This book has not been out of print since it was published in 1983. Published by Weidenfeld & Nicholson in 1983, by Pan 1985, by Pavanne 1988, re-published 1993, by Blackstaff in 1996.
"Caught between the flat mysterious lands of the aerodrome - forbidden and alien territory looming around our doorstep - the dead-end of the graveyard and the vast soughing of the water, the children in the book live in a left-over atavistic world, generations away from the rest of the post-war world of Britain, out of kilter with the chronology of the century. We were like preserved, resurrected relics from an earlier age, characters from a science-fiction story in which everything has been frozen and then rocketed through the slipstream of time into a thinner, more exhausted future where our present is everywhere else long past. We became enmeshed in our own myth, the secret mythology of sisterhood; and, although we did not then know it, we were already enmeshed in the larger mythology of Ireland and being Irish, engaged in the strange battle between natives of a place and yet having no security or power in that place."
All of Us There Polly Devlin.
Polly Devlin was one of six sisters who grew up in rural isolation in Tyrone, Northern Ireland, Trapped in flat, mysterious lands bordered by the alien territory of an old aerodrome, the legendary waters of Lough Neagh, the largest lake in Britain, and a strange Celtic cross, the family's way of life was far behind the times.
Returning to this unique place in time, a place which is also of the mind, the author explores the relationships between the sisters, their parents and neighbours, and the landscape within and around them.
In this vivid, thoughtful and poetic evocation, Polly Devlin reaches out beyond her own childhood and the tragic past and present of Ireland to create a stirring and memorable work of literature.
All of Us There, by Polly Devlin (Weidenfeld)
POLLY DEVLIN'S book - touching and lyrical and nostalgic - has many of the strengths of the pastoral poem. It is, in effect, an intensely realised retrospect. She was born in Tyrone in Northern Ireland at the end of the second world war; she has moved on to London journalism, urbanity and sophistication.
One is tempted to say reading these chapters, that she has shifted centuries. But, really, she has shifted them twice. The rural world she describes is almost that of the eighteenth century; the enclosure of the fields, the claustrophobia of the people, the utter removal from the complexities and tensions of the city or the country beyond - these are really qualities of Wordsworth's world, or John Clare's with a dash of Cobbett.
The book is really about the relationships between sisters and, in turn, their almost erotic relationship with a handsome, melancholy and gallant father. Some of the best writing in this book is about him. He is an intensely romantic figure in memory and - she persuades us - at the time. There are touches of Bronte-esque passion under the surface of the small family and she describes these with an intermittent fire which blazes and cools according to the self-consciousness of the tone.
I have deliberately mentioned these names like Bronte and Cobbett and Wordsworth because it brings me to the flaw in this book which is really otherwise rich in charm and persuasion It is, after all, an intensely literary book and it suffers from the weaknesses of the pastoral mode: there is a faint air of contrivance about some of it, born of nostalgia rather than dishonesty.
One of the great instabilities of pastoral retrospect is that the writers never really had the confidence that what they were remembering was perfect and desirable. So they washed it over with the soft focus of style. I suspect there is an even more interesting story under the soft focus of this book: a story of conflict and ambiguity and anger. A tragic story not a pastoral one. And I hope Polly Devlin comes to write it.
Eavan Boland - Guardian
A powerful evocation of an Irish childhood. Since so much of what we become is determined by our perceptions, by our feelings about what befell us as we grew up, a well-written autobiography has a power and a luminosity which is hard to equal.
Polly Devlin has written painfully tellingly of her rearing in Ardboe, Co Tyrone, on the shores of Lough Neagh, where "History and life are utterly mingled", a childhood in the early Fifties, poised between "the death throes of the oldest kind of social security and the beginning of a new dispensation."
One of seven children, six girls and one boy, Polly is the third eldest, and seems to have been in thrall all her life to her next eldest sister.
The sisterhood of the six girls is keenly and convincingly explored. The ebb and flow of rural life is brilliantly conveyed, its isolation and poverty only serving to concentrate the effect, to mark indelibly those participants, freeze-framed in time.
