Born that rarest of Irishmen, a poor southern Protestant, in a Dublin slum in 1880, Sean O’Casey was always an outsider. A communist in the Catholic, increasingly nationalist Ireland of the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries he joined the Marxist Irish Citizen Army but had left before the Easter Rising which he witnessed as an outsider.
The 1916 Rising was the start of seven tumultuous years which saw Ireland’s war of independence, a civil war and independence in 1923. O’Casey used this as the backdrop for three classic plays.
‘The Plough and the Stars’ (1926) shows the Rising jostling for its characters attention with every day gossip while they drink, loot and try to stay alive. The War of Independence of 1919 – 1921 is the setting for ‘The Shadow of a Gunman’ (1923) where a young poet lodging in a Dublin flat courts tragedy by allowing the other lodgers to persist in their mistaken belief that he is a glamorous IRA assassin. Some IRA men saw the treaty with Britain which ended this war as a sell out and civil war erupted in Ireland in 1922. This was the background for ‘Juno and the Paycock’ (1924) where the colourful Boyle family come to realise that the promises of an inheritance on which they have staked their dreams are empty.
If Shakespeare dramatized the birth of modern England on the bloody fields of Bosworth, O’Casey did it for Ireland in the back streets and tenements of Dublin. And where Shakespeare’s heroes were dukes and earls O’Casey’s were tragic women like Bessie Burgess, Minnie Powell and Mary Boyle whose fates flowed from the actions of fanatics like Jack Clitheroe, dreamers like Donal Davoren, and chancers like ‘Captain’ Jack Boyle.
But despite his nationalism O’Casey was an outsider in the new country. Riots erupted at performances of ‘The Plough and Stars’ over a scene which intercuts a heroic speech by Patrick Pearse, executed leader of the Easter Rising, with some drunks boasting and brawling in a pub. Instead of the liberation O’Casey craved Ireland became an insular theocracy where the oppressive Catholic Church, its “special position” enshrined in the constitution, dominated swathes of Irish life from health and education to public morality. The ‘Dublin plays’ had dramatized the Irish revolution, ‘Cock a Doodle Dandy’ (1949) depicted its result.
The inhabitants of O’Casey’s rural post independence Ireland are dominated by their “pastors an’ masters”, the church, manipulating their prejudices and superstitions. The women encounter most prejudice; socially ambitious bog owner Michael Marthraun’s wife Lorna and his daughter Loreleen. Women often suffer in O’Casey’s plays, but whereas they are victims of the various pretensions of male characters in the Dublin plays, here they are victims of pure sexism, “Women is more flexible towards th’ ungodly than us men” warns one character.
Given the continued existence of such as the Taliban regime O’Casey’s depiction of how the threat of sex and it’s supposedly dire consequences are used to control are as relevant as ever.
First Rough Fellow : …It’s an omen, a warnin’, a reminder of what th’ Missioner said last night that young men should think of good-lookin’ things in skirts only in th’ presence of, an’ under th’ guidance of, old and pious people
The men begin ascribing demonic causes to everything. Typically O’Casey riddles this grim panorama with wild comedy; trousers are blown away, chairs collapse and cocks run rampage, each event causing greater terror among the menfolk. Soon they are repeating any rumour as truth
Michael : (almost shouting) Have you forgotten already th’ case of th’ Widow Malone who could turn, twinklin’, into a dog or a hare, when she wanted to hide herself? An’ how, one day, th’ dogs followed what they thought was a hare that made for th’ widow’s cottage, an’ dived through an open window, one o’ th’ dogs snappin’ a leg off before it could get through. An’ when th’ door was burst open, there was th’ oul’ witch-widow screamin’ on her oul’ bed, one leg gone, with blood spoutin’ from th’ stump, so that all th’ people heard her last screechin’ as she went slidderin’ down to hell!
Such beliefs can only flourish in isolation, new ideas are frowned upon.
Michael : (ferociously) Book o’ Durrow! It’s books that have us half th’ woeful way we are, fillin’ broody minds with loose scolasticality, infringin’ th’ holy beliefs an thried impositions that our fathers’ fathers’ fathers’ gave our fathers’ fathers’, who gave our fathers’ what our fathers’ gave us!
Life at such a pitch of hysteria gives rise to grim preoccupations
Mahan : (abjectly) What’s a poor, good livin’, virtuous man to do then?
Michael : He must always be thinkin’ of th’ four last things – hell, heaven, death, an th’ judgement
Unsurprisingly the women leave for England where “life resembles life more than it does here”, a journey O’Casey had made in 1927. Marthraun remains, a lonely man in a shrunken world. Unlike the expansive panorama of ‘The Plough and the Stars’ which used all Dublin as its backdrop ‘Cock a Doodle Dandy’ takes place entirely in Marthraun’s front yard. Ireland itself had shrunk. The play was not performed there until 1975.
“The artist’s life,” O’Casey believed, “is to be where life is, active life, found in neither ivory tower nor concrete shelter; he must be out listening to everything, looking at everything, and thinking it all out afterward”. Coming to drama in his 40’s after jobs including construction labourer and shop assistant, O’Casey had a wealth of life experience to draw on and his characters sing and plays hum with Dublin speech lifted straight from real life.
In England, removed from the vein of Dublin dialect he had mined so successfully, O’Casey’s plays became more abstract and less popular. But he remained a Marxist and Irish nationalist to the end of his life wearing a hammer and sickle badge on his jacket and in tranquil, Tory Torquay, where he died in 1964, still the outsider.
This article originally appeared at Middlebrow Magazine