Eilís Dillon

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Winifred Whitehead

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Last Updated on June 7, 2022, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1456

All writers select, rigorously, that portion of the world they wish to present, but in so doing some writers for children make a curious and partial offering—a child's world from which the rest of the community, adults in particular, have been almost wholly excluded. In such a world the children … conduct their affairs with a freedom from adult control of their actions and movement that is rarely accorded to children in real life. (p. 58)

The Irish writer Eilís Dillon has an outstandingly vivid sense of the child's place within the larger community. Her books are remarkable for their distinctive recreation of rural Ireland; the men living close to the land or sea, as farmworkers or fishermen; the women working equally hard in their small houses, caring for their menfolk and their children; and the children themselves, seen essentially as part of the community, with their own place in it and their own chores to carry out at home, having only so much liberty to range the countryside, with its rich wildlife and its possibilities of adventure. Eilís Dillon does devise situations in which her heroes can escape from adult supervision, but always within a firm context of parents and neighbours, and with a constant reference to the ethos and expectations of the community in which they live.

In A Family of Foxes, for instance, four boys unite to hide away a family of silver foxes from the rest of the people on Inishownan, knowing well that if discovered the foxes would at once be killed. This involves the boys in a long conspiracy to evade the adults on the island while they scrounge or steal enough food to keep the foxes alive. In this way the boys are both separated off from the community by their activities, and yet are closely in touch with it. Adult attitudes are of crucial importance to the whole situation: their fear and distrust of foxes; their plans to exterminate all they can find on the island; their shamefaced superstition and their expectations of the young people themselves. At the crisis point, when the men discover what the boys have been up to, and the lives of the foxes hang in the balance, it is the carefully accumulated understanding built up in the earlier part of the story that creates the tense awareness of the extreme delicacy of the situation. (pp. 58-9)

[The] central crisis point has been prepared for throughout the preceding story…. In this way a living picture of the Irish community has been built up, and the boys are seen as acting within it, not cut off from it as though in some miraculous way they could exist, for however brief a time, in a vacuum. In this way Eilís Dillon's stories are more than tales of adventure: they are stories of real life.

Of course adventure stories, even stories that are pure fantasy, are often still related to the real life concerns of children. But the dimension added to Eilís Dillon's books, by her inclusion of the community in this way, offers a unique area in relation to which children can be invited to see themselves. Within A Family of Foxes , for instance, can be seen a particularly close, cooperative and interacting way of living which is now less easily observable in our towns and high rise flats, and which is certainly not often revealed in modern stories. Her close, detailed and loving observation of the countryside, and of the animals such as the horses, deer, seals and foxes which provide a focal point for many of...

(This entire section contains 1456 words.)

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her stories, is obviously attractive: a less obvious but valuable element is the vivid portrayal of the people, whose individual characteristics and foibles are so amusingly and compassionately detailed. This leads the young reader to a heightened awareness of the possibilities of community living: its complexity, in the mixture of motives—greed and selfishness alongside generosity and disinterestedness; and the failure of understanding and communication which can bedevil people living apparently close together—but also in the richness of a life in which some degree of mutual interdependence can foster virtues of concern and tolerance. This awareness provides a growing point for the young reader, who is led repeatedly to look behind the surface, and to see—in a way not often fostered in our fragmented and self-seeking modern society—how his natural egocentricity can be subordinated to the common good. This 'message' is the more valid in Eilís Dillon's stories in that it is not presented in any priggish moralistic fashion as 'the lesson' to be taken from the books: it is implicitly there as part of the greater tolerance and understanding of themselves and their neighbours achieved by the characters in the course of their adventures.

This awareness of 'community' which has been seen to be important in A Family of Foxes is the focal point of A Herd of Deer…. Peter Regan is sent to spend the summer working on his cousin's farm: instead he decides to look for a job on his own. He finds one unexpectedly with Michael Joyce, a man who has recently come from Argentina to his father's native Ireland. With a profound ignorance of Irish ways and attitudes, he has bought a house and land and established on it, in the expansive Argentinian manner, a herd of deer. Peter can immediately sense the nature of the outrage; the villagers' resentment of the rich foreigner…. So they have stolen some of the deer, intending at first merely to warn Michael Joyce off. Unfortunately, as is the way of things, the situation escalates, and Peter, having initially agreed to try to trace the deer and help a peaceable restoration, eventually finds himself in an ugly position between the warring parties. He has a foot uneasily in both camps, liking both parties and seeing both sides, but helplessly and exasperatedly unable to bring them together. (pp. 58-61)

It can be seen that there are many points of discussion arising from this novel: the escalation from an initial misunderstanding into violence and even murder; the group hostility to an 'intruder' who unwittingly offends against accepted codes of behaviour; these are both problems which can be seen in our present society with its variety of urban tensions, but problems which here can be discussed on the neutral third ground offered by the novel. The Seals, a story set in an island off County Clare in 1920, can also be used as neutral ground for the discussion of important current political problems. This time the intruders are the Black and Tans…. The story begins quickly, with an approaching storm; and even as Pat and his friend Mike are busily helping to gather in the lobster pots they see the hooker which is bringing news of Pat's Uncle Roddy. The boys set off on a wild chase to rescue him from imminent capture and death at the hands of the Black and Tans…. This is not only an exciting story, but one which suggests a different perspective in viewing the 'troubles' in Ulster, while at the same time, by setting them at an historical distance, providing the more suitable 'third ground' on which both personal problems and social and national problems can be discussed. The point here is that such a discussion can firmly be anchored to the events of the books themselves, and in this context can become specific and informed; a very different matter from some of the large, abstract, uninformed, prejudiced—and often self-righteous and cliché-ridden—moralising which too often passes for 'debate' and 'discussion' in our schools.

It would be wrong, however, to leave an impression that Eilís Dillon's books are merely a springboard for discussion, however valuable socially this may seem. The discussion is to be seen essentially as a way to a deeper understanding and enjoyment of the books, and through them to a deeper understanding and enrichment of life. The stories are, indeed, enthralling: full of fun and humour, of vivid character sketches, drama and incident, with always a strong sense of the Irish landscape, a freshness of observation and a simple directness which are a delight. (pp. 61-2)

It is in [her] Irish stories that Eilís Dillon is most at home: she has tried writing stories of other lands and other times, but it is her first-hand knowledge of Ireland, her humour and her compassion, and her vivid and delightful recreation of the highly individual Irish communities of smallholders and fishermen that give her books their uniquely satisfying flavour. (p. 62)

Winifred Whitehead, "Eilís Dillon and the Sense of Community," in The Use of English (© Granada Publishing Limited 1979), Vol. 30, No. 2, Spring, 1979, pp. 58-62.


Daniel M. Murtaugh