Wednesday 17 January 2018

Was the great dane Irish?

One day in the late 1950s, a travelling theatre troupe rolled into a village in Co Cork. The manager -- and lead actor -- was an eccentric genius of the fit-up stage, Anew McMaster.

He was one of the great Shakespearian actors of his day, and his travelling company were renowned for bringing Hamlet, and other classics, to rural Ireland.

But on this day, McMaster decided to do something different.

"Tonight," he announced, "let us entertain them with a murder mystery!"

After the show, one of the actors, Henry Woolf (who recalled this for me recently), asked one of the elders of the village whether the crowd had liked it.

"We couldn't make head nor tail of the murder mystery at all," the man complained, "with the bodies falling out of the cupboards with the knives in their backs."

"But with the 'Hamlet', sir, we understand the language."

And he added, quirkily: "Sure, haven't we all got young fellows like that at home."

The connection between Ireland and Hamlet may go even deeper than such an affinity, however.

A young academic in Scotland, Lisa Collinson, has just published new research that shows that Hamlet may in fact have been Irish, originally.

And an Irish writer, Brian Nugent, has gone one step further, to suggest that Shakespeare himself may have been Irish.

Collinson's discovery happened entirely by accident, when she came across a quote from an ancient Irish saga, The Destruction of Da Derga's Hostel. (A copy of it is in the library of the Royal Irish Academy. See

The piece vividly describes three characters who are so "ridiculous" that no man can refrain from laughing at them -- even if standing beside the corpse of his mother or father. But their comedy disguises a malevolence: "A man will die because of each of them, and they will share man-victory among them," it says.

One of the men has the apparently obscure name of Admlithi. But Collinson noticed that, with a soft "d", Admlithi could easily sound very like Hamlet. She decided to investigate.

Shakespeare's Hamlet was based on a Danish legend, she discovered, which in turn drew from an earlier verse from Iceland. She went looking for connections betweens these Scandinavian sagas and the Irish one (which was even older). There was no 'smoking gun', but the parallels were intriguing.

As well as various linguistic connections, she discovered an extraordinary reference in a Norwegian saga to an Irish character called Klefsan.

Like the old Irish character of Amdlithi, which had provoked Collinson's research, Klefsan had a perverse talent for making people laugh, despite themselves. His talent was so strong that it survived his own death.

One day, a couple of gravediggers came upon Klefsan's skull, and set it up on a high stone in the graveyard.

"And there it has remained ever since," goes the saga. "And any man who goes there and looks at that skull, and sees into the place where his mouth and tongue were, laughs at once, even if he had been sorrowful before he saw that head."

The story seems eerily similar to that of Yorick, the court jester whose skull makes such an iconic appearance in Hamlet. It may, of course, be a coincidence. "But it's the kind of coincidence that sends a shiver up my spine," says Collinson.

She is not the first to make such a connection. Historian Brian Nugent has discovered references in folk culture from the mid 1800s claiming that Hamlet was Irish. He reports that, in the 1940s, the storytellers of Munster had their own version of Hamlet, which, legend held, had been the source for Shakespeare's play, centuries before.

Nugent takes the Irish connection one (large) step further, in his eccentric but passionate study, Shakespeare Was Irish!, suggesting, rather fancifully, that Shakespeare (whose identity has never been conclusively proven) may have been the Irish rebel William Nugent.

Nugent was a renowned poet, and was deeply implicated in intrigues against the English crown -- which would have given him the necessary insights for his court plays (something that a lowly actor from Stratford could not have had).

But more tangible are the "Irishisms" that Nugent uncovers in the plays: the fairy in A Midsummer Night's Dream is called Puck -- after púca, the Irish for ghost, perhaps. A character in Coriolanus greets another with "a hundred thousand welcomes". Hamlet at one point swears "by Saint Patrick".

There are many more, though they hardly make Shakespeare Irish. But Collinson's work certainly suggests that his greatest hero, Hamlet, may have had some Irish blood in him.

As one of the characters in Shakespeare's Pericles says: "Did you ever hear the like?"

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