Shaw and the Irish Diaspora

  • David Clare
Part of the Bernard Shaw and His Contemporaries book series (BSC)


Ever since Bernard Shaw’s Pygmalion premiered in London in 1914, critics and audiences have assumed that Shaw chose the name Henry Higgins for the male lead primarily for the comic effect produced by having the Cockney characters drop the letter H that begins his first name and surname.1 However, such an explanation ignores the crucial fact that Higgins is an Irish surname; the name is found in all four provinces of Ireland (though primarily in Connaught) and comes from the Irish Gaelic name Ó hUigín, meaning “son of the Viking.”2 Shaw was undoubtedly aware of the name’s Hibernian origins, and not simply because he was born and raised in Dublin. By his own estimation, he knew “more about Irish names than anyone outside the professions of land agency … can possibly know”; this knowledge was gained while working in an estate office in Dublin as a young man, in a job which required him to “collect … rents from tenants in every province in Ireland” and to enter their surnames on receipts and in ledgers.3 Shaw’s decision to give Higgins a name he knew to be Irish cannot be lightly dismissed, since (as many critics have pointed out) Shaw’s character names frequently tell us something about the fictional figures who bear them.4


Irish Family English People Irish Parent Sound Sense Ireland Background 
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  1. 2.
    Edward MacLysaght. The Surnames of Ireland. Dublin: Irish Academic Press, 1985. 157. According to the National Genealogical Office, in 1996, Higgins was the 79th most common surname in Ireland. (See “Surname History: Higgins.” Irish n.d. Web. 26 December 2012.) Although Higgins is a very common surname in both Ireland and the Irish Diaspora (including among those who settled in Britain), it should be noted that, in England, it is occasionally—though much more rarely—a diminutive of the names Higg or Hick. (See P.H. Reaney and E.M. Wilson, A Dictionary of English Surnames. London: Routledge, 1991. 1606.)Google Scholar
  2. 4.
    Daniel J. Leary’s observation about the character names in Shaw’s Heartbreak House (1919) could easily be applied to most Shaw plays: “the unusual names surely evoke symbolic undertones.” (Daniel J. Leary. “Entry for Heartbreak House.” In The Reader’s Encyclopedia of World Drama. Ed. John Gassner and Edward Quinn. New York: Dover, 2002. 414.)Google Scholar
  3. 5.
    On Shaw’s reputation as someone who was dismissive of the Diasporic Irish, see Micheál Ó hAodha. “Some Irish American Theatre Links.” In America and Ireland, 1776–1976: The American Identity and the Irish Connection. Ed. Con Howard, David Noel Doyle, and Owen Dudley Edwards. Westport, CT: Greenwood, 1980. 295–306. 300; Matthew Pratt Guteri. The Color of Race in America: 1900–1940. Cambridge, MA: Harvard UP, 2002. 79; John H. Houchin. Censorship of the American Theatre in the Twentieth Century. Cambridge: Cambridge UP, 2003. 59–60; James Moran. “Meditations in Time of Civil War: Back to Methuselah and Saint Joan in Production, 1919–1924.” SHAW: The Annual of Bernard Shaw Studies 30 (2010): 147–60. 150–1.Google Scholar
  4. 6.
    Bernard Shaw. John Bull’s Other Island. London: Penguin, 1984. 113; 14.Google Scholar
  5. 7.
    Bernard Shaw. Man and Superman. London: Penguin, 2004. 180.Google Scholar
  6. 8.
    Maria Edgeworth. Castle Rackrent/Ennui. London: Penguin, 1992. 224.Google Scholar
  7. 9.
    Violet Powell. The Irish Cousins: The Books and Background of Somerville and Ross. London: Heinemann, 1970. 148; E.Œ. Somerville & Martin Ross. The Irish R.M. London: Abacus, 2005. 431. I should point out that, although Major Yeates is sometimes described as an Englishman by critics and was depicted as one in the celebrated UTV/RTÉ One/Channel Four television series based on the stories, he is, in fact, an Irish Anglican. Indeed, he repeatedly expresses pride in his Irish blood and nationality. (Somerville & Ross, The Irish RM, 8, 21, 91, 273, 336, 585.)Google Scholar
  8. 10.
