Sean O'Casey and the 1916 Easter Rising

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This year the Irish Republic is celebrating 90 years since the 1916 Easter Rising. With the passage of time, the way this event is marked has changed. Nowadays it is presented as the indispensable precondition for the pride and joy of today’s Irish bourgeoisie: the so-called Celtic Tiger. The ‘blood sacrifice’ of long dead Irish patriots, and not the merciless exploitation of the living labour of proletarians from all over the world, is being put forward as the secret of the high growth rates of the modern Irish economy.

But while the themes of this ritual commemoration change with the years, the basic idea propagated by the ruling class in Ireland remains the same. This idea is that national independence was the result of the unanimity of all classes, all the courageous and ‘rebel’ forces of Irish society. Above all, the bourgeois mythology of the Easter Rising sees it as a product of the unity between the nationalist and the workers’ movements, represented by the two leaders of the insurrection against British rule: Patrick Pearse at the head of the Irish Volunteers, and the radical socialist James Connolly who commanded the militia called the Irish Citizens Army.

In order to maintain this myth, it is regularly forgotten that there was one labour leader of the time who bitterly opposed the 1916 rising. This forgetfulness of the Irish bourgeoisie (including its radical Sinn Fein and ‘Marxist’ wings) is all the more striking, since that leader, Sean O’Casey, went on to become one of the most important dramatists of the 20th century. His most famous play, The Plough and the Stars, which today is generally accepted as being one of the great works of modern world literature, is a blistering denunciation of the Easter Rising. This play is a thorn in the flesh of the Irish bourgeoisie, because it recalls the historic truth that not only O’Casey, but the working class in Ireland refused to participate in or support the rising.

The Plough and the Stars

The Irish Citizens Army was a militia set up during the six month 1913 Dublin lockout to protect workers from the savagery of state repression against transport workers’ militancy. The ‘Plough and the Stars’ was the banner of the ICA. It was one of the workers’ movement’s most poetic flags. The plough represents the turning over of the soil of capitalist society by the class struggle, the patient work of planting the seeds of the future, but also the imperious need to harvest their fruits when they are ripe. As for the stars, they stand for the beauty and the loftiness of the goals and ideals of the workers’ movement.

O’Casey’s play of the same name is a furious indictment of the betrayal of these ideals through the participation of the ICA in the 1916 nationalist insurrection. While the fighting is going on in the city centre, the slum dwellers of Dublin are dying of poverty and consumption. O’Casey shows that there was nothing in the alleged high ideals of the nationalists which could morally uplift the workers and the poor. He shows how, on the other side of the street from the buildings occupied by the insurrectionists, the starving tenement dwellers appear, not in order to support them, but to plunder the shops.

To express his indignation, O’Casey employs a series of powerful images. The second act is set in a pub. Outside, the meeting is taking place, where, on October 25th 1915, the ICA allied itself with the Irish Volunteers. It is the moment of the betrayal of the Plough and the Stars. But this scene takes place out of sight of the workers in the pub. All we see and hear is the shadowy outline of the ‘voice in the window’ looming up as in a nightmare, like a ghost from the dead, imposing itself on the living. It is the voice of the nationalist leader Pearse, extolling the virtues of sacrificing blood for the cause of the nation. ‘Inside’ on stage, the workers are inflamed by this speech. The pub scene shows how the ruling class pulls the workers off their class terrain by obscuring their material reality and deadening their consciousness. While Pearse praises the heroism of patriotic blood spilling, the intoxication this causes among those in the pub leads to a series of brawls, a parody of capitalist competition. Far from opposing the barbarism of the First World War, during which it took place, O’Casey shows how the Easter Rising gave this barbarism another form. It became the first link in a chain of war and terror leading, in the early 1920s, from the Irish War of Independence against Britain, to the Civil War within the bourgeoisie of the new Irish Free State. These events, introducing new levels of savagery, announced much of what was to come during the 20th century, especially in the course of ‘national liberation struggles.’

Centre stage in this scene is the prostitute Rosie Redmond. The symbolism of this is unmistakable, since the Anglo-Irish literary revival of the time loved to depict Ireland or Gaelic nationalism as a woman (for instance in W.B.Yeats’ play Cathleen Ni Houlihan).

In Act Four, the men playing cards on the lid of the coffin of one of the slum dwellers are a metaphor for how the working people, by failing to fight for their own interests, become helpless pawns in the power struggles of alien forces. O’Casey’s characters are the victims, not the protagonists of history.

