguine of yet attaining their independence. As an archbishop and primate, he returned to find nothing but desolation and ruin, sorrow and dejection. The nobility had either been banished or reduced to the condition of mere tenants on their own property, so that only three Catholic gentlemen in the province of Armagh, which embraces eleven dioceses, held any real estate; the original cultivators of the soil who had been spared by the sword and had not been transported or compelled to emigrate were formed into bands of plunderers, and infested the highways under the name of tories, while such as remained of the bishops and clergy were to be found only in bogs and mountains or in the most obscure portions of the larger towns and cities.

Undaunted by the scenes of woe and destruction around him, the Primate, like a diligent servant of God, had no sooner set foot on his native soil than he proceeded to the performance of his pastoral labors. Writing to Cardinal Barberini, Protector of Ireland, an account of his journey from Rome, he says:

“I afterwards arrived in Ireland in the month of March, and hastened immediately to my residence; and I held two synods and two ordinations, and in a month and a-half I administered confirmation to more than ten thousand persons, though throughout my province I think there yet remain more than fifty thousand persons to be confirmed. I remarked throughout the country, wherever I went, that for every heretic there are twenty Catholics. The new viceroy is a man of great moderation; he willingly receives the Catholics, and he treats privately with the ecclesiastics, and promises them protection while they attend to their own functions without intriguing in the affairs of government.”

The nobleman here alluded to was Lord Berkeley, who held office in Ireland for a few years, and under whose politic and tolerant, if not very sincere, administration the Catholics enjoyed at least comparative security. Personally, he, as well as his successor, Lord Essex, entertained a very high respect for the primate, and treated him with great kindness, when it was possible to do so without incurring the displeasure of the ultra-Protestant faction. Indeed, Archbishop Plunket, well aware of the difficulties which constantly beset his path, and feeling the futility of defying the government authorities, set his mind from the first to conciliate those whom he knew had the power to thwart or second his efforts, without yielding anything of his episcopal dignity or compromising his character as an ardent patriot. His long probationary course in Rome and his intimate association with so many of the best and most accomplished minds at the Papal court must have eminently qualified him for dealing with the leading British officials in Ireland. In his voluminous correspondence with the Holy See, he frequently alludes to his interviews with the lord-lieutenant and other noblemen, and to the judicious use he was able to make of his influence with them for the benefit of his less fortunate or more demonstrative brethren in the ministry. In a letter addressed to Pope Clement, dated June 20, 1670, he says:

“Our viceroy is a man of great moderation and equity: he looks on the Catholics with benevolence, and treats privately with some of the clergy, exhorting them to act with discretion; and for this purpose he secretly called me to his presence on many occasions, and promised me his assistance in correcting any members of the clergy of scandalous life. I discover in him some spark of religion, and I find that many even of the leading members of his court are secretly Catholics.”

Again, to Dr. Brennan, his successor as Irish agent, he writes:

“In the province of Armagh, the clergy and Catholics enjoy a perfect peace. The Earl of Charlemont, being friendly with me, defends me in every emergency. Being once in the town of Dungannon to administer confirmation, and the governor of the place having prevented me from doing so, the earl not only severely reproved the governor, but told me to go to his own palace, when I pleased, to give confirmation or to say Mass there if I wished. The magistrate of the city of Armagh, having made an order to the effect that all Catholics should accompany him to the heretical service every Sunday, under penalty of half-a-crown per head for each time they would absent themselves, I appealed to the president of the province against this decree, and he cancelled it, and commanded that neither clergy nor Catholic laity should be molested.”

It is not, however, to be supposed from these isolated instances of toleration that the new primate was allowed the full exercise of his functions in the land of his nativity, and where his flock so vastly outnumbered their opponents. On the contrary, we learn from a letter of Lord Conway to his brother-in-law, Sir George Rawdon, that even before Dr. Plunket reached Ireland orders had been issued by the lord-lieutenant for his arrest as being one of “two persons sent from Rome, that lie lurking in the country to do mischief;” and even when he had taken possession of his see, his labors for the most part were performed in secret or in the night time. This was more particularly so after 1673, when the persecution was renewed against the Catholics, that we have his own authority and that of his companion in suffering, Dr. Brennan, Bishop of Waterford, for saying that at the most tempestuous times he was obliged to seek safety by flight, and frequently to expose himself to the horrors of a northern winter and almost to starvation in order to be amid his people, and ready to administer spiritual consolation to them.

