A Philosophy of Tramping—Jim Phelan's Life and Times
'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 villages—perhaps built up to keep guard over the first crops—the 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)
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)
Ireland—Atlantic 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)
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 stick—a tramp, I imagine—walked 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 God—that'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'
But it would be over three years before Phelan ran away again, 'Not because of the beating, but because I did not want to go.' Phelan describes that, when in danger or difficulty, it is the tramp's natural impulse to, 'turn around and head for the horizon.' And so at the age of seven, anticipating a beating for knocking his sister helpless with a clothes-brush and some trouble over missing apples, Phelan grabbed a bottle of milk and a part loaf of bread and headed off to the canal basin. There he hid himself under a tarpaulin covering a barge where he stayed until discovered by the barge-men the following day. He was handed over to a kindly priest who, after offering him food and a bed for the night, sent Phelan home by train with a letter to his parents. After another severe beating from his mother (he later acknowledges that there were only two such beatings, and having only praise and respect for both his parents) he was taken to a school run by the Christian Brothers. And it was here that Phelan's full potential as a child prodigy was discovered and he received the aforementioned education.
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. This time on returning to his parents, there was no beating, no return to school, and no one mentioned work. Relieved that the prodigal son had returned alive, Phelan was free to become a Dublin slum-boy with, when he cursed loudly, a Glasgow accent. The following selection of passages paint their own picture of that period of Phelan's life:
'Almost without cessation I swore and blasphemed, as befitted a hard bitten sailor, the whole in a very thick and powerful Scots accent. Books I never thought of, nor any nonsense about being a genius, I was a ragamuffin boy at last, and life was very good. [...]
Thus, in South Earl Street, near the Coombe of Dublin, any evening of the summer of 1909, a yell might be heard from some ragamuffin boy of "Jim Phelan, here's your father." Then a large, sunburnt, particularly ragged and generally barefoot boy, with a strong Scots accent mainly used for swearing, would duck into a doorway. ... I believe I could have confronted him face to face; he would have glanced, unseeing, past the slum boy. [...]
We swam many times a day, climbed trees, caught pigeons and sold them, walked far afield after mushrooms ... For the rest of our time we fought and scrambled and I ran yelling through the streets. No one ever stole anything, I remember, nor did we smoke, and we never tried to "line" girls, so that we were, in fact, fairly harmless. Just slum boys, in a slum.'
There follows an interesting analysis from Phelan of the language of the slums, and that in spite of his declaration that he had no interest in books at this time, Phelan was always the scholar. He was fascinated by the words used in the slums, their origins and their meanings. The language never came naturally to him, acknowledging this was probably due to to the fact that, 'the gulf between my father's pedantic English and what was later to be called "Joycean prose" was too great.' But whether or not Phelan was comfortable using it, he maintains that, 'I knew the language, though, as well as Dogger Dale and better than the author of Ulysses.' And so part of Phelan's success as an author, consummate storyteller aside, clearly stems from his fascination with language:
'Nibbling in the dictionaries, for some clue to the words we used daily, I found that many of my companion's words were Gaelic equivalents of what one may, for politeness, call the strong "Anglo-Saxon monosyllables." But my companions did not know that. Nor did their parents. Hardly any adults, even in Dublin knew. I found out. Once again I knew something no one else knew!
Joyce found out too. My belief is that he never discovered much besides, about those words, never got beyond the secretive-exultant stage.
I can write the word "flah" here without offence. To print the english translation-word [fuck] would be illegal. Flah, flah, flah. ... my barefoot-running, my knowledge of the facts as well as the words of slumdom, saved me. Besides, I had had my magic words, in full measure, and the maximum thrill from them, at six. Of course I had—bloody hell, bloody hell, bloody hell! '*
*In terms of putting the illegality of the first profanity into perspective, it was not until 1960 that the unabridged version of Lady Chatterly's Lover was able to be published. The latter profanity Phelan recalls as a 'magic formula' his sister and he had learned at school to damn folk to hell.
The flip side of Phelan's use of slang was, in fact, his 'ejjification'. He became a hero amongst his companions following an incident when a policeman apprehended them raiding a strawberry patch. The slum-boy switched to a polite educated apology, throwing in the Latin phrase 'in flagrante delicto', twice, for good measure. The same strategy used by a hobo in the American mid-West would probably have earned double punishment, but, as Phelan calculated: 'An Irish policeman, in my reckoning, would know the phrase, [and] be proud of his Latin':
'We talked, and I flattered the policeman's conceit of learning shamelessly. ... in the end he completely dismissed the purpose for which he had been sent there ... he quoted a long poem called "Mesgedra", while we walked along the canal towards Dublin, my companions trailing warily behind. ... Thereafter I was famous by the Coombe. Alas for my poor mother's hopes—here was the first fruits of the gifts and the learning; it tasted very sweet indeed to me.'
