The Political Evolution of Sean O’Casey
by C. Desmond Greaves
(This essay was originally written for the December 1980 edition of the German magazine Englisch Amerikanische Studien, Pohl-Rugenstein Verlag, Cologne (ISSN 0172-1992). Some typographical errors occuring there have been corrected. The essay draws on Desmond Greaves’s major study of O’Casey, published as Sean O’Casey: Politics and Art, Lawrence and Wishart, London, 1979 (ISBN 85315 4317).
That Sean O’Casey was a very great playwright it would be superfluous to attempt to prove. It is shown in his ability to depict character in the round, in the brilliance of his dialogue, in his capacity to make simple things significant, and in the variety of his technical devices. Whatever genres academics ascribe his plays to, they are often sui generis. His flair, panache, ability to carry things off, as has been pointed out by Ayling and others, result from a supreme sense of theatre, something we can connect with the fact that he was acting from the age of twelve.
He was a serious dramatist. He wrote not merely to entertain, but to encourage a view of the world. He was indeed a political dramatist and the stuff of his work is politics.His first extant play is ”about” the Dublin lock-out, his second about the Anglo-Irish war, his third about the Irish civil war, his fourth about the Easter Rising of 1916. And so we go on. Even the late Cock-a-doodle Dandy, which some have suposed disembodied, contains many references to the turfworkers’ strike of 1947.
If he was a political dramatist it is reasonable to ask what were his politics and how do these reveal themselves in his plays.
The overwhelming majority of O’Casey studies have been made in the United States. There has been little work done in Ireland. But while that done in Ireland has for the most part been factual and critical1,the American school has taken for granted the political and intellectual attitudes of O’Casey’s old age and to some extent transported them back to his youth.There has grown up indeed a cult of O’Casey which is an obstacle to understanding. There is moreover a certain impatience shown by some American writers when things known generally in Dublin are pointed out.
It would of course be strange if a political dramatist did not excite controversy. For the last twenty-five years of his life O’Casey was an avowed Communist. He was an extremely enthusiatic admirer of the USSR. He backed the peace movement, and supported generously all Irish organizations with a socialist tendency. His commitment and integrity were unquestionable. During the ”cold war” when others ran for cover, he stood boldly in the open. The most distinguished of his American critics, Dr Krause, indeed, finds his Communism a trifle difficult to thole. He makes the wry comment: “O’Casey overlooked the fact that if he wrote about Russian life in the critical way that he wrote about Irish life the commissars would probably treat him more roughly than the clerics did.”2 He suggests that there was in O’Casey’s Communism a romantic element. There is a grain of truth in this, but it should not be exaggerated.
The most important thing about O’Casey is that he was an Irishman. Throughout all the years he lived in England he kept constant touch with the home country. He followed Irish politics with lively interest and never refused to see a visitor from Ireland. At the same time his countrymen at home sometimes believed that he made judgements of contemporary events on the basis of his experience in an earlier period. In making these judgements it was almost as if he was setting himself up as the conscience of Ireland. As Cusack put it:
“On my visit with Maureen to Sean O’Casey recently I formed the impression of an idealist – however misdirected his idealism may be, which history indicates to be a dangerous thing – whose one obsession was Ireland. If he is a tormented soul may not this be an encouraging sign? May he not hate what he believes to be evil? I sometimes think that O’Casey’s egomania –which, may I add , is better vented than sequestered, left lurking in the secret places of the soul – comes from an identification of himself with Ireland. I had the impression that he was possessed with the thought of Ireland and that his passion was a strange compound of love and hate.”3
Compare this judgement by a distinguished Irish actor with the simple black and white vision of the Anglo-American school. Even Dr Krause, who is not deficient in critical sense, can write:
“For Irish nationalists the Easter Rising was the crucial event in Irish history; but for the Irish working class, and for O’Casey, Larkin’s general strike of 1913 had launched the first blow for the liberation of the Irish people. As he did throughout his life, O’Casey put his socialism before his nationalism and he turned out for the strike but not for the Rising.”4
Krause here posits an Irish socialism which was in some way the alternative of nationalism. It is the contrary of the socialism of James Connolly who, two weeks before the Rising.wrote:
“The cause of Labour is the cause of Ireland, the cause of Ireland is the cause of Labour. They cannot be dissevered. Ireland seeks freedom. Labour seeks that an Ireland free should be the sole mistress of her own destiny, supreme owner of all material things within and upon her soil. Labour seeks to make the free Irish nation the guardian of the interests of the people of Ireland, and to secure that end would vest in that free Irish nation all property rights as against the claims of the individual, with the end in view that the individual may be enriched by the nation, and not by the spoiling of his fellows.”5
Now it is important to grasp that this is the classical position of Irish socialism, not some innovation of Connolly’s. The origins of Irish socialism, as of most other European socialism, are to be found in the ideas of the most advanced French Jacobins. The democratic programme of the United Irishmen, drafted in 1792, was accepted unchanged by the English Chartists, whose name was given them by the great Irish agitator Daniel O’Connell. Another Irishman, the Chartist leader Feargus O’Connor, added the plank of “repeal of the Union” (between Britain and Ireland) and Chartist clubs began to be established in Ireland.
