Patrick_MacGill
Patrick MacGill

Patrick MacGill’s novel, Children of the Dead End : The Autobiography of a Navvy (1913, Herbert Jenkins) made a reputation upon its publication but which is now often overlooked.  First published in 1913, it illuminates the little-known and wonderful life of the navvy.

This autobiographical novel stretches from Ireland’s tenant farms to the byways, highways and backroads of Scotland and the life of a navvy.   Aged just 12, Dermod Flynn riles against the hardships and grinding poverty of his childhood.   Hardly shod and barely fed, worked to exhaustion by a series of indifferent and callous tenant farmers –   he runs away to join the emigrants headed for Scotland, hoping to catch up with his sweetheart, Norah Ryan.  Here, stomping between the model lodging houses of Paisley and Glasgow and working on the construction of Kinlochleven Dam, Dermod encounters Moleskin Joe and Carroty Dan, the latter so quick-tempered that Dermod must thrash him into insensibility.

This taken from the blurb of a 1967 edition: “In their rude huts, far from the restraining influence of womanhood, they are allowed full scope for savage living and wild carelessness, gambling, drinking and fighting.  Yet the life of those nomads, who tramp endless roads and work in desert places, has the picturesque quaintness of gypsy existence, as well the mad excitement of American mining camps.  The Far West novel is as nothing to the biting realism of this remarkable autobiography which, when originally published, created a literary sensation.  In Moleskin Joe alone the author has added a new character to literature”.

MacGill (1890-1963) himself said that “most of my story is autobiographical. Moleskin Joe and Carroty Dan are true to life; they live now…Norah Ryan’s painful story shows the dangers to which an innocent girl is exposed through ignorance of the fundamental facts of existence; Gourock Ellen and Annie are types of women whom I have often met.  While asking a little allowance for the pen of the novelist it must be said that nearly all the incidents of the book have come under the observation of the writer: that such incidents should take place makes the tragedy of the story”.

MacGill worked as a navvy before he took up writing.  His own early experiences engendered in him a loathing of injustice, and politically radicalised him at a time when British socialism was still in its infancy.  Raw, lyrical, angry, Children of the Dead End still retains its affecting power.  The Children of the Dead End was MacGill’s first novel; several further novels, as well as poetry and plays, were published before his death in 1963. If you enjoy the works of  MacGill’s near contemporaries Jack London or George Gissing, MacGill might be for you.

‘Children of the Dead End’ featured in The List’s  2005 list of 100 Best Scottish Books.

Find copies of Children of the Dead End, or other books by Patrick MacGill, at BookAddiction.

‘Book of the Day’ is an occasional series of blog posts from BookAddiction.  Each one features a quirky, forgotten or particularly fascinating book which we suspect warrants reintroduction to readers.