As I write this I’m listening to Diarmuid Ferriter on Raidio Uladh/Radio Ulster, talking about Sean O’Casey’s The Plough and the Stars. It stirs memories in me.
I first discovered Sean O’Casey in 1964 – two years before the fiftieth anniversary of the Easter Rising. I was studying in UCD for my Master’s in English, and I can remember sitting in the university library, chuckling aloud and marveling at the energy and wit and truth-telling of O’Casey’s dialogue. For the most part I was totally apolitical at the time, more interested in females, food and booze than in the Easter Rising. It never struck me that O’Casey’s truth-telling was partial: it left no room for a political dimension.
Nowadays it’s seen as fashionable to pour scorn on the disorder in the Abbey Theatre when O’Casey’s plays were first produced. Stupid people, thicks, fanatics, who wouldn’t know a beautifully-crafted play with a harsh truth at its core if it bit their nose. And certainly O’Casey’s plays look at the humanity behind political and military upheaval, and sympathise with the victims. It’s best summarized in Juno and the Paycock, when Juno tells her crippled son: “Ah, you lost your best principle, me son, when you lost your arm; them’s the only sort o’ principles that’s any good to a workin’ man”.
It’s a powerful line, and true. But it dismisses idealism and political or military action as delusions. As Maggie Thatcher said “There is no such thing as society, only people and their families”.
Essentially O’Casey was dismissing the events of the Easter Rising and what followed as worthless sacrifice. He was telling his fellow countrymen and women that what mattered was people and their families, especially those living in the squalor of Dublin’s slums. But while it’s true that armed conflict such as the Easter Rising can be romanticized and glorified so we don’t see the blood and suffering, equally there are those – and I’d include O’Casey – who lurch to the other extreme and deny the worth of anything that isn’t providing for people’s physical welfare. You can’t eat a flag, true; but if your only concern is with eating your dinner, you’ve diminished yourself and ignored the questions of freedom and oppression, of empire and national identity, of the right of Irish people to build the kind of state that they want. These things are real and important to human beings; to dismiss them as empty rhetoric and pretend patriotism, as O’Casey does, is to dismiss those who have a vision and who act selflessly to make it real.
We still have scribes who can’t get enough column inches or air-time to undermine the sacrifice of the Easter Rising and the many sacrifices that flowed from it. The difference between today’s pundits and O’Casey is that he was a gifted artist and they are condescending scribblers.