In February 1926 at the fourth performance of this play at Dublin’s Abbey Theatre there was a riot. The freshly installed ruling class immediately understood that the very foundations of the new state were being threatened by this demolition of the 1916 myth, the ‘crucifixion and resurrection’ of the Irish nation. In the fourth book of his autobiography, Inishfallen, Fare Thee Well, O’Casey was later to recall how he was abused by the widows of the 1916 rebels that night when leaving the theatre. One of them shouted: “I’d like you to know that there isn’t a prostitute in Ireland from one end of it to th’ other”.

The author emigrated to London a month after the riot. (Had he remained, he could have witnessed the public burning of Alfred Hitchcock’s film version of his play Juno and the Paycock in Limerick in 1930, three years before Nazi book burning began in Germany).

Long before, he had become a persona non grata in Dublin because of his position on the Easter Rising. Within the play itself, O’Casey ironically deals with his own public image. The character who puts forward the opinion of the author is a cowardly, dogmatic armchair tenement revolutionist called the Covey (a Dublin word for a smart alec, a know all). It‘s him who declares that the ICA has disgraced the Plough and the Stars by taking part in a middle class nationalist revolution, who terms the speech of Pearse “dope” and who criticises the British socialist soldier Stoddard for having abandoned internationalism in the face of the world war.

O’Casey and the workers’ movement

The play The Plough and the Stars is the crowning point of a remarkable transformation in the artistic development and in the world views of Sean O’Casey. At the beginning, he was the author of propaganda plays full of complex argumentation (in the style of his celebrated Dublin contemporary George Bernard Shaw), but generally considered to be of little artistic value. In the first half of the 1920s he produced, almost overnight, three great dramas, the so-called Dublin trilogy. These were historical plays of a contemporary nature, each dealing scathingly with a major event: The Shadow of a Gunman (the IRA war against British rule), Juno and the Paycock (the Irish Civil War), and The Plough and the Stars. Thereafter, his plays rarely attained the same artistic quality again. This puzzling development has led people to speak of ‘The O’Casey enigma’. Irish nationalists have tried to explain the relative decline of his creativity from the 1930s on through his emigration, as if he could not produce great art without having his ‘native soil’ under his feet. But soon after moving to London, O’Casey did write another powerful historical play, The Silver Tassie. It is based on his experience as a patient in a Dublin hospital (being treated for ailments which directly resulted from his poverty), where he shared rooms with many of the maimed victims of First World War then raging. It is a furious condemnation of imperialist war (which the state-subsidised Abbey Theatre refused to perform).

In reality, O’Casey’s flowering was possible because of the ideas which inspired him at the time – those brought forward by the upsurge of workers’ struggles on the eve of the First World War, and their confirmation through the proletarian revolt against the war, above all the October Revolution of 1917 in Russia. He was one of the first to put the lives of working class people at the centre of world literature, showing the wealth and diversity of their personalities. He was perhaps the first to put the language of the tenements on the stage. He delighted in the magical fantasy, the irresistible rhythm and the baroque exaggerations of the Dublin slum dwellers, recognising how they used rhetoric in order to enrich their bleak lives and gain a sense of self dignity.

In this sense, his artistic development is inseparable from the changes in his general world view. At the onset, O’Casey was a fanatical Irish republican nationalist. Born into an educated, but poverty-stricken family, he had only three years of school education, and became an undernourished unskilled labourer. At the time, the infant mortality rate in Dublin was higher than in Moscow or Calcutta. Despite a serious eye ailment, he educated himself, becoming an avid reader of literature. At an early age, he became an activist in the Gaelic League, the Irish Republican Brotherhood and other nationalist groupings. But because of his situation as a worker, it was almost inevitable that his artistic development would largely depend on the evolution of the socialist movement. It was the development of the proletarian struggle which brought his creative sensitivity to the surface, just as his later artistic decline was linked to the perversion of its principles with the defeat of the world revolution in the 1920s (O’Casey became an unapologetic Stalinist).

1913: Dress rehearsal for revolution

When O’Casey himself was eighteen, he was sacked for refusing to take off his cap while being paid his wages. In 1911, he was inspired by the great railway strike of the British proletariat. But what won him over to the workers’ movement was the great labour conflict in Dublin in 1913. For one thing, it coincided with the arrival (from Liverpool) of Jim Larkin, the leader of the 1913 movement. Larkin revealed to O’Casey that revolutionary socialism was something very different from a trade union mentality. In Larkin’s vision, the proletariat was fighting, not only for food and drink and shelter, but for true humanity, for access to music and nature, education and science, as indispensable moments towards a new world. As O’Casey would later write, Larkin “brought poetry into the workers’ fight for a better life”.

