Trying to Rescue Shaw's Legacy


Dublin -- George Bernard Shaw did a lot more for Ireland than James Joyce, Oscar Wilde or even U2, and that is saying something in view of the phenomenal success of the popular rock group.

So what has Ireland ever done for George Bernard Shaw?

The question is pertinent these days, and getting more so as th Allied Irish Bank, which owns Baltimore's First National Bank of Maryland, closes in on the property at 33 Synge Street in the Portobello section of Dublin.

This yellow brick dwelling, with its glistening black door, three front windows (one down, two above) and four chimney pots, is (( where the great dramatist was born and spent the first ten years of his life.

Four people own the house, which is a wreck inside except for one room. They bought it because they are determined to see it turned into a museum, and, if the property next door can be acquired, to create a Shavian library, theater and study center for literary scholars.

"This has been a dream of mine," said Frances McCarthy, the enthusiastic woman who lives at 32 Synge Street. "My father loved Bernard Shaw's work. It was a part of my life. I feel my father is watching me, that he is happy with me."

Mrs. McCarthy is one of the four, and the instigator of the project. The others are Nora Lever, Desmond Guinness and Fred O'Callaghan. They formed the Shaw Birthplace Museum Trust.

But if they don't come up with a substantial part of the $95,000 they owe on the mortgage within the next few weeks, the bank may put the house on the market for the debt.

A spokesman for Allied Irish said only that "We support the Shaw Trust, but we can't discuss bank-client relations."

No other country on earth celebrates its literature quite so ostentatiously, as Ireland. It is difficult to walk down the street in Dublin without colliding with some literary reference, some allusion to a famous book or play. (Synge Street, however, is not named for playwright John Millington Synge.)

There are bronze statues spotted here and there around town of James Joyce, a debonair man leaning on his walking stick, obviously seized by a great thought.

There are pubs, especially in the theater district, with names that refer to famous Irish playwrights and plays, such as Sean O'Casey's near the Abbey Theater.

The shops that sell the usual tourist gimcrackery -- the ceramic cottages, shamrock coasters and Guinness key rings -- also offer Oscar Wilde and W. B. Yeats postcards and posters, and even the famous writers T-shirt. On it you get Yeats, Wilde, Samuel Beckett, Joyce and Shaw.

Joyce is on the top, Shaw down on the part that gets tucked into the trousers.

You can go on a Bloomsday Tour, traipse around town with a guide stopping at all the locales -- each marked by a brass plaque in the sidewalk -- where Leopold Bloom stopped in the single day's action that comprised Joyce's famous novel, "Ulysees."

A cynic might say a lot of Ireland's writers were not reall honored, nor read much, in their own country before they became famous somewhere else, and that what is going on now, at least in the streets, is a lot of commercial exploitation and huckstering to the tourists.

A cynic would be partly right. That was certainly the case with Joyce, possibly the most significant writer of English prose in this century. It also might be said of Shaw. Though never anathematized in Ireland the way Joyce was, he remains much more popular in Britain than in his home country.

And considering the Shaw legacy to Ireland -- not only the artistic one, which is great, but the one that is measured in terms of dollars and cents -- it is about time Ireland paid its debt.

That's what Mrs. McCarthy believes. That is what she is trying to get Ireland to do.

What has Shaw given Ireland? In addition to the honor of having been the stage for his birth, lots and lots of money. And he's still giving it, 41 years after his death in 1950.

According to Raymond Keaveney, the director of the National Gallery of Ireland, Shaw left his estate in trust to three institutions: The British Museum and Royal Academy of Dramatic Arts, both in London, and to the National Gallery here in Dublin.

"Shaw at first left the money to create a new alphabet," said Mr. Keaveney. "He thought the inconsistency of spelling in English inelegant and wanted to create a kind of alphabetical Esperanto."

That didn't work, so after a few years the money, which accrue from the royalties on his plays and books each year, went into the gallery's acquisition fund. They bought paintings with it, or property, or used it generally to enhance the museum.

Shaw's legacy to the gallery, and to Ireland, averages between $275,000 and $350,000 a year today.

"In the 1960s it reached its peak, at about 250,000 pounds a year after the film 'My Fair Lady' [based on Shaw's play, 'Pygmalion'] appeared," said Mr. Keaveney, adding, "250,000 pounds a year in the 1960s was a lot of money."

(The Irish pound today is worth about $1.65)

Mrs. McCarthy and the other friends of Shaw feel they could use some of that money right about now or a large donation from the Irish government, first to prevent the loss of the building, second to fix it up.

Michael Holroyd, Shaw's biographer, recently published an open letter to Ireland's Prime Minister Charley Haughey asking for assistance. So far there has been no official response.

Despite a certain degree of exploitation of dead writers, Ireland does much for the living ones. Authors of literature and other artists pay no tax on the income from their work. The arts, especially the theater, are highly subsidized.

But it is the writers, the poets and playwrights, who are the most highly esteemed, even by people who don't read much. And it is believed that esteem runs through all social classes.

At least that's what the story of Willie O'Reilley suggests.

Back in early 1940s, Willie O'Reilley was a trash collector and Synge Street was on his route. Mr. O'Reilley was an avid reader and great admirer of G. B. Shaw. He also knew that Shaw had been born in Number 33, and he thought it important that that fact be made evident.

Accordingly he wrote to the great man at his home in Hertfordshire, in England, and asked permission to put a plaque on the house.

Shaw evidently liked the idea, though he had hated the house, and told him to go ahead.

Mr. O'Reilley managed to collect 38 pounds, a considerable amount for a trash collector in those days. He enlisted someone to write a flowery dedication, which he sent to the dramatist in England for his approval.

Shaw didn't like it, and instead he sent back a simpler inscription, which went up on the wall. It reads:

Bernard Shaw

author of many plays


born in this house

26 July 1856

GBS, as he liked to be called, detested the name George.

Richard O'Mara is chief of The Sun's London bureau.

Copyright © 2019, The Baltimore Sun, a Baltimore Sun Media Group publication | Place an Ad