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Religion and Philosophy in Sean O'Casey's "Dublin Trilogy"



1. INTRODUCTION...............................................3

1.1. "Religion and Philosophy": Preliminary Remarks...........3

1.2. Sean O'Casey's "Dublin Trilogy"..........................4

1.2.1. Juno and the Paycock................................4

1.2.2. The Plough and the Stars............................5

1.2.3. The Shadow of a Gunman..............................6


2. THE WORLD AND ITS CREATION.................................7

2.1. Adam and Eve.............................................8

2.2. An all-pervading spirit..................................9

2.3. Atoms and mollecules....................................10


3. THEORIES AND DEEDS........................................11

3.1. Boasters................................................11

3.2. Doers...................................................13

3.3. The judgements of opinions..............................14

3.4. The supremacy of practice...............................15






1.1. "Religion and Philosophy": Preliminary Remarks

Basically, Sean O'Casey's so-called "Dublin Plays" are concerned with the experiences and the reactions of Dublin tenement dwellers during times of civil war. Sean O'Casey describes the life in Dublin on the level of the families living in the tenements, which creates an intimate atmosphere. But if the plays did not go further they would most likely be boring to anyone who was not living in Dublin or, at least, Ireland.

On the one hand, Sean O'Casey's "Dublin Trilogy" is not only realistic, but the situations shown can often be taken symbolically. They may be regarded as examples, taken out of Dublin life, which at the same time reveal conditions that are universalistic and may be transferred to any country.

On the other hand, the Dublin Trilogy draws clear and distinct pictures of the characters involved. Most characters are confronted with quite existentialist circumstances: They can no longer live an ordinary life, but they must decide, be it this way or that way. Therefore the recipient may gain a deep insight into the inner situation of the characters. A lot of characters, for instance, show a pious religious belief, some are truly faithful, some are hypocrites. Others support a materialistic or humanistic point of view.

As the Dublin Plays deal with characters from poor and, in an academic sense, uneducated working class, one may not expect explicit and elaborated philosophical theories. However, the characters have obviously made attempts to explain metaphysical questions such as the origin and the sense of human life, the possibilities of filling an individual existence with sense or even the ancient philosophical problem of the coexistence of God and evil. Behind their everyday-life there are theories explaining the relation between the individual, the society and the world as such.

In this work I intend to prove that one may assign quite distinct world views to a lot of the characters involved. This will be done in the first two chapters. From this starting point I will try to explain how the attitudes and concepts of certain characters are judged in the plays, especially as regards the relation between their theories and their real behaviour, i.e. their deeds and reactions. This does not mean that I intend to find out the philosophical conception of Sean O'Casey himself. Instead, I will examine and compare the characters' words, their deeds and the results of theses deeds. This is the aim of chapter 3.


1.2. Sean O'Casey's "Dublin Trilogy"

At first I will sum up the characters which seem to have a distinguishable world view.

1.2.1. Juno and the Paycock

From the first stage direction on the recipient knows that religion plays an important role in Sean O'Casey's second major play "Juno and the Paycock" (1924): "a votive light" is burning on the stage, which shows the apartment of the Boyle family in a tenement.

Juno Boyle is a very family womanm. She always tries to keep the life of the family in a bearable state: "I killin' meself workin', an' he sthruttin' about from mornin' till night like a paycock". At the end, when the situation is desperate, she hopes for the help of God. "We'll want all the help we can get from God an' his Blessed Mother".

Her husband, Jack Boyle, leads a rather lazy life. He refuses to work and spends his time in pubs with his friend Joxer Daly. One might conclude that Jack Boyle does not have any conception whatsoever because his thoughts only concern questions of how to make life easier and agreeable. His opinion on God is obviously not to be taken seriously: In the first act, when he does not know about the expected inheritance, he utters "I never like to be beholden to any o'the clergy. [...] The clergy always had too much power over the people in this unfortunate country". After he has got notice about his supposed future richness, he says "I'll never doubt the goodness o'God agen".

Yet he has also made an arrangement with his social environment, and his "philosophy" could be described as one governed by the principle of lust.

