Peter Berresford Ellis reviews My Struggle for Life by Joseph Keating, University College Dublin Press, Classics of Irish History series, ISBN 1-904558-44-5, £17.95 pbk
MANY OF the most fascinating early 'working class' novels and biographies have come from the pens of Irish men and women. From Robert Tressell's The Ragged Trousered Philanthropist to Joseph Keating's My Struggle for Life (1916). Yet there are some who do not realise that Joseph Keating was an Irishman. True, Keating (1871-1934) was born in South Wales but of parents from counties Kerry and Cork
Keating himself wrote in 1916: "I was entirely Irish in every way - in blood, traditions, sympathies, training and temperament. I regarded Ireland as my country."
Keating's family were poor. He left school at twelve and worked in the coalmines, going down the pit at fourteen. But he educated himself and by eighteen he moved to a variety of jobs from labourer to clerk to salesman. He then managed to get a job as a newspaper reporter in South Wales.
His talent for writing caused him to move to London to become a novelist but he met rejection after rejection. After six years of struggling, he managed to place a novel Son of Judith: a tale of the Welsh mining valleys. It was not a great financial success but he placed his foot on the ladder. Maurice (1905) was the novel that secured him, even getting an enthusiastic endorsement from Lloyd George.
Keating, although he knew O'Donovan Rossa and other Fenian leaders, was principally a Home Ruler and supported the Redmonite branch, writing novels supporting the war effort such as Tipperary Tommy (1915) and essays Irish Heroes of the War (1917). His brother Mathew, a coal miner, went on to become an Irish Nationalist MP for South Kilkenny (1909-1918).
After he wrote his biography - the years 1916-34 - Keating moved to radical republicanism and to socialism.
In 1918 he sought to become Labour parliamentary candidate for Aberdare. It was clear that at this time he had become influenced by Connolly's vision of a socialist future. He failed to win a parliamentary candidacy but become a local Labour councillor in 1923, chairman of the council in 1931. He was a staunch defender of workers rights in the General Strike of 1926.
This is a fascinating record of the son of poor Irish immigrants struggling to raise himself out of poverty and the South Wales pits to become a socialist and well-known writer. An essential piece of social history.
Connolly Publications Ltd, 244 Gray's Inn Road, London, WC1X 8JR
Copyright © 2006 Peter Berresford Ellis