Ireland was considered by most – including his father, a frosty publisher and antiquarian collector – to be something of a disappointment. Although from a fairly well-to-do family he performed poorly at school, preferring to spend his time alone dreaming of becoming a great actor and reading his favourite poets. At the age of 19 he found himself working in a mindless job as a solicitor’s apprentice in East London. It was there that an anonymous client approached him with something astonishing which he promptly showed to his father: a property deed signed by none other than William Shakespeare.
Or so he claimed. In actual fact Ireland had taken it upon himself to create a modest yet credible forgery, one produced while working unsupervised in an office surrounded by Elizabethan mortgage documents, long-forgotten deeds and court orders written on velum and sealed with wax.
His father was delighted, so much so that in the following months further documents of Shakespeare’s came to light: contracts, legal letters, love letters, a proclamation of faith, annotated books, early drafts of plays, even a lock of the great poet’s hair. The Ireland family home became a museum to these items, with many of the great and good of the day – including Boswell and Henry James Pye, the then Poet Laureate – stopping by to handle them. Such were the numbers and rate of these callers that Ireland senior had to instigate a system of opening times: visitors were allowed entry to the house on Norfolk Street on Mondays, Wednesdays and Fridays, where they were permitted to commune with the magical presence of the newly discovered artefacts between midday and three. Those who visited confirmed, either by their presence or by pronouncement, the unimpeachable authenticity of what they handled.
For Ireland, although risky, these documents had succeeded in finally making his father proud of him. But the steady flow with which they appeared, each item’s importance superseding the previous, also had the cumulative effect of implanting a nagging conviction in Ireland’s father’s mind that there were other, more valuable items at hand which were going undiscovered. He was keen to publish a manuscript of his trove Shakespearean discoveries, and although they had all been brought to him by Ireland his father berated him for ‘being an absolute idiot’ in not simply acquiring all of his anonymous benefactor’s documents in one go. Spurred on by this combination of a long-sought approval and a rebuking irascibility, Ireland took the next logical step and unearthed the complete manuscript of a lost play written by Shakespeare.
Vortigern and Rowena, as it was titled, focused in part on the knotty relationship between a king and his loving yet overlooked son. Suspicions were quickly aroused: the play’s mix of clumsy simplicity and exhaustive longueurs made it seem a juvenile effort rather than Shakespeare’s crowning masterpiece as the Bard claimed in an accompanying letter also miraculously discovered alongside the manuscript. Nonetheless, Richard Sheridan, the celebrated playwright and owner of the Drury Lane Theatre, saw the potential for a big hit and forked out a huge sum for the rights to Vortigern. It opened in April 1796, over a year since Ireland embarked on a career as a Shakespearian forger, to a sell-put crowd.
The ridicule was intense and immediate, with members of both cast and the audience busting into fits of infectious laughter at the frequently appalling dialogue; fights broke out among those who felt the words of their beloved national poet was being mocked and those for whom it was an obvious hoax; the performance ended with an announcement that this would be the play’s final performance; the ensuing press was brutal in its scorn.
Within days Ireland came clean: he had fabricated the whole thing - the documents, the story behind them, the play. His father, thinking all this far too advanced a deception for his dim-witted son to pull off, went to his grave four years later still adamant that both Vortigern and all the other precious documents were genuine.
Ireland himself went on to become a poet, historian and relatively successful gothic novelist, although his works are now largely forgotten. Which is a bit of a shame because, although by turns stodgy and bombastic, there’s something pleasingly meta about his fiction. One of his novels, Gondez the Monk, a roaring tale of the sex, torture and the occult, opens with a pair of epigrams from Shakespeare – one genuine, the other not – and contains a plot which hinges on the discovery of a manuscript, The Legend of the Little Red Woman, whose authorship and uncanny power over the material world have a familiar ring.
I suppose the story of William Ireland retains a fascination for me for two reasons, both to do with emotions. Firstly, the overlapping folly of fatherhood and the English language feels rather touching to me (my own father had a stroke very recently, which has left him with aphasia, a language-erasing neurological condition requiring him to effectively re-learn how to speak and read). But also Ireland's year spent pretending to be William Shakespeare serves as a neat example of collective delusion, albeit on a charming and relatively harmless pop-up scale, one which demonstrates how formidable an impact the imagination can have on the world - not simply in one man's creation of a series of silly yet believable forgeries, but also in the act of belief engaged in by others: that legion of intelligent, educated men who came into contact with and breathed life into Ireland's hoax, overlooking its glaring inconsistencies and imperfections, seeing instead vivid, life-affirming qualities which were simply not there, but which they wished dearly were.