One of the 1848 men, McEvatt, subsequently a Fenian, introduced the International Workingmen’s Association into Dublin. His son-in-law was J.P.McDonnell, Irish representative on the General Council. Some of the English members thought he should, so to speak, “put socialism first” and objected to the establishment of Irish branches of the International. They were replied to by Friedrich Engels, who declared at the meeting of May 14th 1872:
“In a case like that of the Irish, true internationalism must necessarily be based upon a distinct national organization, and they were under the necessity to state in the preamble to their rules that their first and most pressing duty as Irishmen was to establish their own national independence.”6
A fact unapparent in Dr Krause’s antithesis is that for the greater part of the period of the 1913 lock-out, not Larkin but Connolly was the day-to-day leader of the workers’ side and most of the important decisions were his. The matter should be posed in this way: Connolly participated in both 1913 and 1916, O’Casey in 1913 and not 1916.
But the matter was far more complex than a difference of emphasis upon nationalism and socialism, or on two interpretations of socialist tactics. In Innisfallen Fare Thee Well, the third volume of his autobiography, published in 1949, O’Casey gives many reasons for his decision to emigrate. The bad ones discredit the good ones which accompany them. But finally comes one which does not reflect personal dislikes, disappointments or professional rivalries. ”The Easter Rising had pulled down a dark curtain of eternal separation between him and his best friends: and the few that had remained alive and delightful, now lay deep, with convivial virtues, under the smoking rubblement of the Civil War.”7
There is reason to believe that for O’Casey also the Easter Rising was the crucial event in Irish history, if only because he was himself an Irish nationalist at the time. He was a nationalist who did not take part, who had valid reasons for not taking part, but whose previous actions might lead others to expect him, notwithstanding his reasons, to take part.
The dilemma is reflected in The Plough and the Stars, first performed in 1926. John Clitheroe is a member of the Citizen Army. He is sulking because he has not received promotion and is enjoying the pleasure of domestic life. Later he learns that his promotion papers have been sent him, but his wife has destroyed them. From then on he has no thought but for the preparation for the Rising, then on foot. The conflict is clear. It is between a man’s vanity and a woman’s selfishness. But behind, of course, is the much deeper conflict between social and domestic duty.
As he flings out to go to a demonstration, a consumptive child, Mollser, asks ”Is there anybody goin’, Mrs Clitheroe, with a titther of sense?”(Titther= tittle, as in “jot or tittle”). The following scene shows the demonstration where the speaker uses passages from Patrick Pearse’s speech glorifying the blood sacrifice, a principle from which Connolly publicly dissented. In the third act the insurrection is in full swing. Clitheroe is fighting. His wife returns in a distressed state having been all night searching for him to bring him home. When he comes, carrying a wounded comrade, he refuses to leave the sick man though his wife appeals to him to return home. He is killed in the fighting. But his wife cannot be told. She is shown in the last act, out of her mind after a miscarriage. The tragedy is complete when a neighbour trying to draw her away from a dangerous window is killed by a sniper.
Now why has Clitheroe taken part in the Rising? The implication is, partly out of bravado, partly out of fear of what others would say. For example, Clitheroe says to his wife: ”What possessed you to make a show of yourself […] What way d’ye think I’ll feel when I’m told my wife was bawling for me at th’ barricades?” and later ”They’ll say now that I sent you out th’way I’d have an excuse to bring you home.”
Sometimes a species of feminism is attributed to the play – the folly of the men is visited on the harmless women. But the men do not come off too well, either. Clitheroe loses his life. On the other hand P.S.O’Hegarty remarked in 1927: ”I think the role assigned to Mrs Clitheroe, that of holding back her man, is quite untrue.”8
In The Star Turns Red after very brief hesitations the hero, Jack’s, girl friend throws in her lot with him even though it leads to his death.There are, however, examples in O’Casey’s plays of the womenfolk holding back the men from what they conceive to be their duty, but nowhere is it so predominating as in the Plough.
Now clearly, in O’Casey’s view there was something amiss with the Rising of 1916. Such at any rate was his view when he came to write The Plough and the Stars. All critics agree that the play gives a negative estimate of the event, though some are more sophisticated than others. At the naive end of the spectrum we have Mr Herbert Goldstone who thinks the first act shows “the tensions and prejudices of the Irish and some of their ridiculous feelings about war and patriotism”. 9
Mr Goldstone is obviously unaware of the fact that only a small minority of the Irish people supported the Rising. The more sophisticated critic Maik Hamburger writes paternalistically of “the Irish illusion”. He thinks O’Casey ”wanted to pare down the legend to some resemblance with the historical reality”.10 Irish critics on the other hand accused O’Casey of historical inaccuracy.
To give Hamburger his due, he recognises that there is another side to the question, for he quotes one of the leading exponents of classical Irish socialism, the late T.A.Jackson, who insisted that ”the fact that an Irish Republic had been proclaimed in arms changed completely the whole subsequent history of Ireland.”
He refers to the riots which interrupted the play and to an “inflammatory press agitation that followed” which resulted in O’Casey’s emigration to England. But he says nothing of the content of the agitation or who made it. The agitation was organized by a group surrounding Frank Ryan, subsequently leader of the Irish contingent of the International Brigade in the Spanish Civil War. It was not a government-inspired agitation, but one directed against the government, headed by the defeated “irreconcilables” of the civil war. These believed that Irish freedon had still to be fought for and considered that O’Casey’s belittlement of the Rising injured the prospects of continuing the struggle.
