Nobility and Newcomers in Renaissance Ireland

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From Enchyridion fidei, 1509, one of the first printed books by an Irish writer. Folger Digital Image 62653.

Nobility and Newcomers in Renaissance Ireland, one of the Exhibitions at the Folger, opened January 19, 2013 and closed on May 19, 2013. The exhibition invites visitors on a journey to a destination that is both very new and very familiar: the Ireland of Shakespeare's time, from the sixteenth to mid-seventeenth century.

Through an extraordinary gathering of Irish-language manuscripts and other rare materials, many of them from Irish archives and libraries, Nobility and Newcomers draws a fresh picture of Renaissance Ireland as a vibrant, complex, outwardly oriented kingdom with strong cultural and family connections in England and the continent. Rare materials linked to important English "newcomers," including English poet and author Edmund Spenser, add to this new look at an island of ideas of its own.


This exhibition was curated by Thomas Herron and Brendan Kane.

Thomas Herron is Associate Professor of English at East Carolina University, Greenville, North Carolina, teaching Shakespeare and Renaissance literature. He is the author of Spenser’s Irish Work: Poetry, Plantation and Colonial Reformation (2007) as well as co-editor (with Michael Potterton) of both Ireland in the Renaissance, c. 1540–1660 (2007) and Dublin and the Pale in the Renaissance, c. 1540–1660 (2011). He currently edits the multidisciplinary journal Explorations in Renaissance Culture.

Brendan Kane is Associate Professor of History at the University of Connecticut and Associate Director of the University of Connecticut Humanities Institute. In addition to teaching broadly in early-modern European history, he offers classes in Irish Gaelic. He is the author of The Politics and Culture of Honour in Britain and Ireland, 1541–1641 (2010) and co-editor (with Valerie McGowan-Doyle) of a forthcoming collection of essays entitled Elizabeth I and Ireland.

Curators' insights: A New Look at Renaissance Ireland

Many people know something about the English-Irish conflicts in early modern Ireland, says Tom Herron, co-curator of Nobility and Newcomers in Renaissance Ireland. "The horrible war, the renewed conquest of Ireland, the large areas of colonial settlement and displacement—all true." The broader point of the exhibition? There is much more to the story. "Ireland was outward-looking, with an international perspective and a diverse culture. The native culture of Ireland," Herron says, "is more than dispossession. And the Irish were interconnected all along with the continent and England."

As an example, Herron cites Enchyridion Fidei, printed in Venice in 1509, one of the earliest printed books by an Irish writer. The author, Maurice O'Fiheley, a future archbishop in Galway, was teaching scholastic philosophy to university students in Padua at the time. "Here's an Irishman who's a scholastic in Renaissance Italy."

"The Irish were real players in the world and in learned culture," co-curator Brendan Kane agrees. The Irish and English were also not sharply distinguished from each other, since "both were part of the same monarchy. Elizabeth is the queen of two kingdoms, so the Irish people are subjects of the queen." Heraldic manuscripts in the exhibition freely combine the names of English and Irish earls—including Thomas Butler, the powerful Irish tenth Earl of Ormond and cousin to Queen Elizabeth. Christopher Nugent, an Irishman studying at Cambridge, created an Irish-language primer for Elizabeth, too. "It's visually beautiful, and it's the language of the subjects of her other kingdom," says Kane.

Both curators point to the number of Irish-language manuscripts, some on loan from other institutions and some in facsimile, as a central strength of the exhibition. Read-aloud audio clips, in Irish, are available through the audio tour and mobile tour app. "I'm an Irish-language fanatic," says Kane with cheerful enthusiasm. "People have little sense that there's an Irish language. Or they think it's a purely oral language; it's not. The Irish were a learned, literate, internationally engaged people. The manuscripts in the exhibition show the written language, and we included a book, which shows it as a print language. It's a rich language, used by a variety of people. Irish language materials and English language materials were part of a single world."

As the exhibition title suggests, English "newcomers" to Renaissance Ireland are essential to its story, too. The poet and author Edmund Spenser, one of Herron's primary research interests, "spent his entire mature career in Ireland," Herron says. "He was an English poet, but he settled in Ireland, and he wrote about the Irish landscape and politics, lots of allegory, pastoral and descriptive poetry on the Irish landscape."

