I recently listened to an invigorating lecture about God manifesting on earth. We’re made in the image of God, and we have the power to cause God to manifest by emulating his divine attributes of mercy, kindness, and compassion, the clergyman explained. I agree. I’d like to adopt as a mantra a Nancy Reagen inversion–never say no–because it’s so easy to go out of your way to help someone. Your television program, your hair stylist, your trainer are not more important than going the extra mile. Your coffee, your ice cream, and your manicure are not more important than sparing some change for people in distress. The hardest lesson, and one that interferes with a good amount of kindness, is recognizing that life’s not a ledger. You perform the mitzvah for its own sake without the expectation that you’ll get something in return. Most likely you’ll always be on the negative end of the tally. But as Roberto Clemente famously said, ”Any time you have an opportunity to make a difference in this world and you don’t, then you are wasting your time on Earth.”
Following the lecture, I recalled with dismay that for most of the universe there’s a much more powerful motivator than God. Money talks. In Strumpet City, it’s rich Dublin industrialists who worship the pound at the expense of their workers.
Strumpet City was Ireland’s first notable social novel. Ireland has a rich history but Plunkett did not choose to write about any of the periodic rebellions against British rule, the horrific tribulations of the Famine, the outbreaks of sectarian violence, the bloody Civil War following independence, or the stranglehold of the Catholic Church.
He selected a lesser-known episode: the Great Dublin Lockout of 1913–now a historical footnote but one with universal themes that resonate even today. During the first decade of the twentieth century, James Larkin worked to organize Dublin’s unskilled workers into the Irish Transport and General Workers Union with mounting success. In August 1913, alarmed industrialists plotted to scotch unionization once and for all by requiring workers to sign a document renouncing the ITGWU and participation in sympathy strikes. When workers refused, a consortium of more than 400 owners (excluding Guinness, Dublin’s largest employer) locked out more than 20,000 workers for almost five months until January 1914, when union leadership admitted defeat and recommended a return to work. Many workers never recovered their jobs at all. The Lockout was punctuated with violence–police against workers and workers against scabs–while shrinking strike funds led to starvation and deprivation. The decisions to use British military against workers and to import scabs from Britain fed the nascent Irish nationalist movement.
In a deeply moving and very readable novel, Plunkett humanizes the labor struggle and the horrible conditions that gave rise to it. The Dublin working class, those who have jobs at least, earn starvation wages, crowd into filthy tenements, are beset by disease. They suffer horrible industrial accidents, certain ruination in a world without disability insurance and workers’ compensation. Those in domestic service are scarcely better off. They are on constant call, are beholden to their employers for their behavior even during their off-hours, and when no longer able to work are shunted off to the poor-house.
Plunkett introduces us to the extremes of poverty and wealth. We meet Fitz and Mary, Fitz climbs the rungs to foundry foreman, and the couple and their family are on the verge of attaining middle-class security. We encounter Pat, a socialist, and Hennessy, whose joblessness is aided and abetted by a questionable work ethic. At the lowest extremity is Rashers Tierney, who’s on the edge of survival. He begs for coins as he plays his tin whistle, and he digs in garbage bins; Rashers may subsist on rubbish but remains deeply protective of his dignity. Meanwhile, there’s Yearling, a member of the idle rich who’s sympathetic to the workers, and Burns, who permits his good-hearted wife a little charity, but who without compunction pays off inspectors to avoid repairing his tottering tenements. We come to know these people intimately, to like, dislike, and to understand them. There are no stock characters in Strumpet City. Oh, yes, there is a strumpet in Strumpet City, Lily, a minor but indelible character. The true strumpets though sell out their peers and their employees for money.
Perhaps the most troubling portions of the novel surround the attitude of the Catholic Church, exemplified by an affected priest, Father O’Connor, who regards his congregants with superiority and dispenses charity with a revived notion of the deserving poor–those who brought on their own misfortune by striking get nothing. Even worse, when a movement forms to transport the starving children of the strikers to England to be fostered, Father O’Connor joins a furious crowd led by priests and joined by police to thwart the so-called “Kiddies Scheme,” incensed by the prospect of Protestant proselytization abroad.
And perhaps the most moving portions of the novel are those describing the solidarity of the poor. The poor have no scruples about sharing the little they have or giving tips about temporary work. Father O’Connor comes to “get it” in the end, but I was far more swayed when Hennessey breaks down in sobs and chides himself for not being a better friend when calamity strikes Rashers. Studies have shown that the poor are more charitable than the rich. The Biblical notion that it’s easier to thread a camel through the eye of a needle than for a rich man to get to heaven seems to hold true. Just look at the Great Lockout and at any current newspaper.
Just one final comment. At the turn of the twentieth century, American Progressives ushered in workers’ compensation laws, laws controlling hours and proscribing child labor, and food and drug laws, including the law establishing the Food and Drug Administration to safeguard the public against dangerous additives to food and pharmaceuticals. I don’t want to hear the word deregulation again. Think about what you’d be eating, drinking, and what would happen to you if you were injured on the job without these enactments. I’d like to think that folks would want to become more God-like. But without governmental restraints, it’s the bottom-line that governs, workers are exploited, and consumers fleeced and poisoned.
Strumpet City received a well-deserved second chance in 2013, when Dublin selected it for its One City, One Book program. It’s a compulsive read. Go for it.