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Peadar O’Donnell: Islanders (US: The Way it Was With Them)

This novel is set on the small island of Inniscara, offshore from Arranmore, which, in turn is offshore from the Donegal mainland. O’Donnell worked on Arranmore for some time as a teacher and the island is sometimes known in English as Arran Island and in Irish as Árainn Uí Dhomhnaill, i.e. the Arran of the O’Donnells.

No date is given but the novel is presumably set around the beginning of the twentieth century. The main focus is on the Doogan family. The mother is Mary. She is a widow. We do not know how her husband died. She has ten children. The oldest, Peggy, is married. The other nine live with her all sharing beds. Life is very hard. The main diet is potatoes, sometimes supplemented by seaweed. When they can afford to, they get flour and Mary bakes bread. They have a cow which, in the early part of the book gives them milk and a calf but dies soon afterwards.

Their main source of income is from eggs from the hens, if they get them before the neighbouring dog does. Mary knits and sells what she knits. Charlie, the oldest boy, who is twenty-two, goes fishing but he has not caught much recently. Indeed, when times are really bad, he is not above some illegal activity. We see him illegally fishing in the river and also stealing flour. Despite this, he is clearly the hero of the book.

There are other possible sources of income. Teenage girls are hired out to farmers and this is the plan for two of the Doogan girls. Mary is not too keen on the idea. God knows if I’ll ever have ye all gathered under me wing again. Her words turn out to be sadly prophetic. Charlie talks about going to Scotland, where he can earn money picking potatoes, and even saving up to go to the United States. These two aims will reoccur throughout the book.

While it is certainly hard work for all of them, there is some relaxation. The young people will go to a ceilidh. Charlie has a girlfriend (of sorts) – Susan, who lives next door. It is assumed that they will marry. However, Susan says she is tired of the island and wants to move elsewhere.

Life is very hard and we see many examples of this. This includes stormy weather, lack of fish, illness and death (there is no doctor on the island) and a poor diet.

There are a few main issues, apart from the hard life. These includes the rocky relationship between Charlie and Susan, with both turning to other partners, the illness of both Mary and Peggy, with Charlie braving a storm to fetch the doctor, the death of Nellie Doogan from a burst appendix and Charlie’s revenge on the farmer who did nothing to help her, and assisting a man wanted by the police. O’Donnell was in the IRA and we see nationalist sentiment here, with most of the islanders opposed to the police and excise men and happy to assist anyone on the run from them.

O’Donnell is clearly very sympathetic to the islanders and their plight. We see them as courageous, all willing to help one another, despite the occasional disagreements, and very hard working. They are completely cut off from the various services we take for granted, such as phone, medical services, electricity and so on, and have to fend for themselves in times of trouble. Despite or, perhaps, because of their foibles, O’Donnell gives us a wonderful portrait of a way of life that has long since disapepared.

Publishing history

First published 1928 by Jonathan Cape