Sean O’Casey

1880 -1964

The youngest child in a large Irish Protestant family of modest means, Sean O’Casey was born John Casey in Dublin on March 30, 1880. He was the third child in his family to be named John; two of his siblings with that name had died in infancy. Later, in his twenties, after he had become an Irish nationalist and a member of the Gaelic League, he adopted the Gaelic version of his name, Sean O’Cathasaigh (pronounced O’Casey). O’Casey’s father, Michael Casey, who came from a farming family in Limerick, worked as a clerk for the Anglican Irish Church Missions. He went to Dublin as a young man and married Susan Archer, of a respectable auctioneer’s family. Michael Casey was a literate man with a good library of English classics, while O’Casey’s mother was a woman of great fortitude and devotion to her children, especially her youngest, whom she sheltered because of his physical frailty and a severe eye affliction, which left his vision permanently impaired. Even in the difficult period after her husband’s death, she maintained her respectability and encouraged her children to enter professions.

“I have found life an enjoyable, enchanting, active, sometimes terrifying experience, and I’ve enjoyed it completely. A lament in one ear, maybe, but always a song in the other.”

Michael Casey died after a protracted illness on September 6, 1886, when his youngest son was only six. With the loss of his income, the family started a gradual decline into poverty. The Caseys were forced to move to cheaper lodgings in a Dublin dockside neighborhood. There, O’Casey started to associate with working-class Catholic boys who attended the local parochial school. He had been enrolled at St. Mary’s National School, where his sister Isabella taught, but when he reached the age of fourteen, his schooling came to an end. His family needed the extra income, so he began to work as a stock boy with a Dublin hardware firm. Though out of school, O’Casey continued his interest in books, and he certainly learned to read before the age of sixteen, contrary to what he later reported to Lady Gregory.

“Every action of our lives touches on some chord that will vibrate in eternity.”

O’Casey became active in the Church of Ireland during this time and was confirmed at the age of seventeen. In his free time, he read William Shakespeare and the Irish playwright Dion Boucicault. He also attended the Mechanics’ Theatre with his brother Isaac and even acted in at least one production. His love of drama was strengthened by these early productions, and after the group was later reorganized as the Abbey Theatre, he would see two of his early plays produced there in 1923.

In 1902, O’Casey began work as a laborer on the Great Northern Railway of Ireland, where he was employed for the next ten years. His budding interest in Irish nationalism led him to join the Gaelic League, learn the Irish language, and change his name. Within a short time, he was also a member of the Irish Republican Brotherhood. Through these associations, O’Casey began to shape his identity as Irish nationalist, laborer, and political activist. His interest in writing also emerged as he joined the St. Lawrence O’Toole Club, a local literary society. Above all, he forged the commitment to Irish nationalism that would occupy him for the next twenty years.

“All the world’s a stage and most of us are desperately unrehearsed.”

O’Casey joined the Irish Transport and General Workers Union in 1909 and was dismissed from his job later that year for refusing to sign a nonstrike pledge during the railway strike. Left unemployed, he turned increasingly to politics while he supported himself as a laborer in the building trade. From his perspective, socialism began to look attractive as an alternative to British economic domination of Ireland. The six-month Dublin labor lockout of 1913 hardened his political views, as he helped organize a relief fund for destitute families. Becoming more militant, he drafted part of the constitution for the Irish Citizen Army, though recuperation from an operation and personal doubts kept him from taking part in the weeklong insurrection of Easter, 1916. Instead, he wrote poems, pamphlets, and broadsides in support of the Irish cause.

“There is a deeper life than the life we see and hear with the open ear and the open eye and this is the life important and the life everlasting.

His mother and sister died in 1918, leaving O’Casey to board temporarily with the family of his brother Michael. This period marked a low point in O’Casey’s fortunes because he was out of work and was forced to accept the charity of others. Yet he was determined to write. In 1921, while living in a small flat, he started work on his three Dublin plays: The Shadow of a Gunman, Juno and the Paycock, and The Plough and the Stars. O’Casey reached the age of forty-three before The Shadow of a Gunman was finally produced, in April, 1923, but his career as a playwright had finally begun. Juno and the Paycock followed in March, 1924, and The Plough and the Stars, two years later.

O’Casey’s Dublin play The Plough and the Stars presented such an unflattering view of the Easter Week uprising of 1916 that the audience rioted when it opened at the Abbey Theatre in February, 1926. Yeats stood up before the mob and defended the play, but O’Casey was embittered by its hostile reception and decided shortly afterward to leave Ireland for voluntary exile in England.

“Laughter is wine for the soul – laughter soft, or loud and deep, tinged through with seriousness – the hilarious declaration made by man that life is worth living.”

In 1926, O’Casey won the Hawthornden Prize for Juno and the Paycock, and he left for London that spring to accept the award in person. There, he hoped to find greater artistic freedom as a playwright. During his first three years in London, he was introduced to George Bernard Shaw, had his portrait painted by Augustus John, and met the talented and attractive actress Eileen Reynolds (stage name Carey), whom he married on September 23, 1927. They were to enjoy a long and mutually supportive marriage for thirty-seven years, with their three children, Breon, Niall, and Shivaun. Marriage and life in London apparently had a salutary effect on O’Casey’s imagination, for he began to work almost immediately after their marriage on the expressionistic play The Silver Tassie, which marked a clear departure from his earlier work.