“The viceroy,” he says, writing in January, 1664, “on the 10th or thereabouts of this month, published a further proclamation that the registered clergy should be treated with the greatest rigor. Another but secret order was given to all the magistrates and sheriffs that the detectives should seek out, both in the cities and throughout the country, the other bishops and regulars. I and my companions no sooner received intelligence of this than, on the 18th of this month, which was Sunday, after vespers, being the festival of the Chair of Saint Peter, we deemed it necessary to take to our heels; the snow fell heavily mixed with hail-stones, which were very hard and large; a cutting north wind blew in our faces, and the snow and hail beat so dreadfully in our eyes that to the present we have been scarcely able to see with them. Often we were in danger in the valleys of being lost and suffocated in the snow, till at length we arrived at the house of a reduced gentleman, who had nothing to lose; but for our misfortune he had a stranger in his house, by whom we did not wish to be recognized; hence we were placed in a large garret without chimney and without fire, where we have been during the past eight days. May it redound to the glory of God, the salvation of our souls, and the flocks entrusted to our charge!”

So great indeed was the danger of discovery at this time, and so watchful were the emissaries of the law, that he was compelled to write most of his foreign letters over the assumed signature of “Mr. Thomas Cox,” and was usually addressed by that name in reply. He even tells us that he was sometimes obliged to go about the performance of his duties in the disguise of a cavalier with cocked hat and sword.

Dr. Plunket is represented by his contemporaries as a man of delicate physical organization, highly sensitive in his temperament, and disposed naturally to prefer the seclusion of the closet to the excitement and turmoil of the world. The contrast between the scholastic retirement in which he had spent so many years of his life, and the circumstances by which he now found himself surrounded, must have been indeed striking, but like a true disciple he did not hesitate a moment in entering on his new sphere of usefulness. Shortly after his arrival in Dublin, on the 17th of June, 1670, he called together and presided over a general synod of the Irish bishops, at which several important statutes were passed, as well as an address to the new viceroy declaring the loyalty and homage, in all things temporal, of the hierarchy of Ireland to the reigning sovereign. Two synods of his own clergy had already been held, and in September following a provincial council of Ulster met at Clones, which not only reaffirmed the decrees of the synod of Dublin, but enacted many long required reforms in discipline and the manner of life of the clergy. In a letter from the assembled clergy of the province of Armagh, date October 8, 1670, and addressed to Monsignor Baldeschi, they thus speak of the untiring labors of their metropolitan:

“In the diocese of Armagh, Kilmore, Clogher, Derry, Down, Connor, and Dromore, although far separated from each other, he administered confirmation to thousands in the woods and mountains, heedless of winds and rain. Lately, too, he achieved a work from which great advantage will be derived by the Catholic body, for there were many of the more noble families who had lost their properties, and, being proclaimed outlaws in public edicts, were subsequently guilty of many outrages; those by his admonitions he brought back to a better course; he moreover obtained pardon for their crimes, and not only procured this pardon for themselves, but also for their receivers, and thus hundreds and hundreds of Catholic families have been freed from imminent danger to their body and soul and properties.”

But the good pastor was not contented with these extended labors among the laity. To make his reforms permanent and beneficial, he felt that he should commence with the clergy, who as a body had always been faithful to their sacred trust, but, owing to the disturbed state of the country for so many years past, had been unable to perform their allotted duties with that exactness and punctuality so desirable in the presence of a watchful and unscrupulous enemy. He therefore ordained many young students, whom he found qualified for the ministry, and, taking advantage of the temporary cessation of espionage consequent on the arrival of Lord Berkeley, he established a college in Drogheda, in which he soon had one hundred and sixty pupils and twenty-five ecclesiastics, under the care of three learned Jesuit fathers. The expenses of this school he defrayed out of his slender means, never more than sixty pounds per annum, and frequently not one-fifth of that sum, with the exception of 150 scudi (less than forty pounds sterling), annually allowed by the Sacred Congregation of Propaganda. When, in 1674, the penal laws were again put in force in all their original ferocity of spirit, the college was of course broken up; but Dr. Plunket in his letters to Rome was never tired of impressing on the minds of the authorities there the necessity of affording Irish students more ample facilities for affording a thorough education. His suggestions in regard to the Irish College at Rome, by which a larger number of students might be accommodated without increased expense, though not acted upon at the time, have since been carried out, and it was principally at his instance that the Irish institutions in Spain, previously monopolized by young men from certain dioceses of Ireland only, were thrown open to all.

