Is having bad eyesight a pre-requisite for being a celebrated Irish writer? Certainly James Joyce had his troubles often having to resort to wearing a patch to spare his eyes. Throughout his life, he suffered from a catalogue of eye-related conditions – iritis, conjunctivitis, glaucoma and cataracts. Some suggest his eye troubles were a by-product of syphilis, though this has never been confirmed.
Playwright Sean O’Casey was similarly afflicted, though it’s unlikely he had syphilis. From the age of five he had continuous crippling bouts of conjunctivitis which in latter years developed into trachoma. In a letter to the American critic Brooks Atkinson in 1964, the year of his death, he wrote heartbreakingly of the plight of a writer going blind:
“I could read an illuminated sign outdoors,” he replied. “But not ordinary newsprint or the letter text in a book. All the hundreds of books around me are dumb. I can write a little, largely by sense of touch. But I cannot read back what I have put down.”
But perhaps the blindest of all was Patrick Lafcadio Hearn (1850 – 1904) – an Irish writer who is all but forgotten here now but who was a household name in Japan where he wrote a dozen or so books between 1891 and his death in 1904.
I discovered Hearn during an extended stay in Tokyo in 2010 where to be Irish meant you were automatically connected to the fame of Lafcadio Hearn. We visited Matsue, a city in the western Shimani region – a 16-hour journey by train from Tokyo where Hearn is the cornerstone of the city’s cultural tourism, although he only stayed there a little over a year. There’s a Hearn memorial museum and his home is open to the public. The city quarter where he lived in Matsue now bears his name and his stylised logo appears on the street lamps in the cobbled streets. In souvenir shops you can even buy Lafcadio Hearn tea.
Hearn is considered a laureate in Japan, the single greatest foreign interpreter of the country at a time when the old Japanese ways and traditions were being abandoned.
But 20 years before he made his name in Japan, Hearn was a newly arrived emigrant in America, penniless and down on his luck. From this lowly start he embarked on a career as a pioneering journalist in Cincinnati and New Orleans, specializing in closely observed depictions of the underbelly of society – grotesque murders, hangings, slaughter houses, dissection rooms, city dumps, and the lives lived in the poor black quarters of the city. This despite the fact that he was blind in one eye, and the sight in the other was severely compromised as a result of an accident during a tug of war competition when he was a schoolboy.
Hearn was born on the Greek island of Lefkas in 1850. His mother, Rosa Kassimati, was a native of the island; his father, an Irish surgeon stationed on Lefkas with the British Army. They called their first child after the island, hence Hearn’s exotic-sounding second name. When he was two, his mother, Rosa, brought him to Dublin to live with the extended Hearn family, while his father was posted abroad. But after a short period, Rosa, homesick and pregnant with a second child, decided to return to Lefkas, leaving Hearn in the care of his great-aunt, Sarah Brenane, in a house in Rathmines. (There is a plaque commemorating his time in this house on Prince Edward Terrace.) The little boy was never to see either parent again – they divorced when he was six.
Hearn’s education at a boarding school in England was brought to an abrupt end when his great-aunt Sarah’s finances crashed and at the age of 16 he had to start making his own way in the world. It was the beginning of a peripatetic and picaresque existence that took him first to London, then Ohio, where he emerged aged 24 as a crime reporter and scandal chaser on the Cincinnati Enquirer and Commercial.
Hearn was one of the earliest exponents of the New Journalism, that is the original new journalism – the muck-rakers who dominated the American journalism scene in the late 1890s. (The term was resurrected again for the revolutionary immersive journalism of the 1960s). Like his successors, Hearn used fictional techniques – dialogue, literary description and placing himself as a character in the story – that later exemplified the work of Tom Wolfe, Truman Capote, and Hunter S Thompson.
‘Gibbetted’, his eyewitness account of the botched hanging of an Irish youth was included in True Crime: An American Anthology (2008), a collection by the Library of America of the best American crime stories of the 19th and 20th centuries.
Hearn’s report contains some eye-watering details (forgive the pun) that must have been more imagined and felt then actually seen given the state of his eyesight. In the New Journalism style Hearn steeps himself in the story. He explores the background of the prisoner, visits the young man before the execution and examines the gallows as they are being constructed. He even gets to feel the pulse of the prisoner when the first hanging fails.
“The poor young criminal had fallen on his back, apparently unconscious with the broken rope around his neck, and the black cap veiling his eyes. The reporter knelt beside him and felt his pulse. It was beating slowly and regularly. Probably the miserable boy thought then, if he could think at all, that he was really dead – dead in darkness, for his eyes were veiled – dead and blind to this world but about to open his eyes upon another. The awful hush immediately following his fall might have strengthened this dim idea. But then came the gasps, and choked sobs from the spectators; the hurrying of feet, and the horrified voice of the Deputy Freeman calling ‘For God’s sake, get me that other rope, quick!!’ Then a pitiful groan came from beneath the black cap.
‘My god. Oh my god!’
‘I ain’t dead – I ain’t dead!’
The insistent use of other senses in the piece – hearing and touch – speak of a man determined to compensate for his deficient eyesight. And his feel for atmosphere and his human empathy – essential for any journalist writing colour – is unquestionable. His appetite for colour writing may have sprung from his personal life which was also extremely bohemian, to say the least, but that’s a story for another day.
Lafcadio Hearn was born on this day, June 27, 167 years ago.
