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Plunket, William Conyngham (1828-1897) (DNB01)

PLUNKET, WILLIAM CONYNGHAM, fourth Baron Plunket (1828–1897), archbishop of Dublin, born on 26 Aug. 1828, at 30 Upper Fitzwilliam Street, Dublin, was the eldest son of the Hon. John Plunket, Q.C. (afterwards third Baron Plunket). William Conyngham Plunket, first Baron Plunket [q. v.], was his grandfather. His mother was Charlotte, third daughter of Charles Kendal Bushe [q. v.], lord-chief-justice of Ireland. Plunket received his early education first at a day school in Dublin, afterwards at Seaforth rectory, near Liverpool, under the Rev. William Rawson, of whom W. E. Gladstone had earlier been a pupil. While there he narrowly escaped drowning. Ultimately, in 1842, he was sent to Cheltenham College, then recently opened under Dr. Dobson. Here his career was brilliant, and he rose to be head of the school. But early in his eighteenth year his health broke down from overwork, and when some years later he entered at Trinity College, Dublin, he was not able to read for honours; he graduated B.A. in 1853. This breakdown led Plunket to abandon an ambition for a political career, and to turn his thoughts to the church. It was not, however, until 1857, when in his thirtieth year, that his recovery was complete enough to enable him to seek ordination. He became chaplain and private secretary to his uncle Thomas, second Lord Plunket, then bishop of Tuam, and in the following year was appointed rector of the united parishes of Kilmoylan and Cummer in that diocese.

The early years of Plunket's ministerial life brought him into close contact with the evangelising movement in Connemara and Mayo, and fostered that sympathy with struggling protestant communities which was to be so strongly evinced during his episcopal career in his relation to the reformers in Spain, Portugal, and Italy. He became an active member of the Irish Church Missions Society, travelling through every district of West Connaught in aid of its work, and frequently visiting England to solicit financial support for the movement.

On 11 June 1863 Plunket was married to Anne, daughter of Sir Benjamin Lee Guinness [q. v.], a lady whose philanthropic labours have left a permanent memorial in the valuable training institution known as the St. Patrick's Nursing Home in Dublin. The alliance was one in every way fortunate for Plunket, and led among other things to his nomination in 1864 to the treasurership of St. Patrick's Cathedral, then in course of restoration through the munificence of his father-in-law. Five years later he was appointed precentor, and his direct connection with the national cathedral lasted down to his election to the bishopric of Meath in 1876.

On the death in 1866 of his uncle, the second Lord Plunket, and the succession of his father to the title, Plunket became the direct heir to the peerage, and thenceforward his life was spent for the most part in or near Dublin, within a few miles of which the family seat is situate. His energy, earnestness, and administrative ability combined with his high social position to place him in the position of a leader among the evangelical party in the Irish church. Plunket's removal to Dublin was synchronous with the active revival of the long slumbering agitation against the Irish church establishment, and he threw himself with all his vigour into the task of resisting the attack. But he was among the first to recognise that the result of the general election of 1868 sealed the fate of the establishment, and at once turned his attention to the business of obtaining the best possible terms for the church and its clergy. In the subsequent task of reconstruction Plunket took a foremost part, and was looked on as the leader of those who, in the debates in the general synod of the church of Ireland upon the constitution and liturgy of the disestablished church, sought to procure a radical revision of the prayer-book in an evangelical direction. He had always been animated by a strong belief in the possibility of reunion between the Anglican churches and the other protestant communities; and, apart from his evangelical opinions, his action was prompted by the hope of smoothing the path to reunion. But, though thoroughly loyal to his own church, and enjoying the universal respect that his transparent sincerity compelled, he failed to persuade the synod to adopt his policy, save in relation to some important liturgical alterations, and more particularly to the ornaments rubric.

In 1871, on the death of his father, Plunket succeeded to the peerage. Five years later, on the death of Dr. Butcher, he was elected to the bishopric of Meath, a diocese which ranks in the Irish church next after the archbishopric of Dublin, and was consecrated in the cathedral at Armagh on 10 Dec. 1876. His tenure of this see lasted for exactly eight years, and during that period Plunket spent much time in Dublin, and devoted great attention to the question of religious education in the Irish national schools. The institution for providing trained teachers in connection with the church of Ireland, long known as the Kildare Place Schools, had fallen to a low standard of efficiency, and threatened to collapse for lack of funds. Mainly through the instrumentality of Plunket this institution was restored to complete efficiency, affiliated to the national board of education, placed, in common with analogous Roman catholic seminaries, on an equality with the chief government training colleges, and provided with funds for building. It has ever since occupied, under the title of the Church of Ireland Training College, a foremost place among denominational educational institutions in Ireland. Plunket's activity in educational matters led to his nomination by the viceroy in 1895 as a member of the board of national education. He was also a senator of the Royal University of Ireland; and the honorary LL.D. of Cambridge University conferred on him in 1888 was also in part a recognition of his interest in education.

