“Diary of an Exile” the remarkable work of an Irish construction worker in Britain


I’ve been rereading a book I last studied in Irish class back in Dublin, called "Dialann Deoraí,"  or "An Irish Navvy – the Diary of an Exile."
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 in the 1950s to work in England. My family later moved back home.

My father never talked a great deal about his work life, 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 in Wales. Fragments of a 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 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 for he “did not take to the English.”

Mac Amhlaigh’s enjoyment of his working life is evident and even today his vivid descriptions of it and of the men around him bring the diary to life. A strong sense of humor keeps the book lively. There’s a hilarious scene of the novice Mac Amhlaigh learning to wield a pickaxe, and of a fellow who tricks him into thinking it’s easier to haul sacks of cement than shovel sand.

We see the down-at-heel “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 did in their free time.

The poverty that drove these men from Ireland is never far away. They are 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 went out too, but he did his best to send a few bob home. In the years covered by the diary he always 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. He describes one time when he reached a work camp after “a long journey by bus and by train, arriving at nightfall as the snow was coming down,” and was told curtly that there was no work. But when Mac Amhlaigh began to speak Irish the tune changed: “‘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.”

To all intents and purposes the genre the book would best fit into these days is the blog: the book is filled with swiftly painted characters and small everyday incidents, and through the passing years Mac Amhlaigh’s love of the Irish language (Gaelic) remains a key 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.

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 made by many who had left in the ’50s or ’60s.

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?” 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.”