As the 1916 centenary year draws to a close, I’ll be discussing my novel The Rising of Bella Casey as part of a panel discussion entitled “Remembering the Rising” at the Source Library and Arts Centre in Thurles, Co Tipperary, this Thursday evening (November 24) at 7pm. The event is free and open to the public.
The discussion will consider 1916 both as it is remembered and how it is re-imagined, and will feature novelist Marita Conlon McKenna, author of Rebel Sisters – based on the lives of the Gifford sisters – and Queen’s University historian Dr Fearghal McGarry, whose The Rising, Ireland Easter 1916 appeared earlier this year.
The events of Easter Week 1916 appear in the opening of The Rising of Bella Casey although they are more backdrop than central to the plot of the novel which foregrounds the life of Bella Casey, the sister of playwright Sean O’Casey. O’Casey, of course, did much to establish the revolutionary period of Irish history in the dramatic imagination with his Dublin trilogy, Shadow of a Gunman, Juno and the Paycock and The Plough and the Stars, which have become part of the national canon.
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 joiningProf 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)
Once in a blue moon, I am asked to do an interview with an academic journal. It’s a treat for a writer, particularly someone like me who’s writing in a minor key, to have her work given close attention by someone in the serious business of reading. Beyond a spurt of reviews on publication – if you’re lucky – there are few outlets in mainstream journalism for thoughtful consideration of creative work. Which is where the academic journal comes in. Sadly, though, most academic journals have tiny readerships which means that intelligent and accessible writing on creative work often languishes unseen.
Dr Loredana Salis of the University of Sassari interviewed me last year when I was visiting Sardinia on an EFACIS (European Federation of Associations and Centres of Irish Studies) reading tour of Italy. Dr Salis is a passionate Irish Studies scholar and a most perceptive reader of my work. (The headline above is hers – revealing a canny internal sub-editor trying to get out.) Her questions made me think and made me question how and why I write.
The following is an edited version of that interview which appeared in Studi Irlandesi earlier this year. The full text can be accessed here: http://www.fupress.com/bsfm-sijis
L: Let us begin from the end, and from your most recent literary effort – a collection of short stories entitled Prosperity Drive – that is where I came across that wonderful line, “on the brink of the absolutely forbidden”, which seems to be a perfect description of where your writing and your characters are.
M: Yes, I’d agree that the territory I’m exploring in Prosperity Drive is close to the transgressive, particularly the sexually transgressive. The characters to whom this line refers – a teenage couple overcome by lust – draw back from the forbidden but many of the characters in these stories go into the area of taboo.
L: Indeed, your characters often and deliberately challenge and break taboos. It has to do with curiosity and courage, and with being true to one’s self too. I wonder whether this also applies to you as a creative writer?
M: I don’t know about that big word, courage. I think the rather downbeat nature of a lot of my fiction is being true to my view of the world, although off the page I’m more cheery. When I look back over my work I see a curiosity about form, about playing with form. The linked short stories in Prosperity Drive are about seeing how you can push the boundaries of the short story form while the novels, inspired by real people and events, play with fictional biography or biographical fiction.
L: The line – “on the brink of the absolutely forbidden” – is taken from a short story entitled “Diaspora”. Would you say something about the genesis of your collection?
M: Well, the stories started as separate, discrete entities and then as I waswriting them, several of the characters reappeared and so I thought I’d make a short story cycle out of them i.e. a collection where all the stories could stand on their own but that when read together, they would have a cumulative effect. The stories spring from a fictional suburban street in Dublin but,of course, it’s impossible to write about Ireland without coming up against the theme of emigration. And some of the stories are set during the Celtic Tiger,so you have the experience of immigration as well, mostly from Eastern Europe. Not exactly a new phenomenon – in my childhood in the 60s therewere refugees from Hungary, followed by the Vietnamese boat people in the 1970s – though people tend to forget that now. So the ‘diaspora’ theme is built into the content, and also reflects the form of the stories which is like a scattering from a fixed point.
L: That is a delicate issue, especially now, across the European continent.And yes, we seem to have forgotten what it used to be like in the past. History repeats itself, but… what strikes me in your description of the new stories is that somehow the architecture of the narrative has changed: in The Rising of Bella Casey the form of the story is cyclical – it ends where it begins. Now the stories ‘scatter’ from the centre. How does this reflect your own experience with writing?
M: After writing three novels, returning to the short story was a great relief. There is the relatively instant gratification of working the short form,though the main difference between the stories in A Lazy Eye and Prosperity Drive is that my stories have got much longer. Also I, suppose with a short story cycle I was trying to stretch the form, see how elastic it could be, how it might mimic the characteristics of the novel in some respects.
L: And the result was?
M: Well, my editor at Jonathan Cape called the result an “exploded novel” – I quite like that. It implies the shattering of both forms.
L: The idea of giving women visibility lies at the heart of your reconstruction of Bella’s life in The Rising of Bella Casey. Your writing about her seems to be an act of just retribution: you rescue her from the murderous hands of her brother Séan, and yet your insight into O’Casey’s troubled conscience makes him, in the eyes of the reader, a disturbing but also a captivating presence in the novel.
M: Sean O’Casey wrote harshly about his sister Bella in his autobiography and then killed her off ten years before her time. This literary sororicide was what prompted me to write The Rising of Bella Casey. I felt his was a failure of the imagination; he couldn’t understand what had prompted her downfall and he hadn’t the capacity to see beyond appearances. That disappointed me but in the writing of the novel I realised that O’Casey was also writing out of disappointment – the disappointment of his very elevated and unrealistic expectations of his bright, clever sister. He’d placed her on a pedestal and couldn’t bear to witness her fall, so he opted for silence.
