Paul Robeson (1898-1976) was a hugely popular American singer and actor of stage and screen, who was also committed to radical political change and communist ideals. A keen supporter of the Soviet Union, he was quoted in the Daily Worker in 1935 as stating that ” I feel more kinship to the Russian people under their new society than I ever felt anywhere else.” Robeson went as far as to have his son educated in Moscow, in the belief that he could there avoid the “discrimination that he had faced growing up in the United States.”
He made several visits to Dublin in the 1930s,each time receiving glowing reviews and drawing large crowds.A tweet a few days ago marking the anniversary of one of these appearances inspired this post, and a little digging in the newspaper archives. Robeson performed in the Theatre Royal, a much loved Dublin institution, as well as the Capitol Theatre. There was enormous media interest in Robeson before his first visit to the city, with the Irish Independent describing him as the “famous actor vocalist”, renowned as an “interpreter of negro melodies.” Advertisements billed him as having “a voice that touches the heart. Deep, rich, romantic and soul-stirring.”
While the 1920s and 30s brought international renown for Robeson as an entertainer, he still encountered bigotry from certain quarters; his biographer Scott Ehrlich recounts one episode in London in 1929 (a city where Robeson performed both as an actor and singer to rave reviews), when “invited to a party given by a friend in a London hotel, he was barred from entering the building because he was black. The incident was considered a great scandal by the British public, and the hotel management soon apologised to Robeson.”
Robeson’s first 1930s Dublin concert at the Theatre Royal drew a sellout crowd on 5 April 1930, with The Irish Times noting that he was “known far and wide for some excellent gramophone records.” Robeson’s appeal was built not only on successful gramophone records, but his appearances on stage which were reviewed widely, in particular his role in Show Boat on Drury Lane in London. It produced the hugely popular Ol’ Man River in 1929:
The cinema brought him to a wider audience too, and his name appears often in the advertisements for Dublin cinemas, which were a booming industry in the 30s. A word frequently used to describe Robeson was ‘celebrity’, and the Sunday Independent believed it was this status that “attracted one of the largest and most enthusiastic audiences of the season” to the Royal. Not everyone was impressed by what Robeson offered. One reviewer wrote that “I do not suggest these negro songs are in any sense intellectual.They are, in fact, mere doggeral – many of them, indeed, are vulgar, and the tunes as trite as most of the music we get from America.”
By the time of Robeson’s next Dublin visit in 1935, his fame had grown internationally. He, his wife and Laurence Brown, his accompanist, were photographed in the fashionable Shelbourne Hotel, before his performance in the Capitol Theatre. Brown would recall that this visit to Dublin was particularly special for him:
Something happened which made me see Paul in a new light and realise that he had a power beyond that of an ordinary singer.After our concert several young Negro medical students – I think five of them- who were studying in Dublin, came to see Paul…I’ve never forgotten the expression on the faces of these young Negroes as they looked at Paul. How shall I describe it? They seemed to worship him. Although they came from so many different places they all looked at him as if he were a man they could trust and who, in a sense, they regarded as Moses.
Before this visit to Ireland in 1935, Robeson told an Irish journalist in London that “he knew members of the Abbey Theatre Company, including Sara Allgood and Arthur Shields.” Shields was a veteran of the Easter Rising, who was already a highly regarded actor of the stage before the insurrection had taken place, but whose career continued to develop in the years that followed. Another 1916 participant Robeson would encounter through his profession was John Loder, alongside whom he would star in King Solomon’s Mines in 1938. Born William John Muir Lowe, Loder was about as far removed from Volunteer Arthur Shields as one could be. He was the son of General Lowe, the British officer to whom Patrick Pearse would surrender towards the end of the Rising.
Robeson did not shy away from political commentary on his next Dublin visit in 1936, telling the Irish Press that “though born in Princeton, New Jersey, and glad to be an American citizen, he was prouder of and more interested in his African ancestry.” Praising Soviet Russia in the same interview, Robeson said that “there is absolutely no colour prejudice in Russia. It is not in their mentality. I have never felt as free as when I walked the streets of Moscow.” Robeson also became a passionate defender of the Spanish Republic, an outlook he would maintain throughout the war in Spain (1936-1939). Soviet Russia and the Spanish Republic were anything but fashionable in the Ireland of the 1930s, at a time when the Irish Christian Front were mobilising huge numbers at anti-communist demonstrations, and when the Saint Patrick’s Anti-Communist League had besieged Connolly House on Great Strand Street.
Yet if his sentiments on the Soviet Union were unlikely to find much support in Ireland, he did express sympathy with Ireland historically, stating that “the only people ever persecuted in their own country were the Irish”, and even claiming he would attempt to learn to speak Gaelic! It was the misfortune of the Dublin audiences who heard Robeson in the 1930s that he hadn’t yet learned the ballad Kevin Barry, which he would record in the 1950s. Robeson learned the song from Peadar O’Donnell, the Donegal-born republican and socialist agitator, who spent much of the 1930s involved in political agitation on the streets of Dublin. On a visit to the United States, a chance encounter brought the two radicals together, in a story told by O’Donnell’s biographer Donal Ó Drisceoil:
Peadar was stranded at a roadside with a burst tyre when a limousine stopped and offered help. He was invited to sit in the car by the passenger while the driver fixed the puncture.The passenger turned out to be Paul Robeson, who told Peadar that he would like to record an Irish song. O’ Donnell suggested Kevin Barry, the ballad glorifying the young IRA man hanged by the British in 1920, which he said conveyed the spirit of Ireland. He proceeded to teach the song to Robeson, who released it on record in the early 1950s.
Paul Robeson died in January 1976. The radical sentiment that had shone through in his Irish Press interview of 1936 remained with him. When dragged in front of the House of Un-American Activities in June 1956, he informed those before him that “you are the non-patriots, and you are the un-Americans, and you ought to be ashamed of yourselves.” While deteriorating health in his later years removed him from the public stage, he retained his radical outlet. While that political radicalism may have been out of place in the Ireland of more than eight decades ago, his wonderful and unique voice always found a welcoming audience in this city.