Saturday, November 21, 2015

Why Don't the Irish Celebrate Saint Oliver Plunkett?

Ireland is known as ‘the land of saints and scholars’, but the surprising fact is that only one Irish person has been canonised in the last seven hundred years . Forty years ago, Pope Paul VI canonised Saint Oliver Plunkett, the Primate of all Ireland who was hung, drawn and quartered in Tyburn in 1681. He was the last victim of the anti-Catholic hysteria known as the Popish Plot, and the last person to be martyred for the Catholic faith in the British Isles. Despite this, and despite the fact that he is the last Irish person to be canonised, he is bafflingly neglected in his native land—a country whose enthusiasm for martyrs, both secular and religious, has often been noted. Why should this be?

Like St. Maximilian Kolbe, Oliver Plunkett was a martyr whose extraordinary death overshadows an almost equally extraordinary life. When Pope Clement IX made him the head of the Irish Church in 1669, Plunkett had not been in Ireland for over twenty years. Educated and ordained in Rome, he had remained there as a professor of theology, avoiding the savage repression of the Catholic Church perpetrated by Oliver Cromwell. When he returned as Primate—illegally—he had to rebuild the Irish Church almost from scratch, spending his own money to educate a new generation of priests, personally confirming tens of thousands of Irish souls who had gone unconfirmed for want of bishops, and imposing discipline on priests and friars who, for want of authority, had grown so unruly that drunkenness and concubinage was rife in the priesthood. There were even brawls between Franciscans and Dominicans, quarrelling over buildings and zones of operation.

At first, the new Primate had to masquerade as one Captain Brown to move about his diocese, until a more tolerant regime in Dublin Castle gave him considerable unofficial freedom to operate. Archbishop Plunkett eventually won so much respect from Irish Protestants that, when a renewal of anti-Catholic feeling led him to being arrested on trumped-up charges of planning a French invasion—the final victim of a panic unleashed by the master perjurer, Titus Oates—he was confident that an Irish jury composed entirely of Protestants would not convict him. Nor did they. He had to be tried in London before a guilty verdict could be achieved. Denied sufficient time to summon witnesses to his defence, he was gorily despatched in front of an enormous crowd on the 1st of July 1681.

Given all this, then, it’s even more surprising that the Irish make so little of him. Although his preserved head draws thousands of visitors to St. Peter’s Church in Drogheda, and although he has given his name to more than a few churches, schools, and sports teams—he even has a street named after him in Cork City—there is little in the way of a devotion to St. Oliver in Ireland. Perhaps this is simply part of a broader pattern—the most popular saints amongst Irish Catholics tend to be international stars such as St. Padre Pio and the Little Flower. But such local cults as do exist tend to be focused on holy men and women whose causes for sainthood are ongoing—such as Matt Talbot, who went from alcoholism to extreme holiness, or the founder of the Legion of Mary, Frank Duff. Saint Oliver has never attained the sort of cultural cachet enjoyed by St. Thomas More in England, though their stories are so very similar.
Growing up in the eighties, when Ireland was secularising rapidly but when cultural Catholicism was still the air that most people breathed (either willingly or reluctantly), I can hardly remember hearing him mentioned at all. I must have been taught about him in school, but I have no recollection of it. Until I started practicing my faith some years ago, I think it’s fair to say that the only thing I would have known about St. Oliver Plunkett was his name and possibly (just possibly) that he was a martyr. His biggest claim on my attention came when I read J.P. Donleavy’s tale of 1950’s bohemian Dublin, The Ginger Man, in which the boozy protagonist is given a model of Oliver’s head as an ironic gift.

I may have been unusually oblivious of the saint. But one of Plunkett’s more recent biographers, Desmond Forristal, also commented on his lack of popular appeal, in a 1987 article for The Furrow magazine. He reports the remarks of a lady acquaintance: “He never really became popular, did he? I mean he hasn’t got any statues in the churches, there aren’t novenas to him, people don’t go to him for their intentions, do they?” Admitting the truth of this, Forristal concluded: “Oliver Plunkett had and has none of the qualities that make for that kind of popularity. By birth and temperament, he was distant and austere and, worst of all, aristocratic. Even in Ireland, the only thing he has going for him is his Irishness and that counts for little enough.”

But perhaps it is time to rediscover him. The Ireland of 2015 is not the Ireland of 1975, the year of his canonization. The Catholic Church, though hardly oppressed as yet, seems more and more at odds with the policies of successive Irish governments. Only a few years ago, the Irish head of government delivered a stinging speech denouncing much of the Church’s record in modern Ireland; it was not entirely undeserved, in the context of the clerical sex abuse crisis against which it was made, but the acclaim with which it was received was ominous. Forty years ago, it would have been unimaginable.

Even more recently, a senior Irish politician supported a proposal, at his Labour party’s conference, to vet Irish civil servants who showed ‘undue deference’ to the Church—a rather disturbing echo of Archbishop Plunkett’s times, when Catholicism was so often equated with treason. That politician subsequently apologised, but the increasingly cold attitude of Irish governments towards the Catholic faith cannot be mistaken. Recent legislation introducing abortion and same-sex marriage have included no conscience clauses for Catholic maternity hospitals, or for Catholic schools seeking to teach the Catholic understanding of marriage. The current Minister for Education has complained about parents being ‘forced’ to baptise their children to gain admittance to Catholic schools; her predecessor wanted the proportion of schools in Ireland run by the Catholic Church to be reduced from ninety to fifty per cent.
It’s still a very distant cry from the days of Archbishops having to ride around their diocese in disguise, of course. But it also seems a different world from the Ireland in which I grew up, only twenty years ago. Irish Catholics are once again finding at least some demands of their faith to conflict with the laws of the land. It may be a good time to revive the memory of St. Oliver Plunkett, and to seek his intercession.


  1. Hi M,

    Thanks for that. There is Society of St. Oliver Plunkett, but that's more about the Latin Mass, I think

    There must be some slight devotion to him in the country. I found two prayer cards to him some years back in an old Bible I picked up second hand. The first concerned prayers for his canonisation and included a third-class relic; the second with a prayer asking his intercessions produced after he was canonised.

    Needless to say, I have kept both!

    1. That's interesting, Father. I have never really encountered any evidence of a devotion to him. Nobody ever mentions him, except on his feast day. It would be great if he became more popular. I'm glad you kept those cards!