Jim Phelan (1895-1966)

[James Leo Phelan]; b. Dublin, ed. CBS, Inchicore; left Cork to avoid a shotgun wedding and travelled to Galvaston on an oil tanker, aetat. 17; lived as a itinerant [gypsy, tramp]; returned to Ireland and joined republican movement; participated in a Post Office robbery resulting in a murder, and sentenced to death as accomplice, 1923; held in Manchester Prison; sentence commuted to life term by Home Secretary; released in 1937 and married Jill Hayes, the left-wing idealist who visited him in prison, with whom a son Seumas;
following her death (preceded by periods of mental illness), Phelan formed a partnership with Kathleen Newton; associated with literati and musicians in Soho and Fitzrovia; made four television programmes on tramping life for BBC Wales, 1964; subsequently worked as journalist and actor; issued novels - sometimes classified as ‘tramp’ literature’, incl. Turf Fire Tales (1947) and Vagabond Cavalry (1951); also The Green Volcano (1938), a novel set in 1916-22, dealing with the tracking down of a government spy which incidentally describes the rising despotism of ‘strong’ farmer in that period; also The Underworld (1953), Criminals in Real Life (1956), and others in that line. IF2 DIW DIL

[ top ]

  • Lifer (London: Peter Davies 1938) [2 printings in 1938].
  • Ten-a-Penny People (London: V. Gollancz 1938), 285pp.
  • Jail Journal (London: Secker & Warburg 1940), viii, 383pp.
  • Letters from the Big House ( London: The Cresset Press 1943), 168pp.
  • The Green Volcano (London: Peter Davies 1938), 280pp.
  • Murder by Numbers (1941).
  • And Blackthorns (London: Nicholson & Watson 1944), 190pp. [in USA as Banshee Harvest, 1944].
  • Turf Fire Tales (London: Heinemann [1947]), 203pp.
  • Bog Blossom Stories (London: Sidgwick & Jackson, 1948), 192pp.
  • Vagabond Cavalry (London & NY: T. V. Boardman [1951]), 240pp.
  • We Follow the Roads (London: Phoenix [1949]), 220pp., ill. [pls. & ports.].
  • Wagon Wheels (London: George Harrap [1951]), ill. by Maurice S. Dodd.
  • The Underworld (London: George Harrap 1953), 192pp., and Do. [rep. edn.] ([London:] Tandem 1967), 222pp.
  • Criminals in Real Life (London: Burke 1956), 166pp.
  • Fetters for Twenty (London: Burke 1957), 192pp. .
  • Meet the Criminal Class (London: Tallis Press Ltd. 1969), 181pp.; In the Can (1938), q.pp..
  • My Name's Phelan ( London: Sidgwick & Jackson [1948]), viii, 298pp.
  • Tramping the Toby (London: Burke [1955]), 224pp.
  • Tramp at Anchor (London: Harrap [1954]), 235pp.
  • Nine Murderers and Me (London: Phoenix House 1967), x, 163pp.
  • Churchill Can Unite Ireland (London: Victor Gollancz 1940), 120pp.
  • Ireland: Atlantic Gateway (London: Jonathan Lane 1941), 96pp.
  • “Mild and Bitter”, in They Go, The Irish: A Miscellany of War-Time Writing, compiled by Leslie Daiken (London: [Ivor] Nicholson & Watson 1944), [q.pp.].
  • “Johnny the Rag”, in The Penguin New Writing, ed. John Lehmann ([n. iss.] 1947), pp.65-75 [see extract].
  • “Life Line”, in The Penguin New Writing, ed. John Lehmann (April 1946), pp.85-96 [see extract].

Phelan is included in Liam Harte, ed., The Literature of the Irish in Britain: Autobiography and Memoir, 1725-2001 (London: Palgrave Macmillan 2009) [see review by Fintan O’Toole in The Irish Times, 25 April 2009, Weekend].

Note: Phelan’s son Seamus contrib. “Naughty Mans” to Horizon, ed. Cyril Connolly (c.1944) - a childhood work (see Books Ireland, Nov. 2007, p.246).