L: He was also very disappointed at himself, though. I am thinking at that wonderful scene at the end of chapter 10 where he gets very frustrated with his work, but then he starts all over again. Writing must have been extenuating for him, painstaking even, almost as much as being Bella’s brother.
M: The way I depict O’Casey’s writing process is pure fiction. I think, in reality, he probably found writing a great release of pent-up feeling and conviction. Certainly the autobiographies – all six volumes of them – appear on the page as an unstoppable outpouring of exuberant language. The point I was making in the novel was that contrary to the rest of his work, writing about Bella might have been a real difficulty for him.
L: The Rising of Bella Casey is a contemporary historical novel set between fact and fiction. How do you combine the two, what inspires the encounter of real and imaginary worlds?
M: I think of The Rising of Bella Casey – and my other novels, Mother of Pearl and The Pretender – as inhabiting the grey area between biography and fiction. So though I write about real people, there are inevitably gaps in the narrative, and in those gaps, the fiction happens. I often think I must be very unimaginative because in my novel-writing I’m generally working with ready-made plots and a laid-down story. The ‘real’ story is a blueprint from which I depart when one of these gaps in the narrative appears. The trouble with a lot of historical characters – like Bella Casey or Anna Anderson, the fraudulent Anastasia Romanov whom I wrote about in my second novel The Pretender– is that they often appear unknowable. We have external evidence of them, of course, but sometimes it’s hard to imagine their interior lives.
The key word here is imagine. I see that as what I do, imagining myself beyond the official record, and into the interior of these characters’ lives.
With historical figures, particularly those pre-20th century, that requires two willed acts – an imaginative leap into a pre-modern world and a creative kind of forgetting – forgetting about Freud and Jung etc., whose psychology has become part of the mainstream, part of everyday thinking.
On a practical level and to aid that imaginative process, I generally write the story first and then do the research so that the research doesn’t swamp the imaginative process. Also I’m lazy about research; I only do as much as I need to. I’m not one of those authors who gets distracted by the minutiae of history. A lot of the time research is a chore; something in service to the narrative, the story, which is primary for me.
L: I find this particular aspect interesting, Mary. You use gaps – spaces in between, empty areas – creatively. Beaver [Bella Casey’s husband], for instance. His GPI (Joyce again?)causes him a fatal loss of memory and he eventually is “lost, somewhere, in the folds of time”. That line is absolutely marvellous, powerful in its capacity to define Bella’s condition too, before you “rise” her and rescue her from oblivion.
M: One of the things about writing about real people is that I feel I owe it to them to be true to the facts of their lives, as they are known. So, in real life, Bella’s husband, Nicholas Beaver, contracted syphilis and died of GPI,so all of this is true, rather than a novelistic trope. Of course, the novelist can invest emotional and symbolic resonance in the facts. People lost in the folds in time; yes that’s a good description of my creative territory – women caught in the shadow of history.
L: The shadow of History, a place where untold and forgotten stories are found. And The Rising is also about stories located “in the underneath of History”, to use Nancy Cunard’s words. The private and the public intertwine in your novel. “The Easter Rising”, for instance, is seen from the perspective of ordinary Dubliners, and of women belonging to the Protestant minority whose children went fighting in the Great War abroad. Is that past an open wound, too painful to be remembered? And is this part of the reason why it is so prominent in the novel?
M: For many years, this was, not so much a wound as a silence. At the time, Irish soldiers who survived the Great War and came home were often treated as traitors and outcasts in nationalist communities because they were seen as having supported an Empire that was oppressing their countrymen. (It’s important to note, however, that thousands of Irishmen from both sides of the divide – nationalist and unionist, Catholic and Protestant – fought and died together in the trenches). In the past decade there has been huge healing around the Irish contribution to the Great War. In 2011, for example, Queen Elizabeth made an official visit to Ireland – itself an historic occasion – and visited the National War Monument in Islandbridge in Dublin (which for many years, tellingly, was left abandoned and derelict) which commemorates the Irish fallen in the First World War. On the same visit she also paid her respects at the Garden of Remembrance which honours the Republican men and women who fought to end British rule in Ireland.
This was one of the most important public gestures of recent times that recognized the wound of divided loyalties that has lain at the heart of historical Irish identity. So I suppose all of this was in the ether as I was writing the novel.
The depiction of the Rising in the novel from the view of Bella and her family – Protestant, working class, loyal to the Crown – who don’t support the revolution and don’t understand it, is unusual, and deliberate. The Rising was a glorious failure, mismanaged and favoured by only a small minority of the population; what turned it into a success was the fact that the leaders were executed by the British – and it was this act that turned popular opinion. But even at that stage, it’s unlikely that Bella Casey would have changed her loyalties.
For her, the Rising would still have been an illegal challenge to what she would have considered legitimate British rule. (Unlike Sean O’Casey, her brother, who absolutely supported the break with Britain so you could say the Casey family is a microcosm for all the political divisions of the country at that time).
L: You teach Creative Writing to MA students at UCC: are those young writers also prompted to play with and engage with the ‘what ifs’? Does your academic experience somehow contribute to the workings of your imagination? In other words, would you say that your work lies between fact, fiction and the artifice of writing?
