John Hubert Plunkett was the first Catholic Solicitor-General and then the first Catholic Attorney-General of New South Wales.
He was, at various times, a member of both the Legislative Council and the Legislative Assembly. He was a member of the first Senate of the University of Sydney and an early Vice-Chancellor of that University. He was the first Chairman of the Board of Education of New South Wales and a founding fellow of St. John's College at the University of Sydney. He was a great friend and benefactor of the Sisters of Charity in Australia.
Plunkett was born in Roscommon in Ireland in June, 1802. He studied Arts at Trinity College in Dublin and, in 1823, went to the Irish Bar. In 1830 he was appointed Solicitor-General in New South Wales. In 1836, he became Attorney-General, a remarkable achievement for an Irishman and Catholic. As chief law officer, Plunkett made an important contribution to the slow and difficult process by which the penal colony of New South Wales developed the institutions of a free society.
Plunkett was a leader in establishing civil rights in Australia. He drafted the Magistrate's Act, which abolished summary punishment, the administration of justice by private householders and the excessive use of the lash. He argued successfully for the abolition of convict assignment. He secured jury rights for emancipists. He extended the protection of the law to convicts and assigned servants and, after securing the conviction of seven white men for the killing of an Aborigine at Myall Creek in 1838 (in a massacre in which a whole tribe was killed), he extended the protection of the law for the first time to Aborigines. But as a Catholic who knew what emancipation meant, Plunkett himself considered the Church Act of 1836, which disestablished the Church of England, his most important single achievement.
When the Sisters of Charity arrived in Sydney from Ireland in 1838, John Plunkett's special interest in their affairs led him to organise a public appeal to establish their first hospital in Sydney. He then helped the Sisters to acquire the narrow strip of land along Victoria Street in Darlinghurst to which the first St. Vincent's Hospital, which had opened its doors in Potts Point, was relocated in 1870.
Plunkett's two great recreations were the violin and Irish folk music. He died in May 1869 and was buried in Sydney's Devonshire Street cemetery.
Thousands of Australians, of every religious belief and of none, have experienced the first-class health care that is inspired by the Sisters of Charity. Others have been educated by the Sisters. There are, thus, many Australians with reason to be grateful for the kind and practical help which John Hubert Plunkett gave to the women who founded the Sisters of Charity in Australia.
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