Oliver Plunkett, Tomás Ó Fiaich and The Bard of Armagh

On November 1, 1625 Oliver Plunkett was born at Loughcrew Cairns, Oldcastle, Ireland

Read his remarkable story below.

Bishop of Armagh and Primate of All Ireland, was hung, drawn and quartered, on July 1, 1681 at Tyburn Gallows, London. That barbaric act made him the last Catholic victim martyred as a direct result of the devious ‘Popish Plot’ instigated by rogue Clergyman Titus Oates.

To be hanged, drawn and quartered became a statutory penalty for men convicted of high treason in the Kingdom of England from 1352, although similar rituals are recorded during the reign of King Henry III (1216–1272). The convicted traitor was fastened to a hurdle, or wooden panel, and drawn by horse to the place of execution, once there he was then hanged (almost to the point of death), emasculated, disemboweled, all while still alive and finally beheaded, then when dead he was quartered (chopped into four pieces). His remains would then often be displayed in prominent places across the country, such as London Bridge, to serve as a warning of the fate of traitors.

The Popish Plot.

The so-called ‘Popish Plot’ concocted in England by Oates, led to further anti-Roman Catholic action including the arrest of Archbishop Peter Talbot of Dublin, and forced Plunkett to go into hiding again. Despite being on the run and with a price on his head, Plunkett refused to leave his flock and at some point, before his final incarceration, he took refuge in a church that once stood in the townland of Killartry, in the parish of Clogherhead in County Louth, seven miles outside Drogheda.

The Protestant parliament in England, still in a very strong position, finally forced its will on the restoration king Charles II, and issued a decree dissolving all Church property. Oliver Plunkett’s schools in Drogheda were burned and razed to the ground and a short time later, on January 18, 1674, he and his close friend John Brennan, Bishop of Cashel, were forced to flee and seek shelter in the South Armagh hills, coming first to the area around the foothills of Slieve Gullion. This flight is well documented by Oliver Plunkett himself, in a letter written by him to the Internuncio in Rome on January 27, 1674 from his first hideout, the house of a 'reduced gentleman who had nothing to lose' and who gave them shelter as they fled, fearing for their lives, through the valleys around Mullaghbawn in County Armagh during a violent snowstorm in the winter of 1673-74. After a short respite the ‘reduced gentleman’ directed them to a second ‘safe house’ in an area known as the ‘Doctors Quarters’ near to an old limestone quarry at Lislea.

Plunkett writes of their hardship in one of his own letters:

"The snow fell heavily, mixed with hailstones, which were very large and hard. A cutting north wind blew in our faces, and snow and hail beat so dreadfully in our eyes that up to the present we have scarcely been able to see with them. Often we were in danger in the valleys of being lost and suffocated in the snow, till at length we arrived at the house of a reduced gentleman who had nothing to lose. But, for our misfortune, he had a stranger in his house by whom we did not wish to be recognized, hence we were placed in a garret without chimney, and without fire, where we have been for the past eight days."

On the run in South Armagh.

On a stark, frigid night in January 1674, Bishop Oliver Plunkett and his close friend John Brennan, Bishop of Cashel, were forced to flee the town of Drogheda and run for their lives. Wearing long, hooded cloaks and veils, and with a price on their heads and the dreaded Priest Hunters snarling at their heels, they followed the old royal roadway out of the town, crossed the Boyne valley and fled north toward the sanctuary of South Armagh in the province of Ulster. Their journey would take them across the Boyne river and over the hill of Slane, past the old moss-covered dolmens and burial place of the nobles at Ros na ri, then on past the ancient Viking settlement at Annagassan and the hamlet of Dundalk, through the gap of the north and into the foothills around Slieve Gullion. In a gale driven, blinding snowstorm they passed in silence through the gap and arrived exhausted below the steep slopes of Slieve Gullion. After trudging through the snowdrifts that covered the wide valley of Mullaghbawn, they arrived at a prearranged hiding place known locally as the Doctor’s Quarters, close to the old lime kilns at Lislea. There they met with Bishop Patrick Donnelly, aka Phelim Brady, the Bard of Armagh, himself no stranger to the same vicious head hunters. The bard provided the two men with temporary shelter, food and warm beds. Donnelly was ordained to the priesthood by Archbishop Oliver Plunkett at Dundalk in 1673. Recognising his considerable academic ability Plunkett sent him to Paris for further study. Again on his return the Archbishop appointed him in 1679 as Bishop of Dromore. He acted as parish priest too to Lislea and is said to have resided at Doctor’s Quarters (named after him). When not resident there as an ordinary citizen he travelled on foot (as a minstrel) in the Counties of Louth, Armagh, Down Tyrone and Derry, guiding, encouraging and advising his outlaw priests and his unfortunate people.

