REVIEW: WRITING IRELAND’S WORKING CLASS: DUBLIN AFTER O’CASEY, by Michael Pierse (London: Palgrave Macmillan, 2011)
Apr 7th, 2011 by Conor McCabe
What a thing for a country to do to people - to take away who they are.” (Peter Sheridan, playwright, 2005)
In 2004 the author and academic Helena Sheehan wrote that for the first five years of RTE’s flagship soap opera, Glenroe, nobody worked for a wage. She also noted that in its other soap, Fair City, which is set in a predominantly working-class area of Dublin, a extraordinary number of characters owned their own businesses. Although most characters were supposed to be of working class origins’ said Sheenan, ‘hardly any of them have been wage labourers. Those that have been, have worked in the local businesses.’ The head of drama at RTE, David Blake-Knox, said in the early 1990s that ‘confrontation, when it occurs [in Fair City], is almost entirely personal and lacking in any social resonance’ and that ‘there is hardly mention – even in passing – of hospitals, social welfare, or any other practicalities. In fact, there is Very little evidence of this community being connected with any of the popular institutions of modern Ireland.’ It led the Scottish academic, Hugh O’Donnell, to comment that ‘in Fair City working class experience is replaced by petit bourgeois aspirations.’
These type of dramas - informed not so much by reality but by other works of Irish mainstream fiction - form part of a wider approach to the working class in Irish culture where, as Michael Pierse puts it, ‘everyday issues of class stratification, or of living on working class wages’ receive ’scant attention’.
This aversion in Irish mainstream fiction to issues of class is one of the central concerns of Writing Ireland’s Working Class. Here, Pierse sets out to uncover works which deal with class in Irish society from a working-class perspective - to chart the ‘continuity of writing that is embedded in the lived experience of working-class people’ and which ‘is mirrored in the preoccupations of the writings itself.’
It is an important publication, one which deserves to be read by anyone interested not only in Irish cultural studies, but also in the shape and flow of class dynamics within Irish society.
This is not to say that it is above criticism. There are some points on which I beg to differ, and the language used is often stiflingly academic. However, Pierse has set down a marker. He has provided a strong, cogent analysis from which future debates and discussions can develop and grow.
Pierse’s objective is to ‘explore how the working class is depicted in Dublin’s literature and to argue that the body of literature examined represents a distinct, heretofore academically unrecognised lineage in Irish writing.’ He does this through seven thematic chapters with a loose historical progression, and by drawing heavily from the conceptual frameworks of class and class relations as espoused by E.P. Thompson.
Pierse also namechecks Erik Olin Wright, Pierre Bourdieu, and Antonio Gramsci. However, in terms of approaches to class analysis, it is Thompson and his famous introduction to The Making of the English Working Class which seems to have had the most influence on the author. ‘Thompson attends to the contingencies of history and economics while also highlighting the role of working class people in creating class as a social and cultural phenomenon’ writes Pierse. ‘My understanding of class in this book proceeds from these neo-Marxian concepts, and a contingent belief in the enduring relevance of the working class as a culturally, socially and empirically self-evident cohort.’
The idea of class as a relation, not a thing, and of class consciousness as an intricate dynamic of class formation - these are among the core concepts which underline Pierse’s analysis. Classes are ‘functions of the processes of production’, but they are also formed through self-activity. In the words of Thompson, ‘the working class made itself as much as it was made’ because ‘class formations and class consciousness while subject to determinate pressures eventuate in an open-ended process of relationship - of struggle with other classes - over time.’
It is these cultural expressions of class struggle, expressions which are marginalized by mainstream Irish culture, which Pierse sets out to uncover. His concern is with writing which is ‘about the working class regardless of its provenance.’ It looks to ‘literature [that] represents working class life from within, regardless of its political standpoint.
There is a resistance to the mainstream which runs through the works discussed, sometimes expressed through anger, more often through subversion of both literary form and content. ‘The form of working class culture in Ireland often punctuates through the edifice of conventional wisdom’ writes Pierse, ‘evading the clutches of epistemic orthodoxy.’ Also, the working class do not appear as the incorruptible inheritors of the fight for freedom in Ireland as Connolly once put it, but as conflicted figures, ‘as a conduit for radical ideas and a disempowered, disenchanted pariah in [their] own state.’
