Who killed Oliver Plunkett?

I left Drogheda with a vague idea that he got done in by the English or the Redcoats or maybe the Protestants. In fact his treason trial, conviction and execution had been arranged and orchestrated by three South Armagh men, all priests of the Archdiocese, all Franciscans.


Fifty or more years ago one of the great rituals of Catholic Ireland was herding young people into St Peter’s Church in Drogheda to see the head of Oliver Plunkett, then Blessed and now Saint. This appalling, almost obscene fire-blackened relic left a traumatic impact on many, although I just remember thinking what a tiny head he had. I don’t remember much of what I was told about his death beyond him being a martyr for the Catholic faith, but I came away with a vague idea that he got done in by the English or the Redcoats or maybe the Protestants. Imagine my surprise to learn that his treason trial, conviction and execution had been arranged and orchestrated by three South Armagh men, not to mention my shock that they were all priests of the Archdiocese, all Franciscans. Don’t take my word for it. Take that of the man who eventually took over Plunkett’s old job of Archbishop of Armagh: Cardinal Tomás Ó Fiaich, a brilliant historian and Irish scholar better known around here as Father Tom Fee from Cullyhanna.

Cailleach Beara’s cave

This is a complex story and like most such it shows that in Irish history as in life, pretty much everyone lies some of the time. In my childhood and youth there were images of Blessed Oliver everywhere and we were regaled with stories of his close shaves with Redcoats in South Armagh, of cavalry hunting him who got lost in the mist on Slieve Gullion or rode right into a bog in Longfield, of him hiding in caves and saying Mass in remote glens.  There is a little cottage on Glendesha Road near Mullabawn where he is supposed to have stayed; like everyone ever on the run in the area before or since he is said to have lived for a while in the south cairn on Slieve Gullion, better known as the Cailleach Beara’s Cave.

Most of these stories have no credibility, in fact a lot of the folklore seems to have been deliberately manufactured. While there were outbursts of persecution in the reign of Charles II (1660-85), we are not talking about the Penal Days which kicked in about 30 years after Plunkett’s death. Generally there was a significant degree of toleration but great suspicion of bishops who took orders from a foreign power in Rome and might be collaborating with Paris. From his appointment as Archbishop of Armagh in 1669, Plunkett was very much in the business of nursing and expanding that toleration, of keeping a low profile and getting along with the authorities while he rebuilt the church after the Cromwellian devastation. If he needed to get offside for a while he was much more likely to rest up in some friendly mansion in the Pale – if he was not already there, as he generally was. He kept a large house at Ardpatrick close to Louth Village and another premises at Ballybarrack between Dundalk and Knockbridge. According to the website of his National Shrine in Drogheda he seemed to regard these premises as his diocesan headquarters, just making the odd expedition to his actual see in Armagh city. The Plunketts also had a house in Termonfeckin and there is a reference in the Dúchas Schools Collection to him living there for three years while Primate.

Plunkett referred to the areas around Slieve Gullion as “the desert”. All the evidence is that he didn’t much like the South Armagh area and it didn’t much like him, so there is no reason to think he spent much time there; according to one account, there were bonfires on Slieve Gullion when news of his execution came through. Many of the heroic stories clearly relate to a real hero of the actual Penal Days after Aughrim and Limerick. He was Dr Patrick Donnelly, Bishop of Dromore, who lived at the foot of Slieve Gullion on the run, using the cover name of Phelim Brady, the Bard of Armagh. Dr Donnelly was popular and loved and protected in the area, so much so that we renamed one of our townlands in honour of where he lived: Ceathrú an Dochtúra, Doctor’s Quarter. The house, later known as Sally Humphreys’s, is still there just off the B30 Newry-Crossmaglen road about 100 meters west of the junction with B134 Longfield Road. The story of Phelim Brady is pure movie material, but the Plunkett camp has stolen a lot of the script over 350 years.

There is even a story with a nice modern touch, that Plunkett was the first to put a version of the term Bandit Country on us. It seems that in 1674 word reached Rome (almost certainly from the hand of a Franciscan) that Plunkett was not living in his official residence in Armagh, but in the relative comfort and safety of Co. Louth. The Vatican wrote a stern letter asking to know why he was neglecting his Archdiocese; he replied in fluent Italian explaining that the area between his home and Armagh was “much infested by banditti”. That certainly predates Merlyn Rees by three centuries.