Various explanations have been offered for O’Casey’s negative appraisal of Easter 1916. We have noted the “socialist” explanation. Goldstone speaks of an “anti-heroic” vision. There have been suggesions of pacifism. But it is absurd to try to interpret Irish reactions in terms of experiences and conceptions which presuppose the conditions of other countries. What is necesary above all is to find out what happened. And to do this in a comprehending way we must understand the dynamics of Irish history.
The dustcover of Dr Krause’s book describes O’Casey as ”a working-class rebel who put socialism first”. It says: “His poverty-stricken upbringing in the Dublin slums made him suspect the fanatical idealism of the nationalists.” Is this important? Does it alter the case if it never happened? Most people would think it did. O’Casey was born into a comfortable middle-class Unionist family and never lived in a slum in his life. Most of the houses he lived in are standing today and none of them even resemble slum tenements. Vital documents (birth, marriage and death certificates) are obtainable at the Custom House, Dublin, and show his father was at various times a commercial clerk, a law clerk and an assistant accountant. He figures briefly in Thom’s Directory as one of the “nobility, gentry, merchants and traders” of the city of Dublin. The suggestion has been made that the makers of the directory “made a mistake”. This is unikely. It seems more reasonable to connect it with O’Casey’s statement that his father attempted to run an “apartment house” and that the venture nearly ruined him.
The family newspaper was the Daily Express, organ of the landlords and the most conservative in Ireland. O’Casey’s sister Isabella played the piano; the possession of a piano was the hallmark of nineteenth century middle-class respectability. O’Casey’s two eldest brothers were post office clerks, the sister was a schoolteacher. If life in a slum tenement predisposes a man to suspect fanaticism and put socialism first, then there was nothing in O’Casey’s early life so to predispose him.
When he was six years old his father died. But this would not make too great a change in the family circumstamces. He had on the other hand contracted a chronic eye disease which tormented him for the rest of his life and his ability to overcome this showed the immense courage he possessed.
In 1888, however, when he was eight years old, his two brothers enlisted. A year later his sister married. O’Casey and his mother became dependent on his brother Isaac’s fifteen shillings a week. There is no doubt that they found it difficult to make ends meet and there is evidence that they received assistance from one of the benevolent funds common in Protestant parishes. The maximum time straitened circumstances can have endured is a matter of four years. The eldest brother was discharged from the army in 1893, Isabella’s husband in 1894, and Sean himself secured his first employment, as a shop boy, that same year. There is thus no evidence that childhood poverty made O’Casey suspicious of nationalist fanaticism.
Indeed the evidence is precisely the opposite. His first enthusiasm seems to have been religion. But perhaps as early as 1898 he began to acquire an interest in Irish culture and the Irish language.The Irish language was a vital ingredient of the national movement. The essence of that movement was the demand for a separate Irish state which would be able to deal directly with the agrarian crisis, the protection of Irish industry and the development of the country’s resources. In the middle of the 19th century the majority of the population used Irish as their normal medium of communication. By the end of the century the language had been driven into the hills of the west. The loss of the language appeared as one more affront to the national identity and the Gaelic League was the centre from which a general cultural revival proceeded.
O’Casey joined the Gaelic League in 1903. He was then working as a labourer on the railway where he was noted for his nationalism, being given the nickname ”Irish Jack”. From the Gaelic League he passed to the Irish Republican Brotherhood, a contination of the Fenians, whose aim was to free Ireland from British control by force of arms. His first contact with the Labour movement came about during the “great unrest” of 1911. Following the railway strike in the summer of that year he was one of the victimised, and vented his discontent in a series of articles in Larkin’s “Irish Worker”. These articles are markedly nationalist in tone.
It is instructive to examine O’Casey’s writings of this period and compare them with those of a later period. During the course of a controversy with A.P.Wilson in February 1913, he belaboured his opponent for prophesying a commercal future for Ireland and a consequent development of the class struggle between capital and labour.This is what he wrote:
“Ireland will look for better things than an Old Age Pension, State Insurance Act, or Meals for Necessitous Schoolchildren. Gaelic Ireland will have no room but grave space for the persecutor and the oppressor [. . .]Euchan [A.P.Wilson] is going to arm his rebels with votes. Good man, Euchan! But don’t you think the revolution will be a tame one? But they’ll have intelligence too, says Euchan. Aye, and so had ”O’F”and so had Richardson . . . Euchan asks me if votes intelligently given are not more effective than pikes. I believe they are useless without power to resist their nullification. The votes of our Volunteers [of 1778] were useless when they had handed up their arms; the votes of the French National Assembly would have been choked in their blood were there not behind them the people with arms in their hands. Ireland’s future battle will be, Euchan, the continuance of the fight that has gone on since the thievish Normans came to Ireland with their English civilization.”
And he ends on a note of high romantic nationalism:
“The delivery of Ireland is not in the Labour Manifesto, good and salutary as it may be, but in the strength, beauty, nobility and imagination of the Gaelic ideal. I am one of those who has entered into the labour of our fathers; one of those who declare – by the Fame of our forefathers; by the murder of Red Hugh; by the anguished sighs of the Geraldine; by the blood-dripping wounds of Wolfe Tone; by the noble blood of Emmet; by the death-wasted bodies of the famine – that we will enter into our heritage or we will fall one by one. Amen “11
How did it come about that a man who could write these words of pure physical force republicanism could fail to take part in the Easter Rising only three years later? The economist theory of O’Casey’s development cannot explain it. His socialism arose from events not circumstances. During the controversy with Euchan there appeared his earliest extant reference to Connolly. Writing as a republican O’Casey gives favourable mention to Connolly implicitly for his understanding of the importance of national independence.
