Last Updated on May 9, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 983
In James Joyce’s A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man (1916), Stephen Dedalus talks of the “nets” (“nationality, language, religion,” “my home, my fatherland, or my church”) which the artist must “fly by” in order to fulfill himself; the novel ends when Stephen flies by the nets into exile. These same nets affect O’Casey’s life, and at the end of the fourth of his autobiographies he accepts exile in England; nevertheless, this is not the end of his story, and the word “nets” does not really define his attitude toward these forces. “Themes” is perhaps a better word for them; they come in and out of the autobiographies and as much as anything give them form.
The first theme is, quite naturally, family. John Casey was born into a lower-middle-class household which enjoyed a degree of modest comfort—his father, a clerk, had a small library—but this comfort vanished with his father’s illness and death. O’Casey has been suspected of exaggeration in describing the family’s poverty, but even allowing for this, the picture is deeply disturbing. The problem of getting medical attention for O’Casey’s diseased eyes was particularly acute. Somehow treatment was found, and his eyesight was preserved, but only with much difficulty and humiliation. Funerals, too, could be emergencies, since the family scorned a pauper’s burial. Particularly depressing is the story of Ella (Isabella), O’Casey’s sister, a talented woman who had trained as a teacher but who ended up bearing five children to a violent husband who had to be committed to an asylum. She died in the bed in which she slept with the five children; O’Casey became the guardian of one of his nephews and was reproved for not providing him with a sufficiently Christian education by the agent for a Protestant charity which was contributing meagerly to the child’s support. What is not depressing is O’Casey’s portrait of his mother, who well into her later years struggled to keep her dignity and to support her children and grandchildren as best she could. O’Casey never tried to fly by his family, though at times their needs conflicted with his desire to buy books.
What distinguished his family from most of their neighbors were religion and politics: The family members were Protestants, loyal communicants of the Church of Ireland, and they were Unionists, partisans of the British Empire. An uncle had fought in the Crimean War, and two brothers had served in the army and were proud of the fact. Ella, in the depths of her misery, decorated her room with pictures of royalty and military heroes. Eventually, O’Casey lost his faith but not his gratitude to the local vicar, who had been loyal and generous to the family in their troubles; in later life, however, the Catholic church, with its intolerant censorship, became the playwright’s enemy. The Empire he abandoned for other forms of politics.
O’Casey was not ashamed of “honest poverty” and was proud of his work as a laborer on the railroad, but he made his own the grievances of his class and was for a time active in labor agitation. He was a fervent admirer of James Larkin, and the defeat of the 1913 Dublin transit strike was one of the traumatic events of his life. At the same time, he was becoming committed to the nationalist movement. He was enthusiastically involved in the Gaelic League (an ostensibly nonpolitical group); he learned Gaelic himself and taught classes and organized meetings in spite of clerical interference.
He was also involved in overtly political and even revolutionary activities. For a time, he was secretary of the Irish Citizen Army, which had been founded by James Connolly to resist police violence during the 1913 strike. By the time of the Easter Rising, however, O’Casey had become inactive. He had come to see that Irish nationalism did not combine well with labor and socialist (much less pacifist) sympathies. In the rebellion, the Citizen Army was allied with Volunteers, which O’Casey perceived as a middle-class organization that included some who had been intensely hostile to the strike. O’Casey saw the civil war in 1922 as an extension of the same class conflict between the proletariat and the middle classes; one of his most striking vignettes describes Free State partisans on bicycles pursuing and brutally killing a former comrade who would not accept the treaty with Great Britain and the resulting partition of Ireland.
As the story progresses there is more and more about O’Casey the artist and less and less about the proletarian and revolutionary. There are two crucial dates here— 1923, when The Shadow of a Gunman was produced, and 1926, when O’Casey moved to England. Before 1923, O’Casey had done some pamphleteering and had written some plays, but from that time on his life was largely that of the professional writer. In England O’Casey enjoyed, however precariously, a degree of middle-class prosperity and a happy marriage to an Irish actress. Self-educated or badly educated himself, he could send his children to a select private school recommended by George Bernard Shaw. The rejection of The Silver Tassie by the Abbey Theatre was a traumatic event and led to a split with Yeats; to O’Casey’s credit, the quarrel was patched up, and he always writes of Lady Augusta Gregory (who was involved) with admiration and affection. As for O’Casey’s quarrels with Catholic bishops and English critics—including Orwell, who thought that refugee Irish writers should be grateful for English hospitality—one feels that O’Casey was usually in the right but that his treatment of his grievances was excessive. To be fair, O’Casey ran more risk from German bombs in the Battle of Britain than he ever did from starvation and police brutality in Dublin.