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Carlow County - Ireland Genealogical Projects (IGP TM)

George Bernard Shaw

 Shaw's Ties with Carlow

 The Civic Improvement Fund

By L. D. Bergin

THE centenary of George Bernard Shaw's birth occurred on Thursday, 26th July. Shaw's ties with Carlow town and his various gifts to the people make it appropriate that we should pay him some modest respect. His first gesture was his gift of the old Assembly Rooms, now the Carlow Technical School in Dublin Street. He offered these premises to the Technical Instruction Committee through its Chairman, the late Most Rev. Dr. Foley, Bishop of Kildare and Leighlin, in 1919. The premises eventually became the property of the Vocational Education Committee.

On 13th May, 1944, George Bernard Shaw added to his previous gift the rents from his other properties in Carlow, which he had municipalised under a special Act of the Dail, introduced by the late Deputy James Hughes. The fund is administered by the Carlow Urban District Council assisted by Carlow Arts Council.

CARLOW'S Civic Improvement Fund owes its origin to Irish playwright George Bernard Shaw, whose centenary of birth we celebrated this year. This house property of Shaw in Carlow, inherited from his mother's side of the family, was described in typical Shavian style in the letter he wrote to Carlow Urban Council, offering the property and its rents for Civic purposes. The rents at £180, gross, Shaw intended to be the nucleus of a bigger fund, which has however not materialised

The Letter

Shaw wrote to the Council from 4, Whitehall Court, London, on 13th May, 1944.

Dear Sir

Will you be so good as to bring the following matter before your Council. I am the landlord of a property in Carlow which I inherited as the great-grandson of the Thomas Gurly whose monument is in one of your chief churches. It was formerly a considerable property, but it now yields a net revenue of only £150 a year. When it came into my hands I received nothing but the legal ownership, a bundle of mortgages and several dependent relatives. As I have cleared off the mortgages and provided otherwise for the surviving relatives, there are now no encumbrances, except the head rents.

I am an absentee landlord, having spent out of the 88 years of my life only one day in Carlow. The estate is managed by Major A. J. W. Fitzmaurice of 1 Leinster Crescent.

Unusual, Not Easy

I, therefore, propose to hand over the property to the Carlow municipality for the common welfare. I find, however, that this step, being unusual, is not easy. Nobody seems to know how it is to be done. If I propose to leave the property to some relative who might, like my grandfather mortgage it to the last farthing and leave it in a ruinous condition, I could do it without the least trouble. But to leave it to a public body for the public benefit seems to be impossible when the public body in question is a municipality. I have served for six years as municipal councillor on a London Borough Council governing a quarter of a million people. I therefore know the difficulties from the inside.

What I would beg the U.D.C. to consider is this. Suppose I make a gift of the property to the Council on Trust for purposes which exclude its sale to private owners, the use of its revenue to relieve the rates directly, or for almsgiving in any form, confining it to improvements, house modernisation and experimental innovations, embankment of the river Barrow and, generally, for progressive work which would not otherwise be undertaken, would the Council accept the Trust, and establish a Standing Committee or Sub-Committee to administer it?

You may say that the property is too small to be worth considering for such purposes. 1 should reply that it represents solid land, the importance of which to a city is not fairly measurable by the income of its private landlord, and that I can stipulate that it shall not be a closed Trust but be the nucleus of a civic improvement Fund well advertised and open to all citizens who desire to follow my example, but, like myself, do not know exactly how to do it. It should not bear my name, nor that of any other individual, nor of any creed or political party. Its income could be left to accumulate within the limit allowed by the law against perpetuities to any extent thought necessary. Would the Council take it on these conditions?

I should, perhaps, mention that if it refuses, the property will pass after my death to the National Gallery of Ireland, to which in my boyhood in Dublin I owed much of my Art education, which enabled me to earn a living as critic before I made my mark as a playwright. It will, therefore, not be lost to Ireland in any case. But Carlow is clearly entitled to the first offer.



SHAW'S first letter on the subject was followed by more correspondence in which he ultimately suggested that an Act of the Dail would be the proper and cheapest method of municipalising the property

Georgian Facade and Six Leases

By B. O'Neill, M.Sc.

WHILE George Bernard Shaw's maternal forebears can be traced back in Carlow annals to the mid-seventeen hundreds, he, himself, did not enter the Carlow scene until on the 15th February, 1918. At the age of 62 years, he "ventured to enter into direct communication" with the late most Rev. Dr. Foley, Bishop of Kildare and Leighlin, who was then Chairman of the Co. Carlow Technical Instruction Committee. The subject was the use of the Assembly Rooms in Dublin Street as a Technical School.

APPARENTLY, the Committee had made such an application to the agent for the Gurley estate and G.B.S. took it over for the reason that "my agent, Mr. Fitzmaurice, can hardly speak so freely as I can myself." In the letter, which extended to two and a half carefully corrected typewritten pages, Shaw gave the clearest possible explanation of the many leases under which the Assembly rooms property was held.

