Three Monkeys Online

A Curious, Alternative Magazine

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

Michael Casey died in 1886 at the age of forty-eight and the loss of his salary undoubtedly had an effect of the Casey household. Two of O'Casey's brothers, Tom and Mick, joined the British Army, and his sister Bella trained as a teacher. Bella taught Seán at home and by the time he was ten, he was able to read and write. He attended a primary school but left this at the age of fourteen and took a job in a warehouse in a business owned by two Protestants. Most of the businesses in Dublin were Protestant-owned and as they tended to “look after their own”, Seán had little difficulty getting jobs in such enterprises. He later moved to Eason's, a large Dublin newsagents, also Protestant-owned.

The type of work O'Casey was given by his employers was that of the trusted retainer; moderately paid, respectable and honest. This may not appear a great distinction, but it was definitely a cut above the average labourer who in Dublin was invariably a Roman Catholic. In times of recession, when jobs needed to be shed, the Catholics would be let go and the Protestant jobs would be safe. Thus as a consequence of family background, education, and his formative years, O'Casey, although not a member of an economically privileged elite, was in a group apart from those with whom he lived alongside in his native city. There were no religious ghettoes in Dublin and an outsider would discern no difference, either in appearance or accent, between the two groups. They lived and worked alongside each other; but Dubliners knew to which side they belonged, and more importantly, to which side they did not. What happened was that, even before he became a writer, O'Casey choose to distance himself from this lower middle-class milieu and identify in a social, but not a religious sense, with Dublin's working-class.

In 1903, O'Casey went to work as a labourer with pick and shovel at the Great Northern Railway in Amiens Street; an unusual occupation for someone of his background. Also in that year, he joined the Gaelic League and the Gaelic Athletic Association, stopped using the English form of his name, John Casey, and began to use the Gaelic form by which he is known today: Seán O'Casey. He sought to introduce Gaelic-speaking clergy into the Protestant Church in Dublin and tried to persuade Protestants to join in nationalist organisations. Today, when the Irish Republic is largely identified with the Roman Catholic Church and the pro-
British part of Northern Ireland with Protestantism, it is easy to forget that most of the iconic heroes of Irish Nationalism were Protestants. These include rebels who fought the British and who died and were executed such as Wolfe Tone, Edward Fitzgerald and Robert Emmet. The leader of the Irish Parliamentary movement for independence, Charles Stuart Parnell, was also a Protestant and was revered by O'Casey. It was Seán who recruited the protestant Ernest Blythe into the Irish Republican Brotherhood (IRB). Blythe, who later became a minister in the first Irish Free State government and also managing director of the Abbey Theatre.

O'Casey's attempts in the early years of the twentieth century to associate the growing Irish nationalist movement with the secular eighteenth century republicanism of Wolfe Tone (itself heavily influenced by the French Revolution) drew down the hostility of the Protestant churches (many of whose members in all parts of Ireland were pro-British) and the Roman Catholic church. The Catholic Church could accommodate itself to republicanism, but, as experience was to prove when an independent Ireland did emerge in the 1920s, it would not be a secular form of republicanism. The Belfast Unionist's taunt that 'Home Rule' would be 'Rome Rule' was then seen to have some validity. By 1914, when the First World War broke out, O'Casey had become disillusioned with the nationalist movement. He had become secretary of the Irish Citizen Army, which had been formed by James Connolly to defend workers rights, but he believed that this too was moving in the nationalist direction and he drifted away. With the outbreak of the war, the IRB began to plan for a rising against Britain and sought help from Germany. By the time the Rising did take place at Easter 1916, O'Casey had lost contact with the nationalist movement and he took no part in the action, although his former comrade in the Citizen Army – James Connolly – was one of the leaders and also one of those executed by the British.

The 1916 Rising, and particularly the outcry over the executions of the leaders (in particular James Connolly who had been so badly wounded in the fighting he could not stand and yet was strapped into a chair and shot by firing squad), did what W. B. Yeats claimed in his poem Easter 1916. In Ireland all had “changed, changed utterly” and after the Rising, Ireland would never be the same place again. The end of the Great War was followed in Ireland by the victory of the republican party Sinn Féin in the November 1918 UK General Election. This led to the establishment of a separate Parliament – Dáil Éireann – in Dublin in January 1919 which was not recognised by the British. This resulted in the War of Independence between British forces and the IRA during the years 1919 and 1921, which in turn resulted in the Anglo Irish Treaty of 1921 and the establishment of the Irish Free State. The Treaty provided for the British retention of Northern Ireland and this was rejected by many Republicans and led to the Irish Civil War of 1922 – 1923. All of these events form the backdrop of O'Casey's three Dublin plays, The Plough and the Stars, The Shadow of a Gunman, and Juno and the Paycock.

Who, then, was the man Seán O'Casey when he began to write the first of the Dublin trilogy The Shadow of a Gunman? He was largely self-educated and this is considered to be partly responsible for what many who knew him saw as his stubborn streak. He had rejected his social and religious background. He had quarrelled with his friends and colleagues in the nationalist movement and the Citizen Army and had taken no part in the nation-shaping events he had helped to create. He lived among the Dublin working class but did not share their culture, which was largely determined by their religion. He had musical tastes and a delicate sensory perception. In other words he was ideally suited to be an artist as he had that detachment which is essential to the artist. He could use events such as the Rising, the War of Independence, and the Civil War as his raw material because although he had lived through them, had relatives, friends and neighbours who had participated in them, yet he was outside of them.