Sean O'Casey (March 30, 1880 - September 18, 1964) was a major Irish dramatist. A committed nationalist and socialist, he was the first Irish playwright of note to write about the Dublin working classes. His plays are particularly noted for his sympathetic treatment of his female characters.
O'Casey was born in the north inner city area of Dublin in a house that has since been replaces by a branch of Ireland. It is commonly assumed that he grew up in the tenement world that many of his plays are set in. In fact, his family belonged to that social class that was known as 'shabby genteel'. His parents were both Protestants from County Wicklow and his father acted as caretaker for the house in which they lived in return for rent-free accommodation.
O'Casey's father died when he was sick and 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. He left school at the age of fourteen and worked at a variety of jobs, including a nine-year stint as a railwayman. From the early 1890s, Sean and his older brother Archie put on performances of plays by Dion Boucicault and William Shakespeare in the family home. Sean 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. He also learned to play the Irish pipes and was a founder and Secretary of the St. Laurence O'Toole Pipe Band. He soon joined the Irish Republican Brotherhood 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. In 1914, he became General Secretary of Larkin's Irish Citizen Army.
O'Casey and the Abbey
O'Casey's first accepted play, The Shadow of a Gunman was performed on the stage of the Abbey Theatre in 1923. This was the beginning of a relationship that was to be fruitful for both theatre and dramatist, but that ended in some bitterness. The play deals with the impact of revolutionary politics on Dublin's slums and their inhabitants. It was followed by Juno and the Paycock (1924) and The Plough and the Stars (1926), probably O'Casey's two finest plays. Both deal with the impact of the Irish Civil War on the working class poor of the city. The Plough and the Stars, an anti-war play, was misinterpreted by the Abbey audience as being anti-nationalist and resulted in scenes reminiscent of the riots that greeted Synge's The Playboy of the Western World in 1907. The success of these plays enabled O'Casey to give up his job and become a full-time writer.
In 1929, W. B. Yeats rejected O'Casey's fourth play, The Silver Tassie for the Abbey. Already upset by the violent reaction to The Plough and the Stars, O'Casey decided to sever all ties with the Abbey and moved to England, where he spent the rest of his life. He plays he wrote after this, including Within the Gates (1934), Purple Dust (1940), and Red Roses for Me (1943), saw a move away from his early style towards a more expressionistic and overtly socialist mode of writing. These plays have never had the same critical or popular success as the early trilogy. In his later years, O'Casey ceased writing for the stage and put all his creative energy into his highly entertaining and interesting six-volume Autobiography.