Jenny Farrell's presentation to the recent conference in Dublin on working-class writing
In an unprecedented venture, Culture Matters published a trilogy of anthologies of contemporary Irish working people’s writings between 2019 and 2021: The Children of the Nation (Farrell, 2019), a collection of poetry, From the Plough to the Stars (Farrell, 2020), a volume of prose writing, both fiction and memoir, and Land of the Ever Young (Farrell, 2021), a fully illustrated book of writing for children. These anthologies were the first of their kind in Ireland, gathering in a grassroots, democratic way the writings of working people.
The editor in chief of the socialist online publication Culture Matters, Mike Quille, suggested this project. The website focuses in particular on promoting the voices of working people, who represent the second culture: not the mainstream affirmation of the ruling class, but the distinct voice of the disadvantaged who make up such a large proportion of the population.
In addition to living and working in Ireland, Mike Quille was aware of my background: I was born and educated in one of the socialist countries, in the German Democratic Republic (GDR), or East Germany. This background meant that I was particularly conscious of the importance of working-class culture and its absolute validity in the cultural discourse, the importance of its development, and as a subject of academic research. In addition, I grew up in a household with a heightened awareness of the significance of working-class cultural expression. My father Jack Mitchell devoted his entire academic career researching Irish and Scottish working-class literature, and as a singer he took a great interest in folksong and political song. A family friend was Mary Ashraf, one of the outstanding scholars of working-class writing.
The GDR, like the other socialist countries, defined itself as a working-class state, one where the working-class had taken power, where this state distributed the wealth produced back into the living standards of the working people. This included aside low rent, free health care, education, very inexpensive basic foodstuffs and public transport, work place season tickets to theatres and concerts, in addition to state subsidized access to all fields of sports and culture.
In order to ensure working-class input into the arts, most workplaces had, among other things, creative writing circles, free of charge. They were usually tutored by established writers. From these workshops arose a number of successful authors. In addition, professional writers were encouraged to spend time in production, familiarising themselves with working-class people and life, to be able to write more authentically about this, set stories and novels in the factory sphere. Authors were financially supported by the state, which meant they could write fulltime - irrespective of other income.
The working class under socialism and under capitalism
In the socialist countries, there was no unemployment, and all people entering the workforce were trained in their jobs. Qualified workers in factories did not earn less than professionals. There was little difference in incomes, and living standards were similar across the population. Everybody received a comfortable living wage and through this and the many state subsidies, participated in the national wealth they produced. There was ‘positive discrimination’ favouring working-class children’s access to university and thereby giving the professions a sound awareness of working-class life. Working-class studies at universities was a very regular field of research in the socialist countries. It is important to note, when defining the working class, that it is only under capitalism that the working class generally experience poverty and generally poor education.
Marx defined the working class under capitalism as those who own nothing but their labour force, which they sell to employers:
the proletariat, the modern working class, developed – a class of labourers, who live only so long as they find work, and who find work only so long as their labour increases capital. These labourers, who must sell themselves piecemeal, are a commodity, like every other article of commerce, and are consequently exposed to all the vicissitudes of competition, to all the fluctuations of the market. (Marx & Engels, 1848)
In return, the working class participate only marginally in the wealth they create. This is why in a capitalist society, the working class are generally poor. And of course it also includes the unemployed, and people who also receive very little for the work they do – some self-employed, small farmers, people on short or zero contracts: teachers, nurses and others in formerly well-paid jobs, and all people who are excluded from the possibility of earning a living wage. So in fact, the working class is increasing in size.
The lower strata of the middle class – the small tradespeople, shopkeepers, and retired tradesmen generally, the handicraftsmen and peasants – all these sink gradually into the proletariat, partly because their diminutive capital does not suffice for the scale on which Modern Industry is carried on, and is swamped in the competition with the large capitalists, partly because their specialised skill is rendered worthless by new methods of production. Thus the proletariat is recruited from all classes of the population. (Marx & Engels, 1848)
Lack of money brings with it reduced educational opportunities and access to participation in cultural life and so on. In capitalist society, the working class includes all strata of population who are experiencing precarious work and living conditions – these groups are a reserve army of workers who serve to keep down wages.
