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.
Downside Abbey, Somerset, England
Saint Oliver and the Benedictine Order
The Benedictine order holds a special place of honour in the story of St. Oliver Plunkett. While in Newgate prison in London, St. Oliver befriended an English Benedictine monk, Fr. Maurus Corker, who proved very helpful to him, becoming in effect his 'anam chara' or faith friend. Fr. Corker provided St. Oliver with Mass requisites and he also heard St. Oliver's confession before his death. Undoubtedly, the martyr's most revealing letters about himself were the ones he penned at this time from his prison cell. Amongst these were letters and notes to Fr. Corker, each of which display a deep spirituality. These are all well preserved and among the cherished possessions of the Benedictine Community at Downside Abbey. It is often said that Fr. Corker possibly enrolled St. Oliver as a Confrater of the Benedictine order. Indeed another Benedictine priest imprisoned with St. Oliver at this time, Fr. Cuthbert Wall, alias Mr Marshall, lent St. Oliver a 'shift' to wear on his way to Tyburn. This garb may well have been a form of habit or scapular to represent the Benedictine order. In any event, St. Oliver saw himself as coming under the obedience of Fr. Corker, who was President of the English Benedictines at the time. St. Oliver left all decisions in his hands, i.e. how the barber would attend to him, whether or not to have a fortifying drink on the day of execution, the drafting of his final speech and finally he left his clothes, possessions and his body to be at Fr. Corker's 'will and pleasure'.
After his martyrdom at Tyburn, St. Oliver's remains, minus the head and forearms were buried in a London churchyard. Fr. Corker had the remains exhumed some two years later in 1683, whereupon they were smuggled to Lamspringe in Lower Saxony, Germany and interred with great ceremony in the crypt of the local Benedictine monastery. The new Abbey Church was almost completed by this time and Fr. Corker became abbot of this monastery some seven years later. It is believed that it was via Lamspringe that Fr. Corker would have brought the Relic of the Head of St. Oliver to Rome; giving it to Oliver's old Dominican friend and correspondent, the Cardinal of Norfolk, formerly Fr. Philip Howard who had hidden Archbishop Oliver in St. James's Palace in London some fifteen years earlier.
For several centuries, Oliver Plunkett, Archbishop and Martyr, was almost completely forgotten about in these islands as a result of the harsh penal laws and the difficult famine times. Lamspringe and the Benedictines order never forgot however, and along with Siena Convent, Drogheda and the Irish College in Rome, St. Oliver's memory has been faithfully venerated in these locations right down to the present day.
Exactly two hundred years after receiving St. Oliver's remains at Lamspringe it was finally thought opportune and safe to bring them to the Benedictine Abbey at Downside, Somerset, England in 1881. This community continue to faithfully venerate the martyr saint in a major shrine dedicated in his honour. Around the time of the St. Oliver's canonisation in 1975, Downside Abbey generously gave gifts of major relics to the Shrine in Drogheda, Oldcastle Parish Church, Dromore Cathedral and some other locations also benefited with gifts of relics at this time.
A great debt of gratitude is certainly owed to the Benedictine community and to the people of Lamspringe in Germany for the faithful way they venerated and kept alive the memory of St. Oliver down through the centuries. Centuries, which were very difficult ones for the Irish people as they continued to struggle and scrape for bare survival, in both body and in soul.
The annual Mass and ceremony in honour of St. Oliver is held in Downside Abbey on the Feast of St. Oliver, 1st July each year.
Trial and Execution - Tyburn, London
Archbishop Oliver who had secretly visited his cousin and tutor of old, Bishop Patrick Plunkett before his death in Dublin, was arrested on 6th December, 1679 and jailed in Dublin Castle. He was accused, on false evidence, of plotting against the King of England and planning to bring a French force into Carlingford harbour. Archbishop Oliver was brought to Dundalk for trial on 23rd July and although not allowed any defence counsel, he raised no objection to the all-Protestant jury, knowing that he himself was well known and respected there. Lord Shaftesbury and others in London, then decided to bring Archbishop Plunkett to London to face trial, knowing that there was probably not a jury in Ireland which would convict him, irrespective of its makeup. They also knew that as a result of the hysteria and wild reports of Catholic plots in England, a rigged jury in London would not be overly concerned with the true character of any of those involved.
