Eilís Dillon was born on March 7, 1920, in Galway. Her parents were Professor Tom Dillon and Geraldine Plunkett, who was a sister of Joseph Mary Plunkett. They were very republican and were forced to move a number of times. They lived for a time in Daingean House and later in Barna for a few years. Eilís went to Barna National School where she became fluent at Irish, later to the Presentation, and later still to the Ursuline Convent in Sligo. She worked for a while in the hotel business.
In 1940 she married Cormac Ó Cuilleanáin who became professor of Irish at UCC. She had always written poetry and stories and, in between raising three children and running a student hostel in Cork, she developed her writing into a highly successful professional career. Her first books were children’s books in Irish and English at a time when there were very few publications for young people in this country. She wrote for children of all ages with full respect for their intelligence and competence, no condescension, no sentimentality. She understood the child’s thirst for justice and wrote her plots accordingly.
Her husband’s bad health necessitated a move to Rome in the 1960s. He died in 1970. By now Eilís was writing adult fiction, detective stories and novels. Her historical novel about the road to Irish Independence in the 19th and 20th centuries Across the Bitter Sea was published in 1973 and became an international best seller.
In 1974 she married Vivian Mercier, professor of English in the University of Colorado. They moved to California when he was appointed to the University of California, and they spent the winters there until his retirement, returning to Ireland for the spring and summer. Her husband died in 1989 and the following year her daughter Máire, a violinist with the London Philharmonic, also died. Her two other children are the distinguished poet Eiléan Ní Chuilleanáin, professor emeritus of poetry, TCD, and Cormac Ó Cuilleanáin, author and professor emeritus of Italian, TCD.
Eilís Dillon wrote 50 books and her work has been translated into 14 languages. She was a pioneer in terms of her children’s books, she wrote a number of detective novels which depicted the Ireland of her time, historical novels, non-fiction books, and she also edited some anthologies and wrote plays. She was the recipient of many awards and honours.
In her book Inside Ireland she described the family’s time living in Daingean House as follows: “The days were wonderful in that beautiful place. A stream with kingfishers ran just beyond the gravel sweep before the door. On windy days, the song of the pines made heavenly music. Distant dogs barked and were answered by ours… The garden was a typical walled garden laid out when labour cost four pence a day, completely surrounded by a 12 foot wall of stone against which grew peaches and pears, apples and plums. Box hedges divided it into squares and rectangles where all kinds of vegetables and fruit trees grew… Bowls of hyacinths, vases of daffodils and tulips filled the house in spring. To reach the river from the house it was only necessary to traverse a long sloping field and cross the railway line by means of two short ladders made of railway sleepers. Trains came only twice a day but we darted across in fear of them. A far worse hazard was the mass of horseflies that infested the big field.
“It was worth it, once we reached the river. There our boat was drawn up on the gravelly shore, and the oars were hidden in a tall thorn bush nearby. The boat was eased into the water, rustling the dead rushes that lay like a mat on the water’s edge, then the oars began their dipping song that sent the water lapping fast and secretly against the varnished hull. Our greatest delight was to cross the river and land at the little stone harbour of Menlo Castle.
“The school was about two miles from Daingean… It was a miserable two-roomed building, with a tiny porch in which the children were expected to hang their coats, if they had any. There was no sanitation, the lavatories were at the top of the field… Heating was provided by open turf fireplaces, with the teacher’s desk and chair placed beside them. On the surface the children were meek and silent, but they were not really at home in the English language.”
Eilís Dillon died in 1994.
Our first photograph was taken in 1923 and shows Eilís (on the left ) and her sister Bláth walking the driveway into Daingean House. Our other image dates from 1978 and show Eilís signing copies of her books in O’Gorman’s Bookshop. Her husband Vivian Mercier is seen on the left and Marion Burke, the shop manager, stands behind Eilís.
There will be a special Cúirt event on Friday April 24 in the Town Hall, a celebration of Eilís Dillon and her work. On that morning, her daughter, the distinguished poet Eilean Ní Chuilleanáin, will unveil a limestone plaque with an Eilís Dillon quotation, the latest edition to the Galway Poetry Trail.