Taking them as a whole, the general movements of wages are exclusively regulated by the expansion and contraction of the industrial reserve army, and these again correspond to the periodic changes of the industrial cycle. (Marx, 1867)
To return to contemporary Ireland, while all kinds of financial obstacles are put in place to exclude the working class from education, it does not mean that a university graduate is automatically precluded from identifying as working class. In addition, very many academics and graduates find themselves on short contracts, low hours, or indeed unemployed – in other words, they are largely excluded from the wealth of society. They too are experiencing the condition of the working class under capitalism.
While in capitalist society, being working class is most often associated with poverty and lack of education, not all working-class people are poor. Thanks to trade unions, there are companies that pay the average industrial wage and their workers receive a living share of the wealth they produce.
Representation of the working class in culture
If the cultural mainstream is an expression of the ruling ideas in a society, and therefore the ideas of the ruling class (Marx, 1845, publ. 1932), then the powers that control publishing and the media are not exempt from this. The control exercised by this class over cultural institutions is examined for example in the book Culture is Bad for You (O’Brien, Taylor & Brook, 2020).
When working-class writers depict the realities of their lives, they are quite often silenced by these mainstream cultural powers. I experienced this when trying to promote the three anthologies mentioned at the start. Two literary festivals, Cúirt in Galway, and the Dublin Book festival, refused to include readings from the anthologies. Cúirt did not answer, despite repeated emails, and the Dublin Book festival, after months of very intermittent communication, finally wrote to say they didn’t have the space.
An example of a prize-winning working-class writer who has been a firm part of the anthologies and who has experienced such class prejudice, is Alan O’Brien. He submitted his radio play Snow Falls and So Do We (O’Brien, 2016) to RTE, based on the true event of Rachel Peavoy, who froze to death in a Ballymun flat in January 2010. O’Brien won the P.J. O’Connor Award for Best New Radio Drama but encountered significant opposition from RTE about the broadcast of his play. O’Brien was told his lines were crude and that the portrayal of the Gardaí was unacceptable. A significant and inappropriate change in the narrative was suggested whereby the main character, Joanne, rather than disliking the Garda known as “miniature hero”, actually fancies him, and wants him to take her out of this hellhole.
This smacked more of make-believe Hollywood that the reality of Ballymun. O’Brien’s statement that the people of Ballymun have a very different experience of the Irish Constabulary was sneered at. He rejected the changes to his script, explaining his reasons. But RTE made them anyway and many more, without further consultation. Most significantly, they changed the ending of a working-class woman dying as a result of social depravation, metaphorically (and actually) freezing to death. Working-class tragedies are not allowed. The establishment will only accept its own interpretation, and rewrite history accordingly.
This reflects a generalized denial, ignorance and rejection of the cultural expression of working-class experiences, values and culture across most areas of cultural production. Publishing is not exempt – its readership, critics, and reviewers and especially its workforce are biased towards middle-class experiences and lives. Not only are working-class people excluded financially from mainstream cultural consumption, they are also often actively prevented by the media – including the publishing industry – from expressing artistically their experience of the world. By recognising this class barrier and attempting to tackle it, these anthologies of working-class writing are blazing a new trail. However, unless other cultural workers, institutions, trade unions and universities acknowledge this deficit with a view to redressing it, they will remain a drop in the ocean.
Unlike the establishment, the Irish trade union movement has fully and most generously supported this project. Individual unions and trades councils supported the three publications financially, and three Irish trade unionist wrote the forewords. In two instances they were the Presidents of the ICTU, Brian Campfield and Gerry Murphy, the third foreword was written by Andy Snoddy who works for the international trade union movement.
Finding working-class writers was a challenge. Galway working-class poet Rita Ann Higgins was very helpful in identifying potential contributors and their networks. Furthermore, the call for submissions went out to many writers’ networks. Salmon Publishing was also most supportive.