Mary Boyle and especially her former boy-friend Jerry Devine have a more social-oriented conception of the world. Both are interested in the rights of the working class. Jerry shows a humanistic attitude. Even though it is almost impossible to find work for Jack Boyle, Jerry tries to help. "I simply was anxious to do you a good turn". Later on, his "humanity" fails: He condemns Mary for having a baby, and she replies "Your humanity is just as narrow as the humanity of the others".

The last character with an important religious belief is the solicitor Bentham. He objects orthodox religion ("dogma has no attraction for me"), but he believes in "the existence of an all-pervading spirit - the Life-Breath".


1.2.2. The Plough and the Stars

In "The Plough and the Stars" (1926), the last of the Dublin Plays, the central characters of the plot, Nora and Jack Clitheroe do not belong to the persons with clear theoretical conceptions. Nora is quite ambitious ("an attempt towards a finer expression of domestic life") and wants to keep the idyll between herself and her husband. Jack Clitheroe is also ambitious, but in terms of military achievement. When his wife beseeches him to stay with her, he only frets that he could be regarded as a coward.

The Young Covey supports a materialistic, Marxist world view. To him, the world and the forms of life in it are nothing but "mollycewels an'atoms". "The Covey... with lines on his face that form a perpetual protest against life as he conceives it to be".

Peter and Fluther belong to the Catholic Church. Fluther has several quarrels with The Covey on the question of God. Mrs. Gogan also appears to have Christian faith.

Bessie Burgess seems to have no particular conception of the world at the beginning of the play. She quarrels with Nora Clitheroe, and her reproach "Maybe now, they're (the neighbours, ed.) a damn sight more honest than your ladyship", which at first seems to be only an insult in an argument, turns out to be correct in the end, when Bessie helps Mrs. Gogan's child Mollser, when she looks after Nora and when she finally saves her life. During the row in the pub (act II) Bessie utters a lot of fierce commentary, and not until act III is it revealed that she is capable of more than mere arguing. Sometimes she refers to her Chrisitian belief ("always havin' had a Christian kinch on her conscience"), but she does not use these phrases as thoughtlessly as Fluther, for instance. She only once says a prayer, when she is to leave in order to get a doctor for the consumptive child Mollser, and in this dangerous situation (a civil war rages in town) she behaves really daringly: "Oh God, be Thou my help in time o'throuble. An'shelter me safely in th'shadow of Thy wings!".

1.2.3. The Shadow of a Gunman

In Sean O'Casey's first major play "The Shadow of a Gunman" (1923), the central figures are Donal Davoren, who is a poet, and Seumas Shields, a quite well-educated pedlar. They live together in a room in a tenement.

To these two people we can assign the most explicit philosophical conceptions. Davoren believes in philosophy, rationality, beauty and the creativity of man, though, ironically, he himself is a good example of someone who lacks these qualities.

Shields is excessively pious, he always involves religion in his talks. Again, the outcome of the play shows that he is rather superstitious than a firm believer. "The Black and Tan raid brings to light the peddler Seumas Shield's superficial piety and false courage". In former times Shields was a soldier of the Irish Republican Brotherhood. Critics supposed that his exaggerated piety is due to his disappointment in the national movement. He is compared to Johnny Boyle in "Juno and the Paycock": "Like Seumas Shields in the first play Johnny has turned excessively pious as part of his reaction against action and enthusiasm".

Mr. and Mrs. Grigson are of a quite simple mind. They always pretend to be very religious. But their behaviour, often drawn comically, shows that, finally, they do not really understand what is going on around them. They may be compared with Mrs. Gogan in "The Plough and the Stars". Moreover, Adolphus Grigson is an idler like Jack Boyle in "Juno and the Paycock".

Mr. Maguire, who appears only once on stage for a very short time, seems to be a true fighter for an independent Irish nation, but we do not get any information about his reasons or motivations (cf. also 3.2.).

Tommy Owens is a mere boaster. His behaviour in act I (p. 93-103) is shown so ironically that there remains no doubt about his stupidity. He is an example of someone without any honest consideration about the state of the world and of mankind (cf. also 3.1.).



