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.

In doing so, he did not analyse, he melodramatised the plight of his community, thereby making it available, in conventionally packaged form, to the great reading public. His Donegal, or the slums of Glasgow, the ‘models’ in which the itinerant navvy lived, the sites on which he worked, became little more than the local colour which added a tint of the exotic to his pulp magazine stories. Even so, the melodrama is not exploited for its own sake merely: it is the vehicle for MacGill’s socialism, tempering his anger at injustice with a sympathy for the victims of it. The sugar and the salt are coarsely mixed. When you look for a comparison, most of those already offered in the few comments made on MacGill seem inept. He may be a ‘naturalistic’ writer in some respects, but neither Zola nor Gorky are useful exemplars. George Orwell, also cited here and there as a point of reference, is a little closer, since he, too, wrote about the people at the bottom of the heap. But Orwell is remote from MacGill in almost every possible way, save that he, too, had to find a way of writing fiction which would be ideologically ‘correct’, so to speak, and still be fiction. MacGill’s closest and most illuminating counterpart is his fellow writer from Donegal, Peadair O’Donnell, whose Adrigoole (1929) looks less lonely when it is set beside MacGill’s Black Bonar of the previous year. Both are socialists, O’Donnell much the more radical and committed. Both write about the people who have to go to Scotland and England for seasonal work, potato-picking or labouring on building sites. Both are embittered by the sufferings of those people at home and abroad. Yet neither is considered to be a novelist in the sense that, say, Elizabeth Bowen is. Her novel of 1929, The Last September, is also a lament for a vanishing class, that of the highly privileged Anglo-Irish ascendancy. In describing the three novels of those two years in this way – as chronicles of disaster – we blur one of the essential distinctions: that between the local and the international writer, between literature which survives only within the social matrix of its origin and literature which is finally independent of it. Most Irish novels are one or the other and are so to an extravagant degree. Perhaps this is because they are so consistently involved in the experience of entrapment within a society too intimately enclosed to allow for individual freedom. The byzantine struggles to gain that freedom create those intensities and strange forms which 20th-century Irish novels display from Joyce to Beckett to Flann O’Brien and John Banville. When the lack of freedom is viewed, on the other hand, as a structural defect, based on economic forces, then the novel tends to be much more dependent for its appeal upon the verisimilitude with which the social formation is registered. Even if the verdict passed by the novel on that society is negative, the novel is still, as a work of fiction, parasitic upon that society. This is the fate of the works of O’Connor, O’Faolain, O’Donnell, MacGill and others, up to a recent instance like Bernard Mac Laverty’s Cal. There is always a predictable ratio of the lyrical writing that comes from intimacy and regret, to the ‘realist’ writing that comes from repudiation and the ethic of candour. Everything is ‘right’; that’s the way it was. But, still, there is something petrified in the gaze of these Gorgon Zolas.

Here is a characteristic lyrical moment, an epiphany out of the exercise-book of Fine Writing, from Children of the Dead End:

Nature was restless and throbbing with movement; streams were gliding forward filled with a longing for unknown waters; winds were moving to and fro with the indecision of homeless wayfarers; leaves were dropping from the brown branches, falling down the curves of the wind silently and slowly to the great earth that whispered out the secret of everlasting change. The hazel-clump twined its trellises of branches overhead, leaving spaces at random for the eternal glory of the stars to filter through and rest on our faces.

From the same novel, any number of counterbalancing ‘realistic’ passages can be taken:

The first day was very wet, and the rain fell in torrents, but as the demand for potatoes was urgent we had to work through it all. The job, bad enough for men, was killing for women. All day long, on their hands and knees, they dragged through the slush and rubble of the field. The baskets which they hauled after them were cased in clay to the depth of several inches, and sometimes when emptied of potatoes a basket weighed over two stone ...

Descriptive passages like these are hung out on the story line with great regularity, accompanied by others in which the habits, customs, dialect and beliefs of the Donegal community are described in detail. Otherwise, the novels are inclined to sermonise on various topics: the heroism of the buck-navvy, the un-Christian behaviour of priests, the merciless exploitation by the employer class of those below them, the racketeering of the hard-faced men who did well out of World War One.

