An old friend, a teacher of Marxist sociology and confirmed class warrior, once advanced to me the opinion that “theatre” as practised in Dublin was largely an offshoot of the pashmina industry. As someone who has worked nights for nearly thirty years I can’t claim to have much experience of theatre-going, though I do seem to remember from the distant past that what was worn in the auditorium was of at least equal interest to what was worn on stage; also that audiences would roar laughing at virtually anything, and particularly any mild obscenity ‑ better still if uttered in a Dublin working class accent.
Theatre wasn’t always so comfortable or its audience so respectable. As James Shapiro recounts in his book 1599: A Year in the Life of William Shakespeare, in late 1598 the privy council directed London’s lord mayor to send his men into the theatres to recruit – that is impress – men to fight in Ireland to put down the O’Neill rebellion. While it was obviously in the interests of the military commanders that able-bodied men should be recruited, many local property owners saw the press gangs as an opportunity to rid their neighbourhoods of “the scum of the country”. This view of the worth of the average soldier seemed to be shared at the highest level. Queen Elizabeth had told the French ambassador in 1597 that her troops stationed in that country “were but thieves and ought to hang”. Shakespeare’s history plays are full of jokes about the corruption of the conscription process: in The Second Part of Henry the Fourth, Falstaff, going to war, is invited to choose from among Ralph Mouldy, Simon Shadow, Thomas Wart and Francis Feeble.
After a rebel victory in the Battle of the Yellow Ford, the situation in Ireland looked, from London, to be becoming more desperate:
Throughout the autumn, fresh reports of English losses reached London. Tobie Matthew wrote to Dudley Carleton in September that since ‘the great overthrow’ at Blackwater, there were ‘four hundred more throats cut in Ireland’. By mid-November, Chamberlain reported that ‘messengers come daily’ out ‘of Ireland … like Job’s servants, laden with ill tidings of new troubles and revolts’.
There was a feeling that the situation must be taken in hand. There was a desire for revenge. For John Donne, Ireland needed some purgative medicine:
Sick Ireland is with a strange war possessed
Like to an ague, now raging, now at rest,
Which time will cure, yet it must do her good
If she were purged, and her head-vein let blood.
If Donne advocated some therapeutic bloodletting, fellow poet Edmund Spenser’s solution was more radical: mass starvation. Only a measure of this thoroughness and ferocity would restore the natural order and the proper relation between the two peoples, as Spenser wrote in a sneering prophecy:
Mark Irish, when this doth fall,
Tyrone and tire all,
A peer out of England shall come,
The Irish shall tire all and some,
St Patrick to St George a horse-boy shall be seen,
And all this shall happen in ‘ninety-nine.