Byrne, Séamus (1904–68), playwright and lawyer, was born in Dublin on 27 December 1904. Educated at Blackrock College, he graduated LLB from UCD and qualified as a solicitor in 1927. He worked as a solicitor in Leitrim for nine years, during which time he became active in the republican movement. As a result of making illegal radio transmissions for the IRA, he was jailed for two years in 1940. He served nine months of the sentence, and was released after a twenty-one day hunger strike.
These experiences are reflected in his play ‘Design for a headstone’, which deals with a proposed hunger strike by political prisoners in Mountjoy jail. It opened at the Abbey on 8 April 1950, to controversy and critical acclaim (which has persisted). It came under attack from the IRA, but more trenchant opposition came from the catholic right, because of the play's unsympathetic portrayal of the prison chaplain. An ultra-catholic group, Maria Duce, staged a protest in the theatre on the sixth night of its performance. An attempted assault was also made on Byrne. However, the protesters lacked popular support, and the play continued for a successful six-week run. Critics have subsequently regarded Byrne's play as a forerunner of Brendan Behan's (qv) ‘The quare fellow’ (1954).
Byrne followed it with ‘Innocent bystander’ in 1951. Also produced by the Abbey, it presented a critical view of provincial Irish solicitors. Byrne collaborated with the actress–producer Shelah Richards (qv) for ‘The hawk in the handsaw’, the script for which is now lost. Another topical play, ‘Little city’, tackled the question of abortion. Because of its controversial subject, some years elapsed before it was finally staged by Phyllis Ryan in 1962 at the Gate theatre, as part of the Dublin Theatre Festival, with a cast including Anna Manahan; it was revived by the Druid theatre in 1988. Byrne continued to work in the legal profession, acting as a consultant for two law firms and living in Rathgar, Dublin. He also worked as a drama critic, and wrote for a time for the Catholic Standard. In later life he became disillusioned with Irish politics. He died 13 May 1968 in St Vincent's hospital, Dublin. He was survived by a wife, a son, and three daughters.