Book review by George S: The book’s subtitle is ‘The Autobiography of an Irish Navvy’ and its hero, Dermot Flynn, has many experiences in common with Patrick MacGill’s own life. The early chapters describe his upbringing in rural poverty in Donegal.
In Glenmornan, money is scarce: ‘In my own house we had flesh meat to dinner four times each year, on St. Patrick’s Day, Easter Sunday, Christmas Day, and New Year’s Day. If the harvest had been a good one we took bacon with our potatoes at the ingathering of the hay.’
Much of what little money the family earns is paid a tax to the parish priest, ‘a little pot-bellied man with white shiny false teeth, who smoked ninepenny cigars and who always travelled first-class in a railway train.’ An extra charge is imposed on the parishioners when the priest builds a new house, which includes spending three hundred pounds on a lavatory, a luxury unknown to the villagers.
“Lava-thury?” said my mother. “And what would that be at all?”
“It’s myself that does not know,” answered Bride. “But old Oiney Dinchy thinks that it is a place for keeping holy water.”
At the age of ten, Dermot leaves school after hitting the schoolmaster. When he is twelve the family owes money for rent and the solution is to send Dermot ‘over the mountains’ to do agricultural work. At the hiring market in Strabane, he agrees to a wage of five pounds ten for six month’s work for a farmer. At the end of the half-year, he will send most of that money back to his family, who will then ask for more. This is the first of a series of hard and usually degrading jobs that eventually takes him, like many other Irishmen of the period, to Scotland. The first of his Scottish jobs is harvesting potatoes.
The way we had to work was this. Nine of the older men dug the potatoes from the ground with short three-pronged graips. The women followed behind, crawling on their knees and dragging two baskets a-piece along with them. Into these baskets they lifted the potatoes thrown out by the men. When the baskets were filled I emptied the contents into barrels set in the field for that[ purpose.
In wet weather the women are crawling through mud. One of the women there is Dermot’s childhood friend, Norah Ryan, and her story will be a sub-plot of the book (though told more fully in MacGill’s next novel, The Rat-Pit). Generally the book shows hard work and poverty taking a harsh toll on the men, but utterly degrading the women.
The book is episodic as Dermot goes from job to job, though he meets recurring characters, most notably Moleskin Joe, a navvy and a famous fighting man, whose motto is ‘There’s a good time comin’, though we may never live to see it.’ Joe is a hard-living, hard-drinking, hard-fighting man ‘who never washed from one year’s end to another.’ Dermot forms a firm bond with him and Joe becomes something of a father-figure. (Dermot’s own family are presented negatively, replying to the hard-earned money he send home with eternal demands for more.)
The conditions of work at the various workplaces are appalling. Most involve long days of gruelling digging, and worst job is for the railways, shovelling hot ashes; but for the working men there is no choice but to accept work where you can find it, however dangerous. When Dermot and Moleskin Joe are out of work, they are reduced to begging and stealing, and the status of outcasts. An associate is sent to prison for poaching.
The book’s set-pieces are the epic fights – the story of how Dermot gains fame as the man who thrashed Carroty Dan, for example. Fighting, drinking and gambling are the distractions from the miseries of the navvies’ lives.
What is rather under-written is Dermot’s development into a writer. Expelled from school at ten for hitting the teacher, he has no contact with learning until one day he finds a hand-written copy of Browning’s poem ‘Evelyn Hope’, which strikes him deeply. When he gets a job on the railway that allows him some spare time, he becomes an avid reader. Of Les Miserables, and of even more demanding works:
I remember many funny things which happened in those days. I read the chapter on Natural Supernaturalism, from Sartor Resartus, while seated on the footboard of a flying ballast train. Once, when Roche had left his work to take a drink in a near public-house, I read several pages from Sesame and Lilies, under shelter of a coal waggon, which had been shunted into an adjacent siding. I read Montaigne’s Essays during my meal hours, while my mates gambled and swore around me.
We are told of his writing songs, and sending articles to a newspaper. MacGill did these, too, and his first fame was as ‘the navvy poet’. Later he wrote for the Daily Express, which appears towards the end of this novel as The Dawn – a workplace as drudging and unsatisfactory as those where he had been navvying:
When I went across Blackfriars Bridge, or along the Strand, on a cold, bracing morning, I wanted to walk on ever so far, away—away. Where to—it didn’t matter. The office choked me, smothered me; it felt so like a prison.
Instead of going to Wales to write up a story a bout a strike (from the Dawn’s Conservative viewpoint) he travels instead to Glasgow in search of his childhood love, Norah, Ryan, even though he knows that she has had an illegitimate child and has drifted into prostitution. This gives the book a sentimental tear-jerking ending, since the novel follows the fictional rule of the time that all fallen women must die. Norah’s deathbed scene is less convincing than the exploits of the navvies.
This book makes an impact though its depictions of extreme poverty and its revelations about the dangerous and precarious lives of the itinerant navvies; there are several horrific industrial accidents. To some extent MacGill romanticises them – especially when it comes to their fights, but he makes very clear the human cost of a system that condemns men and women to a brutalised existence.
The character of Dermot is well-drawn. He is proud of his manliness, even at twelve, and never retreats from a fight, yet he has a sensitivity that comes out in descriptive passages such as this:
Suddenly the lamp went out, and a darkness crept into the corners of the dwelling, causing the figures of my mates to assume fantastic shapes in the gloom. The circle around the hot-plate drew closer, and long lean arms were stretched out towards the flames and the redness. Seldom may a man have the chance to look on hands like those of my mates. Fingers were missing from many, scraggy scars seaming along the wrists or across the palms of others told of accidents which had taken place on many precarious shifts. The faces near me were those of ghouls worn out in some unholy midnight revel. Sunken eyes glared balefully in the dim unearthly light of the fire, and as I looked at them a moment’s terror settled on my soul. For a second I lived in an early age, and my mates were the cave-dwellers of an older world than mine. In the darkness, near the door, a pipe glowed brightly for a moment, then the light went suddenly out and the gloom settled again.
Macgill wrote several other novels based on the navvying life, but in 1914 enlisted in the British Army. His experiences in the Great War are descibed in The Amateur Army (1915), The Red Horizon (1916), and The Great Push (1916) which contains a graphic description of the Battle of Loos.