Cork City, Ireland.
It is 51 years since the passing of Irish playwright Sean O’Casey. The working class Dubliner took leave of this world at the age of 84 on September 18th 1964 and left behind a life shaped by class politics.
Born as John Casey in inner city working class Dublin in 1880, his childhood was plagued by bouts of ill health and an eye disease which resulted in long absences from school. During this time in history, Dublin had the highest rates of infant mortality in Europe and of O’Casey’s thirteen siblings, eight died in infancy.
O’Casey self educated himself and managed to teach himself how to read and write. He devoured classics in literature and broadened his social awareness by reading pamphlets and journals.
In his teens he found work as a navvy on the Great Northern Railway, and it proved to be a spark which lit his left wing political passions.
Ireland at that time was undergoing a social and political change. An interest in Irish culture saw a rise in numbers learning the native language while revolutionary politics gave way for a hunger for greater freedom from British imperialism. O’Casey’s social struggle was not just a black and white matter of having employment and food, his class war was more culturally defined. O’Casey’s proletarian revolution was fought on the grounds of equality in society through music and education.
O’Casey learned Irish through the Gaelic League, and was keenly aware of the role music played in Irish culture. He was a player of the Uilleann pipes and a founder member of the St. Lawrence O’Toole Pipe Club. He joined his local Gaelic League branch where he learned his native tongue and change his name to the Irish version; Sean O’ Cathasaigh.
O’Casey’s nationalist interests saw him joining the Irish Republican Brotherhood but his taste for socialism led him to be active in the Irish Transport and General Workers Union.
When the likes of Big Jim Larkin and James Connolly took to the fore of the working class struggle in Ireland, O’Casey was instantly drawn to their militaristic ways and he described the trade union leader Larkin as someone who had ‘brought poetry into the workers fight for a better life.’
In 1911 O’Casey was sacked from his job on the railway when he refused to remove his cap when receiving his pay. It was the same year which saw him join Larkin and Connolly’s Irish Transport and General Workers Union.
O’Casey became secretary of the Women and Children’s Relief Fund during the 1913 Lockout when workers across Dublin went and strike for better working conditions but were subjected to harsh treatment by the authorities.
James Connolly set up the Irish Citizen Army to protect the striking workers from the brutality of the police and O’Casey became its general secretary. O’Casey would later write a history of the Irish Citizen Army as well as a number of articles for the Irish Worker newspaper, the mouth organ of the labour movement in Ireland.
When a proposal was made to offer dual membership of the Irish Citizen Army to members of the less socialist Irish Volunteer Force, O’Casey resigned and flung himself wholeheartedly into writing proletarian plays for the world stage.
Unlike many other playwrights, O’Casey’s plays concentrated on the lives of ordinary working class folk. He brought the rough reality of tenement life to a world stage and shone a light on the proletarian struggle. He brought a sense of the grit protruding up from the fight against authority and it shone through in works such as ‘The Plough and the Stars’ ‘Juno and the Paycock’ and ‘Shadow of a Gunman.’
O’Casey brought the working class struggle to the world stage by taking characters out of Dublin tenements and playing them against the stereotype that blighted them. He brought the life of the tenement dweller to a place it had never been before and he done it without regret because he was one of them. O’Casey had no formal education and was nothing more than an unskilled labourer yet he rose above such a stereotype.
O’Casey saw beyond the society of the haves and have nots. He resented the social structure that blighted Irish society for centuries and saw it as a caste system the church hierarchy in Ireland had no problem enforcing upon their flock.
O’Casey used religion as a tool to see through class inequality much clearer. For centuries Catholics in Ireland were considered poor while Protestants were seen as the well off, but O’Casey was born into a not so well off Protestant family and this must have conjured up mixed feelings within him, a fact that made him feel like an outsider in the country of his birth.
O’Casey’s position as an impoverished Protestant made him feel like an unusual aspect of Irish society and it was one of the factors that drove him into arms of left wing politics as a means of social escape.
When he went into self exile in the 1920s he continued to write with a working class pen. His anti-capitalist views heaved through a play he wrote after he left Ireland for England called ‘The Silver Tassie.’ Set in the trenches of World War I it is without doubt an anti-war, anti-capitalist play and O’Casey saw war as nothing more than an imperialist conflict where the proletariat were used merely as cannon fodder to appease their bourgeoisie masters.
During the 1930’s O’Casey’s left wing leanings turned radical and he publicly supported the Communist party. O’Casey also declared himself an Atheist which resulted in an even more contentious relationship with Ireland‘s conservative society.
As the 1930s wore on and Fascism expanded across Europe, O’Casey took on the role of an unapologetic Stalinist and sported such a stance until the day he died. He carried an admiration for the Soviet Union declaring it ‘A flame to light the way of all men towards the people’s ownership of the earth.’
O’Casey changed the way Irish life had been portrayed on stage, from a rural and almost fantasy like setting to a realistic urban one divided by class. Shortly before his death, O’Casey called on writers to resist the temptation of compromise; ‘do not be afraid of life’s full throated shouting, afraid of its venom, suspicious of its gentleness, its valor, its pain and its rowdiness.’