- John Bull's Other War:Bernard Shaw and the Anglo-Irish War, 1918–1921
The very words nation, nationality, our country, patriotism fill me with loathing. Why do you want to stimulate a self-consciousness which is already morbidly excessive in our wretched island, and is deluding Europe with blood?—Bernard Shaw to Lady Gregory, 3 December 1917
The standard biographies give little indication that during the years 1918–21, when the Great War ended and the Anglo-Irish War was fought out between England and her oldest colony, Bernard Shaw's attention to his native country's politics was at its most persistent. That Shaw found his sympathies caught between his adopted and native countries is not the only reason for difficulty in tracing Shaw's thoughts on the Anglo-Irish War (also known as the Irish War of Independence) as it proceeded in all its horrors. In 1917, Shaw had expended a great deal of intellectual energy in using the Irish Convention, convened by the British government and chaired by his close Irish friend during this period, Sir Horace Plunkett, as an instrument to push through his idea of a federal solution to the British–Irish problem. The object of the convention was nothing less than to sort out the future of Ireland in the wake of the 1916 Easter Rising in Dublin and the subsequent harsh reprisals by the British military. Shaw—having failed to be appointed a delegate—tried to and, indeed, succeeded in influencing its proceedings through Plunkett, a onetime Wyoming cowboy who was notable as the prime mover in the Irish agricultural cooperative movement.1 More than willing to comply, Plunkett felt about Shaw [End Page 209] much as did another good Irish friend, Augusta Gregory, when he wrote: "One reason I am anxious to get him here is that I feel it in my bones that the time has come for him to do his great service to Ireland."2
Shaw's most sustained effort in print about Ireland at the time of the 1917 Irish Convention was a series of three lengthy articles, "How to Settle the Irish Question," published in the Daily Express from 27 November to 29 November 1917. The articles echoed his advice to Plunkett as the convention progressed, making the argument for a federal solution comprising Ireland, England, Scotland, and, possibly, Wales on equal terms, with each nation having a national parliament in addition to sending representatives to a federal parliament for the Irish/British islands. But following the ostensible failure of the 1916 Easter Rising, neither Shaw nor Plunkett seems to have realized how decisive was the sudden rise in popularity of Sinn Féin, the Irish nationalist movement founded by Arthur Griffith in 1905, which demanded complete political separation from Britain. In addition, Sinn Féin's refusal to participate in the Irish Convention, along with the Ulster Unionist's flat refusal to consider any form of all-Ireland parliament, was enough to consign the convention to the dustbin of history. Shaw summed up his attitude to the results of the convention in a lecture in Dublin later that year, on 26 October 1918: "Up to a little time ago, [I] believed that the Irish had a certain religious and political genius. The Irish Convention shook that belief."3
Thus, at the beginning of 1918, in the wake of his extraordinary engagement with both the polemics of the Great War, in which he deliberately adopted the point of view of the objective Irishman, and the even more intractable issue of the Irish question itself, he found himself exhausted. But as Shaw took his eye off the ball of Irish politics, what we now look back on as History took over in the shape of such figures as Lloyd George (the Liberal prime minister), Edward Carson (the Dublin-born leader of the Ulster Unionists), Eamon de Valera (the American-born leader of the Irish nationalists), and Michael Collins (mastermind of the Irish nationalist guerilla struggle against the British occupation), as well as less well-remembered British and Irish soldiers, policemen, auxiliaries, and guerilla fighters. All perpetrated or were responsible for atrocities committed throughout...