Seán O'Casey

Last updated

Seán O'Casey
Sean ocasey 1924.jpg
O'Casey in 1924
BornJohn Casey
(1880-03-30)30 March 1880
Dublin, County Dublin, Ireland
Died18 September 1964(1964-09-18) (aged 84)
Torquay, Devon, England
Pen nameSeán Ó Cathasaigh
Eileen Carey Reynolds(m. 1927)
Children Breon O'Casey, Niall, Shivaun

Signature Sean O Casey Signature.gif

Seán O'Casey (Irish : Seán Ó Cathasaigh [ˈʃaːn̪ˠ oː ˈkahəsˠiː] ; born John Casey; 30 March 1880 – 18 September 1964) was an Irish dramatist and memoirist. A committed socialist, he was the first Irish playwright of note to write about the Dublin working classes.


Early life

O'Casey was born at 85 Upper Dorset Street, Dublin, as John Casey, the son of Michael Casey, a mercantile clerk (who worked for the Irish Church Missions), and Susan Archer. [1] His parents were Protestants and he was a member of the Church of Ireland, baptised on 28 July 1880 in St. Mary's parish, [2] confirmed at St John the Baptist Church in Clontarf, [3] and an active member of St Barnabas' church at the North Wall quay [4] until his mid-20s, [3] when he drifted away from the church. There is a church called 'Saint Burnupus' in his play Red Roses For Me .

O'Casey's father died when Seán was just six years of age, leaving a family of thirteen. [3] The family lived a peripatetic life thereafter, moving from house to house around north Dublin. As a child, he suffered from poor eyesight, which interfered somewhat with his early education, but O'Casey taught himself to read and write by the age of thirteen.

He left school at fourteen and worked at a variety of jobs, including a nine-year period as a railwayman on the GNR. O'Casey worked in Eason's for a short while, in the newspaper distribution business, but was sacked for not taking off his cap when collecting his wage packet. [5]

From the early 1890s, O'Casey and his elder brother, Archie, put on performances of plays by Dion Boucicault and William Shakespeare in the family home. He also got a small part in Boucicault's The Shaughraun in the Mechanics' Theatre, which stood on what was to be the site of the Abbey Theatre.


As his interest in the Irish nationalist cause grew, O'Casey joined the Gaelic League in 1906 and learned the Irish language. At this time, he Gaelicised his name from John Casey to Seán Ó Cathasaigh. He also learned to play the Uilleann pipes and was a founder and secretary of the St. Laurence O'Toole Pipe Band. He joined the Irish Republican Brotherhood, [6] and became involved in the Irish Transport and General Workers Union, which had been established by Jim Larkin to represent the interests of the unskilled labourers who inhabited the Dublin tenements. He participated in the Dublin Lockout but was blacklisted and could not find steady work for some time.

In March 1914, he became General Secretary of Larkin's Irish Citizen Army, which would soon be run by James Connolly. On 24 July 1914 he resigned from the ICA, after his proposal to deny dual membership to both the ICA and the Irish Volunteers was rejected.

One of his first satirical ballads, "The Grand Oul' Dame Britannia", was published in The Workers' Republic on 15 January 1916 under his penname An Gall Fada. [7]

"Ah, what is all the fuss about?", says the grand old dame Britannia,
"Is it us you are trying to live without?", Says the grand old dame Britannia.
"Shut your ears to the Sinn Féin lies, you know every Gael for England dies,"
"And you'll have Home Rule 'neath the clear blue skies." Says the grand old dame Britannia.

Seán Ó Cathasaigh, Grand Ould Dame Britannia, 1916.

After Easter Rising

In 1917, his friend Thomas Ashe died in a hunger strike and it inspired him to write. He wrote two laments: one in verse and a longer one in prose. [8] Ballads authored around this time by O'Casey featured in the two editions of Songs of the Wren, published in 1918; these included "The Man from the Daily Mail", which, along with "The Grand Oul' Dame Britannia", became Irish rebel music staples. A common theme was opposition to Irish conscription into the British Army during the First World War.

He spent the next five years writing plays. In 1918, when both his sister and mother died (in January and September, respectively), the St Laurence O'Toole National Club commissioned him to write the play The Frost in the Flower. He had been in the St Laurence O'Toole Pipe Band and played on the hurling team. The club declined to put the play on out of fear that its satirical treatment of several parishioners would cause resentment. O'Casey then submitted the play to the Abbey Theatre, which also rejected it but encouraged him to continue writing. Eventually, O'Casey expanded the play to three acts and retitled it The Harvest Festival.

