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Promoting Irish Culture and History from Little Rock, Arkansas, USA


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Birth of Playwright Seán O’Casey

sean-ocaseySeán O’Casey, Irish playwright renowned for realistic dramas of the Dublin slums in war and revolution, in which tragedy and comedy are juxtaposed in a way new to the theatre of his time, is born at 85 Upper Dorset Street in Dublin on March 30, 1880.

Born as John Casey into a lower middle-class Irish Protestant family, his father dies when he is six, and thereafter the family becomes progressively poorer. With only three years of formal schooling, he educates himself by reading. He starts work at 14, mostly at manual labour, including several years with the Irish railways.

O’Casey becomes caught up in the cause of Irish nationalism, and he changes his name to its Irish form and learns the Irish language. His attitudes are greatly influenced by the poverty and squalor he witnesses in Dublin’s slums and by the teachings of the Irish labour leader Jim Larkin. He becomes active in the labour movement and writes for The Irish Worker. He also joins the Irish Citizen Army, a paramilitary arm of the Irish labour unions, and draws up its constitution in 1914. At this time he becomes disillusioned with the Irish nationalist movement because its leaders put nationalist ideals before socialist ones. He does not take part in the 1916 Easter Rising against the British authorities.

Disgusted with the existing political parties, he turns his energies to drama. His tragicomedies reflect in part his mixed feelings about his fellow slum dwellers, seeing them as incapable of giving a socialist direction to the Irish cause but at the same time admirable for their unconquerable spirit.

After several of his plays have been rejected, the Abbey Theatre in Dublin produces The Shadow of a Gunman (1923), set during the guerrilla warfare between the Irish Republican Army and British forces. In 1924 the Abbey stages Juno and the Paycock, his most popular play, set during the period of civil war over the terms of Irish independence. The Plough and the Stars (1926), with the 1916 Easter Rising as its background, causes riots at the Abbey by patriots who think the play denigrates Irish heroes. When first produced in the 1920s, these plays have an explosive effect on the audiences at the Abbey and help to enlarge the theatre’s reputation.

O’Casey goes to England in 1926, meets the Irish actress Eileen Carey Reynolds, marries her, and henceforth makes England his home. His decision to live outside Ireland is motivated in part by the Abbey’s rejection of The Silver Tassie, a partly Expressionist antiwar drama produced in England in 1929. Another Expressionist play, Within the Gates (1934), follows, in which the modern world is symbolized by the happenings in a public park. The Star Turns Red (1940) is an antifascist play, and the semiautobiographical Red Roses for Me (1946) is set in Dublin at the time of the Irish railways strike of 1911.

O’Casey’s later plays, given to fantasy and ritual and directed against the life-denying puritanism he believes has beset Ireland, include Cock-a-Doodle Dandy (1949), The Bishop’s Bonfire (1955), and The Drums of Father Ned (1958). His last full-length play is a satire on Dublin intellectuals, Behind the Green Curtains, published in 1961.

O’Casey’s three indisputably great plays are The Shadow of a Gunman, Juno and the Paycock, and The Plough and the Stars. All are tragicomedies set in the slums of Dublin during times of war and revolution. Violent death and the everyday realities of tenement life throw into relief the blustering rhetoric and patriotic swagger of men caught up in the struggle for Irish independence. The resulting ironic juxtapositions of the comic and tragic reveal the waste of war and the corrosive effects of poverty. His gifts are for vivid characterization and working-class language and, though he portrays war and poverty, he writes some of the funniest scenes in modern drama. His later plays are not considered as powerful or moving as his earlier realistic plays. In his later plays he tends to abandon vigorous characterization in favour of expressionism and symbolism, and sometimes the drama is marred by didacticism.

Six volumes of O’Casey’s autobiography appeared from 1939 to 1956. They are later collected as Mirror in My House (1956) in the United States and as Autobiographies (1963) in Great Britain. O’Casey’s letters from 1910 to 1941 are edited by David Krause in two volumes (1975, 1980).

Sean O’Casey dies of a heart attack at the age of 84 on September 18, 1964, in Torquay, Devon. He is cremated at the Golders Green Crematorium.

