Ian Handford, chairman of Torbay Civic Society, gives us the who and how each of Torbay’s Blue Plaque was chosen. This week: Sean O’Casey
This plaque became interesting because it was initally asked for by Dr Madalaine Epstein, a family friend of the O’Caseys.
Having discovered Villa Rosa in St Marychurch and approached the owners, I discovered the answer was no, they did not want a Blue Plaque to the Irish playwright on their premises.
Then after 10 years I was contacted again, by the new owners who had moved from Bath - noted for Blue Plaques. They asked if it was possible to have not one but two plaques to honour Sean O’Casey - at the gate and on the house - but more importantly they were ready to go ahead as soon as possible.
Mr O’Casey, born John, changed his name to Sean to become a writer of short stories and soon a highly controversial playwright. His ‘The Plough and the Star’ even created acrimonious debate in the House of Commons due to him mentioning Irish prostitution, which created rioting in Ireland.
Having left London in 1938, Sean and family moved to Totnes mainly it was said so their sons Breon and Niall could attend the independent progressive school at Dartington.
However, it was known Sean had tax debt, and there is a wonderful story of the taxman arriving from London to chase the debt which led to him being given a cash rebate on the day, due to his long-forgotten Post War Tax Credits, which the tax man found among Sean’s paperwork.
That discovery earned him an immediate treat from the Dubliner, when he and Sean went to the local hostelry with £50 in hand.
With the arrangements made for a double Blue Plaque unveiling at Villa Rosa in Trumlands Road, St Marychurch, we then discovered that Sean’s daughter Shivaun still lived in Totnes. After making contact, she agreed to be the star on the day which we set as October 29, 2012.
Interestingly, some years prior and on behalf of our society, I assisted Totnes Civic Society unveil a special Slate Plaque to honour Sean O’Casey at his home opposite the magistrates’ court in Totnes, a place I knew well having served as a magistrate on South Devon bench for 22 years.
Sean and his wife Eileen and family left Totnes in 1954, having been served notice by their landlord. Having moved to Villa Rosa, Sean would remain there the rest of his life.
He lost his son Niall to leukaemia in 1957 at age just 22, and then later learned he would likely go blind but meanwhile, thankfully, had 10 years at Villa Rosa, which brought many famous visitors to our town including Mai Zetterling, Adrienne Corri, Sybil Thorndyke, Sam Wannamaker, Alfred Hitchcock, Augustus John, Barry Fitzgerald and even Arthur Miller - who had just married Marilyn Monroe.
Some locals believed she also journeyed down from London to Torquay, although we found no proof of this.
Having written more than 22 published plays and various essays, verses and journalistic articles, Sean finally wrote his four-volume autobiography.
He did lose the sight in one eye but with much discomfort in the latter years, he retained a little sight until the end.
Having suffered a thrombosis on the way to Torbay Hospital, he died at age 84 on September 18, 1964.
After a service at St Martin’s Church, Barton, he was then cremated and his ashes taken to Golders Green London, to be scattered near his beloved son Niall.
From Shivaun at the unveiling, we learned her father in his final years still continued to read Irish newspapers and remained a lover of music, and especially Mozart and Mendelssohn while generally ‘drinking copius amounts of tea, supplemented with six or even seven spoonfuls of sugar in each cup’.
• The Sean O’Casey Torbay Civic Society official pamphlet is still available by post - 50p plus postage sending stamps and an sae - to Torbay Civic Society, Bridge House, 4 Palace Avenue, Paignton TQ1 1DE