Oliver Plunkett in his own words
by Courtesy of CatholicIreland.net
30 November, 1999
Desmond Forristal gives a lively account of the life of Oliver Plunkett from young priest in Rome through his travels to Ireland. We follow him through his ministry as archbishop, the disguises he adopted, his experience as a fugitive, his imprisonment in Dublin, his trial in London and final execution at Tyburn. 108pp. Veritas Publications. […]
Desmond Forristal gives a lively account of the life of Oliver Plunkett from young priest in Rome through his travels to Ireland. We follow him through his ministry as archbishop, the disguises he adopted, his experience as a fugitive, his imprisonment in Dublin, his trial in London and final execution at Tyburn.
108pp. Veritas Publications. To purchase this book on line go to www.veritas.ie
- In his own words
- Boyhood and priesthood
- The new archbishop
- A man in a hurry
- Unfinished business
- The two primates
- Flight in winter
- Writing in four languages
- The storm gathers
- The arrest of Mr Meleady
- The Court of King’s Bench
- The martyr
- The saintNotes and Acknowledgments
IN HIS OWN WORDS
About Oliver Plunkett we have a great mass of information, yet we sometimes feel we hardly know the man at all. The events of his life are recorded in minute detail in the writings of his time but the personality of the man behind the events remains frustratingly elusive.
The reason is simple enough. Nearly all our information about Oliver comes from official sources, from reports, state papers, legal records, Church documents. They give us many facts but little enough of the human background to the facts. In all the countless references to the Archbishop there is not one that gives us a description of his physical appearance, his voice, his accent, his manner of speaking or of moving, or any of the other personal traits and mannerisms that must have been so obvious to his contemporaries but are hidden from later generations.
Neither do we have anything like a convincing character-sketch from any of those who knew him. There is praise and blame of him in plenty, but the one must be regarded with as much caution as the other. Much of the praise is of a conventional sort, especially that written after his death when he was already beginning to take on the aura of a martyr and the writers seemed more concerned with edifying their readers than recording their exact impressions. There is the same lack of reality about the adverse opinions, which generally show obvious malice and are aimed at justifying the writer for his part in some long forgotten dispute with the Archbishop. It is only occasionally that one comes across an impression or an incident that seems to suggest a real man with the good and bad qualities of a real man and not a stylised saint or villain.
To paint his portrait, this book relies mainly upon the man’s own words. Fortunately, Oliver Plunkett was an indefatigable letter-writer and, equally fortunately, many of these letters have been preserved.During his active years as Archbishop of Armagh he corresponded continually with the Vatican, reporting on all his activities and on the state of the Irish Church. These letters, still preserved in the Roman archives, are the main source of our information about him and about the Catholic Church in Ireland in the 1670s.
Yet here again we are doomed to disappointment if we expect any intimate personal revelations, for this was an official correspondence. It was the area representative reporting back to head office, and the facts and figures were what mattered, not the feelings of the writer. No one wears his heart upon his sleeve when writing to an official he may never even have met. In addition, Oliver was inhibited by the suspicion that his letters were being opened and read by Dublin Castle on their way to Rome, a suspicion that later proved to be only too well founded. Nevertheless, between the lines we get an occasional glimpse of the personality of the writer, all the more authentic in that it is unwittingly given us.
One small group of letters falls into a category of its own. These are the letters that he wrote in his prison cell during the two weeks before his death. Two of these were written to a young kinsman in Rome, the remainder to a Benedictine monk who was his fellowprisoner in Newgate. In these letters, for the first and only time that we know of, he opened his mind and heart fully in writing to another person. From these faded documents, through their quaint oldfashioned language, there comes to us across a gap of three centuries the truest picture we have of Oliver Plunkett, written in his own words.