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The Assassination of Tomás Mac Curtain

Tomas-mac-curtainTomás Mac Curtain, Sinn Féin Lord Mayor of Cork, is assassinated in Cork, County Cork on March 20, 1920, which is also his 36th birthday.

Thomas Curtin is born at Ballyknockane, Mourne Abbey, County Cork, on March 20, 1884, the son of Patrick Curtin, a farmer, and Julia Sheehan. He attends Burnfort National School. In 1897 the family moves to Cork City, where he attends the North Monastery school.

Mac Curtain, as he later becomes known, is active in a number of cultural and political movements beginning around the turn of the 20th century. He joins the Blackpool, Cork branch of Conradh na Gaeilge, becoming its secretary in 1902. He has interests in music, poetry, history, archaeology and Irish history. He works in his early career as a clerk, and in his free time teaches Irish. In 1911 he joins Fianna Éireann, and is a member of the Irish Volunteers.

He meets Elizabeth Walsh (Eibhlís Breathnach) at a Gaelic League meeting and they marry on June 28, 1908. They have six children, five of whom survive into adulthood. The family lives over 40 Thomas Davis Street, where Mac Curtain runs a small clothing and rainwear factory.

In April 1916, at the outset of the Easter Rising, Mac Curtain commands a force of up to 1,000 men of the Irish Volunteers who assemble at various locations around County Cork. From the volunteers headquarters at Sheares Street in the city, Mac Curtain and his officers await orders from the volunteer leadership in Dublin but conflicting instructions and confusion prevail and as a result the Cork volunteers never enter the fray. A tense stand-off develops when British forces surround the volunteer hall and continued for a week until a negotiated agreement leads to the surrender of the volunteers’ arms to the then Lord Mayor of Cork Thomas Butterfield on the understanding that they will be returned at a later date. This does not happen however and Mac Curtain is jailed in Wakefield Prison, in the Frongoch internment camp in Wales, and in Reading Gaol. After the general amnesty of participants in the Rising 18 months later, Mac Curtain returns to active duty as a Commandant of what is now the Irish Republican Army.

By 1918 Mac Curtain is a brigade commander, the highest and most important rank in the IRA. During the Conscription Crisis of 1918, he actively encourages the hiring of the women of Cumann na mBan to cater for Volunteers. He is personally involved with Michael CollinsThe Squad that, along with a Cork battalion, attempt to assassinate Lord John French, whose car is missed as the convoy passes through the ambush positions. Despite the setback he remains brigadier of No.1 Cork when he is elected Lord Mayor. He is elected in the January 1920 council elections as the Sinn Féin councillor for NW Ward No. 3 of Cork, and is chosen by his fellow councillors to be the Lord Mayor. He begins a process of political reform within the city.

In January 1919, the Irish War of Independence starts and Mac Curtain becomes an officer in the IRA. On March 20, 1920, his 36th birthday, Mac Curtain is shot dead in front of his wife and son by a group of men with blackened faces, who are found to be members of the Auxilaries along with unknown members of the Royal Irish Constabulary (RIC) by the official inquest into the event. In the wake of the killing, which is in revenge for the shooting of a policeman, Mac Curtain’s house in Blackpool is ransacked.

The killing causes widespread public outrage. The coroner’s inquest passes a verdict of willful murder against British Prime Minister David Lloyd George and against certain members of the RIC. Michael Collins later orders his squad of assassins to uncover and assassinate the police officers involved in the attack. RIC District Inspector Oswald Swanzy, who had ordered the attack, is fatally shot, with Mac Curtain’s own revolver, while leaving a Protestant church in Lisburn, County Antrim on August 22, 1920, sparking what is described by Tim Pat Coogan as a “pogrom” against the Catholic residents of the town.

Tomás Mac Curtain is buried in St. Finbarr’s Cemetery, Cork.


