An Irish Navvy: The Diary Of An Exile, by Donall MacAmhlaigh

A book review by Bobulous.

Donall MacAmhlaigh left his home in Kilkenny in 1951 to search for work in England, and this book recalls diary entries he made over the next six years, during which time he mostly worked as a navvy. Navvies were fierce workers, digging for hours into frozen or waterlogged ground with picks and spades, heaving huge cables into trenches, shovelling cement and ballast, and filling in as heavy labour in whatever others ways a construction site needed.

Donall was lured to England by an advert for a job in a Northampton hospital, but it wasn't long before he was tempted onto the construction sites by higher wages, especially given his desire to support his family back in Ireland. Despite finding the work hard going at first, he soon settled into it, and found that it suited him to be working out in the open air, surrounded by fellow Irishmen.

His writing covers the jobs he undertakes, but also describes the navvies outside working hours, most of them drinking their wages away together in public houses every night, spectating or competing in loosely organised boxing matches that often take place outside the pubs. While Donall enjoys reading and roaming outdoors, he laments that so many of his fellow navvies have absolutely no interest in anything but being in a pub every evening. And though he does spend a great deal of time in the pubs with them, he often wishes that the level of conversation was better.

Though the work he finds himself doing is awful at times — for instance, clearing out the sludgy, rotting remains from an old sewage works — he complains about the work very little in his writing. He is far more upset about what he sees as the loss of cultural identity amongst his fellow Irish speakers, noting that so many lads from the region of Ireland where he was raised, in Galway, have developed what he sees as bad habits in their language, mixing English terms in amongst the Irish. Though he holds no ill feeling toward the English, he dearly wishes that he could be doing the same work, for the same pay, in Ireland, and blames the Irish government for their inability to vitalise the economy.

The book is translated into English by Valentin Iremonger, who also offers a brief preface, so it's not possible for an English native to understand Donall's examples of how the Irish language was changed by such emigration, but Donnal's displeasure at the change is clear. He misses the old times in Ireland, even feeling that the conversation to be had in Ireland is somehow far better than that on offer from the Irish in England. His joy at being able to spend a couple of weeks back with his family is made clear by his account of arriving home at Christmas, and the sorrow at having to return to England for work.

The Diary Of An Exile is written by a man with a great love of Irish, and a great homesickness for Ireland. The tales about work sites, fist fights and hunting for work are all absorbing. My only complaint is that you're left wondering what happens to Donnal in the years after those covered in this book, and the brief "About the author" note on the first page leaves you with more questions than answers. But a very good read, even so.