BOYHOOD AND PRIESTHOOD
Oliver Plunkett was born on 1 November 1625 at Loughcrew, near Oldcastle in County Meath. His father was John Plunkett, Baron of Loughcrew, and his mother was born Thomasina Dillon, granddaughter of Sir Luke Dillon. Oliver came of an aristocratic family in an age when aristocracy meant not just prestige but power and wealth. In Ireland as in every other country of Europe there was a sharp dividing line between the great mass of the people, the peasants and the artisans, and the few noble families who kept all the reins of influence in their small circle and who married their sons and daughters to one another until everybody was related to everybody else. A testimonial letter from the Rector of the Irish College in Rome described Oliver as being ‘of Catholic parentage, descended from an illustrious family: on the father’s side from the most illustrious Earls of Fingal and on the mother’s side from the most illustrious Earls of Roscommon, and also connected by birth with the most illustrious Oliver Plunkett, Baron of Louth, first Nobleman of the Diocese of Armagh’; and the information was obviously provided by Oliver himself. He might have come from an obscure corner of an obscure land but the blood of noble forebears flowed in his veins. He was human enough to take pride in the fact and wise enough to take advantage of it for a good cause.
Oliver was one of a family of five, with an elder brother, Edward, and three younger sisters, Catherine, Anne and Mary. His boyhood was an untroubled one: it was a relatively peaceful period in Ireland and the laws against Catholics were not rigidly enforced. In any event, Oliver’s family connections protected him against both religious discrimination and the poverty that gripped the vast majority of his fellow-countrymen. They also solved the problem of his education, and his parents naturally thought of Dr Patrick Plunkett, a first cousin of Oliver’s mother, when the question of his schooling came up.
Patrick Plunkett was the first great formative influence on Oliver’s life and he supervised the boy’s education from childhood until his sixteenth year. When he first received the youngster into his household, Patrick was aged about thirty and was acting parish priest in Kilcloon in County Meath. A few years later he was appointed Abbot of St Mary’s in Dublin, and later still was to be Bishop successively of Ardagh and of Meath. We have no record of the course of studies that Oliver followed under his guidance but it is clear that the older man made a profound impression on his young pupil. In after years, Oliver always spoke of him with great respect and affection.
It was on Patrick Plunkett’s advice that Oliver decided to go to Rome to study for the priesthood. In 1641 the Ulster rebellion put an end to the peace of the country and to Oliver’s education. The movement, which sparked off in Ulster, spread rapidly and led, the following year, to the formation of the Confederation of Kilkenny, a kind of parliament that had the support not only of the native Irish but of the Anglo-Irish gentry as well. Among the Plunketts who made their way to Kilkenny was Patrick, taking his place among the Lords Spiritual in the new parliament. It was evident that he could no longer continue as Oliver’s tutor and anyhow the boy had now reached the stage where he needed a more formal and structured education. The war-torn Ireland of the 1640s could not offer such an education. The Irish College in Rome could.
About Oliver’s reasons for choosing the priesthood we know little. The staunch faith of his own parents and home must certainly have been one factor, the example of Patrick Plunkett another, and perhaps a more powerful one. As the younger son, he had no rights or responsibilities in regard to the family estates, and the choice of his career was left to his own judgment. He chose the priesthood, and having made his choice he followed it with the tenacity and singleness of purpose that were to be so characteristic of him in later life. Obstacles existed only in order to be overcome.
The obstacles that lay between Oliver and Rome were forbidding enough. Even in peacetime, a journey to Rome was a formidable undertaking. Ships often waited weeks in port for a favourable wind, and even when at last sea-borne, had to run the danger of both storms and pirates. Land travel was almost as uncertain, with muddy roads, flooded rivers, and bandits lurking in every wood and mountain valley. To these normal hazards, there was now the added complication of war. Ireland was an armed camp, England was a battlefield between Royalists and Puritans, Northern Europe was still in the grip of the Thirty Years War.
It was not until 1646 that an opportunity presented itself. Father Peter Scarampi had been sent by the Pope as an envoy to the Confederation of Kilkenny. Towards the end of 1646, his mission accomplished, he was returning to Rome and had chartered a ship from Waterford. He offered to take with him some students for the Irish College and a group of five suitable young men was assembled in Waterford in December of that year. Oliver Plunkett
was one of them. Another was John Brennan, later Archbishop of Cashel, who was to become Oliver’s constant companion and closest friend to the end of his life.
As usually happened with Oliver, the winds proved unfavourable. It was not until 12 February 1647 that the ship could leave Waterford. The dangers from pirates and storms still remained to be faced and both duly made their appearance; fortunately for the travellers, they appeared at the same time. On the morning of the second day they spied two larger vessels bearing down on them with hostile intent. The sailors crowded on every stitch of canvas but it soon became clear that the enemy ships were gaining on them, and by nightfall they were only a short distance away.