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The Bombing of Nelson’s Pillar

nelsons-pillar-bombingA powerful explosion destroys the upper portion of Nelson’s Pillar in Dublin in the early morning hours of March 8, 1966, bringing Nelson’s statue crashing to the ground amid hundreds of tons of rubble. All that is left of the Pillar is a 70-foot high jagged stump. The pillar is seen by many as an anachronistic monument to English occupation of Ireland, especially as 1966 is the 50th anniversary of the 1916 Easter Rising.

Nelson’s Pillar is a large granite column capped by a statue of Horatio Nelson, built in the centre of what is then Sackville Street (later renamed O’Connell Street) in Dublin. It is completed in 1809 when Ireland is part of the United Kingdom. Its remnants are later destroyed by the Irish Army.

The decision to build the monument is taken by Dublin Corporation in the euphoria following Nelson’s victory at the Battle of Trafalgar in 1805. The original design by William Wilkins is greatly modified by Francis Johnston, on grounds of cost. The statue is sculpted by Thomas Kirk. From its opening on October 29, 1809 the Pillar is a popular tourist attraction, but provokes aesthetic and political controversy from the outset. A prominent city centre monument honouring an Englishman rankles as Irish nationalist sentiment grows, and throughout the 19th century there are calls for it to be removed, or replaced with a memorial to an Irish hero.

During the Easter Rising in 1916 an attempt is made to blow up the pillar but the explosives fail to ignite due to dampness. It remains in the city as most of Ireland becomes the Irish Free State in 1922, and the Republic of Ireland in 1949. The chief legal barrier to its removal is the trust created at the Pillar’s inception, the terms of which gave the trustees a duty in perpetuity to preserve the monument. Successive Irish governments fail to deliver legislation overriding the trust. Although influential literary figures such as James Joyce, William Butler Yeats and Oliver St. John Gogarty defend the Pillar on historical and cultural grounds, pressure for its removal intensifies in the years preceding the 50th anniversary of the Rising, and its sudden demise is, on the whole, well received by the public. Although it is widely believed that the action is the work of the Irish Republican Army (IRA), the police are unable to identify any of those responsible.

After years of debate and numerous proposals, the site is occupied in 2003 by the Spire of Dublin, a slim needle-like structure rising almost three times the height of the Pillar. In 2000 a former republican activist gives a radio interview in which he admits planting the explosives in 1966, but after questioning him the Gardaí decides not to take action. Relics of the Pillar are found in Dublin museums and appear as decorative stonework elsewhere, and its memory is preserved in numerous works of Irish literature.


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Birth of Author Eilís Dillon

eilis-dillonEilís Dillon, Irish author of 50 books, is born in Galway, County Galway on March 7, 1920. Her work has been translated into 14 languages.

Dillon is the third of five children of Professor Thomas Dillon and his wife Geraldine (née Plunkett), who is the sister of Joseph Mary Plunkett. She is raised at Dangan House outside of Galway City before moving to the small fishing village of Barna. She attends the local primary school where she becomes proficient in the Irish language and gains an intimate knowledge of tradition in the Connemara. Her family is involved in Irish revolutionary politics. Her uncle, Joseph Mary Plunkett, is a signatory of the 1916 Proclamation of the Irish Republic and is executed after the Easter Rising.

Educated by the Ursuline nuns in Sligo, she works briefly in the hotel and catering trade. In 1940 she marries Cormac Ó Cuilleanáin, an academic from University College Cork and 17 years her senior. They have at least three children, including the Irish poet and Trinity College Dublin professor Eiléan Ní Chuilleanáin and her brother, Cormac Ó Cuilleanáin, also a Trinity professor, who writes novels as Cormac Millar.

Dillon’s first books are written in Irish including An Choill Bheo, published in 1948, Oscar agus an Cóiste sé nEasóg in 1952 and Ceol na coille in 1955. After the success of The Lost Island, published in 1952, she writes almost exclusively in English. Most of her books are aimed at teen readers with themes of self-discovery and problem solving evident.

Dillon’s adult fiction career begins in 1953 with the publication of the detective novel Death at Crane’s Court. This is followed by Sent to His Account in 1954 and Death in the Quadrangle in 1956. These novels are known for their depiction of contemporary Ireland. Over the following decade Dillon publishes many novels including The Bitter Glass (1959), Across the Bitter Sea (1973) and The Wild Geese (1981).

