- Shaw, Ireland, and World War I: O’Flaherty V.C., an Unlikely Recruiting Play
It is a clearly observable phenomenon that history is read from the standpoint of the present, which not only leads to interpretations of the past that suit the political imperatives of the time of the interpretation, but also to reductive readings, which eliminate complexity in the service of a retrospective narrative.1 The two subjects of this essay, World War I and the final phases of the struggle for Irish independence, provide excellent examples of such simplistic reading in the area of literature: dividing writers into the crude binaries of prowar and antiwar, and of nationalist and unionist. The issues at stake, in relation to Ireland and to World War I, are further complicated by the way in which they became inextricably bound together. The historian Thomas Hennessy points out that while “the eve of the First World War saw an Ireland in which a fluid sense of national identity was evident,” for Ireland the Great War “created the circumstances which led to a form of psychological partition which could not have been predicted before the war.”2
The writings of Bernard Shaw, like history itself, refuse the simplicities outlined above, a fact that led him into difficulties in both Ireland and England. Shaw wrote prolifically on both the war and on Ireland, expressing his views through lectures, letters to newspapers, and journal articles, most notoriously in his “Common Sense About the War,” published in the New Statesman in 1914.3 The issues also of course had a significant and lasting influence on his creative output, most obviously, in relation to Ireland, on John Bull’s Other Ireland, and, in relation to the war, on Heartbreak House, Back to Methuselah, and Saint Joan. However, my main focus will be on the one-act play that most obviously brings together the questions of Ireland and of the war, O’Flaherty V.C., although I will also consider the way in which both issues feed into Saint Joan. I will discuss three topics [End Page 133] that were fundamental to Shaw’s views on both Ireland and World War I: socialism, the effects of colonialism, and the nature of nationalism and patriotism and, crucially, the ways in which these issues are presented with a specific audience in mind. I will then discuss what both plays reveal about Shaw’s somewhat ambivalent attitude toward warfare.
O’Flaherty V.C. was written for production at the Abbey Theatre, scheduled for 23 November 1915, although it was never performed.4 The opening of the preface declares, “It may surprise some people to learn that in 1915 this little play was a recruiting poster in disguise,” and indeed the play is subtitled, “A Recruiting Pamphlet.”5 The word “surprise” suggests a tension between intention and effect, a tension that, I shall demonstrate, resides in the question of audience. The basis for regarding the play as a recruiting play is fairly sound, given the assumption that it was written, at least in the first instance, for an Irish audience. Recruitment in Ireland did consistently lag behind recruitment in England and Scotland, though not as dramatically as is sometimes supposed.6 How to respond to the outbreak of war was of course a crucial question for Irish nationalists, which ultimately and irrevocably divided them after John Redmond called on the Irish volunteers to defend Ireland not only within Ireland but also beyond its shores in the war against Germany and Austria-Hungary. Reasons for Irishmen to support the war ranged from a belief that England in, for example, its avowed defense of a nation both small and Catholic, namely, Belgium, and of Ireland’s traditional ally, France, was for once on the side of right; to the pure political expediency of supposing that support for the British war effort would result in the reward of Home Rule, through to a fear of being outbid by the loyalty of Ulster.7 Such considerations might be supposed to form the context for a recruiting play, written specifically for an Irish audience, although for Shaw there were more persuasive reasons for an Irish recruit...