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Plunkett’s City

Gerald Dawe

Strumpet City’s timely selection in 2013 for the prestigious Dublin: One City, One Book programme brought back into public view a great novel. In what follows I’d like to consider the novel as mediation between poetry and the city of Dublin. It will come as little surprise when I say that Strumpet City is itself full of poetry. For not only is James Plunkett’s writing charged with a kind of poetic lyricism from the beginning to the end of the novel’s almost 550 pages but different kinds of poetry pervade the text as well. For all the realistic detail and historical sweep of the story there is a great sense of the physical and natural world, which is captivating even when the focus is disturbing and grotesque – such as in poor Rashers’s death scene. The streetscapes and civic spaces of two urban environments (Dublin and Kingstown) are the twin tracks along which run the parallel, if at times intersecting lives of Plunkett’s unforgettable characters. The journey between both these dramatised worlds is rendered swiftly but tellingly in Plunkett’s attentive descriptiveness:

Yearling, back in the city for the first time in six weeks, remarked anew its characteristic odours; the smell of soot and hot metal in Westland Row station, the dust-laden air in streets, the strong tang of horse urine where the cabbies had their stand, the waft of beer and stale sawdust when a public house door swung open. If the fishing in Connemara had been poor this season, at least the open spaces had given him back his nose.

While there is movement between Dublin and Kingstown, and an awareness of the coastline of Dublin and its southern shores, Strumpet City is also characterised by numerous walks in and around the city and jaunts out to the seafronts. These walks – as characters talk to one another, but also observe the city around them – are part of a long tradition of perambulation in Irish writing. Certainly in terms of twentieth century Irish writing, Dublin is a greatly walked city. Out of this journeying the experience of what is seen – from gardens and houses of the middle class to the inner city tenements of the working class, the public parks, available spaces and greens, the intimacies of the snug pub life, canal ways and urban villages – are translated by the writer’s mind into fiction and poetry.

Examining the list of twentieth century writing to have explored Dublin would take up all my space: from Joyce’s Dubliners to Ulysses through Samuel Beckett’s early fiction such as More Pricks than Kicks and Murphy, and his sequence of journeying poems Echo’s Bones; through to Patrick Kavanagh, Austin Clarke and Thomas Kinsella, whose “Nightwalker”, published the year before Strumpet City, is one of the great Dublin poems of the last century; to plays such as Sean O’Casey’s Dublin trilogy and, say, Thomas Kilroy’s Talbot’s Box; not to mention poems about Dublin by long-time visitors such as Louis MacNeice or Philip Larkin, and long-time dwellers in the city such as Brendan Kennelly and Michael Hartnett. For a recent perspective, I recommend Maria Johnston’s “Walking Dublin: Contemporary Poets in the City” in the imposing Oxford Handbook of Modern Irish Poetry, edited by Fran Brearton and Alan Gillis.

Strumpet City is rooted in a particular time as much as the characters are formed by the lives they lead in particular places – Chandlers Court, the Catholic presbytery and the houses of upper middle class Kingstown. The novel begins in 1907 and concludes in 1914 with a troopship leaving Dublin Bay for the battlefields of World War I. The centrepiece of these seven years is the 1913 lockout and the struggle for social justice and democracy in Ireland, with Dublin as the cockpit. Swirling around this intensifying period of political and economic conflict, Strumpet City embodies with an understated yet revealing intelligence the cultural world of the time. A little like Joyce in “The Dead”, Plunkett contrasts the poetic life of the streets – tragic and, at times, with a tragicomic intensity – with the cultural preoccupations of the drawing room and the fraught propriety of manners.

In the middle of this contradictory world there is, as a fixed point of reference, Rashers Tierney, like a refugee from mid-nineteenth century post-famine Ireland. A figure like the wandering Irish bard Raftery, Rashers can turn his hand to writing ballads, songs and street rhymes, playing his tin whistle and making recitals at the drop of a hat, or more likely, a penny. On the other hand the Bradshaws, Yearlings and Fr O’Connorses entertain themselves somewhat differently:

Mr Yearling suggested the introduction to the second act which contained a sombre opening for the ’cello, but little else that the company could manage satisfactorily, because of the disposition of the voices and the fact that it required a chorus too. Father O’Connor came out best, with a moving interpretation of “Is Life a Boon?” Mr Bradshaw remained silent but Mr Yearling supplied an obbligato on the ’cello. Then Mrs Bradshaw, knowing how much her husband enjoyed singing and not wishing him to feel neglected, closed the score and produced a volume of Moore’s Melodies which contained duets which occupied everybody, the priest and Mr Bradshaw on the voice parts, accompanied by piano and Mr Yearling’s clever ’cello improvisations. Then she asked if it was time for soup.