The real reason for charging him was that a weak government under Charles II proved unable to withstand Protestant mob hysteria in London and in particular some sensational nonsense known as the Popish Plot invented by a Puritan fanatic called Titus Oates. Plunkett was a vulnerable victim to throw to the wolves. The interesting bit for us is the identity of the three witnesses upon whom the guilty verdict in his final trial in London depended. They were all three from South Armagh: they were all clergy of the Parish of Killeavy (which at that time included most of what is now Dromintee  Parish) and they were all Franciscans.  They were Hugh Duffy of Carrickasticken, Forkill; John McMoyer of Ballymoyer, Whitecross; and Eamon Murphy of Dromintee but probably originally also from Carrickasticken.

The Franciscans in South Armagh

Seatown friary

The Franciscan Order arrived in Ireland in the year 1231 and within a decade they had established themselves in Dundalk where their fine friary tower can still be seen in Seatown. They preferred urban sites where they could minister to large numbers. While other orders often relied on wealthy patrons, the Franciscans relied on mendicancy, a polite term for begging. It took a while for Henry VIII’s suppression of the monasteries to catch up with them but in 1563 they were expelled from Dundalk and set up in areas still under the control of Gaelic lords. They returned to Dundalk in 1626 where they immediately started a row with the Carmelites who had occupied their friary in Seatown. They won that one, but in Carlingford they were in possession of the friary built by the Dominicans in the 1300s and the Dominicans wanted it back. The Franciscans pointed out that the the Dominicans  had abandoned it and left it in the hands of the heretics. That row ended up on the desk of the new Archbishop, one Oliver Plunkett, and in a move which put him on a slippery slope, he ruled in favour of the Dominicans.

The Franciscans felt that they had earned the right to various buildings which had been abandoned in the face of earlier persecution, whether Elizabethan or Cromwellian, all the way back to the Suppression of the Monasteries in the 1540s. They took pride in staying put, in hunkering down with the people, leaving the relative comfort of urban friaries to live in small groups in little houses they built themselves, referred to as ‘refuge houses’. They had sat it out even during the Cromwellian slaughter when the whole church infrastructure collapsed as bishops, parochial clergy and Dominicans had fled, and many of them had paid the ultimate price.  Speaking in the Cromwellian parliament in 1657 Major Morgan, MP for Wicklow, announced that three beasts were to be hunted for headage payments: the wolf at £5 a head, the priest at £10 and the tory at £20. Wolves were a growing problem all across Europe during the religious wars of the 17th century, thriving on the great numbers of battlefield corpses.

The wolf/priest/tory equation was revived in the Penal Days proper, which began in 1697 with the passage of the first Popery Acts aimed particularly at suppression of ‘wandering friars’. Despite constant persecution the Franciscans managed to hang on in Dundalk until 1731. Expelled again, they set up a refuge house in nearby Creggan, a South Armagh parish which ran deep into County Louth.  In Armagh city, the Franciscan community had been driven out in the previous century and set up a refuge house in Brantry, South Tyrone which became a main centre of resistance to the rule of Archbishop Plunkett. They also had a refuge in Forkill according to local historian Rory Kieran:

Forkill Franciscans

Having elaborated on the ecclesiastical origin of the place name of FORKHILL, it is now apt to define, geographically, the site of the Franciscan friary from which that place-name derives. On the road from DUNGOOLEY CROSS to FORKHILL, a journey of approximately one mile, one passes on the left hand side Donnellys’ Road which leads to Carrive and on the same side the Bog Road which loops around Forkhill village at some distance, to emerge at “Jacksons’ Plantin”.

Having passed these two landmarks one comes immediately to Stanleys’ Hill, a fairly steep gradient which is in two distinct parts. A comparatively level stretch of roadway separates these two parts. On the left hand side of this level stretch of road and adjacent to it lies the land of Bernard O’Hanlon R.I.P. of Dungooley. Just inside the gate to that field and slightly to one’s left is the site of the Franciscan Friary. This land is situated in the townland of SHEAN.”

https://www.bbc.co.uk/northernireland/yourplaceandmine/armagh/forkhill.shtml 2014

According to historian Lorcan Ó Muirí, the location was known as An Cnocán Rua.

