James Plunkett

Writer whose work reflected Dublin life
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The Independent Online

James Plunkett Kelly, writer: born Sandymount, Co Dublin 21 May 1920; married Valerie Koblitz (died 1986; three sons, and one daughter deceased); died Dublin 28 May 2003.

The writer James Plunkett was a man of intellectual directness and moral sensitivity, courteous and modest. Quintessentially a Dubliner, he was born in Sandymount, on the city's edge, but there the resemblance to Yeats ends.

The highlight of Plunkett's arduous and distinguished career came with Strumpet City (1969), a well-constructed and entertaining novel revolving round the dreadful 1913 "lock-out" in Dublin. The novel arose from the suggestion of an editor at Hutchinson's in London, and Plunkett drew on sources such as Arnold Wright's Disturbed Dublin (1914) for the mentality of Dublin employers and on documentary material about the trade unionist "Big" Jim Larkin preserved by the Workers' Union of Ireland (WUI). The episodic structure of the novel reveals the use of techniques honed by Plunkett in short story writing. In 1980, a television series based on Strumpet City starred Peter O'Toole, Cyril Cusack and Peter Ustinov.

It was typical of Plunkett's dogged but undogmatic socialism that, amid the celebrations which followed publication, he should give a lecture to the Irish Management Institute, carefully pointing out the various lessons learned in 1913-14 by trade unionists, employers, liberals and nationalists. In 1970, Strumpet City was ironically recommended to government ministers by a Labour deputy in Dáil Eireann for its insights into contemporary poverty.

His father's service in the British Army, his family's commitment to the union movement, and Plunkett's own experience as a writer for the reflective republican magazine The Bell, provided him with a uniquely varied education in politics. His short stories radiate an understanding of how individuals endure and mature in the harsh circumstances imposed on them. Catholicism, working-class traditions of military service, classical music, love of the countryside - these aspects of Dublin life are all reflected with intelligent sympathy.

The son of a former soldier and trade union activist, he was born James Plunkett Kelly in 1920 and raised in Upper Pembroke Street, not far from the realities of working-class life which he registered and studied throughout his career. Educated by the Christian Brothers in Synge Street (where he was taught by the novelist Francis MacManus), he took a job as clerk in the Dublin Gas Company in 1937, which brought him into contact with the Workers' Union of Ireland.

Founded by Larkin in 1923, the WUI was the left wing of the labour movement, and the young Plunkett identified strongly with it. In time he became a trade union official, in 1946-47 working directly with Larkin. If Larkin identified himself with "the divine gospel of discontent", his literary disciple preached a less emphatic but equally penetrating message. Plunkett's play Big Jim, written for radio in 1954, was adapted for the Abbey Theatre stage four years later as The Risen People. Transferred to the Unity Theatre in London, the play was introduced by Sean O'Casey.

Although the state radio station Radio Eireann (later, with the advent of television, Radio Telefis Eireann) played a large part in James Plunkett's life, his greatest contribution to Irish writing took the classic form of short stories, followed by novels. In this development, he was encouraged by Sean O'Faolain, founder-editor of The Bell and a master of the genre. Plunkett's The Trusting and the Maimed, a collection of 12 stories modelled loosely on James Joyce's Dubliners, was published by Hutchinson in 1959, and won critical approval both at home and in the United States.

Plunkett had already got himself in trouble by visiting the Soviet Union in 1955 at the suggestion of The Bell's second editor, Peadar O'Donnell. Assailed by militant anti-Communists in The Catholic Standard, and also by one or two opportunists among his fellow writers, Plunkett lacked the middle-class defences of other Irish visitors to the Soviet Union or China.

Supported by his union, he was fortunate in being taken on by Radio Eireann as a drama assistant. In 1961 he became an Executive Producer. In RTE, Plunkett witnessed the development of a fledgling television drama department. His unofficial duties sometimes involved completing scripts for "Myles na Gopaleen" (pseudonym of Flann O'Brien). During this period Plunkett also wrote When Do you Die, Friend?, a radio script based on the 1798 journal of William Farrell.

Though Strumpet City proved lucrative for its author, he never abandoned his commitment to literature nor his socialist loyalties. His subsequent novels included Farewell Companions (1977) and The Circus Animals (1990). Other publications were The Gems She Wore; a book of Irish places (1972) and The Boy on the Back Wall and Other Essays (1987). Plunkett did not greatly appeal to the managers of summer schools, and the directors of American programmes in Irish Studies. His style looked to Dickens, Gissing, and an accessible tradition of critical fiction, rather than to modernist and experimentalist masters like Lawrence or Joyce. His politics resisted the grand simplicities beloved of organised Irish America.

Plunkett's best critics have been his fellow writers, commencing with Tom MacIntyre and Eavan Boland. He also won critical acclaim in Germany. In retirement he went to live with his family at Kilmacanogue in Co Wicklow. Collected Short Stories appeared in 1977. Chosen in 1983 as one of the founding members of Aosdána, the academy of Irish writers, musicians and artists, Plunkett enjoyed a quiet elder statesman role and, despite difficulties caused by problems of blood circulation, he attended general assemblies of Aosdána conscientiously.

W.J. Mc Cormack

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