Father Scarampi and his young companions joined in prayer for deliverance from their pursuers and promised to go in pilgrimage to the shrine of Saint Francis of Assisi if they escaped. During the night a violent storm blew up and continued for the following two days. The ship was tossed around by mountainous seas and the young men making their first voyage must have longed to feel the firm ground of Ireland beneath their feet again. On the third day, however, the storm blew itself out, the wind died down, and the sea calmed. The ship had been blown many miles off its course but the two enemy vessels had disappeared and were not sighted again for the remainder of the voyage.
On 4 March they landed at Ostend and set out for Paris. Their troubles were not yet over. In Flanders they fell into the hands of a band of robbers who took all their valuables and held them to ransom. Somehow or other, the ransom was paid and the travellers resumed their journey. Passing through Paris and Lyons, they entered Italy and made first for Assisi to fulfil their promise to Saint Francis. It was well into the month of May when they finally entered Rome. The journey from Ireland had taken three months; if one takes into account the delay in Waterford, five months.
Like many an Irishman before him and after him, Oliver grew to love Rome and feel very much at home there. After the turmoil of his native country, the peace and order of the city were all the more striking to the young man. The contrast between the splendour of the Church in Rome and its poverty in Ireland was especially noticeable. In the recently completed Basilica of Saint Peter’s, the Pope presided over the solemn ceremonies in golden vestments. The finest painters, sculptors, and composers of the day were employed to give great magnificence to the liturgy. Bernini, greatest of all baroque architects, was at the height of his powers and new churches designed by him and his disciples were adding new glory to the city. To wander through the streets of Rome, to visit the Colosseum and the catacombs, to watch the old buildings being demolished and the new ones taking their place, merely to stand and see people of many nationalities passing by, was a heady experience for the young Irishman and one that he never forgot.
The news that continued to come from Ireland during Oliver’s student days made the difference between the two countries more cruelly apparent than ever. By 1649 the Confederation of Kilkenny had broken up in disorder and Cromwell and his army had landed in Ireland to mop up what resistance still remained. His first and most spectacular act of vengeance was against the city of Drogheda, on the border of Oliver’s native county. The entire garrison of more than two thousand men were put to the sword and when some of the defenders took refuge in Saint Peter’s Church, Cromwell ordered that the building be burnt around them. Many civilians died, and priests and friars were hunted down with particular ferocity. It was, wrote Cromwell, a ‘righteous judgment of God upon these barbarous wretches, who have imbrued their hands in so much innocent blood’. During the years that followed, Cromwell and his lieutenants continued to wreak God’s righteous judgment upon the barbarous Irish. One after another, the Irish towns fell to the invaders, the last in 1652. Everywhere churches were burnt, monasteries scattered, bishops and priests killed or exiled or imprisoned.
What the sword began, the law completed. The final stage in Cromwell’s plan was the replacing of Irish Catholics by English Protestants. The natives were to lose all their lands in Munster, Leinster and Ulster and remove themselves to the inhospitable wastes of Connaught. Among those who lost all their property was Oliver’s elder brother, who had succeeded to the estate on the death of their father. By the end of 1653 Cromwell felt that he had at last found the final solution to the Irish problem.
On 1 January 1654 Oliver Plunkett was ordained priest in Rome. He had been an excellent student, intelligent, studious and devout; the rector of the Irish College later described him as ‘a model of gentleness, integrity and piety’. Now, in accordance with the vow taken by all students of the College, he was to return to Ireland. It was not a cheering prospect, and on 14 June he wrote to the Jesuit General asking to be dispensed from his vow. The letter was written in Latin and is the earliest of his writings still preserved for us.
I, Oliver Plunkett, your most humble petitioner, student of the Irish College, having completed my philosophical and theological studies, in view of the impossibility (well known to your Paternity) of my now returning to Ireland as demanded by the rules of the College and the oath I have taken, do humbly request of you, Most Reverend Father, that I may be allowed to remain in Rome and reside with the Fathers of San Girolamo della Carità. I promise, however, and declare that I will be always ready to return to Ireland whenever you, Reverend Father, or my superiors shall so command.
