I am so at home in Dublin, more than any other city, that I feel it has always been familiar to me. It took me years to see through its soft charm to its bitter prickly kernel - which I quite like too.

Home Uncategorized The Rolling English Road

The Rolling English Road

Andrew Lees
James Leo (Jim) Phelan (1895-1966) was an Irish vagabond born in Inchicore close to the railway works. Some of his early books on prison life, the Irish struggle, tramping and the “says” of the didicoi, were critically acclaimed. His love of radio broadcasting combined his talents for writing and “fadging” (giving a credible, appealing “line of guff” to his “marks”). He had two long-term partners subsequent to the death of his first wife at the beginning of his thirteen-year prison sentence as a scapegoat for a murder. The last of these was fellow hitchhiker Kathleen Newton, who accompanied him on his travels through Britain and continental Europe. Although Jim Phelan continued writing up until his death, by the sixties his star had faded and now, although his name may be vaguely recalled, few appreciate just how well he wrote. Jim Phelan came onto my radar a few years ago when I was writing a book about Liverpool. Reference sources such as Merseypride by John Belchem and Ken Worpole’s Dockers and Detectives described Phelan as a writer who used expressionist techniques to portray the sadness of working class life. They also referred to him as a Liverpool-Irish seaman who in common with George Garrett and James Hanley had written about alienation, dislocation and rootlessness in port cities. As a young man Phelan had fled from his job as an apprentice blacksmith and ended up drunk on board the steam tanker SS Narranganset in Cork harbour. After signing up as a stoker he jumped ship two weeks later in the hurricane port of Galveston. From there he tramped to Houston and freightboarded on to the Big Easy. After further research I appreciated that his first impressions of New Orleans might just as easily have applied to himself: If the cities had personality, as Kipling wrote, and if New York was an insurance broker, Paris a restaurateur, London a merchant and Dublin a bookie, New Orleans would have been a drifter, a dreaming lie-about, a casual glancer at muddy rivers. As he gazed out on the Mississippi from the scented waterfront Phelan’s day-dreaming was interrupted by a young ship’s fireman from Seacombe called George Garrett. Garrett had recently sailed from Liverpool to La Boca and then spent a year wandering around Argentina before returning to the sea. He bought Phelan a few drinks and later helped him obtain a seaman’s union card and a berth back to Glasgow. Both…

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