Joe Corrie was born on 13 May 1894 to a collier father and a land-working mother. He spent his first few years in Slammanan, south of Falkirk, before moving to Cardenden, in Fife, with his parents and his three younger siblings. At the age of fourteen, Joe left school and followed in his father’s footsteps, down the pits of Cardenden and Lochgelly. He worked there until the death of his father, in 1915, before moving to the mining village of Mauchline, for three years. Back in Cardenden, in 1918, Corrie made the acquaintance of Andrew Doig (whose granddaughter, Meg Finnie, currently holds the copyrights to Corrie’s archives), a well-read pit electrician who became Joe’s mentor and encouraged him in writing.

In 1919, Corrie began to write poetry in a minute notebook, which has been preserved by the National Library of Scotland. On the first pages of his modest manuscript, Corrie wrote a dedication to Andrew Doig, ‘in testimony of my admiration and joy which I have derived during the course of many pleasant conversations’. The following twenty poems reflect Corrie’s themes, emotions, and politics as a young working-class writer. Strongly influenced by Robert Burns, Corrie’s early pieces celebrate the common man against figures of temporal and spiritual authorities. This is the case, for instance, in his poem ‘Hypocracy’:

See them: to the Church they go,
Strange, they do not seem to know
Me as I pass them by,
As if their collars did impart
A better a truer heart
Than that possessed by I.
It causes me no small annoyance
To view your spiritual buoyance,
Till you are out of sight,
For have you not, the pair of you,
Been sober but an hour of two,
I saw you both last night.

Manuscript of ‘Hypocracy’, NLS, Acc. 10839, reproduced by permission of the National Library of Scotland.

As insinuated by this poem, Corrie, now in his late teens, was coming to political maturity. In 1923, following a local strike in October 1920 and the National lockout of miners in March-July 1921, Corrie began to write for The Miner, the paper of the National Miner’s Union, edited by West-Fife left-winger, Philip Hodge. That same year, however, Corrie’s health deteriorated, which forced him to leave the pit and acquire a precarious pedlar certificate, to sell pins and needles on the streets of Cardenden. Worried about Corrie’s situation, local trade unionists decided to allocate him £3 a week and hire him, in January 1924, as a regular contributor to The Miner. The union’s newspaper offered Corrie with the opportunity to improve his writing and explore different genres, from poetry to political essays and short stories.

Joe Corrie’s pedlar certificate, November 1923, NLS, MSS.26551, reproduced by permission of the National Library of Scotland.

After the end of The Miner’s publication, in 1926, Corrie turned to Forward, the Scottish newspaper of the Independent Labour Party. There, he published a number of political pieces, a full collection of short stories, ‘The Last Day’, and a number of poems, including his most famous one —‘The Image of God’:

Crawlin about like a snail in the mud,
Covered wi clammy blae,
ME, made after the image o’ God –
Jings! but it’s laughable, tae.

Howkin awa neath a mountain o’ stane,
Gaspin for want o air,
The sweat makin streams doon my bare back-bane
And my knees aw hauckit and sair.

Strainin and cursin the hale shift through,
Half-starved, half-blin, half-mad;
And the gaffer he says, ‘Less dirt in that coal
Or ye go up the pit, my lad!’

So I gie my life to the Nimmo squad
For eicht and fower a day;
ME! made after the image o’ God –
Jings! but it’s laughable, tae.

The year 1926, by all accounts, marked the turning point of Corrie’s life. In May, that year, the General Strike which swept Fife and the rest of Britain, led Corrie to form ‘The Bowhill Players’, a company of local actors, which staged his one act-play The Poacher and raised money for the strike fund. More crucially, still, the strike inspired Corrie to write his most influential and revered play, In Time o’ Strife. Depicting the conditions of Scottish miners, in the fictitious Fife village of Carhill, Corrie’s realist piece, peppered with vivid, vernacular dialogues explores the mixture of hope, hardships, and privations faced by 1926 Scottish strikers.

