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The Abbey Theatre

A contemporary and avid watcher of Synge’s plays at the Abbey Theatre was Sean O’ Casey, whose plays (also performed at the Abbey theatre) also provoked outrage for their stark realism and their political stance, which could often be seen as anti-nationalistic, but were more likely to have been attacked because of their complexity and the blurred, humanistic devices that O’ Casey tended to use.

O’ Casey decided to tackle the Easter Rising of 1916 in his 1926 play The Plough and the Stars. O’ Casey’s realist style is characterised by its sympathetic and complex depictions of the Irish working classes. O’ Casey uses Irish vernacular to distinguish between the various strata of Irish society. Structurally, the play is anarchic. The first act seems structureless in form, but serves to establish the characters rather than the plot. In the second act, O’ Casey utilises juxtaposition to gauge the importance of the various groups of people prevalent in working class Irish life at the time of the uprising. In the second scene, which is set in a pub, the voice of the orator outside clashes against the discussion between Rosie and The Barman:

“Voice of the man. Comrade soldiers of the Irish volunteers and of the Citizen Army, we rejoice in this terrible war. The old heart of the Earth needed to be warmed with the red wine of the battllefields. … Such august homage was never offered to God as this: the homage of millions of lives given gladly for love of country. And we must be ready to pour out the same red wine in the same glorious sacrifice, for without shedding of blood there is no redemption!”

The glorification of the Irish republicans who were executed after the Easter Rising and led to the subsequent independence of the Irish state was dominant in the catholic community at the time of the plays airing. The Irish War of Independence, in 1919-1921 which ultimately led to the Irish Free State being formed were instigated by the same militant republican groups that initially attempted to declare Dublin as Irish. Although they achieved their aims, O’ Casey cleverly juxtaposes the rhetoric of the politician with the everyday speech of the working class Rosie and her friends in the pub. Thus, he introduces ambiguity into their martyrdom, suggesting that perhaps the Irish people, rather than a number of statesmen and war generals, ought to be celebrated too, if not more so. The call to violence by the politician is seen by Rosie as of no consequence, as she suggests that the Irish people are “A lot’ o tricksters [...] that wouldn’t know what freedom was if they got it from their mother.” The Covey suggests also that: “There’s only one freedom for th’ workin’ man: control o’ th’ means o’ production, rates of exchange an’ th’ means of disthribution.” O’ Casey intertwines a selection of political views prevalent in Irish society at the time. Himself a communist, he believed that the war was being fought on the wrong level. Maureen Hawkins suggests that: “It does critique the Rising but not merely on the grounds that it was doomed to defeat. The point for O’Casey is that it was the wrong war for the tenement dwellers (and for that matter, for Corporal Stoddart). Divisive issues of nationalism and religion set them against one another when they should be uniting in the class war.” Indeed, the view of O’ Casey in later plays further develops his socialist streak, where he abandons the realism of his earlier plays, concentrating instead on the symbolism of communism and socialist ideals. But, in The Plough and the Stars, O’ Casey goes to some lengths to ensure that his plays don’t come across as dogmatic.

Sean O’ Casey is known for the sympathetic appraisals he gave to Irish working class women. In The Plough and the Stars, the Easter Rising is seen as a predominantly male-dominated affair, and the violence was therefore rendered unnecessary by the female voice of reason in the text. The ludicrousness of the Easter Rising situation is highlighted at the beginning of Act III:

“The Covey: An’ then out comes General Pearse an’ his staff, an’, standin’ in th’ middle o’ th’ street, he reads the Proclamation.

Mrs Gogan: What proclamation?
Peter: Declarin’ an Irish Repliblic.
Mrs Gogan: Go to God!

Peter: The gunboat Helga’s shellin’ Liberty Hall, an’ I hear that people livin’ on th’ quays had to crawl on their bellies to Mass with th’ bullets that were flyin’ around from Boland’s Mills.
Mrs Gogan: God bless us, what’s goin’ to be th’ end of it all!

