Plunkett, Nicholas (c.1601–80), lawyer and politician, was the third son of Christopher Plunkett, 9th Lord Killeen, and Jane, daughter of Sir Lucas Dillon (qv), Lord Kilkenny-West, and sister of James, earl of Roscommon. The Plunketts, Old English catholics of the Pale, held extensive lands in Co. Meath, and played a prominent role in both local and national affairs. Lucas (d. 1637), the eldest son, was created 1st earl of Fingal; his sisters Joan and Eilís (Ellice) married the earl of Westmeath (qv) and Lord Slane respectively. Another son, Patrick (qv), studied for the priesthood, becoming bishop of Ardagh in 1647, before eventually succeeding to the bishopric of Meath. Nicholas went to study at Gray's Inn in London in 1622, returning to Ireland in 1628.
Lawyer and politician He registered at King's Inns that same year, and based in Trim, Co. Meath, embarked on a lucrative legal career. Plunkett's clients spanned the religious and political divide, including figures as diverse as Richard Boyle (qv), earl of Cork, and Theobald Taaffe (qv), earl of Carlingford. He first married Catherine, daughter and co-heir of Alderman William Turner of Dublin; they had two daughters. Mary, the younger, died in childhood, while Jane, his heir, married Valentine Browne (qv) of Ross, Co. Kerry. Plunkett's subsequent marriages to Mary, daughter of Christopher Plunkett of the Grange, and Catherine, daughter of James Aylmer of Lyons and Carrickbrien, Co. Clare, produced no children.
Elected MP for Co. Meath in 1634, he worked closely with the lord deputy, Thomas Wentworth (qv), in preparing catholic proposals for reforms. Wentworth's failure to grant significant concessions bitterly disappointed Irish catholics, who reverted to a more traditional role opposing the Dublin administration. In 1636 Plunkett defended the Galway jurors, hauled before the courts for frustrating the lord deputy's plantation scheme by rejecting the king's title to land in the county. Returned to parliament for Meath in 1640, Plunkett emerged as one of the catholic leaders in the commons, along with a number of other prominent legal figures. This group included Patrick Darcy (qv) and Richard Martin (qv), both of whom, along with Plunkett, played a crucial role in the affairs of the confederate catholic association. With the departure to England of Wentworth (now earl of Strafford) early in April 1640, catholic and protestant members of parliament formed a fragile alliance to oppose his administration. Plunkett sat on a committee that killed the bill for confirming the plantation of Connacht, and travelled as part of the parliamentary delegation that presented a list of grievances to the English privy council. While in London, he gave evidence at Strafford's trial on the operation of the tobacco monopoly in Ireland. In March 1641 Plunkett and Nicholas Barnewall (qv) engaged in separate talks with the king to reverse the proposed Galway plantation. These negotiations, conducted primarily on behalf of catholic landowners, upset the protestant members of the Irish parliamentary delegation, which as a result began to split along sectarian lines. None the less, the king's willingness to grant concessions on this issue helped to ease much of the tension in Ireland, where leading catholics had seriously contemplated armed rebellion. Plunkett and his colleagues returned home, confident their actions had averted a major crisis, and convinced that Irish catholics would, in future, enjoy relative security under the protection of the king.
The confederacy In October 1641, however, the Ulster Irish, led by Sir Phelim O'Neill (qv), seized a number of key strongholds across Co. Armagh. Motivated by a variety of factors, including a desire to recover former estates, O'Neill and his fellow conspirators unwittingly sparked a general uprising. Plunkett, along with most of the Pale leadership, denounced the rebellion but hoped to use parliament to broker a compromise solution. An emergency session on 16 November appointed a delegation, including Plunkett, to meet with the rebels and hear their demands. The lords justices, however, favoured a more aggressive military response and prorogued the parliament the following day. Denied the political means to resolve the situation, and appalled by indiscriminate government attacks on catholics, the Pale leadership decided to make common cause with the Ulster Irish. Plunkett attended a meeting at Tara which helped cement this alliance, acting as a legal advisor for the Pale nobility. A political moderate, he was uncomfortable in the role of rebel and supported efforts early in 1642 by the royalist Ulick Burke (qv), earl of Clanricarde, to reach an accommodation with the king. This initiative failed and as the conflict intensified during the summer, a position of neutrality became increasingly untenable.
Plunkett's unwillingness to support his catholic neighbours infuriated Nicholas Preston (qv), Viscount Gormanston, president of the confederates' supreme council, who bitterly denounced the lawyer in a series of letters. None the less, he was expelled from the Irish parliament along with the majority of catholic members in June 1642, and outlawed at Gormanston five months later. The destruction of his home by government troops in late September finally convinced Plunkett to join the confederate catholic association. The first general assembly, held in Kilkenny the following month, appointed him as chairman, a position he held in each successive assembly until 1648, when, during his absence in Rome, Sir Richard Blake (qv) assumed the post. He also sat on each of the nine executive supreme councils elected by assembly members during this same period. As chairman of the assembly and leading member of the supreme council, Plunkett played a central role in confederate government, emerging after Gormanston's death (1643) as effective spokesman for the catholics of north Leinster. Later that year he helped broker a cessation agreement with James Butler (qv), earl of Ormond, the royalist commander in Dublin. In 1644 he travelled to Oxford for talks with Charles I, in an effort to reach a settlement that would allow confederates and royalists to unite against the English parliament and Scottish covenanters. The king delegated Ormond to continue the negotiations back in Ireland with a committee (which included Plunkett) appointed by the general assembly. Together with Geoffrey Browne (qv) and Donough MacCarthy (qv), Viscount Muskerry, he worked hard over the next two years to agree terms with Ormond, but the issue of religion proved a major obstacle to any settlement. In August 1645 Plunkett and the other confederate commissioners signed a secret treaty with Edward Somerset (qv), earl of Glamorgan, who promised significant religious concessions from the king in return for military assistance.
