Patrick MacGill and The Red Horizon

[First posted on MyT]

Patrick MacGill is the only person I know of who wrote books about life as an ordinary working-class British Army soldier in the First World War trenches (there may have been others).

MacGill was born in Glenties, Co. Donegal, Ireland, in 1891 … the first of eleven children of a small farmer. He left school the age of ten, and two years later was hired out as a labourer in a neighbouring county. At fourteen he went to Scotland to pick potatoes, and he later lived the hard life of an itinerant navvy, working on the railways and other big civil engineering projects. All the time he was educating himself by reading Tolstoy, Gogol, Zola and Hugo, as well as Kipling.

The Daily Express offered him a job as a reporter on the strength of some poems he wrote and articles he submitted, but he didn’t like the work much. He gained some fame as ‘the navvy poet’ and later worked in Windsor Castle as an editor of ancient manuscripts. His first novel, the semi-autobiographical Children of the Dead End, sold 35,000 copies in the week of its release; he wrote many more novels and books of verse.

MacGill enlisted in the London Irish Rifles at the outbreak of war, and was wounded at Loos in 1915 … he was still just 24 years old. The Red Horizon and The Great Push are evocative accounts of his war experiences, full of keenly observed details of trench life, the horrors of war and the speech of his fellow soldiers, as well as a highly developed humanity.

With his wife and three daughters, MacGill emigrated to the USA in 1930. He died in Florida in 1963.

Children of the Dead End is still a good read (it’s some years since I read it). MacGill sides firmly with the poor and downtrodden against the powerful and influential, the latter including (in Ireland) priests and gombeen men (shopkeepers that exploited the poor by charging high interest on credit). His works were controversial in their time. While dated in places, they are still vivid and readable, with plenty of lively characters.

The Patrick MacGill Summer School provides a forum for political and cultural debate in Donegal each year.

The following is an extract from The Red Horizon.

In some places the enemy’s bullets search the main street by night and day; a journey from the rear to the trenches is made across the open, and the eternal German bullet never leaves off searching for our boys coming in to the firing line. You can rely on sandbagged safety in the villages, but on the way from there to the trenches you merely trust your luck; for the moment your life has gone out of your keeping.

No civilian is allowed to enter one place, but I have seen a woman there. We were coming in, a working party, from the trenches when the colour of dawn was in the sky. We met her on the street opposite the pile of bricks that once was a little church: the spire of the church was blown off months ago and it sticks point downwards in a grave. The woman was taken prisoner. Who was she? Where did she come from? None of us knew, but we concluded she was a spy. Afterwards we heard that she was a native who had returned to have a look at her home.

We were billeted at the rear of the village on the ground floor of a cottage. Behind our billet was the open country where Nature, the great mother, was busy; the butterflies flitted over the soldiers’ graves, the grass grew over unburied dead men, who seemed to be sinking into the ground, apple trees threw out a wealth of blossom which the breezes flung broadcast to earth like young lives in the whirlwind of war. We first came to the place at midnight; in the morning when we got up we found outside our door, in the midst of a jumble of broken pump handles and biscuit tins, fragments of chairs, holy pictures, crucifixes and barbed wire entanglements, a dead dog dwindling to dust, the hair falling from its skin and the white bones showing. As we looked on the thing it moved, its belly heaved as if the animal had gulped in a mouthful of air. We stared aghast and our laughter was not hearty when a rat scurried out of the carcase and sought safety in a hole of the adjoining wall. The dog was buried by the Section 3. Four simple lines serve as its epitaph:

Here lies a dog as dead as dead,
A Sniper’s bullet through its head,
Untroubled now by shots and shells,
It rots and can do nothing else.

The village where I write this is shelled daily, yesterday three men, two women and two children, all civilians, were killed. The natives have become almost indifferent to shell-fire.

In the villages in the line of war between Souchez and Ypres strange things happen and wonderful sights can be seen.



Filed under History, Ireland, Literature

24 responses to “Patrick MacGill and The Red Horizon

  1. Cymbeline

    The rat scurrying out of the dead carcase reminds me of Primo Levi’s description of a rat scurrying out of a woman’s dead body. She had appeared to be pregnant, with her bloated belly. I have mentioned this before, in connection to the piece you quote.

    I have seen your comments on MyT. You are right to be disgusted by the comments about Palestinians. Those comments have nothing to do with the energetic hilarity of the pantomime rant, such as I spoke of last night. Makes me want to vomit.

  2. I should probably have quoted a different piece, Cymbeline … this was easily to hand and I’m chasing my tail somewhat with work. MacGill was a good and humane writer. Some won’t have seen the previously posted pieces whereas some others, like you, probably will.

    I must post something from a memoir by Louis McNeice that I have – very lively and engaging. Must also order a book called On Another Man’s Wound by Ernie O’Malley … a participant in the 1919-23 wars in Ireland who was an excellent writer. There is a lot of good stuff in it; doesn’t seem to be online.

    Thanks for your support on the other matter.

  3. Cymbeline

    I am interested in all your pieces, whether they have been posted before or not. You never write dross.

