It is somewhat strange that the media, which loves to tell stories of injustice, shies away from Ireland and its troubled history though there is plenty of material to choose from. One story in particular from Ireland’s past stands out as having all the elements that would make for a Hollywood Oscar winner, a story of a good man condemned by a government conspiracy using fraudulent evidence and the testimony of a man as evil as the victim is good. It is the story of St. Oliver Plunkett and Titus Oates.
Oliver Plunkett was born in county Meath in the year 1629 into a well connected and propertied family. At the age of sixteen he left for Rome to study for the priesthood, little realizing that his way home would soon be blocked by the conquest of Ireland by Oliver Cromwell, whose prohibitions against the Catholic Church in Ireland made being a member of the Catholic clergy a capital crime. In exile, Plunkett entered the Irish College in Rome where he was described as “amongst the foremost in talent, diligence, and progress in his studies….a model of gentleness, integrity, and piety.” He was ordained a Jesuit and became a professor of Theology while simultaneously being unceasing in pleading the cause of the Catholic Church in Ireland.
The Restoration of Charles II after the collapse of Cromwell’s commonwealth appeared to usher in a new period of religious toleration. Plunkett was appointed Archbishop of Armagh and primate of Ireland. Upon his return to Ireland in 1670, Plunkett set about reorganizing and reforming a ravaged church. He rebuilt schools and instituted reforms amongst the clergy whose discipline had lapsed in the years without a central authority. In four years Plunkett confirmed over 40,000 people, helping restore the faith in Ireland Cromwell sought to destroy. Plunkett established a Jesuit College in Drogheda in 1670. A year later 150 students attended the college, of which no fewer than 40 of whom were Protestant, Plunkett’s college was the first integrated school in Ireland. Such was the esteem that Plunkett was held in by all members of the Irish community, irrespective of faith.
If there was a man who was the polar opposite to Oliver Plunkett it was Titus Oates. Described by classmates as “the most illiterate dunce”, he was expelled from Cambridge and drifted into becoming an Anglican minister. Involved in a conspiracy to bring false charges against a local schoolmaster, he was convicted of perjury. Escaping prison, he secured a position as a chaplin on a Royal Navy ship only to be expelled within twelve months. Oates then converted to Catholicism and enrolled into two different Jesuit colleges only to be expelled from each in a matter of months.
Oates then met Israel Tongue, a rabid anti-Catholic puritan. Between the two of them they created what was to become known as the “Popish Plot”, which centered on an alleged conspiracy to assassinate Charles the II, to be followed by an uprising in Ireland supported by an invasion of French and Spanish forces. Oates claimed that his conversion to Catholicism and time in Jesuit colleges had been a pretense to gather information. Measures were taken to hide a copy of the “plot” and then “discover it”. While many were skeptical of the “plot” from the beginning, far more were willing to use the “plot” as a means to end what they saw as the threat of religious toleration to a Protestant England. With the mysterious murder of a magistrate who had heard testimony regarding the “plot” (which some believe was staged to give credibility to its existence), England went into an anti-Catholic frenzy similar to the Salem Witch Trials. Anyone suspected of being a Catholic was driven out of London. A “Test Act” was instituted that would ban Catholics from holding public office which had devastating effects for the native Irish to govern in their own land. While the King himself had questioned Oates and caught him in several lies, he did not have the courage to put an end to the madness for fear of losing his newly restored throne.
Among those implicated was Archbishop Oliver Plunkett, accused by Oates of training an army of 70,000 Irish men and conspiring with the French. The charges were so absurd, that when Plunkett was tried before an exclusively Protestant jury in Dundalk Ireland, no cause was found against him (in fact it was observed by several jurors that many of the witnesses should themselves be on trial). However, bent on satisfying public hysteria, Plunkett was transported to England where he was tried again. But this time, he was barred from bringing up the criminal record of many of the crown’s witnesses and was not allowed time to bring his own witnesses from Ireland. The verdict was a foregone conclusion. However, the chief magistrate reveled in sentencing Plunkett, the true reason the Archbishop was on trial, not for a “conspiracy against the crown” but for helping restore the Catholic Church in Ireland.
Archbishop Oliver Plunkett was hanged, drawn and quartered. Witnesses recorded that he faced his death with the serenity of a man of faith and the death of this innocent man finally caused people to denounce the “Popish Plot” for the fraud it was, but not before 24 innocent men were killed as the result of Oates lies. Oliver Plunkett was the last Catholic martyr to die in England.
Oliver Plunkett was raised to the sainthood in 1975 by Pope Paul the VI, becoming the first new Irish saint in almost seven hundred years. St. Oliver Plunkett’s head is venerated at his shrine in St. Peter’s, Drogheda and St. Oliver Plunkett is recognized as the patron saint of Peace and Reconciliation in Ireland. It would be hoped that one could say that Titus Oates fate was as fittingly just as St. Oliver Plunkett’s vindication was glorious, but such would not be the case. Though his reputation was forever tarnished, it was not until he attempted to concoct another fictitious conspiracy naming the King’s brother as a traitor that he was finally jailed. He was later pardoned when William of Orange came to the throne and received a substantial pension. It is hard to see this as anything but a reward for the furtherance of state policy through perjury at the cost of innocent lives. This was not the last time that forgery and perjury would be used as weapons against Ireland and her people. This is why we must be mindful of the past in the present, for if we forget it we shall surely relive it.