The youngest child in a large Irish Protestant family of modest means, Sean O’Casey was born John Casey in Dublin on March 30, 1880. He was the third child in his family to be named John; two of his siblings with that name had died in infancy. Later, in his twenties, after he had become an Irish nationalist and a member of the Gaelic League, he adopted the Gaelic version of his name, Sean O’Cathasaigh (pronounced O’Casey). O’Casey’s father, Michael Casey, who came from a farming family in Limerick, worked as a clerk for the Anglican Irish Church Missions. He went to Dublin as a young man and married Susan Archer, of a respectable auctioneer’s family. Michael Casey was a literate man with a good library of English classics, while O’Casey’s mother was a woman of great fortitude and devotion to her children, especially her youngest, whom she sheltered because of his physical frailty and a severe eye affliction, which left his vision permanently impaired. Even in the difficult period after her husband’s death, she maintained her respectability and encouraged her children to enter professions.
Michael Casey died after a protracted illness on September 6, 1886, when his youngest son was only six. With the loss of his income, the family started a gradual decline into poverty. The Caseys were forced to move to cheaper lodgings in a Dublin dockside neighborhood. There, O’Casey started to associate with working-class Catholic boys who attended the local parochial school. He had been enrolled at St. Mary’s National School, where his sister Isabella taught, but when he reached the age of fourteen, his schooling came to an end. His family needed the extra income, so he began to work as a stock boy with a Dublin hardware firm. Though out of school, O’Casey continued his interest in books, and he certainly learned to read before the age of sixteen, contrary to what he later reported to Lady Gregory.
O’Casey became active in the Church of Ireland during this time and was confirmed at the age of seventeen. In his free time, he read William Shakespeare and the Irish playwright Dion Boucicault. He also attended the Mechanics’ Theatre with his brother Isaac and even acted in at least one production. His love of drama was strengthened by these early productions, and after the group was later reorganized as the Abbey Theatre, he would see two of his early plays produced there in 1923.
In 1902, O’Casey began work as a laborer on the Great Northern Railway of Ireland, where he was employed for the next ten years. His budding interest in Irish nationalism led him to join the Gaelic League, learn the Irish language, and change his name. Within a short time, he was also a member of the Irish Republican Brotherhood. Through these associations, O’Casey began to shape his identity as Irish nationalist, laborer, and political activist. His interest in writing also emerged as he joined the St. Lawrence O’Toole Club, a local literary society. Above all, he forged the commitment to Irish nationalism that would occupy him for the next twenty years.
O’Casey joined the Irish Transport and General...
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