James Plunkett (1920-2003)

1920- [pseud. of James Plunkett Kelly]; b. 21 May, Sandymount, Dublin; son of World War I veteran and member of Larkin’s Irish Transport and General Workers’ Union (ITGWU), and decorated Boer War veteran; later worked as car mechanic and chauffeur, dying young; raised in Upper Pembroke St.; ed. CBS, Synge St., and Municipal School of Music, Camden St., Dublin, playing violin and viola; played interprovincial Gaelic football; became clerk in Dublin Gas Co., 1937; joined trade union; appt. branch secretary sec. and staff sec., working under Jim Larkin, April 1946-47;
contrib. verse to Passing Variety, 1942-52; commenced publishing fiction in The Bell, 1940; ‘The Mother’ (Bell, Nov. 1942); ‘Working Class’, later to provide nucleus of Strumpet City - the title being taken from Denis Johnston’s The Old Lady Says “No!” - and ‘The Plain People’ (Bell, Oct. 1943); contrib. to Irish Bookman, 1947; The Eagles and the Trumpets published by The Bell in place of Vol. 19, No. 9, 1954; visited Soviet Union in 1955, through Peadar O’Donnell at The Bell; attacked by Catholic Standard, which demanded his resignation from secretaryship of ITGWU; supported by Union; resigned voluntarily, Aug. 1955, and joined RÉ as drama assistant;
his radio plays, Dublin Fusilier (RÉ March 1952), Mercy (RÉ June 1953); Homecoming (RÉ April 1954); Farewell Harper (RÉ 1956); Big Jim (RÉ 1955), expanded as The Risen People (Abbey Sept. 1958), moving to Unity Theatre London, where it was introduced by Sean O’Casey; then to Lyric Theatre, Belfast, under Mary O’Malley, and later revived by Peter Sheridan, Project Dublin, 1978; When do You Die, Friend? (RÉ 1966); appt. one of two earliest directors at RTÉ (television), 1961, becoming Executive Producer; issued epic novel of Dublin, Strumpet City (1969), suggested the author by Hutchinson, acclaimed by Frank O’Connor, and successfully filmed by RTE with Peter O’Toole and Cyril Cusack; Collected Stories (1977); issued Farewell Companions (1977), based on his own life; lived in Kilmacanogue; d. 28 May 2003; his papers are held in the National Library of Ireland; Strumpet City re-issued, with an introduction by Fintan O'Toole, April 2013. DIW DIL IF2 FDA G20 OCIL.