Corrie’s play reached both national and international popularity. After touring around Fife and Scotland, In Time o’ Strife was adapted in Newcastle and London, as well as in Leipzig, in Germany. Such success led Prime Minister Ramsay MacDonald to honour Corrie with a preface to his new collection of poems, The Road the Fiddler Went, published by Forward Publishing, in 1928. There, MacDonald wrote:

Joe Corrie is a man with a gift of a vision of beauty. He is set in the hard reality of a miner’s life, lived in a miner’s row, and the vision and the reality are in surging conflict. He carries on the tradition of the Scottish workman poet who sings of a world that is very tender, and very bonny, of lasses with love in their eye, of mothers guarding and bringing up their children, of the hardship of life, and the injustice of “how things are shared”. Though economic creeds are torn to shreds, though the habits and ways of men disappoint the hearts of reformers, though the bright-eyes enthusiasm of youth fades into the yearning disillusionment of age, the guidance of the world will not be left to cynicism and pessimism, for the music of love and beauty will still be heard.

Praised by the Labour movement in Britain, Corrie’s work was also noticed in Soviet Russia. In December 1929, the miner playwright was invited to Moscow where he met with Sergeï Dinamov, his Soviet translator, professor of English and Shakespeare expert, who rendered In Time o’ Strife into Russian and The Last Day, into Yiddish.

The same year, Corrie’s royalties enabled him to leave Fife and move back to Mauchline, where he married Mary McGlynn, on 12 July 1930. Two years later, after their daughter, Morag, was born, the family moved to Ayr, at the heart of the Burns country.

Joe and Mary Corrie, c.1930s, NLS, MSS.26551, reproduced by permission of the National Library of Scotland

Whilst meaning to write a Burns play (an aspiration which he finally achieved with The Rake o’ Mauchline, in 1937, and Robert Burns, in 1943) and paying tribute to the folk tradition of the Scottish peasantry, Corrie maintained his reputation as a prominent working-class and radical writer. In 1936, he met new success with his pacifist play, And so to War, which toured all over Britain and was translated in French by Raoul Leclercq, under the title Sac au Dos! The translation was reviewed in the columns of the Canard Enchaîné, on 20 January 1937, by Jean Galtier-Boissière, who celebrated Corrie as a ‘Molière écossais’.

And So To War, staged at Liverpool Playhouse, 1937, NLS, MSS.26560, reproduced by permission of the National Library of Scotland.

In parallel, Corrie’s collection of poems, The Image o’ God (first printed by Forward Publishing around 1928), was re-edited for Edinburgh’s Porpoise Press, under the supervision of T.S. Eliot. On the dust-jacket of this new edition, T.S. Eliot wrote:

‘The forceful genius of Joe Corrie, ex-miner from Fife, is well known to all follow the most vigorous expression of modern Scotland, the drama. This volume of his poems has been published in response to frequent urgings, for in the revival of Scottish poetry Corrie has taken and assured a place as a genuine poet. His verse is tender and bitter with a proper Scots twist to the tail of it. Not since Burns has the voice of Scotland spoken with such authentic lyric note’. 

Two years later, Joe Corrie made a new step in his literary career, with the publication of his first novel, Black Earth, by Routledge. Set in the fictional mining village of Brandon, Corrie’s story offers a bleak account of mining life, in which workers are ‘doomed to do battle with the coal’ without any hopes of escape, except through suicide or resignation.

Corrie’s pessimistic views on proletarian life, combined with his staunch pacifist positions, led him, like many on the left of the Labour Party, to oppose Britain’s declaration of war against Germany, in 1939. This controversial position led to the banning in 1940 of Corrie’s new play, Dawn, marked by anti-militarist and internationalist undertones. Despite the censorship of his play by the Lord Chamberlain, Corrie remained a staunch opponent to the on-going conflict. In 1944, one of his other pacifist plays, There is no glory (1937), was translated into Irish Gaelic by Tomás De Bhial (published by Baile Átha Cliath).

After the war, in 1950, Joe Corrie moved to London and Surrey. There, approaching sixty years of age, he was inspired to tackle a new, difficult topic: that of racial divisions within the English working-class. As often, with Corrie, grim realism superseded revolutionary romanticism. His 1954 one-act play, Colour Bar, portrays the contradiction of a London socialist preacher of racial tolerance, who fails to apply his principles to his own life, when his daughter introduces him to her black boyfriend.