[ top ]

Seamus Phelan, with David Cowell, The Real Turtle: The Life and Times of Jim Phelan (2007) [Note: “Turtle” evidently refers to title and substance of a work by John Moriarty, Turtle was Gone a Long Time, 3 vols. (Dublin: Lilliput Press 1996-98).

[ top ]

James Cahalan, Great Hatred, Little Room, The Irish Historical Novel (1983), describes Jim Phelan’s And Blackthorns (London: Nicholson & Watson 1944), concerning episodes during the 1920s quoting; ‘when the fanatic[s used] rifles, revolvers, shot-guns, old swords, and Blackthorns’ (p.7) [133].

Seamus Phelan [extract from biography-in-progress], in Books Ireland (Nov. 2007): ‘James Leo Phelan was born in Ireland at the close of the 19th century and spent his early years in the village of Inchicore, now a part of the sprawling conurbation that is Dublin. A father who had travelled extensively and a mother who constantly recited fairy stories combined, with a natural wanderlust, to nurture a child with a unique vision of his world; a world where change was the only constant he yearned. This was further fuelled, in no small part, by the romantic sounds, smells and sights of the horse pulled cargo boats that were untethered at the mouth of the Grand Canal and set free to deliver their wares to, according to the young Phelan, exotic places around the world such as Guatemala. From an early age this imagery prompted Jim to escape from home repeatedly, stowing away beneath tarpaulins only to be discovered, disembarked at the nearest convenient point and returned to his despairing parents by equally despairing policemen. […]’ (p.246; also given in Wikipedia as author-entry [for full text, go online; accessed 19.08.2008].)

[ top ]

Johnny the Rag”, in The Penguin New Writing, ed. John Lehmann ([n. iss.] 1947), pp.65-75: ‘Half two, sir, the bus comes back. Aye, half two. Only one a day now, this time of year, after the October fair. They run two in the summer, when people comes up to look at the scenery. But it’s few strangers you'll see in a little hill-village in winter. Aye, few indeed. / A pint, and thanks. Good health, sir. Aye, not till half two, the bus. You have over an hour. But sure it’s a fine dry day, and anyway it stops just outside the bar door there. Half two. / Indeed you may say that, sir. Indeed I do remember it with no bus at all. A lonely little place it was, them times. Sure what's in a hill-village, in winter time especially; when it’s twenty mile to the town and no way of getting in or out?’ (p.65.) [Johnny recounts how he came into possession of, and lost, his Slievacattra hill-farm.] stranger. Meals I had like before, and I suppose he'd have gave me a room too but he was wanting the place for his family later, and anyway the barn was cosy, enough. Four month and that's all, and he was gone eleven days before they fished his body out of the river, fifteen mile away. ‘So it’s nine year now I’ve been oul’ Johnny theRag, around the village here, and the kindness of people is a marvel. For it’s the God’s truth, sir, there’s more of the black stuff now - and sure I love: it - than there’s ever been this forty year, since Jem, God rest him, came to look after me first. Aye, more indeed. / Sure it's a great thing to be alive, and eighty-five year old, when a man thinks of all the decent well-meaning people that’s dead-and gone. There's the notice now, on the wall, and that’s the end of Slievacattra. Belongs to the Government or something now, and it's been sold to-day. Sure it’s not what poor decent Jem Harney planned, but it’s hard for a stranger to know the hill-farms and. hill-people. Poor Jem, he tried his best, God be good to him. / Indeed, I will, of course, and thanks. A pint, sir. Good health to -. There y’are, sir. There’s the half two bus. / Good-bye and good luck.’ (p.75; end.)

“Life Line”, in The Penguin New Writing (April 1946), pp.85-96.

 ‘“I suppose you”ll be off back to college before the summer’s out,” said the girl at last. ‘Sure we’ve hardly seen a sight of you this time, with the hay and the turf - we might as well be living counties apart.” Michael said nothing, and the girl walked on a few yards in, silence. ‘And this’ll be the last time you’ll be in the bogs or the hayfields,” she added with a laugh. ‘Faith, I’ll have to watch my step when I’m saying good morning to Father Michael Dowling. When d’you go, Michael?”
 The young fellow stopped, then walked on beside her. “I”m not going, Sheila,” he told her quietly. It isn’t right I can’t, and that’s a fact. Sure it’d be wrong of me if I -” He kept silence for a moment, waiting for the girl to speak, but she said nothing. ‘I”m going into Cahirlee now,” he went on, “to see Father Carberry and get his advice.”
 “Your father’ll break his heart,” was all Sheila said. ‘The young fellow held her by the shoulder, and she looked up at him in the dim light.’

