Paul Simon reviews From the Plough to the Stars, edited by Jenny Farrell
This anthology is another impressive book from the Culture Matters imprint and is funded by a range of Irish trade unions and trades councils. Inspired by James Connolly's freedom call, these 49 compact works are the product of some of the most original and vibrant contemporary working-class Irish voices.
When offered such a breadth and variety of formats and topics, it is best that the reader plunges in a way best suited to them rather than following any pre-determined path. Just follow your nose for subversive ideas and punchy but lyrical writing and this collection will provide oceans of wonder.
For me this meant starting with Andy Snoddy's arrestingly titled The Radical Protestant Tradition in which the author recounts to his grandchildren the roles taken by his and others' forebears in the battles for Irish Independence. In doing so, Snoddy cleanly resets the establishment narrative that the Catholic and Protestant communities are pre-determined to be in opposition to each other.
His reference to the role of Linda Ervine's Gaelic Language classes in East Belfast hooks me onto her own life writing contribution here – Education. Here, Ervine recounts her determination, throughout an adult life initially defined by children and a violent husband and the pompous middle-class snobbery of some fellow students, to rise above her bouts of uncertainty. This is inspirational writing, charting an upwards trajectory bursting with working pride and achievement.
An adjacent piece of what the book rather limply refers to as memoir is very much of the COVID moment. In Mothering Through The Pandemic, Attracta Fahy conveys the stifling, cloying atmosphere of a room in which a mother keeps in touch with her children across the globe via video calls. The children, especially her eldest child a hospital worker in California deliberately resort to protecting their mother with the deadpan 'grand' when asked how they were doing creates a mounting sense of worry.
In the first work of fiction I turned to, this emotional journeying is wonderfully, puckishly inverted. In The Dodgy Box, Rachael Hegarty locates mum Debbie as she wanders further and further into an unfamiliar neighbourhood in search of a contact who will sell her a pirated decoder, allowing her family to avoid going stir crazy during the COVID restrictions.
Hegarty skilfully, almost imperceptibly, builds up the tension as Debbie's sense of threat begins to heighten in this, to her, strange environment. She's both dressed down and also keeps her eyes down from the curious glances of local residents. Yet rather than a traditional denouement or cataclysm, the author concludes with an act of both breathtaking, but also every day working-class solidarity and care. Far from being an anticlimax, this actually leaves the reader fist pumping in recognition of this eternal truth.
Back to life writing, but on a similar theme, Liz Gillis's The Liberties: We Don’t Eat Our Young Here Anymore is as close as any piece of writing can possibly get to being a clenched fist of resistance. A perennially disregarded 'other' part of central Dublin, Gillis recounts the community battles of the Liberties going back centuries against opportunistic spivs, OCD planners and others to reform, sanitise and destroy this cohesive but unacceptable working-class enclave. Her account never romanticises the people: it doesn't need to: they are heroes united in their struggle.
Victoria McNulty recalls another hero – a long dead mother – in her microscopically observed White Horses. Part of the Irish diaspora generationally settled, but not always welcomed in Scotland, her daughter recalls in the 1990s an industrious and kind woman, perplexed by the carnage taking place in her birth home of Derry. Elegiacally, McNulty conjures up Proustian wonders, from the steaming kitchen where her mother prepared the family's meals to her nervous love of the sea. The daughter, pulled back to Ireland, takes her son on a Troubles tourist trail to recapture her mother's elusive beginnings.
As unfettered capitalism and the COVID pandemic exacerbate the conditions of the working class in Ireland – and everywhere else – this book is a barricade of collective, imaginative resistance to our economic and political enemies.
From the Plough to the Stars, ISBN 978-1-912710-36-2, £11 plus p. and p. from here.