“You cannot have power for good without having power for evil too. Even mother’s milk nourishes murderers as well as heroes” – George Bernard Shaw, Major Barbara.
The first act of George Bernard Shaw’s life started at 33 Synge Street, Dublin on 26th July 1856. Brought up in an outwardly orthodox but unconventional Irish Protestant family, he later declared he was “a freethinker before I knew how to think.” He left Ireland for London aged nineteen and remained there for the rest of his life, though was still concerned with Irish politics. After decades writing he finally achieved success as a playwright in the 1900s 1
Shaw has been called “one of the most gifted, influential, and well-known intellectuals to have lived”2. He wrote extensively on diverse areas in religion, philosophy, politics, economics, culture and society.
Continue reading “Three Act Comedy: George Bernard Shaw.”
The common law, as it then prevailed in England, was in a great measure composed of some remnants of the old Saxon customs, joined to the feudal institutions brought in at the Norman Conquest. And it is here to be observed, that the constitutions of Magna Charta are by no means a renewal of the laws of St. Edward, or the ancient Saxon laws, as our historians and lawwriters generally, though very groundlessly, assert. They bear no resemblance, in any particular, to the laws of St. Edward, or to any other collection of these ancient institutions. Indeed, how should they? The object of Magna Charta is the correction of the feudal policy, which was first introduced, at least in any regular form, at the Conquest, and did not subsist before it. It may be further observed, that in the preamble to the great charter it is stipulated that the barons shall hold the liberties there granted to them and their heirs, from the king and his heirs; which shows that the doctrine of an unalienable tenure was always uppermost in their minds. Their idea even of liberty was not (if I may use the expression) perfectly free; and they did not claim to possess their privileges upon any natural principle or independent bottom, but just as they held their lands from the king. […]
All these were marks of a real and grievous servitude. The great charter was made not to destroy the root, but to cut short the overgrown branches of the feudal service[.]
Edmund Burke An Essay towards an Abridgement of English History, written between 1757 and c. 1763. From Edmund Burke (1852) The Works and Correspondence of the Right Honourable Edmund Burke, in Eight Volumes, Vol. IV, London: F. & J. Rivington, pp. 358-9 (Google Books)
Continue reading “Edmund Burke on Magna Carta”
Some vague Utopia?
In his poem “In Memory of Eva Gore-Booth and Con Markievicz”, Yeats called the work of Eva Gore-Booth a dream “of some vague Utopia”. It was, in fact, part of a wider campaign for the rights of working class people and for women that had been happening in Ireland for twenty years and in England, Wales and Scotland for longer.
In January 1907 James Larkin came to Belfast to act as general organiser for the National Union of Dock Labourers. He had previously been an organiser for the union in Liverpool, Preston and Glasgow and his aim was to unionise the unskilled workers of Belfast. That Summer he led the dockworkers in a strike to campaign for the right to organise and join trades unions, and for the rights of working class people. The strike grew into a movement, with women among the early participants. A thousand women walked out of Gallahers Tobaco in solidarity with seven co-workers sacked for attending a lunchtime meeting organised by Larkin. The strike spread to carters, coal heavers, boilermakers and most surprisingly of all, the Royal Irish Constabulary in Belfast. The Independent Orange Order even collected donations for the strikers on 12 July 19071.
Continue reading “From Ireland to Manchester: Eva Gore-Booth and women’s labour”
It is easy for a scientist, in what is still a bourgeois democracy, to look with superior horror at what is happening to science under Fascism. But the fate of science in his own country is at the moment still hanging in the balance, and it depends on factors quite outside the scope of science itself. Unless the scientist is aware of these factors and knows how to use his weigh this position is simply that of the sheep awaiting his turn with the butcher.
J. D. Bernal (1939) The Social Function of Science.
Today is the feast of the “popular saint of doubtful history” Christopher1. In the Middle Ages (and later, as the featured image above from the 17th century shows) Christopher was depicted as having the head of a dog.
Pliny recorded the testimony of a Greek physician who claimed to have encountered a race of people with the heads of dogs who dressed in skins. The idea passed into popular legend. The Irish accounts of Christopher, the dog-head who converted to Christianity and was martyred by the Roman emperor Decius can be found in the 15th century manuscripts, the Leabhar Breac and the Liber Flavus Fergusiorum2. It was also referenced by Ratramnus, a monk of Corbie in Picardy, when asked for advice about dog-heads by a monk called Rimbert, who thought he might encounter them in a mission to Scandinavia.