The Franciscan rows with Plunkett and the hierarchy, with the Dominicans and Carmelites, were not unique to Ireland and may even have been built into the nature of their organisation.

“Their vow of poverty was not merely personal but institutional: friars did not own, and therefore did not require, formal foundations before they established themselves in a given place. By virtue of their mendicancy they were dependent upon the general populace for their support, and so they naturally gravitated to urban centres rather than to solitary foundations chosen for their isolation from the material world. From their inception they were in conflict with the established clergy because of their unique position in society. As friars they were attached to the order rather than to an individual house, which allowed them a greater degree of freedom than their monastic contemporaries. A friar’s freedom in secular society was essential to the Franciscan ideal of ‘serving God by serving man’ and, because the order was subject directly to the pope, the friar was virtually outside the jurisdiction of diocesan authority. Yet as religious they were granted preaching and confessional rights and so were in competition with the parish clergy for the ears of their parishioners.”

(Two nations, one order: the Franciscans in medieval Ireland  Published in FeaturesIssue 2 (Summer 2004)Medieval History (pre-1500)Volume 12)

The Franciscans were like religious guerrillas, owning nothing and protecting nothing, living not just among the ordinary people but with the ordinary people, with no hierarchy of their own, loyal not to any bishop but to their own Order, answerable only to the Pope in faraway Rome.  They must have been an absolute nightmare for the official church and particularly for a law-and-order man of the Pale like Plunkett. He wanted a neat structure of parishes run by priests answerable to dioceses run by bishops answerable to provinces run by archbishops and cardinals, and he wanted one which was transparent to the government authorities so that they could trust it. If he was to be accountable to the state, he needed the church and all its clergy to be accountable to him.

The Catholic church had long operated like that in the Pale, but in the Gaelic areas there had always been an alternative, less hierarchical and often much more effective monastic structure with holy houses sponsored by and working closely with the great clan chieftains. That monastic structure had crumbled with the suppression of the monasteries in the mid-16th century, but it had not disappeared. The Franciscans in particular had simply gone underground and were uniquely equipped to do so because they could operate without great buildings or top-heavy structure.

McInteggart distribution

When Plunkett took over in Armagh, he was probably disappointed to learn that he did not have loyal parish priests and curates throughout the diocese appointed by his predecessor. What he had were Franciscans well established in key parishes like Creggan and Killeavy in the south and along the river Blackwater to the north and far into the old O’Neill territory in south Tyrone. They were well dug in because they had stuck it out through the years of Cromwellian devastation when regular clergy and other orders had cut and run. Most importantly, they had established the right of “questing”, which meant visiting everyone in the parish once in a while and hitting them up for a few quid, although they preferred to talk of “seeking alms”. It was on this issue that a slow, cold culture war turned hot.

In 1671 Plunkett ruled that exclusive questing rights were being granted to the Dominican Order, which was rather more amenable to diocesan discipline.

There were other disciplinary issues in the background. The Franciscans were pretty good on their vow of poverty, not so good on obedience and quite poor on the chastity front. The evidence for this one is all around us: all the Taggarts and McInteggarts  in 20-odd formats and spellings. https://www.johngrenham.com/surnamescode/1911_deds_full.php?surname=McEnteggart&search_type=full

The name means “son of the priest” and the genealogical website in the above link notes coyly that “clerical celibacy was not universal in medieval Ireland”. But Plunkett railed against the friars for ‘drunkenness and lechery” and it is striking even today that the many variations on Taggart/McInteggart are tightly clustered in the southern half of the Armagh Archdiocese, with the biggest concentrations in South Armagh and adjacent areas of Down, Louth and Monaghan, the very areas where the Franciscans who gave Plunkett such difficulties predominated for so long. Plunkett lambasted the Franciscans on the celibacy issue but they knew how to hit back and pretty soon he found himself answering queries from the Vatican about his relations with the ladies. Plunkett wrote back to explain how he often had to travel in disguise and to keep up appearances he sometimes had to be seen kissing women in inns and hostelries. There is a surreal episode where he wrote about riding for more than an hour on horseback with a married woman in front of him on the same horse.

