Although a softly spoken and quiet man, James Plunkett’s passion for workers’ rights burned long and bright and was a defining principle of his life. He was a member of Jim Larkin’s Irish Transport & General Workers’ Union (ITGWU), which was setup in 1908, and worked closely with Larkin between 1946-47 and was greatly impressed by him.
And as a keen writer, the life of the poor and its unfairness, was a topic he returned to many times. His first two stories were published by the great short story writer Sean O’Faolain in The Bell magazine in 1942, and they featured in his collection The Trusting and the Maimed.
He was born in Irishtown on 21st May, 1920 and was educated by the Christian Brothers. He reckoned that being born in Irishtown, between the leafy Sandymount and working-class Ringsend, gave him a unique view of life that he would use in many of his stories, and inform his politics.
These two themes come together most famously in his novel Strumpet City which was published in 1969. In it he shows the lives of a number of people and how they are affected by the Dublin Lockout of 1913. This infamous action was taken by employers who refused to improve workers’ pay, conditions and the right to unionize. This final point proved too much for a number of employers who collectively decided to lock out their employees. At this time the level of poverty in the city was one of the highest in Europe and infant mortality almost 11%. Life in crowded tenements meant shoddy, inadequate sanitary conditions which led to many deaths from tuberculosis. Dublin was not a well city and the Lockout was a response, a painful and protracted one from August 1913 to January 1914, but one that shone a light on the dreadful living conditions of the city’s poorest residents. Although the Lockout did not directly benefit workers, it demonstrated the potential of a mobilised workforce. Plunkett’s book captures the mood and tension of the time, and it has never been out of print since. It has received many awards and this year, the 100th anniversary of the Lockout, Dublin City Public Libraries and Dublin UNESCO City of Literature have selected it as their book for 2013. A timely read!