The first depiction of the nation's patron saint on an Irish stage was a disappointing, underwhelming and insulting affair, writes Alan Waldron, a PhD scholar with Maynooth University's MACMORRIS project.

From Macroom to Montserrat, St Patrick’s Day promises to be another spectacular occasion of parades, performances and perhaps, a pint or two. It is truly a global phenomenon, and the green-clad figure of St Patrick is intimately linked to Irish cultural identity. There is no doubt that we will see creative interpretations of how our patron saint converted the pagan Irish nobility to Christianity by using a shamrock as a metaphor for the Holy Trinity. There will also be snakes.

But we are less likely to see how Patrick watched as his former enslaver burned to death in his own home, or Patrick’s role in condemning an evil sorcerer to eternal punishment in hell. Yet those moments are some of the "highlights" of the saint's debut theatrical outing on an Irish stage in James Shirley’s 1639 play St. Patrick for Ireland.

In the 1630s, the then Lord Deputy of Ireland, Thomas Wentworth, tasked Scotsman John Ogilby with establishing the first-ever professional theatre in Ireland. Under Ogilby’s direction, the New Theatre would be built on Dublin’s Werburgh Street, only a stone’s throw from Wentworth’s official residence in Dublin Castle. All Ogilby needed was a playwright who could create entertaining new plays. Fortunately for him, London theatres were closed due to an outbreak of plague from 1636 to 1637, and they lured renowned dramatist Shirley over to write for Dublin’s fledgling theatre.

Unfortunately, Dublin audiences seemed to have responded unenthusiastically to Shirley's works, and the playwright would complain bitterly about his inability to connect with them. Perhaps sensing that he was running out of time, Shirley would focus on creating something sure to appeal to the Irish – a play based on the life of Saint Patrick. And so, St. Patrick for Ireland premiered at Werburgh Street in 1639.

The play loosely adapts several stories associated with Patrick, but it mainly focuses on his return to Ireland from Britain to convert the pagan natives to Christianity. There, he must challenge the rule of the legendary High King of Ireland, Leogarius, and the power behind the throne, evil pagan magician Archimagus.

In actuality, Patrick is firmly in the background in his own play. Instead, the main action is driven by other characters taken from the Patrick legend. The nobleman Dichu is exiled from the kingdom, and his sons are nearly sacrificed for listening to Patrick’s words. Leogarius’s two sons, the virtuous Conallus and the wicked Corybreus, battle for the affections of the beautiful and wise Emeria.

Archimagus plots and schemes against anyone who challenges the old Irish gods. Patrick operates in the background guiding the pagans who seek redemption through God, and those who accept His teachings are physically and spiritually rewarded by the end of the play.

Unfortunately, no record of the actual production survives, but it would have been a bombastic theatrical experience. Audiences would have seen the greedy enslaver Milcho burn to death, shouting:

I choose to leap into these fires,
Rather than heare thee preach thy cursed faith.

Archimagus "sinks" into Hell, presumably through a carefully crafted trapdoor. A decorative altar would be dramatically revealed with "two Idolls upon it, Archimagus and priests, lights and incense." More darkly, though, audiences would have also witnessed the aftermath of Emeria’s sexual assault at the hands of Corybreus.

Despite Shirley’s efforts, it seems that St. Patrick for Ireland did not make the kind of impression on Dublin audiences he hoped for. It is likely that the play’s political messages might have angered the Catholic "Old English" (descendants of the Norman invasions of the 1200s who became "more Irish than the Irish themselves").

They had resisted the efforts of the Tudor and Stuart kings of England to bring Ireland under tighter English control for 100 years. Shirley’s Patrick is depicted as being explicitly British but, crucially, not notably Catholic, a none-too-subtle suggestion that, like the pagan Irish of the play, the Old English would be better off if they accepted salvation from their British saviours.

Worse still, many of the play's Irish characteristics are portrayed negatively. Irish gods do nothing but help the evildoers. The only mention of shamrocks is in describing how a greedy moneylender might have died from gorging himself on them. Before they became linked with Patrick, writers such as Edmund Campion and Edmund Spenser would create negative depictions of Irish people by portraying them as starving, filthy wretches who stuffed themselves full of the herb.

Finally, the highly learned and respected Irish Bards who passed on native traditions in their poetry were reduced to a singular caricature, Bard. This man of little talent would prefer to drown himself in alcohol than be redeemed by Patrick. One of his more excruciating songs goes:

Oh the Queene and the King, and the royall Off spring,
With the Lords, and Ladies so gay,
I tell you not a tricke, to meete the man Patricke:
Are all now trouping this way.

Shirley hoped that his audience would enjoy his play and "give him Courage for a second part", but it was not to be. Shirley left Ireland before the play was printed, never to return, disappointed and disillusioned. The New Theatre would close permanently when the Irish Rebellion began in 1641. Despite being the first depiction of Ireland’s patron saint on an Irish stage, St. Patrick for Ireland is largely forgotten today - until now.

This piece originally appeared on RTÉ Brainstorm

Main photo: James Shirley, engraving by William Henry Worthington after a drawing by J. Thurston, public domain