Eulogy for Oliver 

Beneath the tree near Oswulf’s stone, where the roman roads met the river,

a blood-soaked spot and a hangman’s knot would soon a soul deliver.

No guilt nor shame would mark the name of this man from the royal vale,

tho’ a king’s command forced him to stand three miles from Newgate jail.


From proud Loughcrew in royal Mide all the way to the apostle’s ground

his journey took him far and wide to spread the word around.

Brutal laws were passed to bind him fast to a foreign cruel hand

but with cloak and veil and a well-worn trail, he fled north to Macha’s land.


With Phelim the bard he found shelter and slept in the minstrel’s bed,

while on Gullion’s slopes roguish Titus Oates and his popish plot brought dread

to the Doctor’s house in the valley, near the lime kilns at old Lislea,

to Mullaghbawn and O’Hanlon’s fort and Forkhill beyond Sturgan Brae.


The hunters dogged his footsteps and sought after him night and morn

for the bounty set and the fear of the threat that his words would lead and warn.

From Charles and his vile henchman and their masters in London town  

he shifted and shaped across field and wide lake and fooled both a king and his crown.


But up on the back of a horsecart with his arms and legs tightly bound

the time was now come to stand and not run for escape would never be found.

As the rope drew tight and took his light and the bright sun turned to grey,

he offered it up in a martyr’s cup and departed this world on that day.  

*note: The man who gave them shelter is believed to be Bishop Patrick Donnelly, also known as Phelim Brady, the Bard of Armagh. 

Oliver Plunkett

1 November 1625 – 1 July 1681

Oliver Plunkett was born on the 1st of November 1625 in Loughcrew, County Meath, Ireland, to well-to-do parents with Hiberno-Norman ancestors. As an aspirant to the priesthood he set out for Rome in 1647, under the care of Father Pierfrancesco Scarampi of the Roman Oratory. At this time the Irish Confederate Wars were raging in Ireland, a series of violent conflicts between native Irish Roman Catholics, English and Irish Anglicans and Protestants. Scarampi was the Papal envoy to the Roman Catholic movement known as the Confederation of Ireland. Many of Plunkett's relatives were involved in this organization.

He was admitted to the Irish College in Rome and was ordained a priest in 1654, and deputed by the Irish bishops to act as their representative in Rome. Meanwhile, the Cromwellian conquest of Ireland (1649–53) had defeated the Roman Catholic cause in Ireland and in the aftermath the public practice of Roman Catholicism was banned and Roman Catholic clergy were exiled or executed. As a result, it was impossible for Plunkett to return to Ireland for many years. He petitioned to remain in Rome and, in 1657, became a professor of theology. Throughout the period of the Commonwealth and the first years of Charles II's reign, he successfully pleaded the cause of the Irish Roman Church, and also served as theological professor at the College of Propaganda Fide. At the Congregation of Propaganda Fide on 9 July 1669 he was appointed Archbishop of Armagh, the Irish primatial see, and was consecrated on 30 November at Ghent by the Bishop of Ghent, Eugeen-Albert, count d'Allamont. He eventually set foot on Irish soil again on 7 March 1670, as the English Restoration of 1660 had begun on a basis of toleration.

After arriving back in Ireland, he set about reorganizing the ravaged Roman Church and built schools both for the young and for clergy. As the Penal Laws had been relaxed in line with the Declaration of Breda in 1660, Plunkett was able to establish a Jesuit College in Drogheda in 1670. A year later 150 students attended the college, no fewer than 40 of whom were Protestant, making this college the first integrated school in Ireland. 

On the enactment of the Test Act in 1673, to which Plunkett would not agree for doctrinal reasons, the college was closed and demolished. Plunkett went into hiding, travelling only in disguise, and refused a government edict to register at a seaport to await passage into exile. For the next few years he was largely left in peace since the Dublin government, except when put under pressure from the English government in London, preferred to leave the Catholic bishops alone.

The so-called Popish Plot, concocted in England by clergyman Titus Oates, led to further anti-Roman Catholic action. Archbishop Peter Talbot of Dublin was arrested, and Plunkett again went into hiding. Despite being on the run and with a price on his head, Plunkett refused to leave his flock. At some point before his final incarceration, he took refuge in a church that once stood in the townland of Killartry, in the parish of Clogherhead in County Louth, seven miles outside Drogheda.  

