Saint Oliver Plunkett was the Roman Catholic Archbishop of Armagh and Primate of All Ireland who was the last victim of the Popish Plot.
Plunkett was beatified in 1920 and canonised in 1975, the first new Irish saint for almost seven hundred years and the first of the Irish martyrs to be beatified. For the canonisation, the customary second miracle was waived. He has since been followed by 17 other Irish martyrs who were beatified by Pope John Paul II in 1992.
Plunkett was found guilty of high treason “for promoting the Roman faith”, and was condemned to death. Oliver Plunkett delivered a speech from the scaffold, forgiving all those responsible for his execution. He was hanged, drawn and quartered at Tyburn on 1 July 1681, aged 55, the last Roman Catholic martyr to die in England. His body was initially buried in two tin boxes next to five Jesuits who had died before in the courtyard of St Giles in the Fields church. The remains were exhumed in 1683 and moved to the Benedictine monastery at Lamspringe, near Hildesheim in Germany. The head was brought to Rome, and from there to Armagh and eventually to Drogheda where, since 29 June 1921, it has rested in Saint Peter’s Church. Most of the body was brought to Downside Abbey, England, where the major part is located today, with some parts remaining at Lamspringe. His canonisation in 1975 made him the first Irishman to be canonised a saint in nearly 700 years. His head was delivered to the community of Dominican nuns at the Siena convent in Drogheda from Rome in 1725. At the time the convent’s head was Sister Catherine Plunkett, who was believed to be his grand-niece.
The Saint’s preserved head was installed in a side altar at the newly built St Peter’s Church in 1921 and later moved to its own shrine in 1995, where it remains in the Co Louth town. The door of the cell where Oliver Plunkett was imprisoned before his execution is also preserved in the Church. The Relic of Saint Oliver Plunkett has been visited by many famous people over the years including the late Pope St John Paul II.
When Pope St John Paul II visited Killineer just outside Drogheda in 1979, he recalled his own attendance at the canonisation of St Oliver in Rome, four years earlier. The relic had been brought to the field at Killineer for the papal visit and afterwards the Pontiff knelt and prayed before the relic for peace.
Photo: St Oliver Plunkett Shrine at St Peter’s Church, Drogheda, Co Louth