Until recently, I taught modern Irish literature at GMIT and have, over the years, observed the difference between the effect highly wrought poetry by representatives of the literary canon have had on students as opposed to the poetry that calls a spade a spade – literally. The students respond far more enthusiastically if they think a poem has something to do with their lives. That the students found their own experiences reflected in these works was nothing short of a revelation to them. This is not to put either side down, devalue the texts of our Nobel Prize for Literature winners etc, nor is it to say that the writings of the working people are somehow simplistic. Yet, the latter find a more direct line, shall we say, to the people about whose life experience they are writing.
These anthologies are different to collections of political writing. All writing is written from a particular point of view, the author’s point of view. This can either consolidate or undermine the mainstream culture. The point of view in these anthologies of working people’s writing, is that things are not as they should be. Things as they are, are not in the best interest of the working population. Important themes are homelessness in all its forms, including emigration, the abandonment of women in the mother and baby homes, poverty, but also about fightback, internationalism and solidarity.
There are very many more themes of course, but all of them reflect what if feels like to be disadvantaged, a victim in a society that punishes the poor and rewards the rich. By writing about his experience, the authors are creating political writing with a small P. And of course, the fact that this trilogy of working people’s writing exists, that they give expression to the voice of a class, is a political statement.
Many contributors only took up writing because they felt no one like them was in the books they read. To make this common ground clear to the readers, every contributor was asked to supply a short biography outlining their connection with the working people. Many readers have commented very favourably on the inclusion of these biographies. It is a break with convention, where authors are asked to list their publications, prizes and successes, which can sometimes falsely alienate readers who wish to find themselves in a book, their biographies, their stories, their life experience.
Another important consideration was the inclusion of Irish language writing. Far too often, an artificial divide is put up between Irish and English – most commonly published in separate books, which obscures what authors have in common. We need to see the writings in both languages put side by side and highlighted for their common concerns. Ireland has a significant tradition in working-class writing in Irish. Mícheál Óg Ó Longáin (1766–1837), cowherd and labourer, or the 20th century literary giants Pádraic Ó Conaire, Máirtin Ó Caidhin, Dónall Mac Amhlaigh, Liam O’Flaherty, or Máirtín Ó Direáin, to name but a few.
It is imperative to incorporate this substantial body of writers in any research of working-class writing in Ireland.
Moreover, these anthologies needed to represent the whole island of Ireland. There are a significant number of contributors from the North of Ireland and here from both communities. The fact that there are contributors from both parts of Ireland also highlights common ground between the people living in the North and those living in the Republic. Working people’s lives are not so different.
All three anthologies have about an even number of female and male contributors.
Finally, I would like to mention the other anthology published in 2021 of working-class writing, The 32 (McVeigh, 2021). The collection is mainly memoir, or faction, and therefore an important companion volume to the Culture Matters anthologies, which are largely fictional writing, inspired by working-class experience. A new page has been turned for Irish working-class writing.
Let me conclude with the famous poem by Bertolt Brecht:
A worker reads and asks questions
Who built seven-gated Thebes?
In the books you'll find the names of kings.
Was it the kings that lugged those hunks of rock?
And what of Babylon, so often demolished?
Who rebuilt it time and again? In which
Of golden Lima's houses lived its builders?On the day the Chinese Wall was finished where
Did the masons go in the evening? Great Rome
Is full of triumphal arches. Who raised them? Over whom
Did the Caesars triumph? Had Byzantium of the songs
Palaces only, for its inhabitants? Even in fabulous Atlantis,
The very night the sea swallowed it,
The drowning still bawled for their slaves.
Young Alexander conquered India.
Caesar defeated the Gauls.
Didn't he have so much as a cook with him?
Phillip of Spain wept when his fleet
Sank. Did no others shed tears?
Frederick the Second won the Seven Year War.
A victory on every page.
Who cooked the victory feast?
A great man every ten years.
Who paid the bill?
So many accounts.
So many questions.
To find answers to these questions, we need working-class art.
Jenny Farrell is a lecturer, writer and an Associate Editor of Culture Matters.