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Object: The Plough and the Stars
The programme for The Plough and the Stars Photo: The Abbey Theatre

Object: The Plough and the Stars

The Abbey Theatre

The Plough and the Stars is a play that was written by Sean O’Casey and first performed on the Abbey stage in February 1926. It was the final instalment in a trilogy centred on the theme of Irish independence, known as the ‘Dublin Trilogy’. The previous instalments, The Shadow of a Gunman (1923) and Juno and the Paycock (1924) dealt with events in the years after the Easter Rising, set as they were against the backdrop of the Irish War of Independence and the Irish Civil War, respectively. In The Plough and the Stars O’Casey goes back to 1916 and examines the way in which the Rising impacted the people living at that time. The play focuses on the inhabitants of a rundown tenement building in Dublin: a young married couple (Nora and Jack Clitheroe); their relations (Peter Flynn and the Young Covey); a mother and her consumptive daughter (Mrs. Gogan and Mollser); a Protestant woman whose son has gone off to war (Bessie Burgess); and her neighbour on the middle floor of the tenement (Fluther Good). The first production ran for a total of seven nights and led to protests from some members of the audience who took offense to the plays inherent criticism of the Rising and the it’s nationalist leaders.

How is the object associated with the Easter Rising 1916 and in what way does it make a unique contribution to our understanding of the event?

The first two acts of the play are set in November 1915, a time when the characters are looking forward to the liberation of Ireland from British Rule. The final two acts then take place during the week of the Rising. One of the main characters, Jack Clitheroe, is a member of the Irish Citizens Army and towards the end of the play he chooses to go and fight for independence rather than stay with his wife, a choice that ultimately costs him his life. There is also the Figure in the Window, a character based on the Irish national leader Padraig Pearse, who appears several times throughout the play to deliver long, rhetorical speeches in support of the Rising. Several other minor characters that are also fighting in the Rising make appearances throughout the play.

The way in which The Plough and the Stars makes a unique contribution to our understanding of the 1916 Rising is by revealing the effect it had on the ordinary citizens living in Dublin. Although the final acts are set during Easter Week we never see any of the fighting ourselves. Instead we get to see the influence the events outside the tenement had on those living within it. When Jack leaves and goes off to fight with the other rebels that is the last we see of him. What we witness instead is Nora’s reaction to his decision and the way she deals with her grief. Although O’Casey was previously a member of the Irish Citizen Army he was strongly opposed to any violent sort of rebellion that required the citizens of Dublin to sacrifice themselves for any abstract ideal of a united Ireland. O’Casey was a socialist at heart and wanted an improvement in the lives of the working classes, many who were living in abject poverty. He believed that the government should be helping them instead of focusing on nationalist politics and achieving freedom from Britain and he uses the play to convey this message.

Are there any broader issues that can be illustrated through the story of the object?

While the play is based around the Easter Rising and the events of that week push the action forward, we are also given an insight into the living conditions in Dublin at that time. Poverty is widespread and the characters must endure much hardship in their day-to-day lives whether the Rising goes ahead or not. Most of the characters live in a rundown tenement where sickness and disease is rampant. Mrs Gogan has lost her husband to tuberculosis and now her daughter, Mollser, will die of the illness too. At that time, twice as many people were dying of tuberculosis in Ireland than England. In Dublin alone, roughly 10,00 0 people died from the disease each year, more than half of them children. The overcrowded tenements at that time provided the perfect conditions for the spread of the disease. The gap between the rich and the poor was unsurprisingly enormous in those days. O’Casey reflects this division between the classes in the character of the Woman from Wrathmines. She wanders into the action in the middle of Act 3, lost and completely out of place in her furs in the characters’ tenement world. When her request for help is ignored by the other characters she continues on her way home to Wrathmines, a place where she will be able to escape all the violence arising from Easter Week. In contrast to this middle-class woman, the other characters living in the city centre must endure the effects of the rebellion. Rosie Redmond, who has to resort to prostitution to support herself, finds the meetings for the Rising distracting from her business, while Bessie Burgess is killed when a bullet comes through the window into her home. Looting, as witnessed in the play, was widespread during Easter Week, as the poverty-stricken citizens of Dublin took advantage of the opportunity to take from the shops all the things they couldn’t afford to buy. This was an immediate, concrete benefit the Rising provided for the working-classes as opposed to the lofty ideals of independence espoused in the leader’s speeches that seemed to have no influence or relevance for the majority of Dublin’s population.

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