Tag Archives: Oliver Plunkett

U.S. opinion on Ireland, 1919: the view from Rome

Msgr. John Hagan

Monsignor John Hagan became rector of the Pontifical Irish College in Rome during the Irish War of Independence. The County Wicklow native, who had been vice-rector of the Catholic seminary since 1904, succeeded Michael O’Riordan in late 1919. Both priests were staunch Irish nationalists. Hagan was in close contact with Irish separatists and used the May 1920 beatification of Oliver Plunkett (1625-1681) as a propaganda coup that became known as “Sinn Féin Week in Rome.”

In summer 1919, shortly before O’Riordan’s death, Hagan drafted an article for Vatican officials that sketched his views on Irish affairs abroad since the end of the First World War. Below are excerpts on how public support for Ireland in the United States was unleashed after the November 1918 armistice. It is unclear whether any of Hagan’s material was ever published. Reader beware: the monsignor wrote sprawling sentences.

Till the signing of the armistice, and indeed for some months after, it could with truth be asserted that outside Ireland there was no such thing as an Irish question, or if there was anything in the shape of feeling on the matter it was one of hostility or indifference or coolness. … Even in the United States where the program of Irish independence had always reckoned millions of supporters, sympathy had been dimmed considerably after the (spring 1917) intervention of that country in the European arena; and naturally enough English propaganda had left no stone unturned to foster feelings of hostility or indifference, partly by the old methods of defamation, partly by periodic discoveries or inventions of alleged German plots, and partly by making it appear that as far as England was concerned there was no difficulty in the way of a solution of the Irish question and that if any difficulty existed it was due to the failure of the Irish themselves to formulate anything in the shape of a substantial claim supported by practical unanimity. …

(In the United States) public expression of opinion could be cooled by the ardor of war, and could be retarded or perverted by English control of the ocean cables, and could be rendered impossible by an iron discipline imposed on the country by President (Woodrow) Wilson and an army of English propagandists, but only as long as hostilities lasted. The moment hostilities ceased the previous attitude of indifference or aloofness gave way as if by magic to an outburst of enthusiasm and to a loud-voiced demand that to Ireland first of all should be applied the principles in defense of which the President had led his country into war. As early as December (1918) the country was ablaze; and a series of meetings, culminating in a huge gathering of the Friends of Irish Freedom at Philadelphia, brought the United States into line and led to an active program which has admittedly brought Ireland out of the purlieus of a simple question of English domestic policy into the forefront of international considerations affecting the immediate outlook and the future good understanding that has to be arrived at if England is to face the financial and commercial burthens arising out of the five years’ struggle that is just drawing to a close.

In the 10-page typescript, Hagan also described the activities of the American Commission on Irish Independence; Bishop Michael Gallagher of Detroit’s outspoken view on the Irish question (quoted extensively); and Eamon de Valera’s then month-old tour of the United States, including his July 13, 1919, address in Chicago (also quoted extensively). Hagan’s papers have been digitized by Georgetown University. I’ll have more about this valuable source in a future post.

In 1926 Hagan moved the Irish College at the Church of St Agata dei Goti to its present site on the Via dei S.S. Quattro. Photo from my April 2024 visit. (I got inside the gate.)

Remembering Oliver Plunkett’s May 1920 beatification

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

Canonization image hung from St. Peter’s Basilica in Rome during the canonization ceremony in 1975. (National Shrine to St. Oliver Plunkett.)

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

Monsignor Hagan

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. In Northern Ireland, sectarian violence raged for the sixth year. A pastoral letter from the Irish Bishops Conference cited Plunkett as “an example in these troubled times” of someone who worked for reconciliation between communities and “played the part of peacemaker.”13 

Plunkett’s beatification seems to have helped end the War of Independence quicker than his canonization resolved The Troubles, which lasted another 23 years. Alas, even 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.

Memorial church ruin of Saint Oliver Plunkett at Loughcrew, near Oldcastle, County Meath. (National Shrine to St. Oliver Plunkett.)