Second Job and Fourth Tramp
Phelan's father must have eventually decided that his son had been a slum-boy for long enough, and arranged for him to commence work in the steel foundry where he worked. Again Phelan actually enjoyed the work but, after a couple of months, fell foul of a particularly bad tempered foreman and was sent home. Rather than face the wrath of his father again, he jumped aboard a passing ballast train only to alight some twenty miles outside Dublin, and again on the canal familiar to him from a previous adventure. Although still only fourteen and a half, due to his build and appearance, Phelan claims that he was easily mistaken for an adult of eighteen to twenty. This had both advantages and disadvantages. Phelan was already carrying a notebook and recording his adventures, as well as writing songs and poetry, which explains how he found later recalling details of his adventures in his autobiographies a relatively easy task. On his first night, Phelan slept alongside a hedge in a field, only later realising that tramps more often tend to sleep in towns. In any case, he'd spent the few coppers he had. After washing and drinking from the canal Phelan set off once more, but by evening he was tired and ravenous, forcing himself to beg food. 'It never once occurred to me to that I might seek work as a way to avoid the ignominy of begging.' But work he did, first collecting sheaves on a farm and the second occasion finding casual work with a circus troupe—even though he got cheated of his money with the latter and beaten into the bargain. After getting as far as Limerick, and having recovered from his injuries, Phelan spotted a goods train in Limerick Junction bound for Inchicore, and, five weeks after he had left, returned home once again. It would be a further four, relatively happy, years before Phelan left home again.
Art School and Girls
Phelan's next choice of occupation seems a pragmatic one; not that he entered art school, but that he should choose the 'Art Metal-work class' in which to enrol. This allowed him to engage in classical drawing lessons in the main art department, as well as consolidating his former skills as a blacksmith in the workshop with copper and steel. It was here that Phelan first came across snobbery and regretted abandoning his earlier education for a life in the slums. Phelan had always felt alienated from his companions, but his early attempts at courting girls reinforced that he was different from most people—working-class girls considering him too highbrow and the middle-class students at art school too rough around the edges. Though being more than interested in carnal pleasure—and had been from a young age—these amorous encounters Phelan considered 'sordid and embarrassing'.
'Now I knew I was not ordinary, and swore I should never try to be so again. Nor did I ever any more make long, detailed, carefully secure plans to be a man, as I had done before, with only shame and frustration as the outcome.'
But, as is often the case, just at the point that Phelan had reconciled himself to a life of celibacy, an incident occurred that relieved his derangement. Tortured by dark thoughts and a toothache, and unable to sleep, Phelan went out for one of his nighttime excursions only to be accosted by a girl who, this time, was more than a match for his extreme awkwardness. After several attempts to resist her—considerations of hell and damnation from a strict Irish Catholic upbringing being the least cause of his aversion—Phelan recalls how: 'suddenly, as I tensed and worried and strained, with fear and revulsion and horror tearing at me, she put her arm round my neck and drew me closer.'
The inevitable accomplishment that followed had a powerful liberating effect on the confirmed vagrant: 'I walked on air going home. I was not wrong and different at all; I was Jim Phelan, and I was a man.' Unfortunately, his moment of triumph was marred by a nosy neighbour returning home late. They had followed Phelan and the girl to the lodging-house come brothel and immediately reported events to his parents.
'If I had been infected with leprosy and tuberculosis, had my arms and legs amputated, and was then carried off to a prison for lifelong torture, that would have been trivial in their eyes, compared to the story they had heard.'
On this occasion, although banished from home once more, and finding himself walking penniless ten miles outside Dublin, a calmness, even happiness, and pity rather than anger towards his parents, had settled on Phelan: 'there would be no more need for deception or pretence ... since I was three or four, I had had too much of both. ... For the first time I was not hurrying away, from pain or fear.' This new found confidence extended itself to Phelan's attitude to tramping also:
'I recalled my reactions of shrinking and shame, on that tramping-day nearly four years earlier. ... But this time I felt nothing of the kind. This time I was not begging—I was only going for a walk. Smiling and confident, I asked for food at the nearest home.'