Bessie (looking out of the top window): Maybe yous are satisfied now; maybe yous are satisfied now! Go on and get guns if you are men - Johnny get your gun, get your gun, get your gun! You are all nicely shanghaied now; th’ boyo hasn’t a sword on his thigh now!”

O’ Casey was controversial at the time with the portrayal of his extremely left-wing political stance, and by suggesting that the Easter Rising would have better served the people if it were based on class war rather than petty nationalism. However, his attacks seem to be primarily motivated by a distrust of patriarchy, and by warmongering men. His views of women are radical insofar as women are pictured as whole characters, rather than as marginalised and caricatured by the dominant patriarchal code. In terms of the Easter Rising, to O’ Casey, femininity offers an alternative view to the staunchly ideological and violent means by which men get what they need. Bessie says: “Go on and get guns if you are men.” Although she is later attacked for being pro-British, O’ Casey’s development of the character is as a flawed, but essentially humane character, unsettled by the inclination for men to pick up arms at the slightest opportunity. The Easter Rising could also be read as a socialist revolution, as James Connolly, a leader during the conflict, was a staunch socialist, and the other leaders took on a socialist stance in order to keep him in their ranks. However, as O’ Casey comments in his play, the real issue was based on nationalism, and despite the support of Lenin, and the recognition in the Soviet Union of Ireland as a republic, undivided by the Irish Free State, socialism was merely a facade used to get support from Connolly, whom Lenin admired. The declaration of the Irish republic is seen with both derision and with ridicule by O’ Casey, and the people that he puts in his plays. The declaration of the Irish republic was, at the time, ludicrous and more of a gesture than an actual formal declaration. Wikipedia suggests that: “Certainly men like Pearse were resigned to the notion that the rising would be a military failure, and thus any promises pertaining to its aftermath were inconsequential.” The recognition that the Easter Rising would be a failure, because of the impossibility of getting enough support to overthrow the British rulers, suggested to O’ Casey that a less bloody conclusion could have been overlooked, and that the issues on which the war was instigated were ideologically ill-founded.

The communist views of The Covey are put into context with the warmongering oratory of the spokesperson outside, and The Covey is seen as pompous and flawed himself. Meanwhile, Rosie speaks of a common sense, where ideologies and “freedom” gets thrown out of the window because people wouldn’t understand it anyway. By introducing a complexity to the affairs of the Easter Rising, the play, when it was shown at the Abbey Theatre in 1926 provoked outrage. The Irish spokesmen who died were already heralded as martyrs in Irish nationalist circles, but the subtle introduction of other aspects of Irish life unsettled the Irish Nationalists, as well as the manipulative and cold behaviour displayed by the leaders as they coaxed people to their deaths. By focusing instead on the conversational whims of the working classes, O’ Casey manages to interrogate the opinions of those who designed the Easter Rising. The working classes are seen, not so much as a single object of derision, but as a variety of different people. The representation of the Irish working classes in O’ Casey adds complexity to a class of people henceforth unrepresented in the theatre and in literature. Such, O’ Casey, who himself was “educated” by going to the Abbey Theatre and seeing plays by Synge and by Yeats, becomes a chief component in defining the working classes of Ireland. Thus, in terms of representation, and of stoking a nationalistic pride that flourishes in its complexity, the Abbey Theatre cannot be underestimated for its impact, and the subsequent appraisal and re-appraisal of the events that led to Irish independence. In fact, the Abbey Theatre still stands today as a testament to the importance of the theatre group.

Arguably, the most important figure in the Irish literary revival was the poet and dramatist W. B. Yeats. Famous for his esoteric, modernist, yet nationalistic poetry, he remains the most prestigious and highly acclaimed poet to emerge from this period in Irish history. His poetry also resonates on an international scale, and weren’t necessarily about purely local affairs. However, Yeat’s politics were always steeped in the nationalist revival in Ireland. But Yeats is difficult to pin down exactly, as he moved from radical socialist to reactionary conservative, to fascist and fervent supporter of Mussolini, never quite resting on any of the above. Moses suggests that: “In the course of a poetic career that stretched from the 1880s to the late 1930s, Yeats adopted many different political masks, including those of radical nationalist, classical liberal, reactionary conservative, and millenarian nihilist.” His poetry worked on a more cultural level, and affected the Irish nation more in terms of establishing a historical link to an antiquated and erased past before the British invasion and the subsequent years of cultural domination.

