Re-reading Sean O’Casey’s Three Plays ahead of going to see a production of The Plough and the Stars on Thursday, it is hard to imagine now that O’Casey’s work once provoked protests and rioting. O’Casey was eventually driven into exile, leaving Ireland in 1938 and never returning before his death in 1964.
An Ireland controlled by Archbishop John Charles McQuaid, who, as Archbishop of Dublin, effectively ruled the country for thirty years from 1940, had no place for the work of O’Casey or Beckett or Joyce, or a string of other writers. When a Dublin production of one of his plays was blocked by the Archbishop’s pressure on the city council and trade unions, O’Casey wrote to the Irish Times in a letter quoted in John Cooney’s biography of McQuaid,
There we go; the streets of Dublin echo with the drumbeats of footsteps running away. The Archbishop in his Palace and the Customs Officer on the quay viva watch to guard virtue and Eire; the other Archbishop (Barton) draws the curtains and sits close to his study fire, saying nothing; and so the Hidden Ireland becomes the Bidden Ireland, and all is swell.
O’Casey had grown up as a devout member of the Church of Ireland; the first volume of his autobiography can only be fully appreciated by being familiar with the old Church of Ireland prayer book, so many are the allusions and quotes, but his socialist and republican views were to lead him a long way from the church.
Perhaps the “other Archbishop”, Dr Barton, the Church of Ireland Archbishop of Dublin from 1939 to 1956, felt no great inclination to speak for someone who had long left the fold; perhaps he would have had his own reservations about O’Casey’s work; perhaps, though, it was expedient to keep one’s head down and not to provoke McQuaid and his supporters. Dr Noel Browne had sought to introduce a mother and child health care programme earlier in the decade and had been forced into resignation by those who believed that Browne’s proposals, which were very modest by modern standards, were contrary to Catholic principle.
In retrospect, the Church of Ireland seems to have survived by ‘drawing the curtains’, remaining a tightly knit community with its own schools, it own clubs, its own associations; living a parallel existence to those of the majority community, which was to grow to 95% of the population.
Dr Barton might justifiably point to the fact that we have survived, that our numbers are at their highest in two generations, but, if O’Casey’s accusation was true, what was the cost of sitting at the fireside and drawing the curtains on the outside world?
Perhaps the price came not in the Republic, but in the North. ‘McQuaid’ became a byword for what Ulster Protestants perceived as the consequences of living in a Catholic dominated state. Hardliners within the Unionist community used stories of McQuaid to stir up fear and hatred of the Roman Catholic Church, and, by a logical process, of its members. Noel Browne’s name was quoted as an example of what happened to anyone who dared to dissent from the way in which the country was run. Perhaps it was as much perception as substance, but it was a perception that led to the deep entrenchment of a community.
Maybe Dr Barton could not have done much to assist Sean O’Casey, but, had he spoken up, might things have been different? Perhaps the Church of Ireland was the only organisation large enough to have voiced dissent, and even if that dissent had been ineffective, is the right thing to do not the right thing to be done?