Plunket, Patrick Joseph (1738–1827), catholic bishop of Meath, was born 24 December 1738 at Kells, Co. Meath, a son of Thomas Plunket and his wife, Mary, daughter of Patrick Murphy, who seems to have been of Drumlerry, near Oldcastle. An uncle, John Plunket (d. 1768), was parish priest of Kells. Patrick Joseph Plunket received some schooling at Kells before attending a school in Dublin, said to have been kept by the Jesuit priest John Austin (qv). Whether it was, in fact, Austin's school is questionable, as Austin did not return to Dublin from Paris until 1750 and did not found his famous seminary in Saul's Court until 1760. At the age of fourteen (in 1752) Plunket was apprenticed to a merchant in Pill Lane, Dublin; shortly afterwards he went to Paris, ostensibly, at least, on his master's business. In Paris he apparently attended a Jesuit school, before enrolling in the Collège des Trente-Trois. Upon being ordained to the priesthood (30 September 1764), Plunket did not return to Ireland but went on to obtain a doctorate in theology at the Sorbonne (1770). For some years he acted as chaplain to ‘one of the first families in France’ (Freeman's Journal) and was Leinster superior of the Collège des Lombards (an Irish college) as well as a professor there and an associate of the Collège de Navarre. In Paris he wrote a short treatise, which was not published but circulated in manuscript in Ireland, in support of the oath of allegiance for catholics formulated by an act of the Irish parliament in 1774.
After the death of the bishop of his native diocese of Meath, Plunket was nominated his successor (6 December 1778) and was consecrated in Paris on 28 February 1779. On his passage to Ireland his ship was attacked by the American privateer John Paul Jones, who seized most of Plunket's belongings. In all but the first and last of the forty-eight years of his episcopate he visited, from his seat at Navan, each of his sixty-five parishes, confirming, preaching, and inspecting. In inveighing against profanation of the sabbath he found he had common ground with the protestant bishop of Meath, Thomas Lewis O'Beirne (qv), with whom he was friendly. Plunket's first pastoral letter (February 1781), issued when the American war was at its height, commended the oath of allegiance and pledged the support of catholics in his diocese for the British war effort. Although he had been recommended to Rome (1780) as a co-adjutor to the archbishop of Armagh by two episcopal confrères, John Carpenter (qv) and John Thomas Troy (qv), it was not he but Richard O'Reilly (qv) who was provided to Armagh (May 1782), perhaps because Plunket was regarded as a believer in the autonomy of the Irish catholic church (a ‘Gallican’) and O'Reilly as more deferential to Rome (where he had been educated). A diligent pastor, Plunket compiled and published a catechism, An abridgment of Christian doctrine (1791), which remained ‘the principal one in use in the diocese down to the 1940s’ (Fagan, 165). He promoted the setting up of a national seminary at Maynooth and, as an original trustee, he attended regularly the quarterly meetings of the board from the time when the college opened (1795) until his health failed (1823). Another of Plunket's achievements was the opening of a diocesan college at Navan in 1802, which he had contemplated twenty years earlier.
In the revolutionary atmosphere of the 1790s Plunket was sufficiently liberal to support the faction led by Edward Byrne (qv) and John Keogh (qv) when the Catholic Committee split in 1791, and to create interest in counties Meath and Westmeath in the Catholic Convention of 1792; but he repeatedly denounced the Defenders, active throughout his diocese, and attended in Dublin a high mass of thanksgiving for the failure of the French to land at Bantry Bay (16 February 1797). During the spring and summer of 1798, in every parish he visited, he preached against United Irish rebellion, which was probably the reason no priest in the Meath diocese supported the rebels. The rebellion he denounced as being ‘connected with principles hostile to religion’, while the catholic yeomen of the Meath diocese were praised by him for ‘fighting with distinguished valour against the rebels’ at Tara and Kilcock (Fagan, 182). He stopped short of excluding rebels from the sacraments of the catholic church, though he did once exclude freemasons.
Plunket was one of ten bishops who early in 1799 signed the preliminaries of an agreement (not, however, concluded) for a royal veto on nominations to Irish catholic bishoprics and financial provision by the state for catholic bishops and clergy. When union of Ireland with Great Britain became a public issue, Plunket privately admitted to having no enthusiasm for Ireland as a separate kingdom but, estimating catholic opinion in his diocese to be hostile to union, refused to support it publicly. In 1808 so general was catholic disillusionment at the failure of the British government to accompany union with further measures of catholic emancipation, that, at a meeting of the catholic bishops, Plunket was one of twenty-three who voted against a renewed proposal for a veto, only three voting in favour. In 1817 he established the first convent in the diocese, that of the Presentation Sisters at Killina, in the parish of Rahan, King's County (Offaly), endowed by Maria O'Brien, who used a legacy from her father, Denis Thomas O'Brien (qv). At the age of eighty-five, Plunket was host to Daniel O'Connell (qv), who at the catholic chapel at Navan appealed for a penny a month for the Catholic Association. Plunket's own income was stated by him in 1799 to be £362 p.a. from all sources.
A man of polished manners and meek disposition, Patrick Plunket died at Navan on 11 January 1827 and was buried in the chapel. His brother, Valentine Plunket (d. 1786) of Kells, may have been the father of J. J. Plunket, who in 1790 was a student at the Irish college in Paris, and was said to have been the bishop's nephew; certainly Valentine had a son John (d. 1820) who was an attorney. Of interest to historians is the diary or register Bishop Plunket kept of his episcopal duties, which, together with many letters received from fellow priests and bishops, was printed by Anthony Cogan (qv) in his Diocese of Meath, ancient and modern (1867). The original manuscripts, however, were destroyed with virtually the entire Meath diocesan archives on the orders of Bishop Laurence Gaughran (1842–1928) in 1909.