“The Archdiocese of Armagh: A History” (by Rev Fr Raymond Murray, published by the Archdiocese in 2000) dances delicately around some of the issues Plunkett confronted. He was rebuilding the Catholic Church in Ireland after several decades of devastating war and famine which may have killed more than a quarter of the population. While there were recurring bouts of persecution following the restoration of the monarchy under Charles II in 1660, they were as nothing compared to the terror of the Cromwell years in the 1640s and 1650s, and were fairly mild compared with what would follow in the real Penal Days era after 1700. Broadly, Plunkett wanted peace and stability and government toleration, which meant not challenging the Cromwellian land settlement which saw the loss of land and prestige particularly among the great Gaelic lordships of Ulster.

It did not help relations with the Ulster chieftains that Plunkett was from Old English Catholic stock in the Pale, indeed from the leading family of the Pale, and while he may have understood Irish he did not speak it. Before he opened his mouth, there were issues piling up.  Thirty years before, the Ulster clans had faced the Scottish covenanters on a revenge mission for real and imagined massacres in the rising of 1641 without much help from the south. When the Confederation of Kilkenny was formed in 1642, most of the heavy fighting was done in the north under the leadership of Owen Roe O’Neill and Phelim O’Neill. As far as they were concerned, the Plunketts and other leading Palesmen were constantly undermining their life-and-death struggle by plotting with representatives of a now almost powerless Charles I, who was shortly to lose his head.  In the face of a Cromwellian army intent on at least a degree of extermination, the Confederation crumbled in a clear north-south split. People in the north felt they were fighting for survival itself and to hold some grip on their land which was essential for survival. The Old English of the Pale on the other hand still had their land at that point: they wanted to cut a deal with whoever was in power in London and were quite prepared to abandon the native clans and their chieftains if necessary.

Plunkett himself had missed all this story of betrayal.. He was in Rome while the people of Drogheda and Wexford were being put to the sword and while Black Hugh O’Neill was giving the Ironsides as good as he got at the siege of Clonmel. But distrust of the Palesmen had not dissipated by the 1660s, indeed it had increased as the Ulstermen realised that the replacement of Cromwell and restoration of the monarchy would do little for them. The men of the Pale were still seeking deals for themselves alone from the new King. They wanted the land-holding situation  reverted to that in 1641, before the upheavals that led to the English Civil War. But in 1641 almost all of the great Ulster families had already lost their lands: they needed to have the seizures of the Plantation reversed and their lands and privileges restored. In the meantime they saw no reason why those who now enjoyed what had been taken from them should live in peace and comfort. Planters and other settlers were terrorised by tories, the general name for the politically motivated highwaymen of the post-Cromwellian period. (The word comes from tóraí, a person who is pursued or hunted, and was later applied as a term of abuse to those who supported the Stuart cause under the Georges). Chief among these unreconciled chieftains were the O’Hanlons who had once ruled much of South Armagh from their stronghold in Tandragee (now Tayto Castle) and the top tory was Redmond O’Hanlon.

Although many tories were absolute thugs and murderers, they had quite a lot of popular support and O’Hanlon in particular had a sort of Robin Hood aura. They were not just robbers, they also flew the flag of resistance to the Cromwellian land settlement – which was of course theft on a massive scale – and more specifically to those who had benefitted from it, the new landlords. The Franciscans, priests of the people, shared in the popular support but in the view of Plunkett and government authorities they went a lot further and were in fact hand in glove with the highwaymen. In  some cases they were accused of riding with the robber gangs and taking part in their ambushes and robberies.

One of the main items on the charge sheet against Plunkett is that he mediated between the government and the tories and he did it for money – £100 to be precise. He issued an edict “That the clergy should warn the faithful against aiding or countenancing the bodies of lawless bandits who were called tories.” Then he went to talk to them: “There were in my diocese, that is, in the counties of Tyrone and Armagh, some members of the principal families of O’Neill, MacDonnell and O’Hagan, numbering 24 in all, with their followers who had lost all their possessions. These set themselves to killing and robbing on the public roads. … I accordingly obtained a permit from the Governor to negotiate with them. I preached to them for a whole hour on the borders of Tyrone …” Plunkett reckoned he had got a good deal for some of the tories:
“No other conditions were imposed except to go as soldiers to France or to Flanders, including two of their company who were in prison under sentence of hanging, and the pardon extended to all those Catholic families who had been sentenced to fines on their account.” Plunkett, of course, was steeped in the class-consciousness of his time: pardons and officer commissions across the sea for sons of noble families, the rope for the common men in their tory gangs.