The great Dublin lock-out began at the end of August 1913. The millionaire newspaper proprietor and tramway operator William Martin Murphy locked out all his employees who refused to sign a pledge not to have membership in the Irish Transport and General Workers Union, of which Larkin was the leader. In September he induced other employers to join him, and in this way O’Casey was involved when the building employers joined the lock-out. O’Casey showed tremendous energy in the cause of the workers. He toured the environs of Dublin raising relief. It seems likely that it was at this time that he, like others, first came into close contact with the slum tenement dwellers, many of whom lived several families to a room in inconceivable squalor. He appealed for support from his old associates. The Gaelic Athletes, many of them drawn from the working class, responded. Benefit matches were played and donations given. The members of the Gaelic League were sympathetic. So indeed were the IRB and Fianna (youth section). But the IRB refused to accede to O’Casey’s request that those of them who knew the use of arms should officially defend the workers against attack by the police.This led to a coolness which culminated in his leaving the IRB.
The Irish Citizen Army was established to fill the gap the IRB had left open. Shortly afterwards the Irish Volunteers were founded. The two organizations were in no way comparable. The British Government was trying to head off the demand for Irish independence by means of a half measure, the “Home Rule Bill”. The Unionists of the northeast were arming in order, if they could not defy Parliament, at least to intimidate it. The Irish Volunteers acted as a balance. They soon grew to be the biggest Irish mass organization since the Land League, with 150,000 members. The Citizen Army never numbered more than a few bundred. O’Casey was antagonistic to the Volunteers because they accepted employers as members.
The lock-out ended in a formal (though not an historical) defeat. The Citizen Army was converted into a democratic national volunteer force with O’Casey as secretary. O’Casey’s antagonism to the Volunteers was not shared by Countess Markievicz and Connolly. There was tension which culminated in O’Casey’s resignation.
There are only glimpses of O’Casey from October 1914 until he started writing in 1917. He had no obligation to take part in the Rising. And after his brother Michael re-enlisted he was living alone, with his mother, Isabella coming in to do the chores. But his quarrel with the IRB had not extinguished his intense nationalism. After having expressed this so uncompromisingly moreover he could not be surprised if people expected him to be “out”. That his view of the Rising at the time was not so negative as he later represented it, is shown by his work The Sacrifice of Thomas Ashe, published at the end of 1917. There he speaks of men who “fought and fell with the glow of burning buildings on their faces, and the glow of enthusiasm lighting their hearts in an effort to establish an Irish Republic”.
The most difficult problem in the study of O’Casey’s development arises at this point. That he changed his opinion is manifest. But when did he do so and why? I am afraid I can only offer evidence and suggestions. His mind was made up by the time he published his Story of the Citizen Army in the early summer of 1919. In that work he took the stand that Connolly had abandoned internationalism and was in no sense Ireland’s first “socialist martyr”. This expression is of course itself imprecise. But at the outbreak of war Connolly had clearly stated his international strategy in the Irish Worker: ”Starting thus, Ireland may yet set the torch to a European conflagration that will not burn out until the last throne and the last copitalist bond and debenture will be shrivelled on the funeral pyre of the last war lord.”12
The book must have been finished early in 1919. Its general tendency may have been decided earlier. In March 1918 O’Casey attended a meeting of the Socialist Party of Ireland and showed an interest in Connolly’s songs. But he cannot have attended frequently, for Connolly’s son, Roderick Connolly, does not remember his having attended at all. So the change must have occurred in the year between March 1918 and March 1919. From the fact that he wrote election lyrics for Sinn Fein as late as November 22nd 1918 one would place the crisis at the end of 1918. But there is another consideration. It had been the intention of the Irish Labour Party to contest the elections of December 1918. On November 1st it was decided not to challenge Sinn Fein. O’Casey’s poem may possibly have been a Labour gesture, though it shows no evidence of it.
Throughout 1918 the rivalry between William O’Brien and P.T.Daly had torn apart the ranks of the ITGWU of which O’Casey was a member. Daly was Larkin’s protégé. O’Casey not unnaturally gave him support, and efforts were made to involve Larkin. If not Daly, then Larkin’s sister Delia, with whom he was in touch, would know that Larkin had urged that the Transport Union and Citizen Army should take no part in the Rising, though afterwards he supported it in retrospect. When Delia arived in Dublin, O’Casey was to be seen most of the time at her premises in Langrishe Place. She had left Ireland following a dispute with Connolly. The atmosphere in her social club was to belittle Connolly and glorify Larkin. It must be stated that Larkin was no party to this.
At the beginning of 1918 O’Casey’s sister Isabella died. O’Caey had now to perform the household chores. In November his mother died. At the same time he had begun to tackle something more ambitious than poems and sketches. He was working on his earliest surviving play, the Harvest Festival. It is the dramatic counterpart of the Story of the Citizen Army. Its martyr was not a 1916 man, but a young worker killed by a blackleg under conditions resembling those of the 1913 lock-out. Countering the pull of this social duty, was his responsibility for his aged mother whom his colleagues later undertook to look after. Have we here a glimpse of O’Casey’s dilemma during the Rising of 1916 when to get killed or imprisoned would have left an eighty year old woman on her own?
