This year marks the centenary of the Easter Rising. In many ways, the dust has barely settled on this event. For many, it was the Queen's visit to Ireland in 2011 that marked the most significant emotional turning point in the relationship between the two countries.
But go back to 1926, a mere ten years after the Rising, and you will find emotions still raw. That was the year Sean O'Casey's The Plough and the Stars had its premiere at the Abbey Theatre. Today, the play is a classic, but then audiences were driven to the point of riot by scenes which appeared to denigrate the heroism of the fighters. Certainly Nora Clitheroe's indictment of the violence that day was not designed to fit in with the image many wanted to believe: ". . . in the middle o' th' street was somethin' huddled up in a horrible tangled heap . . . An' every twist of his body was a cry against th' terrible thing that had happened to him . . . An' I saw they were afraid to look at it . . . An' some o' them laughed at me, but th' laugh was a frightened one . . . An' some o' them shouted at me, but th' shout had in it th' shiver of fear . . ."
A year later, O'Casey married, and lived in London for over ten years before moving to Totnes in Devon. O'Casey's politics were firmly left-wing, and he sometimes described himself as a Communist. In the struggle against fascism, his support for the Soviet Union was mainstream, as the West found it an important ally. Even Clementine Churchill agreed to become head of the British Red Cross Aid for Russia Fund, so it is not surprising, nor, at the time, would it have been controversial, to find O'Casey willingly lending his name to the Anglo-Soviet Medical Aid Fund:
“Allright; if you want to use my name, & think if may be of some use to you (God help you), use it.
Spluttering about in the throes of Influenza, I have but the energy to wish God speed to the gathering of the Allied Clans to send greetings, as well as tanks & guns, to the glorious Peoples of the Soviet Union. . ."
But whatever the merits of O'Casey's later work, his reputation still rests on those three great plays which depicted the period of Ireland's struggles so vividly: The Shadow of a Gunman, Juno and the Paycock and The Plough and the Stars.