Sunday 25 September 2016

Shakespearean Rising: Pearse's love of the bard

Published 23/04/2016 | 02:30

Lisa Dwyer Hogg takes part in a segment dealing with James Connolly in UCD’s ‘Signatories’ in Kilmainham Gaol last night. Photo: Ros Kavanagh
Lisa Dwyer Hogg takes part in a segment dealing with James Connolly in UCD’s ‘Signatories’ in Kilmainham Gaol last night. Photo: Ros Kavanagh
Padraig Pearse

It is sometimes forgotten that the bloodshed, and bombing of Easter 1916 coincided with the tercentenary celebrations of Shakespeare's death.

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It isn't totally surprising we should forget that anniversary. After all, the founding of the state may seem more important than the cross dressing in 'As You Like It'.

But you will no doubt be glad to hear the momentous occasion did not go unnoticed in 1916 - despite the volatile state of the country.

The Abbey staged 'The Winter's Tale' in January 1916, Trinity placed it's four first edition folios of Shakespeare's work on public display, and the Gaiety staged the Bard's history play, 'Henry V'.

Even Kingstown's Gardener's Society tried to answer that elusive question: "Was Shakespeare a Gardener?"

While these commemorative plays were organised by a very specific stratum of Irish society, the influence of Shakespeare work extended much further. In his book, 'Shakespeare's Rising: Ireland and the 1916 Tercentenary', Professor Andrew Murphy of Saint Andrew's University says while the insurrectionists were against everything the British Empire stood for, they did share the Brits' appreciation of Shakespeare.

In fact, several of the signatories of the proclamation - Connolly, Pearse, McDonagh - were fascinated by him.

John O'Leary had told Yeats if "England only had Milton and Shakespeare and the rest, the Fenians would not be against her". It may seen strange that England's national poet, who is often regarded as as English as Yorkshire pudding, and stiff upper lips, were so wholly embraced by Irish revolutionaries.

But while the revolutionaries wanted political separation from England, some of them welcomed the idea of cultural diversity. Pearse, was particularly intrigued by Shakespeare.

His father John, a self taught man from Birmingham and a closet free-thinker, had a collection of Shakespeare's works that Pearse studied.

Throughout his life, Pearse collected special editions of Shakespeare's plays, performed extracts from 'Hamlet' and recorded scenes from 'Julius Caesar' with his brother, Willie.

He also taught Shakespeare in St Enda's and, next month, the Pearse Museum will host an exhibition on his close connection with Shakespeare. "In many ways it is unexpected republicans would have embraced Shakespeare so closely," Prof Murphy said.

At a time when Ireland was becoming polarised in sectarian religious terms, Shakespeare's work was regarded as neutral. Some Irish nationalists even claimed he was a secret Catholic, and that his family were of Irish origin.

Shakespeare was fascinated with the new worlds Europeans were discovering in the 16th century. His work has been embraced by cultures worldwide, so it seems fitting the theatre where his plays were first staged was called the Globe. It's unsurprising that nearly every Irish writer has been influenced by him.

An episode of Joyce's 'Ulysses' is devoted to a discussion of 'Hamlet'. In his autobiographies, Sean O'Casey describes the profound impact Shakespeare had on him.

And Heaney refers to Shakespeare's only Irish character, Captain McMorris, in his poem 'Traditions'.

As Prof Stephen O'Neill of Maynooth University notes: "Shakespeare will always be recycled by Irish writers, and Irish writers will continue to enhance our understanding of Shakespeare."

Irish Independent

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