In the first chapter I have shown that a lot of characters have a theoretical conception of the world. They take part in a kind of philosophical (or religious) discourse.

At the very beginning I assumed that the importance of Sean O'Casey's early plays does not only stem from their subject matter, which can be extended to a universalistic scope, but also from the cunning presentation of characters and their world views. "With this complex mode of dramaturgy, O'Casey is able to give us life in depth, intimate and intense, and in breadth, as the apprehensive members of the Irish microcosm react differently to the pressures of civil tumult".

In this chapter I will separate the philosophical discourse into certain categories by the example of the question of cosmogony. I will try to find out which different answers the plays give to questions like "What is the origin of the world" or "What is the sense of human life?"

2.1. Adam and Eve

The classical Christian answer to these questions is the one written in the Bible. Here truth is defined not as something found empirically by man, but as reference to the absolute authority of God and his revelation.

Fluther Good explicitly supports the biblical story of God's creation of Adam and Eve. When The Covey claims that the world consists only of "mollycewels an'atoms" Fluther replies "What about Adam an'Eve?".

Many characters turn to God in times of danger. Mrs. Gogan asks "God bless us, what's goin'to be th'end of it all". In his anguish Lieutenant Langon pleads "Oh God, have mercy on me".

Seumas Shields ascribes the plight of humankind to lack of religious faith: "Is there no Christianity at all left in the country?". He hides behind God and replaces his own responsibility by God's providence. "Thanks be to God I'm a daily communicant. There's great comfort in religion".

Here it must be decided whether their turning to God is to be taken honestly or just as an excuse because they do not find a better answer. Adolphus Grigson, for instance, obviously uses religion only to have an authority for his egoistic behaviour. "I know how to keep Mrs. Grigson in her place. I have the authority of the Bible for that. I know the Bible from cover to cover".

If one supports a theological conception of the world a difficult problem turns up immediately. If God is almighty, all-good and omnipresent, why is man so often confronted with evil, pain and suffering? As Sean O'Casey's play show a lot of situations which are hard to bear for the characters, it is not surprising that some figures ask how God and evil can coexist. Mary Boyle does so in "Juno and the Paycock": "It's true what Jerry Devine says - there isn't a God...; if there was, He wouldn't let these things happen!". Her mother Juno replies that not God, but man himself is responsible for states of suffering and anguish. "These things have nothin'to do with the Will o'God. Ah, what can God do agen the stupidity o'men!". I disagree with Simmons (1983) who says that "her talk in this last scene is still riddled with simple piety" and that "this is not a deep thought about the nature of God". Juno's argument would certainly not satisfy a philosopher, but compared to other characters in the plays, she has realized that man himself is the creator of both good and bad conditions of living. Yet she relapses into simple, and in a sense, cowardice belief on p. 71/72: "Blessed virgin, where were you when me darlin' son was riddled with bullets?"

2.2. An all-pervading spirit

A second approach to understanding the world is the idea of "an all-pervading spirit", which is supported by Bentham in "Juno and the Paycock". He believes in "the existence of an all-pervading spirit - the Life-Breath". "It is all vital force in man, in all animals, and in all vegetation". This concept, which Bentham calls "Theosophism", stands close to the Indian philosophy of The Vedas. Bentham tells his idea of "ghosts", that "are sometimes seen by person of a certain nature", at the dramatically right time because he unconsciously explains the situation Johnny Boyle is in. The basic metaphysic idea of this philosophy is that any given material substance is only a realization of the spirit. "Whatever even seems to exist separately from this Life-Breath, doesn't really exist at all".

To a certain extend, the aesthetic world view of Donal Davoren can be interpreted in that sense. In the stage direction at the beginning of "The Shadow of a Gunman" Davoren is said to have a "devotion to 'the might of design, the mystery of colour, and the belief in the redemption of all things by beauty everlasting". Here the "Life-Breath" has been replaced by "beauty", which is considered to be the essential principle of the world. The quotation above on Davoren's aesthetic attitude is from a stage direction, i.e. it will not be uttered in a performance of the play. Yet, from Davoren's whole behaviour, the audience can feel his self-pity and his belief that only poetry is an adequate medium to overcome the poor state in which man exists. "Like thee, Prometheus, no change, no pause, no hope".