The similarity between the Harvest Festival and what to many is O’Casey’s finest play, Red Roses for Me, has been remarked upon. Here we must note a difference which quite possibly has a bearing on the crisis of O’Casey’s thought. In 1917 O’Casey had met an attractive and intelligent young woman called Maire Keating whom he wished to marry.13 Their friendship lasted several years and was particularly close in 1919. It foundered on the opposition of her family and their difference of religion. In Red Roses for Me the hero Ayamonn (English phonetic spelling for Eamonn) has to overcome the opposition not only of his mother but also of his Catholic girl-friend when he undertakes the trade union action which loses him his life. It seems therefore that in rejecting the heroism of nationalism, O’Casey must erect another heroism, that of Labour. To Connolly they could not “be dissevered” .
Sinn Fein won about 80% of the votes in the election of December 1918. On January 21st 1919 they issued a Declaration of Independence, and set up a revolutionary government which they called upon the Irish people to support, and the world to recognize. Ireland was swept by a strike wave of explosive violence. The strikes included the “Limerick Soviet” of April 1919 in which the workers seized the city, installed their own administration and printed their own money, as a protest against the introduction of a pass system by the British Army. Not till September did the British authorities dare to make illegal the revolutionary assembly (Dail Eireann). There followed an intensifying urban and rural guerilla warfare which reached its most savage climax in the spring of 1921. Dail Eireann built up an independent voluntary administration which tried to govern the country in opposition to the British. But the small middle-class alliance of which Dail Eireann was the expression, failed to resist the blandishments of better organized or clearer-headed opponents. The seizure of land by small farmers was stopped in early 1920. The attempt to control the northeast was foiled by the Belfast pogroms of July 1920. When the postwar boom collapsed in 1921 and employers could think of nothing but wage reductions, the partition of Ireland could not be prevented and talks were followed by compromise, compromise by split, and split by civil war between compromisers and revolutionaries. As a result of the civil war Ireland reached a nadir of demoralization and division seldom seen in her history.
The play Shadow of a Gunman is based on the terrifyng raid of Good Friday 1921, when police and “black-and-tans” cordoned off a large area surrounding O’Casey’s lodging in Mountjoy Square. This was a time when national feeling against British imperialism was at its height. That O’Casey was very frightened when the marauders burst into his room is attested by Michael O Maolain, the Gaelic enthusiast and trade union dissident with whom he was living. The play, however, has a negativism which reflects the time when it was written, the darkest days of the civil war, when there seemed no hope for Ireland, when old men who had administered republican oaths to young boys were executing them for trying to live up to them. The “shadow of a gunman” is a poet and dreamer whose playing with fire results in the death of the young girl who takes him seriously.
In Juno and the Paycock O’Casey tackled the subject of the civil war. Undoubtedly this appalling event disillusioned him further with the national struggle.The political foundation of the play is seen in the piteous Johnny, one of the “irreconcilables”who has turned informer and is ultimately taken out to be shot. When the terrified Johnny boasts of his republican principles, his mother informs him that he lost his best principle when he lost his arm (in a previous phase of the struggle).
Neither the Gunman nor Juno could offend an Irish audience. Already in March 1921 sections of the petit-bourgeois alliance were using intensified guerilla war tactics to brush aside the alternative of stronger political links with the working class. After the civil war there was a general disgust that the “four glorious years” should end in fratricidal slaughter. But 1916 was different. As Manfred Pauli has put it: “Sean O’Casey’s evaluation of the Dublin insurrection of 1916 does not stand up in full measure to the test of history.”(my translation, CDG)14 It was the expression of a conflict within himself.
O’Casey’s political evolution in respect of nationalism and the Irish revolution, though presenting some difficulties towards the end, can be traced with a fair measure of certainty. His evolution towards socialism is worse documented and it will probably be some time before all the problems are solved.
O’Casey became a trade unionist in 1911. But even in the last days of the lock-out he did not profess socialism. In his ”Open Letter to the Volunteers” sent to the Irish Worker in January 1914, he appeals to his readers: “Use, or reserve for ultimate use, all your mental and physical energies towards the advancement of your class.”15 But he offers no explanation of how this “advancement” is to be envisaged. He likens the modern Volunteer movement to “Grattan’s tinsel volunteers”, now quite forgetting the legislative independence they forced from Britain. But that his outlook was republican rather than socialist is clear from the advice, ”Stand by no movement that does not avow the principles of Tone, Emmet and Lalor.”
A letter he sent to the Dublin Saturday Post on September 22nd 1917 shows his continuing efforts to work out the relation of the labour to the national movement. Connolly, as we have seen, regarded them as different aspects of one democratic process. But Connolly had entered practical politics at the age of nineteen; O’Casey’s mind was set in a national groove by the time he began to think of Labour. Perhaps it was because he found it hard to assimilate the new teaching that he felt that an unavoidable antagonism separated the two movements. He suggested at this point that Labour should endeavour to penetrate not only the national movement but all other movements as well, that is to say if they possessed a popular base. But he quoted MacPartlin who, as chairman of the 1917 Annual Meeting of the Irish Trade Union Congress, had prophesied that after Ireland’s political aims had been met, the class war would begin in earnest, and suggested preparing for it at once. At that time the Home Rule Bill was on the statute book but under suspense. O’Casey seems to have shared MacPartlin’s view. What the working class was to fight for was not spelled out. We can take it, however, that the class war was visualized in industrial terms.
