Some older Irish short stories

The One Dublin, One Book read for 2013 was Strumpet City (1969) the best known and most commercially successful of the novels of James Plunkett (and the only one of the three that I haven’t read). I was even less inclined to read it then than I had been before: it was just over a year since I’d moved back to Dublin after 24 years away and I was finding the city very hard to deal with. I definitely wasn’t in the mood for a long novel about poverty and deprivation, set in the context of the 1913 lockout.

But the attention being drawn by Plunkett’s novel did remind me that I had once been impressed by his short stories, collected in a volume titled The Trusting and the Maimed. That volume had been published in hardback in 1959. A paperback edition appeared a decade later, apparently to coincide with the publication of Strumpet City. It seemed that the stories were long out of print.

I can’t claim that I searched assiduously but I was quite keen to get hold of a copy of the stories and to remind myself of their details. It wasn’t until seven years later, about 2 weeks before the WHO declared Covid-19 a pandemic, that I came across the paperback in a secondhand bookshop. It was the same edition that I had owned in the early 1970s. So far as I know, there hasn’t been another edition since.

So, I’m very conscious that in this issue of the newsletter I’m going to be discussing stories that most of you won’t have read and won’t be able to get hold of very easily.

There are 12 stories in the collection, most of them set in a Dublin that is grim, dull and at best unexciting. The action (if that’s the word) of most of them appears to take place in the aftermath of the Second World War, in the 1950s or late 40s. It’s hard to be sure though since, as Fintan O’Toole pointed out recently, Ireland changed very little between the 1920s and the 1950s, compared with the big changes that we’ve seen since 1990.

The first three stories feature someone named Casey, who doesn’t seem to be the same personnage from one story to the next although his circumstances are similar in each. In the title story, he does clerical work in an insurance brokerage and rents a room in a boarding house. By the end of the story, his fate is almost certainly sealed, as he has broken his leg while walking on a lonely moor, where he went to consider what to do about his girlfriend’s pregnancy. He has already spent one night out in the open, suffering from cold in the nighttime and thirst during the day.

He had wanted Rita to see some people, presumably to arrange an illegal abortion, but she was unwilling to go along with that. In Casey’s unexplained absence, his friend Ellis tries to persuade her:

“But this may be a way out.”
“There are other ways out.”
“Rita, for the love of God, don’t start talking like that.”
“Like what?”
“About other ways out. We’ve got to keep our heads.” (pp. 16–17)

Among the “other ways out”, Rita had been including marriage, but this hadn’t occurred to Ellis — though it had to Casey.

The second story’s Casey is a musician and student who has been collecting folksongs to write about in his thesis. He is having an affair with the elegant wife of a well-to-do music-lover, but by the end of the story he is ready to break it off. Like his namesakes, this Casey is short of money and inclined to pass the time in pubs.

The third Casey is a junior civil servant in the Ministry for Exports like his friend, Murphy, whe is the central character in the third story, “Scoop”. Murphy gets caught up in a practical joke being played by some journalists who drink the same pub as he and Casey do. The target of the joke is an English photojournalist who wants to get some pictures of the IRA drilling.

In short, the three Caseys and their workmates are stuck in low-paid but respectable jobs, living humdrum lives the tedium of which they relieve with alcohol when they can afford it. The male protagonist of the final story, “The Eagles and the Trumpets”, (who is not named Casey, but Sweeney) reflects on how he got into that situation:

Put into the firm at nineteen years of age because it was a good, safe, comfortable job, with a pension scheme and adequate indemnity against absences due to ill-health, he realised now at twenty-six that there was no indemnity against the boredom, no contributory scheme that would save his manhood from rotting silently inside him among the ledgers and the comptometer machines. From nine to five he decayed among the serried desks with their paper baskets and their telephones, and from five onwards there was the picture house, occasional women, and drink when there was money for it. (p. 229)

Sweeney wants to get away early on a Friday. A two-hour bus ride down the country will take him to a town whose local librarian, a woman he met while visiting the town a few months earlier, is expecting him for the weekend. Of course, circumstances — along with his own lack of drive or urgency — conspire to ensure that he doesn’t catch the bus.

