I’ve been rereading a book I last studied in Irish class back in Dublin, Dialann Deoraí. Set in Ireland and Britain in the 1950s, the book is a memoir based on the diaries of reluctant emigrant Donall Mac Amhlaigh. It’s certainly worth another look, although this time I’m reading it in translation, as An Irish Navvy – the Diary of an Exile. For me, reading it brings back memories of the time I first read it — the year our north Dublin school was a building site.
To all intents and purposes the genre the book best fits into these days is the blog: filled with swiftly painted characters and small everyday incident. Donall Mac Amhlaigh would have been in his twenties when he wrote the diaries that form the basis of Dialann Deoraí, which cover the years 1951-57. He was born some years before my parents, but like him and many thousands of others, they left Ireland to work in England in the 1950s and 60s, so Mac Amhlaigh’s account of his life as an Irish immigrant in Britain held a special interest for me. Dialann Deoraí charts the life of the exile as he bids farewell to family and friends, leaves Kilkenny and takes the ferry to Holyhead. Fragments of bitter-sweet story are dealt out along the way, like this poor man asked by customs what’s in his battered suitcase:
“Yerra nothing at all,” said my lad with a grin.
“Open it up all the same,” said your man.
“Sure it’s hardly worth my while,” said the lad.
Forced to open his bag, the owner “drew out of his pocket a bloody big knife with which he cut the rope around the case. The lid jumped up like a Jack-in-the-Box and out leapt a pair of old Wellington boots that had been twisted up inside it. Devil the thing else was in the case, not even a change of socks.”
On arrival in England, Mac Amhlaigh took up a relatively secure job in a hospital which he had applied for from home, but it was not long before he was lured to work on the building sites, as much by the promise of better company as better pay. Many of his friends were working as navvies, and he wanted to be among Irish people and speaking the Irish language, for he “did not take to the English”.
Mac Amhlaigh’s enjoyment of his working life is clear to see and even today his vivid descriptions of it and of the men around him bring the diary to life. His strong sense of humour keeps things lively. There’s a hilarious scene of the novice Mac Amhlaigh learning to wield a pickaxe, and and old hand who tricks him into hauling sacks of cement by pretending it’s easier than shovelling sand. We see the very basic “digs” or work camps where the men stayed, how they preferred to cook for themselves rather than eat the spam sandwiches their landladies offered, and what they got up to in their free time. The poverty that drove these men from Ireland is never far away. They may be paid well but many of them party hard, going out after work together to pubs, and dances, and fights, and their money doesn’t last. Mac Amhlaigh partied too, but he would always send a few bob home. In the years covered by the diary he went home for Christmas, and had to start from scratch the following year by finding a new job. At such times, the Irish network came in useful.
One time he reaches a work camp after “a long journey by bus and by train, arriving at nightfall as the snow was coming down”, and is told shortly there’s no work. But when Mac Amhlaigh starts to speak Irish, the foreman’s tune changes: “‘Why the hell didn’t you speak Irish to me? Sure I couldn’t know you were one of ourselves.’ And I got my job then with a heart and a half.”
Through the passing years, Mac Amhlaigh’s love of the Irish language remains a recurrent theme. The Irish class in which I first read Dialann Deoraí was one of the rowdiest I was ever in. Our north Dublin school, run by the Sisters of the Infant Jesus, was in turmoil, literally a building site. Men on site whistled at us schoolgirls as we made our way from our prefab classroom to the half-done building in the old sports field. Before my time this was a small school, but the nearby fields were being carved up to make a commuter town, and the school had a huge influx of children like me whose Irish parents had come to Dublin, after years working in England or Africa, looking for somewhere they could afford to raise their young. The building work was one of many changes afoot as the convent was dragged kicking and screaming into the late twentieth century to become a community school. Powerful figures like our science teacher Sister Perpetua and Sister Mary Peter, the maths teacher whose habit was always smudged with chalk, were toppled from their pedestals and replaced with younger, longhaired teachers in woolly jumpers and ponchos, a couple of whom eloped over the Easter break, leaving us short of teachers in the summer term.
For my own parents, the return to Ireland cannot have been all plain sailing, for the Dublin they washed up in was very different from the Munster they’d left behind. Donall Mac Amhlaigh never joined this return wave of migration. Perhaps it was simple economics, or perhaps the country had changed too much from the one he’d known to make a return easy. In the diary he passes through Dublin once or twice en route for the ferry, and says, “Isn’t it maddening that I know more about London than I know about Ireland’s first city?” and later there’s a note of envy for those who manage to stay: “Coming into Dun Laoire, I saw men in white clothes playing cricket, and somehow I felt annoyed. A young man and his girl were walking in the golden evening sunlight…It’s well for you, my friend, that every day you arise can be spent in this place.”
In spite of his assertion that the English “make me tired with their strange ways and I want to get away from them” he lived out his years in Northampton — a town one of my uncles also settled in — wielding a shovel by day and a pen by night. And across the water in the old country he thought of so often, us schoolchildren unravelled his words. Reluctantly, it has to be said, for Irish was neither the most popular lesson nor the most disciplined. When Sister Perpetua arrived to teach us, the science lab went deadly silent, but our Irish teacher valued talk too highly to ever force a silence on us. On the contrary, he was on a mission to bring a touch of democracy to the classroom, and when he arrived he would greet us one by one, making eye contact with all who acknowledged his existence. Poor Mr Murphy was often left stand and wait for the noisier groups to stop “messing”. He was waiting for something bigger than silence: he was waiting for the whole class to take an interest in his subject. But his attempts at classroom democracy had their limits, since no one in that prefab had chosen to learn the Irish language. Like it or not, it was compulsory.
And so in this hot, sweaty, girl-filled room we read aloud from Donall Mac Amhlaigh’s very masculine tale of the life of an Irish navvy. While the summer heat threatened to melt the joins on our prefab we worked our way through it line by line, struggling with the odd word and with phrases new to us, and with the last chapter in which a hint of sorrow creeps in as our exile readies himself for the road after an Easter trip home. “I found the time trying when I was hanging around waiting to leave the house,” Mac Amhlaigh says near the end. And to be honest we were finding the book trying too, and were glad to be shut of it and to run out in the sunshine the minute the bell went.
But Dialann Deoraí is a book I would remember long after it was slammed shut and passed on to my younger brothers to be graffitied with the names of their favourite bands. I am not alone, for the Collins Press says An Irish Navvy has not been out of print in the five decades since it was translated. And the Béarla (translated by Valentine Iremonger) is not bad — it’s very much English as spoken in Ireland at the time, so it reads Irish still.
Paperback editions can be bought online and posted anywhere in the world: Dialann Deoraí in Irish from Litríocht (€15), and An Irish Navvy from the Collins Press (€7.99) and. An ebook in English is also available from the usual ebook vendors.This article first appeared on Irish Central