Belfast Telegraph

Plaque tribute to playwright St John Ervine at former school

By linda stewart

A blue plaque is being unveiled today in memory of the writer and playwright St John Ervine.

Born in poverty close to the Albertbridge Road in east Belfast, the writer was a lifelong friend of George Bernard Shaw, a drama critic for the Observer and wrote plays that were performed on Broadway and London's West End.

In his early years he was a socialist Home Ruler but later became a fervent unionist.

The Ulster History Circle is unveiling the plaque at Westbourne Presbyterian Church School where the young John Greer Ervine flourished under headmaster Matthew McClelland.

Although the school is earmarked for demolition, the plaque will be moved to Westbourne Presbyterian Church.

Brian Ervine, a distant relative of the playwright, says both his parents were deaf and ran a guesthouse for deaf people.

He spent a lot of time with his grandmother, who ran a shop on the Albertbridge Road, which is thought to have inspired one of Ervine's best plays, Boyd's Shop.

"He had the brains to have gone to Trinity College Dublin - they offered him a place - but he didn't have the money," Brian Ervine said.

Following a stint as an insurance clerk, Ervine went to London where he became involved in theatre.

Ervine adopted the pen name St John Ervine, joined the Fabian Society and met George Bernard Shaw, a lifelong friend. His first full-length play, Mixed Marriage, was an expose of sectarianism and was produced by the Abbey Theatre in Dublin in 1911.

In 1915, Ervine became manager of the Abbey Theatre but had differences with WB Yeats and Lady Gregory and resigned in July 1916. He had become disillusioned with the Home Rule movement.

"He wouldn't have seen the Abbey Theatre as an Irish national theatre but looked on it as a British theatre," Brian Ervine said.

"He thought the gunboat that went up the Liffey and fired on the Custom House should have trained its guns on the Abbey Theatre."

Ervine joined the Dublin Fusiliers and went to war in France, where a wounded leg had to be amputated.

He wrote seven novels and a number of biographies, including studies of Craigavon, Parnell, Carson, William Booth, Oscar Wilde and George Bernard Shaw. From 1933 to 1936 Ervine was Professor of Dramatic Literature for the Royal Society of Literature. In 1945 he was awarded an honorary D.Litt by Queen's University, Belfast.

Background

Ervine drew on his reminiscences of Belfast in 1936 to produce Boyd's Shop to acclaim in Liverpool and Dublin. The play, which drew on memories of his grandmother's shop on the Albertbridge Road, was a staple production of the Ulster Group Theatre for many years and was revived by the Lyric Theatre a couple of years ago. The blue plaque will be unveiled at Susan Street at 11am today.

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