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Bernard Shaw, Henry Higgins, and the Irish Diaspora

From: New Hibernia Review
Volume 18. Number 1, Spring/Earrach 2014
pp. 93-105 | 10.1353/nhr.2014.0002

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Ever since Bernard Shaw's Pygmalion premiered in London in 1914, critics and audiences have assumed that Shaw chose the name Henry Higgins for the male lead primarily for the comic effect produced by having the Cockney characters drop the letter "h" that begins his Christian name and surname. However, such an explanation ignores the crucial fact that Higgins is an Irish surname; the name is found in all four provinces of Ireland (though primarily in Connaught) and comes from the Irish Gaelic name Ó hUigín, meaning "son of the Viking." Shaw was undoubtedly aware of the name's Hibernian origins, and not simply because he was born and raised in Dublin. By his own estimation, he knew "more about Irish names than anyone outside the professions of land agency . . . can possibly know"; this knowledge was gained while working in an estate office in Dublin as a young man, in a job which required him to "collect . . . rents from tenants in every province in Ireland" and to enter their surnames on receipts and in ledgers. Shaw's decision to give Higgins a name he knew to be Irish cannot be lightly dismissed, for, as many critics have pointed out, Shaw's character names frequently tell us something about the fictional figures who bear them.

Shaw elected to endow his rude but winning phonetics professor with an Irish name to signal that Higgins is an Englishman of Irish descent. Those who watch or read Pygmalion are meant to understand that the professor's Englishness is somewhat altered by an outside cultural influence, which explains why he is so at odds with the society in which he lives and why he can analyze it so coldly and sharply. To strengthen this Irish, "outsider" aspect of Higgins's character, Shaw also imbues the professor with many of the traits that he repeatedly associates with a canny Irishness in his other writings. Ultimately, the positive diasporic Irishness of Henry Higgins helps to complicate Shaw's reputation for being rudely dismissive of the Irish identities of those born in the diaspora.

The main Irish aspect of Higgins's character in Pygmalion is the fact that he is, in Shavian fashion, a cynical fact-facer, puncturing English "sentimentality" and "intellectual laziness" with the same pleasure as many of Shaw's other Irish characters. When Higgins repeatedly makes incisive speeches in support of the dignity of the individual and the need for greater equality between social classes; when he is ruthlessly honest in telling Eliza how she looks; and when he explodes Clara's notion that life would be easier if everyone said exactly what they think, he brings to mind the clear-sighted, if unpopular, analyses enunciated by Larry Doyle and Peter Keegan in John Bull's Other Island (1904), Sir Patrick Cullen in The Doctor's Dilemma (1906), Mrs. Farrell in Press Cuttings (1908), and Private O'Flaherty in O'Flaherty, V.C (1917). Likewise, Higgins's ability to spot immediately that Alfred Doolittle is a blackguard recalls Sir Patrick Cullen's ability to see through "chancers" like Dubedat and corrupt surgeons like Sir Cutler Walpole in The Doctor's Dilemma.

Perhaps the most "Irish" of Higgins's tirades in Pygmalion are the ones in which he—like the Kerryman Hector Malone from Man and Superman (1903)—disdains the English for not being able to "speak [their] own language properly." In expressing this anger, Shaw is echoing a sentiment to be found frequently among Irish writers, who, for centuries, delighted in puncturing the linguistic pride of their English overlords. Maria Edgeworth suggests in the 1809 novel Ennui that the Anglo-Irish Lady Geraldine speaks English more precisely than her English guests, Mrs. Norton and Lady Hauton. The Anglo-Irish characters Major Yeates and Mrs. Knox in the Somerville and Ross story, "The Aussolas Martin Cat" (1915), are bemused at the way the "grotesque 'stage Englishman'," Mr. Tebbetts, drops his "h"s. And, of course, James Joyce suggests through Stephen Dedalus in A Portrait of the Artists as a Young Man (1916) that the best English in the world is spoken in Lower Drumcondra on Dublin's Northside.

This pride—indeed, reverse snobbery—over the Irish...

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