Absent Friends: Himself
Irish memoirs are all Homeric, and in every one, the author casts himself simultaneously both as noble, doomed Hector and wandering, homesick Odysseus. Perhaps more so than any other writers, Irish authors self-mythologize on an epic scale, which has the dissonant effect of making their books some of the least reliable yet most enjoyable examples of the genre. And surely no Irish memoir is more epic, more gargantuan in its sheer scope than the six autobiographical volumes of Sean O’Casey.
O’Casey was born into the ranks of the Dublin poor in 1884 and rose through dint of work and luck to prominence in the troubled cause of Irish independence. He was a founding member of the Irish Labor party, heavily involved with the Gaelic League and Sinn Fein. He was secretary of the Irish Citizen Army, and virtually all of his writings are immersed in the subject of Irish nationhood, its peoples and personalities, its issues and tidemarks. Even had he never found his Muse, his name would still have been remembered with thanks by a grateful Irish people. These six volumes of autobiography would be the lasting monument to that man, these volumes and nothing else.
But as any college student knows (except, that is, for the some two dozen interviewed at random during the writing of this piece, not one of whom had ever heard of the poor sot’s name), O’Casey did find his Muse – at Dublin’s Abbey Theatre, where she practically kept regular office hours. It was there that O’Casey achieved his true immortality, as Ireland’s greatest playwright, a creator of virtually infallible coarse and gorgeous beauty. “Shadow of a Gunman” appeared in 1923, and the following year came a masterpiece so odd and unforgettable that it’s success overshadowed everything else O’Casey would ever write (in later years, he would refer to it simply as “the play,” knowing his audience would need no clarification): “Juno and the Paycock” not only put Irish theater on the world stage but changed O’Casey’s fortunes forever. He moved from Dublin to London in 1926, married the actress Eileen Carey, and maintained a lifetime of friendships with some of the greatest literary figures of his day (most notably, William Butler Yeats and George Bernard Shaw). A grand literary man was born, and he kept notes.
The result was a gargantuan multi-volume work of opinionated, intelligent, and above all passionate autobiography. Thanks to the splashy immortality of the stage-plays, these autobiographical volumes are destined always to be ancillary, and that’s a shame, since they bounce and pulse with garrulous ambition, one man’s dream-fueled attempt to confer upon himself the mantle of the seanchai, the legendary bards of ancient Ireland.
The Ireland so vividly brought to life in these six volumes is two parts sentiment and eight parts myth, and all the hoary symbols of dear old Erin are lovingly present and accounted for. There are pipe-smoking old men dispensing hard-won wisdom from their seat by the peat-fire. There are reckless daredevils with hearts of innocent boys. There are sainted mothers, mild and self-sacrificing. There are sweet, unthreatening girls named Mollie or Bridget who’re enjoying a few seasons of youth and beauty before they turn into the aforementioned long-suffering mothers. There are bloated British officials, matching incompetence to their offhand brutality.
And at the center of it all there’s our hero, striving endlessly against the harsh blows of the world, like Cuculain pinned to the rock at Muirthemne, standing to the last against the ignorant and the cowardly.
Needless to say, it takes a certain élan to pull this sort of thing off. In terms any Irish grandmother would understand, a successful practitioner should have both the gift of gab and a touch of blarney. Brendan Behan does it for long stretches, as does Frank O’Connor, but no Irish writer born can match O’Casey at writing his own life as though it were a tale from the Red Branch saga.
This is where the lack of strict reliability comes in, since, for instance (and there are many, many instances) it’s a bit unlikely that any small boy would call down this particular curse on the parading British:
O God, let the rain come, let the rain come quick, heavy ‘n quick, comin’ down on the streets and in the fields, ‘n in the parks o the people ‘n the children goin’ anywhere, the whole day through without ceasin’ a second, to fall on everything, right out to a long way off from where I’m lyin’ now. Let the faint clouds that are in the sky grow strong, deepen, and stretch till they cover the spaces where there’s none; ‘n God let the wind come too, a sharp wind ‘n bitther, to make the rain fall worse ‘n harder, till it thrickles over the skin so that the joy sought after be shiverin’ ‘n a heavy longin’ to all that they were not where they may be, because of the bitther wind ‘n the sharp rain fallin’ right out to a long way from where I’m lyin’ now!
Or consider this, a description of a fight with his evil, drunken brother Michael that reads like something out of Ovid, with centaurs pawing up the black soil of Argos:
Who d’ye think y’are, eh? were the sodden words borne to his ear by a gust of rotting breath, and Sean, standing up from the chair, stepped back to avoid the stare of the bloodshot eyes; but the luridly drunken face, staring viciously, followed his own closely, while the wobbling mouth slobbered out a black rosary of curses, many of the soiled words slimy with self-pity for the drunkard himself, who felt he could not get back one jot or tittle of the fair things gone from him forever. Sean, half retching, and savage, conjuring up some of the old vigor still lingering in his muscles, shot his shoulder against the chest of the calibanic splutterer, lifting him clean off his staggering legs and sent him, with the table, crashing heavily to the floor, to lie there, a hand twisted under him, snoring heavily in a drunken and concussive stupor.
