Monday 20 November 2017

Theatre: Rise to your feet for James Plunkett: the man who made his city the hero

Self-effacing: James Plunkett
Self-effacing: James Plunkett

Colin Murphy

James Plunkett is one of the forgotten men of Irish literature. Most of our writers seem to loom larger than their work (Behan, whom I wrote about last week, is the classic example). But Plunkett's name is less remembered than either his landmark play, The Risen People, or his novel and television series, Strumpet City.

It's as if Plunkett was simply a conduit for the story of the 1913 Lockout, a kind of documentary-writer who sought or received little credit for his artistry. So it seems oddly fitting that the new production of The Risen People at the Abbey credits two writers as well as Plunkett: director Jimmy Fay has adapted an earlier adaptation by Jim Sheridan. It runs from November 28; see

Fay and Sheridan are simply following in a tradition started by Plunkett himself: he originally adapted his radio play, Big Jim, for the Abbey, as The Risen People, and then spent a decade writing a novelisation of the play, Strumpet City, which was later adapted by Hugh Leonard for an RTÉ series in 1980.

In the meantime, Plunkett was building a career as one of Ireland's first television producer-directors – a role that, in a literary culture, is typically more self-effacing than that of the writer.

And in his writing, too, Plunkett was essentially self-effacing. Rather than create an alter-ego hero for his work, Plunkett "wanted Dublin itself to be the hero".

Though Jim Larkin was the obvious protagonist of the Lockout, Plunkett was more interested in "the abiding heroism" of Dublin's poor, while wanting also to capture the "seedy gentility" of the middle class as Joyce had depicted it, as well as the life of the employers and of the clergy.

He captured that clergy particularly well. The standout character of Strumpet City is the almost unbearable Fr O'Connor, a man whose desire to help the poor is motivated largely by self-righteousness and is laced with condescension. But rather than a satirical caricature, O'Connor is written with real insight and empathy. Plunkett grew up in Sandymount, between the rich of Dublin 4 and the poor of the docklands, and he observed keenly both those communities and what happened when someone from one ventured into the other.

Plunkett's own Catholicism survived his run-ins with both the more extreme of his co-religionists and the more extreme strictures of his faith. In 1955, he accepted an invitation to visit the Soviet Union on a trip with other Irish writers. He was then a full-time union official and there were outraged calls for his resignation.

He wrote to the paper to defend himself: he had consulted his "spiritual adviser", he said, a priest at the Institute of Catholic Sociology, who had discussed it with "a higher authority". This authority reported back that no approval was being granted, but that Plunkett was not being prohibited from going. He knew his own mind – but he was prepared to defer to ecclesiastical authority.

That deference carried through into his private life. In an interview he gave in 1992 to a Spanish researcher (available online at, he described how he had followed the Catholic injunction on contraception. "We have no life," his wife lamented; "that's how I was trained," explained Plunkett, "to say 'I won't make a whore of you' . . . It was very hard, though, to lie in bed with a person you loved, a bed with rules."

Later, he would "condemn them (the church) absolutely" for their prudishness. But the church, for him, was greater than this pettiness.

"For mature men of my childhood, even for those who had suffered grievously from its intolerance, the church guarded a truth which was better than the sum of all its wrongheadedness," he said. This was partly because of history, but also "an inherited disposition of race".

Strumpet City's defining characteristic is its humanity. It is driven by Plunkett's empathy for the suffering poor of Dublin's slums, but those characters do not have a monopoly on suffering. Ironically, the enduring appeal of the book and play may be due to how much of himself Plunkett actually invested in it.

Irish Independent

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