“It’s my rule never to lose me temper till it would be dethrimental to keep it.”

O’Casey had been attracted to socialism as early as 1911, during the Irish railway strike, but the economic hardships of the 1930’s and the rise of Fascism drove him further to the left, to the point of tacitly accepting Communism and serving as a member of the advisory board of the London Daily Worker. He also became increasingly anticlerical in regard to Ireland, viewing the Catholic prelacy as the oppressor of the Irish people. After World War II, O’Casey spoke out vigorously in favor of the Soviet Union. He opposed the arms race and urged nuclear disarmament.

In 1954, O’Casey moved with his family from London to the resort town of St. Marychurch, Torquay, in Devon. There, in 1956, the family suffered a deep personal loss when the younger son, Niall, died of leukemia. In his mid-seventies when this misfortune occurred, virtually blind and suffering from constant pain, O’Casey still possessed the strength of character to write a moving tribute to his son, “Under a Greenwood Tree He Died,” and to continue his playwriting. Friends remembered him from these last years as a thin, sharp-faced man with a gay spirit and an enchanting Irish brogue, who was usually dressed in a warm turtleneck sweater and one of the brightly colored caps that his daughter had knit for him.

“When it was dark you always carried the sun in your hand for me.”

The last decade of O’Casey’s life showed an increasing American interest in his work and brought him numerous awards and honors, most of which he declined, including an appointment as Commander of the Order of the British Empire and several honorary doctorates from the Universities of Durham and Exeter and from Trinity College, Dublin. His eightieth birthday was celebrated with much fanfare. After suffering a heart attack, O’Casey died in Torquay on September 18, 1964, at the age of eighty-four.


(Critical Edition of Dramatic Literature)

Samuel Beckett

Samuel Beckett was born in Dublin on April 13, 1906, into a middle class Protestant family. He was educated at the Portora Royal School in County Fermanagh as Oscar Wilde had been before him. A natural athlete, he excelled at sport especially cricket. From 1923 to 1927 he studied French, Italian and English at Trinity College, Dublin. With his natural academic abilities he seemed destined for an academic career.

After university, Beckett taught briefly at Campbell College in Belfast before taking up a post in 1928 as lecteur d’anglais in the École Normale Supérieure in Paris. While in Paris, he met the renowned Irish author James Joyce. Their acquaintance grew into a friendship based on mutual admiration and respect. Beckett was particularly impressed and influenced by Joyce’s dedication to his art and he came to share it. His first published work in 1929 was a critical essay defending Joyce’s writings and method. Their friendship cooled after Beckett rejected advances from Joyce’s daughter Lucia who suffered from schizophrenia.

“Ever tried.  Ever failed. No matter. Try again. Fail again. Fail better.”

In 1930, Beckett returned to Trinity College to work as a French lecturer. He received his MA in 1931. He soon found that he had no vocation for university teaching and resigned from Trinity at the end of 1931 to devote his time entirely to writing. That same year he won a small literary prize with his hastily composed poem Whoroscope, in which René Descartes meditates on the subject of time and the transiency of life. This was followed with a collection of essays, Proust (1931) and a short story collection More Pricks Than Kicks (1934).  His comic novel Murphy was published in 1938.

The years that followed his departure from Ireland were not happy ones but they were not wasted. Beckett travelled widely in Europe learning about visual arts and studying European languages and literature. He made his living doing literary translations. After his father died he received an annuity that enabled him to live in London where he underwent psychoanalysis for 2 years – aspects of which became evident in his later works.

He eventually settled in Montparnasse, Paris, in 1937 and became a regular visitor to the cafés of the Left Bank where he befriended artists Alberto Giacometti and Marcel Duchamp, with whom he regularly played chess. Sometime around December 1937, Beckett had a brief affair with the art collector, Peggy Guggenheim. In January 1938, he was stabbed and nearly died while refusing the solicitations of a notorious pimp to whom he had refused to give money. The publicity of the attack attracted the attention of a young piano student, Suzanne Deschevaux-Dumesnil and the two began a lifelong companionship.

“The sun shone, having no alternative, on the nothing new.”

Beckett was on holiday in Dublin at the outbreak of the war but returned to France where he joined the French Resistance, working as a courier; on several occasions he narrowly missed being caught by the Gestapo.  In August 1942, his unit was betrayed and he and Suzanne fled south on foot to the safety of unoccupied Roussillon in the Provence-Alpes Côte d’Azur region. There, he worked as a labourer and wrote his last novel in English, Watt. He continued to assist the Resistance as agent de liaison, translating information about German troop movements into English for transmission across the Channel.

After the war, Beckett was awarded the Croix de Guerre and the Médaille de la Résistance by the French Government but he rarely spoke about his wartime efforts and would refer to his work with the Resistance as “boy scout stuff”. For Beckett, the greater drama of his life was in the struggle with his inner demons. Depressive and uncomfortable in his skin he was haunted by a feeling of absence and of being an outsider in his own life. Yet he could make light of his own dark disposition too: when someone at a cricket match remarked that it was “the sort of day that makes one glad to be alive,” he replied: “Oh I don’t think I would go quite so far as to say that.”