    James Joyce. A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man. Ware: Wordsworth, 1992. 145.Google Scholar
  9. 12.
    Bernard Shaw. Pygmalion. New York: Dover, 1994. xii. The Dover edition reprints the original 1916 text of the play. As noted in the Introduction to this book, many important Shaw critics, including Leonard Conolly, A.M. Gibbs, Arnold Silver, Diderik Roll-Hansen, and St John Irvine, have argued that this original version is superior to the later 1939 Constable and 1941 Penguin versions, which were altered to their aesthetic detriment by Shaw himself. I should point out, however, that the portions of the play I am examining in this chapter are not from the radically altered sections of the text.Google Scholar
  10. 13.
    Leonard Conolly. “Introduction.” In Pygmalion. By Bernard Shaw. London: Methuen/New Mermaids, 2008. xx.Google Scholar
  11. 15.
    Conrad Brunström. Thomas Sheridan’s Career and Influence: An Actor in Earnest. Lewisburg, PA: Bucknell University Press, 2011. 86, 94.Google Scholar
  12. 16.
    The remark was made by the English parliamentarian, Nathaniel Wraxall. As quoted in Fintan O’Toole. A Traitor’s Kiss: A Life of Richard Brinsley Sheridan. New York: Farrar, Strauss and Giroux, 1998. 206.Google Scholar
  13. 17.
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    See, for example, Diarmaid Ferriter. Occasions of Sin: Sex and Society in Modern Ireland. London: Profile, 2009. 103; C.S. Lewis, as quoted in Peter Milward. “What Lewis Has Meant for Me.” In C.S. Lewis Remembered: Collected Reflections of Students, Friends and Colleagues. Ed. Harry Lee Poe and Rebecca Whitten Poe. Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, 2006. E-book/n. pag.Google Scholar
  15. 23.
    As it concerns Higgins’s possible Irishness, it should be noted that, while Irish males in England married significantly later than their English counterparts in 1851, reflecting “a general postponement of marriage by migrants during the famine years,” over the ensuing decades, the “demographic behaviour” of the Irish in England “slowly became like that of the host population.” (Lynn Hillen Lees. Exiles of Erin: Irish Migrants in Victorian London. Manchester: Manchester University Press, 1979. 153; 138, 138.)Google Scholar
  16. 26.
    In both plays, the pejorative adjective “low” is used to describe rough or vulgar people, manners, and actions. (Shaw, Pygmalion, 16, 70; Bernard Shaw. The Shewing-up of Blanco Posnet/Fanny’s First Play. London: Penguin, 1987. 127, 155.)Google Scholar
  17. 28.
    For an important article on the notion of “passing” in Pygmalion, see Kimberly Bohman-Kalaja. “Undoing Identities in Two Irish Shaw Plays: John Bull’s Other Island and Pygmalion.” SHAW: The Annual of Bernard Shaw Studies 30 (2010): 108–32. Bohman-Kalaja argues that Pygmalion is an Irish play, but she regards Eliza and not Higgins as the character who is “Irish-by-association.” (Bohman-Kalaja, “Undoing Identities in Two Irish Shaw Plays,” 120.) Eliza’s possible Irishness will be discussed later in this chapter.Google Scholar
  18. 30.
    Maria Edgeworth. Ormond. Dublin: Gill and Macmillan, 1990. 5.Google Scholar
  19. 32.
    Elizabeth Bowen. The Last September. Harmondsworth: Penguin, 1987. 134.Google Scholar
  20. 34.
    For Afro-Caribbean and Asian youths in Britain rejecting “artificial” English manners and “proper” speech in favor of cultural distinctiveness (as the children of Jewish and Irish families did in earlier decades), see Errol Lawrence. “In the Abundance of Water the Fool is Thirsty: Sociology and Black ‘Pathology.’” In The Empire Strikes Back: Race and Racism in 70s Britain. Ed. The Centre for Cultural Studies at the University of Birmingham. Oxford: Taylor & Francis, 2005. 93–139. (See especially p. 108–9, 120–9.) It should be noted that Lawrence sums up the research regarding this phenomenon without always agreeing with it.Google Scholar
  21. 35.