In the latter part of 1671, we find Dr. Plunket on a mission to the Hebrides, where the people, the descendants of the ancient Irish colonists, still preserved their Gaelic language, and received him with all the gratitude and enthusiasm of the Celtic nature. In 1674, notwithstanding the storm of persecution then raging over the island, he made a lengthy tour through the province of Tuam, and in the following year we have a detailed report of his visitation to the eleven dioceses in his own province, every one of which, no matter how remote or what was the personal risk, he took pains to inspect, bringing peace and comfort in his footsteps, and leaving behind him the tears and prayers of his appreciative children.

If we add to this multiplicity of occupations the further one of being the chief and almost only regular correspondent of the Sacred Congregation of Propaganda in the three kingdoms, we may presume that the primate’s life in Ireland was fully and advantageously occupied. The number of his letters to Rome on every subject of importance is immense, when we consider the difficulty and danger of communication in those days. He was also in constant correspondence with London, Paris, and Brussels, and, though he sometimes complains of the weakness of his eyesight, caused doubtless by exposure and change of climate, he frequently regrets more his poverty, which did not enable him to pay the postage on all occasions. At one time, indeed, he avers that all the food he is able to procure for himself is “a little oaten bread and some milk and water.”

The last important act of the primate was the convocation of a provincial synod at Ardpatrick, in August, 1678, at which were present the bishops or vicars-general and apostolic of all the dioceses of Ulster. Many decrees of a general and special nature were there passed with great solemnity, and upon being sent to Rome were duly approved. It was upon this occasion that the representatives of the suffragan diocese of Armagh, deeply impressed and edified as they were by the labors and sanctity of their archbishop, addressed a joint letter to the Sacred Congregation, eloquently describing the extent and good effect of his constant solicitude for his spiritual charge.

“We therefore declare (say those venerable men) that the aforesaid Most Illustrious Metropolitan has labored much, exercising his sacred functions not only in his own but also in other dioceses; during the late persecution he abandoned not the flock entrusted to him, though he was exposed to extreme danger of losing his life; he erected schools, and provided masters and teachers, that the clergy and youth might be instructed in literature, piety, cases of conscience, and other matters relating to their office; he held two provincial councils, in which salutary decrees were enacted for the reformation of morals; he, moreover, rewarded the good and punished the bad, as far as circumstances and the laws of the kingdom allowed; he labored much, and not without praise, in preaching the word of God; he instructed the people by word and example; he also exercised hospitality so as to excite the admiration of all, although he scarcely received annually two hundred crowns from his diocese; and he performed all other things which became an archbishop and metropolitan, as far as they could be done in this kingdom. In fine, to our great service and consolation, he renewed, or rather established anew, at great expense, correspondence with the Holy See, which, for many years before his arrival, had become extinct. For all which things we acknowledge ourselves indebted to his Holiness and to your Eminences, who, by your solicitude provided for us so learned and vigilant a metropolitan, and we shall ever pray the Divine Majesty to preserve his holiness and your Eminences.”