Brought over to Newgate prison in October, Archbishop Oliver was placed in strict solitary confinement to spend a second harsh winter in jail. Despite his pain, as he suffered from several ailments, he spoke to no one except his jailors and they became impressed by his fasting, constant prayer and inherent good humour.
On the day of the trial, Oliver who was again not allowed any defence counsel, disputed the right of the court to try him in England and he also drew attention to the criminal past of the witnesses. The Lord Chief Justice replied: "Look you Mr. Plunkett, do not waste your time by talking about these things…The bottom of your treason, which is treason of the highest order, was the setting up of your false religion and there is nothing more displeasing to God than it". The jury retired to consider the charge of high treason and returned within fifteen minutes with a guilty verdict. Archbishop Oliver, knowing the horrible punishment for treason, was to be hung, drawn and quartered and realising that he was to be martyred for his faith, simply replied to the court: "Deo Gratias" or God be thanked. The Lord Chief Justice pronounced sentence: "You shall be drawn through the City of London to Tyburn, there you shall be hanged by the neck but cut down before you are dead, your bowels shall be taken out and burnt before your face, your head shall be cut off and your body be divided into four quarters." Oliver addressed the court and said that he could easily have gained his freedom, as he had already been offered it, if he would confess his guilt and condemn others, adding that he would rather die ten thousand deaths than wrongfully take a farthing of any man's goods, one day of his freedom or a minute of his life.
On the 1st July 1681, he was dragged on a sledge from Newgate prison, before a noisy crowd, a distance of three kilometers to Tyburn. The keeper of Newgate when asked how the prisoner was, replied that he had slept soundly and that he was as unconcerned as if he was going to a wedding. From the three cornered gallows at Tyburn, Archbishop Oliver in a prepared speech, refuted his accusers point by point and forgave all of them, including the judges, and those who had given evidence against him at the trial: "I beg of my Saviour to grant them true repentance, I do forgive them with all my heart."
Oliver's theme of reconciliation continued, by his asking forgiveness of all those whom he had ever offended by thought, word or deed. He prayed: "I beseech your Divine Majesty by the merits of Christ and the intercession of his Blessed Mother and all the holy angels and saints to forgive me my sins and to grant my soul eternal rest."
Kneeling he recited an act of contrition, the Miserere psalm and he repeated before his death, the prayer of Jesus on the cross: "Into Thy hands, O Lord, I commend my Spirit". St. Oliver worked tirelessly as Archbishop for ten years, paying the ultimate price of martyrdom without seeing the fruits of his labours, and his crowning glory was the manner of his death, humble, heroic and holy. Several priests were close by and they blessed and absolved him at the point of his death. He may have been already dead when he was taken down and the further mutilation began. A fire had been prepared to consume his remains, his head was thrown into it, but it was quickly recovered and scorch marks may still be discerned on the left cheek. His demeanour and his speech from the scaffold were well received and it was patently obvious to many that he was innocent, as the plot had already shown signs of crumbling.
In the previous few years many blameless individuals had been hanged at Tyburn, mostly priests and none had tried to gain their freedom by pleading guilty or condemning others and this had exposed a weakness in the plot. Oliver's trial, conviction and his eventual martyrdom on 1st. July 1681, was such an outrageous episode, that it greatly discredited those who brought it about and the credibility of the plot and of its advocates, collapsed completely thereafter. Lord Shaftesbury the principal promoter of the plot was arrested and imprisoned on the following day and Titus Oates would soon be imprisoned on a charge of perjury. As a result, St. Oliver became the very last of the one hundred and five Catholic martyrs of Tyburn who had given their lives over the previous one hundred and fifty years.