Fifth Tramp and Taste of Hoboism
Phelan resolved that a week 'would suffice to blunt the edge of my parents grief', after which period they would be glad to welcome him home, and he in turn would fall in with their wishes and dreams and become a model citizen. But it would be a further eleven weeks and a transatlantic crossing before Phelan returned again to his parent's home.
Kilkenny gave way to Tipperary, and the eighteen year old tramp eventually arrived in Cork with three pence in his pocket. Enjoying the sites and sounds of that port city, Phelan formed an instant friendship with an American ship's engineer who, after getting drunk together, invited him to spend the night aboard the tanker Narranganset. Phelan was invited to work his passage and in two weeks had arrived in Galveston, Texas, from where he tramped to New Orleans, hobo style. And there he stayed, finding life easyand people generous and friendly. 'Everyone concerned knew I was a drifter ... but nobody minded much. A large tolerance in everything is the mark of New Orleans.' Who knows what turn Phelan's life might have taken next, but, such is the capricious nature of vagabondage, a ship's fireman from Lancashire persuaded Phelan to work his passage shovelling coal on a ship bound for Glasgow. Now armed with a seaman's union card for which he had paid five dollars, and after a brief visit to his former Glasgow haunts, Phelan had no trouble picking up a Dublin bound ship, arriving at the port in the middle of a dockers' strike (part of the infamous Dublin strike of 1913):
'With some little difficulty, trading on my acquaintance with cranemen, coal-heavers, and dockers, since the Post Office days, I managed to assure the boys that I was only an illegal passenger. An hour later my mother was crying quietly but happily, saying nothing, and my father spoke in distantly friendly fashion of everyday trifles, before he left for work. ... there was a stirring of happiness in the thought that nothing whatever had changed except for the better. Two days later, back at the works, the feeling persisted.'
The events described above leading to Phelan's American adventure are as recorded in The Name's Phelan. In Tramp at Anchor, Phelan says that his departure to America was prompted by the threat of a 'shotgun wedding' following the pregnancy of a woman his own age, 'Furthermore she had a powerful father and two burley brothers!'
Further Troubles and Tramp Number Six
There follows in The Name's Phelan, a fascinating (because of the author's unique perspectives) social and political account of the Dublin labour troubles of 1913. Our hero, now an eighteen year old apprentice engineer, earning seven shillings a week and living with his parents, traveled frequently between the iron works in Inchicore and the art school in the Dublin (as part of his apprentice training). He deliberately took the route of the worst conflicts to participate in the street fights and battles that ensued. On one occasion Phelan came close to being expelled from art school after an iron bar which he carried for protection in his sleeve, dropped noisily on the college floor, giving the appearance he had stolen the metal from the college workshop. Phelan had no desire to be expelled, particularly as he had at that time ardent intentions towards one of the female students and was, at the same time, spending time with another girl from Inchicore.
What happened next is a bit vague, but from a cryptic discussion concerning the consequences of further unintended pregnancies, it seems that Phelan either had, or believed he had, been responsible for both women becoming expectant mothers: 'even one christening-marriage or shotgun wedding would have nauseated me. With two on my hands—I drifted towards the main south road.' Once again Phelan was to implement his strategy of—when in difficulty head for the horizon. He goes on to describe how, although initially prompted by his 'difficulties', after a few hours of padding, an involuntary existential calmness takes control of the tramp's psyche, altering his concept of time and place:
'Perhaps a Buddhist monk, or a Lama, might be able to explain. Every tramp I have questioned says it is just that a fellow goes quiet and blank, looking at the road and liking the sound of his footfalls, and then he's in the next town, without noticing. ... There has to be peace inside, a freedom from worry and strain which, for professional purposes, the tramp has to pretend he knows. Then contemplation, not of one's navel but of the tiny surrounding patch of road surface.'
This meditative quality brought on by tramping, might go someway to explaining the addictive effects of wanderlust, even if, as in this case, there are sticks as well as carrots involved. On this occasion, after several adventures, including being offered two days work milking cows by a farmer, Phelan's tramp was interrupted by a group of travelling actors whose company he joined for three weeks as a baggage-man and bit-part player, only leaving the troupe on account of a drunken argument.
