St. Peter's Church is situated on the main street of the busy town of Drogheda. The church was one of the last of the gothic churches to have been built and as such incorporates many of the finer aspects of gothic architecture. Built by parish priest, Mgr. Robert Murphy in the late nineteenth century; it is regarded today as a masterpiece of beauty and design. Its interior was decorated by his successor, Mgr. Patrick Segrave in the early twentieth century and his work is also regarded as exquisite in both taste and in finish. A similar building of design and adornment could not be built by the people of Drogheda today because of the astronomical costs such a project would entail.
Shrine to St. Oliver
A couple of years after St. Oliver's martyrdom, the Relic of the Head was brought to Rome and remained there for about forty years, until it was given into the care of the new community of Dominican nuns at Siena convent in Drogheda, c.1725. The nuns were under the leadership of Sr. Catherine Plunkett a relative of St. Oliver and believed to have been his grand niece. The community had shortly beforehand moved from a mud cabin on the south side of the Boyne to a more substantial house in Dyer Street and they were living surreptitiously as a group of women, so as to avoid any difficulties with the authorities. For the following two centuries, this community proved their resourcefulness and devotion by faithfully preserving and venerating this priceless relic of the Irish Church, throughout the difficulties of penal times. During the war of independence because of a fear that some of the notorious Black and Tan forces might steal or desecrate the Relic, armed republican forces were positioned in its defence, in the locality of the Siena community at Chord Road, this being in an era of attack and reprisal. Within months and to the great disappointment of this community, the Relic of the Head was transferred in 1921 to the newly built, St. Peter's Church, Drogheda, the Memorial Church of St. Oliver, where it was installed in a side altar.
The Relic of St. Oliver's Head now stands in an impressive new shrine, which was erected in 1995. Pilgrims have the opportunity to walk around the shrine and view at close quarters this precious relic of the Irish church. One can also view the original document of authentication of the relics, which was signed shortly after St. Oliver's martyrdom, by Elizabeth Sheldon and surgeon John Ridley. After St. Oliver was hung, drawn and quartered at Tyburn, the Head was thrown into the prepared fire nearby. His friends quickly retrieved it however and scorch marks from the fire may still be seen on the left cheek of the Head. The Head is heavy and not just a bare skull and is in remarkably good condition considering that it has never been hermetically sealed. The Shrine at Drogheda also includes some bone relics of St. Oliver, donated by the Benedictine Community, Downside around the time of his canonisation. Overhead is the Canonisation Picture, which hung from the balcony of St. Peter's Basilica in Rome during the canonisation ceremony on October 12th 1975. In a glass cabinet nearby, is the door from the condemned cell of Newgate Prison, London and St. Oliver would have occupied this cell as a condemned man for the last few weeks of his life. Renowned for his letter writing, it was during this time that St. Oliver wrote his most poignant letters. He also wrote during this time, his last speech, which he delivered from the gallows at Tyburn and is famous for showing forgiveness to all those who had anything to do with his death.
Thousands of pilgrims visit the National Shrine of St. Oliver each month, making it one of the most popular attractions in Ireland. Coming from all counties of Ireland and various parts of the world; some come as sightseers, but many go away with an admiration for the loyalty in faith of those who have gone before us. Many pilgrims come to pray for various petitions and light candles. Many come to kneel and pray for peace and reconciliation in Ireland, before the Shrine of our patron saint for this cause in Ireland. Some come to give thanks to St. Oliver for his intercession and for favours already received. If you wish to have a petition placed at the Shrine and offered up at a regular Mass in honour of St. Oliver, please email your petition to: firstname.lastname@example.org
Many dignitaries also come to pray at the Shrine of St. Oliver. Pope Paul VI at the canonisation ceremony in 1975, recalled a visit he made to the shrine some years earlier as Cardinal Montini. The President of Ireland, Mary McAleese has prayed at a service for peace and reconciliation at the Shrine, and there have been many other such prayer ceremonies at the Shrine. On the first Sunday of July each year, the annual celebration takes place at the Shrine, with a procession and Mass, commencing at 3pm.
When Pope 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 of the Head had been brought to the field at Killineer for his visit and after he knelt and prayed before the Relic, Pope John Paul preached his famous sermon of peace and reconciliation to the congregation of three hundred thousand people. His impassioned plea for peace to the men and women of violence received extensive international coverage and echoed around the world. It is commonly believed that his visit heralded the beginnings of the Irish peace process and sowed the seeds for a real change of heart, so that hatred and bitterness could thankfully be banished from the hearts of Irish men and women. During these early years of the twenty-first century, we give thanks to God for all the successes of the Irish peace process to date and we continue to pray through the intercession of St. Oliver, for a fulsome reconciliation amongst all traditions, on the island of Ireland.
A Historical Town
One of the oldest and most historical towns in Ireland, Drogheda is known as the 'Gateway to the Boyne Valley' although its literal meaning in Irish is 'Bridge on the Ford'. The first charter granted to Drogheda was by King Henry II to the Norman Lord, Hugh de Lacy in 1186 although the history of the townland extends much further back into folklore with the arrival of the Celts to Ireland. King John bestowed the 'Star and Crescent', coat of arms to Drogheda in the year 1210. The port town is linked with many mythical legends and important historical events that have shaped Ireland today, such as: the arrival of St. Patrick, Poynings Law, The siege of Phelim O'Neill, The surrender of the Irish Chieftains, the siege of Oliver Cromwell, the Battle of the Boyne and Saint Oliver Plunkett.
Saint Oliver in Drogheda
Drogheda, known for generations as the 'City of the Churches' was the largest and most important centre of St. Oliver's Archdiocese of Armagh. Protected by an extensive wall, it played a significant role in the trade and commerce of the period and St. Oliver wrote: "The city I speak of, by the way, is Pontana, in English Drogheda, in Irish Dreat. It is about five hours journey from Dublin and is the finest city in Ireland after Dublin."
Barely twenty years before St. Oliver's return in 1670 as the Archbishop of Armagh, Cromwell and his roundheads had carried out their cruel deeds in Drogheda and throughout the country. Given the choice, Catholics had chosen by an overwhelming majority to relinquish their land, property and positions, rather than to turn their back on the ancient faith, handed down to them by their forefathers. After Cromwell's death, with the Restoration of the monarchy and King Charles II on the throne, the tactic of divide and conquer was initiated, to try and cause a split amongst the Catholics of Ireland, when a remonstrance or declaration of loyalty to the King was proposed. In order to promote this agenda amongst Catholics, sympathetic priests of the Remonstrance were allowed to reopen chapels during the 1660's in some of the leading centres in Ireland. Drogheda was included in this list and by the time of St. Oliver's return, several such chapels were in existence, although priests more loyal to the Pope had by this time, taken charge of such chapels. Within eighteen months of his return, Archbishop Oliver wrote of the very fine, ornate chapels in Drogheda of the orders of Capuchins, Franciscans and Jesuits and of a poorer chapel of the Augustinian community. So for a period, Catholic worship was tolerated again, provided it was kept to a rather low profile and did not annoy or antagonise in any way the Government or the leading citizens or churchmen of the reform religions. Across the rest of the province however, the mass-rock was in vogue as none of the land was under Catholic control and so churches were disallowed. Despite this difficulty, it proved to be St. Oliver's opportunity for doing good and he sprang into action during this short lull in the administration of the laws of oppression against Catholics. Indeed looking at his achievements, it is difficult to comprehend how one man could have achieved so much good in such a short period of time, triumphed over so many of life's problems, while at the same time endured so many of life's trials and tribulations.