St. Oliver's Time in Rome (1647 - 1669)
Chased by pirates and abducted by robbers, a penniless St. Oliver, finally arrived in Rome in May 1647 after a three-month action-packed journey from Ireland. A young man of twenty-one years of age it is believed he travelled with four other students for the priesthood, one of whom was John Brenan, who would remain a lifelong confidant and friend. They undertook the journey under the protection of Fr. Peter Scarampi, who had completed his duties as the Pope's envoy to the Confederation of Kilkenny. On the journey they completed a pilgrimage to Assisi as a promised thanksgiving for their escape from the pirates at sea. As they entered Assisi, the home of St. Francis, the symbolism of their poverty must then have seemed rather appropriate to them. Indeed, St. Oliver was destined to suffer from a serious shortage of money throughout his later apostolate as the Archbishop of Armagh. Fr. Scarampi an Oratorian priest and a holy and charitable man was destined to leave an indelible mark for good on Oliver.
The month of May is surely one of the best months to appreciate the city of Rome with its lush foliage and colourful blossoms, all in full bloom. Oliver and his fellow students must have been highly impressed with all that they saw. The Renaissance had been adopted with some enthusiasm in Rome for almost three hundred years and the eternal city's fine churches, gardens and fountains would have contrasted greatly with what the young students had been used to back home.
The Irish College could not accept Oliver straight away so it was the good Fr. Scarampi who came to the rescue and arranged funds and accommodation for the pauper student. Upon entering the college he undertook the customary oath to return to Ireland after ordination. During his time at the college he walked each day across the buried and yet undiscovered Roman Forum for lectures to the Jesuit Collegio Romano. The rector of the Irish College wrote that Oliver ranked among the foremost in talent, diligence and progress. It is also recorded that Oliver was everywhere and at all times a model of gentleness, integrity and piety. Within a year of his arrival, Oliver would have met a cousin, Sir Nicholas Plunkett, who accompanied Bishop Nicholas French of Ferns on a visit to Rome, representing the Confederation of Kilkenny. Knighted by the Pope Innocent X on that visit, Sir Nicholas was the leading Catholic lawyer in Ireland at the time and he played a prominent part in the Confederation of Kilkenny. Barely a year afterwards, the disastrous Cromwellian conquest of Ireland began and over the next few years the news seeping out of Ireland was exceedingly grave. The land of Ireland literally changed hands, including the estate of Oliver's family, which had been confiscated at Loughcrew. The Irish Church was forced underground, with numerous martyrs, many of whom are still unknown to us. It is on record that Oliver spent many long periods of prayer about this time and he later wrote about the devout practice in Rome of visiting the Seven Churches including the catacomb. Obviously he regularly undertook this pilgrimage himself, undoubtedly praying for the intentions of his greatly troubled homeland.
In the Basilica of St. John Lateran, St. Oliver received tonsure and minor orders on 4th March 1651 and sub-diaconate on 20th December 1653. In the chapel of Propaganda College he was ordained a deacon on the 26th December of that year and six days later, on the 1st January 1654, he was ordained a priest in the same chapel by Bishop MacGeoghegan OFM of Clonmacnois, a refugee bishop from Ireland. Priests were still-hunted in Ireland at the time, so Fr. Oliver was naturally released from his promise to return home after ordination. For the next three years he undertook higher studies at the renowned Sapienza University and obtained a doctorate in law and he also earned a doctorate in theology. During this time he lived as a chaplain with the Oratorians at S. Gerolamo della Caritā, a house of great charity founded by St. Philip Neri who had lived there less than a century before. No doubt Fr. Oliver's accommodation and position was arranged by his friend and mentor, the Oratorian, Fr. Scarampi. Around this time a plague struck Italy and Fr. Scarampi who had courageously volunteered to assist the victims, died as a result on the Island of St. Bartholomew in 1656. This was a terrible loss to Oliver who regarded his mentor and benefactor as a father figure and indeed without his great example and help, Oliver would certainly not have achieved all that he did. He wrote that he was afflicted with an unspeakable sadness, some of his relatives had been put to death or sent into exile, he was deprived of his father and friends; the whole Irish people were living in extreme misery and Fr. Scarampi had died.
