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Promoting Irish Culture and History from Little Rock, Arkansas, USA


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Execution of Oliver Plunkett, Catholic Archbishop of Armagh

Oliver Plunkett (Irish: Oilibhéar Pluincéid), Catholic Archbishop of Armagh and Primate of All Ireland who is the last victim of the Popish Plot, is executed in Tyburn, London, England, on July 1, 1681. He is beatified in 1920 and canonised in 1975, thus becoming the first new Irish saint in almost seven hundred years.

Plunkett is born on November 1, 1625 (earlier biographers give his date of birth as November 1, 1629, but 1625 has been the consensus since the 1930s) in Loughcrew, County Meath, to well-to-do parents with Hiberno-Norman ancestors. A grandson of James Plunket, 8th Baron Killeen (c. 1542-1595), he is related by birth to a number of landed families, such as the recently ennobled Earls of Roscommon, as well as the long-established Earls of Fingall, Lords Louth, and Lords Dunsany. Until his sixteenth year, his education is entrusted to his cousin Patrick Plunkett, Abbot of St. Mary’s, Dublin, and brother of Luke Plunket, 1st Earl of Fingall, who later becomes successively Bishop of Ardagh and of Meath.

As an aspirant to the priesthood, Plunkett sets out for Rome in 1647, under the care of Father Pierfrancesco Scarampi of the Roman Oratory. At this time the Irish Confederate Wars are raging in Ireland. These are essentially conflicts between native Irish Catholics, English and Irish Anglicans and Nonconformists. Scarampi is the Papal envoy to the Catholic movement known as the Confederation of Ireland. Many of Plunkett’s relatives are involved in this organisation.

Plunkett is admitted to the Pontifical Irish College in Rome and proves to be an able pupil. He is ordained a priest in 1654, and deputed by the Irish bishops to act as their representative in Rome. Meanwhile, the Cromwellian conquest of Ireland (1649–53) had defeated the Catholic cause in Ireland. In the aftermath the public practice of Catholicism is banned and Catholic clergy are executed. As a result, it is impossible for Plunkett to return to Ireland for many years. He petitions to remain in Rome and, in 1657, becomes a professor of theology. Throughout the period of the Commonwealth and the first years of Charles II‘s reign, he successfully pleads the cause of the Irish Catholic Church, and also serves as theological professor at the College of Propaganda Fide. At the Congregation of Propaganda Fide on July 9, 1669 he is appointed Archbishop of Armagh, the Irish primatial see, and is consecrated on November 30 at Ghent by the Bishop of Ghent, Eugeen-Albert, count d’Allamont. He eventually sets foot on Irish soil again on March 7, 1670, as the Stuart Restoration of 1660 had begun on a basis of toleration. The pallium is granted him in the Consistory of July 28, 1670.

After arriving back in Ireland, Plunkett tackles drunkenness among the clergy, writing, “Let us remove this defect from an Irish priest, and he will be a saint.” The Penal Laws had been relaxed in line with the Declaration of Breda in 1660 and he is able to establish a Jesuit College in Drogheda in 1670. A year later 150 students attend the college, no fewer than 40 of whom are Protestant, making this college the first integrated school in Ireland. His ministry is a successful one and he is said to have confirmed 48,000 Catholics over a four-year period. The government in Dublin, especially under the Lord Lieutenant of Ireland, James Butler, 1st Duke of Ormonde (the Protestant son of Catholic parents), extend a generous measure of toleration to the Catholic hierarchy until the mid-1670s.

On the enactment of the Test Act in 1673, to which Plunkett does not agree for doctrinal reasons, the college is closed and demolished. He goes into hiding, travelling only in disguise, and refuses a government edict to register at a seaport to await passage into exile. For the next few years he is largely left in peace since the Dublin government, except when put under pressure from the English government in London, prefer to leave the Catholic bishops alone.

In 1678 the so-called Popish Plot, concocted in England by clergyman Titus Oates, leads to further anti-Catholic action. Archbishop of Dublin Peter Talbot is arrested, and Plunkett again goes into hiding. Despite being on the run and with a price on his head, he refuses to leave his flock. He is arrested in Dublin on December 6, 1679 and imprisoned in Dublin Castle, where he gives absolution to the dying Talbot. He is tried at Dundalk for conspiring against the state by allegedly plotting to bring 20,000 French soldiers into the country, and for levying a tax on his clergy to support 70,000 men for rebellion. Though this is unproven, some in government circles are worried about the possibility that a repetition of the Irish Rebellion of 1641 is being planned and, in any case, this is a convenient excuse for proceeding against Plunkett.