No doubt Oliver was only following standard practice in writing this request: his friend, John Brennan, also remained in Rome and there is no evidence that any of his fellow-students returned home at this period. No doubt too, his chances of getting safely into Ireland were slight: the ports were watched and there were spies everywhere. Yet one would like to feel certain that Oliver made his request only with reluctance, that it took days and perhaps weeks of argument on the part of friends and superiors to convince him that his duty lay in Rome and not among his own people. It would certainly have been difficult for him to return to Ireland but it would not have been impossible. But to a young man of Oliver’s ability Rome offered an attractive and honourable career while Ireland held out only the prospect of imprisonment and death.
In these circumstances it was easy enough for him to decide that the prudent course and the course most agreeable to God’s will was for him to stay in Rome. He may have been right in that decision but he can hardly have been particularly proud of it. In the years that followed he may have wondered how much fear mingled with the prudence and how he would bear himself if ever called upon to choose between his life and his principles. It was not until his last days on earth that these doubts were to be finally laid to rest.
Meanwhile, Oliver’s ecclesiastical career proceeded smoothly on its course. He continued his studies, attending the lectures on Canon and Civil Law given by Mariscotti, and in due course obtained his doctorate in these two subjects. In 1657 he was appointed Professor of Theology in Propaganda College and was later appointed a Consultor of the Congregation of the Index. He also became active as the agent of the Irish clergy in their dealings with the Vatican. The death of Cromwell in 1658 and the restoration of King Charles II had brought about an easing of the situation in Ireland. The clergy found Oliver always ready to use his influence with the Roman Congregations on behalf of his Irish friends.
Of his private life during the same period less is known. Writing after Oliver’s death and when he had already begun to take on the martyr’s aura, the Italian writer Marangoni described his life at San Girolamo in these words:
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 sick poor to the edification and wonder of the very officials and assistants of that place.
This is Italian hagiography at its most voluptuous. The picture of Oliver sighing ardently around the tombs of the martyrs in his desire to die for his countrymen is hard to take seriously, especially when we remember the efforts he had recently been making to avoid doing precisely that. Yet Marangoni was a reputable historian and beneath the verbiage there must be a foundation of truth. Perhaps Oliver was still troubled by his decision to opt for the peace of Rome, still uneasily aware that men were fighting and suffering in the front line while he pushed a pen at staff headquarters.
It may have been partly a desire to share in the hardships of the active troops that led Oliver to undertake spare-time work in the hospitals. This part of Marangoni’s description is corroborated by a letter of Oliver’s in which he speaks of his friend Monsignor Odescalchi, who later became Pope Innocent XI. ‘I often assisted him when he tended the poor and ragged and needy, many of them covered with vermin. He gave them shelter and clothing at his own expense, he washed and fed them with his own hands.’ It is an unexpected occupation for the Professor of Theology and second son of the Baron of Loughcrew, and it shows a side of Oliver’s character that we have not seen before.
THE NEW ARCHBISHOP
At the beginning of the year 1669 there was only one Catholic bishop active in Ireland, none other than Oliver’s durable kinsman, Patrick Plunkett, who that year was transferred from Ardagh to the more prosperous diocese of Meath. The only other bishop in the country was an invalid, the Bishop of Kilmore, ‘continually infirm in body and occasionally in mind’ according to Bishop Plunkett. Three others, including the Archbishop of Armagh, Edmund O’Reilly, were living in exile. The Church in Ireland was recovering from the Cromwellian persecution but recovery was bringing its own problems. The clergy were divided into several quarrelling factions and the lack of a resident hierarchy made it difficult to settle these disputes and restore ecclesiastical discipline.
Accordingly, the Roman authorities decided to appoint new bishops to a number of vacant sees. Dr Peter Talbot, a close friend of the reigning monarch, Charles II, was appointed Archbishop of Dublin. New archbishops were also appointed to Tuam and Cashel and a new bishop to Ossory. Then news arrived in Rome that the Archbishop of Armagh had died in France, leaving vacant the most important see in Ireland. The choice of his successor would obviously be of crucial importance to the future of the Irish Church.
Immediately the lobbying began. The new Archbishop of Dublin sent in a list of three names and added some unkind remarks about the clergy of Armagh. The clergy of Armagh did nothing to improve their image by writing to threaten uproar if an outsider and particularly a Meath man were appointed to their diocese. Oliver himself, the most obvious candidate for the position, at first let it be known that he wished to remain on in Rome and complete some books he was working on. Later he changed his mind or was persuaded to change his mind and formally put forward his name.