    For the Irish use of alliteration when insulting others, especially in the work of Swift and Synge, see Declan Kiberd. Inventing Ireland: The Literature of the Modern Nation. London: Vintage, 1995. 187.Google Scholar
  22. 36.
    For more on the relative informality of Irish manners (compared to the manners of other European countries), see Éilis Ní Dhuibhne. “The Irish.” In Europeans: Essays on Cultural Identity. Ed. Åke Daun and Sören Jansson. Lund: Nordic Academic Press, 1999. 47–65.Google Scholar
  23. 37.
    Virginia Woolf. The Diary of Virginia Woolf, Volume 4. Ed. Anne Olivier Bell, with Andrew McNellie. New York: Harcourt, 1982. 210.Google Scholar
  24. 43.
    See, for example, Brendan Behan. The Big House. In The Complete Plays. New York: Grove, 1978. 359–384. 361; Brian Friel. The Home Place. London: Faber, 2005. 16.Google Scholar
  25. 47.
    Bernard Shaw. Collected Letters, 1911–1925. Ed. Dan H. Laurence. New York: Viking, 1985. 111.Google Scholar
  26. 48.
    For Shaw’s dismissive remarks regarding “American Gaels,” see Shaw, “The Irish Players,” 71, 74–7; Bernard Shaw. “Ireland and the First World War (1914).” In The Matter with Ireland. 101–4. 103; Bernard Shaw. “Irish Nonsense about Ireland (1916).” In The Matter with Ireland. 112–19. 112–13. For his negative opinions of “Clan na Gael Irishmen” from Britain, see Shaw, “The Irish Players,” 72, 73–74, 76; Bernard Shaw. “The Eve of Civil War (1922).” In The Matter with Ireland. 273–5. 275. See also Shaw’s letter quoted in Tim Pat Coogan. Wherever Green Is Worn: The Story of the Irish Diaspora. New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2001. 122.Google Scholar
  27. 52.
    Shaw, “Why Devolution Will Not Do,” 219; Bernard Shaw. “Socialism and Ireland (1919).” In The Matter with Ireland. 233–49. 248; Bernard Shaw. “An Appeal to the IRA (1940).” In The Matter with Ireland. 310–18. 314; Bernard Shaw. “Eamon De Valera and the Second World War (1940–44).” In The Matter with Ireland. 319–26. 324; Bernard Shaw. “Ireland Eternal and External (1948).” In The Matter with Ireland. 339–41. 340. See also Bernard Shaw. Dramatic Opinions and Essays with an Apology, Volume 2. New York: Brentano’s, 1906. 324.Google Scholar
  28. 53.
    See Jay R. Tunney. The Prizefighter and the Playwright: Gene Tunney and Bernard Shaw. Tonawanda, NJ: Firefly, 2010.Google Scholar
  29. 54.
    Bernard Shaw. Back to Methuselah. London: Penguin, 1990. 194.Google Scholar
  30. 55.
    Bernard Shaw. Captain Brassbound’s Conversion. In Three Plays for Puritans. London: Penguin, 1970. 255–347. 319. It is possible that Kearney is Shaw’s nod to the Wexford-born John Barry (1745–1803), who is widely considered the Father of the American Navy. Special thanks to Nelson O’Ceallaigh Ritschel for suggesting this to me.Google Scholar
  31. 57.
    Maria Edgeworth. The Absentee. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1988. 5.Google Scholar
  32. 60.
    Peter Gahan. “Introduction: Bernard Shaw and the Irish Literary Tradition.” SHAW: The Annual of Bernard Shaw Studies 30 (2010): 1–26. 4.Google Scholar
  33. 61.
