Sean O'Casey Biography


(Critical Edition of Dramatic Literature)

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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Sean O'Casey Biography

(Literary Masterpieces, Volume 7)

Garry O’Connor’s biography of Sean O’Casey would, at first glance, seem redundant, since O’Casey has already written a six-volume autobiography, Mirror in My House (1956); however, O’Casey’s version of his life and the controversies in which he was embroiled is very one-sided and inaccurate. O’Casey could not put aside his ingrained polemical attitude when he came to write his own story, and O’Connor is skillful at sorting out the facts from O’Casey’s embellishments. In addition, he provides a detailed portrait of O’Casey’s family, the social and political situation of early twentieth century Dublin, and sensitive portraits of the playwright’s wife, Eileen, and such important literary figures as William Butler Yeats and Lady Augusta Gregory.

Sean O’Casey was not reared in a tenement in the slums of Dublin in abject poverty as legend has it; he was, instead, brought up in relative comfort in a middle-class household. O’Casey was always inventing myths about himself, and the myth of his humble origins may be the most widely held and enduring of them. He wished to associate himself with the poor and disfranchised, and so he blurred his class and origins. Moreover, he was not a Roman Catholic but a militant Protestant, like his father; that Protestantism may have been one of the causes of his refusal to accept any authority or institution. As a result, he found himself in the minority on nearly every dispute or issue.

O’Connor suggests that another reason for O’Casey’s prickly individualism was the pampering of his mother. O’Casey worshiped his mother. She kept the family together after her husband died, and she allowed Sean to spend his time reading and educating himself rather than working as his brothers did. It is no accident that O’Casey was later, in his plays, to portray women as caring and life-giving, while the men are destructively idealistic.

O’Casey worked for a short time as a stock boy but left because of some dispute, a pattern he was to follow throughout his life. It was not until he was twenty-three that he found steady employment as a laborer with the Great Northern Railroad. O’Connor suggests that O’Casey could have had a job as a clerk but wished to work with his hands as his socialist philosophy decreed and as his image of himself required. At this time he met James Larkin, one of the father figures who were to influence the direction of his life. Larkin was the head of the transport workers’ union, and he worked incessantly to improve the wages and living conditions of the workers. O’Casey became secretary of the union after he quit the Great Northern after another dispute. O’Casey was also an ardent Irish nationalist, however, and there was a conflict within him—and others—over whether social or national liberation should come first. After the failure of Larkin’s strike in 1913, James Connolly took over as head of the union and, under the influence of Padraic Pearse, chose nationalism over socialism.

O’Casey was also active in many of the groups attempting to further Irish nationalism; he became secretary of the Irish Citizen Army (ICA), which did not wish to wait until after World War I for Home Rule. The ICA was opposed by a rival and much larger group, the Irish Volunteers. Both groups marched and secretly prepared for an armed insurrection. In 1914, O’Casey left the ICA after a dispute with members of the group. Once more, O’Casey could not accept authority or any challenge of his position. He gloried in his isolated position and mercilessly attacked his opponents with biblical rhetoric.

As a result of severing his ties with the ICA, O’Casey missed participating in the central event of modern Irish history, the 1916 uprising. When the ICA and the Irish Volunteers occupied the General Post Office and other locations, O’Casey was only an observer. He was arrested and interned but did not display the reckless courage that the men of 1916 did, for he was a theorist of nationalism and socialism, a man of ideas rather than action. He must have known that he was, as O’Connor perceptively points out, the inevitable secretary of any organization and not a commander. He suffered deep feelings of guilt over his failure to participate in the rebellion, feelings that were not purged until he wrote The Plough and the Stars (1926).

In the wake of the uprising, however, O’Casey did begin to find his place and role in the theater, a subject on which O’Connor is very knowledgeable. He submitted a number of plays with nationalistic and social themes to the Abbey Theatre; they were rejected, but Lady Gregory and Lennox Robinson encouraged him to continue, to focus on character rather than ideology. The result of their encouragement and his artful combining of the tragic and the comic is found in The Shadow of a Gunman (1923).

The Shadow of a Gunman was a very popular play for the Abbey Theatre and a great success for O’Casey. It shows how unheroic tenement characters became involved in the accidents of the Troubles....

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Sean O'Casey Biography

(Masterpieces of World Literature, Critical Edition)

Sean O’Casey was born John Casey in Dublin, Ireland, on March 30, 1880, to Michael and Susan Casey. He was the youngest of thirteen children, eight of whom died in infancy. Dublin at that time was among the most slum-infested cities in Europe, and the visual problems from which O’Casey suffered throughout his life began in this poverty-ridden environment. The family belonged to the least-known social class in the Ireland of the day, the Protestant proletariat. This fact led to the young O’Casey’s sense of being an outsider. In addition, the early death of his father increased the family’s difficulties, while making Susan Casey the dominant influence in the playwright’s life. The interaction between economic difficulty...

(The entire section is 911 words.)

Sean O'Casey Biography

(Masterpieces of World Literature, Critical Edition)

Sean O’Casey’s long and prolific career is noteworthy for a number of reasons. In the first place, like all important writers, he drew the public’s attention to ways of life and modes of perception that had previously not been considered subjects for art. In addition, his dynamic and colorful language subtly establishes and exposes the limits of his characters’ worlds. The way people suffer when they have reached those limits is the overall theme of O’Casey’s dramatic works. His greatest plays are suffused with an awareness of life’s practical considerations, often presented from an economic point of view.

Yet these plays also remain sympathetically alive to his characters’ human need to dream. The range...

(The entire section is 169 words.)

Sean O'Casey Biography

(Great Authors of World Literature, Critical Edition)

Sean O’Casey was born John Casey (or Casside) in Dublin on March 30, 1880, and lived to be one of the most eminent twentieth century dramatists in English. His family was Protestant, communicants of the Church of Ireland, and Unionist (several relatives had been soldiers in the British army). The family lived comfortably until the illness and death of Sean’s father plunged them into dire poverty. Partly because of this fact and partly because of a painful condition in his eyes, O’Casey had little formal education. His autobiographies contain moving depictions of the family’s decline, of his mother’s heroic attempts to hold things together, and of his sister’s pathetic life and death, victim of a mentally ill husband....

(The entire section is 784 words.)

Sean O'Casey Biography

(Drama for Students)

O’Casey was born John Casey on March 30, 1880, in Dublin, Ireland. The youngest of eight children, O’Casey is one of the five that...

(The entire section is 504 words.)