2.3. Atoms and mollecules

On the other hand, Davoren supports a very rational way of thinking. In contrast to Seumas Shields, who tries to explain the world by means of belief, Donal Davoren uses rationality. Davoren knows that to a large extend Shield's piety is superstition.

Shields: Do you believe in nothing?

Davoren: I don't believe in tappin'!

When the Black and Tan raid is going to happen, Davoren proposes "Give over your praying and let us try to think of what is best to be done". Apart from his poetical commitment Davoren only believes in things he can perceive and explain by rationality. Therefore his world view is a bit ambiguous.

A much more materialistic view is maintained by The Young Covey. He says that, at last, human beings are only atoms and molecules. He has adopted the Marxist philosophy. He mentions Jenersky's "Thesis on the Origin, Development and Consolidation of the Evolutionary Idea of the Proleteriat" three times and his talks on communism mostly consist of hollow phrases, though he certainly supports their content. His materialistic conception is directly opposed to Fluther's belief of the world's creation by God during a quarrel between The Covey and Fluther on pp. 142-144.

A third person with a similar philosophy is Jerry Devine in "Juno and the Paycock", who is engaged in the Trade Unions. He himself does not say much about that, but he is opposed to Bentham by Jack Boyle. "Jerry believin' in nothin', an' Bentham believin' in everything. [...] One that says all is God an' no man, an' th'other that says all is man an' no God!".

Like Davoren's philosophy Jerry Devine's also contains "spiritual" elements in the sense that Jerry also believes in the power of human creativity to change the conditions.


In the first two chapters I have explored the philosophical and religious concepts that characters support in the "Dublin Trilogy". Now I will examine which consequences arise from the respective world views.

To do so, I will determine the relationship between the characters' words and their deeds. This discrimination represents the two modes of presentation in literary narratives: showing (e.g. set, gesture, action) and telling (e.g. monologue, chorus, dialogue).

A lot of Sean O'Casey's characters talk about their philosophies, about their political attitudes and so on. But which deeds follow their speeches?

3.1. Boasters

A typical character in Sean O'Casey's plays is the notorious braggart.

Jack Boyle, called "Captain" or "Peacock", is one of these boasters. He tells stories about him being a captain, (which are, doubtless, made up) and he always tries to keep the appearance of an experienced man. "I seen things...", he says, "that no mortal man should speak about that knows his Catechism" - "We're Dublin men, an' not boyos that's only afther comin' up from the bog o'Allen". But when he is confronted with a situation which urges him to take to action, he turns out to be a coward: he is too lazy to start working, even though Jerry Devine offers a job to him and he is not capable of keeping the family together in the end. The last scene, showing him and Joxer Daly, who is similarly incapable of adequate action, is an expression of his state: drunken, not knowing what is going on and yet uttering hollow phrases about Ireland's politics. "Irelan' sober... is Irelan'... free". Here, his personality creates a kind of tragi-comedy, because he, who himself is drunken almost all the time, talks about "Ireland sober", while his family has tragically split without him taking any notice.

In "The Shadow of a Gunman", both main characters, Seumas Shields and Donal Davoren, prove to be better in talking than in doing. Davoren himself, presumably more or less unconsciously, recognizes his lack in activity. Minnie Powell is "a pioneer in action, as I (Donal Davoren, ed.) am a pioneer in thought". As has been pointed out in 2.1., Sheumas Shields retires from action by taking to religous piety. His "cowardice is more pervasive than that of Tommy or Grigson because ha has som rational superstructure on which to ground it and the intelligence to defend himself against the attack".

Tommy Owens, like Jack Boyle, is only boasting, without having any idea about what is really going on. His intrusion into Shield's room in act I (pp. 94-103, cf. 1.2.3.) reveals a good deal of his character. "Why isn't any man in Ireland out with the I.R.A.? Up with the barricades, up with the barricades!". The first thing he does after his talk (with Davoren, Minnie, Mrs. Henderson and Mr. Gallogher)) is to go down to the pub and to tell that there is a gunman on the run in his house.

