Six of the best – An Irishman’s Diary on Sean O’Casey’s Dublin homes
“For actors, writers, and anyone interested in theatre, 422 North Circular Road is hallowed ground.” Photograph: Matt Kavanagh
Recently a friend of mine took me on a walk around the six Dublin houses of Sean O’Casey. We began at his birthplace, at 85 Dorset Street, just up from O’Connell Street. He was born John Casey in 1880, the last of five surviving children of Michael and Susan Casey, staunch Protestants both. His father worked as a clerk for the Irish Church Missions on Townsend Street. This first house no longer exists – a branch of the Bank of Ireland replaced it some years later, now itself no longer in operation – but it would have been a three-storied house in 1880, and while Michael Casey is mentioned in records as being the leaseholder at these premises, his youngest son always referred to his being born in a tenement. Some dramatic licence here perhaps, but certainly within two years of his birth, what family fortunes there were had begun to slip and they moved in 1882 to Innisfallen Parade, Number 9, just a few minutes’ walk away.
The 12 single-storey houses on Innisfallen Parade were fairly new at the time. One of O’Casey’s six volumes of autobiography is entitled Innisfallen, Fare Thee Well, and it was here that Michael Casey died, aged only 48, possibly from a disease of the spine. Young John was six years old. Within a couple of years, Susan Casey decided to move the family again, this time further afield to East Wall.
It was here O’Casey was to spend the next 30 years, in the parish of St Barnabas.
A close-knit working-class community between the docklands and the northern railway line, this area enjoyed a substantial Protestant population when the Caseys moved in 1889 to the third house on the walk, 25 Hawthorn Terrace. The Great Northern Railway was a major employer, and indeed John Casey himself laboured many years for the company. While at Hawthorn Terrace, John and his brother Isaac would act out little plays, and Isaac took his younger sibling along to see his first professional play, Dion Boucicault’s The Shaughraun, at the Queen’s Theatre on what is now Pearse Street.
The house on Hawthorn Terrace is a pleasant artisan dwelling, and the Caseys lived here until John was 17, when they moved to nearby Abercorn Road, a house they would share with a family by the surname of Shields.
Number 4 (now Number 18) Abercorn Road was to be John Casey’s home for the next 20 years. While here, he joined the Gaelic League, changed his name to Sean O’Casey, joined the Irish Republican Brotherhood, became an ardent socialist, was general secretary of the Irish Citizen Army, and, most importantly, began to write. The latter years at Abercorn Road coincided with the political strife on the streets of Dublin and also great sadness for the Casey family. His brother Tom died in 1914, and in 1918, annus horribilis, his only sister, Bella, and his dearly beloved mother, Susan, also died.
By 1920 Sean had moved out of East Wall and into a tenement flat at 35 Mountjoy Square. The houses at this end of the square were demolished in the 1960s but a Georgian facade fronts the new buildings there now. O’Casey shared his room with Mícheál Ó Maolain, a colleague in the Citizen Army, a fellow Larkin supporter, and clerk in Liberty Hall. A native Irish speaker from the Aran Islands, Ó Maolain was a devout Catholic and could quote reams of Shakespeare, Shelley and the romantic poets, and he became the model for Seumas Shields in The Shadow of a Gunman.
But by the time O’Casey came to write Shadow, he had moved again, to his sixth and final Dublin residence, 422 North Circular Road, close to his first dwellings on Innisfallen Parade and Dorset Street. It was here, in the early 1920s, in his ground-floor room, that he would write his great trilogy The Shadow of a Gunman, Juno and the Paycock, and The Plough and the Stars. Out of this house came forth Donal Davoren and Seumas Shields, Tommy Owens and Minnie Powell, Mrs Henderson and Mr Gallogher, and Adolphus Grigson; out came Juno and Captain Boyle, and poor Johnny and Mary Boyle, Joxer Daly and Maisie Madigan, Needle Nugent and Mrs Tancred, Jerry Devine and Charlie Bentham; out came Jack and Nora Clitheroe, Uncle Peter and The Young Covey, Bessie Burgess and Fluther Good, Rosie Redmond, Mrs Gogan and poor Mollser.
For actors, writers, and anyone interested in theatre, 422 North Circular Road is hallowed ground. But sadly only a small barely legible old sign near the door, reading “Sean O’Casey House”, marks out this building, the last in our walk around Sean O’Casey’s six Dublin houses.