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Jane Austin

In: English and Literature

Submitted By deirdreusher
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All literature bears traces of the historical moment which gives rise to it.

About the Author

James Plunkett Kelly was born in Dublin in 1920. His middle name was imposed on him by an enthusiastic parish priest. He went to school in Synge Street and was educated by the Christian Brothers and also at the Dublin Municipal School of Music where he studied the viola and the violin. He also played Gaelic football up to provincial level.

His father died young and James became the breadwinner for the family. He worked for a while as a musician but then got a job as a clerk in the Dublin Gas Company. This led him to join the Workers Union of Ireland, when Trade Unions at the time were neither profitable nor popular. In 1946 to 55, he became Branch Organiser for the Workers Union of Ireland. He reported directly to James Larkin and he worked in the next office. James Larkin and the 1913-14 Dublin Lockout Played a very big role in Plunkett’s writings and he was a great admirer of his.

In 1955 he went to the Soviet Union and on his return was criticised by the church who printed an article in the Catholic Standard newspaper calling for both his and James Larkin’s dismissal. However later he resigned.

Most of Plunkett’s writings are about Dublin and people living in poverty and suffering. He wrote Strumpet City which took ten years to write, as he kept leaving it and going back to writing at different times. During this time he was a producer in RTE. Later this became a TV series, and after this he followed with the novel, The Circus Animals which examined the church in the years immediately after the Second World War.

James Larkin died in 1947, which was the same year Janey Mary was written. Perhaps there was a sense of honour to Larkin in writing it. James Plunkett Kelly died on May 28th 2003 aged 83. He had married, and had three sons and a daughter.

History of 1940’s Dublin
Plunkett wrote at a time when poverty was experienced by many people in Dublin. In 1946 the Eire census was 2,955,000 populations in Ireland. It was also the year that the Department of Social Welfare came about. In 1944 the Children’s Allowance Scheme was introduced, for people with three or more children. For many of Dublin’s population (from the middle of the 19th to the middle of the 20th century), were living in what was classed as the worst slums of Europe. People were living in third world conditions with overcrowding, no heating systems, no electricity, no hot water, and just an open fire for heat and cooking. They didn’t even have a bathroom, just a shed out the back that had a toilet, which was used by all the residents in the building (which could run up to a 100 including all the children).

Keeping a fire going was really important as it had so many functions, however not many could afford to keep it going all day and night. Fuel was scarce and expensive, so anything and everything was burned. The men or male children of the house went out looking for firewood and collected coal that may have fallen off a truck or horse and cart, if they had no fuel they would burn old shoes as they would burn for hours.

The houses were very draughty and could be full of rats. Holes were filled with broken glass so the rats and mice couldn’t chew through. Diseases were rampant (Typhoid, Cholera, Diphtheria, Scarlet Fever, Measles) and the biggest killer TB (Tuberculosis) or Galloping Consumption as it was known at the time. This killed children in the 1940’s by the thousands. The other killer was Malnutrition; Dublin’s death rate rivalled that of Calcutta. As many people were so poor they could not afford to hold a funeral for their children, so the child was placed in a little white coffin or box and this was placed in a white pillow case. The men used to bring the coffin up to Glasnevin Cemetery and hand it over to the grave diggers, who buried the child in the ‘Angel Plots’. These are the unmarked graves of nameless children who died. There are over 50,000 of these graves in Glasnevin Cemetery.

Although life was very tough and people suffered every day, there was a great sense of community spirit. Neighbours helped out each other, be it sharing food or clothes and nobody stole off each other. You could leave your key in your door or leave it unlocked. At night for entertainment they would have sing songs or storytelling when the children went to bed. Often the neighbours would attend these sessions and some houses may have a piano that everyone gathered round.

Although it was tough on men to earn a living as most employments were casual. The men would queue and sometimes be picked to go to work or be told they would not be needed that day. If they could not get work in the morning they would generally look for odd jobs throughout the day, anything to bring home some wages. Unemployment was still very high and lots of men went overseas to England or the US to work. They sent wages home or saved for their families to join them.

The women had it toughest of all. Any money that was brought home they were in charge of. They had to make it stretch to pay the rent, buy shopping, clothe everyone, and whatever else the family needed. Their diet mainly consisted of potatoes, onions, cabbage, turnips, occasionally carrots, and the meat would generally be the cheaper items like cow’s heel and sheep’s head. There were no such things as exotic fruits like oranges or bananas back then. Apples were the main fruit.

A woman’s day consisted of cleaning the house, washing clothes, cooking and feeding and looking after their babies. Pregnancy and childbirth was a constant for married women. The husbands expected sex every night and Catholic Church stated it was a mortal sin not to have sex every night. The women were worn out. Many women died during childbirth. Janey Mary
Janey Mary was written at a time when the above existed in Dublin. The story of Janey Mary is centered round a little four year old girl, who’s mother has sent her out begging around some of the wealthier neighbouring streets. She is so well known for begging that they even know her knock on the door. Most don’t answer they just yell from behind a closed door and those that do, have nothing to give her. She is cold as she only has a little dress on with no shoes and tired from walking the streets. Her small hands she helds together almost as if to pray.

