Jarlath Kearney: St Oliver Plunkett shows we have much to learn from our past

St Oliver Plunkett's head is kept in a glass case in Drogheda 
St Oliver Plunkett's head is kept in a glass case in Drogheda 

St Patrick’s Cathedral in Armagh yesterday saw a new statue of St Oliver Plunkett being unveiled to mark 350 years since his appointment as Catholic Archbishop of Armagh.

The story of St Oliver’s life and death is not merely a spiritual tale of martyrdom within the Church and its followers. It is also an intriguing and illuminating tapestry about the social and political relationships between these islands, and their place at the heart of tumultuous heaves of European history, over hundreds of years.

When we were young, Oliver Plunkett was usually called ‘Blessed Oliver’ in our house. That’s because, even though he was canonised as a Catholic saint in 1975, my parents had learned to refer to him under his beatified status from 1920.

So whenever we travelled through Drogheda we would pass St Peter’s Church and some reference would be made to the fact that ’Blessed Oliver’s’ head rests there as a holy relic. Occasionally we would have stopped and said a prayer in the church. Now in truth, the idea that a saint’s head was solemnly kept in a glass case in Drogheda (of all places) was an odd concept for a child to process.

Of course, Oliver Plunkett’s head only became detached from his body at his state execution in England in 1681, with tomorrow marking the anniversary of his death, July 11.

Annals of colonial conspiracy, plots for political power, Irish-Anglo political crises, the impact of European entreaties, the corruption of good government, the rule of the executioner and the hangman, Oliver Plunkett’s life captures many of the themes that have become all too familiar in recent years – whether literally or figuratively. (Beheadings are more of a reputational execution these days in Ireland and Britain, but no less ruthless.)

During his ministry, he developed schools, tried to tackle alcoholic debauchery among the priesthood, and confirmed thousands into the Catholic Church.

Hailing from Anglo-Irish stock in Meath, Oliver Plunkett ultimately became the innocent victim of power-plays in the court of Charles II and was found guilty of high treason. He was convicted of secretly conspiring in the ‘Popish plot’, with allegations that he planned to liberate Ireland by using tens of thousands of invading French soldiers (who never arrived).

To put the Oliver Plunkett’s life and times into perspective, just nine years after he was transported to England for a kangaroo court followed by execution, in his home county of Meath beneath the shadow of ancient Newgrange in our ‘Valley of the Kings’, Catholic King James II and Protestant William of Orange met at the Battle of the Boyne to fight for power in Ireland under the English crown amidst the sweep of treacherous European and Papal history. That event is recalled every July 12.

There is very little new in history’s pages. Granted, the facts always change, but the themes are frequently common. So it’s important to recognise that St Oliver Plunkett had signficant historical, political and social influence on Ireland.

There are some who will always dismiss contemporary church involvement in today’s society on account of unacceptable patriarchal characteristics, institutional exclusion of LGBT+ people, or systematic cover-ups of child abuse. Those criticisms are too often valid and legitimately held. But we also need to be ensure that the budding emergence of potential positives is not constantly suffocated by the bad experience of past negatives – otherwise we ourselves end up recycling that history.

In my lifetime, the churches have been at their best on this island when they are actively connected with communities and building around shared values (not necessarily agreed policy issues) for social progress, rather than trying to control every individual’s actions or dictate doctrinal obedience.

Values are the vehicle: education rather than edict. The spirit and energy and vision of modern religious like Alex Reid, Harold Good, Des Wilson and Ken Newell needs to be celebrated - and concelebrated - once again, particularly today.

Churches can help to raise unspoken or unheard voices in reframing tired narratives of failure and crisis. And we all need to ensure that - as a result of speaking up with dignified difference or alternative wisdom - no-one now loses their head (literally or otherwise). We can learn from the past without reliving it.