M: Teaching creative writing keeps you in touch with what’s happening now in writing. You get to learn what enthuses young writers and you see new styles and genres opening up. You see students bursting with ideas and some of that energy brushes off on the teacher. As to where my own stories lie – maybe that’s for others to decide. For me they’re a mix of truth and lies. Emotionally true, factually suspect. Isn’t that the alchemy of writing? Unlike my novels, my short fiction often starts with something very small – an image, something witnessed, even a first line. In that sense the short story is much closer to the poem in conception. Then it’s a process of following your nose, so to speak. Seeing where the narrative takes you. In that sense it’s a lot freer as a process than the novels, where the trajectory of the narrative is often laid out. For the most part, my stories are contemporary, rather than historical, although I have been tinkering of late with some historical short stories. But even those concern fictional characters, not real people. I want to maintain that freedom to be absolutely fictional in the short form.
L: Since you mention “what is happening now in writing”, I’ d like to know your view on how Irish literature has changed in recent years from when you started writing fiction.
M: There are many more women writing and being published – exciting and ground-breaking new voices like Eimear McBride, Belinda McKeon, Sara Baume, Danielle McLaughlin. Daring, thoughtful, savage and unashamedly female. The breaking open of this female voice is very exciting to witness as when I started out, you were often singled out as being a ‘woman writer’ as if it was a special category apart from the mainstream. (I’m of the generation of Irish women writers who were famously excluded from the Field Day Anthology in the 1990s, only to be afterwards included in the extra ‘women’s’volume published in 2003). And for women themselves, there was a lot of hand-wringing about what it meant to be a ‘woman writer’ as if it bore special responsibilities because we were so few. So by sheer numbers, those gender distinctions and that identity anxiety has been swept away.
One of the great what-ifs of Irish history is what would have happened if the 1916 leaders hadn’t been executed. On this date, 100 years exactly since the Easter Rising began, it’s worth asking another question, what would the rebels have done with their lives, had they lived?
A quick trawl thought the 1916 Proclamation signatories reveals a disproportionate number of writers. Padraic Pearse was a short story writer, playwright and poet, Thomas Mac Donagh wrote poetry and plays, Joseph Mary Plunkett was a published poet and journalist, James Connolly was a prodigious political commentator.
What this shows, of course, is that before they were armed combatants, the rebel leaders were part of a cultural revolution, and had the political atmosphere of the time been different and the Rising hadn’t happened, (or the leaders hadn’t been executed), these young men might well have pursued literary and artistic careers.
In the end, they chose the sword over the pen and it fell to others to explore the origin myth of the Republic. Ironically, the two writers most identified with creating the Rising on the page – poet W. B.Yeats and playwright Sean O’Casey – were not directly involved in events at all.
From opposite ends of the Protestant social scale, upper-class Yeats and working-class O’Casey explored the doubts and misgivings of the Rising’s “success” from a distance, both philosophically and geographically.
Most people mistakenly believe that Sean O’Casey – whose Dublin trilogy, Shadow of a Gunman, Juno and the Paycock and The Plough and the Stars charts the political foment of the turbulent decade from the Dublin Lock-out to the Civil War – was a combatant or at least a supporter of the Easter Rising. Given his ardent nationalism and socialism, he should have been.
Although O’Casey had been heavily involved in the Irish Republican Brotherhood (IRB) and in 1914 had joined the Irish Citizen Army (ICA), he did not support the Rising and played no part in it. He was distrustful of the move towards violence but in fact, it was a procedural wrangle with Constance Markievizc that put an end to O’Casey’s activism.
O’Casey believed that the countess’s membership of the nationalist Cumann na mBan, the female branch of the Irish Volunteers, should disqualify her from the Irish Citizen Army. ( The Volunteers had been set up as a response to Edward Carson’s Ulster Volunteer Force: the ICA had grown out of the Dublin Lock-out. ) O’Casey suspected Markievizc of spying for the Volunteers and demanded she be expelled. The matter was put to a vote and when O’Casey lost, he walked out.
The irony was that in January 1916 the Volunteers and the Citizen Army joined forces but at that stage O’Casey had cut his links with the Republican movement. As historian Padraig Yeates observed in his book, Lockout, “the upshot of the faction fighting was the Citizen Army lost a clerk and Ireland gained a playwright”.
O’Casey sat out the Rising hunkered down with his elderly mother in East Wall, though Christopher Murray, O’Casey’s biographer notes in Sean O’Casey: Writer at Work that he spent several nights of Easter Week roaming the city despite the fact martial law was in force. Known as a nationalist sympathiser, he was picked up on Thursday, April 27 during a sweep of the area and held by the British Army for two nights.
“The internees were deposited in the cellar of a huge granary nearby, where they remained until Saturday morning, playing cards and chatting with the soldiers and seeing, in the distance, a faint glow as O’Connell Street went up in flames,” according to Martin Marguiles, author of The Early Life of Sean O’Casey.
If O’Casey’s Rising was spent playing cards with the enemy, Yeats, the great poetic chronicler of the nation’s birth-pangs, was reading to them in London, where he was based at the time. Nine days before the Rising on April 15, Yeats had been invited to a charity reading in Piccadilly, chaired by the Chief Secretary of Ireland, Augustine Birrell, whom The New Statesman observed, spent most of the evening “with his head buried in his hands” ─ an attitude many would see as Birrell’s approach to the Rising itself.