In September 1670 the Viceroy wrote to London: “I have employed one Fr. Plunkett to reduce the Tories …  He has already brought in fifteen of their principal leaders who have given sufficient security to transport themselves out of His Majesty’s European dominions.” Plunkett’s defenders say the Viceroy put up £100 for their travel expenses: his detractors say it was his wages for decapitating the last of the anti-Cromwellian resistance. The pleading on Plunkiett’s behalf is not helped by the wording of the English State Papers:

“The Tories are in great part reduced by Mr. Oliver Plunkett’s apostleship. The poor man hath an ecstasy of passion for the King’s service, yet my Lord to draw him down from these clouds, hath sent him £100 for an encouragement.” His preaching “on the borders of Tyrone” was probably done in the Franciscan refuge house of Brantry: the ruins were shown on the Griffiths Valuation maps in the townland of Gort along the shores of Friary Lough, not far from Eglish. The meeting place raises the question of whether the Franciscans, or some of them, also sought to break the power of the Tory gangs; or maybe it shows that the tories trusted the Franciscans and distrusted Plunkett, so it was the only place the tories would meet him, because he was well off his own turf.

Anti-tory politics were tricky and Franciscan Eamon Murphy switched sides at least once. Preaching in his church in Dromintee he denounced the most famous tory of them all, “Count” Redmond O’Hanlon, from the pulpit. O’Hanlon hit back hard, proclaiming that anybody who attended that church would be punished with the loss of a cow for the first offence, two cows for the second offence, and their life for the third offence. In the local version he said that if another sermon was preached against him, he would shoot the first man leaving the church after Mass, and he did. Murphy was forced to retire from his parish; there are suggestions he was abandoned by local military who were themselves in collusion with the tories. That may sound like a strange idea, but strange things were going on in an extraordinary premises in Dorsey.

A Cromwellian soldier called George Blake (or Bleeke.or Bleecke or Blyke)) operated an inn on the old coach road on the Dorsey Embankment which was pretty much immune to raids by the military. It seems the tories had the run of the place. So did the clergy during occasional periods of persecution. Historian Alice Curtayne, who published The Trial of Oliver Plunkett in 1954, wrote that the clergy considered it a safe house and even held conventions there. Florence MacMoyer, relative of the friar John, claimed to have seen the Archbishop resting and having a meal there, which is not unlikely. Some of the plot against Plunkett was definitely cooked up there.

“The Head Inn of the Fews from time to time was the resort of various classes – priests, gentry, friars, rapparees, spies, soldiers, etc. Bleeke was also a Burgess of Dundalk ; and, though a Cromwellian settler, was married to a woman of the Gaedhil, a daughter of Patrick Gruamdha O Quinn of Tullyvallen. That he had a foot in both camps is shown by the fact that he was made one of the Burgesses of the Jacobite Council of Armagh in 1688. The Dorsey Inn was on the site of the haggard of a farmhouse now occupied by a family named Burns, on the old highway by Coulter’s Bridge. Tradition says that it was in this inn that ….Murphy and MacMoyre met their accomplices to work out the plot against the Primate.” (A history of the Parish of Creggan by Lorcan Ó Muirí, 1934).

In 1674 Plunkett suspended Murphy from his position in Dromintee (Killeavy Parish) on specific grounds of drunkenness and consorting with tories. This might seem a bit rough on a priest who had just stared down the muzzle of Count O’Hanlon’s pistol, but this is where things get tricky. The tories were divided and competing for spoils on the high road and one of the Count’s main rivals was Cormac Raver O’Murphy, a relative of the bould Eamon. His sermons may well have been inspired more by Raver than Oliver.


A history of the O’Hanlon  clan writes: “Probably the saddest episode in Plunkett’s career as primate was the controversy between the Dominicans and Franciscans over the right of questing. Plunkett was given authority from Rome to adjudicate on the matter and his decision, made on 11 October 1671, was in favour of the Dominicans. This decision was not well received in the Armagh diocese and a petition on behalf of the Franciscans was sent to the primate. This petition was organised at parish level – it was signed by the clergy of the parish and by members of the laity – presumably the heads of households. ….the O’Hanlons were particularly strong in Killeavy, compared with the other parishes in Orior. This is confirmed by the Petition list. There are 160 signatures of lay persons for Killeavy, and the O’Hanlons with 22 representatives are a close second to the Murphys, of whom there are 24, while none of the others have more than five.” Tomás Ó Fiaich notes that there were other such petitions in Armagh and Tyrone running into hundreds of signatures of heads of households,  including one in Armagh city itself.

