Run Ragged Run
An Irishman’s Diary about Robert Tressell and his famous book
A scene from a dramatisation of Tressell’s The Ragged Trousered Philanthropists performed in London in 1949. Photograph: Bert Hardy/Picture Post/Getty Images
When James Joyce’s Dubliners first appeared in 1914, it carried an advertisement on the dust-jacket for another new book, also by a Dublin-born writer, that would in its own way become a classic.
The Ragged Trousered Philanthropists , it was called: “Trousered” having been chosen by the publishers as a polite substitute for “Arsed”, the word favoured by the writer himself. Although posing as a novel, it was clearly autobiographical, and it went on to be enormously influential on generations of left-wing thinkers.
Among those who loved it was George Orwell. Although he found it “very clumsily written”, he also thought it “wonderful” and it probably inspired some of his own books, including Animal Farm . But it was a big influence on British politics too. Some thought it won Labour the 1945 election.
None of which was much use to the man who wrote it. A house-painter and sign-writer by profession, he was in a pauper’s grave before anyone published him. And even posthumously, he has been denied proper credit. A century on, the book remains much better known than its author.
Part of the problem is that he was a man of multiple identities. The illegitimate son of a Dublin police inspector, he was nevertheless baptised with his father’s surname, as Robert Croker. Later, he dropped this in favour of his mother’s maiden name, becoming Robert Noonan.
Then there’s the pseudonym by which literature knows him, which has its own confusions. Its inspiration was the trestle table house-painters use. Adopting a homophonic version of this, to become Robert Tressell, he was then rendered “Robert Tresall” on all early editions, for no apparent reason.
As well as being a man of many names, Tressell (if we can agree to call him that) was also a man of several countries. Born in Dublin’s Wexford Street in 1870, he moved to England early in life and then emigrated to what is now South Africa in his late teens.
He was in Africa long enough to fraternise with a group of “wild Irishmen” including John MacBride, and to help found the Irish Brigades, if not to join them, fighting with the Boers against the British. By 1901, in any case, he was back in England, at Hastings to be exact, which in the guise of “Mugsborough” became the setting for the famous novel.
This was the defining period in his life. His struggles to make a living, his advancing TB, and the fear that he and his daughter Kathleen would end up in the workhouse all helped inform the book, which was subtitled “the story of twelve months in hell, told by one of the damned”. He and Kathleen had just moved to Liverpool, and were planning to emigrate again – this time to Canada – when he died in 1911, aged 40. It was she who saved the book for posterity after, despairing over publishers’ rejections, the author tried to burn it. Now, belatedly, she managed to sell the rights, albeit for only £25.
Kerry-born writer Bryan MacMahon has just published a partial biography of Tressell. It’s a necessarily slim work, but it’s a worthy attempt to fill some of the gaps in Tressell’s story, and it’s also for a good cause, of which more.
Among other things, MacMahon investigates the dimly-lit life of Tressell’s mother, Mary Noonan, with whom Samuel Croker – the police inspector – had seven children. He never married her, being married already. And for part of their time together, Mary Noonan lived in Dublin’s Montgomery Street, an address with certain implications then.
Better known as Monto, it was the centre of Europe’s biggest red light district, immortalised in literature by the aforementioned Joyce. But MacMahon surmises that Tressell’s mother may have been one of the “fortunate few [women in the area] who were lifted out of a life of poverty by association with a wealthy man”. If so, her ascent of the social ladder seems to have continued after Croker’s death in 1875, when she moved to London and married a Swiss cabinet maker named Zumbuhl.
These and other details will feature in a centenary seminar in Hastings next month, with MacMahon among the speakers. In the meantime, his book. Robert Tressell, Dubliner , is available from selected city bookshops and from the Kilmacud Stillorgan History Society (www.kilmacudstillorganhistory.ie), which published it. The price is €10. Any profits will go to the children’s charity Barnardos.