In "The Plough and the Stars" a lot of characters are good in talking and failures in acting: Nora Clitheroe totally retires into privacy. >From the first stage direction on it is shown that she is very ambitious, that she is anxious to live in a domestic atmosphere. At the end, she fails because she is not able to cope with the loss of her husband. She does not even try to understand the conditions she lives in and she has no ambition to engage in politics.

The Young Covey, as said in 2.3., supports a fairly theoretical world view about equality (i.e. Marxism), but when has the chance to rob things during the general looting in act III, he takes part as well.

Fluther, like Jack Boyle and Adolphus Grigson addicted to alcohol, supports nationalistic vies. But when it is to help the Dublin woman in act III (p. 189), he pretends "I have to go away, ma'am, to thry an' save a few things from th' burnin' buildin's". This is a good name for what he is going to do! Furthermore, he gets very excited, together with Peter and Mrs. Gogan during Pearse's speech in act II. But the only thing they do is to drink more and more.

3.2. Doers

But Sean O'Casey also shows characters who do the right thing when necessary.

Juno Boyle, at first only looking after her family (cf. 1.2.1.), finally learns that there is no use trying to improve the state of it. After her son Johnny has been killed, she leaves her husband and moves to her sister's in order to start a new life with her daughter Mary. "Come, Mary, an' we'll never come back here agen. [...] I've done all I could an' it was all no use... We'll work together for the sake of the baby".

Johnny Boyle has taken to action in the Civil War. He used to support the "irregulars", who are against the settlement of 1921, but eventually he stopped engaging in the war. But one may discuss the question of whether this was the right action. His mother Juno tells him "you lost your best principle, me boy, when you lost your arm". He has retired from fighting and now he can "boastfully" say "I'd do it agen ma, I'd do it agen".

Another character who has really taken to the gun is Maguire in "The Shadow of a Gunman", but again it remains questionable whether it was for a good cause. However, he finally looses his life in action. His role as a doer is underlined by O'Casey's arrangement of the play, because Maguire appears only once, and his one and only talk is on the innocuous subject of catching butterflies. Whereas Donal Davoren is only "the shadow of a gunman", who is "attracted to the idea" of being considered a gunman by Minnie Powell, Maguire is a real gunman who does not talk about his bravery at all.

During the Black and Tan raid in act II of "The Shadow of a Gunman", when the situation seems to be hopeless for Davoren and Shields, Minnie Powell turns out to be enormously courageous. "Minnie alone retains her presence of mind", when Shield's faith and Davoren's philosophy fail, and, indeed, she turns out to be "a pioneer in action".

Bessie Burgess plays a similar role in "The Plough and the Stars". In the first two acts she seems to be a notoriously quarrellous person. Moreover, she is on the "wrong" side, i.e. in favour of England, or of a free state arrangement (Ireland as a free state, but part of the Commonwealth). But at the end of act III it is her who "firmly and swiftly goes out" and tries to get a doctor for Mollser, the consumptive child. In act IV she looks after Nora Clitheroe, and, tragically, is shot while she saves Nora's life by pulling her back from the window. In this act, Fluther, Peter and The Covey also show a little bit of practical reason: when Captain Brennan runs in from the English soldiers they give him shelter by letting him play cards with them. But this is rather an example of solidarity, of "non-accusing" him, than of really practical action. Nevertheless, their behaviour is different there, compared with their boasting, quarrellous and egoistic attitude before.

3.3. The judgements of opinions

As has been pointed out in chapter 2, one may make out certain different world views which the characters in Sean O'Casey's "Dublin Trilogy" support. Even if not many of them have explicit and "really" philosophical theories ("philosophy for the sake of philosophy") they have made attempts to explain the world they live in, and it is possible to make this concepts explicit.

How are these approaches to explaining the world judged? Which value do the deeds and reactions have that arise from the different "weltanschauungen"?

