Patrick MacGill - 'The Navvy Poet'

Birthplace of Patrick MacGill
Donegal County Library
Photograph of Patrick MacGill
With permission from Donegal County Archives

Born in Ardun in the Glen of Glenties, County Donegal in 1890, Patrick MacGill was the eldest of the 11 children of small farm holders William and Bridget MacGill. He went to school in Mullanmore National School until the age of 10, after which, at age 12, he went to the hiring fair in Strabane, where he was hired to a County Tyrone farmer.

MacGill escaped from this work to Ayrshire, Scotland, where, at the age of 14, he worked in the potato fields as a 'tattie-howker' (potato– gatherer). "Donegal people worked in gangs of twenty or so for the Scottish farmers, frequently as 'tattie-howkers"(1). These workers were often adolescent boys and girls led by an individual referred to as 'The Ganger'.

MacGill recorded the harshness of life as a Donegal migratory seasonal worker in his books Children of the Dead End and The Rat-Pit. The chapter entitled 'The Derry Boat' in Children of the Dead End begins with the quote, "Bad cess to the boats! for it's few they take back of the many they take away"(2), which MacGill records as a Glenmornan saying.

When not potato-picking during harvest season, MacGill was employed as an itinerant 'navvy'. The term 'navvy' originated from the word Navigator. 'Navvies' worked as labourers building roads, railways, tunnels and dams. During his years as a navvy, McGill became a member of the many circulating libraries and educated himself, reading authors such as Carlyle, Victor Hugo, Rudyard Kipling, Bret Harte and Montaigne.

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