After tramping south to Waterford, Phelan persuaded the secretary in a shipping company to get him work on a ship, and two days later he arrived in Le Harve harbour in France. With no papers, little French, and in the full knowledge that, 'The professional tramp ... does not exist in France [and] Hitch-hiking ... came about equal to rape in the French consciousness of that day', Phelan threw fate to the wind and headed south, eventually reaching Toulon on the Mediterranean, courtesy of a kind natured lorry driver. The French adventure takes up a couple of chapters in The Name's Phelan, but for brevity's sake I pick up the tale where a crew member from an English ship in Marseilles, allows Phelan berth to London in exchange for most of his remaining money.
As in his description of the Soho area of London from Tramping the Toby (discussed below), Phelan was as captivated on his first visit to the city as subsequent forays there as a writer. But it was also on this first visit, aged only eighteen, that by sheer coincidence Phelan bumped into someone who would later become an important literary acquaintance:
'Outside a bookshop a stout, middle-aged man eyed me over, twitching the beginnings of a friendly smile and glinted a twinkle of a welcome in grey wide eyes. ... We talked a while, and in some seven minutes the man had the whole story ... except the two shot-gun weddings. ... I took him to say his name was Wales, and told him I had never been in Wales. ... When I told him I did not know [where I was going], but perhaps up north and then on to Dublin, he laughed again, asked suddenly if I had ever read Jack London. He gave me a list of books when he heard I had not, and told me not to miss The People of the Abyss. [...] Later and at long intervals we met many times, and he was always the same genial, greying man of that morning. [...] Peak of the pyramid is a note he wrote me when I published my novel Museum, perhaps the nicest line ever penned from an old writer to a young one:
"DEAR JIM PHELAN, I have just finished your novel Museum. If ever anyone else attempts to write a novel on the same subject, I shall re-read yours. Cordially, H. G. Wells" '
Not long after this encounter, Phelan was tramping up what would become the main thoroughfare of his adventures in Tramping the Toby, Watling Street, the route north-west from London via the Midlands to either Holyhead in North-Wales or Liverpool, and Ireland beyond. And it was here that Phelan made close acquaintances for the first time with other tramps. On his first day out of London, Phelan learned about 'parson- thumping' (begging at the doors of clergymen) and all manner of other tramp etiquette, ending that night sleeping at a 'paddincan' (tramp hostel) in St. Albans. At breakfast the following morning, the familiar English tramp conference took place about who was taking which roads and in what order:
'Up the road I met and spoke to many tramps (they averaged one per five miles or thereabouts), but kept away from anything like companionship. The second night up from St. Albans I stayed at Towcester, having covered more than forty miles in two days. [...] All the way up Watling Street I enjoyed myself. I had one lift from Weedon to Cannock in a big furniture-lorry, and one from Stoke-on-Trent almost to Warrington with a cattle-wagon, shorting my journey by more than a week. For the rest I walked, fadged, parson-thumped, and stayed at tramps' doss-houses.'
From Warrington, Phelan made his way to Liverpool, where he set about looking for a ship to take him to Dublin. As luck would have it he spotted a crew member he knew on a Dublin bound vessel, who arranged free passage for Phelan. Phelan had known Archie Anderson for several years through the Dublin riots and membership of the Irish Citizen Army (founded by Jim Larkin during the 1913 'Dublin Lockout' to defend strikers from police brutality). As well as a sailor on the Liverpool run, Phelan would soon discover that Anderson was also a gun runner for the Republican cause. On arrival in Dublin carrying five revolvers as the price of his ticket, Phelan cleaned himself up so that he could present himself to his family as an apprentice rather than a gun-runner or tramp—he had been away less than four months. Of the two women he had left behind, Phelan says the following:
'The brevity of the interval jolted me into remembering my near-commitments and the dual reason for my departure. I need not have bothered. One of the girls had been married a few weeks earlier. The other ignored me. Just when I wanted to be ignored.'
The outbreak of the 1914 War had relatively little effect on Ireland, and Phelan threw himself back into his studies, read for pleasure, and wrote an account of his travels. The latter he posted to the DailyNews—who sent it back. Already by nineteen, Phelan was writing poetry, songs, fiction, plays, essays, journals and travelogues, yet any literary success was still a long way off. By the age of twenty, Phelan admits to having temporarily dismissed the idea of being a writer, or a blacksmith, but did continue his apprenticeship, even though he used his time in the forge 'illegally' making wedding-presents for his friends: sets of fire-irons, bronze ash-trays, brooches and the like.
