Ground-breaking journalist behind the ‘Diary of a Farmer’s Wife’

Obituary: In an understated way, Norah Dillon was one of a small number of trailblazers for women in the media in Ireland

Norah Dillon, who became politically active in the 1940s, in her case in the Labour Party,  and remained throughout her life very socially aware and well informed

Norah Dillon, who became politically active in the 1940s, in her case in the Labour Party, and remained throughout her life very socially aware and well informed

 

Nora Dillon Born: November 19th, 1922

Died: June 11th, 2018

Anyone researching a history of Irish rural life in the middle years of the last century, whether for historical scholarship or for fiction, could do well to consult the weekly columns written on the subject from 1953 to 1965 in The Irish Times as “Diary of a Farmer’s Wife” by Norah Dillon, who has died aged 95.

Written under the nom-de-plume of Ann Kennedy, they provide vividly-realised images of what it was like to live, and work, on what in that time was probably a typical Irish farm of the better type, ie one with good land of an economic size, in this case at Corbally, near Celbridge, Co Kildare. A mixed farm, it produced cereals, sugar beet, potatoes, vegetables, dairy cattle, and sheep, pigs and poultry. Such a lack of specialisation would be rare today, although the farm did become more specialised in the 1960s.

Reading them now, her columns are reminiscent of similar memoirs of Irish country life then, such as the autobiographical memories of Alice Taylor in To School Through the Fields or Homan Potterton’s memoir of his family’s farming life in Co Meath, Rathcormack.

Writing in this newspaper of that life, in a specially-commissioned article published on July 9th, 1970, Dillon pondered on the difference, for example, of her five children’s daily experiences from those who knew only an urban life:

“We soon learned that conventional toys were played with for only a few days, then left to moulder in a cupboard: who wants a doll or a stuffed bear when there was a litter of kittens in the hayshed, calves and pet lambs around the yard, a swallow’s nest with four greedy chicks to feed in the barn?”

A naturally talented writer, for she had never studied literature at university or any sort of writing school, Norah Dillon had an easy, chatty yet distinctive style which she used in a characteristic way in her columns, taking a particular incident of the previous week’s life on the farm, and building a narrative around it. This methodology gives the reader, looking back today, a real insight in to the variety of human and animal life in the rural Ireland of the time, with its relatively unhurried pace, its careful, and carefully-observed, rituals of work and recreation giving the reader a sense both of the stability and also of the challenges of such a life then.

The articles were enlivened from time to time by charming and distinctive cartoons by Eoin O’Brolchain, who was actually a consultant engineer by profession but also a talented amateur artist, and a relative by marriage of Norah’s husband, the farmer, agricultural scientist and journalist Michael Dillon.

Drumcondra

It was perhaps remarkable that Dillon’s columns came from the pen of one who had not herself grown up on a farm, or even in the countryside. The daughter of an insurance manager, Edward Curran, and his wife, Mabel Curran (nee Leavey), Dillon spent her early years in the Dublin suburb of Drumcondra, attending school at the Model School, Marlborough Street, before her family’s move to Green Road, Blackrock, where she was educated by the Sisters of Mercy nuns at the secondary school section of the then Carysfort College of Education. She later studied for and qualified, while attending night classes, with a diploma in public administration at Trinity College, Dublin when she was working in what is now the Department of Health.

Her marriage to Michael Dillon, in 1950, was very probably what propelled her into journalism. Dillon, already farming at Kilteel, Co Dublin, was commentating on farming matters also for the then Radio Éireann (now part of RTÉ) and wrote on the subject for The Irish Times.

The couple moved to Corbally in 1953, and in that year she was asked if she would be interested in writing on farming life, and “Diary of a Farmer’s Wife” was born.

It was a significant moment in Irish media history, for female journalists were quite rare in 1950s Ireland, and Norah Dillon, in an understated way, was one of a small number of trailblazers for women in the media in this respect.

Norah Dillon was an innovator also in quite a different respect; again, also unusually for a woman of her time in Irish society, she became politically active in the 1940s, in her case in the Labour Party, much to the disapproval of her father, and remained throughout her life very socially aware and well informed.

Norah Dillon was the eldest of six children: three boys, Gerard, Patrick and Dermot, and two other girls, Joan and Eileen. Her husband and her brothers each predeceased her, and she is survived by her children, Nuala, Margaret, Gráinne, Niall and Eamonn, and by her sisters.

This article was amended on July 9th, 2018