"Indeed, a minimum of life, an unchaining from all coarser desires, an independence in the middle of all kinds of outer nuisance; a bit of Cynicism, perhaps a bit of ‘tub’."
Friedrich Nietzsche

8 Apr 2014

A Philosophy of Tramping—Jim Phelan

A re-edited version of the original post is now published in Chapter 13 of
Published by Feral House February 2020

'the central fact about vagabondage, which city people do not know as a rule. (How could they know? Their knowledge comes from books written by city men). At one time nearly all the world was nomadic; the people who lived in houses were the few and the strange, the folks who were different. ... From the first little villagesperhaps built up to keep guard over the first cropsthe cities have grown into places like London and New York. The numbers of nomads have dwindled, from a majority of the human race down to a few thousand wanderers like Dicky Tom and Listin' Jemmy.'
Jim Phelan, Tramping the Toby


A special thanks to those people who provided valuable advice and archive material for this biography: Seumas Phelan (JP's son with his second wife Jill), Les Singleton (Phelan's grandson from JP's first wife Dora), David Cowell (who provided copies of rare archive material including the letter from JP to George Orwell and the clemency letter from JP's mother), Jim Christy (author, artist and vagabond, who met JP's third wife and widow Kathleen on a boat from Spain to Morocco in January 1970 and tramped with her for a week in the Moroccan countryside), and Jim Phelan (no relative, who is also researching his namesake).

I also thoroughly recommend a reading of Prof. Andrew Lees' essay on Phelan, 'The Rolling English Road', Dublin Review of Books (2015); a text that provides an excellent complement to Andrew's book, The Hurricane Port: A Social History of Liverpool (Random House, 2011).


Dublin born tramp and writer James Leo (Jim) Phelan (1895-1966) published the 25 books listed below and collaborated on others. He also wrote poetry, song lyrics, plays, film scores and narrated TV documentaries. Of his books, they include fiction, autobiographical works, travelogues, political essays, and memoirs on prison life, the Romany people and tramping. Phelan's original studies of prison life are second to none, but as this site is not principally concerned with penology, it is Phelan's tramping and writing that are the focus here. After briefly sketching out Phelan's life story—far better related by Phelan himself—in Part 2 I will review his personal philosophy and selected themes from his adventures as a tramp.

Museum: A Novel (1937)
Lifer (1938)
Green Volcano (1938)
Ten a Penny (1938)
Meet the Criminal Class (1938)
In the Can (1939)
Jail Journal (1940)
Churchill Can Unite Ireland (1940)
Murder by Numbers (1941)
IrelandAtlantic Gateway (1941)
Letters from the Big House (1943)
And Blackthorns (1944)
Banshee Harvest: A Novel (1945)
Turf Fire Tales (1947)
The Name's Phelan (1948)
Bog Blossom Stories (1948)
We Follow the Roads (1949)
Vagabond Cavalry (1951)
Wagon-wheels (1951)
Tramp at Anchor (1954)
Criminals in Real Life (1956)
Fetters for Twenty (1957)
Tramping the Toby* (1958)
The Underworld (1967)
Nine Murderers and Me (1967)

*'Toby' here refers to the road, other British tramp designations of which are 'the white', 'the macadam', 'the grit' (as in 'hitting the grit') and 'the pad'.

I have always maintained that true cynics are born, not made. No other modern philosopher demonstrates that premise better that did Phelan. When I use the term philosopher, I'm not referring here to the popular notion of a university educated boffin who gives formal lectures and publishes treatises on the meaning of life; I rather refer those rare thinkers, like Diogenes of Sinope and Jesus of Nazareth (man or myth depending on your preference), who not only preached their philosophy but livedit. As Phelan observes in the quotation above, it is much harder to live the life of a vagabond in modern times than it was in antiquity. And, with the triumph of mechanised transport and the ubiquitous CCTV camera, there are now probably only a few hundred tramps left in the West as opposed to the thousands noted by Phelan only fifty-six years ago.

Of course, if the fancy had taken him, Phelan could just have easily become the university professor type of philosopher. An infant prodigy who was already at school by the age of twenty-one months (with a photo and school certificate to prove it), reading better than most adults by the age of three, and in Sixth Form by the age of ten. Stuck in the Sixth because the law did not enable him to progress further, Phelan learned Latin and consumed classical works by the ancient Greeks, Shakespeare, Irish, English and French poetry, plus anything else he could get his hands on from magnetism to practical welding. We also know that during his lifetime Phelan read the works of other tramp writers. In criticising a tramp poem by Robert Service, 'no greater balderdash was ever penned', Phelan observes that: 'Until Jack London and Bart Kennedy, W.H. Davies, Jim Tully, and the rest set up real vagrant-literature against the other effusions ... only spurious writings on vagabondage were considered acceptable.' Phelan has now joined those other writers in providing a rich legacy of vagabond-literature and philosophy to entertain and enlighten future generations.