For O’Casey, this was a revelation. In Ireland at the time, to be Catholic was considered synonymous with being poor and Irish, Protestant with being rich and English. But O’Casey came from a Protestant background. The intensity of his original nationalism, the changing of his name (he was born John Casey) were probably motivated by feelings of guilt or inferiority. That all of this was of no importance, was an insight which he experienced as a liberation.

But of course it was also the bitterness of the 1913 conflict itself which transformed the outlook of Sean O’Casey. This was the nearest Irish society to date has come to an open class war between labour and capital. For the first time ever, there was an open split between the proletariat and Irish nationalism. In book 3 of his autobiography Drums under the Windows, O’Casey reminds us that the Irish Volunteers were “streaked with employers who had openly tried to starve the women and children of the workers, followed meekly by scabs and blacklegs from the lower elements among the workers themselves, and many of them saw in this agitation a plumrose path to good jobs, now held in Ireland by the younger sons of the English well-to-do.” As for that other major nationalist force in Ireland, the Catholic Church, its priests staged pitched battles to prevent children of locked out families being sent to England to be fed and taken care of by “pagan” i.e. socialist families. Drums under the Windows narrates how a married couple from a militant Catholic lay organisation came to the strike headquarters in Liberty Hall to appeal to the ‘religious faith’ of the workers. “Asked by Connolly if the Knight and his Dame would take five children into their home suite home, the pair were silent; asked if they would take two, they were still silent; and turning away to go out, before they could be asked if they would take one”.

It became clear that the only supporter of the Irish wage labourers was the international proletariat, in particular the English workers. Living reality had thus demonstrated that the old marxist formula no longer applied, according to which the English and the Irish workers could only act together in the perspective of national separation.

In a sense, Ireland, like the Russian Empire, had experienced in 1913 a kind of ‘1905’ of its own: a dress rehearsal for the proletarian revolution. Such pre-revolutionary battles are an essential part of the preparation for the struggle for power. This was well understood by the marxist Left in the period after the mass strikes and soviets in Russia in 1905. This is why Rosa Luxemburg and Anton Pannekoek denounced the prevention of such ‘dress rehearsals’ by the Socialist Party in Germany at that time not only as cowardice, but as the beginning of betrayal.

But in Ireland, 1913 was not the prelude to socialist revolution. In this sense, its evolution resembled not that of the Russian Empire, but a specific part of it: Poland. The Polish proletariat had participated magnificently in the mass strikes of 1905. But in Poland, as in Ireland, when the moment was ripe for the world revolution, the workers were derailed by the establishment of a nation state.

O’Casey and Connolly on insurrection

As secretary of the Strikers Relief Committee in 1913, O’Casey had been in charge of the fund raising for the families of the workers locked out. After the defeat of the strike in January 1914, he was one of the first to propose a re-organisation of the workers’ self-defence militia, the ICA, on a permanent basis – and was elected honorary secretary of the new Army Council. Since open class conflicts were over for the moment, this policy only made sense in the perspective of the preparation for armed insurrection. The outbreak of imperialist world war the same year only confirmed this perspective.

But what was to be the nature of this insurrection: socialist or nationalist? The ICA was a proletarian militia. But its very name - Irish Citizens Army - reflected the dead weight of Irish nationalism, which the struggle of 1913 had only partly overcome. With the outbreak of the ‘Great War’, within the workers’s organisations there was a revival in the influence of radical nationalism.

The First World War, which ushered in the epoch of decadent capitalism, was a historical frontier at almost every level, including the psychological one. We can take the example of Patrick Pearse, the ‘commander in chief’ of the 1916 rising. Although an extreme patriot, he was known for the nobility of his character, and his progressive ideas about education. But after the world war broke out, he gave a series of public speeches which can only be described as insane. He became a nationalist in the fullest sense of the word, rejoicing in the sacrifice of the young lives of all the warring nations, claiming that this blood being spilt was like wine cleansing the soil of Europe.

It is significant that James Connolly was soon to fall for the spell of this atavistic vision of blood sacrifice. Connolly had always belonged to the left wing of the Socialist International. Born in Edinburgh into horrific poverty, with hardly any schooling, like O’Casey a self educated worker of considerable learning, he was a man of deep convictions and great personal courage. Nevertheless, the collapse of the International and the madness of the world war profoundly destabilised him. From 1915 on, he began to publicly announce a coming insurrection in the workers’ press, bringing the ICA militants out for military exercises such as the storming of public buildings under the eyes of the British authorities. In the end, it was Connolly who was urging the Irish Volunteers to no longer postpone the rising, saying that otherwise he would go ahead on his own with his 200 ICA ‘soldiers’.