The singing of “Life is a Boon” sentimentally brings to Yearling’s mind a Joyce-like epiphany, similar to those of the masterly story “The Dead”. And a little like the argument between Gabriel and Miss Ivors in that story, there runs throughout Plunkett’s novel an underacknowledged narrative concerning the intellectual arguments of the time. Heading in to town to meet Fr O’Connor, we are told that Yearling “liked travelling by train especially on the Kingstown line”:

He liked the yachts with coloured sails in the harbour, the blue shape of Howth Hill across the waters of the bay, the bathers and the children digging sandcastles. These were pleasant to look at in the last hours of an August evening. Yearling loved his city, her soft salt-like air, the peace of her evenings, the easy conversation of her people. He liked the quiet crossings at Sydney Parade and the Lansdowne Road, simply because he had swung on them as a schoolboy. The gasometers near Westland Row were friends of his. He could remember passing them many a time as a young man making amorous expeditions to the city. When he looked at these things they in some way kept the presence of loved people who were now dead or in exile […]

The idyll of the moment is soon to be shattered however, and who is associated with this pivotal change of tone? None other than William Butler Yeats:

“I hope Mr and Mrs Bradshaw are enjoying the theatre,” Father O’Connor offered. They had gone to the Abbey to see Mr Yeats’s Kathleen Ni Houilhan and a play called The Eloquent Dempsey by a Mr Boyle. Later they would call to the Imperial for a light supper with Yearling and Father O’Connor. Father O’Connor’s cloth forbade him to enter a playhouse. Yearling had been disinclined.
“They’re welcome to my share of Mr Yeats,” he said, rising to look more closely at the street […] What he saw drove the thought from his mind. There was no traffic to be seen in the street below. At the end near the bridge a cordon of police stood with batons drawn.
“Come and look,” he said to Father O’Connor. They both stood and watched. Yearling opened the window a little. From the streets to their right came the sounds of people shouting and glass breaking.
“My God,” Yearling said, “a riot”.

As the riot unfolds, with looting and “a bombardment of stones”, Yearling, opening the windows wider, drew Father O’Connor with him as he stepped out on to the balcony. “‘Bradshaw should have come here,’ he remarked, pointing to the milling crowd below. ‘There’s the real Kathleen Ni Houlihan for you.’”

History has literally broken into Yearling’s reverie of his past life as both he and O’Connor are confronted with the reality of their city’s poor attacking the forces of law and order. It is an important juncture in the novel, roughly halfway through. A little later, Yeats comes back into the frame. It is the following year on St Patrick’s Day. Yearling and O’Connor have spent the evening in the drawing room of the Bradshaws’ Kingstown home where they have been singing Moore’s melodies:

On the way home Yearling and Father O’Connor spoke of Ireland in a sentimental way, of her sad history, of her hopes of nationhood so often and so bloodily thwarted, of the theatre of Mr Yeats and Mr Synge. Father O’Connor confessed that he had not seen any of the plays, but he had heard that they were in tone and language somewhat immoral. How much better Tom Moore had served Ireland through the medium of music and literature. He quoted:
Dear Harp of my country in darkness I found thee
The cold chain of silence had hung o’er thee long.
When proudly, my own island Harp I unbound thee
And gave all thy chords to light Freedom and Song.
Yearling agreed. He said he wished often that he could have been present when the brave Tom was bringing tears to the eyes of the pretty ladies in early nineteenth century London drawing rooms by singing them songs that were sweetly seditious.

What follows is a short discussion between the two men about what will happen – Home Rule is “a mirage”, Yearling states, “Carson will stop it” – before they leave and Yearling drops off the priest at his church where the “railings were black and forbidding, and the bulk of the church rose darkly against the sky”.

