Strumpet City, by James Plunkett, Gill & Macmillan, 560 pp, €10, ISBN: 978-0717156108
Strumpet City was a bestseller when it was first published in 1969. RTE’s dramatisation of the book was possibly the station’s most successful production. Since then it has had many republications, and buoyed by its selection for Dublin City Council’s One City One Book initiative, it is again selling well.
What makes the book and its story so enduringly popular? It has a lot to do with the fact that it is a rollicking good read. The story has a lot going for it. The servant and master relationship it portrays are as alluring to the Downtown Abbey generation as it was to the Upstairs Downstairs one of yesteryear. It’s a story of oppression and class insurrection culminating in a titanic battle, one side led by an almost messianic James Larkin, the other by the brooding, scheming William Martin Murphy. It’s got almost everything a reader might want: violence, comedy, romance; all except sex: that happens off-stage. Plunkett’s writing style may seem dated but nothing is lost in the telling. He uses uncomplicated, relatively short sentences without much digression or reflection. Dialogue predominates and he allows the characters to tell the story. It is a tale of the lives of more than a score of Dubliners during seven eventful, dramatic years.
At a more fundamental level, though, the novel is the story of Dublin in its most turbulent period. Most have taken the ‘Strumpet’ of the title to be an illusion to Dublin’s teeming brothels “the haunts of sin” which Leopold Bloom was accused of visiting just a few years before. But Plunkett clearly meant it to be descriptive of the city itself in the same way that Denis Johnston, from whom he borrowed the title, did:
Strumpet City in the sunset
So old, so sick with memories
Plunkett himself later confirmed this “I wanted Dublin itself to be the hero, you know, in a mystical kind of way, with Larkin as a sort of ‘Deus ex machina’.” It was the city, and not just the inhabitants of its Nighttown, that lay prostrate and prostituted; defiled by corrupt intrigues between slum landlords and city councillors – indeed many of the councillors were themselves landlords. Its superficial beauty and fading grandeur hid disease and decay. Lily Maxwell, the only prostitute to feature in the novel, epitomises the city’s condition. She believes she is diseased although she, like the city, and like its most oppressed citizenry, remains proud, beautiful and capable of deliverance. Plunkett’s nostalgic love for the old city, it sights, its smells, its people, is evident throughout.
While Plunkett’s writing makes for easy reading there can be depth within and across the connecting narratives. The book starts with the arrival of King Edward VII into Kingstown on a glorious July day in 1907. We are reminded, however, that the recent robbery of the Irish crown jewels from Dublin Castle results in his majesty being “imperceptibly diminished in splendour”, an omen, perhaps, of things to come. Mrs Bradshaw, the charitable wife of the crabby slum landlord Ralph, feels suddenly morbid as she watches the firework display to mark the royal party’s departure, possibly sensing the end of an era; the demise of the old order. Later that year, in winter ‑ it is the season of Advent as we are subtly reminded ‑ as a sea fog begins to envelope the city, Larkin is revealed to have arrived in Dublin. There is rumour and speculation, raising the expectations of unskilled workers and the apprehension of their employers. A winter of upheaval is presaged, but it is a “sun” of Lancashire not York that is to preach the divine mission of discontent.
