February 24, 2018

Sean O'Casey's Ireland

On this day in 1880 Sean O'Casey was born, in the working-class ghettos of Dublin that he would later make famous in such plays as The Shadow of a Gunman, Juno and the Paycock, and The Plough and the Stars. Although now less-known, O'Casey's six-volume autobiography is as personal and compelling as the plays. Frank McCourt, who would cover the same sort of ground a half-century later in Angela's Ashes, described O'Casey's autobiography as a revelation:
    He's the first Irish writer I ever read who wrote about rags, dirt, hunger, babies, dying. The other writers go on about farms and fairies and the mist that do be on the bog and it's a relief to discover one with bad eyes and a suffering mother.
O'Casey's love and admiration for his mother -- he lived with her until he was 40, when she died -- are shown in his account of his father's funeral in I Knock at the Door, volume one of the autobiography. In face of the hearse driver boasting about the previous night's fifteen pints, and the neighbor woman screaming at him to "give your poor father a last kiss before he's screwed down," and the intuition that what is left of the family -- eight of thirteen children died in infancy -- will now spiral downward into poverty, young Johnny runs to mother:
    --I couldn't, I couldn't he sobbed. Don't ask me to mother, don't ask me to kiss him, I'm frightened to kiss a dead man....
    --No one'll ask you to do it, she said, I'll kiss him good-bye for you myself. Just touch the side of the coffin with the tip of your finger.... That's the brave little son, she murmured; and now I'll give your father a last kiss from his little boy.
    She bent down and kissed the thing in the coffin, and he heard her say in a steady whisper, Good-bye, my Michael; my love goes with you, down to the grave, and up with you to God.
    She stepped back, and he felt her body shaking. He looked up and saw her lips quivering in a curious way, as she said quietly to the waiting hearsemen, You may put the lid on top of him now.
Many of O'Casey's plays show the same sympathy for the impoverished lives of the women and children who get left behind by the bluster and violence of Irish politics. The revolutionists in The Plough and the Stars are a beery, bragging lot, and O'Casey puts a prostitute on stage while a Republican martyr delivers the rhetoric of independence-or-die; this sort of disrespect for the nationalist struggle caused a coal-throwing riot at the Abbey Theatre when the play opened in 1926. The tragic-comedy includes the slum women looting the stores for whatever they can lay hold of, one rushing on stage with a new hat, a box of biscuits and three umbrellas to report the chaos of rebellion: "They're breakin' into th' shops, they're breakin' into th' shops! Smashing windows, battherin' in th' doors, an' whippin' away everything!" She reports one woman trying to push a piano down the street, another a double bed; and later she is herself shot and killed.

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