Pope Francis and George Bernard Shaw: cut from the same cloth

The pope’s visit to Ireland has many parallels with the writer’s more than 100 years ago

George Bernard Shaw: recognised an equal society can only come into being if people really want it to happen; it cannot happen in a culture of greed, of anti-social individualism, founded on mythically abstract market forces.

George Bernard Shaw: recognised an equal society can only come into being if people really want it to happen; it cannot happen in a culture of greed, of anti-social individualism, founded on mythically abstract market forces.

 

In the wake of the visit of Pope Francis to Ireland, we might consider the trip of another famous visitor, in his own way religiously inclined, to the nation’s capital city over a hundred years earlier. Among other things, both visitors were keen to point out the blight of poverty in Irish society and the indefensible circumstances of the poor themselves, especially of their children. Both visited establishments where the city houses its poor and homeless (hostels and workhouses) so as to witness, and to give witness, to these circumstances as well as to meet, and indeed honour the poor themselves. Both had larger, more international social concerns during these visits, especially the impossibility of adequate conditions for decent family life –and quality of life generally – under modern economic conditions. Both visitors were insistent that human beings in any truly developed modern economy ought not be considered simply as economic units: a well-run economy, rather, should reflect human values that will result in a high quality of life for everyone, or at least, a sufficiently high quality of life for everyone, not just for the select few who happen to be well-off.

The other world-famous visitor was in fact Irish writer George Bernard Shaw, whose life-long crusade, a religious mission in political form, was to bring about a society where poverty could be and would be eradicated. He contended that Ireland was not a poor country in 1910 – or even in 1847 (Shaw called the Famine “the great starvation” – not “the great hunger” – because Ireland was actually exporting food at the time). Ireland, he contended, was a wealthy country distributing its national resources, wealth and income poorly. “Ireland is perfectly well able to feed and clothe her children if she chooses. It is a mistake to suppose she is poor; she is only an incorrigible beggar, which is not the same thing,” he wrote to an American philanthropist who wanted to raise funds for Dublin’s poor. “Charity is only a poisoned dressing on a malignant sore.”

Shaw had left Ireland at the age of 20, and he didn’t return until 1905, aged 49. Even then he did not revisit Dublin until 1908, by which time he had become not only Ireland’s best-known writer, but also perhaps the best-known public speaker in England. And so, as part of a general campaign against destitution organised throughout the two islands by his Fabian colleague Beatrice Webb following publication of her landmark 1909 Minority Report on the Poor Law (written with her husband Sidney Webb and constituting the first blueprint for what later became the welfare state), Shaw in October 1910 chose to give his first public lecture in Dublin. It was at the Antient Concert Rooms, in what is now Pearse Street, and where as a child he had seen his mother sing before the lord lieutenant. To prepare himself, Shaw spent the afternoon on the day of the lecture visiting the South Dublin Union, the workhouse located where St James’s Hospital is today, to witness the conditions in which the destitute were living, especially mothers and their children. No society should allow a single child ever to be incarcerated in such a place, he would admonish his audience that evening, let alone the thousands that were.

Mistreatment of children

In castigating the better-off, middle-class Irish, the very audience that had paid to see him (Shaw never took money for his lectures, so the proceeds would have gone to the Irish branch of the anti-destitution campaign), for letting such mistreatment of children persist, the returning native son was not as polite as the visiting Argentine over a hundred years later, who had other reasons for wanting to appear contrite rather than admonitory. However, viewed in this present-day context, Shaw’s warnings about the mistreatment of children and their mothers can be seen as both prescient and poignant. If the institutional church, and many church representatives in their priestly garb were noticeable in Shaw’s audience, had heeded his advice, the pope 108 years later might not have needed to humble himself and beg forgiveness from the Irish victims of clerical abuse perpetrated for decades in the new Irish State that preferred to wrap itself up in a Catholic ethos rather than tackle poverty.

Children in the slums of Cumberland Street in the 1940s: Shaw as an economist understood better than most capitalists how an economy works but also believed an economy should not be producing luxuries until social necessities have been taken care of. Photograph: Paul Popper/Popperfoto/Getty
Children in the slums of Cumberland Street in the 1940s: Shaw as an economist understood better than most capitalists how an economy works but also believed an economy should not be producing luxuries until social necessities have been taken care of. Photograph: Paul Popper/Popperfoto/Getty

From contemporary press reports in the Freeman’s Journal and The Irish Times, my colleague Nelson O’Ceallaigh Ritschel reconstituted Shaw’s 1910 lecture, which caused such reverberations in Dublin that it would be remembered in an Irishman’s Diary column published in this paper almost 30 years later (December 4th, 1948). You cannot call a society wealthy, Shaw had insisted in another place, even if a prosperous American lady ensconced in her big house can buy an upholstered coffin for her dead pet dog while a child without shoes is starving in the gutter outside.

