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  • On Irish Destitution
  • Bernard Shaw

[The occasion of Bernard Shaw’s second return to Dublin, after emigrating in 1876, was a public lecture on 3 October 1910 on the Poor Law and Irish destitution.1 The lecture occurred near the end of a six-week holiday in Ireland for Shaw and his wife, Charlotte, and it was delivered at Dublin’s Antient Concert Rooms for the charitable middle-class Irish Committee to Promote the Break-up of the Poor Law.2 Shaw’s Dublin lecture was part of Beatrice Webb’s effort in London to revitalize the Fabian Society by unleashing a “crusade” against the Poor Law.3

The Poor Law went into effect in 1838 throughout the British Isles, and by 1910—and much earlier—there was little evidence that the system humanely alleviated the severest poverty. Webb’s crusade extended from her 1909 Minority Report, based on her time on the Royal Commission on the Poor Law and her opposition to the Commission’s “Majority” recommendations—which she felt did not go far enough in combating poverty.4 Webb hoped that the crusade would draw on the energy of the younger Fabians, and she turned to her husband Sidney Webb and others from the old Fabian guard to launch the initial steps. Sixteen days before Shaw addressed Dublin, Sidney began the crusade with an address against the Poor Law in London. The next move was Shaw’s in Dublin, followed weeks later by both Shaw and Sidney lecturing in Edinburgh.

Shaw’s lecture in Dublin proved to be an important historical moment for Shaw and the socialism in Dublin that was precariously emerging by 1910.5 Weeks before Shaw reentered Dublin, the socialist agitator James Connolly returned to Dublin from seven years in America, where he had [End Page 4] worked as a union organizer and socialist editor. Almost immediately Connolly provocatively sought to energize the fragile Irish socialist movement as it reeled in the wake of the Catholic Church’s efforts to nullify and eradicate socialist ideology during the spring of 1910. To mark his return to Dublin, and to seize an initiative, the working-class Connolly published a pamphlet, Labour, Nationality, and Religion, that countered the Church’s charges against socialism that had been authored by a Jesuit priest, Father Robert Kane, and printed nationally in the Irish Catholic newspaper.6 Connolly’s pamphlet generated intense controversy within some Dublin circles, and that controversy provided the Irish context of Shaw’s Dublin lecture. In fact, Dublin’s The Freeman’s Journal noted that while Shaw’s lecture attracted many, the audience “included an exceptionally large number of representatives of the Church.”7 Arguably, the Church’s many representatives were present due to the Church’s campaign against socialism, and no doubt the public exchange with Connolly had increased the Church’s concern with what Shaw, perceived in 1910 Dublin as Ireland’s most famous socialist, might say to Dubliners.

Shaw’s “Poor Law and Destitution in Ireland” lecture has only been published in third-person transcripts in two contemporary Dublin newspapers on 4 October 1910, The Irish Times and The Freeman’s Journal. This marks the first publication of the lecture since 1910. The transcripts in the two newspapers are remarkably similar; outside of a few very minor differences, the two transcripts are identical.8 Even the respective openings of the lecture-transcripts of the speech—starting with Shaw’s rising as a “signal for a sustained burst of applause”—are identical.9 This may well suggest that a text of the lecture was provided to the two newspapers—but in the third person with indications of audience applause and laughter.10 However, one witness to the lecture recorded that Shaw chastised his audience for having denounced John Millington Synge’s The Playboy of the Western World when it premiered in 1907, and both newspaper transcripts omit the mentioning of Synge’s play.11 At the very least, the two papers left out one angle of Shaw’s lecture—or perhaps the Synge comment was not scripted, if Shaw had indeed provided a text to the newspapers.12

The covering of Shaw’s lecture in the...


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