The end of the war enabled Beckett to continue his annual summer visits to his family in Dublin. It was while visiting his mother that he made a profound discovery: “I realized that Joyce had gone as far as one could in the direction of knowing more, [being] in control of one’s material. He was always adding to it; you only have to look at his proofs to see that. I realized that my own way was in impoverishment, in lack of knowledge and in taking away, in subtracting rather than in adding.” Beckett became obsessed by a desire to create what he called “a literature of the unword”. He dispensed with elegance. His prose became increasingly bare and stripped down. He wrote in French because he said it was easier to distance himself from his own rich linguistic grounding in English: “You couldn’t help writing poetry in it,” he complained.

In 1947, Beckett returned to Paris, where within two years he wrote his trilogy of novels: Molloy, Malone Dies and The Unnameable. Throughout these three works we witness the progression of Beckett’s increasing tendency towards compactness and a fiction that dispenses with convention in order to focus on essential components of the human condition. Molloy still retains many of the characteristics of a conventional novel in structure, plot, time, place, and movement.  In Malone Dies, although there is still some indication of time and place, plot is largely dispensed with and the action of the book takes the form of an interior monologue. In The Unnameable there is no plot and almost no sense of time and place; the essential theme seems to be the conflict between the narrator’s drive to continue speaking, and thus existing, and his almost equally strong urge towards silence and oblivion.

Perhaps my best years are gone… But I wouldn’t want them back. Not with the fire in me now.”

Waiting for Godot (1949) is often referred to as “the play where nothing happens”. The theatre critic Kenneth Tynan remarked, “It has no plot, no climax, no denouement; no beginning, no middle and no end.” It is a tragi-comedy in which the characters of the play – two tramps, Vladimir and Estragon – bide their time awaiting the arrival of Godot, someone they have never met and who may not exist. The play seems to end in precisely the same condition it began, with no real change having occurred. At the time it sparked controversy: detractors denounced it as a prank disguised as a play while supporters saw it as a parable on the human condition and a fresh alternative to the dominant realist theatre.

It opened in London in 1955 and enjoyed a run of 400 performances bringing the reclusive and unassuming author international fame. It established him as a radical innovator and one of the leading names of the Theatre of the Absurd. Beckett had evolved a style which successfully balanced comedy and tragedy, the grotesque and the sublime; his works probed the big questions of human existence: ‘who are we?’ and ‘why are we here?’. Although he went on to write a number of other remarkable plays nothing was quite equal to these earlier works in profundity, originality and imaginative power.

His later work grew ever more austere and minimal but retained its hypnotic power. “Nothing is funnier than unhappiness,” says Nell in Endgame (1957), speaking from a dustbin. In Happy Days (1961), the heroine is buried in sand and in Play (1963) the three characters are immersed up to their necks in funeral urns. Krapp’s Last Tape (1958) is considered to be his most autobiographical play and closest to his inner experience, especially in the feelings conveyed of regret, unresolved need, inexorable decline and forlorn hope. In Not I (1972), the speaker is simply a ‘Mouth’ pouring forth a torrent of jagged memories to a silent, helpless ‘Auditor’.

“The hallway of every man’s life is paced with pictures; pictures gay and pictures gloomy, all useful, for if we be wise, we can learn from them a richer and braver way to live.”

In 1956, the BBC commissioned Beckett to write a radio play, All That Fall; he went on to write several radio, film and television plays. He took an increasing interest in the direction of his own plays and was highly influential in the theatre. A modest and unassuming man, he was intransigent only about standards of production and translation of his writings.

Beckett was awarded the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1969 but he did not attend the presentation ceremony and gave away the prize money to needy artists. He had no desire to receive personal attention for giving expression to what he called “the issueless predicament of existence”.

“I am still alive then. That may come in useful.”

He continued to live on the rue St. Jacques in Montparnasse. Although famously reclusive, he would meet his friends at the neighbourhood cafe, drink espresso, and smoke thin cigarettes. He was, by all accounts, the soul of kindness and generosity. At the age of seventy-six he said: “Even though everything seems inexpressible, there remains the need to express. A child needs to make a sand castle even though it makes no sense. In old age, with only a few grains of sand, one has the greatest possibility.”

His final days were spent in a nursing home. Although he continued to write until his death, he said that each word seemed “an unnecessary stain on silence and nothingness.”  Beckett’s writing took literature as close to silence as we can imagine. Few writers have achieved such purity of expression. Few writers have spoken so fully with so few words.

He died in Paris on 22 December, 1989.

For more about Samuel Beckett click here  

Oscar Wilde

Oscar Fingal O’Flahertie Wills Wilde was born in Dublin on October 16, 1854. His mother, Lady Jane Francesca Wilde, was the poet ‘Speranza’, and a journalist active in the women’s rights movement. His father, Sir William Wilde, also a gifted writer, was an eminent specialist in diseases of the eye and ear and founded a hospital in Dublin.

“I sometimes think that God in creating man somewhat overestimated His ability.”

Wilde was educated at Portora Royal School in Enniskillen, Co. Fermanagh (1864-71). He went on to study Classics at Trinity College, Dublin (1871-74) and won a scholarship to Magdalen College, Oxford (1874-78). His wit, style and eccentric dress made him the ideal spokesman for Aestheticism, the late 19th century movement in England that advocated ‘art for art’s sake’ and the higher ideals of pleasure and beauty – he wore his hair long and decorated his rooms with peacock feathers, lilies, sunflowers and objets d’art once remarking to friends: “I find it harder and harder every day to live up to my blue china.”

