Today, 10 Jul 2012, the Church in Ireland celebrates the feast day of St Oliver Plunkett,(a.k.a. Oileabhear Pluincead) Archbishop of Armagh, Ireland and martyr. He was the last martyr to die for the Catholic faith in England. In 1997 St Oliver became a patron saint for peace and reconciliation in Ireland.
St Oliver Plunkett was born in late November, 1629 at Loughcrew, County Meath, on the north-east of Ireland. His influential family was well connected with Irish nobility. Educated privately by his cousin, Dr Patrick Plunkett, Cistercian abbot of St Mary’s Dublin, Oliver was well prepared for going to Rome to study for the priesthood at the Irish College. This was a prudent move as there was a lot of local Irish conflict going on between Catholics and Protestants at the time.
Proving to be a very able student, Oliver, now 25 years old, was ordained in Rome in 1654. Due to the ongoing conflicts in Ireland, he stayed in Rome and became chaplain to a group or Oratorian priests. While waiting for things to die down in Ireland, Oliver spent his time well ; studying law, lecturing in theology and apologetics for the Propaganda College, reviewing books at the Sacred congregation of the Index; and acting as a representative of the Irish bishops in their dealings with the Roman Curia.
Obviously Oliver must have done impressive jobs at all of these tasks, because he was appointed as Archbishop of Armagh in 1669, a position which carried with it not only care for the See of Amagh, but the spiritual care of all Ireland. It took about a year from the time of his appointment for Oliver to arrive in Armagh, due to his efforts in London at trying to soften the impact of anti-Catholic laws. Because of the persecutions the diocese was in a mess, generations of people hadn’t received the Sacrament of Confirmation and there was a shortage of well-trained clergy. With vigour Oliver set about putting things right and administering the Sacrament of confirmation to tens of thousands – often in the open air due to the numbers of candidates. Having a care for educational opportunities he arranged for the establishment of a Jesuit school for boys at Drogheda. He travelled all over Ireland making visitations, curbing abuses, ordaining new priests and encouraging people in their devotional lives. What he couldn’t do in person, he did by letter, and over 200 of his letters are still in existence.
With anti-Catholic feeling running high, such progress wasn’t going to be allowed to continue for long. In 1673 edicts were issued closing schools and chapels, but Oliver bravely stayed in Ireland ministering to his flock as best he could, living in semi-hiding. By 1679 the government was offering reward money for the arrest of Irish bishops. Following an act of mercy where Oliver went to visit his old teacher, now Bishop Plunkett of Meath, who was dying, Oliver was arrested and put in prison.
From the dungeons in Dublin Castle, Oliver was taken to London to stand trial for treason. Knowing that no Irish court would convict him, in order to get rid of this prominent champion of Catholicism the trial had to be in London and too far away for friendly witnesses to arrive in time. After a trial filled with false witnesses and other anomalies, Oliver was sentenced to death – guilty of high treason for promoting the Roman Catholic faith. Oliver was very happy to give his life for the sake of Jesus, and endured being hanged, drawn and quartered at Tyburn on 1 July 1681. Following his martyrdom a few years of relative peace were granted to Irish Catholics. Many miracles have been recorded at Drogheda convent where the relic of St Oliver’s head resides, as well at the other places in the UK which house his relics.
One of the best websites to learn more about St Oliver Plunkett is at http://www.saintoliverplunkett.com/ and the subpage http://www.saintoliverplunkett.com/literature.html gives access to PDFs about The Life and Times of St Oliver Plunkett, his Canonization, Mass Texts, his last speech and reflections upon his life and legacy.
St Oliver Plunkett, pray for us.