Birthplace of Saint Oliver
St. Oliver was born a member of the influential Plunkett clan on all saints day, the 1st of November 1625, at Loughcrew, Oldcastle, Co. Meath. His mother Thomasina was a member of the well-connected Earls of Roscommon family from Roscommon/Meath, and Oliver’s father, John, was the Baron of Loughcrew. His father’s estate comprised over 250 hectares of fine land in and around Loughcrew along with a tower house, adjoining church and a corn mill. It was through Oliver’s mother Thomasina and the Dillon family, that the Plunkett's of Loughcrew had a closer bond with the more senior branches of the aristocratic Plunkett clan in Co. Meath, notably the Earl of Fingal at Killeen castle or the Plunkett’s of Dunsany. He was also connected by birth with the Plunkett’s of County Louth, notably the Baron of Louth, the first nobleman of the archdiocese of Armagh.
Oliver had an elder brother Edward, and three sisters, Katherine, Anne and Mary. During the time of the Cromwellian conquests, while Oliver was still in Rome, the family who had decided to remain Catholic were consequently dispossessed of the estate at Loughcrew. Edward and his family later moved to Co. Louth. Around this time Oliver had written from Rome about Robert Plunkett, a son of the Lord of Loughcrew, describing him as a priest in the Trim area who had amazing stories to tell as he constantly avoided capture in that locality. He may have been another brother of Oliver’s, but was more likely an uncle.
Today, the estate which is owned by the Naper family for over three hundred years, hosts a visitor centre, adventure play grounds and fine gardens which are open to the public.
Nearby, is Sliabh na Caillí, the site of Loughcrew megalithic burial grounds which dates back 5000 years and contains important megalithic art. Of considerable historical importance, the monument is one of the main four passage tombs in Ireland today. St. Oliver as a young boy would have known this site well.
The parish church, at nearby Oldcastle, contains a major bone relic of St. Oliver (right), which was given by the monks of Downside Abbey at the time of St. Oliver’s canonisation in 1975.
The annual celebration in honour of St. Oliver is held each year in Loughcrew, on the first Sunday of July at 3pm.
Saint Oliver's 'Pro-Cathedrals'
Upon his return to Ireland as the Archbishop of Armagh in 1670, St Oliver based himself in north Louth and for several months the locals would have become accustomed to seeing him dressed in disguise as a Captain William Browne, complete with sword, wig and a pair of pistols as befitted an officer. Living in north Louth held several advantages for him, it was in the centre of his Archdiocese and within easier reach of many other dioceses of the northern province. It was on the border of 'Gael' and 'Pale' and this helped him in his work of reaching out to these groups so as to be able to reconcile many of their differences. North Louth was also in an area where the Catholic Baron of Louth, a Plunkett and a distant relative, held some property. He had regained a portion of his estate after the Restoration of King Charles II to the throne and he had already offered to look kindly upon the new Archbishop of Armagh. At Louth Hall, Oliver was given the use of a sheltered room and by old local tradition, it is believed that he had occasion to hide in the ice-house and thick undergrowth near the main house.
Ballybarrack is located on the outskirts of Dundalk and Ardpatrick is located on a hill overlooking Louth village. Both have been described as St. Oliver's pro-cathedrals. Without pillars or spires these tiny churches in rural areas had been overlooked and obviously considered of little value to those who had commandeered almost everything else. They were destined to serve in fine manner however, St. Oliver's humble mission to his flock throughout the 1670's. He lived in both locations, ordained many priests in both small churches and held an important Ulster Church Synod at Ardpatrick in 1678. We know that his homes were not lofty palaces but simple, humble abodes and he wrote on one occasion that his home was a thatched abode with a low ceiling of only seven feet high. That did not confine him however in his hospitality to friend, stranger or visiting priests. In a rural area, safe from prying eyes, there must have been a lot of coming and going at these locations in north Co. Louth.
