Sean O’Casey’s Dublin Trilogy is set during three major moments in the Irish Revolutionary Period: The Plough and the Stars during The Easter Rising of 1916, The Shadow of a Gunman during The Irish War of Independence (1919-1921), and Juno and the Paycock during The Irish Civil War (1922-1923). Together, these three events mark the beginning of the nation of Ireland as we know it today – informing current politics and countless works of literature and art. Learn more below:
Pre-World War I: 1880-1914
After nearly eight centuries under forced British rule, the late 1800s brought a wave of Irish nationalism in the form of The Gaelic Revival, which encouraged the reemergence of the Irish language, and the Irish Literary Renaissance, which revived Irish folklore and other storytelling tradition through new works by famed authors including W.B. Yeats, James Joyce, John Millington Synge, Lady Gregory, and more.
Politically during this time, most Irish nationalists supported the Home Rule Movement, which sought to establish an independent Irish parliament to govern Irish domestic affairs within the United Kingdom. The plan had many detractors, most notably Republicans: Irish nationalists calling for a full departure from England, and Unionists: primarily Protestant loyalists who wanted to maintain British rule. However, the Home Rule strategy was most popular, and in 1912, Parliament approved Home Rule to begin in 1914. When World War I broke out, the enactment of Home Rule was postponed for the duration of the conflict.
The Easter Rising; April 24-29, 1916 (depicted in The Plough and the Stars)
While Unionists and moderate Home Rule-supporting Irishmen enlisted to fight with the British in World War I, ultimately suffering heavy casualties, Irish Republicans refused to participate in what they saw as an imperial conflict. Before 1916, most Irish people did not yet support the violent overthrow of the British, but a small radical contingent was mobilizing. The Military Council of the Irish Republican Brotherhood (IRB) and their military arm, The Irish Volunteers, were coordinating a rebellion with The Irish Citizen Army (ICA), a well-organized paramilitary socialist group that protected trade union workers during strikes. Sean O’Casey was very involved in the ICA’s early years, but he withdrew in 1914, criticizing the group for wavering in its socialist mission.
On Monday, April 24, 1916, approximately 1,200 Irish Republican soldiers, armed mostly with rifles, began to take over strategic sites in Dublin and proclaimed the new Irish Republic. The uprising caught the British by surprise, allowing for some early successes for the rebels before British reinforcements arrived, outmanning and outgunning the republicans with over 16,000 men armed with heavy artillery including machine guns and bombshells. Five days of shooting and bombing in central Dublin resulted in the deaths of nearly 500 people, more than half of the fatalities, plus 3,000 injuries, were to Irish civilians – most frequently at the hands of the British. To prevent further casualties, the rebels surrendered on Saturday, April 29, 1916.
After the rising, thousands of Irish people were arrested. Fifteen Irishmen, including most Rising organizers, were immediately tried without a defense and executed by firing squad. Sympathy rose for the rebels throughout Ireland; they were seen as fighting a clean, honorable fight in comparison to the British; the executions transformed them into martyrs. This plus the internment and imprisonment of hundreds of Irishmen and women and news of British cruelty to civilians ultimately turned the tide of Irish public opinion in favor of independence.
When the British government moved to impose a military draft in Ireland in 1918, they lost any remaining good will in Ireland. That December, the separatist party, Sinn Feín, won 73 of Ireland’s 105 seats. When they convened in Dublin in January, they proclaimed themselves Dáil Éireann (First Dáil), the parliament of an independent Ireland.
The Irish War of Independence, January 21, 1919-July 11, 1921 (setting for The Shadow of a Gunman)
When Sinn Feín declared Irish independence, armed clashes began between the Irish Republican Army (IRA), the army of the new Irish Republic, and British police forces. The conflict developed into a deadly war fought throughout Ireland, particularly in Dublin, where the British enforced strict curfews lasting from 8pm-5am nightly. The British sent reinforcements in the form of Auxiliary Troops and the notoriously brutal Black and Tans – a special temporary police force made up primarily of World War I veterans. They were given little training and minimal oversight by the British government and quickly became infamous for attacks on Irish towns and civilians, earning significant criticism for the British, both at home and abroad.
While most of Ireland supported the Republicans, Ulster, Ireland’s Northern Province, was deeply divided between Protestant Unionists and Catholic Republicans. These divisions deepened into sectarian violence during the War of Independence that would simmer and ultimately resurface decades later with the onset of The Troubles. Unionists established an independent parliament for Northern Ireland, adopting the Home Rule model rejected by Republicans.
The War of Independence ended with a truce on July 11, 1921, and negotiations bought about The Anglo-Irish Treaty that December. In addition to establishing the Irish Free State as a dominion in the British Commonwealth with its own government, army, and police force, the Treaty allowed Northern Ireland to opt out of the Free State and remain part of the United Kingdom.
The Irish Civil War, June 28, 1922 – May 24, 1923 (setting for Juno and the Paycock)
For Republicans who were fighting for full Irish independence, remaining in the British Commonwealth, as outlined in The Anglo-Irish Treaty, was not acceptable, nor was separation from Northern Ireland. A deep schism developed between Irish political leaders and within the IRA, turning former allies in the Republican movement into two new segments: pro-treaty Irish Nationalists and anti-treaty Irish Republicans, forcing everyone to choose sides.
In June of 1922, the pro-treaty party secured majority political support in Irish elections and established a new National Army for the Irish Free State. On June 28, Civil War began in Dublin between the National Army and anti-treaty IRA militants. Aided by British weapons, The Free State quickly secured most large Irish towns, and the war morphed into a guerrilla conflict, inflicting heavy civilian casualties in addition to significant loss of life on both sides. Out-organized and out-manned, the Anti-Treaty IRA agreed to a ceasefire on May 24, 1923. A formal peace was never reached; but after the ceasefire, most future disagreements were expressed through differing political parties. Although the Civil War lasted for only a short time, it was extremely bloody and costly, and it left a bitter legacy that informs Irish politics through today.
The complex events above cannot be fully explored in such a limited space, but we hope that it inspires you to learn more about this fascinating time in Irish history.