George Bernard Shaw: Man of the Century

By Archibald Henderson | Go to book overview

CHAPTER 2
Childhood and Schooling: A Misspent Youth

GEORGE BERNARD SHAW WAS BORN IN DUBLIN, JULY 26,1856, AT No. 3, AFTERwards renumbered 33, Synge Street. Situated in Dublin's South Side, on the left bank of the river Liffey, the undistinguished house, of yellow brick like its neighbors, was in a section populated by merchants, city clerks, civil servants, and professional men of moderate financial status, respectable citizens rather on the shabby genteel side. The Venetian blinds were painted green; there was an artistic fanlight and a "real" (not electric) bell on the railing. On the door was a massive black cast-iron knocker, and there were two innovations by Shaw's father: a Chubbs latch and a vertical letter slit. A "brass gimcrack" now replaces the heavy old iron knocker; and on his seventieth birthday Shaw was quoted as follows: "Knocking and running away, a favorite sport of my childhood, was much more resoundingly satisfactory, with a knocker like ours." For the parlor window there was a blind of perforated zinc, "in horrible harmony with the massive black horsehair sofa within."

There was a kitchen basement where the three children, George and his two sisters, Lucy and Agnes, both older than he, attended by a nurse, had their meals. An Irish "thorough servant" (maid of all work) was indispensable. The servants, quite illiterate, each received a salary of only £8 a year. "With the exception of Nurse Williams, a good and honest woman," records Shaw, "the servants were utterly unfit to be trusted with the charge of three cats, much less three children."

George, called Sonny, would go for an airing with his nurse, who was supposed to take him along the banks of the canal or through the flower- lined walks of St. Stephen's Green. Instead of that, the nursemaid would visit her friends in the slums. At the invitation of some hospitable friend, she would take him into a public house; and while she "bent her elbow" with the convivial, Sonny was given a lemonade or ginger beer. "I did not enjoy these treats," Shaw relates at the age of seventy-nine, "because my father's eloquence on the evil of drink had given me an impression that a public house was a wicked place into which I should not have been taken."

As a small child he entertained an unbounded admiration amounting to reverence for his father. He was completely unaware that George Carr Shaw, one of the most easy-going and genial men in the world, was a fitful drinker--

-11-

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