By Lily Murphy
On September 18th, 1964, Irish playwright Sean O’Casey took leave of this world at the ripe age of 84. Born as John Casey in 1880 at 85 Dorset Street in Dublin, he came under the influence of the Gaelic Revival of the early 1900’s and changed his name to Sean O Cathasaigh before finally changing it to Sean O’Casey.
The nationalist leanings of O’Casey led him to joining the Gaelic League and the Irish Republican Brotherhood while his social awareness saw him become a member of the Irish Transport and General Workers Union. O’Casey’s flirtations with the revolutionary politics of that era did not distract him from providing the stage with classics such as ‘Juno and the Paycock’ and ‘The Plough and the Stars’ but he was also keen on music.
Aware of the role of music in Irish culture, O’Casey took to playing the Uilleann pipes and was one of the founders of the famous St. Laurence O’Toole Pipe Club in Dublin.
In 1910, a meeting took place in Seville Place of the St. Laurence O’Toole GAA club where a motion was put forward to establish a club pipe band. The meeting was attended by many names which would later find their permanent place in Irish history such as Padraig Pearse and Douglas Hyde, but also included was Sean O’Casey who became the first secretary of the newly formed pipe band.
O’Casey was great with the pen but apparently not so great with the pipes! One night O’Casey’s brother Mick got so fed up of listening to him trying to play the pipes at home that he punctured the instrument with an awl.
O’Casey’s love of music drew him into the world of song-writing and from his pen came well known ballads such as ‘Since Maggie Went Away’ and ‘Nora’ which have been recorded by the likes of Ronnie Drew and The Dubliners.
O’Casey held a particular fondness for satirical street ballads which were close to his working class heart. The first street ballad he composed was an anti-war one called ‘The Grand Ould Dame Britannia’ which was published in The Workers Republic newspaper in January 1916 under the pen name ‘An Gall Fada’ which translates to ‘Tall Foreigner.’
In 1917, when O’Casey’s friend and fellow piper, Thomas Ashe, died on hunger strike, he penned ‘The Lament for Thomas Ashe’. It was a popular ballad at the time when nationalist sentiment was rising.
O’Casey sang his own composition ‘The Constitutional Movement Must Go On’ at a concert organised by the St Laurence O’Toole club in November 1917 in the Olympia Theatre. The concert was to raise funds for meals for the children of the poor.
Other ballads O’Casey penned were ‘We Welcome the Aid of Japan’ ‘The Divils Recruiting Campaign’ and ‘All I Want in the Boreen for Maggie’ which appeared in one of O’Casey’s early publications ‘Songs of the Wren’ in 1918.
This early work by O’Casey, which was priced at one penny, was described as ‘humorous and sentimental’ on its front cover. It included songs such as ‘If The Germans Came in the Morning’ which is sung to the air of ‘I’m off to Philadelphia in the Morning’ while another from the pen of O’Casey called ‘The Man from the Daily Mail’ goes by the tune of the ‘The Girl from the County Clare.’
Other songs of O’Casey which appeared in ‘Songs of the Wren’ included ‘The Demi Semi Home Rule Bill’ set to the air of ‘The Wearing of the Green’.
O’Casey’s songs hung heavy with nationalistic sentiment such as ‘All Around Me Hat’ (I will wear the Green ribbono) which can still be heard sung in many ballad sessions today while ‘Red Roses for Roses For Me’ is sung by one of the characters in his play of the same name.
Just like his plays, O’Casey pored a gritty romanticism into his songs and added a dash a satirical wit from the streets of Dublin.