Strumpet City

by niamh on April 29, 2013

I was reminded the other day how good a book Strumpet City is: it’s being serialized on RTE radio. It seems everyone in Dublin is reading it at the moment. John posted about centenaries and the need to remember, ‘lest we forget’, and there are several important dates coming up in Ireland soon.

Screen Shot 2013-04-26 at 17.05.02The Irish government has set up an advisory group of historians to consider appropriate ways of marking a decade of centenaries from 2012 to 2022. 1916 will be a particularly sensitive one, if they’re to do justice to the Somme as well as the Easter Rising. But it’s 1913, the year of the Great Lock-Out, Ireland’s most dramatic labour dispute, about unions’ right to organize, that’s very much on people’s minds at the moment. The impact of the Lock-Out on the lives of the working people living in Dublin’s appalling tenements forms a central strand of Strumpet City. (I read it not long after it came out and was particularly enthralled by labour organizer Jim Larkin, a real historical figure, pictured left).

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It’s a novel that ranges right across the social spectrum, bringing characters from widely different backgrounds to life most vividly. Dublin had the most appalling tenements in Europe at that time – 30% of the population lived in the slums – with very little industry to speak of, and a lot of casual employment in transportation industries.There’s terrific anger behind the novel, and you’re never in doubt over the culpability of the slum landlords, the hard-heartedness of the key employers, or the smugness of some of the clergy. But the book is considerably more subtle than this might suggest, and there are counterbalancing characters in every context, with differences in interests and outlook as well as in temperament and character. The 1980 TV adaptation is slower-paced than we’re used to now, but it had a whole cast of excellent actors and was marvellously realized. And yet it was the written word – or in this case, the spoken word, beautifully read by Irish actor Barry McGovern – that proved most evocative for me that night, as I dropped what I was doing to follow once again the fate of the most destitute of all the characters, a man of spirit and dignity named Rashers Tierney (pictured here as played by David Kelly, holding his dog Rusty, with Brendan Cauldwell as ‘Toucher’ Hennessy).

The world has been transformed in 100 years and Ireland is now of course a far wealthier country. But the stories about the struggle to make a living and the hardships of life on the edge still have resonance. And although the role and function of trade unions has changed hugely, the importance of being able to organize to defend basic rights is something no-one should ever forget. 

{ 10 comments }

1

Alex 04.29.13 at 9:59 am

“We sang for Jim Larkin, through the pain there was pride…”

2

MPAVictoria 04.29.13 at 12:10 pm

“And although the role and function of trade unions has changed hugely, the importance of being able to organize to defend basic rights is something no-one should ever forget. “

Amen. You have inspired me to go out and find this audio book. Thank you.

3

In the sky 04.29.13 at 1:41 pm

I went on the Glasnevin cemetery tour recently. (It was great, and I would recommend it to anyone interested in Irish history.) William Martin Murphy got himself a room next to D’Emancipator. I never knew Murphy, with all the villainy around him, was a nationalist MP. Big Jim lies about 20 metres away.

4

Trader Joe 04.29.13 at 2:10 pm

Big Jim was the only man aside from Jesus himself that Irish Protestants and Irish Catholics ever really agreed upon.

The fact that he managed to do what he did without getting shot by any of the government, his detractors or cohorts is a rather singlular accomplishment in the sphere of Irish Socialism-Repulicanism-Labor.

I look forward to checking out the broadcasts.

5

Maria 04.29.13 at 3:55 pm

Thanks, Niamh. I remember what a huge deal Strumpet City was when it was on tv. I’m embarrassed to admit it never occurred to me since that it was based on a book I could read!

It’s jarring to think of how Ireland changed utterly within the course of a few generations in terms of our material poverty, and compare that to how intractable slum conditions seem to be in middle income countries today. As you say, ‘the importance of being able to organize to defend basic rights is something no-one should ever forget’.

6

E.J. Manuel 04.29.13 at 4:13 pm

It is in no doubt that there are no slums in Ireland (or Europe?) today. Or that Ireland is now wealthier than 100 years ago. Generational rises in living standards are all well and good but if not accompanied by full equality and the abolishment of the class hierarchy they are meaningless.

The abject poverty of tenement life has been replaced by negative equity hell and unsustainable mortgage debt. The casual employment of the docks and transportation industries has been replaced by low paid, insecure service industry jobs and short term contracts (even in teaching traditionally seen as a most secure job things are getting more precarious for those starting out). Emigration is still the only choice for a better future for whole swathes of the population. Unemployment is rife.

The ruling class still hammers the living standards of the working class into the ground, aided and abetted by the media (including Murphy’s Irish Independent).

The intense focus on this centenary acts as a kind of nostalgia porn to counteract those facts. Poverty, injustice, inequality is in the past, the preserve of men in tweed jackets and cloth caps with funny nicknames like Rashers and quaint lives; today Ireland is wealthier.

Yet, who owns that wealth and why it is not more evenly spread around are the real questions; ones that will go deliberately unasked during these centenaries.

The difference between today and 1913 is not that Ireland is wealthier, or that the tenements have gone, but that the struggle for economic justice is treated as a pantomine act out of the dusty vaults of history.

7

Barry 04.29.13 at 7:06 pm

Trader Joe 04.29.13 at 2:10 pm

” Big Jim was the only man aside from Jesus himself that Irish Protestants and Irish Catholics ever really agreed upon.

The fact that he managed to do what he did without getting shot by any of the government, his detractors or cohorts is a rather singlular accomplishment in the sphere of Irish Socialism-Repulicanism-Labor.”

Good point.

EJ Manuel, the most important thing to remember is that the struggle continues, and that the lies of the right are still the same. Matthew Yglesias, for example, might not have been admitted to the ranks of the apologists back then (for obvious reasons), but his arguments are the same. He could probably just read old magazines and newspaper editorials and search/replace as needed.

8

Jeffrey Davis 04.29.13 at 7:31 pm

Thanks for the alert. I’ve never heard of this work.

9

Jas Car 05.01.13 at 6:48 pm

I just read Strumpet City. The sentences are short. The book is easy.to read. It probably is a masterpiece because whatever meaning the book has is told/made real through the characters. Beautiful…although the reality portrayed is terrible.

10

Ronan(rf) 05.04.13 at 3:16 pm

“It’s jarring to think of how Ireland changed utterly within the course of a few generations in terms of our material poverty, and compare that to how intractable slum conditions seem to be in middle income countries today.”

Just on this, I just finished Behind the Beautiful Forevers by Katherine Boo, which is really very good (for anyone who might be interested)

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