Yeats was a symbolist and a mystic, and was a member of many of these groups that sought to transcend the material realm in order to engage with a symbolism that was more important than the crass spirit of materialism enforced upon Ireland by the British. Brown suggests that Yeats aim was to: “infuse Irish reality, through symbolic rites and ritual enactments, with an ancient spirituality in which paganism and heterodox Christianity combined would help Ireland achieve a transcendent liberation from the crassly materialist world of England’s commercial empire.” And indeed, the cultural fabric of modernism was to achieve exactly this - a renewal of the spirit, a dissolution of old forms, and a desire, as Yeats’ friend and contemporary Ezra Pound said, to “make it new.” Yeats’ nationalistic pride is explained in detail when he describes the martyrs of 1916 in the poem Easter 1916, but remains ambiguous as regards his opinion of whether the sacrifice was worth it. Every verse ends with the line: “A terrible beauty is born.” Thus, he concludes with an oxymoron. The words “terrible”, and beauty balance each other out in the sentence. The events of 1916 assume a prominence in Yeats’ mind. “I write it out in verse - / MacDonagh and Macbride / And Connolly and Pearse / Now and in time to be, / Wherever green is worn, / Are changed, changed utterly” In Easter 1916, those who were executed and died in the Easter Rising are eulogised and named, but his attitude towards war in general remains ambivalent. He argues that “Too long a sacrifice / Can make a stone of the heart”, suggesting perhaps that the Irish shouldn’t rest on the laurels and the virtues of those who have died and slip into a moral complacency.

Edward Said, in Culture and Imperialism, describes nationalism as the “mobilizing force that coalesced into resistance against an alien and occupying empire on the parts of people possessing a common history, religion, and language”. The events of the Easter Rising, important as they were in stoking up in Yeats a nationalism and a pride that led to his poetry taking on another turn, nationalism is also cultural as well as geographical, and is more complex than a simple warring for territory. Thus, Yeats could be argued as being post-colonialist, insofar as he was aware of the cultural importance of establishing ones identity as well as fighting for territory and for the rights for independence. Yeats toyed with symbolism. Symbolism is defined in Wikipedia as “the systematic or creative use of arbitrary symbols as abstracted representations of concepts or objects and the distinct relationships in between, as they define both context and the narrower definition of terms. In a narrow context, ’symbolism’ is the applied use of any iconic representations which carry particular conventional meanings.” Because Yeats sought to return to a mysticism that he saw at the heart of the pre-colonial Ireland, he used symbolism to get to greater spiritual depths about the nature of Ireland, and of its cultural heritage and nature. The importance of names are actually alluded to in the actual poem: “..our part / To murmur name upon name / As a mother names her child / When sleep at last has come / On limbs that had run wild.” The use of chant is important in Yeats, as it forms a central part of the spiritual rites, and of the Golden Dawn, an occult organisation that sought to establish Ireland with the true spirit of nature, and of the symbolic order.Symbolic representation occurs in Easter 1916 by the use of the phrase “terrible beauty”, as the resonance of these particular words jar against one another on a surface level. Yeats also uses repetition of specific, important terms that he believed possessed spiritual importance. “Terrible beauty” is repeated at the end of every line, almost as a prayer would. In Easter 1916, the word “stone” is used in line 58, line 56 and in line 43. Stone is used to represent death, or cultural death and stagnation: “Enchanted to a stone / To trouble the living stream.” and: “Minute by minute they live: / The stone’s in the midst of all.” Thus, in the poem, the establishment of associations with the world stone and death, in a sense, the setting up of stone in opposition to living, as well as the notion that the stone is in itself a part of Ireland, and of Irish landscape and nature, makes the phrase “Too long a sacrifice / Can make a stone of the heart” glitter with resonances that don’t immediately check in. Death lingers throughout the poem, and the ambiguity with with Yeats describes the events leads us into thinking that the events of the Easter Rising were bittersweet, rather than glorious or disastrous in nature. The grandiosity of the death imagery is punctuated by representations of Ireland, with the “green is worn”, and the “motley is worn” repetition of structure, that invokes a certain poetic and symbolic resonance.