She thought about school and missed going there. Her only friend was the local Priest Father Benedict, who was the only one who didn’t laugh or give out to her when she didn’t know an answer. He used to sit and talk to her and give her sweets. He wanted to know about her, her life and become friends.( Fr. Benedict is considered highly by the people where he lives and works. James Plunkett wrote of him 'who had more intuition than intellect, more genuine affection for children than for learning). As he would talk to her, the teacher would be giving sly looks at them as if jealous of the attention Janey Mary was getting. Later as a punishment she would take the sweets away and give them to the other children who were more neat with their work as a reward. She missed going to school and wished she could be there.

She was also to go up to the local church where the priests give out bread before and after mass, but that day Janey Mary is not feeling well and from lack of food is feeling quite week and dizzy. She forgets to go and by the time she realises the church bells are ringing and it is too late. The priests have already gone into the church and the people who are waiting for bread begin to wander away to come back after the mass.

As she is walking through the demolished houses from the German Bombings her mind started to wander and she remembers playing there. The children played shops and other games there with the debris. In that moment she was swept away to a happy time, filled with glamour, happiness and a childs imagination of all is well with the world and she felt happy. However reality comes back very quickly.

She is afraid to go home because she knows her Mother will send her back out and not believe her when she says that she tried. Of this she is right as all she gets when she arrives home is verbal abuse from her Mother. Her mother is at the depths of despair trying to keep food on the table for her family. As she is a widow, the only breadwinner in the house, is Janey Mary’s older brother who is out selling sticks. Sometimes some of his customers might give him some bread to bring home, Other times her Mother would have some hidden away but not today.

Items are described as old, cracked, and just worn out. This is also the same description of Janey Mary and her Mother. Everything and everyone in that little room is beaten down to the debth of despair. There is no joy in that house, and Janey Mary’s Mother rains down on her about how bad things are for them. She gives Janey Mary a hard time and accuses her of not looking at all. She tells her to get back out and to bring the bag with her. Altough Janey Mary is weak and almost passing out with the hunger she never once moans or complains. It’s almost as if she knows better.

When she gets down to the church the mass is still going on and only a few have gathered. She is cold but as more join the queue she warms up a little. Everyone that is there are in the same boat, all poor, starving and pitifull. All Janey Mary can think about is her friend and saviour Father Benedict.

The priests have a table out on the steps to place the bread on when the mass is over and two of the Brothers watch the people form an orderly queue. Janey Mary can hardly see now and becomes conscious of those around her. Someone lets out a scream to mind the child as she is pressed against the wall by men and women all standing over her. Everyone is desperate for food and at first they are argueing with each other for a place, but they all seam too tired to argue and eventually the noise settles down to just people whispering. They all seam to be saying the same thing, that there won’t be much bread going with so many there. Almost as if they don’t want each other to hear, yet they all know.

There is a man beside her with hob nail studs on the soles of his shoes. Janey Mary becomes fixated on them and conscious of her tiny bare feet beside them. She cannot take her focus off them and as she is lost in thought the doors of the church open and everyone pushes forward. Suddenly as she is being pushed she loses her footing and a man tries to grab her but fails. Through the croud she can see Fr Benedict and very gently she calls out his name, just as she falls and gets trampled on.

When she wakes up she is in a nice warm room. Surrounded by a blanket, heat, and nice things around her. At first she panics as she remembers the bread and as she tries to speak everything sounds noisy. Everything is cosy here and she knows she is safe cause as she drifts in and out of consciousness she hears and see’s her friend and knows he will take care of her.

The other brother says to Father Benedict “You were very quick, Is she badly hurt? To me this implies even though Janey Mary had only whispered his name as she called him, He heard her. Almost as if he is her Guardian Angel there to look out for her.

Father Benedict replies “Only her feet, you can see the print of the nails” James Larkin said this during the Dublin Lockout in 1913 that “Christ will no longer be crucified on the streets of Dublin”. Here we see hope with Plunketts own interest in Larkin’s ideas. Class notes, 2013, The short story Janey Mary, English Literature, Liberties College.


From the very first time I read this as a child, it is a story I never forgot. No matter how much I read it , I still have tears and a ache in my heart when I think of that little girl. It brings up many emotions in me that I find hard to describe as I feel if I start I won’t be able to finish. There is so much pain out there in people that have and are growing up like Janey Mary, that are suffering every day to keep a roof over their heads, food on the table and heat in their homes. Most children in this day and age don’t go out begging and wouldn’t understand this life but there are many who can. They should be in school and safe and secure, but alas not everyone is that fortunate.

It is clear to see that Janey Mary is a short story set in the poverty od Dublin in the 1940’s and that Plunkett was also influenced in his writing by James Larkin and his ideas in this story.



Exploring English 3 Gill and MacMillan 1976


Class notes, 2013, The short story Janey Mary, English Literature, Liberties College.


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