Letter from Joseph Michael Stanley to George Bernard Shaw, 28 March 1916 (Military Archives of Ireland)
by Sean Driver
‘Seditious Matter’ in Dublin 1916. The Printing Press and the Pistol.
Among the 1916 letters in the Military Archives of Ireland’s Bureau of Military History Contemporary Documents Collection, there is one curious looking document. On an initial inspection it appears to be a simple letter written by J.M. Stanley, of the Gaelic Press on Upper Liffey Street, to one George Bernard Shaw in London. Shaw has, however, written his reply on the same document. So what sort of document do we have now? Is it one letter with an addition by another author, or in fact, two separate letters? Shaw may have decided that inscribing on the original letter saved time reporting what had been said by his correspondent, or that it was just worth saving paper. Whatever the case, we are presented with a letter that is interesting textually due to the question of ‘ownership’ of the letter and further so because of the authors and subjects discussed.
The sequence of events mentioned in the letter commence with a raid of the offices of the Gaelic Press on Friday 24 March by the ‘Military Authorities’. Stanley’s letter is dated 28 March and Shaw’s response 3 April. This raid and seizure occur less than a month before the Easter Rising and show that the military authorities were undertaking a concerted attempt to break up the small presses that were frothing over with nationalist and subversive material. The nature of the warrant issued by Major General Friend gave his ‘officer complete authorization … to seize, take and remove all printed material and printing equipment, which would be “likely to cause disaffection to His Majesty, the King”. This, Lieutenant Colonel Johnstone was to do without warning and with impunity’. Such an effort, however, could never completely curtail the freedom of the press as there were so many organs of dissent in Dublin at that time. In fact, the more the military authorities tried to get a handle on the subversive material, the more they were openly ridiculed in the pages of publications such as James Connolly’s The Workers’ Republic and The Gael.
If you can imagine the scene of the raid: a busy Friday, Stanley managing all the various demands and expectations of his clients. There are deadlines to meet before finishing for the weekend. Stacks of newspapers such as The Irishman, The Shamrock, The Eye Opener, An Claidheamh Soluis, The Catholic Bulletin, New Ireland, and Nationality litter the premises. The Gaelic Press, at that hour, is truly a hub of dissenting material. One journalist employed by the printing house has an interest in modern theatre and is leafing through a volume of Shaw’s Plays for Puritans. Suddenly a trundling van of Dublin Metropolitan Police and the British army invade the press. Officers pour into the premises impounding equipment and seizing any seditious material they can see. Stanley’s business is shattered by the raid as his printing machinery is hauled away by the military authorities. Later, Stanley estimates the loss of the machinery at £1,525 and the revenue lost at £650. Stanley’s business interest had paid a heavy price for his political sympathies.
According to Reilly, a short while after the raid, members of the Irish Citizen Army met with Stanley to discuss his promise to help Connolly with his new printing presses at Liberty Hall. Despite the Gaelic Press being gutted, there remained some ‘frames with type locked into them, which were set up for jobs that he [Stanley] could no longer print’. Stanley had the type dismantled and piled into the handcart for Connolly. This type was to be part of the combined typeset that was used for the Proclamation of the Irish Republic so the spirit of the Gaelic Press lives on in one of the Republic’s founding documents. To keep his business from going under, Stanley contacted Connolly to ask if he could use the double crown printing press in Liberty Hall to print the latest issue of The Spark. He also wrote letters to the Dublin MPs Laurence Ginnell, John Dillon Nugent, J.J. Clancy and Alfie Byrne and even to Chief Secretary Augustine Birrell in order to bring the raid to the attention of Westminster. The republican fervour that motivated Stanley to run the Gaelic Press must only have been further enflamed by the loss of his machinery.
His role in Easter 1916 and the further Volunteer movement was to unite the pen and the sword in emblematic fashion. Summoned by Connolly and Pearse to the GPO on Monday, he spoke with them about the feasibility of printing and publishing a news-sheet to inform rebels and civilians of the goings on of the new government. Pearse wanted to seize the Independent Newspaper offices and have a major publishing coup but was dissuaded by Connolly and Stanley as the manpower required to operate such large presses was needed elsewhere. Instead, Stanley seized O’Keefe’s, a small printing press in Halston Street, where they printed and published ‘The Irish War News’ and the ‘Official Daily Bulletin’. Stanley was issued a pistol by Connolly to protect himself during the operations. As the British Army cordon closed in on the GPO, Pearse and Stanley fell out of contact and it became impossible to publish anymore papers or broadsides.
