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James Plunkett, RTÉ and Strumpet City
James Plunkett on The Late Late Show in 1990 Photo: RTE Stills Library

James Plunkett, RTÉ and Strumpet City

by Ed Mulhall

Strumpet City by James Plunkett returned to No 1 on the Irish bestsellers’ last April after being chosen by Dublin City Libraries as its ‘One City One Book’ title for 2013.  Dublin is a UNESCO-designated City of Literature – one of only four in the world - and the choice of Strumpet City as its One City One Book title during the centenary of the 1913 Lockout gives a powerful literary insight into the events of the Lockout, while also providing a context for the start of the decade of commemoration now getting underway throughout Ireland.

Click on image to listen to a special RTÉ Arena programme for  'One City, One Book'
(Image: Dublin City Public Library)

Plunkett's novel is framed in the period from the visit of King Edward VII to Dublin in 1907 to the start of the First World War in 1914 and the story is told through the people of Dublin, particularly in the struggle between the 'articulate city' and the 'submerged city' as he himself put it.   At the centre of the drama of the novel is the Lockout with the historic figure of Jim Larkin and the events of those months intersecting with the fictional lives of the characters. In that engagement between the imaginative humanity and its historical context Plunkett sought to bring a greater understanding of that transformative period.

But the story of Strumpet City is not one of the novel alone. James Plunkett, as well as being a novelist and short story writer, was also a radio and television producer with RTÉ and so he recognised the powerful impact both media had for telling important stories. The ideas explored in Strumpet City began as a radio play for Radio Eireann in the 1950s, then became a theatre production and, after the novel's publication in the 1960s, found their greatest populist impact in the RTÉ television series in the 1980s. Plunkett's Strumpet City saga is thus truly a multi-media story.  With the anniversary of the Lockout now underway Strumpet City is having another lease of life with new productions and adaptations and also in the discussions and debates that have featured on RTÉ programmes.

Actor Donal McCann in a scene from the televised series of Strumpet City

James Plunkett Kelly was born in Sandymount in Dublin in May 1920. His father was a First World War veteran who worked as a chauffeur and his mother was from Donegal.  He was educated at the Christian Brothers’ Synge Street school, where one of his teachers was the novelist Francis MacManus, with whom he later worked in Radio Eireann. He said one of his earliest memories was hearing a Black and Tan ambush and he recalled that in the 1920s Parnell had not “faded completely from the shades of history”.  Grown- ups, he recalled, still ' talked about the Great War and the Easter Rising of 1916, about the Troubles and the Civil War', how family albums contained photographs of men in khaki and Remembrance Day divided the city and how on Larkin's return from the States reawakened ' adult memories of that other epic event , the lock out of 1913 and its partisan tensions." 

Having attended the Municipal School of Music, where he studied violin and viola, he was employed as a clerk with the Dublin Gas Company from 1937, becoming the family bread earner following the death of his father. The other event of 'special significance' for him was meeting Jim Larkin and joining the Workers’ Union of Ireland. He recalled: '”We found a bare hallway, a bare suitcase, a room with a bare floor and a rough wooden table on which Jim Larkin was seated , under a bare electric light bulb suspended by its cobwebbed cord.
He was a tall, heavily built man of strong frame, with a white shock of hair falling across his forehead and a large bent pipe..."

Jim Larkin
(Image: Illustrated London News [London, England], 22 November 1913)

Plunkett later became a paid official of the union and worked in an office beside Larkin. He recalled: "Once when I told him I had proof that an employer had deliberately lied to us at a conference he refused to let me make use of it. "Hit a man in his pocket," he told me, but never in his pride." He also used to say that he didn't mind negotiations with an intelligent rogue but not an honest fool. "

For his career as a writer he dropped the Kelly surname, becoming simply James Plunkett, and he had a short story published in (the Dublin literary journal) The Bell in 1942. His first two efforts had been rejected, but the editor, Sean O'Faolain, encouraged him:  "Why don't you write about your  own experience and why don't you write on plain subjects?".  He followed the advice and completed another story called The Working Class. This was published together with another story called The Mother, a title he changed from Hurler on the Ditch on O'Faolain's advice. The Bell devoted a full edition to his stories in 1954 under the title The Eagles and the Trumpets.  This was later expanded and published as the short story collection The Trusting and the Maimed.     

Plunkett worked closely with The Bell editors Sean O'Faolain and Peadar O'Donnell.  They assisted his writing and encouraged his activism. Another early story followed a trade union organiser on the last day of a long labour dispute. It traced him wandering through a gathering of exhausted strikers, to a bitter encounter with his wife, exasperated with poverty and the pain of coping, and then finally to a meeting with the general secretary and his disillusioned colleagues as they agree to accept terms which allow them to return to work but without the pay increase they fought for. It was called with intended irony: The Victorious.