Yeats’ first reaction to the news from home was to dismiss the Rising as “a piece of childish madness”. But he and Lady Gregory, with whom he communicated feverishly in the weeks following the Rising, were shocked to learn that they knew some of the Rising’s leaders personally. Yeats had allowed Pearse to stage free productions of his plays in St Enda’s School and MacDonagh had dedicated a book of his poems to Yeats. He moved in the same circles as Joseph Plunkett’s aristocratic nationalist family and, of course, Constance Markievizc had been a childhood friend in Sligo.
But though Yeats knew Pearse, he had publicly severed any association with Pearse’s politics, claiming that he was “flirting with the gallows-tree”.
As Yeats’ correspondence with Lady Gregory and his sister, Lily – the only member of the extended Yeats family who was in Dublin for the Rising – continued in the weeks following, his attitude to the insurrectionists begins to change. The execution of the Rising’s leaders contributed to the change of heart but distance from events was also a factor. He had received a letter from Maud Gonne (whose estranged husband, Capt John McBride was among those put to death) suggesting that the Irish cause had been elevated by the Rising “to a position of tragic dignity”.
“. . .she saw the ruined houses about O’Connell Street & the wounded & dying lying about the streets, in the first few days of the war. I perfectly remember the vision & my making light of it & saying that if a true vision at all it could only have a symbolical meaning,” Yeats wrote.
But by May 23, he was already beginning to see the late rebels as “the ablest & most fine natured of our young men”. According to Roy Foster (W.B.Yeats: A Life II: The Arch-Poet) Yeats was, by this stage, planning to write about the executed men in a poem that was to become Easter 1916 – “a terrible beauty is born” – perhaps the most quoted poem of the Rising. Though written between May and September of that year, it was not published till 1921.
O’ Casey took 10 years to distil the events of the Rising into dramatic form in The Plough and the Stars. The play premiered at the Abbey Theatre in May 1926. The Rising was a terrible mistake, O’Casey told Lady Gregory, shortly before the play was staged, “. . . and we lost such fine men. We should have won freedom by degrees with them.” It was these sentiments, explored through the characters, and the depiction of the Rising as a failed revolution – as well as perceived demeaning of the Tricolour and scenes of citizen looting – which excited riots in the Abbey. O’Casey had further offended by including an off-stage character, The Figure in the Window, whose oratory is based on Pearse’s speeches.
Republican women, led by Hannah Sheehy-Skeffington, and including Pearse’s mother and Mrs Tom Clarke, attempted to storm the stage. While Yeats tried to quell the high feelings by declaring the play as O’Casey’s artistic apotheosis, his words fell on deaf ears and the police had to be called to clear the theatre.
The incendiary effects of The Plough were down to O’Casey’s fearlessness as a dramatist, his distance from the events portrayed and the timing of the staging. As Christopher Murray points out, the 10-year anniversary of the Rising had just passed, but there had been no special public commemoration. “Most people wanted to forget all about the violence of recent years and get on with building and so-called decent life,” Murray observes. The Rising was a “dead issue. O’Casey’s play, by an ironic process of revisionism, made it a live one”.
I’m just back from the Trieste Joyce School (June 30 – July 4) where I had the thrill of reading in the beautiful Art Deco Caffe San Marco, above, one of James Joyce’s many hang-outs in the city. Founded in 1914, when Trieste was still part of the Austro-Hungarian empire, the café was a meeting place for the city’s writers, radicals, and intellectuals. During Joyce’s ten years in the city beginning in 1904, he was a regular at the San Marco along with Triestine poet Umberto Saba and novelist Italo Svevo (often thought to be the model for Leopold Bloom in Ulysses).
It still attracts a literary crowd; in 2013 when the cafe was under threat of closure, writer and academic Claudio Magris, who regularly writes at a table there, made an impassioned plea to save the San Marco, describing it as “a place where you’re at peace, you read, you write, you chat. . . a heart of the city; a strong heart that beats calmly”.
The café has survived and hosted several events at the Trieste Joyce School. Now in its 19th year, the school is led by the calm and genial Irish scholar John McCourt, author of The Years of Bloom, about Joyce’s years in Trieste. He could be said to be following in Joyce’s footsteps as he has lived in Trieste since 1990. His local knowledge came to the fore during his immensely informative – and entertaining – walking tour where he brought to vivid life Joyce’s Triestine years.
During his research, McCourt recalled tracking down one of Joyce’s English language students in Trieste (Joyce worked for the Berlitz School), who was then aged 99. She remembered Joyce’s instruction – he apparently stuck to the manual – and wondered whatever became of Signore Joyce. (She hadn’t kept track of her erstwhile tutor.)
It seemed a little bit like coals to Newcastle reading from Dubliners 100 – Tramp Press’s centenary publication of new versions of Joyce’s stories ─ to Joycean scholars in a regular haunt in Joyce’s adopted city. (I rewrote An Encounter – see elsewhere on this blog.) But they were a great audience – despite the fact that it was a very hot night.
I also read from The Rising of Bella Casey, my novel about the sister of Sean O’Casey. Although O’Casey and Joyce were contemporaries, they never met – by the time O’Casey became prominent in Dublin, Joyce had already left, and even if he hadn’t, class and religion might have kept them apart. (Joyce was from a middle-class Catholic background; O’Casey working-class Protestant, though both shucked off their religion at an early age.)
But there were other echoes in the Joyce story that chimed with the experience of Bella Casey. When John McCourt talked about the relationship between James and his brother, Stanislaus, who came to Trieste on James’s urgings, the tensions he described seemed very familiar.
