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By Sean O’Casey
London: Macmillan & Co. Ltd., 1957
218 pages

Bob Corbett
October 2015


The play is set in Dublin in 1922 in a terrible 2-room tenement that’s about as simple and poor as it can be. The father, “the Captain” Jacky Boyle, is an old blow-hard drunkard, imaging or recreating his days as a seaman once upon a time. He spends every cent he can get on booze and does share it with his buddy, Joxer Daly. His son Johnny was in the Irish struggle, but is haunted in both fear and inner dread over his cowardice which led to the death of one of his war buddies. His daughter, seemingly a decent and simple girl in her early 20s has fallen in love with a local lawyer about her own age. The mother, Juno, is a sad little lady who seems to always try to do the right thing, but things just constantly go wrong, as is the same situation with Ireland itself.

An illusion of hope comes to the family when learned and handsome lawyer, Charles Bentham, comes to the family with news of a totally improbable inheritance that is being dropped in their laps. However, it all goes wrong and a full tragedy befalls the family.

Sean O’Casey’s relentless driving at the family is powerful and believable as simple description, perhaps suffering a bit more misery that one single family might suffer, yet, given the times and the culture, it does seem believable.

I sat down to read a bit, and soon so utterly gripped with the tale that I couldn’t stop and before I knew it the play was over and I was utterly drained of emotion. The play is brilliantly written and simply heart-rending.


The play is set in May 1920 in a Dublin tenement. Seumas Shields is an untidy slovenly fellow. He’s about 35 and heavily built. He hasn’t paid his rent for months and the landlord says he’s going to evict him.

He has a temporary roomer, Donal Davoren, who is a poet and quite temperamental. He’s about 30. There were some neighborhood rumors that an IRA gunman is in the neighborhood, and since Donal has just arrived, the other tenants tend to think he’s the gunman. He’s actually a terrified coward, but sort of likes it that the folks think he’s such a “hero” that he does nothing to put them straight on who he is.

One of the local tenants is the very attractive 23 year old Minnie Powell. She comes into the room, wanting to meet and talk with the “gunman” that is hiding out there. Donal is quite taken with her and flirting. He never claims he’s a gunman, but he doesn’t deny it either. Minnie is convinced he’s a hero of the rebellion.

The whole neighborhood is constantly in fear of raids and gunmen and the general violence that daily threatens their neighborhood. Various tenants come in to see “the gunman” and to visit and the reader gets a strong sense of the fear everyone has of the volatile situation and the possibility of raids. Eventually, in the night, when it happens that Minnie has come back to visit them, there actually is a raid, and it has arrived down on the first floor. Seumas has a sack of bombs that one of the IRA fellows had left in the apartment and they are terrified of having it. Minnie, however, believes they really won’t search her apartment so she takes the sack of bombs and races upstairs to her room with it.

Eventually she is not only caught with the bombs, but defies them, and seemingly when she is arrested and put into the van she manages to explode the bombs killing many of the soldiers. She too is killed.

The two main characters, Seumas and the poet Donal are simply terrified beyond measure and realize it was only Minnie’s heroism that saved their own cowardly lives.

The play is quite believable and reveals a large group of citizens who are both proud of the ongoing rebellion, but terrified of any involvement at the same time.

It was especially interesting to me that playwright O’Casey reveals in his stage directions his own attitude toward the people like his main characters and others in that household. In writing stage directions (as opposed to creating characters) he seems to me to reveal his own contempt of those simple folks:

Stage direction: “(Suddenly; for like all of her class, Minnie is not able to converse very long on the subject, and her thoughts spring from one thing to another.”)

I have to admit I found the attitude of O’Casey to be rather repugnant to me. I just had a sense of a certain snobbishness and snideness in the nature of that stage direction.

However, the play did seem to be quite revealing and convincing in portraying the level of fear and terror that the ordinary and simple people lived through during those times, living on the edge of such raids and arbitrary treatment day after day and night after night. It was certainly a terrifying time.


This play is set at the very beginning of the Irish uprising in 1916. Once again, as in the other two plays in this volume, it is set in a run-down neighborhood and opens in a tenement apartment building. A central set of figures are the Clitheroes, husband and his wife, Nora. He is committed to the uprising and she is vehemently opposed to his participation. She had even burned a letter he got telling him to report for duty on this day on which the play has opened and they have been arguing about this issue a good deal. However, he soon leaves the apartment in order to lead his men. Nora is nearly out of her mind with worry about her husband and her very sick child.

The action moves to a local pub and we meet up with some characters who are not only not wanting to be involved in the fighting, but have some hopes of profiting from the uprising. The one young woman at the bar ends up joining others in the neighborhood in trashing and raiding local stores as the shelling and fighting are going on. Two other characters, Peter and Fluther are wanting to have nothing to do with the uprising, but are delighted to sit either in the pub or back in their apartment drinking a great deal while the whole neighborhood is at war. The Covey (a fitter) and Fluther play cards. The neighborhood is afire around them; shells and bullets are flying and these cynics joke about it all and play cards.

In the final act Nora has now also lost her child to consumption and her husband has been killed in battle, she is simply out of her mind. Bessie is trying to help her, but she is shot and dies while Nora just wanders around in shock.

The power of this play lies in the stark feelings of so many different people. Little is hidden. The fighters for Irish liberty are deluded about what’s going on and act as though they are romping to victory when, in fact, they are being beaten back. Many in the neighborhood don’t really care and use this period as an excuse and opportunity to raid various businesses and steal what they can steal. The British troops are convinced of the rightness of their cause and kill without mercy.

The reader is simply bombarded with the horror, stupidity and craziness of the entire scene. It is just so sad, so utterly absurd, and the people just astonishing in their inability to look at the facts of their situation. This is a very powerful play, even more so that the earlier two.

Bob Corbett


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Bob Corbett