DVD Eye: Strumpet city

Published in 18th–19th - Century History, 20th-century / Contemporary History, Issue 4 (July-August 2013), Reviews, Volume 21

Strumpet City

RTÉ DVD90, E14.99

by John Gibney

Henrietta Street served as the fictional setting of Chandler’s Court. (All images: RTÉ Stills Library)

Henrietta Street served as the fictional setting of Chandler’s Court.
(All images: RTÉ Stills Library)

Dublin City Council’s ‘One City, One Book’ initiative sees a work of literature connected with the city being officially promoted every April. Dubliners and Gulliver’s travels are amongst those chosen in previous years, and in the centenary year of the 1913 Lockout James Plunkett’s Strumpet city (originally published in 1969) was an obvious choice. Plunkett’s historical novel is justifiably famous (at least in Ireland). Yet much of its fame derives not from its own (considerable) merits but from its adaptation for TV, originally broadcast on RTÉ in 1980 and featuring one of the best-known TV performances by an Irish actor in the form of the late David Kelly’s affecting portrait of the destitute Rashers Tierney.

Strumpet city was a landmark in Irish television, a production on a scale never before attempted by RTÉ and never really matched by the state broadcaster since. Strumpet city was serialised on RTÉ Radio 1 in April (narrrated by Barry McGovern), but at the time of writing it was unclear whether or not the TV series would be repeated in 2013. It has, however, been available on DVD for a number of years, and given the renewed interest in Plunkett’s epic it makes sense to run the rule over its famed adaptation. Dramatised with remarkable fidelity by Hugh Leonard and directed with considerable skill by Tony Barry, the series, like the original novel, is about far more than the Lockout and Rashers Tierney.

Both versions of Strumpet city begin in 1907, with the visit of King Edward VII (a silent cameo by Peter Ustinov) to Kingstown, a world apart from the fictional tenements of Chandler’s Court, home to so many of its characters. The locations of the story veer between these two localities, accurately depicted as polar opposites in socio-economic terms, a disparity that provides the story with a good deal of its dramatic tension. The various lives of their inhabitants are interwoven over the course of seven years, and there is an undeniable emotional impact as these strands come together in the final episode. Leonard’s seven-part adaptation captured and replicated the human drama of Plunkett’s novel; the TV version of Strumpet city is recognisably the work of its original author. As for the actors who brought the adaptation to life, Kelly’s famous turn as the tragic Rashers should not obscure a string of equally excellent performances by Cyril Cusack, Frank Grimes and Bryan Murray. Peter O’Toole as Jim Larkin (given slightly more prominence here than in the novel) naturally catches the eye, but Donal McCann arguably steals the show with his unflashy depiction of the curmudgeonly Mulhall. Angela Harding and Ruth Hegarty acquit themselves well in the female leads, given that they had less material to work with than their male counterparts, though Hegarty’s depiction of Lily stands out as one of the only characters to reach the end of the tale to find a glimmer of hope. The majority of those who dwell in Plunkett’s fictional world come to embody tragedies of one kind or another.

One of the best-known TV performances by an Irish actor—David Kelly’s affecting portrait of the destitute Rashers Tierney.

One of the best-known TV performances by an Irish actor—David Kelly’s affecting portrait of the destitute Rashers Tierney.

This brings us, inevitably, to Strumpet city’s significance as a historical novel and to how the TV adaptation evoked the lost world of Edwardian Dublin. The depiction of life in the city is lavishly rendered, with some extremely well-marshalled scenes, such as Larkin’s speech on the Liffey and ‘Bloody Sunday’ on O’Connell Street. Yet politics are surprisingly absent, once the king and the old Fenian sympathiser Mrs Gilcrist depart centre stage in the first episode. One might point out that Plunkett wrote his novel in the 1960s and may have felt that the national question received enough attention in 1966; labour no longer needed to wait. But did Plunkett’s omissions let others off the hook? Witness the absence of Home Rulers from both novel and TV series, and the eventual redemption of the snobbish Father O’Connor hints at a more general reconciliation with the Catholic Church (though Plunkett pulled no punches in depicting O’Connor’s hypocrisy, and the brutality of the Dublin Metropolitan Police).

Equally, the depiction of tenement life is unflinching, and it is appropriate that Henrietta Street served as the fictional setting of Chandler’s Court. The 1913 Lockout is naturally of great importance to the Irish labour movement, but in 1913 only 20% of the heads of families in Dublin’s tenements had their wages regulated by unions. Considering that there were 25,882 families—87,305 people—living in the tenements, it is obvious that the Lockout had, and has, a significance far beyond the history of Irish labour. These figures were determined by the commission of inquiry established after the collapse of two tenement houses in Church Street killed seven people; it also determined that 22,701 of Dublin’s inhabitants lived in houses officially unfit for human habitation. The 1913 Lockout is inextricably linked with the poverty of tenement Dublin, and the measured yet powerful depictions of hardship and injustice in the novel are not rendered as melodrama in the TV series. Plunkett incorporated a fictional version of the Church Street disaster but transposed the tragedy to Kingstown, where the callous hypocrisy of Bradshaw, the impeccably respectable Catholic slum landlord who bribed officials to avoid the houses being condemned, is permitted to speak for itself.

Strumpet city is quite distinctive amongst post-war Irish novels on account of its size and its willingness to engage with public events. The final image of the TV series is of Bryan Murray’s blacklisted Fitz on the deck of a troop ship, obliged to feed his family by enlisting. It is hardly stretching matters to think that Fitz’s wife, Mary, would have been classed amongst the ‘separation women’ scorned by so many of those who fought in the Easter Rising in 1916. The depiction of Dublin in 1913 provided by Strumpet city might make the stance of such families understandable; it also implies that the contempt directed towards them by some republicans who could afford not to enlist may have had more to do with prejudice than politics. But that is to reach into an era beyond the remit of both novel and adaptation; Strumpet city’s world is a world yet to be changed utterly.

Peter O’Toole as Jim Larkin (given slightly more prominence here than in the novel) addressing the men from a boat on the River Liffey.

Peter O’Toole as Jim Larkin (given slightly more prominence here than in the novel) addressing the men from a boat on the River Liffey.

It is impossible to think of another Irish work of historical fiction that has so successfully been translated onto the screen as this one. The TV adaptation of Strumpet city may be a tad more dated than the novel but it remains an impressive, powerful and hugely watchable series, one that has defined an image of an era with greater power than any comparable historical drama. It is made all the more compelling by the sad fact that, a century after 1913, so many of the issues highlighted by Plunkett—inequality, snobbery and rank hypocrisy—have yet to be consigned to the dustbin of history. HI

 

 

 

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