The plots of these novels turn on one simple principle of narration. The central figure is driven through the various strata of society in a doomed search for happiness and, in the more tragic cases, for the materials of survival, while keeping before him the ideal of a perfect and unshakable love. The picaresque frenzy is released by romantic idealism. The travels on the road and in the city allow for a panoramic survey of the corrupt and cruel social system. The dream of the ultimate home, where wandering can stop and labour become productive in a human sense, is the source of the longing for privacy which impels so many of MacGill’s people on their long journeys. Clearly, this is the imaginative world of an emigrant who can neither belong in the new place nor return to the old. One of the sorely felt humiliations of the itinerant labourers’ lives was that they were treated as a herd, housed like animals, given no privacy of bedroom or toilet and finally degraded into practising the only group activities that were permitted or encouraged – drinking and gambling. Everything was makeshift, temporary, squalid, with the threat of starvation never far away, especially for those whose bodily strength was beginning to fade. To be ill or disabled in such a world was to be disposable. An interior world of stability, affection and enclosure is the natural and desired antithesis. So all MacGill’s stories tell us of desperate wanderings that are borne because the wanderer has a fixed star to guide him or her towards the heart’s desire.

The plots have popular appeal because they shift so easily and readily from one arena to another. There is Nature, unspoiled by Man. There is Nature violated by Man’s industrial activities. There is Nature indifferent to Man, especially when he is an unemployed hobo looking for food and shelter. Then there is Society in which the physically and morally admirable people are ground down by ill-favoured and stony-hearted monsters. The monsters are, of course, very ordinary people. They can be the housewife who will not give a starving beggar a crust of bread or the clergyman who sets his dog on the man who seeks help for a dying friend. They can be warmongers or patriots, journalists or ‘gentlemen’. What makes them monstrous is the System. Society is unlike Nature because the System, which governs Society, is anti-Nature – in its refusal of normal warmth and feeling, in its replacement of love by greed, in its deformity of the body and impoverishment of the spirit. These are the basic properties of Romantic myth. MacGill chooses the left-wing version patented by Marx and Henry George. The sense that there is a demonic principle which battles with the forces of good in the guise of a contest between Nature and Society helps to give spice to his melodrama.

Children of the Dead End and The Rat-Pit are overlapping novels. One tells the story of Dermod Flynn, the navvy who has a gift for writing, becomes a journalist but returns finally to the road again with its ramshackle violence and its heroic characters like Moleskin Joe. His abiding passion is to find Norah Ryan, the love of his life, who disappeared into the Glasgow slums after becoming pregnant by an employer’s son. The Rat-Pit tells the story from Norah’s point of view. The ending, common to both, has the lovers finally meet at the moment of Norah’s death, a meeting brought about by the good-hearted behaviour of the prostitute Gourock Ellen and the tough, swaggering Moleskin Joe. The opening chapters of both novels are MacGill at his best. He is simultaneously re-creating his own childhood and recovering the almost lost folklore of a community in these pages. Thereafter, he lapses into his popular-novelist vein, hammering home his moral as a navvy would drive home a spike. They are, indeed, novels of indictment, but the indictment needed the melodrama in order to survive imaginatively. Glenmornan is MacGill’s version of the return of the native. Doalty Gallagher gives up the life of journalism in London to return to his native patch. There he meets Sheila Dermod, the incarnation of all émigré longing, and is fair set to marry her when the priest intervenes and denounces poor old Doalty from the altar for his anti-clerical outbursts. Back to the glooms of London, therefore, with the next most eligible male in the district his companion. Moleskin Joe is another travelogue, from the trenches of the First War, throughout the island of Britain, with the object of the quest another woman who was Cruelly Betrayed. This has the most absurd unravelling of plots but is, perhaps, the best portrait of the navvy who ‘works and dies in combat with Nature, the rude uncultured labourer under whose feet railways, bridges, cities and castles spring into being’. The builder of civilisation is himself excluded from it.

