Gill & Macmillan. 1969. 549 pgs with introduction by Fintan O’Toole.
Other books I’ve ready by Plunkett: none. Plunkett was a native Dubliner who worked as a producer for RTE, the Irish national radio broadcaster. He was also active in the Workers Union of Ireland, where he operated as a staff secretary under the famous Irish labor organizer, Jim Larkin. Plunkett wrote other books and plays; Strumpet City is considered his masterpiece.
And masterpiece it is. Strumpet City follows a handful of representative Dubliners — upper class, clergy, lower class — for seven critical years in the city’s history, concluding with the Dublin Lockout of 1913.
The Lockout was a brutal struggle between employers and workers in Dublin culminating with the eventual starving out and defeat of the workers. The conflict revolved around the worker’s right to unionize, which at that time was a novel concept. While the workers’ demands seemed relatively mild, including the right to be paid for overtime, the employers’ response was savage. A federation of 300 employers, led by the owner of the city’s tramway company, forced workers to renounce their union memberships — or be “locked out” of their respective factories, shops or places of employment. At the time of the Lockout, Dublin industry was service-based, and fueled by low-skilled, low-wage workers. Living conditions were abysmal. Dublin had one of the highest infant mortality rates in Europe and tuberculosis was common. As a result of the Lockout, 20,000 workers, representing about another 80,000 dependents, were thrown out of work. Employers, in their turn, either shut down their workplaces or employed scab labor who toiled under police protection. Accordingly, the Lockout resulted in many Dublin businesses declaring bankruptcy. Many of the clergy, instead of protecting the helpless, connived with the employers by withholding charity from striking families. To the clergy, the unions represented Socialism, one step away from atheism. In one memorable scene, Dublin priests prevent a convoy of hungry children from leaving the city for refuge with Protestant trade unionist families. Starvation, you see, would be preferable to the loss of the Catholic influence.
One of the novel’s strengths is it tapestry of characters — each drawn so skillfully that even the minor players haunt you once the book is over. Plunkett divides his characters into upper class, clergy and lower class — but of course, nothing about the book is that simplistic. There are heroes and devils sprinkled liberally throughout all three domains and perhaps even more terrifyingly — the horror of the banality of evil, poverty, disease and disparity between the haves and havenots. In one of my favorite scenes, the alcoholic priest Father Giffley visits Jim Larkin, Dublin’s union leader and a real life character:
There is something I need advice about,’ Father Giffley said. “Today, in one of the houses in my parish I found a body of police who were acting like blackguards. They had beaten a man and terrified his wife and children….”
“Didn’t you know that it happens all the time?”
“Perhaps I did. But I had never witnessed it before. I intend to lodge a complaint and if necessary, give evidence. I want advice on how best to go about it.”
“It would do no good.”
“It can be tried.”
“It has been tried countless times already,” Larkin said. “by eminent men who have courage and sympathy. And by a few men of your own calling, too, Father….”
Larkin rejects Father Giffley’s help because later in the interview he recognizes that the priest’s alcoholism disqualifies him as an ally and effective witness. However, the rest of us are not so easily excused. The lessons of Strumpet City are that the same disparities of class, education, opportunity and even health keep people as helpless today as the tenement dwellers of 1913 — and these problems still lock all of us out of our true human potential.