Stannie was a steady provider and a loyal – and very practical ─ supporter of his brother’s genius. He regularly saved Joyce and his family from penury, found them accommodation or shared his own with them. He was a fixer, debt-payer and first reader for his brother, but his was often a thankless role. After they became estranged – Stannie was less than enthusiastic about Ulysses and dismissed Finnegan’s Wake entirely – Joyce is said to have dismissed the loss of a brother as no more serious than mislaying a pair of gloves.
In the Casey family, Bella was often the one with her hand out. After her husband died, she was destitute, left with five children to raise alone, and she was forced to return to the family home, where O’Casey still lived. It was a situation that O’Casey deeply resented.
In his autobiographies (in which he referred to himself in the third person) he wrote: “So they struggled on, his mother always aiming at sparing as much as she could from her own dish as she dared, and paring a little from her own share of bread to faintly feed Ella (Bella) and her kids; and she went on darning night and day to prevent their rags from floating off their backs. It wasn’t a pleasant job for him (Sean) to be eating a dinner with a little army of hungry eyes watching him. . . At times, a surge of hatred swept through him against those scarecrow figures asleep at his feet for they were in his way, and hampered all he strove to do, and a venomous dislike of Ella charged his heart.”
Perhaps all this proves is that both Joyce and O’Casey were utterly single-minded in the pursuit of their art and that nothing – least of all the circumstances or the finer feelings of their siblings – was allowed to interfere with the work in progress.
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.
The death of maverick Irish writer, Brendan Behan, (above) 50 years ago, has been much remarked upon. But Behan shares this anniversary year with another major Irish literary figure, playwright Sean O’Casey, who appears as a character in my latest novel, The Rising of Bella Casey, which tells the story of his sister Bella.
The bare biographical details of Behan and O’Casey’s lives tell their own story. Behan died aged 41 on March 20, 1964, from alcohol-related diabetes. Six months later, O’Casey passed away aged 84. The age gap between them belies how much they had in common, although their lives did not cross.
Behan was certainly influenced by O’Casey’s work, particularly his Dublin trilogy – Shadow of a Gunman, Juno and the Paycock and The Plough and the Stars. Although a Protestant, O’Casey was brought up in straitened circumstances in northside Dublin and combined his literary career with a political radicalism, although he was a late bloomer as a writer. He was in his forties before his first play was staged.
Born 43 years after O’Casey in the same neighbourhood, Behan, a Catholic, was a precocious talent. He began writing in his teens contributing to Irish Republican magazines. His work was heavily influenced by his political commitment. In Behan’s case, that commitment included active involvement in the IRA, which resulted in two spells in prison.
Borstal Boy – a play based on his novel of the same name is now running at the Gaiety Theatre, Dublin in a new production directed by Conall Morrison – describes Behan’s first sentence in England for IRA activities. The Quare Fella tells of an execution at Mountjoy Jail when Behan was imprisoned there, and The Hostage deals with an IRA kidnapping of a British soldier.
Through very different routes, both came to roughly similar conclusions in their writings about the fight for Irish freedom – “that while the issues involved were nationalism and imperialism, the ordinary poor had nothing to gain and a great deal to suffer in the cross-fire” as Colbert Kearney notes in The Writings of Brendan Behan.
But perhaps the most telling difference between them was one of temperament and habits. Unlike Behan, O’Casey was a tea-totaller. In his biography of O’Casey, Christopher Murray remarks:”It is a sobering thought, if the pun will pass, that had O’Casey taken Behan’s path, he would have been dead before a single play had been staged. . .”
Conversely, Behan described himself as a drinker with a writing problem.
O’Casey’s view of Behan’s work is not recorded, but he was almost paternal in his concern for the younger writer. In an interview in the Irish Press on May 9, 1961, he remarked: “It’s sad to see this man abusing himself like he is. If he does not mind his talent it will fade.” On Behan’s death, he told the Evening Press: “One thing Brendan Behan never did was to exploit his own talents. . . He died too quickly.”
Behan was reverent in his admiration of O’Casey. In a BBC television interview on November 29, 1962 he declared “. . .any playwright, certainly any Irishman writing plays in the past forty years that denies that O’Casey influenced them is a fool – a liar. Yes, of course, he influenced us all.” In Brendan Behan’s Island, he went further: “I come from the same area as Sean O’Casey about whom I don’t intend to say anything for the simple reason that it would be like praising the Lakes of Killarney – a piece of impertinence. A far as I’m concerned, all I can say is that O’Casey’s like champagne, one’s wedding night, or the Aurora Borealis, or whatever you call them – all them lights.”
On the eve of the centenary of the outbreak of the First World War, I thought it would be fitting to chart the influence of the war on Bella Casey, the heroine of my novel, The Rising of Bella Casey (Brandon, 2013).
Bella (b.1865) was the eldest of the family of five, which included Dublin’s premier playwright Sean O’Casey. The Protestant Caseys, and Bella in particular, were steeped in the tradition of service in the British Army. Two of Bella’s brothers had soldiered with the Army. Tom Casey saw active duty in the Boer War (he died in February 1914 ) and Mick, who had served in the Royal Engineers in the 1890s, re-enlisted in 1915. Bella’s teenage son, James “Sonny” Beaver, also joined the Royal Navy in 1915.
Bella’s husband, Nicholas Beaver, had been a career soldier with the King’s Liverpools regiment in the 1880s. Beaver was struck down with the mental effects of syphilis in 1905, and was committed to Dublin’s Richmond Asylum where he died in 1907. Bella was left destitute with five children to raise alone.
