False heroism in Sean O'Casey's "The Shadow of a Gunman"

Term Paper (Advanced seminar), 2004

16 Pages, Grade: 2,3



1. Heroism and the Irish in times of trouble
1.1. The historical background
1.2. Definition(s) of heroism

2. The Shadow of a Gunman: about poltroons and shadow gunmen
2.1. The male characters
2.1.1. Donal Davoren
2.1.2. Seumas Shields
2.1.3. Mr Maguire
2.1.4. Others
2.2. The female characters
2.2.1. Minnie Powell
2.2.2. Others

3. Conclusion

4. Bibliography

1. Heroism and the Irish in times of trouble

1.1. The historical background

“The Shadow or a Gunman“ was written in 1922 and first performed in 1923 when the Irish civil war that concluded the Anglo-Irish War was still raging between the Irregulars and Sinn Féin (“we ourselves”). The “Shadow” was performed in the Abbey Theatre, the only theatre that was still open, in the middle of April 1923. It was performed near the end of the theatre season to make sure that the Abbey would not lose much money if it flopped (Murray 44). But it did not, in fact it became one of the most popular Irish anti-war plays in the 1920s.[1]

“The Shadow of a Gunman” was O’Casey’s first play to be accepted by the Abbey. His earlier attempts to find the balance in his art between politics and entertainment failed (like “The Harvest Festival”) (Murray 5), but with the “Shadow” he finally managed to write “a mixture of comedy and political commentary” (Murray 5) or “A tragedy in two acts” as he called it himself.

After the Easter Rising of 1916 when some “Volunteers” and members of the “Irish Citizen Army” tried to rise an armed rebellion against the British forces, a guerrilla war began in 1917 between the Irish Republican Army, a successor of the banned nationalist movements, and the “Black and Tans”, British special force troops sent to support the Royal Irish Constabulary that consisted mainly of veterans of World War I. The “Black and Tans” got their name from their famous black and khaki uniform. Until July 11th 1921 both parties fought each other in armed attacks. The British sent more and more soldiers (overall several tens of thousands were sent) until the Irish gave up when the activists ran out of weapons and people. The “Shadow of a Gunman” is set in May 1920, the climax of the terror which consisted of house raids, street fights, attacks, curfews and many other actions that made life in Ireland difficult and bloody. The fighters had to hide and to move constantly. They were “on the run” so nobody of British could find them.

The Anglo-Irish war ended in July 1921, just 2 years before O’Casey’s debutante play was first performed in the Abbey. In the days of “The Terror”, as the Anglo-Irish War is also called, from 1919 until 1921, the separatist movement “Sinn Féin” proclaimed the constitution of the first Irish Parliament (January 1919) in Dublin which lasted for 10 days. After an attack on a police convoy in Tipperary in which two policemen were killed, “An tOglach” published an article which declared war on Britain. Every Irish Volunteer was told to treat armed British as invaders. So the Anglo-Irish war started.

1.2. Definition(s) of heroism

The hero of a play is usually a character that embodies heroic deeds and virtues through brave actions in an exemplary manner and arouses admiration. In antique literature the hero is often a half-god and brings culture to the people. Later on, until the 18th century, the literary hero had to be of noble blood but during the bourgeois times the hero changes from a noble character to an ordinary fallible character. Finally the term hero becomes a generic concept which one still uses today to describe the main character of a drama or an epic poem without consideration of social status, gender or special character trades. A consequence of this is that characters that are unheroic, passive and problematic, so-call anti-heroes or negative heroes, are today called heroes when they are the main character of a play. Especially in modern literature, with the exception of light novels and socialist realism, heroes are often described as sufferers or victims who replace the glorious hero of the old days. (Wilpert 332f)

Cuddon also claims that in criticism the term hero does not carry any “connotations of virtuousness or honour.” (p. 378) Habbicht also make this claim, and says in addition that the main character of a literary work is called hero even though he does not have any particular heroic characteristics. Schweikle says furthermore that the baroque hero is characterised by active actions and ideal heroic appearance whereas later in modernism the hero becomes more and more unheroic as Wilpert also argues. The meaning of the term hero is shifted again and gets another meaning: a hero can also be a collective and abstract part of action (like the revolution in Büchner’s “Danton’s Tod”). In comedies, Schweikle says (192f), characters can also be called heroes, or more precisely, comic heroes, when they portray something negative. They depict something negative so that something positive can appear.

2. The Shadow of a Gunman: about poets and poltroons

The Shadow of a Gunmen is a very typical early play of Sean O’Casey. Concerning the action of the play, very little seems to happen (Murray 26) and “the structure appeared to offer only a sense of drift rather than of control” (Murray 26). What is more important for O’Casey than plot and action is the characterisation of the Irish in his plays. He turned away from the traditional plot “in favour of in-depth characters” (Murray 26), which is not a new development but a general tendency of modernist writing deriving from naturalism. Although Hogan (1980) argues that the “Shadow”, one of his early “slum plays” (Hogan 493), was an “unqualified masterpiece” of a “rough genius” (Hogan 493), he calls it “unqualified” (Hogan 493) because of its “poor construction” (Hogan 493). He claims that the “flaws” (Hogan 493) can be covered up with the “striking virtues” of the play especially “in a good production” (Hogan 493).

George Bernhard Shaw, a predecessor of O’Casey and one of O’Casey’s idols, also has this focus on characterisation (Murray 26). “Waiting for Godot” by Samuel Beckett is another play of a similar character in which relatively little happens.

2.1. The male characters

The Irish society of the 1920s did not differ much from the other European societies of the time: in Ireland one could also find a male dominated civilisation. The question is however, how much responsibility the men of that time really took. Sean O’Casey painted a very ironic picture of the men, the “heroes”, as one can see in the following.

2.1.1. Donal Davoren

Donal Davoren thinks of himself as a poet in the footsteps of Shelley and quotes him several times during the play. For example on page 15 he says:


[1] See Connolly, S.J. (ed.): Companion to Irish History. Oxford 2004, and

Elvert, J.: Geschichte Irlands. München 1993.

Excerpt out of 16 pages


False heroism in Sean O'Casey's "The Shadow of a Gunman"
University of Trier
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This essay focuses on the problems of heroism in O'Casey's "Gunmen". The English is "fluent" and "very good" (Breuer), but Breuer argued that the part about heroism was quiet superficial.
False, Sean, Casey, Shadow, Gunman
Quote paper
Kristina Müller (Author), 2004, False heroism in Sean O'Casey's "The Shadow of a Gunman", Munich, GRIN Verlag, https://www.grin.com/document/54360


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