Ireland: Failures in the Present: A Dangerous Image of Ireland

'An Englishman, a Scotsman, a Welshman and an Irishman are having an argument.' When it comes to comedy routines, that's the most routine of the lot. Playing with, and playing up to, our national stereotypes has for centuries been a staple of British humour. Shakespeare's entry in the Four Nations banter tournament is probably the oldest version of this classic setup that any of us is going to encounter and, strikingly, it sits at the very heart of his most tub-thumpingly English play, Henry V.

On the eve of battle, four captains (the English Gower, the Welsh Fluellen, the Irish Macmorris and the Scottish Jamy) bicker amicably, if incomprehensibly, around the battlements.

Macmorris: The day is hot, and the weather, and the wars, and the King, and the Dukes - it is no time to discourse, the town is beseeched, and the trumpet call us to the breach, and we talk . . .

Fluellen: Captain Macmorris, I think, look you, under your correction, there is not many of your nation-

Macmorris: Of my nation! What ish my nation? Ish a villain, and a bastard, and a knave, and a rascal. What ish my nation? Who talks of my nation?

Fluellen: Look you, if you take the matter otherwise than is meant, Captain Macmorris, peradventure I shall think you do not use me with that affability as in discretion you ought to use me, look you, being as good a man as yourself . . .

Macmorris: I do not know you so good a man as myself. So Chrish save me, I will cut off your head.

Gower: Gentlemen both, you will mistake each other.

Jamy: Ah, that's a foul fault!'

(Henry V 3.2.103-30)

Forests of trees have been felled to publish scholarly analyses of this tour de force of dialect and temperament. Is it a fantasy of a peaceful union of the British Isles? The Four Nations working together in edgy harmony? I don't know and I have to confess, I don't find the scene very funny. But what I think is fascinating about it, is that Captain Macmorris is Shakespeare's only Irishman. We have a whole Scottish play, Macbeth, but there is no Irish play. Shakespeare gives us lots of sympathetic Welsh characters. From Ireland, there is only Captain Macmorris.

But if the Irish are absent from the Shakespearean stage, I think we can be pretty certain they were never far from the minds of his public. The audience may have been watching Henry conquer France, but many would have been thinking about Elizabeth's struggle to conquer Ireland.

If you want to reconstruct what a Shakespearean audience might have known or thought about the Irish, perhaps the best place to start is with the illustrations in a book by John Derricke, published in 1581 and called, appropriately enough, The Image of Ireland.

The illustration in front of me looks a bit like a stage set. There is a clearing in the middle of a very theatrical forest, with trees balanced left and right. In the distance, wolves prowl. And centre-stage, ready to speak, stands a bearded man with a long cloak and hood, and what must be the most clumsily drawn feet in the whole of European art. They are just like door wedges.

This coarse woodcut illustration shows us the great Irish fighter, Rory Oge O'More. He was one of the most successful of all the Irish leaders, struggling against the Elizabethan expropriation of land in Ireland for the benefit of English settlers. A bogeyman to the English, Rory Oge O'More was a hero, a Che Guevara, to the Irish resistance. One Gaelic writer said of him after his death 'There was not in Ireland a greater destroyer against foreigners than that man: and he was a very great loss'. Rory Oge O'More was the kind of Irishman that Shakespeare's audience truly feared - powerful, strong and a menace to the English forces.

As Shakespeare was writing Henry V, the level of military intervention in Ireland was the topic of burning public concern. Andrew Hadfield of Sussex University:

'People would have know exactly what was going on by the 1590s, everybody knows what's happening in Ireland. A lot of ordinary people would have been drafted into the army through the muster system. Just before Henry V was produced on stage, the biggest army that had ever assembled in London was assembled ready to go over to Ireland. Many many people had connections to the army, knew people who had been killed, it was something you couldn't avoid. Shakespeare refers to Ireland, very topically and very clearly in Henry V.'

The Ireland that Derricke's book describes was the setting for the great military crisis of the Elizabethan age. Not Spain, not the Netherlands, not the high seas, but a war in which England came close to outright defeat. What became known as the Nine Years War did conclude with a sort of victory in 1603. But it was at a human cost of probably between 50,000 and 100,000 lives and a financial cost of over two million pounds, more than Elizabeth I spent on defence against the Armada and supporting the Dutch rebels combined. When James I inspected the documents stored at Whitehall, he exclaimed 'We had more ado with Ireland than all the world besides!'

It was not a new problem. The action of Shakespeare's Richard II is propelled by the crushing financial burden of his Irish problems of 200 years earlier, setting the king on the road to deposition and death. Elizabeth escaped Richard's fate, although she certainly knew all about it, but the Irish war was a bleak backdrop to much of her reign, and to much of Shakespeare's writing in the 1590s.

Macmorris: '. . . the town is beseeched, and the trumpet call us to the breach, and we talk . . .'

