Dr Patrick Donnelly - The Bard of Armagh (2)

Hugh A Murphy considers the importance of Oliver Plunkett's well

Only a matter of months after the ordination of Patrick Donnelly things took a dramatic turn for the worse for the Catholic Church in Ireland.

The protestant parliament in England, still in a very strong position, finally forced its will on the restoration king, Charles II, and issued a decree dissolving all Church property. Oliver Plunkett’s schools in Drogheda were razed to the ground and a short time later, on the January 18 1674, Oliver Plunkett and his close friend John Brennan, Bishop of Cashel, were forced to flee and seek shelter in the South Armagh hills, coming first to this area of Slieve Gullion.

This flight is well documented by Oliver Plunkett himself, in a letter written by him to the Internuncio in Rome on January 27 1674 from his first hideout, the house of a 'reduced gentleman who had nothing to lose' and who gave them shelter as they fled during a violent snowstorm in that bitter winter of 1673/74, fearing for their lives due to the great depth of snow in the valleys.

The location of this house is traditionally given as the valley of Mullaghbawn, where exactly we do not know. It is clear, however, that this valley in the lee of Slieve Gullion was frequented often by the Primate during the next five years on the many occasions that he had to hide out, as was, indeed, Slieve Gullion mountain itself.

There is a very strong oral tradition linking Oliver Plunkett with the house that stood on the site of what is now known as Sally Humphreys house, the place where Patrick Donnelly was later to spend the last twenty odd years of his life while Bishop of Dromore. This link is quite significant and not easily ignored.

The well beside us here, which supplied water to the various families occupying this house down through the generations including in the time of Patrick Donnelly, is to this day known as Oliver Plunkett’s well.

Also, the mass rock in the secluded dell behind us where many generations of priests celebrated mass, including most likely Bishop Donnelly himself when he first arrived here, and later during the crisis caused by the Oath of Abjuration in 1710, has always been referred to in an unbroken line of tradition in the Murphy family, on whose property it stands, as Oliver Plunkett’s mass rock.

In addition, until recent years, another mass rock stood just across the road from us here on James McParland’s land, also in Doctor’s Quarters. It was cherished in the memory of that family, and assiduously cared for, as a rock on which Oliver Plunkett said mass.

This evidence, particularly the evidence of the well, would suggest very strongly that this house was one of the 'cabins' referred to in 'the valley of Mullaghbawn', where the Primate hid out on one or more occasions during the years 1674 and 1679 when he was forced to go on the run.

There is, indeed, a possibility that it may in fact be the actual house referred to by the Primate in that famous letter of January 27 1674. It is equally very likely that his young curate, Patrick Donnelly, with whom he had a close relationship, was familiar with this and other hideouts used by the Primate, explaining why he himself immediately headed for this area, and this house, in later years when he too had to seek shelter, knowing that he would be granted a safe haven here.

During the early years of his Primacy, Oliver Plunkett was constantly petitioning Rome to allow him to send five or six of his best students to the College of Propaganda Fide for further education. He argued that, whereas he could prepare students adequately for the priesthood in his Irish schools, he could not supply the level of education necessary to equip them for the positions that so urgently needed to be filled in the upper hierarchy of the Church, particularly the positions of Vicar General and Bishop.

For this he felt they would need a doctorate, something that they could only acquire by going abroad.'It is necessary that there be here some men with doctorates who can account for the things that they believe.'

Since the small number of places on offer for Irish students in Rome at that time were reserved almost exclusively for students from Munster, he eventually turned his attention to other centres of learning, especially the college of Louvain and the Irish college in Paris.

This explains why in the year 1679, we see the young curate Patrick Donnelly heading off under the mentorship of the Primate to study for a Doctor’s degree at the Collège des Lombards on the left bank of the Seine, which had been founded by exiled Irish priests during the Elizabethan era.

In the next section read how Patrick Donnelly became Bishop, and an outlaw.