Within the railings of St. Stephen’s Green, the monuments dotted around the park commemorate suffragettes, socialists, poets and writers. Many of the people remembered are bound to the history of the park; James Joyce immortalised it within Ulysses, while Countess Markievicz patrolled it her Citizen Army uniform during Easter Week.
A monument that could easily be missed commemorates someone with no connection to the park, born on another continent entirely, yet still bound to the Irish story. A bust of Rabindranath Tagore in the south side of the park, unveiled in October 2011, is a reminder of the historic ties between the people of Ireland and India. Presented by the government of India, it is a fine tribute to a man who had a significant impact on the thinking of William Butler Yeats, and who achieved fame as the first non-European to win the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1913.
Tagore bust, St. Stephen’s Green.
Sometimes called the “Bard of Bengal”, Tagore was born in May 1861 in Calcutta. A true polymath, Tagori’s contributions to the arts and culture spanned many fields, and he was a published poet by the age of sixteen. The national anthem of India, Jana Gana Mana, is a Hindi version of a song he originally composed in Bengali. He was a critic of imperialism and an advocate for educational reform, and both of these things are particularly important to this story of his influence in Ireland.
In 1913, Tagore’s play The Post Office was performed at The Abbey Theatre, in a fundraiser for Patick Pearse’s school St. Enda’s. In some ways, it was the meeting of two kindred spirits. Pearse’s school was groundbreaking in its approach to education; as Richard English has noted, Pearse “seen his school as – in part – an experiment in the cultivation of national identity. ” Maintaining that the education system of the day was broken, and designed merely to produce “willing or at least manageable slaves”, Pearse argued for a new approach to education in his pamphlet The Murder Machine:
..the Irish school system of the future should give freedom—freedom to the individual school, freedom to the individual teacher, freedom as far as may be to the individual pupil. Without freedom there can be no right growth; and education is properly the fostering of the right growth of a personality. Our school system must bring, too, some gallant inspiration.
Like Pearse, Tagore believed in radically new approaches to education. William Butler Yeats would label Tagore’s own school in Shantiniketan as “the Indian St. Enda’s”, and as the writer Prasenjeet Kumar has noted, “he held that proper teaching should not explain things, but just stoke curiosity. He depicted beautifully his hatred of rote learning in ‘The Parrot’s Training’, in which a cage bird is force-fed textbook pages – to death.”
Tagore bust, St Stephen’s Green (Image Credit: Neuroforever, WikiCommons)
The respect was mutual, as in 1915 Pearse’s play The King (which had been written As Gaeilge) was performed in Tagore’s school. The Abbey Theatre performance was a great success, and provided much needed funds to St. Enda’s, a school Pearse was totally committed to but struggled to finance. A contemporary remembered that “he was a dreamer, but unfortunately never had the money to bring his dreams to fruition.”
While Tagore and Pearse never met, he did meet Yeats in 1912, during a visit to Britain. Yeats agreed to write the introduction to a translated collection of Tagore’s poems, and he was clearly moved:
I have carried the manuscript of these translations about with me for days, reading it in railway trains, or on the top of omnibuses and in restaurants, and I have often had to close it lest some stranger would see how much it moved me. These lyrics . . . display in their thought a world I have dreamed of all my live [sic] long . . . a tradition, where poetry and religion are the same thing.
In a History Ireland article on the relationship between Yeats and Tagore, Malcolm Sen argued that “it is easy to understand why Yeats would be fascinated by Tagore. The Irish poet often spoke of the possibility of a shared cultural memory that brought distant civilisations together, and Tagore would echo such idealistic universalism in his writings.” Sen notes too that Yeats found something familiar in Tagore’s writings, as for him “Tagore’s Bengal and the west of Ireland shared an affinity that counterpointed the materialistic modernity of imperialism. He compared Tagore’s work to Douglas Hyde’s Love Songs of Connaught.”
Tagore died in 1941 at the age of eighty, and he is widely commemorated in India and internationally. In 2011, the bust in St. Stephen’s Green was unveiled by Prennet Kaur, India’s Minister of State for External Affairs. It is worth noting that when the nearby bust of Countess Markievicz was unveiled in 1932, one of those in attendance was a former Speaker of the Indian Parliament, in recognition of the close bonds between the two nations.
The 1932 unveiling of the Markievicz memorial (Irish Press)
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