Child Tramp and Scholar

Phelan's Father James

Phelan's Mother Catherine
Much to the disappointment of his parents and his school headmaster, Phelan did not want to achieve the 'genius' status that others had predicted of him. He already had the vagabond instinct at the age of four: 'in that year and at that age I left home, deliberately and, so far as I was concerned finally. That it was no infant stray-away I have been proving, in spite of myself, from that day to this.'

Born in Woodfield Cottages, Inchicore, now a suburb of Dublin, both Phelan's parents were storytellers from, what Phelan describes as, a peasant background. But they told stories of a very different kind. His father had a revolutionary background and had served time in prison, as had Phelan's grandfather and great-grandfather also. Phelan's father's stories (of which he sold a few) were of his adventures in far flung places such as Sierra Leone, Guatamala and North America; a 'vagrant at heart' now curbed by the responsibilities of family life. In contrast to his father's tales of travel and adventure, Phelan's mother's stories were more of the folk-tale variety, 'timeless and place vague ... she did not believe in fiction, did not know of its existence ... there were no stories except true stories.' Phelan's mother Catherine had no understanding of the wandering urges of her husband and son: 'Existence, as far as she was concerned, was an opportunity to work, save money, rear a family, love them and give them a chance in life, then die and go to heaven.'

An Education and Two Tramps

And so at the age of four, fuelled by the images of stories from both his mother and father, and drawn by the sights and sounds of Dublin and the countryside beyond, Phelan embarked on his first tramping adventure. He had planned for three days that with the penny his mother gave him for sweets on his way to school, to follow the railway line to Tipperary, a distance of over one hundred miles. Phelan knew that in Tipperary lived a man named Jim Maher, 'a kind of god or giant who had visited us once or twice'. In fact, Maher was Phelan's cousin, but that was the plan of the four year old tramp and from here Phelan picks up the story in his own words:

'Deceit or innocence, I'm not sure which, got me through Chapelizod without being stopped. An old, bearded man with a sticka tramp, I imaginewalked along beside me for some distance. I talked to him telling him about sweets, and our chickens, and my father ... When he asked where I lived I answered, "Down there," pointing ahead. ... On the outskirts I just let go his hand and walked away. ... A woman at a farm gave me a drink of milk, and said I was a good boy,and told me to hurry home. ... Playing with two kittens, I was quite happy until the policeman arrived ... He was exactly the kind of man to help a small boy ... who came from Craigua, Gortnahoe, near Thurles, in Tipperary, the father having gone home on a train, not knowing that the small boy had gone out to play. ... that was the story I told him, in a lisping, sweetly-innocent singsong ... They must have got in touch with the district in Tipperary which I had described so precisely, and found that there were plenty of Jim Phelans, young and old, in the region. ... Presently I was put on a train, given some cakes and a bottle of milk, wakened from a long sleep, and handed out to a policeman at a lovely place which did not look in the least like home. I was in Tipperary.
     The local policeman saw through me at once. "That's no Tipp'rary chiseller," ... He pressed me with queries, but I stuck to my fibbing-voice story ... At last I was put on an outside car, driven to Craigua, where I was, as it were, exhibited to the several sections of the Phelan family. ... A woman I had never seen before ejaculated, "Glory be to Godthat's Jamesey Phelan's boy from Inchicore. And how did he get here?" The only bright spot, I remember, was that she blamed it all on the unfortunate policeman!
     Next day I was sent home, and had a terrific beating. Naturally that decided me to go away again, as soon as possible. I have been doing it ever since'


First Job and First Tramp at Sea

Yet by the age of thirteen, Phelan had done with schooling and started working in the only job then open to thirteen-year-olds, that of a telegraph boy. At first his headmaster, Brother Redmond, refused to provide the necessary reference, pleading with and even offering to pay Phelan the equivalent of his wages for him to continue his studies:

"James Phelan, the greatest intellect it has been my privilege to train, in forty years of training famous men ... carrying wretched telegrams to grubby bookmakers and filthy people in sordid shops. Rubbish. Goodbye. Tell your mother to come and see me." '

But Phelan stuck to his resolve and dared the good Christian soul to lie to his potential employer when he told them that he was Brother Redmond's best pupil and ask them to write to him to confirm it:

'That was the end of the attempts to make me a scholar; the end of Brother Redmond's mounting hopes. A lion of learning I was to be made, his way. But I was no lion, nor did I wish to be. Indeed, I went near to becoming a wolf instead, but came in time to be just a masterless dog, road-wandering.'*

*See post 'On Dogs: Feral and Domesticated', which discusses the allegory used above by Phelan, and also the adoption of the dog by the ancient Cynics both in their name and mode of existence.

