Plunkett, James (1920–2003), writer and socialist, was born James Plunkett Kelly in Bath Street, Sandymount, Dublin, on 21 May 1920, eldest son of Patrick Kelly, chauffeur, First World War veteran and former member of James Larkin’s (qv) Irish Transport and General Workers’ Union, and his wife Cecilia (née Cannon). Plunkett later recalled his situation between O’Caseyesque working‐class Ringsend and early‐Joycean Sandymount’s aspirations to gentility as symbolising his childhood. (The family – he had several younger siblings – moved to Pembroke Road when he was six.)
The Cannons originally came from Buncrana, Co. Donegal, and Plunkett recollected that his maternal grandfather (a native speaker) gave him his first inkling that the Irish‐language tradition was earthier than the idealised version purveyed by his teachers. His father’s brother died in the British army during the Second World War; a cousin was an IRA member killed in the civil war. As a young man Plunkett took to calling himself James Plunkett for professional reasons; there were so many Kellys he was afraid of being submerged. (The name Plunkett had no family connection; he was called after the recently beatified Oliver Plunkett (qv)). Friends continued to address him as ‘Jimmie Kelly’.
Plunkett was educated at Synge Street Christian Brothers’ School, where his teachers included Francis MacManus (qv). In his 1972 travel book, The gems she wore: a book of Irish places, Plunkett recalled his teachers as members of the revolutionary generation who saw the first generation to grow up in a new Ireland as ‘children of promise’ in whom they were trying to instil an idealised ‘honour and virtue’ image of Irishness fatally divorced from the world around them, as well as a version of catholic social teaching which, though well‐meaning, was fatally compromised by excessive abstraction, patronising paternalism, and unwillingness to limit the rights of private property. In The gems she wore, he recalls subscribing to this worldview until he left school, when observation convinced him that the dreaded socialists were in fact right; the well‐meaning but disastrously self‐righteous Fr O’Connor in Plunkett’s novel Strumpet city encapsulates his critique of this version of catholic social thought. Plunkett was a regular lifelong mass‐goer and spoke admiringly of the ‘natural piety’ he witnessed among Dubliners, but he regarded catholicism as weighed down by ‘heaps and heaps of useless dogma’. (His last novel, The circus animals (1990), has as one theme the problems facing a young married couple wishing to use artificial birth control in 1950s Dublin.)
He studied violin and viola at the Municipal School of Music (1928–43). He occasionally played with the Radio Éireann orchestra and considered becoming a professional, but decided that he was not good enough; but he continued to play for pleasure. He stated that he preferred a quiet drink with musical friends to the ‘boozing and backbiting’ literary pubs of Dublin. (Robert Ballagh’s portrait of Plunkett shows him sitting at a desk with a violin and a photograph of James Larkin hanging from the wall behind him.)
Plunkett’s father died early, leaving James as the family breadwinner. On leaving school aged 17, he became a clerk in the Dublin Gas Company, where he joined the Workers’ Union of Ireland (WUI). His activism led to his becoming a full‐time official with the WUI, and for about a year he worked in an office in close proximity to the aged James Larkin (still nominal head of the union). Like Sean O’Casey (qv), Plunkett was impressed by the realisation that Larkin wanted the underprivileged to experience ‘not just material sufficiency, but access to culture and the graces of living’ (Ir. Times, 31 May 2003). His first short story, ‘The mother’, was published in The Bell in 1942, and he became a regular contributor. Peadar O’Donnell (qv) and Frank O’Connor (qv) did much to encourage this new discovery; he retained a lifelong friendship with both men. In 1954 O’Donnell devoted a whole issue of The Bell to short stories by Plunkett, under the collective title The eagles and the trumpets. In 1955 an expanded collection was published in the United States as The trusting and the maimed. Plunkett’s Collected short stories were published in 1977 (reissued 2000). Bleakly naturalistic, contrasting characters’ impoverished surroundings and harsh prospects with the literary and religious romanticism professed by the official culture, they are widely regarded as his finest literary achievement.
He participated in 1955 in a controversial ‘cultural’ visit to the Soviet Union by a group of artists, writers and journalists. This was widely seen as an indication of pro‐Soviet sympathies, and the Standard, a catholic weekly, launched a campaign that led many county councils to pass resolutions condemning the visit. Plunkett (whose background made him more vulnerable than delegates from professional or middle‐class backgrounds) survived an attempt to dismiss him from his WUI job and later commented when asked how much it was possible to learn about the Soviet Union in four weeks, ‘Not much – but I learned a hell of a lot about Ireland’. The plot of The circus animals is based around the Soviet‐visit controversy.
