The Plough and the Stars

by Sean O'Casey

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Last Updated September 5, 2023.

Seán O’Casey’s play is a satire of the patriotic feelings prevalent during the early years of the Irish Republic, a satire that illuminates a series of contradictions within Irish society and the nationalist movement. The first of these to become evident is the gulf between wealth and poverty, namely between the affluent appearance of the Clitheroe apartment, with its fireplace and high windows, and the squalor of their neighbor Bessie’s lodgings. This disparity is emphasized by how closely these realities coexist, with the aspiring Nora Clitheroe lavishing care on the ill and impoverished child of her neighbor Mrs. Gogan and receiving care in turn from the woman whom she and her husband thought of as course and uncivilized. The closeness between wealth and poverty as represented in this play perhaps reflects O’Casey’s notion of the Irish working classes as a close community, united by common interests and aspirations.

O’Casey, however—though a committed socialist and a supporter of Irish independence—is far from an idealist, as indicated by how he contrasts the lofty aspirations of the Irish Citizen Army with the more human aspects of life in the Dublin slums. The timidity of Uncle Peter, the readiness of Fluther and the Covey to loot the shops, and Nora’s use of sex to distract her partner from his obligations to the ICA also speak to the “plough” rather than “the stars,” to the lower instincts that, for O’Casey, were a part of any human society. He goes so far as to portray the ideals of the Irish revolution, characterized by the voice of Pierce, as an intruder that pursues Peter into the public house, a space symbolic both of vice and of community in Irish society.

The satirical view O’Casey takes toward the revolution and the Easter Rising in particular can be viewed as pessimistic in that the play’s most noble characters—Nora with her readiness to care and sacrifice for the dying child, and Bessie with her dedication to Nora—are those who suffer the most in the play, while less virtuous characters such as Fluther and the Covey come out materially better off. The play might even be accused of mocking the revolution by situating characters like “The Figure In The Window,” who is symbolic of Irish nationalism, in the same scene as Rosie the prostitute. The Plough and the Stars received scathing criticism following its first showing in Dublin in 1926, with many in the nationalist movement accusing O’Casey of disrespecting those who had given their lives for Irish patriotism. Nevertheless, The Plough and the Stars remains a classic—one in strength and compassion on a human scale are valued above vague revolutionary rhetoric.

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