Ireland: Top Saints

The Later Saints

Saint Malachy of Armagh 

Saint Malachy / Máel Máedóc Ua Morgair / Maelmhaedhoc Ó Morgair (1094–1148), the first Irish saint to be canonised by a Pope, was born in Armagh in 1094. He was ordained priest by Saint Cellach / Celsus in 1119. He proceeded to Lismore, where he spent nearly two years under Saint Malchus.

He was chosen Abbot of Bangor in 1123. A year later, he was consecrated Bishop of Down and Connor, and, in 1132, he was appointed Archbishop of Armagh, which he accepted with great reluctance. Owing to intrigues, he was unable to take possession of his See for two years; even then he had to purchase the Bachal Isu (Staff of Jesus) from Niall, the usurping lay-primate.

The influence of Saint Malachy in Irish ecclesiastical affairs has been compared with that of Boniface in Germany. During three years at Armagh, he restored the discipline of the Church, grown lax during the intruded rule of a series of lay-abbots, and had the Roman Liturgy adopted. The Culdee monks of the Celtic church gave way to Canons Regular of the Augustine Order.

In 1136 he resigned the Sees of Armagh and Connor but remained as Bishop of Down. He founded a priory of Augustinian Canons at Downpatrick.

Early in 1139 he journeyed to Rome, via Scotland, England, and France, visiting Saint Bernard at Clairvaux. He petitioned Pope Innocent II for pallia for the Sees of Armagh and Cashel, and was appointed legate for Ireland. On his return visit to Clairvaux he obtained five monks for a foundation in Ireland, under Christian, an Irishman, as superior: thus arose the great Abbey of Mellifont in 1142.

Saint Malachy set out on a second journey to Rome in 1148, but on arriving at Clairvaux he fell sick, and died in the arms of Saint Bernard, on 2 November 1148. He was canonised by Pope Clement III in 1199. So as not to clash with All Souls Day his Feast Day is celebrated on 3rd November.

The Prophecy of the Popes, attributed to Saint Malachy, is a list of 112 short phrases in Latin, purporting to describe each of the Roman Catholic popes (along with a few anti-popes), beginning with Pope Celestine II (elected in 1143) and concluding with a pope described as “Peter the Roman”, whose pontificate will end in the destruction of the city of Rome. Its authenticity is disputed. Read more here.

Saint Malachy’s church, Belfast was intended to be the Cathedral Church of Down and Connor. However, the Great Famine broke out and the grand plans were shelved in order to divert funds to the needy.

Saint Laurence O’Toole / Lorcán Ua Tuathail

Saint Laurence O’Toole’s heart was preserved in Christ Church Cathedral, Dublin from the C13th until  it was stolen on 3rd March 2012.

Saint Laurence O’Toole / Lorcán Ua Tuathail (1128-1180) was born at Castledermot, one of four sons of an O’Byrne princess and Muirchertach Ua Tuathail. The family took their name from Tuathal mac Augaire, king of Leinster (d. 958 AD).

By the time of his son’s birth Muirchertach was subordinate to the new kings of Leinster, the Uí Cheinnselaig / Kinsella clan. The king from 1126 was Diarmait Mac Murchada / Dermot McMurrough. At the age of 10 Lorcán was sent to Diarmait as a hostage for his father. At one point Muirchertach’s loyalty to Diarmait must have become suspect, as Lorcán was imprisoned for two years in extreme austerity and barely given enough to live on.

Due to the intercession of the abbot of Glendalough – members of Lorcán’s family had been buried at one of its churches for generations – relations were amicably restored between Diarmait and Muirchertach. The story goes that when the latter arrived at Glendalough for Lorcán, he offered to draw lots as to which of his sons would become priest, at which Lorcán laughed as he had long thought of doing so.

Lorcán became Abbot of Glendalough at the age of 26 in 1154. He was well regarded by both the community in Glendalough and its secular neighbours for sanctity and charity to the poor.

