Somerset in the late 1970s seemed an odd place to find oneself studying the works of Sean O’Casey. O’Casey’s ‘Three Plays’ only really began to make sense when moving to Dublin thirty-odd years later. In the 1970s, his merciless treatment of men seemed misandry. Lines from the final scene of ‘Juno and the Paycock’, captured a sense of O’Casey’s attitude:
Mrs. Boyle: We’ll go. Come, Mary, an’ we’ll never come back here agen. Let your father furrage for himself now; I’ve done all I could an’ it was all no use — he’ll behopeless till the end of his days. I’ve got a little room in me sisther’s where we’ll stoptill your throuble is over, an’ then we’ll work together for the sake of the baby.
Mary: My poor little child that’ll have no father!
Mrs. Boyle: It’ll have what’s far betther — it’ll have two mothers.
O’Casey’s plays seemed populated by feckless males who lived on a diet of bluster, imagination and drink. It was hard to believe that anyone in the ordinary, everyday life could be quite so useless as those who appeared on the pages of the scripts that were read in the English literature class.
O’Casey’s work aroused strong emotions in the Ireland of his time; he was to leave Ireland in 1938 and never return, dying in England in 1964. His own seven volume autobiography, which contains much that is imaginative, particularly his verbatim recall of long speeches and long conversation from times long past, portrays an Ireland where there were men who were heroes as well as villains.
But, despite the annoyance felt when reading the plays in student days, in three decades living in Ireland, there have been moments when those who played parts in his dramas have taken on flesh and blood, as useless and as annoying as the characters of O’Casey.
An old colleague, who died five years ago in his mid nineties, would tell of a clergyman he knew in the 1940s who had his own way of dealing with pastoral situations.
A man over six feet tall, who had boxed and played rugby in student days, he feared no-one. Visiting a house one day, he met a woman who had been given a beating by her husband, he warned the husband that should there be a recurrence of the violence, the clergyman himself would take matters in hand. Calling at the house on a Friday evening some months later, the clergyman encountered the wife with her eye blackened. He walked to the village pub and moments later the husband was flat on his back in the street. With the husband exposed and humiliated in front of the community, it was said the beatings stopped.
There was something atavistic in the story, a desire for a sort of justice that preceded civilised order, but there was also a sense of satisfaction at a bully getting his comeuppance.
Encountering a situation created by a man as useless as a whole combination of O’Casey males, there is a moment’s wish for the return of the old clergyman.