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WWI – Irish war poet McGill deserves higher profile

Older Patrick MacGill Irish war poet Patrick MacGill

Wed, 21 May 2014 11:18:00 BST

Professor’s labour of love to explain the writings of less-remembered Great War poet Rifleman Patrick MacGill

Patrick MacGill in wartime uniform Patrick MacGill OF the writers who went to war in 1914-1918 and lived to tell their tales, one of the most prolific was the Irish-born poet, playwright and novelist Patrick MacGill (pictured).  He is less well-remembered than the likes of Wilfred Owen and Siegfried Sassoon, but a University of Huddersfield history professor has conducted a serious reappraisal of MacGill’s work and what it has to say about the ways in which war is filtered through memory.  

The latest and probably the last instalment in Professor David Taylor’s investigation and interpretation of MacGill is a newly-published book, entitled Memory, Narrative and The Great War: Rifleman Patrick MacGill and the Construction of Wartime Experience.  It follows a sequence of scholarly articles that began in the late 1990s.  And all of this is despite the fact that Professor Taylor is sceptical about MacGill’s actual merits as a writer.

David Taylor “He deserves a higher profile, but the quality of his work on a number of occasions is not outstanding.  In fact, the last thing he wrote about the war, a play, is dire, to be perfectly honest.  But it is what he is saying, not how he says it, that definitely merits greater attention, not least because it brings out the way that the war is an ongoing experience, constantly being reinterpreted,” said Professor Taylor (pictured right).

His more accustomed territory is the history of policing in Britain, but David Taylor – who is an Emeritus Professor of the University of Huddersfield – has been able to explore a variety of themes by researching Patrick MacGill.  He has also been able to pay homage to the memory of his grandfather, Sidney Cadman, a Londoner with an Irish mother who fought throughout the First World War with the London Irish Rifles, the regiment that the Donegal-born Patrick MacGill joined.  The two men met when they trained together in Dunstable.

“My grandfather didn’t know MacGill very well, but he was seen as a solid character,” said Professor Taylor, whose academic interest in the Irish writer began in the 1990s when he started to research the theme of masculinity and war, initially for a conference paper on the subject.

He subsequently published four book chapters and journal articles drawn from his work on MacGill.  But he was never in doubt that a book would be the culmination of his interest in the Irish writer, and Memory, Narrative and The Great War: Rifleman Patrick MacGill and the Construction of Wartime Experience has now been published.

Interpretation of war

Patrick MacGill The book represents a detailed examination of the varied and complex war writings of MacGill, and it seeks to explain how his interpretation of war shifted from a heroic wartime autobiographical trilogy to the pessimistic and guilt-ridden interpretations in his post-war novel, Fear!, and the play Suspense.

“The emphasis in the book is very much on the way that war is constructed and reconstructed, depending on circumstance,” said Professor Taylor.  “It is all about the way memory works and the way in which the narrative of the individual can change.

“This ties in with my grandfather, because he had very different stories of the war, told to different people at different times.  It is part of the coping mechanism that goes on and on.”

Irishness plays a part in his writing

Patrick MacGill, who died in 1963, at the age of 73, was dubbed the “Navvy Poet”, because of his occupation before turning to writing.  Even though he had a troubled relationship with his homeland, he is commemorated with a statue in his home town of Glenties in County Donegal, where there has been an annual MacGill Summer School since 1980.

“Irishness plays a part in his writing, but it is quite complex,” said Professor Taylor.  “MacGill left Ireland as a young lad and he was very critical of the Catholic Church, which didn’t go down too well with ‘old Ireland’, and because he fought with the British Army he was not popular with the ‘new Ireland’ that emerged after the First World War.”

Professor Taylor’s new book was “a labour of love” and contrasts with his current work on the policing of the West Riding of Yorkshire in the mid-nineteenth century, particularly the Honley Riot of 1862, which will form part of a wider book on policing by consent in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries.

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