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Exiles: by Dónall Mac Amhlaigh

In the ‘50s, and in his twenties, Dónall Mac Amhlaigh took the boat across the Irish Sea. Alongside thousands of his countrymen and women, he toiled—for him, on building sites as a “navvy.” His diaries, published 1960 as Dialann Deoraí, or “Diary of an Exile,” narrate his life once out of the Irish Army. With few jobs at home, he found work in Northampton, England. He helped lay out today’s M1 and M6 motorways. While his story and that of his comrades lack the romanticized Horatio Alger trope of “poor immigrant boy makes good, and this makes him rich,” his autobiographical account enriches one of three protagonists in his fictional take, as Exiles.

These unskilled laborers, unlike their American counterparts a century-odd earlier, have not received their due in literature or in biography. Galway poet Michaél Ó hAodha’s deft translation welcome, given the current attention to globalization, identity and survival under capitalism. The fact it’s taken over a third of a century to access Mac Amhlaigh’s 1986 novel attests to the neglect with which the Irish mid-20th-century experience in Britain has been too long treated.

Like Mac Amhlaigh himself, Niall leaves an Irish-speaking branch of the Army and faces the emigrant’s exit. Unlike Mac Amhlaigh, his fictional counterpart stays put in Kilkenny, determined to make a go of it there legitimately and to enact his loyalty to his fellow citizens. As the story opens, he’s caught up in an England-bound mass of migrants from Co. Galway (from which the author’s family left for Kilkenny when he was a teen). As native Irish speakers, they represent the death of the dream that free Ireland would claim Gaelic as its everyday language.

Niall laments both the fate of those around him and of what their departures signify. He admits apprehension, for the tribal “leaning in” of how country folk conduct conversation may, after a few pints, lead to antagonism at such intimate close quarters, whether at the pub or in transport.

Nano decides to turn from marriage and the prospect of waiting for the sour elders to die before her fiancé inherits the farm. She’s weary of her future mother-in-law already. She winds up far from Connemara. In the English Midlands, Nano deals with not only her English patients but the feisty and worldly-wise Sheila. She’d preceded Nano, and serves as a familiar fictional (and factual) function: she shows the greenhorn how the new country demands distance from the old. Sheila provides needed levity, as well as the method by which Mac Amhlaigh conveys the cultural, sexual and practical shocks of a socially liberated Britain. Gradually, Nano loosens up.

Trevor left behind the Irish West too, and his wife and children. She pesters him to pay their passage to London, but this headstrong navvy prefers his exertions digging road trenches and keeping in shape. He finds the need to step into a boxing ring, tellingly comprised of his friends and foes linking bodies, squaring off against a rival. Exiles benefits from this infused energy. For, given alternating chapters of the three characters, momentum tends to ebb, not flow.

Mac Amhlaigh sketches bare-knuckle brawls, feckless surrender to the bottle and the jitters of a young woman with the chance to date whomever she desires. All powerful forces, and Exiles excels in depicting these scenes. While the trajectory of three long life-stories does not dazzle, Mac Amhlaigh chooses to conclude with quite an open-ended narrative, Exiles stays significant for its working-class focus, its author’s socialist convictions and the sense of loss as the Irish language in which Mac Amhlaigh worked and wrote as ordinary language faced its internal exile. They’d fill fewer trains and ferries with Irish-speakers, as migration accelerated.

As many speakers left home turf, this dearth weakened their Irish Republic. The diminishing of both indigenous hands-on vigor and ideological and practical commitment to its founding ideals kept postwar Ireland punch-drunk and reeling from economic hardship. Meanwhile, Britain, in part due to shovels of Irishmen and ministrations of Irishwomen, began to prosper despite a far harsher experience inflicted on it in the ‘40s. Exiles portrays nation-building and assimilation, and its sometimes subtle or (melo)dramatic shifts, within living recall of fewer among us, memorably.

Finally available in English, these tales portray how the Irish built post-war Britain—literally.
65 %
Memorable & Significant

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