Family, School and Church have a power people born after 1970 perhaps may find it difficult to comprehend.
A simmering resentment at the "ha'panny place" of the minority in the years of unionist hegemony comes spewing out with an unattractive ferocity in the closing chapters.
I warmly recommend her book as an entree into a former era of innocent certainties, a lost demesne of rural Northern Ireland.
Marianne KcKeown - News Letter 16.5.94
"But it's those moments of danger - danger, not embarrassment - that I want explained, and in Craig's anthology they're confronted passionately and brilliantly by Polly Devlin in her autobiographical essay 'Meeting Brookeborough'. Devlin describes a humiliating childhood experience where on a visit to Warrenpoint, the Northern seaside resort that gave Denis Donoghue his bigotry, a 'shiny' Protestant girl asked, 'Are you a Roman?' and Devlin denied her faith. Denied it because she felt ashamed and wanted to be accepted. Thirty years later, Devlin and her sister Eiram realise that it was a crucially significant moment. With a pitch and directness I recognise and admire, Eiram says she feels the humiliation of self-betrayal and understands the thing of racial self-hatred, where a race turns in on itself, and feeds on the memories of inferiority, of others being superior. We hate ourselves both for letting it happen, for being inferior and for allowing ourselves to become so. But how could we not? It's where the IRA get part of their angry energy. We all know how you can demoralise an Irishman. Nobody is easier to demoralise by parading manners and social graces, and by making him feel socially ill at ease. They way you can make almost any Irish person feel uneasy or inferior. But touch him, lay a finger on him and he'll kill you."
A sense of inferiority and a gut aggression that flares when you're crossed - this is a significant part of the psychic landscape both communities inhabit. It's there in Paisley's complaint to the House of Commons in 1973 that Loyalists are being made to feel 'like second-class citizens' - i.e. like Catholics - and it is part of the legacy of 'self-hatred and dolorousness' which Devlin so vividly analyses.
"All words to do with physical contact, she argues, have a 'strange ambivalence' in Ulster: 'The word "touch" is interchangeable with the word "hit". "Don't touch her" means "Don't beat or hit her" never "Don't caress her."' And in a very powerful paragraph Devlin analyses the way 'our voices take on a vehemence and a passion that gives a dangerous edge to ordinary communications.' This is one of many analyses which over the years critics have made from the text.
Tom Paulin - London Review of Books
All of Us There by Polly Devlin (Weidenfeld)
Polly Devlin's memoirs take us to the Ireland of her childhood, where they depict a rural way of life that seems to have little place in the 20th century. The Ireland she writes about may now belong to a past era but it is certainly not temps perdu for Ms Devlin. As with most good autobiographies the memoirs are still a potent force in the writer's present life, reflected on with perceptive insight; the result falls somewhere between diary and literature. Actually this one is definitely closer to literature.
The author was one of seven children living in remote Co Tyrone, Northern Ireland, between the mysterious waters of Lough Neagh and a bleak, ugly aerodrome. Life was difficult (but not dull) for these children brought up on legends and guilt, Catholicism and myth. When, a few years later, Polly stumbles on an American Catholic school year-book, the contrast is wonderful. California, even Catholic California, looks like a planet in outer space, the young American faces shining with expectancy, consumer confidence, easy uncomplicated smiles - completely different from their Irish contemporaries reared on complexity and inhibition and dreams.
Some aspects of this strictly non-rational Irish life are brilliantly silly. The local fishermen believe that the Lough, where they fish, claims a victim every year, but they still won't learn to swim (that would tempt a personally-aimed blow from fate). One of these fishermen finally has a bathroom installed in his council flat. Ms Devlin notes his scornful response to the query, 'did he have baths in it?': 'Jaysus... I've hardly stuck it out on the Lough for nigh on 40 years to be drownded in me own front room.'
These memoirs reassuringly fill out and authenticate an Ireland transmitted through fiction; but they also afford an inside glimpse into a country caught in its past. Ms Devlin's lyrical-analytical tale suggests that history has it parallel, on the closer personal level, in the insistent spell of early memories that won't let go.