THE introduction to this statement was typically Shavian: "The truth is the Assembly Rooms have always been a very bad bargain for me. They are subject to head rents amounting to £16 12s. 2d., a year. I cleared out all the other interests some time ago at a cost of about £200 and the premises are now at my disposal absolutely subject to these head rents. I can neither sell them or let them at present, and of course, I can't use them. If I assign them to a pauper and leave him to be evicted by the head landlords, I actually gain by the transaction."

Georgian Front

IN the letter G.B.S. went on to explain how much more it would cost him to buy out the head landlord's interest and his decision to spend no more on the premises. "I am quite prepared, therefore," he wrote, "to consider an invitation from the Technical Instruction Committee to hand over my title deeds in consideration of the place being used for public purposes and, if possible, the old front of the building — a facade which belongs to the best period of Irish architecture at the end of the 18th century — retained for the sake of its decorative effect.

Many Leases

THE Committee would appear to have moved fairly rapidly when one considers the many leases involved—those of 1794, 1805, 1810, 1848, 1861 and 1863 — and on the 31st October, 1919, the Assembly Rooms was transferred by G. Bernard Shaw to five Trustees representing the Co. Carlow Technical Instruction Committee which then had no legal powers to own property. It is now owned by the Co. Carlow Vocational Education Committee, a statutory body.

Excellent Observatory

IN his letter of 1918 Shaw wrote: "The site is the best in Carlow for your purpose, even though the building dilapidated." He even referred to the old building in a letter he wrote me in 1944: "I can remember a day when my late uncle, Walter John Gurley, from whom I inherited the Assembly Rooms, returning from a visit to them (the only one he ever paid) and saying they would make an excellent Observatory as the movements of the heavenly bodies could be studied through the holes in the roof."

No Servants

BUILT probably in 1794 the Assembly Rooms were used for dinners and balls by the "nobility and gentry of the Co. Carlow." Here experts in the art of the dance met with such high sounding names as Signor and Madame Garbois giving exhibitions of the "Turkish Pas Seul," " Minuet de la Cair," etc. Advertisements of these in the Carlow Post of the period usually had the addenda " Servants not admitted into the ballroom," and "Moonlight Night" which make us appreciate our good fortune in not having lived in these old, unhappy far-off days ere democracy held sway and gas and electricity made their brilliant entrance.

THE increasing weight of years brought the building gradually down from its high estate and there are many Carlovians who remember hearing a surly black-moustached villain hissed, and many a fair heroine "saved from death" in the teeth of a sawmill by a twittering hero, swaying in muscular agony and mental anguish to save his loved one.

Two-Roomed School

THE Technical Instruction Committee of the time converted the old ruin — preserving the front admired by G.B.S., into a two-roomed Technical School which opened on a limited scale in 1923. Two workshops were added in 1928, and in 1934 the whole building was re-planned and reconstructed by the first Vocational Education Committee. A large, well equipped engineering workshop and a similarly up-to-date Domestic Science kitchen were then added.

When the comprehensive reconstruction of the premises was completed in 1935, I had the temerity to write to G.B.S., detail the progress made and invite him to the opening ceremony by the late Mr. Derrig, Minister for Education. His reply dated 16th November, 1935 — he was then 79 years old—is worth quoting in full.

Dear Sir,

I am much obliged to you for your letter of the 13th, which I have read with more gratification than I deserve, as it is clearly the enterprise and expenditure of the Committee that Carlow has to thank rather than my absentee contribution I confess that I had misgivings that the only result of this would have been the purchase of a second-hand typewriter and an addition to the dismal ranks of the black-coated proletariat instead of the creation of a body of skilled Carlow craftsmen and industrial and domestic technicians.

I am sorry I cannot be present at the opening by the Free v State Minister on the 22nd 'January, as I shall be on the high seas on that date; but I am afraid I have been too long absent from my native land to be greatly missed."


THE letter concluded with directions as to how to frame his autographed photograph which I requested and which he readily sent. This now hangs in the Headmaster's office of Carlow Technical School, side by side with that of the late Most Rev. Dr. Foley, Bishop of Kildare and Leighlin, to whom he offered the old Assembly Rooms in 1918.

Source: Carloviana. Journal of the Old Carlow Society Vol. 1. No. 4, New Series, Dec. 1956 Page 8-12

Shaw Time

THE idea of a Shaw Writers Festival in Carlow was first proposed in 1980 by local historian Seamus Murphy. It was his opinion that a display of works by Carlow writers should form the basis for such a festival. In 1984 Pat McDermott the then President of the Junior Chamber Carlow had a letter published in The Irish Times outlining an excellent plan to initiate a project based on Shaws connection with Carlow. Unfortunately both suggestions fell on deaf ears. Since 1987 Carlow County Heritage Society have been assessing the feasibility of reviving interest in a Shaw Festival. Following the success of the Entente Florale, the Chairman of the Urban Council Sean Whelan high­lighted the importance of a Shaw Festival stating "that it would help keep up the

community spirit that was evident during the Entente Florale." Ther is no doubt that a promotional connection between Shaw and Carlow, in whatever form, would result in long-term benefits for the community. Carlow County Heritage Society would welcome any recommendations or assisance from individuals or organisations interested in promoting a Shaw Time in Carlow.