The Count seems to have been in some sort of negotiation on amnesty in return for giving evidence against Plunkett when he got it in the neck at Eight-Mile-Bridge, or Hilltown as we now know it. Hugh O’Hanlon of Sturgan did testify, although it seems to have been mainly hearsay about who said what on John McMoyer’s journey back from Rome. Other members of leading families did testify, and according to Tomás Ó Fiaich, this was due in part to ‘the deep-seated hostility between the “Old Irish” and the “Palesmen”; the ill-feeling that had been aroused in Ulster at the spectacle of a primate seemingly allowing himself to be used by the government against
the outlawed Irish … the confusion into which the ordinary Catholic mind, both lay and cleric, must have been thrown by the contradictions, recriminations and mutual slanders which the lack of a united Catholic leadership during the preceding half-century had provoked’.

When Plunkett sacked Murphy he replaced him with John MacMoyer, probably not his most enlightened decision. The MacMoyer family held the eight townlands of church land of Ballymoyer (Whitecross) from the Primate by virtue of their custodianship of the Book of Armagh, a 9th-century illuminated gospel. MacMoyer had studied in Rome with Hugh Duffy of Carrickasticken in the early 1670s and there is a dubious account of him being expelled from a seminary there – which is true – for beheading a statue of Plunkett which is very probably not. Pretty soon Plunkett was castigating him for drunkenness and abetting Tories and probably worse, organising open opposition to Plunkett’s 1671 decision to grant exclusive questing rights to the Dominicans. In this he had the support of a leading Franciscan, Anthony Daly, who ran the little friary in Brantry where MacMoyer had probably joined the Order. Alms collections were continuing in areas from which Plunkett had explicitly banned the Franciscans. Before long Plunkett had expelled MacMoyer too, and soon Friar Hugh Duffy went the same way.

Plunkett also accused Franciscan Fr Anthony Daly of putting a contract on him with guaranteed absolution for the hit man.

Plunkett clearly had an extraordinary talent for making enemies and alienating those who might have made allies of one kind or another. History Ireland quotes him as saying: “Armaghmen without exception are not suitable as preachers of the word of God”(Published in Early Modern History (1500–1700)FeaturesIssue 4 (Winter 2004)Volume 12), which is the sort of thing wise men might think but never say and never, ever write down.  His friend John Brenan, Bishop of Waterford and later archbishop of Cashel, described him as touchy and hot-tempered. He seems to have applied for the Archbishop post using all his contacts in Rome rather than through any local consultation or canvassing process, but the agent of the Armagh clergy in Rome had petitioned” that no Meathman should be appointed; the cleavage between Old Irish and Anglo-Irish was still wide after the bitter divisions of the Confederate war.” (Dictionary of Irish Biography). So when he was appointed by Pope Clement IX and effectively parachuted in, everyone – clan chieftains, tories, Franciscans, local people – probably had a simple question for this long-term emigré, Old English from the Pale: whose side are you on? The Dictionary of Irish Biography says: “Plunkett’s friendly relationship with Berkeley, Henry Moore (1st earl of Drogheda), the Protestant Archbishop James Margetson  of Armagh, and the 1st Viscount Charlemont, helped him to pursue his pastoral work discreetly.” That discretion must have had an obvious downside in Armagh where it may well have looked like consorting with the enemy. Viscount Charlemont was William Caulfield who had fought with Cromwell and executed the Irish general  Phelim O’Neill in 1653 before switching to the royal cause.