In November 1657, having obviously earned a good reputation from his studies, Fr. Oliver was appointed a lecturer in theology at Propaganda College. Fr. John Brenan his student friend of old was also appointed to the staff of Propaganda at this time. Later Fr. Oliver was promoted as professor of controversies or apologetics and over his twelve years at the college, he helped to improve standards a great deal. Propaganda College was an impressive establishment located in the same building as the Sacred Congregation for the Propagation of the Faith and as such the whole complex was a hub of activity. For the rest of his life, Oliver held Propaganda College in the highest esteem, later writing from Ireland: "Propaganda in a word all Rome, is a great book. How many nations and their customs are observed, Poles, Germans, Spaniards, French, Turks, Ethiopians, Africans, Americans all rub shoulders and one learns with what prudence such widely divergent affairs referring to such opposing interests and countries are handled. One treats with cardinals and prelates of great wisdom, of consummate experience in the spiritual and temporal affairs of so many monarchs and princes. It is impossible that a person of even mediocre intelligence would not profit very much both in the fields of learning and experience, and indeed for the purpose of training a missionary, there is not another college in the world more suitable than the Propaganda."
Oliver was appointed as a consulter in the Congregation of the Index with a responsibility to review books, a part-time and a very trusted position. He was also appointed as a part time agent in Rome for several of the Irish bishops, fulfilling this role right up until his departure from the city. His correspondence kept him well informed of the plight of the Irish and he was kept busy in this role with several controversies in the Irish Church. These including such issues as the Remonstrance and its promoter, Fr. Peter Walsh and the trickery of Fr. James Taaffe. Over the twenty-two years which Oliver had spent in Rome, he had become Roman, indeed in his voluminous mail later from Ireland, although fluent in at least four languages, he felt most comfortable when corresponding in Italian.
The Archbishopric of Armagh became vacant upon the death in Saumur, France, of Dr. Edmund O'Reilly who had spent his last few years in exile. It was then almost a decade after the restoration of King Charles II and Rome at last thought it safe to appoint a few new bishops who could actually be sent to work on the Irish mission. On 9th of July 1669, at a meeting which took place in Rome to discuss the merits of the various candidates for the position of Archbishop of Armagh, Pope Clement IX intervened: "But why delay in discussing the merits of others, whilst we have here in Rome, a native of that island, whose merits are known to us all, and whose labours in this city have already added so many wreaths to the peerless glory of the 'Island of Saints'. Let Dr. Oliver Plunkett become the Archbishop of Armagh." It was decided that Oliver should be ordained Archbishop of Armagh in a quiet ceremony in Ghent, Belgium, on his way home to Ireland lest a more public ceremony in Rome might antagonise the government back home and lead to the further persecution of Catholics.
As a student in the Irish College many years earlier, Oliver's annual two weeks summer holidays were spent in the college vineyard on the slopes of Castel Gandolfo about twenty-five kilometres south east of Rome. He must have had very happy memories of those working holidays, because when working as a professor in Propaganda College, he acquired a small garden vineyard close to the one owned by the Irish college, overlooking the beautiful lake Albano. This he now left to the Irish College along with some books and pictures, in appreciation for the education he had received there. The pictures must not have been used by the college at that time however, as twelve years later and barely a week before his martyrdom, St. Oliver wrote a long and poignant letter to his former secretary and relative, Fr. Michael Plunkett in Rome, leaving the pictures to the Irish College and expressing his sorrow that they had not been framed. Many of the books, which he presented to the college library were scattered by the French during their invasion of Rome in 1798, however at least one of those books is still easily identified by his signature.
The garden vineyard, which he gave to the Irish College, was probably attached to their existing vineyard as a small extension. The time he spent in his vineyard must have been a joyful and a prayerful time for him and he would certainly have reflected on the scores upon scores of references to vines and vineyards in the Holy Bible, doubtless Dr. Oliver was familiar with them all. Having the freedom of the house and library which was on the property of the Irish College vineyard nearby, meant that this whole experience, must have been a most edifying one for him, so that when he wrote about the delights of Rome some years later, the vineyard must surely have been on his mind as one of those delights. One can well imagine the care and love with which he must have tended on those vines at Albano, and no doubt a little of the fruit of those vines was made into wine, for the sacred mysteries of some of his Masses.
