Site hosted by Build your free website today!

An Irish scholar advances the challenging theory that

Shakespeare Was An Irishman

by T.F. Healy

(From The American Mercury, September, 1940, pp. 24-32, biographical blurb on the author, included at the end of the article, from p.123.)

The game of solving the mystery of Shakespeare's identity seems to hold a new popularity, judging from the spilth of commentaries in books and articles about him. So far as the facts go, however, they leave us exactly as we were when in 1773 Steevens, a Shakespearean editor of repute, said that all the world knew of the poet was that he lived "at Stratford-on-Avon, married and had children there; went to London where he commenced actor; wrote poems and plays; returned to Stratford, made his will died and was buried." The unique thing about Shakespeare is that he was the quietest man of his time in England, a man oddly silent about his personal identity. Why was he so tight-lipped about himself, whose life because of his position should have been an open book? The logical answer might be this: Shakespeare remained unknown because he wished to remain unknown; he purposely withheld his identity because it was unsafe or unprofitable to disclose it. The basic fact about Shakespeare is that he "hid" himself. Why? It happened that there were persons in the England of his time who were forced to hide their true identities. They were the Irish. What if Shakespeare were not a Saxon but a Celt, not an Englishman but an Irishman? Once the hypothesis is raised, a great deal that is otherwise mysterious becomes explicable.

Irishmen in the England of Shakespeare's day were decidedly persona non grata as residents and those of them who went there for domicile wisely concealed their birth and nationality. It may be remembered as the time of the "Virgin Queen," who decimated the neiboring island, who held the Irish in a special abhorrence as "traitors and rebels," and who had her executuioner ever at hand to demonstrate her hate. While he lived in London Shakespeare depended on the public for his livelihood and on the grace and favor of the Crown for his theatre in the English capital. And as one of the rebel race he would have found it wise to be silent like his compatriots. It would not have been politic to let Elizabeth know of his origins; the world might not then have had a Shakespeare.

One may ask where Shakespeare got his knowledge of Irish mythology, legend and literature. It formed a phenemenally exceptional knowledge in the England of his day, where it was not even known that it existed. Not to speak of Irish songs and ballads found in the plays. Indeed the subject of Shakespeare's knowledge of Irish music alone holds much more than the merit of mere novelty to the ripe Shakespearean scholar. No commentator ever has gone into Shakespeare's thorough knowledge of Irish music; he would have ended in a bog because it is not known to be Irish music. While the specific matter lies outside the scope of this article, one may mention, for example, Shakespeare's reference to what he calls Callino Custurame, which has caused the pundits much conjecture about form of doggerel Latin tongue it is and what the Bard means by it. It happens to be virtually the way an Irishman sings the title line of one of the oldest of his race's folk-songs: Colleen Og Asthore Mé (My Darling Young Colleen Forever); and it forms too the phonetic rendition for stage usage of such a song by actors who spoke no Irish. There are ten other Irish folk-lore songs alluded to in the Plays, but every play is concealed under an alias.

Shakespeare's knowledge of the Irish songs and sagas came out of what is known as the "Hidden Éire"; and they were handed down in secret from father and son. To have told them openly would have brought the penalty of imprisonment, sometimes of death; the Irish language was proscribed. Not content with destroying the many ancient manuscripts of the race, the invaders tried also to destroy the oral tradition. It is utterly strange that an Englishman of that day should have known anything of that Irish background, for the simple reason that no Englishman was ever allowed to cross the inner threshold of Irish life. The native values and way of that life were hidden in glen and valley, under the broken rooftree and in the quiet of hearts that never revelaed themselves before the invader.

If we take Shakespeare as an Englishman we shall find it impossible to explain his propensity for and his knowledge of this Irish background. Who, for example, is his Queen Mab of Romeo and Juliet? She is Queen Mabh of Irish mythology; and the story told of her in the play is an old Irish fairy tale. All the elf-like, airy beings in A Midsummer's Night's Dream and The Tempest are Irish; in fine, Shakepeare's beautiful kingdom of faëry is entirely Irish. His Island in The Tempest could serve exactly to describe the Irish mythological Island of Hy-Brasil (Isle of the Blest). And how, one may ask, did Shakespeare know the old Gaelic story of The Three Children of Lir (pronounced Leer in Irish), on which to base his King Lear? And where did he get his famous character, Puck, but from the original Irish story of The Puca or The Puck, whose memory to this day is observed in the strange pagan celebration held every year in Kerry in Éire?