These conflicting dynamics - citizens of a state they fought to create and which treats them with disdain - reveal themselves in the works of Brendan Behan and Roddy Doyle, Christy Brown and James McKenna, and in those of Seán O’Casey, the first of the writers dealt with by Pierse.
For Pierse, O’Casey’s plays express the ironic sense of an alienation from the centre. They depict ‘the improverished, anti-heroic Dublin poor at the epicentre of political tumult but simultaneously alienated by political power.’
Quoting O’Casey, he writes that following the Irish revolution ‘the class that thus came to power and influence was not a labouring class but a new middle class.’ It engendered a feeling within Dublin working class writing ‘of being one of a collective, yet also a breed of pariah, pestering the body politic, vigilant always lest a sudden sting can be administered.’
The characters live on the margins of historical events, yet their fates rotate around them, and regardless of the outcome they will still be treated as slum lice.
In plays such as Juno and the Paycock, Nannie’s Night out, The Silver Tassie and The Star Turns Red, ‘plots in which the political is intertwined with the personal are constantly redeployed to show how working-class people make history but are denied the spoils, and as such, these plays anticipate one of the major concerns of later Irish writing of the working class.’
O’Casey also turns his writing towards gender issues. ‘Women’s plight in working-class life is a key abiding theme of his oeuvre’ writes Pierse, ‘as are the androcentric attitudes that he criticises unrelentingly.’
Yet, although O’Casey sometimes portrays the role of women as a heroic and nurturing force in working class life, as in Red Roses for Me, this is in stark contrast to the ‘avarice and callousness of the women of [The Silver] Tassie, for instance, whose enjoyment of the advantages of freedom and finance that war brings is galling.’
Overall, O’Casey depicts women in varied, conflicting forms – ‘from the abject to the exalted, the heroic to the ignoble.’ It is a conflict which runs through the works discussed in Writing Ireland’s Working Class.
Hatchet: do ye know how people will respect ye around here, Joey? By acting like a man. By standing up for yourself and if anyone looks sideways at ye – give him good kick in the knackers.’ (Hatchet, 1978)
The chapter on O’Casey is almost an obligation given the subject matter, and almost one-third of it is taken up with defending O’Casey’s working class credentials from other critics and commentators. It is with the second chapter - the Angry Young Men of the 1950s to 1970s - that Pierse comes into his own.
Here he focuses on three writers and three plays: James McKenna and The Scatterin’ (1959); Lee Dunne and Goodbye to the Hill (1976); and Heno Magee and Hatchet (1972). ‘All three writers present working-class Dublin men as a marginalised social cohort within the nation-state’ writes Pierse, ‘and each play presents emigration as their only prospect of escape from the “rat-trap” of cyclical poverty.’
Yet, these are not exercises in self-pity – in fact, the works tend to portray somewhat ‘unpleasant people whose qualities, perhaps, are sad reflections of sadder environments.’
James McKenna’s play, The Scatterin’, deals with four young Dubliners who live under the shadow of emigration. The mail boat – where the cattle were unloaded first, then the people – beckons as the only escape. The characters, all Teddy-Boys, ‘are trapped in a cycle of dole queues and monotony that engenders a distain for life itself and leads to violent [and often criminal] behaviour.’ The eponymous main character of Hatchet, by Heno Magee, got his name after he attacked the Animal Gang with a hatchet when he was fourteen. He is burdened with the name in a culture were hard men are revered and allowed to be little else but hard, where feminisation is seen as a constant threat. ‘The play’ writes Pierse, ‘is partly a psychological drama, with its main characters performing as personifications of his choices and the anxieties they arouse.’ It is a play that reveals ‘the indelible marks of class injuries on human behaviour.’
To live in working class Dublin is to be ‘brutalised by its poverty and cynicism’. Lee Dunne’s Goodbye to the Hill, a hugely popular play which captures this culture of poverty and cynicism, and was banned for its troubles, also serves to illustrate ‘perhaps more so than any other work, how much censorship and exclusivist attitudes have prevailed upon the canon of Irish writing.’
