By Peter P Dobbing
When I begin a story for Ireland’s Eye, I find a thread that looks promising and follow it via the library, internet and from my own collection of books to see where it leads. It can go nowhere, and many a promising piece has been dispatched by the delete key, but sometimes digging a little deeper can lead to maybe not a goldmine, but something interesting. The subject of this tale is undoubtable better known at your side of the Irish Sea than mine, however, there is a connection as we shall see.
Born in 1890 at Ardun in the Glen of Glenties, Patrick MacGill was the eldest of eleven children of small farm holders William and Bridget MacGill. At the age of 10 he left Mullanmore National School and was hired to a County Tyrone farmer. Escaping from what work he did there, he went to Ayrshire, as did many others from Donegal, to become a potato picker or tattie-howker as it was known.
When not potato picking MacGill worked as a navvy, the term originating from the word navigator, and used to describe workers navigating their way over the land as they laboured to build railways, canals and roads. As he travelled the country he took to visiting libraries and educating himself by reading the great authors of the day, Rudyard Kipling being a special favourite. At the age of 20 he worked on the Caledonian Railway and began writing both books and poetry, often a nostalgic look back to his life in Ireland, as in Children of the Dead End and The Rat Pit.
He persuaded the Derry Journal to publish, at his expense, two collections of his poems; Gleanings from a Navvy’s Scrapbook and Songs of a Navvy together with a book Songs of a Dead End . These works established MacGill as a literary force and he became known as the Navvy Poet. Initially, as was typical of his way, by doing the sales and marketing himself. He would leave samples of his work at a backdoor, calling back later for the money if people wanted to buy.
A big step forward for him was sending a sample of his writing to the editor of the London newspaper The Daily Express, he created such an impression that he was offered a job. So the navvy poet came to the big city but the job was not a success. The everyday work of a newspaper writer did not suit Patrick, he wanted to be free to write what he felt.
His The Song of the Shovel is a masterpiece. On leaving the Express Patrick chanced to meet Sir John Neale Dalton, tutor to the Prince of Wales, who offered him an even better job. Patrick was appointed King’s Librarian to George V, working in the Chapter Library at Windsor Castle, translating Latin manuscripts and giving the occasional lecture. Not bad for a lad from the bogs, with only 3 years formal education, and once with hands so dirty that he was banned from handling books in bookshops. He was also an astute socialist and supporter of the Russian Revolution to boot.
At the outbreak of WW1, Patrick volunteered for service and joined the London Irish Rifles (Rifleman 3008) becoming a stretcher bearer and going to France with the 2nd battalion. In 1915, he found himself in the Battle of Loos (Loos a small mining town) where there were 59,000 plus British casualties with no ground gained – typical of the period. It is interesting at least to me, that my grandfather was also a stretcher bearer in the same battle, but in the RAMC. I have no evidence of course but I think it quite possible they were acquainted. When digging one has no idea what might turn up.
Patrick was wounded in the battle and while recovering wrote his autobiographical novel The Great Push another masterpiece. The war had a profound effect on Patrick as it did with all who took part. My grandfather survived Loos and served until 1918, when he returned, however, I understand that he was a different person.
When Patrick returned to London on sick leave he married Margaret Gibbons, a grandniece of Cardinal James Gibbons of Baltimore, a man who was well connected in London society. In 1917, still unfit for combat, Patrick served with various London based regiments and wrote his fourth war novel The Brown Brethren also writing a poem A Lament which is engraved on the Memorial to the Fallen at Thiepval in France.
I wish the sea were not so wide
That parts me from my love;
I wish the things men do below
Were known to God above.
I wish that I were back again
In the glens of Donegal,
They’ll call me a coward if I return
But a hero if I fall.
‘Is it better to be a living coward,
Or thrice a hero dead?’
‘It’s better to go to sleep, my lad’
The Colour Sergeant said.
After the war Patrick continued writing poems, books, plays and screenplays all with great success. One play ‘Suspense’ went from the Duke of York’s theatre in London to Broadway and then became a film. He and his wife then moved to America where Margaret, herself a romantic novelist, established a drama school in California, and so enabled Patrick to pursue a writing career in Hollywood.
Patrick MacGill had three children and died in November 1963, a great achiever in life. A statue to his memory stands at the bridge over the river in the centre of the town of Glenties.
Photograph of Patrick MacGill with permission from Donegal County Archives.