Abbey Theatre

No. 422 North Circular Road, the house where O'Casey wrote the Dublin trilogy SeanOCaseyHouse.jpg
No. 422 North Circular Road, the house where O'Casey wrote the Dublin trilogy

O'Casey's first accepted play, The Shadow of a Gunman , was performed at the Abbey Theatre in 1923. This was the beginning of a relationship that was to be fruitful for both theatre and dramatist but which ended in some bitterness.

The play deals with the impact of revolutionary politics on Dublin's slums and their inhabitants, and is understood to be set in Mountjoy Square, where he lived during the 1916 Easter Rising. It was followed by Juno and the Paycock (1924) and The Plough and the Stars (1926). The former deals with the effect of the Irish Civil War on the working class poor of the city, while the latter is set in Dublin in 1916 around the Easter Rising. Both plays deal realistically with the rhetoric and dangers of Irish patriotism, with tenement life, self-deception, and survival; they are tragi-comedies in which violent death throws into relief the blustering masculine bravado of characters such as Jack Boyle and Joxer Daly in Juno and the Paycock and the heroic resilience of Juno herself or of Bessie Burgess in The Plough and the Stars. [9] Juno and the Paycock became a film directed by Alfred Hitchcock.

The Plough and the Stars was not well received by the Abbey audience and resulted in scenes reminiscent of the riots that greeted J. M. Synge's The Playboy of the Western World in 1907. There was a riot reported on the fourth night of the show. His depiction of sex and religion even offended some of the actors, who refused to speak their lines. The full-scale riot occurred partly because the play was thought to be an attack on the men in the rising and partly in protest in opposition to the animated appearance of a prostitute in Act 2. [10] W. B. Yeats got onto the stage and roared at the audience: "You have disgraced yourselves again." [11] The takings of the play were substantial compared with the previous week. O'Casey gave up his job and became a full-time writer.

After the incident, even though the play was well liked by most of the Abbey goers, Liam O'Flaherty, Austin Clarke and F. R. Higgins launched an attack against it in the press. O'Casey believed it was an attack on Yeats, that they were using O'Casey's play to berate Yeats.

In 1952 he appeared in a play by Irish playwright Teresa Deevy called "The Wild Goose" [12] in which he played the part of Father Ryan. O'Casey was involved in numerous productions with the Abbey; these can be found in the Abbey Archives. [13]


While in London to receive the Hawthornden Prize and supervise the West End production of Juno and the Paycock, O'Casey fell in love with Eileen Carey. The couple were married in 1927 and remained in London until 1938, [14] when they moved to Totnes.

In 1928, W. B. Yeats rejected O'Casey's fourth play, The Silver Tassie for the Abbey. It was an attack on imperialist wars and the suffering they cause. The Abbey refused to perform it. The premier production was funded by Charles B. Cochran, who took only eighteen months to put it on stage. It was put up at the Apollo Theatre but lasted for only twenty-six performances. It was directed by Raymond Massey, starred Charles Laughton and with an Act II set design by Augustus John. George Bernard Shaw and Lady Gregory had a favourable opinion of the show.

Study of Sean O'Casey by Dublin artist Reginald Gray, for the New York Times (1966) Sean O'Casey by Reginald Gray.jpg
Study of Seán O'Casey by Dublin artist Reginald Gray, for the New York Times (1966)

The plays O'Casey wrote after this included the darkly allegorical Within the Gates (1934), which is set within the gates of a busy city park based on London's Hyde Park. Although it was highly controversial, Eugene O'Neill responded positively to it. The play was originally going to be a film script for Alfred Hitchcock. O'Casey's widow described it in her memoirs, Sean (1971):

"Originally he had imagined it as a film in which everything, from flower-beds to uniforms, would be stylised. Beginning at dawn and ending at midnight, to the soft chime of Big Ben in the distance, it would be 'geometrical and emotional, the emotions of the living characters to be shown against their own patterns and the patterns of the Park.' Having got so far, he wrote to Alfred Hitchcock, and when Hitchcock and his wife dined with us Sean explained his ideas to an apparently responsive hearer. Hitchcock and he talked excitedly. They parted on the same terms, with the prospect of another immediate meeting, and Sean never heard again." [8]

The play was unsuccessful in Northern Ireland and was not produced in the south until 2010. [15] In the autumn of 1934, O'Casey went to the United States to visit the New York City production of Within the Gates, which he admired greatly. It was directed by actor Melvyn Douglas and starred Lillian Gish. This is when he befriended Eugene O'Neill, Sherwood Anderson and George Jean Nathan. [8] [16]

The Star Turns Red (1940) is a four-act political allegory in which the Star of Bethlehem turns red. The story follows Big Red (who was based on O'Casey's friend, James Larkin) who is a trade-union leader. The union takes over the unnamed country despite the ruthless efforts of the Saffron Shirts, a fascist organisation openly supported by the Roman Catholic hierarchy of the country. It was staged by Unity Theatre in London during 1940 (later, in 1978 by the Abbey in Dublin).