In 1964 she moves to Rome due to her husband’s poor health. While there she acts as adviser to International Commission on English in the Liturgy. She returns to Cork with her husband in 1969 where he dies the following year. She continues to visit Italy over the next several years, setting some of her stories there including Living in Imperial Rome (1974) and The Five Hundred (1972), though these are not as popular as her Irish books. In 1974 she marries the American-based critic and professor Vivian Mercier, dividing her time between California, Italy and Dublin.

In her later years Dillon plays a prominent role in Irish culture. She is a Fellow of the Royal Society for Literature and a member of Aosdána, serves on the Irish Arts Council 1974–1979, chairs the Irish Writers’ Union and the Irish Writers’ Centre, and founds the Irish Children’s Book Trust. In 1987 she and her husband move permanently to Dublin where she supports up and coming Irish authors. Her last story is Children of Bach published in 1993.

Eilís Dillon dies on July 19, 1994 and is buried beside her second husband in Clara, County Offaly. A prize in her memory is given annually as part of the Bisto Book of the Year Awards.


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Death of John Redmond, Politician & Barrister

john-edward-redmondJohn Edward Redmond, Irish nationalist politician, barrister, and Member of Parliament (MP) in the House of Commons of the United Kingdom, dies on March 6, 1918 in London, England. He is best known as leader of the moderate Irish Parliamentary Party (IPP) from 1900 until his death. He is also leader of the paramilitary organisation the National Volunteers.

Redmond is born to an old prominent Catholic family in Kilrane, County Wexford on September 1, 1856. Several relatives are politicians. He takes over control of the minority IPP faction loyal to Charles Stewart Parnell after Parnell dies in 1891. He is a conciliatory politician who achieves the two main objectives of his political life: party unity and, in September 1914, the passing of the Irish Home Rule Act.

The Irish Home Rule Act grants limited self-government to Ireland, within the United Kingdom. However, implementation of Home Rule is suspended by the outbreak of the World War I. Redmond calls on the National Volunteers to join Irish regiments of the New British Army and support the British and Allied war effort to restore the “freedom of small nations” on the European continent, thereby to also ensure the implementation of Home Rule after a war that is expected to be of short duration. However, after the Easter Rising of 1916, Irish public opinion shifts in favour of militant republicanism and full Irish independence, resulting in his party losing its dominance in Irish politics.

In sharp contrast to Parnell, Redmond lacks charisma. He works well in small committees, but has little success in arousing large audiences. Parnell had always chosen the nominees to Parliament. Now they are selected by the local party organisations, giving Redmond numerous weak MPs over whom he has little control. He is an excellent representative of the old Ireland, but grows increasingly old-fashioned because he pays little attention to the new forces attracting younger Irishmen, such as Sinn Féin in politics, the Gaelic Athletic Association in sports, and the Gaelic League in cultural affairs.

Redmond never tries to understand the unionist forces emerging in Ulster. He is further weakened in 1914 by the formation of the Irish Volunteers by Sinn Féin members. His enthusiastic support for the British war effort alienates many Irish nationalists. His party has been increasingly hollowed out, and a major crisis, notably the Easter Rising, is enough to destroy it.

Redmond is increasingly eclipsed by ill-health after 1916. An operation in March 1918 to remove an intestinal obstruction appears to progress well initially, but he then suffers heart failure. He dies a few hours later at a London nursing home on March 6, 1918.

Condolences and expressions of sympathy are widely expressed. After a funeral service in Westminster Cathedral his remains are interred, as requested in a manner characteristic of the man, in the family vault at the old Knights Templars‘ chapel yard of Saint John’s Cemetery, Wexford, amongst his own people rather than in the traditional burial place for Irish statesmen and heroes in Glasnevin Cemetery. The small, neglected cemetery near the town centre is kept locked to the public. His vault, which has been in a dilapidated state, has been only partially restored by Wexford County Council.


