THE organisers of the Dublin: One City, One Book Festival, which is the focal point for a month of literary events in April, have chosen well with this year’s selection, James Plunkett’s Strumpet City.
The centenary of Dublin’s 1913 Lock-out falls this year and much of the action of Strumpet City, which opens with King Edward VII’s royal visit in 1907 and closes with one of the novel’s characters sailing off to fight in the Great War, hangs on it.
There are vivid re-creations of the strikes which led up to the lock-out in August that year, of the hunger and deprivation it unleashed, of police baton charges, of strikers’ rallies and the banners they marched under: “Arise, Ye Slaves.”
Strumpet City, which could lay claim to being Ireland’s greatest historical novel, unfurls several other narrative strands, among them the central relationship of Fitz and Mary; the unorthodox love affair between Fitz’s workmate Pat and Lily, a prostitute; the class snob Fr O’Connor’s battles of conscience; and the travails of the loveable down-and-out Rashers Tierney and his dog, Rusty. Apparently, Rashers was based on a Dublin character known as Johnny Forty Coats.
The book contains many familiar landmarks, such as the snug in Mulligan’s pub on Poolbeg Street (a haunt also referenced by Joyce), and interesting social detail. The character of Mary, for example, who was working in service, was forbidden to date lovers by her masters, the Bradshaws. They, incidentally, also discard housekeeper Miss Gilchrist to the workhouse when she suffers a stroke. While courting, Mary and Fitz used a sweetshop to leave each other notes.
“It was a book that people read,” says playwright Peter Sheridan, who devoured it on its publication in 1969. “There are books that people talk about. People talk about Ulysses. They don’t really read it. They talk about Samuel Beckett’s novels, but they’re not books that are read. They’re books that are admired. People have copies in their houses, but Strumpet City was read. People passed it from one to the other. People said, ‘You gotta read that’, so they gave it away.”
During the 1970s, Sheridan revived The Risen People, Plunkett’s play, which the novel is based on, with his brother Jim at the Project Arts Centre. It was their only play, says Sheridan, that never played to an empty seat. The stage drama was itself based on a radio play aired in 1957, but it is the seven-part TV series, which first broadcast on RTÉ in 1980, that is foremost in people’s minds. That adaptation featured Cyril Cusack as a parish priest who likes whiskey to help conquer “a raw morning”, Donal McCann as the bull-headed Mulhall and a cameo from Peter Ustinov as King Edward VII.
Bryan Murray, who played Fitz, the lead character, alongside his former wife, Angela Harding, as Mary, remembers they were first called to set for 10am, on Jan 29, 1979, and continued shooting until September of that year. He reckons this afforded them twice the amount of time for a shoot compared to the norm today.
He fondly remembers David Kelly’s turn as Rashers Tierney and in particular scenes of Peter O’Toole playing Jim Larkin, delivering grandstand speeches from the Imperial Hotel on Sackville Street (what is today Cleary’s department store on O’Connell Street) and one to strikers while on board a rowboat. The long lens shots capture the trademark wine-opener pose, arms outstretched while he belts out his gospel.
“He’s presented in the book as very much a figurative player,” says Murray. “We don’t hear much of what he says; just the men’s reaction to the magnetism of Larkin. For that scene on the docks, there were so many men on it that they wondered how he would speak to them so he spoke to them from a boat. We shot the famous Peter O’Toole in the boat, with a couple of hundred workers crowded around on the docks, surrounded by policemen. He speaks from the water, almost Christ-like.
“He was brilliantly portrayed by O’Toole. He played him as a man on fire, exactly as he should have been played. You could almost hear O’Toole’s big, bellowing voice, a voice of sanity crying out in the wilderness trying to support these men in some way.”
Fr O’Connor, and the journey he undertakes, is one of the novel’s more engaging subplots. His repulsive snobbery is entrancing, although we judge him by moral standards of a different age.
He resented the strikers because they drove respectable people off the pavements. He pitied the poor, but poverty disgusted him. On the impending marriage of Fitz and Mary, he ponders: “To get married. To sleep in the sweat of one bed and deposit in due time a few more animal faces among the dirt and the dilapidation.”
The conditions Dublin’s poor lived under at the time were jaw-dropping. Sheridan paints a picture of streets overrun with street urchins — feral, barefoot children scouring bins for half-burnt cinders.
“We know from the 1911 Census that there were 20,000 families living in single-room dwellings in tenement houses,” says Catriona Crowe, head of special projects at the National Archives of Ireland. “To think for even two minutes what that meant: many of them had 10, 11, 12 members in the family.