Her brother, Sean O’Casey, being an avowed socialist and staunch nationalist, would not have served in the British Army on principle but he often drew on his background of solid, working-class Protestant loyalism for his work. He might not have had personal sympathy for these beliefs, but there was no doubt he understood them.
Although he was fearless in tackling thorny political issues in his plays – the depiction of the Easter Rising in The Plough and the Stars, for example, caused riots in the Abbey Theatre when it was staged in 1926 – it was to take O’Casey almost a decade to approach the horrors of the First World War. In 1928 he submitted his play, The Silver Tassie, to the Abbey Theatre. It constitutes a different kind of war service, an unflinching polemic on the futility of battle.
In the first act we see Harry Heegan, a young Dublin sporting hero who plays on the winning team for a soccer trophy (the silver tassie of the title) on the day he is due to return to the front. The second act of the play is an operatic depiction of Heegan and his war-weary comrades set in the rain-soaked trenches of France. A ruined monastery forms the backdrop; a broken crucifix dominates the scene. Strange liturgical chanting mixed with parlour songs replace conventional dialogue, in a highly stylized rendering of the absurd horrors of war. Nothing in the play up to this prepares the audience for this daring expressionism. Acts Three and Four bring us back down to earth, but all has changed. Heegan, now confined to a wheelchair as a result of a war wound, returns to Dublin, embittered and disillusioned. His girlfriend has gone off with his best friend Barney, who has won the VC for saving Heegan on the battlefield. In the community where he was hailed once as a hero, he meets only bafflement and distaste. No one can understand the trauma he’s been through. This is so common a trope in war narratives now that it is barely remarkable, but at the time, it was a revolutionary perspective.
Director and founder of the Abbey, W.B.Yeats, and O’Casey’s friend, was not convinced, however. He turned the play down out of hand. In the history of literary rejections, they don’t come more savage than this. Yeats claimed that O’Casey knew nothing about the First World War: “You have no subject,” he wrote, “You are not interested in the Great War, you never stood on its battlefields or walked its hospitals and so write out of your opinions. . . ” He dismissed the bravura second act as an interesting technical experiment; after that, he added, “there is nothing”.
Given O’Casey’s strong and enduring family ties with the British Army, Yeats’s accusation that O’Casey was not familiar with his subject matter could hardly have been more wrong. O’Casey was not a man to take such criticism lying down. He inquired tartly if Shakespeare had been at Actium before he wrote Antony and Cleopatra or visited Philippi in preparation for Julius Caesar. And had Yeats himself travelled to Tir na nÓg as a preparation for his esoteric dramas, O’Casey demanded. The battle lines between the two men were firmly drawn.
Furthermore, as well as having family members fighting in the war, O’Casey had talked to soldiers returned from the Front. In 1915, he was hospitalised with TB in St Vincent’s Hospital. The wards were thronged with wounded soldiers newly arrived from France. While recovering O’Casey recalled listening to accounts of the “slime, the blooded mud, the crater and the shell-hole” that had become “God’s kingdom on earth”. These first-hand accounts must surely have inspired the nightmarish visions of the second act of The Silver Tassie. But Yeats insisted that the play lacked unity of action.
In such criticism he missed O’Casey’s point entirely. The disconnect between Act Two and the rest of the play was absolutely intentional. As one contemporary critic has put it: “The experience of a foot soldier caught up in the madness of battle is impossible to reconcile with the world that exists outside it: it is a personal apocalypse that relates to nothing even as it changes everything.”
After its rejection by the Abbey, The Silver Tassie did find a home. It was premiered in London at the Apollo Theatre in 1929, starring Charles Laughton and Barry Fitzgerald. But the war between Yeats and O’Casey was to continue for several more years. They eventually patched things up and The Silver Tassiewas staged at the Abbey in 1935 but the relationship between the two was never quite the same again.
As for Bella, who had seen her husband and brothers serve with the British Army and her son fight in the war, she was the only member of the family who did not survive the First World War. On January 1, 1918, she died of the effects of influenza. This was the beginning of the Spanish ‘flu epidemic that was to sweep through Europe that year and claimed more victims than the hostilities did.
An edited version of this post was broadcast as part of RTE’s Sunday MiscellanyWorld War One Roadshow, August 3. See http://www.rte.ie/radio1/sunday-miscellany/
Siblings are often in danger of being traduced in print when there’s a writer in the family. Sometimes they bite back, biographically or fictionally. Others, like Bella Casey, the heroine of The Rising of Bella Casey (Brandon Press, 2013), my novel about the Irish playwright Sean O’Casey and his sister, don’t get the chance of a right to reply. One of the triggers for writing Bella’s story was O’Casey’s decision to kill her off ten years before her time in his autobiography.
Perhaps the best known set of literary siblings were the Brontës, but they happily shared a literary territory, particularly as teenagers. Later, the sisters’ fictional depiction of one another seems to have been heavily disguised – and, more importantly, was not contested. In the course of my research, I did some trawling through works where literary siblinghood was either hotly debated on the page, or – as in the case of Bella Casey – a sister or brother was airbrushed out of the family album.
1. Stephen Hero: by James Joyce
This early work featured many episodes drawn from Joyce’s family life and, in particular, Stephen’s close relationship with his brother, Maurice (read Joyce’s real-life brother, Stanislaus, pictured above) Joyce subsequently rewrote it as A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man but he excised much of the material relating to Stanislaus. In later years, Stanislaus wrote a psychologically riveting memoir of Joyce’s early life, My Brother’s Keeper. “It is terrible,” he observed “to have a cleverer older brother. . .I perceive that he regards me as quite commonplace and uninteresting – he makes no attempt at disguise – and though I follow him fully in this opinion I cannot be expected to like it.”
