Would it have been like this? James Plunkett and Strumpet City

Published in 1913, 20th Century Social Perspectives, 20th-century / Contemporary History, Issue 4 (Winter 2004), News, Revolutionary Period 1912-23, Volume 12

David Kelly as Rashers Tierney in RTÉ’s 1979 production of Strumpet City—‘in the personal fate of Rashers Tierney, Plunkett betrays his realisation that trade union recognition is not enough, but he remains unable to suggest any way beyond it’. (RTÉ Stills Library)

David Kelly as Rashers Tierney in RTÉ’s 1979 production of Strumpet City—‘in the personal fate of Rashers Tierney, Plunkett betrays his realisation that trade union recognition is not enough, but he remains unable to suggest any way beyond it’. (RTÉ Stills Library)

Following his death in May 2003 James Plunkett’s obituaries emphasised his humble beginnings, his consistent trade unionism and, of course, his talent, but did not remark that his Strumpet City is Ireland’s greatest historical novel. This failure may result from reluctance to ask two questions: how historical novels differ from others and where Plunkett’s book fits amongst them.

 
The first question can be answered simply: a historical novel must cover a period preceding the author’s death. By this yardstick, Plunkett’s masterpiece fits the definition, as his later (and lesser) works do not.
The second question requires a longer answer. Historical novels tend to be divided between the authentic (Gone with the Wind, Gore Vidal’s historical fictions) and the romantic (Dumas’s Musketeers trilogy). The doyen of the genre, War and Peace, combines the two most effectively. The authentic challenge is: was the period like that? The romantic challenge is: do you care about the characters? The authentic novel relies on description and discussion as much as or more than the action favoured by the romantic. Dumas’s musketeers are sword-wielding nineteenth-century bohemians, their environment minimal and politically unbelievable, with the duke of Buckingham attacking France out of sexual jealousy of Cardinal Richelieu.

 
Strumpet City is authentic. Dublin’s pre-1914 atmosphere is recreated brilliantly; it is almost possible to smell. The characters respond believably to their conditions. (Plunkett would have been helped, here, by knowing many such as they.) If their city cannot be reconstructed from the book, as Joyce claimed it could be from Ulysses, it is because so much of it is set in a mythical neighbourhood, Chandler’s Court in St Brigid’s parish, somewhere along the old Dublin & South-Eastern main line.

 
Its authenticity fails in the political sphere. It can be compared usefully to Gone with the Wind. The American book’s politics are qualitatively inferior, but their crassness reflects accurately the prejudices of its time. Its leading characters live, die and mourn for chattel slavery. Strumpet City is single-minded from an opposing view. However, its period makes this misleading; the book ignores the fact that the Lockout occurred at a time of many struggles besides the unskilled workers’ battle to organise, and one of these would overshadow the fight of Plunkett’s heroes.

 
Part of the reason for this lies in the author’s roots. His working-class background was individualistic, with little social incentive to accept its identity. He was born and raised in Irishtown, bounded on one side by plebian Ringsend and, on the other (closer to his home), by Sandymount, bourgeois of the bourgeois, containing a strong Protestant unionist community. The constituency had returned Unionist MPs during the 1890s. Plunkett’s father chauffeured for the Sandymount classes and had fought for the British Empire in the First World War. The family was piously Catholic. That it should nurture a major novelist is less surprising than that that novelist should proclaim himself a follower of James Larkin, an avowed trade union militant and socialist, and defy his church by visiting the Soviet Union in 1955.

 
Yet his revolt was incomplete. His socialism was an economic goal, achievable without reference to political issues that threatened his cultural assumptions. Influenced by the state of politics (particularly nationalist politics) in his youth, he dressed this prejudice in ultra-leftism, praising Seán O’Casey for his ‘wholesome opposition to that revolutionary nationalism that seeks to keep everybody in their place’. This gut reaction ignores what O’Casey saw fleetingly: that revolutionary nationalism can help people to move from their places because it attacks the political order keeping them down. Failing to understand this, Plunkett ignores the fact that, in 1913, most Irish revolutionary nationalists opposed the social almost as much as the political order, and showed this by backing the workers against Murphy.

 
Strumpet City reports no nationalist voices save that of the old Fenian cook, Miss Gilchrist, and a mad Sinn Feiner’s gibberings about the Titanic. On the other hand, Murphy’s refusal of a United Kingdom knighthood is mentioned repeatedly. Support for the strikers among the bourgeoisie is expressed by the whiskey priest, Father Giffley, and by the Protestant Belton Yearling (the novel’s least believable character: the real Yearling’s support for the strikers’ children would not have gone beyond sharp letters to the Irish Times). Both get the bulk of the last chapter.

 
The workers show no interest in home rule, although it had been passed by the House of Commons and was threatened by a military putsch. Of course they had more immediate concerns, but they would have had views on their nation’s self-determination. London dockers quizzed the socialist James Keir Hardie about the disestablishment of the state church in Wales. Such political concerns are debated by O’Casey’s creations (his contemporaries) in the first acts of The Plough and the Stars. One supporting player joins the Citizen Army and disappears, while the hero, Fitz, joins up to fight for the British Empire. Significantly, Plunkett would begin his sequel in 1922, after the Anglo-Irish war and his own class’s offensive had already peaked.

 
The end result tends to trivialise the Lockout, to make it only a struggle of the unskilled for union rights and exclude its role in the development of Irish revolutionary consciousness. Yet ultimately, perhaps unconsciously, class tells. It does so by making the novel’s best-known character a peripheral figure on the farther side of the workers from the Yearlings and the priests. In the personal fate of Rashers Tierney, Plunkett betrays his realisation that trade union recognition is not enough, but he remains unable to suggest any way beyond it.

D.R. Lysaght is a writer and historian.

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