They say there is a first time for everything and whether the nation realizes it, it’s experiencing a series of firsts in Washington, D.C.
The Folger Shakespeare Library hosted its first Irish ambassador to the United States this month, with Michael Collins greeting the crowd of nearly 300 hundred people gathered for the opening reception of the “Nobility and Newcomers in Renaissance Ireland” exhibit.
Collins began by greeting those gathered in Irish, while standing behind a lectern against the set for the play “Henry V,” a work chosen specifically to complement this exhibit.
It was probably the first time the Irish language had been spoken in that building, he quipped. The crowd responded by laughing.
Another first: The night boasted the largest crowd at an opening reception for a Folger Shakespeare Library exhibit.
And, perhaps the most important first: “Nobility and Newcomers” is the first exhibit at the Folger that explores the relationship between Ireland and England. According to Folger Library Director Michael Witmore, it will not be the last.
A Royal Progress
What they don’t tell you before you walk into the exhibit hall, however, is just how much the experience depends on you as the viewer.
The “Nobility and Newcomers” exhibition is displayed along a long hall, which is lined with rich warm wood panels and ringed with glass display cases.
At first glance, it feels, well, staid, perhaps even stuffy.
Then Brendan Kane, one of the exhibit’s two curators, flashes a smile and asks: “So, do you want to be a noble or a monarch?”
Long Live the Queen
The exhibit begins and ends in London, the seat of the British monarchy, parliament and the kingdom’s economic power. In between these points, the show jumps across the sea to Dublin. The historical investigation begins there, in Ireland’s capital. From there the visitor moves virtually down and around the circumference of the Irish isle. At the same time, the exhibit moves linearly through time.
In this way, the show mimics the sovereign’s progress, or tour, of the island and traverses the space and time accordingly.
The Emerald Isle
Ireland in the mid- to late 1500s was multilingual and boasted a diverse population of Welsh, Scottish and Irish, as well as settlers from continental Europe. The story that Kane and his co-curator, Thomas Herron, impart in a relatively small space is complex and multifaceted. The exhibit outlines the intersection of three main groups: native islanders who were Catholic and Gaelic-speaking, the “Old English” descendants of Ireland’s Anglo-Norman invaders and the “new” settlers who were mostly Protestant and mainly from Britain.
“When you think of groups of people in Ireland during this period, it’s helpful to think about them in terms of interest groups rather than ethnic groups. These categories were fluid, and you could shift in and out,” Kane said.
As visitors make progress around the room, they quickly realize that the story of Ireland doesn’t stand apart from the story of Britain. The nations influenced and changed each other for hundreds of years before the modern troubles began. The two places deeply influenced each other politically, religiously and poetically.
“The greatest misconception is that there was an inevitable conflict. That’s not the case. We’re not in the business of saying there was no conflict, but there are also ways people maneuver [in] different circumstances to advance their way in the world,” Kane said.
As a result of this relationship, there is — like it or not — an English component to the Irish diaspora. Indeed, the case is made in this exhibit that taking Ireland under the control of the English crown was the blueprint for England’s colonial ambitions across the globe.
“Ireland is always playing importantly in London politics,” Kane explained. Eventually the crown decided to allow English subjects wishing and hoping to trip into the ranks of the nobility to buy Irish titles for a relatively low sum: 2,000 quid.
The family trees and pedigrees, like the one outlining the upward trajectory of the Taylor family, are on display and beautifully demonstrate this progress.
As the viewer moves through the exhibit, it’s important to keep watch on the wealth of literary artifacts on display. There is a copy of John Milton’s prose and poetry, Edmund Spenser’s written correspondence, William Shakespeare’s first folio of “Henry V” and an early edition of “The Tempest,” a rare Irish family poetry book, as well as a portrait of Shakespeare’s bisexual Catholic patron, the Earl of Southampton. The reciprocal relationship between Ireland and England’s literary history is as striking as it is unmistakable.
“If you’re interested in Shakespeare or Elizabeth or James I, then Ireland is part of that story, too,” Kane said.
“Nobility and Newcomers in Renaissance Ireland” is on display at the Folger Shakespeare Library, 201 East Capitol St., through May 19.