"John Bull's Other Islander" -chapter three of Inventing Ireland: The Literature of the Modern Nation by Declan Kiberd (1995)
An Irish Quarter Event
"Ireland is the only spot on earth which still produces the ideal Englishman of Irish history"-George Bernard Shaw
As soon as I began to read Inventing Ireland: The Literature of the Modern Nation by Declan Kiberd I knew it was the volume I needed to begin my real education in the literature of Ireland. I am very interested in the post colonial approach to literature and have posted on many Asian works from that perspective. Like everyone, my basic guide in this is Edward Said and as soon as I saw Kiberd was looking at Irish literature in the same way I at once bought an Ebook. I previously posted on his chapter of Edith Somerville and Ross Martin (Violet Martin) and it did change my understanding of their work. I will soon read also their The Real Charlotte as it is the primary work Kiberd writes on and will reread his chapter also. I have decided I will try to read all of the works (or at least all I can download for free) Kiberd makes reference to in Inventing Ireland and post on them in the light of what I learned from him. Kiberd's book is beautifully written and deeply learned. He sets things in the historical and cultural context. This will be an on going Irish Quarter event.
John Bull's Other Island is George Bernard Shaw's (1856 to 1950, Dublin, Ireland-there is some background information on Shaw in my prior posts on him) only play that takes place at all in Ireland. One of the things I have learned of since I began the Irish Quarter: A Celebration of The Irish Short Story on March 11 was that the English constructed their own vision of the Irishman, the stage Irishman as it is often called. Like any colonizer there is a need to see the people in the country you rule as in need of your care and protection. The English cast the Irishman as comic figures given to wild emotions, not inclined to work very hard, unable to stick to a project without falling into drink, given to trickery and full of superstition. They treated Catholicism as one step above a pagan form of religion. The Irish were basically cast as children in need of the steady hand of the English.
I would love to have been in the audience in London and then in Dublin when this play opened so I could have seen the differing reactions to Shaw's actually quite funny characterization of the Irish. The play brings on stage in the opening act an Irishman who offers to go along as guide for an Englishman who is going to Ireland. The man is the very epitome of the stage Irish Paddy figure, a complete liar, a fluid talker who speaks half in riddles in a sing song kind of way, loves whiskey and a complete suck up to the English. Kibard tells us that because Ireland has lost so many of the most enterprising people of the country to emigration a new class of landowner has risen in Ireland. These Irish landowners are not at all concerned with bettering the country. There is also a cultural movement in Ireland at this time, called now The Irish Renaissance, which Kiberd says in part plays into the hands of the English as it was more concerned with mummifying Irish culture than reviving it. The Irish in this movement basically played up to the liberal university educated Englishman's romantic view of Ireland. "John Bull's Other Island" was per Kiberd Shaw's warning that Ireland was in danger of being turned into "a tourist's landscape of colourful, non-threatening characters, who mark off their "interesting" cultural differences from the London visitor, even as they become more tractable to his economic design". The play shows us how both the English and the Irish were often playing out roles that they thought the other expected of them... The Irish acted the fool and the sycophant in order to deal with the English who in turned played at nobility. Many of the English in Ireland in fact had problems of various sorts that were easier for them to deal with in a colony. Just like in India, the locals long ago learned that an Englishman in a colony is there seeking something he cannot find at home and that he often has things wrong with him. One of the things any colonizer wants is women. In the character of Nora we see an idealized, in the minds of the English visitors, version of the Irish woman, a woman forced to become strong by a race of weak good for nothing more than versifying and drinking men. The Englishman fancies himself in love with her and sees her as better than the women at home.
"John Bull's Other Island" was really a lot of fun to read. I would love to see it acted on the stage one day but somehow I know I never will.