• Joseph Plunkett's Strumpet City and the headstones of Denis Cullen

    I was quite young when I first came across Strumpet City. It was the RTE television series that aired in 1980 rather than the book itself (which was first published in 1969). Around 10 years later the series was repeated and this encouraged me to read the book. It’s funny how a book can haunt you. Little did I know then that the book would come back to me many years later when I was researching Darkest Dublin. The starting point of that book is the Church Street Disaster in 1913, and James Plunkett cleverly weaves this event into his own book based on the events in Dublin that year. I was delighted that he had immortalised the Church Street Disaster, when everyone else seemed to have forgotten about it.

    To my surprise Strumpet City has come back to haunt me again, but this time in a way I could never have expected. It was my friend Joe McHugh who brought this my attention, for I would never have reached for Strumpet City in my research into the 18th century headstones of Wicklow.

    In one passage Yearling and the poet William Matthews (a character based on AE or George Russell) visit Glendalough in the heart of the Wicklow Mountains, and stroll among the ancient ruins of St Kevin's monastery. Plunkett uses a headstone carved by Denis Cullen to provide an opportunity for these two characters to stop and examine something more closely among the ruins in the graveyard:

    On the gravestone a horseman and Roman soldiers followed Christ to his Crucifixion. The horseman, he noticed, wore a cocked hat and eighteenth-century costume. He looked closer. The Roman soldiers carried guns. He drew Mathews’ attention.

    ‘Do you notice anything?’

    Mathews peered for some time.

    ‘Ah’, he said at last, ‘a latter-day Saviour’.

    ‘The stone is by Cullen,’ Yearling told him, ‘a local mason, if I remember rightly….’

    In this short passage, Plunkett incorporates a real life model into his story. While Denis Cullen was not local to Glendalough (he lived and worked at Monaseed in Co. Wexford) a number of his headstones are found there. On a number of these are Cullen’s distinctive Crucifixion scenes with an 18th century yeoman on horseback and some featuring an 18th century foot soldier. None of the examples depict guns, as suggested in the passage above, but the horseman typically holds a sword and the foot soldier invariably holds a pike, the latter an unmistakeable weapon of the late 18th century. Therefore, Cullen depicts the Crucifixion as if it happened in the 18th century, which of course explains Mathews comment about ‘a latter-day Saviour’, but in the context of the overall story line of book, this may be more of a reference to Jim Larkin who represented the trade union movement and the workers during the Lock Out in 1913. Whatever about Plunkett’s motivation, I find it fascinating that he so deliberately took the time to weave the 18th century work of Denis Cullen from rural Wicklow and Wexford into his story line of early 20th century Dublin.

    8 Comments

    • 1. Jan 3 2014 10:39AM by Irene Hynes

      I was reading an article in” Wicklow Archaeology and History” (Vol 1 1998) regarding Dennis Cullen. In the article it depicts / drawing and makes reference to a ‘centurion’ on a gravestone carved by Cullen, carrying a “pistol” (also mentioned that there are four more examples of this in Cullen’s work). However, the gravestone that is referenced lies in Kilnenor (p, 44) and not in Glendalough. I wonder when James Plunked was writing his book had he heard about Denis Cullen carvings i.e. the one where Cullen craved a pistol into the scene of the Crucifixation and used Glendalough (where they are many examples of Cullen's work) as the setting for a suprising and thought provaking scene in his book?

    • 2. Mar 2 2015 3:49PM by Jennifer M.J.Kavangh

      could you tell where was dennis cullen born ? was it co wexford or co wicklow if you can fill me in on some backround that be great, I am working on KILBRIDE GRAVE YARD HERE IN ARKLOW, THE PYRAMID IS. THIS to go on a leaflet so

      would like to add it too. Jennifer M.J.KAVANGH

    • 3. Mar 2 2015 3:49PM by Jennifer M.J.Kavangh

      could you tell where was dennis cullen born ? was it co wexford or co wicklow if you can fill me in on some backround that be great, I am working on KILBRIDE GRAVE YARD HERE IN ARKLOW, THE PYRAMID IS. THIS to go on a leaflet so

      would like to add it too. Jennifer M.J.KAVANGH

    • 4. Mar 2 2015 3:49PM by Jennifer M.J.Kavangh

      could you tell where was dennis cullen born ? was it co wexford or co wicklow if you can fill me in on some backround that be great, I am working on KILBRIDE GRAVE YARD HERE IN ARKLOW, THE PYRAMID IS. THIS to go on a leaflet so

      would like to add it too. Jennifer M.J.KAVANGH

    • 5. Mar 2 2015 3:49PM by Jennifer M.J.Kavangh

      could you tell where was dennis cullen born ? was it co wexford or co wicklow if you can fill me in on some backround that be great, I am working on KILBRIDE GRAVE YARD HERE IN ARKLOW, THE PYRAMID IS. THIS to go on a leaflet so

      would like to add it too. Jennifer M.J.KAVANGH

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