British and Irish Literature Sean O’Casey
James Moran
  • LAST REVIEWED: 28 July 2015
  • LAST MODIFIED: 28 July 2015
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780199846719-0101


Sean O’Casey (b. 1880–d. 1964) is one of Ireland’s best-known playwrights, and any visitor to Dublin is likely to encounter O’Casey’s name attached to an assortment of tourist souvenirs, civic buildings, and cultural events. He is less celebrated than his contemporaries James Joyce and W. B. Yeats, and yet—unlike those two figures who wrote drama but never developed a secure place in the theatrical canon—O’Casey’s plays have achieved sustained success in performance. At Ireland’s national theater, O’Casey’s works have been performed more than those of any other writer, and here (as in many other countries) he has been appreciated for using music-hall-style comedy, dealing with contentious historical events, and displaying a consistent sympathy with the downtrodden and poor—whose predicament O’Casey knew from his own childhood. O’Casey had been born as John Casey in 1880, to a lower-middle-class Protestant family in Dublin’s Northside, but his father’s death in 1886 meant that O’Casey experienced insecurity and downward mobility (the would-be writer also suffered from chronic eye disease). As a young man, he worked as a laborer alongside members of the Catholic working class, with whose national and social aspirations he discovered an affinity—changing his name to Seán Ó Cathasaigh. He joined the revolutionary Irish Republican Brotherhood and helped to found the Irish Citizen Army but did not fight in the Easter Rising of 1916 because his mother was dying and because he increasingly endorsed socialist rather than nationalist politics. He submitted scripts to the Abbey Theatre from 1916, and after five rejected efforts, the playhouse produced his sixth play, The Shadow of a Gunman, in 1923. He followed this with Juno and the Paycock (1924) and The Plough and the Stars (1926)—and these three scripts are often grouped as a trilogy, all being set in the poverty-stricken tenements of Dublin during the Irish revolution of 1916–1922, and all revealing hostility to British imperialism and cynicism about Irish nationalism. These works have proved enduringly popular, although The Plough provoked nationalist riots when first staged in Dublin in 1926, encouraging O’Casey to abandon his homeland and live for the rest of his life in England. Here, O’Casey continued to write plays, essays, and autobiographies until his death in 1964, although his later plays have never found a place in the theatrical repertoire, featuring, as they do, increasingly experimental forms, a committed left-wing politics, and a frequent cynicism about aspects of Irish (especially Irish Catholic) life.

General Overviews

O’Casey’s prolific and varying writing life has posed problems for those who would compile short summaries and general overviews. O’Casey continued writing well into his eighties and produced six volumes of autobiography, at least seven other volumes of prose writings, and more than twenty-five plays. The question for most readers and critics is therefore where exactly to start. Most guides tend to foreground O’Casey’s most frequently produced plays, those of the Dublin Trilogy. Murray 2000 focuses only on these works and provides the best introductory guide to them. Simmons 1983 is also a very helpful beginner’s guide to those three plays in particular. However, other critics, when introducing O’Casey, have attempted to emphasize not only the three most famous plays but also the increasingly experimental works that O’Casey produced later in his career. Moran 2013 is the most recent example of this, following O’Riordan 1984. A more polemical argument in favor of the late plays is provided by Hogan 1960, which uses the New Critical methods of the mid-20th century to urge his readers to examine the “technical dexterity and the bold formal experimentation of O’Casey’s last dramas” (p. 6). An alternative approach to surveying O’Casey is taken by Scrimgeour 1978, which begins by analyzing the autobiographies rather than any of the plays. Meanwhile, readers who are already acquainted with Irish writing of the period may find it useful to consult Krause and Lowery 1980, which describes O’Casey’s connections with other Irish literary figures.

  • Ayling, Ronald, ed. O’Casey: The Dublin Trilogy: The Shadow of a Gunman, Juno and the Paycock, The Plough and the Stars: A Casebook. London: Macmillan, 1985.

    Now a little dated, but does introduce readers to some of the main debates over O’Casey’s Dublin Trilogy. For each of the three plays, Ayling includes comment and review from the 1920s and then later critical reaction primarily from the 1960 to the 1970s.

  • Hogan, Robert. The Experiments of Sean O’Casey. New York: St. Martin’s, 1960.

    One of the first serious academic studies of O’Casey. Does not include plot summaries, and avoids focusing on themes and biographical connections, but instead focuses on form and structure to argue that O’Casey’s later drama shows considerable skill and artistry.

  • Hunt, Hugh. Sean O’Casey. Dublin, Ireland: Gill and Macmillan, 1980.

    A useful student introduction, proceeding in an admirably clear chronological way in order to show how the plays and autobiographies grew out of particular historical circumstances. More advanced researchers will find some of the discussion somewhat truncated—the final twenty-five pages cover more than two decades of the writer’s life.

  • Krause, David. Sean O’Casey and His World. London: Thames and Hudson, 1976.

    A beautifully illustrated volume, containing photographs and pictures that contextualize O’Casey’s life and work. Readers should be aware that Krause sometimes accepts uncritically O’Casey’s own views and statements, such as the now-discredited idea that O’Casey was the last of thirteen siblings (p. 5).

  • Krause, David, and Robert Lowery. Sean O’Casey: Centenary Essays. Gerrards Cross, UK: Colin Smythe, 1980.

    Dominated by contributions by the US scholars who attempted to advance O’Casey’s reputation during the 1960s. At times the volume lapses into a generalized attack on O’Casey’s critics, but it does give a broad introduction to O’Casey’s interrelationship with other Irish literary figures, including chapters on Joyce, Lady Gregory, Shaw, and Yeats.

  • Moran, James. The Theatre of Sean O’Casey. London: Bloomsbury, 2013.

    Uses archival material in order to reassess O’Casey’s playwriting from across the range of his writing career. Includes discussion of the autobiographies alongside the plays, and emphasizes the international reception of O’Casey’s work.

  • Murray, Christopher. Sean O’Casey: The Shadow of a Gunman, Juno and the Paycock, The Plough and the Stars. London: Faber, 2000.

    The most straightforward introductory guide to the Dublin Trilogy for undergraduate students. Sets out, in clear terms, the structure and action of the Trilogy, explains O’Casey’s use of character and language, and describes the performance history. Also glosses unfamiliar terms from O’Casey’s scripts.

  • O’Riordan, John. A Guide to O’Casey’s Plays, from the Plough to the Stars. Houndmills, UK: Macmillan, 1984.

    Contains extensive plot summaries of each of the twenty-three plays that Macmillan printed in the 1984 edition of O’Casey’s Complete Plays (O’Casey 1984, cited under Plays), along with details of stagings and remountings of the plays.

  • Scrimgeour, James R. Sean O’Casey. London: George Prior, 1978.

    Care should be taken when using this wayward study, which is nonetheless interesting because, unlike the other general introductions, it indicates a different way of prioritizing O’Casey’s writings: Scrimgeour begins with two chapters on the autobiographies rather than the plays, suggesting that O’Casey’s dramaturgical sense can be found in his prose.

  • Simmons, James. Sean O’Casey. London: Macmillan, 1983.

    A very perceptive, if at times idiosyncratic, introduction to the writer. The poet Simmons focuses particularly upon the Tassie controversy and the Dublin Trilogy, which is helpfully discussed in terms of literary tradition and in the context of contemporary television and radio productions.

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