Sean O’Casey | Greatest Irish Playwright

Updated On: March 08, 2023

Sean O'Casey Bridge

Sean O’Casey is known globally as an amazing Irish Playwright. He has written many plays that are still watched and studied widely today. He is known for many of his amazing plays, including his Dublin Trilogy and ‘Red Roses for Me’. Known as Ireland’s greatest playwright and a Hawthornden Prize winner, he has also made his mark on the big screen.

Continue reading to learn about Ireland’s most famous playwright, his works and the well-deserved recognition he has received.

Where the Irish Playwright Started

Sean O'Casey
Sean O’Casey
Sourced: Wikipedia

Sean O’Casey was born in Dublin (at 85 Upper Dorset Street). He was born on 30 March 1880 and was named John Casey, and was the son of Michael Casey and Susan Archer. He lived in a very full household of 14 until his father died when he was six years old. After his father’s death, the family moved from house to house for many years. As a boy, the young O’Casey had poor eyesight as a child which unfortunately interfered with his education, however, he taught himself to read and write by the age of 13. Then, at the age of 14, he left school and began working, he worked in many establishments including Eason’s and as a railwayman for nine years at the Great Northern Railway (GNR). 

From a young age, the young O’Casey showed interest in drama as he, along with his brother Archie, reenacted plays by William Shakespeare and Dion Boucicault. Showing his passion from an early age, it is no surprise that this interest grew to turn him into the nations favourite Irish playwright. 

Throughout his early life, he was an active member of many churches, the last church he was a member of was St. Barnabas’ Church at the North Wall Quay. He used this church in his famous play ‘Red Roses For Me’. Like many writers, he used elements from his life to fuel his writing. 

Sean O’Casey married the Irish actress Eileen Carey Reynolds in 1927. Together, they had three children: Breon, Niall, and Shivaun.

Inspiration Strikes the Irish Playwright

Now, how and when did the Irish Playwright change his name from John Casey to the Irish Sean O’Casey? He always had an interest in Irish nationalism, therefore, in 1906 he joined the Gaelic League, learned the Irish language and Gaelicised his name. His full name in Irish is Seán Ó Cathasaigh. His passion for Irish nationalism grew and he founded the St. Laurence O’Toole Pipe Band, and he joined the Irish Republican Brotherhood.  Following this, in March 1914 he was appointed Secretary of Larkin’s Irish Citizen Army, then in July that same year, he resigned. The nationalist fight is what drew Sean O’Casey to write after his friend Thomas Ashe died in a hunger strike in 1917. He started firstly by writing ballads, then for the following five years he started writing his plays.

The Plays we Fell In Love With

Many of us have read the amazing plays by Irish Playwright Sean O’Casey in books while in school. Others have witnessed his magic onstage. Sean O’Casey’s first play to be performed at the Abbey Theatre was the play within his Dublin Trilogy, ‘Shadow of the Gunroom’. It was first shown in 1923 and was the first of many of O’Casey’s plays to be performed here. This marks the beginning of a long-standing relationship between O’Casey and the theatre.

O’Casey’s Dublin Trilogy

Sean O’Casey’s Dublin Trilogy is arguably his most famous works. This trilogy is made up of ‘Shadow of a Gunman’, ‘Juno and the Paycock’, and ‘The Plough and the Stars’. Following O’Casey’s first work performed in the Abbey Theatre, the second two followed, ‘Juno and the Paycock’ performed in 1924 and ‘The Ploughman and the Stars’ performed in 1926.

Shadow of a Gunman Summary:

Sean O’Casey’s play ‘The Shadow of a Gunman’ is a tragicomedy set in Dublin in May 1920. Each act is set in the same room, Seumus Shield’s room in a tenement in Hilljoy.

This play follows the poet Donal Davoren who has arrived in Hilljoy to room with Seumus Shields, he is wrongly assumed by the other tenants to be an IRA gunman, which he does not deny. This wrong assumption won him the affections of the attractive Minnie Powell.