In our next issue of Carlow Past and Present we intend to publish an account of Shaw's connection and generosity to the people of Carlow, including detailed maps, leases, and rents of the seventeen properties handed over in 1945 to the Urban Council. We will also look at the Shaw income bank account known as the Civil Improvements Fund. This account today funds only one purpose — the erection of the Christmas Crib at the Courthouse. (Incidentally in 1987 when I made inquiries at the bank in which this fund is lodged I was told that they never heard of the Civil Improvements Fund). The distribution of funds from this account to the arts in Carlow has ceased because Council officials feel that since the introduction of the Arts Act in 1973 there is a conflict of interests. In 1945, "Dev" pushed a bill through the Dail enabling Carlow Urban Council to accept this gift of properties from Shaw. Surely today a deputation to the revelant Government Ministers by our elected representatives might result in a bill being passed that would enable present day Carlovians to benefit from the generosity of George Bernard Shaw.

By Michael Purcell

Previously published in Carlow Past & Present Vol. 1. No. 3. 1990 p. 112

George Bernard Shaw letter.

 [Note added by Michael Purcell in August 2012.

The following is a recently discovered letter in the Pat Purcell Papers from the "self-professed World Betterer" George Bernard Shaw, containing instructions to Malcolmson and Law, Court Place, Carlow. This is the first time that this letter has ever been made public.

George Bernard Shaw owned 13 proprieties in Carlow town, inherited by him through his mother's grandfather, Thomas Gurley. The properties were / are situated in Tullow Street, Dublin Street, John Street, Centaur Street, Ballymanus Terrace, The Quay, Athy Road, Grave Lane and the Barrow Track.

Shaw paid a visit to Carlow in 1918 to view his property, he stayed in the Railway Hotel (now The Irishmans) he later recalled that the proprietress presented him with a joint of "Carlow pig" for supper, he explained that he did not partake of dead animals or their product, she advised him that he would not live long without eating meat  - he died in 1950 from injuries incurred after falling from a ladder whilst pruning a tree at the age of 94!.

In 1919 he transferred the Old Assembly Rooms on Dublin Street to the Carlow Technical Instruction Committee for use as a Technical school (in later years the Carlow County Library was situated in the building).

In 1944 Shaw set about handing over the remainder of his Carlow estate to be held for the common benefit of the people of Carlow, however he found that Carlow Town Council could not accept his gift as they had no authority to accept gifted property.

In 1944 Shaw wrote to Eamon de Valera requesting that his government pass an Act to enable Carlow Town Council to accept his gift.

In 1945 Dev's Minister for Local Government, Sean McEntee, passed the Local Authorities (Acceptance of Gifts) Bill, 1945.

Mr McEntee stated "at present local authorities had no power to acquire property by way of gift, the passing of this Bill would enable a local authority to accept gifts of property, but only on condition that they adopted schemes of civic improvement in their areas and devoted the gifts for the purposes provided for in the schemes and once a scheme was framed it could not be altered except by an Order of the High Court.

For further examples of Shaw's letters concerning his property in Carlow see the article "Shaw's bequest to Carlow" by Sean O'Shea published in Carloviana 1998.

Transcribed by Selina Lawlor.

Pat Purcell Papers 1944.

 4, Whitehall Court, London. S.W.I.
Ayot. St. Lawrence, Nr. Welwyn Herts.
Station: Wheathampstead, L N.E.R. 2? Miles.
Telegrams: Bernard Shaw, Codicote.
Telephone: Codicote 218.

7 September 1944

Dear Mr. Law

I forgot to say on my card that it would be very convenient if we could get the transfer executed on the 29th Sept .thereabouts as that is a gale day, and the Carlow Corporation could take the succeeding half years rent leaving me the rent just falling due. I don’t know whether there are such things as hanging gales nowadays; but if so we can ignore them, and consider the real dates and not the nominal ones.

As to arrears, I hope there won’t be any. Can you get Walsh out, and his tenant in by the 29th and the house repaired at my cost (Major Fitzmaurice knows my views and has ample funds of mine) so that I can hand over the premises in a settled, solvent and waterproof condition?

Then there is the tenant at Grave Lane, who gave up paying rents years ago, but has lately been giving Fitzmaurice an occasional ten shillings.  The Corporation will no doubt evict her, and if it is wise it will not relet the house, but knock it down and either let the land as an eligible building site, changing the name of the land to something more cheerful than Grave Lane!, or build a new house on it with all the modern improvements to bring it within the scope of the new Fund and attract a substantial tenant. The modernisation of houses by garages, refrigerators, labour saving kitchens, electric cookers is in my view the most obvious and civilising line of improvement.

Anyhow, I am quite willing to forego and forgive the arrears if that will facilitate matters.  If the lady can afford to pay ten shillings a week, as she is doing, she can afford to rent another dwelling place.

Don’t let money stand in the way of a quick and clean settlement. I want to die destitute as far as Eire is concerned. I can afford it. I can’t afford bother.

By the way (if it has any relevance) I am technically an Irish citizen as well as a British subject with an English domicile.

(signed) George Bernard Shaw.

Source: Michael Purcell 2012

 Shaw's Generosity

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