If her first-born child failed to be a man-child, an Irish matriarch wasn’t too desolated, whatever the patriarchs were saying about it. As soon as she was on her feet, this eldest daughter would be her mother’s little helper, well placed in due, cruel course, to take over the job of mothering her younger siblings. Until recently, maternal big sisters were central figures in Irish family life, making regular appearances in the autobiographies of their famous little brothers, Dr Noel Browne and Bob Geldof being two that come to mind. But this big sister character, omnipresent in “true life”, is absent from the realms of poetry, prose and song. Our collective imagination harbours every variety of shemale – mothers, grandmothers, lovers, goddesses, queens, saints, hags, fairies, banshees – and no big sisters, apart from Fionnuala, eldest of the mythical children of Lir. So it’s fair to say that in taking a creative interest in Bella Casey, big sister of the famous Sean O’Casey, Mary Morrissy is, once again, breaking new fictive ground (The Rising of Bella Casey, Brandon Press, Dublin 2013).
Until Morrissy re-imagined her, Bella Casey only existed in O’Casey’s autobiographical words, including the texts archived in the New York Public Library. Bella was fifteen when the great dramatist was born, old enough to assist at his delivery on a washing day – among “the suds left by her mother’s smalls” – and to inspire one of this novel’s most mesmerising scenes. O’Casey freely acknowledged his debt to Bella, the caring, accomplished and confident older sister of his troubled boyhood, when he was plain Jack Casey. His father, John Casey, had converted to an evangelical, low church brand of Victorian Protestantism – in direct opposition to the high church “smells and bells” of the Anglo-Catholic revival – and the family had a foothold on the lower middle-class rung of the Irish social ladder. When John Casey died, his widow and children were still shabby genteel, a status symbolised by the family’s silverware which, in another of Morrissy’s set pieces, the mother peevishly polishes. George Bernard Shaw once referred to his similarly anomalous Dublin childhood as “rich only in dreams, frightful and loveless in realities” and his marriage to a dull Anglo-Irish heiress probably had more to do with a lingering caste anxiety than money. As a Protestant God-fearing, piano-playing, trained elementary schoolteacher, Miss Bella Casey had every chance to sustaining her family’s status. Instead, she fell off the social ladder as Mrs Beaver, hapless wife of a hard-drinking British Army bandsman turned railway porter. But even as she moved from bad to worse addresses, increasingly desperate and déclassée, Bella refused to connect with her working-class Catholic neighbours. She retained the faith of her father, never lost her identification with an imperial and Protestant Britain. And while she raged alone against the zeitgeist, brother Jack was raging with it.
The cities of early 20th-century Europe were teeming with idealistic young joiners: socialists, feminists, trades unionists, scouts, cyclists, vegetarians, teetotallers, secessionists, folklorists, Zionists, pan-Slavists, anarchists, theosophists, et cetera. When he gaelicised his name, and was born again as Sean O’Casey, Jack Casey was aligning himself with the Gaelic-flavoured counter-cultural dream of a socialist new age. But he couldn’t forget Bella’s alienation, any more than Joyce could forget his mother’s reproaches, and some of the classic O’Casey female characters – Minnie Powell, Juno Boyle – must owe something to his big sister’s fierce dissent.
Bella Casey is hard to like, impossible to ignore. As a virtuosa translator of rude female experience into powerful, immersive prose fiction, Morrissy is well able for her story. She never condescends to her anti-heroine, and although she endows Bella with a persuasive back-story – putting an entirely new complexion on the little brother’s understanding of all things Irish, republican and religious – she herself remains an awkward customer. Bella’s Rising is not Jack’s Rising. She has her “rush of the sublime” when, on a strife-torn Dublin street, she comes upon a Broadwood piano, a gorgeous instrument for which she risks her life and saves what is left of her soul. For Bella’s readers there are more rushes of the sublime. I can’t think of another novel like it, but it did make me think about Brecht’s great anti-war play Mother Courage.
Brecht was disappointed when, instead of thinking combatively about the issues, audiences sympathised with his ignoble, profiteering Mother Courage character. For the punters, no matter what the righteous playwright made her do or say, Mother Courage was an uncomplicatedly heart-rending maternal creature. Bella is another Mother Courage but I mean nothing ironic by that designation because, in having the courage of her unfriendly convictions, she makes life even more difficult for herself. The “issues” are there all right. You cannot read The Rising of Bella Casey without thinking about what became of Romantic Ireland – of which, more anon – but we are allowed to get involved, emotionally as well as intellectually, because this is a novel of terrible beauty.