Pierse also deals with depictions of working class Dublin women in the city’s literature, noting that the ‘plethora of male-authored texts about working-class women’s lives attest to a particularly striking preoccupation in Dublin’s literature.’ He focuses on two novels which ‘enlist an attendant use of irreverent imagery and symbolism to make their point’. These are Big Fat Love by Peter Sheridan, and The Countrywoman by Paul Smith. ‘In Smith and Sheridan’s accounts’ writes Pierse, ‘women suffer from multiple social and economic impediments: as part of a disadvantaged economic class, as women in a male-dominated society, but also as women in an especially andocentric working class culture.’ The two main pillars of post-independence Ireland, the Church and the State, loom large in the novels, and both as repressive, brutalizing forces.
The industrial and trade union history of the city are explored through James Plunkett’s Strumpet City, and Paul Smith’s Summer Sang in Me. Both writers ‘manipulate a theoretically national and bourgeois form, the novel, in order to subvert its association with both the national and the bourgeois – in order, again, to intertwine a counter-cultural social image with the narratives of individual working lives.’
The tradition of prison stories is discussed with relation to Behan’s Quare Fellow (1954), Mannix Flynn’s The Liberty Suit (1977), and Paula Meehan’s Cell (1999). ‘Prison drama’ says Pierse, ‘stretches the logic of the class system to its conceptual extremes’. Behan, like Brecht, ‘seeks to throw the spotlight backwards, into the aisles, to criticise the structures of Irish society and those onlookers who support them’. Liberty Suit is about class consciousness, ‘and the failure of class solidarity’ within the prison system. Paula Meehan sets Cell within a women’s prison where the inmates ‘are lacerated by their circumstances, moulded by material reality.’
The prisoners in all three plays ‘are represented as part of the general working class that society has failed, and just as Marx had redefined the proletariat as preyed upon rather than preying, these playwrights redefine their prisoners, more as victims of society’s superstructure than offenders against it.’
Pierse also discusses issues of sexuality, class and culture in Christy Brown’s Down All the Days, and Dermot Bolger’s The Journey Home. ‘The link between violence, psychological angst, social disease and repressed sexuality is a major conceit in both of the novels’ argues Pierse, ‘and this link is shown to resonate within a larger body of writing of the working class.’ With Down All the Days, ‘the more Christy attempts to deny his sexuality, the more of an obsession it becomes; his thoughts are consequently suffused with guilty and violent horrors.’
In possibly the weakest part of the book, Pierse tries, somewhat in vain, to transform the highly uneven and somewhat embarrassing Journey Home into an important cultural and historical document. There is a clumsy attempt to merge Bolger’s novel with the findings of the Ryan Commission on the sexual, mental and physical abuse undertaken by the religious of Ireland, arguing that the novel’s plot somehow pre-empted, or flagged, the abuse twenty years before the Commission’s report was published.
The attempt flies in the face of Pierse’s thesis. It was The Ryan Commission which revealed certain truths about institutional sexual abuse in Ireland, not The Journey Home, which instead reads like a Fair City version of Mike Leigh’s Naked. It is not hard to imagine an enthusiastic thesis supervisor sitting at home watching the Six-One news when the Ryan Commission came out and thinking, ‘you know, Pierse should write a chapter on this.’
The book ends with a study of Roddy Doyle’s trilogy of novels which began with A Star Called Henry. While not as disjointed as the previous chapter and its Journey (“ah Jaysus Hano! This bleedin’ city!”) Home revival, its focus appears to be more on literary criticism than societal exploration.
At one point Pierse tells us that, in the process of reading A Star Called Henry, through the fantastical nature of the history portrayed, ‘the reader is thus made aware of his or her own hermeneutic agency in the process of creating historical meaning.’
Now, maybe Pierse is right. Maybe a sudden realisation of one’s hermeneutic agency in the process of creating historical meaning is a natural, gut reaction to reading a book by Roddy Doyle. Then again. Maybe not. I’ll have to scratch me hermeneutics while I have a think about that one.
These are minor quibbles, though. And the differences in analysis I would have with Pierse on the economic history of the working class in Dublin since partition, as well as on his own mis-reading of Marx on class, well these are for another day. In the conclusion Pierse says that ‘Irish working class culture has… barely begun to get the recognition that its energy and complexity clearly demand.’ With Writing Ireland’s Working Class that is clearly no longer the case. Pierse has set a high marker from which future debate and analysis can develop.
It’s a marvelous achievement, insightful and provocative, for which Pierse richly deserves our praise and thanks.