For many centuries the Plunketts were among the principal families of County Meath, thanks to a judicious alliance made by one of their ancestors. In 1403 Sir Christopher Plunkett married Joan, daughter and heiress of Sir Lucas Cusack, and through her acquired extensive lands in the regions of Dunsany and Killeen, becoming Lord of the latter which was in turn left to his eldest son. The descendants of that line subsequently became Earls of Fingall, a title which only died out with the death of the twelth holder in 1984. Meanwhile, Sir Christopher’s second son received Dunsany Castle, where his descendant, Randal, 21st Baron Dunsany, now lives.
Not having an estate to inherit, Sir Christopher’s third son Sir Thomas Plunkett moved to London where he became a successful lawyer. Eventually he returned to Ireland and was appointed the country’s Lord Chief Justice. At some point before his death in 1471 he ordered the construction of a church dedicated to St Lawrence at Rathmore, County Meath on land adjacent to the castle where he lived. Here he was buried in a tomb, together with his wife Marion after her own death some years later. She had been the heiress of Rathmore, but it was not in her possession at the time of the Plunketts’ marriage. An old story, most likely apocryphal but nonetheless charming, tells how thanks to a song she gained a husband and regained her ancestral lands.
Marion, or as she is sometimes called Mary Ann, Plunkett was the daughter of Sir Christopher Cruise (original spelling Cruys) who late in life had married, much to the displeasure of several nephews waiting to inherit their uncle’s estates. Disappointment turned to wrath when the young Lady Cruise became pregnant and one evening while the couple were out walking at another of their properties, Cruicetown, they were set upon by a gang of assassins. Sir Christopher was struck down, but his wife managed to run back to the castle and barricade herself inside with the help of loyal followers.
Later that night Lady Cruise had her husband buried by torchlight and encouraged a rumour her absence from the occasion was due to terminal illness. As the funeral was taking place she gathered all the family plate and jewels and had them sunk in strong chests in a little lake at Cruicetown. Together with the Cruise deeds, she then had herself placed in a coffin (holes bored into its side so that she could breathe) which was brought to Rathmore. Arriving there Lady Cruise got out of the coffin, into which she put more valuable plate and organised for this to be buried in a nearby graveyard. Meanwhile, she slipped away to Dublin and from there took a boat to London.
Soon after arriving in London, Lady Cruise gave birth to her only child, a girl she named Marion. For some years mother and daughter were able to survive on various items of jewellery brought from Ireland, but once all these had been sold the pair became so poor that they had to earn a living by washing laundry on the banks of the Thames. One day the able young lawyer Sir Thomas Plunkett was passing close to the river’s edge and heard a young girl singing in Irish. The opening words of her song, both a roll-call of the former Cruise estates and a prayer for divine intervention, ran as follows:
‘Ah ! Blessed Mary ! hear me singing,
On this cold stone, mean labours plying
Yet Rathmore’s heiress might I name me
And broad lands rich and many claim me.’
Understanding the language in which she sang, Sir Thomas stopped and spoke to Marion Cruise, who brought him to her mother where he was shown the deeds to the family estates. Not long afterwards he married the putative heiress and on the couple’s return to Ireland was able to reclaim all the lands stolen by her cousins. His mother-in-law remembered where the old plate and valuables had been hidden and this added to the Plunketts’ wealth.
It may be for this reason that the couple decided to build a church next to their castle, in thanksgiving for the return of what had been thought forever lost. Built of limestone rubble, it has a number of fine features, such as the large east window with its curvilinear tracery and a handsome belltower (now roofless) in the south-west corner. Diagonally opposite, in what had been the sacristy, you can find the Plunkett tomb, moved from the body of the church for better preservation. While the armoured Sir Thomas, his feet resting on a recumbent dog, has survived the intervening five centuries, his wife has since lost her head. If only that were the sum total of the family’s losses. In the 17th century, this branch of the Plunketts stayed loyal to the Catholic faith and ultimately had their lands and lives taken from them by Oliver Cromwell. In 1654 Rathmore and much of the surrounding area came into the possession of John Bligh whose descendants, later Earls of Darnley, continued to be significant landowners here until the early 1900s. Today Rathmore Castle is an ivy-shrouded ruin and the church serves as no more than a picturesque backdrop for grazing cattle.