Writing about real people makes you maternal about your characters. You know things about them that you mightn’t know about fictional creations. Their birthdays, for example. Today, 150 years ago, the heroine of my IMPAC Prize nominated novel, The Rising of Bella Casey (Brandon) was born on February 6, 1865, at 22 Wellington Street, Dublin.
Christened Isabella Charlotte Casey, she was the eldest of five and the only girl in a family of four brothers, Mick, Tom, Isaac and the baby of the family, John, who would later convert to the Irish version of his name, to become the renowned playwright, Sean O’Casey. Bella’s parents, Michael Casey and Susan Archer, had met on Chambers Street in Dublin, where Susan lived and Michael rented a room.
The Caseys were Protestants in a city where Protestants were outnumbered by Catholics by five to one. Sean O’Casey often depicted himself as a child of the tenements, but the Caseys belonged to the respectable lower middle-class at the time of Bella’s birth. On her birth certificate, Bella’s father, Michael Casey, is registered as a mercantile clerk and by the time Sean was born in 1880, he was leasing a large, three-storey, above basement Georgian house at 85 Upper Dorset Street where the family lived. He was also working as a clerk at the Irish Church Missions on Townsend Street.
At the time Dorset Street was a trading street rather than a top-notch address, but it was respectable nonetheless and it was this background that informed Bella’s early years ─ she played the piano and spoke French. The family’s relative comfort nurtured her upwardly mobile ambitions, allowing her to finish secondary schooling and to train as a primary school teacher at the teaching college on Marlborough Street. It was only when Bella’s father died – in 1886 – that the Caseys began to slide into more straitened circumstances. Even so, by this stage Bella was a qualified teacher, and was a major contributor to the family’s finances.
As sometimes happens, dates cluster in family history and February 6th became memorable for the Caseys for another reason when in 1914, Bella’s brother Tom died of peritonitis at the age of 44. Tom was one of two Casey brothers who had “married out” – i.e. married Catholics – much to the chagrin of their mother, Susan, who was a staunch Protestant. Tom was Sean O’Casey’s favourite brother, having a gentle nature, but he was hostile towards Tom’s wife, Mary Kelly. Perhaps channelling his mother’s bigotry, he blamed her for Tom’s early demise.
Writing in the 1940s in his autobiographies, Sean O’Casey described Mary Kelly as “an ignorant catholic girl who in some way had influenced him [Tom] towards a new home. . . a yellow-skinned, stout woman, badly built in body and mind-sly in a lot of ways as so many toweringly ignorant persons are”. O’Casey declared the marriage was the death of Tom, though how is not made clear.
O’Casey’s biographer Christopher Murray notes that the publishers of O’Casey’s autobiographies, Macmillan, were worried about his possibly libellous description of Mary Kelly, but O’Casey replied loftily that there was not the slightest chance she would ever read his account. (She had died in 1936). But Tom and Mary’s children were still alive.
Kit Casey, their son, speaking to Colm Cronin in The World of Sean O’Casey (ed Sean McCann) remembered things differently. “My father seemed to be the most popular of the O’Caseys and every Sunday evening they’d all meet in our house. A family within a family, very proud and they kept together. They all met for a social evening and they used to sing and recite and so on.”
Of Sean O’Casey he says: “You know he borrowed twenty sovereigns from my mother and he hadn’t the decency to pay it back. . . I never cared for him or got on with him.”
Tom Casey died on Bella’s 49th birthday and was buried in Mount Jerome cemetery, as she would be four years later.