The boy Sean caps this titanic encounter by packing up his dearly treasured books (O’Casey in these volumes – as largely also in reality – is an autodidact whose love of books is soul-deep) and leaving home forever, to wander the world like Oisin in search of love, adventure, and fulfillment. A long string of jobs ensues, a chain that will eventually bring him to the Abbey Theatre, and all along the way, everything and everyone O’Casey meets is clothed in exactly this kind of grand, operatic prose. The chief delight of these volumes is O’Casey’s smooth, instinctive knack for turning everything he encounters into a story fit for a crowded tavern room. Here he describes an early supervisor at manual labor:
The gangster, Christy Mahon, looked doubtfully at Sean when he came to the job with a navvy shovel on his shoulder. Mahon was another big and powerful man of fifty or so, wide-shouldered and deep-chested; lazy as sin, and as ignorant as a kish of brogues. Doesn’t know the name of his own religion, couldn’t recognize the number on his own hall-door, and hardly make out a bee from a bull’s balls, one of the workmen whispered to Sean, a few days later.
Everywhere in these books there are similar throwaway mini-portraits just begging to be quoted; the reader is pulled unstoppably along on a torrent of wit and verbiage that makes the Irish memoirs of the present age seem like thin milk indeed (Aidan Higgins’ marvelous, nasty, hilarious “A Bestiary” being the only exception that comes to mind). The reader is not immersed in O’Casey’s autobiographies long before starting to imagine the shape of the Irish literary landscape if he’d turned his prodigious talent for narrative and dialogue to the writing of novels (no such temptation arises with regard to poetry, which at its heart is an art of elision, something of which O’Casey is blissfully ignorant).
The wrenching tragedies of the struggle for Irish independence weave through the books like ivy, and O’Casey never fails to make it clear where his loyalties lie. But this isn’t blind, blockheaded nationalism (as one often feels it to be in, for instance, Brendan Behan); it’s a dreamer’s yearning for perfect justice. And one of the most arresting qualities of the books is how regularly they pause to look up from this yearning and see all the little injustices done along the way. The skipping, welcoming prose of these narratives at these scattered moments gives way to savage irony:
Jesus, how these Christians love one another! Jesus said Love one another. We heard you. We do our best. Here, lads, bring them up so’s he can have a good look; bring up the head split open, the bleeding eye, the bruised arm, the broken jaw, the limping leg, and let Jesus have a good look.
But such passages never go on for long even in the darkest of times, and usually in quick order we’re back to himself, blowing his own trumpet with a picturesque earnestness that’s both ridiculous and oddly endearing:
It has often been recorded in the press, by those who could guess shrewdly, that Sean was a slum dramatist, a gutter-snipe who could jingle a few words together out of what he had seen and heard. The terms were suitable and accurate, for he was both, and, all his life, he would hold the wisdom and courage that these conditions had given him. Wheresoever he would go, whomsoever he might meet, be the places never so grandiloquent and rich, the persons never so noble in rank and origin, he, O’Casey, would ever preserve, ever wear – though he would never flaunt it – the tattered badge of his tribe. Not that he thought of praise or blame for it, but simply because he had to bring his life around with him. But he would sew on that badge, soiled with the diseased sweat of the tenements, a coloured ribbon or two of his own making, and, maybe, fix in its centre (like the jewel in the toad’s head) a ruby or an emerald, giving the poor badge a gleam as good as any ancient order of chivalry, or that which goes with the posing piety of the Papal Court.
That “though he would never flaunt it,” coming, as it does, about 900 pages into an autobiography that will stretch to some 1400 pages and seldom deviate from that “it” for more than three pages at a time, is a particularly heavy wink to the audience.
This grand sequence of books, despite having been written installment by installment over decades, very much reads like an organic whole. We follow our hero from starving and sickly youth to fledgling efforts to success and renown, and the whole thing is brought to a finish with a flair and exuberance the reader has come by now to expect:
Even here, even now, when the sun had set and the evening star was chastely touching the bosom of night, there were things to say, things to do. A drink first! What would he drink to – the past, the present, the future? To all of them! He would drink to a life that embraced all three of them! Here, with whitened hair, desires failing, strength ebbing out of him, with the sun gone down and the calm warning of the evening star left to him, he drank to Life, to all it had been, to what it was, what it would be. Hurrah!
O’Casey’s death was only ten years from him when he wrote those words. Reading these warm, fervently inventive, welcoming six volumes, one wishes there’d been time in that decade for a seventh book, or an eighth. Indeed, one wishes the poor little chiselur, our bould Sean, were at it still.
A leading member of the United Irishmen, Steve Donoghue was forced into hiding in the wilderness of northern Donegal following the failed Rebellion of ‘98. From there he wrote a series of popular anti-British philippics under the pseudonym “Cato.” Sadly, these works have not survived; however, he now hosts the literary blog Stevereads.