The great streets thrown upon the little: Strumpet City

Strumpet City is a novel of Dublin in the early twentieth century: between the royal visit of 1907 and the hero’s departure for Flanders in 1914, a servant girl marries her sweetheart; the slum of her employer collapses; three priests contend for hegemony over the allegiance of Dublin’s poor; an ageing rake finds a cause; a labourer falls in love with a prostitute; a raggedy-arsed chorus of beggars are Godoted into comment by the shambles they see about them.

So far, so period: horny-handed sons of toil, decent labouring masses, priests of varying degrees of empathy, bourgeoisie in nice costumes, a tart with a heart, sweeping epic indeed. Strumpet City could take its place in the upper divisions of historical fiction, and it was adapted into a fine television series. The descriptions of Dublin vary from affectionate to realistic, with a nod to its greatest writers, Myles in catechism mode, as Rashers Tierney, beggar-philosopher and guide to the city, vents to the parish priest:

The bearded figure began to enumerate its misfortunes. Father Giffley, the better to aid concentration, categorised them under certain headings: The waning popularity of the tin whistle and the erosion of technical standards due to infiltration of the profession by charlatans and chancers; the inevitable, because hereditary, crookedness of Jewish pawnbrokers; the inability of once kind neighbours to be kind any longer; the fierce competition for the contents of all dustbins and in particular the assertion by the strong (to the complete exclusion of the infirm) of sole right to the refuse outside certain well-to-do houses where the leftovers reflected the high living standards of the inhabitants.

and Joyce for the description of a conscientious curate making a house call:

The smells successively were woodrot from the basement, a privy odour in the hall, a conglomerate malodorousness of living as he climbed, individual stale airs, carbolic evidence of recent scrubbing. Limping still he came to a halt, rested briefly and knocked.

Costume drama, classy writing, Ireland. You can hear the Hollywood pitch: The Quiet Man with a social conscience and fancier costumes; Downton Abbey with a placard.

Strumpet City has been called the great Irish novel; it describes the Dublin that was crushed by state and capital, and a struggle that is now seen as a short before the main feature of the fight for independence. It is the great Dublin novel, because it is a novel about Dublin, about its people, and about that city’s seedy elegance and all its ghosts. The greatest of these ghosts is a spectre haunting Dublin, and who haunts its bosses still.

Fitz, Mulhall, and Bannister are trade unionists, and their leader is Jim Larkin; Bradshaw is a tenement owner and capitalist, and his leader is William Martin Murphy. From August 1913, Murphy and the employers of Dublin broke Larkin’s union by starving its men, and their families, into submission. The first Bloody Sunday in twentieth century Ireland was on O’Connell Street when the police baton-charged a crowd and killed two people. By the end of the dispute, Larkin had formed the world’s first trade union militia, the Irish Citizen Army, which would later fight in the Easter Rising; the friction between it and the Irish Volunteers is memorably described by Roddy Doyle in A Star Called Henry.

Larkin brings clarity to labour negotiations. Many people are poor, because some are rich; those who sell their labour have nothing in common with those who buy it. His representative, and organizer amongst the carters, is Mulhall:

… a big man with iron-grey hair and a sure way of walking that inspired confidence in those who worked with him. He liked the new movement well. It was direct and simple. Demand, refusal, strike.

When there is a fire at Morgan’s foundry, Fitz’s employer, casual labour is brought in to stop it burning down. When the dozen or so hands are paid for their work, Mulhall demands the overtime rate for his labour, three shillings more than standard. He has worked overnight; night work is overtime; Jim Larkin has fixed the rate. Morgan refuses, the carters likewise: no coal will be delivered until the three shillings are paid. The men win.

Strikes continue. Father O’Connor, all piety and humbug, has been organizing food parcels for the deserving poor: the families of strikers, refusing their employers’ lawful command, are undeserving. Keever, the Confraternity man, is instructed to take the parcels elsewhere. Mulhall confronts Father O’Connor, without deference or humility: Mulhall explains:

`I thought the Church should be on the side of the poor.’ This was no ordinary workman. …

This illiterate man was beginning to consider himself competent to determine the sphere of the Church’s influence, to place bounds to the radiation of a wisdom that was nineteen centuries old.

Mulhall does six months hard labour for beating Keever.

After a series of strikes, the employers come to their senses. Police violence and clerical opposition are not enough: Larkin must be broken, his union crushed, the workers of Dublin tamed. Led by William Martin Murphy, proprietor of the tram company and of the Irish Independent newspaper group (still the only rag News International can justifiably look down on), the capitalists of the city issue an ultimatum: renounce Larkin and all his works, present or future, or be locked out. In the words of Mulhall: “gameball”. The workers fight.

Fitz and Mary lose the comforts of their home: first when they have to pawn the cast-offs which Mrs Bradshaw, Mary’s former employer, has passed on, then when the police smash what is left. Mulhall is already dead after losing his legs below the knees. A city on strike has no money for beggars: Rashers Tierney struggles, more so when the pawnbroker who has hired him as a sandwich board man can no longer take pledges, since they will never be redeemed. The Toucher Hennessy, workshy father of six and Rashers’ companion in colloquy, takes a scab job as a night watchman, until he is warned off by the strikers. Bradshaw’s tenement collapses, killing nine (as happened to a real slum during the lockout). When his friends try to bring the children of strikers to the homes of trade-unionists in England, Yearling, cynical observer from the prosperous sidelines, sees Father O’Connor’s mob in action, and finally takes sides. The workers of Dublin lose, and return to work, bar those activists on the blacklist, who will never have steady employment in that kip of a city again.

Fitz joins the army, as did many of those blacklisted. It is claimed that some of them cheered for Jim Larkin before going over the top.

Just over one hundred years after Bloody Sunday, Pope Francis spoke to 350,000 people in Sardinia: “Lord Jesus who did not want for work, give us work, and teach us to struggle for work.”

The Independent group does now agree that workers have a right to withdraw their labour, as long as they never exercise that right.

In March 2013, the organizers of the Dublin Saint Patrick’s Day parade refused to allow a trade-union float commemorating the centenary of 1913. In August, Dublin Trades Council organized a rally on O’Connell Street to mark the beginning of the Lockout. Its demands were modest—two hours of speeches and songs, with no restraint of trade on the shops in the area. The Dublin City Business Improvement District objected, noting “the lack of consideration for the ordinary people of Dublin”.

William Martin Murphy is remembered by history as a philistine and a bully, the target of Yeats’ scorn on both counts.

Just out of sight of the statue of his comrade James Connolly, there stands a monument to Jim Larkin, in Old Testament prophet mode, arms raised. The inscription, a line of Desmoulins which Larkin quoted, reads, in three languages: `the great appear great because we are on our knees. Let us rise.’

Amazon sells Strumpet City at a discount.


2 Comments on “The great streets thrown upon the little: Strumpet City”

  1. […] it certainly did not ignore Irish involvement in the war. Indeed the `great Irish novel’, Strumpet City ends with a blacklisted striker from the 1913 Lockout enlisting in the British Army and leaving […]

  2. […] Plunkett was one of Ireland’s greatest writers, author of the great Irish novel, Strumpet City. This extract is from The Gems She Wore (1972), his account of some Irish places and his travels to […]

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