Seumus’ business partner, Mr. Maguire, comes to the apartment and drops off a bag, Seumus assumes the bag contains household items for resale. After Mr. Maguire leaves the apartment, he goes to partake in an ambush, in which he is killed. Following this ambush, the city is forced into curfew, and then the Royal Irish Constabulary Special Reserve (RICSR) raid the tenement building. It is during this raid that they discover that the bag is, in fact, full of Mills bombs, not items for resale. After this discovery, Millie Powell hides the bag in her room. Due to her attempt at hiding the bag, she is arrested and later shot and killed as she attempts to escape her imprisonment.

Shadow of a Gunman Quotes:

“Did anybody ever see the like of the Irish people? Is there any use of trying to do anything in this country?”
“But Minnie is attracted to the idea, and I am attracted to Minnie. . . . And what danger can there be in being the shadow of a gunman?”
“That’s the Irish People all over – they treat a serious thing as a joke and a joke as a serious thing.”
Juno and the Paycock Summary:

Like ‘Shadow of a Gunman’, the second of his trilogy is set in Dublin tenements during the Irish Civil War.

Sean O’Casey’s ‘Juno and the Paycock’ follows the Boyle family. Jack Boyle is the self-centered husband who spends his time drinking with his friend Joxer, rather than finding a job. Juno is the hardworking wife who looks after her son Johnny, who lost his arm in the Easter Rising, and daughter Mary who is a young vain idealist on strike.

The family learns from Charlie Bentham (Mary’s fiance) that they will inherit money from a relative of Boyles. The family celebrates and Boyle starts buying lots of luxuries such as furniture, a gramophone, and a suit, all on credit. The celebrations are put on hold when a neighbours son is murdered. The tragedies continue when the Boyle family learns that Bentham, who made the will, did so in such a way that the legacy is now worthless. Coincidentally Bentham breaks his engagement with Mary and runs away to England.

Following this disaster, more unfortunate events follow. Firstly, Mary discovers that she is pregnant, then furniture men arrive to take everything back that was bought and left unpaid for, and finally two soldiers arrive to take Johnny away, as he leaked the information which leads to the death of the neighbours son, and Johnny is then murdered as punishment.

In the end, Juno decides that the best course of action is to move into her sister’s house with Mary to raise the baby, leaving Boyle by himself. The play closes on Boyle and Joxer drunk, instead of facing their many problems.

Juno and the Paycock Quotes:

“It’s miraculous. Whenever he senses a job in front of him, his legs begin to fail him”
“Get out ‘o this! Get out o’ this at once. Ye’re nothin’ but a prognosticator, a procrastinator!”
“Me poor little child! It’ll have no father!” “Ah, sure, it’ll have what’s better — it’ll have two mothers”
“I ofen looked up at the sky an’ assed meself the question – what is the moon, what is the stars?”
“it’s nearly time we had a little less respect for the dead, an’ a little more regard for the living.”
“It doesn’t matter what you say, ma – a principle’s a principle.”
The Plough and the Stars Summary:

Sean O’Casey’s ‘The Plough and the Stars’ is a four-act play which is set in Dublin, like the previous two of his Dublin Trilogy. The first two acts take place in November 1915, looking forward to the liberation of Ireland, and the second two acts are set in April 1916 during the Easter Rising. This play was first performed in the Abbey Theatre on 8 February 1926. This play was very controversial, and on the 4th ever performance in 1926 a riot broke out mid-play in the Abbey Theatre. Whenever O’Casey first brought this play to the theatre, directors were concerned about it. There was much debate about changing parts of the play. W.B Yeats and Lady Gregory agreed that removing elements of the original play for political reason or another other reason other than dramatic tradition would be wrong.

The first act of ‘The Plough and the Stars’ shows the normal working-class life in Dublin. The act opens on Mrs. Gogan gossiping. We are introduced to the majority of the major characters including Fluther Good, young Covey, Jack Clitheroe, and Nora Clitheroe. Later in the act, Captain Brennan arrives at the Clitheroe’s home. Here he calls for Commandant Clitheroe, surprising Jack as he was not aware that he had been promoted. Nora begs for him not to open the door, however, he does and is handed his orders telling him that he and his battalion are to meet with General James Connolly. As he was unaware of his promotion, Jack questions why he was not made aware. Captain Brennan claims to have given Nora the letter. Jack then begins fighting with Nora as she had burned the letter without telling him about it.

