The Dillons were a well known and respected family in Galway. It was put about that it was his determination that his five children should have a thorough knowledge of the Irish language, that led professor Tom Dillon, and his wife Geraldine (Plunkett ), and their two maids, to leave the rambling Dangan House, and to settle in Barna, a small Irish speaking fishing village, four miles on the other side of the town.
They lived down the sandy road on the way to the pier. The houses were small, but new, as the last terrace had been burnt by the Black and Tans some years before. The Dillons had so many books that they required two houses: one was for living in, and the other for storing the professor’s vast library.
It was initially a setback for the children. They had all loved the big rooms, the woods and the river at Dangan. At first they were unsure of Barna. Eilís describes the village as having two public houses, which were also shops, ‘a girl’s school, a scatter of cottages along the roadside for a quarter of a mile or so, and a post office.’ The main road went on to Spiddal and the islands.
The sandy road they lived on ended with a small but dramatic pier, built as a relief work during the Great Famine; while the other bog road, going in the opposite direction, stretched out across the bogs and moorlands, back to their beloved Dangan.
The biggest disadvantage for the children was that there were no indoor toilets, or running water. ‘Commodes abounded, and there were two huts at the top of the garden, which sloped uphill, with dry lavatories of the kind we had in our last school’.
Water had to be drawn from a well on the bog road, 10 minutes walk away ‘across the main road, then through a field of brambles and long grass where the water bubbled secretly out of the ground. It was important to draw water in a field where there were no cows. The owner of the field had gone to America long since, and his house was in ruins, but the well kept his name alive: Máirtín Bhairbre, Martin the son of Barbara.’
In one of their houses there was a range or stove; while the other had an open hearth ‘on which the maids baked the most beautiful soda-bread in the world, in a pot-oven. The doors of both houses ‘stood constantly open, as it would have been considered ill-mannered to keep them shut by day.’
But perhaps the main reason for the Dillons to leave Dangan House was a voracious row that the professor had with his bank manager. Irish was always spoken at home, so there was no need to move to Barna for the language’s sake. The row was over the mortgage. For some reason or other, the bank refused to allow whatever arrangement it had initially with the Dillons to continue. Legend tells us that the professor stormed out of the manager’s office in high dudgeon. That very afternoon he brought his family to live in Barna. And, as children do, they quickly adapted. ‘Our friends were other children from the scattered cottages of the whole neighbourhood. We ran in and out of the houses of our friends, and came to know their families. No one took any notice of us, or so it seemed. The conversation was mostly in Irish which we were fortunately able to understand, and so we learned who was going to America, who had had a letter, who was getting married, and whether there was a reason for it, and who had died.’
Days were spent running along the beach, playing games (a favourite was a ‘Wake’ game: in which if a child failed to recite, without a stumble, a long rigmarole of difficult phrases, such as Eight crooked crows with their crooked toes is a crooked crab-tree creaking; they were set upon and beaten until the last child standing was the victor.
Saturdays were favourite days as the children watched a procession of donkey-carts set out, nose to tail, for the market in Galway. As they grew older they were allowed to follow the carts into town. ‘Eggs in wicker-baskets with hinged lids, ducks, hens and chickens, wooden kegs of buttermilk, home-churned butter laid out in rolls on cabbage-leaves, cabbages, onions, sometimes geese, hand-knitted socks - all sold briskly throughout the morning to the people of the town.’
But the real fasination for the children was to watch the travelling salesmen, who laid out their china, and glass on the ground, and attracted buyers with shouts and songs and various other ploys. ‘One was to smash a cup or bowl with a loud noise, and then remark that it was better to smash it than to sell it too cheaply.’
‘The women loved china, especially if it was patterned with roses, and they groaned with dismay at the destruction of such beauty. At home their kitchen dressers shone with china and lustre jugs, preserved over many generations, washed carefully once a week,’
A ‘Grecian princess’
There was not a single family in Barna who had not lost some members to America never to be seen again. Most of them had gone to Portland, Maine, but there were some in Boston and New York, too. ‘These sent home a few dollars now and then, as well as bundles of American clothes.’
‘The women in the village were very conservative in their dress. The older women wore red flannel petticoats with a checked apron, and a shawl around the shoulders, either white or plaid. The shawl was often lent to a child going on a message or to school, since the children had no outerwear at all. The poorest little girls came to school, even in winter, wearing only a single garment of cotton under which their bare legs and feet showed blue with cold. The younger women wore printed cotton overalls, usually with a dark-blue background and a scatter of flowers, the cloth bought very carefully in Galway on market days and made up by themselves at home.’
There were songs too. But many households had no instruments. Instead they sang. Their emigrant laments were all too closely related to their lives. One haunting melody is recalled by Eilís:
What will I do, love,when you are going
With white sails flowing to the seas beyond?
What will I do, love, when waves divide us,
And friends may chide us for being fond?
Though waves divide us and friends may chide us,
Whate’er betide us I’ll be true,
And I’ll pray for you on the stormy ocean,
With deep devotion, that’s what I’ll do...
And the popular Dónal Óg,
Dónal Óg, if you cross the ocean,
Take me with you and don’t forget me,
And you will have a gift every fair and market-day
And a Grecian princess to share your bed with you....
Next week: Eilís Dillon’s education at the Ursuline convent, Sligo, and her struggle with books in the school library which she considered ‘drivel’.
NOTES: I am leaning heavily on Eilís Dillon’s autobiography Inside Ireland, published by Hodder and Stoughton 1982. Ms Dillon enjoyed a successful writing career, writing some 40 books both for children and adults.