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Short Stories
  • Eagles and the Trumpets and Other Stories (Dublin: The Bell 1954) [‘Eagles and Trumpets’; ‘Weep for our Pride’; ‘Mercy’; ‘Dublin Fusilier’; ‘The Half-Crown’; ‘The Trusting and the Maimed’, et al.; note var. The Eagles DIL2].
  • The Trusting and the Maimed (NY: Devin-Adair 1955) [12 stories; those above, with ‘The Wearin’ of the Green’; ‘The Damned’; ‘The Web’; and ‘Janey Mary’], and Do. (London: Hutchinson [New English Library] 1959; Arrow Books 1969) [with add. stories, ‘A Walk though the Summer’ and ‘The Scoop’]; Collected Short Stories (Dublin: Poolbeg 1977) [adds 6 stories incl. ‘Ferris Moore and the Earwig’; and ‘The Plain People’ (orig. 1960)].
  • Strumpet City (London: Hutchinson; NY: Delacorte 1969; London: Panther; NY: Dell 1971), and Do. [reiss.] (Dublin: Gill & Macrnillan 2006), 600pp.; reiss., with intro. by Fintan O’Toole (2013).
  • Farewell Companions (London: Hutchinson 1977); The Circus Animals (London: Hutchinson 1990).
  • Big Jim: A Play for Radio (Dublin: Martin O’Donnell 1955).
  • The Risen People [Project Plays] (Dublin: Irish Writers’ Co-op., 1978); Do. [rev. edn.], in Journal of Irish Literature (Jan. 1992).
Journal contribs.
  • ‘The Mother’, The Bell, V, 2 (Nov. 1942), pp.99-108.
  • ‘Working class’, The Bell, VII (1 Oct. 1943) [q.pp.].
  • ‘The Mad Barber’, Irish Bookman, I, 7 (Feb. 1947), pp.26-38.
  • ‘The Parrot of Digges Street, Irish Bookman, II, 3 (Dec. 1947), pp.33-45 [later omitted from The Trusting and the Maimed].
  • extracts from ‘Homecoming: A Play for Broadcasting’, The Bell, XIX, 7 (June 1954), pp.11-32.
  • ‘The Boy on the Capstan’, in Threshold, V, 1 (Spring-Summer 1961), pp.7-14.
See also contemporary interviews and reviews in Hibernia, Irish Press, &c. [See Patrick Rafroidi and Maurice Harmon, eds., The Irish Novel [Cahiers Irelandaises, 4-5], Lille 1976, Bibl., p.403.]
  • ‘Jim Larkin’ in Leaders and Workers, ed., J. W. Boyle (Cork: Mercier [n.d.]).
  • ‘Yours Respectfully, in New Realities (Dublin 1972), pp.29-34.
  • The Risen People [Project Plays] (Dublin: Irish Writers’ Co-op., 1978) [first performed 1958].
  • The Gems She Wore: A Book of Irish Places (London: Hutchinson 1972; NY: Holt, Rinehart & Winston 1973).
  • Boy on the Back Wall and Other Essays (Dublin: Poolbeg 1987).
  • Introduction to Appletree ed. of George Moore, Drama in Muslin Belfast: Appletree Press 1992).

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  • Thomas MacIntyre, ‘Some Notes on the Stories of James Plunkett’, in Studies, 17 (Autumn 1958), pp.323-27 [var. 337].
  • Frank Ormsby, ‘The Short Stories of James Plunkett’, in The Honest Ulsterman (Dec. 1969), pp.10-16.
  • Eavan Boland, ‘Dublin’s Advocate’ [interview with Plunkett], in This Week [Dublin], 12 Oct. 1972, pp.40-42.
  • Dagmar Göhler, ‘James Plunkett: Manche, man sagt, sind verdammt’, in Weimarer Beiträge, 20, 6 (1974), pp.158-66.
  • Godeleine Carpentier, ‘Dublin and the Drama of Larkinism: James Plunkett’s Strumpet City’, in The Irish Novel in Our Time, ed. Patrick Rafroidi & Maurice Harmon(l’Université de Lille 1975-76), pp.209-17[var. 19].
  • James Cahalan, review of Farewell Companions, in Eire-Ireland 13, 2 (1978), pp.127-30.
  • James M. Cahalan, ‘The Making of Strumpet City: James Plunkett and the Historical Vision’, in Éire-Ireland, 13, 4 (Winter 1978), pp.81-100.
  • Hanna Behrend, ‘James Plunkett’s Contribution to Democratic and Socialist Culture’, in Zeitschrift für Anglistik und Amerikanistik, 27 (1979), pp.307-06.
  • James Cahalan, ‘James Plunkett’ article in Dictionary of Irish Literature, ed., Robert Hogan (Dublin: Gill & Macmillan 1979) [q.pp.].
  • James Cahalan, Great Hatred, Little Room, The Irish Historical Novel (NY: Syracuse UP 1983), pp.177-90.
  • James Cahalan, ‘James Plunkett, an Interview’, in Irish Literary Supplement (Spring 1986), pp.9-11; Jochen Achilles, ‘James Plunkett’, in Contemporary Irish Novelists, ed., Rüdiger Imhof, ed., [Studies in English and Comparative Literature, ed. Michael Kenneally & Wolfgang Zach] (Tübingen: Gunter Narr Verlag 1990), pp.41-57.
  • Shawn O’Hare, ‘An Interview with James Plunkett’, in The Journal of Irish Literature, Vol. XXII, No. 3 (Sept. 1993) [q.pp.].
  • Rosa González, interview with James Plunkett, in Ireland in Writing: Interviews with Writers and Academics, ed. Jacqueline Hurtley, Aliaga, et al. (Amsterdam & Atlanta: Rodopi 1998), pp.109-24.

