A century ago, Oliver Plunkett (1625-1681) was beatified in Rome, the penultimate step to his canonization as a saint, which occurred in 1975. As the Catholic Archbishop of Armagh and Primate of All Ireland, the County Meath-born Plunkett was the last of 22 martyrs in the “Popish Plot,” a conspiracy theory run amok in England’s anti-Catholic legal system. He was hanged, drawn and quartered.
In May 1920 in Rome, the Church of St. Agata became headquarters for three days of festivities for pilgrims who wore “badges and Irish emblems.”1 St. Agata is said to be the final resting place for the heart of Daniel O’Connell, Ireland’s early 19th century leader of Catholic emancipation. O’Connell’s famous burial request was, “My body to Ireland, My heart to Rome, My soul to Heaven.” There is some dispute whether the organ was ever interred … or still remains at the church.
St. Agata belonged to the Pontifical Irish College. In 1920, County Wicklow-born Monsignor John Hagan was completing his first year as rector of the College, which hosted 20 Irish bishops for the beatification.2 The finding guides for Hagan’s correspondence offer several glimpses of the behind-the-scenes activities and the tenor of the times in revolutionary Ireland. For example:
- In January 1920, Irish Cardinal Michael Logue wrote to Hagan saying he did not want to delay Plunkett’s beatification by a year because he would like to be present and could not vouch for 1921. Logue said he did not expect a great number of Irish people to attend the event.3
- In April, Hagan sent a letter to the Irish bishops with advice on travel and weather. “A good warm rug is always a useful travelling companion,” he wrote, adding instructions about the necessary vestments and discouraging more clergy or laity from making the 1,200-mile journey.4
- May correspondence from Waterford Corporation to Hagan and Bishop Hackett of Waterford and Lismore contained a resolution that expressed gratitude to Pope Benedict XV on the [May 16, 1920] canonization of Joan of Arc and for Plunkett’s beatification, “’both of whom were brutally murdered by the English Government.” The letters plead that a special form of universal devotion may help end hostilities in the world, “especially that the persecuted Irish people may be freed from the callous tyranny and military aggression of their cruel, [relentless] and implacable foe, Pagan England.”5
An estimated 300 Irish pilgrims, including nationalist politician Count George Noble Plunkett and his wife, assembled at the Consistorial Hall at the Vatican for an audience with Benedict XV, who had decreed Plunkett’s beatification on St. Patrick’s Day, 1918.6 The pontiff told the audience that Plunkett’s new designation came at a time when Ireland needed Heaven’s special help to “attain her lawful right … without neglecting her duties.” He continued:
As charity commands us to attend in the first place those nearest to us, no doubt the Blessed Oliver Plunkett, now more than ever, will prove an efficacious patron of his countrymen. Before God, let us, therefore, hope that the beatification of Blessed Oliver will be an augury of more joyful days for Ireland.7
The event was a major propaganda coup for Irish separatists and became known as “Sinn Féin Week in Rome,” Marc Phelan wrote in a 2016 Irish Times column. Monsignor Hagan mentored the Sinn Féin diplomat and future president of Ireland, Seán T O’Kelly, in his dealings with the Roman Curia. O’Kelly reportedly lectured Benedict XV that one of his predecessors, Pope Leo XIII, had damaged church interests in Ireland by condemning the Land War of the 1880s. (See my 2017 post, The troubled foundation of St. Patrick’s in Rome, 1888.)
Several paintings and banners of Plunkett decorated the Basilica of St. Peter’s for the May 23 ceremony: the cleric dressed in a purple cope, surrounded by angels; another standing before his judges; one ascending the scaffold and forgiving his executioners; and one with the rope around his neck.8 (The image in this post hung outside St. Peter’s at Plunkett’s 1975 canonization.) Monsignor Hagan delivered the names of the postulators to the pope, as well as a reliquary–shaped like St. Patrick’s Bell–containing bone fragments of the martyred archbishop.9
The Irish Independent published a display of four photos from Rome, still something of an extravagance at the time.10 Religious services also were held across Ireland, including the martyr’s home district of Ballybarrack near Dundalk, and a procession in London.11
More than a year after the ceremony, Bishop Michael Fogarty of Ennis, County Clare, wrote to Monsignor Hagan and asked that he tell Pope Benedict XV “how marvelous it was” that the July 11 ceasefire in Ireland began on Plunkett’s feast day. Fogarty added, “the truce is a relief though peace not a foregone conclusion.”12
Plunkett was canonized on Oct 12, 1975, the first Irish saint since St. Lawrence O’Toole in 1225. An estimated 12,000 Irish, many waving tricolors, packed into St. Peter’s Square. A pastoral letter from the Irish Bishops Conference cited Plunkett as “an example in these troubled times”–six years into The Troubles in Northern Ireland–for his work for reconciliation.”13
Plunkett’s beatification seems to have helped end the War of Independence quicker than his canonization resolved The Troubles. Alas, saints can only do so much.
Today in Ireland, more than a dozen parishes, another dozen primary schools, plus sports venues and teams, streets and roads, and an Aer Lingus airplane, are named after Saint Oliver Plunkett. Lean more from the National Shrine to Saint Oliver Plunkett at St. Peter’s Church, Drogheda.
- ”Ireland and Rome”, Freeman’s Journal, May 29, 1920.
- Pontifical Irish College, Online Catalogues, Papers of John Hagan, Irish College Rome, 1904-1930, Part One, Intro and 1904-1919, and Part Two, 1920-1922., Item 256, Hagan to Bishop Patrick Morrisroe of Achonry, March 31, 1920.
- Ibid., Item 90, Jan. 11, 1920.
- Ibid., Item 273, April 14, 1920.
- Ibid., Item 321, May 21-22, 1920.
- “The Pope’s Hope For Ireland’, Freeman’s Journal, May 28, 1920.
- “An Irish Martyr”, Anglo-Celt, May 1, 1920.
- Associated Press story, May 23, 1920, versions published in numerous U.S. newspapers.
- ”The Beatification of Oliver Plunkett”, Irish Independent, May 24, 1920.
- “Irish Martyred Pelate”, The Derry People, May 29, 1920.
- Hagan, Part Two, Item 382, July 21, 1921, quoting the finding guide. … Most sources list Plunkett’s feast day as July 1, which matches his death date in 1681. Other references use July 11.
- ”Oliver Plunkett is Proclaimed Saint”, Irish Examiner, Oct. 13, 1975.