  4. Ike Jakson

    Hi Brendan

    This is what interests me. We have ample glorification of Prime Ministers and Presidents in war. Of course Churchill was a great man, and Montgomery as well as Field Marshall Smuts. But I miss the stories and the achievements of the man in the trenches. I want to hear of his wife or the girl he had left at home.

    That is what Genesis will cover when I get the time to complete it. Will you be my proof reader?

  5. Cymbeline

    Hedd Wyn was a man in the trenches, a man of the people. But he wrote poetry, rather than narrative.

  6. Thank you, Cymbeline and Ike. I remember that there was a film about Hedd Wyn, Cymbeline, but I didn’t see it and didn’t know anything about him … interesting that he was also a man of the people.

    Ike, you would probably enjoy MacGill’s books on the war. As for proofreading yours … I might; you never know. 🙂

  7. claire2

    This is a chilling and powerful piece, Brendano. I’m fascinated by war fiction/memoirs of war time experiences.
    THis reminds me of a piece of poetry that was on the GCSE reading list for English Literature this year. I’ll dig it out.

  8. Yes, do. I tend to find the war memoirs fascinating too … Graves and Sassoon, for example. Such a strange situation to find oneself in.

  9. claire2

    I keep saying this, but I’m currently ploughing through something on the experience of soldiers during civil war sieges. The author says about 50 per cent, in some cases, of besieged garrisons died of fever and typhoid. He also says starvation and mental/physical exertion accounted for much of the military cock ups on both sides.

  10. Cymbeline

    Claire. Not the civil war sieges, but you may be interested in the British garrison on Diamond Rock, which held out for 17 months against the French:

    Quite a feat, and a fascinating piece of French/British Caribbean history. The article says that the British had to capitulate in the end because of the cracked water cistern. I have also read that the French sent over rafts of rum, and that French victory was down to all the British soldiers being pissed.

    Brendano. I see that Hedd Wyn was killed on the same day as the Irishman Francis Ledwidge, another poet who came from a humble background.

  11. Cymbeline

    Re the Israel/Palestine horror. Amos Oz seems to be a fine voice. Discovered him via an article in Le Monde the other day.

  12. Hey, Brendano, see, I’ve been bold. :-)) Anyway, just to let you know I’ve replied to your latest points. Also that I enjoyed Meyer’s article. Sorry for being off-topic.

  13. Interesting that Hedd Wyn died on the same day as Ledwidge, Cymbeline. Ledwidge came from Slane, not too far from where I live … he was from a small-farming background, I think. He is remembered in summer schools and the like. I must do a blog on him sometime.

  14. Welcome to my blog, Ana. Thanks for that … off-topic is not a problem.

  15. claire2

    Cymbeline – hi and thanks for that. I will definitely check that link out.
    I read something similar in my depressing book about sieges; apparently Prince Rupert was in the habit of allowing his troops to drink heavily before battles.

  16. claire2

    Morning BRendano!

  17. Morning, Claire. A good (and late) night’s singing in the pub last night, although we did not sing ‘The Leaving of Liverpool’. Must introduce that to my rather eclectic repertoire.

  18. I remember reading some of Amos Oz’s writings when I worked in libraries in the 1980s, Cymbline. Yes, a fine voice … I must see what he has to say these days.

  19. claire2

    I looked at that link, Cymbeline, and it was really interesting. It reminds me of the old poem ‘for want of the nail, the shoe was lost’ etc, about kingdoms being lost for small trivial details.
    Brendano: you should blog about your singing/music some time… 🙂

  20. Perhaps I will, Claire. I’ve only started playing the guitar regularly in public in the past few months, although I was always inclined to join in singing sessions. We go to the pub a lot more then we used to … a big session is lined up for next weekend.

    Last night was quite low-key and organized at the last minute, but very enjoyable. We get to the pub around what probably should be closing time, knowing that it will be open for hours yet. The guitars come out around 11.30 … three of them, played by a guard (policeman), a lorry-driver and myself; we also sing, more or less taking it in turns. There are ten or so others in our high-stool circle, mainly women, including some very good singers. A neighbour of mine, a kind of community kingpin, is very good. I do songs like ‘The Long Black Veil’, ‘Homeward Bound’, ‘It Never Rains in Southern California’, ‘Valerie’, ‘Wild Horses’, ‘Dock of the Bay’. One learns by experience what ‘works’ and what doesn’t.

    Anyone who wants to can sing a song, and will be encouraged and praised. The guitars get passed around; last night a young guy of around 17 played one of them for a good while, and seemed to enjoy it a lot.

  21. claire2

    sounds fab.
    We used to have singing sessions in the pub in Otley near Leeds. I was part of a choir which seemed to attract a lot of lesbians – it was great! At the monthly sessions, people would turn up with double bass and all sorts.
    I’m struggling to find songs for my lessons at the moment. DOck of the bay sounds a good one -I’d forgotten all about that…

  22. Yes, it’s good fun, Claire. It would seem strange now to go to the pub and just talk. 🙂

    Yes, Dock of the Bay is good. I play it mainly with barre chords. G B C A E in the verse and chorus, G C D F in the bridge.

  23. Cymbeline

    ‘high-stool circle’ – great expression. Tall mushrooms and overnight magic.

  24. Nice poetic image, Cymbeline. 🙂

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