The meeting of the Congregation of Propaganda that was to make the appointment was held on 9 July. The Pope himself, Clement IX, was present. After an indecisive discussion about the names proposed by Dr Talbot, all of whom were unsuitable for one reason or another, the Pope impatiently cut short the proceedings. It was a waste of time, he said, to talk about candidates of doubtful suitability when they had in Rome a man who was certainly fitted in every way for the position. That man was Oliver Plunkett.
The announcement of his appointment was greeted with a chorus of praise, led by Archbishop Talbot. Only the clergy of Armagh remained silent, stunned by the imposition of a Meath man upon their diocese. Meanwhile preparations were put in hand for the consecration of the new Primate. The Roman authorities thought it unwise to provoke the English government by too much publicity; so it was decided that Oliver should leave Rome quietly for Belgium, where he would be consecrated in a private ceremony, and from there make his way to Ireland.
Before leaving Rome, Oliver paid a last visit to the Hospital of Santo Spirito. Father Miesknow, the Superior, said to him: ‘Monsignor, you are now going to shed your blood for the Catholic faith.’ The Archbishop-elect answered: ‘I am not worthy of that; but pray for me that my desire for it may be fulfilled.’ The story comes from Marangoni, who relates it with the customary embellishments: but as he adds the name of an eye-witness, it is probably substantially true.
Before he had even set foot in Ireland, the new Archbishop had begun the long series of reports and letters to Rome that give us so much information about his activities during the next ten years. His journey to Belgium had been comparatively uneventful and his consecration had taken place according to plan in the private chapel of the Bishop of Ghent, on 1 December. He then made his way to London and from there wrote on the thirtieth of that month to Cardinal Barberini in Rome. The Queen he refers to is Catherine of Braganza, wife of Charles II, who was a Catholic and was allowed by the terms of her marriage treaty to maintain a chapel and priest to serve in it.
I presented Your Eminence’s letters to the Queen, who gave me a very gracious audience and spoke highly of you for the affection you have always shown for her and the King and entire nation. She added that those sent by you have always been well-disposed to His Majesty and she hoped for the same from me. I spoke with some of the King’s intimates and they told me that he often refers to Your Eminence with affection and regard.
I also delivered your letter to Father Howard, and Grand Almoner, a truly worthy man. He secretly let me stay with him for ten days in his own apartments in the Royal Palace. He also very kindly brought me out driving on several occasions in his carriage to see the principal sights of the city….
It is so cold here at the moment that the Spanish wine actually froze in my chalice. They have not had as bad a winter as this for many years. After the frost there was a heavy fall of snow so that it will be morally impossible to travel until the cold spell is over.
I am not at all anxious, however, to stay on in London in view of the attitude of the Court. The followers of Walsh, or more likely Walsh himself, keep sending anonymous letters to the Ministers of Court, filled with lying stories about what I am doing here; but their ill-will is well known and they themselves are regarded with contempt. One letter to the King said that Father Howard had three hundred priests hidden in the Royal Palace who went around every night trying to make converts for the Pope. One good thing about these stories is they are so far-fetched that no one believes their authors even when they happen to tell the truth.
It was not until March that Oliver arrived in Ireland, after an absence of twenty-three years. The journey from Rome to Dublin had taken nearly seven months of weary winter travel but the warmth of the welcome that greeted him atoned for a lot. Various noble Plunketts hastened to congratulate the Archbishop on this new honour to their family. Among those he was most glad to see were Bishop Patrick Plunkett, his old friend, and the Bishop’s brother, Sir Nicholas Plunkett. He wrote to Rome to report his arrival.
I arrived in this city at long last on Monday. I can say that I suffered more on the journey from London to Holyhead, where I took the boat, than on all the journey from Rome to London put together. Extreme cold, stormy winds, and heavy snow, and then, when the thaw set in, the rivers rose so high with the floods that three times I was up to my knees in water in the carriage. At Holyhead the winds were against me and I had to wait for twelve days. Finally, after a ten hours’ journey by sea, I arrived in port here, where the welcomes and the greetings of my friends lessened my sorrow at having had to leave Rome.
