6 minute read

James Plunkett Biography

Nationality: Irish. Born: James Plunkett Kelly in Dublin, 1920. Education: Synge Street Christian Brothers School, Dublin; Dublin College of Music. Career: Branch secretary, Workers Union of Ireland, 1946-55; assistant head of drama, Radio Eireann, Dublin, 1955-60; producer-director, 1961-68, head of features, 1969-71, and senior producer, 1974-85, Radio Telefis Eireann (Irish Television), Dublin. Council member, Society of Irish Playwrights, 1984-85. Awards: Irish Television award, 1964, 1966; Yorkshire Post award, 1969. Member: 1970, and president, 1980-82, Irish Academy of Letters; Toscaire (council member), Aosdana, 1981-85. Agent: Peters Fraser and Dunlop Group, 503-504 The Chambers, Chelsea Harbour, Lots Road, London SW10 0XF, England.



Strumpet City. London, Hutchinson, and New York, Delacorte Press, 1969.

The Gems She Wore: A Book of Irish Places. London, Hutchinson, 1972; New York, Holt Rinehart, 1973.

Farewell Companions. London, Hutchinson, 1977; New York, Coward McCann, 1978.

The Circus Animals. London, Hutchinson, 1990.

Short Stories

The Trusting and the Maimed, Other Irish Stories. New York, DevinAdair, 1955; London, Hutchinson, 1959.

Collected Short Stories. Dublin, Poolbeg Press, 1977.


Homecoming (broadcast 1954). Published in The Bell (Dublin), June1954.

Big Jim (broadcast 1954). Dublin, O'Donnell, 1955.

The Risen People (produced Dublin, 1958; London, 1959; New York, 1978). Dublin, Co-op, 1978.

Radio Plays:

Dublin Fusilier, 1952; Mercy, 1953; Homecoming, 1954; Big Jim, 1954; Farewell Harper, 1956.

Television Plays and Programs:

Memory Harbour, 1963; The Life and Times of Jimmy O'Dea, 1964; Portrait of a Poet, 1965; When Do You Die, Friend?, 1966; The Great O'Neill, 1966; Inis Fail, 1971; The State of the Nation, 1972; A Dash of Genius, 1979; That Solitary Man, 1979; The Wicklow Way, 1980; I Hear You Calling Me (on John McCormack), 1984; The Eagles and the Trumpets, 1984; One Man in His Time (on Cyril Cusack), 1985.


The Boy on the Back Wall and Other Essays. Dublin, Poolbeg Press, 1987.


Critical Studies:

Dublin and the Drama of Larkinism by Godeleine Carpentier, Lille, France, Université de Lille, 1975; Great Hatred, Little Room: The Irish Historical Novel by James Cahalan, Dublin, Gill and Macmillan, 1984.

* * *

Of his native Dublin, the city which forms the backdrop to his historical novel Strumpet City, James Plunkett has written: "Despite its tensions and its tragedies, Dublin was a good city to grow up in. The sea was at its feet, its Georgian buildings gave it nobility, its squares and its expanses of water made it a place of openness and light and air." Something of that affection is immediately apparent in this first novel—and, indeed, Dublin appears as a character in its own right in just about everything he has written—for unlike James Joyce Plunkett did not feel compelled to leave his native city in order to put it into perspective.

Set in the angry years leading to World War I, Strumpet City' s first concern is with the downtrodden working classes; in particular Plunkett deals with the attempts of the trades union movement to win better conditions for its members. Standing like a colossus above his fellow men is the figure of Barney Mulhall, a trades union leader whom Plunkett based upon Barney Conway, in real life the right-hand man of the political activist Jim Larkin. The other characters are no less firmly drawn and each is created in the likeness of men whom Plunkett, himself once a trades union official, had known in Dublin: Fitz, the idealistic foreman who joins the strike, Pat his friend and sage adviser, Keever who turns traitor, and perhaps the most colorful of them all, "Rashers" Tierney, the poorest of the poor.

Although Strumpet City finds its truest voice in Plunkett's vivid creation of Dublin working-class life, it does not ignore other strata of society. The middle-class world of the Bradshaws is faithfully reproduced, as is the claustrophobic life led by the priests Father Giffley and O'Connor. As each character's story draws to its conclusion, all we are left with is Plunkett's faith in the essential decency of people if only they can escape from the snare of the human condition.

In Farewell Companions Plunkett moves ahead in time to the inter-war years. A younger generation has arrived to come to terms with a country which has broken its shackles with Britain: they have to face up to, and come to terms with, a different set of rules. As in its predecessor, politics are never far away from the main narrative line but here the arguments are polarized between the demands of sentimental nationalism and the airier ideals of international socialism. Tim McDonagh, the novel's central character, is based loosely on Plunkett himself, and his story plots the journey from the old world occupied by his parent's generation to the hopes and fears of an independent Ireland. Once again, the description of Dublin and the delineation of Irish working-class life is faultless, equaled only by Plunkett's uncanny ability to create a gallery of vivid characters, each with a story to tell. Given such a broad tapestry it is not surprising perhaps to discover some loose threads, and for many readers the novel's ending will come as an anticlimax. Unable to come to terms with the demands of industrial life, McDonagh opts out of the real world and takes holy orders, a limp conclusion that is out of keeping with the speculative intention of the first half of the novel.

The Circus Animals follows Dublin's story into the bleak postwar years when Ireland had to face up to a new economic and political dispensation as its more tempestuous history slipped into the past. As had become standard practice in the previous two novels about Dublin, Plunkett showed himself well able to mix fact and fiction to create a riveting period picture. The action is seen through the eyes of a young couple, Frank and Margaret McDonagh as they struggle to come to terms with married life in the restricted life of a modern Ireland where the Catholic faith seems increasingly out of place. Margaret, for example, wants to practice birth control, but inevitably her conscience is troubled by the church's teachings. Plunkett is particularly good at revealing his characters' feelings and at presenting them in a plausible way. Even his priests and nuns possess a rounded humanity despite the fact that they are portrayed as basically unsympathetic characters. Inevitably, Frank, a political cartoonist, is drawn into conflict with the more conservative elements of Irish society and has to struggle to keep his sense of artistic identity, hence perhaps the use of Yeats's poem in the epigraph: "Now that my ladder's gone,/I must lie down where all the ladders start/In the foul rag and bone shop of the heart." As in the previous novels, too, the supporting characters are superbly realized, especially Lemuel Cox who acts both as mentor to Frank and interpreter of the action.

No understanding of the fictional world created by Plunkett is complete without reading his collection of short stories, The Trusting and the Maimed, the title story in particular giving a clue to the success of Plunkett's technique: the use of multiple voices and filmlike scenes as he cuts from one character, one situation, one time, to another.

Trevor Royle

Additional topics

Brief BiographiesBiographies: Jan Peck Biography - Personal to David Randall (1972–) Biography - Personal