Jonathan deBurca Butler
Hidden in an office in the National Library of Ireland is a medium-sized oval dining-table. It is dark brown, polished and it sits with a sturdy elegance. This is the table at which Sean O’Casey wrote. His daughter, Shivaun, remembers it differently.
“They went and cleaned it,” says the 74-year-old, “which is such a shame because it had this sort of pattern on it from being in this smoked filled room for ages and never being polished. Now it looks like some middle-class table whereas before it was a real working table. When we lived in Totnes Devon I slept in a room beside his. We shared an adjoining door. I remember he’d have his books piled on it that he was using and his tobacco and his little box of pencils and his pen. And it was all in the right place. He hated anyone coming to dust his room. It was very important that everything was where he knew it would be. He was really very organised. He had to be because he couldn’t see.”
At night time when Shivaun was going to bed she would hear her father working on his typewriter. This nocturnal beavering was, according to Shivaun, “his real work, his creative work” and it often went on well into the night. Mornings were spent “answering all these hundreds of letters” that he collected.
“He wrote to anybody and everybody about everything and anything,” says Shivaun. “You know, he’d write to newspapers to right what he felt was a wrong or to put some sense on something. But he wrote to women and men who wrote to him with problems too. He’d always answer them.”
Sean O’Casey, who died fifty years ago this week, was a champion of the working classes in a time when such a thing was real. His concern was their concerns and this was always reflected in his writing. Though he lived through extraordinary times, he wrote about the ordinary. Great events were often the backdrop to the more turbulent, cataclysmic and personal stories that unfolded in his plays.
“The artist’s life,” he once said, “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.”
O’Casey was born in 85 Upper Dorset St., Dublin on March 30th, 1880. By all accounts his family were initially quite comfortable but when he was just 6-years-old his father, Michael, died and left behind a family of thirteen. The family were forced to move from house to house. Money was scarce but rents had to be paid.
His mother Susan raised the family alone. To O’Casey she was a hero and at least part of the reason for his often positive depiction of women in his plays.
“She very much influenced him,” says Professor Christopher Murray of University College Dublin. “She was an emblem of courage for him. She liked a song and a drink and he liked that heartiness about her. He really admired her.”
Even as a youth O’Casey’s eyesight was poor, something that his sadistic teachers preyed on. School did little for him and he was taught to read by his sister, Bella. At 14, he went to work as a labourer and spent the next few years working different jobs on railway sites and in factories. For a short period he worked for Eason’s. According to one story he was fired for not removing his cap when going to collect a wage. His years of labouring exposed him to the hardships that working men experienced. Hunger, humiliation, exploitation and fear were the order of the day for the working Dubliner.
In 1911, O’Casey joined Jim Larkin’s Irish Transport and General Workers Union. He would later become secretary of James Connolly’s Irish Citizen Army but the two fell out over uniforms and the Citizen Army’s growing affiliation to the Irish Volunteers. He would remain a die-hard socialist throughout his life.
“He adored Larkin,” says Professor Murray. “Indeed there’s a piece from O’Casey’s autobiography on his statue in O’Connell Street. He learned a lot from him. It was Larkin who told him that the working man needed a loaf of bread on the table but also a vase of flowers to enhance his life. He never turned his back on socialism. He never said ‘oh now in the age of Stalin we should back off a bit’. He was committed to it all the way through.”
As a young man, O’Casey had dabbled in amateur dramatics. After publishing a eulogy on hunger striker and Irish Volunteer, Thomas Ashe, he decided that writing would be his future. The Abbey Theatre turned down his first two plays but accepted “The Shadow of a Gunman” in 1923. “Juno and the Paycock” was produced the following year and in 1926 “The Plough and the Stars”. The latter lead to rioting in the theatre. The appearance of a prostitute and an Irish tricolour in a pub was enough to spark outrage amongst some in the audience who felt slighted by O’Casey’s attack on Ireland’s perceived purity.
The riots created notoriety and lead to a boost in audiences. O’Casey was able to commit to writing full-time. His commitment to Ireland was waning however. The Abbey refused to put on his play “The Silver Tassie”. He argued with them. At the same time he was awarded the Hawthorden Award in London. He went there to collect the prize of 100 pounds and to give advice on the staging of Juno which was in preparation for a run in the West End. While there he met actress Eileen Reynolds. They married in Chelsea in 1927 and would go on to have three children Breon, Niall and Shivaun.
“The Dublin papers at the time were all interested in knowing when he was coming back,” says Professor Murray. “They gradually formed the view that he had gotten too big for his boots and it really became a settled idea; that he had got a big head. So they weren’t so surprised when his later plays didn’t do so well, they sort of said ‘well there you are, you should be here’.”
O’Casey had found a new home. It was Eileen and later it was his family.
“He was smitten by her and she liked him for his brain really,” says Shivaun. “There was a twenty year gap between them. She said he was the first person who told her how intelligent she was and not how beautiful she was and I think she appreciated that. They loved each other very much and he tolerated her odd little flirtations but that was part of her warmth really.”
Though O’Casey wrote extensively, money was often tight. It didn’t help that he would turn the most lucrative work down. On one occasion he even refused Hollywood.
“I was born in 1939 just as the war started,” says Shivaun. “At the end of the war, everyone was struggling. It wasn’t just us though so it wasn’t something extraordinary. I remember one time when we were still living in Tingrith [Totnes Devon] and the phone went and it was some producer from Hollywood who wanted him to write the screenplay for Look Homeward Angel and Sean said that he couldn’t do it. Now this was the second call, he had already refused it once and they offered him something like $15,000 or a lot of money anyway. And he just said he couldn’t write another man’s work.”
According to Shivaun, Eileen supported him in his decision and it was never spoken of again.
“She never nagged at him about what he should do,”says Shivaun. “I think he’d say himself that he was quite lucky in marrying Eileen. She really gave him a lot of love and warmth and also supported him so much.”
He would need it. The last few years of O’Casey’s life featured ill-health, insults and tragedy. In 1956 he was treated for prostrate trouble. His sight deteriorated rapidly and he bemoaned the errors that he made with his typewriter. Later that year his son Niall died aged twenty-one. He had been suffering from Leukemia.
“He went into a decline and more or less mourned for him,” says professor Murray. “Eileen was the strong one and basically told him that he just had to accept that this was the way things were. But he was so full of love and so full of life that he just couldn’t accept that the young could go before the old in this way.”
While his plays were being performed in New York, London and Berlin, O’Casey had fallen out of favour with Irish audiences. The final insult came in 1958 when the Archbishop of Dublin, John Charles McQuaid, put a stop to a performance of The Drums of Father Ned. O’Casey reacted with his own edict and banned all professional productions of his plays in Ireland.
“Mostly in Ireland he wasn’t applauded for what he said,” says Professor Murray. “Ireland just really wanted to protect itself and its comforts and the little bit of power that it had behind the facade of Catholic doctrine that was everywhere and was culturally dominant. O’Casey was against all that and he became enemy number one.”
The ban stayed in place until the playwright lifted it in January 1964. In September of the same year O’Casey suffered a heart-attack. He died on the 18th September. His body was cremated.
“He was a great dad,” recalls Shivaun. “A great person really and very funny. My mum was too. You know they both loved children and they were both very happy to have children and they were really interested in us. So we couldn’t have been more spoilt or looked after or bothered about.”