Contemporary Irish historians, such as his latest biographer Donal Nevan, have gone to some pains to show that Connolly did not share the vision of Pearse of a blood sacrifice. They cite the series of articles on “Insurrection and Warfare” which Connolly wrote in 1915, as proof that he believed that the 1916 rising had a real chance of success. And indeed, this series represents an important contribution to the marxist study of military strategy. For instance, in his article on the Moscow insurrection of 1905, one of the points highlighted is that it was not militarily defeated, but “melted away as suddenly as it had taken form” as soon as it became clear that neither the workers in St. Petersburg nor the peasantry were following its lead. They melted into the protecting proletarian masses around them.

But in one of the controversies within the ICA between O’Casey and Connolly before 1916, the latter defended the opposite viewpoint. This concerned whether or not to purchase uniforms. Clearly, it was O’Casey who defended the proletarian standpoint of the Moscow insurrectionists, according to which the combatants avoid a lost cause battle in order to preserve their forces. “If we flaunt signs of what we are, and what we do, we’ll get it on the head and round the neck. As for a uniform – that would be the worst of all…Caught in a dangerous corner, there would be a chance in your workaday clothes. You could slip among the throng, carelessly, with few the wiser.” (Quoted in Drums under the Windows). Indeed, O’Casey challenged Connolly to a public debate, and submitted an article on the issue – which was never published.

The blood sacrifice of 1916

O’Casey resigned from the Irish Citizens Army after his motion was defeated forbidding double membership in the ICA and the Irish Volunteers. Soon after, Larkin left for the United States (where he participated in the founding of the Communist Party of America in 1919). From then on, O’Casey and Delia Larkin became increasingly isolated in their opposition to the course taken by Connolly. As O’Casey put it in his History of the Irish Citizens Army (1919) “Liberty Hall was no longer the Headquarters of the Irish Labour movement, but the centre of Irish national disaffection.”

The road to the 1916 Rising was now open. But this road was not followed by the Irish proletariat, which had launched itself into the defence of its class interests in face of the war. Some of the last articles Connolly wrote before his tragic death were devoted to this question. He refers to the strikes of the Dublin dockers, construction and gas workers, and to labour conflicts in Cork, Tralee, Sligo, Kingstown (Dun Laoghaire) and other centres. He also writes about the great strike of the munitions workers in the Glasgow area. But Connolly never once appealed to the Irish workers to join the Easter Rising, or even to go on strike in sympathy. And when he led the occupation of the General Post Office on Easter Monday, the first thing he did was to turn out the employees there at gunpoint. He knew perfectly well that proletariat of Dublin, still furious about the 1913 events, would have nothing to do with a nationalist upheaval. And it was this attitude of the workers which was to give O’Casey the strength to write his great dramatic trilogy.

In the end, it was the symbolism of the blood sacrifice of 1916 which overpowered the autonomous workers movement in Ireland for years to come. For blood sacrifice it was. The previous day, the official leadership of the Irish Volunteers had publicly cancelled the rising, after the attempt to land German arms had failed (a detail which shows to what extent it was part of the international imperialist rivalries). The insurrection was carried through by a small minority against all the odds, in order to oblige the British authorities to execute its leaders. It was a modern version of the myth of crucifixion and resurrection, which is why it had to take place at Easter. It overpowered Connolly himself. We know from his private correspondence that Connolly was an atheist, although towards the outside he would sometimes denied this in order not to alienate the more religious layers of workers. But all the evidence indicates that he died as a devout Catholic.

It was through creating feelings of guilt towards the heroes allegedly left in the lurch that the class consciousness of the proletariat was deadened. As O’Casey put it: “They had helped God to rouse up Ireland: let the whole people answer for them now, for evermore.”

Why was O’Casey able to resist this? He was less of a theoretician than Connolly. Even on the national question, he was not necessarily clearer than those around him. But he felt profoundly attached to what he understood as the human dimension of the workers’ struggle, to the forces celebrating the dignity of mankind and the importance of life even in the face of death.

1916 announced much of what decadent capitalism had in store for society. Because it has led mankind into a dead end, capitalism has enforced the burden of the past weighing like a nightmare on the brains of the living. Because it alone holds the perspective of a future society, the revolutionary proletariat has no use for the glorification of guilt, sacrifice or death.

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