Seán O’Casey, Irish dramatist and memoirist, dies of a heart attack in Torquay, Devon, England on September 18, 1964. A committed socialist, he is the first Irish playwright of note to write about the Dublin working classes.
O’Casey is born John Casey at 85 Upper Dorset Street, in the northern inner-city area of Dublin on March 30, 1880. He is a member of the Church of Ireland, baptised on July 28, 1880 in St. Mary’s parish and confirmed at St. John the Baptist Church in Clontarf. He is an active member of Saint Barnabas until his mid-twenties, when he drifts away from the church.
As O’Casey’s interest in Irish nationalism grows, he joins the Gaelic League in 1906 and learns the Irish language. At this time, he Gaelicises his name from John Casey to Seán Ó Cathasaigh. He also learns to play the Uilleann pipes and is a founder and secretary of the St. Laurence O’Toole Pipe Band. He joins the Irish Republican Brotherhood, and becomes involved in the Irish Transport and General Workers Union, established by James Larkin to represent the interests of the unskilled labourers who inhabit the Dublin tenements. In March 1914 he becomes General Secretary of Larkin’s Irish Citizen Army. On July 24, 1914 he resigns from the ICA, after his proposal to deny dual membership to both the ICA and the Irish Volunteers is rejected.
In 1917, his friend Thomas Ashe dies in a hunger strike and it inspires him to write. He spends the next five years writing plays. O’Casey’s first accepted play, The Shadow of a Gunman, is performed at the Abbey Theatre in 1923. This is the beginning of a relationship that is to be fruitful for both theatre and dramatist but which ends in some bitterness. It is followed by Juno and the Paycock (1924) and The Plough and the Stars (1926).
The Plough and the Stars is not well received by the Abbey audience. There is a riot reported on the fourth night of the show. His depiction of sex and religion offends some of the actors who refused to speak their lines. W.B. Yeats intervenes and describes the audience as “shaming themselves.”
In 1928, Yeats rejects O’Casey’s fourth play, The Silver Tassie, for the Abbey. It is an attack on imperialist wars and the suffering they cause. The Abbey refuses to perform it. The plays O’Casey writes after this include the darkly allegorical and highly controversial Within the Gates (1934), which is set within the gates of a busy city park based on London’s Hyde Park. It closes not long after opening and is another box office failure.
Over the next twenty years, O’Casey writes The Star Turns Red (1940), Purple Dust (1943), Red Roses for Me (1943), Oak Leaves and Lavender (1945), Cock-a-Doodle Dandy (1949), The Bishop’s Bonfire (1955), and The Drums of Father Ned (1958). In 1959, O’Casey gives his blessing to a musical adaptation of Juno and the Paycock by American composer Marc Blitzstein. The musical, retitled Juno, is a commercial failure, closing after only 16 Broadway performances. Also in 1959, George Devine produces Cock-a-Doodle Dandy at the Royal Court Theatre and it is also successful at the Edinburgh International Festival and has a West End run.
On September 18, 1964, at the age of 84, O’Casey dies of a heart attack, in Torquay, Devon. He is cremated at the Golders Green Crematorium.