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  • An Irish Informer in Restoration England:David Fitzgerald and the "Irish Plot" in the Exclusion Crisis, 1679-81
  • John Gibney (bio)

Personal histories from the early modern era are often obscure, and David Fitzgerald's is no exception. But for a brief period his life comes to light, attracting attention as one of a number of dubious Irishmen to allege before the English parliament in November 1680 that the Catholic Irish, organized and funded by the Catholic Church, intended to massacre Irish Protestants and assist a French invasion of Ireland, after which a combined Franco-Irish force was to attack England and embark upon a similar massacre of English Protestants.

The supposed existence of a conspiracy for an Irish rebellion had been part of the allegations made in August 1678 by Titus Oates, a highly dubious figure whose essentially criminal career "included lying, cheating, blasphemy, and sodomizing young boys."1 Oates had been an Anglican preacher, a naval chaplain, and a convert to [End Page 249] Catholicism; he was expelled from two continental seminaries before returning to England to concoct his fabulous if terrifying story. Oates's allegations precipitated and underpinned the Popish Plot in England, the outburst of anti-Catholic fervor prompted by his revelations about a Catholic conspiracy to wipe out Protestantism in the Stuart kingdoms. The most obvious Irish dimension to these events would be the execution in London of Oliver Plunkett, the Catholic primate and archbishop of Armagh, in July 1681. Plunkett was convicted on spurious charges of attempting to facilitate a French invasion of Ireland, but even aside from this infamous case, allegations of Irish Catholic plots had been a recurring theme in the events that had unfolded.2 Over time the Popish Plot gave way to the so-called Exclusion Crisis, the intense political struggle that arose between 1679 and 1681 over the vexing question of who would succeed Charles II as king. In 1678 the heir to the throne was a Catholic: Charles's younger brother James, Duke of York, who had been tainted by Oates's allegations. In an atmosphere of intense anti-Catholicism, York's faith was inevitably contentious, and over the next two years a campaign to alter the succession would be conducted both inside and outside the English parliament. This eventually became a concerted effort specifically to exclude York from the succession, and one notable element in this campaign would be the promotion of ostensible Irish informers who could supposedly prove the existence of a plot involving an Irish Catholic rebellion.

The reasoning behind this was straightforward: the Catholic Irish had rebelled before, and in 1641 it was believed that they had done so in an appallingly brutal and sectarian manner. Vastly exaggerated accounts of the torture and massacre of British Protestant settlers became the stock perceptions of the 1641 rebellion as it came to occupy a special place in the Protestant imaginations of both Britain and Ireland.3 If the Popish Plot and Exclusion Crisis rested upon the [End Page 250] assumption that a Catholic attack on Protestants in the Stuart kingdoms was imminent, these perceptions of 1641 as a wholesale sectarian massacre made it an obvious model for what this might entail. When in January 1679 an informer alleged that the French and the papacy had plans for an invasion of Ireland at the expense of the Protestant interest there, these claims carried a particular resonance, according to Gilbert Burnet, for "the memory of the Irish massacre was yet so fresh as [to] raise a particular horror at the very mention of this."4

What Burnet had in mind was 1641. The exclusion campaign ultimately rested upon fears of a Catholic monarch derived from a more general fear of an international Catholic threat across Europe, especially in the form of an expansionist Catholic France.5 This dovetailed with a rich vein of English anti-popery that drew upon the memory of critical events in Protestant history in order to illustrate the persistent danger that England faced from Catholicism.6 The Popish Plot could be (and was) incorporated into a pattern of Catholic threats and providential deliverance stretching from the reign of Mary Tudor in the 1550s, through...


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