Ballybarrack church now measures fifteen metres by five metres, but may well have been smaller than this as it is believed that St. Oliver's home was probably situated towards the front of the church alongside the road. At the time of its excavation in the early twentieth century, the top of a sixteenth century thurible was found with a Celtic motif, which is now in Maynooth College Museum. Perhaps someone fleeing from capture, dropped it in haste.
Ardpatrick church was only uncovered in 1935 with the walls still standing at a little over a meter high. This church is even smaller than Ballybarrack, measuring only eight and a half meters by five and a half metres and it must have proved quite a squeeze for many of Archbishop Oliver's church ceremonies. He conducted most of his ordination ceremonies in the north Louth area; the vast majority of these were held in Ardpatrick and Ballybarrack, with Ardpatrick hosting the greater number.
St. Oliver is renowned for his letter writing and his faithful servant James McKenna must have been a regular traveller on the roads around north Louth, discretely delivering or collecting mail from the other dioceses in Ireland, or the post with London, the Internuncio in Brussels or with Rome. The four horses, which St. Oliver owned for a time, must have been kept well exercised as he continued with his visitation to all of the dioceses of the northern province. He frequently travelled to Drogheda and his schools there. He journeyed to meetings with his diocesan priests at Blyke's Inn in Dorsey, Pierce's Inn in Dunleer or further a-field and he frequently visited Dublin. Indeed within months of his return he was summoned to Dublin on at least nine occasions to defend the schools, which he had built at Drogheda. He undertook a lot of missionary activity during the short window of opportunity he had for doing good, including a large number of confirmation ceremonies held across the province, writing: "I did not give repose to brain, pen or even horses these four years, in a vast province of eleven dioceses." Archbishop Oliver must have come to know most of the mass-rocks dotted across the province, but in north Louth, particularly in the Ballybarrack/Ardpatrick area, it would be no exaggeration to say that he must have known every hedge-row and tree.
His brother Edward and family, dispossessed from Loughcrew at the time of the Cromwellian conquests, relocated to Ardpatrick. Local tradition could point to the Archbishops house close to the garden wall of Ardpatrick House. Local tradition also points to an ancient oak tree in which St. Oliver is believed to have hidden and slept and is known locally as 'St. Oliver's Oak' or 'St. Oliver's Bed'. Shortly before his martyrdom, St. Oliver wrote caringly from his prison cell of his brother Edward who was then senile, of his nephews, Jemmy, Joseph and Nicky and of his nieces, Catty and Tomasin. He wrote of their progress in education, without doubt having already played an important part in their formation, just as his priest cousin, Fr. Patrick Plunkett had played such a crucial role in his own early education. Sr. Catherine Plunkett, the first superior of the Siena community, which was founded in Drogheda in 1722, was a relative of St. Oliver and must have been his grandniece and a daughter of one of the above listed nephews. Some three years after the orders foundation, the Relic of the Head of St. Oliver was entrusted to the communities care, where it would remain for the following two hundred difficult years.
While on the run in 1674, Archbishop Oliver drifted further away from north Louth and the area of the Pale and moved into south Armagh, where he endured many hardships, hiding out in caves, attics or in some safe houses. He was subsequently able to resume his work for a few years, albeit discreetly, but storm clouds again gathered in 1678 with the incredible and false revelations of Titus Oates in London. After Archbishop Oliver's arrest in December 1679, he was imprisoned in Dublin Castle and brought to Dundalk for trial on 23rd July of the following year where he spent four days in the Old Dundalk Jail. He raised no objection to the all-Protestant jury, knowing that he himself was well known and respected there. Archbishop Oliver was also denied defence council, but not withstanding these impediments the trial fell through because the prosecution witnesses were themselves wanted men in Dundalk and were afraid to put in an appearance. Archbishop Oliver was required to pay for his food and keep while in prison and he could joke: "I was conducted back to the royal castle of Dublin to my former cell, a very expensive one, but considering the shortness of the time, Dundalk was even more expensive."
The annual Mass and ceremony in honour of St. Oliver is held at Ballybarrack Shrine on the second Sunday of July each year at 3pm.