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  • Bernard Shaw in Contemporary Irish Studies: “Passé and Contemptible”?
  • Victor Merriman (bio)

There will no doubt be abuses in Ireland under Home Rule that do not exist under English rule.

—Bernard Shaw, “Preface for Politicians,” John Bull’s Other Island

[Shaw understood] that Irish modernity was precisely a condition in which the “cultural” view of “tradition” and the “economic” view of capital development were joined in unequal combat.

—Seamus Deane, “Dumbness and Eloquence: A Note on English as We Write It in Ireland,” in Ireland and Postcolonial Theory, ed. Clare Carroll and Patricia King

Bernard Shaw’s works are most productively understood as artifacts of a sustained, unrivaled, public intellectual engagement with Ireland and the world. In this, Shaw anticipates precisely the kind of critical and creative range demanded in our own day, and his outputs and practices should be studied for the insights and dilemmas to which they draw attention. Gerry Smith’s (1998) desideratum for Irish critical practice might have been formulated with Shaw in mind: “As a discrete, autonomous, intellectual practice, criticism’s function should be to understand and describe those particular local, national myths by the light of the larger, international, universal truth of social justice.”1 Shaw dealt with big questions, and returned constantly to them, refining his own position, as the revised and revisited prefaces to John Bull’s Other Island demonstrate. For anyone reflecting on the significance of his works, this creates opportunities and problems, and the structure of what follows reflects this. My essay is organized around an attempt to sketch answers to three principal questions: How does Shaw sit in Irish Studies? In what ways is Ireland—the object of study—changing, and how does Irish Studies engage with or ignore these [End Page 216] changes? In what ways might a new production of John Bull’s Other Island make the case for Shaw as a key presence in the field, and illuminate contemporary critical projects?

Shaw and Irish Studies: “Willing to Do Public Work”

Over the past thirty years or so, Irish Studies has been transformed by the publication of significant scholarly works, including J. J. Lee’s Ireland, 1912–1985 (1990), Declan Kiberd’s Inventing Ireland (1996), Peadar Kirby et al.’s Re-Inventing Ireland (2002), Clare Carroll and Patricia King’s, Ireland and Postcolonial Theory (2003), and a wide range of titles on Irish Drama.2 As the field has developed, it has provided forums for ideological struggle over historical revisionism, the validity of postcolonial perspectives, and, latterly, the role of intellectuals in public life. Even as a site of intellectual endeavor, a field implies a bounded territory, and the title of a recent survey of the state of Irish Studies, Beyond Boundaries (2007), is therefore instructive. It testifies to a set of apparently uncontainable tensions, around content, formal expression, and—crucially—changing political and economic conditions, which have altered Ireland beyond expectation, if not beyond recognition, in the past fifteen years or so.3 Terrain is everywhere evoked by contributors to Beyond Boundaries, with arguments for permeation or dissolution of intellectual borders, for reconfiguration of critical terrain, and for expansion of territory to include topics currently underrepresented in scholarship.

Beyond Boundaries is a lively, comprehensive, and interesting collection of fourteen essays, in which—strikingly, for our purposes—there is not one reference to Shaw’s work. This raises the possibility that the critical act of centering Shaw’s body of work in contexts current in Irish Studies might be expected to deliver, to paraphrase Shaw himself, rather more than one has bargained for.4 Would Shaw’s “whole unupsettable applecart” bring about a dissolution of disciplinary boundaries, forcing critical attention on Ireland’s implication in modernity/imperialism alongside attention to or denial of the vicissitudes this nexus visited upon the people?5 Is his work that of a difficult figure for whom an obscure corner must be created, inconvenient and unpredictable, but family nonetheless? Or does the combination of dramatic work, criticism, political provocation, and undying affection for Ireland position Shaw, precarious and threatening, as “a huge stone [standing in] an impossible place”?6

Historically, land, and its ownership, has been of crucial importance to [End Page...


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