In 1162 he was  unanimously elected Archbishop of Dublin at the Synod of Clane. He was the first Irishman to be appointed to the See of this town ruled by Danes and Norwegians; it is notable that his nomination was backed not only by the High King Ruaidri Ua Conchobair / Rory O’Connor, Diarmait Mac Murchada (who had by then married Lorcán’s sister, Mor) and the community at Glendalough, but also by the clergy and population of Dublin itself. He endeared himself to the people of Dublin with his exertions during a famine which struck the city, as well as rebuilding Christ Church Cathedral and several parish churches.

Ua Tuathail was well known as an ascetic, wore a hair shirt, never ate meat, and fasted every Friday on bread and water. In contrast to this, it is said that when he entertained, his guests lacked for nothing while he drank water coloured to look like wine so as not to spoil the feast. Each Lent he returned to Glendalough to make a forty days’ retreat in St. Kevin’s Cave on a precipice of Lugduff Mountain over the Upper Lake.

In 1166, Lawrence’s brother-in-law Diarmait was deposed as king of Leinster by an alliance led by High King Ruaidri Ua Conchobair and king Tigernan Ua Ruairc of Breifne. Diarmait had in 1152 abducted Dervorgilla, Ua Ruairc’s wife and on the death of Diarmait’s protector, High King Muirchertach Mac Lochlainn in 1166, he paid the price. Exiled and with only a half-hearted promise of help from King Henry II of England, after much wandering in Wales, England and France, he returned to Ireland with a group of Norman, Flemish and Welsh allies to help him regain his kingdom.

The expedition succeeded beyond their wildest dreams; Diarmait was reinstated as king of Leinster, the Norse towns of Wexford, Waterford and Dublin captured, and the High King defeated. To seal the alliance, Diarmait offered his daughter, Aoife — who was also Lorcán’s niece — in marriage to the leader of the Normans, Strongbow.

Lorcán ‘s was engaged in negotiations with Diarmait when he and his allies laid siege to Dublin after a band of Norman knights seized the town. He acted again as mediator when the king of Dublin unsuccessfully tried to recapture his town and again when Ua Conchobair laid siege.

The arrival of King Henry II of England as Lord of Ireland in Dublin on 11th November 1171 served to rein in his erstwhile Norman subjects before they established a rival Norman kingdom of their own, and to receive the submission of the Irish kings and princes. A synod at Cashel brought Ireland in line with Church observances as practised in Henry’s other domains in England and France. Two of the statutes proclaimed concerned the marriage laws of the Irish clergy and the granting of the Rock of Cashel to the Church. It was also used to try to bring the Church in Ireland under the jurisdiction of Canterbury and in the process Pope Alexander III confirmed Pope Adrian IV’s donation of Ireland to Henry in 1172. The implications of all this only seems to have sunk in after King Henry’s departure in April 1172 and to this end Ua Conchobair sent Ua Tuathail — accompanied by Catholicus, Abbot of Clonfert — to London to negotiate a settlement with Henry.

The Treaty of Windsor 1175 was a pact between Ua Conchobair and Henry II which acknowledged Henry’s right to the Lordship of Leinster, Meath and such areas then occupied by his Norman subjects. Lorcán was able to get Henry to acknowledge Ua Conchobair’s right to the High Kingship and to his lands in Connacht.

During the negotiations, Lorcán was saying mass at the shrine of St. Thomas Becket at Canterbury when he was attacked by a madman who had heard of the archbishop’s reputation and had the idea of giving the Church another martyr; he struck Lorcán on the head, before the altar, with a club. Unlike Becket, Ua Tuathail, though knocked to the ground, was able to recover and finish the mass.

Archbishop Lorcán left Ireland in 1179 to attend the Third Council of the Lateran in Rome, accompanied by five other bishops. From Pope Alexander III he received a papal bull, confirming the rights and privileges of the See of Dublin. Alexander also named him as papal legate. On his return to Ireland he kept up the pace of reform to such an extent that as many as 150 clerics were withdrawn from their offices for various abuses and sent to Rome.

In 1180, he left Ireland for the last time, taking with him a son of Ua Conchobair’s as a hostage to Henry. He meant to admonish Henry for incursions against Ua Conchobair, contrary to the Treaty of Windsor. After a stay at the Monastery of Abingdon south of Oxford – necessitated by a closure of the ports – he landed at Le Tréport, Normandy, at a cove named after him, Saint-Laurent.