(Henry V 3.2.104-106)

I began by saying that there is just one solitary Irishman who appears on stage in Shakespeare. This is true, but behind Captain Macmorris there are hundreds of other Irish hovering just off stage. 'Kern' is a term we hardly know today but to Elizabethans it was practically a household word. References to Kerns pepper Shakespeare's plays, in Macbeth and Richard II, Henry V and Henry VI. The English dream of settling Ireland was frustrated, many believed, not because the whole island was against it, but a few obstinate diehards. The problem from this point of view, was not all the Irish people, but just the awkward ones, the wild ones, the Kerns. That's what Derricke's book wants us to believe. Ciaran Brady of Trinity College Dublin:

'The lesson is not that all the Irish are barbarous and uncivil, but that a certain kind of Irishman needs to be tamed. That kind of Irishman is the woodkern. These are the people who were originally the members of the private armies of the great feudal lords of Ireland. I am talking about private armies in excess of 2000 souls. They are professionals, they belong to a culture of fighting. So they are prepared to do the kind of terrorism you would find associated with people in organised crime. You try to decommission them and they really feel they have no place to go. Now several of them go abroad, but in the majority of cases they go into the woods and of course they come out of the woods when rebellion breaks out in Desmond, in Munster (that is to say in the 1580s) and most importantly in Ulster in the 1590s. But they are serious people, you know, I wouldn't want to meet them at 3 o'clock in the morning.'

We can now see more clearly what Derricke is doing in this woodcut. Rorie Oge is not just a chieftain and a warrior. Out in the forest with his long shaggy cloak and in need of a good haircut, he is a woodkern, the very type of Irishman that so frightened the English. Even worse, as far as the English were concerned, he was a turncoat and a traitor. Ciaran Brady again:

'Rory Oge was for a long time an ally or an agent of English government in Ireland and then he turns and becomes a rebel so he must be punished and he cannot be seen to have gotten away with this act of treachery. So that in a sense what the Image of Ireland is trying to suggest is that whereas you must apply the modes and processes of English law to ordinary subjects of the crown, with the case of the woodkern they are not answerable to that, so you need to take ruthless action. So this is a kind of justification of getting really tough, applying martial law to dangerous demobbed soldiers.'

This image of Rory Oge is a lesson not just in Irish wildness, but in English savagery. Rory Oge was famous for evading capture, but eventually his luck ran out and in 1578 he was caught in an ambush and beheaded. Derricke's treatment of him in print three years later is gruesome. By this time, Rory Oge's head had been exhibited on a spike by Dublin Castle. But Derricke makes his severed head speak to us, and confess his treachery:

'And here I lye groveling, poore wretch, on the ground,

Thus God of justice, doeth traitours confounde . . .

My hed from the bodie parted in twaine,

Is set on the Castell, a signe to remaine.'

The enemy has been defeated and executed, he is now also demeaned.

Shakespeare's off stage kerns show the duplicity that Derricke ascribes to Rory Oge, fighting now on one side, now on the other. They could on occasion be Irish freedom-fighters and in Henry VI, English grandees like the Duke of York are sent to deal with them:

Cardinal: 'My Lord of York . . .

Th'uncivil kerns of Ireland are in arms

And temper clay with blood of Englishmen;

To Ireland will you lead a band of men . . .

And try your hap against the Irishmen?'

(Henry VI part 2 3.1.309-14)

Or the Kerns could be fighting, for the time being at least, on the English side.

Messenger: 'The Duke of York is newly come from Ireland,

And with a puissant and a mighty power

Of gallowglasses and stout kerns

Is marching hitherward in proud array.'

(2 Henry VI 4.9.24-7)

The trouble with the kerns was that you never knew whose side they were on. As Shakespeare was writing Henry V early in 1599, English affairs in Ireland were at crisis point. The rebels' power was growing and the English were terrified they would join forces with the great enemy, the Spanish. Andrew Hadfield again:

'If you want a comparison, it is like Cuba and the Cuban Missile Crisis, that I think would be the real modern day equivalent of that. In the Cuban Missile Crisis you had the fear that there would actually be a destructive war that would engulf civilisation and you had the idea of Russian forces on America's shores. Well I think that is exactly how the English felt about Ireland and the Spanish. That this was a backdoor into England, that could result in the destruction of everything they had tried to build up over the years and that is why in Henry V you have this sense of an army that is there to defend everything that everyone holds dear. The stakes are as high as they possibly could be really.'

So great was the public concern about Ireland that Shakespeare, in what is probably his only direct reference to a topical event, compared Henry V's victory at Agincourt to Elizabeth's hoped for, imminent victory over the Irish:

Chorus: 'Were now the General of our gracious Empress -

As in good time he may - from Ireland coming,

Bringing rebellion broach�d on his sword,

How many would the peaceful city quit

To welcome him!'

(Henry V 5.chorus.30-4)

Shakespeare may be referring here to the Earl of Essex, sent to Ireland in 1599 with a vast force (the largest army ever assembled in London) and about to return, it was hoped, with glory shining from his sword. But Essex failed in Ireland and, like Rory Oge, was beheaded. It took a few years more, with the accession of James I, a sort of victory, and peace with Spain, before the Irish crisis receded - for the time being.

In the next programme, more wild behaviour but this time not at the nation's backdoor, but at the theatre entrance.

Shakespeare quotations are taken from:

Henry V (London: Penguin, 2010). ISBN: 978-0-141-01379-4

Henry VI part 2 (London: Penguin, 2005). ISBN-13: 978-0-141-01710-5