2.Monkeys: by Susan Minot
Susan Minot’s “semi-autobiographical” debut novel caused a family storm when it was published in 1986. It follows the lives of the seven Vincent children, their Catholic mother and alcoholic father in an atmosphere of New England privilege. The novel inspired a veritable symphony of competing sibling creativity. Sister Eliza Minot published The Tiny One in 1999, covering the same events, brother George penned a murder mystery, The Blue Bowl, about a large family in which one of the sons is accused of killing his father. Sam Minot, who claimed the father-killer character in George’s novel was based on him, replied with a self-published memoir entitled The Strange Poverty of the Rich. There are three other Minot siblings who have yet to contribute to the debate.
3. The Game : A.S Byatt
A Brontean tale of two sisters who as children share an imagined alternate universe based on the Arthurean tales, but who are divided by the same creativity as adults. When Cassandra, a single Oxford don, sees one of her childhood fantasies portrayed in her sister Julia’s novel, the stage is set for a showdown. Byatt’s sister, Margaret Drabble, described the novel as “a mean-spirited book about sibling rivalry and she sent it to me with a note signed ‘With love,’ saying ‘I think I owe you an apology’.”
4. The Peppered Moth: Margaret Drabble
Drabble’s first novel, The Summer Bird-Cage was also about a pair of rivalrous sisters, one single and the other who opts for a wealthy marriage. But it was not until Drabble’s 2011 novel, The Peppered Moth was published, that Antonia Byatt railed publicly against her sister’s fiction. Byatt was exercised by the character of Bessie Bawtry in the novel which is based on the Drabbles’ mother, Kathleen. She is quoted as saying that she “would rather people didn’t read someone else’s version of my mother”.
5. Little Women: Louisa May Alcott
Louisa May Alcott did not have the same problems when she mined sibling territory for her series of novels about the March sisters – maybe because the proceeds were going towards supporting them. Troubled by her family’s genteel poverty, she vowed at age 15 that she would be rich. Little Women was a commissioned work; her publisher wanted “a book for girls”. The novel, based on Louisa and her sisters coming of age in the American Civil War, was published September 30, 1868 and was an instant success.
6. A Regular Guy: Mona Simpson
Tom Owens drops out of college and becomes a Silicon Valley biotech millionaire. He’s a barefoot in the boardroom kind of entrepreneur who eventually gets pushed out of the company he helped create. Sound familiar? Simpson’s brother was Apple founder, Steve Jobs, above, who was adopted days after birth. Simpson’s novel is written from the point of view of Owens’ estranged daughter, Jane. Jobs’ response to the novel is not recorded but Lisa Brennan-Jobs, his daughter by a first marriage, was furious. “In the first few pages, I was confronted with my family, my anecdotes, my things, my thoughts, myself in the character Jane. And sandwiched between the truths was invention—lies to me, made more evident because of their dangerous proximity to the truth.”
7. Hideous Kinky: Esther Freud
Hippie mother Julia leaves the predictability of Tunbridge Wells with her two daughters, aged 4 and 7, for Morocco where they live a low-rent life in Marrakech. The elder girl, Bea, based on Freud’s sister, Bella, insists on a conventional life in the midst of the chaos, going to school etc while the younger sister and child narrator of the novel watches uncomprehendingly as her rackety mother hitches herself up to various men and explores Sufism while the family slides further into impoverishment. When asked what her sister thought of the autobiographical novel, Esther Freud said Bella’s memories of the sojourn in Morocco were not compatible with hers. But she added that her sister had relished the novel.
8. Angela’s Ashes: Frank McCourt:
Frank McCourt ‘s fictionalised memoir was a fore-runner of the misery lit genre back in 1996. Its depiction of a miserable Irish childhood with a brood of brothers enraged the residents of Limerick where the McCourts grew up. McCourt’s brothers, Malachy and Alphie each subsequently produced memoirs of their own – A Monk Swimming and A Long Stone’s Throw respectively. They didn’t argue with their brother’s account; they merely added their own voices to the family narrative with further adventures, mostly in the US.
9. Big Brother: Lionel Shriver
Lionel Shriver’s latest novel is inspired by her dangerously overweight brother Greg, who was contemplating gastric surgery when he suffered a fatal heart attack in 2009. Shriver has turned the story into a novel in which the brother – now called Edison – takes charge of his obesity with a rigorous diet imposed by his sister, Pandora, with weight issues of her own. Shriver was determined to fictionalise her brother’s story. “It was the inspiration,” she said of his death. But she added that her real brother was very complicated. “I don’t think he would’ve fit in a book.” And if he were still alive, the novel might never have been written.
10. Daffodils: William Wordsworth:
I wandered lonely as a cloud, Wordsworth wrote, but by right he probably should have used the first person plural. He was with his devoted sister Dorothy (in the portrait above) when they saw the long belt of daffodils as she notes in her diary. “. . . they grew among the mossy stones and about them, some rested their heads upon these stones on a pillow for weariness & the rest tossed and reeled and danced & seemed as if they verily laughed with the wind. . . ” Dorothy’s journals were full of observations of nature and the siblings’ life together, some of which found their way into Wordsworth’s verse. Indeed, he consulted her journal when he came to write Daffodils and that, it seems, is how she intended it. It was for William that Dorothy kept the journal.