"The influence of Irish politics and history plays out in Spenser's work," Herron explains. "And Shakespeare and Milton are influenced by that in Spenser. There's a knock-on effect from one canonical author to the others." In addition to rare manuscript notations in Spenser's own handwriting and editions of his works written in and about Ireland, the exhibition offers visitors "virtual tours" of a digital reconstruction of his castle at Kilcolman, County Cork, based on recent archaeological research.

The castle is digital now because the physical structure was sacked and burned in 1598 during the grueling Nine Years' War. (Spenser fled to England, where he died two months later.) Eventual English victory in the war, in 1603, led to the 1607 "flight of the earls"—the departure of the northern Irish lords, whose forfeited lands became the Ulster Plantation.

An Irish-language diary, shown in facsimile, provides the only contemporary account of the flight of the earls. "What's amazing," says Kane, is that it reads like any other travel writing. "He goes on 'the flight,' the end of the Gaelic world," he says. "And what you read is how everyone in Europe liked them, they were wined and dined, and so on. They're just not thinking about this event in the way we expect them to." As in the rest of the exhibition, in other words, rare materials add to our familiar knowledge of Irish history with a fresh perspective and some surprising results.

Contents of the exhibition

Nobility and Newcomers in Renaissance Ireland highlights the close interactions between Ireland and England in the age of Shakespeare. For much of their history both nations were kingdoms under one crown, and cooperation was more frequent than conflict. This exhibition tells a tale of English conquest and Irish rebellion and resistance, but also of enduring connections between the two countries that persist to the modern day.

The Irish nobles are among the best examples of that linked history, sharing cultural, political, and family connections wtih their English continental peers. They are some of the best documented Irish figures of the age and are represented here, in part, by portraits, family pedigrees, and poems of praise in English, Latin, and Irish Gaelic. As politicians, courtiers, and soldiers who shaped modern Ireland, Irish nobles were also linked to some of the greatest lights of the "English" literary Renaissance. Edmund Spenser lived and wrote his greatest work in Ireland, for example. Sir Philip Sidney, Ben Jonson, and William Shakespeare had Irish connections and interests.

"Newcomers" of lower status also transformed Irish society. Not only administrators and writers, but military captains, Protestant preachers, land speculators, and many other journeyed to Ireland to seek their fortunes, and some proved more fortunate than others. Richard Boyle arrived there a commoner from Kent, England; he died as first Earl of Cork and the wealthiest man in the British realms.

Nobility and Newcomers in Renaissance Ireland exhibition material

This article offers a comprehensive and descriptive list of each piece included in the exhibition.

Image Gallery

To view images of exhibition highlights, visit this Flickr photo album.

Scholars' insights on Nobility and Newcomers in Renaissance Ireland

This article offers modern scholars' insights into the rich relationship between England and Ireland during the Renaissance and includes audio excerpts of Irish language texts.

Nobility and Newcomers in Renaissance Ireland children's exhibition

Nobility and Newcomers in Renaissance Ireland family guide

Supplemental materials


For audio from this exhibition, including excerpts of Irish language texts, visit the scholars' insights page for this exhibition.


Co-curator Brendan Kane discusses the relationship between England and Ireland under the reigns of Henry VIII and Elizabeth I, as well as the various social groups within Ireland in the 16th and 17th centuries.

Co-curator Thomas Herron talks about English settlers in Ireland, including the famous examples of Sir Walter Raleigh and Edmund Spenser.

During the early 17th century, many English aristocrats and social climbers sought to attain noble titles in Ireland. Some of these titles were available for purchase.

Related publications

A companion catalog to this exhibition is available for purchase from the Folger Shop. The catalog challenges us to think differently about cultural and political exchange between Ireland and Britain in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries.

Related programs

Nobility and Newcomers is accompanied by a variety of programming including poetry, early music, and free lectures. Explore the many influences of Ireland from Shakespeare's time to today.

Talks and Screenings at the Folger

Folger Consort

Suggestions for further reading

To further your knowledge of Renaissance Ireland, take a look at the Bibliography of readings related to Nobility and Newcomers in Renaissance Ireland.