Themes and Meanings
One important theme of The Shadow of a Gunman is the criticism of any claims to the ideal. The Irish Republican ideal seems to have little relevance in the world of the tenement. It ignores the social evils that are present and honors violence and destruction; the inevitable result is that those for whom the rebellion was begun are slaughtered and impoverished in the chaos. In addition, it tends to bring out the worst in the people; instead of transforming them into heroes it leads them to use idealism as an escape from the dreary lives they are living. Instead of working for specific and practical social change, they indulge themselves with writing letters to the IRA and bragging at pubs. Moreover, the ideals of the IRA, as Seumas makes clear, lead inevitably to civilian deaths; the people are dying for the gunmen, not the other way around.
Another theme is the necessity of accepting responsibility. Sean O’Casey consistently portrays the female characters in the play as nurturing, brave, and oriented to life, while the men are caught in vanity and evasion. Minnie Powell is unconcerned about conventions and gossip while Davoren is still bound to them, even though he is supposed to be a bohemian poet. Davoren and Seumas, as well as Tommy Owens, create shadow worlds of illusion, while Minnie can and does deal with immediate and practical matters, such as the bag of bombs. She is willing to sacrifice herself in order to preserve Davoren, while the men are irresponsible and unwilling to meet the commitment demanded by their positions as poets or supporters of the rebellion.
Another important theme for O’Casey is the intrusion of historical events upon the lives of ordinary people. History—here seen as the war between the Irish and the British—manifests itself in a sudden, surprising, and destructive manner. It shows the characters that they live in a world subject to outside, uncontrollable forces; their fate cannot be determined or put off by their words or games. It is a destructive and clarifying force, even though it seems to change only a few of the characters.