“If I am occasionally a little over-dressed, I make up for it by being immensely over-educated.”

Before his great success as a writer, Wilde settled in London where he worked as an art reviewer. In 1882 he embarked on a lecture tour of Canada and the United States, advising the customs officer on his arrival that he had nothing to declare but his genius. In 1883 he visited Paris where among others he met de Goncourt, Daudet, and Hugo. His play ‘Vera’ was produced in New York that same year. In 1884 Wilde married Constance Lloyd, daughter of a wealthy Dublin barrister with whom he had two sons, Cyril and Vyvyan. He became a regular contributor to the Pall Mall Gazette and Dramatic View and from 1887-89 he edited The Woman’s World magazine.

The Happy Prince and Other Tales, a book of fairy-tales written for his two sons, was published in 1888. The Picture of Dorian Gray followed in 1890. Dorian, a Victorian gentleman, sells his soul to keep his youth and beauty while his portrait ages and catalogues his every evil deed. Wilde also produced several essays: The Decay of Lying (1889) and The Critic as Artist (1890). In The Soul of a Man Under Socialism (1891), Wilde rejects the ideal of self-sacrifice in favour of joy:

“The only way to get rid of a temptation is to yield to it.”

Wilde made his reputation in the theatre with a series of highly popular plays: Lady Windermere’s Fan (1892), A Woman of No Importance (1893), An Ideal Husband (1895) and The Importance of Being Earnest (1895). Audiences were delighted by their cleverness, ingenuity and wit. Wilde was now at the height of his fame and earning up to £100 a week from his plays.

“We are all in the gutter, but some of us are looking at the stars.”

In 1891 Wilde was introduced to an Oxford undergraduate, Lord Alfred Douglas, known as ‘Bosie’ to his friends. An intimate friendship developed and by 1893 Wilde was infatuated with Douglas. When Douglas’s father, the Marquis of Queensberry, accused Wilde of sodomy, Wilde, encouraged by Douglas and against the advice of his friends, sued him for libel. Wilde lost the case incurring considerable legal expenses which left him bankrupt.

After the trial, a warrant was issued for Wilde’s arrest. He was convicted on charges of sodomy and gross indecency and sentenced to two years’ hard labour. Victorian England denounced Wilde and performances of his plays were cancelled. During his imprisonment Wilde collapsed bursting his right ear drum, an injury which would later contribute to his early death. He was released from Reading Gaol in May 1897 and in the same year wrote The Ballad of Reading Gaol, a long poem commemorating the harsh rhythms of prison life.

“The truth is rarely pure and never simple.”

Wilde lived in Paris until his death from cerebral meningitis on November 30, 1900. His friends, Robert Ross and Reginald Turner, remained loyal to Wilde providing him financial and emotional support – they were at his bedside when he died. Oscar Wilde is buried in Père Lachaise Cemetery in Paris.

Oscar Wilde (1854-1900)

George Bernard Shaw

George Bernard Shaw, dramatist and a leading figure in 20th century theatre, was born in Dublin on  July 26, 1856. He was man of many causes, among them, defender of women’s rights and advocate for equality of income and the equitable division of land. He supported radical change in the voting system, the ending of censorship and subsidizing of national theatre. He also campaigned for the simplification of spelling, reform of the English alphabet and was a strong advocate of ‘healthy-living’. His skill as a platform speaker made him one of the most sought-after orators in England.

Shaw was born into genteel poverty to an alcoholic father and a musically gifted mother. Largely self-taught, his formal education was patchy. He hated school and compared them to prisons for the young (athough he later would become a founder of the London School of Economics). At age 15 he left school to start work as a junior clerk in a Dublin estate agency.

“He knows nothing; and he thinks he knows everything. That points clearly to a political career.”

In 1872 Shaw’s mother left his father and moved to London. Shaw left Dublin to join his mother and sister in London when he was twenty years old – he would not return to Ireland for 30 years. He educated himself at the British Museum. Over the next seven years Shaw wrote five novels, none of them were accepted for publication. Eventually he found success in journalism contributing to the Pall Mall Gazette where he wrote on many social aspects of the day. His prolific output included writing music, drama, theatre and art reviews.

Shaw’s first real success as a dramatist was an American theatre run of The Devil’s Disciple in 1897. Other triumphs followed on the London stage: John Bull’s Other Island (1904), Man and Superman (1905), Major Barbara (1905), The Doctor’s Dilemma (1906), and Pygmalion (1914) which later became the basis for a musical, My Fair Lady. His plays might be described as philosophical addresses about individual responsibility and freedom of spirit against the conformist demands of society. ‘Shavian’ wit produced such phrases as “He who can, does. He who cannot, teaches” and “Christianity might be a good thing if anyone ever tried it.”

“I often quote myself. It adds spice to my conversation.”

In 1884 Shaw joined the Fabian Society, a forerunner to the modern Labour party, serving on its executive committee from 1885 to 1911. The Fabian society believed that capitalism was deeply flawed and created an unjust and inefficient society – their ultimate aim was to construct a socialist society. The Fabian society produced pamphlets on a wide variety of different social issues, many of which were written by Shaw. In a pamphlet written in 1897 Shaw predicted ‘gradualism’ over ‘revolution’ stating that socialism “will come by prosaic instalments of public regulation and public administration.”

