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Eire Apparent: Recalling Sean O’Casey’s Vanished Ireland

LIFE photographer Gjon Mili's pictures from the 1950s recall an Ireland that today endures largely in memory and in the country's astonishing literature.

Few Irish writers ever held a grip on their native land’s imagination as powerful as Sean O’Casey’s (1880 – 1964). There was Joyce, of course, and Bernard Shaw and Yeats; Frank O’Connor and Flann O’Brien; Synge, Swift, and Oscar Wilde; and the long, long list of phenomenal post-war Irish novelists, poets and dramatists, from Seamus Heaney and Patrick Kavanagh to Edna O’Brien, Brendan Behan, Samuel Beckett (who of course penned his greatest works in French) and so many others.

But as LIFE magazine wrote in a 1954 article: “Now that Bernard Shaw, an Irishman, and Eugene O’Neill, son of an Irishman, are dead, the greatest living playwright in the English language is another Irishman, Sean O’Casey.”

Three brilliant plays — “The Shadow of a Gunman,” “Juno and the Paycock” and “The Plough and the Stars” – all set in Dublin during the bitter days of street fighting and sudden death, made O’Casey famous. They brought as vividly alive as the red geraniums that so often bloom in Dublin windows the world he was born into, the Dublin slums where grinding poverty lives behind graceful Georgian facades, plain people talk with rich imagery, and saloon brawls erupt over philosophical questions

O’Casey . . . has spoken unkindly of the churches, dedicated books to eminent theologians, sung the praises of Communism and written the soul-stirring words that caused riots, bannings and uproars in great cities.

Years ago Sean O’Casey left Dublin, and now at 70 he lives peacefully in England’s Devonshire countryside. Behind him his world, also grown older and more peaceable, still exists in the streets of north Dublin, as full of poetry and misery as ever it was. There Gjon Mili found and photographed it.

Six decades later — when much, but not quite all, of the world that O’Casey brought to life on stage and on the printed page has vanished with the years — LIFE.com recalls an Ireland that endures in fading memory, in literature, and in Gjon Mili’s wonderful pictures.

 

LIFE photographer Gjon Mili at work in Ireland, 1954.

 

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