When the young Oliver arrived in Rome, the dome of St. Peter's Basilica had been completed only fifty years earlier and work was still ongoing on the basilica of St. Peter's itself. During his time in Rome he witnessed many such improvements, including the building and completion of the colonnades of St. Peter's square. Similarly, Bernini's famous fountain of the four rivers, the Piazza Navona, another 'must see' for the tourists of today. He was there during the celebrated entry to Rome of Queen Christina of Sweden, who had renounced her throne, become a catholic and lived out the rest of her life in Rome. He was also in Rome when the 'Chair of St. Peter' was solemnly installed in the famous shrine by Bernini, at the back of St. Peter's Basilica and exactly eight years later, on the feast of the Chair of St. Peter in 1674, he would recall that event while on the run from the authorities and almost overcome by snow, during a snow blizzard in Ulster. He wrote: "God be praised that he gives us the grace to suffer for the Chair of St. Peter and on the feast dedicated to the Chair founded upon the Rock, which will, I hope in the long run break the tempestuous waves".
In his spare time, Oliver continued to distinguish himself in works of charity and he kept up his visits to the Santo Spirito hospital, adjacent to the Vatican. It is recorded that when he went to say his farewells at the hospital, Fr. Mieskow the superior wished Oliver well, along with the prophetic words: "My Lord you are going to shed your blood for the Catholic faith". Oliver left Rome during the first week of September 1669, travelling via, Bologna, Innsbruck, Munich and Mainz from where he travelled by boat down the Rhine into Cologne and further on into Holland; then on to Brussels on his way to receive his episcopal ordination in Ghent.
Relics of St. Oliver in Lamspringe, Germany
While awaiting martyrdom, St. Oliver befriended a Benedictine monk, Fr. Maurus Corker in Newgate prison, London. President of the English Benedictines at the time he proved very helpful to St. Oliver, becoming in effect his 'anam chara' or faith friend. Fr. Corker provided St. Oliver with Mass requisites and so for the last few days of his life and to his great joy, St. Oliver could again celebrate daily, the Holy Sacrifice of the Mass. Fr. Corker through influence or perhaps a little bribery of the prison guards also met St. Oliver and heard his confession around this time. After his death at Tyburn, St. Oliver's remains, minus the head and forearms were buried in a London churchyard. Some two years later, while still in prison, Fr. Corker arranged to have the remains exhumed in c1683 and they were smuggled to Lamspringe in Lower Saxony, Germany where it is recorded that they were interred with great ceremony in the crypt of the local Benedictine monastery. The new Abbey Church was almost completed by this time and Fr. Corker became Abbot of this monastery some seven years later. It is believed that it was via Lamspringe that Fr. Corker brought the Relic of the Head of St. Oliver to Rome and gave it to Oliver's old Dominican friend and correspondent, Philip Howard, Cardinal of Norfolk.
St. Oliver's remains were venerated in the crypt at Lamspringe for exactly two hundred years, until in 1881 after an awakening of interest in the Catholic martyrs of these islands, it was finally thought safe to transfer them to Downside Abbey, England. This community continues to faithfully venerate the martyr saint in a major shrine dedicated in his honour. Since the beatification ceremony ninety years ago, Hildesheim diocese and Lamspringe parish, still the proud possessors of major relics; continue to show their loyalty to St. Oliver by organising a 'St. Oliver Fest' in Lamspringe each year.
For several centuries, Oliver Plunkett, Archbishop and Martyr, was almost completely forgotten about in Ireland as a result of the harsh penal laws and the difficult famine times. Lamspringe never forgot however, and along with Siena Convent, Drogheda and the Irish College in Rome, St. Oliver's memory has been faithfully venerated in these locations right down to the present day. This loyalty is further shown by the initiative of six of the leading citizens of Lamspringe, including their District President and Mayor, who came to Drogheda in August 2009, with the aim of nurturing closer ties between the major shrines which are dedicated to St. Oliver, namely, Drogheda, Oldcastle, Downside and Lamspringe. A great debt of gratitude is therefore owed to the Diocese of Hildesheim and the parishioners of Lamspringe in Germany for the way they venerated and kept alive the memory of St. Oliver down through the centuries. Centuries which were difficult ones for the Irish people as they continued to struggle and to scrape for bare survival in both body and in soul.
