Sean O’Casey is an Irish dramatist renowned for his innovative playwriting style, which balances deeply comic and tragic elements in an atmosphere of stark realism, with emphasis on characterization of working and lower class Dubliners.
O’Casey was born John Casey on March 30, 1880 in Dublin, Ireland, the thirteenth child (fifth surviving) to a lower-middle class Protestant family. When his father died in 1886, the family’s financial circumstances grew worse. As an infant, O’Casey contracted trachoma, which led to impaired and deteriorating eyesight for his entire life. Unable to participate regularly in formal schooling due to his health, he began working in manual labor positions at age fourteen, continuing self-education throughout his adolescence.
When he was in his 20s, O’Casey became interested in Irish history and culture, as well as labor causes. He joined the Gaelic League in 1906 and began learning Irish, changing his name to Sean O’Cathasaigh. He also began writing, primarily poetry. He then joined the Irish Transport and General Workers Union and its offshoot, the Irish Citizen Army, participating in the Dublin lock-out strike in 1913. In 1914, he resigned from these organizations as he focused on socialism as a means towards improvement rather than nationalism; he did not participate in the Easter Rising of 1916.
O’Casey began to write plays in 1916. His first four submissions to The Abbey Theatre were rejected, but O’Casey persisted, and in 1923, The Abbey produced The Shadow of a Gunman, beginning O’Casey’s career as a playwright at age 43. By this time he had adopted the final variation of his name, Sean O’Casey. Juno and the Paycock (1924) and The Plough and the Stars (1926) completed O’Casey’s famed Dublin Trilogy and established his career as a full-time writer.
In 1926, he met Eileen Carey, an actress in the West End production of The Plough and the Stars, and they married in 1927. Together they had three children, Breon, Niall, and Shivaun. In 1929, they moved permanently to England. O’Casey’s relationship with The Abbey Theatre soured after they refused to stage his play The Silver Tassie, but he continued to write and produce play with other theatres, including Within the Gates (1934), The Star Turns Red (1940), and Purple Dust (1943), and several of his plays were staged in the United States and adapted into films during his lifetime. O’Casey died of a heart attack on September 18, 1964, at the age of 84.
Irish Rep is proud to celebrate the work and life of Sean O’Casey as part of our 30th Anniversary Season.