The second act is set inside a public house and was originally called ‘The Cooing of Doves’. From inside the public house, we can hear a political rally outside, and on multiple occasions, we can hear an unnamed man addressing the crowd. We are introduced to Rosie Redmond, a prostitute, who is complaining to the barman that the rally outside is affecting business and profit. Throughout the act, people enter and leave the bar, and Bessie Burgess and Mrs. Gogan come in and being to fight. After they leave, Covey insults Rosie, which results in another fight between him and Fluther. Then, Jack, Lieutenant Langon, and Captain Brennen enter the bar, in uniform and carrying The Plough and the Stars flag and a tricolour flag. They feel so excited and fueled by the speeches that they are prepared to die for Ireland. They drink and leave again, then Fluther leaves with Rosie.

The third act takes place on Easter Monday 1916. It opens on Peter, Mrs. Gogan, and Covey discussing the fight taking place, and Covey announces to them that Patrick Pearse, with his men, read out the Proclamation of Irish Independence. Nora was unable to find Jack in the fight, Mrs. Grogan then takes her inside. We find out Looting has broken out across the city, then a fashionably dressed woman arrives asking for the safest route home as the fighting has made it impossible to find a taxi. She is left outside the tenement as Fluther tells her that all routes will be the same and leaves with Convey to loot a pub, and Peter refuses to help her out of fear and goes inside. Brennan and Jack appear with a wounded rebel, Nora runs out to see them and she begs Jack to stop fighting and to stay with her. Jack ignores her, pushes her away, and leaves with his comrades, Nora then goes into labour.

Act four takes place later in the rising. This scene is full of devastation, firstly a girl named Mollser dies of tuberculosis, and Nora has a stillbirth. Nora remains in a delusion, imagining her and Jack walking in the woods. Brennan announces that Jack has been shot dead. Nora goes to a window, shouting and trying to find Jack, however, Bessie pulls her away from the window but is mistaken for a sniper and is shot in the back.

The Plough and the Stars Quotes:

“There’s no reason to bring religion into it. I think we ought to have as great a regard for religion as we can, so as to keep it out of as many things as possible”
“God, she’s goin’ to th’ divil lately for style! That hat, now, cost more than a penny. Such notions of upperosity she’s gettin’.”
“that are hidin’ th’ dead,in-stead of homes that are sheltherin’ th’ livin’.”
“We rejoice in this terrible war, The old heart of the earth needed to be warmed with the red blood of battlefields”

Later works

Following the success of Sean O’Casey’s Dublin Trilogy, he continues to write many more plays that we have fallen in love with over the years. Some of these most famous plays are: ‘Bedtime Story’ which was published in 1951, ‘A Pound on Demand’ which was published in 1939, ‘Cock-a-Doodle Dandy’ which was published in 1949, ‘Purple Dust’ which was published in 1940, ‘The Story of the Irish Citizen Army’ which was published in 1919, ‘The Silver Tassie’ which was published in 1927, ‘Red Roses for Me’ which was published in 1943, and ‘The End of the Beginning’ which was published on 1937. Here, we have summarised ‘The Silver Tassie’, ‘Red Roses for Me’, and ‘The End of the Beginning’.

The Silver Tassie

‘The Silver Tassie’ is a four-act Expressionist play, and another tragi-comedy written by Sean O’Casey. It is about the First World War, and the theme of antiwar is obvious throughout. It was an unusual play at the time due to the extended time period it covers, from prewar to the aftermath. However, in 1928, W. B. Yeats rejected the play to be performed in the Abbey Theatre. It was therefore first performed in the Apollo Theatre in London on 11 October 1929. It was later (finally) performed in the Abbey Theatre on 12 August 1935, it was only performed in Ireland five times due to the controversy.

This play follows a soldier Harry Heegan who goes to war as if it is a football game. In Act One, it opens with Harry as the athlete, in the prime of his life and at the top of his fitness, however, he is obviously unaware of true values of life. Next, in Act Two, there is a sudden change and we are now at the battlefront. We watch Harry along with all the soldiers in loss, without hope. Then, Act Three is set in the veterans’ hospital, and we are then shown the bitterness of the veteran soldiers, and finally, in Act Four, we see the disabled Harry. He is not the fit young man that he was at the start of the play. Instead, he is now contrasted against young men who did not partake in the war, who are healthy and fit as he was at the beginning. We watch Harry’s loss of physical ability, youth, and hopes.

