Biography of Sean O'Casey

Sean O’Casey is widely considered to be one of the most accomplished playwrights of the twentieth century. Using his own experiences as fodder for his writing, his plays served as a commentary of the political and social scene of his time.

O’Casey was born on March 30, 1880, the youngest of thirteen children in a Protestant, working-class family living in predominantly Catholic Dublin. He grew up in a poor neighborhood and was beset by tragedies from an early age: his father died when he was just six years old, many of his siblings passed away as well, and he suffered from illnesses such as an eye disease which left him almost blind. His formal education was meager, and he didn’t learn to read or write until he was about 13 years old. Despite these disadvantages, O’Casey educated himself by reading Shakespeare and other English classics, and he tried writing drama at age 17. He supported himself with a series of unskilled jobs beginning at age 14, serving in roles such as errand-boy, newspaper-sorter, dockworker, janitor, and stone-breaker.

Around 1906 O’Casey left the Protestant church, expending his energy instead on nationalist causes. He joined the Gaelic League, where he learned the Gaelic language; thereafter, he read and wrote in two languages. His fraternization with other nationalists prompted him to join the Irish Republican Brotherhood, a militant fraternal organization which helped to organize the Easter Rising of 1916.

During this time he also worked as a manual laborer for the Great Northern Railway of Ireland. However, he eventually lost his job due to his sympathies with the Irish Transport and General Workers’ Union. In 1913 this union, newly established by Labour leader Jim Larkin, was involved in the largest industrial struggle in Ireland’s history up to that time. In response to demands to discuss wages and working conditions, employers locked out transport workers for six months, demanding that they renounce membership in the union as a condition of reemployment. O’Casey, himself suffering from acute malnutrition, helped by raising funds for clothes and shoes for the families of striking workers, writing newspaper articles, and doing other volunteer work in support of the workers. This experience contributed to his shifting loyalties from nationalism to supporting trade unions and socialism. He resigned from the Irish Republican Brotherhood when they failed to help the locked out workers and from 1912 onwards published his ideas in the Irish Worker, a publication founded by Larkin in 1911.

After the strike of 1913, O’Casey helped Larkin form the Citizen Army, a militant branch of the trade-union movement intended to protect workers against police brutality. He became secretary and was involved in writing the constitution. In 1916, the Irish Citizen Army joined forces with the Irish Volunteers, a nationalist military organization, to rise against British authorities during the 1916 Easter Week rebellion. While O’Casey did not participate, he showed his support for the rebels by writing patriotic verse. However, he felt it was a mistake to ally with bourgeois elements in the Irish Volunteers, and he ended up breaking ties as the leaders were favoring nationalism over socialism. He also felt the rebellion was also overly costly in terms of lives; the working class was afterwards left virtually devoid of leadership. The events of that week deeply affected O’Casey, who made them the subject of his play The Plough and the Stars (1926).

Following the Easter Rising, O’Casey shifted his energies from politics to writing. This was by no means a new pursuit; he had already published a number of works, including satires about social climbing for the Gaelic League, articles for labor journals, several ballads and poems under the Gaelic pseudonym Sean O’Cathasaigh, and The Story of the Irish Citizen Army, which detailed events leading up to and including the Easter Week rebellion. From 1918 - 1923 he wrote four plays and submitted them for production to the Abbey Theater (the national theater of Ireland, led, among others, by nobel-prize winning poet William Butler Yeats). Although these initial efforts were rejected, he continued to write, and in 1923 The Shadow of a Gunman was accepted. A year later the Abbey Theater produced Juno and the Paycock, followed by The Plough and the Stars in 1926. Together, these three plays are known as the Dublin trilogy and portray urban life in Ireland during the tumultuous years of 1916 - 1923. While all three plays were well-received, there was a riot on the fourth night of The Plough and the Stars, exemplifying the controversial nature of O’Casey’s work. However, the play survived the attacks in the media and became the most revived play in the history of the Abbey Theater.

1926 was a momentous year for O’Casey for another reason as well. Leaving Ireland for the first time, he went to London upon invitation to revive public interest in Juno and the Paycock and to receive the Hawthornden Prize for literature. During his visit he met the young actress Eileen Carey Reynolds; the two married in 1927, and O’Casey never returned to his homeland.

Generally speaking, O’Casey’s later works were less well-received than the first three. In 1929 the Abbey Theater refused to accept his experimental play, The Silver Tassie, ending years of affiliation. Yeats’ rejection letter and O’Casey’s counterattack may have also damaged his reputation and limited his ability to obtain financial backing for later dramas. O’Casey chose to continue his dramatic experimentation even without a theater in which to try out new ideas, but without sufficient funds to stage increasingly elaborate plays, the majority were either neglected or produced poorly. (Two exceptions were the London production of The Silver Tassie (1929) and the New York production of Within the Gates (1934).

O’Casey continued to write throughout his life, including 18 additional plays, a six-volume autobiography, and several volumes of essays and short stories. Much of his work expressed his socialist ideals; other plays challenged deep-set attitudes or commented on the conditions of contemporary rural Irish life. His creativity revealed itself in stylized dialogue, songs, chants, comic routines, and other unusual techniques.

O’Casey died on September 18, 1964. He was survived by two of three children and his wife, who wrote the memoir Sean.

Study Guides on Works by Sean O'Casey