Purple Dust (1943) follows two wealthy, materialistic English stockbrokers who buy an ancient Irish mansion and attempt to restore it with their wrong notions of Tudor customs and taste. They try to impose upon a community with vastly different customs and lifestyles that are much closer to ancient Gaelic ways and are against such false values.

Sean O'Casey's childhood home. Upper Dorset Street, Dublin. Sean O'Casey childhood home.jpg
Seán O'Casey's childhood home. Upper Dorset Street, Dublin.

The Englishmen set their opposing standards against those represented by the men employed to renovate the house. In the resulting confrontation the English are satirised and in the end disappointed when a symbolic storm destroys their dream of resettling the old into the present. The hint that is enforced by the conclusion is that the little heap of purple dust that remains will be swept away by the rising winds of change, like the residue of pompous imperialism that abides in Ireland. The show has been compared to Shaw's John Bull's Other Island, which was one of O'Casey's favourites, but aside from a few similarities, there are no real grounds for comparison. [8]

He also penned Red Roses for Me (1943), which saw him move away from his early style in favour of more expressionistic means and overtly socialist content to his writing. It went up at Dublin's Olympia Theatre (which was the first one produced in Ireland in seventeen years). It would move on to London in 1946, where O'Casey himself was able to see it. This was the first show of his own he saw since Within The Gates in 1934. [8]

Oak Leaves and Lavender (1945) is a propaganda play commemorating the Battle of Britain and Britain's heroism in the anti-Nazi crusade and it takes place in a manor with shadowy 18th-century figures commenting on the present. [8]

These plays have never had the same critical or popular success as the early trilogy. After the Second World War he wrote Cock-a-Doodle Dandy (1949), which is perhaps his most beautiful and exciting work. From The Bishop's Bonfire (1955) O'Casey's late plays are studies on the common life in Ireland, "Irish microcosmos", like The Drums of Father Ned (1958).

His play The Drums of Father Ned was supposed to go up at the 1958 Dublin Theatre Festival, but the Catholic Archbishop of Dublin, John Charles McQuaid, refused to give his blessing (it has been assumed because works of both James Joyce and O'Casey were in the festival). After Joyce's play was quietly dropped, massive changes were required for The Drums of Father Ned, a devious way to get O'Casey to drop. After this, Samuel Beckett withdrew his mime piece in protest. [8]

Later life

No. 9 Innisfallen Parade, Dublin. Sean O'Casey lived here from 1882 to 1888. Innisfallen Parade, Dublin.JPG
No. 9 Innisfallen Parade, Dublin. Seán O'Casey lived here from 1882 to 1888.

In 1959, O'Casey gave his blessing to a musical adaptation of Juno and the Paycock by American composer Marc Blitzstein. The musical, retitled Juno , was a commercial failure, closing after only 16 Broadway performances. It was also panned by some critics as being too "dark" to be an appropriate musical, a genre then almost invariably associated with light comedy. However, the music, which survives in a cast album made before the show opened, has since been regarded as some of Blitzstein's best work. Although endorsed by the then 79-year-old O'Casey, he did not contribute to the production or even see it during its brief run. Despite general agreement on the brilliance of the underlying material, the musical has defied all efforts to mount any successful revival.

Also in 1959, George Devine produced Cock-a-Doodle Dandy at the Royal Court Theatre and it was also successful at the Edinburgh International Festival and had a West End run.

His eightieth birthday occurred in 1960, and to celebrate, David Krause and Robert Hogan wrote full-length studies. The Mermaid Theatre in London launched the "O'Casey Festival" in 1962, which in turn made more theatre establishments put on his works, mostly in Britain and Germany. [8] It is in the late years that O'Casey put his creative energy into his six-volume Autobiography.

On 18 September 1964 at the age of 84, O'Casey died of a heart attack, in Torquay, Devon. [17] He was cremated at the Golders Green Crematorium.