The Silver Tassie Quotes

“Teddy Foran and Harry Heegan have gone to live their own way in another world. Neither I nor you can lift them out of it. No longer can they do the things we do. We can’t give sight to the blind or make the lame walk. We would if we could. It is the misfortune of war. As long as wars are waged, we shall be vexed by woe; strong legs shall be made useless and bright eyes made dark. But we, who have come through the fire unharmed, must go on living. com along, and take your part in life. Come along, Barney, and take your partner into the dance!”

Red Roses for Me

Sean O’Casey’s ‘Red Roses for Me’ was first published in 1943, at the time of this publication, Ireland was still unsettled (more so in Northern Ireland) after the Irish civil war had ended. However, O’Casey decided to set this play in 1913, whenever Dublin was in a similar state.

O’Casey’s ‘Red Roses for Me’ opens in the apartment of Mrs. Breydon. At the beginning of Act One, she is with her son, Ayamonn, and they are talking about the upcoming strike about wages. They also talk about Ayamonn’s relationship with the young Sheila Moorneen who is a Catholic. His mother does not approve of the match as they are from different religious backgrounds, she also points out that Sheila will want to be a pampered woman and he will not be able to provide what she desires on his salary. Then Eeada, Dympna, and Finnoola arrive with a statue of the Virgin Mary, they ask Mrs. Breydon for some soap to wash the statue. Mrs. Breydon leaves with them to visit a sick neighbour to pay their respects. Then arrives Sheila, she and Ayamonn have a disagreement as she had called earlier but he did not open the door. He tries to be playful and woo her, but she continues to be annoyed and says that he has to be serious. She is worried about his involvement in the strike and says that if they are to remain together long term then he needs to focus on reality. She tries to leave when he refuses to be serious but they are interrupted by the landlord. Along with the landlord is a man who will be singing in the play. She stays and listens to the song, however, the song is interrupted on a couple of occasions, Sheila takes the opportunity during the final interruption to leave and tells Ayamonn that their relationship is over. The act ends with the three women arriving back in a panic saying that the statue has been stolen, and Ayamonn offers to help the women look for it.

The second act of ‘Red Roses for Me’ is also set in the Breydon’s home but on a later evening. It opens with Brennan carrying the statue into the house and his explanation of taking it to polish it for the young girl who admires it, he puts it back in its place. Later in the act, Mullcanny arrives to give Ayamonn a book about evolution and leaves again. This is followed by the arrival of Sheila who is continuing in her attempt to convince Ayamonn to give up on his artistic ways, she tells him that if he does not get involved in the strike then he will be made a foreman. Ayamonn refuses and is angered by her again, he does not want to betray his fellow work friends. Ayamonn and Sheila are interrupted again, but this time by the return of Mullcanny, only this time he is frantic, and he has been beaten up by a religious mob. The mob has followed him and throw two stones through the windows. Following this madness, the protestant rector, a friend of Ayamonn’s, arrives. He has a warning, and soon two railwaymen arrive. All three tell Ayamonn that the strike is forbidden and that the police will use force to stop it if it goes on. They ask him to be one of the speakers. Ayamonn agrees despite Sheilas’ protest.

Act three of ‘Red Roses for Me’ opens on a bridge overlooking Dublin. It is a gloomy setting, and a number of characters are present. The crowd talks about how Dublin has changed, and how it used to be a great city. Ayamonn and Roory arrive, and Ayamonn speaks to the crowd about how through actions like the strike Dublin could become a great city once again. The stage gradually becomes lighter, a clever use of pathetic fallacy. Ayamonn continues and begins to sing, this causes the crowd to rise. Finnoola and Ayamonn dance together, and the stage becomes bright as though the sun is shining on Dublin. However, his happy and bright scene is soon shattered, as there is a sound of marching from offstage, and the scene darkens. Finnoola insists that Ayamonn remain with her, however, he kisses her and leaves.

