Michael Jarvie reviews From the Plough to the Stars
Something remarkable happened a few years ago on social media and in those bastions of the bourgeoisie – The Guardian and BBC Radio 4. The middle-class gatekeepers suddenly realised there was a glaring deficiency in the UK publishing industry. We can express this deficiency in the following manner, by stating that it amounts to nothing less than the exclusion of working-class voices. For the avoidance of doubt, by ‘working-class voices’ we mean writers who are themselves working class, not middle-class writers whose subject is the working class.
Once the nature and scale of the problem had been identified, several initiatives were proposed to redress the balance. In 2019, Unbound published an anthology of working-class writing entitled Common People, edited by Kit de Waal. After the success of Common People, Unbound slated another book for publication entitled The 32: An Anthology of Irish Working Class Voices, edited by Paul McVeigh. Like Common People, the aim was to include the work of established and so-called ‘emerging’ working-class writers. This procedure was not as straightforward as it might seem. One of the established authors scheduled for inclusion – Roddy Doyle – describes himself as having been brought up in a middle-class household. As we mentioned earlier, he is by definition one of those people who write about the working class even though they belong to the middle class.
This new collection from Culture Matters entitled From the Plough to the Stars: An Anthology of Working People’s Prose from Contemporary Ireland, edited by Jenny Farrell, has a more radical aim. Rather than trying to repair the faulty machinery of the publishing industry, it is a genuine attempt to build a new machine, one which specifically showcases the output of working-class writers. It builds upon the companion volume – The Children of the Nation: An Anthology of Working People’s Poetry from Contemporary Ireland, also edited by Jenny Farrell and published in 2019 by Culture Matters.
From the Plough to the Stars is a marvellously diverse collection that embraces fiction and non-fiction. Amongst the former, we find examples of flash fiction, short stories, poetry and drama. In terms of non-fiction – for which we prefer to use the more specific category of ‘life writing’ – it comprises blog pieces, diary extracts, memoirs and essays.
One of the themes explored in this volume is the devastating impact of COVID-19 on working-class communities. Attracta Fahy’s memoir ‘Mothering Through the Pandemic’ is narrated by a mother, concerned about the welfare of her son, who is working on the front line as an anaesthetist in a hospital in Los Angeles. As for lockdown, which has become a part of the fabric of all our lives, Rachel Hegarty’s ‘The Dodgy Box’ shows how one resourceful woman seeks to resolve the inevitable friction caused when families are confined to their homes. Hence the narrator is presented with no other option than to invest in an illegal set-top box to keep the family entertained with a wide variety of TV programmes during lockdown.
Maeve McKenna’s nostalgic memoir ‘I Want To Go Home’ demonstrates the verbal inventiveness of one of Rimbaud’s prose poems. It is the outpouring of someone who yearns for Dublin as a source of spiritual nourishment, despite no longer living in that city. Speaking of Dublin and linguistic fluency, there’s a direct homage to James Joyce’s short story ‘Eveline’ in Jim Ward’s similarly titled ‘Evelyn’. But where Joyce’s young woman was Irish, the Evelyn of this contemporary story is a Polish immigrant. As for the Irish language itself, there are several works which reflect on that topic, such as the fascinating scholarly memoir from Tomás Mac Síomóin – ‘A Ballyfermot Enigma!’ And for the reader proficient in Gaelic, there are a number of occasions where the authors have included both English and Irish versions of the same piece.
Direct political action also plays a significant role – especially in ‘Vigil in Support of Irish Water During Seanad Vote on Wednesday’ by Kevin Higgins. The same subject is covered in the delightful short story ‘They Also Serve Who Only…’ by Moya Roddy and in Kevin Doyle’s ‘The Water War’. ‘The 1970 Cement Strike’ by Seosamh ó Cuaig is a personal response to yet another industrial conflict.
Religious oppression is the subject of Patrick Bolger’s story of child sexual abuse, perpetrated by a member of the priesthood (‘Revelation’) and in Anne Water’s ‘St. Stephen’s Day’, with its tale of the notorious Magdalen laundries.
The Troubles, and the brutal oppression of the Irish Catholic population by the forces of English imperialism, are vividly brought home in Sean Maguire’s ‘Window Pain’, set in Belfast during the 1970s. Conflict, whether overt or repressed, is a common ingredient. There is, for instance, the dangerous life of the loan shark, as recounted in Edward Boyne’s short story ‘Local’, and the senseless violence that erupts in Karl Parkinson’s ‘Deano and the Boys From the Block’. Then there is Seamus Scanlon’s ‘On the House’ – a veritable tour de force of tragicomic dimensions, that grows darker and darker by the minute. Meanwhile, Anne Mac Darby-Beck’s ‘Sick Day’ is a tale of pent-up aggression lurking just below the surface.
Although drug addiction, abject poverty, illness and death are frequently dealt with, lighter themes are certainly not discounted. For example, Gráinne Daly’s piece ‘The Dublin-Meath Saga’ is devoted entirely to sport – in this particular instance Gaelic football. Woven side by side with this narrative of long-standing football rivalry is a story of possible familial reconciliation.
Given the wide-ranging topics and genres on display, there are even two works of science fiction in this anthology: ‘King of the Concrete Jungle’ by Ross Walsh and ‘Token House’ by David Murphy.
One can only scratch the surface in a brief review of this nature. Because of the sheer variety on offer, there is something here for everyone. From the Plough to the Stars is therefore a work that demands your attention.
From the Plough to the Stars is available here.
Michael Jarvie is a working-class writer from Darlington in County Durham. He is the author of The Prison, a collection of short stories, and Black Art, a novel.