By 1916 and the outbreak of the Easter Rising, the question of whether you were on the English or Irish side of the conflict tested friends and family alike, mistrust and secrecy crept into everyday life. Phelan was aware that his brother Willie and two sisters were members of the Irish Citizen Army, but was taken aback when his brother asked him what side of the conflict he was on. Phelan was, in fact, not only a member of the ICA but on its Secret Council, 'was Willie's superior officer without his knowledge'. Phelan had many Republican contacts during that time, including Archie Anderson who was still running guns between Liverpool and Dublin. But, although Phelan greatly admired many of the senior figures in the campaign, he did not closely identify with any of them. There were writers and intellectuals in the movement: 'But many of these were before or after the time of which I write; most of the boys were unhewn granite, straight of the Dublin waterfront or out of its factories and foundries.'
By now, Phelan's skills as a blacksmith were being put to good use in the repair and production of small arms—'Revolver springs were a speciality of mine'. But settled though he might have been in the preceding three years, both as an apprentice and an activist, the fact that Phelan never fully identified with either now came to a head once more. With only months to go before his long apprenticeship would be completed and his future settled: 'afully-fledged craftsman, highly paid, able to support a home in comfort', the wanderlust came upon Phelan for the seventh time. Perhaps panic at the idea that a settled life may soon be thrust upon him, at any rate, the catalyst for change again seems to have been another unwanted pregnancy: 'My girl-friend wanted to get married. For the usual Dublin reasons.'
'Even a junior apprentice, because of his commitments, could not evade his amatory responsibilities. I, with my many years of servitude at stake, with my craft-majority only a few weeks off, was a fixture. Above all the apprentices at Inchicore and elsewhere, I most certainly could not run away.
Oh—couldn't I? was my mental rejoinder, roughly eleven hours later. For a few minutes I felt angry, with myself and with Dublin and with my beautiful body-friend. Then I laughed, the thing was gone, as far as I was concerned, and I went on eating unripe sloes, for amusement, on the canal-bank at Rathangan. ... Of course I had known all along inside me that I did not really belong to Dublin.'
The Tramp Actor
Rathangan, some forty miles out Dublin, marked the beginning of a new episode in Phelan's tramping history, and the end of any possibility that Phelan would settle to a conventional life. Unlike the previous occasions Phelan had headed for the horizon, this time he was dressed in a smart suit of clothes, had money in his pocket, and planned to earn more. At Portarlington in County Laois, Phelan caught up with the John Duffy Circus which he joined as a 'lumper' (jack-of-all-trades): 'Pay was good, food was excellent, conditions were thoroughly pleasant, and work was Titanic, unending.' But after two weeks, two hundred and eighty miles, and setting up and pulling down the big-top twenty eight times, Phelan had to leave the circus after badly burning his hand on a paraffin lamp. After working for several weeks with a peasant farmer he had befriended, Phelan's next job was with another travelling theatre, this time La Comédie Irlandaise. But after a fight with a jealous troupe member who (wrongly) accused Phelan of 'poaching' his wife, Phelan had to quit that outfit also. Next it was the Roberto Leno Theatrical Company:
'Life in this particular company was a thoroughly jolly business for everybody. For me it was more than that. I swotted and read and enjoyed myself continually. I even wrote two plays! [...] Often doing three-night stands, which meant double work but double pleasure for me, we drifted up and down Ireland until our big moment came. We were going to play the capital, do a repertory season at the Queen's in Dublin.'
After nearly a year away, Phelan's father had died. His mother, 'was uncertain whether, after all, an actor was not practically as good as a doctor or a judge, almost certainly better than a smith.' But if she thought that Phelan was going to turn out a gentleman, some kind of genius after all, she was to be disappointed. At first Phelan was happy in his role, playing minor parts in the theatre at night, and hanging out at the Citizen Army headquarters in Liberty Hall by day, but this clash of interests ended Phelan's acting career. A senior member of the Irish Citizen Army and Sinn Féin, Countess Markievicz*, known and greatly admired by Phelan, was being released from a British prison and a rally had been organised in her honour fifteen minutes before the curtain was due to go up at the Queen's. Phelan made his choice and his acting career came to an abrupt end.
*Markievicz was the first woman ever elected to the House of Commons in 1918—a year before Nancy Astor—though, like other Sinn Féin members, she refused to take her seat.
