OBITUARY: Eileen O'Casey

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Eileen O'Casey outlived her husband, the playwright Sean O'Casey, by 31 years. He died in 1964, at the age of 84, and although she received many proposals for a second marriage, some of them from men of eminence in politics and the arts, she chose to remain a widow and to nurture her husband's legend and posthumous career by promoting his plays and writing about him.

Her first autobiographical book, Sean, appeared in 1971. It is a colourful account of her career as an actress, her youth, when she received much attention from amorous young men and older ones as well, including George Bernard Shaw, and a life full of enthusiasm and interest, mostly centred around her happy marriage. Up to the end, in spite of many health problems in old age, she remained physically and mentally active, frequently visiting the theatre and accepting invitations, and travelling to wherever one of her husband's plays was being revived.

She retained her fragile- looking attractiveness all her life, and was a great beauty in her youth in the current fashion. She met new acquaintances with an easy charm that was never forced, so that one always wanted to spend more time in her company and was never discouraged. This was the singing actress Eileen Carey whom the playwright met in 1926; she had been appearing in the chorus of a long-running musical, Marie Rose, at the Drury Lane Theatre, enjoying the glamorous life of fashionable London, where those in the arts and the theatre mingled easily with the upper classes in what came to be known as the flapper or the jazz age. One night she might be dancing with the Prince of Wales at a night-club after her show, the next be at a party at Londonderry House, on Park Lane. She was doing eight performances a week, and earning extra money by fashion-modelling.

She mentioned to a friend that she would like to meet Sean O'Casey, and as a result was invited one day to come to the Fortune Theatre for an audition with the impresario J.B. Fagan. She found, in addition to Fagan, Sean O'Casey looking at her from behind a desk. He was then 46, twice her age. He quickly made her feel at ease. His Juno and the Paycock was ending its run in London, and they were casting for The Plough and the Stars, already in rehearsal and due to open in 10 days. The next day she was offered the part of Nora by O'Casey and accepted it; O'Casey, obviously much infatuated with her, coached her himself for a difficult role in an unfamiliar medium. The Plough and the Stars opened on the sixth day of the General Strike and, in spite of the difficulties of the time, was a success.

O'Casey assiduously paid court, sending Eileen not jewels or expensive presents but small boxes or macaroons. The courtship was a long one, and there was the problem of her many admirers, but she was fascinated by him and they were married 16 months after their meeting in a simple ceremony in the side chapel of a Catholic Church, the Holy Redeemer, in Chelsea, because Sean was Protestant (although not a believer) and Eileen Roman Catholic.

After a honeymoon in Ireland, they lived for a while in Sean's small London flat and, after many moves, found a crumbling old house in the country where they started their family. This was a period of great hardship for Sean, because his latest play, The Silver Tassie (1929), had been rejected by the Abbey Theatre, in Dublin, which had premiered the earlier ones: W.B. Yeats and Lady Gregory, who ran the theatre, felt that its anti-heroic and semi-surrealist character would antagonise audiences. This was even more true of London, where the memory of the First World War, the subject of the play, was still fresh.

There was a public row between Yeats and O'Casey in which many others took part, Shaw coming out in support of O'Casey who, in a letter designed to be made public, addressed him as "Dear Titan". But no performance meant no money and there was a long period of struggle, one of many in O'Casey's career: he later had problems with the Catholic hierarchy in Dublin and for a time all his plays were banned there. His living came largely from American performances.

In spite of these difficulties, the marriage was a long and happy one, and the O'Caseys finally settled at Totnes, in Devon, where he continued to write and produced a six-volume autobiography, several volumes of essays and stories, and more plays, although none of them rivalled the popularity of the early ones, the Dublin trilogy. One of their children, Niall, died in 1957, just before his 21st birthday, of leukaemia. And for the last period of his life, Sean O'Casey kept a private journal about his grief which was found after his death and published in 1991. Eileen spent her last years in London, but made frequent trips to the United States and to Ireland.

Eileen Reynolds was born in Dublin of Irish parents (she later used her mother's maiden surname, Carey). Her mother was a devout Roman Catholic from the West of the country, her father, a freethinker, came from Athlone and was an accountant. Her father's illness when she was a small child made it necessary for her go to a London orphanage school, not a happy time for her, and she was only to see him twice again, the last time when he was dying; she resolved then to "look for a father-figure rather than a husband". Relatives then paid for her to go to a better school, but having neither money nor possessions compared to the other girls with their bicycles, tennis rackets and nice clothes, she was more unhappy than previously. But an occasional visit to the theatre enraptured her and she studied singing and acting. She took any job that was going, worked at Harrods, took singing lessons and was eventually accepted to tour with the D'Oyly Carte Opera Company.

The tour over, she studied dancing and was engaged in the chorus of a musical comedy, The First Kiss (1924), and appeared in other musicals for short runs while she was auditioned and accepted for the chorus of the American musical Rose Marie. After six months she went to New York to join the Broadway production of the same show, but instead found a small part in a play, American Born. While in New York she bought and read a copy of Juno and the Paycock and determined to meet the author. She saw Juno, which was playing in London on her return, and shortly after met Sean.

She had become estranged from her mother, whom she had hardly seen during her schooldays, at the time of Rose Marie. Her mother disapproved of the theatrical life and the late nights, and would cut the frills and decorations from Eileen's clothes. Eileen finally told her to leave. Although Eileen looked after her mother in old age and had her living nearby in Devon, she always found her traditional Irish narrowness an irritation.

Eileen O'Casey had an immense circle of acquaintances, including writers, actors, theatre critics, politicians and people in all walks of life. Her old age was comfortable because Sean O'Casey's plays have never left the stage since his death, and he has been increasingly appreciated in European countries as well as English-speaking ones. He is also now widely studied academically. But Eileen wrote well herself. Sean is an account of a happy marriage that was also a partnership. Her second book, Eileen (1973), is more detailed about her own career, but with much repetition. Cheerio Titan (1989) is based on her relationships with George Bernard Shaw and her husband.

Eileen O'Casey was one of the last people to see Samuel Beckett before his death in December 1989. Although Beckett was a very different writer from O'Casey, they kept in touch for many years, and Beckett, out of solidarity, refused to allow his plays to be performed in Ireland at the time that O'Casey's were banned. Eileen often compared the two, with their "narrow, peaked Irish faces, Irish blue eyes and Irish mingling of humour and tragedy", both interested in the things of the mind and the human condition in a non-materialist way.

It was largely thanks to her good housekeeping that O'Casey's affairs have been kept in order, that he was comfortable during his last years, and that their surviving children have a heritage for the future.

John Calder

Eileen Reynolds (Eileen Carey), actress, writer: born Dublin 2 December 1903; married 1927 Sean O'Casey (died 1964; one son, one daughter, and one son deceased); died London 9 April 1995.