Patrick MacGill: the “Navvy-Poet”

A writer who swiftly transported his Irish working-class hero from the squalor and danger of life as a navvy, building the Blackwater Dam for the Kinlochleven aluminium works, to a scholarly position at the centre of the English ecclesiastical establishment in St George’s Chapel, Windsor might be thought to be in danger of losing credibility. If the young hero also overcame a background of grinding poverty and limited education to become a best selling novelist and poet the writer could perhaps expect quite a lot of rejection slips.
Yet what would be unbelievable fiction was the reality of the life of the ‘Navvy-Poet’, Patrick MacGill, who shot to national fame with the publication of his autobiographical novel, Children of the Dead End, in 1914.
MacGill was born into a poor subsistence farming family in the rural community of Glenties, County Donegal around April 1890. He described his education in Who’s Who as ‘three years at a mountain school.’ When he was twelve, he was put out to add to the family income by doing casual work on local farms. After a couple of years of this he was considered old enough to be sent to the hiring-fair at Strabane, County Tyrone, and spent the next few years working for a variety of masters as a farm labourer. As a teenager he came to Scotland with one of the tattie-howking squads who made the yearly trip from Ireland to harvest potatoes on the farms of lowland Scotland. 
 One of the difficulties in writing about MacGill is a shortage of independently corroborated facts. Life as a casual labourer, a tramp, a railway surfaceman, or as a construction camp navvy in the 1900s does not tend to produce good written records. The assumption is made, and probably correctly, that the adventures of Dermod Flynn, the hero of Children of the Dead End, accurately reflects the experiences of Patrick MacGill and indeed MacGill claimed that nearly all the incidents described in the novel happened to him.
If so, the young MacGill worked for a time on the potato harvest, fell into bad habits, lost his money gambling, was ashamed to return home, went on the tramp around Scotland and found work as a railway labourer.
During this latter period he started to develop a taste for reading and was awakened to works of literature which reflected on the life he and his colleagues were experiencing. MacGill describes how Dermod would sit reading Victor Hugo’s epic of French working-class life, Les Miserables, while acting as watchman for the plate-laying squad. With this interest in books and reading came a growing political consciousness. He took part in an unsuccessful strike over working conditions on the railways and left Glasgow to work on the great hydroelectric scheme at Kinlochleven. When the construction work ended in 1909 MacGill returned to the lowlands and found work on the Caledonian Railway.
While working at Kinlochleven MacGill had submitted some poems and sketches of navvy life to the newspapers, but it was when living in Greenock that his literary career really took off. He had a collection of his poetry, Gleanings from a Navvy’s Scrapbook, printed and took to selling this, at sixpence a time, round the doors in Greenock. As luck would have it one of the doors he called on was that of the novelist and journalist Neil Munro –
author of historical novels like John Splendid and creator of the immortal Para Handy. Munro wrote up the young Irish poet in his weekly Looker-On column in the Glasgow Evening News:
At present working as a navvy on a repair-gang on the Caledonian Railway between Greenock and Wemyss Bay there is a young Irishman who has been a manual labourer since he left school at the age of twelve, and yet has had time to cultivate no inconsiderable degree of literary taste, and even to write and publish a small volume of his own poetry.
MacGill tells how Munro’s column was picked up by the London press – this produced a flood of orders from England and a job offer from the Daily Express. MacGill moved to Fleet Street but soon after received an offer of work as Secretary and Librarian from Canon John Neale Dalton, the Treasurer of St George’s Chapel Windsor. Dalton, who had been domestic Chaplain to Queen Victoria and King Edward VII was appointed tutor to Edward VII’s sons and in turn became domestic chaplain to George V and a lifelong friend of the King.   MacGill’s third collection of poetry Songs of the Dead End, published in 1912, has the author’s introduction written from “The Garden House, Windsor” – a somewhat more upmarket address than the grimy lodging houses or rough navvies’ camps that had been his earlier experience.
Patrick MacGill, despite his few years of elementary education, demonstrated a remarkable ability for self-improvement and self-education – Neil Munro’s article had noted that among MacGill’s poems were translations of:
… some of La Fontaine’s Fables and Goethe’s ‘Earl King’, his knowledge of French and German mainly derived from dictionaries.
His work at Windsor involved assisting Canon Dalton with translating and transcribing ancient manuscripts.
In March 1914 Children of the Dead End was published and enjoyed an instant success. 15,000 copies sold in three months and the vivid writing about the realities of life on the underside of society won it much praise. In MacGill’s native Ireland, however, this praise was tempered with adverse comment. The strongly anticlerical vein in the novel, with its portrait of the tyrannical village priest, Father Devaney, and the equally scathing portrait of Devaney’s ally, Farley McKeown, the ‘gombeen man’ who held the impoverished Donegal peasantry in debt-slavery, made the novel uncomfortable reading.
