Project Canterbury Some Archbishops of Dublin
by T. S. Lindsay.
Dublin: Church of Ireland Printing Co., 1928.
When Archbishop Trench retired, through failing powers, he did so in the first instance to the House of Bishops and to the Representative Body, and then to his Diocesan Synod in a very touching and dignified letter of farewell. Dean Dickinson told me that it was he who wrote this letter, the Archbishop being wholly unable to think of anything for some time, that he imitated, with his great powers of mimickry, Trench's style, and that afterwards, when the Archbishop had recovered enough to read it, he was greatly pleased with it. The Synod thereupon elected Lord Plunket, the Bishop of Meath, to succeed him. Whately was entirely English; Trench had spent more than half his life in England, and was purely English in character. Plunket was entirely Irish. His ancestors had been settled here for centuries; he was born and bred an Irishman; he was a graduate of Dublin University; all his life had been spent in Ireland, and no one could have been inspired with a truer patriotism or a more ardent Jove of his country. Patriotism was one of the ruling passions of his life, and he was ever ready to raise his voice on behalf of Ireland.
I remember a notable illustration of this. While he was Archbishop a great meeting was held in the Mansion House to express the opinion of the citizens of Dublin on a question which was then agitating the public mind, the financial relations of England and Ireland, at which I was present. Most of those in the hall were Roman Catholics. There were many Roman priests and Nationalist M.Ps., Redmond, Dillon, Healy and lesser lights of that party. The Roman Catholic Archbishop sat on one side of the Lord Mayor, Lord Plunket on the other. Eloquent and powerful speeches were made, all warmly received. But there was no doubt as to which speaker was greeted with the most cordial cheers, which made the most telling and well-reasoned address, which best held the attention of the audience and which sat down amid the most enthusiastic and rapturous applause. On that occasion, as on all others, Plunket's dignified yet gracious bearing, his beautifully clear, sonorous voice and distinct articulation enforced respectful attention, while he possessed in a high degree the orator's skill to put himself en rapport with his hearers, to ingratiate himself with them as Mark Antony did with the Roman populace, and to carry them with him as he developed his argument.
I remember another case. A statue to Father Mathew, the famous advocate of total abstinence, was to be unveiled in what was then known as Sackville Street. Plunket had the courage and ability to do what few Protestant bishops would, or could, have done. He came forward in the wide street before a vast multitude, chiefly Roman Catholics, and delivered an address on their great priest and his noble work, which was punctuated by constant bursts of cheering.
These incidents show not only his remarkable powers of oratory inherited from his celebrated grandfather, but the largeness of heart and breadth of sympathy that the entire nation recognised. There was no narrowness, no trace of bigotry in him, none of the odium theologicum that has marred so many divines. And yet he had strong and decided opinions; he never abated one jot of principle either in politics or in religion. He never sought popularity by yielding up or suppressing that which he believed to be right and true. On the one side he fraternized with Nonconformists, and yet none was more emphatic than he in claiming, as he constantly did, that we, and we alone, form the duly constituted Church of Christ in Ireland, the Church founded by St. Patrick, with a hierarchy and clergy whose Orders are derived in unbroken succession from the Apostles and with a Scriptural and ancient Liturgy, while all other Christian bodies in the country are, in greater or less degree, schismatics, and that the true way to attain Christian unity is to join all in the old Church. On the other hand, he was always prepared to be friendly with Roman Catholics. I have met their priests at his house, and with Archbishop Walsh he was on the best of terms. And yet, who was a stronger Protestant, who was more earnest in endeavouring to win our strayed brethren back to the true fold or to guard our own against Romish error? It will be remembered how he exposed himself to the bitter, even furious, attacks of the Church Times and its school by his resolute support of the Spanish reformers. Very hard words were used, language so disrespectful and insulting as to defeat its own object and excite sympathy for the line he took with such pertinacity and such imperturbable good humour. Whatever opinion men held about it, they could not but feel that his conduct of the business was a lesson to all men, and it immensely strengthened his cause. It showed the power of gentle courtesy and calm reasoning as opposed to angry and abusive epithets. He always fought fair, like the gentleman that he was, and I do not think he ever spoke a word that rankled in his adversary's heart or was betrayed by the heat of the moment into saying what he would afterwards wish to recall. It used to be said that he had no backbone, and a jest that went the rounds was that in a frequent trick which he had of putting his hand behind his back while speaking he was feeling for what was not there. But a backbone he had; I have met few men with a harder, and this was found out as time went on. His resolute persistence, his dogged determination not to be beaten in carrying out the plans on which he had set his heart, was indeed one of his most salient characteristics, and it made him a real power in the land for accomplishing good. After he was gone it was more fully recognised. Men recalled his stately presence, his high-bred courtesy even to the meanest, his lofty and broad-minded patriotism, his large-hearted generosity, his open-handed liberality, his unbounded hospitality and his perfect passion for incessant labour, and they felt that a prince and a great man had fallen in Israel.
Archbishop Plunket was not only admired and trusted, he was loved, and especially by his clergy. To us all his death came like a personal bereavement. Never was there a bishop more kind, more fatherly, more sympathetic, more ready to listen and to give counsel or help. He would come to my parish, would take the liveliest interest in all that was going on there, the school, any little improvements in the churches, any efforts made to help the people. He would walk round my garden, examine the shrubs with a practised eye and propose to exchange plants with me. Gardening, indeed, was his favourite hobby, and he would say, "If I were not what I am, I would have liked to be a landscape gardener." Nor was he destitute of the saving grace of humour, and his speech was often savoured with salt. I remember, when I was in Bray, I had to show him in Christ Church a beautiful glass mosaic behind the Holy Table, lately erected by the Meath family, and representing the Transfiguration. I pointed out a shamrock which the artist had introduced on the ground, presumably because it was for an Irish church. The Archbishop examined it, and then said in his slow deliberate way, "I do not know if there are any shamrocks on Mount Hermon; I am sure there are plenty of real rocks there."
No doubt he had his failings and his limitations--who has not? He was not a deeply read scholar like his predecessors; whether he was a man of affairs I cannot say, for I never sat with him at Councils, though I should imagine that he was not deficient in dealing with the complex business of a diocese. But he was a great man, with the true greatness that comes, not from rank or wealth or even intellectual gifts, but from moral qualities--a high courage, the innate chivalry that forgets self, the heart full of loving-kindness, the real saintliness and the simple faith. And the world knew it, and now his statue stands next to the Parliament House in Dublin, the tall figure with the benignant face, of a patriot, a philanthropist and a true servant of God, the figure of one of whom the whole nation is justly proud.