‘What ish my nation?’ Shakespeare’s Irish connections

William Shakespeare’s approach to Ireland mirrored contemporary anxieties about England’s long, brutal slog of a war here

In the late 1980s, when I began research on what turned into my book 1599: A Year in the Life of William Shakespeare, I had never heard of the Irish leader Hugh O'Neill. I had no idea that England had been caught up in a bitter nine-year war to crush an Irish revolt, knew nothing of the difference between the "New" and "Old" English then living in Ireland, and didn't know that Queen Elizabeth's popular courtier the earl of Essex had marched out of London leading an army 16,000 strong to resolve England's Irish problem once and for all. I didn't even know that Edmund Spenser, so admired for his Elizabethan epic The Faerie Queene, had also written a tract arguing for the brutal suppression of the Irish, if necessary by starvation.

I think it fair to claim that in all this I was representative of most Shakespeare scholars, raised in the era of New Criticism, which tried to create a firewall between literary works and their historical contexts. Looking back on 1599, I can now say that the best writing in it, and what animated the entire narrative, was this long and undervalued, if not suppressed, Irish story.

I wasn’t working in a vacuum. The past few decades has seen an explosion of scholarly interest in “Shakespeare and the Irish”, which has extended the conversation from what the Bard has to say about the Irish, or done to them – that’s now pretty clear – to what the Irish have to say about Shakespeare, or done to him.

Yet it remains less well known than it ought to be that the Shakespeare familiar to us today is one that we have come to know through an Irish lens: the most consequential Shakespeare researcher of all time, Edmond Malone, was an Irishman, as was the most influential Shakespeare biographer, Edward Dowden. And we have another Irish writer, George Bernard Shaw, to thank for inventing the term "bardolatry."


We don't consider Shakespeare as especially prejudiced, but given how insular a society Elizabethan England was it's unsurprising that his works perpetuate contemporary stereotypes. I am thinking here of the unthinking racism of Much Ado About Nothing, where Claudio says that he will marry a woman "were she an Ethiop", as well as the repeated catchphrase "I am a Jew else," or "If I do not love her, I am a Jew," that litters Shakespeare's early plays.

In the same vein there is a cheap Irish joke in The Comedy of Errors, where a servant named Dromio tells his master about a kitchen wench who is so fat that "she is spherical, like a globe", and that he "could find out countries in her". He finds Spain in her hot breath, Scotland in the barren palm of her hand, and England in the chalky cliffs of her forehead.

When Antipholus asks, “In what part of her body stands Ireland?” Dromio replies, “in her buttocks: I found it out by the bogs.” This Irish slur still gets a big laugh – and, unlike the other ethnic jokes, it is rarely cut in production.

Counting up the Irish

Shakespeare mentions “Ireland” 31 times in his works, or 32 if we include a slip of the pen to which I will return shortly. The adjective “Irish” is spoken 10 times, and the word “Irishman” appears twice.

What I find especially striking about these allusions to the “Irish” or “Irishman” is how concentrated they all are within a very narrow band of time, one that stretched from about 1596 to 1599.

In this period Shakespeare wrote two comedies – The Merry Wives of Windsor and As You Like It – in which the word "Irish" appears in passing. More significantly and frequently, the word appears in a sequence of four history plays that date from this period: Richard II, the two-part Henry IV, and Henry V.

It is hardly coincidental, then, that Garry Hynes's DruidShakespeare recently chose to return to and engage with these dramas. The production is a brilliant act of reappropriation, inviting us to experience Shakespeare's histories through an Irish lens and sensibility.

It is worth underscoring that Ireland doesn't significantly figure in Shakespeare's imagination either at the outset of his career or after his intensive exploration of Irishness in Henry V, in 1599.

Shakespeare wrote at a time when the public stage served as a primary site for exploring, in a popular context, issues that mattered to all. In the humiliating 1598 defeat at Yellow Ford in Co Armagh, a thousands-strong English column attempting to relieve the besieged garrison at Blackwater Fort was routed by Hugh O’Neill’s forces, precipitating bloody attacks on English settlers elsewhere in Ireland. Everyone in England, including Shakespeare, at work on his history plays, knew then that the long-simmering Irish war had become of widespread concern and was reaching a boiling point.

Shakespeare’s career as a member of his playing company, the Lord Chamberlain’s Men, from 1594 to 1603 (before the arrival of King James and its rechristening as the King’s Men), coincided exactly with England’s nine-year war in Ireland, a campaign that came to an end only a few days after the death of Queen Elizabeth I, in 1603, and the victory of Lord Mountjoy over O’Neill after a brutal campaign.