Perhaps Yeats is also criticising himself for his inability to behave immediately to support the uprising. He talks about “polite, meaningless words”, which could easily be referring to himself and his own poetry. But his shift from a revolutionary to a conservative approach to affairs proved to be one of the central issues of conflict in Yeats. Similarly with O’ Casey, revolution versus steady and slow progression echoed his inner conflict between the introvert “man of contemplation” and the extrovert “man of action”, which he sought constantly to reconcile during his lifetime. Seamus Heaney suggests that:

“The Easter Rising in 1916 and the ensuing violence issued first in the Anglo-Irish Treaty of 1921 and the creation of the Irish Free State, and then in the outbreak of the Irish Civil War. And to all of these crises Yeats responded in his own idiom, at his own pace. He did record direct responses to some events in Ireland, most notably in his poem ‘Easter 1916′, but generally the poems did not arise from the immediate stimulus of happenings or from any desire to set / down the story. They arose, rather, from the resonance that the happenings produced within his own consciousness and from the meditations and disconsolateness they engendered there.”

So, Yeats, instead of directly influencing the events of 1916, and being a direct participant, stood aside from events and interpreted them in his own way, assigning them to a cultural history that would resonate throughout Irish society forevermore. In this respect, and also insofar as both were ex-pats, who lived in London and Trieste respectively, Yeats could be compared to Joyce in the ways in which he developed the Irish vernacular.

Joyce was an ambiguous figure in Ireland in the early part of the century. His interests were not of nationalistic pride, yet he remains the most obsessive and detailed painter of Ireland during this period. Each of Joyce’s novels is set in Ireland, and he even suggested of Ulysses that if Dublin were destroyed overnight, it would be possible to reconstruct it brick by brick thanks to his novel. But Joyce remained disinterested in the political affairs of Irish politics, despite his enormous influence on cultural affairs in Ireland. The online biographical encyclopedia describes him as “a rebel among rebels. Those movements, whether political or literary, which had as their objective the freeing of Ireland from English dominance, held very little attraction for him. His instinct was for a broader European culture, and to this an exceptional faculty for linguistic study gave him precocious access. Among companions who were picking up a little Gaelic and were enthusiastic for the theater of Yeats, Synge, and Lady Gregory, Joyce studied Dano-Norwegian and opposed to the Celtic twilight the hard, clear illumination of Ibsen in his realistic phase.” It is bitterly ironic that one of the greatest Irish poets and writers was completely disinterested in the politics of the time, and even fled the country entirely because of the constricting political and cultural environment of Ireland at the time. Thus, culturally, Joyce remains important as an Irish figure, and, as a post-colonialist writer of the Irish problem, remains unsurpassed in his authority and his position as a figurehead for Irish modernist fiction.

Both Yeats and O’ Casey are ambiguous in their regard to the Easter Rising. Although they relate the events to a great nationalistic pride, they are also aware of the massive sacrifices that were made in order to establish the Irish Free State. Yeats tends to champion the people who lead the uprising more so than O’ Casey, who represents them as flawed and dogmatic. However, O’ Casey’s realism allows him a certain amount of leeway in his criticism: the context of realism denotes that everybody is flawed, but that innate good and evil don’t really exist. Moreover, the tenets of realism tend to establish themselves by marking out specific flaws. Neither the Irish working class people, nor the leaders are painted as symbols of universal evil or good. The ambiguity was precisely what made the play so controversial, in a time when overall views about the Irish Free State were polarised.

