Strumpet City is the impossible Irish novel. The great master of the short story, Frank OConnor, writing in 1942, claimed that it was simply not possible to write a social novel in Ireland. In Russia, he said, an author such as Chehkov could write as easily of a princess as of a peasant girl or a merchants daughter but in Ireland the moment a writer raises his eyes from the slums and cabins, he finds nothing but a vicious and ignorant middle-class, and for aristocracy the remnants of an English garrison, alien in religion and education. From such material he finds it almost impossible to create a picture of life ... a realistic literature is clearly impossible.
OConnor had a point. After James Joyce, 20th-century Irish fiction was generally defined by strategies for avoiding society. Writers withdrew into the small words of the short story (OConnor and Sean OFaolain), crafted novels from confined spaces or foreign destinations (Kate OBrien), invented their own linguistic landscapes (Samuel Beckett) or turned the novel into a brilliant game (Flann OBrien). They generally avoided history.
History, says Joyces Stephen Dedalus, is a nightmare from which I am trying to awake. What place could there be for the social and historical novel in 20th-century Irish fiction?
To say, therefore, that James Plunketts 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 Joyces 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 OConnor, and the upper-class world of Yearling and the Bradshaws.
Strumpet City does have a relationship to Joyces Dubliners, a book that is an obvious influence on Plunketts fine short-story collection The Trusting and the Maimed. But Plunkett also moves beyond that influence. Joyce saw Dubliners as an anatomy of the city as the centre of paralysis. This might very well be a description of the city in the first part of Plunketts epic. But in Plunketts case the paralysis is convulsed by the shock of James Larkins arrival.
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.
The Lockout was, as Plunkett shows in Strumpet City, the culmination of five years of increasingly bitter disputes between Dublins unskilled workers, organised by Larkins Irish Transport & General Workers Union, on the one side and the citys employers, led by William Martin Murphy, on the other.
Murphy eventually prompted 404 employers to demand that workers sign documents renouncing the ITGWU or be locked out of their jobs. (George Russell, at the time, described the employers as blind Samsons pulling down the pillars of the social order.)
The lockout of 20,000 workers lasted for more than six months before the ITGWU members and their families were effectively starved into submission. The conflict included violent police attacks on workers meetings and the formation, in reaction, of the Citizens Army. But, as Plunkett shows in a way that no documentary could ever capture, it was the slow violence of hunger, much of it directed against children, that was most telling.