Extremes

Seamus Deane

  • Children of the Dead End: The Rat-Pit by Patrick MacGill
    Caliban, 305 pp, £10.00, September 1983, ISBN 0 904573 36 2
  • The Red Horizon The Great Push: An Episode of the Great War by Patrick MacGill
    Caliban, 306 pp, £9.00, October 1984, ISBN 0 904573 90 7
  • The Navy Poet: The Collected Poetry of Patrick MacGill
    Caliban, 407 pp, £12.00, October 1984, ISBN 0 904573 99 0

In 1914 Patrick MacGill’s first novel, Children of the Dead End, sold ten thousand copies in a fortnight. In the same year, Joyce’s Dubliners sold 499 copies, 120 of them bought by the author. In 1915, MacGill published a companion novel, The Rat-Pit, which was also highly successful and contained a Preface in which the author avowed himself to be ‘highly gratified’ by the success attained by Children of the Dead End ‘in Britain and abroad. Only in Ireland, my native country, has the book given offence.’ You could write a tune to that comment, one of the favourite choruses to the plaintive anthems of Irish novelists. However, MacGill prospered as a popular novelist until 1930, when he emigrated to the United States and, caught in the Depression, dwindled into obscurity. He died in 1963. Now there is a resurgence of interest in his work. Five of his novels, two memoirs of the First World War and his collected verse have been reprinted, and his native townland, Glenties in County Donegal, has an annual Patrick MacGill Festival. Writers are now commemorated as often as saints used to be and, like saints, they fall into the categories of the local or the international. The particular flavour of MacGill’s reputation is nicely distilled in a sentence from the 1982 Festival brochure: ‘We have compiled a programme which we hope will be culturally acceptable while catering also for those who prefer outdoor activities.’ These included sheep-dog trials, a lamb-shearing competition, a treasure hunt and a Gaelic football match.

This is not an example of charming naivety. It is the result of writing for ‘my own people’, as MacGill put it in the dedication to Glenmornan (1919). The people he refers to were the subject of – not the audience for – his work. The 10,000 copies of Children of the Dead End were not sold in Donegal in 1914. They were sold in Britain and the USA. Their popularity derived from the sense they gave of a hidden world exposed, one of the many ‘organic communities’ which evoked nostalgia in an urban reading public. But it was also a society dominated by taboos, oppressed by injustice and reduced to the point of disappearance by poverty and emigration. MacGill’s stereotyped lyricism and outright, if not outraged, realism was a potent blend in the era of the Irish Revival. As in the deservedly more celebrated cases of Synge and Joyce, or, perhaps more appropriately, of Liam O’Flaherty, the reaction of the community exposed by this kind of writing was hostile. It felt that its privacy had been betrayed from the inside. It sought from those who wrote for it an account of its inherent worth, not a critique of its failures. Thus it was one thing for MacGill to stress the systematic exploitation of the community by landlords and their agents, by the local gombeen men and by the police who served the political, economic and sectarian forces which made Donegal one of the most beautiful of all wastelands. But it was another matter when he included, and even gave central prominence to the Irish Catholic clergy and its various and ruthless manoeuvres to retain power over its flock. What the landlord did not take in rent, or the gombeen man on interest payments, the priest took on tithes which were very often of his own invention.

Most of all, though, the priest and the people conspired in an attitude of such repressive severity towards sexual matters that, for all its traditional generosity and sympathy in other respects, the community managed to reproduce internally its own version of the oppressions which beset it externally. A woman who had a child out of wedlock was completely disowned. A man who objected to the power of the clergy was expelled. Everything was reduced to an economic ground, for subsistence living could not afford the luxury of passion. It was inevitable that emigration would take its toll of such a community, but it was equally the case that emigration came to be regarded both as an injustice forced upon the people and as an escape which they gladly welcomed. They were a people who lived between extremes: the glens where they grew up and the slum cities in which they had to work; the awareness of knowing and being known to families and neighbours for generations and the feeling of utter anonymity and contempt which they experienced in England and the United States; the ethic of physical strength characteristic of the unskilled male labourer and its counterpart of the unsullied purity of the almost untouchable female, who was herself very often a labourer too; the endless repressions of guilt and consciousness of sin, the wild or sullen concentration on drink and the escape from the sin of consciousness. This was a bitter fate and MacGill made it visible.

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