A Strange Choice of Occupation and First Marriage
There now follows a surreal episode of Phelan's vagabondage. First he tramped to Cork where he is followed and interrogated by the local IRA, greatly suspicious of his odd behaviour: 'What could I say? In the syllabus of Cork civic life there was no neat ruled space for such an entry as "Drifting, unfocused, incipient writer".' After virtual house arrest under the watchful eye of senior IRA operatives in Cork, Phelan was eventually allowed to go on his way after the receipt of satisfactory character references from Dublin. Next comes a short spell in a boarding-house in Dungarven, where Phelan learned to use a typewriter and produced two stories about slum-life in Dublin. They were not even acknowledged by the agent. Next stop Waterford, where Phelan spotted an advertisement that blacksmiths are wanted to join the Tank Corps of the British Army. And so Phelan made his way again to England, this time a vast tank graveyard in the Dorset countryside, probably Bovington Camp south of the village of Tolpuddle (site of the celebrated 1834 trade union uprising of the same name) and described by Phelan as follows:
'This was a vast, heather-purple moor, the place of which Thomas Hardy has written as Egdon Heath. In those days there were whole stretches where the heather could not be seen, because rows of fighter-tanks were lined up, side by side, thousands of them, thrown put on the Heath, unwanted and almost forgotten. [...] If I had been an efficient conspirator, and if the I.R.A. had wanted tanks, a company of men could have driven away a machine each, across that heath, and in all probability no one would have noticed. [...] Every tank had one quick-firer gun, and sometimes two, mostly removable. ... there were almost always a few loose rounds of ammunition, often many.'
Phelan does not describe the actual work he did with the tanks other than that he was a blacksmith. Although domiciled in the village of Wool, south of the tank cemetery, Phelan reports also being popular with the villagers of Bere Regis (Kingsbere in Tess of the D'Urbervilles), some six miles distance away, remarking that that he had slept at most of the two hundred houses in that village. Then suddenly, not having mentioned Dora Mary Brien previously, and on the occasion of a period of leave from the Army, Phelan announces a return to Dublin and marriage: 'For some time Dora O'Brien and I had intended to marry "when a chance came," and we decided that this was a chance.' Phelan then goes back to Wool without Dora, eventually returning to Dublin having managed to secure his discharge four month's early. But marriage did not curb Phelan's wanderlust, and Dora seems to have been remarkably tolerant of her vagabond husband: 'When, after less than a month, I said I was going to Galway, she merely enquired if I should need one shirt or two.'
In fact, Phelan headed for the town of Kinnegad, a kind of spiritual home for drifters, just as 'a good Catholic turned to Rome, a good Moslem to Mecca'. Although married, Phelan seems fully reconciled to a life of trampdom.
'I knew what I wanted to be. I wanted to be nothing. I had never been anything and I never should be. I was no smith nor writer, no soldier nor revolutionary, no poet nor actor, and not even a ballad chanter. For nothing at all, anywhere, was I of any use.'
At twenty-six, a confirmed vagabond Phelan might have been, but a sense of disappointment and regret is also discernible from his tone; as he later acknowledges, 'Very well, then. What was the use of saying I wanted nothing? I wanted everything.' And Phelan certainly never gave up his ambitions to become a writer. His next port of call, a few weeks as a labourer helping to build the Vartry Reservoir at Roundwood near the Wicklow Mountains, provided the setting for what Phelan describes as some of his best stories. On his return to Dublin, Phelan again picks up with both married and political life. Of his marriage, the following few words sum up the mutual acceptance, not without love and affection, of two very different people:
'Dora and I did not exchange a dozen words about my wandering. But we were happy for a while, and left talking alone. Each of us would have liked to be as the other, but neither could, and we did not niggle or a nag. Days drifted, and I did little, even thought little.'
Of Phelan's political life, he had become captivated by the speeches and crusade of Liam O'Flaherty (cousin of Holywood Film director John Ford with whom Phelan worked briefly) and later one of Ireland's leading novelists. O'Flaherty was at the time engaged in raising a tramp movement along the lines of 'Kelly's Army', the protest march of unemployed on Washington DC in 1894. 'O'Flaherty was a magnificent speaker ... This organising of a beggar's legion, comparable to the host of the beggar-syndicate described by Dumas in Twenty Years After, obviously appealed to him. It did to me too.' There followed a trip with O'Flaherty and friends to Cork, but then Phelan's life takes another twist. Returning to Dublin, he met up again with the gun runner, Archie Anderson, sailed to Liverpool, and there, he seems to have had a desire to make a new home and settle down. Phelan, now twenty-eight, took a job at an ironworks and sent for Dora to join him. Life in Liverpool was happy for while. With a home and regular income, the couple settled into their new life.