Plunkett is found guilty of high treason in June 1681 “for promoting the Roman faith,” and is condemned to death. Numerous pleas for mercy are made but Charles II, although himself a reputed crypto-Catholic, thinks it too politically dangerous to spare Plunkett.

Plunkett is hanged, drawn and quartered at Tyburn on July 1, 1681, the last Catholic martyr to die in England. His body is initially buried in two tin boxes, next to five Jesuits who had died previously, in the courtyard of St. Giles in the Fields church. The remains are exhumed in 1683 and moved to the Benedictine monastery at Lamspringe, near Hildesheim in Germany. The head is brought to Rome, and from there to Armagh, and eventually to Drogheda where since June 29, 1921 it has rested in St. Peter’s Roman Catholic Church. Most of the body is brought to Downside Abbey, England, where the major part is located today, with some parts remaining at Lamspringe. On the occasion of his canonization in 1975 his casket is opened and some parts of his body given to the St. Peter’s Church in Drogheda.


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The Execution of Father James Coigly

Father James Coigly (Coigley, Quigley, O’Coigley), United Irishman and Catholic priest, is executed by hanging at Penenden Heath, a suburb in the town of Maidstone, Kent, England, on June 7, 1798.

Coigly is born in August 1761 in Kilmore, County Armagh, second son of James Coigly, farmer, and Louisa Coigly (née Donnelly). In the absence of seminary education in penal Ireland, he serves an apprenticeship with a local parish priest. He is ordained to the priesthood at Dungannon, County Tyrone, in 1785 and goes on to study at the Irish College in Paris, where he takes the unprecedented step of initiating legal proceedings against his superior, John Baptist Walsh, which ends in a compromise after the intervention of the Archbishop of Paris. Coigly, who has been described as “no friend of the revolution,” leaves France in October 1789, after a narrow escape from a revolutionary mob.

Coigly returns to Ireland where he holds a curacy in Dundalk from 1793–96. He finds the inhabitants of County Armagh engaged in a civil war, and religion made the pretext – the Armagh disturbances. There is no suggestion that his religious views are not orthodox. He sees himself not as a politician, but as a priest attempting to reconcile parties. He quickly immerses himself in the politics of the region, riding through Ulster in an attempt to unite Catholic and dissenter. Yet, while he represents his efforts in 1791–93 as an isolated effort to restore peace, there is little doubt that his mission merges into the “uniting business” of Theobald Wolfe Tone, Samuel Neilson, and John Keogh. Almost certainly a Defender, he represents a key link between that organisation and the United Irishmen. He cooperates in their efforts to expose the tyranny of the Orange Order and his profile is heightened, in late 1796, after the arrest of the Ulster leadership of the United Irishmen. He becomes particularly conspicuous in 1797 and, with a general election in the offing, possibly writes an influential anonymous pamphlet, A view of the present state of Ireland (London, 1797), attributed by Francis Plowden to Arthur O’Connor.

More significantly, Coigly makes several forays to England to forge alliances between the United Irishmen and British radicals. In 1796 he carries communications from the secret committee of England to the French directory, and makes at least two crossings to France in 1797, endeavouring to rekindle French interest in Ireland after the failure of the French expedition to Ireland in December 1796. His final mission in February 1798 ends in disaster when he is arrested at Margate, as he prepares to cross to France along with John Binns and Arthur O’Connor.

The arrests electrify government circles, since O’Connor is publicly associated with the Whig opposition. No effort is spared to secure his conviction, including the manipulation of the jury. Yet while O’Connor is acquitted, Coigly is found guilty of high treason and sentenced to die, on the slender evidence of seditious papers found in his coat pocket. The administration immediately attempts to reverse this embarrassment. Coigly is offered his life in return for the incrimination of O’Connor, and the vicar apostolic refuses him final absolution unless he obliges. His refusal seals his fate.

Awaiting execution, Coigly pens a propagandist narrative of his life for publication. It appears in three editions, which Benjamin Binns claims has a circulation of 40,000 copies. In it the priest condemns his judicial murder, Lord Camden, his ‘Irish Sanhedrim,’ and the Orange Order. He is executed on June 7, 1798 at Penenden Heath, Maidstone. His death is overtaken by the outbreak of the Irish Rebellion of 1798. Forgotten in the general narrative history of 1798, his social radicalism and diplomatic missions set him among the most significant Irish radicals of the 1790s.