Stanley’s role in the Easter Rising and his subsequent struggle to convince the Military Service Pensions board that his contribution was worthy of the status of ‘active’ service (a struggle that must have been especially galling given his financial sacrifices) can be seen through Tom Reilly’s recent book, Joe Stanley Printer to the Rising and Stanley’s full Military Pensions record, now available online .
This letter and its context can also cast some light on George Bernard Shaw during 1916. Stanley is writing to ask the playwright whether his book Plays for Puritans ‘contains seditious matter or matters likely to prejudice recruiting’ as Shaw’s book was seized by the military authorities during the raid. Shaw’s reply is assertive and laconic at the same time. He dismisses Stanley’s suggestion that Plays for Puritans may have been the object of the seizure while recognizing that a line spoken in The Devil’s Disciple by ‘An American’ character’ during the War of Independence in the year 1777 ‘uses the angry expression a “pigheaded lunatic like King George”. It seems possible that a zealous police officer, his eye lighting on this passage, may have mistaken it for a contemporary reference’. However, the King of the play is George the V and not George the III. While Yeats may have been recalling the spirit of the 1798 rebellion to distil aspects of eternal Irish dissent and nationalism in Cathleen Ni Houlihan, Shaw’s response disavows himself of any such practice.
“Michael O’Leary WWI poster” by Unknown.
At the same time, however, another play by Shaw could be said to have suffered censorship of freedom of expression, but this time from an authoritative institution much closer to home. Shaw had offered his new play, O’Flaherty V.C. to the Abbey Theatre free of royalty in 1915. The play was based on the story of Sergeant Michael O’Leary who was used by the Military Authorities to encourage Irish men to join the British Army, and concerned Irishman Private Dennis O’Flaherty, winner of the Victoria Cross, who has come home to his native village as part of a recruiting campaign that has taken him wearily to Ireland. O’Flaherty is facing the daunting task of now informing his mother that rather than fighting for the German Army, as in her belief only an Irishman could, he has all along been a member of the British armed forces.
Instead of defying political pressure as it had in 1910, when it remained open instead of closing in the wake of the passing of King Edward the VII, the Abbey now responded to the wishes of an external censor.
Did the Abbey lose a potential masterpiece? Did the alarms of war lead freedom of expression astray? A revealing comment comes from Shaw’s own preface to Heartbreak House in 1919: ‘Truth telling is not compatible with the defence of the realm.’ Should playwrights such as Shaw speak truth to power and reveal uncomfortable and unpalatable truths that may endanger the realm? Isn’t the responsibility of the artist to strike at hypocrisy and hyperbole and expose the Grand Illusions of war and life in general? The letter between Shaw and Stanley may seem insignificant, but when placed in a context can reach across time and space to strike at the very foundations of democracy and freedom. What is possible to say during times of war?
Sean Driver is an English Studies graduate from Trinity College, Dublin. He is currently completing an MPhil in Digital Humanities and Culture and hopes to pursue a career as an English Teacher. Interested in the connection between technology and literacy, he plans to complete his dissertation on using electronic resources in the secondary school classroom. He lives in Kildare and can’t imagine anything more fun than walking his dog with his girlfriend, drinking tea and reading books.
This post was originally published on Sean’s blog, From the Sea to the River on 19 March 2014.
The Gaelic Press publishers Dublin. The Gaelic Press General and Commercial Printers: …open to Do All Kinds of General Printing… Dublin: The Gaelic Press, 1918-1922 taken from NLI
Gibbs, A.M, A Bernard Shaw Chronology, New York, Palgrave, 2001.
McCarthy, Mark, Ireland’s 1916 Rising: explorations of history making, commemoration & heritage in modern times. Farnham, Ashgate, 2012.
Reilly, Tom, Joe Stanley: Printer to the Rising, Dingle: Brandon, 2005.
Shaw, George Bernard, An Autobiography 1898-1950 The Playwright years edited by Stanley Weintraub, London, Max Reinhardt, 1970.
Weintraub, Stanley, Bernard Shaw 1914-1918 Journey to Heartbreak, Surrey, Routledge, 1971.
Unless otherwise stated, the images used in the above post are from Reilly, Tom, Joe Stanley: Printer to the Rising, Dingle: Brandon, 2005.