Continue reading “Of Dog-headed Men, Predestination and Universals”
‘The land is free,’ said the young King,
‘and thou art no man’s slave.’
‘In war,’ answered the weaver, ‘the strong make slaves of the weak, and in peace the rich make slaves of the poor.
We must work to live, and they give us such mean wages that we die. We toil for them all day long, and they heap up gold in their coffers, and our children fade away before their time, and the faces of those we love become hard and evil.
We tread out the grapes, and another drinks the wine. We sow the corn, and our own board is empty.
We have chains, though no eye beholds them;
and are slaves, though men call us free.’
The 150th anniversary of the birth of George Russell (on 10 April 1867 in Lurgan) comes at an appropriate time. The major focus of Russell’s life was on developing Ireland, materially and culturally. A poet, he seemed an unlikely choice as organizer for the newly established co-operative movement in Ireland in 1897. Yet his indefatigable work vindicated Horace Plunkett’s choice.
In 1916, Russell dedicated his new book The National Being: Some Thoughts on an Irish Polity to Plunkett1:
A good many years ago you grafted a slip of poetry on your economic tree. I do not know if you expected a hybrid. This essay may not be economics in your sense of the word. It certainly is not poetry in my sense…In my philosophy of life, we are all responsible for the results of our actions and their effects on others. This book is a consequence of your grafting operation, and so I dedicate it to you.
This book comes closest to bringing together Russell’s myriad interests reflected in his various friendships: Yeats’ mysticism, Plunkett’s concern for the rural population, Connolly’s fight for the urban labourer and Bryant’s argument for a unified Irish identity. The bulk of the book deals with the practical problems that a new Irish state needs to solve.
Continue reading “A Slip of Poetry on an Economic Tree: the National Being”
Isidore of Seville, who died on 4th April 656AD, spans the classical and medieval worlds. Besides being bishop of Seville (from about 600 to his death), he also attempted to condense huge amounts of classical learning into his most famous work, the Etymologies. This huge reference work was very influential throughout the Middle Ages, and explains why Isidore was selected by Pope John Paul II as the patron of the internet. A good summary of Isidore’s life and of the Etymologies, including images from various manuscripts of the work, is available on the British Library website 1.
The importance of Isidore can be seen in the fact over a thousand manuscript copies of the Etymologies survive and it was one of the first printed books. Almost certainly available in all cultural centres by 800AD, it seems to have arrived particularly early in Ireland. The earliest fragments of the Etymologies is housed in St Gall (named for the disciple and companion of Saint Columbanus). Written in an Irish scribal hand, it may date back as far back as the mid seventh century. References in Irish texts show that the Etymologies was certainly known in Ireland by the late seventh century and by 700AD all but one of Isidore’s works had arrived in Ireland2.
At one time the benevolent affections embrace merely the family, soon the circle expanding includes first a class, then a nation, then a coalition of nations, then all humanity, and finally, its influence is felt in the dealings of man with the animal world. In each of these stages a standard is formed, different from that of the preceding stage, but in each case the same tendency is recognised as virtue.
W. E. H. Lecky (1869) A History of European Morals from Augustus to Charlemagne 2nd edition, Vol. 1, London: Longmans, p. 103).
Lecky on the development of morality (with echoes of Edmund Burke).
So far from denying the external world which we know, Berkeley corroborated it. It was the scholastic notion of a material substance unapproachable by us, BEHIND the external world, deeper and more real than it, and needed to support it, which Berkeley maintained to be the most effective of all reducers of the external world to unreality. Abolish that substance, he said, believe that God, whom you can understand and approach, sends you the sensible world directly, and you confirm the latter and back it up by his divine authority. Berkeley’s criticism of ‘matter’ was consequently absolutely pragmatistic. Matter is known as our sensations of colour, figure, hardness and the like. They are the cash-value of the term. The difference matter makes to us by truly being is that we then get such sensations; by not being, is that we lack them. These sensations then are its sole meaning. Berkeley doesn’t deny matter, then; he simply tells us what it consists of. It is a true name for just so much in the way of sensations.
William James (1907/1981) Pragmatism Hackett Publishing, p. 44.