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Summary Article: O'Casey, Sean (1880-1964) from Brewer's Dictionary of Irish Phrase and Fable

Playwright. He was born in Dublin into a Protestant working-class family on 30 March 1880 and christened John Casey. The death of his father in 1886 left the large family penniless, and he was forced to leave school at 14. In spite of a painful eye condition, which had made his attendance at school sporadic, he was an omnivorous reader and he soon became convinced of the need for a radical reform of a society that tolerated the kind of conditions in which the poor of Dublin lived. He became an active supporter of Jim LARKIN and remained a socialist all his life. As a member of James CONNOLLY's IRISH CITIZEN ARMY (ICA) he took part in the 1913 LOCKOUT, but left the ICA when Connolly formed an alliance with Patrick PEARSE in 1914. His first published work was The Story of the Irish Citizen Army (1919) written as by P. Ó Cathasaigh (the Irish form of the name ‘Casey’), a pseudonym he also used for contributions to various journals. The colourful account of his childhood in a series of garrulously impressionistic Autobiographies (1939-54) is morally if not factually accurate, the verbal exuberance being the mark of the relentless and uncontrolled autodidact.

O'Casey learned his dramaturgy, like Shaw, from the generally melodramatic and sentimental fare provided at the Queen's Theatre, for which he had free passes. As a slum-dweller and a labourer with the Great Northern Railway he knew the facts of working-class life, and his brilliantly shocking Dublin trilogy, The SHADOW OF A GUNMAN, JUNO AND THE PAYCOCK and The PLOUGH AND THE STARS, did for the poor of Dublin what Synge had done for the peasants of Connacht and Wicklow, earning the same gratitude. Dismayed by the ABBEY THEATRE's rejection of his next play The Silver Tassie (1928) because of its expressionistic treatment of scenes about the First World War, O'Casey went into permanent exile in Devon. Later plays - The Star Turns Red (1940), Red Roses for Me (1942), Purple Dust (1945) and Oak Leaves and Lavender (1947) - combine socialist propaganda, anticlericalism and farcical humour. A further trio Cock-a-Doodle Dandy (1949), The Bishop's Bonfire (1955) and The Drums of Father Ned (1959) (the latter withdrawn from the Dublin Theatre Festival because of the perceived interference of Archbishop MCQUAID), are rather experimental and allegorical, and their occasional staging is more a mark of respect than of worth. They suggest a man out of touch with the theatre and the Irish roots that gave him inspiration. He died on 18 September 1964.

Copyright © Chambers Harrap Publishers Ltd 2009

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