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Mary O'Rourke recommends: Strumpet City


05-04-2013 14:45

Bestselling author Mary O’Rourke has joined forces with Gill Books in a bid to encourage the nation to read more. As part of our Books Are Good For You campaign, Mary selects one book every month and this April, we celebrate James Plunkett’s Strumpet City, this year’s Dublin: One City, One Book.

I always associate books, especially big books, with where I was or what age I was when I read them first. When I first read Strumpet City by James Plunkett I had just turned 30 with two very young sons, aged 5 and 1, a loving husband, a teaching career ahead of me and firmly rooted in suburban Athlone in County Westmeath.

I remember that time being overwhelmed by the breadth and the scope of Strumpet City. Not so much the scope of the great Lock Out, Larkin, the beginnings of the Labour Movement, the Irish Citizen Army, all of that in Ireland’s Capital City; it was more than that and yet, as caught up as I was then in a busy, busy life, I didn’t dwell much in my mind on what really attracted me to the book.

Thanks to Gill Books’ wonderful reissue of Strumpet City by James Plunkett, I have had the opportunity to reread it again widowed, with six grandchildren and a life of politics behind me. Well done to Dublin City Library for choosing the book as this year’s Dublin City One City: One Book. The new edition just published to mark this and the centenary of the 1913 Lockout also has a splendid new introduction by Fintan O’Toole and its reissue gives people of all ages and in all parts of Ireland the opportunity to either acquaint or reacquaint themselves with such a wonderful book. This time I read it with more time on my hands, more time to appreciate the scope of the novel and, above all, the characters in the novel.

In Fintan O’Toole’s introduction to Strumpet City he quotes Plunkett noting that “I didn’t take my eye away from the people at any stage”. This is so true.

Yes the book is of course, as its title says, all about life in the City of Dublin particularly life in the teaming tenement slums where often hundreds of people lived on one floor of one of what were once the beautiful homes of the aristocracy. But there are two particularly telling and tantalising glimpses of life outside the City – life in rural Ireland. One was that relating to Miss Gilchrist, the elderly Cook in the Bradshaw’s home in Dun Laoghaire who kept a photograph of a young Fenian on her mantelpiece where her delight was to have a small room of her own with her own fire. We hear of her story of the words of admiration said by the young Fenian in hiding in rural Ireland to her saying she was pretty, words she carried in her heart for ever. Tantalising, yes, but we hear no more about him and poor Miss Gilchrist ends her days in the workhouse but is saved from a workhouse grave by her erstwhile employer, Mrs Bradshaw and the attentions of Mary.

Another dip into rural Ireland is when we hear that Mary and Fitz frequently talk and save for the day when they will send their two children down the country to Mary’s rural father to be safe when Dublin was enveloped in the hunger and starvation of the six months of the Great Lockout itself. Again, we would love to have read more, but that was not to be because this is essentially a Dublin novel.

Let’s come back to the characters and think how skilfully James Plunkett sketches the character of Fr. O’ Connor. I actively did not like Fr. O’Connor right throughout most of the book. His pious reflections, his attempts at preaching the anti-Larkinite Gospel from the pulpit (brutally cut off by his alcoholic priestly superior Fr. Giffley). Fr. O’Connor eventually achieves his redemption through the priestly care he gives the dead Rashers and his dog, Rusty, in the cellar and we have come to see that there was always, behind the sanctimonious exterior, a real person.

Fr. O’Connor’s life, flits between the lace curtains of Dun Laoghaire and the tenements of inner city Dublin. His smug, priggish and sanctimonious priestly life and his final redemption is worthy of a whole novel on its own. Equally so, Fr. Giffley and indeed, to a lesser extent, Fr. O’Sullivan.

And what about Rashers Tierney and his constant companion, Rusty? There is a nobility about Rashers which is evident in how he lived his life and in how he died. There is a certain nobility about Mrs Bradshaw too, living in awe of her husband, but trying desperately to do well by other people. What about Mary and Fitz? The lovely young couple whose walks on Sandymount and whose love for one another is so delicately etched and played through. We do not see their children but we hear of them all the time. And Mulhall and Hennessy and Lily, the beautiful Lily who holds our salvation in her arms.

Reading it again, I am overcome by the sweep of the book, but mostly I am struck forcibly by the wonderful range of characters. Of course I am awed by the power of Larkin and the power of the working classes who preferred to almost starve to death than to give in to William Martin Murphy and his associated business allies.

But I am puzzled also. I know that James Plunkett went on to write other books and of course we have the wonderful RTÉ series which in the eighties popularised Strumpet City and that period in Irish history. But we never read much now about James Plunkett and all of whatever he has written should be reissued and we should be able to taste further of his brilliance and his skill.

I recommend reading Strumpet City slowly and savouring it. Try fifty pages at a go and then put down the book and think about what you have read. Your mind will be broadened, exercised and enthralled by all of it.

Mary O’Rourke

Read with us! Join Mary O’Rourke and our Books Are Good For You campaign - log on, pledge to read and be in with a chance to win a year’s supply of books!


James Plunkett’s Strumpet City is available from Gill Books and all good bookshops nationwide.

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