In 1955 James Plunkett took part in a controversial cultural visit to the Soviet Union with Antony Cronin and other writers and artists. Condemnation of the visit, led by the Catholic weekly newspaper The Standard, included criticism in the Dail, votes of censure at a number of County Councils and, most seriously, a motion to dismiss Plunkett from the union.  Brendan Behan told Plunkett he deplored the witch-hunt and offered to write to the newspapers in his defense. Plunkett wrote later: “I was alarmed, knowing that public sympathy from a notorious non- conformist such as Brendan would ruin me altogether. He begged me not to worry. He intended to sign the letter (he said) Mother of Six. Then he looked down at his pint drinker’s belly which protruded for several inches between him and the counter and contemplated it for some time. "On second thoughts ' he decided at last 'maybe I should make it Mother of Seven'. “ Plunkett also recalled that whenever he was asked later what he could have learned about the Soviet Union in a four week visit, he would reply: 'Not much, but I learned a hell of a lot about Ireland'.

But the Soviet visit had one good outcome – it helped Plunkett resolve to leave the union job and to seek full-time work with Radio Eireann.  During the early 1950s he had begun contributing talks, short stories and plays to the station (having earlier played for a time with its Orchestra) and in 1955 he applied for and got a full time staff post there as Assistant Head of Drama and Variety. He found himself an intellectual atmosphere led by people he said had “culture and integrity”.  The Head of the Drama and Variety department was Michael O'hAodha and others there included novelists Francis Mac Manus and Philip Rooney and poet Roibeaird O'Farachain.

It was for Radio Eireann that Plunkett wrote his first draft of the Strumpet story with the play Big Jim in 1954.  As described by the poet Thomas Kinsella: “ It is Justice, no mere abstraction but something worth striving for, which is the "Hero" of "Big Jim".  In a review Kinsella summarised the play:  "The characters are a number of families in a tenement house whose lives are ruined by the rigors of their working conditions and who later suffer the far more soul testing demands of the strike. They engage in the struggle to survive, or die, against the back-drop of Larkin's personality."  The cast of the play included a future President of the Irish Congress of Trade Unions, Charles McCarthy, then a Radio Eireann actor, and a future General Secretary Ruairi Roberts, who played Larkin.

The success of the radio play led to it being expanded for the stage in the Abbey Theatre as The Risen People in 1958. The suggestion to expand it came from Sean 0'Casey, who wrote later to David Krause: "I am glad you met Jim Plunkett. He wrote a radio drama about Jim Larkin and sent me the book of what he had written. I thought it good, and recommended him to lengthen it, and make it fit for stage. I'm glad he did this and wish the work every possible success. He is as you say an Honest writer, and brave too; he has written some fine short stories and has a fine literary talent. But he too must walk warily."

Sean O'Casey also corresponded with Plunkett over the years, even warning him about inferior productions of the play. He helped get it produced in Britain by writing an endorsement for the play:  "The Risen People is a play about the great lock-out of 1913 in Ireland, when the workers fought for the right to choose the union they believed served their interests best; and they choose what we all knew as "Jim Larkin's union". Larkin was undoubtedly the greatest Labour Leader Ireland ever had and it is doubtful if there was then or now any Labour Leader equal to him. "The greatest Irishman since Parnell" said Bernard Shaw and the fighting sage was right. The Leader does not appear in this play but his is the spirit that moves its action. It is a blend of realism and imagination- which in my opinion, should be part of every play." But O'Casey had one criticism: "I'm sorry the Citizen Army doesn't come into the play for this, founded by Jim Larkin, was the force which put the fear of God into the opposition employers and their police coadjutors. This armed battalion, stationed always at a strategic place, ensured that the workers could hold their meetings in peace and safety." 

The Risen People was a great success at the Abbey Theatre with an initial five week run and it was also staged in Cork, London and Belfast. Brendan Behan gave it this enthusiastic reception: "Anyone with a feeling for the great heart of Dublin can see it beating in this magnificent work.  I am sorry to say this, being in the racket myself, but this is the best play about Dublin people their troubles, their humour and their lives that I have seen since O'Casey". The Abbey production was attended by representatives of the publishers Hutchinson’s who were publishing Plunkett's short story collection. They commissioned a novel from him and it was decided that the story would be expanded to cover the period from 1907 to 1914. The writing of it took ten years and it was titled Strumpet City.

Click on image to listen to an RTÉ History Show special on Strumpet City.

In describing his approach to the work Plunkett said that he wanted the book to portray Dublin in all its respects. He said that, while he was moved by O'Casey, his city was only a section 'the submerged city', while Joyce portrayed 'a seedy middle class'.  He explained: "I wanted a panorama, so to the world of O'Casey and the world of Joyce I added the better off people, the people of property and a very important thing then, the Church, because it had very definite views on the social structures at that time."  In the same interview he outlined his approach: " You see society at that time was set in a mode in which even the skilled man felt a cut above the unskilled man and there were these strict divisions between the classes and there was no wide concept of concern for one's neighbor, or responsibility for one's neighbor and no concept of brotherhood - as such... Then Larkin came along and these very lowly people began to make their weight felt. He began to insist that the labourer should have decent living conditions and the right to negotiate his conditions with employers and so on, and this swept through society. The employers naturally resisted. The Church was outraged at the idea of lowly workers refusing to obey their masters and so society got into ferment". And here was the place for literature: "when people begin to think they come alive. Literature is about people in their awareness and life. That is why Larkinism was important from the novelist's point of view. Although it was a distressing period it was full of pomp and colour... I don't know why Joyce said Dublin was the centre of paralysis because, in fact, everything seemed to be happening all at once.''