Shaw made a strong impression on many people and he enjoyed the society of women. He had a long epistolary relationship with the actress Ellen Terry. Fellow Fabian, Beatrice Webb, noted in her diary that: “Bernard Shaw is a marvellously smart witty fellow…I have never known a man use his pen in such a workmanlike fashion or acquire such a thoroughly technical knowledge of any subject upon which he gives an opinion…Adored by many women, he is a born philanderer. A vegetarian, fastidious but unconventional in his clothes, six foot in height with a lithe, broad-chested figure and laughing blue eyes. Above all a brilliant talker, and, therefore, a delightful companion.”

“The golden rule is that there are no golden rules”

Children’s author and Fabian co-founder, Edith Nesbitt, wrote to a friend: “George Bernard Shaw has a fund of dry Irish humour that is simply irresistible. He is a clever writer and speaker – is the grossest flatterer I ever met, is horribly untrustworthy as he repeats everything he hears, and does not always stick to the truth, and is very plain like a long corpse with dead white face – sandy sleek hair, and a loathsome small straggly beard, and yet is one of the most fascinating men I ever met.”

In 1893 Shaw collaborated with Keir Hardie in writing a program for the new Independent Labour party. He entered local government in 1897. Shaw was co-founder of the London School of Economics; he launched the petition against the imprisonment of Oscar Wilde and he opposed the execution of Roger Casement.

 “Some men see things as they are and say ‘why?’. I dream things that never were and say ‘why not?

Shaw met Irish heiress and fellow fabian, Charlotte Payne-Townshend in 1896. Very taken with Charlotte, he wrote in a letter: “Instead of going to bed at ten, we go out and stroll about among the trees for a while. She, being also Irish, does not succumb to my arts as the unsuspecting and literal Englishwoman does; but we get on together all the better, repairing bicycles, talking philosophy and religion… or, when we are in a mischievous or sentimental humour, philandering shamelessly and outrageously.” Charlotte proposed marriage in July 1897. At first Shaw rejected the idea, but after nursing him through an illness they married and settled in Hertfordshire, England.

Mrs Patrick Campbell

Over the years Shaw conducted a passionate correspondence with the stage actress, Mrs. Patrick Campbell, for whom he wrote the part of Eliza Doolittle in Pygmalion (My Fair Lady). In a letter to Mrs Campbell he wrote: “I want my dark lady. I want my angel. I want my tempter. I want my Freia with her apples. I want the lighter of my seven lamps of beauty, honour, laughter, music, love, life and immortality. I want my inspiration, my folly, my happiness, my divinity, my madness, my selfishness, my final sanity and sanctification, my transfiguration, my purification, my light across the sea, my palm across the desert, my garden of lovely flowers, my million nameless joys, my day’s wage, my night’s dream, my darling and my star.” Once, Mrs Campbell suggested to Shaw that they should have a child in order that it should inherit his brains and her beauty to which Shaw replied “But have you considered that it might inherit my beauty and your brains?”

Shaw’s popularity suffered a blow in 1914 when he suggested in his essay, Common Sense about the War, that soldiers might be wise to shoot their officers. However he regained favour and acceptance in a revival of Arms and the Man (1919) and Saint Joan (1924).

In 1925, Shaw was awarded the Nobel Prize for Literature. Although reluctant to accept the honour and he accepted at the behest of his wife while refusing the money. In 1938 he won an Oscar for Pygmalion – best screenplay.

George Bernard Shaw continued to work into his 90s. He died on 2 November 1950 from injuries he incurred from a fall while pruning an apple tree at his home. His estate and royalties are divided among the National Gallery of Ireland, the British Museum and the Royal Academy of Dramatic Arts.

George Bernard Shaw (1856-1950)

Brendan Behan


Brendan Behan was born February 9, 1923, in Dublin, Ireland, the first child of Stephen and Kathleen (Kearney) Behan, though his mother had two sons by a previous marriage. Born into a family with radical political leanings, Behan was reared on a double dose of IRA propaganda and Catholicism. The radical Left was part of his genetic makeup. His grandmother and a grandfather were jailed for their roles in the revolution, the former for illegal possession of explosives when she was seventy years old and the latter for his part in the murder of Lord Cavendish. Both of Behan’s parents fought in the Irish Revolution and in the Troubles. Ultimately jailed for his participation in the violence, Behan’s father saw his son for the first time through prison bars.

Behan was a precocious child whose reverence for writers was spawned by his father’s readings of Samuel Pepys, Charles Dickens, Émile Zola, George Bernard Shaw, and various polemical treatises to his children. By Behan’s own account, his home was filled with reading, song, and revolution. Juxtaposed to this violent heritage was Behan’s conservative religious training. He attended schools run by the Sisters of Charity of St. Vincent de Paul, where he was a favorite, and another operated by the Irish Christian Brothers, where he found himself in constant disfavor.