Had the distinguished body of ecclesiastics who thus voluntarily testified to the merits of their archbishop anticipated the awful catastrophe that was soon to remove him from them and from the world, they could not have epitomized his career in more truthful and concise language for the benefit of posterity. The end, however, was now at hand. In the same year that the provincial synod was held, the persecution against the Catholics, intermittent like those of the early ages of the church, broke out with redoubled violence. Forced to the most extreme measures by the parliament, the English court sent the strictest orders to Ireland to have arrested and removed from the country the entire body of the bishops and the clergy. The statute of 2d Elizabeth, declaring it præmunire or imprisonment and confiscation for any person to exercise the authority of bishop or priest in her dominions, was revived, and liberal rewards for the discovery of such offenders were publicly offered, to stimulate the energy of that class of spies known as “priest-hunters.” Dr. Talbot, Archbishop of Dublin, was arrested and thrown into prison, where during a long confinement he languished and finally died. Dr. Creagh, Bishop of Limerick, the Archbishop of Tuam, and several of the inferior clergy, were also imprisoned and subjected to many annoyances and indignities previous to being expelled the kingdom. Dr. Plunket, who hoped that the storm would soon blow over, while prudently seeking a place of safety in a remote part of his diocese, frequently avowed his determination never to forsake his flock until compelled to do so by superior force. Learning, however, of the dangerous illness of his relative and former patron, Dr. Patrick Plunket, he cautiously left his concealment, and hastened to Dublin, to be with the good old bishop during his last moments, and it was in that city, on the 6th of December, 1679, that he was discovered and apprehended by order of the viceroy. For the first six months after his arrest he was confined in Dublin Castle, part of the time a close prisoner, but, as the only charge openly preferred against him was, to use the expression of one of his relatives, “only for being a Catholic bishop, and for not having abandoned the flock of our Lord in obedience to the edict published by parliament,” and as the punishment for this at the worst was expatriation, his friends did not fear for his life. They were not aware then that a conspiracy had been formed against him by some apostate friars under the patronage of the infamous Earl of Shaftesbury, the leader of the English fanatics, with the object of accusing him of high treason, and thus compassing his death. On the 24th of July following, he was sent under guard to Dundalk for trial; but so monstrous were the charges of treason against him, and so thoroughly was his character for moderation and loyalty known to all, that, though the jury consisted exclusively of Protestants, his accusers dared not appear against him, and he was consequently remitted back to Dublin. But his enemies on both sides of the Channel were thirsting for his blood, and, in October, 1680, he was removed to London, ostensibly to answer before the king and parliament, but, actually, to undergo the mockery of a trial in a country in which no offense was even alleged to have been committed, where the infamous character of his accusers was unknown, and where he was completely isolated from his friends. The result could not be doubtful. Without counsel or witnesses, in the presence of prejudiced judges and perjured witnesses, and surrounded by the hooting of a London mob, he was found guilty, and, on the 14th of June, 1681, he was sentenced to be executed at Tyburn, a judgment which was carried out on the 11th of July following, with all the barbaric ceremonies of the period. During the trial and on the scaffold, his bearing was singularly noble and courageous, so much so, indeed, that many who beheld him, and who shared the violent anti-Catholic prejudices of the hour, were satisfied of his perfect innocence. He repeatedly and emphatically denied all complicity in the treasonable plots laid to his charge, but openly declared that he had acted as a Catholic bishop, and had spent many years of his life in preaching and teaching God’s word to his countrymen. His life in prison between the passing and the execution of the sentence is best described by a fellow-prisoner, the learned Benedictine, Father Corker, who had the privilege of being with him in his last hours. In his narrative, he says:

“He continually endeavored to improve and advance himself in the purity of divine love, and by consequence also in contrition for his sins past; of his deficiency in both which this humble soul complained to me as the only thing that troubled him. This love had extinguished in him all fear of death. Perfecta charitas foras mittit timorem: a lover feareth not, but rejoiceth at the approach of the beloved. Hence, the joy of our holy martyr seemed still to increase with his danger, and was fully accomplished by an assurance of death. The very night before he died, being now, as it were, at heart’s ease, he went to bed at eleven o’clock, and slept quietly and soundly till four in the morning, at which time his man, who lay in the room with him, awaked him; so little concern had he upon his spirit, or, rather, so much had the loveliness of the end beautified the horror of the passage to it. After he certainly knew that God Almighty had chosen him to the crown and dignity of martyrdom, he continually studied how to divest himself of himself, and become more and more an entire and perfect holocaust, to which end, as 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, etc. But I neither can nor dare undertake to describe unto you the signal virtues of this blessed martyr. There appeared in him something beyond expression—something more than human; the most savage and hard-hearted people were mollified and attendered at his sight.”

About two years afterward, this pious clergyman, upon being liberated, disinterred the body of the late primate, and had it forwarded to the convent of his order at Lambspring in Germany; the trunk and legs he had buried in the churchyard attached to that institution, and the right arm and head he preserved in separate reliquaries. The former is still preserved in the Benedictine Convent; the latter is in Dundalk, in the Convent of Saint Catharine of Sienna, a nunnery founded by the favorite niece of the martyred prelate.

Dr. Plunket’s judicial murder was the source of great grief to the friends of the church throughout Europe, and even many contemporary Protestant writers expressed their regret at his unmerited sufferings, while the unfortunate agents of his death, becoming outcasts and wanderers, generally ended their lives on the scaffold or in abject poverty, bemoaning their crimes, to the pity and horror of Christendom. The memory of Dr. Plunket, one of the most learned and heroic of the long line of Irish bishops, is sacredly and lovingly preserved in his own country and in the general annals of the church; and let us hope, in the language of the Rev. Monsignor Moran, who has done so much by his researches to perpetuate the name and fame of his glorious countryman, “that the day is not now far distant when our long-afflicted church will be consoled with the solemn declaration of the Vicar of Christ, that he who, in the hour of trial, was the pillar of the house of God in our country, and who so nobly sealed with his blood the doctrines of our faith, may be ranked among the martyrs of our holy church.”

– text taken from the article “An Irish Martyr”, author unknown, in the July 1871 editio of The Catholic World magazine