He fell ill and was conveyed to St. Victor’s Abbey at Eu. Mortally ill, it was suggested that he should make his will, to which he replied: “God knows, I have not a penny under the sun to leave anyone.” His last thoughts were of his people in Dublin: “Alas, you poor, foolish people, what will you do now? Who will take care of you in your trouble? Who will help you?”

Due to the claimed great number of miracles that rapidly occurred either at his tomb or through his intercession, he was canonized only 45 years after his death, by Pope Honorius III in 1225.

St Laurence’s skull was brought to England in 1442 by a nobleman named Sir Rowland Standish (relation of Myles Standish) who had fought at Agincourt. The bones were interred at the parish church of Chorley in England, now named St. Laurence’s. The bones disappeared in the Reformation.

When the Saint’s heart disappeared in March 2012, the Dean of Christ Church, the Most Rev Dermot Dunne stated “I am devastated that one of the treasured artifacts of the cathedral is stolen“. He added “It has no economic value but it is a priceless treasure that links our present foundation with its founding father.”

Saint Laurence O’Toole is the patron saint of Dublin. His Feast Day is 14th November.

Saint Oliver Plunkett 

Saint Oliver Plunkett / Plunket) (1629 – 1681) was born in Loughcrew, County Meath, to well-to-do parents of Hiberno-Norman origin. He was related by birth to a number of landed families, such as the recently ennobled Earl of Roscommon, as well as Lord Louth and Lord Dunsany. Until his 16th year, the boy’s education was entrusted to his cousin Patrick Plunkett, Abbot of St Mary’s, Dublin, and brother of the first Earl of Fingall, who later became bishop, successively, of Ardagh and Meath.

As an aspirant to the priesthood, he set out for Rome in 1647, under the care of Father Pierfrancesco Scarampi, of the Roman Oratory. At this time, the Wars of the Three Kingdoms were raging in the British Isles; inIreland the conflicts were primarily fought by native Irish and “Old English” Roman Catholics against Irish Anglicans and Protestants, as well as Royalists against Parliamentarians. Scarampi was the Papal envoy to the Roman Catholic movement known as the Confederation of Ireland. Many of Plunkett’s relatives were involved in this organisation

He was admitted to the Irish College in Rome and he proved to be an able pupil. He was ordained a priest in 1654, and deputed by the Irish bishops to act as their representative in Rome. Meanwhile, English Parliamentarian troops led by Oliver Cromwell had defeated King Charles I; the Cromwellian conquest of Ireland (1649–53) had defeated the Roman Catholic cause in Ireland and, in the aftermath, the public practice of Roman Catholicism was banned and Roman Catholic clergy were executed. As a result, it was impossible for Plunkett to return to Ireland for many years. He petitioned to remain in Rome and, in 1657, became a professor of theology.

Throughout the period of the Commonwealth and the first years of King Charles II‘s reign, he successfully pleaded the cause of the Irish Roman Church, and also served as theological professor at the College of Propaganda Fide. In July 1669 he was appointed Archbishop of Armagh, the Irish primatial see, and was consecrated at Ghent three months later.

He eventually set foot on Irish soil again on 7 March 1670, as the English Restoration of 1660 had started on a tolerant basis.  He set about reorganising the ravaged Roman Church and built schools both for the young and for clergy, whom he found ‘ignorant in moral theology and controversies‘. He tackled 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 was able to establish a Jesuit College in Drogheda in 1670. A year later 150 students attended the college, no fewer than 40 of whom were Protestant, making this college the first integrated school in Ireland.

On the enactment of the Test Act in 1673, which Plunkett would not agree to for doctrinal reasons, the college was levelled to the ground. Plunkett went into hiding, traveling only in disguise, and refused a government edict to register at a seaport to await passage into exile. In 1678, the so-called Popish Plot, concocted in England by Titus Oates, led to further anti-Roman Catholicism. Archbishop Peter Talbot of Dublin was arrested, and Plunkett again went into hiding. The Privy Council in London was told he had plotted a French invasion.