O’Casey seems to have remained in an uncertain state of mind for some time. Unfortunately Dr Krause has been unable to publish any letters from the vitally important year 1919. But he does publish a letter from George Bernard Shaw to O’Casey dated December 3rd 1919. O’Casey had submitted a pamhlet to Shaw for his opinion. In his reply Shaw asked, ”Why do you not come out definitely on the side of labour and the English language?” Clearly he had had not “put socialism first” even then. Indeed he had not even “come out definitely on the side of Labour”.
O’Casey’s next play The Crimson in the Tricolour has not survived, but as its title indicates it was about the relation of the Labour to the national movement. It must have been calculated to inspire Labour antagonism to Sinn Fein for Lady Gregory wrote: ”We could not put it on while the revolution is still unaccomplished – it might hasten the Labour attack on Sinn Fein, which ought to be kept back till the fight with England is over…” 16
Had Lady Gregory but known, for the time being the fight with Britain was already over. The letter was written during the truce which had lasted since July 12th, probably in October. On December 6th the “treaty” was signed and within days the national movement was divided and impotent. “We will fight Sinn Fein”, Labour men had said, “once Ireland’s national demands are met.” They were completely unprepared for a situation in which they were not met and the movement was no longer in a condition to press them. Must Labour’s own interests wait for ever?
It is well to recall that since the death of Connolly Labour had lacked direction. There was no official protest against Connolly’s execution. The 1916 Sligo TUC withdrew from the anti-war stance of 1914 into neutrality, on account of the sensitivities of the British-based Trade Unions of the north-east. In deference to the wishes of these same interests Irish Labour refrained from signing the Sinn Fein pledge not to sit in the English Parliament and thereby forfeited representation in the Dail. In the heady days io 1919 with their red flags and giant demonstrations, Labour felt itself the greatest power in the land, and gave voice to a somewhat syndicalist form of socialism. But when the “treaty” was signed, Labour meekly acquiesced, notwithstanding an urgent telegram from Larkin, then in prison in the USA. The special Labour conference of February 1922 voted “a plague on both your houses” and the leaders contented themselves with the praiseworthy but ineffective work of trying to prevent civil war. There was nothing in this to inspire O’Casey.
Larkin returned in April 1923. His first political action was to tour the country urging the “irreconcilables”to lay down their arms and turn to politics. But he failed to carry his union with him in a programme of militant Labour action. The result was a disastrous split which paralleled that in the country as a whole.
The general state of Ireland and the Labour Movement, the plunges from the loftiest optmism into the depths of confusion and despair, must be taken into account when considering O’Casey’s Dublin plays. These seem to indicate a disillusionment if not with the principle of Labour, at any rate with the practice. Jack, the Trade Union activist in the Harvest Festival, is a hero. That was the mood in 1918-19. There is no socialist in the Gunman. That was written in 1922. Jerry Devine, the Trade Unionist in Juno, is depicted as a hypocrite.That was 1923. In the Plough the Covey is a mouther of meaningless revolutionary phrases. That was completed in 1925 in the depth of the Cosgrave reaction.
There was good reason for disenchantment. The strange transformation of the fiery revolutionary William O’Brien (by some thought ”the Lenin of Ireland”) into autocratic bumbledom as his union declined to a fifth of its membership in a decade, was the indignant amazement of Larkin’s supporters, and it was in this political circle that O’Casey moved.
When O’Casey visited Lady Gregory in 1924 she entered in her diary the record of a conversation in which he described the refusal of a fellow ”Labour man” to oblige him by cashing a cheque, and the collapse of a workers’ coperative thanks to the indiscipline of its members. He added “I was a socialist then”.17
The precise significance of this statement depends on what O’Casey meant by a socialist. He could have meant a member of the Socialist Party of Ireland. Alternatively he could have meant one who wished for the transformation of capitalist society along socialist lines. Probably he meant the latter as his alternative was the improvements of the workers’ lot through education, reading and drama. This is quite compatible with close relations with Larkin, as in Ireland the industrial has always predominated over the political aspect of Labour.
O’Casey belonged to the generation that spent the second half of their lives wondering what went wrong in the first. Some soldiered on. Many emigrated. Some joined the church. Some blamed it. The total situation – the partition of the country, the “treaty” imposed at gunpoint and the civil war that ensued – was very much “made in England”. Thanks to their superior power the English ruling class were able to shut the Irish in a cage and present them with insoluble problems. Every Irish person, creative artist or otherwise, had to react to this. And the reality seemed more compelling than its cause. And where does one start with causes? Thomas Mann, while writing Dr Faustus, overwhelmed by the horrors that had struck the land of Beethoven and Goethe, probed the national soul, and preferred not to plead the justification of Versailles, which was open to him.
O’Casey left Ireland for good in March 1926. The immediate occasion was the transfer of Juno, then playing at the Royalty, London, to the Fortune. No doubt his quarrel with some of the Abbey actors over the performance of a Shaw play, and the subsequent mixed reception of the Plough, played their part in this revisionism. But the fundamental reason was surely the stultification of all Irish effort by the victory of the counter-revoluton.