The fourth act of ‘Red Roses for Me’ opens on the grounds of a Protestant church. Here the rector uses Ayamonn’s cross in the Easter ceremony. Mrs. Breydon, Sheila, Ayamonn and the inspector arrive, and Ayamonn and the inspector argue over the meeting. Everyone except the rector attempt to convince Ayamonn not to go to the meeting, Ayamonn ignores and leaves for the meeting anyway. Later, a crowd passes and Dowzard and Foster seek cover from the worker mob. The rector returns and the two men tell them to kick Ayamonn out of the vestry as he is the leader of the mob striking. Meanwhile, the police attacked the strikers and gunshots can be heard offstage. A crowd arrives at the church, and an injured Finnoola arrives with them and announces to them that Ayamonn has been killed. Some time passes (this is shown through the dropping of the curtain), the stage is still set in the church. As Ayamonn’s dying words included his wish to be buried in this church, we are now witnessing his funeral. Dowzard argues with the rector, he argues that many people do not want his to be buried in their church grounds. Then, a group arrives carrying Ayamonn’s body. Sheila lays a bunch of red roses on his chest, connecting back to the title of the play ‘Red Roses for Me’. The inspector talks to Sheila and tells her that he tried to protect Ayamonn, however, his real reason for speaking with her is because he is interested in a romance with her. This is clear and Sheila refuses him and leaves him. The act ends with Brennan paying Samuel to leave the doors of the church open, and he sings a song for Ayamonn.

Red Roses for Me Quotes

“It’s I who know that well: when it was dark, you always carried the sun in your hand for me”

The End of the Beginning

Sean O’Casey’s play ‘The End of the Beginning’ is a one-act comedy with only three characters. It is set in rural Ireland, in the Berrill’s country house. This play is concerned with gender, and how women are underestimated by men. The three characters are:

  1. Darry, who is a stubborn, fat man of 55 years. He believes he is always right, is very sure of himself, and often blames his wife Lizzie for everything.
  2. Lizzie, the wife of Darry. She is 45 years old and is a sensible woman. She takes all the challenges she faces seriously.
  3. Barry, Darry’s friend, and neighbour. He is the opposite of Darry as he is thin, calm and sensible, or at least more sensible than Darry.

This play opens with Darry and Lizzie having an argument about if ‘men’s work’ or ‘women’s work’ is more difficult, they then challenge each other by switching roles for the day. From the outset, we can see the theme of gender coming through. Their characteristics are shown through how they begin to swap roles: Lizzie heads straight to the meadow to do Darry’s work, while Darry starts procrastinating. Darry first fails to exercise in time with the gramophone, then Barry joins him. The two then start practicing their song that they are planning to sing at the Town Hall Concert entitled Down Where the Bees are Humming. Darry then realises that he had not started his wife’s work, so he begins, however, a series of mishaps occur. Firstly, broken crockery, followed by a bleeding nose, a shattered windowpane, a fused light bulb, spilled oil from the oil drum, and finally nearly getting pulled along with the heifer to the bank beside the house. Basically, Darry fails at doing what he called ‘the women’s work’. He, therefore, loses the challenge. Meanwhile, Lissie can be heard from offstage mowing the meadow. The play ends with Lizzie comes home to find the house is a wreck… and not surprising, Darry blames her.

You can find the lyrics and music to Darry and Barry’s lovely song Down Where the Bees are Humming here.

Sean O’Casey on Screen

Our Irish Playwright Sean O’Casey’s plays have been loved worldwide, so much so that many were adapted into television and film.

The first of O’Casey’s Dublin Trilogy ‘Shadow of a Gunman’ was adapted for television on a few occasions. It was televised in 1972 and starred Frank Converse and the academy award winner Richard Dreyfuss. Another adaption was made to be part of the 1992 BBC Performance series starring Kenneth Branagh, Stephen Rea, and Bronagh Gallagher.

The second of O’Casey’s Dublin Trilogy ‘Juno and the Paycock’ was adapted many times. It has been adapted into many movies, it was first adapted into a film in 1930 and was directed by Alfred Hitchcock starring Sara Allgood, Edward Chapman, and Barry Fitzgerald. Following this, it was made into a film in 1938 starring Marie O’Neill and Harry Hutchinson, in 1960 starring Hume Cronyn and Walter Matthau, and in 1980 starring Frances Tomelty and Dudley Sutton. Following these films, the famous play was adapted for use in television series on multiple occasions, including for the BBC Saturday-Night Theatre. As well as being used for television, O’Casey’s ‘Juno and the Paycock’ has also been transformed into a musical by Marc Blitzstein and Joseph Stein. The original Broadway production opened in 1959.

