Eilís Dillon, Irish Writer

This page contains a short biography of Eilís Dillon, followed by links to books featured in the website. The reviews at the bottom of the page draw comparisons with a surprising range of writers. There is also alink to a chronological list of her published works.

Eilís Dillon: a biographical note

Eilís Dillon was born in Galway, in the West of Ireland, on 7 March 1920. Her father, Thomas Dillon, was Professor of Chemistry at University College Galway. Her mother, Geraldine Plunkett, was the sister of the poet Joseph Mary Plunkett, one of the seven signatories of the Proclamation of the Irish Republic. Joseph Plunkett was executed in Kilmainham Gaol at the end of the 1916 Easter Rising.

Author Photo

She was educated at the Ursuline Convent in Sligo, and then sent to work in the hotel and catering trade in Dublin. In 1940, at the age of 20, she married a 37-year-old Corkman. Her husband, Cormac Ó Cuilleanáin, became Professor of Irish at University College Cork. Eilís had always written poetry and stories, and in the intervals of bringing up three children and running a student hostel for the university, she developed her writing into a highly successful professional career. At first she wrote children's books in Irish and English, then started to write novels and detective stories. Over twenty of her books were published by Faber and Faber, winning critical acclaim and a wide readership. Her work was eventually translated into fourteen foreign languages.

In Rome in a Roman restaurant ... With the Italian writer Ignazio Silone (1900-1978). Photograph by Darina Silone

In the 1960s, her husband's poor health prompted early retirement and a move to Rome. He died, back home in Ireland, in 1970. Eilís Dillon's large historical novel about the road to Irish independence in the 19th and early 20th centuries, Across the Bitter Sea, was published in 1973 by Simon & Schuster in New York, and in 1974 by Hodder & Stoughton in London . It became an instant bestseller, and was an alternate Book-of-the-Month Club choice in America. The photograph below shows the author with the team at Philip MacDermott Ltd, the Irish agents who promoted the book.

Launching Across the Bitter Sea

In 1974 Eilís married Vivian Mercier, Professor of English in the University of Colorado at Boulder. They moved westward when Vivian was appointed to a chair in the University of California, Santa Barbara. They spent each winter in California until Vivian's retirement in 1987, returning to Ireland for the spring and summer.

Eilís Dillon was active in a number of public and cultural bodies. She served on the Arts Council, the International Commission for English in the Liturgy, the Irish Writers' Union and the Irish Writers' Centre. She was elected a Fellow of the Royal Society of Literature in 1979, and became one of the first members of Aosdána, the Irish academy of writers, artists and composers. She had long argued for the establishment of such a body.

Vivian's death in 1989 was followed by the death in 1990 of Eilís's daughter Máire, who was a violinist with the London Philharmonic Orchestra. Despite these blows, and her own declining health, Eilís kept writing until the last months of her own life. An honorary doctorate was conferred on her by University College Cork in 1992. Her last two published works were Children of Bach (1993), a children's novel set in Hungary at the time of the Holocaust, and her edition of Vivian Mercier's posthumous Modern Irish Literature: Sources and Founders (Oxford, 1994). Her scholarly work on this book meant that her own last novel remained unfinished.

Eilís Dillon died on 19 July 1994. Of her fifty books, five are currently available in print or audio formats, while others get republished from time to time. Her centenary year, 2020, saw the announcement of new Russian edition of The Island of Horses. A special prize, the Eilís Dillon Award for a first children's book, is given each year as part of the CBI Book of the Year Awards (formerly the Bisto Awards). She herself had won the main Bisto Book of the Year award in 1989 with The Island of Ghosts.

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The Novels
The Detective Stories
Books for Young People
Other Works
Education & Research pages
Chronological list of published works
Sources of further information

Some comparisons drawn in reviews:

Among the writers to whom Eilís Dillon has been compared were (in alpahabetical order) John Buchan, Daphne du Maurier, Graham Greene, Dorothy L. Sayers, Robert Louis Stevenson and Émile Zola.

"Her picture of academic life is the best we have read since Dorothy Sayers gave us 'Gaudy Night'." (Social and Personal)

"A quite remarkable novel ... a huge panorama of suffering, frustration and biterness ... one of the most compelling and convincing love stories I have read ... a novel of which Zola might have been proud." (The Sunday Times)

"The period and the passion are evoked effortlessly ... similar in manner if not in subject to the historical novels of Daphne du Maurier" (Books)

" ... as original and as full of apprehensive suspense as a Graham Greene entertainment for grown-ups." (New Statesman)

" ... a young hero whose lonely self-reliance would not disgrace R.L. Stevenson, and a fantastically imagined adventure excitingly told in an atmosphere that never loses the poetry of the ocean, washing the coast of Ireland." (The Observer)

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