When Sean O’Casey wrote The Shadow of a Gunman 98 years ago, he included a few references that would have been well-known to audiences of the time but are less familiar to contemporary viewers. Here’s some information to keep you in the know:
The Irish War of Independence: (sometimes called the Anglo-Irish War or the Black and Tan War) was a deadly guerilla war fought throughout Ireland from January 21, 1919-July 11, 1921. After years of political movements towards Irish independence, republican (separatist) party Sinn Feín won a landslide election and declared Irish independence from Great Britain. The Irish Republican Army (IRA) fought against British police and special forces known as the Black and Tans, who became infamous for cruel and brutal attacks against civilians. The war ended with the creation of the Irish Free State. The Shadow of a Gunman is set during this conflict.
Irish Republican Army (IRA): The IRA has existed in many forms throughout Irish history. The IRA referenced in The Shadow of a Gunman is often referred to as the “Old IRA” and is different from the anti-treaty IRA referenced in Juno and the Paycock or the Provisional IRA active during The Troubles from 1969-1998. During the Irish War of Independence, the IRA was recognized as the legitimate army of the Irish Republic. It was formed by volunteer Irish forces that supported the creation of an independent Irish nation. In The Shadow of a Gunman, Donal Davoren is suspected of being a high ranking member of the Old IRA.
Black and Tans: a special temporary police force made up primarily of unemployed World War I veterans who were sent to Ireland from May of 1920-early 1921 to support British police during the Irish War of Independence. With little training and minimal oversight by the British government, these forces became infamous for brutal attacks on Irish civilians, including the burning and sacking of many small Irish towns and villages. Their name comes from the mismatched uniforms worn by the first wave of recruits, a moniker that persisted even after they were issued the dark green uniforms such as those seen in act 2 of The Shadow of a Gunman.*
* Many of the terrible events attributed to “Black and Tans” have now been traced to other police units, but “black and tans” remains a catch-all term for violent British police during that time.
Curfew: During the Irish War of Independence, British police enforced a nightly curfew that ultimately ran from 8pm to 5am nightly in Dublin. Tenement residents would have been subjected to this curfew (and the accompanying cabin fever) in The Shadow of a Gunman.
Kathleen Ní Houlihan: a mythical symbol of Irish nationalism generally depicted as a poor old woman who enlists the help of young Irish men to fight and die to free Ireland from colonial rule. She is invoked often by Seumas Shields in The Shadow of a Gunman.
Dublin Tenements: a collection of buildings, typically mid-18th century aristocratic townhouses, that were adapted from the 1870s-1890s to house Dublin’s working poor. These opulent mid-city mansions were divided into up to 20 apartments, housing as many as 100 people per building. A single family usually shared a one-room flat, and bathrooms and water were shared by everyone in the building. Cramped conditions resulted in rampant disease and a high mortality rate – O’Casey himself lost eight siblings in infancy to croup. At their peak in the early 1910s, Dublin was notorious for some of the worst urban poverty in Europe, with approximately 20,000 families living in tenements. Tenement occupancy peaked in the 1910s, but it continued through the late 1970s. All three O’Casey Cycle plays are set in tenements with the exception of one act in The Plough and the Stars.
Orangemen: members of the Loyal Orange Institution – or Orange Order – a Protestant fraternal order with lodges throughout Ireland, but primarily in Northern Ireland. It is named in honor of the Protestant King William of Orange (William III), who defeated the army of Catholic King James II in 1691. During the Irish War of Independence, most members of the Orange Order were loyal to the crown and against the creation of Ireland as an independent Catholic nation. In Act 2 of The Shadow of a Gunman, Mr. Grigson is a proud “Orange Man.”
These are just short descriptions from a very complicated time in Irish History, so please forgive any omissions of details and names here. We hope this short glossary provides context that increases your enjoyment of The Shadow of a Gunman and encourages you to learn more about a fascinating time.