Sean O’Casey is being remembered this weekend at a conference at the National Theatre, London entitled – In-Depth: The Dublin Plays of Sean O’Casey. I will be joining Prof James Moran of Nottingham University and Dr Nicholas Grene of Trinity College Dublin to discuss O’Casey’s trilogy, The Shadow of a Gunman, Juno and the Paycock and The Plough and the Stars.
The conference – on Saturday September 24 – will examine the circumstances of the original performances of the plays, how they related to O’Casey’s own life, and will place them in the context of Ireland’s revolutionary decade. There will also be staged readings from the plays.
The National Theatre has enjoyed a long association with O’Casey’s work – Laurence Olivier directed Juno and The Paycock at the theatre shortly after O’Casey’s death in 1964. Olivier had seen the Royalty Theatre’s acclaimed production of the play in 1925 – with several Abbey stalwarts, including Sara Allgood and Arthur Sinclair – as an aspiring 18-year-old actor.
Olivier’s response to the play, according to Christopher Murray, one of O’Casey’s biographers, was that Juno was both life-like and tightly constructed. “It is, in fact, closer to Osborne than to Chekhov. There is no playing about with it, it is all there and it is as clear as daylight. . .”
My place at the conference is owing to The Rising of Bella Casey (Brandon Press) my 2013 novel which re-imagines the life of Bella Casey, the playwright’s sister and dramatizes the writing of O’Casey’s six volumes of autobiography. Episodes and characters from the Dublin plays are woven into the narrative.The novel was nominated for the Dublin Impac Award in 2014.
For those interested in attending, the conference takes place at the Clore Learning Centre, Cottesloe Room, National Theatre and runs from 10.30 to 4.30pm.
(Poster image courtesy of the Irish Classical Theatre, Buffalo, NY)
Last Monday was a red-letter day for my novel, The Rising of Bella Casey, published under the Brandon imprint of O’Brien Press. It was one of five Irish novels nominated by libraries for the lucrative International Impac Dublin Literary Award 2015 – and I mean lucrative, €100,000! – along with Donal Ryan’s The Thing about December, The Guts, Roddy Doyle, Transatlantic by Colum McCann and The Herbalist by Niamh Boyce.
Apart from being in such good company – 142 Irish and international writers – the long-listing is also a vindication of O’Brien Press’s sturdy individualism as a small independent Irish publisher. The Rising of Bella Casey was roundly and generally rejected by many prestigious publishing houses, both in the UK and the US, before Michael O’Brien took a gamble and published it.
What made the Impac announcement a bitter-sweet occasion, however, was that O’Brien Press, celebrating its 40th anniversary this year, has just had its publishing grant slashed by the Irish Arts Council – from €63,000 last year to €10,000 for 2015. This despite O’Brien’s unchallenged contribution to Irish children’s publishing for several decades, and its re-establishment of the Brandon imprint, which is committed to publishing serious Irish literary fiction.
The Rising of Bella Casey and Frank McGuinness’s Arimathea were the debut novels published by Brandon last year. If either of these two novels were to be submitted to Brandon in 2015, there’s a good chance that neither of them would see the light of day. The Impac long-listing means that there’s a world stage for a courageous Irish publisher being starved of funding at home. For me, it means vindication for The Rising of Bella Casey, a novel that without O’Brien Press, might never have been.
The cover of Surge is fiery looking, as befits an anthology of new writing. The volume from Brandon Press is a celebration of the old and the new; its publication marks the 40th anniversary year of O’Brien Press and is named after a Dublin literary magazine of the 1930s/40s established by Thomas O’Brien, among others. (Thomas founded O’Brien Press in 1974.) The name may be old but the content is all new. It contains work hot off the keyboards of a dozen or so student writers from all over Ireland.
If you want to know what’s happening in creative writing at UCD,Trinity, Queens Belfast, UCC and NUIG, then this volume is a showcase of new names in the fiction firmament. But there’s more. The anthology represents, more than any dry university curriculum listing could, the ethos of creative writing scholarship – about which there is often skepticism. (Can writing be taught etc etc. . . ) For along with the newbies, there are also fresh stories from established writers who tutor and mentor on these courses such as Frank McGuinness, Eilis Ni Dhuibhne, Mike McCormack – and yours truly. (For obvious reasons, I’m particularly proud of the students who represent UCC’s inaugural MA in Creative Writing – Madeleine d’Arcy and Bridget Sprouls.)
The idea of the fiction workshop is to mimic the medieval craft guild, in which tyro writers get together with old hands to learn the trade. What this volume represents is a composite picture of that process. If you want to see who’s learning from whom, don’t look to the index at the back before reading the stories and maybe you’ll be surprised to find you often can’t tell the master from the apprentice. Rather like looking in on a fiction workshop, where it’s often not clear who’s in charge. And all the better for it.
Surge will be launched at the Dublin Book Festival on November 15
Here is the cover of my latest novel due out with O’Brien Press under the Brandon imprint in September. The wonderful photograph, by Mark Douet, is from the Abbey Theatre Dublin’s most recent production of Sean O’Casey’s Juno and the Paycock and features Sinead Cusack. The novel, set in the years before the Easter Rising, is based on the life of O’Casey’s sister, Bella. See http://www.obrien.ie