The 32: An Anthology of Irish Working-Class Voices, Paul McVeigh (ed), Unbound, 304 pp, £9.99, ISBN: 978-1800180246
You could say that a strong supply of working class writing has always existed in Ireland, but to find it you’d have to go back to something like amhrain na ndaoine (songs of the people), say, with their tales of hardship, loss, and constricted lives. Before the twentieth century, as a general rule, the poor were subjected to the scrutiny of others, with few displaying the confidence to speak for themselves, or taking their own lives as their subject matter. There were exceptions, of course: the nineteenth century novelist William Carleton comes to mind, along with certain rural weaver-poets who made no bones about sticking up for workers’ entitlements. But an enduring image of mid-nineteenth-century investigative zeal comes with the Rev O’Hanlon on one of his “Walks Among the poor of Belfast”, poking his clerical nose into all manner of blight and debauchery and recoiling in horror from the excesses of the slums. The de-haut-en-bas approach to the miseries of others smacks horribly of condescension, and calls for a retaliatory response on the part of the underprivileged. But cultural, as well as physical, deprivation contributed to the stifling of the Irish working class voice, and it wasn’t until the advent of James Stephens, say, or Sean O’Casey, that its utterances began to make an impact. It was always to some extent a subversive voice, quietly, vociferously or idiomatically expressing attitudes and ideologies unknown to the Big House and its precincts.
Of course, as many people have pointed out, the concept of class in Ireland has always been complicated by politics and religion, by inherited or acquired allegiance to this or that standpoint or institution. And as elsewhere, you have the marked distinction between city and country, when it comes to hard lives and unpropitious circumstances. What’s common to both is the power to endure, to get on with things until that becomes no longer possible. I’m thinking of a novel like Peadar O’Donnell’s Adrigoole (1929), with its downward spiral culminating in death by starvation. Or Patrick McGill, whose intense social criticism outshines his skills as a novelist. These, and other Donegal authors – including those who wrote in Irish, such as Mici Mac Gabhann, with his posthumously published Rotha Mór an tSaoil (1959) – document the shocking conditions imposed on subsistence farmers and their families, and the tortuous escape routes available to the intrepid. (At the same time, such works engendered a satiric impulse in The Poor Mouth author, the ferocious and inspirational Flann O’Brien.)
The Beechmount district of west Belfast makes a setting for the humdrum, closely observed activities of Michael McLaverty’s put-upon cast of characters in his two first (and best) novels, Call My Brother Back (1939) and Lost Fields (1941) – all lucid description and explorations of stressful living, with washing facilities confined to a tap in the scullery and bailiffs carrying out a sofa from the small row house. McLaverty’s Catholic stories of poverty and sectarian apprehension have a counterpart in Robert Harbinson’s Sandy Row memoir No Surrender! (1960) – though Harbinson achieves a rather more buoyant tone. And then comes Sam McAughtry from the Docks area, with his reminiscences and anecdotes geared to startle or hoodwink la-di-dah readers. In the same mode of street-aplomb, but more authoritative and invigorating, is the humorist John Morrow, droll and disabused, whose wit is exercised at the expense of the-powers that be, the daft or the deluded.
What remains, to my mind, the most perfect expression of mid-twentieth-century lower class spirit and resilience is neither urban or rural but mid-way between the two. The events of Come Day – Go Day (1948) by John O’Connor take place in a mill village in Co Armagh, with flooding a continual hazard and women with fearful responsibilities exchanging greetings in the street. It positively bristles with vernacular animation and volubility. Clearly autobiographical, the book is presented as a novel – or at least, as a series of related episodes featuring the sorely tested Coyle family, parents and sons, all adept at giving off and making the most of every small ado. Because it’s Armagh in the 1920s, there is a sectarian element to all of it – “‘You Prodesans had better stay in your houses the day,’ they jeered” (on St Patrick’s Day) – but it’s subordinate to the sense of unthreatening local ructions and everyone continually on the go. The low houses with their rickety roofs and half-doors, the kitchen sweetie shops, the mill and the Asylum looming over everything, make a pungent backdrop to O’Connor’s depiction of particular, bygone, workaday rituals and quirks.