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Irish Race Convention of 1916

hotel-astor-nycThe third Irish Race Convention is held in New York City on March 4, 1916 and serves as an immediate call for the Easter Rebellion in Dublin. Previous conventions were held in Chicago (1881) and Dublin (1896). The Irish Race Conventions are a disconnected series of conventions held in Europe and the Americas between 1881 and 1994. The main participants and financial supporters of the conventions are usually Irish Americans.

The 1916 convention, comprising 2,300 delegates at the Hotel Astor, is held six weeks before the Easter Rising, and considers the division between the home Rule parties and the more militant nationalists. The Rising would be supported by Clan na Gael, but other members remain hopeful that the 1914 Home Rule Act, which had been passed but suspended during World War I, might work.

A majority at the convention support the American policy of neutrality during the war, and are opposed to any alliance with Britain. Woodrow Wilson wins the United States presidential election in 1916 with help from Irish Americans and his campaign slogan of “He kept us out of War.”

An important result is the formation of the “Friends of Irish Freedom” that work as a coordinating body to support “the independence of Ireland, the industrial development of Ireland, the use and sale of Irish products, and to revive Irish culture.”

(Pictured: Hotel Astor, located in the Times Square area of Manhattan, New York City. The hotel was demolished in 1967 and replaced with the 54-story high-rise office tower One Astor Plaza.)


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Birth of James Stephens, Novelist & Poet

istepja001p1James Stephens, Irish novelist and poet, is born in Dublin on February 9, 1880.

Stephens’ mother works in the home of the Collins family of Dublin and is adopted by them. He is committed to the Meath Protestant Industrial School for Boys as a small child and spends his childhood there. He attends school with his adopted brothers Thomas and Richard before graduating as a solicitor’s clerk. He is known affectionately in school as “Tiny Tim” due to his 4’10” stature. He is much enthralled by the tales of military valour of his adoptive family and would have become a soldier if not for his height.

By the early 1900s Stephens is increasingly inclined to socialism and the Irish language and by 1912 is a dedicated Irish Republican. He is a close friend of the 1916 Easter Rising leader Thomas MacDonagh, who is then editor of The Irish Review and deputy headmaster in St. Enda’s School, the radical bilingual school run by Patrick Pearse. His growing nationalism brings a schism with his adopted family, but probably wins him his job as registrar in the National Gallery of Ireland, where he works between 1915 and 1925, having previously had an ill-paid job with the Mecredy solicitors’ firm.

Stephens produces many retellings of Irish myths and fairy tales. His retellings are marked by a rare combination of humour and lyricism. He also writes several original novels, The Crock of Gold, Etched in Moonlight and Demi-Gods, based loosely on Irish fairy tales. The Crock of Gold in particular has achieved enduring popularity and has often been reprinted.

Stephens begins his career as a poet under the tutelage of “Æ” (George William Russell). His first book of poems, Insurrections, is published in 1909. His last book, Kings and the Moon (1938), is also a volume of verse.

Stephens’s influential account of the 1916 Easter Rising, Insurrection in Dublin, describes the effect of the deaths by execution of his friend Thomas MacDonagh and others as being “like watching blood oozing from under a door.” Of MacDonagh he writes:

No person living is the worse off for having known Thomas MacDonagh, and I, at least, have never heard MacDonagh speak unkindly or even harshly of anything that lived. It has been said of him that his lyrics were epical ; in a measure it is true, and it is true in the same measure that his death was epical. He was the first of the leaders who was tried and shot.

Stephens lives between Paris, London and Dublin. During the 1930s he is a friend of James Joyce, and they mistakenly believe that they share a birthday. Joyce, who is concerned about his ability to finish what later becomes Finnegans Wake, proposes that Stephens assist him, with the authorship credited to JJ & S, short “Jameses Joyce & Stephens,” but also a pun on the popular Irish whiskey made by John Jameson & Sons. The plan is never implemented, as Joyce is able to complete the work on his own.

During the last decade of Stephens’ life he finds a new audience through a series of broadcasts on the BBC. He dies at Eversleigh on Saint Stephen’s Day, December 26, 1950.