Saint Joan and The Plough and the Stars are both haunted by the spirit of James Connolly

The influence of the executed Irish socialist leader is clear in the Shaw and O’Casey plays

On June 22nd, 1925, George Bernard Shaw’s Saint Joan received its Dublin premiere. The Irish Times noted: “Never before, perhaps, has stronger meat been given us in modern drama. It is a play of terrible daring, which yet justifies its author’s audacity, and never loses the cool dramatic temper”.

On seeing the same production, Sean O’Casey noted: “The Play is delightful, beautiful and worthy of our fellow-countryman Shaw”. In less than a year, O’Casey’s The Plough and the Stars premiered at the Abbey Theatre. Both dramatists, Dubliners despite their English residencies, would publish stunning works within weeks of each other in 1928: Shaw’s The Intelligent Woman’s Guide to Socialism and Capitalism and O’Casey’s The Silver Tassie. Yet a presence lingered in the depths of the above four works: the executed James Connolly.

On November 1st, 1913, during a rally at London’s Royal Albert Hall for the then imprisoned James Larkin and locked-out Dublin workers, Shaw followed Connolly, who followed George Russell, on the speakers’ platform. Connolly: “You can never have freedom and self-respect whilst you have starvation, whether it is the green flag or the Union Jack that is flying over our head”.

Shaw ended his speech by addressing the Dublin Metropolitan Police’s violence against Dublin workers: “if you put the policeman on the same footing of a mad dog, it can end in one way-that all respectable men will have to arm themselves”. When one in the crowd asked with what, Shaw suggested “something that would put a decisive stop to the proceedings of the police”. Two weeks later, outside Dublin’s Liberty Hall, Connolly announced the formation of what became the Irish Citizen Army, which O’Casey organised in 1914.

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Four years later, and two years after Connolly’s 1916 execution, Shaw recalled the 1913 rally: “Connolly got the money [raised for Dublin workers] by the plea that the cause of Labour was the cause all the world over, and that as against the idler and the profiteer England and Ireland were ‘members one of another”. Yet while Shaw was seeing Connolly the socialist, by 1918, O’Casey was seeing Connolly as the leader of a failed nationalist putsch.

By being among the small group who financially assisted Connolly’s widow Lillie and family, which included Russell, Robert Lynd, Horace Plunkett and Richard Tobin, Shaw arguably had some access to Connolly’s time in the Red Cross Hospital in Dublin Castle preceding his execution. Tobin was the surgeon who treated Connolly and became friends with Russell, a friend of Shaw’s. And while Saint Joan is one of Shaw’s most significant plays as it explores Joan of Arc’s 15th-century martyrdom, the play reverberates with Connolly’s progression to what Lynd termed, “Ireland’s first socialist martyr – which O’Casey challenged in both The Story of the Irish Citizen Army and The Plough and the Stars.

In Saint Joan’s pivotal Scene IV, the English Earl of Warwick, in France with his feudal army, discusses Joan with Cauchon, the Bishop of Beauvais. Warwick leads Cauchon to realise: “I see now that what is in your mind is not that this girl has never once mentioned The Church, and thinks only of God and herself, but that she has never once mentioned the peerage, and thinks only of the king and herself”. Warwick: “These ideas of hers are the same idea at bottom. It goes deep, my lord. It is the protest of the individual soul against the interference of priest or peer between the private man and his God”.

For Warwick and Cauchon, Joan represents a revolutionising of their worlds. In turn, Shaw’s Warwick echoes Sir John Maxwell, the British general who insisted on executing the severely wounded Connolly, seeing Connolly as an extraordinary threat. In deflecting prime minister Herbert Asquith’s efforts to stop the Dublin executions, Maxwell argued in a report that Connolly’s execution was a political necessity: “This man has been a prominent leader in the Larkinite or Citizen Army for years”, which took precedent in the report over Connolly’s leadership role in the Rising. Asquith eventually agreed late on May 11th, 1916, allowing Connolly to be shot within hours.

Shaw most likely knew of the back and forth between Asquith and Maxwell over Connolly. Asquith’s telegram of May 10th, “The execution of James Connolly is postponed”, was mistakenly delivered to JC Ridgeway, the Royal Ambulance Corp attendant who administered to the wounded Connolly. Ridgeway surely shared it with Tobin, hence to Russell or Plunkett to Shaw. Asquith’s successor, David Lloyd George, would reach a similar decision in 1917 when he and George V withdrew promised sanctuary to the deposed Russian Tsar Nichols II and family over fear, in George’s words, of “worker-led strikes and protests [. . . . and] a republican-style uprising on the streets of London”. As Saint Joan carries elements of Connolly’s secular martyrdom, O’Casey’s The Plough and the Stars takes a different tack, yet still with Connolly echoes.

When O’Casey’s Nora Clitheroe is brutalised by her husband as he leaves on Connolly’s orders for a demonstration, she asks: “Is General Connolly an’ th’ Citizen Army goin’ to be your only care?”, which anticipates Jack Clitheroe’s death within the Rising in Act IV. However, prior to the above exchange between Nora and Jack, while the latter is initiating intimacy, Nora remarks: “Oh, yes, your little, little red-lipped Nora’s a sweet little girl when th’ fit seizes you; but your little, little red-lipped Nora has to clean your boots every mornin’, all the same”.

While O’Casey undermines Connolly the Rising leader, he affirms Connolly the socialist theorist. In his 1915 The Re-Conquest of Ireland, Connolly argued: “The worker is the slave of capitalist society, the female is the slave of that slave”. It was a concept that Shaw too voiced in the 1928 The Intelligent Woman’s Guide to Socialism and Capitalism: “Capitalism made a slave of the man, and then, by paying the woman through him, made her his slave, she became the slave of a slave”. Mrs Foran in O’Casey’s 1928 monumental play on the capitalistic Great War, The Silver Tassie, is portrayed as the slave to her husband Teddy, which increases as the play reaches for its conclusion, and its unexpected criticism of Connolly.

Nelson O’Ceallaigh Ritschel’s Bernard Shaw, Sean O’Casey, and the Dead James Connolly has been published by Springer.