The most curious novel of all is Lanty Hanlon. Published in 1922 (and not in 1912, as stated in the introduction), the same year as one of Joyce’s more memorable efforts, it reads like something out of the 19th century when Irish novelists were inventing the Ireland where motley will always be worn. Lanty is stage-Irish. He drinks fortunes with remarkable equanimity; he discourses on all subjects with a swindler’s ease; he is violent, charming, whimsical, paradoxical ... the ultimate stereotype. He invents the paper company called the Ballykeeran Development Society, buys one power loom which remains unused at the station, and wastes the substance of the subscriptions he receives in one night’s orgy. Is this an emblem, a parable? It hardly matters. It is popular writing with a vengeance. MacGill is here exploiting the very people about whom he was otherwise so frequently and genuinely concerned. It seems a pity that he might be remembered as the inventor of a funny-grotesque capitalist-swindler like Lanty. But the siren call of the stereotype is so strong, especially for those whose view of Irish society is disobliging, that the attempt to create images of heroism will often give way to the acceptance of that deep self-mockery which is at the root of the stage-Irish figure. Both local and international literary practitioners in Ireland know this well. It would be possible to list them in sets in relation to their repudiation or acceptance of that mockery and the roles it enforces. Patrick Kavanagh was the most successful of all the local writers, in this respect. His Monaghan and MacGill’s Donegal are comparable places. MacGill, however, aimed for an audience that knew nothing of the peculiar plight of the exiled writer. He did not make his work out of what Kavanagh called ‘a local row’. In the last analysis, he reached for the available conventions and wrote awkwardly and diffidently within them. In that respect, he is exemplary. Much that is strained and stretched in Irish writing can be understood from MacGill’s novels, their popularity and the contrast between them and the work of the sophisticated international writers of the Irish Revival. Light-years apart, they are nevertheless haunted by similar demons and by the trouble of finding new ways or of using old ways to exorcise them.

As Rifleman No 3008 of the London Irish, MacGill fought in the First World War and wrote of his experiences in the trenches, particularly of the offensive which climaxed in the Battle of Loos, during which he was wounded and invalided out of the war. The Red Horizon deals with the preparation for the assault; The Great Push gives an account of the battle itself. The war is a reproduction of the conditions of the labourer’s life in peacetime conditions, more brutal and remorseless, but not essentially different. There is a System which is impersonal and kills; there is a Sentiment which persuades the victims to accept what is happening to them. In war, it is called patriotism. There is Humanity itself, epitomised in the common soldier, revealing how unquenchable the Human Spirit is in the most atrocious conditions. Within this do-it-yourself narrative framework, there is a varied sequence of descriptions and observations which emphasise the Horror of War, the Futility of It All and the physical miseries and camaraderie of the trenches. Passages of Fine Writing abound, particularly in the closing pages of The Great Push:

For miles and miles the barbed wire entanglements wound circuitously through the levels, brilliant with star-clusters of dew-drops hung from spike, barb and intricate rareries of gossamer. Out in front of my bay gleamed the Pleiades which had dropped from heaven during the night and clustered round a dark grey bulk of clothing by one of the entanglement props. I knew the dark grey bulk, it was He; for days and nights it had hung there, a huddled heap; the Futility of War.

MacGill’s ideas about war and society are as inert as his embarrassingly symbolic soldier. Viscount Esher, who was president of the County of London Territorial Association, wrote a Preface to The Red Horizon in which he cited MacGill as ‘an example and symbol’ for Britain and Ireland of the sacrifice already made by the writers, painters and sculptors of France. Yet why should MacGill, of all people, be willing to give his blood, to be made into an emblem of that idiocy which he attacked so vigorously in his writings? The answer must be, in part, that he did not know what he believed. The Human Spirit school of writing and its attendant mass audience is, in fact, a highly deferential phenomenon. It believes in quietism, but it speaks the pseudo-language of human solidarity. MacGill’s war writings make this clear and, in doing so, allow us to see why there is so little difference between the rattling good yarns of the itinerant navvy and those of the British Tommy.

It is a peculiar feature of writers of a socialist persuasion that they should oscillate between the extremes of trenchant realism and nebulous idealism. Where the form of the work has no mediating power, as in MacGill’s case, the result is callow indeed. His poetry is a perfect example of this failure. Some of his verses, particularly the Soldier Songs, would be better sung; all of them are better unread. There is feeling here for everything – Man, Nature, Injustice, Heroism, Home, Love – except language. That flatulent, popular appeal still survives, proudly asserting its distance from the high aestheticism of the ‘serious’ fiction of the early or of the late century. At least, MacGill’s work, because of its naivety, forces the reader to recognise what a complicated business it is to describe the differences between ‘high’ and ‘low’ literature and to explain why the division should have become so pronounced and so important.