sean-o-casey

Seán O’Casey – Portrait of the Artist as an Outsider


Ever since, as James Joyce remarked, we have become “Jung and easily Freudened” it has become necessary, when dealing with a writer, to refer not only to his work but to his private life as well. This is particularly true in the case of Seán O'Casey, one of Ireland's great literary icons. In fact, O'Casey now shares with Joyce the privilege of having a bridge over Dublin's River Liffey named after him. The Sean O'Casey Bridge, linking Dublin's docklands with the South Quays, was opened recently, thus making O'Casey only the second Irish writer to have such a distinction.

O'Casey's portrait, together with those of James Joyce, Lady Gregory, W.B. Yeats, George Bernard Shaw, Jonathan Swift, and Oscar Wilde, greets the visitor at Dublin Airport, and portraits and photographs of these writers and O'Casey also grace many a Dublin pub. O'Casey's studied expression stares out from under the cloth cap of the worker or the coloured cap of the writer in his study and thereby assures the doubter: Yes! A working-class man can be both an artist and an intellectual; and for many, O'Casey is a prototype working-class hero. O’Casey allowed this image to develop over many years and became known worldwide as the 'slum dramatist', the self-educated labourer who could transcend his origins and produce masterpieces for the theatre; the quintessential Dubliner from the tenements who became a living example of Ireland's literary greatness.

Now the purpose of this article is not to question the artistic validity of O'Casey's work. That work is great theatre and has rightly gained world renown, has been translated into many languages, and is constantly in production. No, the purpose is to examine the conjunction of artist and persona and question why O'Casey felt it necessary to help create the image that has become associated with him.

To make this examination, it is necessary to take a look at the sectarian nature of Irish history and politics. One of the writers listed in the pantheon above, Lady Gregory, said that, in Ireland, history was a second form of religion. What I believe she was referring to was the fact that Irish history shares with religion the common feature that to those who adhere to a particular interpretation, it is an act of faith and not of demonstrable fact. In Ireland, you inherit your historical viewpoint, as you do your religion. To question it, irrespective of how many facts are paraded to challenge it, is considered to be an act of apostasy.

The non-Irish reader may be interested in one particular feature of the representative list of Irish writers given above. Notwithstanding the fact that Roman Catholicism has always been the religion of the majority of the Irish population, only one of those listed – James Joyce – was born a Roman Catholic. All of the others were born into the Protestant faith. In Ireland, the majority of Protestants are part of the Anglican (Church of Ireland) communion, and O'Casey was born into this group.

Therefore from birth, O'Casey in his own country was part of a minority group, but not a down-trodden oppressed minority; not a minority who had to struggle to make themselves heard. On the contrary, from the time in sixteenth century England of the triumph of Protestantism over Catholicism, the ruling class in England's colony, Ireland, had been required to adopt the Protestant faith. The Church of Ireland was the established church and only those who were members of it could hold political office, sit in Parliament, or be members of the professions. By the time O'Casey was born, this had changed significantly, but Protestants in Ireland still held many of the public offices and were considered to be an elite.

In the mid-nineteenth century, O'Casey's father, Michael Casey, moved to Dublin from Limerick and in 1863 he married Susan Archer, a daughter of a prosperous auctioneer. Both Michael and Susan were Protestants and Michael worked as secretary to the Irish Church Missions, a proselytizing body that had been established to convert Roman Catholics to the Church of Ireland. Therefore both of O'Casey's parents were from the middle-class, both were literate – and given Michael Casey's occupation – were outside of the mainstream of Irish life. Michael Casey was a well-educated man, who worked as a part time teacher. In his Autobiographies published between 1939 and 1955, O'Casey gives an example of the books in his fathers study. Pride of place was given to theological and historical works, but the list includes Shakespeare, Jane Austen, and Walter Scott. This was most definitely not the family environment of the average Dublin working-class boy.

O'Casey was born in Dublin in 1880, was christened John Casey, and was baptised into the Church of Ireland. He was the youngest of seven children, and although he later claimed that his mother had given birth to thirteen children, this is highly improbable. Very large families were a feature of the Dublin working-class, the vast majority of whom were Roman Catholic. Then, as now, the Catholic Church denounced any form of birth control. O'Casey's claim that he was one of a family of thirteen was one of his methods of identifying himself with the majority of Dublin's working-class, which by 1911 formed 20% of the city's population and was almost totally Roman Catholic.

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