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The fascinating story of the ex-Methodist College pupil who was ostracised by universities because he didn't have a degree... but went on to solve the Holy Grail of mysteries for Shakespeare fans

Journalist Eric Villiers tells Ivan Little how a forgotten Belfast-born literary figure, who would become a sensation in the United States, made a ground-breaking discovery about the play Hamlet

Eric Villiers is writing a book about the Belfast man who solved a great literary mystery
Eric Villiers is writing a book about the Belfast man who solved a great literary mystery
William Shakespeare
Maureen O’Hara and John Wayne
Brothers and actors Barry Fitzgerald (left) and Arthur Shields during the filming of The Quiet Man in Mayo
Ivan Little

By Ivan Little

Journalist Eric Villiers' nose for a good story started to twitch as he pored over the pages of old diaries in the archives of a Dublin library, little knowing that the research would eventually unearth evidence about how one of the world's most important literary mysteries had been secretly solved by an Ulsterman.

The voyage of discovery started for Eric, an enthusiastic historian who had been researching Ireland's forgotten heroes, after he read about a prominent Irish literary figure who had been reduced to washing dishes in a New Jersey hotel after he was forced into exile from his homeland.

But at the outset the only clue to the identity of the down-on-his-luck scholar was a repeated reference to him as 'L'.

"I was intrigued, I had to find out more," says Eric, who's from Armagh. "Eventually I established that the name of the man was William J Lawrence."

The entries in the voluminous diaries kept by Dubliner Joseph Holloway, who was a chronicler of the Irish theatre, revealed Lawrence was a Belfastman who'd been an influential figure in drama and politics with links to Michael Collins, WB Yeats and even actors who'd later star in the movie The Quiet Man.

"Lawrence may now be largely forgotten in Irish life, but in his day he was massive. He knew everybody and he was part of everything that was going on in Ireland and latterly the States," says Eric, who went on to find out that Lawrence was credited with having confirmed the existence of a play that was the source for William Shakespeare to write Hamlet.

And now after up to five years of painstaking research, Eric is completing a book about Lawrence and he's looking for a publisher to help him share the life story of an overlooked Irishman who was born in the Mountpottinger area of Belfast in 1862 and studied at Methodist College.

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But Eric says he wasn't a model pupil, adding: "He would sneak out of class and go to the Alhambra music hall in Belfast. That was frowned upon by Methody, though on a more serious level, he also went to see Charles Dickens on one of his visits to Belfast."

The youthful Lawrence and a friend, Robert Cromie, who was also to become an author, wrote science fiction articles for a local paper, and William became a commercial traveller for Comber Distillery.

However, in his downtime he worked on books about a subject that held more interest for him - the theatre.

Eric says Lawrence moved to Dublin in 1903 and after quitting his job as a salesman concentrated on writing and studying full-time. He was a theatre critic and several more books followed about the theatre in England, which enhanced his reputation as a writer.

But Eric says Lawrence's association with the drinks business and his lack of a degree saw him ostracised by universities here and he moved to America, where he took to washing dishes in a New Jersey hotel to survive.

And it was his exile that triggered Eric's curiosity.

"I wondered how that had all come about," he says. "But things changed for Lawrence after a Harvard professor called John Livingstone Lowes got to hear of his plight."

Lowes, author of acclaimed book The Road To Xanadu, sought Lawrence out and got him a place on the Harvard payroll as a visiting professor.

Eric says that Lawrence was a sensation and was instantly in demand to give lectures all over the States.

He adds: "All eight of America's Ivy League colleges paid him record fees and countrywide his seminars - often open to the public - were advertised in magazines and on posters.

"At the age of 53 he was delighted to find himself a global literary celebrity."

Lawrence moved back and forward from America and the British Isles and, between the wars along with other like-minded scholars and theatre practitioners, he set about changing attitudes towards Elizabethan theatre and putting plays by the likes of Shakespeare back on stage.

At home, however, Lawrence, who was highly regarded as a maverick scholar in America and England, struggled to find work in academia, where he was derided as an "irascible Protestant northerner with a strangely harsh accent", and instead he sought a living as a freelance journalist.