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James Cahalan, Great Hatred, Little Room, The Irish Historical Novel (Syracuse UP/Gill & Macmillan 1983), Francis MacManus was Plunkett’s school-teacher; Plunkett joins Workers’ Union of Ireland in 1938, while a clerk; branch and staff secretary in 1947; knew Jim Larkin in his later days; visited USSR as part of a delegation of Irish writers, January 1955; Trusting and the Maimed (1955), and also the radio play Big Jim (1955); among those who attacked Plunkett in reviews were Anthony Cronin, who drew attention to his Russian visit; an unsuccessful call was issued from the Catholic Standard for Plunkett to resign his secretaryship; he resigned voluntarily in Aug. 1955; became one of the first two producers at Telefís Eireann in 1960. [179] Other historical works include Farewell Harper (1956), radio play; ‘The Plain People’ short story about the labour union world; When did You Die, Friend? (1966), radio play about 1798, using William Farrell’s journal as a guidebook. [219, n4.]. Stories of working class sympathy are ‘Janey Mary’ and ‘The Plain People’.

[ Note: these and the following synopsis and extracts from the cited work have been made with the author’s express consent. ]

James Cahalan (Great Hatred, Little Room: The Irish Historical Novel, 1983) - cont.: ‘When Big Jim was rewritten as The Risen People (1958), a play influenced by O’Casey (as Larkin acknowledges), and produced at the Abbey, the publisher Hutchinson suggested to Larkin that he write a novel on a similar historical subject. A documentary account of the strike was published by the Workers’ Union; 1913, Jim Larkin and the Dublin Lockout (1964), while Plunkett was working on Strumpet City. From Big Jim to Strumpet City, the presence of Jim Larkin retreat from the surface. In The Risen People he is ‘more a presence, a chorus, than a flesh and blood character’ according to the character description. Plunkett told Eavan Boland in interview that he had realised, ‘you either write a biography or else you don’t write about the person, but you write about their influence.’ [‘Dublin’s Advocate’, in This Week (12 Oct. 1972, p.40).]

James Cahalan (Great Hatred, Little Room: The Irish Historical Novel, 1983) - cont.: In an essay for the book Leaders and Workers, ed. JW Boyle (Mercier, n.d.), Plunkett wrote, ‘James Joyce spoke of Dublin as the centre of paralysis, blinding conscience and soul. It remained to Jim Larkin to see the slum dweller as a human being - degraded, yet capable of nobility, perceptive, yet capable of living with dignity; capable, even, of music and literature - Jim Larkin’s great task was to create a new social conscience.’ (in Boyle, op. cit. p.40.) Further: Plunkett was influenced in writing Strumpet City by O’Flaherty’s Famine, which he considered “page by page ... a badly written book but in its totality ... extraordinary.”’ [Letter to Cahalan, 17 Jan 1981.]