The sense of imminent catastrophe deepens from this point onwards as the lock-out begins. The political heat is turned up and local disaster comes to Bradshaw’s Kingstown door with the collapse of tenements Bradshaw owns and the death of several of the occupants:

“We live in terrible times,” Mrs Bradshaw said. The ambulance bells, the gusting wind, filled her with foreboding. Outside the cosy circle of lamplight lay all the uncertainty and hardship of the world.
“I went shopping in town last week,” she told them. “It was terrifying. There were little children everywhere and they were begging for pennies.”

The priest will have none of this, though: speaking “directly to Mrs Bradshaw, he remarks, ‘I know how cold and even cruel it must all sound to a nature that is tender and maternal, we must harden our hearts.’ Her husband set his mouth and nodded approvingly. She lowered her eyes.” But it is Yearling who reacts, and it is telling to see how:

He found his sympathy to be completely on Larkin’s side. The discovery filled him with good humour. In future he would help them whenever he could. He would not be the only one of his class to do so. George Bernard Shaw had spoken for them. George Russell, the mad mystic, had written a scathing letter against the employers. William Orpen, the painter, and several highly respected intellectuals were denouncing William Martin Murphy and his policy of starvation.

Yearling does indeed follow this path. He meets the “poet William Mathews”, a “follower of Jim Larkin” and is, if you like, inducted into “Larkinism […] the fashion among the writers and the intellectuals”. Moran in the Leader has suggested that Liberty Hall ought to form a poets’ branch. Russell had written a moving letter in The Irish Times on the strikers’ behalf. Shaw had championed them at a meeting in London. “You should write them a marching song,” Yearling suggests, “something bloodthirsty”, to which Mathews replies, “I’ve done more than that […] I’ve helped in Liberty Hall.”

Outside of those drawing room lyrics that are sung to accompanying piano and ’cello and the regaling of the songs of the streets and political ballads, of which Strumpet City has its share, there is the allusive presence of the great founding fathers of Irish cultural nationalism, of Yeats and Synge and George Russell, set alongside the hardcore political and trade union activists, based around the all-embracing figure of Larkin. However, we should not forget the somewhat curious figure of the visiting German Jesuit, Reverend Father Boehm, “a Gaelic scholar of distinction” who is to lead the Rosary during St Patrick’s Day and deliver the sermon (in Irish) on devotions at St Brigid’s.

At supper the German priest discusses early Irish monasticism and Kuno Meyer’s Ancient Irish Poetry, reciting “The Hermit’s Song”, a ninth century poem to which the unctuous Fr O’Connor remarks: “‘What a pity we cannot all follow the poet,’ regretting the need to be involved with the world.” Bearing in mind what is actually happening in their world, the Dublin he is living in, the yearning to escape has its own kind of sad story attached. For Fr O’Connor’s “involvement” is going to get much more torturously present as he is called away from the supper and the “amicable and talkative” Fr Boehm by the news that “Someone has been killed – or has been found dead, I cannot be sure which – in Chandlers Court.”

Once again, the poetry of the moment – in this instance, quite literally the poetry of the Irish monastic tradition– is interrupted by the reality of the lives (or the appalling death) of the poor (Rashers Tierney). The revelatory moment that awaits Fr O’Connor has its own poetic intention which, in deference to those who haven’t read the novel as yet, I will pass over.

For all his high talk to the contrary, Yeats, a shadowy influence throughout Strumpet City, was emotionally and intellectually “involved with the world”. While he swung like a pendulum throughout his writing life between engagement such as Yearling’s and rejection, like Bradshaw or O’Connor, his sense of ordinary working lives was not based around the urban poor but the idealised rural labourer – the peasant. That said, he was aware of “the great hardship” – his words – that the Lockout of 1913 had caused and several of the poems written during the time in which Strumpet City is set (1907–1914) are in themselves distinctly political statements. As Terence Brown remarked in his critical biography, The Life of WB Yeats, “the poet in his mid-forties remained a passionate man who could be overcome with intense feelings of anger, perhaps the most eruptive emotion in his psychological make-up. Not all was mask and studied performance.”

