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  • Introduction: Bernard Shaw and the Irish Literary Tradition
  • Peter Gahan (bio)

What will become of me if you extinguish the language of Swift in Ireland?

—Bernard Shaw to Eamon de Valera, 13 August 1946

Irish Literary Traditions

In his 2006 biography of Irish novelist Kate O’Brien (1897–1974), Eibhear Walshe (a contributor to this volume) includes O’Brien’s account of how as a young woman she went to a production of Bernard Shaw’s Man and Superman (1901–3) at the Abbey Theatre in Dublin: “I went into the theatre that Saturday afternoon a nervous, green convent-school creature, just up from Limerick, and I suppose I came out looking much the same. But in fact I came out afraid to breathe; I felt as if I had been filled with some very brittle burning kind of light . . . I have never forgotten the shock of it or the tingling refreshment.”1 O’Brien’s experience was not unique; the same thing happened to Sean O’Casey on reading Shaw’s John Bull’s Other Island (1904) around 1911–12, a life-changing event that set him on the road to becoming a playwright.2 As O’Casey wrote to Charlotte Shaw in November 1931: “G.B.S. is never absent. He is one of my great friends, anam-chara—soul-friend, as we say in Ireland, and has been for so many years, long before I met him in the flesh.”3 These revelatory, indeed ecstatic experiences of O’Brien and O’Casey may be judged as [End Page 1] minor incidents taking place on the periphery of an Irish literary tradition, but they nevertheless locate Shaw there.

The questionable yet pertinent notion of an Irish literary tradition was confronted head on in the nine years’ existence of the Irish cultural journal The Crane Bag (1977–85), edited by Mark Patrick Hederman and Richard Kearney. The Crane Bag, refusing any exclusive political, linguistic, or religious interpretation of Irish identity, can itself be placed in a twentieth-century tradition of Irish journals that would include Horace Plunkett’s and Æ’s The Irish Statesman (1919–20, 1923–30), which had Shaw as a notable supporter and contributor, and Seán Ó Faoláin’s The Bell (1940–54), to which Shaw also saw fit to contribute (see Brad Kent’s essay in this volume). W. B. Yeats and James Joyce were the presiding avatars in The Crane Bag with Shaw more conspicuous for his absence than presence, an absence that might be used retrospectively to deconstruct the journal’s neo-Yeatsean attempt to forge yet another, if more up-to-date, heterogeneous Irish national identity. Yeats was held up as the instigator of a modern indigenous non-English literary tradition rooted in the rural Irish landscape, with its associated vernacular, mythology, legends, and folktales. That renewal of tradition set itself against a burgeoning xenophobic anti-English bourgeois Irish nationalism, reinforced linguistically by Gaelic and religiously by Roman Catholicism, articulated most prominently in The United Irishman (1899–1906) and later in Sinn Féin (1906–14), both edited by the founder of Sinn Féin, Arthur Griffith.

Joyce, wishing to escape such soul-ensnaring insular conformity, looked rather to the new artistic conscience of a modern Europe, personified in the Norwegian dramatist Henrik Ibsen, rather than to a mystified Irish past. Joyce figured as a contrary—indeed a Shavian—dissenter inveighing against both Yeats’s and Griffith’s competing putative modern Irish national cultural traditions. The minimal Shavian presence in The Crane Bag repeats an earlier absence in Joyce’s writing. As the late Joyce scholar Martha Black argued in Shaw and Joyce: The Last Word in Stolentelling (1995), the influence of the author of The Quintessence of Ibsenism (1892) on the author of Portrait of an Artist as a Young Man (1916) in his role as an Ibsenite writer in exile, as well as thematically on his works—especially that of Back to Methuselah (1921) on Finnegans Wake (1939)—has been successfully willed out of existence, not least by Joyce himself.4

Among the eighteen issues of The Crane Bag, an isolated voice to give Shaw his full due was Jorge...


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