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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