The last Roman Catholic to be executed in England for his faith (although officially it was for high treason), Oliver Plunkett was also the first Irishman to be canonised for some seven centuries when declared a saint in 1975. Born 350 years earlier in Loughcrew, County Meath, Plunkett was member of a family which traced its origins back to Sir Hugh de Plunkett, a Norman knight who had come to Ireland during the reign of Henry II. His descendants established themselves primarily in Meath and Louth and soon acquired large land holdings in both. During the Reformation period, the Plunketts remained loyal to the Catholic religion of their forebears. Oliver Plunkett’s education was accordingly assigned to a cousin Patrick Plunkett, Abbot of St Mary’s, Dublin (and brother of the first Earl of Fingall). He then travelled to Rome where he entered the Irish College and became a priest, remaining in Italy until 1669 when appointed Archbishop of Armagh: the following year he returned to this country where he established a Jesuit College in Drogheda. However, changes in legislation and government attitudes towards Catholicism following the so-called Popish Plot of 1678 obliged him to go into hiding. Finally arrested in Dublin in December 1679 he was initially tried in Ireland but when the authorities here realised it would be impossible to secure a conviction he was taken to London where found guilty of high treason ‘for promoting the Roman faith’ and hanged, drawn and quartered at Tyburn in July 1681: since 1921 his head has been displayed in a reliquary in St Peter’s, Drogheda.
One of the houses associated with Oliver Plunkett is Louth Hall, County Louth. It was here he came to stay on his return to Ireland in 1670, provided with lodgings by his namesake and kinsman Oliver Plunkett, sixth Baron Louth. The original building on the site was a late-mediaeval tower house set on a hill above the river Glyde. This branch of the family had been based at Beaulieu, immediately north of Drogheda but in the early 16th century another Oliver Plunkett moved to the site of Louth Hall and in 1541 was created the first Lord Louth by Henry VIII. He may have improved the property to befit his status but given the travails that befell his successors as they remained Catholic during the upheavals of the next 150 years it is unlikely much more work was done to the building: on a couple of occasions their lands were seized from them or they were outlawed. The ninth Lord Louth, a minor when he succeeded to the estate in 1707, was raised in England in the Anglican faith and so his successors remained until the second half of the 19th century when the 13th Baron Louth was received into the Catholic church. Meanwhile considerable changes were wrought to their house, to which c.1760 a long three-storey, one-room deep extension was added. Further alterations were made in 1805 when Richard Johnston, elder brother of the more famous Francis, created several large spaces including a ballroom with bow window to the rear of the building. He was also responsible for inserting arched gothic windows to the original tower house and providing a crenellated parapet to conceal the pitched roof behind.
The Plunketts remained at Louth Hall until almost the middle of the last century. Most of the surrounding estate, which in the 1870s ran to more than 3,500 acres, was sold following the 1903 Wyndham Land Act but the house stayed in the family’s ownership and was occupied by the 14th Lord Louth who died in 1941. Louth Hall was then disposed of and seems to have stood empty thereafter. When Mark Bence-Jones wrote of the house in 1978 (Burke’s Guide to Country Houses: Ireland), he included a photograph of the dining room being used to store sacks of grain. Fifteen years later Christine Casey and Alistair Rowan (Buildings of Ireland: North Leinster) wrote of ‘delicate rococo plasterwork’ in two niches of the same room, and of crisp neo-classical plasterwork in the stairwell, as well as the first-floor drawing room featuring ‘delicate plasterwork of oak garlands and acorns.’ Almost none of this remains today, as vandals set fire to the already-damaged house in 2000 and left it an almost complete ruin. Somehow traces of the original interior decoration remain here and there, tantalising hints of how it must once have looked, but even the Plunkett coat of arms that until recently rested above the pedimented entrance doorcase has either been stolen or destroyed. As so often in this country, the only remaining occupants are cattle. Oliver Plunkett is a much–venerated saint in Ireland but not even his documented links with Louth Hall has been sufficient to protect it from a sad end.