Real traditions - not green rivers.
Patrick MacGill was born in 1889 in County Donegal Ireland. The same county as myself. He became known as the "Navvy Poet."This was after his work for a time as a "navvy", this term comes from working with a shovel building roads, the shovel was called a navvy shovel, something to do with navigating and the roads. Before he worked as a navvy he worked as a farm laborer, a ditch digger and a quarryman. He later fought as a young man in Flanders in the First World War. He became a poet and writer. Below are two of his poems. The first on his work as a navvy and how he saw society with its brutal class divide. The second on his experience in the trenches in Flanders in the imperialist war.
From "Songs of the Dead
- By Patrick MacGill.
As a bullock falls in the crooked ruts, he fell when the day was o’er,
The hunger gripping his stinted guts, his body shaken and sore.
They pulled it out of the ditch in the dark, as a brute is pulled from its lair,
The corpse of the navvy, stiff and stark, with the clay on its face and hair.
In Christian lands, with calloused hands, he labored for others’ good,
In workshop and mill, ditch way and drill, earnest, eager, and rude;
Unhappy and gaunt with worry and want, a food to the whims of fate,
Hashing it out and booted about at the will of the goodly and great.
To him was applied the scorpion lash, for him the gibe and the goad—
The roughcast fool of our moral wash, the rugous wretch of the road.
Willing to crawl for a pittance small to the swine of the tinsel sty,
Beggared and burst from the very first, he chooses the ditch to die—
… Go, pick the dead from the sloughy bed, and hide him from mortal eye.
He tramped through the colorless winter land, or swined in the scorching heat,
The dry skin hacked on his sapless hands or blistering on his feet;
He wallowed in mire unseen, unknown, where your houses of pleasure rise,
And hapless, hungry, and chilled to the bone, he builded the edifice.
In cheerless model and filthy pub, his sinful hours were passed,
Or footsore, weary, he begged his grub, in the sough of the hail-whipped blast,
So some might riot in wealth and ease, with food and wine be crammed,
He wrought like a mule, in muck to his knees, dirty, dissolute, damned.
Arrogant, adipose, you sit in the homes he builded high;
Dirty the ditch, in the depths of it he chooses a spot to die,
Foaming with nicotine-tainted lips, holding his aching breast,
Dropping down like a cow that slips, smitten with rinder-pest;
Drivelling yet of the work and wet, swearing as sinners swear,
Raving the rule of the gambling school, mixing it up with a prayer.
He lived like a brute as the navvies live, and went as the cattle go,
No one to sorrow and no one to shrive, for heaven ordained it so—
He handed his check to the shadow in black, and went to the misty lands,
Never a mortal to close his eyes or a woman to cross his hands.
As a bullock falls in the rugged ruts
He fell when the day was o’er,
Hunger gripping his weasened guts,
But never to hunger more—
They pulled it out of the ditch in the dark,
The chilling frost on its hair,
The mole-skinned navvy stiff and stark
From no particular where.
Death and The Fairies. -By Patrick MacGill.
Before I joined the army
I lived in Donegal,
where every night
the fairies would hold their carnival.
But now I am out in Flanders
where men like wheat ears fall,
and its death and not the fairies
who is holding carnival.
As a native of Donegal I have written a book based on my grandmother who like Patrick MacGill was hired out in the hiring fair system of exploitation. It is called The Donegal Woman published in 2006. Without any agent or publisher other than two friends and myself it was number two on the best seller list in Northern Ireland. For copies contact me, John Throne at Loughfinn@aol.com. Or Drumkeen Press.
When I go back to Ireland now one of the greatest pleasure I have is to see the rising of the women. The male dominated anti women Catholic church has been knocked back on its heels. You hardly ever see a priest on the streets in their uniform. There is too much hostility to these full time organizers of this organization, the main church of capitalism with its exclusively male leadership based in Italy. It is wonderful to see the struggle for women's reproductive rights making gains there and led by women such as Clare Daly and Joan Collins.
