In praise of Eilís Dillon, by Robert Dunbar
Celebrating Irish women writers: ‘she conveys a poetic, often elegiac, sense of place and portrays characters with richness and depth’
Although Eilís Dillon (1920-1994) wrote almost 40 children’s novels, it is primarily those aimed at readers aged 10 and upwards which provide the most memorable examples of her output. The facile categorisation of these novels is to see them merely as “adventure stories” but they have, in particular, two qualities which elevate them beyond the more usual limitations of the genre while in no way diminishing their moments of excitement and high drama. Their sense of place, generally a west of Ireland island setting, is poetically, often elegiacally, conveyed and the richness and depth of their portrayal of her characters (whether young or old) results in the creation of a world which attains its own authenticity and integrity.
In novels such as The Singing Cave and The Island of Horses her young characters are given the space and time to grow so that they will eventually and confidently assume their place in an adult world. Of her short story, Bad Blood, in an Irish children’s literature anthology, The Lucky Bag, published in 1984, she wrote, “It shows boys on the edge of being grown up and learning to handle the good and bad aspects of being a man”. Exactly so, because it is this sense of transition, in many of its meanings, which emerges forcibly in Dillon’s work. The “world” of her stories may well be the Ireland of the 1940s and 1950s but it is a terrain in which change is already blowing in the wind.
Given the numerous recent and current developments in notions of what now constitutes “children’s fiction” it may well be that some of today’s child and teenage readers will find it difficult to relate to the Ireland depicted by Dillon. It would, however, be a pity if they did not have the opportunity to encounter the young sailors’ confrontation with the squall in The Santa Maria or the rescue of the kidnapped children in The Island of Ghosts or, most striking of all, the visceral force of the final awakening of the mighty stallion in The Island of Horses. As the narrator of the last of these comments at one point, “I felt myself wither with a kind of primitive fear”. It is a good summary of the reaction of many Dillon fans, this one included.
Robert Dunbar is the chief reviewer of children’s and YA fiction for The Irish Times