Despite the pessimistic undertone of his works, Corrie enthusiastically rallied the folk revivalist movement of his communist friend, Hamish Henderson, which aimed to preserve, promote, and revitalise the songs, folklore, and culture of Scottish working people. In 1951, In Time o’ Strife was staged as part of the very first edition of Henderson’s Edinburgh People’s Festival. Besides, from the 1950s onward, Corrie collected and recorded a number of Scottish folk songs, joining his efforts to those of other folk song collectors, including Hamish Henderson, Ewan McColl or William Montgomerie.  

In 1958, at sixty-four years old, Corrie moved back to Fife before the staging of his play Robert Burns (renamed The Rovin Boy) by the Citizen’s Theatre to mark the Bi-Centenary of Burns’s birth. This was the final success of Corrie’s literary career.

Typescript of ‘Kirsteen’, a song by Joe Corrie, NLS, Acc. 10839, reproduced by permission of the National Library of Scotland.

After the publication of his last one-act play, A Bride for Heatherhill, in 1965, Corrie had to cease his writing activities to look after his wife, who suffered from partial paralysis, following a stroke, the same year. The couple had to move to Edinburgh, with their daughter Morag, where they lived in precarious conditions due to Corrie’s decreasing royalties. In an attempt to relive Corrie’s financial situation, Stewart Conn, from the BBC, received the support of Hugh MacDiarmid, Tom Scott, and Arthur Woodburn M.P. in securing Corrie a pension from the Royal Literary Fund. Unfortunately, Corrie, who had fallen ill during the summer of 1968, died a few days after receiving his pension, on 13 November 1968.  Behind him, he left an extensive work of more than 75 published plays (and nearly as many unpublished), six collections of poems, one collection of short stories, one novel, and many unpublished songs and recordings.

Fifteen years after Corrie’s death, in the mid-1980s, his legacy was revived by the theatre company 7:84, which produced and toured In Time o’ Strife during the Miners’ Strike. This was a first, crucial step in preventing Corrie’s work from falling into oblivion. In 1985, the Corrie Centre was inaugurated by Morag Corrie, in Cardenden.

Today, Corrie’s legacy remains strong in his native West Fife. In 2011, William Hershaw, a Lochgelly-based Scots poet, reconvened ‘The Bowhill Players’ as a band of local folk music.  Together, Hershaw and his ‘Players’ recorded Cage Load of Men, a CD of Corrie poems and songs (including ‘The Image o’ God’ and ‘The Poacher’) set to new music. The following year, in 2012, a film inspired by In Time o’ Strife was realised by Scottish directors Peter Cox and Robert Rae under the name The Happy Lands.    

More resounding, still, was the 2013 adaptation of In Time o’ Strife by Graham MacLaren for the National Theatre of Scotland, which brought the play to public attention and secured Corrie’s place in the repertoire of contemporary Scottish Theatre. Repeating the journey of Corrie’s actors, 65 years before, MacLaren’s version was staged across Britain and was even hosted in the Debating Chamber of the Scottish Parliament on 17 August 2014.

Re-edition of Joe Corrie’s In Time o’ Strife, adapted by Graham McLaren, (London, 2013)

In 2018, after a decade of Corrie revivalism (though clouded by the passing of Morag Corrie in 2017), the 50th anniversary of playwright’s death was marked by two main events across Fife. In Lochgelly, from May to July, Willie Hershaw held the Hewers of Coal and Verse Exhibition, featuring many manuscripts, pamphlets, photos, and letters of Joe Corrie. Two months later, in October 2018, a Joe Corrie Anniversary Conference was held at the University of St Andrews. Organised by Paul Malgrati, doctoral student, this event brought together scholars of literature and history as well as poets and playwrights. The present website, produced by Malgrati, in collaboration with the Digital Humanities team of St Andrews University Library, was created as a way to publish materials from the conference and facilitate future research on Corrie’s life and work.