    I n the play, we are given surnames from both sides of Byron’s family tree. Other than de Courcy, which is a celebrated Irish surname of Norman origin, the surnames are all deeply English. One possible exception is FitzAlgernon, which, as Barney Rosset has half-hinted, could conceivably be Irish, given its Fitz prefix. (See Barney Rosset. Shaw of Dublin: The Formative Years. Harrisburg: Pennsylvania State University Press, 1964. 147.)Google Scholar
  34. 62.
    Bernard Shaw. The Admirable Bashville. In Selected Short Plays. Harmondsworth: Penguin, 1987. 1–41. 11; 12, 37. Just as the character of Private O’Flaherty prefers the dangers of life at the Front to living with his mother, Byron prefers prizefighting and even prison to reuniting with his mother.Google Scholar
  35. 65.
    Bernard Shaw. Cashel Byron’s Profession. New York: Brentano’s, 1904. 165.Google Scholar
  36. 66.
    In English discourse regarding Ireland, it was common for the Catholic tenantry to be referred to as the “mere Irish”—to differentiate them from Protestants who were loyal to the English crown and who were considered culturally hybrid. Here, I am using the word mere to similarly indicate a non-hyphenated identity. (For more on the term “mere Irish,” see Joep Leerssen. Mere Irish and Fíor-Gael: Studies in the Idea of Irish Nationality, its Development and Literary Expression prior to the Nineteenth Century. Cork: Cork University Press, 1996.)Google Scholar
  37. 68.
    Bernard Shaw. Heartbreak House. London: Penguin, 1976. 99.Google Scholar
  38. 69.
    See Michael Holroyd. Bernard Shaw: The One-Volume Definitive Edition. London: Vintage, 1998. 2–3, 53; Daniel Dervin. Bernard Shaw: A Psychological Study. Lewisburg: Bucknell UP, 1975. 112.Google Scholar
  39. 70.
    As quoted in Hesketh Pearson. G.B.S.: A Full Length Portrait. New York and London: Harper, 1942. 49.Google Scholar
  40. 72.
    Shaw, Heartbreak House, 97; Eric Patridge, Tom Dalzell, and Terry Victor. The Concise New Partridge Dictionary of Slang and Unconventional English. London: Routledge, 2008. 181. Although this use of the word cute is known throughout Britain and Ireland, it is most popular by far in Ireland. In An Essay on Irish Bulls (1803), Maria Edgeworth even suggests that the expression is of Irish origin, and, as various scholars have pointed out, it has remained current in Ireland in expressions like “country cute” (used conspicuously in James Joyce’s “The Dead” (1914)) and “cute hoor” (often applied today to corrupt politicians). (See Maria Edgeworth. An Essay on Irish Bulls. Dublin: University College Dublin Press, 2006. 68; James Joyce. Dubliners. London: Penguin, 1956. 213; Bernard Share. Slanguage: A Dictionary of Irish Slang. Dublin: Gill & Macmillan, 1997. 139; Patridge et. al., The Concise New Partridge of Dictionary of Slang and Unconventional English, 181; Terence Patrick Dolan. A Dictionary of Hiberno-English: The Irish Use of English. 3rd ed. Dublin: Gill & Macmillan, 2012. 76.)Google Scholar
  41. 74.
    Shaw, Heartbreak House, 144; 145. For the use of “fine talk” in Shaw’s O’Flaherty, VC, as well as in the work of Synge and Letts, see Bernard Shaw. O’Flaherty, V.C. In Selected Short Plays. New York: Penguin Books, 1987. 253–77. 273; J.M. Synge. Collected Works II: Prose. Ed. Alan Price. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1966. 107; W.M. Letts. “For Sixpence.” In Songs from Leinster. London: Smith, Elder & Co., 1914. 40–41. 41. Although Letts was born in Manchester, she was educated at Alexandra College in Dublin and spent most of her adult life in Ireland. Her poems frequently employ Hiberno-English dialect.Google Scholar
  42. 76.
    Reaney and Wilson, A Dictionary of English Surnames, 996; John Grenham. Clans and Families of Ireland: The Heritage and Heraldry of Irish Clans and Families. Dublin: Gill and Macmillan, 1993. 106.Google Scholar
  43. 78.