Despite being on the run and with a price on his head, he refused to leave his flock. He was arrested in December 1679 and imprisoned in Dublin Castle, where he gave absolution to the dying Talbot. At some point before his final incarceration, he took refuge in a church that once stood in the townland of Killartry in County Louth, seven miles outside of Drogheda.

He was brought from a prison cell in Dublin Castle to face trial in Dundalk for conspiring against the state by 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. He made no objection to the all-Protestant jury. The prosecution witnesses were themselves wanted men and afraid to turn up in court, so the trial soon collapsed.

Lord Shaftesbury knew Oliver Plunkett would never be convicted in Ireland and had him moved to Newgate Prison, London, to face trial in Westminster Hall. The second trial has often been described as a travesty of justice as Plunkett was again denied counsel or time to assemble his defence witnesses and was also frustrated in his attempts to obtain the criminal records of those who were to give evidence against him. He disputed the right of the court to try him in England and also drew attention to the criminal past of the witnesses, but all to no avail. Lord Chief Justice  Sir Francis Pemberton,  later described by Lord Campbell as a disgrace to himself and his country,  told the accused, “Look you, Mr Plunket, it is in vain for you to talk and make this discourse here now…”, “don’t mis-spend your own time; for the more you trifle in these things, the less time you will have for your defence” and “you have done as much as you could to dishonour God in this case; for the bottom of your treason was your setting up your false religion, than which there is not any thing more displeasing to God, or more pernicious to mankind in the world”. The jury returned within fifteen minutes with a guilty verdict and Archbishop Plunkett replied “Deo Gratias”.  He was hanged, drawn and quartered at Tyburn on 1st July 1681.

His body was initially buried in two tin boxes next to five Jesuits who had died before in the courtyard of St Giles. The remains were exhumed in 1683 and moved to the Benedictine monastery at Lamspringe, near Hildesheim in Germany. Most of the body was brought to Downside Abbey, England, where the major part is located today.

Saint Oliver Plunkett’s head, first brought to Rome, and from there to Armagh, has rested since June 1921  in Saint Peter’s church, Drogheda. Some more relics were brought to Ireland in May 1975, while others are in England, France, Germany, the United States, and Australia.

As the last Roman Catholic martyr to die in England, Oliver Plunkett was beatified in 1920 and canonised by Pope Paul VI in 1975, the first new Irish saint for almost seven hundred years. His Feast Day is 11th July.

Saint Charles of Mount Argus

Saint Charles of Mount Argus (1821-1893) was born Joannes Andreas Houben in the village of Munstergeleen in the Province of Limburg in the Netherlands. He joined the Passionist Fathers in 1845 at Ere in Belgium. Ordained in 1850, he was sent to England in 1852 and was never to see the nation of his birth again. In 1857 he was sent to the newly founded Mount Argus monastery in Dublin where he became popular confessor and was renowned as healer.

The miracle that led to his canonisation occurred through his intercession on behalf of Adolf Dormans of Munstergeleen, the saint’s birthplace. According to the Church authorities, the cure of a “perforated, gangrenous appendicitis with generalized peritonitis that was multi-organically compromising and included extenuating and prolonged agony” was “not scientifically explainable“. Charles was canonised on 3rd June 2007 by Pope Benedict XVI.

Other Irish candidates for canonisation include:

17 Irish martyrs beatified by Pope John Paul II in 1992, including Archbishop Dermot O’Hurley, Margaret Ball, and the Wexford Martyrs (Matthew Lambert, Robert Tyler, Edward Cheevers, Patrick Cavanagh and two unknown individuals found guilty of treason in 1581 for aiding in the escape of James Eustace, 3rd Viscount Baltinglass and refusing to take the Oath of Supremacy and declare Elizabeth I of England to be the head of the Church. They were subsequently hanged, drawn and quartered in Wexford).

Blessed Edmund Rice (1762-1844), founder of the Christian Brothers.

Venerable Matt Talbot (1856-1925), a self-flagellant Dubliner.


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