The messenger in John Derricke’s Image of Irelande (1581)

Published in Early Modern History (1500–1700), Issue 1 (Jan/Feb 2007), News, Volume 15

John Derricke’s twelve woodcuts are the most famous images of the Elizabethan conquest of Ireland. The Irish chief and his entourage feasting in the open air, Sir Henry Sidney departing Dublin Castle, the English army on the march and the submission of Turlough O’Neill are amongst the images most frequently used to illustrate history books, but it is a less well-known one, showing Sidney meeting the messenger (below), that has always been my particular favourite. This woodcut has ‘Donollo Obreone’, the Irish messenger, as the central figure. He is speaking in Irish—‘Shogh’—as he hands over his message, and it’s a reminder to the viewer that crucial to all conquest situations are the collaborators and middlemen—those who carry messages, interpret, translate, spy, guide, track and scout.
Derricke’s Image of Irelande was published in London by John Day in 1581 to glorify the victories of Lord Deputy Sir Henry Sidney during his third tour of duty as governor of Ireland in 1575–8. It is a mixture of verse and image, dedicated to Sidney’s son, the poet and soon to be Protestant hero, Sir Philip. The intention of this expensive production was not only to make Sir Henry’s achievements seem more glorious than they actually were but also to set them in the context of a struggle against the constant rebellion, incorrigible barbarism and obstinate papistry of the native Irish. It was a struggle of light against darkness—a struggle of the Protestant English nation against the reprobate Catholic Irish. As such, Derricke’s Image of Irelande forms a neat counterpart to the other, more famous product of John Day’s print shop—John Foxe’s Actes and Monuments of the Church, which envisioned England as an elect nation providentially empowered by God. The Book of Martyrs, as the latter was known, also contains woodcuts—104 in the second edition.Little is known about John Derricke himself. He is briefly mentioned as a customs officer at Drogheda. This may simply have been a sinecure to pay for Sidney’s war artist. His name appears again with the earl of Leicester’s expeditionary force to the Netherlands in 1585–7. It is widely assumed that Derricke made drawings on location in Ireland. D. B. Quinn strengthened this claim in his introduction to the Blackstaff limited edition reproduction (Belfast, 1985) by reference to the accurate rendering of Irish dress throughout and also of the topography of Dublin shown in the lord deputy’s departure from the castle. In London the drawings were then turned into woodcuts for printing by experts, more than likely Dutch Protestant refugees, employed by John Day. These images, utilising perspective to pack in lots of detail and incident, were then dispersed through the book in cartoon fashion to help provide it with a narrative structure.
It is remarkable that Derricke’s woodcut images survived at all. Only nine extant copies of the book have survived, though we can safely assume that the print run of this propagandistic work was much larger. Only the two Edinburgh copies have woodcuts, however, and only the Edinburgh University Library has all its woodcuts intact. The woodcuts must have been stripped out of the other copies—obviously these images were much sought after as posters, and as separated ephemera they have been lost.
It was the publishing efforts of Sir Walter Scott and John Small, the university librarian in Edinburgh, in the nineteenth century that brought the Image of Irelande back to public attention. But what influence did the book have in the interim? We can deduce from the descriptions of the Irish in De Rebus in Hibernia Gestis (Leiden, 1584) that its author, Richard Stanihurst, the former Sidney client and future alchemist to Philip II, had a copy of the book. Stanihurst was plainly looking at the early illustrations in Derricke’s Image of Ireland as he wrote.
What is also striking are similarities in composition between Derricke’s seventh woodcut—our meeting of the Irish messenger and Sir Henry Sidney (left)—and the famous Surrender of Breda painted by Diego Velázquez in 1635 (above). These are obvious. Two groups of figures placed on either side of two central interacting figures. In the centre of Velázquez’s painting the governor of Breda, Justin of Nassau, hands over the keys of the city to the Spanish commander, Ambrosio Spínola, whilst in the centre of the Derricke woodcut the messenger, Donal O’Brien, hands over a letter to Sidney. Unlike Spínola, Sidney is mounted on a horse. Behind Sidney and above him, however, as behind the Spanish commander, is a forest of spears. Indeed, it is these spears that provide the Surrender of Breda with its nickname—‘Las Lanzas’. The spears and pikes held aloft by the group on the left-hand side are also similarly dressed, though there are fewer of these in Velázquez’s rendering. All in all—considering the alterations of time and place, taking into account changes in dress, coiffure and the individuals involved, and factoring in the artistic virtuosity of Velázquez—there is a remarkable similarity between these two images.
Might Velázquez—doing the only war painting of his career—have used Derricke’s woodcut as a template for his masterpiece? Painters regularly exploited printed images to expand their repertoire of themes and subjects, so this isn’t such an outlandish suggestion as it might seem. It would be a delicious irony if it could be proved that Philip IV’s court painter had utilised a key text in the Protestant conquest of Ireland to illustrate the victories of Catholic Spain over the heretics! A more mundane explanation, of course, would be that with both Derricke and Velázquez we are dealing with similar iconographic traditions in the early modern depiction of war.

Hiram Morgan lectures in history at University College Cork.


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