Is 'Strumpet City' the great Irish novel?

 

Plunkett possessed an honourable social consciousness, and endures as an artist through his great Dublin novel, writes EILEEN BATTERSBY

IF ULYSSESIS Dublin’s odyssey, Strumpet Cityis Dublin’s epic. James Plunkett’s panoramic masterpiece is shaped by the Joyce of Dublinersbut also by the social realism of Dickens and above all, Zola. There are no literary tricks, no displays of cleverness, little rhetoric and less sentimentality; it is full-hearted, astutely observed novel writing at its most cohesive.

Many studies have been written about the quest for the Great American Novel. Anyone seeking its Great Irish equivalent need search no further.

Here is a book possessed of a rare integrity and genuine pathos by a writer born in 1920 into the testing Dublin working class world that had, a generation earlier, produced James Stephens. Considering that much of Plunkett’s inspiration came from his reverence for James Larkin, as well as a life-long belief in labour politics – Strumpet Cityis no mere polemic.

It is a work of art in which a large, convincing cast of characters, the Dublin poor, some bickering priests, contrasting members of the middle class and often viciously human policemen confront poverty, personal doubt and regret in post-Edwardian, Lockout Dublin as it becomes paralysed by the battle for the rights of workers.

Bob Fitz falls in love with Mary, a farm girl who has moved to the city. Their romance, initially conducted in secret, eventually causes her to leave her job with the Bradshaws whose new money middle-class existence draws its wealth from tenement rentals. Married life for a working-class girl means living in overcrowded slum conditions and queuing at the local pawnshop. For those born into poverty, a day’s work amounts to being able to eat and feed a wife and children.

For the unstable, young Father O’Connor, torn between fond memories of his beloved mother, his interest in musical evenings and his egotistical pursuit of sanctity, being posted to a slum parish will consolidate his vocation. Father Giffley, the older, wiser, alcoholic, possibly insane parish priest and one of the most powerfully evoked characters in Irish literature, knows otherwise: “It’s almost 30 years since I first came to the Dublin slums. I didn’t come like you, looking for dirty work, I came because I was sent. They knew my weakness for good society and good conversation. I suppose they thought they’d cure me by giving me the faces of the destitute to console me and the minds of the ignorant to entertain me.”

It is Giffley, not the snobbish if intent do-gooder O’Connor, who reveals true humanity when engaging with ailing down-and-out Rashers Tierney whose wit, anger, degradation and evolving tragedy dominate the narrative. While the pampered, Anglo-Irish bachelor Yearling ponders his lonely life and lack of love, the heroic working man Mulhall loses both legs in a freak accident minutes after he has prevented a similar mishap.

In common with much of the finest fiction, Strumpet Cityis vivid social history come to life in a claustrophobic, battered and unforgiving city stumbling towards change.

The first of his three novels, Strumpet Cityis the work that consolidated James Plunkett Kelly’s literary status. By instinct a short story writer with a flair for characterisation, he wrote several outstanding stories such as The Trusting and the Maimed, Janey Mary, Dublin Fusilier, The Half-Crown, The Weband The Eagles and the Trumpets. Frank O’Connor championed the young Plunkett and both shared the vital gift of understatement. They were also realists. Plunkett, a committed socialist, never idealised the plight of the working class.

Through the pages of The Bellhe became a highly respected writer. He had worked briefly with Larkin while serving as secretary to the Worker’s Union of Ireland.

Having written Big Jim, a radio play based on the messianic labour leader and the strike which lead to the 1913 Lockout and resulting mass poverty, Plunkett then went on to complete The Risen People, a stage play, which premiered at the Abbey in 1958. By then he had joined RTÉ, initially working in radio and transferred to television in 1961, eventually becoming head of drama. Hugh Leonard’s seven-part adaptation of Strumpet Cityremains one of the landmark achievements of Irish television.

Plunkett the Dubliner possessed of an honourable social consciousness, and who died in 2003 aged 83, endures as an artist through the graphic eloquence of his great Dublin novel; equally one of the most defining episodes in the making of modern Ireland is brought to life throughout its haunting and humane narrative.