And where is the plot for his play, Cymbeline, but from the very old Irish fairy-story of Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs, which spread over Germany, France and all Europe? Macbeth, too, may be traced to an Irish origin, an in it Shakespeare made good use of his knowledge of Irish sources. Take, for example, the weird prophecy that Macbeth would never be defeated until Birnam wood should move to Dunsinane hill. Such a circumstance occurs in but one epic literature -- the Irish. Shakespeare's scene is strikingly similar to a part of the ancient Irish story recounting the Battle of Rosnaree in the first century:

" side went to the wood nearest them and they cut branches of green oak and out them in the hands of every man ... and they raised them before them, advancing, and it seemed as if the forest moved ...."

Moreover, the Vision of the Eight Kings conjured for Macbeth is very much like the Vision conjured for Conn of the hundred Battles, a second-century Irish King.

A more striking parallel concerns the cavern scene in Act IV, when Macbeth comes upon the Three Sisters. This is very much like the scene when Cuhullin, the Irish Siegfried of the first century, comes upon the Three Daughters of Catalin where, near a lonely cave, they mumble prophetic incantations as they bend over their cauldron in which they are cooking poisoned dog's flesh. The commentators have been wrong in idealizing the Three Sisters as abstract types of medieval "witches." They are not at all the same type as the poor creatures unjustly burned in thousands in the Middle Ages in every country of Western Europe except in Éire, where there never was a witch burning. The art of the Three Sisters soars high above the comparitively trivial doings of medieval "witches." Shakespeare had no abstractions in mind. His three Sisters are from the three wizardesses of ancient Éire, who could see into the seeds of time to con their mortal consequences. And Shakespeare also uses the most familiar features of the Irish wizardesses: (1) that they always appear in triads; (2) that they always strike first the prophetic note of doom in Gaelic literature, as they do in Macbeth.

These are some of the reasons why the Irish regard Macbeth, with King Lear and Hamlet, as a "tragedy of the Gael." Historically its chief characters are Scottish Gaels of Irish descent; and Scotland, where the scene is laid, was called Scotia Minor to distinguish it from Scotia Major or Éire, the parent country.

Parts of the Arabian Nights classic, it is now found, were lifted word for word in places from the Irish ms. story of the discovery of America by Brendan in the sixth century. All this was the property of the "Hidden Éire" which was kept a closed book even by the Irish themselves until recent years, when with freedom the national being began reveal itself. The wonder is that Shakespeare seemed to know of it, and it was food and wine to his lips. The Irish hold that he drank in the lore with his mother's milks. There is an Irish tradition that she came from Youghal of Éire and that there it was that Shakespeare as a young man first met Edmund Spenser, who in June, 1594, married a Youghal belle, one Elizabeth Boyle. The tradition further has it that Shakespear revisitied Youghal either in 1596 or 1597.

The Bard's phenemenal felicity with rhyme recalls the recent discovery that this tremendous contribution to literature is not, as it is comonly beleived to be, an Arab contribution to poetry, but an Irish contribution. Shakespeare's use of alliteration, an Irish device, is interesting too, such as "tongues in the trees, books in the running brooks, sermons in stones and good in everything." And his own epitaph reads:

Good friend, for Jesus' sake forbear
To dig the dust enclosed here;
Blest be he who spares these stones,
And curst be he who moves my bones.


One of the first and few insights we have into Shakespeare's life reveals him as being involved in the "treason" of Lord Essex, who failed to carry out in Éire the rather gruesome orders of his Queen, Elizabeth. Why was Shakespeare mixed up in this? What pull took his thoughts to Essex in the sister country? The fact is that here he almost ruined himself at the start of his career. Did his heart rule his head? Was it the Irishman in him sympathizing with Essex, as he would with anyone betraying the natives of his native land? He seemed to have learned wisdom, and thereafter he was silent.

Then there Shakespeare's relations with Spenser and with the Irish chapter in Spenser's life. He seemed to have known him. Spenser first refers to Shakespeare in 1591, in Tears of the Muses. Spenser had then returned to England from a long residence in Éire, where he had written his immortal Faërie Queen, a poem which mirrors not only the natural aspects of Éire but also its history.

