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.
The 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).
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.