Shakespeare and the Definition of the Irish Nation

  • Richard English


The absorption of influential Revolutionary Irish Republicans in Shakespeare and in Shakespearean criticism provides a valuable setting for the reconsideration of key aspects of modern Irish politics.1 Notable early twentieth-century Republicans as varied as Peadar O’Donnell, Ernie O’Malley, Sean O’Faoláin and Frank Ryan exemplify this trend, neatly captured in memorable prison statements from O’Malley in the early 1920s such as: ‘I have a decent library now and have ample time to browse deep in Chaucer, Shakespeare, Dante, and Milton’, or ‘I like Shakespeare best’.2 These Irish Republicans exhibited an enthusiastic attachment to British literary culture. O’Malley’s IRA [Irish Republican Army] colleague, Peadar O’Donnell, wrote of his own prison excitement over Defoe, Shelley, Dickens, Stevenson, Wodehouse, and (with characteristic impishness) of his passion for Shakespeare:

I don’t remember on what day of the week I finally escaped from prison but it was on a Wednesday that I saw a copy of Shakespeare in the officers’ lavatory when I was outside having a bath; I stole it! Well, listen here, there’s no punishment I could ever receive for that theft that would exceed the joy its capture gave me. I’m telling you, Shakespeare was a great man, and I would suggest to the British ruling class that the least they can do when they jail folk like me is to present each of us with a copy of his works. It is true that in this case I rescued Shakespeare from a few of my countrymen but that must not be used as an argument to resist my plea, for it is only that section of my countrymen who can be hired to serve the Empire who would use Shakespeare in a lavatory.3


National Identity Anomalous State National Definition Irish People Irish Nation 
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Copyright information

© Palgrave Macmillan, a division of Macmillan Publishers Limited 1997

Authors and Affiliations

  • Richard English

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