by Michael Pierse

Irish working-class history and writing are attracting increasing academic interest, and rightly so. With the recent publication of the 22-chapter A History of Irish Working-Class Writing (Cambridge University Press), a leading luminary in the Irish Studies field, Declan Kiberd, could write that that volume’s focus on “an astonishing range of writing – from work-songs and political rhymes to poetry and government reports, from novels and plays to biographies by or about working people”, would “set many of the terms of cultural debate in the decade to come”.

As Kiberd also noted, “they could hardly be more timely”: as Ireland’s post-crash society came to grips with the inequalities inherent in policies of austerity and the injustices of the financial system, class sentiment seemed most manifest in, for example, the anti-water charges protests that gained increasing popular support during the recession period. Researchers such as Rory Hearne have noted a nascent, post-Celtic Tiger politicisation of working-class areas. And here, a sense of continuity with historical struggle was a key resource, as suggested, for example, by the compelling debates that emerged in Ireland’s sometimes clumsy celebrations of the centenary of the Revolutionary Period. Much of the debate would focus on what James Connolly might have thought of the Ireland that subsequently emerged, his condemnations of capitalism jarring with the tax-haven Republic’s arguably selective celebration of his legacy. Connolly, as the subject of lore and song, has endured as a semi-mythic figure in Irish working-class life. And “subliterary” forms such as song have indeed been integral to the formation of working-class culture.

When “The Full English”, a digital archive of twelve manuscript collections of English folk songs, was launched in 2013 by the English Folk and Dance Song Society, playwright and screenwriter Lee Hall described it as “the most exciting and significant thing to happen to British folk music in at least a generation […] To give everyone the keys to the archive of our common heritage will be an invaluable inspiration to generations of musicians and writers”. It was interesting that the scriptwriter of a classic film of the northern English working class, Billy Elliot (2000), had felt such affinities. Here was an archive, as Billy Bragg recognised along with fellow folk musicians and playwrights such as Hall and Neil Leyshon, which was rich with the history of the common folk, the peasant, the working class, and which, as Bragg stressed, has relevance for working-class struggles today. Such connections are not incidental, but built into the very fabric of this kind of creativity. Folk songs emerged over centuries as a form of popular entertainment that could provide wellsprings of resilience, rebellion and sedition for the poor. They were easily learned and transcribed, handily stored (often hidden from authorities) and regularly modified, if need be, to suit the particularities of a specific place and time.

Folk songs’ capacity to voice concerns and protests from society’s most marginalised meant that they flourished and translated from region to region, and however radically changed in that process, so often retained a similar ethics of alterity—challenging the status quo in a form of publication (broadsides and ballads were often written down and the first reading encounter of many poor people) that was easy to disseminate and difficult to suppress. Furthermore, these legacies stretched out over time. In Christy Brown’s Down All the Days (1970), working-class characters sing maudlin ballads of “the ubiquitous underdog, the worm that turned, the berated beggarman roaming the streets with flapping uppers and bleeding feet”. In Crumlin of the 1950s, the words of songs stretching back perhaps centuries before in origin were still a resource for those uprooted from the city centre and sent to newly built suburban social housing. The same sense of historicity is evident in the Behan family’s love of Irish songs. In A History of Irish Working-Class Writing, John Moulden draws our attention to the ways in which, “from the poorest in society, the Irish working class created, contributed to, transformed and consumed the verbal art that impinged upon them in oral or cheap printed or, occasionally, more substantial form”, creating, singing, and distributing a folk culture that would travel and transform through space and time, lamenting injustices, such as in ‘The Cottager’s Complaint’, recounting common experiences or remembering exceptional individuals, like ‘Hannah Healy the Pride of Howth’, or ‘Biddy Mulligan the Pride of the Coombe’. But why not a ‘Full Irish’ archive, then?

Clearly we could do more on this side of the Irish Sea to excavate, preserve, and make available the artefacts and treasures of Irish working-class and peasant experience. Despite the development, over many decades, of a sophisticated and diverse range of critical approaches in Irish Studies, there is a paucity of discussion around how class has shaped and shapes the contours of Irish social, political and cultural life. This, however, paradoxically suggests its importance. Class is at the heart of Irish society, north and south, its operations, apparatuses, privileges and anxieties; it is central to its academies and its intellectual culture. It is embedded in tensions not so much bubbling under the surface as imposing themselves insistently on the dominant ideologies of Irish life, despite the strange aversion to or ignorance of much of Ireland’s commentariat regarding its pervasive force.