Oliver Plunkett was arrested in Dublin in December 1679 and imprisoned in Dublin Castle, where he gave absolution to the dying Talbot. Plunkett was tried at Dundalk for conspiring against the state by allegedly plotting to bring 20,000 French soldiers into the country, and for levying a tax on his clergy to support 70,000 men for rebellion. Fearing he would not be found guilty in Ireland he was moved to Newgate Prison in London in order to face trial at Westminster Hall.

Unfortunately Plunkett had his fair share of enemies even in the staunch area of South Armagh. As Cardinal Fee wrote in his book on Plunketts' life and times:

‘..where Slieve Gullion stands out against the skyline nestles the secluded hiding place where Archbishop John Cashel and Archbishop Patrick Donnelly [the Bard of Armagh] spent a year ‘on the run’ from their relentless persecutors.  The ‘Great Road of The Fews’ which Oliver Plunkett so often travelled to visit the northern part of his Archdiocese, led him through the historic parish of Creggan to Dorsey where he often rested at the inn kept by the friendly Cromwellian planter George Bleeke.  The inn was the scene of many a conference of the northern clergy and one of the underground centres of administration of the Irish Church. But if this district of South Armagh helped to shelter the hunted archbishop, it also helped to send him to the scaffold.  From it came the MacMoyers [ironically the name derives from ‘keepers’ of the Book of Kells] and Murphy and several of the other minor witnesses who gave evidence in London against the archbishop in London.  Around the firesides of South Armagh were whispered the poisonous accusations that the Archbishop had been somehow unpatriotic, that he had taken the side of the Government against the Raparees, that he had little sympathy with the Old Irish of the North.  It was a shameful tragedy that internal dissentions should have been allowed to deter the people of South Armagh from rallying around their great spiritual leader as he faced, alone but undaunted, the common Foe of Faith and Fatherland.’

Cardinal Fee went on to name two Franciscan priests Father Edward Daly and Father Anthony O'Neill, son of famed chieftan Owen Roe O'Neill as conspirators against Plunkett. 

Oliver Plunkett was found guilty of high treason in June 1681 "for promoting the Roman faith", and was condemned to death. 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 previously, 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. Some relics were brought to Ireland in May 1975, while others are in England, France, Germany, the United States, and Australia.

Cardinal Tomás Ó Fiaich

On July 1st 1981 South Armagh native Cardinal Tomás Ó Fiaich, together with twenty bishops and a number of abbots stood on a stage beneath a scaffolding on Clapham Common, London. The Cardinal had flown there in a helicopter with the remains of Oliver Plunket’s body, for the 300th anniversary of his death. A spectacular rally and Mass was held in his honor.

Recently, a record-breaking heatwave in Ireland led to the discovery of a Neolithic henge circle, which was clearly visible in the crops of a farm. Now, the continuing high temperatures may have revealed the location of St. Oliver Plunkett’s childhood home. The Irish Mirror reports that as the sun scorched the grass of Loughcrew Estate, near Oldcastle in Co Meath, the distinct outline of a building appeared on the ground: The outline of the house, containing three big rooms and four smaller rooms, with a pathway leading to the church in the grounds of Loughcrew Estate, became apparent during the heatwave.

It was known that St. Oliver grew up on the estate, but over the last 400 years, the exact location of the building was lost. This revelation has excited the current owner of the estate, Emily Naper, who is a direct descendant of St. Oliver.
Naper told the Irish Mirror:

“I’m not an archaeologist by any means but it’s a fair assumption to make that this is the house, especially as the path seems to be linked straight to the church,” she said. “The 1612 civil survey describes the tower house, motte and bailey and ring fort, which are still in the estate. It also mentions the church, a millhouse as well as 60 cabins in the garden, along with what was then the main house. You can make out three big rooms of the same size and then four smaller rooms at the back which could have been bedrooms. It would be lovely to have the site examined, dated and verified.”

Bishop Patrick Donnelly.

The subordinate Protestant Dublin parliament passed the Popery Act with the aim of expelling all Catholic bishops and higher clergy. Priests who agreed to swear allegiance to the Crown and abjured the right to go about their priestly duties, to be secular rather than religious, and who registered with the authorities, who could then monitor their activities, were permitted to stay. A small number agreed to these conditions rather than leave their flock without spiritual guidance. The penalty for non-compliance was execution or transportation and those who would not accept these conditions had to go into hiding. It was this period that saw ‘mass-rocks’ flourishing.

