The Irish Fight, and Lose, in Sean O’Casey’s Dublin Trilogy

Úna Clancy and Maryann Plunkett

Sean O’Casey was 43 years old and had worked his whole life as a laborer, when he finally had a play accepted in 1922 by the founders of Dublin’s famed Abbey Theater, the dramatist Lady Gregory and the poet W.B. Yeats. That play, The Shadow of A Gunman, was set during the 1920 Irish War of Independence, and is the first play of what came to be called O’Casey’s Dublin Trilogy, a chronicle of Ireland’s violent struggle for independence from the British, set from 1916 to 1922.

To celebrate its 30th anniversary, the Irish Rep is mounting all three plays in repertory, as I explain in my article for TDF Stages, where I interview Charlotte Moore, the Rep’s co-founder and artistic director. Although she calls O’Casey “the defining Irish playwright of the 20th century,” and these his most important plays, they are rarely done together.

Below, photographs by Carol Rosegg from the three productions, and pictures  from the exhibition about O’Casey’s life and work on the second floor of the Irish Repertory Theatre. The plays are in the order in which they are set rather than in the order in which they were written. All three plays in the trilogy are set in the tenements of Dublin, focusing on its impoverished residents, who wind up directly affected (always to their detriment) by the cataclysmic events of the era.

Although each play has a strong plot, much of their appeal in the rich and rhythmic language, and in the vivid characters who speak it —  barflies and blusterers, sensible women and passionate men, cynics and idealists.

The Plough and the Stars

Written in 1926

Set during the Easter Rising of 1916

Pregnant Nora Clitheroe (Clare O’Malley) tries to stop her husband Jack (Adam Petherbridge) from joining the fighting, which only succeeds in angering him. He takes up arms as Commandant of the Irish Citizen Army, and disappears, while she and her neighbors, a quarrelsome lot, wind up devastated by the urban warfare.


The Shadow of A Gunman

Written in 1922

Set during the 1920 Irish War of Independence

Donal Davoren (James Russell), an aspiring poet, becomes roommates with Seumas Shiedds (Michael Mellamphy.) His neighbors suspect him of being an Irish Republican Army assassin, which is at first flattering to him, especially since it attracts the attention of pretty neighbor Minnie Powell (Meg Hennessy.)  by his neighbors. But the outside world soon intrudes to endanger both him and those he holds dearest.

Juno and the Paycock

Written in 1924

Set during the Irish Civil War in 1922

A struggling family includes the hard-working Juno (Maryann Plunkett) and her hard-drinking husband “Captain” Jack Boyle (Ciaran O’Reilly), as well as their son Johnny (Ed Malone) who fears the Irish Republican Army will execute him as punishment for his informing on his friend and neighbor Robbie, who was subsequently murdered.  A handsome schoolteacher Charles Bntham (James Russell) arrives with news that a distant relative has left them an inheritance. This seems answer to their trouble, to Charles a new love interest for the Boyle daughter Mary (Sarah Street), who feels guilty for dumping her boyfriend Jerry (Harry Smith) who feels more strongly for her than she does for him.. But the promised salvation helps lead to the family’s destruction.

Author: New York Theater

Jonathan Mandell is a 3rd generation NYC journalist, who sees shows, reads plays, writes reviews and sometimes talks with people.

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