Shakespeare in the Dail? The Holinshed Chronicles and other treasures

Parnell caricature courtesy of the Dáil press office.

Geneva Pattison

This year, the Oireachtas Library displayed the oldest book in its collection The Holinshed Chronicles, for the entirety of May. Originally housed in the library of the Chief Secretary of Dublin Castle, The Holinshed Chronicles of England, Scotland and Ireland was a project conceived by a man named Reginald Wolfe in 1548. He intended to compile an all-encompassing history of the three nations, but died before finishing the full compendium.

Raphael Holinshed succeeded Wolfe in 1573 and expanded the project to include more writers, information and original woodcut illustrations. 

The copy belonging to the Oireachtas happens to be a second edition of the book from 1587. Second editions may not sound particularly enthralling, but this reprint holds a special place in literary history. It’s widely believed by scholars that Shakespeare used this version of the historical anthology as a source of reference for many of his plays, including Macbeth and King Lear.

While there are certain parallels between the wordsmith’s plays and the depictions in Holinshed, one in particular comes to the fore. The Three Witches from Shakespeare’s Macbeth are depicted as dark, ugly creatures and are largely nefarious in nature. However, when examining the Holinshed Chronicles they are referred to as “Creatures of the Elderwood… nymphs or fairies.’’

By comparing Shakespeare’s works to the 16th century book, academics have been able to determine to what extent the famous bard cleverly employed dramatic suspense and literary devices to engage the crowds of the time. This in turn has given the world a clearer view on the anthropological societal tendencies of the people during the English Renaissance. These are entertainment trends we still gravitate towards today. Who doesn’t love a hard-hitting drama with a gripping plot? 

The Dail at 100

The Oireachtas has been making many historical documents in its collection available online for public viewing to celebrate the centenary of the Dail’s first formation. Guest curators were invited to explore the historical collections in the Oireachtas Library and choose their favourites of the selection on topics that most appealed to them.

The guest curators comprised of Seán Ó Fearghaíl, Ceann Comhairle of the 32nd Dáil,  Martyn Turner, political cartoonist for The Irish Times, Dr. Aoife Whelan, lecturer at the School of Irish, Celtic Studies and Folklore at UCD and John Lonergan, former Governor of Mountjoy Prison.

The exhibit available to view via the Oireachtas website is called Treasures of the Dail and includes items of national interest from a parliamentarian perspective. It includes political cartoons as far back as the 1880’s, an original copy of Arthur Griffith’s publication To Rebuild the Nation and also pamphlets from the early 20th century that document the repeated push to preserve the Irish language in Ireland. 

There’s a particularly interesting document in the Parliament for Ireland section of the exhibit of Vanity Fair caricatures of Irish political figures. One dates from as far back as 1873 and depicts a very well dressed, red faced leader of the Home Rule League, Isacc Butt.

Charles Stewart Parnell, is depicted in the selection with what I would say is a very complimentary likeness. However reading the accompanying outline of his rise to prominence, he did not entirely escape the shrewd magnifying glass of the journalists of the time. Comments such as “Without eloquence, humour or knowledge, Mr. Parnell has managed to elevate reiteration and persistence into a fine art” and “English by family, American by inclination and Irish by interest” illustrate the dual nature of opinions on a man now generally deemed to be an Irish political hero.

The visual depictions are relatively scathing in most cases and the accompanying abstract on each of the men are on occasion, even more so. However, it makes for a highly interesting look into our shared past.  

Visit  to view the Treasures of the Oireachtas online exhibit. 

To view what’s currently in the Dail’s display case and to read more about the Holinshed Chronicles, visit this website:

A fully digitised page-by-page copy of the Holinshed Chronicles is available from the link below: