I am sure that the good sisters at the renowned Ursuline convent school, Sligo, had no idea what they were letting themselves in for when Eilís Dillon and her sisters landed as boarders at their door. The Dillon girls were confident, challenging and extremely well read. Much of that confidence came from their fiercely nationalistic mother and father and their commitment during the War of Independence. Both parents were imprisoned; their father, Professor Tom Dillon, was ‘on the run’ for most of that time.
Their uncle, Joseph Plunkett, a much loved and senstitive man, who had suffered from ill-health most of his short life, was executed with the leaders of the Easter Rising 1916.
But in the years that followed the creation of the Free State, the professor was busy building up the science department at university college Galway, while his wife Geraldine (Plunkett ), had thrown her considerable energies into the fledging Irish language theatre An Taibhdhearc. At times all the family took part in plays there. Liam O Briain, the romantic languages professor at the university, fearlessly translated, into Irish, plays by Moliere, Henri Gheon, and Lorca which were performed with energy, and enthusiasm to modest audiences.
The acting fever caught hold of the Dillon family at home. Pressing their friends to play parts, the children would improvise, with glorious unselfconsciousness, their own versions of the plays they had seen at the theatre. Some afternoons, Professor Tom would arrive home, produce a copy of the plays of William Shakespeare, give out the parts among the family, push back the tables and chairs, and begin. Eilís later recalled that ‘ he made a splendid Macbeth, and a bitter, brooding Cassius.’
The facts of life
In fact the Dillon girls loved their time at the Ursuline Convent. The nuns were originally a French foundation, and the language of the school was French. The sisters themselves were intelligent and lively, and while accepting that the most natural thing in the world was for a woman to be a wife and mother, they saw no incompatibility between that, and the study of science and literature.
The one difficulty Eilís had was with the school library, or rather the ‘two shelves of books’ .
which was all the school could afford at the time. ‘Blameless novels by soft-headed but reliable ladies were there in rows, notably those of an Irish ex-nurse named Annie M P Smithson’, really annoyed the young Eilís. Miss Smithson told nice, wholesome stories about girls, which always included a district nurse delivering a baby. Never how the baby got into the mother’s womb, just the delivery. Eilís once asked, in exasperation, why such drivel should be in the school library at all? The sister, who had charge of the girls’ ‘physical and moral welfare’ replied that no girl who had read a few of Miss Smithson’s books ‘could be ignorant of the facts of life.’
Eilís soon learned to take her own books from their extensive library at home, back to school to read. During long leisure periods, she made her way through Dante and Swift, Chaucer and Milton, as well as the novels of Hardy, Meredith and Frederick William Rolf, better known as Baron Corvo. The last was a strange and unusual man. He was unashamed of his homosexuality. He had been repeatedly turned down to become a Roman Catholic priest, even though he was convinced that he had a vocation all his life. He wrote a series of powerful novels, including Hadrian the Seventh (1904 ), which is a strange wish-fulfilment fiction about himself becoming Pope, and dealing with his real-life friends and enemies as he thought fit. Count Corvo never made much money fom his writings, and survived a wandering life. He was an artist of considerable skill, and a photographer. Following the publication of AJA Symons’ The Quest for Corvo (1934 ), which became one the the last century’s iconic biographies, he became a cult figure. He is regarded with interest even today.
But the book by Baron Corvo that Eilís brought back to school was his In His Own Image which was ostensibly a travel book, but contained photographs of naked young men in Grecian athletic poses. Of course it was all literature (at least it was according to Eilís, whom I suspect brought the book to school to shock the librarian ), but the poor nun, who discovered the book, practically had a heart attack on the spot.
She insisted that the book should be burned. She told Eilís that it was anti-Catholic and had upset her dreadfully. However, the poor nun was further tortured by the fact that the book once belonged to the executed Joseph Plunkett, a saintly person in the eyes of many. His name was inside its cover.
His poem I See His Blood Upon a Rose would have been well known:
I see his blood upon a rose
And in the stars the glory of his eyes,
His body gleams amid eternal snows,
His tears fall from the skies.
I see his face in every flower;
The thunder and the singing of the birds
Are but his voice - and carven by his power
Rocks are his written words.
All pathways by his feet are worn,
His strong heart stirs the ever-beating sea,
His crown of thorns is twined with every thorn,
His cross is every tree.
Of course Eilís was chancing her arm. She asked what harm could the book do?
The nun replied that probably in her Galway home, no harm whatsoever. But it was not to be allowed in this school.
Eilís wrote in her autobiography: ‘I can still hear her impassioned statement: ‘You can’t touch pitch and not be defiled,’ and my maddening , logical reply, ‘But Mother, it’s not pitch, it’s a good book.’*
Nevertheless Count Corvo was sent packing back to Mum and Dad.
NEXT WEEK: Some readers’ comments on the family, and a little about Barna’s school.
NOTES: *I am leaning on Eilis Dillon’s Inside Ireland, published by Hodder and Stoughton in 1982. I have always thought that teachers earned their crust not just by teaching, but by their relationships with students outside the classroom. I think the nun here did quite well in the circumstances. I have been told that Eilís was the only girl in her year that the nuns did not ask if she would reflect on whether she had a vocation to join the order, or not.