 Children of the Dead End’s success was followed by a linked novel, The Rat-Pit, in 1915. This harrowing story tells the tale of Dermod Flynn’s childhood sweetheart, Norah Ryan, her descent through betrayal, the birth of an illegitimate child, life in a Glasgow lodging-house (the rat-pit of the title), sweated work as piecework seamstress, to prostitution and death. The two novels are remarkable social documents and significant in representing, for perhaps the first time in Scottish literature, the experiences of the Irish Catholic migrant community in an unwelcoming and hostile Scotland, in what Norah’s friend Sheila Carroll calls ‘the black country with the cold heart’.
 When the First World War broke out in 1914, Patrick MacGill enlisted in the London Irish and saw active service as a stretcher bearer on the Western Front, and was wounded and gassed at the Battle of Loos. Invalided home he married Margaret Gibbons, a writer of romantic fiction and grandniece of Cardinal James Gibbons of Baltimore.   MacGill’s wartime experiences provided inspiration for a number of novels such as The Amateur Army and The Great Push. He ended the war in poor health and working in the Intelligence Department of the War Office.
 He looked again at Irish themes in Glenmornan (1918) and Lanty Hanlon (1922) and in what is perhaps the most popular and enduring of the post-war novels, Moleskin Joe (1923) revisited a character from Children of the Dead End. Like all his novels these were published by the London firm of Herbert Jenkins.
A play, Suspense, based on a wartime incident was staged in London in 1930 and later taken to the United States to where the MacGill’s and their three daughters emigrated. MacGill had perhaps hoped to break into the Hollywood film world – Suspense had been filmed in 1930 and he is credited with a small role in the 1932 movie of Noel Coward’s Cavalcade. However his move to the United States coincided with the Great Depression and a glittering film career was not forthcoming. A later play, So Said the Woman, was produced in Hollywood and Broadway.
His last novel Helen Spenser, was published in 1937 and he does not appear to have continued writing after this time. Patrick MacGill died in Miami, Florida in November 1963 and is buried in Fall River, Massachusetts, the home of his daughter Patricia.
Neil Munro described the young MacGill as a:
… little over twenty years of age, a tall, bright-eyed, black, curly-haired lad with the muscles and calloused hands of a navvy, but – in his bookselling evening hours – dressed with a quite unavvy-like hint of the dandy in the matter of necktie and waistcoat.
When in 1922 MacGill came to Clydebank to talk at the Singer Literary Club the local newspaper was equally impressed with his appearance. It noted that although he was thirty-two years old he looked like nineteen and wrote of his Spanish looks, his raven black curly hair and the fact that he wore an evening suit for the occasion.
MacGill’s poetry is, despite his first reputation as the ‘navvy poet’, perhaps not the most enduring part of his work. Neil Munro felt that the young MacGill had still to make up his mind whether to be a serious poet or comic versifier. Much of his light verse has the easy rhythmic appeal of work by Robert Service although his social conscience is often clearly displayed.
His novels however are a very different case. The earliest, Children of the Dead End and The Rat-Pit, are, despite their flaws, works of real power. The sense of personal involvement and personal anger drives the stories forward. The perceptions of the life endured by the navvy and by the lodging house dweller are of a kind that can only come from personal experience – the author’s knowledge of this way of life gives an immediacy which the writings of the most committed and most socially aware outside observer cannot aspire to.
In a poem in his 1911 collection MacGill wrote:
I sing of them,
The underworld, the great oppressed,
      Befooled of parson, priest, and king,
Who mutely plod earth’s pregnant breast,
      Who weary of their sorrowing,
      – The Great Unwashed – of them I sing.
  MacGill’s first hand knowledge of the ‘great oppressed’ and the weariness of their sorrowing has kept these novels in print throughout this century. Passionate in his conviction of the need for social change he also believed that the poor could only look to their fellow-sufferers for help in their plight. A socialist rather than a nationalist, he never displayed much interest in what was the burning contemporary issue of Irish nationalism; for MacGill the central political question was the plight of the poor and what they had to suffer.
 Sheila Carroll in The Rat Pit says: ‘… people can stand a lot one way and another, a terrible lot entirely’ and MacGill’s characters, and his readers, have to stand a lot. His descriptions of life below the poverty level make uncomfortable but memorable reading. The view from the window of the Glasgow slum room where Sheila and Norah Ryan live is a chilling example:
A four-square block of buildings with outhouses, slaty grey and ugly, scabbed on to the walls, enclosed a paved courtyard, at one corner of which stood a pump, at another a stable with a heap of manure piled high outside the door. Two grey long-bodied rats could be seen running across from the pump to the stable, a ragged tramp who had slept all night on the warm dunghill shuffled up to his feet, rubbed the sleep and the dirt from his eyes, then slunk away from the place as if conscious of having done something very wrong.
However Patrick MacGill’s novels are more than just social documents – they are filled with life and energy and peopled with vividly drawn characters and it is not hard to see why they have rightly retained their popularity for so long.
(c) Brian D Osborne

This article originally appeared in The Scots Magazine in September 2001.

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