Friday, 5 July, 2019
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George Bernard Shaw was born on the 26th of July 1856 at 33 Synge Street, Portobello, Dublin city. He would go on to become one of the most famous playwrights in the history of the English language, with many placing him second only to Shakespeare. But how much do we know about this enigmatic character’s private life and politics? And what of the lady who tamed the notorious womaniser? 

George Bernard Shaw

Shaw’s parents, George Carr Shaw (1814-1885) and Lucinda Elizabeth Gurly (1830-1913), were of English Protestant descent. Shaw’s father was a notorious drunkard, a fact which prompted his son to adopt a teetotal lifestyle. His mother was 15 years younger than her husband and there are some who believe that she only married him to get away from her own unsavory home life. It has often been suggested that she was having an affair with her vocal coach George John Lee, with whom the Shaw family shared a home in Dalkey Hill. When Lee moved to London in 1873, it was only a mere two weeks before Shaw’s mother followed him, taking her two daughters with her. Shaw was left behind, but he maintained throughout his life that there was a possibility that Lee was in fact his biological father, an assumption that was never proven. 

The young Shaw was a shy, reserved boy. He was uncomfortable in the family’s urban home and delighted in the news that they would be relocating to the more pastoral Dalkey Hill. As detailed in his writing later in life, he loathed the education system and changed schools frequently. As an adult, he wrote about how he felt that school was little more than a prison for children. He eventually left his formal education at the age of 15 to pursue a career in the civil service. In 1876 he travelled to London as his older sister was dying of tuberculosis. After the funeral he remained in England and made a life for himself there. He would never live in Ireland again, but he always maintained that he was an Irish man first and foremost. He also pointed out that even though he had spent the larger portion of his life in England, he would always be a foreigner to the English, never quite fitting in or being accepted as one of their own. It was during his first few years in London that Shaw’s literary career made its modest beginnings. 

Shaw started out writing as a theatre critic and ghost-writer. He first began writing plays as a means of critiquing what he viewed as the poor state of English theatre at the time. It was during this portion of his life that Shaw joined the Fabian society, a political group who were committed to the advancement of democratic socialism. Through the Fabian society, Shaw developed important contacts in the political and artistic circles of London. He began to write more frequently, publishing plays and novels on a regular basis. His body of work would eventually amount to a prolific life of literary accomplishments with his plays being well received and adapted into popular culture, for example, the musical My Fair Lady is based on Shaw’s 1913 play Pygmalion. It was also through his involvement with the Fabian society that Shaw would encounter the woman who would one day become his wife, Charlotte Payne-Townshend (1857-1943). 

Charlotte was a wealthy, well-travelled, strong willed, independent Irish woman who was highly involved in political activity, particularly the fight for women’s rights. Her connection with Shaw was a meeting of minds. The two talked at length about philosophy, literature, and politics. Shaw remarked on how his usually effectual charms as an Irishman were lost on her as she understood his ways and did not succumb in the same manner as English ladies did. When Charlotte proposed marriage in 1897, Shaw refused her as he felt that the gap in their financial status would make it appear as though he was simply using her for her money. Upset by the rejection, Charlotte left London for one of her tours of Europe. Whilst away, word reached her that Shaw had been involved in an accident. He was suffering from necrosis of the bone for which he underwent painful surgery and was temporarily unable to walk. Charlotte wasted no time in returning to England so that she could nurse Shaw back to health. It was during this period of convalescence that the two were married. They were both in their early 40’s at the time. She quickly became indispensable to Shaw by working tirelessly as a sort of secretary and personal assistant. Charlotte died seven years before her husband. Her ashes were stored until his death when they were then scattered together around the footpaths where they once walked together in their garden. 

Never one to shy away from controversy, the political views of George Bernard Shaw are contentious to say the least. Although he began as a staunch social democratic, Shaw became a supporter of Eugenics, a belief system wherein followers felt that the world population could be improved through selective procreation and restricting certain cultural and social groups from having children. By the 1920’s he disassociated himself from the Fabian society and instead began to praise the ideals of dictatorships. He spoke publicly of his admiration of Mussolini and Stalin. As a result of his changing world views, Shaw made himself less visible in terms of his public opinion. He continued to write and publish his works of fiction to great acclaim right up to his final years. 

In spite of his disconcerting political views in later life, Shaw’s literary work is regarded to this day as some of the finest that the English speaking world has ever seen, and in spite of the fact that he spent only 20 of his 94 years living there, he is, and will always be, a true son of Dublin. 

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Birthplace of George Bernard Shaw

Birthplace of George Bernard Shaw

George Bernard Shaw 1856

George Bernard Shaw 1856

Charlotte Payne Townsend 1867

Charlotte Payne Townsend 1867

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This Insight has been produced with support received from the Heritage Council. 

The Heritage Council