Dónall Mac Amhlaigh, gentleman, writer, exile

This photograph of some of the staff of the Rockville Hotel was taken in the summer of 1947. They were all well-dressed which would have been normal in hotels in Salthill at the time, porters would have worn swallow-tail coats and waitresses proper uniforms. The Rockville was originally a guest house owned by a Mr Kelleher who was a member of the RIC. It evolved into a small comfortable hotel owned by O’Neills (“Private bathing from the Hotel, Phone Salthill 70” ) and later by people named Hynes. As the Rockville it had high standards and was fully licensed.

The only member of staff we could identify is the man on the right, Dónall Mac Amhlaigh, who was born on the Cappagh Road in Knocknacarra (where the school is named after him ). His father James had fought in the War of Independence and later joined the army. His mother Mary Condon was a native Irish speaker from Knocknacarra; Pádraic Ó Conaire was a regular visitor to her family home. Dónall was the eldest of four children, three sons and a daughter. He was educated in Scoil Fhursa (there is a plaque in his honour on the wall of the school ) and for a time in the Bish. He left school when he was 15 and worked in a number of jobs including the Rockville Hotel.

He joined An Céad Cath in 1947 and left three years later. Jobs were scarce in Ireland at the time so he emigrated to England and ended up in Northampton. He worked for most of his life as an unskilled labourer. He married Bridget Noone whose family came from Roscommon and they had two children, a boy and a girl. He always wanted to write and he certainly fulfilled that dream as he produced novels, short stories, social history, and a play. He contributed about 200 articles to The Irish Times and also wrote for many other journals and newspapers in Irish and in English.

He will be remembered primarily for his books; his first, Dialann Deoraí, was published in 1960, was translated into English as An Irish Navvy and became a bestseller. There was a strong autobiographical element to most of his work, Saol Saighdiúra, published 1962, was about his life as a soldier in Renmore Barracks.

In spite of his reputation as one of the great Irish language authors of the last century and as the voice of the Irish in Britain, Dónall was a modest man, a gentle man, a confirmed socialist, one of the founders of the branch of the Northern Ireland Civil Rights Association. In 1989, he was cycling to the station to get a train to London where he was to give a lecture when he had a heart attack and died. He is buried in Northampton.

His last book Deoraithe has just been translated into English by Galway poet Micheál Ó hAodha under the title Exiles. It is published by Parthian Press and is a wonderful addition to Irish literature, a highly evocative novel that describes beautifully the realities of life in Ireland and especially for the Irish emigrants in England in the 1950s. It was a time when the Irish were ‘building up and tearing England down’ and this book captures what life was like for them, the hardship, the fear of the loss of home, how they moved between two cultures, and their different ways of dealing with the past and the future. An outstanding book by an outstanding author and beautifully translated into English. Highly recommended. Available in good bookshops at €13.99.


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