The Plunkett family arrived in Ireland with the Anglo-Norman conquest, and rose from relatively obscure beginnings to become one of the leading families of the Pale. A legend arose that they were of Danish origin and arrived in Ireland in the eleventh century, but the name is almost certainly derived from the French blanchet (from blanc, white). The Plunketts came to hold lands in Dublin, Meath, and Louth, but probably first settled near Dublin where a Walter Plunkett held property before his death circa 1270. Walter had a son John who joined the Franciscans in Dublin, and a grandson, also called John, who in 1336 was seized of holdings in Greenoge, County Meath and the manor of Clonaghlis in County Kildare.
For ambitious families of the fourteenth century, the route to riches lay through law, commerce, property acquisitions, and fortuitous marriages, and all these avenues were exploited by the Plunketts. A Thomas Plunkett of Louth was a chief justice of the common pleas in 1316, and his contemporary John Plunkett, the real founder of the family’s future greatness, was a professional sergeant-at-law, representing litigants in the Dublin courts. John married Alice, granddaughter of Henry of Trim, who had been mayor of Drogheda in 1272. Through this marriage John inherited the manors of Redmore, Stachliban and Beaulieu, all held of de Verdon. John selected Beaulieu as his principal residence and had a new parish created for his church there.
As John’s descendents prospered they put down roots throughout the Pale, giving rise to cadet branches; ultimately the family came to hold no less than three peerages. A number of fortunate marriages linked the Plunketts to the other chief families of the Pale, as well as leading to the acquisition of further lands. In 1432 Sir Christopher Plunkett was appointed deputy to the lord lieutenant, John Stanley, on his recall to England. Sir Christopher married Lady Joan Cusack, and a splendid (though badly-damaged) fifteenth-century tomb in Killeen church is probably their final resting place; in 1449 the Killeen Plunketts were ennobled. A grandson of Christopher inherited the Barony of Dunsany through his Cusack relatives. One of Christopher’s younger sons, Edward Plunkett of Balrath, County Meath, was implicated in the quarrel between John Tiptoft and the earl of Desmond in 1468. On Tiptoft’s orders he was arrested and flogged through the streets of Drogheda, but he avoided the executioner’s axe, which dispatched the earl ten days later, and lived to serve as seneschal of Meath in 1472.
In 1484 Bishop Thomas Barrett, as envoy of Richard III, singled out Sir Oliver and Sir Alexander Plunkett for their valour in repelling the king’s Irish enemies. But during the Lambert Simnel affair one of the Killeen Plunketts served in the rebel army, and Thomas Plunkett, chief justice of the common bench, only received pardon after lengthy pleading. After the Reformation the Plunketts remained one of the leading Catholic families of the Pale, counting the martyr Oliver Plunkett among their number.