—For full text, see RICORSO Library, “Criticism > Reviews”, via index, or direct.

Dylan Thomas: ‘One day Dylan Thomas sat down beside me, to drink black coffee at the Madrid in Soho. Next day I was scriptwriter in a film company, with Dylan and the rest of the boys. Many of the films were about forestry work, lorry-drivers, trawler men and the life. I got out on the road a great deal, collecting material. I twas the next thing to being a tramp - I had found the halfway house.’ (From Tramping the Toby; quoted in ‘Lind of Guff: The Tramp’s Tale’, interview-article with Seamus Phelan, in Books Ireland, Nov. 1007, p.146; [online].)

[ top ]

Desmond Clarke, Ireland in Fiction [Pt II] (Cork: Royal Carbery 1985), fiction inc. The Green Volcano, Murder by Numbers; Banshee Harvest; Moon in the River; Turf Fire Tales; Fetters for Twenty; In the Can, and Bog Blossom Stories; gives details of Banshee Harvest (n.d.); Green Volcano (1938), set in 1916-1922, Glasgow and Dublin, the tracking and execution of a govt. spy; also Blackthorns (1946) [var. Nicholson & Watson 1943, 190pp.]; Turf Fires Tales (1947), and Bog Blossom Stories (1949). [See plot details - infra.]

Robert Hogan, ed., Dictionary of Irish Literature (1979), rates Phelan highly.

Hyland Books (Cat. 224; 1998) lists Churchill Can Unite Ireland (1940) [‘one of our favorite titles’]; Green Volcano (1938).

Wikipedia: There is a Wikipedia entry [online]; see also his son Seamus's response in the Talk section of that webpage [online].

[ top ]

Plot Summaries

Banshee Harvest (London [n.d.]). Condenses a thousand small stories of land-hungry people into a single, militant, uncompromising work of fiction.

Green Volcano (London: Peter Davies, 1938), 280pp. Period covered 1916-1922. Begins in the Glasgow home of Benjamin Robinson, his wife Lanna, and his son Ben. The father is assigned by the ’Organisation’ the task of shipping arms to Dublin in view of the Rising. He is betrayed by O’Killan and disappears. Young Ben goes to Ireland to track him down. Later he finds himself involved in the guerrilla warfare against the Black and Tans and O’Killan continues his work as spy and traitor, constantly eluding Ben till after the Truce. Then Ben identifies him and the Organisation executes him.

Blackthorns (London: Nicholson & Watson 1946). Episodes in an imaginary war between the peasants and the ranchers. Several people, including a priestand two women, are killed before the war ends in the complete triumph of the ranchers, thanks to the government, police and military. The central figure is a young police cadet named Curton, who is a nephew of one of the ranchers, but is drawn to the side of the peasants and aides them actively. Curton’s affair with Constance Carberry ends in tragedy. The leader of the peasants is executed.

Turf Fire Tales (London: Heinemann 1947), 203pp. A collection of seventeen short stories dealing with many facets of Irish life and laid in different parts of the country.

Bog Blossom Stories (London: Sidgwick & Jackson 1949), 192pp. Seventeen stories varied in theme and setting. Their characters are mostly Irish country folk and tramps. Some of them are rogues, but likeable rogues. Some of the stories have a grim enough twist such as that of the man killed by a flock of sheep, and the story “To What Red Hell” in which a man kills his friend, a photographer who had planted some soiled banknotes in a ruined cottage so as to catch the look of avarice on his friend’s face when he found them. Several are humorous. “Tolerance” is a significant story about the Six County border. But each story is a gem of its kind.

—from Desmond Clarke, Ireland in Fiction [Pt II] (Cork: Royal Carbery 1985), p.220 [items 1294-98].

[ top ]