#OTD in 1856 – Birth of playwright, critic and Nobel Prize laureate, George Bernard Shaw, in Dublin.

George Bernard Shaw was a dramatist and a literary critic in addition to being a socialist spokesman. His valuable contributions to literature won him the Nobel Prize for literature in 1925. While Shaw accepted the honour, he refused the money. He was a free spirit and a freethinker who advocated women’s rights and equality on income.

Shaw was known for his wit and witty phrases such as: “My specialty is being right when other people are wrong” and “My way of joking is to tell the truth. It’s the funniest joke in the world”. Shaw did not like the name George and liked being known as simply Bernard Shaw. When writing a piece for the Voice magazine, George Orwell asked Shaw if he can use a quote from one of his works. Shaw replied: “I veto it ruthlessly”. Even though Shaw refused to accept many prizes, he did accept the Nobel Prize because his wife thought it would bring honour to Ireland. He won an Oscar in 1938 for Pygmalion (My Fair Lady) and is the only person to win both awards.

Shaw did not like the aristocracy, when receiving an invitation from a local lord which stated: “Lord C. Will be home Tuesday between 4 and 6”. Shaw replied: “George Bernard Shaw too”.

Shaw had long supported the principle of Irish Home Rule within the British Empire (which he thought should become the British Commonwealth). He did not support separatism, believing that ties with England were essential. In April 1916 he wrote scathingly in The New York Times about militant Irish nationalism: “In point of learning nothing and forgetting nothing these fellow-patriots of mine leave the Bourbons nowhere.” Total independence, he asserted, was impractical; alliance with a bigger power (preferably England) was essential. The Dublin Easter Rising later that month took him by surprise. After its suppression by British forces, he expressed horror at the summary execution of the rebel leaders, but continued to believe in some form of Anglo-Irish union. In How to Settle the Irish Question (1917), he envisaged a federal arrangement, with national and imperial parliaments. Holroyd records that by this time the separatist party Sinn Féin was in the ascendency, and Shaw’s and other moderate schemes were forgotten.

The Anglo-Irish Treaty of December 1921 led to the partition of Ireland between north and south, a provision that dismayed Shaw. In 1922 civil war broke out in the south between its pro-treaty and anti-treaty factions, the former of whom had established the Irish Free State. Shaw visited Dublin in August, and met Michael Collins, then head of the Free State’s Provisional Government. Shaw was much impressed by Collins, and was saddened when, three days later, he was ambushed and killed in Béal na Bláth. In a letter to Collins’s sister, Shaw wrote: “I met Michael for the first and last time on Saturday last, and am very glad I did. I rejoice in his memory, and will not be so disloyal to it as to snivel over his valiant death”. Shaw remained a British subject all his life, but took dual nationality in 1934.

George Bernard Shaw died on 2 November 1950 in Ayot St. Lawrence, Hertfordshire.

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