Plunkett wisely decided to keep Larkin in the background and he makes only brief appearances in the book. A more focused portrayal would have pushed all lesser characters in the drama into the background. Plunkett, notwithstanding his undoubted admiration for the union leader, saw the workers and their families as the real heroes. Nonetheless, Larkin is ever present, a subject of everyone’s conversation, spoken of with awe, anticipation or abhorrence. The pivotal characters are Fitz, his sweetheart and wife Mary, and the almost irrepressible Rashers Tierney. It is Fitz who provides us with a description of Larkin’s power of speech. In the crush, he sees him mounting the platform in Parnell Square. “At first the accent was strange. Part Liverpool, part Irish, it produced immediate silence. The voice flung back from the high house fronts on the other side of the road, was the strongest Fitz had ever heard. From time to time the hands moved with an eloquence of their own.” Elsewhere, Countess Markiewicz described her reaction on first exposure to the man in more dramatic terms: “Listening to Larkin, I realised that I was in the presence of something that I had never experienced before, some great primeval force, rather than a man. A tornado, a storm driven wave, a rush into life of spring and the blasting breath of autumn, all seemed to emanate from the power that spoke.” Fitz and his comrades, Barney Mulhall and Pat Bannister, could not have spoken such grand eloquent words but we are left in no doubt that their emotions were stirred, their spirits lifted. Larkin was giving voice to their sufferings and offering them hope. In reality there was an evangelical, revivalist flavour to Larkin’s speeches. In one he called out “I am Ishmael.” Addressing the Askwith Inquiry into the cause of lockout, he defended himself against accusations that he was an atheist and, after describing the appalling working and living conditions of the workers, he declared “we are determined that Christ will not be crucified in Dublin by these men”.
The hardship endured by the tenement dwellers, accurately and harrowingly described by Plunkett, their willingness to follow Larkin, can best be understood in the context of a new type of union organisation. Larkin was bringing what was called “new unionism” to Dublin, a movement designed to organise the mass of unskilled workers. This had already occurred in Britain, and in Belfast and Cork, where Larkin also struggled unsuccessfully against lockouts by employers in their attempts to kill the movement at birth. Trade unionism had long been established and recognised in the Dublin. But, as the name implies, it was largely confined to those unions organising the various skilled trades. The disproportionately large mass of unskilled workers in Dublin, labourers, dockers and carters – those who transported coal and other supplies in horse-drawn carts – had never been successfully organised. Their employment was often precarious and they were paid a pittance, frequently in a pub, where they were then expected to stand their ganger a drink. As Plunkett was later to describe their condition: “…bottom of all were the unskilled and casual labourers. They were looked down on by the craftsmen. The middle and upper classes were barely conscious of their existence.” A high proportion of them lived near the docks where their work was located. George Russell (AE), in a famous letter to The Irish Times, accused the “aristocracy of industry” of allowing “the poor to be herded together so that one thinks of certain places in Dublin as of a pestilence”. But the herding into slums also contributed to the solidarity that was so important in the struggle to come. The mood of the poor changed from sullen resentment to exuberant resistance and Larkin was the catalyst.
When Plunkett started contributing to The Bell in 1942 he was advised by Sean O’Faolain to write from his own experience. This advice he followed in Strumpet City. Plunkett grew up on the Ringsend side of Sandymount and the drama is mostly located around that area: south from the Liffey along the eastern shoreline. It was here that so many of the port workers lived. The area had not changed much since 1913 when Plunkett grew up and later worked there. Most of the tenements remained and the level of poverty was only somewhat ameliorated. He started work in the Gas Company along the quays where nearby in Windmill Lane Tonge and Taggart, most likely “Morgan’s Foundry” in the book, was still operating. When he became a union official he got to know James Larkin and many members of the union who were “out” in 1913. He modelled some of his characters on these and absorbed their stories. There were other influences. Like all Dubliners of his time he would have observed one or more “Johnny Fortycoats” wandering the streets and from this image he created the comic and tragic figure of Rashers Tierney. He also had insights into the middle class, who lived at the posher end of Sandymount. Plunkett’s father worked as a chauffeur and he would have heard stories from him about the rich people he drove. He was an altar boy and used his knowledge of Catholic ceremony and regalia in the episodes involving the priests.
