Portrait of a Galway writer

Week V

During the past few weeks I have tried to give some of the formative influences on the life of the writer Eilís Dillon as she grew up in Galway. The impact of her parents’ (Professor Tom Dillon and Geraldine Plunkett ) commitment to the War of Independence, and her nightly fears of sudden raids on their home by the Black and Tans was a nightmare that stayed with her all her life. 

Her uncle Joseph Plunkett’s execution after the 1916 Rising, and his marriage to Grace Gifford only hours before his death, deeply traumatised the family. Miss Gifford, who had converted to Catholicism, was ignored by the Plunketts. She had to issue court proceedings to secure her share in her late husband’s estate. Eilís’s mother, Geraldine, described Grace as a ‘ loner, and often very difficult’.

Eilís’s grandfather, George Noble Plunkett, adored his children. When he discovered that five of them were involved in preparation for the Rising, he left his comfortable job as curator of the National Museum to join them. He was sworn into the  Volunteers by his son Joseph. By an extraordinary coincidence he was also in Kilmainham jail at the same time as Joseph. One afternoon he saw, from his cell window,  Joseph in the prison yard below. Father and son looked at each other for the last time.

Following secondary education with the Ursuline nuns in Sligo, and her row over the choice of suitable books for girls to read, including Annie Smithson novels, Eilís Dillon was established as a skilled writer of both children’s and adult fiction by the 1950s. She had married Cormac Ó Cuilleanáin, a veteran of the War of Independence, and a lecturer in Irish studies at Cork university, where they both lived. Perhaps her best known novel is Across the Bitter Sea (1973 ) which is a love story set in Galway and Connemara, whose protagonists are caught in the grip of the nationalist movement from after the Great Famine to the Easter Rising. 

More interestingly is its sequel Blood Relations (1978 ), which continues the historical thread up to the 1921 truce. The heroine’s portrayal as the sexually indiscreet, and opportunistic fiancée of an Easter 1916 martyr, and her shabby genteel Protestant background, appear to be based on Eilís’s mother’s hostile characerisation of Grace Gifford.

Reader’s reaction

Mary Johnson, formerly from Galway, keeps a sharp eye on this column. Her family knew the Dillons so Mary enjoyed hearing about them. She wrote: 

‘ I laughed and laughed at Eilís Dillon’s reaction to the novels the nuns, and by that I mean all nuns, deemed suitable for Catholic schoolgirls. Yes, indeed I was once enamoured by the novels of Annie MP Smithson and was nasty enough to use one Nora Connor as an example to my creative writing classes of how not to plot a novel.

Annie was a nurse/midwife and a convert who became very nationalistic in her outlook. All of her novels featured a conversion to the Catholic faith; sometimes a romance faltered for a while on the mixed marriage question but she does have the courage in The Marriage of Nurse Harding and Nora Connor to feature a mixed marriage with both wives constantly praying for the husband’s conversion.

In the Mercy we progressed from Annie Smithson to Isabel C Clarke; once again Clarke is a novelist who uses her novels to proclaim the Catholic faith with the heroines either marrying rich, older, men or going into the convent.

How they were ever recommended for schoolgirls is beyond me as they are actually quite morbid, the men curiously androgynous and many of them control freaks.

In my class we rapidly grew out of all this especially when someone had a copy of Gidget and the same girl had a copy of A Patch of Blue which was circulated among us. It was then found by our domestic science teacher who read it, returned it saying ‘I would have been in big trouble at your age had I been caught reading a book like that’ but she did not make a fuss about it.

Eilís Dillon’s opinion on the Grace Gifford/Joseph Plunkett marriage was that her uncle probably intended for his wife to have the protection of his family lest Grace’s Protestant family cut her off because of her romance with Plunkett and to ensure that she would have any royalties from his writing. That Grace Gifford Plunkett sued the Plunketts for a share in his estate refutes that conjecture. It is not surprising that the poor bereaved woman was difficult; depression often follows miscarriage,  and she had her grief to bear.’

Final years

Because of his failing health Eilís and her husband lived for some time in Rome. Following his death she married Vivian Mercier, professor of English, University of Colorado, and later University of California, in what is described as ‘An extremely happy, and intellectually stimulating union’. She was an active member of public and cultural bodies, including the Arts Council, the Irish Writers’ Union, a member of Aosdána, and a fellow of the Royal Society of Literature. 

I remember when she signed copies of her Across the Bitter Sea in O’Gorman’s bookshop, a very large crowd engaged her in conversation mainly about her family, and their adventures in Galway. Eilís was delighted. She hadn’t been back to Galway for some years. She wept at the welcome.

With her husband Cormac, she had two daughters, including the poet Eibhlín Ní Chuilleanain, and a son, all of whom went on to distinguished careers in scholarship, and music (Patrick Maume, Dictionary of Irish Biography ).

Her daughter Máire predeceased her. She wrote more than 40 books, 10 of which are still in print. She died, aged 74, July 19 1994, and is buried in Clara, Co Offaly with Vivian. 

Next week: Its back to school, and Padhraic Faherty’s memories of Barna national school

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