The third, and final, of O’Casey’s Dublin Trilogy ‘The Plough and the Stars’ was made into a film in 1936, it was directed by John Ford and starred Barbara Stanwyck, Preston Foster, and Barry Fitzgerald. Later, in 1979 Elie Siegmeister used the play and created an opera, and it premiered in New York in October that year in the Symphony Space. More recently, in 2011, the BBC Radio 3 adapted the play for broadcast production, it was directed by Nadia Molinari.

Finally, O’Casey’s ‘The Silver Tassie’ was made into a film in 1980, it was directed by Brian MacLochlainn and starred Stephen Brennan, Ray McAnally, and May Cluskey.

Sean O’Casey | His Mark on the World

Sean O'Casey Bridge
Sean O’Casey Bridge
Sourced: Flickr, Can Pac Swire

Sean O’Casey definitely made his mark on the literary, and film worlds! However, he did not stop there. The amazing Irish Playwright also left his mark on the physical world, and you can go visit his landmarks!

We all know the Irish can drink, therefore, of course, there is a Pub named in his honour. You can find the Sean O’Casey pub in Omaha, in the United States. There was once a Sean O’Casey’s bar in Dublin, Marlborough Street, however, it was sold and changed into a Trad Bar. 

While in Dublin, you must stop by the Sean O’Casey Community Centre. You will find this community centre on St. Mary’s Road, East Wall. Within this community centre you will find the Sean O’Casey Theatre, a gym, function rooms, and much more. As Sean O’Casey is possibly Ireland’s most famous playwright, it is only right that there is a theatre in his honour. You can find out about upcoming performances at the Sean O’Casey Theatre Facebook page.

While in Dublin, you should also check out the Sean O’Casey Bridge. This bridge was designed by architect Cyril O’Neill, it was built in 2005 and was opened by Taoiseach Bertie Ahern in July that same year. It is 97.61 metres long and joins City Quay, Grand Central Docks to the North Wall Quay. It overlooks the Liffey River, where you can look at the gorgeous water and scenery.

Sean O’Casey’s last home was at 422 North Circular Road, Dublin. It was bought by the Dublin City Council and is now being used as homeless accommodation

Awards and Recognition

This famous Irish Playwright has had much recognition for his literary genius. In 1926 he was the Hawthornden Prize for the second play of his Dublin Trilogy ‘Juno and the Paycock’. However, there were many honours that he declined. He was offered to become a member of the Order of the British Empire, and he was offered honourary degrees from Trinity College, Dublin in 1961, the University of Exeter in 1960, and Durham University in 1960.

Fun Facts

As a young boy, Sean O’Casey played a small part in Dion Boucicault’s play ‘The Shaughraun’ in the Mechanics’ Theatre, thus theatre later became the Abbey Theatre.

O’Casey was fired from Eason’s for refusing to take off his cap when collecting his wages.

O’Casey never got to see the musical production of his second play of his Dublin Trilogy ‘Juno and the Paycock’

Sean O’Casey died on 18 September 1964 at the age of 84 of a heart attack in Torquay, Devon. He was later cremated.

In 1964 his autobiography ‘Mirror in my House’ was turned into a film called ‘Young Cassidy’. It was directed by Jack Cardiff, and starred Rod Taylor as O’Casey, Flora Robson, Maggie Smith, and Julie Christie.

Many of Sean O’Casey’s papers are held in Universities and Libraries across the world. Including New York Public Library, the University of California, the National Library of Ireland, and the University of London Library.

If you loved learning about the Irish Playwright Sean O’Casey, enjoy more of our blogs about famous Irish authors:

William Butler Yeats: A Poet’s Journey | Irish Author: Cecelia Ahern – Book and Film Success | Successful Authors from Derry – James Burke & More | Samuel Beckett: An Irish Author | Oscar Wilde: His Journey, Fame and Downfall | James Joyce: His Life, Work and Legacy | Derek Mahon: Ireland’s Leading Modern Poet

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