Patrick MacGill 1890-1963: a most dangerous man – June 2013


Irish writer Patrick MacGill believed that Christian social theology must confront unfettered economic power. Historian Bernard Aspinwall finds in him a precursor of modern Catholicism.

Born in Glenties, Co Donegal, Ireland, Patrick MacGill was the first of eleven children. After brief, brutal schooling, he was hired out at Strabane, the ‘slave market of the Lagan’1, before going to the Scottish potato fields in 1905. His ‘Slum Child’ shows the harshness of those times: ‘But often I pray when the/ Night is gloomy/ That God would send/ In all His Mercy, from/ Heaven to me,/ One loving Friend’.2 From there he drifted around, holding numerous labouring jobs, potato picking on Bute, tipster at Ayr races, labouring in Argyll, at Kinlochleven Dam, and on the Caledonian Railway. A self- taught, voracious reader, he read Montaigne while working on the railway. He joined the pre-war Glasgow Socialists, debated on Glasgow Green, and organised a disastrous strike. Through a second-hand Gorbals bookstore, he read numerous novels. He also read social and economic thinkers, like Adam Smith or Ruskin: ‘Marx the more logical appealed to me least’. 3 A railway union activist, he began contributing to newspapers and published his first book, Gleanings from a Navvy’s Notebook (1911). Within a year the Daily Express (London) signed him up. In 1914 his first novel, Children of the Dead End, sold 35,000 copies within a week of publication. Many more books followed, but immediately the First World War broke out he volunteered for the 2nd London Irish Battalion. Wounded at Loos, he was invalided home, but later returned to the front. In 1915 he married the romantic novelist Margaret Gibbons. In 1930 he and his family moved to America, first to California and then to Miami, Florida. He died in November 1963.
MacGill’s life was all of a piece. As a
navvy and a soldier he knew death in the midst of life – or life in the midst of death. His views therefore were sharply focused. Truth resided in Christian simplicity; all are brothers and sisters in Christ. Three things were vital for the full Christian life: the thin stream of milk from the breast, the thin blade of corn, and the thin thread of wool – and brotherly love – a theme repeated in several novels. He echoed the basic notions of Chesterton and Gill. The poor did not have real choices. ‘The want of bread makes [the poor man] a conscript’. 4
In MacGill’s experience the Church seemed aloof from the suffering faithful in the brutal conditions of Scottish industrial life. Catholic Ireland left him unprepared for life in vermin-infested byres, where he might kill 1,500 rats in a season. With the exception of an Irish priest in the Glasgow slums, the clergy seemed uniformly ‘class-‘ rather than ‘Christ-‘ conscious; ‘It’s only God and the poor who help the poor’. 5 Respectability and upholding the status quo took precedence in the Church commercial over Christian virtues. The Irish village priest is an appalling money grubber. Fr Devaney demanded £8 per family towards the cost of his new presbytery. Another priest loudly demanded more money at a funeral.6
Unquestioning submission to the status quo was not a Catholic monopoly. On the railway, MacGill found the Presbyterian workers prone to ‘clergy- craft, psalm singing and hymn hooting’. The railwaymen raised their hats to the overseers ‘who controlled their starved bodies’ and ‘to the clergy who controlled their starved souls’. An evangelical navvy missionary was unceremoniously sent packing from Kinlochleven:
I have never heard of missions for the uplifting of MPs or the betterment of stock exchange gamblers; and these people need saving grace more than the untutored working men. But it is in the nature of things that piety should preach to poverty on its shortcomings and forget even wealth may have sins of its own’.7
MacGill had few illusions about secular social revolution: he pitied ‘those who think salvation is to be found in strikes, class war and bloody revolution’.8 Externals might change; the simple basis of human nature remained. War, as his own novels suggest, only intensified the suffering of the poor and further delayed solutions in an ever more deeply divided community.
Although MacGill travelled far intellectually and spiritually, he never shook off his past. If he complained frequently about the burden of that heritage, he dwelt on his simple if short childhood in Glenties:
Nothing seemed to be getting done. Tomorrow and tomorrow the same labour would be performed, the same energy would be expended and for all the strain and stress of toil, the people would be as poor at the end of the year as at the beginning. But they were happy enough. Petty cares and worries filled their day, and their years and their lives. Is not Life itself, for Glenmornan and for the world at large, a poor and petty business.9