Sir Nicholas Plunkett immediately invited me to his house and put a carriage at my disposal. The Earl of Fingall, who is my cousin, invited me to his country seat. The Baron of Louth has offered me board and lodging in my own diocese as long as I please and I have decided to accept his invitation as he lives in the centre of my area. There are also three other knights who are married to three cousins of mine and who are vying with one another to see which of them can receive me into his house.
I was also delighted to find the Bishop of Meath so well and so fresh. Though he is sixty-eight years old, he looks no more than fifty and has hardly a grey hair on his head….
I made the journey in spite of the bad weather because I wanted to be in my province to begin my duties during Lent. I shall find it difficult to assemble five priests when consecrating the Holy Oils during Holy Week, when all the priests are busy hearing confessions: so I would ask your Excellency to obtain for me the privilege of consecrating the Holy Oils with the assistance of two priests only.
Oliver Plunkett entered his province and his diocese during the Lent of 1670. He was now Archbishop of the diocese of Armagh, Metropolitan of the nine dioceses of the Armagh Province, and Primate of All Ireland. He had the ordinary powers of a bishop within his own diocese, a more limited power in the other dioceses of his province, and a very shadowy jurisdiction over the whole country by virtue of his primacy. His eccelesiastical powers were extensive but ill-defined and the effort to define them more accurately was to teach him many a bitter lesson. The clear distinctions and definitions he had learnt from Canon Law in Rome had a habit of melting away among the mists of the Irish countryside.
The nobility greeted him with joy, the clergy with sullen resentment. Neither side knew much about him after his long absence in Rome except that he was a Plunkett and a Meath man, but that in itself was enough to open the doors of the one and close the hearts of the other. In those days the native Irish and the Anglo-Irish formed two distinct and often opposed camps; the Confederation of Kilkenny had only papered over the differences and the collapse of the Confederation not only revealed them again but was in part caused by them. The Anglo-Irish, who were particularly strong in County Meath, had what seemed to the native Irish a divided loyalty. Descended from the Norman conquerors, they were almost all staunch Catholics and opponents of the Reformation; but at the same time, they were equally staunch supporters of the English King and of the English connection.
By his birth and breeding Oliver Plunkett belonged indisputably to the Anglo-Irish. He mixed on familiar terms with the gentry, he spoke English as fluently as he did Irish, he accepted without question that the English King was his lawful sovereign. The great majority of the clergy in Armagh diocese and in all the province apart from Meath were of the native Irish with native Irish names and
attitudes; they spoke English with difficulty if they spoke it at all. They were drawn mainly from the peasantry, most of the Gaelic landowners having been dispossessed and driven into exile. Their allegiance to the English King was tenuous and shallow. To them a Meath man, any Meath man, was someone to be viewed with suspicion.
It says a great deal for Oliver’s tact and judgment that he should have won over so many of the clergy in so short a time. Barely six months after his arrival in Armagh, the Vicar-Generals of six of the northern dioceses wrote a joint letter to Rome thanking the Holy See for sending so illustrious a Primate to Ireland: ‘He is so untiring in good works and so exemplary in his life and conduct that he has won for himself and the clergy the love and reverence even of the enemies of our faith.’ They prefaced their remarks by saying that they had delayed writing until his merits were known to them by experience.
A minority of the clergy, however, both secular and religious, refused to be won over. During the Cromwellian period the Church as an organisation had vanished. The priests who had remained operated on their own, dressed like laity, lived with the laity, were subject to no superior. To many of them the arrival of a strong and reform-minded bishop was distinctly unwelcome. Oliver found great difficulty in trying to restore clerical discipline and he soon singled out drunkenness as one of the main obstacles to be overcome.
While visiting six dioceses of this province, I made particular efforts to root out the cursed vice of drunkenness, which is the parent and nurse of every scandal and dissension. I also decreed, under pain of deprivation of benefice, that no priest should frequent public houses, drink whiskey, and so on. I myself have greatly profited from this decree and, as there is little use in preaching without practising, I no longer take a drink with my meals. Show me an Irish priest without this vice and he is surely a saint.
As Oliver began the systematic visitation of his province, he no doubt anticipated that he would have to deal with some clerical abuses. What he had not anticipated was Praemunire. ‘I must admit,’ he wrote later, ‘that when I first came to this kingdom I neither knew nor understood what was meant by the word Praemunire.’ He soon found that is was the Latin name for some old laws that made it an offence for anyone to exercise any authority derived from the Pope. This meant, for instance, that if a bishop were to remove a parish priest or discipline him in any way, he was guilty of Praemunire since his authority as a bishop came from the Pope. He could be taken to law by the parish priest, found guilty and imprisoned, while the priest continued undisturbed in his previous course of conduct.