Let us look at the inner evidences of the plays. We may recall that they were written by Shakespeare not so much to be read as to be spoken on the stage. We find in them a veritable multitude of idioms and expressions peculiarly Irish. Many of them reveal the author to have been well-acquainted with the Irish brogue, if not himself the possessor of it. Read in cold type, many of these passages are wholly without edge and some indeed are quite meaningless; when spoken, however, they take on life and significance. and if spoken with an Irish brogue they have still greater and clearer meaning. Dr. Johnson was the first to notice this fact and he refers to it in passing in one of his discourses, but he did not explore its implications, not knowing of them. The fact remains that Shakespeare never hides himself from an Irishman.

The English and the Irish regard Shakespeare differently. It is a notable fact that, outside of London, Shakespeare in his "home country" draws virtually no audience at all, while in Éire, not alone in Dublin but in every provincial town and village up and down the land,his plays draw full houses every time they are given, even by strolling players with little scenery. The late Mrs. Patrick Campbell, the Irish actress, once formed a Shakespearean company to play the British provinces and went broke within a month; she brought the company to Éire and made a hit everywhere. The Irish do not need much scenery with Shakespeare. No audience of any land so appreciates him. They roar with his comic scenes and are silent to a man with his tragic scenes. Shakespeare is uniquely at home with them. They warm to him; he is close to their hearts and bosoms.

Now for a singular fact about Shakespeare's plays. In the thirty-seven with their many scenes based on life in ancient Greece and Rome, in medieval Italy, in France, Denmark, Wales, Scotland and England, there is but one scene, and that no more than a passing interlude in one of the historical plays, laid in Éire. It is hard to explain, with Éire lying next door to England, unless we remember that Shakespeare wished to conceal his identity. He then would refrain also from references to his homeland. The concealment motive seems further to be borne out when we realize that of the many characters of his plays, drawn from every country of the then known world, there is but one Irishman explicitly mentioned and then only for a very brief scene -- Captain Macmorris in Henry V, Act III, Sc. 2.

The scant scene is illuminating. Shakespeare paints his Irishman knowingly and brilliantly. The Captain is drunk but is to the author a most estimable person, to whom Jamy, the Scotsman, and Fluellen, the Welshman, are poltroons. It also is revealing that Macmorris rises to a high anger when they refer to his country.

"Who talks of my nation? ... I do not know you so good a man as myself: so Christ save me I will cut off your head."

There is an Irishman in Shakespeare's best known play; and he is his greatest character -- Hamlet. He is not explicitly an Irishman as Macmorris is; implicitly he is Irish. Shakespeare hides him as a Dane from the casual reader, but to the Irish, Hamlet is quite recognizable. He was as real as Juliu Caesar to Shakespeare. There was a pre-Shakespearean Hamlet, and many nations have claimed him, notably the Germans and the Poles. The Irish claim is the most valid of all, despite the fact that it is not yet known to the savants with the exception of the erudite Israel Gollancz. In the introduction to his Hamlet in Iceland, Gollancz says that the evidence seems to point to Hamlet's having come from "The Kingdom of Ireland." Reference to Hamlet's Irish origin is also to be found in a book called My Unknown Chum, whose anonymous author seems to have heard in Éire some of the folk-lore on the subject. Hamlet is a very old Irish name; we first find it in an ancient Irish ms. telling how Niall of the Nine Hostage, High King of Éire in the fifth century, was slain by an Irish prince of the blood, one Amhlaidhe (pronounced "Hamlaid" in Irish and "Hamlet" in English.)

In the province of Munster in Éire one may learn more about Hamlet than from a course in any college. The shanachies or story-tellers there tell their own story of Hamlet, and of how Shakespeare got the material from his play from the Irish tradition. In brief it runs like this: There was an Irishman by the name of Howndale and he was a tailor. He was captured by the Danes on one of their pillaging raids on the coast of the country. They brought him to Jutland, where he married and set up in business again. He was a shrewd man and a man of great ambition too. He quit the sartorial trade and usurped the throne of Denmark.

Thus the tradition in essence, and it serves to explain why the Irish story-tellers refer to Hamlet as "the tailor's son." Tradition also has it that Hamlet kept his Irish parantage hidden as its disclosure would have counted against his own succession to the throne of Denmark.

But the Irish breaks out in Shakespeare himself, and one may visualize the smile that shone in those divine eyes when, in Scene V, Act I, he has Hamlet in talking with Horatio swear by the Irish Apostle -- "Yes, by St. Patrick!" -- an invocation that falls only from an Irishman's lips and which no Dane or other Continental would utter. Also, when Hamlet speaks to Horatio of "the funeral baked meats," Shakespeare is referring to a custom of distinctive Irish origin. In England and Europe meats were never baked in his time; they were roasted.