“Many had three generations living in that room, for example a grandmother or relative living with the family. Some families might have had foster children living with them.
“In one room, how do you manage sleeping, privacy, intimacy? You have real competition for scarce space. They were large rooms with high ceilings so they were very difficult to heat. Women suffered particularly because they were the ones who carried water up the stairs of a five-storey building, usually from a single tap in a yard outside; similarly with the carting of babies and baby carriages.”
The diet of these tenement dwellers was also very poor.
“Largely bread-and-dripping and tea and maybe a bit of bacon on a Sunday if they were lucky,” says Crowe. “A lot of people got TB, typhoid and dysentery and so on. There was a very high infant mortality rate and the worst slums in Europe at the time. It was gruesome.”
For all the light the novel throws on poverty, politics and the flawed nature of priests, Plunkett attributed the novel’s success to his focus on character, once remarking: “I didn’t take my eye away from the people at any stage.”
Sheridan admires how Plunkett makes the story move along. “He makes it easier rather than difficult for the reader. It’s one of those books that you snuggle into in the bed and you resent the fact that the pages are going by because you’re wishing the experience would last longer.”
n Strumpet City is re-published by Gill & Macmillan. The Dublin: One City, One Book Festival runs for the month of April. dublinonecityonebook.ie.
BIG JIM: James Larkin and the Lock-out
Larkin delivers a speech to workers; police and rioters outside Liberty Hall in Dublin on Aug 31, 1913, after a meeting by striking tramway workers. Trouble broke out and in the fighting two civilians were killed, along with 433 injured. About 45 policemen were hurt.
“His name endures on our holiest page/Scrawled in a rage by Dublin’s poor,” wrote Austin Clarke.
The curious biographical fact about celestial ‘Big Jim’ Larkin, whose bronze statue on Dublin’s O’Connell Street was erected in 1977, was that he was a scouser, born to Irish parents in Liverpool in 1876. His father, a fitter, died from TB in 1887. Also, interestingly, James Plunkett worked under Larkin in the Workers’ Union of Ireland for a year until Larkin’s death in 1947.
Larkin was made a foreman docker in 1903, but got sacked for his part in the 1905 Liverpool dock strike. He took full-time to politics and trade unionism thereafter, arriving in Ireland in 1907 as a trade union official in Belfast. His agitation took him south to Dublin, where he endured several imprisonments, including one during the Lock-out, which kicked off on Aug 26, 1913.
Larkin called the strike in the middle of Horse Show week. Famously, passengers were abandoned by drivers while riding aboard trams on O’Connell St, then known as Sackville St. The strike was precipitated by Corkman William Martin Murphy’s dismissal of tramway workers and newspaper staff from the Irish Independent for membership in Larkin’s Irish Transport and General Workers Union.
Labour leaders, including James Connolly, were arrested on Aug 30, 1913. An order was issued for Larkin’s arrest, but he holed up in Countess Markievicz’s house. Clashes with police resulted in the deaths of two strikers, James Nolan and John Byrne. The following day, Aug 31, 1913, in what was Dublin’s first ‘Bloody Sunday’, Larkin appeared, audaciously, on a balcony of the Imperial Hotel (owned by Murphy) to deliver a speech to the strikers and their supporters.
The next day, Jacob’s biscuit factory locked out its workers. The Dublin Coal Merchants’ Association followed suit. By the end of September, 20,000 people had lost their jobs; their dependents numbered five times as many. Aid, approximately £150,000, was sent from British trade unions. The Catholic Church and Irish nationalist movement objected to plans to send children to Britain. Eventually, the strike ended in January 1914 (although the women at Jacob’s didn’t return to work until March 1914). Those who got their jobs back found their conditions to be the same, or worse; for those who didn’t, emigration or the trenches in France beckoned.
“He was a very divisive figure,” says Diarmaid Ferriter, professor of modern Irish history at UCD. “He occupies that difficult place: 1913 is a defeat for the workers in the short term. Larkin is devastated. He leaves the country.
“The ideological aspect of the labour question had been drowned out by nationalism and republicanism.
“He comes back to a civil war, and tries to re-gain his position as the labour leader, but if you ask people who they associate with Irish labour history, they’re more likely to say James Connolly than Jim Larkin. He was overshadowed because of the way Connolly died.
“The importance of Larkin is that he laid the foundations for the modern labour movement and trade union movement. You can’t overestimate that.”
* James Larkin: Lion of the Fold is edited by Donal Nevin and published by Gill & Macmillan
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