In "Juno and the Paycock" we find all three categories that I have shown in chapter 2: Jerry believes in mankind itself, but his "humanity is just as narrow as the humanity of the others". Bentham seems to be a well-educated and quite competent philosopher, but his behaviour towards the Boyle family is egoistic and malicious: he leaves Mary as soon as soon as he gets to know that here will not be any inheritance. Besides, he raised the family's hope of being able to lead a better and more comfortable life in the future. Finally, these hopes throw them into poverty. Jack Boyle and his son Johnny sometimes take part in the discourse of religion, but Jack's faith turns out to be unreliable (cf. 1.2.1.), and Johnny is rather superstitious. Jack Boyle obviously fails when his family is torn apart in the end, and Johnny Boyle dies because of his former engagement in the Civil War.

So the supporters of all these three conceptions (humanism, philosophy/spiritualism, Christianity) fail in the end. What remains is the small piece of hope and humanity, which Juno shows in the end by helping her daughter and by trying a new beginning.

3.4. The supremacy of practice

I have shown that the characters in Sean O'Casey's "Dublin Trilogy" may be divided in those who are only boasters , be they simple and rash or even supporters of a distinguished philosophy, and in those who really act, be it intuitively or by means of theoretical consideration.

There are characters who seem to be highly intellectual, but nevertheless they fail, as Bentham from a moral point of view, for example. Davoren's extremely rational way of explaining the world fails, too. On p. 87 he asks how anybody could assume that he is "a gunman on the run". But, unfortunately, life does not always proceed that rationally. In "The Shadow of the Gunman", as the title suggests, appearance and reality change their places.

"Donal Davoren, Seumas Shields, Jack Boyle, Joxer Daly, Fluther Good, Peter Flynn, der junge Covey, alle sind sympathische Typen, Träumer oder versponnene Dichter, aber eben Phantasten, die an der Wirklichkeit vorbeisehen".

On the other hand, there are characters to whom there are not assigned any explicit world views, but who nevertheless show solidarity and who act in a humane manner: Juno Boyle, Bessie Burgess and, especially, Minnie Powell. "Minnie, in particular, shows real independence of spirit and self-confidence. Although she has spent her life in the dreary tenements, she asks no one for help and is not afraid to make decisions".

From this it becomes clear that O'Casey's plays do not speak in favour of any theoretical conception, or philosophical or religious belief, but that they call for the supremacy of practice, of action. This interpretation of O'Casey's plays is very similar to one of Cicero's praecepta in "De officiis". Cicero also claims the supremacy of practice, when he defines the duties to be fulfilled by striving for truth: "Cuius (i.e. veri, ed.) studio a rebus gerendis abduci contra officium est; virtutis enim laus omnis in actione constitit". It does not matter that much whch philosophy one supports, but it is important to do the right thing at the right time.

But then, is it still justified to look for specific world views in Sean O'Casey's oeuvre, as I have done in chapter 2? The tendency I have found out in his plays fits well to a development in O'Casey's life: O'Casey hatte "sich seit dem Osteraufstand immer mehr vom politischen Tagesgeschehen abgewandt" und war "vom Kämpfer zum skeptischen Beobachter geworden". And this critical observer who presents the "Dublin Trilogy" "using a diversified cast of Irishmen as human reflectors without enunciating an explicit thesis" has obviously become convinced that intuitively right action is far more important than thousand intelligent words of philosophy, even if the best thing is action which stems from exhaustive consideration.




Cicero, Marcus Tullius: De officiis (Stuttgart, 1975).

Goldstone, Herbert: In Search of Community. The Achievement of Sean O'Casey (Cork; Dublin, 1978).

O'Casey, Sean: Three Plays. Juno and the Paycock, The Shadow of a Gunman, The Plough and the Stars (London, 1980).

Rollins, Ronald Gene: Sean O'Casey's Drama. Verisimilitude and Vision (Alabama, 1979).

Simmons, James: Sean O'Casey (London, 1983).

Völker, Klaus: Irisches Theater II: Sean O'Casey (Velber bei Hannover, 1972).

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