Sean O’Casey was forty-six years old when he arrived in London. He had reacted against the loyalist conformity of his early surroundings, first by means of religious enthusiasm, then by cultural romanticism based on the Irish language, then by physical force republicanism, an extension of the last, and finally through participation in the Labour movement. When all were submerged in civil war and its aftermath of bitteress and spite, it might seem that his world had dissolved never to reappear.
But if we look at what was common to his successive enthusiasms we can see why this was not so. What O’Casey most hated were the vulgar cash values of contemporary life, the utilitarianism, opportunism and lack of concern for colour, decoration and the joy of life. These last O’Casey was still seeking. Therefore he was capable of fresh development.
It was a time of course before he could grow into his new environment. The Silver Tassie (1927) was technically innovatory, but politically it is one of the Dublin plays. The first world war triggered off the Irish revolution. The Rising of 1916 was an attempt to convert the imperialist war against Germany into a war for the national liberation of the Irish people. But O’Casey had already rejected this conception. His conclusion is therefore that of Juno transferred to a world stage. The great football champion goes to the wars and returns a helpless cripple. All he can do is to accept his fate while within him burns a consuming fury at what has happened to him. The play has been called pacifist. But the perception of the senseless futility of war is not confined to pacifists.
There is however a new factor, a subject not adverted to since the Harvest Festival, the role of religion. In the early play the clergyman is so much under the thumb of his rich parishioners that he refuses to allow into his church the body of the dead trade unionist. In the Silver Tassie the entire second act, set in the moon landscape of “no man’s land”, is chanted. A giant crucifix by a ruined church dominates the scene. It is possible to derive from this the war’s destruction of Christian values. But when the detailed operations of war are delivered in chant it is simpler to see the whole as an obscene Black Mass in which religion is being used to send men to their deaths, as indeed it was. We will do no more than note the streak of anti-clericalism which increased as O’Casey grew older.
The dramatist rapidly acquired an extensive acquaintance among the liberal intelligentsia. I well remember the intellectual atmosphere of those days, for I was a student in the early thirties.The predominant cultural philosophy was art for art’s sake. But it was receiving rude jolts from the real world. There were complaints on the one side of the isolation of the artist, on the other of the dangers of involvement with consequent loss of independence. There were hopes that the artist might be able to liberate locked up reserves within the human mind and thus enable man to achieve the hitherto unachievable. O’Casey shared them. He had adumbrated the idea to Lady Gregory. As late as February 1935 he could write that the artist was “above the kings and princes of this world and … above the Labour Leaders and Proletariat too.”18
The coming to power of Hitler in Germany, and the stream of refugees with their heart-rending stories, began to destroy the complacency of British intellectuals. A decisive event was Mussolini’s invasion of Abyssinia. From that time on the climate of opinion changed. Opposition to Fascism, which was rearing its head in Britain as well as growing increasingly threatening in Germany, led to a demand for a Russian alliance. As an Irishman who had lived through the revolutionary period, was close to Larkin and revered Shaw, O’Casey had no difficulty in making his decision. The defeats of the counter-revolution were expunged, outside Ireland at least. Once again he had a cause and a responsibility. The responsibility was the defeat of Fascism, the cause was Communism. He seems to have finally reached this position early in 1937.
It was from this understanding that his great play The Star turns Red was written. The story is simple. A fascist coup is forestalled by a Communist revolution. The action takes place in a somewhat stylized Dublin. This is the first play since the Harvest Festival in which Labour supporters are sympathetically portrayed. While still in Ireland he had toyed with the idea of a play about Larkin. It was stimulated into composition by the stresses of the struggle against Fascism. And alongside Larkin, O’Casey depicted the miserable compromisers who had ousted Larkin in 1924, and gave them names (in Irish) which meant “blot”, “every defect” and (not to forget the anti-clericalism) “the church”.
The hero dies but the revolution is successful. The decisive event is the mutiny of the army which joins the side of the people as it had done in Russia in 1917. When the Star was last played in Dublin the effect on an Irish audience was electrical. They were carried away by the revolutionary avalanche. I remember asking a lady sitting next to me, ”Do you think we’re clapping because we think this ought to happen, or because we’re sure it won’t?” In this play O’Casey not only expresses his conversion to Communism and his hatred of Fascism, but makes a kind of valedictory “if only” over the grave of the Irish revolution.
For the last twenty-five years of his life O’Casey remained a Communist, though he did not become a member of the political party. When the second world war broke out he took the view, general on the “left”, that it was imperialistic. England and Germany were fighting over colonial possessions, and would turn against Russia if they could come to any accommodation. When Hitler turned unilaterally to the East, and the international coalition against Fascism was established, O’Casey gave it his support. Oak Leaves and Lavender, completed towards the end of the war, is to all intents and purposes war propaganda, even though there is a thorn (which is the meaning of the Irish “Driseog”), an Irish communist who insists that he is fightinng not for England but against Fascism.
When the war with Germany was over and the cold war with Russia began, O’Casey supported the peace movement. But he felt that he was now, in his middle sixties, too old for political action. His enthusiasm for the USSR remained undiminished to his dying day, and he recorded differences of opinion with his son over the Hungarian affair. He showed however an inceasing disposition to blame the Catholic Church for the lack of success of the policies of the “left”.
