Fixing the riddle of Irish author and political activist Sean O’Casey

Paul O’Brien’s new guide exhibits how O’Casey gave an eloquent voice to the Dublin working class

Tuesday 21 November 2023

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Sean O’Casey—political activist and author

Sean O’Casey was an Irish playwright well-known for his Dublin trilogy The Plough and the StarsJuno and the Paycock, and The Shadow of a Gunman.

On the uncommon events after they have been a part of the A’ stage English literature syllabus in faculties, they have been taught as tragic comedies or farce. They have been virtually at all times devoid of historic, political and even literary context.

Because the title of Paul O’Brien’s magnificent new guide, politics was a central a part of O’Casey’s life. He was an activist within the employees’ motion in Dublin within the early twentieth century, a staunch member of James Larkin’s Irish Transport and Normal Employees Union (ITGWU).

O’Casey turned secretary of James Connolly’s Irish Residents Military, based to defend employees from assault through the Dublin lock-out of 1913. He was additionally a prodigious author of letters and autobiographies, in addition to performs.

O’Brien’s thematic construction, reasonably than a linear biographical method, helps to discover all these strands. Though he has written a sympathetic account of O’Casey, it explores the numerous contradictions and complexities of each the person and his literary output.

It’s immensely scholarly and exhaustively researched, however by no means dry. Right here was a working class playwright who ruffled the feathers of a conservative institution. They needed to carry on to the fictional notion of a romantic Gaelic tradition, unsullied by the experiences of the Irish working class.

O’Brien argues that O’Casey was uniquely positioned to jot down in regards to the working class. “Nearly alone of his literary technology, his background within the north Dublin tenements gave him entry to that world,” he writes.

This authenticity is epitomised by the best way he gave voice to the language and dialects of Dublin employees, whether or not they have been expressing tragedy or humour. Drama, with spoken interplay between characters, was central to this. On the written web page it might learn as clumsy and hackneyed, a poor reflection of dwelling speech. On the stage, it combines lyricism with authenticity.

Class politics was central to O’Casey. The 1913 Dublin Lockout was a transformative occasion, and his relationship with Larkin formed his political outlook.

However within the years that adopted, there was a rising rigidity between working class politics and the battle in opposition to British rule of Eire. This rigidity culminated in a well-known falling-out with Connolly, which led to O’Casey’s resignation from the Irish Citizen Military. At its coronary heart was O’Casey’s failure to know the hyperlink between the anti-imperialist wrestle of Irish nationalists and the socialist and labour motion.

After the defeat of the lockout and the arrival of the First World Struggle, he launched an intemperate assault on Connolly. Connolly had tried to construct a united entrance with the nationalists within the Irish Volunteers in opposition to the imperialist battle and to oppose conscription to the British Military.

O’Casey argued that underneath Connolly’s management, the ITGWU’s headquarters was “not the headquarters of the Irish labour motion however the centre of Irish nationwide disaffection”. The pink flag had been usurped by the inexperienced, he argued. He opposed Connolly’s alliance with the Irish Volunteers—and the Citizen Military’s participation within the Easter Rising in opposition to British rule in 1916.

Connolly noticed the hyperlinks between employees’ wrestle and the battle in opposition to imperialism. Capitalism had imposed a system of personal land possession in Eire, which led to the event of the landlord-tenant system of tenure. On the similar time, British colonialism had held again capitalist improvement in Eire, and so the expansion of the city working class.

O’Casey had no grasp of the revolutionary dynamic that led as much as 1916. He created a false polarisation between Larkin and Connolly—to the detriment of the latter. O’Brien characterises him as “a disgruntled outsider, a hurler on the ditch, shouting the chances as historical past handed him by”.

However he did be in contact together with his former comrades who took half within the Easter Rising and was involved for his or her welfare. He was additionally distinguished in his help for individuals who subsequently have been jailed.

Literary critics have instructed that he suffered from “survivors’ guilt” as a result of he failed to participate within the Easter Rising. And so, they argue, he mirrored that in the best way he portrayed the rising’s individuals in The Plough and the Stars.

My very own view is that this misses the purpose of one in every of O’Casey’s biggest literary strengths. His willpower to look sceptically and satirise the individuals is an antidote to the romantic mythologising of the rising, and the conservative Irish state’s appropriation of its reminiscence.

That is carried over into his extra experimental later performs, reminiscent of Cock a Doodle Dandy and The Drums of Father Ned. Right here, he lampoons an Eire in thrall to the Church and dodgy businessmen. Employees are trapped between their battle for higher pay and circumstances and their subservience to those that needed to disclaim them any prospect of financial or social development.

O’Casey’s socialism was formed and distorted illusions in Stalinist Russia. He retained an affection for Stalin’s Russia regardless of the counter revolution and the betrayal of the 1917 Russian Revolution. Even within the Thirties he described Moscow as “a flame to gentle the best way of all males in direction of the folks’s possession of the world”. In contrast to a lot of his technology, he caught with the Soviet Union after the suppression of the Hungarian Revolution of 1956.

However do his political flaws cancel his political and inventive dedication? O’Brien cites the evaluation of Patrick Galvin, a part of a brand new breed of Irish activists. “You took O’Casey as he was, warts and all, otherwise you left him alone,” he says. “The marvel of it’s that he managed beautifully properly to outlive the attentions of his associates and the needs of his enemies.

“No Irish author of my technology can repay the debt we owe to O’Casey. He stored the flag flying in opposition to Church and State for longer than most of us can bear in mind. And though he wasn’t at all times proper, by intention he was by no means fallacious.”

These sentiments have been echoed by his fellow author and exile Samuel Beckett. “To my nice compatriot Sean O’Casey from France the place he’s honoured, I ship my enduring gratitude and homage,” he stated.

O’Casey’s performs represented robust girls characters, typically as a counterpoint to feckless male ones. This high quality was carried over into actual life together with his championing of girls’s rights.

O’Casey’s daughter Shivaun gives a supportive endorsement of O’Brien’s guide. She recollects, “He was conscious of the crippling dominance of the Catholic church and the dreadful variety of younger ladies who needed to come to England for abortions. He thought that abortion needs to be the lady’s resolution and well being and faculties needs to be free.”

O’Brien addresses the extra uncared for points of O’Casey’s literary output—his six-volume autobiography and his 2,500 letters—with a nuanced evaluation. He responds to the numerous critics of the autobiography by insisting that it needs to be learn for its insights and literary high quality, reasonably than its historic accuracy.

I’d advocate this guide wholeheartedly to all these keen on Irish literature, historical past and politics. O’Casey emerges, by all his contradictions and complexities, as a author of the very best order who gave an eloquent voice to the Dublin working class.

  • Sean O’Casey—political activist and author by Paul O’Brien. Cork College Press, £35. E-book launch Fri 24 Nov, 6.30pm, Bookmarks Bookshop, 1 Bloomsbury Avenue London WC1B 3QE. Accessible from Bookmarks

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