Eric says Lawrence was "ferociously confrontational" and had contempt for "highbrows, learned men and library professors" who read books about Shakespeare (far left) but didn't bother to dig into the archives to find out the truth about the playwright.

But Lawrence didn't restrict his attacks to academics. He fought so fiercely with his erstwhile friend WB Yeats that he was dubbed 'Yeats' nemesis', and he had public fall-outs with southern playwright John Millington Synge and Belfast writer St John Ervine.

He also rounded on a future leader of the Easter Rising Patrick Pearse, but he was recruited by Sinn Fein to represent IRA chief Collins as he stood for election to the first Stormont parliament.

Eric says: "Collins was on the run but Lawrence, a former unionist activist, spoke at rallies on behalf of the IRA man who spent polling day test-firing the first Thompson sub-machineguns smuggled into Ireland from America."

In later years Lawrence was granted belated honorary doctorates in Belfast and Dublin, but only after universities came under pressure from leading Shakespearean scholars.

Eric's discoveries about Lawrence in the National Library in Dublin were boundless.

He says: "He left papers which are alive with insights and secrets about his famous friends and historic events: the British Army's textbook cover-up of 15 murders; his clever circumvention of Dublin Castle censors; the forgotten Easter Week murder of a brilliant poet; the political boycott of JM Synge's funeral; the 'informing' that cost Ireland a priceless art collection; a penniless James Joyce begging for clothes, and his admiration for the Abbey Theatre actor Arthur Shields, who fought in the Easter Rising."

Naturally Eric doesn't want to give away too many details about Lawrence's writings, preferring to keep them for his projected book, but he is happy to disclose one episode concerning Arthur Shields, which he reckons will intrigue movies buffs and politicos alike.

Shields starred in the famous 1952 Irish movie The Quiet Man alongside John Wayne and Maureen O'Hara, playing the role of the mild-mannered Protestant minister the Rev Cyril Playfair, while his brother Barry Fitzgerald portrayed the impish Michaeleen Oge Flynn.

But Lawrence also revealed that Shields had an on-screen fight in How Green Was My Valley with actor John Loder without either knowing the other's past, because the English thespian was a former soldier who arrested his Irish co-star years earlier alongside James Connolly and Patrick Pearse after the 1916 rising.

Like so many other scholars, however, one of Lawrence's enduring obsessions related to the long-running debate over the origins of Shakespeare's Hamlet and if there was an original script that was burnt in the Globe Theatre fire in London.

Eric says that Lawrence was especially keen to prove the existence of a play called Ur-Hamlet, which scholars believed might have been the source of Shakespeare's subsequent work.

No manuscript of Ur-Hamlet has ever been found and Eric says it's been the Holy Grail for Shakespeare 'detectives' for over 400 years.

He adds: "By 1938, working with forensic precision, Lawrence amassed the evidence that he needed about the earlier play.

"He asked his friend, the Nobel Poet Laureate TS Eliot, also an Elizabethan scholar, to edit a new book, Shakespeare's Lost Hamlet."

Eric says the book - which itself ironically has never been found - should have been the crowning achievement of Lawrence's career, but it never saw the light of day because of his wife's death, his own failing health and the outbreak of the Second World War.

"Fate robbed him of what he called his best work," adds Eric.

"Aware he would not live to see his findings published, he wrote a 1,400 summary for The Times Literary Supplement in 1939."

Lawrence died blind and broke in London in 1940 after writing that the honorary degrees he'd received didn't pay the rent.

Eric, who has been supported by a grant from the Arts Council of Northern Ireland, still has a few missing pieces to fit into the jigsaw for his book Yeats' Nemesis: The Story Of William J Lawrence.

He says that recent research by Dublin academic Martin G Molony of Dublin City University has shown that Lawrence had a child outside his marriage to his lover Jenny Easom (nee Polley) during a relationship that spanned his time variously in Belfast, Downpatrick, Newcastle, Comber, Dublin, England and America.

Eric has appealed for anyone who can help him with any more information about Lawrence to contact him at ericvilliers@hotmail.co.uk

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