Sunday, September 18, 2022

the last book I ever read (We Don't Know Ourselves: A Personal History of Modern Ireland, excerpt twelve)

from We Don't Know Ourselves: A Personal History of Modern Ireland by Fintan O'Toole:

The severed head of Saint Oliver Plunkett is displayed in a glass box surmounted by a bejewelled golden turret in St Peter’s church in Drogheda. The Irish Catholic archbishop was hanged, drawn and quartered on trumped-up charges of high treason, in London in 1681. His head was thrown on a fire, but rescued by sympathizers. There are marks of burning on the left cheek and the skin, preserved by creosote, is like dark leather. But it has an eerie, undead quality. The veins still bulge beneath the skin. Little pockmarks fleck the forehead and the outlines of the eyebrows are still clear. The eyes are closed, but the mouth is half open, the lips curled into what ‘might be construed as a grimace, a snarl or even a twisted smile’. It hovers between life and death, between anguish and ecstasy, between the horror of unspeakable torment and the joy of martyrdom, between past and present.

Shortly after noon on 29 September 1979, the parish priest of St Peter’s, Monsignor James Lennon, lifted Oliver Plunkett’s head from the shrine and passed it to two men, members of the all-male right-wing Catholic fraternity, the Knights of Columbanus, who carried it down the aisle. Twenty-five more Knights formed a guard of honour for the head as it passed out of the church. The priest carefully placed the head on a velvet-draped and flower-strewn army jeep manned by Corporal James Shields and Private Terence Reilly of the 27th battalion of the Irish army. They drove slowly through the town, accompanied by the members of Drogheda Corporation dressed in their official robes, brass bands, the Boy Scouts and the Girl Guides.

As the procession came towards its end point at the huge field outside the town where Pope John Paul II was preparing to say Mass for about 200,000 people, there was another guard of honour, this time formed by a thousand nurses in their dazzling white hospital uniforms, members of the Catholic Nurses’ Guild. 2 John Paul knelt in silent prayer before Oliver Plunkett’s head. It was then placed on the altar while he said Mass, so that its sightless eyes could witness this ultimate moment of vindication, a church once persecuted now utterly victorious, a reviled criminal elevated to sanctity, a traitor triumphant. Plunkett’s presence proclaimed the power of martyrdom and the resurrection of the dead.

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