Unlocking the story of the struggle

James Plunkett, the son of a Larkinite, successfully sought to restore to public consciousness the story of the Lockout by turning it into a bestselling novel, ‘Strumpet City’. Tom Wall tells his story

David Kelly as Rashers and Brendan Cauldwell as Toucher Hennessy in RTE's adaptation of Strumpet City

David Kelly as Rashers and Brendan Cauldwell as Toucher Hennessy in RTE's adaptation of Strumpet City

 

An important achievement of the Lockout, as James Plunkett saw it, was that a whole forgotten class had emerged from obscurity. Modesty would have precluded him mentioning that their struggle was in danger of being forgotten until his book, Strumpet City, and the RTÉ series based on it, restored it to public consciousness.

Before then it was in danger of becoming forgotten history; largely obscured by an exclusively nationalist narrative; viewed as an unsettling escapade in the minds of a conservative political and religious elite. The book was widely read but it was the 1980 TV series that brought the story into every home. Who beyond a certain age cannot vividly recall the character of Rashers Tierney, wonderfully portrayed by the late David Kelly?

While Hugh Leonard’s screenplay remained faithful to Plunkett’s story, as ever, something is lost in the conversion from page to screen. James Plunkett toiled long and hard over the book. It was his first attempt at a novel that would define his status as a writer.

He also had unselfish ambitions for it. For him, the work was a mission of remembrance. His father was a Larkinite. When he himself became involved in the Workers Union of Ireland he got to know the ageing Larkin and many of his old stalwarts. He learnt from them about the struggle to organise the union culminating in the employers’ lockout of Transport Union members. Their story deserved to be remembered.

When Plunkett first began to write he was advised by Sean O’Faolain to write from his own experience. He followed this advice in Strumpet City. Plunkett grew up near where most of the story is set. The south quays, Ringsend area had not changed much. Most of the tenements remained. The level of poverty was only a little ameliorated.

He started work in the Gas Company where nearby Tonge and Taggart, “Morgan’s Foundry” in the book, was still operating. He modelled his characters on people he knew, some of them veterans of the Lockout. He had insights into the middle class: Plunkett’s father worked as a chauffeur and he would have heard stories from him about the rich people he worked for.

He had been an altar boy and used his knowledge of Catholic regalia in the episodes involving the priests. He loved music – he played the violin and his wife the piano – and this comes across in his depictions of the Bradshaws’ musical soirees and Rasher’s tin whistling.

Moreover, the way the characters and their wanderings, initially disconnected, come to be woven into the story has a musical resonance; what he called the contrapuntal style. It’s a beautifully written book, a fitting homage to his city and to its most deprived citizenry.

The author of the historical novel imagines what people, real or fictional, caught up in history-making events, experienced, said and felt. The tendency, from Walter Scott to Walter Macken, had been to romanticise the vanquished and demonise the victor, producing a memorable but, at least, reductionist account of events.

Does Strumpet City fall into this category of historical fiction? It might be argued that Fitz and Mary, the central characters, are too blemish-free, too self-sacrificing; in essence a too romanticised representation of their class. Mary seems to accept her family’s decline into destitution too passively.

Fitz allowed his principles to jettison their chance to escape poverty by way of his promotion to foreman. Today this might seem heroic, fanciful even. But Plunkett clearly had an example in mind. The young, newly married James Larkin joined a Liverpool dock strike in 1905, thereby losing his foreman’s job. Values and commitment were different a century ago.

Values change over time and Plunkett’s shaped his interpretation. The relative absence of nationalist sentiment expressed by his characters, with the exception of the elderly Miss Gilchrist, may reflect his background – his father was in the British Army – or, more likely, the changed perspectives of the 1960s. Plunkett was a practising Catholic often at odds with his church and his dissidence gave vibrancy to the quarrels of Frs O’Connor and Giffley.

Pádraig Yeates, in the preface to his definitive history of the Lockout, states: “For the most part the Lockout was a far shabbier, bloodier and more mundane affair than myth allows”. Plunkett didn’t entirely ignore the more ignoble aspects of the workers resistance to the lockout. Bernard Mulhall and Pat Bannister had no qualms about inflicting injury on those suspected of scabbing.

Although not overly romanticising the workers’ struggle, Plunkett would never have claimed to have written a balanced account. Balance is best left to historians. Plunkett set out to describe, not just what happened but how it felt; how the city’s most deprived suffered in an unequal struggle against its most privileged.

Not being balanced does not mean that his story isn’t true or fair. There are historical events, and current issues too, which it is justifiable to describe in terms of right and wrong; justice and injustice. Plunkett left us in no doubt as to which side of that divide he was on.

Tom Wall is a former Assistant General Secretary of the ICTU