Navvy Life and Literary Beginnings

In 1910, at the age of 20, while working as a member of a repair gang platelaying on the Glasgow-Greenock Caledonian railway line in Scotland, Patrick MacGill began his literary career. He asked The Derry Journal to print some poems at his expense and also included translations of La Fontaine's Fables and Goethe's poems. Some of MacGill's poems are relevant to Ireland and his more nostalgic poetry includes To Erin, The Exile of Erin and A Tale of the Bogland.

With his 1911 and 1912 publication of two collections of poetry Gleanings from a Navvy's Scrapbook and Songs of a Navvy, and his subsequent book, Songs of the Dead End (1912), MacGill established himself in literary circles and became known as 'The Navvy Poet'. Initially, with characteristic enterprise, he did his own distribution, like earlier poets, leaving his Gleanings from a Navvy's Scrapbook at back doors and calling back later in the week for sixpence if the person wanted to buy it.

MacGill's personality excited as much interest as his writings and the public was curious to know how a youth with little education and the many disadvantages that a navvy's life could bring to literary development, could be so successful.

Many myths surround MacGill's beginnings and it is told that he took to writing verse having been interested in a poem on a margarine-wrapper at Kinlochleven, a great waterworks in Scotland, were he once worked. He frequented second hand bookshops, but booksellers often insisted that he purchase the books he had held as his navvy hands were so grimy.

His literary influences are often clearly visible in his work; "Verse in which he celebrates the working man and his aspirations would seem to have been largely inspired by his reading of Kipling and Robert W. Service."(3) The Song of the Shovel has echoes of Service's imagery and rhythm:

Down on creation's muckpile where the sinful swelter and sweat,
Where the scum of the earth foregather, rough and untutored yet,
Where they swear in the six-foot places, or toil in the barrow squad,
The men of unshaven faces, the ranks of the very bad;

Where the brute is more than the human, the muscle more than the mind,
Where their gods are the loud-mouthed gaffers, rugged, uncouth, unkind;
Where the rough of the road are roosting, where the failed and the fallen be,
There have we met in the ditchway, there I have plighted with thee

The wage-slave troth of our union, and found thee true to my trust,
Stoic in loveless labour, companion when beggared and burst,
Wonderful navvy shovel, last of the tools and first.

Literary commentators have described MacGill's work as "a tremendous achievement for a man with three years schooling followed by years of backbreaking labour and little opportunity for quiet concentration."(4)

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