England at this time had no standing army, so potential soldiers had to be rounded up from across the land, with some dragged out of inns, playhouses and even outside of churches. Military service in Ireland was much feared, given the high casualty and mortality rates and how poorly equipped the conscripts were to fight in these campaigns. Unhappy soldiers mutinied, and there was a proverb in Cheshire: “Better be hanged at home than die like dogs in Ireland.”

Shakespeare's most sustained interest in Ireland and Irishness dovetails with this huge spike in the conscription of soldiers for the Irish wars. As Neil Younger has shown in his excellent study from 2012, War and Politics in the Elizabethan Counties, more than 44,000 men were packed off from England's villages, town and metropolis between 1590 and 1602. This is a staggering number from a population of four million, the equivalent of about 500,000 soldiers today.

Put another way, one out of every 100 English people, or roughly one out of every 50 English men, and an even higher percentage of those in their 20s and 30s – the generation of Shakespeare, Ben Jonson and John Donne – were packed off to Ireland in the late 1590s.

Dig a bit deeper into those numbers and you can easily see why the Irish campaign haunts the Henry IV and Henry V plays, on stage and in print, for while about 2,500 men were shipped off to Ireland in 1596 and 1597, that number would rise dramatically. About 8,000 men were conscripted for the Irish wars in 1598, 1599, 1600 and 1601. In those four years alone twice as many men were conscripted for Ireland than all the men sent to fight in the Netherlands going back to 1585.

These numbers make clear why Ireland, during the closing years of the 16th century, was such a national preoccupation in England. Pretty much everyone knew someone – husband, son, brother, father, cousin, nephew, neighbour – who had crossed the Irish Sea. If they were very lucky they returned unscathed physically, if not psychologically, to tell the tale.

Henry V, first staged in 1599 as English call-ups had intensified and an army had recently been dispatched to defeat O'Neill, tackles Irish questions in a more sustained and direct way than any other Shakespeare play. Ireland seeps into it at the most unexpected and even unintended moments, such as when the queen of France, who has never met her future son-in-law Henry V, greets him with the words, "So happy be the issue, brother Ireland, / Of this good day and of this gracious meeting."

The mistake is not the nervous queen’s but Shakespeare’s, who slipped when intending to write “brother England” (and whose error his editors, beginning with those responsible for the 1632 Second Folio, have silently corrected). That this confusion of identity occurs in the context of the union of an English king and a French princess makes the error all the more revealing, for anxiety about pure and hybrid national identity runs through the play even as it preoccupied those who wrote about England’s Irish problem.

For much of Henry V allusions to the current crisis in Ireland are fleeting, such as the offhand remarks about Irish kerns and bogs. When Capt Gower, an Englishman, speaks of a soldier who wears "a beard of the General's cut", his reference to the earl of Essex's distinctive square-cut beard, which collapses the distance between Henry V's world and their own, would not have been lost on London playgoers.

There are also glancing allusions to the kind of bitter conditions their conscripted fellow countrymen faced at that moment in Ireland, with “winter coming on and sickness growing / Upon our soldiers”. And the stage direction in act III, scene vi – “Enter the king and his poor soldiers” – would have conjured onstage with surprising realism Elizabethan England’s poorly outfitted forces in Ireland.

Only in the play’s final act does Essex’s Irish campaign, long submerged, fully break the surface of the play. It’s an extraordinary moment and one of the very few times in any of his plays – and of these the most explicit – that Shakespeare redirects playgoers’ attention away from the make-believe world of his play to the troubling world outside of the theatre.

Shakespeare unexpectedly invites his fellow Londoners to think not about Henry V but about the near future, the day when they will pour into the streets to welcome home the earl of Essex, the military hero they had so recently seen ride out of London in late March, 1599, at the head of thousands of troops, “Were now the General of our gracious Empress, / As in good time he may, from Ireland coming, / Bringing rebellion broached on his sword, / How many would the peaceful city quit / To welcome him!”

The passage speaks to the playgoers’ understandable desire to leap over time, for the imminent and seemingly interminable Irish campaign to be over. Scratch the surface and the analogy to Essex’s forecast return with “rebellion broached on his sword” becomes troubling.

Hugh O’Neill

O’Neill, a far better military tactician, ran circles around Essex, who, by autumn, realising that this was a fight he could not win, agreed to terms with his Irish foe and returned, unannounced and without permission, to Elizabeth’s court. Soon after, in 1600, these lines, and other oblique allusions to the Irish, would be airbrushed out when the play was rushed into print.

