Phelan, Jim (James Leo) (1895–1966), writer, activist and tramp, was born in Inchicore, Dublin, the third child and eldest son of five surviving children (three daughters and two sons; two others died in childhood) of James Phelan, ironworker at the Inchicore railway works, and his wife Catherine (née Collin), from Co. Westmeath. Both parents had some knowledge of Irish, and recognised early on that their son was intelligent, and hoped he might become a priest or a professional man. These expectations brought tensions; his childhood was punctuated by severe beatings and his later adolescence by increasingly evenly-matched fist-fights with his father. Despite this, Phelan recalled his parents as affectionate on the whole. He later claimed that his mother's name indicated traveller ancestry; he recalled her as a great storyteller, his exemplar, and saw his father (a raconteur who had travelled widely, and occasionally published stories in newspapers) as a natural tramp frustrated by domestic responsibilities and peasant insecurity. The family had a strong rebel tradition; Phelan claimed his grandfather and grand-uncles had participated in rebellions, while his father and uncles were among the Dublin Fenians who assembled at Tallaght during the 1867 rising. His younger brother, William, was a member of the Irish Citizen Army (ICA) after 1916 and fought on the anti-treaty side in the civil war. His sister Margaret married the brother-in-law of Delia Larkin (qv).
Phelan spent some years at one of the more reputable Christian Brothers' schools in Dublin, and remembered his teachers with affection. At the age of 13 he insisted on leaving school to work as a telegraph boy, and when sacked for misconduct stowed away on a Glasgow ship and spent a month exploring the Glasgow slums. After returning from Scotland, he spent a considerable amount of time as a street-boy in the Dublin Liberties, claiming to have come to know the world of James Joyce (qv) better than Joyce did. His transgressions enraged his father, who chastised him physically and tried to settle him by arranging for him to become an apprentice ironworker at Inchicore. His final abandonment of catholicism was associated with his first full sexual experience (with a prostitute) at the age of 18; thereafter, he was a consistent atheist.
As part of his training, Phelan studied art metalwork at the Dublin Metropolitan School of Art, yearning after middle-class women students. At the same time he engaged in street-fighting with police during the 1913 lockout. He abandoned his apprenticeship shortly before completion to avoid a shotgun marriage, and wandered on the Continent and in America just before the outbreak of the first world war. In the following years, Phelan combined involvement in left-wing Dublin politics with lengthy spells of wandering as a travelling actor or a navvy to escape the angry brothers and fathers of deserted girlfriends. (One constant and recurring part of his worldview was refusal to accept responsibility for anyone else, even if they were in a predicament caused by his own actions; his attachment to Marxist materialism was strongly tinged with Nietzscheanism in the manner of Jack London, and he was always a fellow traveller rather than an exponent of party discipline.) It was while tramping in England on one of these excursions that he acquired his road name, 'Dollcie Jim' (flash, extravagant, ornate).
Phelan participated in small-scale gunrunning for the Citizen Army, and claimed to have been a member (though, unlike his brother, he is not listed as such in Ann Matthews's history of the ICA (2014)). He claimed to have belonged to a 'shadow' leadership intended to function if the existing leaders were arrested. He married (1921?) Dora O'Brien, who died in 1924 from septicaemia; they had a daughter (b.1922), who was brought up by Phelan's sister. After labouring on the Roundwood reservoir in Co. Wicklow, Phelan returned to Dublin at the end of 1921 and joined the communist-inspired unemployed agitation led by Liam O'Flaherty (qv), participating in the occupation of the Rotunda (January 1922). He subsequently travelled to Cork with O'Flaherty and Sean McAteer (1892–1937) – a Liverpool-born member of the recently founded Communist Party of Ireland, who had taken a leading role in the Dublin unemployed agitation – in an attempt to establish ICA branches outside the capital.
In March 1922 Phelan moved to Liverpool, where he established himself as an ironworker and brought over his wife and daughter. He also remained active in the communist and republican fringes of Liverpool politics, including occasional weapons-smuggling to Ireland. On 11 June 1923 he joined McAteer in holding up a small family-run post office on the working-class Scotland Road using guns supplied by English communists, including the future Liverpool council leader Jack Braddock (1892–1963). Phelan always maintained that the robbery was purely non-political, but it was in fact undertaken for the IRA. When the girls in the post office panicked at the robbery, Phelan fled while McAteer shot dead the girls' brother who intervened. McAteer escaped to the Soviet Union (he was killed in the 1937 purges). Phelan was captured by a crowd, and as a participant in the robbery was legally responsible for the murder. Having confessed and offered to turn king's evidence, he was tried and sentenced to death on 9 July 1923, but his sentence was commuted to life imprisonment on 10 August.