Kathy O'Shaughnessy - New Statesman
'Touching and nostalgic'
'A hauntingly lovely work... beautifully written with poetic intensity which seems to encapsulate the Irish character with all its wit and bitterness and gift for words.'
Homes and Gardens
'She conjures places as vividly as feelings, and feelings as exactly as her surroundings. She re-invents the past with the aid of photographic prose, an album not only for herself and her sisters in Ireland, but full of pictures many who read this book will recognise.'
Patrick Kinmonth - Vogue
All of Us There by Polly Devlin (Pan). An unforgettable exorcism of the author's fearful, guilt-ridden Catholic childhood in the 1950's in a Northern Ireland backwater where life and attitudes seemed fixed in a time warp of a century earlier.
Linda O'Callaghan - Sunday Telegraph
All of Us There by Polly Devlin (Pan). Marvellously evocative account of a rural childhood in Northern Ireland.
The Yorkshire Post
Another highly successful book by an Irish woman writer, Polly Devlin's autobiographical "All of Us There" comes in Pan; this brief but sensitively written memoir of her Ulster childhood has been widely praised, in spite of a certain emotional self-consciousness.
The Irish Times
ALL OF US THERE by Polly Devlin (Weidenfeld and Nicolson)
THE FAR SIDE OF THE LOUGH stories from an Irish Childhood by Polly Devlin (Gollancz)
AUTOBIOGRAPHIES come in many shapes, but they are rarely lyrical. "All of Us There," by Polly Devlin, is an exception, but she sets out not so much to celebrate herself as herself in the context of a family in which there were six girls before a boy rounded off the collection.
Very close in age, the sisters were bound even closer by the circumstances of their life in County Tyrone, on the banks of Lough Neagh. Her father was the son of a man "who vaulted away from his prescribed future and in so doing gave himself just enough status to leave himself isolated, and who married the first schoolmistress in the first public elementary school to be established in the district."
Polly's father also married a schoolmistress, and acquired a public house. In youth he had been a fine athlete, and his daughter describes him as notably handsome. Her mother's distinctions were that she was a teacher (as such, drove a car) and had blonde hair and golden skin. That she was not, like her husband, a Catholic would, I should have thought, in County Tyrone, have distinguished her more than anything, but Miss Devlin does not go into details about this item of her heritage.
Did her mother change religion to marry? We are not told. Her father, Miss Devlin tells us, disliked any conversation about his wife's former life and surroundings. "As a child I felt that all of us by each of our comings had dragged her down to her present existence."
The Devlin Children were thrown much upon themselves for company and fitted in socially nowhere. Genetically they were a triumph, and they appreciated themselves; we are told of sisterly feuds, but never doubt that at the approach of an enemy they closed ranks. Miss Devlin rhapsodises abut her father, without failing to note him as an example of the Irish woman-exploiting male. She misses very little. The men in her family had reversed the fairytale tradition. Instead of leaving home to seek fortune and find a bride, they stayed rooted in the same spot, flourished there, and took to themselves wives of "different stock, background and religion".
In Tyrone this meant social isolation, "but something else was disturbing those roots. By the time we arrived the twentieth century, almost half of its span late, had arrived too and was encircling our community, about to invade it, weapons and barter goods at the ready: trinkets for the natives, electricity, wireless and television and, most dazzling of all, Social Security. We grew up in that moment between the death throes of the oldest kind of social security, and the beginnings of a new dispensation.
This last is illustrated in a dramatic episode far on in the book, after Miss Devlin had won a Vogue magazine competition and leaped at one bound into London journalism. She found herself sitting beside Lord Brookeborough at a dinner-party in Northern Ireland, when he was Prime Minister: "He treated me with a heavy-handed flirtatiousness." At the end of the meal he admitted that he hadn't caught her name, and when she told him, said "you've come far" and turned away, and never spoke to her again that evening. She "sat winded" and with "anger bubbling under my stricken heart."