Shakespeare's interest in national stereotypes is closely related to his obsessive interest in Henry V in dialects and in the connection between nationality and language. There's a telling example of this crosscultural confusion, with an Irish twist, in the scene in which the braggart Pistol can't believe his good fortune that a wealthy Frenchman has surrendered to him.

Pistol's second-hand language tends to be stitched together from old discarded scraps. When he hears French and sees treasure in this scene, his mind immediately runs to a popular Irish ditty, Calen O costure me, which he characteristically mangles as "Qualtitie calmie o custure me".

“Calen o costure me” is itself a corrupt rendering of the original Irish for “young maiden, my treasure”, or cailín óg a stór. The Irish language, like its land and people, is inexorably anglicised, corrupted and appropriated. Conquest, national identity and mixed origins – the obsessive concerns of Elizabethan Irish policy – run deep throughout the play.

Shakespeare was interested not only in Ireland but in Irishness, and to that end he introduces in Henry V what would soon become a staple of English comedy: the stage Irishman. Capt Macmorris appears in act III, entering in the company of a Scottish captain, Jamy. Tellingly, both disappear from the play before the decisive battle at Agincourt, unlike their fellow captains, the Welsh Fluellen and the English Gower.

If we look at the published 1623 First Folio text of this scene (which scholars trace back to Shakespeare’s own and now lost manuscript) we see that the speech permits a glimpse of how he imagined his own characters. Throughout the scene, stage headings for Macmorris and Jamy substitute for their names their national types, for Shakespeare apparently thought of them less as individuals than as “Irish” and “Scot”. The Welsh occupy a middle ground: Fluellen is first called Fluellen before he too is reduced to national type, “Welsh”. In contrast the Englishman Gower is always called Gower.

This scene ostensibly shows Irish, Welsh, Scottish and English united against a common enemy, a fantasy of a “united kingdom”. The reality, as Shakespeare and his playgoers knew, was far different.

Even before the desertion of hired Irish troops at Blackwater the year before, the English were ambivalent about paying Irishmen to fill out their ranks. After that defeat a serious effort was made to purge the army of Irish soldiers. Irish captains were held especially suspect. It’s no surprise, then, that when the Welshman Fluellen starts telling the Irish captain Macmorris that “there is not many of your nation”, he is angrily cut off by the Irishman.

“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?” The caricature of a hot-blooded Irishman even threatens to decapitate Fluellen: “Chrish save me, I will cut off your head.”

Macmorris’s name provides a clue to his anger and defensiveness. The so-called Old English or Anglo-Norman, who had settled in Ireland centuries earlier, had adjusted to local custom by changing their names’ original prefix Fitz to the Gaelic Mac. No wonder, then, that the part-English, part-Irish and part-Norman Macmorris is so touchy about his unfixed national identity: what is his nation? English? Irish? An Anglo-Irish mix? If so, what of his loyalties?

As a frustrated Irish captain in Essex’s army named Christopher St Lawrence put it, in one of the most poignant lines I have come across from the period: “I am sorry that when I am in England, I should be esteemed an Irishman, and in Ireland, an Englishman.” Shakespeare has left us both the stage Irishman, in Macmorris, and his haunting question, which refuses to go away: “What ish my nation?”

For the past century this question has generated more attention than perhaps any other in Shakespeare’s plays besides Hamlet’s “To be or not to be?” Justifiably so, as those four words cut to the heart of Shakespeare and Irishness. And the question demands an answer.

Hamlet, famously, went on to answer to his own question. Macmorris, in his pique or disgust, did not (although I would have loved to have read a long soliloquy-like speech Shakespeare could have written for him). But no such speech was written in 1599. It has been left to others, including a pair of Ireland’s greatest writers, to answer for Capt Macmorris.

I am thinking here of Seamus Heaney's poem Traditions, published in Wintering Out in 1972, which picks up where Shakespeare leaves off (and quotes an Irishman's answer to a version of Macmorris's question in Joyce's Ulysses along the way). I will quote three remarkable stanzas:

MacMorris, gallivanting
around the Globe, whinged
to courtier and groundling
who had heard tell of us

as going very bare
of learning, as wild hares,
as anatomies of death:
'What ish my nation?'

And sensibly, though so much
later, the wandering Bloom
replied, 'Ireland,' said Bloom,
'I was born here. Ireland.'

There’s no need to belabour the simple point: Macmorris’s question deserves an answer, one that Shakespeare’s did not allow him, in part because English playgoers were not ready to hear it. Happily, an extraordinarily rich tradition of Irish writers have been happy to answer for Macmorris – and will, I am sure, continue to do so.

Prof James Shapiro is the author of 1599: A Year in the Life of William Shakespeare and the recent 1606: William Shakespeare and the Year of Lear (Faber & Faber)