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Better Be Hanged At Home Than Die Like Dogs In Ireland

The literary historian, James Shapiro, has a fascinating article in the Irish Times on William Shakespeare’s aversion to Ireland and the Irish. In many ways the 16th century English playwright and poet was the codifier of the racist stereotypes that define Irish characterizations in British – and anglosphere – writing to the present day (albeit building upon the works of his predecessors, right back to Gerald of Wales and the publication of the partisan Topographia Hibernica in 1188). The portrayal of Irish men as drunken, slow-witted, quick-tempered killers in the likes of FX’s television series, Sons of Anarchy, or the recent season of Netflix’s Daredevil, can be traced to an original theatrical source in Henry V’s quarrelsome clown, Captain Macmorris. Some four centuries after Elizabethan England’s wars in Ireland the propaganda born out of that bloody era continues to determine the portrayal of the Irish – from buffoon to brute – in English language comics, books, television shows and movies.

“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.

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.

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.”

Please read the whole thought-provoking piece.



13 comments on “Better Be Hanged At Home Than Die Like Dogs In Ireland

  1. Spéisiúil nach bhfuil mórán tagairt againn in Éirinn don scríobhnóir tabhachtach a chum an úrscéal agus a fuair bás ar an lá céann le Shakespeare 23 Aib 1616 – Miguel de Cervantes.


  2. Joe Keenan

    Interesting but unconvincing. “Shakespeare” is himself a questionable character. Did a sixth grade graduate really write those works? Hard to believe, some have argued that the Bard was a secret court poet clothed in purple. See, Sabrina Feldman’s thought provoking works: Feldman’s thesis could explain some of the hate filled passages, they were done by the 6th grade grad.


  3. GRMA. I have long argued that the dominant English racism at the time was anti-irish and anti-Jewish, as demonstrated in literature and by literateurs such as Shakespeare and Spenser. In Shakespeare in particular, the Irish character Captain McMorris is irrational, violent and argumentative. None of the non-English nations in Britain come out well but the Irishman is definitely the worst.
    Although Shakespeare gives the Jew Shylock his voice to complain of the injustices done to him, he is nevertheless a monster — a many who would cut a pound of flesh from a living human being.
    Now compare those characters with Othello, a tragic hero.

    As the slave trade really took off — and as Irish and Native Americans were found generally unsuitable (rebelled, died of yellow fever and European diseases), the switch in emphasis was on racism against Africans, in order to justify black slavery. The Irish never ceased being a target of racism however, in practical treatment, law, popular literature, humour, drama etc. In recent modern times, there was a period in which there was an Irish character in a number of British drama series, including soaps — each one engaging in brutal behaviour and a number, murderers.

    The pressure is off now, since the pacification process. But should armed resistance to colonialism resume in the future, just watch the old stereotypes being pressed back into service!

    Joe Keenan, what exactly is “unconvincing”? Whether Shakespeare was or was not the character he is supposed to have been, the playwright, does nullify the thrust of the article? The plays were there, the portrayal of the Irish was there, the military expeditions were there with high numbers pressed into them, the Irish resistance was there.


  4. Reblogged this on rebelbreeze and commented:


  5. I also find it hard to believe that Shakespeare wrote all the works attributed to him – the man has practically no biography – unlike many of his literary contemporaries – which seems rather extraordinary. And of course it’s rarely mentioned that his alleged writings were heavily revised many years after his death. Whatever the truth about the identity of the original author of “Shakespeare’s works”, one thing is for sure – what is passed off as Shakespeare today is not the work of one man. As for anti-Irish propaganda in the US media, it is striking just how all-pervasive it has become in recent years – from Hollywood to the New York Times. Eamon Dunphy once recalled on The Last Word that he was told by an insider when he joined Millwall Football Club that as an Irish Catholic he would have a very rough time there, as the club was owned and run by Freemasons. It seems that some kind of similar anti-Irish mania governs the media establishment in the US – as well as the UK and Ireland I might add.


  6. I do wonder sometimes if the rise of Hibernophobia in the Anglosphere and the concurrent rise of what is known as Neoconservatism are related. It’s rarely remarked upon just how hostile to Irish nationalism in any form the Neocons are – in Britain the likes of Dean Godson, David Winnick, Charles Moore, Michael Gove, and Bruce Anderson are not just Unionists, but Unionists with a strongly anti-Irish slant. And then of course there’s the house-journal of Irish Neoconservatism, the Sindo – packed to the gills with Anglo-supremacist enthusiasts for western military interventions. Interestingly, like many of the original American Neocons, the Irish imitators such as Eoghan Harris, tend to have Marxist Leninist pasts.


