- Bernard Shaw's Role in the Irish National Revival
Shaw, Synge, Connolly, and Socialist Provocation, the latest volume in The Florida Bernard Shaw Series edited by Richard Dietrich, is an intriguing analysis of little-suspected connections between an unlikely trio of famous Irishmen writing in the first two decades of twentieth century: John Millington Synge (1871-1909), the most important playwright in the early years of Dublin's Abbey Theatre, and whose politics inclined toward socialism; James Connolly (1868-1916), Irish nationalism's most important socialist, whose interest in theater extended to playwriting; and Bernard Shaw (1856-1950), important internationally both as a socialist writer and playwright.
Every word in Nelson O'Ceallaigh Ritschel's title can be read as significant. The names of the three disparate Irish writers, all of whom happen to be socialist in their politics, have never before been considered in the same context; two of them, indeed, are Ireland's best-known socialist writers, while two are the best-known Irish playwrights of the period. The writing of all three was a constant provocation not only to Irish audiences and readerships, causing riots, moral outrage, and revolution, but also— and this is Ritschel's main and most surprising thesis—provocative to one another. Surprising because at different times both Synge and Connolly found Shaw's playwriting and socialism wanting, and Shaw seems in some instances to have willfully misread both Synge's plays and Connolly's revolutionary socialism for his own rhetorical purposes, while on other occasions, for the same reason, he eulogized them.
All three were Irish nationalists who looked beyond Ireland (Synge had lived in Paris, while Connolly had been born and brought up in Scotland of [End Page 170] Irish parentage and had also lived in the United States), but both Connolly and Synge were considerably more anti-English in their rhetoric than Shaw, who resided in Britain. Unlike Shaw and Connolly, Synge was not a socialist pamphleteer, so Ritschel finds evidence of Synge's socialism in his plays, which in focusing on rural Ireland suggest the need for urgent change by targeting, in particular, the conservative bourgeois Irish Catholicism that, in spite of its often nationalist rhetoric, sustained British rule in Ireland. Ritschel sees Irish trades-union organizer James Connolly as a nationally focused revolutionary (Marxist) socialist demanding an immediate end to constitutional ties with Britain. While extrapolating from Shaw's leading role as a Fabian socialist in Britain, Ritschel sees Shaw's socialism as more internationally focused in its Fabian gradualist parliamentary approach to bring about a socialist society in Ireland or Britain.
The irony here, which Ritschel does not explore, is that the behavior of the British government in relation to Ireland during these years was precisely what undermined Shaw's Fabian belief in the efficacy of parliament to bring about necessary social change. His later so-called embrace of the dictators in the 1920s and 1930s may, perhaps, be traced back to this disillusion with British democracy in dealing with the arming of the Ulster Volunteers before 1912 and the so-called Curragh Mutiny of 1914 in defiance of the British parliament, as well as the British administration's handling of the 1913 Dublin Lockout, the 1916 executions, the use of the irregular Black and Tans during the Anglo-Irish War in 1920-21, and Lloyd George's foisting of partition on the island of Ireland.
Most intriguing in Ritschel's approach, the fruit of much original research that exposes a rich field for further work, is his analysis of the reception of Shaw's writing in Ireland (rather than of Shaw himself, who did not spend much time in his native country). He demonstrates how Shaw in this sense played an important role in the intense social, cultural, and political debates taking place in Dublin between 1900 and 1916, the crucial years of the national struggle between the fall of Parnell in 1891 and the establishment of the Irish Free State in 1921. And Ritschel also details those significant occasions when...