The arrival in Ireland shortly afterwards of the papal nuncio, GianBattista Rinuccini (qv), placed the entire deal in jeopardy. Unhappy with the secret nature of the treaty, the nuncio demanded further concessions from Glamorgan. His stance exacerbated existing divisions within confederate ranks, between the peace faction who favoured a speedy settlement, and the clerical faction who wanted to hold out for better terms. By temperament, Plunkett sided with Muskerry's peace faction, but as a devout catholic he found it difficult to oppose the papal nuncio, particularly on religious matters. The peace talks were concluded in March 1646, but negotiations continued throughout the summer, principally to mollify the nuncio. Plunkett travelled to Dublin on a number of occasions, but no further concessions were forthcoming from Ormond. The lord lieutenant finally published the treaty at the end of July, but – anticipating this move – the papal nuncio had already summoned a meeting of the ecclesiastical congregation in Waterford. The supreme council sent Plunkett and Patrick Darcy to Waterford to explain the treaty's provisions, in a desperate attempt to avoid direct confrontation with the clergy. Shortly after their arrival, however, both men, sensing that a majority of confederates would support the clergy, dramatically switched sides. They denounced the treaty and acquiesced in the imprisonment of their former colleagues, while Plunkett also accepted a position on the new supreme council appointed by Rinuccini.
The failure of the confederate assault on Dublin (November) presented Plunkett and a leading clerical moderate, Nicholas French (qv), bishop of Ferns, with the opportunity to pursue an alternative agenda to that favoured by the nuncio. Both men advocated a middle course, between the extremes of peace and war, primarily to preserve confederate unity. They secured the release of peace-faction leaders, and made arrangements for a meeting of the general assembly in Kilkenny. Plunkett's influence on the assembly floor proved crucial, as the moderate faction forged a compromise arrangement in early 1647, which rejected the peace treaty but exonerated its authors from any blame. A new supreme council, controlled by Plunkett and his allies, attempted to reopen lines of communication with Ormond, but the lord lieutenant's surrender of Dublin to the forces of the English parliament in June forced them to adopt a more aggressive military strategy. Two catastrophic defeats for the confederates at Dungan's Hill and Knocknanuss in late 1647 undermined the moderates' authority. In November 1647 the general assembly selected Plunkett and French to travel to Rome, on a crucial mission to seek aid from Pope Innocent X.
1648–1650s They departed from Kilkenny in February 1648, spending the next nine months on the Continent. Meanwhile in Ireland, the confederate association disintegrated as civil war erupted over the issue of a truce with the protestant commander in Munster, Murrough O'Brien (qv), Lord Inchiquin. In Rome, the pope received the Irish agents cordially, knighted Plunkett, but offered little in the way of practical military or financial assistance. On their return to Ireland (November), Plunkett and French decided that the confederates' only hope now lay in an improved peace treaty with the royalists. They abandoned the nuncio, and Plunkett joined the confederate negotiating team to ensure that the terms of the second treaty would not prove as divisive as the first. The signing of a peace deal (January 1649) led to the formation of a royalist–confederate alliance, with Plunkett serving on the ruling council alongside Ormond. Throughout much of 1649 he engaged in a series of talks with Owen Roe O'Neill (qv), finally convincing the Ulster general to drop his opposition to the treaty. Plunkett also helped organise the war effort against Oliver Cromwell (qv), but in late 1650 he once again turned against Ormond, whose lacklustre leadership had failed to halt the parliamentarian advance. After Ormond's departure to France, Plunkett continued to serve on the ruling council under the new lord deputy, Clanricarde. In April 1651 Clanricarde sent Plunkett and Geoffrey Browne to Brussels to seek assistance from Charles, duke of Lorraine. The confederate agents signed a deal with Lorraine in July on behalf of ‘the kingdom and people of Ireland’, which was subsequently denounced by Clanricarde for conceding too much on the issue of sovereignty. Plunkett returned home to Ireland in time to witness the final collapse of the catholic war effort against Cromwell. He was exempted from pardon by the new regime; little is known of his whereabouts during the 1650s.
Career from 1660 After the restoration of Charles II in 1660, however, Irish catholic landowners appointed Plunkett to represent them at court and help in the recovery of their estates. He prepared a number of documents outlining the causes of the rebellion in 1641, which he claimed was ‘only the act of a few persons of broken and desperate fortunes’, supported by ‘the rude multitudes’ (BL, Add. MS 4781, ff 155–61). He drew a clear distinction between those responsible for the original insurrection and those (like himself) forced by the actions of the lords justices into taking up arms. This interpretation became the standard defence of catholic landed opinion in the late seventeenth century, and persists in historical accounts today. The king, however, dismissed Plunkett from court after the uncovering of the instructions he brought with him to Rome in 1648, offering sovereignty in Ireland to the pope in the absence of any alternative. He returned home in disgrace, but managed to regain his own estates (although not the family home itself) at the court of claims in 1663.
Plunkett travelled to England in 1663 to resume his work representing catholic interests, and remained there until after the passing of the act of explanation in 1665. For the rest of his life he lived in Dublin, sharing a house with his brother Patrick, bishop of Meath. He continued to represent a variety of clients across the political divide. In 1672, for example, the Dublin administration consulted him on proposed changes to the rules governing corporations. As late as 1679, Ormond's enemies accused him of using Plunkett, viewed by many as hostile to the protestant interest, in the preparation of legislation for the intended parliament (which was never convened). Plunkett, undoubtedly one of the leading political and legal figures of seventeenth-century Ireland, died shortly afterwards on 25 December 1680 and was buried in Killeen, Co. Meath.