Not all the stories are about young men in the mould of Casey, Sweeney, Murphy and Ellis, stuck in a permanent, pensionable rut. One of my favourites, “The Wearin’ of the Green”, features Purcell, a teacher from Dublin who resigns from his job and sets off, possibly for England. He has been teaching in a small town and, almost by accident, has established an amateur choral society, only to find that the Church, in the form of the parish priest, the Gaelic League and the local businessman (who accumulated his capital by skimming off the fundraising efforts of the Old IRA during the “Troubles”) are all trying to exercise a measure of control over his activities.

The priest makes it clear that he expects to be consulted, particularly as to occasions which might lead to young men and young women wandering around unchaperoned in the evenings. The Gaelic League would like to ensure that the society performs Irish music (in preference to German walzes or, worse, the melodies of Thomas Moore). And the prominent businessman likes to have a finger in every pie.

When Purcell resists their pressure, “the crozier and the hurling stick were raised in menace” (p. 121). Before long, Purcell has been fatally wrongfooted. A young woman, Sally Maguire, to whom he is admittedly attracted, is thrown out by her father in the middle of the night after an argument, and Purcell allows her to stay in his cottage. In the ensuing scandal, he resigns his teaching post and catches the train out of town.

In the meantime, a local man called Joseph the Fool, who has been doing some work for Purcell, has decided that the town would be better off without Murphy, the businessman, the parish priest or the Gaelic League man, Lacey, so he retrieves a bomb left over from the war, and sets it to explode while all three will be present at a commemorative event. Unfortunately, the suitcase containing the bomb gets mixed up with other luggage.

The story ends five minutes before the bomb is set to go off. The outcome seems unavoidable: there is no reason why the device should be discovered, or why the detonator should fail, but the author withholds confirmation from the reader that the story ended as expected. It’s a very effective technique — as if the reader is watching from a distance but is powerless to do anything to avert a disaster even though it hasn’t yet occurred — and Plunkett uses it in more than one story.

As we’ve seen the title story ends with the first Casey facing apparently inevitable death from exposure, but with a theoretical possibility remaining that somebody might come along and find him.

In “The Web”, a story set earlier than the others, during the war of independence (around 1920), a Republican cell who have been betrayed by the ailing father of one of its members, tries to dodge a group of Black and Tans who are searching for an arms dump. In this story, Plunkett gives us both the explosion and the slightly indeterminate ending. One of the Republicans, “the Dummy”, sets off a grenade in the arms dump just as the Tans are about to reach it. The remaining members of the cell have been told that a car will be waiting for them outside the Ivy Church. At the end of the story, Freddie, who has just shot the informant, is himself already dead:

His eyes were still open. When the explosion shook the room a moment later he neither moved nor heard.
But Waxer and Niall heard. They lay flat in the rain and the darkness. The little garden shuddered with the noise of lorries and about them they could feel the inexorable closing-in of the search. They looked sideways at one another.
Two blocks away, aeons away, looming over low roofs and intersecting walls, rose the Ivy Church. (p. 217)

Another memorable story is “Mercy”, in which Toner, a night watchman, has reached the age of 70 and been told that he will now receive a state pension. But his friend, Martin Quinn, has just died. Quinn was his accomplice in a long-ago, wartime atrocity, a misdirected act of revenge, and Toner feels the combined guilt and pressure of his own approaching death.

If the collection has a unifying theme, it might be that Fate is, if not exactly malevolent toward us humans, at least derisively indifferent to what happens to us. That’s not to say that no human agency is to blame for the plights of these characters. The education system, hidebound business management, unimaginative and backward-looking politicians, and the repressive and authoritarian instincts of at least some representatives of the Catholic Church (which, of course, is running the education system), not to mention the lack of initiative of timeservers like the Caseys, all make their contribution to the general air of ennui.

Edition: References are to the Arrow Books paperback, 1969.

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