Children of the Dead End by Patrick MacGill

Sympathy has its limits…


Dermod Flynn lives for the first few years of his life with his family in Donegal. His parents make it clear that his main, perhaps sole, purpose in life is to go off to work to send home money to keep his parents and younger siblings from sinking further into poverty than they already are. So at a young age he is packed off “beyond the mountains” to the hiring market, where farmers hire workers on a seasonal basis. After a series of jobs, treated well in some, appallingly in others, Dermod joins a gang of workers bound for Scotland for the potato-picking season, and this begins his life as an itinerant worker, a “navvy”, in Scotland in the early days of the twentieth century.

Dermod is MacGill’s fictional representation of himself. In his foreword, he claims that most of the people he meets and most of the incidents in the book are true although he has used some licence to create a kind of plot to hold the thing together. Mostly the book is remembered (if at all) as a record of a way of life now gone, though some (oddly) praise it for its (non-existent) literary merits. Since I am already fairly well aware of the appalling conditions of itinerant Irish workers at this period and of the poverty and ill-treatment they suffered, the lack of aforesaid literary merit meant that it wasn’t worth enduring the intense dislike I developed for Dermod/MacGill for anything I might learn. I therefore abandoned it halfway through, merely flicking to the end to discover if the mawkish love story MacGill used as his plot had a happy or tragic ending. I won’t spoil it for you, in case you ever feel inspired to read the book.

Book 89 of 90

Had Dermod been truly fictional, I might have been able to tolerate him as a character. It was the knowledge that he is in fact MacGill by another name that caused me to find the book intolerable. Despite being at the bottom of the social heap, Dermod has a wonderful ability to look down on others, clearly because by disparaging them he thinks it somehow makes him look superior. I might even have found this psychology interesting or pitiable had it not been for his clear dislike of humanity as a whole, and the female half of humanity in particular. The language he uses to describe women is repellent – perhaps normal for men of that class and era, but it seemed to me indicative of a real hatred for women, especially those who had lost the physical attractiveness of youth. Here he is describing Gourock Ellen and her friend Annie – whores in their younger days but now too old for that job, they eke out a pitiful living crawling across muddy fields on their knees picking up potatoes. And yet Gourock Ellen is kind to beggars, washes Dermod’s clothes for him and generally shows a generous soul despite having nothing herself. Here’s what lovely Dermod says of her and Annie:

Nearly everyone in the squad looked upon the two women with contempt and disgust, and I must confess that I shared in the general feeling. In my sight they were loathsome and unclean. They were repulsive in appearance, loose in language, and seemingly devoid of any moral restraint or female decency. It was hard to believe that they were young children once, and that there was still unlimited goodness in their natures.

Patrick MacGill

This from a man also with nothing, also filthy from working in the fields, also viewed with contempt and disgust by those who think themselves superior to the poor. Funnily enough, he can find justifications quite easily for his own weaknesses. He gets drunk and gambles his money away because society makes him do it, not because he is “devoid of any moral restraint” and his routine unprovoked violence is apparently not an indication of any lack of “male decency”. Here he is on a night when he has been prowling round a large house, peering through a window at a dinner party in progress:

At the further end of the table a big fat woman in evening dress sat facing me, and she looked irrepressibly merry. Her low-cut frock exposed a great spread of bulging flesh stretching across from shoulder to shoulder. It was a most disgusting sight, and should have been hidden.

He throws a stone through the window, showering broken glass over those inside, and the householder lets the dog loose:

Before I reached the gate a fairly-sized black animal was at my heels, squealing as I had heard dogs in Ireland squeal when pursuing a rabbit. I turned round suddenly, fearing to get bitten in the legs, and the animal, unable to restrain his mad rush, careered past. He tried to turn round, but my boot shot out and the blow took him on the head. This was an action that he did not relish, and he hurried back to the house, whimpering all the way.

It wasn’t long after this point that I decided I’d had enough of the adventures of Mr Misogyny and his dog-kicking boots.

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42 thoughts on “Children of the Dead End by Patrick MacGill

    • Poor you! 😉 In all seriousness, it might have been worth it to me if I’d wanted to learn about the lives of the Irish navvies, but since I already know quite a lot about that then it wasn’t worth struggling on with Mr Misogyny – ugh!

      Liked by 1 person

  1. Without Irish navvies, we wouldn’t have a lot of our railways and canals … but, like you, I’m well aware of the poor conditions they often faced, and so don’t need to read about it in a poorly-written book. I’ll give this one a miss!

    Liked by 1 person

  2. I wouldn’t be able to tolerate that sort of misogyny, either, FictionFan! Yikes! And you know, the overall topic might have been interesting, so it’s a shame that it descended into this sort of thing. And I caught your mention of a mawkish love affair, which for me, doesn’t improve things at all. The bit you shared didn’t even show an interesting writing style! So, no, thanks. Really, no, thanks.

    Liked by 1 person

    • It’s pretty in-your-face, isn’t it? Sometimes you’re not sure if a man is really being misogynistic or if it’s just the general attitudes of the time, but I felt here his language left very little doubt! Definitely not one I’d recommend… except maybe to someone I really didn’t like… 😉

      Liked by 1 person

  3. Ouch! Thankfully, one I won’t have to read. The bit about kicking the dog sealed my decision (though like you, I was teetering on the edge when I read his descriptions of the women workers). Rather surprised you made it halfway through!

    Liked by 1 person

    • Yes, I’m usually not to bad at making allowances for outdated attitudes, but there was something about his use of language when describing women that really moved it into the misogyny zone for me – “loathsome”, “disgusting”, etc. Oddly enough, all words I felt could easily be applied to him! 😉

      Liked by 1 person

  4. Oh la la. Sounds like he might have had a few problems with his own sexuality. Maybe drop a brick from a height rather than hitting him over the head with a shovel – more possibility for accident that way…

    Liked by 1 person

    • Excellent advice! Hmm, not sure it would be quite as satisfying though… 😉 I got the distinct feeling that he had some kind of barely concealed religious mania, but your theory sounds just as likely!


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