John McCullagh February 24, 2004

Before he was himself raised to the Archbishopric of Armagh, Thomas O’Fiaich wrote about his illustrious predecessor Oliver Plunkett – one of only two Irishmen raised to sainthood by the Vatican [the other being Laurence O’Toole, church reformer of the late twelfth century]. 

Born into an Old English family, Oliver Plunkett was educated at seminaries in Rome until he was appointed Archbishop of Armagh in 1669.  In 1679, amidst Protestant reformist fervour and in a climate in Ireland of repression of the Catholic Church and her priests and people, Titus Oates cooked up an imaginary ‘Popish Plot’ to assassinate the restored King Charles II.  Plunkett was one of over 20 leading Catholics ‘tried’ and executed.  Despite the utter discrediting of Oates and other witnesses, Charles refused to pardon Plunkett.  Tom Fee wrote:

‘..where Slieve Gullion stands out against the skyline nestles the secluded hiding place where Archbishop John Cashel and Archbishop Patrick Donnelly [the Bard of Armagh] spent a year ‘on the run’ from their relentless persecutors.  The ‘Great Road of The Fews’ which Oliver Plunkett so often travelled to visit the northern part of his Archdiocese, led him through the historic parish of Creggan to Dorsey where he often rested at the inn kept by the friendly Cromwellian planter George Bleeke.  The inn was the scene of many a conference of the northern clergy and one of the underground centres of administration of the Irish Church.

But if this district of South Armagh helped to shelter the hunted archbishop, it also helped to send him to the scaffold.  From it came the MacMoyers [ironically the name derives from ‘keepers’ of the Book of Kells] and Murphy and several of the other minor witnesses who gave evidence in London against the archbishop in London.  Around the firesides of South Armagh were whispered the poisonous accusations that the Archbishop had been somehow unpatriotic, that he had taken the side of the Government against the Raparees, that he had little sympathy with the Old Irish of the North.  It was a shameful tragedy that internal dissentions should have been allowed to deter the people of South Armagh from rallying around their great spiritual leader as he faced, alone but undaunted, the common Foe of Faith and Fatherland.’

Saint Oliver Plunkett was executed at Tyburn on 1 July 1681.  His preserved head is displayed at Drogheda Cathedral.

… Saint Patrick …

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