Yeats’s distaste is well-documented for the materialistic-minded business class who orchestrated the lockout, including, to quote Yeats, “an old foul mouth”, William Martin Murphy. Murphy had attacked Yeats and in his Irish Independent had disapproved of Yeats’s mentor and friend, Lady Gregory’s nephew, Hugh Lane’s, proposals for a Dublin Municipal Gallery of Art. The cultural politics surrounding 1913 – from the symbolic visit of the British monarchy in 1907, with which Strumpet City opens, to the shutting up of Yearling’s house in Kingstown and his returning to London (“It was time to go. There was nothing to stay for any longer”) – are recorded in Yeats’s poems of the time, where we find the sense of weighing up history at a critical point of change. The beginnings, if you like, of the end of imperial rule in Ireland. In part, at least, Yeats’s poetry gives voice to this process as a process of cultural change.

Written over fifty years after the events of 1913 and what 1913 ultimately lead to, Plunkett’s novel had of course the benefit of hindsight. Yeats worked instead on contemporaneous instinct and immediate reaction. It was some achievement. One needs look no further than his poem “September 1913”. Written in August 1913 and published in The Irish Times on September 8th, 1913 as “Romance in Ireland: On reading much of the correspondence against the Arts Gallery”, the poem was published in an interim collection before appearing in Responsibilities, Yeats’s breakthrough volume of 1914.

As a poem of its time “September 1913” sets down a marker about what Plunkett refers to as “the stricken city” and its likely future. “September 1913” is full of subdued anger and dismissiveness directed at those who, with money and business solely on their minds, demonstrate little genuine feeling for the integrity of the country and its idealistic past and use nationalist sentiment for their own gain. The disdain that Yeats expresses here and in other poems written at the same time – “lethal broadsides” as they have been called – such as “Paudeen” and “To a Shade” are explicitly connected to events taking place in what he calls, in “To a Shade”, “the town” – Dublin.

Indeed, “To a Shade” describes the city topographically in almost the same way that Yeats name-checked the rivers, hills and townlands of his beloved west of Ireland. The references here though are to the “monument” – Parnell’s monument at the top of O’Connell Street – the “gaunt” houses of Dublin that anticipate those “grey eighteenth century houses” out of which the leaders of the Rising will appear in “Easter 1916”, and to Glasnevin, the resting place of another great Irish leader, Parnell, who had been buried there a generation before in 1891, another of Yeats’s spirited anti-heroes.

Over thirty years ago, Terence Brown noted in a landmark essay, “Dublin in Twentieth Century Writing: Metaphor and Subject”, that for Yeats, “Irish reality, at its most authentic, is rural, anti-industrial, spiritually remote from the life of the town or city”. Yet it is possible to discern a change taking place in “To a Shade” as the city is “momentarily transformed by the evening light and by a purgative wind from the sea, allowing for a moment of austere drama and possibly an earnest glimpse of the future”.

Brown goes on to suggest that in his talismanic poem “Easter 1916”, which is set in Dublin (Yeats called the Rising, in a published note to an expanded trade edition of Responsibilities published in 1916, “the Late Dublin Rebellion”), though suffused with images of the countryside, Yeats’s “transformation of the city is no momentary trick of evening light”. For the future Senator Yeats had discovered by and in “Easter 1916” a way to celebrate – along with much else – “an absolute transformation of a city from apparent comic irrelevance to a tragic centrality in the drama of a nation’s regeneration”. The “greasy till”, “shivering prayer” and “old Paudeen in his shop” from the poems of 1913-14 had been redeemed.

And this is basically where Strumpet City leaves us too, in the knowledge of what would happen in the intervening years between the outbreak of World War I, the Easter Rising, the War of Independence and the Civil War and the beginnings, forty-five years later, of the Northern “Troubles” which were unfolding at the time James Plunkett’s novel was first published in 1969.
5/05/2014

Gerald Dawe’s poetry collections include Selected Poems (2012) and, forthcoming, Mickey Finn’s Air (both from The Gallery Press). The Stoic Man: Poetry Memoirs, the fourth and final part of a quartet of autobiographical and literary writing, will be published later this year by Lagan Press.

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