The ghost in Hamlet lives up to the peculiar Irish belief that certain souls in Purgotory are let out to walk the roads of nights:

I am thy father's spirit,
Doom'd for a certain term to walk the night,
And for the day confined to fast in fires,
Till the foul crimes done in my days of nature
Are burnt and purged away ...

Here we have speaking a real or an Irish ghost: indeed, Hamlet's father is the dead spit of an Irish ghost, being rational, forthright and purposeful. The English never had a rational ghost, and their spectres are unreal. Every Irish ghost had personality.

As for Shakespeare's knowledge of the Irish tradition that Hamlet's was a tailoring family, we may judge it by reading the play. Shakespeare has Hamlet speak as one experienced when he talks of his "inky cloak," "suits of solemn black," "forms" and "modes," all tailoring expressions. Hamlet says that "the appurtenance of welcome is fashion." To the players he tells of "tearing a passion to tatters, to very rags." He apostrophizes even his father's ghost as " a king of shreds and patches," and in the soliloquy wherein he contemplates suicide he wishes he might his quietus make not with a sword as a prince of Denmark would, but with "a bare bodkin," a tailoring weapon. To his mother, who may have known the early history of the family, he uses figures:

That monster custom whom all sense doth eat,
Of habits devil, is angel yet in this;
That to the use of actions fair and good
He likewise gives a frock or livery
That aptly is put on.

And Shakespeare has Polonius say:

Costly thy habit as thy purse can buy,
But not expressed in fancy; rich nt gaudy;
For the apparel oft proclaims the man.

He has Polonius use these figures of speech to his daughter:

Do not believe his vows, for they are brokers,
Not of that dye which their investments show,
But more implorators of unholy suits...

And Ophelia herself refers to Hamlet as "the glass of fashion and the mold of form." These constitute a few of the allusions to the tailoring trade in the drama, and they seem to prove that Shakespeare took his play from the Irish story and definitely had the son of Howndale in mind when he made Hamlet, the melancholy Celt, his greatest creation, the apotheosis of his art. Shakespeare had one son, who died at the age of twelve. His name was Hamnet.

Scholars hold that Shakespeare's source for the material of Hamlet was the Historia Danica of Saxo Grammaticus. But it now has been found that Saxo the Lettered himself got the story from the Irish tale, and his account could not possibly have given Shakespeare all the data he used. We have Erasmus wondering at Saxo's story and asking "how a Dane of that day could have such a force of eloquence." Listening to an Irish shanachie tell a tale in the old oral tradition would reveal where Saxo got some of his eloquence. Saxo's hero, Horwendale, is said to be a Danish corruption of the Irish, Howndale. The Irish story antedates Saxo's by three centuries.

Reading Shakespeare as an Irishman makes him far more interesting and revealing. His is the Irish Celtic outlook on the world. He has the unclassical, occult sense of things, a sense that made its way out of Éire into France and Germany, over a Europe that had long been beholden to the classical Greek influence. It was this sense that gave the Continent the miracle of the Celtic which in turn produced the miracle of Gothic culture and brought it to flower.

Too, there is Shakespeare's belief (like Hamlet's) in ghosts and his delightful mixing-up of the natural and supernatural worlds. He seems to have the Irish conviction of the nearness of another world. There is his exuberance, his sense of reverie and passion, of ecstasy and despair. Above all there is his mystical worship of nature, which apart from the Irish writers of English literature we find but little among English authors, perhaps with the unique exception of Wordsworth. And there is his abundant, resonant, beautiful, living speech. The temperament behind the art that moves us seems to be an Irish temperament, with the Celtic empathy that fills his works with the light that never was on land or sea. Shakespeare brings to mind Matthew Arnold's query asking how much of the Celt one must imagine in the ideal man of genius.

Thus Shakespeare now the Irish claim along with Congreve, Farquhar, Sheridan, Goldsmith, Wilde, Ervine, Shaw, the outstanding "English" dramatists who were Irishmen all. Come in, Will Shakespeare! There's a welcome before you. And was it an Englishman they were trying to make of you and yourself with a brogue like that, God bless it? Will you have a drop of the whiskey in your tea? Let you draw up a chair now. Sure, we'll sit by the fire and tell sad stories of the death of kings.

T.F. HEALY, the Irish author, is now in the United States and contributes articles and fiction to many magazines.
Return to Shakespeare Was An Irishman home page