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Ireland: Failures in the Present

Neil MacGregor of the British Museum explains how a rare woodcut reveals the troubles and tragedies of Elizabethan Ireland. From April 2012.

Neil MacGregor, Director of the British Museum, continues his new object-based history. Taking artefacts from William Shakespeare's time, he explores how Elizabethan and Jacobean playgoers made sense of the unstable and rapidly changing world in which they lived.

With old certainties shifting around them, in a time of political and religious unrest and economic expansion, Neil asks what the plays would have meant to the public when they were first performed. He uses carefully selected objects to explore the great issues of the day that preoccupied the public and helped shape the works, and he considers what they can reveal about the concerns and beliefs of Shakespearean England.

Programme 7. IRELAND: FAILURES IN THE PRESENT - A rare woodcut offers a equally rare visual impression of the troubles and tragedies of Elizabethan Ireland.

Producer: Paul Kobrak.

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15 minutes

Last on

Wed 25 Apr 2018 02:15

A Dangerous Image of Ireland

Date: 1581  

Size: H:205mm, W:320mm  

Made in: London  

Made by: John Derricke  

Material: Paper


Why is it that Shakespeare gave us a Scottish play, and Scottish and Welsh characters in abundance, and yet in his entire works there is only one Irish character?


The answer has much more to do with national politics than artistic inspiration. The war in Ireland was the great military crisis of the Elizabethan regime – almost resulting in failure for England – and as a result it was a topic prone to censorship.


While we can glean a lot about the issues presented by Ireland from the many references in Shakespeare’s plays, this book, The Image of Ireland, published in 1581, perhaps allows us best to reconstruct what his audience might have known and thought about the Irish.

And if you’re still wondering who the one Irish character is, then you’ll have to listen to the programme…


This object is from Edinburgh University Library


British Museum Blog: English perspectives on Ireland by Andrew Hadfield, University of Sussex


'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, Act 3 Scene 1


'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.'   Henry VI part 2, Act 4 Scene 9


  • The scarcity of Irish artefacts from this period makes Derricke's work one of the leading sources for the Irish experience in the late Tudor age
  • The plates tell the story of the subjugation of Irish rebels by Sir Henry Sidney, Lord Deputy of Ireland, detailing his triumphs against the native Irish - many probably witnessed by the author
  • Derricke's plates have been called the finest woodcuts made in a 16th century English book
  • Only one Irish character appears in a play by Shakespeare - Captain Macmorris in Henry V (and he's actually Anglo-Irish)
  • A lot of academic ink has been spilled on what was meant by Macmorris' expostulation on 'What ish my nation?' in Henry V, Act 3 Scene 2

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Melvyn Bragg travels to Northern Ireland to investigate the lot of the native Irish workers at the end of Elizabethan era and the history of the Ulster Plantation.


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  • Tue 24 Apr 2012 13:45
  • Tue 24 Apr 2012 19:45
  • Tue 16 Oct 2012 14:15
  • Tue 17 Mar 2015 14:15
  • Wed 18 Mar 2015 00:15
  • Mon 20 Jun 2016 13:45
  • Tue 24 Apr 2018 14:15
  • Wed 25 Apr 2018 02:15