DONAL MAC AMHLAIGH
by Tom Kenny
Donal Mac Amhlaigh was born on Cappagh Road in Barna on December 10th, 1926. His father James was a native of Kinvara who fought with the East Clare Brigade of the IRA in the War of Independence and who later joined the Irish Army. His mother was an Irish speaker, Mary Condon from Cappagh. They had 3 sons and a daughter in family. Pádraic Ó Conaire was a regular visitor to their house.
His dad’s army career meant he was moved occasionally so Donal’s education began at the St. Vincent De Paul School in Limerick where his teacher, a Miss Hanrahan gave him a love of the Irish language. He went to Scoil Fhursa in Galway (there is a plaque in his honour on the wall of the school) and to the Bish before going to the C.B.S in Kilkenny. He left school at 16 so as to help the family income, worked for a time in a woollen mill in Kilkenny, then on his uncle’s farm in Cappagh and for a summer in the Rockville Hotel in Salthill. He loved Knocknacarra at that time because, as he said, everybody over 40 years old was very comfortable speaking Irish to him.
In 1947, he joined An Céad Cath, an Irish speaking battalion of the Army based in Renmore Barracks. He left the Army in 1950 and emigrated to Northampton looking for employment. He became a hospital orderly for a time before going to work as an unskilled labourer which he did for the rest of his life. He gave Irish classes as a volunteer in a local employment, centre helped to found the Northampton branch of the Northern Ireland Civil Rights Association and became a member of the Connolly Association, the latter resulting in occasional state surveillance and raids on his home. He married a lady named Bridget Noone and they had a boy and a girl. This settled him down and helped him to write.
And write he did! Mostly in Irish. He published memoirs, novels, short stories and hundreds of articles in newspapers and journals … over 200 in The Irish Times alone. He became an important social historian documenting the experience of the Irish in Britain. His first book was Dialann Deoraí written in Irish. It was translated into English by Valentin Iremonger as The Diary of and Irish Navvy and became a best-seller. Other titles included Deoraithe translated as Exiles by Mícheál Ó hAodha; Schnitzer Ó Sé; Saol Saighdiúra; Beoir Bhaile; Diarmaid Ó Dónaill.
Saol Saighdiúra has now been translated into English by Galway poet Mícheál Ó hAodha and is published this week by Parthian under the title A Soldier’s Song. There is a wonderful quotation on the cover of the book by the writer Colum McCann which describes Donal perfectly “Mac Amhlaigh sought to record every pub and dancehall, every sunset, stone wall and rainbow in his mind, to pack the city in his suitcase so that she remained with him forever, so he could all at once hear her lost voice everywhere”.
The book is a coming of age memoir written in Mac Amhlaigh’s distinctive voice. It describes everyday life in the army in Renmore Barracks in the late 1940s for a generation who had no other prospects of employment, and many of whom were destined to emigrate to England. Some might have been born to be soldiers, others like Donal were not. He was not, by his own admission, a very good soldier. The story does not include great wars, just the fun and competition and camaraderie of young men in uniform, most of whom were Irish speaking. It captures perfectly the psychoses, the sadnesses, the joys, the prejudices of a people forced into the music of survival.
It also paints a vivid picture of life and activities in Galway at the time, meeting people and speaking Irish, walking the streets or the prom, going to dances and especially drinking in the city’s pubs. Indeed, there are some fascinating vignettes which describe various hostelries and their occupants such as The Brooklyn Bar, Delia Lydon’s, Maggie Anne Ashe’s or Donnellan’s in Salthill. A great Galway read. Highly recommended.
Our first photograph shows Donal on the left, posing with his parents and siblings in the early 1930s. The second image was taken in Kennys Bookshop c.1985.