Eilís Dillon: Education & Research
Author Photo Scroll down through the features listed below, which can help todevelop more structured information about the author. You can also, of course, form an independent picture of the writer's work simply by browsing through the site and reading some of the books.

Eilís Dillon Life and works
Chronological list of published works
Some assessments
Critical or biographical works relating to Eilís Dillon

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Education Resources

Suggested Study Assignments
Themes (The Big House, Dublin, Religion, Politics)
Contrasting Reviews of "The Bitter Glass"
Hostile Reviews
Political Reviews

Sample study assignments or questions

1. Read one of Eilís Dillon's books, and the review extracts quoted in this website. Write your own review of the same book, in the following portions:

(a) Summarise the plot in a few words.
(b) Say what are the main points of interest, and the central conflicts.
(c) Analyse the main characters and their relationships.
(d) State the main theme of the book.
(e) What does the setting contribute to the effect of the book?

2. Tell the story of one of Eilís Dillon's books, in 3 pages, from the point of view of one of the characters other than the protagonist or narrator.

3. Write a proposal for a TV adaptation of a story by Eilís Dillon, for submission to a film or television channel.

4. Write a critique of stereotypes in one of Eilís Dillon's stories, or in its reviews. How does the author use stereotypes (such as foreign villains) to further her plots, while undermining their stereotype nature by humanising them?

5. Rewrite the plot of an Eilís Dillon story, moving the setting to London or New York.

6. Think about the "buddy" element in two Eilís Dillon books. The two boys (sometimes more than two) who cooperate on a challenging task --- what are the advantages in having two rather than a lone protagonist? Compare the way the buddy motif functions with stories from a very different setting, or in a film or TV shows.

7. Think about the theme of the outsider and the community. Many stories (not just by this author) dramatise the life of a place or a community by having a stranger come in and see everything with a fresh eye. Often there is a conflict between the insiders and the outsider. Write a short essay on this theme in any Eilís Dillon novel. Think about the way the same insider/outsider contrast gives power to many stories in literature and film. For example, the movie Witness introduces us to a closed community cut off from the modern world, which finally imposes its humane values on a violent outsider.

8. The family theme. Eilís Dillon had a strong sense of family. This is quite common in Ireland, where people tend to stay in closer contact across the generations than in some other modern societies. She was also aware of the ambiguities and destructive tensions that can occur in a household. See how the theme of the family, and the role of the outsider, is handled in The Head of the Family. Compare the treatment here to Evelyn Waugh's Brideshead Revisited, a book which Eilís Dillon admired. Compare also the Italian novel 'The Garden of the Finzi-Continis' by Giorgio Bassani, which shares very much the same structure. (The Waugh and Bassani novels have been beautifully filmed.)

9. Many stories try to teach the reader something, or to advance a political or moral point of view, as well as being entertaining. If this is overdone it can be a dreadful bore. Eilís Dillon herself was fond of quoting the Hollywood producer Sam Goldwyn's rejection of persuasion in the movies: "If you want to send a message, call Western Union." Yet her own books are shot through with moral purposes, and much of their appeal comes from the author's persuasiveness. Can you identify a moral, political or religious agenda being put forward in any of her books? Do you have to agree with an author's morality in order to enjoy his or her work?

10. Islands. Remote or central? In many countries, remote or inaccessible places are taken as "embodying" the essence of the country. This can be seen in a positive or negative light. Romanticised or satirised, or just a good storytelling device... Compare 'The Seals' by Peter Dickinson.

11. For primary schools:

(a) Draw your own illustrations;
(b) Plan and perform a play based on one of the stories.
(c) Do a Web project on Eilís Dillon, and tell us where to find it.

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Big House
A number of Eilís Dillon's books feature life in a big house or institution. Reviewing 'Sent to his Account', Edith Shackleton of The Lady (which may be quite an authoritative source for this point) was pleased in her review that the author "allows a Big House, for once in fiction, to be properly run." There were actually several reasons why Eilís Dillon might be interested in big houses, and knowledgeable about them. Her first house, Dangan outside Galway city (still standing, with a plant nursery in its gardens) was large and beautiful, and her parents' move from there to a pair of small cottages on Barna Pier in the 1920s. Later, she worked in the hotel and catering business, and after her first marriage ran a student hostel with 39 inmates on the campus of University College Cork. (Even the residence attached to the Honan Hostel, with 17 amply-proportioned rooms, was not cramped.) All this meant that she knew the romance and grandeur of life in a big house, but also the nuts and bolts of running one.

A student of the Big House theme in her work could look at novels like 'The Head of the Family' and 'Across the Bitter Sea', detective stories like 'Death at Crane's Court' and 'Death in the Quadrangle', and books for young people like 'The House on the Shore' and 'Down in the World'. Often the stories involve threats of ruin to the big house and its inhabitants: a mansion in one of the books is burnt to the ground.

Part of the biographical background here is that Eilís Dillon's first husband, Professor Cormac Ó Cuilleanáin, had in his youth participated in the burning of a big house belonging to a Cork Unionist politician during the Irish War of Independence. He felt very bad about this afterwards, despite the military situation which had given rise to the action.

The Big House motif is quite prominent in Irish fiction generally, from Maria Edgeworth's 'Castle Rackrent' to the work of modern writers like Molly Keane, Elizabeth Bowen, Jennifer Johnston and William Trevor. The historical and cultural reasons for that may be worth thinking about.

To be added - this section of the site is not yet done.

To be added - this section of the site is not yet done.

To be added - this section of the site is under construction (November 1998).

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Contrasting reviews

Here are some reviews from the Irish, British and American newspapers of Eilís Dillon's first "straight" novel, The Bitter Glass. Which nationality are most favourable? Most unfavourable? What images of Ireland do you think emerge from the reviews?
To be added - this section of the site is under construction (November 1998).

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Hostile reviews

While many reviewers were extremely positive about Eilís Dillon's work, she also received a few hostile reviews over the years. Below are links to some examples. Compare them to the favourable reviews for the same books, which you will find quoted elsewhere on this site. If you have read either of the books in question, which reviewer do you agree with? What elements in the books would prompt both the positive and the negative reactions?

Across the Bitter Sea
The Bitter Glass

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Political reviews

In the course of her career Eilís Dillon wrote about subjects which touched a nerve, both in Ireland and elsewhere. The settings she chose also occasionally inspired comment. Some of her reviews, therefore, addressed the political assumptions inherent in the books. Sometimes it is not just an Irish writer, but the Irish nation in general, that is being reviewed.

Look at the extracts linked to below, taken from reviews of three of Eilís Dillon's books. Considering where they appeared, explain the political point of view being expressed in each review:

Across the Bitter Sea
The Fort of Gold
Death in the Quadrangle

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