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The Dancers Dancing

By Eilis Ni Dhuibhne
Published by Blackstaff

The new novel from Eilis Ni Dhuibhne, which follows 1997’s excellent collection of short stories, The Inland Ice, concerns a group of girls from Dublin and Derry who go to the Donegal Gaeltacht in the summer of 1972. Their parents have sent them there, ostensibly to learn Irish, but also to ‘knock the corners off them’, and because it will give them an educational advantage over children whose parents have not bothered to send them. Also, presumably, it gives the parents a rest during the long school holidays.
Ni Dhuibhne once again displays her great gift for observing social nuances, and commenting obliquely but sardonically on the power structures which underwrite them. She also has a wonderful empathy for the manifold confusions and insecurities of early adolescence. Most of these perceptions are filtered through the mind of the central character, Orla, whose working class origins in a middle class milieu have sensitised her to the contradictions and injustices imposed through difference and division, such as those between adults and children, boys and girls, urban and rural, North and South, Irish and English. It is only in the final chapter, which looks back from the present day, that Orla writes in the first person, but it is still her point of view which informs most of the narrative.

 

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Orla, thirteen and two months, is overweight, and in awe of her friend Aisling, twelve and a half, who has more presentable parents, whose clothes are better, who has more savoir-faire. The other students in the house they are staying in are Jacqueline and Pauline, two Derry girls. This is a world of petty jealousies, casual hypocrisies and fumbling romances. The girls’ time is divided between Irish classes, ceilis and midnight feasts. The playful chapter titles include ‘What does your father do?’ and ‘The girls discuss the North of Ireland question’. The former contains the passage: ‘...somehow occupation is the defining feature as far as fathers are concerned. Nobody asks, ‘Is your father nice?’ (yes), What age is he? (don’t know), What colour are his eyes? (blue), Can he sing? (yes, and play the mouth organ), Can he tell jokes? (not really). Occasionally someone will ask, ‘Where does the come from?’ meaning what county in Ireland. The one question everyone asks is, What does your father do? What your father does is what defines your father, as far as other people are concerned. More significant, it is what defines you, if you happen to be a child. So it seems to Orla. Her father is a bricklayer. That is what he is. But Orla says, ‘He is a building contractor.’ ’ The latter subtly demonstrates how, for the young southern Irish, even in 1972, the north, with its problems, is an almost incomprehensible other country. But, most of all, this is a world where, in contrast to our more child-centred times, ‘Orla has no right to be a child. Nobody has or ever had; this is the thinking. Children are there to carry out adults’ orders, first and foremost. Their feelings, and adults do not believe they have any, simply don’t matter.’
The local detail is enviable in its exactitude: for the southern girls, Northern Ireland means Mars bars and Marathons; showbands and singers like Big Tom and The Mainliners and Roly Daniels appear at country dances.
Ni Dhuibhne’s background in writing for children is evident, and given its subject matter and style, this book is equally accessible and of interest to adults and adolescents. The cover reprints a quotation of profuse approbation from this very magazine, culled from a review of Ni Dhuibhne’s previous volume, although the critic’s name (for it is I) has unaccountably gone missing. However, here’s another recommendation that can be extracted as a blurb: when is the world going to discover Eilis Ni Dhuibhne?

First published in Books Ireland

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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