Among the most notorious practitioners of this tactic was no less a dignitary than the Vicar-Apostolic of Derry, Terence O’Kelly. Despite his frequently scandalous way of life, all attempts to remove him had failed and he had got more than one of those sent against him imprisoned. Two previous Archbishops had trembled before him, but Oliver did not. He was a Plunkett and he knew that no court would bring in a verdict of guilty on such a trumped-up charge against a personal friend of the Governor of Ulster.
I went in person to the diocese of Derry, called the clergy together, suspended his jurisdiction, and appointed in his place Dr Conwell, a learned and holy man. I was charged before the civil court, but the unfortunate man found himself
forestalled in the Vice-regal court, and in the court of the Governor of Ulster, the Earl of Charlemont. He thereupon cried out in a loud voice: ‘The Italian Primate, the Roman Primate, has unhorsed me!’
The Earl of Charlemont has not troubled even one ecclesiastic since I came here. He is so friendly with me that on one occasion, seeing me somewhat afraid, he said to me: ‘Have no fear, no one shall dare touch you; and in future do not go to the mountains when you wish to administer confirmations, but come to the courtyard of my palace.’ He has made me a present during my lifetime of a garden and excellent orchard, with two fields and a fine house. It is in an excellent position.
As to the Viceroy, everyone know that he has a high opinion of me and has even spoken to the King on my behalf. Dr Brennan, who has my cipher, will tell you more about this. I will only mention here that at my request he reprieved three Catholics who had been tried and sentenced to death in the city of Enniskillen.
The Earl of Drogheda allows me to have a public church with bells, etc., in that part of my diocese that lies inside his territory, which is exempt from royal jurisdiction.
I have been accused before the Viceroy on no fewer than nine occasions in connection with the schools and for having exercised foreign jurisdiction. This nobleman, however, always had these charges brought to his own court and thus they were quashed.
The Viceroy referred to, Lord Berkeley, had been appointed to Dublin in May 1670, two months after Oliver’s arrival in Ireland. He got on well with Oliver from the beginning and was a welcome change from his predecessor, the bigoted and intolerant Roberts. During his first two months or so in Ireland, Oliver did not dare appear openly in public but he did not let this unduly restrict his activities. He travelled around under the disguise of an army captain, an unlikely disguise for the scholarly archbishop but perhaps all the more effective for that.
Imagination has to work hard to envisage Oliver in the role of the swashbuckling Captain Brown, a part one would have thought more suited to the talents of an Errol Flynn: clattering into the courtyard of the little country inn, dismounting with a jangle of sword and spurs, quaffing a tankard, singing a song, stealing the customary kiss from the customary buxom serving-wench, then disappearing down the road again in a swirl of dust of hoofbeats. To us these are the tired cliches of the romantic cinema: to Oliver they were, as we shall see, for many weeks a daily reality.
The departure of Roberts meant also the departure of Captain Brown. With the well-disposed Berkeley now ruling Ireland in the King’s name, Oliver could go freely about his work. It is a mistake to imagine that he spent all his time in Ireland as a hunted man. There were plenty of anti-Catholic laws on the statute-books but they were not enforced in any systematic way. It was illegal to open a Catholic church or school, but a powerful local magnate like the Earl of Drogheda could ignore the law. It was Praemunire for a bishop to exercise his jurisdiction, but a sympathetic magistrate could dismiss the charge or impose a nominal penalty. It all depended on the political climate of the day and much of Oliver’s efforts went towards bringing about a suitable climate for the work of the Church and doing as much as possible while it lasted. It is not surprising, in view of his past experiences, that he expressed this in a nautical metaphor.
This is the time for doing good work, while the present Viceroy is with us. We must follow the example of sailors at sea. When the wind is favourable, they unfurl all their canvas and skim swiftly across the ocean under full sail; but when it turns against them, they lower their sails and take shelter in some little port. While we have the present Viceroy we may sail; and I will do all in my power to advance our spiritual interests, instruct the clergy, and educate them in science and theology.