George Bernard Shaw and the Irish Citizen Army

Published in Issue 6 (November/December 2013), Letters, Volume 21

Above: George Bernard Shaw on the DMP in 1913: ‘. . . you may as well let loose in the streets a parcel of mad dogs as a parcel of policemen’. (London School of Economics)

Above: George Bernard Shaw on the DMP in 1913: ‘. . . you may as well let loose in the streets a parcel of mad dogs as a parcel of policemen’. (London School of Economics)

Sir,—I wish to add to Joseph E.A. Connell’s excellent column on ‘The founding of the Irish Citizen Army’ (HI 21.5, Sept./Oct. 2013, ‘Countdown to 2020’). Most histories of the ICA, including D.R. O’Connor Lysaght’s superb ‘The Irish Citizen Army, 1913–1916: White, Larkin, and Connolly’ (HI 14.2, March/April 2006), overlook the role that Dublin-born dramatist and public intellectual George Bernard Shaw played in the ICA’s formation. On 1 November 1913, with James Larkin imprisoned in Mountjoy, London’s socialist Daily Herald sponsored a rally in the Royal Albert Hall in London on behalf of Larkin and the locked-out Dublin workers. The speakers included many of Britain’s leading socialists and suffragettes, like George Lansbury and Silvia Pankhurst. Also included were Dublin poet George Russell, James Connolly and Shaw—and the Irish contingent spoke in that order. Near the end of his speech, Shaw turned to the recent baton attacks against workers by the Dublin Metropolitan Police:

‘If you once let loose your physical force without careful supervision and order you may as well let loose in the streets a parcel of mad dogs as a parcel of policemen. It has been the practice, ever since the modern police were established, in difficulties with the working class to let loose the police and tell them to go and do their worst to the people. Now, if you put the policeman on the footing of a mad dog, it can end in one way—that all respectable men will have to arm themselves.’

Shaw then added that he hoped that his observation about arming ‘will be carefully reported. I should rather like to be prosecuted for sedition and have the opportunity of explaining to the public exactly what I mean’. Shaw had very publicly called for, or was legitimatising the plans for, the ICA’s formation. When the ICA first organised for drilling under Captain Jack White four weeks later, on 30 November 1913, White gained the attention of the recruits by recalling a conversation he had with a Jesuit priest about Shaw. White remarked that the priest had dismissively said of Shaw, ‘He wrote socialism’. In the 13 December issue of the Irish Worker, Connolly wrote an article on how the DMP were backing away from attacking workers now that the ICA had been formed; Connolly borrowed the title for his article from Shaw’s play Arms and the Man, which his trade unionist and socialist comrade William O’Brien recalled in Forth the Banners Go.—Yours etc.,

NELSON O’CEALLAIGH RITSCHEL
Author of Shaw, Synge, Connolly, and Socialist Provocation (2012)

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