Born in Dublin in 1856, George Bernard Shaw grew up among a Protestant family fallen on hard times. His father was an unsuccessful grain merchant and alcoholic – prompting Shaw to become a lifelong abstainer – and there was no money to pay for his education. At 15 he started work as a junior clerk for a land agency, but five years later went to London to join his mother who had moved there to further the musical career of one of his sisters. Reliant on what little income his mother earned as a music teacher, Shaw set about educating himself by spending his afternoons in the reading room of the British Museum. He hoped to become a novelist, but, following the rejection of no fewer than five novels, turned his hand to journalism instead, contributing music and drama criticism to London newspapers.
Shaw was a devout socialist, joining the Fabian Society in 1884, writing pamphlets and gaining a reputation as a natural orator. He espoused numerous causes, including electoral reform, vegetarianism and the abolition of private property. His theatrical career began in the 1890s when, influenced by Ibsen, he began to compose plays focusing on social and moral matters, rather than the romantic and personal subjects which then dominated British theatre.
In 1898 he married the heiress Charlotte Payne-Townshend and the same year saw the production of his first successful play, Candida. A stream of equally lauded comedy-dramas followed – including The Devil’s Disciple, Arms and the Man, Major Barbara and Pygmalion – though he later turned to more serious drama, such as Heartbreak House and Saint Joan. Simultaneously, he maintained an active career as a critic, journalist and essayist, his often bitterly ironic wit (“England and America are two countries separated by a common language”) becoming legendary. In 1925 he was awarded the Nobel Prize for Literature, but initially rejected the honour before relenting and giving his prize money to a newly established Anglo–Swedish Literary Foundation.
Shaw’s attitude to Ireland was ever ambivalent – he once commented “I am a typical Irishman; my family came from Yorkshire” – and, though he remained interested in Irish affairs and became a personal friend of Michael Collins, his brand of democratic socialism would have been antipathetic to the austere Catholic and anti-British state that emerged post-independence. Shaw died in 1950 at Ayot St Lawrence, Hertfordshire.