Phelan's job as a telegraph boy lasted about six months, not because he did not enjoy the work. He was dismissed for refusing to deliver a certain telegram and, in the aftermath, found himself on board a coal boat commiserating his plight to the crew with whom he had become friendly in his former occupation. The boat put to sea without the crew realising that Phelan was still on board, and by the time they did, were already committed for their destination, Glasgow. A discussion took place as to how they would return the thirteen year old vagabond to Dublin, and in the end the crew had a whip-round to collect enough money for Phelan to return home aboard a passenger steamer:

'Of course I was never going home any more, but I took the money for my fare ... To me Glasgow looked, smelt, and sounded like a dream-town. Now this was a real foreign city at last. I could not understand one word of the speech. Heaven!'

Glasgow and Dublin Slum-Dog

Fortified with the severance wages from his job plus the fare money from the crew, Phelan set about wandering the streets of Glasgow, finally ending up in the Gallowgate district of that city. Phelan soon teamed up with some local slum boys where he, 'learnt to speak Scotch' and also the art of begging. His money, together with what he begged, lasted a month; requiring only four pence a night for lodging plus a penny for a breakfast of tea and bread. But just as Phelan was getting bored with the company he was keeping, he happened upon the crew of another boat out of Dublin who recognised him and offered him passage home.


Republican Apprentice


The Tramp Actor


A Strange Choice of Occupation and First Marriage

A Double Tragedy


Initially sentenced to hang by Manchester Crown Court, on the eve of his execution (set for 4th August 1924) Phelan's sentence was commuted by the Home Secretary to life imprisonment. That same year (about a year after Catherine's birth and Phelan's arrest) and aged only 27, Dora developed septicaemia from a minor injury and died. The exact sequence of events are sketchy but can be deduced from a letter that Phelan's mother wrote to a politician in July 1926 seeking clemency for her son. The letter also notes that the mother of the murdered man had herself pleaded clemency on Phelan's behalf, knowing him to be innocent of killing her son. Phelan had by this time been in prison for three years and his mother (right in picture) was caring for her granddaughter Catherine (centre of picture), but clearly struggling and concerned about what will happen to the child when she either died or was too infirm to any longer cope. Catherine's daughter Lillian (Catherine had six children) confirmed that her mother was later raised by her aunt, Phelan's sister Maggie Colgan (left in picture with her own children).

Phelan served over thirteen years, in Strangeways (Manchester), Winson Green (Birmingham), Wormwood Scrubs (London), Maidstone (Kent), Dartmoor (Devon), and Parkhurst (Isle of Wight) in that order, before eventually being released in 1937 vowing never to be confined by four walls again. For those who wish to read a detailed account of Phelan's prison life—also a remarkable social critique on penology of the period—I strongly recommend they read A Tramp at Anchor. As this post is about Phelan's tramping exploits, I pick up his story again on his release.................

Presenting BBC Documentary
on Welsh Tramps and Gypsies
the year before his death
Full story now available in The Lives and Extraordinary Adventures of Fifteen Tramp Writers from the Golden Age of Vagabondage


  1. I met Kathleen in London in 1983. We spent a good deal of time together both there and in Paris in 1984. We stayed in touch for many years, mostly via postcards, until I lost her address in a move. Kathleen's base at that time was a caravan in the UK countryside. She had a married sister, called Elizabeth, I believe, who also lived in the UK. I would love to hear more of Kathleen. bondjf AT gmail.com

  2. I didn't know her but I gather she was quite a character and Im sorry to say she has just died, She lived at Mayfield caravan park, not far from me, near Cirencester in gloucestershire

    1. Thank you both very much for getting in touch about Kathleen Newton. JB has agreed to write a piece about her recollections of Kathleen and I would like to get in touch with Anon if you are agreeable.

  3. The photo above is not Jim Phelan but his father James Phelan wearing a bowler type hat. (my great grandad) Also my mother Catherine, (Jim Phelans daughter), was raised by her Aunt Maggie Colgan, Jim Phelans sister, and later, at the approx age of 10 years by her Grannie O'brien. The picture of the 2 women with the children are Aunt Maggie and Grannie Phelan. My mother Catherine was not raised by her aunt Pauline. the children were my mothers cousins and belonged to Aunt Maggie Colgan

  4. The above comments are a true record, as 'anon' is my ( much better informed) sister :-)