Tuesday, December 15, 2015


A few days ago, ISS President Michael O'Hara brought to my attention an article in The New York Times with an unlikely connection between Star Wars and Shaw

The article in question describes the natural beauty of one of Ireland's "most mystical places," Skellig Michael (Sceilg Mhichíl). The article also describes a recent visit to the site by Star Wars actor Mark Hamill, who played Luke Skywalker in the original trilogy. Both Hamill and the author (Lucinda Hahn) seem to have fallen in love with the place and, to add another preacher to the choir, Hahn quotes Shaw's description of Skellig Michael: 

No wonder George Bernard Shaw, following a visit in 1910, described Skellig Michael this way: “I hardly feel real again … I tell you, the thing does not belong to any world that you and I have lived and worked in: It is part of our dream world.”

Of course, nobody ever thinks of poor people who cannot sleep a wink if they cannot source their Shaw quotations - and alas, no source is provided. Luckily for me, it didn't take long to find the source.  

The fragments Hahn quotes belong to a letter Shaw sent to Frederick Jackson (18th Sept., 1910). The letter has been published in Dan H. Laurence's edited collection of Shaw's correspondence (Collected Letters, 1898-1910, p. 941-943). 

However, the article in the NY Times fails to mention that the two excerpts they quote appear in reverse order in Shaw's letter, and that they are also separated by quite a few lines. 

For those of you who may not have a copy of Laurence's Collected Letters at hand, I am glad to inform you that Kay Li (the leader of the Shaw-Sagittarius project, one of the Sagittarius Literature Digitizing Projects) has shared with us an online version of the letter, which you can read in its entirety. The text is an exact copy of the original letter as published. 

Apart from the beauty of the place, the words "dream world" have certainly drawn the attention of many Shaw critics who have chosen this letter to illustrate their appraisal of, for example, Shaw's views about Ireland. Let us look at some of them, in no particular order. 

Sally Peters, in her Bernard Shaw: The Ascent of the Superman (p. 27-28), reminds us that Shaw was visiting his homeland and felt "besieged by a strong sense of his own mortality." Peters also finds reminiscences of "the hold of this fantastic rock on Shaw's imagination" in the "strange outcroppings that surface in the settings for Too True to Be Good (1931) and The Simpleton of the Unexpected Isles (1934)."

Michael Holroyd's Bernard Shaw: The One-Volume Definitive Edition also delves on the emotional dimension of this excursion, which probably brought back fond memories of childhood days for Shaw. In Holroyd's words (p. 364)

"Upon this cathedral of the sea, the man who generally seemed a stranger on the planet felt at home. Standing in the graveyards at the Skellig summit, he recalled the summers of his early years when Sonny roamed over the rocks and goat-paths of Dalkey, and gazed across the blue waters to Howth Head; or had lain on the grassy top of the hill above the bay - then raced down to the shore known as White Rock and plunged into the waves. Sonny had been a product of Dalkey’s outlook: there was little place for him in the bustling world where G.B.S. moved. But he breathed again in the magic climate of this island." 

A. M. Gibbs's A Bernard Shaw Chronology does not provide us with any critical commentary, but reminds us that the famous rowboat trip was only a consequence of having "failed to reach them [the Skelligs] by yatch on the 16th." In addition, in Bernard Shaw: A Life (by the same author) reference is made to an earlier letter addressed to Mabel Fitzgerald, wife of the Sinn Féin MP Desmond Fitzgerald. In it, Shaw remarks (p. 250-251) that "the magic of Ireland is very strong for me when I see a beehive dwelling. Did you ever make the pilgrimage to Skellig Michael? If not, you have not yet seen Ireland." A few lines later, Gibbs quotes the letter to Frederick Jackson (apparently still quoted in tourist information), and argues that "this 'dream world' of ancient religious traditions and haunting beauty was an essential component in the multifaceted Shavian image of lreland."

I must agree with Gibbs. After all, we learn from Shaw himself that "an Irishman's heart is nothing but his imagination" - or his dreams.

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