St John Ervine, the Belfast-born playwright and general manager of Dublin’s Abbey theatre, was a bemused observer of the events of the Easter Rising. He described it as a “fortnight of ruin and rebellion” but it became the major turning-point in his life, driving him to become Northern Ireland’s leading writer of the early twentieth-century.
On Easter Sunday 1916 Ervine watched a group of Irish Volunteers (including Countess Markievicz) march past him towards the Liberty Hall. The next day, as he prepared for a performance of Yeats’ ‘Cathleen Ni Houlihan’, Ervine heard gunshots in the distance and cancelled that day’s matinee. Though he had been deeply involved with the Abbey for many years (even acting on its stage) Ervine was a curious choice to manage this centre of Ireland’s cultural revival. He had been born (as plain John Ervine) in 1883 in east Belfast, close to Belfast’s shipyards, and had moved to London as a teenager, where he met George Bernard Shaw and began to write journalism and his first plays. In London he added ‘St’ to his name to make it more fitting for his literary ambitions.
Ervine’s first full-length play, ‘Mixed Marriage’, was produced by the Abbey in 1911 and quickly became one of its most reliably profitable plays. His subject was Belfast and its sectarianism. W.B. Yeats praised his plays for depicting the life of the north as Synge’s did for the west of Ireland, Ervine’s urban realism was an alternative to the peasant dramas commonly performed at the Abbey and paved the way for Sean O’Casey’s work. In 1915 Yeats appointed Ervine as the Abbey’s manager, his tenure was a commercial success but the Abbey’s actors disliked his domineering personality (and insistence on constant rehearsals) and eventually refused to work with him. After the Rising Ervine’s increasing conflict with the actors led Yeats to wonder who could replace him, Ezra Pound was among those considered.
Ervine was one of those Northern Protestants who had contributed to Ireland’s cultural independence and now he felt betrayed. He described his response to the Rising as “full of anger, because I saw in it the wreck of the slowly maturing plans for the better ordering of Irish life” and an increasingly nationalist atmosphere led him to resign from the Abbey in July. Immediately enlisting in the Dublin Fusiliers, Ervine fought in the battles of Arras, Cambrai and Hazebrouck; he was commissioned as a Lieutenant and was wounded in the Forest of the Nieppe in May 1918, which necessitated the amputation of a leg. Ervine’s reaction to the Rising turned him from supporting Home Rule to advocating an extreme Unionism that grew increasingly (and violently) opposed to everything about southern Ireland (and those he referred to as ‘Eireans’, especially de Valera) as he grew older.
Ervine was Northern Ireland’s best-known writer until the 1950s for his journalism (mainly in the ‘Observer’) as much as for his plays, many of which were West End successes, including ‘Boyd’s Shop’, the defining Northern Irish drama for decades and his biography of Northern Ireland’s first Prime Minister, Craigavon: Ulsterman. However, his 1927 novel, The Wayward Man, may be his most enduring work. As a portrait of the Ulster personality it has rarely been rivalled, its evocation of the voices and conflicts of Belfast laid the foundations for a distinctive Northern Irish literature.
In The Wayward Man Robert Dunwoody has inherited his father’s love of the sea and restless spirit but his mother is determined to quell such an adventurous spirit: “Everybody should stay where they’re put, an’ not go trampin’ up and down the earth.” Robert rebels against her world of small shopkeepers and escapes to the harsh life of a sailor, shipwreck in the Pacific and wandering across America as a hobo. When Robert eventually returns to Belfast, trapped into marriage and managing one of his mother’s shops, he struggles against the suffocating narrowness of his Belfast life. Finally he returns to sea, leaving behind a wife, a pregnant girlfriend and his mother.
St John Ervine celebrated the mercantilism of Ulster society in ‘Boyd’s Shop’ but The Wayward Man is a study of its destructive impact on the Ulster personality: “What in hell was the use of all this industry and devotion if it ended in a thwarted, unfulfilled, dissatisfied desire?”
The Wayward Man was written in the mid-1920s while the state of Northern Ireland was creating its own identity distinct from that of Ireland as a whole. Ervine’s writing dwells on the contradiction that alongside its materialists the North also had restless dreamers. Ervine’s understanding of the complications of the Northern Irish character, its austere self-reliance, pragmatism, pride and its surprising romanticism, is echoed in later novels about Belfast, and especially, perhaps, finds a kindred spirit in Robert McLiam Wilson’s Ripley Bogle. Both novels ask how an individual can express their independence in a society where religious or political certainties lead to violence. Ervine’s own solution, like Ripley Bogle’s, was to leave. He spent much of the rest of his life in Seaton (a town in Devon) and died in London in 1971.