The professor in his wife’s overcoat

Week IX

Tom Dillon, originally from Co Sligo, married Geraldine Plunkett, on Easter Sunday 1916. The Plunkett family were practically all committed to the Rising, and the subsequent War of Independence. Tom qualified from UCD as a chemist, worked with the Volunteers, and supplied them with a steady stream of hand grenades and bombs. In May 17 1918 he was arrested and interned with other Irish Rebels, in Gloucester prison, England.

They had two small children at the time, so visits were not easy to organise. However, alarm bells rang when Geraldine read in the Evening Herald that the deadly ‘flu pandemic, which had swept Europe at the time, had hit her husband’s prison. Twenty-eight men had been removed to a nursing home. Tom and Desmond FitzGerald’s names were included. Geraldine took the night boat over, arrived at the nursing home the following day only to find complete chaos there. Not only were the prisoners seriously ill, so were the staff.*

‘I found the maid in the kitchen passing out with the ‘flu, and I cooked whatever I could find. The men said it was heavenly! I found a box of eggs, mostly broken, someone had left them on the stairs overnight and it had run down the steps. I made omelettes of what was left. The box was addressed to ‘The Prisoners, Glouster Jail’, no wonder it got hard treatment.’

Other wives began to arrive. A nurse began to take up duties and a cook was sent over. Gradually the nursing home was tidied up, food began to improve and be delivered on time. An Irish doctor, Dr Ahern, was appointed to care for the sick. Warders came and went. Clearly the men were too ill to escape.

But rebellion was still in their hearts. Even though they were feverish, with high temperatures, many of them said they would refuse to go back to prison. There was a debate among the visitors and the prisoners about what was the best thing to do. At one stage the governor came over and put his head around the door. Everyone ‘shouted at him and he ran away’.

Geraldine sent a message to Michael Collins, her late brother Joseph’s aide-de-camp, asking his advice. He sent Seán Nunan over to access the situation. Before he arrived, however, the situation had changed. One of the prisoners, Pierce McCann, whose family was with him, died.

That settled matters. The governor announced that all the men could go home. Two were too sick to travel, but the rest, with their wives or family, were taken to Holyhead by train. They filled two carriages ‘a very tight squash’. A bottle of whiskey was produced.

Ironically the boat was full of soldiers going home to Ireland on leave. It was difficult to find places for the sick men to lie down. But eventually everyone was accommodated. Geraldine, exhausted, ‘sat at a table in the saloon, my head falling onto the table with a bang whenever I went to sleep.’**

By one vote

While in Gloucester prison a vacancy came up in Galway university for a professor of chemistry. His friends in Dublin urged Tom to apply which he did. Poor Geraldine, with two small babies, had to run around getting references, and meeting influential members of the Senate, on her husband’s behalf.

When Tom got home from Gloucester he was just in time to go to Galway for the university’s Governing Body meeting. Geraldine was concerned that he had no proper clothes to make an impression, nor any money to buy new ones. The only thing that fitted him and looked half decent, was a large coat belonging to herself. Still recovering from his illness Tom set off to Galway in his wife’s coat. He got the job by one vote.

Seemingly there was opposition from some members of the Governing Body to give such a prestigious job to man who had just been in prison for terrorist activities. Members had approached the Bishop of Galway and asked him not to attend the meeting, so they could defeat the application.

When Geraldine heard afterwards of the attempts to keep the appointment away from her husband, she was disgusted that politics should be allowed to enter the academic world!

However, Tom Dillon was successful. He was 35 years old when he took up his duties in the autumn 1919, as professor of chemistry at UCG. From very basic conditions he built up a highly respected faculty. He encouraged the teaching of chemistry through Irish. With his colleagues Vincent Barry and Prionsias Ó Colla, the department flourished. Student numbers rose from 70 in 1919, to 300 in 1953. His pupils included the first two women professors of chemistry in Ireland. Tom enjoyed a distinguished career, and earned an international reputation for his work on the uses of seaweed.

But success was a few years in coming. He and his wife continued to play an active part in the War of Independence in Galway. She was arrested for her activities, Tom was mostly on the run. I will come back to their activites in Galway at a later date....

Next week I will pay a final visit to Rosmuc

NOTES: *Between January 1918 and December 1920, an unusually deadly influenza pandemic infected some 500 million people across the world resulting in the deaths of 50 to 100 million (three to five per cent of the world’s population ), making it one of the deadliest natural disasters in human history.

**All the quotes above are taken from All in the Blood, by Geraldine Plunkett Dillon, edited by Honor O Brolchain, published in 2006.

Tom Dillon was born in Enniscrone, Co Sligo. His father John was an engineer, and a nephew of the distinguished writer and politician John Blake Dillon.

The family moved to Ballina, where Tom attended St Nathy’s College and Clongowes Wood College. In 1912 he was awarded the first D Sc degree conferred by the NUI.

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