Unionist playwright honoured with east Belfast plaque

A scene from the St John Ervine play Mixed Marriage
A scene from the St John Ervine play Mixed Marriage

A playwright and novelist from east Belfast, whose fiery personality and political outlook put him at odds with his theatre manager in pre-uprising Dublin, is being honoured with a blue plaque on the Newtownards Road.

Born in 1883 in one of the most deprived areas of the city, St John Ervine became known internationally as one of the leading literary figures of his era.

St John Ervine became known internationally as one of the leading literary figures of his era

St John Ervine became known internationally as one of the leading literary figures of his era

He wrote his first play, Mixed Marriage, in 1911 and the critically acclaimed production was revived by Belfast’s Lyric Theatre in 2013.

Saturday morning’s ceremony will take place at the now unused Westbourne School in Susan Street at 11am.

Many of the writer’s relatives still live in the area and the plaque will be unveiled by Brian Ervine – the former PUP leader who remembers his dad talking is less than complimentary terms about their illustrious ancestor.

Mr Ervine, a brother of the late politician David Ervine, said his father never really forgave the playwright for eventually ditching socialism in favour of unionism.

He believed that sectarianism was the curse of Ireland at that time

Brian Ervine

“I remember my father telling me we were related to him but my father wasn’t too fussy on him because by that time Ervine had changed his position from a left-wing Home Ruler to a rabid unionist.

“My father was a Northern Ireland Labour man who loved him when he was younger but not when he was older.

“St John Ervine was a personal friend of George Bernard Shaw, a member of the Fabian Society, and actually a very left-wing socialist. He believed that sectarianism was the curse of Ireland at that time.”

Mr Ervine has used publicly available records to learn more about his talented ancestor.

“Both his parents were deaf and his father died when he was very young. His house became almost like a boarding house for deaf people and we get that information from the census of 1911.

“They were very poor. He was mostly brought up by his granny who had a shop on the Albertbridge Road and it’s thought his most famous play, Boyd’s Shop, was modelled on his experiences in his grandmother’s shop,” he added.

Chris Spurr, chairman of the Ulster History Circle, said: “St John Ervine came from the little streets of east Belfast to become one of the great international literary figures of the first half of the 20th century.

“His novels, his biographies, his journalism, and above all his plays, show him to be a writer of worth who deserves to be better remembered, especially in his native city.

“The Circle is delighted to honour the achievements of St John Ervine, and we are particularly grateful to Belfast City Council for its support towards the plaque.”