O'CASEY (SEAN) Series of some sixty autograph and typed letters signed, the majority autograph, to MacDonald Ebenezer Cornelius, formerly McElroy ("Conn"), the great majority written from Totnes during the Second World War, 1933-1952
Lot 341
Sold for £ 4,000 (US$ 5,620) inc. premium

Lot Details
Series of some sixty autograph and typed letters signed ("Sean"), the majority autograph, to MacDonald Ebenezer Cornelius, formerly McElroy ("Dear Conn"), the great majority written from Totnes during the Second World War, while his correspondent endured the Blitz in London, providing a running commentary on news coming in from the front, and a lively account of his own life and tribulations especially during the air raids to which Totnes was prone, with lively pen-and-ink sketches in some of the letters; together with: attached carbons of Cornelius's letters to O'Casey; about thirty letters by Eileen O'Casey, 1934-1949; copies with warm inscriptions (for example "With warm regards & remembrance of many a laughing hour") of Within the Gates (1933), The Flying Wasp (1937), Cock-A-Doodle Dandy (1949), Rose and Crown (1952), and others uninscribed; a file of letters by Augustus and Dorelia John, including four autograph letters by Augustus, charting a tale of two drawings sent by Cornelius to John to be signed but which got lost, with the ensuing entanglements, O'Casey's letters over 150 pages, some creasing and dust-staining but overall in good condition, the John file however damp-stained, O'Casey's letters largely 4to, Tingrith, Totnes, Devon, 1933-1952


  • A SUBSTANTIAL SERIES OF LETTERS BY SEAN O'CASEY, DESCRIBING HIS EXPERIENCES ON THE HOME FRONT DURING THE SECOND WORLD WAR. The recipient of these letters was a son of Billy McElroy ('Mac'), the unnamed business man evoked by O'Casey at the beginning of the 'Silver Tassie' chapter in Rose and Crown, and described by Christopher Murray as 'the redoubtable McElroy, that deus ex-machina of the O'Casey drama' (Rose and Crown, 1952, pp. 27-9; Sean O'Casey: Writer at Work, 2004, p. 217). 'Mac' was a coal merchant who had invested money in the 1926 London runs of both Juno and the Paycock and The Plough and the Stars; and it was hearing him sing the Burns song 'Go fetch me a pint o' wine/ And fill it in a silver tassie' that so obsessed O'Casey and inspired the eponymous play. During these early London years, McElroy took over from J.B. Fagan of the Fortune Theatre as O'Casey's minder and general business manager, and acted as best man when he married Eileen Carey in 1927. Included in our collection, is an autograph draft of a letter by O'Casey that clearly belongs to this early London period, written as it is from Trafalgar Square, Chelsea, where he lodged between April and July 1926. In it he sends £5 in support of the women and children of the striking miners, and promises if he can manage (which in the event he did) to secure for them a benefit performance of Juno: "My sympathies are, of course, with the miners, and with all workers in their efforts to make life a little worth living. I myself in my infamy have been a daily Communicant in the Devil's church of hunger, misery and pain, & bear upon my body the marks of his unholy benediction. The cry of the half-starved children of the workers is the Chorus in the play of our social life, and the sooner it is silenced the better... May one venture to appeal even to those who hate the workers, to show the gentle humanity that must be in most of them, & stretch out a hand to help the poor little devils of children and the poor devils of mothers that bore them, even though the husbands and the fathers hold the ridiculous opinion that there is one God and Father of us all".