Brendan Behan leaves the High Court, 1961

His militant disposition surfaced early, when at the age of nine he joined the Fianna Éireann, the junior wing of the IRA. Most of his early adult years were spent in prison. Arrested in Liverpool at the age of sixteen for participating in IRA bombings in England, Behan spent three years in the Borstal, the English correctional institution for juvenile delinquents. Released in 1941 and deported to Ireland, Behan was again incarcerated the following year for shooting at a police officer. He had served four years of a fourteen-year sentence when he was released in 1946. Additional stays in jail followed throughout his life.

“I am a drinker with a writing problem.”

The worldview projected in Behan’s works recalls the environment in which he matured, one dominated by a radical family and by his prison experience. Cradled in the romance of revolution, Behan was cultured in a more traditional sense. Kathleen and Stephen Behan reared their children with a love for music and literature. Nurtured with a reverential attitude toward Kathleen’s brother Peadar Kearney, a noted composer who wrote the Irish national anthem, the Behan children learned his marches and ballads in a home continuously filled with music. According to Colbert Kearney, Behan’s precociousness as a child was largely attributable to the education he received at home. His father instilled in him a deep-seated respect for Irish writers and rhetoricians. He learned to read at an early age and was fond of memorizing speeches by Irish patriots such as Robert Emmet. Not as readily discernible in Behan’s work is the influence of his strict upbringing in Catholicism. Behan had a love-hate relationship with the Church, and often his works condemn religion. Yet one of his most bitter disappointments came when he was excommunicated while serving time in prison. Some critics believe that this was a crisis in Behan’s life from which he never recovered.

Brendan Behan in Connemara, Ireland, with friends, 1959

Behan began writing while in prison, and his first story, “I Become a Borstal Boy,” was published in The Bell in 1942. The plays, poems, and short stories written during his prison terms are all autobiographical. The years from 1946 to 1956 were the most ambitious of his career.

“I respect kindness in human beings first of all, and kindness to animals. I don’t respect the law; I have a total irreverence for anything connected with society except that which makes the roads safer, the beer stronger, the food cheaper and the old men and old women warmer in the winter and happier in the summer.”

For a time he lived in Paris, but he was eventually drawn back to Ireland, where he worked as a housepainter and freelance journalist. During this hiatus from serious encounters with the law, he married Beatrice Salkeld, daughter of the noted Irish artist Cecil Salkeld. Behan’s major break came when Alan Simpson agreed to produce The Quare Fellow at the Pike Theatre in Dublin in 1954. The play met with critical acclaim, but, to Behan’s disappointment, the more prestigious Irish theaters such as the Abbey refused to stage it. This rejection spurred in Behan an overwhelming desire to be accepted as an artist in his own country. The Quare Fellow was noticed by Joan Littlewood, whose 1956 London production made Behan an international sensation. He followed this success with another play, An Giall, which he wrote in Gaelic and later translated as The Hostage. Littlewood’s subsequent production of The Hostage proved an even greater success than The Quare Fellow.

“There is no such thing as bad publicity except your own obituary.”

Critics proclaimed Behan a literary genius, but he was destroyed by his success. His notorious interruptions of his plays with drunken speeches shouted from his seat in the audience and his intoxication during interviews for the British Broadcasting Corporation enhanced the “bad boy” image he so carefully cultivated, but ultimately it killed him. The most tragic repercussion of his alcoholism proved to be his inability to sit and write for an extended period of time. The Hostage was Behan’s last good work. When his writing sojourns to Ibiza, his favorite retreat, and the United States and Canada produced little, he resorted to taping sessions to meet his publication contracts.

“They took away our land, our language, and our religion; but they could never harness our tongues.”

By 1960, after two major breakdowns as well as intermittent stays in hospitals to dry out, Behan was a shell of his former robust personality. Riding on his reputation of acknowledged artistry, he found himself incapable of writing, which led him to drink even more. Behan died March 20, 1964, at the age of forty-one. Several of his edited works published after his death created a brief, cultish interest in the man and his writing, but this adulation soon passed. What remains is the recognition that Behan was one of the finest twentieth century Irish writers. His talent will be recognized long after his colorful reputation has faded.



Masterpieces of World Literature, Critical Edition

Celtic Women

Celtic women were distinct in the ancient world for the liberty and rights they enjoyed. Although political and public life was largely the domain of men, women were not excluded from any occupation. They served as chieftains, druids, poets, healers, warriors, diplomats, judges, and mediators in tribal assemblies and disputes.

Celtic society was hierarchical and tribal. A woman’s role was dictated by her place in the social hierarchy and customs of the tribe. Unlike their counterparts in Greece and Rome, Celtic women were protected under the law; they were held in high esteem and had considerable influence – we know this because Classical European authors tell us about how different Celtic women were from the women with whom they were familiar.

Marriage was viewed by the ancient Celts as an equal partnership. By contrast, Roman law dictated that a woman was the property of her husband. Although marriages were arranged, a Celtic woman could not be married against her will; she was free to make their own choice of husband or could choose not to marry.

In some Celtic societies, women took more than one husband. Within marriage, a woman could retain her own name and she could own and inherit property. If a wife had a greater fortune than her husband she could control their combined property.

Divorce for the ancient Celts was relatively easy and could be requested by either party. The year-long trial marriages that began at the festival of Samhain could be dissolved if they proved impracticable. Women who divorced retained their share of the property and were free to remarry. A married woman could pursue a legal case without the consent of her husband and in some places, the custom was to name children after their mother.