James Cahalan (Great Hatred, Little Room: The Irish Historical Novel, 1983) - cont.: Accuracy in depiction of mentality of the employers in Strumpet City derives from Arnold Wright’s Disturbed Dublin, the Story of the Great Strike of 1913 (1914), which was commissioned by William Martin Murphy’s Chamber of Commerce. In an address to the Irish Management Institute, Plunkett quoted from it Wright’s remarks about the effect lowering effect on the productive value of Irish labour of a low standard of living, and his conclusion, [therefore one] ‘should be chary of playing the role of critic to employers who have to utilise this damaged material.’ Plunkett’s commentary was, ‘In other words, hunger reduces stamina, so you scale down the wages. An employee was not a human being, he was an instrument. If he was sick or physically sick or debilitated, he was a damaged instrument. As to the man who failed to find any employment whatever, it was God’s, not society’s business to provide.’ In the same address, Plunkett goes on the speak of the beneficial effects arising from the Commissions of Inquiry concerning wages, house, &c., which followed the strike, drawing liberals on the side of the workers, beside drawing Pearse and Connolly together. ‘As against all that, its socialist colouring, minimal though it was in reality, so frightened Irish conservatism in State and Church that for more than long enough social change of any kind was regarded with deep suspicion and doggedly resisted.’ [‘Yours Respectfully, in New Realities (Dublin 1972, p.31; here 183.)[ top ]

James Cahalan (Great Hatred, Little Room: The Irish Historical Novel, 1983) - cont.: ‘The cast of Strumpet City includes, Fitz and Mary; Pat, his socialist-philosopher mate; Hennessy, the scrounging displaced gentleman; Mulhall, a Larkinite faithful; Keever, a stool pigeon; Rashers Tierney; and, at the other end of the scale, Yearling and Father O’Connor; Mr and Mrs Bradshaw; as well as Father Giffley. Plunkett avoids mid-middle class figures. [182] Plunkett has said that Rasher’s was based on the Dublin tramp ‘Johnny Forty Coats’, and that Mulhall is based on Barney Conway, Larkin’s hardfisted righthand man. The novel has an episodic structure, chapters tending to conclude as short stories do, on a downbeat. Godeleine Carpentier talks of ‘the contrapuntal structure of the novel, in which all episodes are skilfully dovetailed [in] a network of symmetries and contrasts’ [such as that between Rasher’s and King Edward rising in the morning to their different lots]. [188] Plunkett uses collage effectively, as in the scene after Rasher’s release by the unaccustomedly kind policeman, while in another quarter of the city a little boy dies of consumption on a hospital bed. [189]. At the novel’s end, Fitz and Mary are leaving Ireland; Fr. Giffley is in an asylum; and Yearling too is leaving because ‘nothing would ever happen in Ireland again.’ [189].

Fintan O’Toole, Introduction to Strumpet City in Irish Times (30 March 2013). Weekend Review: ‘To say, therefore, that James Plunkett’s Strumpet City, first published in 1969, is the greatest Irish historical novel is to risk damning it with faint praise. Ireland has no Walter Scott, no War and Peace. Plunkett may have learned from both, but he essentially had to invent the Irish epic for himself. To think of the most famous fictional depictions of Dublin is to be confronted with a brilliant minimalism: the tiny lives of Joyce’s Dubliners; the single day of Ulysses. Strumpet City unfolds over seven years. It deals not with isolated lives but with the way in which large events connect the most disparate of people. It encompasses a wide sweep of city life, from the destitution of Rashers Tierney to the precarious existence of Hennessy, the solid, aspirant respectability of Fitz and Mary, the priestly life of Fathers Giffley and O’Connor, and the upper-class world of Yearling and the Bradshaws. [...] We encounter the great labour leader first through the eyes (and ears) of Fitz: “At first, the accent was strange. Part Liverpool, part Irish, it produced immediate silence. The voice, flung back again from the high housefronts on the other side of the road, was the strongest Fitz had ever heard. From time to time the hands moved with an eloquence of their own.” / Larkin is, of course, a real figure, but Plunkett also had to imagine the subject of his epic for himself. If there was going to be a great, sweeping Irish historical novel of the 20th century, there was one event that overshadowed all others, that seemed ready-made in its dramatic power and symbolic scope: the Easter Rising of 1916. Plunkett chose instead a much more complex, and less famous, set of events: the Great Lockout of 1913.’ (See full-text version in RICORSO Library, “Criticism > Reviews”, via index, or attached.)

