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A letter from George Bernard Shaw

Somewhere around 1994 I did some research for my PhD in the archives of the Plunkett Foundation near Oxford, as its founder - Sir Horace Plunkett - was quite important to my topic. In the end I found his own diary of rather little use, but I did come across this excellent letter about him from George Bernard Shaw, written to Margaret Digby (who Shaw assumed was male) in 1948, sixteen years after Plunkett's death, when Shaw was 92 but clearly still with it.

            16th June 1948

Dear Mr [sic] Digby,
      By all means quote as much as you please of my correspondence with H[orace] P[lunkett]. There were more interesting letters than the one you copied for me; but he may not have kept them.
      I do not envy you your job. Plunkett was a puzzle. He devoted his life to the service of his fellow creatures collectively; and personally he disliked them all. He kept open house in Foxrock for all visitors of any note, rich or poor, to Ireland; and he hated all his guests. He remained a bachelor for the sake of Lady Fingal[l], and was unquestionably in love with her; yet I never felt convinced that he quite liked her. He took the chair as a matter of course at all meetings in which he was interested. I have, perhaps, more experience of public meetings than most people; and I can testify that he ranked first among the very worst chairmen on earth. He went round the Congested Districts to persuade Irish farmers whose farms were uneconomic to move into better holdings: a task which would have taxed the persuasive powers of a barrister earning £20,000 a year, and took with him small schoolmasters of the £150 type, who could only make Plunkett's offer in the baldest terms, and when it was refused say no more than "Well, you are a very foolish man". Except within his own class he was a bad mixer.
      And yet with all this against him he was an amiable man whom nobody could dislike, a highly talented writer with a sense of humor [sic], great political intelligence, and tireless public spirit, the greatest political Irishman of his time.
      I liked him thoroughly and always stayed at Foxrock when I went to Ireland even after I found out that his hatred of his guests probably included me.
      I repeat, you will find it hard to do justice to a man of such high virtues hampered by so many trivial contradictions.
                        G.Bernard Shaw
I've linked to a few explanatory articles and pictures. The original letter is here and here.

Comments

( 2 comments — Leave a comment )
(Anonymous)
May. 22nd, 2013 08:48 pm (UTC)
Hi Nicholas,

Don't you just wish that people still wrote so acerbically about their contemporaries with full confidence in their correspondent's discretion?

I spent a long time working on AE and Plunkett cropped up often, so I'm delighted to read this here.

All the best,
Selina.
nwhyte
May. 23rd, 2013 07:11 am (UTC)
I think Shaw's level of acerbity (if that is the right word) combined with wit was matched by very few correspondents at any time!

I loved the passage about Plunkett and his sidekick Gill in Hail and Farewell. Gill's letters are in the National Library - they were a great source for my PhD, but none of them of sufficiently general interest to photocopy for posterity.
( 2 comments — Leave a comment )

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