St John Greer Ervine

Ervine was a unionist playwright and the founding father of modern Northern Irish drama

Playwright, novelist, biographer and critic St John Greer Ervine was born in Ballymacarret, East Belfast, in 1883. Although accepted to study at Trinity, circumstances forced him to leave school at the age of 15 to begin working in an insurance office.

Two years later, he immigrated to London, where he discovered a love for the theatre. Ervine began his writing career with Mixed Marriage (1911), an Ulster tragedy and produced three plays between 1911 and 1915. In 1915, after a meeting with William Butler Yeats in London, Ervine became the director of the Abbey Theatre, Dublin. It was however, not a happy appointment as Ervine’s personality and politics clashed with the management of the theatre in Dublin.

Ervine then joined the Dublin Fusiliers and fought in Flanders, losing a leg in the conflict. Returning home, Ervine felt increasingly alienated by nationalism and more attracted to the unionism of his family background. He became a vehement detractor of the south, describing Ireland in a letter to George Bernard Shaw as brimming with ‘bleating Celtic Twilighters, sex-starved Daughters of the Gael, gangsters and gombeen men’.

Ervine was a distinctively Ulster orientated writer, focusing on a naturalistic portrayal of rural and urban life. His most famous and popular work amongst his Northern Irish audience was Boyd’s Shop (1936), which became one of the Ulster Group Theatre’s stalwart productions. The play is a classic of the homely yet sincere Ulster genre and centres around the struggles of the folk that Ervine grew up with in his grandmother’s shop on the Albertbridge Road. Ervine created in Boyd’s Shop a template for Ulster theatre that was to dominate until the advent of Over the Bridge.

Ervine's reactionary unionism and anti-southern hatred became more pronounced as he aged and eclipsed his more subtle characteristics and abilities as a writer. Although many of his novels and plays were at times clouded by his prejudices, they were also very often capable of tremendous feeling and humanity showing he was a writer of note. Ervine died in 1971.

Further reading:
‘Red Brick City and Its Dramatist: A Note on St. John Ervine’ by Denis Ireland in Envoy I (1950); After the Irish Renaissance (1968) by Robert Hogan; Modern English Playwrights: A Short History of the English Drama from 1925 (1969) by J. W. Cunliffe;  ‘St. John Ervine, A Bibliography of His Published Works’ by Paul Howard, in Irish Booklore vol. 1 no. 2 (1971); The Theatre in Ulster (1972) by Sam Hanna Bell.

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