Paul McVeigh is the author of a lively novel, The Good Son (2015), set in Ardoyne with the Troubles in full swing, and a young protagonist whose family can’t afford to let him take up the scholarship he’s won to St Malachy’s Boys’ Grammar School. (He gets there in the end.) The book is full of Belfast robustness and repartee, with Ardoyne in particular awash in British squaddies, bomb scares, and women banging bin lids. (This is the territory of the incomparable Anna Burns too.) With his impressive street credentials, then, McVeigh was a good choice to edit a collection of Irish working class voices, voices geared to ring out clearly, lucidly and unapologetically. “I am a woman. I am a working-class woman. I speak on stages now. I speak loud,” as Trudie Gorman has it in her piece for McVeigh’s anthology.
The 32 was conceived as a counterpart to Kit de Waal’s Common People: An Anthology of Working-Class Writers (2019), which encompasses the English experience. Present-day Ireland is a different matter, for reasons of history, social distribution, the Northern Troubles and so on; but what is clear from both volumes is the fact that people from “disadvantaged” backgrounds are no longer unequipped – practically or psychologically – for higher education or significant achievement in their area of choice. Paul McVeigh’s thirty-two contributors are all alert and articulate. Of course, as with any assembly of diverse authors, the quality and impact of the selected pieces are not unvaried. Some exert a greater appeal than others. Some are trying too hard, some proceed with an enviable ease of manner, some go in for socialist assertion, some are thoughtful, one or two are inert, and many are exhilarating. The aim of each participant is to render the actuality of recent working class experience, whether it’s a matter of being “born and bred” in a council house, a rundown estate, an area of a city “euphemistically called ‘deprived’”, or a Travellers’ van. The names of Finglas, Tallaght, Andersonstown and Ardoyne recur. Parents and relatives as repositories of quiet virtues unappreciated by the rest of the world is a discernible trope. Some intriguing opening sentences whet our reader’s appetites and draw us in: “My father’s family kept an uncle in the attic”; “The first day I bled, armed men took over British Home Stores on O’Connell Street in Dublin, stopping the traffic.”
In his introduction to The 32, Paul McVeigh cites his own experience of supposed impediments to social progress, and adds: “If I’d known a working-class boy from the north [would become] books editor of the Irish Times”, the knowledge might have acted as a spur to his own literary ambitions. He’s referring, of course, to Martin Doyle, whose essay/reminiscence entitled “Dirty Linen” is one of the highlights of the book. Evocative and understated, it covers the early years of the Troubles in south County Down, the murder gangs, sectarian venom, ancestral adversity, the mill-and-factory environs of the rural industrial working class, all arranged in a plangent tableau.
What else? Lisa McInerney has an engaging account of unorthodox family affiliations in a ramshackle part of Co Galway. Claire Allan upholds the camaraderie of Derry women undergoing titivation in a hairdressers’. The effects of unionist misrule in the North are set out succinctly by the journalist Lyra McKee (an accidental victim of dissident republican gunfire), whose book, The Lost Boys, supplies a cogent extract here. “The Hoping Machine”, by Eoin McNamee, records a grim array of working class postures, disabilities, areas of exploitation and humiliation, past and present (or near-present). And the afterword to the collection by Dr Michael Pierse of Queen’s University – “Working-Class Writing in Ireland Today: The 32 and Beyond” – contains a lot of pertinent observations on the genre as a whole.
But what might leave you gasping with admiration is the ironically titled “The Welding Rod’s Contribution to World Literature”, by Dermot Bolger, which lightly and skilfully enumerates the advantages for a working class writer of starting out at the coalface (so to speak). After completing a secondary school education, and with no prospect of university, Bolger found employment as a factory hand and gained the material for his first novel, Night Shift (1985). Still needing an outlet for his prodigious energies, and as a crusader for community arts, he set up a press called Raven Arts, and some years later became co-founder of New Island Books. An appointment as a library assistant, in 1979, got him out of the factory and into his stride as a luminary of imaginative literature. His essay for The 32 is an outstanding testimony to the power of talent, enterprise and determination.
Patricia Craig’s Kilclief & Other Essays is published by Irish Pages and was reviewed by Eve Patten in the September issue of the Dublin Review of Books.