Uncovering Irish Attitudes to Shakespeare

This week we feature a guest post by our current Burns Visiting Scholar in Irish Studies, Patrick Lonergan, Professor of Drama and Theatre Studies at the National University of Ireland, Galway

On 23 April 1916, the British academic Israel Gollancz published A Book of Homage to Shakespeare, a beautifully produced volume that gathered poems and essays to celebrate the 300th anniversary of Shakespeare’s death. It’s an impressive volume, including contributions from major British writers such as Galsworthy, Kipling and Hardy – but it also did much to invent what we might now call ‘Global Shakespeare’ by featuring work not just in English but in Hindi, Urdu, Afrikaans, French, Russian and many other languages.

It also includes a contribution in Irish. Written by Douglas Hyde, a founder of the Gaelic League and (later) the first President of Ireland, it’s a poem written in the form of a dream vision, in which an Irish soldier finds himself in Stratford-upon-Avon and, falling asleep on the banks of the river, he encounters all of Shakespeare’s characters. At the end of the poem he describes how Shakespeare has changed him forever: although he considers it acceptable to view England through a ‘fever of hate’, he says that:

…that Druid has worked a druidism
Which I now set down here in my verse:
He has won pardon for me for his land:
I at Stratford on the Avon

Irish and English translations of "On me that Druid has worked..." verse

Hyde, Douglas. “Rud Thárla do Ghaedheal ag Stratford ar an Abhainn (How it fared with a Gael at Stratford-on-Avon)” in A Book of Homage to Shakespeare, edited by Israel Gollancz. Oxford : University Press, H. Milford, 1916.

Shakespeare, in other words, was so great an artist that he enabled the creation of new ways for Irish and English people to understand each other. Coming from the man who wrote ‘On the Necessity for De-Anglicising Ireland,’ this was a remarkable tribute – all the more so when we consider that the book in which this poem appears was published the day before the outbreak of the 1916 Easter Rising in Dublin.
As someone with a strong interest in the relationship between Shakespeare and Ireland, I’ve long appreciated being able to read Hyde’s words online and to see scans of the book. But there’s nothing quite like looking at the real thing – something I was delighted to do early in my visit here to Boston College as this semester’s Burns Fellow. The volume in Burns Library originally belonged to Alice Meynell, who was herself one of the contributors to the book. I was able to see that her edition had been immaculately cared for – but also that it had been read in great detail. Indeed, to my surprise, I discovered that the only uncut pages were for a part of the book I’d been particularly keen to read: an essay about Shakespeare and Ireland, written by DH Madden! Given that it runs to more than 550 pages it is fascinating that this was the only omission.

Title page and frontispiece of Shakespeare

Title page of A Book of Homage to Shakespeare (1916), John J. Burns Library, Boston College.

My initial instinct was to ask if it might be possible to cut these pages, so as to be able to see the printed essay. But I quickly realized that this would be the wrong thing to do – that there was more to be learned from how this book was read than from the content (which in any case is available elsewhere). This struck me as a fine example of how the archive always throws up surprises: you can read a catalogue or finding aid to form your expectations, but the real learning always happens when you have the object in your hands.

This is one of the topics we’ll be discussing in more detail on Saturday 6 April at Connolly House, in a dedicated seminar about archives and archiving. It will involve a series of roundtable discussions featuring scholars who are using archival material in new ways in their research, and includes talks from BC Faculty and students as well as Doug Reside (curator, New York Public Library) and Elizabeth Mannion (CUNY). It begins at 9.30 am and runs until 1 pm – all are welcome.

The unexpected discovery of the Book of Homage to Shakespeare also demonstrated how the theatre makes its archival presence felt in unexpected ways. I’d long been aware that  Burns Library has one of the world’s great collections of Irish theatre archives – featuring papers related to the Abbey Theatre, Lady Gregory, and Samuel Beckett – amongst many others and much more. But because theatre is not just a literary form but an act of social performance, it tends to make its presence felt in unexpected places, such as writers’ correspondence or occasional reviews.

Something similar is true of Shakespeare – a presence who, it seems, every writer needs to tackle eventually. Part of the work I’m doing here at BC involves trying to track down those unexpected references: to detect Shakespearean influences not only in places like the poems of Seamus Heaney but also in the verses that Joseph Plunkett wrote shortly before the Easter Rising. I had never known that Frank O’Connor – the Irish master of the short story – had written a book about Shakespeare until I came across a copy of The Road to Stratford in the library catalogue, for example. I was also fascinated to find Shakespearean echoes in the draft of the final address by another leader of the Rising, Thomas MacDonagh: he had lectured on Shakespeare (and some of the men under his command had read Julius Caesar during Easter week), and the influence is detectable in his final words, alongside echoes of Gregory and Yeats’s Kathleen ni Houlihan.

Typescript of Last Address of Thomas MacDonagh

Last and Inspiring Address by Thomas MacDonagh, Box 1, Folder 3, Thomas MacDonagh Papers, MS.2003.062, John J. Burns Library, Boston College.

On 10 April at the Burns Library, I’ll be talking about these issues in more detail in a lecture about Shakespeare and Ireland from 1916 to Brexit – in which I want to draw on some of these surprising discoveries to suggest that Shakespeare has been a way for Ireland to explore and negotiate its relationship with England for much of the last century. And I’m hopeful that during the remainder of my stay here in Boston I’ll  encounter many further surprises in this outstanding collection!

–Patrick Lonergan, Professor of Drama and Theatre Studies at the National University of Ireland, Galway and Spring 2019 Burns Visiting Scholar in Irish Studies at Boston College

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3 Responses to Uncovering Irish Attitudes to Shakespeare

  1. Reblogged this on Scenes from the Bigger Picture and commented:
    Originally posted on the Burns Library blog –

  2. Pingback: Uncovering Irish Attitudes to Shakespeare — John J. Burns Library’s Blog | Shakespeare in Ireland

  3. Jenna Roy says:

    The issues of place and identity run thick in the works of Shakespeare. As part of an undergraduate project, I am investigating the perpetuation of bias through his works. It is very interesting to read about the influence Shakespeare had on Irish writers.

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