'On the rack of profit
Children of the Dead End, written by Patrick McGill
Reviewed by Pat Smyth, Militant, Nov-Dec. 1982
Patrick McGill learnt to write on the road, between gruelling bouts of work on the railways or in the fields, or 'tramping' through the countryside in search of food. He left school at the age of ten and he'd not learnt much by then, as he says, his main claim to his classmates' respect being an assault on his teacher who, till then, had beaten him mercilessly.
His life is the theme of an autobiographical novel, Children of the Dead End, written in 1914 at the age of 24. By then he had learnt more about life than any university-educated writer twice his age.
Born of a poor peasant family near Glenties in Donegal, he was to become successively a farm labourer in Donegal and Scotland, a rail worker, a navvy, and then a successful writer, largely o the basis of this novel.
The life he describes is brutal. Forced by family poverty to leave home for the hiring fair in Strabane at 12, his first master was to be a foretaste of things to come. For breakfast he got potatoes and buttermilk. "For dinner potatoes and buttermilk, for supper butter milk and potatoes." The pigs got the same. "To him I was not a human being: a boy with an appetite and soul. I was merely a ware purchased in the market place; something less valuable than a plough, and of no more account than a barrow".
With only one exception, his masters were al the same. And Dermot (the name Patrick McGill assumes in the book) becomes harder and stronger, the best fighter, the best survivor. His first job on the railways arrives out of the blue when he steps into the job of a man just killed in front of him by a train - literally into dead mans shoes. Death is all too common and bloody in his life.
The life of a potato picker was harsh. "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 was cased in clay to a depth of several inches, and sometimes, when emptied of potatoes, a basket weighed over two stone".
At night they slept in cowsheds full of dung, or a pigsty overrun with rats. On payday they got drunk and fought, or lost their hard-earned pennies at cards.
Yet, despite the poverty and brutalisation of these, the poorest of the poor, McGill's book is above all else a moving tribute to the generosity and tenacity of his class, and to the barbarism of the rich. It is an epitaph to Norah Ryan who gave her last penny to a beggar no worse off than herself and who later was driven to prostitution and an early grave in the back streets of Glasgow.
It is a tribute to countless others; to the policeman, a convert to socialism, who urged the pickets to rush him to get at the scabs. To Moleskin Joe, perpetually destitute, with his catch cry "there's a good time coming" for even the most dire of moments.
Dermot learns to survive, to fight the system as an individual but he also comes to appreciate the need for fundamental change. "My heart went out to the men, women and children who toil in the dungeons and ditches of labour, grinding out their souls and bodies for meagre pittances…. Social suffering begins at any age and death is often its only remedy. That remedy of only for the individual; the general remedy is to be found in socialism. Industry, that new Inquisition, has thousands on the rack of profit; progress to millions means slavery and starvation; progress and profit mean sweated labour to railwaymen, and it meant death to many of them, as to Mick Deehan whose place I have filled…
"When I heard the word spoken by socialists at the street corners a fir of enthusiasm seized men, and I knew that the world was moving and that men and women of the country were waking from the torpor of poverty full of faith for a new cause. I joined the socialist party."
He has written a moving story of one man's graphic struggle to exist; a graphic portrayal of conditions of migratory workers at the time that is a bitter indictment of capitalism, but also a story of humour, friendship, love and loss of innocence. Its republication in paperback is very welcome and it should be on every worker's bookshelf.
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