I is for William Henry Ireland

This is my contribution to Round Fourteen of ABC Wednesday. For the fifth time I am focusing on people – some famous, some infamous and some half-forgotten, but all with a tale to tell.

William Henry IrelandFilial affection can be a dangerous thing, especially if that affection isn’t reciprocated – it can lead to all sorts of trouble.

Such was the case with William Henry Ireland. Born in 1777, his father regarded him as a waste of space, and even his mother denied that he was hers, claiming that she was just the housekeeper.

So it was that young Ireland set about trying to win back the respect of his parents, particularly his father, by granting them their dearest wish.

Samuel Ireland was a successful publisher and collector of antiquities, but his great obsession was William Shakespeare. He made pilgrimages to Stratford-upon-Avon and was known to pay good money for anything with the merest connection to his hero, like a chair Shakespeare might once have sat on.

But what Ireland coveted more than anything was a copy of anything that the bard had written in his own hand, a wish likely to go unfulfilled given the complete absence of such documents then as now. Or at least until his son decided to make his father’s dreams come true.

William Henry IrelandYoung William Ireland was apprenticed to a mortgage lawyer which gave him access to old vellum documents that he could trim to provide the raw materials for an audacious forgery – documents supposedly signed by Shakespeare.

In 1794, Ireland handed his father a deed bearing the bard’s signature that he claimed to have found among a cache of documents belonging to an acquaintance who wished to remain anonymous. Ireland senior was delighted and basking in this new found affection, his son went on to ‘find’ a promissory note, a written declaration of Protestant faith and letters to Queen Elizabeth and Anne Hathaway, the latter complete with a lock of hair attached.

He ‘found’ books with Shakespeare’s notes in the margins and ‘original’ manuscripts for Hamlet and King Lear. And the experts of the day authenticated them all as genuine, so in 1796 Ireland the elder published ‘Miscellaneous Papers and Legal Instruments under the Hand and Seal of William Shakespeare’.

Ireland's forged Shakespeare letterNow you might think that both Ireland senior and the experts were naïve and guilty of wishful thinking, but there were not many examples of Shakespeare’s signature to compare with the forgery. (There are only six that we know of, all spelt differently) There was also an assumption that such documents must exist somewhere and that they would turn up one day if everyone looked for them hard enough.

In any event, the publication of Ireland senior’s book sparked both public interest and his son’s ambition. Young William moved on from workaday papers to a ‘genuine’ lost Shakespeare play.

Later in 1796, Ireland the younger claimed to have uncovered the previously unknown ‘Vortigern and Rowena’ and, after protracted negotiations, the Irish playwright Richard Brinsley Sheridan secured the performing rights for London’s Drury Lane Theatre for £300 and a promise of half the profits for the Irelands.

Vortigern PosterIt’s première was appropriately planned for All Fools’ Day, but Ireland senior objected and it was moved to 2nd April. As the day approached, many were questioning the authenticity of the work and the actors struggled with the often unspeakable dialogue, many of them walking out of the production.

By all accounts, the first three acts went well, but then the actors who remained began to ham up their parts, mocking their lines by delivering them in a shrill falsetto or basso profundo. Then a comedian with an unusually large nose attempted to play a touching death scene and the tragedy turned to farce and the audience fell about laughing.

The game was up for Ireland and he confessed all in ‘An Authentic Account of the Shaksperian Manuscripts’ but many people simply refused to believe that Vortigern wasn’t one of the bard’s lost works. Indeed, they accused him of trying to pass off one of Shakespeare’s works as his own.

Ireland family at workOthers could not believe that the forgeries were the work of one young man and blamed the entire Ireland family as the cartoon on the left illustrates.

Ireland the elder’s reputation did not recover before his death in 1800 while his son attempted to make a living as a writer, but always found himself short of money.

In 1814 Ireland moved to France to work at the French national library, while continuing to publish his work in London. He even republished Vortigern and Rowena when he returned to England, but with little success, and he died in penury in 1825.

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7 comments… Add yours
  • Roger Green 12th March 2014

    The 2nd Billy Shakes post this week! His 450th birthday is next month. Ireland was an inventive guy, literally.
    ROG, ABC Wednesday team

  • Carver 12th March 2014

    Very interesting post for I day. Carver, ABC Wed. Team

  • Vortigern Pudding 12th March 2014

    So Ireland died in Penury. But was that Penury, Gloucestershire or Penury, Westmorland?

  • Elizabeth 12th March 2014

    I’d not heard of these claims before, though there were many similar. What a gullible lot they must have all been. Thanks, Ian.

  • lisa 12th March 2014

    What an amazingly fascinating story! One one hand, I think it so very sad that parents would treat a child that way and cause them to resort to such dishonosty…on the other, I have to hand it to him for being resourceful and obviously talented-although not in a very ethical way! Thank you so much for sharing.


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