During the 1950s Plunkett became a regular contributor of talks, short stories and radio plays to Radio Éireann, which he joined in 1955 as assistant head of drama and variety. In 1961, having undergone television training with the BBC, he became one of Telefís Éireann’s first two producer/directors. He was appointed head of the features department in 1968, eventually becoming head of drama; he retired from RTÉ in 1985. He scripted a drama about the 1798 Rising, ‘When do you die, friend?’ (based on the embittered memoir of the Carlow United Irishman William Farrell), which was highly praised by critics but annoyed RTÉ executives by running over budget. His scripts for the joint BBC–RTÉ documentary series about historic Irish places, ‘Birds Eye’, led to his being commissioned to write The gems she wore.
Plunkett’s 1954 radio play ‘Big Jim’, about James Larkin and the 1913 lockout and strike (published 1955), was the nucleus of what became the central creative project of his life. It later became a stage play, ‘The risen people’, and was staged (1958) in Dublin and Belfast and occasionally revived thereafter (it was published in 1978 after a particularly successful revival and updating by Project Arts, Dublin). A suggestion from Hutchinsons (the firm which published his short stories) that Plunkett should undertake a novel on the same subject led to the appearance of Strumpet city, published in May 1969 after ten years’ hard labour in the evenings. (Plunkett was never a fluent writer; he told an interviewer it was ‘the most crucifying work … but I know bloody well that if I put a novel aside without finishing it, I will be utterly bloody miserable’; he wrote from ‘persistent memories which I want to write in order to exorcise them’ (Ir. Independent, 29 May 2003). He was also kept going by his conscience, as he had received a £500 advance from Hutchinsons.)
Strumpet city is heavily influenced by James Joyce (qv) (several characters have identifiable counterparts in Dubliners) and O’Casey (particularly in the conflict between working‐class male political solidarity and female concern for the well‐being of home and family). The novel may be seen as reflecting the cultural and political opening of 1960s Ireland; the fact that its villains are generally presented as culpably complacent creatures of a decaying system rather than consciously ruthless – Larkin is directly portrayed while William Martin Murphy (qv), who appears in the two earlier plays, is not – may reflect sixties’ confidence in the inevitability of social progress and a naturalistic belief in artistic objectivity. Shortly after the novel appeared Plunkett lectured the Irish Management Institute on the lessons the 1913 lockout had taught to trade unionists, employers, and various shades of political opinion. His socialism was non‐dogmatic (though in the late 1980s he privately lamented that the trade union movement seemed to have lost its spirit). The book was startlingly successful, selling over 250,000 copies worldwide and being translated into several languages. The paperback rights were bought for £16,000, and US rights were reportedly sold for $100,000. A seven‐part dramatisation of the novel, adapted by Hugh Leonard (1926–2009), was screened by RTÉ in 1980, costing £1 million, and is regarded as one of the highpoints of the station’s dramatic output; it was sold to more than 30 countries and dubbed into 26 languages, becoming RTÉ’s biggest earner to that date.
Strumpet city was followed by Farewell companions (1977), a semi‐autobiographical account of Dublin life between the 1920s and 1940s, and The circus animals. Neither achieved the success of Strumpet city, though some critics thought Farewell companions superior. In 1987 he published a collection of essays, The boy on the back wall.
He was dismayed by the insensitive redevelopment of Dublin in the 1960s and 1970s, lamenting the destruction of Nelson’s Pillar in 1966 (‘part of what Dublin and its people really are’). In 1970 he and his family moved from Terenure to a cottage in Coolakeagh, Kilmacanogue, Co. Wicklow. His paternal grandmother had often spoken to him of her childhood memories of Wicklow, and Wicklow mountain walks often appear in his works as a release from the constraints of the city (albeit one which often proves illusory or lethal). He moved to a house in Bray in 1992. In 1978 he participated in a sit‐in on the Wood Quay site aimed at preventing the destruction of Viking remains to make way for the construction of civic offices for Dublin Corporation.
Plunkett was a founder member in 1983 of Aosdána, which he attended regularly despite increasing health problems caused by circulatory difficulties, which led to some vocabulary loss in later years. In 1991 he presented his papers to the National Library of Ireland. In 1993 he received the Butler Literary Award from the Irish American Cultural Institute, and in 2000 he was made an honorary member of the Irish Writers’ Union. Acquaintances throughout his life admired his shy and modest personality, which did not preclude forthright denunciations of humbug when he felt these were required. In many respects he was a characteristic member of the post‐revolutionary, post‐Revival generation of writers and commentators whose mentors were O’Connor and Sean O’Faolain (qv) and who have tended to be overshadowed in retrospect by their heroic predecessors and brasher successors; but he has an enduring place among literary evokers of Dublin.
In 1945 Plunkett married Valerie Koblitz (d. 1986), whom he met at the Municipal School of Music. They had a daughter and three sons. He died in a Dublin nursing home on 28 May 2003.