He spent fifteen years in prison, in Winson Green, Maidstone, Dartmoor, and Parkhurst on the Isle of Wight. From 1926 he was allowed to take a correspondence course in creative writing, and on release in 1937 he carried with him a large body of notes on his experiences (their creation – for confidentiality, in a mixture of Latin, Gaelic and shorthand – and retention was strictly against regulations), a number of short stories, and two partly completed novels. He drew on his experiences in several books. The novel Lifer (1938; aka Museum), clandestinely composed in prison, features a central character who is destroyed by his inability to master the prison survival stratagems described by Phelan himself in the memoirs Jail journey (1940) – the title pays homage to John Mitchel (qv) – and Tramp at anchor (1954). Major themes of Phelan's writings on prison life include the survival of harsh Victorian disciplinary practices, and the contrast between the system's pretensions to reform convicts and the psychosexual damage inflicted by confinement, intellectual stultification, and forced sexual abstinence (he emphasises the prevalence of homosexuality, forced or voluntary, and sadistic practices such as the torture of mice). Phelan's survival stratagems also included chess; already an aficionado, he formed a prison chess club.
On release, Phelan made his way to London, where he rented a bedsit in Camden Town, setting out to establish himself as a professional writer; acquiring an agent, he submitted stories to newspapers and magazines with increasing success. He supplemented these activities by writing begging letters to sympathetic authors (including H. G. Wells, George Orwell – with whom he struck up a personal friendship – and Compton Mackenzie), and with long spells of tramping along the Great North Road, directing his patient agent and publishers to write to him at post offices along the route.
Phelan married secondly (1937) Jill Constance Hayes, a left-wing activist who had visited him in prison. After suffering severe brain injury from German bombing on 8 September 1940, she developed mental illness and spent the remainder of her life in a mental hospital. They had a son, Seumas, who accompanied his father on the road for some years in early childhood before being otherwise provided for. In Hampstead in 1944 Phelan married thirdly Kathleen Newton (1917–2014), who shared his love of the open road and with whom he spent the remainder of his life on the tramp.
In two books published in the early 1940s, Churchill can unite Ireland (1940) and Ireland: Atlantic gateway (1941), Phelan argued that Irish neutrality was not based on immemorial hatred but on misguided perceptions of immediate self-interest, and that Britain should sponsor Irish reunification to secure its own strategic position and promote American intervention on the side of the allies. (Incidental features worth noting include dismissal of reports of the activities of Frank Ryan (qv) and Francis Stuart (qv) in Berlin as propaganda by anti-Irish tories, and a tendency – visible in some of his other writings – to portray the Irish Republican Brotherhood in terms deriving from the remorseless underground workers' Vehmgericht of Jack London's 1908 novel The iron heel, which Phelan greatly admired.)
Phelan's most productive period as a writer stretched from his prison release to the early 1950s. Although he produced several novels and collections of short stories, some with Irish settings (e.g., the short-story collection Bog blossom stories (1947), and the execrable war of independence novel Green volcano (1938), which combines a melodramatic plot, some cowboys-and-Indians descriptions of fighting between IRA and Black and Tans, and a nasty streak of prurient cruelty), he is best appreciated as a writer of fictionalised memoir reflecting his statement that professional tramps were not mere beggars but raconteurs whose development of plausible cover stories to catch the imagination of the 'mark' should be recognised as part of the entertainment industry. The name's Phelan (1948), a memoir of his early life up to the commutation of his death sentence, is probably his best-known work (it was reprinted in 1990 by Blackstaff Press, Belfast).
His best work claims to offer the reader entry into various semi-concealed subcultures, such as gypsies (Wagon-wheels (1951)), professional criminals (Criminals in real life (1956)), and, above all, professional tramps (We follow the roads (1949) and Tramping the toby (1958)). These are marked by admiration for the professional or initiate, whose elaborate codes of behaviour, confident amorality, and ingenious problem-solving survival skills are expounded at some length, and contempt for the amateur or 'mug', who is doomed for speedy self-destruction. Phelan is particularly scathing about writers who romanticise tramps as freedom-loving aesthetes, and contrasts them with a much smaller number of writers who know the tramp life from within (such as London and Maxim Gorky).
In the 1940s he also worked as a scriptwriter on documentary films. His novel Ten-a-penny people (1938), a grim expressionist story of communist-led shipworkers in Liverpool resisting exploitation and strikebreaking, was filmed as Night journey (1938; dir. Oswald Mitchell) from Phelan's screenplay; he also composed words and music for its theme, 'Ballad of the North Road'.
Phelan combined his writing with life as a habitué of the bohemia of Soho (where his friends included the American actor and activist Paul Robeson, and the Welsh artist and model Nina Hamnett) and with long periods of tramping with Katherine around the north and midlands of England. They spent the winter months in a caravan and, as Phelan aged and suffered from worsening asthmatic bronchitis, they preferred to tramp in the warmer west country. The extensive file on Phelan in the BBC archives gives over one hundred postal addresses between 1944 and 1966.
In his later years Phelan increasingly concentrated on radio broadcasting, which gave scope for improvisation and where he was able to present himself as the last survivor of a dying milieu which was being killed by motorisation and state regulation; he frequently declared that once he had been a tramp pretending to be a writer, but now he was a writer pretending to be a tramp. In 1964 he broadcast a four-part BBC television series Next place about Roma and tramps. (One episode survives in the archives of BBC Wales.) He died at his son's house in west London in 1966 after discharging himself from hospital when he knew he was dying.
Phelan was aggrieved at the failure of the Irish literary establishment to accept him at his own measurement as a great Irish writer. Much of his work does indeed deserve reconsideration, not just as social documentation but as vigorous and shrewdly constructed self-expression.