It was common practice in Celtic society for women to bear arms. Wives often accompanied their husbands into battle. They made great use of psychological tactics to disconcert the enemy by screeching and dancing wildly. The Greek historian, Ammianus Marcellinus, writing around 400ad, gives us a vivid description of a Celtic warrior woman:

“A whole troop of foreigners would not be able to withstand a single Celt if he called his wife to his assistance. She is usually very strong, and with blue eyes; in rage her neck veins swell, she gnashes her teeth, and brandishes her snow-white robust arms. She begins to strike blows mingled with kicks, as if they were so many missiles sent from the string of a catapult.”

Celtic women were ruling queens and military leaders. Boudica (Boadicea) is probably the best known. She led the last major revolt against the Romans in Britain. In Ireland, Medb (Maeve) was Queen of Connaught and as such had authority over nine kings.

Some women became teachers of the art of war. Scathach, a female warrior, trained the great hero of Irish legend, Cúchulainn. Scathach’s rival, Aoife, was considered one of the fiercest warriors alive.

In Celtic mythology, we find women honoured for their intelligence and character. They are portrayed as brave, resourceful, clever, beautiful, and enchanting. Celtic women were certainly not ‘damsels in distress’ and their sphere of influence extended far beyond the home and children. They continue to inspire us today by offering us an intriguing example of what it meant to be a woman in ancient times.

Celtic Society

The Celts arrived in Ireland over the course of several centuries from around 500bc; it was a gradual assimilation rather than an actual invasion. They brought with them the Gaelic language, fine artistry, and a social order based on warrior values. They also brought the iron plough, making it possible for the first time to cultivate rich valley and lowland soils and to form settled communities. By 250ad Celtic culture was in place across the entire island of Ireland.

Celtic society was made up of extended families that were grouped together to form territorially based tribes. These were hierarchical and class-based ruled by a king or a queen, then a warrior aristocracy and grades of nobles. Druids, bards, judges, and artisans were the professional classes. They enjoyed special privileges having undergone years of intensive and difficult training. Then the farmers who paid rent to the nobles. Indeed, the whole Celtic economy was based on agriculture and livestock played an essential role serving as an equivalent to money. A Celt’s position in the social hierarchy was determined by the number of cattle he/she owned.

Iron Age Celts were highly skilled artists, metal-smiths, miners, road-builders, and farmers. They had strong trading links with Roman Britain and also traded for amber and precious metals as far as the Baltic coast and Mediterranean. Crafts such as cloth-weaving, basket-making, pottery, and leather-working were mainly undertaken by women.

Celts relied on the spoken word. Writing did not become highly developed until the arrival of Christianity, so their history, laws, and culture were maintained orally by bards and druids and passed down the generations by word of mouth.

Celtic spirituality was rooted in a reverence for the natural world, populated with many gods and goddesses and steeped in ritual. They had strict ideas about honour and responsibility. Celts took tremendous pride in their appearance and they were famous for their high spirits, love of liberty and courage in battle.

Ancient Irish myths describe a society dominated by the warrior hero. Single combat was one of the most effective ways for a warrior to gain status and prestige. Warriors would charge into battle fully naked, dyed blue, and with great leaps and screaming cries, thoroughly unnerving the enemy. For a time they were more advanced militarily than their Roman counterparts, with superior chariots, shields, and spears. They invented chain mail and iron helmets. They served as elite troops in many foreign armies including those of Hannibal and the Egyptian pharaohs such as Cleopatra who kept a band of 300 Celtic warriors as her personal bodyguards.

Despite their tremendous bravery in battle, they were no match for the war machine that was Rome – far superior in organization, authority, and discipline. The Celts thought and acted as individuals rendering their armies fragmented and unstable. Celtic Europe inevitably succumbed to the expanding Roman Empire. It was Ireland’s good fortune that Rome decided not to invade and Celtic Ireland continued to flourish.

A Celtic Feast

Celtic Spirituality

Celtic spirituality is based on a deep connection with the natural world. God is not a distant concept but a continual presence manifest in the whole of nature and deeply embedded in the world. For the ancient Celts, life itself was a ceremony, the whole of which was spiritually significant and magical. They considered the natural world divine and sensed the presence of their gods everywhere – in trees, rocks, rivers, bogs, and mountains.

These gods and goddesses were living forces of nature who reflected the earth’s majesty and expressed qualities such as inspiration, abundance, and eloquence. Celts worshipped their deities in woodland groves and near sacred water. Most sacred were the oak and mistletoe and no ritual was held without them. Druids were the teachers of wisdom and morality; a morality rooted in honour, family, and the sanctity of everyday life.

Central to Celtic spirituality was the belief in an immortal soul. Death was but another state of being, a transformation. Ancient Celts believed that alongside the ordinary world there existed a magical and mysterious realm called the Otherworld, a kind of Celtic heaven, the abode of the gods and the land of the dead. According to Celtic folklore, the Otherworld was the domain of a mythical race called the Túatha Dé Danaan, which means ‘the people of the goddess Danu’. They were Ireland’s original inhabitants descended from Danu, the mother goddess.