On 31st October 1922, Dora gave birth to a daughter, Catherine Mary, and, as identified in Catherine's birth certificate below, Phelan was at this time described as a dock labourer. It should be noted however, that in spite of mentioning in A Tramp at Anchor that he had 'raised me a son', nowhere in any of Phelan's autobiographical works does he mention his daughter Catherine. A possible explanation may have been the series of calamities that now befell the family.
A Double Tragedy
The outbreak of the Irish Civil War in 1922 was to further alter the course of Phelan's life. Irish citizens in Liverpool were under constant surveillance and Phelan himself claims that at one time he was even wrongly identified as the operational commander of the IRA in Britain. Phelan maintained contact with former Republican acquaintances in Liverpool, and it was with one of these that he entered a post office one evening and was arrested a short time later. Both men were armed with revolvers, probably not unusual given their lifestyles, but Phelan denies that the incident that followed was part of any planned Republican mission. The following account comes from a newspaper report of the time.
The son of the postmistress, 22 year old Thomas Lovelady, was shot dead rushing to protect his sister who was serving behind the counter when the raiders demanded money. The killer, John McAteer, described as an Irish-American gunman, evaded capture because, according to the police, of his links with the IRA and American and Mexican underworld. The newspaper report stated that the pair 'obtained their pistols and ammunition from members of the Communist Party in Liverpool'. One of those in pursuit of the raiders, ignoring his own safety, caught up with Phelan and wrestled him to the ground, even though Phelan had fired two shots from his own weapon to deter him; the first deliberately over his head and the second at his feet.
Phelan's own account varies as follows. Although he does admit to participating in the post-office hold-up, he claims not to have known the reason the pair went to the post-office and, although he heard the shot immediately on entering the building, he was not aware of the shooting of Lovelady until the following day. He was arrested that night for firing a shot at his pursuer, not for the post-office raid or the killing of the clerk. Phelan is also adamant that he fired only one shot at his pursuer, not two: 'the police would know. Because only one shot had been fired from my pistol'. Had Phelan been a natural killer, he could easily have evaded capture, as had his accomplice. Although Phelan insisted to the police that he had no intention to harm anyone, a murder had been committed and justice demanded retribution. Both the police and the court* accepted that Phelan had not committed the murder but charged him anyway through the law of association. As Phelan himself identifies: 'I had been present or in close proximity, had participated in the raid, was armed, was demonstrably willing to use firearms'.
*The presiding judge at the trial is reported to be the Right Honourable Sir George Arthur Harwin Branson, P.C., grandfather of business tycoon Sir Richard Branson.
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. However, I do discuss some of Phelan's reflections on being a prisoner and condemned man in the sections on his Writing and Philosophy below.
Sometime after his release from prison, Phelan married his second wife, Jill Constance Hayes, a political activist who had visited him while in prison. Their son Seumas was born the following year on 4th February 1938. Phelan settled down to his new career as a writer but on 8th September 1940, tragedy struck again when Jill was severely injured in the German bombardment. Details are available from a letter Phelan wrote to George Orwell on February 4th 1941, pleading for his friend to help him financially. Phelan explains to Orwell that he was broke, having spent all his money (including that paid for his recent writing) paying for the cost of Jill's care. Worse still, he was about to be evicted from his home and forced to sell all his possessions to pay his debtors: 'five months' work of commissioned scripts, becomes waste paper, in the sale of "effects".' Phelan gives his address as Woodland Cottages, Wigginton, Herts. This is what he says about Jill in the letter:
'Jill Phelan knocked out first Sunday of blitz. ... Blood-loss and brain-injury. Alternately moribund and delirious. Now being better, is rapidly going crazy because practically incommunicado; no visits, no letters, no discharge, because "next of kin" can't call and demonstrate economic solvency.'
Phelan also writes to Orwell of the shame he feels at no longer being able to pay for Jill's care, leaving her'a charge on the parish', meaning that she would need to be supported by public funds. Paradoxically, if Jill had required the same treatment only seven years later in 1948 when the National Health Service was established, Phelan may not have found himself in this situation as the State would have paid for her care anyway. Reports state that Jill Phelan died following a long series of mental health problems, but these must have been secondary to the original head injury. By the time Phelan wrote to George Orwell, Jill was a patient at Three Counties Hospital (for the mentally ill), Arlesey, Bedfordshire. In his desperate plea for help, Phelan also talks about the hardship of caring for his son Seumas, whom he describes as 'dying of loneliness, as the result of living with a fellow who has to hammer a type-writer day and night.'