In my book Bernard Shaw and Beatrice Webb on Poverty and Equality in the Modern World, 1905-1914, I trace the interweaving of Beatrice and Sidney Webb’s anti-destitution campaigns with Shaw’s pervasive and persistent interest in social and economic equality during these years before the first World War. The present-day emphasis on inequality, which can be more easily expressed in binary terms, tends to prevent us from tackling the more awkward, yet more fundamental question of equality. Shaw’s inquiry into equality can be found in his plays (what is 1912’s Pygmalion other than a plea for equality?), lectures, treatises, and journalism of the period, all asking – and in part answering – the question as to how a more equal society can be created (redistributing income gradually through a process of incremental measures), which necessarily entails the eradication of both poverty and its corollary, social differences. It began with one of his greatest plays, Major Barbara, written in Ireland in 1905, whose subject is precisely an exposure of the relations between poverty and power, and culminated with a series of lectures, On Redistribution, delivered in London at the end of 1914, just after the Great War began. Shaw showed in some detail just why and how, given sufficient political will, poverty could be eradicated with the development of an economically and socially (more) equal society, a requirement of a modern democracy in any case. With these 1914 lectures, Shaw successfully inserted into general discourse the notion of redistribution of income.

Economic equality

The catastrophe of the first World War rudely interrupted the plans of the Webbs and Shaw for establishing national minimum welfare for the poor, the aged, the disabled and the unemployed, as well as any progress towards social and economic equality. However, 30 years later, following the massive socialised efforts required to wage the second World War in both the victorious Allied countries and the defeated Axis ones, the non-communist economies went some way (by no means all the way) to instituting versions of the welfare state as the Webbs had proposed while eradicating the worst extremes of poverty, and thus beginning the process that could lead to the more equal society Shaw advocated. Despite the ideological assault that began with the deliberate attempts of Reagan and Thatcher to dismantle this progress towards equality, many of the post-war reforms remain intact. And although inequality has inevitably worsened with a move away from the post-war social democratic consensus, general economic and technological progress has continued with more ups than downs. The question for Shaw and the Fabians would now become, given a highly organised, well-developed economy, how to (re)distribute national wealth and income as a democratic exercise of political choice. Shaw as an economist understood better than most capitalists how an economy works but also believed an economy should not be oriented to producing luxuries until social necessities have been taken care of. He would, therefore, have been the first to acknowledge that while the economy has become stronger in some ways, the security and welfare of the people at the lower end of the social scale has not.

President Michael D Higgins and Pope Francis: This is a new Ireland, where in spite of everything most of the people remain Catholic while at the same time choose democratically to institute in their political Constitution a broader sense of social human values than that expressed by their official church. Photograph: Maxwell via Getty
President Michael D Higgins and Pope Francis: This is a new Ireland, where in spite of everything most of the people remain Catholic while at the same time choose democratically to institute in their political Constitution a broader sense of social human values than that expressed by their official church. Photograph: Maxwell via Getty

And this, to return to the commonalities between Shaw and Pope Francis, leads to another important element in Shaw’s campaign for equality. He recognised that an equal or more equal society can only come into being if people really want it to happen; it cannot happen in a culture of greed, of anti-social individualism, founded on mythically abstract market forces. It will have to develop from a deeply held sense of fundamental human values, a general commonly held existential belief in human equality that is, in fact, religious. This meant that, although a socialist and atheist, during this period before the Great War when he was delivering economic lectures calling for a more equal society, he also began delivering a series of lectures on religion, on the necessity for a modern religion, in which such fundamental human values would be expressed.

Social injustice

That, perhaps, is what we now see happening in contemporary Ireland: where the pope, who preaches to the modern world about the great social injustice of poverty, is greeted by a President of Ireland, who happens to be one of the great intellectual campaigners for social justice and inclusion, and is welcomed into St Patrick’s Hall, Dublin Castle, by an openly gay Taoiseach; that the politics of President and Taoiseach might be different makes the shift in values in Ireland all the more hopeful as it is the shared fundamental human values at the root of the decisions made by the people of Ireland in recent referendums that are key. This is a new Ireland, where in spite of everything most of the people remain Catholic while at the same time choose democratically to institute in their political Constitution a broader sense of social human values than that expressed by their official church (although Francis himself appears keen to relax its more doctrinaire, authoritarian approach to social issues).

Bernard Shaw, himself a bit of a mystic and prophet, had dared to imagine such a truly Catholic Ireland, an Ireland as a trinitarian heaven worthy of the original mission of that other visitor to Ireland some 1,500 years ago, St Patrick, through the words of one of the most insightful characters in the Shavian dramatic canon, the “silenced” heretic Roman Catholic missionary priest Peter Keegan in Shaw’s Irish 1904 play, John Bull’s Other Island. Having earlier presented alternative images of Ireland experienced as hell, whether the sordid reality of 19-century endemic agrarian poverty or, prophetically, that of rampant 21st-century individualistic capitalism, Shaw’s Keegan at the end in the play gives voice to his hopes:

“In my dreams [heaven/Ireland] is a country where the State is the Church and the Church the people: three in one and one in three. It is a commonwealth in which work is play and play is life: three in one and one in three; it is a temple in which the priest is the worshipper and the worshipper the worshipped: three in one and one in three. It is a godhead in which all life is human and all humanity divine: three in one and one in three. It is, in short, the dream of a madman.”

Such a vision remains a madman’s dream only as long as it is unrealised, and both Georges, Jorge Mario Bergoglio of Buenos Aires and Rome and George Bernard Shaw of Dublin and London, are witnesses and pathfinders that would show us the way: how, if we believe truly in the value of human life, in true human equality, nothing will stop us realising it.

Peter Gahan, an Irish writer living in Los Angeles, is editor with Nelson Ritschel O’Ceallaigh of the book series Bernard Shaw and his Contemporaries, published by Palgrave Macmillan since 2014; his latest book is Bernard Shaw and Beatrice Webb: Poverty and Equality in the Modern World, 1905-1914

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