The Church was bound to play an important role in events. Pat Bannister, like the real Sean O’Casey, was untypical in his freethinking. The vast majority of workers remained strongly committed to their church even though most ignored clerical attacks on Larkin. Plunkett uses three priests to explore this dimension of the conflict. Father O’Connor, well-intentioned but squeamish in his dealings with the poor, is hostile to Larkinism. His parish priest, Father Giffley, at odds with O’Connor, is portrayed more sympathetically, despite his cantankerousness and alcohol addiction. The third priest, Father O’Sullivan, acts as a buffer between the two, simple, stoic but kindly. Father O’Connor’s insufferable priggishness and inveterate snobbery cannot but appal the reader, although, in the end there is a redemptive aspect to his portrayal. What does this tell us about the clergy of the period and the author’s attitude to them, and to the Church?
It would have been normal for the clergy to accept the dictates of their bishop. Dublin’s Archbishop William Walsh was not initially anti-Larkin. Indeed he appears to have had some sympathy with the plight of the workers and, as Pádraig Yeates, in his definitive work Lockout: Dublin 1913 points out, he was popular among the working class of the city and made a number of attempts to conciliate disputes, including the lockout. However, the archbishop was ill and in France convalescing during much of 1913. His secretary, Father Michael Curran, who kept him informed and strongly influenced diocesan policy, was a confidant of William Martin Murphy and held views akin to that of the fictional Father O’Connor. Curran, however, unlike O’Connor, didn’t feel any need to temper his loathing of the poor, referring to them on one occasion as the “scum of our slums”. His view of Larkin and his supporters, if not his intemperate language, was typical of a younger generation of clergy, middle class and/or rural in origin, intolerant of any movement or institution that was not approved of by the Church and also tending to be out of sympathy with the more conciliatory style of their aging archbishop. They looked more to Rome for guidance and found in the pontiff, Pius X, a militant anti-modernist, one who was hostile to any trade union that was not Catholic in membership and orientation. The character of Father O’Connor may be loosely based on a real-life figure, Father Flavin of Kingstown. Flavin was a leader of the mob that prevented children being shipped to England and helped to undermine the ITGWU in the borough in 1913 and found a rival Catholic union in its place. In any event, the aborted attempt by the union to evacuate children for the duration of the lockout ended all equivocation on the part of the archbishop. The perceived risk to the children’s religious belief was more important to the Church than the danger of slow starvation. Walsh condemned the scheme and all associated with it and the Church militant defeated the attempt to ship the children out. This scene in the book in which the episode is treated is seen through the eyes of two Protestant supporters of the project, Yearling, a somewhat implausible character, a major shareholder of Morgan’s Foundry who becomes increasingly sympathetic to Larkin, and Mathews, a figure based on the writer and poet George Russell. Both are set upon by the mob when they try to assist with the evacuation.
Father O’Connor’s views and actions would seem to have been more typical of the clergy of that time. No doubt there were also many Father O’Sullivan types, who remained somewhat aloof but few, if any, dissenters. Father Giffley, although hostile to the employers if provoked, did not openly support those locked out. His injunction to his curates was to remain neutral. “I want no pulpit-thumping,” he told them. “Let them fight it out between them.” Plunkett rightly judged that this was the best that could be expected of a PP already in trouble with his superiors.
Posterity has been less kind to the clergy than Plunkett’s collective presentation of them might suggest. One can only speculate as to why he felt the need to balance Father O’Connor’s belligerence with two benign priests and to end O’Connor’s participation in the story on a sympathetic note. Plunkett had his own difficulties with the clergy and some of the more pious members of his union. In 1955 he accepted an invitation to visit Moscow as part of a writers’ delegation. The visit was roundly condemned by the clergy and he was pilloried in the Standard, the influential Catholic newspaper of the time. This led to a campaign to have him dismissed from his job in the Workers Union of Ireland. He defended himself in a letter to The Irish Times, pointing out that he had sought guidance from his confessor, Father James (later Bishop) Kavanagh, before he travelled and that he did not attempt to dissuade him from going. This tells us that Plunkett was still a practising Catholic when he began writing Strumpet City ‑ so much so indeed that, as he told a Spanish research student in an interview in 1992, he could not bring himself to use contraceptives during his early married life, something that exasperated his late wife. This degree of orthodoxy did not persist, but it is reasonable to assume that during the ten years that he struggled to complete the book he also struggled with conflicting thoughts about the role of the clergy in the events he was writing about. Father Kavanagh was a friend and not just a confessor. Kavanagh was of working class origins, had family links with the union and was partial to a drink. There was probably some of him in the character of Father Giffley, although Plunkett would also have known a number of progressive priests in the1960s.