A remarkable story written by Phelan using the voice and vocabulary of his five year old son, titled 'Naughty Mans' and published in Horizon in July 1943, provides a unique insight of Phelan's life at the time through the eyes of the young son:
'When me and Jim goes to Arlesey to see Jill, we go on the Luton bus from Tring. [...] Once a time Jill was in bed with me. That was nice. [...] Down the Oddy Hill you can roll, if your Jim isn’t too rullied and too much thinking. When your Jim is thinking a lot, about the bloody words he is going to type, that’s lousy. [...] Your daddy goes off the deep end if you intersturb him when he’s writing the bloody words. [...] Jill is very nice. She kisses you plenty and says Hello Love and takes you in bed. Jill is broked now. That’s lousy, because me and Jim lives on the Oddy Hill all by myself. The doctor won’t let Jillcome home. When I get a big man I shall shoot the doctor. [...] Then you come to the hospital and Jill is in bed and Jim cries and you cry and that’s not so good either. When I get a big man I shall shoot all the nurses and let Jill come home. The bomb came down. No more Jill. [...] Sometimes I tell Jim to cry, and tend he has no mates and no toys and no sweeties. So I come in and tend to be a nice mans. Then when Jim cries I say What’s The Matter Son? He says IHave No One To Play With Me. So I say I’ll play with you because I am a nice mans.'
Sometime following this period of Phelan's life he metKathleen M. Newton on the road (see story below) and the couple were married in Hampstead in 1944. Kathleen helped Phelan to raise Seumas, but here for the first time also, Phelan was to meet a partner prepared to fully embrace his unusual lifestyle and tramp alongside him. Some of Phelan's tramp memoirs appear in Tramping the Toby, but they are hard to place chronologically as the book shifts between stories and anecdotes about individual vagabond and gypsy acquaintances (some of which I discuss below under 'Tramping in Britain'). Sadly Kathleen is not mentioned in these adventures. Phelan was by this time probably a 'part-time' tramp as a feature in Chess magazine in 1964 reports him as saying that, 'I used to be a tramp pretending to be a writer. Now I’m a writer pretending to be a tramp.' The article also says that Phelan tramped in the summer and spent the winters in a gypsy-style caravan writing and playing chess.
Of Phelan's other activities, accounts are sketchy, but again there are some fascinating glimpses from Seumas' story 'Naughty Mans', such as trips to the West End of London to visit publishers, buy sweets and visit the cinema. Phelan seems to have been just as comfortable among artists and writers as he was convicts and tramps, and often frequented bohemian circles around the bars and cafés of Soho and Fitzrovia. Seumas was clearly familiar with many famous ('My uncle Paul [Robeson]has black face') and less famous celebrities: 'Once a time we were having tea with two chorus-girls. This is from the Coliseum, in Saint Martin’s Lane, a jolly nice place'.
Presenting BBC Documentary
Phelan also worked as a scriptwriter after the second world-war, making films for the Ministry of Information: 'one day Dylan Thomas sat down beside me, to drink black coffee at the Madrid in Soho. Next day I was a scriptwriter in a film company, with Dylan and the rest of the boys.' And in 1964, two years before his death, Phelan made a series of four programs on tramping life for BBC Wales. After Phelan's death in 1966, it is reported that Kathleen left the United Kingdom for Spain.This was later verified by the artist and writer Jim Christy, who met Kathleen on a boat from Spain to Morocco in January 1970. The two became friends and tramped together for a week through the Moroccan countryside before going their separate ways. Below Kathleen described to Christy how she first met Phelan:
'I was working in the office at a factory in England. The boss had been taking liberties with me. Brushing against me and touching me and pretending it was all innocent. Finally, one day, I couldn’t take it anymore and just walked out of the factory and down to the road. When no bus appeared, I began to walk and then I stuck out my thumb to hitchhike. After awhile, a man came walking in my direction on the other side of the road. He told me he didn’t encounter many women on the road. We talked back and forth and after a time, he said, "Why don’t you come over here." And I did and I never left his side until he died twenty years later.'
Kathleen became a tramp in her own right and it is a sadness that I am not able to know more of her own story. Of Christy, I will write more when I get around to reading and researching the generation of tramp writers born in the twentieth century.