Oliver Plunket is the most famous of all Irish-born saints. His martyrdom was certainly one of the best known, as he was the last Catholic to be killed for his faith in England, which is saying something considering that religious persecutions had been ravaging the British Isles for well over a century. His shrine in Drogheda is the most important saintly tomb in Ireland proper, as Patrick is technically buried in Northern Ireland, and is arguably the most important pilgrimage destination in Ireland after the Shrine at Knock.
Oliver Plunkett was the most prominent Catholic in the British Isles at a time when England, Ireland and the rest of Europe were embroiled in fierce religious wars between Protestants and the Church. For much of his early life he survived the troubles and wars that wracked Ireland as a student and professor in Rome. He was forced to remain in exile in Rome following Oliver Cromwell’s conquest of Ireland and the subsequent purge of Catholic priests there. He did not return until 1670.
Upon his return to Ireland, Plunkett found the Irish Church in disarray. He set about restoring the clergy, and founded a Jesuit College. It is noteworthy that this school accepted both Catholic and Protestant students. Unfortunately, it was destroyed three years later when persecutions against Catholics began anew. As Primate of Ireland, he spent most of the 1670s traveling throughout the country, largely in secret, where he did his best to succor the sufferings of his fellow Catholics. He was finally captured in 1679 and imprisoned in Dublin Castle.
Plunkett was accused of participation in several plots against England and the Protestants, all of which were unfounded. He was tried several times, first in Ireland, and twice in England. The first two trials resulted in no convictions. However, his Protestant prosecutors were determined to put an end to what they perceived as a Catholic threat, and in 1681 he was found guilty of high treason and brutally executed. He was the last known Catholic to be deliberately martyred in Great Britain.
After his death, his relics, which were split up after he had been drawn and quartered, had quite the grand tour of Europe. They were at first interred in England, then moved to a monastery in Germany. Most of his body was eventually laid to rest at Downside Abbey in England. His head made its way to Rome for a while, than back to Armagh in Ireland. Finally, in 1791, a new church was completed in Drogheda, where Oliver Plunkett had established his school. It is in this church that Plunkett’s head has found its finally resting place.
St. Peter’s Roman Catholic Church is a relatively young edifice as saintly shrines go. The original church was not constructed until the late 18th century, and the current church was not completed until the late 19th century. It is a neo-Gothic structure, typical of the period, noted for the single elegant bell tower and classic rose window which grace the main façade.
The interior is similarly typical 19th century. What is atypical of the church is the Shrine of Oliver Plunkett, which may be one of the most gruesome anywhere. The chapel itself features unusual tilework along the lines of what might be found in a mosque. In the center is the towering, steeple-like reqliquary. At its base, in a glass case, is the severed head of Oliver Plunkett. Not a skull; a preserved head: an interesting tribute to the last Catholic to be martyred in the British Isles.
St. Peter’s Church is located in the heart of Drogheda and although not a full cathedral effectively dominates the town skyline. No visitor hours were available as of the time of this writing. There is no charge for admission. Web: www.wix.com/thomasmch/st-peters-parish-drogheda (official website of St. Peter’s Parish)
Although small, Drogheda does have a few other sites of Catholic interest, including the Church of Our Lady of Lourdes. There is also the architecturally interesting ruins of the Friary of St. Mary Magdalene. Only Oliver Plunkett’s head and a few other bits are famously displayed at St. Peter’s Church. For those who wish to find what else is left, most of the rest of the body is entombed at the Basilica of St. Gregory the Great in Stratton-on-the-Fosse in England.
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