He might also have had reason to consider the kind of reception a perceived anti-clerical slant in the book might provoke. By 1969 a wind of change was evident in Ireland but the Church was still an institution to be reckoned with. That was the year, after all, when the Labour Party’s claim that “the seventies will be socialist” proved somewhat premature after Jack Lynch secured electoral victory following an extensive tour of Irish convents. Plunkett was by then working in RTÉ, which was not immune to a belt of the crozier. It is inconceivable, however, that cowardice was a factor: Plunkett’s bravery over the Russian trip must surely rule this out. Prudence, though, might have led him to present a more nuanced picture of clerical involvement in 1913 than even he might have thought warranted. In the end, it can probably be put down to no more than the mores of the time, either his or his perceptions of others’. Whatever the reason, the outcome gave us two absorbing characters, but especially Giffley.
Perhaps it was fortuitous that Plunkett took so long to finish the novel. A decade earlier its reception might have been more uncertain. If the left had been overoptimistic in 1969 there was no discounting the change in attitudes among a younger generation that, for the first time since independence, might hope to prosper at home. Their parents, the children of the revolution, more familiar with the romantic stories of Walter Macken, might have looked askance at a historical novel that seemed to ignore the national struggle. But most young urban adults of the rock ’n’ roll era were weary of the sterile rhetoric of the old guard and not immune to the shift to the left evident elsewhere. Connolly and Larkin were being rediscovered; they seemed retrospectively to have had a vision more in tune with the changing world of the sixties. Strumpet City resonated with the folk revival; with Luke Kelly and Joe Hill.
Popular historical fiction, especially when filmed, shapes popular understanding of historical events. Most people, if they know anything at all about the lockout, will think of Strumpet City, the book or the RTÉ series. But are they getting an accurate account? The story is based around real events, though timelines and locations are sometimes rearranged to facilitate the story – the tenement collapse happened in Church Street not Dún Laoghaire – but the story is, in its essence, a faithful account of the 1913 Lockout and the events that preceded it. That is not to say it is a balanced account. While the author avoids polemic, the narrative leaves us in no doubt who are the good guys and who are not. The employers that make an appearance are essentially caricatures ‑ except Yearling, something of a class renegade. William Martin Murphy, who is spoken about regularly and unflatteringly, never makes a personal appearance in the story. A balanced account would require closer examination of the man and his motives. He has been reappraised more kindly by some and it has been argued that he was not anti-union, just anti-Larkin. And Larkin was, it is now generally agreed, frequently difficult, egotistical and inconsistent. Even Connolly recorded his frustration. Murphy was an extraordinarily successful businessman: an international entrepreneur of some stature; the foremost businessman in Dublin; a Catholic of relatively humble origin leading a predominantly Protestant business class. Balance would require attention to these points. But that is a task for the historian.
Plunkett’s objective rather was to remind the reader how it felt; how the city’s most deprived suffered in an unequal struggle against its most privileged. His story captures the simple truth which no post-modernist abstraction should ever be allowed to obscure. Today when antiheroes dominate our fiction we may sometimes forget that there are historical events that are best judged in binary terms: good and bad, justice and injustice. Plunkett, in his old-fashioned way, was never in any doubt which side of this divide he was on. That’s what makes Strumpet City so authentic, and such a pleasure to read again.
Tom Wall is a former Assistant General Secretary of the Irish Congress of Trade Unions. His Masters Degree thesis in UCD is titled “Understanding Irish Social Partnership ‑ An Assessment of Corporatist and Post-Corporatist Perspectives” (2004).