In 1965, his autobiography Mirror in My House (the umbrella title under which the six autobiographies he published from 1939 to 1956 were republished, in two large volumes, in 1956) was turned into a film based on his life called Young Cassidy . The film was directed by Jack Cardiff (and John Ford) featuring Rod Taylor (as O'Casey), Flora Robson, Maggie Smith, Julie Christie, Edith Evans and Michael Redgrave.

Personal life

O'Casey was married to Irish actress Eileen Carey Reynolds (1903–1995) [18] from 1927 to his death. The couple had three children: two sons, Breon and Níall (who died in 1957 of leukaemia), and a daughter, Shivaun. [8] [19]

Archival collection

In 2005, David H. Greene donated a collection of letters he received from O'Casey from 1944 to 1962 to the Fales Library at New York University. Also in the collection are two letters written by Eileen O'Casey and one letter addressed to Catherine Greene, David Greene's spouse.

O'Casey's papers are held in the New York Public Library, the Cornell University Library, the University of California, Los Angeles Library System, the University of London Library, the National Library of Ireland, Colby College, Boston College and the Fales Library.


Awards and recognition


In Dublin, a foot bridge on the Liffey is named after him.

Related Research Articles

Barry Fitzgerald actor

William Joseph Shields, known professionally as Barry Fitzgerald, was an Irish stage, film and television actor. In a career spanning almost forty years, he appeared in such notable films as Bringing Up Baby (1938), The Long Voyage Home (1940), How Green Was My Valley (1941), Going My Way (1944), None but the Lonely Heart (1944) and The Quiet Man (1952). For Going My Way (1944), he won the Academy Award for Best Supporting Actor and was simultaneously nominated for the Academy Award for Best Actor. He was the older brother of Irish actor Arthur Shields.

Abbey Theatre National Theatre of Ireland, Dublin, origins tied to the Irish Literary Revival

The Abbey Theatre, also known as the National Theatre of Ireland, in Dublin, Ireland, is one of the country's leading cultural institutions. First opening to the public on 27 December 1904, and despite losing its original building to a fire in 1951, it has remained active to the present day. The Abbey was the first state-subsidized theatre in the English-speaking world; from 1925 onwards it received an annual subsidy from the Irish Free State. Since July 1966, the Abbey has been located at 26 Lower Abbey Street, Dublin 1.

Lennox Robinson Irish writer

Esmé Stuart Lennox Robinson was an Irish dramatist, poet and theatre producer and director who was involved with the Abbey Theatre.

F. J. McCormick Irish actor

F. J. McCormick was an Irish actor who became known for his work at Dublin's Abbey Theatre. He joined the Abbey at age 19, and acted in some 500 productions there, a list of which can be found in the Abbey Theatre Archive. He is especially remembered for his work in the plays of Seán O'Casey.

Events from the year 1924 in Ireland.

Juno and the Paycock is a play by Seán O'Casey and is highly regarded and often performed in Ireland. It was first staged at the Abbey Theatre in Dublin in 1924. It is set in the working class tenements of Dublin in the early 1920s, during the Irish Civil War period.

Anna Maria Manahan was an Irish stage, film and television actress.

Maire ONeill Irish actress (1885-1952)

Maire O'Neill was an Irish actress of stage and film. She holds a place in theater history as the first actress to interpret the lead character of Pegeen Mike Flaherty in John Millington Synge's controversial masterpiece The Playboy of the Western World (1907).

Donal McCann was an Irish stage, film, and television actor best known for his roles in the works of Brian Friel and for his lead role in John Huston's last film, The Dead.

The Plough and the Stars is a four-act play by the Irish writer Seán O'Casey that was first performed on February 8, 1926 at the Abbey Theatre. It is set in Dublin and addresses the 1916 Easter Rising. The play's title references the Starry Plough flag which was used by the Irish Citizen Army.

Denis ODea Irish actor

Denis O'Dea was an Irish stage and film actor.

Sara Allgood Irish actress

Sara Ellen Allgood was an Irish–American actress. She was born in Dublin, Ireland to a Catholic mother and Protestant father. She first studied drama in Inghinidhe na hÉireann and was in the opening of the Irish National Theatre Society. In 1904, she had her first big role in Spreading the News and the following year was a full-time actress. In 1915 she toured Australia and New Zealand as the lead in Peg o' My Heart. On that tour, she married her leading man and they had a daughter 2 years later. Both her daughter and husband died in 1918. Her acting career continued in Dublin, London and on tour, including to the USA. She also appeared in a number of films and was nominated for an Academy Award for Best Supporting Actress in 1941. She moved to Hollywood to live in 1940 and became an American citizen in 1945.