  7. Shapiro is wrong about one thing, I believe, in his article. I understand that “Calino costure me” to be not from “Cailín óg a stóir” but “(is) cailín ó chois tSiúire mé” (I am an young girl from beside the Suir (river)”. This was demonstrated conclusively I believe many decades ago and is discussed here


  8. Another point about Anglosphere anti-Irish bigotry – it’s based on an invented version of Englishness – summed up in the deeply misleading term WASP – an acronym that implies that there is some intrinsic link between “whiteness”, Englishness, Protestantism and “northern” blood. In truth there’s very little evidence that the English were ever predominantly Anglo-Saxon. The recent very comprehensive Oxford University study of British DNA found that the English shared considerably more genetic heritage with the French (non Norman French at that) than with the Germans. And surely that “French connection” is physically obvious in today’s indigenous English – who tend on the whole to be a lot more sallow skinned and darker eyed than other northern Europeans (including the Irish) Even that revisionist Anglo-enthusiast Kevin Myers par excellence, has admitted as much. Some scholars have even gone so far as to say that the English are more Celtic than the Irish. Lest I be accused of a form of racial supremacism myself, I should add that I admire the French and see absolutely nothing wrong with sallow skin or dark eyes. My point is that Anglo racial supremacism has always been based on a lie about the “supreme” race itself. The very invented nature of the Anglo-Saxon myth may partly explain the rather manic nature of the racism accompanying it – the Anglo-supremacists being desperate to convince themselves as much as anyone else, of their “northern” “white” genes.


  9. Sorry to keep banging on here, but one last point: the American media and entertainment industry is heavily dominated by British ex-pats. Nearly 20 years ago a college lecturer who had worked for Conde Nast in New York, told me that EVERYONE in American magazine publishing was British. The same applies, to a large extent, to Hollywood and U.S. television.This dominance not only helps explain the rather obsessive promotion of British culture in the American media (the constant focus on the not very interesting or charismatic British royals for example), but also the anti-Irish outlook of so much media and showbiz output there.


  10. Ah,
    Sons of Anarchy.
    How i would love to have been in the meeting when they were making the plot for that.
    Lemme see.
    Motorcycle gang in USA……check.
    Said MC gang deals in guns …..check

    Said Motorcycle gang imports guns into USA…errr….. Hold on.
    A bit like importing sand into Saudi or Ice to the North Pole.isn’t it? But Do continue.

    Said guns are sourced from Ireland.
    An island Nation heavily monitored by NATO and Irish Naval Sercice. by ships ..radar etc.
    Which incidentally has no arms industry in terms of small arms manufacture….. Errr OK.
    Not sure how that works….. but continue.

    And these guns are smuggled out of Ireland into the USA. How?
    Oh I see.
    The script calls for the guns to be smuggled in Irish Petro chemicals exports.
    Which Ireland is a well known exporter of… Is It?
    Don’t they call Ireland the Saudi Arabia of Europe????

    Lastly… I learned Crude is exported in 50 Gallon steel drums in the international Oil trade.
    All those Bulk oil tankers are a waste of space.The oil majors quite clearly are ” doing it wrong “.
    Can you imagine the customs agent in the USA when they off load Oil barrels from Ireland???? Containing Weapons.
    How long would such a scheme last? 5 seconds.. 31/2 seconds….
    To recap.
    No oil in Ireland… And they picked the most uneconomic and unconvincing Method of shipment.
    Talk about making yourself stand out. When you are engaged in illegal activities.
    Who is watching this tripe?

    They could have made sons of anarchy about MC gangs smuggling weapons into Mexico.
    But I figure since those guns have killed 40,000 + people.
    The Right Wing Fox Network decided to “wing” it. Also the ATF or the Federal USA Government “walked” thousands of arms into Mexico.
    This is a story worth telling.
    Yet somehow FOX “missed” it.
    And to think people watched that show.
    I watched the first few episodes as that programme was called ” Sopranos in Leathers “.
    It quite clearly isn’t.
    With more Plot holes than an Irish Border road had pot holes during the Long War.


    • I especially enjoyed the hills of southern California posing as “just outside Belfast” plus the obligatory gun-running priest and Standard Irish Psychopaths/Rapists, Marks One to Ten.


  11. Joe Keenan

    Diarmuid, I link to Feldman’s website, at the website and in her books she expounds on her theories (which I find very convincing), in short, she asks three questions:

    1. Why did the London writer Robert Greene attack the Stratford actor from his deathbed as an incompetent and plagiaristic playwright. Greene’s dislike of William Shakespeare was so strong that he wrote a letter to three of his fellow dramatists urging them not to share their future plays with the untrustworthy actors because an actor dubbed “Shake-scene” (widely identified by scholars as William Shakespeare) had been stealing lines from superior writers’ plays to decorate his own bombastic works
    2. If Shakespeare wronte the canon, who wrote the bad quartos and the apocrypha? Who wrote the more than a dozen mediocre plays that were attributed to William Shakespeare during his lifetime or soon afterwards,
    3. Finally, this book asks which man was the mysterious “poet in purple robes,” a hidden court poet greatly admired by members of the Elizabethan literati.

    Feldman argues that the poet in purple had his works expropiated by Shakespeare. With this little synopsis in mind the bigotry of the genius is explained, the poet was no bigot, Shakespeare was. More proof of the poet not hating the Irish is his use of Irish myth and music.He even wrote in a brogue. This is so strongly evidenced there is now a theory called original pronunciation that says everyone spoke with a brogue back then. I lack the education of others here, but my limited reading of Nash et al does not indicate a brogue in their writings.


  12. Joe, go raibh maith agat, but your reply does not really address my comment: “what exactly is “unconvincing”? Whether Shakespeare was or was not the character he is supposed to have been, the playwright, does that nullify the thrust of the article? The plays were there, the portrayal of the Irish was there, the military expeditions were there with high numbers pressed into them, the Irish resistance was there.”

    Am I missing something in your reply?

    As to the rest, I am not up on the authorship controversy.


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