    Colin Barr. Abstract for “Giuseppe Mazzini and Irish Nationalism, 1845–70.” In Giuseppe Mazzini and the Globalization of Democratic Nationalism, 1830–1920. Ed. C. A. Bayly and E. F. Biagini. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2008. 402.Google Scholar
  44. 79.
    Bernard Shaw. Major Barbara. New York: Penguin, 1978. 75; 76; 75.Google Scholar
  45. 82.
    Bernard Shaw. You Never Can Tell. In Plays Pleasant. Harmondsworth: Penguin, 1949. 229–348. 324.Google Scholar
  46. 87.
    For Shaw’s condemnations of corporal punishment, see, for example, the “Under the Whip” section of the preface to Misalliance. (Bernard Shaw. Misalliance/The Fascinating Foundling. Harmondsworth: Penguin, 1984. 59–61.) See also Bernard Shaw. “Child-Beating: A Bishop’s Letter from Mr Bernard Shaw.” The Irish Times February 25, 1928. 9.Google Scholar
  47. 92.
    Shaw also memorably links the Irish and the Jews in his brilliant 1896 review of Dion Boucicault’s The Colleen Bawn. (See Bernard Shaw. “Dear Harp of my Country!” In The Portable Shaw. Ed. Stanley Weintraub. New York: Penguin, 1986. 111–16. 114.)Google Scholar
  48. 94.
    Edward Walford. The County Families of the United Kingdom; or, Royal Manual of the Titled and Untitled Aristocracy of Great Britain and Ireland. London: Hardwicke, 1869. 247; Charles Croslegh. Descent and Alliances of Croslegh: or Crossle, or Crossley, of Scaitcliffe; and Coddington, of Oldbridge; and Evans, of Eyton Hall. London: Moring/De La More, 1904. 11–12, 42.Google Scholar
  49. 96.
    Gahan notes the interesting fact that a statue erected in honor of Sir Philip Crampton at the junction of College Street with D’Olier Street and present-day Pearse Street is actually mentioned twice in James Joyce’s Ulysses. (Gahan, “Shaw Book Series for Palgrave Macmillan”; James Joyce. Ulysses. London: Penguin, 2000. 114, 217.)Google Scholar
  50. 97.
    In addition to the characters highlighted in this chapter, it should be noted that it is possible to see other characters from Shaw’s oeuvre as depictions of people from the Irish Diaspora who possess Shavian Irish qualities. Although I treated Dora Delaney and Count O’Dowda from Fanny’s First Play as Irish-born above, it is conceivable that they are actually representations of Irish Diasporic people, since it is ultimately impossible to determine for certain if their knowledge of Ireland is first-or second-hand. Dora may have simply heard the name Carrickmines from an Irish parent. (Shaw, Fanny’s First Play, 131.) And Count O’Dowda’s description of his own Irish identity is somewhat distanced: when the noble aesthete proudly protests that he is not English to a theatre critic who has come to see his daughter’s play, he explains that his “family is Irish” and that he has lived “all … [his] life” in Italy. (Shaw, Fanny’s First Play, 112. Emphasis mine.) These comments suggest that the Count may never have lived in Ireland at all. Similarly, in The Doctor’s Dilemma, we are told that Sir Patrick Cullen’s name, physiognomy, manners, and cast of mind, as well as “occasional turn[s] of speech,” betray his Irishness, but we are also told that he has spent “all his life” in England. Shaw is presumably indicating that Cullen left Ireland at a relatively young age, as Shaw did himself. (This would explain why we are told that Cullen has gotten “acclimatized” to England.) (Bernard Shaw. The Doctor’s Dilemma. London: Penguin, 1987. 95.) However, it is also possible that Cullen is Shaw’s depiction of a Diasporic Irish person whose character and speech remain remarkably Irish. Finally, although I indicated above that Nurse Guinness from Heartbreak House is a Scottish and not an Irish Guinness, it is also possible that this servant (criticized by Lady Utterwood for the “casual impudence” of her manner) is a Scottish—or even northern English—person of Irish descent. (Shaw, Heartbreak House, 55.)Google Scholar

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