Posts Tagged ‘Patrick MacGill’

The Rat-Pit

March 31, 2008

The Rat-Pit is a companion piece to Patrick MacGill’s Children of the Dead End – it tells the story of  Norah Ryan, the childhood sweetheart of Dermod Flynn the central character in Children of the Dead End.  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 a piecework seamstress, prostitution and death is recounted in graphic and harrowing detail.

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Patrick MacGill: the “Navvy-Poet”

March 30, 2008

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. 

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

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The Great Push

March 29, 2008
Patrick MacGill’s autobiographical novel of life in the trenches in the early years of the First World War has many of the strengths of his first novels – Children of the Dead End and The Rat-Pit. It is written from first hand experience and gives an unromantic, unvarnished, private soldier’s account of war at the sharp end.As I discovered when researching MacGill and his army career for my introduction to Birlinn’s reprint of this book he had enlisted in the London Irish in September 1914. Like many Irishmen of the day he saw no problem about volunteering to fight in the army of what many of his countrymen saw as an occupying power – MacGill’s politics always seemed more to be class-based than deeply involved in questions of nationalism. MacGill was gassed in action in September 1915 and two weeks later was wounded in the arm at the battle of Loos on 28 October and invalided home. Although he remained in the army for the duration of the war it seems that the authorities found a more appropriate role for a talented writer than rifleman and he produced a number of other books about the war and ended up in the Intelligence Section of the War Office.
The Great Push is a classic account of men at war and in its brief compass gives many memorable pictures of the horror of war and men’s reaction to war.
For an article on MacGill and his work click here.

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Children of the Dead End

March 28, 2008
A number of years ago I was asked by Birlinn to write introductions for reprints they were doing of novels by the Irish writer Patrick MacGill. At first sight this seemed an unlikely project for Birlinn but in fact MacGill’s best works –Children of the Dead End and The Rat-Pit are based on his own experiences as an Irish labourer working in early 20th century Scotland. They are deeply-felt books which take no prisoners in their description of the poverty and degradation of members of an under-class and the social, economic and religious forces which keep them in that condition.
Having a great interest in the works of Neil Munro I was delighted in the course of my researches into MacGill to find a connection between MacGill and Munro.  MacGill was interviewed for the Scottish socialist weekly Forward in June 1914 and told how some years earlier he had sold his first, self-published, collection of poems  “Every night I went round the houses in Greenock district and tried to sell my book…one way and another, I sold about one thousand copies of the book, one of which fell into the hands of Neil Munro, who reviewed it in the Glasgow News.”
This took me to Munro’s column in the News in February 1911 where he wrote: “
At present working as a navvy on a repair gang on the Caledonian Railway between Greenock and Wemyss Bay there is young Irishman who has been a manual labourer since he left school at the age of twelve, and yet has had the time to cultivate no inconsiderable degree of literary taste, and even to write and publish a small volume of his own poetry.”
In a transformation that would not be believed in fiction MacGill in a short time went from being a navvy to working at Windsor Castle as secretary and librarian to one of the Canons of St George’s Chapel.
For more about MacGill’s remarkable career read the introductions to the four novels Birlinn reprinted – Children of the Dead End, The Rat-Pit, The Great Push, and Moleskin Joe.
For an article on MacGill and his work click here.
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For more information on MacGill look at the website of the annual MacGill Summer School in Donegal http://www.patrickmacgill.com/