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Ireland and Shakespeare, Saint Patrick's Day

St Patrick is mentioned by Shakespeare, one of over thirty mentions of Ireland or ‘the Irish’ in Shakespeare’s plays.

Ann McDermott
Irish sonnets cropped image

Hamlet intones Saint Patrick in his speech when he is asked to describe the appearance of his father’s ghost to Horatio. This is thought to refer to Saint Patrick as the guardian of purgatory, a place between this life and heaven. Traditionally Saint Patrick’s Day was celebrated by attending church, wearing shamrock, watching some Gaelic football or hurling and perhaps a pint of Guinness. Parades on the scale that we see now are a new innovation.  

Saint Patrick’s Day commemorates the traditional date of the death of Saint Patrick, the 17th of March 461AD. As a young boy, Patrick was captured and held as a slave on an Irish Island for six years, where he learned to speak Gaelic. On his release he became a priest and travelled to mainland Ireland to convert the pagan Irish to Christianity. It is said he used the shamrock to illustrate the mystery of the Holy Trinity, three persons, Father, Son and Holy Ghost, in the one God. Patrick travelled throughout Ireland and converted many, who went on to build churches in his name.

At the time of St Patrick, Ireland was totally Irish speaking and ruled by Celtic Kings. The arrival of the Normans, and later King Henry II in the 12th century was the start of the occupation of Ireland and many attempts were made in the following centuries to force the population to speak English only. All these attempts failed as Irish is such a musical, romantic language. It is for this reason that Irish people have always loved the music of language in Shakespeare’s work.

The links between Ireland and Warwickshire have always been strong, as the archives of the Shakespeare Birthplace Trust attest. Georgina Chatterton/Dering, who came to live in Baddesley Clinton, near Knowle, in the middle of the 19th century, was a talented artist and her albums of paintings and sketches of Ireland in the early 19th century are held by the Trust archives.

Florence Keane Flower left her family home in Cappoquin House, Country Waterford, in 1920 to marry Archibald Flower of the Stratford upon Avon brewing family who have close association with the Royal Shakespeare Theatre. Florence’s family photograph albums, with some photographs of Ireland and her family there, are also in the Trusts collections.

When President Michael D. O’ Higgins visited Shakespeare’s Birthplace, in April 2014, he was particularly delighted to inspect a copy of Muiris Sionoid’s translations of Shakespeare’s Sonnets, ‘Rotha Mor an Ghra’ (The Great Wheel of Love). This book was published in 2009 and the dedication to our Shakespeare Library reads:

From Slaneyside to Avonside, from a land of bards to the greatest Bard of all; and long life and happiness to the guardians of the world’s most precious treasure.

Irish people have long enjoyed studying and appreciating the works of Shakespeare. A famous actor of the early 20th century, Sir Frank Benson, was delighted to discover, on his visit to the Dublin Shakespeare Society in 1909, that Irish children studied the works of his beloved Bard.

So, even if the good nuns had crossed out any amorous references in my school copy of the Merchant of Venice, I still came to appreciate the rhythm of beautiful writing that never fails to get to the heart of emotions in the works of William Shakespeare.

It is very fitting, therefore that we celebrate the connections between Shakespeare, Stratford upon Avon and Ireland with a special event, organised by James Ranahan, in the Shakespeare Centre on the evening of the 11th March 2017.



Ferrer’s Album - DR759/2-

Flower Family Scrapbook - DR1108/3/4

‘Rotha Mor an Ghra’, translation of Shakespeare’s Sonnets – Muiris Sionoid

Stratford Herald - 1909

dedication by Irish translator of sonnets

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