Centenaries can be dodgy stratagems. Instead of subverting the status quo, which is always their proclaimed intention, they all too often serve it by softening critique into commemoration and commemoration into mere ceremonial. Perhaps that’s why, at the official unveiling of the Big Jim bronze memorial monument in central Dublin thirty years ago, the then President Patrick Hillary reminded the assembled stake-holders that the labour leader they were celebrating would have had little time or truck for any of them. In a collective red-green colour crisis, the rods and cones of Irish culture had long since blurred the emerald of the Volunteers and the scarlet of the Citizen Army, taking the hurt out of the former and the harm out of the latter, to concoct a classist polity that was dipped in the shade of pea-soup .
More of a revolutionary than a rebel, Plunkett, who was no relation of the martyred Joseph Mary, preferred olive to emerald and crimson to salmon-pink (or cardinal red, for that matter), and made four sorties into the same storyline to valorise the hero he had once served as a secretary in an era when anything left of centre was thought to be utterly sinister and Archbishop’s Palace always trumped the docile prince-bishops of the print media.
BIG JIM was the second such foray into the forgotten founding narrative of the 1913 Lockout, an episodic radio-play following a short reflection in Sean O Faoilean’s dissonant/dissident Bell magazine. That broadcast version became in the fullness of time a taut Brechtian drama for a bourgeois Abbey audience, the Brechtian drama in its turn a blockbuster naturalistic novel, and the novel, which was sold in plentiful paperback reprint even in newsagent’s shops, an equally successful screenplay in the versatile hands of a great go-between, the late author and adaptor Hugh Leonard. The work for wireless doesn’t flesh out the figures of the clergymen who enrich the later fiction, but the cast-list in the live transmission by Radio Eireann is itself a litany (not an altar-list, be it said: several are still among us) of the leading men and women who were centre-stage in Irish theatre during the difficult and gifted Fifties.