‘Class is always in some sense present’

In terms of how Ireland has been written, in fiction, theatre, poetry, biography and song, to what extent, then, has class shaped what we know, what we read (or don’t read) and how it is read? Has the Irish working class’s cultural production across various genres been addressed (or not addressed) and why? John Kirk begins his study of the British working class in film, literature and television by observing how ‘Class is always in some sense present: whether in our refusal to accept it, our inclination to acknowledge it or insist on it or, as in some cases, our being privileged enough not to have noticed it.’ It is often when class is least noticed and spoken about, or when it is most comfortably acknowledged to be old-fashioned or irrelevant, that it is most pressing in our social machinery and everyday lives.

As A History of Irish Working-Class Writing illustrates, if questions about the aesthetic merits, ideological complexity, or formal challenges of many who write the Irish working class puncture the romance or even impede the simple enjoyment of their works, they also create important conversations between those writers, readers, scholars and students about what we can learn from the writing, its original contexts, its reproduction, the present, and also perhaps how we construct the future. As I have argued elsewhere, the ways in which class impacts culture is an issue Irish working-class authors repeatedly draw attention to themselves. When Brendan Behan’s English soldier, Leslie, encounters an Irish-English IRA veteran, Monsewer, amongst his captors in The Hostage (1958), their antagonism pointedly hinges on class rather than the expected ethno-national enmities:

MONSEWER.     Are you a cricketer, my boy?

SOLDIER.   Yes, sir. Do you like a game?

MONSEWER.  By Jove, yes.

SOLDIER.   Mind you, I couldn’t get on with it at the Boys’ Home. They gave us two sets of stumps, you see, and I’d always been used to one, chalked up on the old wall at home.

MONSEWER.  That’s not cricket, my boy.

SOLDIER.   Now there you are, then. You’re what I call a cricket person and I’m what I call a soccer person. That’s where your race lark comes in.

By mistaking class for race, Leslie’s retort of course suggests how the former is more important in this encounter between English and Irish soldiers. Another IRA man’s (Behan’s) affinity with the working-class English boys he met during time spent in an English borstal is somewhere in the mix.

Leslie, like his class, doesn’t have or know the right things; he encounters here his lack of proper acculturation, his inauthentic playing of the game of the upper classes. It is all the more ironic in that, in this conversation that Behan uses, in a deeply satirical manoeuvre, to ridicule post-colonial class relations in Ireland, the Irish have secured their ‘freedom’ only to rehabilitate the colonial master’s class politics. In Behan’s writing, working-class kinships continually thwart ethno-national divisions: Leslie and his lover Teresa; Dubliner Chuckles Genockey and his co-conspirator, the London-Cockney, Angel, in The Big House (1957); Behan himself and his English borstal comrades in Borstal Boy (1958), whose friendship across national lines yet excludes toff English prisoner Ken Jones, whom other English inmates can’t abide because of his perceived elitism. Behan, an auto-didact like many of the other writers explored in A History of Irish Working-Class Writing, repeatedly makes claims for how class solidarity ought to trump national allegiance, and continually draws attention to the othering of his class within hegemonic and national constructions of cultural capital. As Ian Haywood notes of one of Behan’s most noteworthy antecedents in Irish working-class writing, Robert Tressell – whose The Ragged Trousered Philanthropists’ “mythic status has been preserved by generations of leftwing readers” – “this canonisation runs counter to the book’s absence from mainstream and academic literary tradition”. We might add here the book’s absence from the Irish literary canon.

Ruth Sherry could observe some thirty years ago that “the concept of Irish working-class writing is not a well-established one.” The same could be said today. That Sherry could at least identify some of the major prose writers of the Irish working class prior to the publication of her article, “The Irish Working Class in Fiction”, in 1985, suggests that the relative neglect since is inexcusable. Despite important book-length studies on Behan, Seán O’Casey, Sam Thompson, Christy Brown, Stewart Parker, Roddy Doyle and others, studies that link such writers together as ‘working class’ are very rare. Some of this has of course to do with the very structure of our education system.

“Not Posh”

As Simon J. Charlesworth observes in his anthropological study of late twentieth-century English working-class life, A Phenomenology of Working-Class Experience (1999), “the experience of formal education has consequences for their relation to the disposition of learning, one that makes it an experience of anxiety that can be confronted only through a heightened, even extreme, tension.” Does the academy buttress the inequality in how cultural (and social, and other forms of) capital are distributed in Irish society, north and south, through the education system? In a recent (2015) comparative study of the experiences of working-class English and Irish university students, for instance, Fergal Finnegan and Barbara Merrill found promising strides through “widening participation” measures in higher education but also, more depressingly, the endurance of feelings of alienation amongst working-class students.  The Irish working-class students they spoke to had a very strong sense of class: “one-third of people interviewed spontaneously chose to describe themselves in class terms – mainly as ‘working class’ but also ‘disadvantaged’ and ‘not posh’” and “more significantly, awareness of class emerged through their descriptions of everyday life and how this is affected by limited access to material and cultural resources.”  A high proportion had, at university, experienced “a feeling of dislocation, or at least a sense of social distance, from the dominant culture in universities”, one of the Irish students describing the academy as ‘‘a foreign country”. Those attending elite institutions were particularly alienated, “in some cases interviewees discussed going through the difficult and painstaking process of cultural adaptation [… and] These accounts of fitting or not fitting in at university were often discussed as something which was felt as embodied and as deeply emotional by the students.”