One possible ally might have been Peter Talbot, another scion of an Old English family who became Archbishop of Dublin in 1669. Pretty soon, Plunkett opened another front against him:  “He and Archbishop Talbot engaged in an unseemly dispute on the primatial rights of Armagh and Dublin. Plunkett maintained that his primacy gave him a jurisdiction over all Ireland; he played an active part in solving disputes in various dioceses and reported on them to Rome. His short book in English, Jus primatiale, a defence of Armagh’s primacy, was answered by Talbot in his book in Latin, Primatus Dublinensis.” https://www.intercommagazine.ie/a-life-of-continuous-sacrifice-saint-oliver-plunkett-1625-81/

Perhaps we should see Plunkett as a zealot of the Counter-Reformation, the great church cleanup designed to make it fit for competition with the clean-living heretics around Europe. In a way the Reformation and Counter-Reformation came out of the same stable and shared similar world views. Their common enemy was the residual medieval church. Protestants saw it as corrupt and occasionally idolatrous, focused too much on symbols like relics, beads and scapulars rather than scripture. Clergy were lazy, fat, greedy, lecherous and above all ignorant, peddling superstition wrapped up in a few mumbled phrases of dog Latin. Plunkett and the people he knew in Rome would probably have agreed with much of that.

There is no doubt that the Franciscans needed sorting out and that he was faced with what Fr Raymond Murray calls “some vicious clergy with tory associations.” But was handing questing rights to the Dominicans the best way to go about it? Plunkett needed support on the ground but what he got was hundreds and perhaps thousands of households petitioning against him. Did he care? Not to judge by his letters. This is where the class dimension may have played in. His writings reek of snobbery, continually referring to issues in terms of people of good family. To him, a man of his time, the natural order was that church and state should be run by those people of good family, a world view shared across the sectarian boundary. The Franciscans had presented an affront to that world view for centuries., living among – indeed, obvlously living with – the lower orders. Plunkett knew important people in Rome who had put him in the job without reference to the people or clergy of the diocese. He knew impotant people in London and Dublin and he sat in Ardpatrick writing to them. Illiterate people putting their X on a petition were in a different world.

Having said all that, the behaviour of the Franciscans who testified against him is simply incomprehensible, vindictiveness beyond all reason. Between them, John MacMoyer and Eamon Murphy invented the whole Popish Plot, French invasion and all, perjury from start to finish. They touted it around MPs and Dublin Castle officials for several years, getting nowhere because, ironically, the establishment thought Plunkett was sound and on their side. However, there came a point at which the authorities in London badly needed a scapegoat and they began to pay more heed, although seemingly not to the point of paying the witnesses’ fares to London. MacMoyer in particular was very determined. The folklore version is that his family which had looked after the Book of Armagh for centuries pawned it for £5 to pay for the trip to the Newgate Assizes – which is why the book is now in TCD Library.

Following Plunkett’s execution  Cardinal Altieri, prefect of the Congregation of Propaganda Fide, wrote that the Sacred Congregation had ordered Mac Moyer and Duffy to be denounced as apostates, excommunicated and entirely separated from the bosom of religion and of the Holy Church. Eamon Murphy had tried to withdraw his testimony in mid-trial but was ignored. He was last heard of working on a farm in Kent in the summer of 1682.

Franciscan media website pen portrait of Plunkett makes no mention of their role: History of Dundalk priory – “A … dispute after the Restoration … with the Dominicans, involved the Primate, St. Oliver Plunkett.” Archdiocese website  “The Franciscans and their many laity friends were openly hostile to him”

There is a story I have heard for which I have absolutely no evidence and I am unsure how it might be checked because I have forgotten who told it to me. Oliver Plunkett was canonised in 1975 and as part of the process every bishop, diocese and religious house or order in his country of origin was asked to submit evidence, opinion or commentary on his suitability for sainthood. The stories poured in from all over Ireland, probably including a few about miraculous escapes in the bogs and hills of South Armagh. But from the Irish Franciscans? Nothing, zilch, nada. That would be extraordinary, of course, but so is much of this whole story. But surely they couldn’t hold a grudge for that long. Could they?


Further reading (available via the JSTOR online subscription service)

The Fall and Return of John Mac -Moyer by Tomás Ó Fiaich (Cardinal)

St. Oliver Plunkett by Desmond Forristal

The Furrow Vol. 38, No. 2 (Feb., 1987), pp. 89-96 (8 pages)
Blessed Oliver Plunkett and the Tories by Donnchadh Mac Phóil

One thought on “Who killed Oliver Plunkett?

  1. Saint Richard of Dundalk had terrible problems with the friars too. He was Oliver Plunket’s predecessor by more than 300 years. As archbishop of Armagh he fought the bit out, on the side of the regular or ‘secular’ (parish) clergy against the more popular mendicants. He is regarded as being a but protestant because he allegedly attempted to translate the bible into English. Same people, same problems, 340 years apart?

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *