Sean O’Casey and socialism

By C.Desmond Greaves

[This was originally given in 1980 as one of the Thomas Davis lecture series on RTE to mark the centenary of Sean O’Casey’s birth.  It was read on Irish radio on Greaves’s behalf, as the original recording which he had made for RTE at the BBC studios in London proved defective.  The series of nine lectures was published in the same year under the title “The O’Casey Enigma: The Thomas Davis Lectures”, edited by Micheál Ó hAodha, by the Mercier Press in collaboration with Radio Telefis Eireann (ISBN  0 85342 637 6). Other lecturers and contributors to this collection were Tomás Mac Anna, Denis Johnston, Cyril Cusack, James Plunkett, Hans-Georg Simmgen, Robert Hogan, Brendan Kennelly and Micheál Ó hAodha.]


When Sean O’ Casey died in 1964 he had behind him close on thirty years as an avowed communist, and twenty more as a labour sympathiser. There are, however, very few socialist characters in his plays, and with one exception their functions tend to be secondary.

The first is Jimmie in the short political satire Cathleen Listens In. It was composed later than The Shadow of a Gunman but before Juno and the Paycock and was first performed on October 1st 1923. It reflects the mood of many Irish people at this time, one of bewilderment, disenchantment not without recrimination, and nostalgia for the “four glorious years”. The civil war was over but its attitudes remained. O’Casey represents one section after another paying court to Cathleen, the new Ireland, Jimmie in the name of the neglected working class. He summarises the workers’ position in the disillusioned words: “What’s the good of loving Cathleen if she won’t take any notice of you?” He decides to take his affections elsewhere and declares, “Socialism is the only hope of the workers.”

There was no prospect of socialism at the time, as O’Casey well knew.  The suggestion, therefore, seems to be that the workers should opt out of the immediate struggles of the nation. This would be to do in the name of socialism precisely what Tom Johnson and William O’Brien appeared to be doing for reasons of prudence. There is, therefore, a strong possibility that O’Casey wished to satirise the Labour leaders. 

In Juno and the Paycock the young man Jerry Devine whom Mary jilts in favour of the schoolteacher who has turned her head, is appointed a trade union organiser. When he learns that she has been thrown over, he approaches her again. “With Labour”, he declares, “humanity is everything. We are leaders in the fight for new life.” But when he learns that she is pregnant he wonders that she can have fallen so low. His humanity, she muses, is just as narrow as the humanity of the others. This again is satire.

In The Plough and the Stars we have the Covey.  Many of us have met him. He is the dogmatic self-proclaimed Marxian, who speaks in technicalities because, not really understanding the creed he professes, he cannot explain it in common or ordinary language. 

There is no socialist in The Silver Tassie or Within The Gates.  In The Star Turns Red the hero, Jack, is a communist, and so is his girlfriend. So, implicitly, is Red Jim, who obviously represents Larkin. The subject matter of this play is the forestalling of fascism by the seizure of power by the workers. It has been called propagandist, and that might be fair comment. But nobody who saw it when it was produced at the Abbey could call it a weak play. Of all his plays, this was the nearest to O’Casey’s convictions and it is one of his strongest.

Purple Dust contains no declared socialist, but Oak Leaves and Lavender has Drishogue, a communist. This play is more justly termed propagandist than any of the others. It concerns the British effort in the Second World War.  Drishogue stands for the thousands of Irishmen who fought with distinction in the British forces, but as an Irishman and a communist he insists that he is fighting not for England, but against fascism. Perhaps this is why he is described as a thorn or a prickle. 

The only other communist is Beoman in Behind the Green Curtains. This is O’Casey’s most pessimistic play, set in an imaginary provincial town dominated by religious dictators and their pious hangers-on. Freshness, vigour and nobility can only survive by escape. A factory manager refuses to dismiss the parties to a mixed marriage. Sectarian strong-arm men raid his house. Beoman, who is present, seizes one of their weapons and successfully defends himself. The others give in. As his name implies, he symbolises the life-force. But it is a life-force on the defensive.

Leaving aside The Start Turns Red, there are only five clearly distinguishable socialists in the whole body of O’Casey’s work, and of these the three in his early plays are not sympathetically drawn. A publisher writes for a dust cover, “O’Casey was a working-class rebel who put socialism first”, or again, “His poverty-stricken upbringing in the Dublin slums led him to suspect the fanatical idealism of the nationalists.” These pronouncements are based, not on the plays, but on the autobiography. O’Casey’s political outlook informed his plays. But one cannot draw it mechanically out of them. For example, on the strength of The Silver Tassieattempts have been made to represent O’Casey as a pacifist. But what of The Star Turns Red?  There the workers take over the apparatus of state by force of arms. Obviously O’Casey’s work cannot be summarised in a few simple phrases. He was concerned with the whole of life, and more particularly with the cultural, spiritual and intellectual life of the Irish people, within which the tradition of socialism is one historical strand. There is a universality in the plays which is absent from the life story.

It is a well-known principle that it is dangerous to judge people from their consciousness of themselves. And indeed if O’Casey’s account of his political development is emotionally true, historically it is frequently inaccurate. In 1963 he wrote, “I abandoned the romantic cult of nationalism sixty years ago.” That would be in 1903. But that was the year in which he joined the Gaelic League. In 1905 he brought Ernest Blythe into the Irish Republican Brotherhood, and he himself remained a member until at least 1913. In that year, in the course of a controversy in the IRB periodical Irish Freedom, he strongly resisted the suggestion that, after gaining her independence, Ireland should be reconstructed upon a socialist model.

He was a man for involved sentences and I will have to do the best I can with this quotation: “Woe unto us,” he wrote, “if we hand over our ideals to be squared and shaped and glossed by those who would write in our skies that socialism is Ireland’s hope, and hang round our necks the green ribbons of Cumannacht na hEireann.”  Cumannacht na hEireann was James Connolly’s party, otherwise known as the Socialist Party of Ireland. He was criticising it from a nationalistic position. In another controversy proceeding at the same time, he deliberately excluded Connolly, because Connolly stood for the primacy of national independence. O’Casey’s nationalist commitment ceased to be absolute after 1913, but he was writing election ballads for Sinn Fein as late as 1918. 

It would, of course, be quite wrong to accuse O’Casey of deception. I met him only once. Nobody who spent five minutes in his company could fail to recognise a rock of integrity. He was a man who lived with and in his imagination. He felt as if he had been a socialist for sixty years. And those who wrote about him in his lifetime were quite right not to question his feelings about himself.

But thanks to the researches of Professor Margulies, Mr Anthony Butler and others we now know something of O’Casey’s early life and development. He was not born in the slums. He was born into a cultured middle-class family. His father described himself on one occasion as a law clerk, on another as an accountant. With the exception of Seán himself, all the children attended the Central Model Schools at which a small fee was paid. His father could read Latin. His sister Isabella learned to play the piano. In the eighteen-eighties the possession of a piano was a fair test of middle-class respectability. These were no tenement dwellers. The houses where they lived are still standing today and are still not slums, even after nearly a century.

At the same time O’Casey had experiences which undoubtedly prepared his mind for the socialism he later espoused. When he was six years old his father died. Three years later his brothers Michael and Thomas enlisted. Then Isabella married. O’Casey and his mother were for a period dependent on Isaac’s fifteen shillings a week. This was far from a princely salary, but let us bear in mind that many a regularly employed carter or general labourer had to maintain six children on less. O’Casey’s family unquestionably took a tumble in the world. But they did not hit rock bottom, and after 1894 prosperity returned and was sustained for twenty years.

Like many gifted young people O’Casey was an enthusiast. His first enthusiasm was religion. He spoke eloquently at prayer meetings. He supported foreign missions. He taught in the Sunday School. He pored over the Bible until he knew chapters by heart. He remained absorbed in the affairs of the parish of St. Barnabas until 1905, when he had differences with the Minister, the Reverend Morgan Griffin. These differences arose from the second of his altruistic enthusiasms, the Irish-Ireland movement. He was active in the promotion of the Irish language within the Protestant community. At some point he encountered what Patrick Pearse called the “murder machine”. He wrote an attack on the system of national education, which he believed was destroying the basis of Irish culture. He showed it to the Minister, who told him that he ought to be in jail.

This was his transition to politics, but not to socialist politics, even though he was now working as a labourer on the Great Northern Railway. It is of course a fallacy that a man is made a socialist by doing hard work for poor pay or by living in a slum. If he had lived in a nice house and is then forced into a slum, he may feel rebellious. But if he is born and bred there, he may think it is the most natural place on earth. It was when O’Casey was victimised after taking part in the 1911 rail strike that he began to interest himself in Labour politics. He became a staunch trade unionist and fell under the influence of Larkin.

Larkin was probably the strongest political influence in O’Casey’s life. He idolised him. When Larkin’s name was mentioned to O’Casey as an old man, his eyes would light up. O’Casey was locked out for refusing to sign the document promising not to remain or become a member of the Irish Transport and General Workers’ Union. He was extremely active in the period of the lock-out, being responsible for raising relief. After 1913 he was a Labour man. But he did not describe himself as a socialist. In political matters he reacted as a nationalist. In economic matters he was a trade unionist.  From the interplay of these two principles perhaps we can explain much that seems a trifle erratic in his behaviour over the next few years.

It was Desmond Ryan who remarked that O’Casey’s mind could hold only one enthusiasm at a time. He broke with the IRB because it would not commit its military force to the defence of the locked-out workers. He was bitterly opposed to the Volunteers because, since their leaders included employers, he thought they must be antagonistic to the working class at every point. He broke with the Citizen Army because it permitted Countess Markiewicz to continue her association with Cumann na mBan, which O’Casey considered a middle-class organisation.

Thanks to his break with the Citizen Army he took he took no part of the Rising of 1916, though there is evidence that he afterwards regretted this. In later life he claimed to have argued against a proposed insurrection. But his first published comment upon it, in a pamphlet designed to commemorate Thomas Ashe, glorifies it, and with rare sunburstry. At this time he was constantly predicting the outbreak of political hostilities between Labour and Sinn Fein. This perspective was foreshadowed at the August 1917 meeting of the Irish Trade Union Congress, and must have been common currency in Labour circles.

But when did O’Casey become a socialist in the strict sense of the word? I am aware of no surviving document from this period in which he clearly so describes himself. At this time socialism in Ireland meant Connolly. In a letter published in Dr Krause’s collection, dated March 16th 1918, O’Casey writes about a meeting of the “Irish Socialist Party”, getting its name wrong, but does not say he attended. On April 9th he quotes Connolly as an authority. Six years later, speaking to Lady Gregory about events supposed to have happened around this time, he said, “I was a socialist then.” But R.J. Connolly does not remember his taking part in the activities of the Socialist Party of Ireland. And to make matters even more difficult to understand, on December 3rd 1919 George Bernard Shaw wrote to him, in reference to a pamphlet which had been submitted for his opinion, saying “Why do you not come out definitely on the side of Labour and the English language?”. I am inclined to think that he first became interested in socialism in 1918, but that while always a staunch “Labour man”, he was not strongly committed. His centring of his political activities round various committees concerned with the return to Ireland of Larkin would tend to confirm this opinion. His remark to Lady Gregory, implying that he was no longer a socialist, explains his satirical treatment of the characters Jimmy, Jerry Devine and the Covey.

Early in 1919 he revised his opinion of the Rising. His The Story of the Irish Citizen Army is an attack on Connolly’s policy of an alliance with the Republicans in an effort to win national independence. From his denial of Connolly’s right to be described as a “socialist martyr” one would gather that O’Casey was a socialist himself. But he does not say so. He cannot have understood Connolly’s purpose, which was set out in world-famous words: 

“Starting thus, Ireland may yet set the torch to an European conflagration that will not burn out until the last throne and the last capitalist bond and debenture will be shrivelled on the funeral pyre of the last war lord.”

O’Casey implies that Connolly had abandoned internationalism, though there is no doubt about the internationalism of the statement I have quoted. Indeed the position of classical socialism was that internationalism was only possible on a national basis. Irish socialism was derived, by way of Chartism, from the programme of reform published by the United Irishmen in 1792. Daniel O’Connell gave it to the Chartists, together with their name. Feargus O’Connor added the plank of the Repeal of the Union. It was then possible to establish Chartist clubs in Ireland. The lesson is clear. It is only possible for English and Irish workers to have a common programme if the essence of that programme as far as Ireland is concerned is separation.