The annual celebration in honour of St. Oliver is held in Lamspringe on the last Saturday of August each year at 5pm.
Episcopal Ordination in 1669 - Ghent, Belgium
It was decided that Oliver Plunkett should be ordained Archbishop of Armagh in a quiet ceremony in Flanders, Belgium, on his way home to Ireland, lest a more public ceremony in Rome might antagonise the government back home. Arriving in Brussels on 3rd November 1669 after a two-month journey from Rome, he found that the Internuncio was away, so he went to visit Louvain and met the large Franciscan community at St. Anthony's College, including fifteen friars who had recently arrived from Ireland. Oliver would no doubt have enquired about the remnants of the Armagh altar-plate, which was deposited with the friars over sixty years earlier. The altar-plate, along with some church items and possibly some vestments, were brought out of Ireland for safe keeping by Hugh O'Neill, the Earl of Tyrone in the Flight of the Earls, who had stayed with his party in Louvain over the winter of 1607/8.
Oliver was ordained Archbishop of Armagh at St. Bavo's Cathedral, Ghent, by Bishop Eugene D'Allamont of Ghent, on the first Sunday of Advent, 1st December 1669. The ceremony was assisted by the Provost of the Cathedral, Rt. Rev. James Roose and the Dean of the Chapter of Ghent, Rt. Rev. John le Monier. In attendance was an exiled bishop from the diocese of Ferns in Ireland, Bishop Nicholas French whom Archbishop Oliver knew well and who had accompanied Sir Nicholas Plunkett on a visit to Rome as emissaries of the Confederation of Kilkenny. Archbishop Oliver would have been delighted to again meet Bishop French and they must have had a lot of reminiscing of past times. Bishop French had an interesting life, having escaped from the terrible onslaught of Cromwell's forces in his native County Wexford. At his house in Wexford, a sacristan, a gardener and a sixteen-year old boy were killed. Bishop French then hid in the Irish countryside despite a determined search for him by those same forces, until his escape into exile some five months later. While hiding in the woods, his hideout was discovered and surrounded at one stage, but he broke through the ranks of the soldiers at speed, later thanking God and the swiftness of his steed. Indeed the Cromwellians hanged three of Bishop French's fellow Irish bishops at this time and a fourth bishop died from ill treatment after capture.
During the penal times in Ireland, the bishops of Flanders maintained a fine tradition of giving sanctuary, education and help to many of the exiled Irish churchmen, and it was common practice to present the newly ordained Irish bishops with episcopal rings. This was the third time since May of that year that Bishop d'Allamont of Ghent was involved in the consecration of an Irish Archbishop, namely, James Lynch of Tuam in Ghent and Peter Talbot of Dublin, in Antwerp. Bishop French assisted at both of those ceremonies, when three bishops were available in each case, according to protocol.
In the middle ages, the city of Ghent had become the second largest city in northern Europe and was a prosperous centre of commerce. However by the time of Oliver's visit, its importance had diminished somewhat as a result of the religious wars of the 16th and 17th centuries. Once Catholic, then a Calvinist republic and then with the help of the Spanish army it had became a Catholic region once again.
A week after his episcopal ordination in Ghent, Archbishop Oliver set off again on the next part of his journey home to Ireland, via Ostend, London and Holyhead. Before leaving he wrote: "I am thinking of passing myself off as an Italian tourist who is going out of curiosity to see the sights of London" and he added that he had given his papers and letters to an English gentleman to be brought to London.
On the first Sunday of Advent 2008, Bishop Gerard Clifford, Auxiliary Bishop of Armagh led a memorable pilgrimage from Ireland to St. Bavo's Cathedral in Ghent, to commemorate St. Oliver's episcopal ordination at St. Bavo's on the first Sunday of Advent 1669. After Mass, concelebrated by Bishop Lucas Van Looy of Ghent, a plaque was unveiled by Bishop Clifford in the crypt of the cathedral. The plaque is inscribed in three languages: Flemish, Irish and English.