Eilís Dillon Critical Essays


(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

Eilís Dillon 1920–

Irish novelist for adults, young adults, and younger children, nonfiction writer, playwright, editor, and translator.

Dillon is perhaps the most respected contemporary Irish author of books for young people. Often set off the rugged western coast of Ireland, her works take place in both historical and contemporary periods. Using the vehicle of the adventure story, Dillon comments on human emotions, foibles, and motives while still maintaining narrative excitement. She treats complex themes in a natural and mature fashion, without didacticism or moralizing. Dillon's portrayals of her characters are sometimes gently chiding, but she is a compassionate, sympathetic observer, and always invests her novels with an evocative sense of the strong community that these characters share.

Dillon often deals with the consequences of adult misunderstanding and mistrust. She explores conflicts within family groups, between islanders, between islanders and mainlanders, and between locals and newcomers. Notably, although problems are caused by the obstinancy and unreliability of community males, they are solved by the women and young adults who are drawn into the situations. Dillon's young people are tough and resourceful characters; they not only face moral and social decisions as part of their maturation processes but must also deal with the harsh realities of the physical world they inhabit.

As a young girl, Dillon herself lived in a primitive coastal village near Galway. She began writing stories at an early age, which she says has accounted for her prolificacy in writing for a young audience. Living in Italy for six years resulted in several books set there for young children, in recent well-received historical titles such as Living in Imperial Rome which are presented in story form, and in fictional works such as The Shadow of Vesuvius which incorporate historical facts within their storylines. Dillon has written several mysteries and fictional works for adults which use Irish history as their basis.

Dillon has said that she writes all her books by concentrating on characters and background rather than on plot, since the plot develops naturally out of those elements. Ironically, she has been criticized for the calculation and self-indulgence of her plots, although her delineation of character and evocative settings are uniformly praised as is the excellence of her writing style. She is also felt to have done much to define the unique personality and lifestyle of the Irish people she describes. Above all, however, she is a storyteller, and many critics and young readers alike agree that she has this gift of her heritage in abundance. A Herd of Deer won the Lewis Carroll Shelf Award in 1970. (See also Contemporary Authors, Vols. 9-12, rev. ed., and Something about the Author, Vol. 2.)

The opening situation of Miss Dillon's story of (mainly) gentle villainy [The San Sebastian] is promising. When Pat Harnon finds and salvages a drifting brig on the shore of his Connemara home mystery amply fills the air. A drifting castaway brought in on the same current turns out to be a mysterious foreigner who seeks a ship of the same description but fears some other mysterious foreigners who turn out to be trawlermen out for his blood. His disappearance and the subsequent kidnapping of Pat are the prelude to a prolonged battle of wits—and even to physical combat—after which all is peace and contentment…. Miss Dillon writes well enough to make an unlikely story at least plausible…. Suspense is well maintained and the characters, though elliptical rather than round, are real enough to give the book some distinction among the more material kinds of story.

"For Children from Ten to Fourteen: 'The San Sebastian'," in The Junior Bookshelf, Vol. 17, No. 5, November, 1953, p. 238.

In The San Sebastian perception of the exterior world is never lulled asleep, the landscapes are no longer those of the imagination but lie geographically vivid in Ireland and Brittany; the people are differentiated, and are felt to live of themselves even when the narrative is not concerned with them. Yet, perhaps because its setting is a fishing village hardly changed for centuries, it has the strength of legend as well as the stamp of life.

"Could It Really Happen?" in The Times Literary Supplement (© Times Newspapers Ltd. (London) 1953; reproduced from The Times Literary Supplement by permission), No. 2704, November 27, 1953, p. XVI.