The Otherworld was a land of enchantment and contradictions accessible through lakes, caves, and fairy forts; a blissful place full of beauty, fine music, and delight; a place which held great treasures and brought inspiration to mortals who visited it. But it was also home to supernatural beings and monsters and a dangerous place to linger too long. At Samhain, our modern-day Halloween, the veil that concealed one world from the other became very thin allowing both the living and spirits to cross back and forth between the two realms. Holy sites of the ancient Irish, such as the Hill of Tara and Newgrange, were the dwelling places of the Celtic gods and the portals through which humans could enter the spirit world.

In the fifth century, a new religion arrived in Ireland in the form of Christianity. With its emphasis on love and individual salvation, the new faith preached by Saint Patrick, appealed to the Celtic spirit. Christianity adapted and absorbed many elements of the local religion allowing the Celtic people to embrace the new teaching while maintaining many of their ancient beliefs, customs, and practices. The Celtic church was more loosely organised than its Roman parent and operated, in many respects, outside the authority of the Roman church. Thus it avoided many of the conflicts and doctrinal wars that plagued Rome developing its own distinctive character – one that was more taken with the mystical.

A golden age of Celtic Christianity arose; it flowered in the form of independent monasteries that sprang up all over Ireland. Monks devoted themselves to lives of study, work, and prayer. The writing of books and gospels grew to become an exquisite art. By copying precious texts by hand, Celtic laws, annals, and myths were rescued from oblivion. Irish monasteries became renowned far-and-wide as sanctuaries of learning, and Ireland, enjoying a relative peace, was transformed into ‘the land of saints and scholars’.



Celtic Calendar

The four primary seasonal celebrations of the Celtic calendar are:

  • Samhain – winter
  • Imbolc – spring
  • Beltaine – summer
  • Lughnasadh – autumn
Masque of the Four Seasons, by Walter Crane

In the Celtic word view, seasonal changes were magical times, turning points in the calendar when the powerful forces of the universe could be accessed to promote the health and prosperity of the tribe. Celebrations involved ritual, dance, feasting, songs, games, competitions, trading between tribes, settling debts and disputes, arranging marriages, and offerings to the gods.

Ancient Celts organized their lives according to the rhythms of nature. In addition to their spiritual significance, the festivals were vital agricultural markers used to determine the times for ploughing, sowing, harvesting, birthing of livestock, and other tasks necessary for survival.

Samhain, October 31

Samhain, meaning summer’s end, marked the start of winter, the dark half of the year.  It’s probably the oldest and most important festival of the ancient Celts. This was the beginning of the Celtic New Year, time to take stock of the herds and grain supplies and decide which animals would be slaughtered in order to dry or salt their meat for winter. Feasts and gifts were shared. Blessings were given and invoked.  The approaching darkness was regarded with suspicion and some fear. With the community bonfire ablaze, all other fires were extinguished and each family then solemnly lit its hearth from the common flame thus bonding the tribe together.

At Samhain, it was believed that the veil between this world and the Otherworld became so thin that spirits could walk the earth. Communion between the living and the dead was possible. Traditionally, this was the most fortuitous time of year to practice divination. Our modern-day Halloween is rooted in Samhain’s traditions. In Ireland, the custom of leaving food for the family spirits continues in some places. Children wear masks to frighten and confuse malevolent spirits, while the jack-o-lantern (originally a turnip) is lit to guide friendly spirits on their way home.

Imbolc, February 1 – 2

Spring symbolized new life the promise of returning light. Imbolc was the beginning of the agricultural year, the time for ploughing. The plough was decorated to celebrate its importance. Preparations for spring sowing of crops included blessing seeds and agricultural tools.  Pieces of cheese and bread were placed within the newly turned furrows as offerings to the nature gods.

Imbolc honours Brigid, Celtic goddess of poetry, metalwork, and healing. She is also associated with fertility. Many Irish traditions involve seeking her blessing. The festival of St Brigid in the Christian year is also marked at this time.

Beltaine, April 30 – May 1

Beltaine means ‘bright fire’. This celebration marked the beginning of summer,  season of growth and blossoming. It’s associated with the sun god, Belenus. On this day, great fires were lit on mountains to affirm the return of the sun. Farmers moved their herds to rich pastures. New couples proclaimed their love for each other when they went walking in the woods. Trial marriages which commonly began at Samhain or Lughnasadh and which hadn’t worked out would end at Beltaine. If a woman could not conceive with her partner she could take another lover at Beltaine for a one-off pairing.

At Beltaine,  ritual fires were kindled and their flames deemed to have protective power. Cattle were driven between two bonfires as a form of purification and to encourage their fertility. Wood from the Hawthorn tree was used as a Maypole and its branches used to decorate homes as a blessing of protection. This time of year was open to the Otherworld so there were also rituals of protection against mischievous fairies.

Lughnasadh, August 1

Ancient Celts imagined the earth as their mother; she was the goddess, Danu. The sun god, Lugh, was her husband. Their union was a symbol of balance and health for the Celtic tribe. At Lughnasadh, Lugh was honoured as the god of light and master of all skills.

Lughnasadh (autumn/fall) was a time of thanksgiving for completion of the harvest which meant the tribe’s survival during the dark winter months ahead. It was a celebration of the peak of the agricultural season, associated with hand-fasting, marriage, fertility, and abundance. Communities celebrated with music, dancing, feasting, and competitions. All that gave life its goodness and richness was affirmed.