Turtle Bunbury

Writer and Historian

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'Dublin Docklands - An Urban Voyageis a work in progress, commissioned by the Dublin Docklands Development Authority, and due to be completed in the autumn of 2008. The following tale represents research I have undertaken for the project which may or may not be used in the final book.

SEAN O'CASEY (1880 – 1964)

The great art of the theatre is to suggest, not to tell openly; to dilate the mind by symbols, not by actual things; to express in Lear a world's sorrow, and in Hamlet the grief of humanity’ – O’Casey.

When the Dublin Docklands Development Authority baptised the new pedestrian Sean O'Casey Bridge across the Liffey in 2005, many of the older members of the Dockland community expressed considerable approval of the name. Seán O’Casey was not just a Dublin playwright and author. He was a child of the Docklands, bred in the East Wall, and it was here that he grew up and formed his life-long convictions. In his 20s, he worked for the Great Northern Railway. At 33, he became first secretary of the Irish Citizen Army although he stepped down when words of rebellion whispered on the breeze. In later life, he highlighted the plight of working class Dubliners in a series of highly acclaimed plays, novels and memoirs.

Seán O'Casey was born on 85 Dorset Street on March 30, 1880, the youngest of seven children born to a lower middle class Protestant family. His father Michael Casey was a part-time teacher and secretary to the Irish Church Missions, a proselytizing body established to convert Roman Catholics to the Church of Ireland. His mother Susan Archer was the daughter of a prosperous auctioneer. Seán was christened ‘John Casey’ at John the Baptist Church in Clontarf. From an early age he was plagued by chronic tracoma, a common eye disease in poorer parts of Dublin. O'Casey's father died of a spinal injury when the author was only six years old. Low on money, Susan Casey swiftly moved her family to the Parish of Saint Barnabas in the East Wall, an unequivocally working class area and borderline slum between the Great Northern Railway and the Docklands. She took a house on Hawthorn Terrace, between Church Road and West Road. At the time, the street was populated by Ships Captains, Bottle Blowers and Mechanics employed in factories nearby. It was not a poor house; they had a piano. But this was the landscape that would permeate Sean's writings, a world unto itself, impoverished, industrial and inextricably bound to the declining fortunes of the imperial age in Ireland.

Due to his family’s reduced circumstances and his own lousy vision, O'Casey received little formal schooling. He was one of sixty Protestant boys at St Barnabas’s Boy School on Upper Sheriff Street, where his hard times under tyrannical hard-drinking headmaster John 'Bosch' Hogan (aka Schoolmaster Sloan) were vividly recalled in ‘I Knock at the Door’. One plus was that O’Casey later made the enlightened concept of child-centred education one of his keynote battlecrys, and was to prove a fine father to his own three children.

He found a father figure in the Rev EM Griffin, Rector of St Barnabas, who encouraged him to learn how to read. In later life, O’Casey dedicated one of his auto-biographies to Griffin. With the aid of his elder sister Bella, a teacher, Seán mastered Shakespeare and other classics. By the age of 14, he had also begun taking on various odd jobs, moderately paid clerical positions and manual labour with Eason’s bookshop. In 1894, his brother Tom returned from army service and found work in the North Wall Goods Stores as a railway shunter. The family then relocated to 4 Abercorn Road (now No. 18) in the East Wall, where Seán and his older brother, Archie, staged performances of plays by Dion Boucicault and Shakespeare. Seán 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.

In 1903, Seán went to work with pick and shovel as a brocklayers assistant with the Great Northern Railway on Amiens Street until 1911. That same year, he joined the Gaelic League and the Gaelic Athletic Association, and began to use the Gaelic form of his name by which he is known today, Seán O’Casey. He learned the Irish language and the Irish pipes (not very well) and co-founded the St Laurence O'Toole Pipe Band. He joined the Irish Republican Brotherhood and became involved in Jim Larkin’s Irish Transport and General Workers Union. In 1913, he supported the union cause during the Great Dublin Lock-Out by publishing newspaper articles and devoting time as an organizational and secretarial volunteer. Meanwhile, his heavy-drinking brother Mick spent 14 months in jail for assaulting an army sergeant who dared call him ‘a good for nothing Irish bastard’. Long after Seán left Dublin, Mick, a talented artist and sociable wastrel, remained a familiar sight in the streets and pubs of the North Wall area: ‘a comic little figure in a cap and muffler, with a strutting gait and a walking stick which he carried like a field marshal’s baton’.

Mick’s arrest influenced the author's political stance, and during the same year he helped to form, and became the first secretary for, the Irish Citizen Army—a militant branch of the Irish trade-union movement and helped draw up its first socialist inspired constitution. He left a year later when James Connolly’s leadership turned the ICA toward a more radical nationalism.

In the late 1910s, O'Casey began writing his first plays, several of which were rejected. His first full-length play, ‘The Shadow of a Gunman’, was performed at the renowned Abbey Theatre in 1923. The play became very popular, establishing O’Casey as a true working class hero. The following spring the Abbey produced O'Casey's ‘Juno and the Paycock’ and, in 1926, came his anti-war epic, ‘The Plough and the Stars’, arguably O'Casey's most popular play. These first three plays all depicted the harsh physical and political realities of life in the East Wall tenements of Dublin.

In 1927 he married the Irish actress, Eileen Carey Reynolds. The couple settled in England, where O'Casey wrote ‘The Silver Tassie’ (1929), a play criticizing the events of World War I and the effect this monumental conflict had on society. The experimental play was rejected by WB Yeats on behalf of the Abbey Theatre. O'Casey had it produced in London, where it was a critical success but a popular failure. During the 1930s, O'Casey produced little drama, focusing instead on criticism, short stories, and his memoirs. His first autobiography, ‘I Knock at the Door’, was published in 1939 and was followed by five more volumes during the 1940s and early 1950s. In 1943, he completed ‘Red Roses for Me’ probably his most autobiographical work, while 1949 gave rise to the beautiful ‘Cock-a-Doodle Dandy’.

Seán O'Casey died aged 84 on September 18, 1964, in Torquay, England.


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