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.