Overall, the impact of literature on Ireland, and of conceptions of Ireland before, during and since the Easter Rising was profound and long-lasting. The establishment of a post-colonial identity was primarily established initially through the literature of Yeats and Synge - and due to the establishment of Irish theatre houses such as the Abbey Theatre and the Irish Literary Theatre. This fostered a means by which new Irish playwrights could talk about affairs that affected them, and fostered an environment whereby the playwrights could get their voices heard by the Irish community, and to the people that mattered. Although the tangible effects of literature on Irish culture are difficult to measure in concrete terms, the impact of Yeats and the theatre house on the establishment of an Irish identity that wasn’t reduced to hurtful caricatures or depictions of the Irish as the butt of jokes was important. Synge in particular, with The Playboy of the Western World, attacked this romantic view of the Irish, by picturing people as close to a realistic portrayal of Irish people as was possible. Of course, this led to assumptions that Synge was being anti-Irish, when in fact, Synge was trying to develop and humanise the Irish in terms of culture and representation. Yeats himself set out to establish an Irish history entirely independent of the British heritage and the materialistic world foisted upon Irish culture since the invasion by the British over 300 years hence. Yeats perceived the construction of an identity that was intrinsically linked to Ireland’s rich but hidden cultural heritage, and also to the nature of Ireland, which he explored using occult and spiritualistic means. The lasting effect on the ways in which Irish literature and culture is perceived is profound. Joyce also developed the complexity of the Irish identity as a more autonomous, less simianized ideal. Ulysses remains both a classic novel on an international, modernist level, yet also retains its culturally remote location in Dublin. Although Joyce remained an ex-pat until he died, and wasn’t particularly concerned about political affairs in Ireland, he remained inextricably tied to the culture of Ireland, and each of his great works concerned themselves with unravelling the Irish psyche and the heritage. Important to the development of a discrete and self-ruling autonomy for the Irish working classes was Sean O’ Casey, whose play The Plough and The Stars, devotes itself entirely to exploring the multivalence of reactions to the Irish Rising of 1916. In it, he strays from offering one view, and instead skilfully threads his various opinions through the characters that he knew from his working class life. In it, the Irish working classes, instead of being painted with a single brush stroke, assume a variety of characters, all of whom are flawed, but also exude specific charms and, more importantly, individualities, that were important in the establishment of a singular, and separate Irish identity. Sean O’ Casey, deeply entrenched in the realist idiom, used the Abbey Theatre to amplify minority voices - voices such as Irish working-class women, who are often portrayed very sympathetically, and with a tenderness and a sensitivity that firmly established them at the heart of the Irish identity. His portrayal of the Easter Rising is ambiguous, and, like Synge’s play, caused massive upheaval when it was first shown in the Abbey Theatre. He subtly argues that perhaps the leaders of the Easter Rising weren’t the heroes after all, but that the people who were drafted in and whose blood was shed are the people that should be remembered. He paints the leaders as dogmatic and (at times) manipulative and oafish. But, ultimately, he lets the viewer of the play reach their own decision, refusing to shove any particular nationalist view down the throats of the audience. Overall, the impact of Irish literature on the culture of Ireland was momentous, as it put Ireland on the international cultural map and also gave voices to those voices that were previously suppressed by years of colonial and cultural domination. The Irish Free State and the rising of an organised nationalist movement in Ireland will always be inextricably linked to the culture and the heritage that was produced in Ireland in the Early Twentieth Century.

Moses, M. V., The Poet as Politician, from Reason, Feb 2001
O’ Casey, S., Juno and the Paycock & The Plough and the Stars, Macmillan, London: 1974
Said, E., Culture and Imperialism, Vintage, London: 1994
Yeats, W. B., Selected Poems, Penguin, London: 2000
Yeats, W. B., Selected Works of Yeats, Penguin, London: 2003