By the turn of the century, Dr Patrick Donnelly, who ministered in South Armagh, was one of only two Catholic bishops said to be operating in Ireland. He of course had to operate in disguise. His normal disguise was that of a wandering minstrel. He assumed the title of Phelim Brady, the Bard of Armagh. The illustrious title lives on in several forms, notably in song, which has itself seen many incarnations.

Patrick Donnelly was born in Desertcreaght, Cookstown, County Tyrone in 1650. Some part of his education was at the hands of the Jesuits at their hedge-school in Drogheda. He was ordained to the priesthood by Archbishop Oliver Plunkett at Dundalk in 1673. Recognising his considerable academic ability the Archbishop sent him to Paris for further study. Again on his return the Archbishop appointed him (c. 1679) as Bishop of Dromore. He acted as parish priest too to Lislea and is said to have resided at Doctor’s Quarters (named after him). When not resident there as an ordinary peasant he travelled on foot (as a minstrel) in the Counties of Louth, Armagh, Down Tyrone and Derry, guiding, exhorting and advising his outlaw priests and his unfortunate people.

Bishop Donnelly’s hut of refuge was said to be located on the site of the house of the last native Irish speaker in the area, Sally Humphrey (who died c. 1918). Interviewed by Fr Laurence Murray (local historian, folklorist and archivist) Sally became indignant at the ‘mere doggerel’ of the words of that song (Bard of Armagh) that he recited to her. She had a clear recollection of an Ulster Gaelic folksong of that theme being sung to her in her youth, with the same haunting air that, in comparison, she regarded the modern ballad in English a poor, unworthy and senseless imitation.

Despite his mastery of disguise Bishop Donnelly did not forever escape detection. On 15 September 1706 he was arrested in Father John MacParlan’s house in Lathbirget by Walter Dawson. It was well into the following year before he was released for lack of evidence against him. He immediately resumed his sacred mission. He consecrated Edmund Byrne as Archbishop of Dublin and elevated another priest to the Bishopric of Killala.

He remained in Doctor’s Quarters until his death in 1716 at the age of 66. The great devotion in which he was held was illustrated in the funeral cortege afforded to him by his loving people. Having to act secretly by night for fear of the authorities, still they carried his coffin from parish to parish across the hills of Armagh and Tyrone and laid him to rest eventually in his native parish and in his own family grave at Desertcreaght.

Along with Saint Oliver Plunkett, Dr Patrick Donnelly, the Bard of Armagh was one of the most revered Bishops of all Penal Days.

Many thanks to Wikipedia for some of the info. used in this article.

© John A. Brennan 2015. All Rights Reserved.

From "Out of the Ice: Ireland Then and Now."

Available at: https://www.amazon.com/author/johnabrennan.

Views: 3381

Tags: Armagh, Bard, Ecclesiastical History, Faith, History, Ireland, Martyrs, Oliver, Plunkett, Restoration England, More…Stuart Ireland, Tudor Ireland

Comment by Colm Herron on October 21, 2016 at 8:14am

Powerful stuff John. As before, you've filled in many gaps for me. Thanks.

Comment by John Anthony Brennan on October 21, 2016 at 2:36pm

Thanks Colm, It is a fascinating albeit cruel story.

Comment by Norah McEvoy on June 3, 2017 at 8:12pm

Great account, John but I dunno how I didn't notice the 'John Brennan' name in it before. Is he any relation of ur famous relative, Brennan on the moor or to ur family atal...

Comment by John Anthony Brennan on June 3, 2017 at 9:49pm

Mebbe you need new specs, like myself Norah. As for the Brennans, as far as I can gather, I've traced them back to approximately 2500 years ago when they arrived in Ireland. Four septs then split up and went their separate ways. My people settled as chieftains in Ossory, Co. Kilkenny. William Brennan was of the Kilkenny sept and the "wrestling doctor" John Brennan was also. As for the bishop of Cashel. I'd love to think so, but I can't find any proof. 

Comment by Richard R. Mc Gibbon Jr. on June 24, 2017 at 10:05am

Another grand  and well written story, thanks. Lesson to be learnt,... people always do better when they don't base their actions on fear.  Slainte

Comment by John Anthony Brennan on June 24, 2017 at 1:31pm

Thanks Richard. And yes, fear is insidious.


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