Born at Loughcrew, Co. Meath in 1625, St Oliver studied for the priesthood in Rome. Unable to return to Ireland because of the Cromwellian conquests, he undertook further studies there, becoming a teaching professor in Propaganda College. Upon his appointment as the Archbishop of Armagh, he returned to Ireland in 1670 and soon came to know the churches and streets of Drogheda extremely well. He founded a school for boys in the town and a college for the education of priests, which he visited regularly. He estimated that Drogheda had a population of six thousand souls and he wrote:
“The City I speak of, by the way is Pontana, in English Drogheda, in Irish Dreat. It is about five hours journey time from Dublin and is the finest city in Ireland after Dublin.”
On another occasion he wrote of Drogheda:
“In the wealthiest and most noble city of my diocese and of the whole province,”
and then refers to the many “fine and ornate chapels” listing them as belonging to the Capuchins, Franciscans, Jesuits and the Augustinians.
Plunkett, a 17th-century Irish martyr, became Ireland’s first new saint in nearly 700 years after being canonized in 1975. In 1997, he was deemed the country’s patron saint for peace and reconciliation. Oliver Plunkett became a Catholic priest in the 1650s, during the turbulent aftermath of the Cromwellian conquest of Ireland, which saw the persecution and execution of Roman Catholic clergy. Despite the prolific anti-Catholic sentiment, he was still able to found a Jesuit college. His college contained both Protestant and Catholic students, making it Ireland’s first integrated school.
Plunkett was unable to escape eventual persecution. He soon became a victim of the Popish Plot, a fabricated conspiracy concocted by an Englishman that was meant to create further anti-Catholic hysteria. Plunkett was found guilty of high treason for “promoting the Roman faith” and sentenced to death. As was customary for those accused of high treason, he was brutally hanged, drawn, and quartered on July 1, 1681.
Plunkett’s various body parts were buried in the courtyard at Saint Giles-in-the-Fields, though they were exhumed a couple years later. After spending brief stints in Rome and elsewhere in Ireland, his head arrived in Drogheda in 1929, where it has remained ever since.
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.
On his travels to dioceses right across the province, St. Oliver brought peace to the province and also to the Church, giving it order and hope for the future. Highly successful in his labours, he effectively achieved a lifetime’s work in a few short years. However, within four years of his return to Ireland, the persecution of Catholics had resumed; the chapels and convents were forced to close and the priests and friars dispersed. Although ordered to leave the country, St. Oliver remained steadfast amongst his people and refused the easy option of exile. Arrested in 1679, he spent two harsh winters in jail, before being put on trial in London on false charges of plotting a rebellion. Convicted on perjured evidence, he was martyred at Tyburn in 1681. Following the authentication of a miracle though his intercession, he was canonised by Blessed Paul VI in 1975. As pilgrims walk their way through the streets and lanes of Drogheda to visit its many “fine and ornate churches,” we follow in the very words and footsteps of St. Oliver.