This was the position of the international Working Men’s Association, whose Dublin section was founded by McEvatt, the Fenian and veteran of 1848. His daughter was married to J.P. McDonnell, who represented Ireland on the General Council. An attack on McDonell’s policy of establishing Irish sections in Britain received a reply from Frederick Engels which summarises the classical position.:

“In a case like that of the Irish, true internationalism must necessarily be based on a distinct national organisation, 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.”

In 1872, under the attacks of the followers of Bakunin and Lassalle, the International began to break up. A variety of dogmatisms affected Dublin socialism, among them the notion that internationalism could be disembodied from its national basis and it was Connolly’s achievement to make the classical position once more accepted by the majority. He did not, however, achieve unanimity, and after his death there was no theoretician of comparable status to continue the tradition. It is a of great importance to appreciate that all the evidence points to the fact that O’Casey became a socialist after Connolly’s death. The ante-dating of his political involvement has made it all but incomprehensible.

The years 1918 to 1922 were years of limitless hope both for the Labour and national movements. When the edifice came crashing down O’Casey felt disoriented, and this doubtless played a part in his decision to go to England. He arrived in London in March 1926, and apart from voting Labour in the election of 1929 seems to have left politics alone. During this period of political inactivity he dedicated himself to his art, in which he tried to serve what Toller called “the eternal Powers of life, truth, joy, beauty, freedom, the mind and the spirit”.

But in 1933, in one of the classical centres of civilisation, a regime established itself which was determined to blot these things out. The invasion of Abyssinia by Hitler’s Italian ally showed that the new barbarism was expansionist. There was nothing for it but to abandon artistic seclusion and join the hurly-burly of politics. O’Casey did this unhesitatingly, in company with all that was best in the intellectual life of Europe.

There can be little doubt that his transition from the somewhat vague communism which he shared with Bernard Shaw, to the Marxism he proclaimed in 1937, was the product of his opposition to fascism. In this both the western communists and the USSR were playing an important part. This was the background to The Star Turns Red. A fascist plot is foiled by communist take-over. The nominal setting of the play is Dublin. But it presents a European dilemma. In it O’Casey celebrates his decision to support communism.

For over twenty-five years he identified himself with the broad perspectives of the British Communist Party, though he never became a member. His identification with the USSR was even closer, and on one occasion he composed a prose poem to that country which is so extravagantly enthusiastic that it is embarrassing to read. This did not, however, deter him from sending protests when Zhdanov tried to prescribe by order the forms of artistic composition.

Immediately before and during the early part of the war, he took up the issue of the partition of Ireland, not, however, from the position of the Irish classical socialist, but from the internationalist standpoint of the British socialist. He followed Irish events closely and did not hesitate to comment. He was very scornful when the Irish Labour Party accepted seats in the first Inter-party Government. Throughout the last twenty years of his life his cheque book was always available for any socialist group which might spring up in Ireland. He was convinced that the country was groaning under a clerical yoke, and that only socialism could liberate it.

I have said there are few socialist characters in O’Casey’s plays. There are, however, many characters which imply socialism by challenging commercial values. Indeed, once O’Casey had completed his first stage of development with The Silver Tassie, he provided each play with at least one of them. One can instance The Dreamer in Within the Gates, O’Killigain in Purple Dust, Ayamonn in that fine play Red Roses For Me, and above all Loreleen in the satirical extravaganza Cock-a-Doodle-Dandy. Here every commercial value is stood on its head and ridiculed. O’Casey says in effect, “Isn’t it better sense to enjoy a dance and a drink than to pile up figures in a ledger?”

These anti-commercial characters are the clue to how O’Casey understood socialism. It was not a dogma or an abstraction. He sought from it what he had once sought in the Christian religion, in the non-commercial values of Ireland’s past, in the pursuit of his art. His devotion to this bordered on the quixotic. He made a little money; but he never altered a principle for the sake of it. He never concealed his opinions. Headstrong always, at times some will think wrong-headed, he held before him a vision of a world where people would behave as human beings rather than as animated calculating machines. It is said that anger makes the poet. It was out of his anger against all that stunts and debases human life that O’Casey constructed the greatest plays of the twentieth century.