Related to the rising of the women but yet with some way to go is the increasing knowledge of and interest in the greatest writer of the last century James Joyce. Banned when I was growing up in Ireland, I never heard of him until I was working in an iron ore mine in Canada in the 1960's and a young man from Quebec asked me: "Well what do you think of Joyce then?" I was humiliated. I had never heard of Joyce. I later joined the merchant marine and at the first big port we sailed to, New Orleans, I went to the library and asked for books by Joyce. I have been a Joycean ever since. But what has this got to do with women.
Joyce said that a "man without a woman is an incomplete man." He did not mean incomplete in the sense of not having anybody to wash his clothes or cook for him, but incomplete in the sense of having somebody with whom to intellectually and personally be with and struggle with. It would probably be better to use the term now: "a person without a person is an incomplete person." I was an incomplete person, to the extent that in this time any of us can be "complete", until I met my present companion with whom I have a permanent relationship.
Joyce also wrote about violence against women. He used a term which I can never get out of my head. The man's "meandering fist." I had to think about this for a long time. And then it became more clear. The man's violence was so casual, his respect for the woman so nonexistent, that he did not even focus, did not even concentrate himself, his fist just "meandered" and struck the woman. I know there are many occasions when this is not the way it happens, when the male is concentrated and filled with hatred and antagonism against the particular woman he strikes but there is also this other kind.
But then there is the Joyce who cut off his mother and exploited her. Through her he felt all the ideas and pressures of Catholicism. This was a terrible pain and torture for this poor woman. Joyce, the world he lived in, the ambitions he had for his writings created this pain. He said he wanted to create a "conscience for his race." He went about this with at times cruel determination. His mother suffered very bad.
Joyce lived with Nora. A working class woman from Galway. She did not put up with much from the world's greatest writer. She regularly gave him a good kick in the a... This was just what he needed. He thought enough of himself he did not want somebody else bootlicking him. On one occasion Nora threw the manuscript of Ulysses into the fire. He had to drag it out burning his hands and then get some chapters back from people he had given it to for their opinions. Nora was a great woman. In spite of everything Joyce thought so. If there is any doubt think about the fact that the day of his great novel Ulysses is set on the date of first night out with Nora.
Then there is Finnegans Wake. The novel of the night as opposed to Ulysses the novel of the day. The first time I tried to read it I thought I had concussion. I realized afterwards that Joyce would have been proud to have heard that a Donegal peasant like myself read Finnegans Wake and thought he had concussion. It is that kind of book.
Finnegans Wake is in some ways an attempt to create our dreams. There are many words that we recognize, many we half recognize, many we do not at all, words that go on for a couple of lines, concepts that we think we understand and the more we try to the more they bamboozle us. It is a genius of a book. I have had many concussions in my life, I also have epilepsy, I think I might be just the person perfectly suited to read Finnegans Wake.
Joyce was a genius. Along with Ulysses and Finnegans Wake he wrote this small poem for his daughter.
A flower given to my daughter.
Frail the white rose and frail are
Her hands that gave
Whose soul is sere and paler
Than time's wan wave.
Rosefrail and fair - yet frailest
A wonder wild
In gentle eyes thou veilest
My blue veined child.
It is beautiful. A work of art.
But you have to have the laugh as well. On Bloomsday, I think it is June 16th when Joyce and Nora are celebrated all over the world many people come to Dublin and drink in the pubs and gather outside the pubs which are featured in Ulysses. Many dress in clothes like Joyce wore. Well leave that aside for the moment. A crowd of Japanese Joyce fans were gathered last year. They had brought with them a few pages of Finnegans Wake translated into Japanese. They gathered round and one of them started to read it in that language.
There were a couple of Dublin dudes hanging out. Getting closer to see what was going on and see if maybe there would be a drink in it for them. But in spite of themselves they got caught up in the reading by the Japanese people. Finnegans Wake in Japanese and they still got caught up, now that is genius. Then one of them turned to the other and said: "Bay the Jaysus I can understand it better in the Japanese." Joyce would have been proud of that too.
Now to shut up. Finnegans Wake is presently being translated into Cantonese. The lady who is doing it has been at it for twenty years. She has had to create up to ten thousand new characters to translate all the different words half words unknown maybe words. Her husband has got to hate Joyce as he says he never sees her, every time he looks there she is picking away at that .......whatever the curse is in Cantonese..... book. She says be patient she has only another ten years to go. That Joyce man.