FORGET about it all. The whole shooting match. When you think of 1916 just remember the voice of Nora Clitheroe who was escorted home from searching for her Citizen Army husband in the violent streets of Dublin.
Accused of cowardice by combatant women, she says she “risked more for love than they would risk for hate”. She has her husband’s baby in her belly but loses it when he throws her away from him. Her blood, her screams, are graphically counter-pointed by the blood and screams of a dying insurgent in Seán Holmes’s powerful new production of The Plough and The Stars for the Abbey Theatre.
O’Casey’s message comes across clearly: The struggle for the birth of a child is the work of love while the armed struggle for the birth of a nation state is the work of hate.
People always talk about the strength of O’Casey’s women but I think their message is more important than their gender. O’Casey is not saying that men aren’t as good as women but rather that women’s priorities are better than men’s.
Nora is focussed on love and home and husband and child. By contrast, Jack Clitheroe’s relationship with the Citizen Army is an auto-erotic one. The neighbour Mrs Gogan even jokes that he brought his new Sam Browne belt to bed with him. His pride is wounded when he is not “made a captain of” and he is sulking loudly when a fellow combatant calls him up for the Rising.
He leaves a rare opportunity for intimacy in a tenement house — an undressed wife and pulled-down bed in Sean Holme’s production — and chooses to stroke his own ego by going out to fight.
“You have a wife, Clitheroe”, demands Captain Brennan in the pub and Clitheroe responds, “Ireland is greater than a wife.” The auto-erotic sexuality of armed combat is made explicit in the voice of prostitute Rosie Redmond, who is doing no business because the men have much more exciting things on their minds.
When the word comes that Clitheroe has “died for Ireland” — and that Nora’s grief should be joy because her husband was a hero — the response of Bessie Burgess, the alcoholic neighbour who has been nursing Nora through miscarriage and incipient insanity, is one of O’Casey’s classic lines in understatement: “If you only seen her, you’d know to th’differ.” Astonishingly, this brave play went up at the Abbey Theatre just 10 years after the Rising and it provoked the most serious protests at the theatre since the Playboy protests in 1907.
Prominent among the protestors were women from Cumann na mBan and the Citizen Army, many of them widows, sisters, and other relations of men who died in 1916. Hanna Sheehy Skeffington wrote that the play was “a travesty of Easter Week… it concentrated on pettiness and squalor, unrelieved by a gleam of heroism”.
There is truth in the criticism and historian Diarmuid Ferriter comments in his programme note that O’Casey, late of the Citizen Army himself, had his own axes to grind. But that doesn’t take away from the power of his message, wholly misunderstood in the programme note written by TCD women’s studies lecturer, Mary Mc Auliffe, that “Here O’Casey’s portrayal of women is as symbols of domesticity and passivity, underplaying their role in the armed struggle and in revolutionary politics.”
What a load of bally-hoo. O’Casey is absolutely clear that his Nora and his Bessie are true heroines. If it is true that Nora Clitheroe is obsessed with respectability it is also true that achieving a clean, ordered home in which to bring up a family in a tenement house in 1916 was a heroic struggle. It could make the difference between children who lived and children who died, children who clambered out of poverty and those who didn’t.
This State stands on the shoulders of women who fought to spring their children out of misery. Sean O’Casey, Secretary of the strikers’ Women’s and Children’s Relief during the Great Lockout of 1913, knew all about the war which these women waged on illness, dirt, and hunger.
Neither does he shy away from the stories of women who stray from the path of “respectability”, as firmly laid down in Ireland in the early 20th century. His Rosie Redmond may sell her body for a living but at least she is not hurting anyone and O’Casey gives her dignity: “I’m a woman, anyhow, an’ if I’m a prostitute aself, I have me feelin’s.”
And then from 1914, there were the further challenges of war and insurrection. Why Bessie Burgess is drunk and shouting, “Yiz are all rightly shanghai’d now!” from set-designer Jon Bausor’s evocative scaffolding, was never clearer to me than it was in this production: her only son is fighting in France.
Up at the Gate Theatre, Mark O’Rowe’s much more traditional but equally brilliant production of Juno and the Paycock, highlights Juno’s scorn for her wounded son’s Easter Week sacrifice for his “principles”: “You lost your best principle, son, when you lost your arm.” First staged just two years after the Civil War ended, it depicts the brutality of tit-for-tat reprisal shootings and their horrifying impact on the women left behind.
I doubt there were many dry eyes in the house during Mrs Tancred’s famous plea, “O blessed Virgin, where were you when me darlin’ son was riddled with bullets! Sacred Heart of the Crucified Jesus, take away our hearts of stone and give us hearts o’ flesh! Take away this murdherin’ hate… an’ give us Thine own eternal love!”
The play focuses just as clearly as does The Plough on the work of love which is bringing a child into the world. It sheds a harsh light on the men who run for the hills as soon as Juno’s daughter Mary says she is pregnant. The first is the child’s father, the second Jerry Devine, the militant socialist who has always loved Mary… just not enough to marry her now she’s pregnant by another man.
“My God, Mary, have you fallen as low as that?” asks our political ideologue and Mary responds, “It’s only as I expected — your humanity is just as narrow as the humanity of the others.” We really don’t deserve O’Casey, one of the six who survived from his widowed mother’s family of 13 in Protestant, working-class Dublin.
He started as a labourer, immersed himself in politics, the Irish language, the Bible, Shakespeare and Dion Boucicault, then upped and wrote four of the greatest plays in the English language.
But we have him and he wrote about us and in this centenary year we don’t have to ask ourselves another question except how much wider is our humanity now than it was when he wrote those plays?
The Plough and the Stars opens at the Cork Opera House on Tuesday, April 26 and tours to the National Opera House, Wexford, from May 4 to 7, the Lime Tree Theatre, Limerick, May 10 to 14, and the Town Hall Theatre, Galway, from May 24 to 28.