The Folger Presents “Nobility and Newcomers in Renaissance Ireland”

(Washington, DC)  Separated by fewer than 100 miles, England and Ireland have had a closely intertwined history with profound political and cultural significance for both islands. In a new exhibition at the Folger, the deep connections between these two cultures—at times uneasy allies, at times warring antagonists—is explored through the lens of the Renaissance, a period when Irish autonomy and English supremacy rose to the forefront of Anglo-Irish relations.

Nobility and Newcomers in Renaissance Ireland investigates the political struggles of the period while simultaneously acknowledging the ways in which English and Irish cultures influenced each other through achievements in literature, architecture, and the arts.
“Ireland was like Cuba in the Cold War, a tinderbox with charismatic and disgruntled leaders with sharp ideological differences with their "mainland" government (i.e., Protestant England), and highly vulnerable to outside influence and invasion by larger, Catholic powers on the Continent, who were themselves at war with England. Simultaneously, Ireland had nominally been ruled by England for 400 years by the 1580s, so the familial, cultural, and trade links were all firmly in place,” explains curator Thomas Herron.

Far from being isolated and culturally homogenous, Renaissance-era Ireland was profoundly international and home to people with roots in England, Scotland, Wales, and cities across the European continent. Despite being united under the single ruler, many Irish felt separate from their English neighbors. Nobility and Newcomers focuses on three distinct groups: native islanders who were often Catholic and Gaelic-speaking; “Old English” descendants of twelfth century Anglo-Norman conquerors of Ireland; and predominantly Protestant new settlers arriving from England and elsewhere. Each of these groups jockeyed for power, land, cultural status, and favors from the reigning monarch.

For exhibition curators Herron and Brendan Kane, going beyond the often-discussed narratives of political and religious conflict offers a valuable opportunity to gain a deeper understanding of relationships between Ireland and England.

“If you’re interested in Shakespeare or Elizabeth or James I, then Ireland is part of that story, too,” notes Kane.

“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. The greatest misconception is that there was inevitable conflict. That’s not the case. We’re not in the business of saying that there was no conflict, but there are also ways people maneuver [in] different circumstances to advance their way in the world,” Kane continues.

While English policies certainly influenced life in Ireland, developments in Ireland impacted English culture as well. Irish historical events figure in various famous works of English literature, including Shakespeare's plays Henry V and Henry VI, John Milton's poetry and prose, and the work of poet Edmund Spenser. Irish nobles achieved positions of influence at the English court, and many purchased homes and property in London or other parts of England. Non-aristocrats sought greater economic opportunities in English cities, while English settlers looked for ways to advance their careers in Ireland.  

Irish history has a special significance in the United States, where many residents claim Irish ancestry and whose early history is closely linked with England’s initial colonial efforts.

“Ireland was a predecessor of colonial efforts elsewhere,” explains Herron. “American colonial history is deeply intertwined with the Irish one. Today's global Ireland has parallels in yesterday's global Ireland.” 

Exhibition Highlights
Nobility and Newcomers in Renaissance Ireland features portraits, manuscripts, artifacts, family records, and rare books drawn from collections in Ireland and the United States. The exhibition includes nearly 100 items from the Folger collection, as well as materials from the National Gallery of Ireland, the University of Wisconsin, the National Portrait Gallery, the National Library of Ireland, and private collections.  

Highlights include:
    •    City limits. Early maps of Irish cities—including Dublin, and Galway—show centers of government, trade, and culture, as well as the countryside around them. 
    •    Language lessons. Visitors can virtually thumb through an Irish primer containing basic Gaelic phrases created for Queen Elizabeth I.
    •    Gaelic prose and poetry. The fabulously illustrated "Book of the O'Byrnes," on loan from Harvard University, contains Gaelic poetry and lineages of that family. Facsimiles of bardic verse from Irish archives are displayed and accompanied by audio readings.
    •    Powers players. Portraits of influential English and Irish nobles, including a newly discovered portrait of Queen Elizabeth; a plaster cast of Edward VI; and Thomas Butler, 10th Earl of Ormond and cousin to Queen Elizabeth.
    •    Poetic inspiration.  Poet Edmund Spencer spent part of his early career in Ireland, and the exhibition includes letters and poetry copied in his own handwriting.

By shedding light on lesser-known aspects of Ireland’s history, Nobility and Newcomers unlocks a deeper understanding of Irish and British culture and establishes a framework for understanding Ireland today.

Thomas Herron is Associate Professor of English at East Carolina University, Greenville, NC, teaching Shakespeare and Renaissance literature. He is the author of Edmund Spenser’s Irish Work: Poetry, Plantation and Colonial Reformation (2007) as well as co-editor (with Michael Potterton) of both Ireland and 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.


James Shapiro: 1599 and Essex’s Irish Rebellion

January 25, 6pm 

James Shapiro is Professor of English and Comparative Literature at Columbia University and author of Prize-winning 1599: A Year in the Life of William Shakespeare. His talk explores the Essex Rebellion in Ireland and its link to Shakespeare’s Henry V.

HOURS: Friday at 6pm



Ian Campbell: Protestant Natural Law and Irish Natural Slaves

March 1, 6pm 

Ian Campbell is a postdoctoral fellow at the University College Dublin. His current research examines the transition between traditional and modern politics in Ireland between the 16th and 18th centuries.

HOURS: Friday at 6pm



John Killen: An Ulster Clan in Medieval Ireland

March 4, 7:30pm 

John Killen, Librarian at Belfast’s Linen Hall Library speaks on “The Brefne O’Reillys: An Ulster Clan in Medieval Ireland.”

HOURS: Monday at 7:30pm



Folger Consort: Dublin, Celtic and Art Music

March 15-17

Sample the rich array of music from Ireland and its Celtic neighbor Scotland, including pieces for bagpipe, harp, and fiddle, as well as the English court music of the time, including compositions by William Lawes, blind harpist Turlough O’Carolan, and others. With harpist Siobhan Armstrong, soprano Molly Quinn, and period strings.

HOURS: Friday at 8pm; Saturday at 5pm and 8pm; Sunday at 2pm.


Folger Shakespeare Library is a world-class center for scholarship, learning, culture, and the arts. It is home to the world’s largest Shakespeare collection and a primary repository for rare materials from the early modern period (1500-1750). Folger Shakespeare Library is an internationally recognized research library offering advanced scholarly programs in the humanities; an innovator in the preservation of rare materials; a national leader in how Shakespeare is taught in grades K-12; and an award-winning producer of cultural and arts programs—theater, music, poetry, exhibitions, lectures, and family programs. By promoting understanding of Shakespeare and his world, Folger Shakespeare Library reminds us of the enduring influence of his works, the formative effects of the Renaissance on our own time, and the power of the written and spoken word. A gift to the American people from industrialist Henry Clay Folger, the Folger Shakespeare Library—located one block east of the U.S. Capitol—opened in 1932. Learn more at
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