Saint Patrick for Ireland: One of the first early modern plays to premiere in Dublin

Looking for creative ways to celebrate Saint Patrick’s Day this year? Why not stage a revival of Saint Patrick for Ireland?

Saint Patrick for Ireland was one of the first early modern plays to premiere in Dublin. It was written by James Shirley, a noted London playwright responsible for plays such as The Triumph of Peace and The Maid’s Revenge. At the time, Shirley had been living in Dublin for several years; he had moved there in the late 1630s, after all London theaters were shut down between 1636 and 1637 due to the outbreak of bubonic plague spreading through the city. (This is the same disease also known as the “Black Death,” which had ravaged Europe almost three hundred years earlier. Smaller bubonic plague outbreaks periodically re-occurred in Europe throughout the next few centuries. London saw at least two outbreaks in the 17th century: the 1636-1637 outbreak that drove James Shirley to Dublin, and the “Great Plague” in 1665-1666, memorialized in Daniel Defoe’s pseudo-autobiographical Journal of the Plague Year.)

While in Dublin, Shirley decided to appeal to his local audiences with a play about Ireland’s patron saint, Patrick. As a teenager in the early fifth century, Patrick was kidnapped from his home in Britain by Irish pirates; he was held as a slave for six years, working as a shepherd, during which time he converted to Christianity. Eventually, he was able to escape home to Britain, where he rose to prominence as a student of and advocate for Christianity.

Saint Patrick
An image of Saint Patrick, in his bishop’s regalia, from the title page for a 1636 book of saints’ lives.

Saint Patrick for Ireland, published in 1640, picks up Patrick’s story as he prepares to return to Ireland as a missionary. It is presented as a “neo-miracle” play, a descendant of the miracle plays (performances of Bible stories, usually) that were common in the medieval era. In the play the Irish king, supported by the Druids, fears Saint Patrick’s arrival as a military invasion and tries to poison him; a servant is accidentally poisoned instead, but is brought back to life by Patrick, thus proving his divine backing. The head druid summons poisonous snakes to kill Saint Patrick as he sleeps, but he awakens and casts them from the island. Eventually, having been persuaded by Patrick’s feats, the king converts to Christianity, and the play ends on that triumphant note.

Shirley is thought to have based his play on a twelfth-century biography of the saint by an abbot, Jocelyn (or Jocelin) of Furness. The abbot’s recounting is one of two major sources about Patrick’s life: the other is a biographical work by Patrick himself, the Declaration (sometimes referred to by its Latin name, the Confessio). It is understandably hard to verify many of the details of Patrick’s life sixteen centuries later, but it is widely agreed that a Christian missionary by the name of Patrick did exist, and he was likely being honored as Ireland’s patron saint as early as the seventh century. (The two main symbols associated with Saint Patrick, shamrocks and snakes, both entered his story centuries later.)

We have two copies of Saint Patrick for Ireland in our collection at the Folger. They are both fairly straightforward copies, with few to no markings on the pages. One is in a plain cloth binding, while the other is a leather binding by Riviere and Sons, a major bookbinding firm in the mid-nineteenth century. Both have had to substitute pages from other copies of the play to make up for missing pages – not an uncommon practice by booksellers in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries.

If you do decide to stage Saint Patrick for Ireland, let us know how your production turns out!

To learn more about the first printing of the play and its early performances, check out its entry in the Folger’s Digital Anthology of Early Modern Drama.

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