(Literary Essentials: Nonfiction Masterpieces)

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...

(The entire section is 983 words.)