The land and the integrity it implied was sacred. In the novels the destructive tension between the grinding industrialisation and the joys of nature persists. That is best seen when Roche, a brutal railway ganger, is killed by his own pick after killing a rabbit.10 MacGill, confident that simple Christian joys would prevail, retained his youthful Catholicism.
In a world where judgements were made solely on external appearances, the army and the navvy men could be self-governing universities of life. Able to initiate independent action, each was a fellowship of common endeavour, with a moral strength of a pilgrim church. That philosophy was epitomised in the unforgettable Moleskin Joe. A workhouse foundling, he soon learned the inhumanity of the work ethic, but won several decorations in the First World War; his country consisted in what lay beneath his finger nails. Undaunted, he tramped through life believing there was a Good Time coming, even if he did not live to see it: ‘Let’s live today if we can and tomorrow be damned’.11 That existentialist mentality breathed Christian freedom from artificial constraint, unholy powers and pretension.
Perhaps the most striking aspect of MacGill’s writings is his concern for woman. It intensified after his marriage and war service. The Glenties gombeen man, Farley McKeown, left £500,000 to the Church.12 He had ignored his exhausted, barefoot women employees in the freezing cold, following a thirty-mile overnight walk to collect their pay of 1 1/4d per pair of socks. Yet he feared the curse of an angry woman as much as the curse of a Catholic priest.
Sexuality was heavily repressed from fear of the ‘mortal sin of love’.13 The Church was obsessed with the law rather than the spirit, the appearance rather than the substance. Courtship meant discussions with the girl’s father over a bottle of whisky. Marriage was but another property contract.
Modesty collapsed in the horrendous social conditions of Scotland. In squalid byres MacGill could not imagine love: ‘It is only the rich and beautiful who can be amorous without being ridiculous’.14 Capitalist living and working conditions destroyed humanity.
Education failed disastrously to awaken Christian conscience. MacGill was to thrash his bullying thug of a teacher.15 In the glen the girls were badly educated: ‘to learn to cook what God doesn’t send us’.16 Fear of the facts of life prevailed. Fear rather than understanding informed the pupils, who were ill prepared for harsh reality. Fear, debilitating fear, remained endemic: fear of emotion; of the priest, the gombeen man, the teacher; of others, of other faiths, and the damage such fears caused. Creative praise could be a severe shock: the positive was invariably submerged.
Patrick MacGill was a precursor of modern Catholicism. He wanted honesty in Church and State, an openness, a mature, adult, ecumenical outlook. He wanted a Christ-centred, firmly-grounded theology, together with an education which prepared its pupils for critical assessments of State and ecclesiastical institutions and persons. Christian social theology must confront unfettered economic power, capitalist or otherwise. Sceptical of ideological, especially violent, solutions and of the futile savagery of war, he urged peace through a dialogue based on the active equality of men and women, regardless of colour, creed, and class. People took priority over property. He raised uncomfortable, and still largely unanswered questions about Catholic thinking on marriage, single parents, children and nurture. His was a pilgrim Church rather than a settled, comfortable, clericalised, authoritarian institution. ‘Who has a settled home on Road of Pilgrims’?17 But, above all, he laid particular emphasis on the equality of women in society and in the Church. Like his carpenter of Orra, Patrick MacGill was a most dangerous man.

From Bernard Aspinwall, ‘Patrick MacGill, 1890:1963: an alternative vision’ in The Church and the Arts, ed Diana Wood, Oxford, Blackwell, 1992.

1. Black Bonar, London 1928, p 35.
2. ‘The Slum Child’ in Songs of the Dead End, London 1913, p 36
3. Children of the Dead End, London 1914, p 5
4. Carpenter of Orra, London 1925, p 216
5. Moleskin Joe, London 1921, pp 87, 92, 123
6. The Rat Pit, London, 1915, pp 91-92
7. Children of the Dead End, pp 214, 257
8. Carpenter, p 100
9. Glenmornan, repr London 1983, p 215
10. Children, p 145
11 Children, pp 103, 149; Moleskin Joe, London 1921, p 132
12. Black Bonar, p 53
13. The Rat Pit, p 183
14. The Carpenter, p 7
15. The Rat Pit, p 56, Children, p 15 16. Glenmornan, p 124
17. Black Bonar, p 327

Feb/Mar 2020

In June 2019 Open House held a conference exploring possible new directions for the Catholic Church in Scotland. See conference papers.

Open House also held a conference on the role of lay people in the governance of the Catholic Church in November 2013. See conference papers.