As far as Ireland was concerned he never achieved the clear position (let it be held right or wrong) that he reached in international affairs. It is seldom possible to have two revolutions in one generation. The second is only possible when all the preconceptions of the first have been forgotten. When war broke out and there were demands that the six counties of the northeast of Ireland under British control be amalgamated with the twenty-six, thus becoming neutral, O’Casey supported them. When a number of young republicans were awarded twenty years’ imprisonment for causing explosions as a protest against the partition of Ireland, O’Casey protested against the sentences as excessive.
But he was constantly looking for fresh stirrings in Ireland and was constantly disappointed, partly because they were slow coming, but partly also because he was looking exclusively to the Labour movement to provide them, and Labour had been emasculated by partition. Moreover from 1950 to 1970 the rapid mechanization of Irish agriculture and the consolidation of farms led to massive emigration to Britain. There were problems in Ireland which had not existed in O’Casey’s youth, and some of those which existed in his youth had disappeared.
In general therefore his plays show Ireland in a negative light. Cock-a-Doodle Dandy is a satirical extravaganza which mocks capitalist economics and the combination of rapacity and piety that marks the rural entrepreneur. Its companion piece, the fascinating little Time to Go, repeats for the mechant what the longer play has done for the industrialist. The theme is that capitalism, aided by the clergy, is depriving the young people of the joy of life and therefore they are leaving for England. It would however be doubtful whether the most puritanical clericalism could create such deprivation as occurred to them in the smokes of Widnes or Huddersfield.
In The Bishop’s Bonfire the clergy are organising a burning of books á la Hitler. Some of the young people have not even the energy to emigrate. The Drums of Father Ned on the other hand shows a revolt of the youth against the policies of the two main parties Fine Gael and Fianna Fail, who hate each other so intensely but stand for exactly the same thing. Behind the Green Curtains is probably the most pessimistic of all.
O’Casey died in 1964. Already emigration was tailing off. The civil war generation was finally dying out. But the real change did not come about till about 1970. The population, which had decreased at every census since 1851, began to rise again. O’Casey would have a different story to tell if he could witness the present day republic with more than half its population under twenty-five years of age.
One final point should be made on the question of the relation between his politics and his art. There are comparatively few socialists or communists in O’Casey’s plays, apart of course from the Star. The Covey is unsympathetically treated. O’Killigain and Drishogue are not central. Ayamonn Breydon in Red Roses is of course O’Casey’s own ideal self, but he is not represented as a socialist. He is however given a great variety of social and cultural gifts. He approximates nearest among the political characters to the type which I have elsewhere called ”anti-commercial”, the rejector of cash values. The first is the Dreamer in Within the Gates; O’Killigain in Purple Dust really belongs to this category. Then we have Loreleen in Cock-a-Doodle and the duet Kelly and Widda Machree in Time to Go. The promptings of Father Ned follow the same design. Particularly in Cock-a-Doodle Dandy (O’Casey’s favourite) every commercial value is made preposterous and splattered with ridicule.
Against commercial values O’Casey put human values, use against profit. From his childhood O’Casey had the vision of an alternative. But where was he to get it? He tried religion. He tried the dream of reconstituting the old Gaelic world. To make his dream a reality he embraced physical force republicanism. This failing, he supported Larkin, of all the Labour leaders the one most concerned with the general culture of the working class. He tried literature, the cult of art, and finally he came to Communism. In all these things he was seeking the same thing, which comes out more clearly in the plays than in the occasional pronouncements. It was an escape from the meaninglessness of life dominated by the market, the replacement of the cash nexus by relations between people, and the enlargement of the human consciousness to a point where this was possible. He was therefore not only a great dramatist but a great humanist, a lively, generous contradictory man, too big to be stuffed into the bottle of a preconceived category.
1. cf. Sean McCann , Ed., The World of Sean O’Casey (London, 1976); Martin B.Margulies, The Early Life of Sean O’Casey (Dublin, 1970); Gabriel Fallon, Sean O’Casey – the Man I Knew (London, 1965)
2. David Krause, Sean O’Casey-the Man and his Work (London, 1967), 273 f.
3. Gabriel Fallon, Sean O’Casey, 181
4. David Krause, Sean O’Casey and his World (London, 1976), 13
5. James Connolly,”The Irish Flag”, Workers’ Republic, Dublin, 8 April 1916
6. Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels, Ireland and the Irish Question (Moscow, 1971), 411
7. Sean O’Casey, Inishfallen Fare Thee Well (New York, 1949), 392
8. Ronald Ayling, Ed., Sean O’Casey – Modern Judgements (London, 1969), 64
9. Herbert Goldstone, In Search of Community – the Achievement of Sean O’Casey, (Cork and Dublin, 1972), 51
10. M.Hamburger, Sean O’Casey Review, Vol.VI (1980), 54
11. David Krause, Ed., The Letters of Sean O’Casey,Vol. 1 (London, 1975), 16
12. James Connolly, “Our Duty in This Crisis”, Irish Worker, 8 August 1914
13. Nora Creena in the life story. As a matter of interest this is the title of the Irish song Beethoven used in the second movement of his seventh symphony.
14. Manfred Pauli, Sean O’Casey- Drama, Poesie, Wirklichkeit (Berlin, 1977), 49
15. David Krause, Ed., The Letters, 34
16. Ibid, 95
17. Lennox Robinson, Lady Gregory’s Journals (London, 1946), 78
18. Review of Walter Greenwood’s Love on the Dole, in The New Statesman, quoted in David Krause, Ed., The Letters, 537