    The rest of the letters in this archive are to the son who, it appears, changed his surname to Cornelius after falling out with his brother; while his father disappears from the scene after running off with Hugh MacDiarmid's wife Peggy (Cornelius meanwhile following his father into the coal trade). Both O'Casey and the son share the same socialist leanings as MacDiarmid, and O'Casey clearly holds figures such as Chamberlain ("...He had better go back to his Birmingham spoons. Comrade Hitler has given him a left-hander fair in the snot. Gentleman Neville is a bit surprised. Easily since Hitler didn't come from Oxford. It isn't cricket...") and "halibut Halifax" ("our Hambassador to the hew Ess Ay") in contempt. However, O'Casey does not let his sympathies cloud his judgement, and has short shrift with doctrinaire communism: "The dissolution of the 3 International has no significance just now. A hell of a lot of things have dissolved since this war began, & one thing more doesn't count a lot. This war is a big enough thing with which to grapple, without having to bother about an International. Should Shitler win, it would mean the dissolution of everything, including the International". Nor is he afraid to change his mind, not least in his opinion of Churchill: "I was terribly mistaken in this man. I thought he wasn't what he is. He is undoubtedly a great man". The letters also contain ripe commentary on matters other than the war, a particularly pungent letter being devoted to G.K. Chesterton: "What a charlatanic shit he was to be sure. What a gay goboy he was! The Bell Branch of the Roman Catholic Church; the Bell Boy in the porch of heaven. God hid nothing from Chesterton... He was ably encouraged by Belloc. The greatest genius that ever lived, who carried about with him a penny catechism in one pocket and a fourpenny thriller in another"; and another castigating Munnings after his notorious RA speech on Picasso: "Munnings? I didn't read about him. He is, is he not, as Joyce would ask, the painter of white & black and brown harses? Anyway, he thought aloud, and said his say. That was something to his credit, though he said it in a rage. It was the rage, though, of mediocrity against genius. Whether we like or dislike the forms Picasso's genius takes, the fellow is a stratospheric height above Munnings as an imaginative, daring, and prophetic artist".

    At their best, these letters provide an inimitable self-portrait of an ordinary householder's experience of the home front, such as in O'Casey's description of an air raid on Totnes, written in October 1942, while news of the breakout at El Alamein was coming in ("Heaven grant that this may go on for a break through"): "Last Wednesday, the sun shone cheerily here. I was helping Eileen to wash up a collection of crockery, when with a whizz and whizz, that made the house shake, an airoplane [sic] swept about over the house. Aha, says I, looking out of the scullery window, & catching a squint of the boyo going over the garage roof, aha, ses I, your engines outa order; & went back to the washing again, when a whizz & a whiz & whiz-bang went over us again, & this time where we were rocked like a cradle in the deep. We rushed into the front part of the house for safety, but that was rocking worse than the back, so back with us again, holding hands, to the back, but that was rocking more than the front; so off with us again – asking each other where'd we better go? quick like – to the front, but this part seemed to be splitting over our heads, before our faces, and behind our backs. 'The window'! ses I 'The window's dangerous' ses she. 'Then where'll we go?' ses I. 'Dunno' ses she, while by this time, the world as well as the house seemed to be splitting asunder. 'Aw, be God' says I, 'I'll die in the open air', & tugged & tugged at the window, forgettin to shove back the blasted catch, & near breakin' me arms trying to open what couldn't be opened. But I tore open a side window, & out we tore over the garden & on to the road to come to rest beside a military wagon with some soldiers behind it, to discover that what I thought was an engine outa order was an air-raid on Totnes. Part of the station is down, some houses down, & almost all Totnes distitute of ceiling & window. Focke Wulfes they were, & wait till I tell you: half an hour later, we found out that the wagon we stood beside was packed with explosives. Eileen pelted off to do some bandaging, while I pulled me trousers up, & adopted the merry nonchalant look of the bugger that has come safe, after being terrified to shaking hands with death. I met quite a lot of people looking at the damage, all of them wearing the air of the bull-dog breed. And it's the only way to take it, for it is but the hors d'oeuvres to the big meal to come when the Germans are able to release their machines from the Volga".

    The originals of Cornelius's letters to O'Casey, 1943-1951, are held among the O'Casey Papers in the National Library of Ireland, MS 37,948 (where he is cited as Con McElroy).
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