Mr St John Ervine

John Ervine.png
St John Ervine 1931-32 © National Portrait Gallery[1]
St John Ervine, 49, (1883-1971) was an Ulsterman of letters and Drama Critic of the Observer. He contributed to Time and Tide from the mid 1920s, including a provocative weekly Time and Tide feature “Notes on the Way” – in the edition of 13th October 1934 gaining the title of “provocateur”.[2] [3] He was standing next to Emily Davison on the fatal Derby day – he recalls in a taped interview that he did not know who she was but noticed how agitated she was.[4] Lady Rhondda had a picture of him in her office, according to the article by James Wedgwood Drawbell. Rebecca West remarked on his early work Mr Martin’s Man : Irvine “proves himself quite definitely a novelist who counts”. One of the eight speakers at the dinner. “A distinguished man whose pugnacious honesty gave no quarter to those who failed to win his esteem”.[5]  Or as John Fothergill put it “From Ervine you always expect an outburst of dogma or attempted advice with violence”.[6] [7] [8]

Listen now to his recollections of the 1913 Derby (Flash needed)


I might suggest seating him with Winifred Holtby, if only because in 1925 she wrote of him as “the best company of almost any man I ever met, with a fierce tongue, a kindly heart, and a humour burning with vitality”.[9] If that had changed dramatically over the past decade this might not have been the best idea for my seating plan! I don’t know if fellow Irishman Stephen Gwynn would have been a good or bad idea. Elizabeth Haldane may have been someone he didn’t often dine with, assuming we avoid Time and Tide and other writers – unless he wanted to spar with Rebecca West. It would need to be a strong character I would think.

puzzle-piece2-50Do you have good ideas for the table companions for St John Ervine?


He clearly did have in mind what was happening in Germany. He was one speaker who we do know did make a direct reference to events across the Channel, saying that “such weekly journals such as Time and Tide were more important than ever now that everywhere simple-minded people were jumping up and dictating to their betters – Hitler, for example, telling a man like Einstein what to think” . Not a man to mince words.


St John Ervine (his pseudonym) was born John Greer Irvine on 28th December 1883 in Ballymacarret, a working-class suburb of Belfast, to Sarah Greer and William Irvine, both of whom were deaf and without speech. When he was barely three his father died, and John spent much of his childhood in the home of his maternal grandmother, with whom he formed a deep attachment. She died when he was ten and his mother had to struggle to support him and his sister. Leaving school at seventeen (poverty precluding any further education) he became an insurance clerk, first in Belfast and then London. He joined the Fabian Society and began to write for newspapers, and then for the theatre, and assumed the name St John Ervine. On 15th July 1911 he married fellow Fabian, Leonora Mary Davis (1886/7–1965), a bookseller’s daughter. They were both members of the Fabian reform committee, in opposition to Fabian liberals such as Beatrice and Sidney Webb.

He worked first for the Abbey Theatre, Dublin, (1911 and 1915) with a short lived tenure as manager, but his temperament and strong political ideas meant this lasted less than a year. His ODNB biographer, John Cronin, comments “A unionist and a strong opponent of home rule, he regarded the Easter rising of 1916 as Ireland’s supreme betrayal of Britain and of Western civilization.”[10] In the 1920s St John Ervine wrote London West End comedies and by the time of the dinner and through the 1940s he had returned to Ulster themes (his one-act play, The Magnanimous Lover, bringing him into contact with W.B. Yeats).

A Lieutenant in the Dublin Fusiliers (in the British army) he suffered severe wounds in France in 1918 and the amputation of one leg – giving frequent pain trouble for the rest of his life. After the war he also worked as drama critic for the Morning Post and The Observer and, in 1929, was guest drama critic for the New York World.

ERVINE-TT.pngSt John Ervine began his contributions to Time and Tide from the mid 1920s and from 1929 he wrote a new weekly Time and Tide feature “Notes on the Way”, aimed at provoking letters.[11] In 1925 he weighed in on the issue as to whether letters to the editor of Time and Tide should be “Dear Sir”, and the fact that Catherine Clay spends more than three pages on this in her recent book on Time and Tide reflects the complexity of the issue, with St John’s Ervine’s contributions at times ambiguous, at times aiming to steer the debate in a helpful direction.[12]


Ervine continued to provoke: in the edition of 13th October 1934 he gained the title of “provocateur”.[13] At the time of the dinner he probably had recently become one of the first members of the Irish Academy of Letters, founded by Yeats the year before, and from 1933 until 1936 he was professor of dramatic literature at the Royal Society of Literature. He was awarded an honorary DLitt by the Queen’s University Belfast in 1945.

As well as plays, he wrote a number of novels and some full-length biographies, including that of the Salvation Army’s General Booth, of Craigavon and of Carson, a literary biography of his idol GBS in 1956 and a hostile study of Oscar Wilde. Other prose drew on the Belfast of his youth, his contact with other literary figures, and on his developing experience of the theatre of his time.[14]

He died on 24th January 1971, after having first been looked after by two friends in their own home before he moved to a Sussex nursing home near Midhurst, where he died 6 years after his wife. They had no children, which had saddened him greatly.[15] Precisely 82 years to the day after the dinner the Belfast Telegraph would be reporting on the plaque unveiled in his honour.[16]


[1] St John Greer Ervine, by Walter Benington, for Elliott & Fry, chlorobromide print, 1931-1932 NPG x94121, © National Portrait Gallery, London

[2] Catherine Clay, Time and Tide, Edinburgh University Press, 2018, p 29

[3] Angela V. John (2013), Turning the Tide, Cardigan, Parthian, p 307


[5] Vera Brittain, in her life of Winifred Holtby, Testament of Friendship, Macmillan, 1940 Virago edition 2012, p205

[6] John Fothergill, An Innkeeper’s Diary, Folio Edition 2000 p253

[7] St John Greer Ervine, Wikipedia

[8] Robert Sullivan, Ervine St. John G, Modernist Journal Project, Brown University and University of Tulsa; accessed 23.12.2017.

[9] Winifred Holtby, Letter to Rosalind, Nov 5th 1925 Letters to a Friend, page 387

[10] John Cronin, Irvine, John Greer (pseud. St John Greer Ervine), 1883 – 1971, Oxford Dictionary of National Biography, 28.9.2006

[11] Angela V. John (2013), Turning the Tide, Cardigan, Parthian, p307

[12] Catherine Clay, Time and Tide, Edinburgh University Press, 2018, pp28-32

[13] Catherine Clay, Time and Tide, Edinburgh University Press, 2018, p29


[15] Kate Newman, St John Greer Ervine, Dictionary of Ulster Biography,

[16] Colin O’Carroll, Belfast writer St John Ervine is honoured with plaque, Belfast Telegraph, 23.3.2015 accessed 16.3.2018

Can you tell us more?

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s