In 1884, on the resignation, through failing health, of Archbishop Richard Chenevix Trench [q.v.], Plunket was elected archbishop of the united dioceses of Dublin, Glendalough, and Kildare, with which was combined, until 1887, the deanery of Christ Church Cathedral. It was in this position that Plunket became most widely known beyond the limits of his own church through his warm and disinterested championship of the cause of the protestant reformers in Spain. His action in this regard exposed him to considerable obloquy in England, where Plunket's action was viewed by some as an intrusion upon the episcopal domain of the Spanish Roman catholic bishops, and was deprecated by most of the Anglican bishops. In Ireland it excited not a little disapproval among members of his own communion, though from a different standpoint. Plunket's persistent exertions in this cause extended over eighteen years; he undertook three separate journeys to Spain to satisfy himself of the reality of the reformation, and gave money without stint in its support. In 1894 he determined that the time for conferring consecration on Senor Cabrera, the leader of the movement in Spain, had arrived, and on communicating his resolution to the Irish bishops to visit Spain in company with two other members of their body, the majority of his brother prelates declined to oppose his action. He accordingly left Ireland in the autumn of 1894, accompanied by the bishops of Clogher and Down, and on 23 Sept. of that year the ceremony of consecration was performed.

Almost as keen as his interest in the Spanish reformers was Plunket's sympathy with the reformed church in Italy. In 1886 he became president and chairman of the Italian Reform Association, and was active in his support of Count Campello and the leaders of that body. In his efforts in their behalf he was fortunately able to act in cooperation with the English bishops, and thus his Italian labours earned him none of the odium which his intervention in Spain excited.

In the autumn of 1896 the closeness of the union which, despite disestablishment, still exists between the churches of England and Ireland, was exemplified by the visit to Ireland, on Plunket's invitation, of Archbishop Edward White Benson [q. v. Suppl.] The English primate assisted at the reopening of the restored cathedral of Kildare, a diocese united with that of Dublin, and was the guest of Plunket at his residence at Old Connaught. The visit did much to mitigate the asperity of English criticism on Plunket's ultra-evangelical leanings. Benson died suddenly at Hawarden on his way home from Ireland; and Plunket died at the Palace, St. Stephen's Green, on 1 April 1897. Lady Plunket had predeceased him by eight years. He was buried at Mount Jerome cemetery, Dublin, after a public funeral in St. Patrick's Cathedral. He was succeeded as fifth Baron Plunket by his eldest son, William Lee Plunket (b. 1864).

Handsome in appearance, tall, and of a fine presence, Plunket inspired the warmest personal affection among relatives and intimates; but his aspect in public was one of almost lugubrious solemnity. An admirably lifelike statue by Hamo Thorneycroft was unveiled in Dublin on 16 April 1901 by the viceroy, Earl Cadogan.

Plunket's purely intellectual endowments were not striking; and though he showed on some occasions not a little of the oratorical power hereditary in his family, he was not a great preacher. He was essentially a man of affairs. But by virtue of the eminence of his position, both hereditary and acquired, and by reason of the remarkable powers of work which reinforced his intense earnestness, and by the charm of a really engaging personality, he was able to accomplish much that abler men might have failed to achieve. He was extremely popular with all classes and creeds in Ireland; his ardent love of his country earning him the goodwill even of those to whom he was politically opposed; and his wide tolerance made him persona grata with the presbyterian and methodist bodies, whose ministers he delighted to welcome to his residence at Old Connaught.

[William Conyngham Plunket, fourth Baron Plunket, and sixty-first Archbishop of Dublin: a Memoir by F. D. How, 1900; Archbishop Benson in Ireland, by the Eev. J. H. Bernard; Seddall's Life of Edward Nangle; Brooke's Recollections of the Irish Church.]

C. L. F.