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The Gems She Wore (1972): ‘Despite its tensions and its tragedies, Dublin was a good city to grow up in. The sea was at its feet, its Georgian buildings gave it nobility, its square and its expanses of water made it a place of openness and light and air’ ( p.37.) Further, ‘[I]t is a truth of literature that nothing much happens to a writer after the age of twenty or so that will affect his work; the small store of material which informs the imagination for the rest of his life is made up o the remembered experiences of childhood and youth.’ (ibid., 112-13; both cited in James Cahalan, ‘James Plunkett’, in Robert Hogan, ed., Dictionary of Irish Literature, 1979.)

Boy on the Back Wall (1987): ‘Why does a writer write? My own view is that it is his attempt to understandd his own memoires. Memory, I firmly believe, is the source of all insight, and literarure is conceiged out of the contstant contempation of those images which accumulate in the memory and persis in making their presence felt throughout the whole of the writer’s life.’ ( p.139; cited in Jochen Achilles, ‘James Plunkett’, in Imhof, ed., Contemporary Irish Novelists, Tübingen: Gunter Narr Verlag 1990, p.42.)

On Strumpet City: Strumpet City is a picture of Dublin in the seven years, 1907 to 1914. Against the backcloth of social agitation, it is about the attitudes of various strata of society - from Dublin Castle and people of property down to the destitute poor and the outcasts. Joyce wrote about the moderately middle class, and O’Casey about the slums of the period. I was concerned with finding a form in which all the elements could fit.’ (Interview, Irish Times, 6 Dec. 1968; cited in Godeleine Carpentier, ‘Dublin and the Drama of Larkinism [... &c.]’, in The Irish Novel, ed. Patrick Rafroidi & Maurice Harmon, Lille UP 1975-76, p.213; cited in James Cahalan, Great Hatred, Little Room: The Irish Historical Novel, 1983, p.182.)

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Desmond Clarke, Ireland in Fiction [Pt II] (Cork: Royal Carbery 1985) lists, The Trusting and the Maimed, stories (1959) [only]. DIL, Farewell Companions (1977); Strumpet City (1969); Collected Short Stories (1977); The Gems She Wore (1972). Extensive commentary by James Cahalan (Irish Novel, and Irish historical Novel), who notices Farewell Companions and Strumpet City in Irish Novel, at various places.

Andrew Carpenter & Peter Fallon, eds., The Writers: A Sense of Place (Dublin: O’Brien Press 1980). contains ‘Ferris Moore’, extract from a novel in progress (pp.189) [with biog. notice & photo-port.].

Seamus Deane, gen. ed., The Field Day Anthology of Irish Writing (Derry: Field Day 1991), Vol. 3, selects from The Trusting and the Maimed and Other Irish Stories, ‘Dublin Fusilier’ [975-82], BIOG 1133 [as above].

Helena Sheehan, Irish Television Drama, A Society and Its Stories (RTE 1987) lists The Eagles and the Trumpets (1984) , dir. Deirdre Friel [Love Stories of Ireland ser.]; The Fenians, jointly by Padraic Fallon and Plunkett (1966/1967); The Long Winter [6 pt. ser. from ‘The Great O’Neill’ to ‘The Origins of the Rising’], dir. Jim Fitzgerald/John O’Donovan (1966); The Shadow of a Gunman, dir. James Plunkett (1966) [pp. 91, 114, 138]; Strumpet City (180). adapt. by Hugh Leonard; dir. Tony Barry (1980) [pp.40, 62, 64, 65, 223, 3096-14, 315, 407, 422].

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Strumpets: Denis Johnston’s epitaph in St. Patrick’s Close, Dublin, bears the lines from his own play The Old Lady Says No!: ‘Strumpet City in the sunset / Suckling the brats of Scot, of Englishry, of Huguenot / brave sons breaking from the womb, / wild sons fleeing their Mother / Wilful city of savage dreamers, / So old, so rich with memories!’ See further under Denis Johnston, q.v., note.

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