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William Henry Ireland

William Henry IrelandBorn: 1777
Died: 1835
Cause of death: unspecified

Gender: Male
Race or Ethnicity: White
Occupation: Hoaxer

Nationality: England
Executive summary: Forger of Shakespearian manuscripts

Forger of Shakespearian manuscripts, born in London in 1777. His father, Samuel Ireland, was an engraver and author, and dealer in rare books and curios. In 1794 young Ireland, with his father, visited Stratford, where he met John Jordan, a local poet who had published a deal of gossipy matter about William Shakespeare and had even forged the will of the poet's father. Seeing his own father's credulous interest, Ireland conceived the idea of doing a little forgery on his own account. He copied, in ink which had all the signs of age, Shakespeare's style and handwriting, and produced leases, contracts with actors, notes, receipts, a profession of faith, and even a love letter to Anne Hathaway with an enclosed lock of hair, to the delight of his unsuspecting father, and the deception of many scholars who attested their belief in the genuineness of his finds. These he accounted for by inventing an ancestor "William Henrye Irelaunde", to whom they had been bequeathed by Shakespeare in gratitude for rescue from drowning. At last the discovery of a whole new play named Vortigern was announced. Sheridan purchased it for Drury Lane Theatre, and an overflowing house assembled on the 2nd of April 1796 to sit in judgment upon it. But away from the glamor of crabbed handwriting and yellow paper, the feeble dialogue and crude conceptions of the tragedy could not stand the test, and its one representation was greeted with shouts of laughter. Its fate prevented the composition of a series of historical plays, of which Henry II had already been produced by this audacious forger.

Samuel Ireland the elder had published in 1795 the Miscellaneous Papers and Legal Instruments under the Hand and Seal of William Shakespeare; including the Tragedy of King Lear and a small fragment of Hamlet (dated 1796). He had the fullest belief in their authenticity, but the hostile criticism of Malone and others, and the unsatisfactory account of the source of the papers, made him demand a full disclosure from his son. Harassed by the success of his own deceit, which had carried him far beyond his first intention, Ireland at last confessed his fraud, and published (1796) an Authentic Account of the Shakespearian MSS., and in 1805, a more elaborate Confession, entirely exculpating his father and making a full admission. The elder Ireland felt the disgrace very bitterly, and it probably hastened his death, which occurred in July 1800. After the exposure Ireland was forced to abandon both his home and his profession. He wrote several novels of no value, gradually sank into penury, and died on the 17th of April 1835.

The more interesting publications on the Ireland forgeries are: Inquiry into the authenticity of certain Papers, etc., attributed to Shakespeare, by Edmond Malone (1796); the elder Ireland's Vindication of his Conduct (1796); An Apology for the Believers in the Shakespeare Papers (1797), and a Supplemental Apology (1799), both by George Chalmers; and pamphlets by Boaden, Waldron, Wyatt, Webb and Oulton. Vortigern was republished in 1832. The elder Ireland's correspondence with regard to the forgeries is preserved in the British Museum; with numerous specimens of his son's talent. Ireland's career supplied the subject matter of James Payn's novel The Talk of the Town (1885).

Father: Samuel Ireland (engraver, d. 1800)
Mother: (d.)
Sister: Anna Maria
Sister: Jane
Brother: Samuel (his twin, b. 1777, d. infancy)



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