On June 7, 1998, a memorial was unveiled to Coigly in the cemetery at St. Patrick’s Cathedral in Armagh. In the oration, Monsignor Réamonn Ó Muirí reads from a letter Coigly wrote from prison. While he assured Irish Catholics of his attachment to “the principles of our holy religion”, Coigly addressed himself to Irish Presbyterians.

(From: “Coigly (Coigley, Quigley, O’Coigley), James” by Dáire Keogh, Dictionary of Irish Biography, http://www.dib.ie)


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Birth of Rev. William Corby, Chaplain & Notre Dame President

The Rev. William Corby, American priest of the Congregation of Holy Cross and Union Army chaplain in the American Civil War attached to the Irish Brigade, is born in Detroit, Michigan on October 2, 1833. He serves twice as president of the University of Notre Dame.

Corby is born to Daniel Corby, an Irish immigrant, and his wife Elizabeth, a Canadian. He attends public school until age 16, then joins his father’s real estate business. In 1853, he enrolls in the 10-year-old college of Notre Dame in South Bend, Indiana, and begins study for the priesthood three years later. Following ordination, he teaches at Notre Dame and serves as a local parish priest.

Corby leaves his position at Notre Dame and joins the predominately Catholic Irish Brigade in 1861. He spends the next three years as chaplain of the 88th New York Volunteer Infantry, which is one of the five original regiments in the Irish Brigade. He is perhaps best known for giving general absolution to the Irish Brigade on the second day of the Battle of Gettysburg. Of the Brigade’s original 3,000 men, only about 500 remain. Of the men Corby absolves that day, 27 are killed, 109 are wounded, and 62 are listed as missing. The scene of Corby blessing the troops is depicted in the 1891 painting Absolution under Fire by Paul Wood, and dramatized in the 1993 film Gettysburg. His memoir of the Irish Brigade becomes a best-seller.

Following his service in the Civil War, Corby returns to Notre Dame and serves as its vice-president (1865–1866) and twice as its president (1866–1872, 1877-1881). Under his first administration, enrollment at Notre Dame increases to more than 500 students. In 1869 he opens the law school, which offers a two-year course of study, and in 1871 he begins construction of Sacred Heart Church, today the Basilica of the Sacred Heart, Notre Dame. The institution is still small, and he teaches in the classroom and knows most students and faculty members. In 1869, the entire student body and the faculty present him with the gift of a black horse and, when he leaves the presidency three years later, they present him with a matching carriage.

Corby becomes president again following the short term of Fr. Patrick Colovin. When he returns to the presidency, Notre Dame has not yet become a significant academic institution. His presidency sees the April 1879 fire that destroys the old Main Building of the school. He sends all students home and promises that they will return to a “bigger and better Notre Dame.” He overcomes the $200,000 fire loss and rebuilds the Main Building, which now stands with its “Golden Dome.” During his administration, he also constructs Washington Hall, in which he takes much pride, and starts the construction of St. Edward’s Hall for the minims program.

In addition to his presidency, Corby is also serving as the Holy Cross Provincial, when Rev. Edward Sorin, who had become Superior General of the Congregation, writes to him to tell him that he will have to relinquish one of his positions. He wants to remain president but is overruled by Sorin. Famous throughout the U.S. Catholic world as chaplain for the Irish Brigade, known as the “Fighting Irish,” it may be that the nickname followed Corby back to Notre Dame, where it stuck.

Corby dies at the age of 64 on December 28, 1897 in South Bend, Indiana. He is buried in Holy Cross Cemetery, Notre Dame, Indiana.

A statue by Samuel Murray, depicting Corby with right hand raised in the gesture of blessing, stands upon the same boulder at the Gettysburg Battlefield on which the priest stood while blessing the troops that second morning of the battle. It is the first statue of a non-general erected on the Gettysburg Battlefield, and is dedicated in 1910.

Corby is widely remembered among military chaplains and celebrated by Irish American fraternal organizations. Corby Hall at Notre Dame is named for him, and a copy of the Gettysburg statue stands outside the building. An organization of Notre Dame alumni is named The William Corby Society.

(Pictured: Statue of Father William Corby by Samuel Murray, Gettysburg Battlefield, Gettysburg, Pennsylvania)