While questions of access have come to the fore in universities on these islands, how many have asked how the class of people working and studying in universities influences the class of subjects researched and taught? bell hooks has argued, albeit in a US context, that “nowhere is there a more intense silence about the reality of class differences than in educational settings.” Hooks’ efforts to challenge class inequality in her own teaching practice were drawn from a personal experience at odds with prevailing, mystifying assumptions of the exceptionality of HE as a place apart from society, where all become equal in the classroom. But, as British working-class interlopers in the academy such as Richard Hoggart and Raymond Williams would discover, the university has always been a place of intense class politics. hooks recalled how

I went to Stanford thinking that class was mainly about materiality. It only took me a short while to understand that class was more than just a question of money, that it shaped values, attitudes, social relations, and the biases that informed the way knowledge would be given and received. 

Representations of working-class experience continually call attention to such alienating experiences in educational settings: Catherine Dunne, Lar Redmond, Hugh O’Donnell, Brendan Behan, Patrick Gilligan and Noel Ó Briain (in their controversial RTÉ drama series, The Spike (1978)), Thomas Kinsella, Roddy Doyle, Stewart Parker and others repeat the kind of sentiment that we find above in various forms. The young Stewart Parker recalled his experience as a non-Rugby playing, working-class East Belfast late entrant in a grammar school where cultural instruction came with a heavy dose of superciliousness:

I had two and a half years of Latin, French, History, Snobbery and Conformity to catch up on […] The social stuffiness and intellectual drudgery combined to make me resentful, morose, wretched and inwardly priggish and arrogant: in short, adolescent, but with a vengeance.

As Marilyn Richtarik recalls in her biography of Parker, his headmaster, undoubtedly with the best intentions, summoned Stewart to his office to suggest that he try to modify his east Belfast accent. That “really got up his nose”, Stewart’s sister recalls. Similar scenes were being played out in headmasters’ studies throughout Northern Ireland around this time, but not every pupil so exhorted rejected the advice with the same disdain.

Shame is perhaps the more usual response. As Pamela Fox puts it, “those most likely to feel shame are those made feel ‘inappropriate’ by dominant cultural norms.”

To encounter English Literature is to know something of those dominant cultural norms. Since at least Matthew Arnold’s foundational comments on the “tend[ing] to anarchy” that results when “this and that man, and this and that body of men, all over the country” begin “to assert and put in practice an Englishman’s right to do what he likes”, English Literature (and the operations of acculturation more generally) has been too often about refusing to “teach down to the level of the inferior classes” and rather trying to bring the “masses” up towards the lofty heights of “the best that has been thought and known”. But as Hans Bertens argues, the “opposition between superior high culture, whose literary branch preserves the best that has been thought and said, and the debased anthropologically defined “cultures” that always threaten its existence runs like a red thread through pre-1970s English and American criticism”. It is, in fact, this opposition between high culture and the various – and socially dominant ways of life or cultures that threaten it that gave English studies its extraordinary self-confidence.

As Bertens notes, such disdain for the “inferior classes” was not informed by any significant research on those classes or what they produced culturally, and it is not until figures like Hoggart and Williams began (as former members of those classes) to challenge the complacent presumuptions of English studies that we see a way in for the working class. The challenges that come from France, from Barthes, Althusser and Foucault, and from Gramsci in Italy, much earlier but only translated in the 1970s, all in their various ways suggest the importance, not just of culture, but of its precepts and assumptions, and its constructedness, in the matter of political power.

Thus, to adapt a turn of phrase of Terry Eagleton’s, there is no need to bring class into literature, it has been there right from the start. In Irish literature, we are beginning to see welcome attention, from a range of scholars, to the ways in which the canonical has been shaped by class, and the ways in which class has emerged in writing—whether in the form of political poems in the pages of the Irish Worker, the novels of Roddy Doyle, or the representation of Dublin’s underworld in RTÉ’s TV drama Love/Hate. This will hopefully lead to new ways of conceptualising Irish cultural history and indeed of coming to grips with the dynamics of Irish society as a whole. Often this work is being conducted by working-class “amphibians” – as Michelle Tokarczyk terms them – those critics from working class backgrounds who, she argues, “act as a bridge between working-class and academic sensibilities”. Certainly, in a context of interminable austerity, and with growing student fees, these “bridges” are needed to challenge the ways in which the working class is written, or written about.


This article first appeared on The Honest Ulsterman.