Listen to readings from Strumpet City from RTÉ series 'The Works', broadcast in April 2013

The power of Strumpet City comes from the human stories that illustrate this drama. One of the first reviewers was the playwright Denis Johnson (whose play on Robert Emmet had given Plunkett his title).  He wrote: " Something of much more impact ( than a biography) - a novel in which the story of Dublin's industrial upheavals from 1908 to 1914 are seen through the eyes of a carefully selected group of characters playing out their parts in counterpoint. In spite of the title, the City itself is not at the centre of the picture. It is the people that interest Jim Plunkett as should be the case in any social document as readable as this." 

In explaining the novel's success Plunkett himself said that it was that he didn't "lift my eye away from people at any stage, didn't lift my eye away from the parish. This is all one can know, for the whole of life is in that parish, where else can it be" (Writer in Profile interview with Niall Sheridan RTE, 1/1/1970).

Peter O'Toole as Jim Larkin in the Strumpet City television series

In addition to Larkin himself Plunkett had met many of those involved in the Lockout through his work as a trade union official and he drew on those meetings when creating the characters in the novel.  He explained: "I knew lots of them as older men, but I could imagine what they were like as younger men. Being the Union's Secretary, I would have daily meetings and there would be maybe twelve men, and they were all different characters, and they were very, very intelligent men. They had left school when they were twelve or thirteen but, as they used to say, they had attended the university of life. There were good ones and bad ones and in-between ones, but they were characters too. Rashers was a character who used to pass me when I was a child, and there would be a gang of us, you know, and the others used to jeer at him, and I hated that. I used to say: "Ah listen, give up, leave him alone" and then I would get a belt for myself because I was a pretty small boy at the time. He was a weird character, he wore a couple of coats and there would be no buttons on them so he would tie a length of rope round his waist and he used to carry a bag on his back with his belongings..." 

By the time of its publication in 1968 Jim Plunkett had moved (from radio) to television where he and  the composer Gerard Victory were the first two television producers  sent  to the BBC for training for the launch of RTÉ. From the beginning of the new station Plunkett  worked on drama and documentaries, making many notable programmes,  including one scripted by Flann O’Brien for the comedian Jimmy O 'Dea and actor David Kelly called O'Dea's Your Man and a series with Frank O' Connor on the Irish monastic movement. He soon rose to the position of Head of Features at RTÉ.  And it was television that was to take his novel and turn it into a major series in 1980.

Adapted by Hugh Leonard and directed by Tony Barry with Executive Producer John Kelleher, the series told the story of the novel in seven episodes, with high production values and a strong cast including internationally-known movie actors Peter O'Toole and Peter Ustinov as well as David Kelly, Donal McCann, Cyril Cusack, Bryan Murray and Angela Harding. One of the cast - Daphne Carroll, who played Mrs. Bradshaw - had been in the first Radio Eireann production of Big Jim. The series was a major success, with a very large home audience and eventual transmission in 52 other countries.  It was re-mastered and re-shown on RTÉ twenty years later and released in the new century on a still- available DVD.

Click on image to listen to the RTÉ Radio production of Plunkett's play, Big Jim 
(Image: Illustrated London News [London, England], 22 November 1913)

The production was described as '"rigorously honest and challengingly relevant'' by Helena Sheehan in her study of Irish Television Drama.  "The epic scale and penetrating truthfulness of Plunkett's novel were skillfully reproduced and even enhanced by the quality of virtually every aspect of the RTE production : the script by Hugh Leonard, the direction by Tony Barry, the performances of Irish actors, the use of film and authentic locations."  Tony Barry defended its contemporary relevance by telling Sheehan that Strumpet City was honest and pulled no punches on difficult issues: "Historical drama, should only be done , in his opinion, if it is honest. If not it should not be done.”

James Plunkett published two further novels, Farewell Companions (1977), which partly drew on his childhood and early adult experience, and The Circus Animals (1990), which included incidents drawn from the controversy surrounding the Russia visit of 1955.

Click on image to watch James Plunkett in an interview for 'Writer in Profile' on the R.T.É. Archives site.

Asked by Niall Sheridan on Writer in Profile what was the function of Literature, James Plunkett said it was to “reveal the reality of what surrounds us", to find and share a '' moment of recognition of a truth" - something as Sean O'Faolain also saw would cause the reader to say: "That's exactly it". James Plunkett died on May 28th 2003, aged 83.

Ed Mulhall is a former Managing Director of RTÉ News & Current Affairs and Editorial Advisor to Century Ireland


Century Ireland

The Century Ireland project is an online historical newspaper that tells the story of the events of Irish life a century ago.