<i>Juno and the Paycock</i> (film) 1929 film by Alfred Hitchcock

Juno and the Paycock is a 1930 British film written and directed by Alfred Hitchcock, and starring Barry Fitzgerald, Maire O'Neill, Edward Chapman and Sara Allgood.

Sidney Morgan was an Irish stage and screen actor. He was an actor for many years with the Abbey Theatre in Dublin. Among his most celebrated performances was as Joxer in Sean O'Casey's original production of Juno and the Paycock. He repeated his role to acclaim on the screen in the Alfred Hitchcock film Juno and the Paycock.

Enda Oates, occasionally credited as Enda Oats, is an Irish stage, film, and television actor. He has received attention for his stagework, but is best known to Irish television audiences as the Reverend George Black in the long-running series Glenroe for RTÉ, and as Barreller Casey in the sitcom Upwardly Mobile.

<i>Young Cassidy</i> 1965 film by John Ford, Jack Cardiff

Young Cassidy is a 1965 film directed by Jack Cardiff and John Ford and starring Rod Taylor, Julie Christie, and Maggie Smith. It is a biographical drama based upon the life of the playwright Seán O'Casey.

Victor Burke is an Irish-born actor, voiceover artist, and screenwriter from Dublin. He is also a fluent Irish language speaker.

Maureen Delany Irish actress

Maureen Barry O'Delany, professionally known as Maureen Delany and also billed as Maureen Delaney, was an Irish stage actress and screen actress of British films

Geraldine Plunkett is an Irish actress known for her part as Mary McDermott-Moran in the Irish television series Glenroe. Geraldine Plunkett has recently taken up another new soap role playing Rose O’Brien, mother to Eoghan O’Brien on RTÉ’s popular Fair City. Geraldine’s current storyline on Fair City is that her Dementia is starting to get worse and it’s going to cause some emotional problems for the wider O’Brien family. She also played a recurring character for the first 3 seasons on The Clinic. Theatre roles include Juno in Seán O'Casey's Juno and the Paycock, played opposite Donal McCann 1980.

Shelah Richards, was an Irish actress, manager, director and producer.


  1. "General Registrar's Office". Retrieved 30 March 2017.
  2. "Church records". Retrieved 30 March 2017.
  3. 1 2 3 O'Casey, Sean; Krause, David; Lowery, Robert G. (1980). Sean O'Casey, Centenary Essays. C. Smythe. pp. 1–2. ISBN   978-0-86140-008-9.
  4. "St Barnabas" . Retrieved 2 March 2019.
  5. LM Cullen, Eason and Son, A History.
  6. Murray, Christopher (2004). Seán O'Casey: writer at work : a biography. Gill & Macmillan Ltd. p. 66. ISBN   978-0-7171-2750-4 . Retrieved 29 October 2011.
  7. Murray, Christopher (2004). Sean O'Casey: Writer at Work : a Biography. McGill-Queen's Press-MQUP. p. 106.
  8. 1 2 3 4 5 6 7 8 9 10 Ayling, Ronald (1982). Modern British Dramatists, 1900–1945 . Detroit, Michigan: Gale. ISBN   978-0-8103-0937-1.
  9. The Oxford Companion to English Literature, 6th Edition. Edited by Margaret Drabble, Oxford University Press, 2000 Pp 734
  10. Contemporary Authors Online . Detroit, Michigan: Gale. 2003. ISBN   978-0-7876-3995-2.
  11. Hogan, Robert; Burnham, Richard (1992). The Years of O'Casey, 1921-1926: A Documentary History. Newark: University of Delaware Press. p. 281. ISBN   978-0874134216 . Retrieved 18 August 2018.
  12. "The Wild Goose". The Teresa Deevy Archive. Retrieved 14 July 2016.
  13. "O'Casey, Sean (I)". The Abbey Theatre Archive. Retrieved 14 July 2016.
  14. Krause, David Sean O'Casey and his world, London: Thames & Hudson, 1976
  15. "Within the Gates". Dublin Lyric Theatre.
  16. "Within The Gates 1934". LillianGish1893.
  17. Seán O'Casey, Irish Playwright, Is Dead at 84, New York Times
  18. Calder, John (11 April 1995). "OBITUARY: Eileen O'Casey". The Independent. London.
  19. Rota, Kara (October 2010). "A Lasting Legacy: Sean O'Casey and the Abbey Theater".

Further reading