O’Leary VC/O’Flaherty VC

Published in Issue 5 (September/October 2015), Letters, Volume 23

Sir,—Tony Canavan (Museum Eye, HI 23.4, July/Aug. 2015) refers to George Bernard Shaw’s play O’Flaherty VC as ‘possibly inspired by the real-life Michael O’Leary VC’. Shaw’s play, originally scheduled to premier at the Abbey Theatre in November 1915, was withdrawn during rehearsals owing to pressure from the British military and Dublin Castle, citing concerns that the play would undermine enlistment—despite Shaw’s assertion that the play was intended to boost it. One of the concerns from the Castle, which was related to Shaw by the Abbey Theatre’s business manager, W.F. Bailey, stated:

‘The danger is that people will consider it rather an insult to Lt. Michael O’Leary VC and if he sees it I’d imagine that he would be very angry … The title of the play raises suspicion in a city which is placarded with pictures, etc. of “O’Leary VC”.’

On 18 November 1915, in the Manchester Guardian, Shaw tried to distance his play from O’Leary:
‘It happens that the hero of my play is an almost entirely ignorant Irish peasant lad who has been greatly startled and disillusioned by the spectacle of the great world which has been opened up to him by his travel and his warfare. It must be quite clear from the rapid promotion of Lt. O’Leary to his present rank—a promotion which would be impossible in the case of a man, however brave, of the O’Flaherty type—that the gratuit-ous identification of O’Flaherty with O’Leary is extremely annoying to me … I can only take this opportunity of offering him [O’Leary] my apologies.’

In April 1921, the Philadelphia Evening Bulletin printed an article with the leader ‘Shaw’s Hero Resents The Play’. In a private letter, also in April 1921, Shaw responded to the recent brief article:

‘His [O’Leary’s] famous exploit created the situation which I dramatised; but my play is entirely fictitious. I have always supposed that Mr O’Leary’s education and social standing are quite different to those of my imaginary O’Flaherty; and the family circumstances [in the play] of that hero are of course pure inventions.’

Let’s hope that the Abbey Theatre, during the centennial year of its writing, produces Shaw’s most interesting play, a script that arguably played a role in James Connolly’s 1916 play Under Which Flag?—Yours etc.,

Shaw, Synge, Connolly, and socialist provocation (2012)


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