His manner brought back her first experience of "the dramatic and coarse expression of religious intolerance which is so much to the taste of the people of Ulster." It was too painful to bear, and she left the table. Overreacting, some might say, but not less illuminating on that account. Lord Brookeborough would have liked Miss Devlin's picture of the clergy and nuns of her own Church.
The Local priests of her childhood were "well-meaning men of narrow and bigoted education, with no families of their own to temper their received, fixed and narrow ideas, they were often overbearing and impatient in judgement, but their authority was never questioned." I had forgotten the country practice of reading out at Mass the names and amounts given by parishioners in church dues. It established a sort of hierarchy. "I was frightened of priests," Miss Devlin says. "Part of this fear stemmed from the knowledge that our adults feared them too. As a social system - which it was - our religion constituted a tyranny."
Nuns were something else. Miss Devlin was a boarder at a convent for two years, at a day-school for two more. "The alarums of their gait seemed to suggest they were about to happen on the committing of some sin, and the spaces around their black-clad bodies were filled with an emanation of their gauntness, so that before you saw them or, even earlier, heard their rustling, rattling approach, you felt a precursory cold ooze."
The Devlins' Protestant aunt and uncle lived at Warrenpoint; Polly describes a visit. On the beach, Catholics knew their place. She felt a cheat at the bitter end, but on Sunday she had to meet the second-class citizens at church. Her little Protestant playmates spotted something wrong, and when asked if she was "Roman", an expression she had never heard before, she forgot St Peter and said "Methodist" as a compromise. Afterwards she was much distressed at the thought of her sin.
But religion plays a small part in the whole. The book is inspired by love - too much so, perhaps, for those who prefer savoury to sweet. This is not an ordinary family; they bring to mind the Brontes, if they had been given rude health. One episode is like the scene when Emily thrashes her beloved dog. This is where Polly is shown how to gut eels, and takes the knife and does it to the manner born. A born writer this, but with a temptation to show off her word collection.
I could only wish she had left out the factual chapter - we can get statistics elsewhere. This book is too stylish to give them room, nor is Miss Devlin too reliable on fact. She has some of her numbers wrong, and it is misleading to say that the Heroes of the 1916 Rising were Protestant and Anglo-Irish. Come to that, my senile recollection of the penny Catechism rejects "Thou shalt not covet they Neighbour's wife" as the Sixth Commandment. However reading this book ought to help towards an understanding of the North. I got a gleam of hope.
To coincide with her autobiography, Miss Devlin publishes a book of stories of an Irish childhood. They are attractively presented and illustrated, suitable for all ages, and draw heavily on the matter in the parent volume; travellers' samples for anyone who hesitates to tackle the autobiography. I recommend them. Where will she go from here? My guess if Autobiography Volume Two: the story of the girl who conquered London in more ways than one.
Terence de Vere White
All of Us There by Polly Devlin. (Weidenfeld and Nicolson)
Polly Devlin, whose reputation has been made as a fashionable journalist, was evidently moved to write this little book by natural piety, to celebrate a remarkable childhood. She was born in 1944 in so remote a community in Northern Ireland that the life she remembers might almost as well have been passing in 1844. Political testament was certainly not her aim; but she was also born a Catholic in Northern Ireland, and her concluding chapters, in which she discusses this caustic birthright, are likely to be what ledges in the reader's memory.
The official Catholicism has long since been repudiated: the repressed hysteria, the "social tyranny", the petty blackmailing shifts of poor priests to raise money from equally poor congregations, the "religious pornography" of blood-filled icons in a community acknowledging no other art. By simple loyalty, though, the author (though she oddly, and needlessly, in these chapters, invokes statistics and other people's writings to support her own) speaks very perceptively of how language, for instance, which always runs high in Ireland, falls heavily on children - so that "I'll slaughter you" and "you'll go to hell for that" are daily admonitions - and with sombre compassion about a population which, from schooldays onwards, when only an alien history and culture are taught, feels its sense of country and of religion overruled; "Self-esteem, that fragile and necessary attribute, is easily enough removed from vulnerable people and individuals of any tribe living under official contempt. In their subsequent loss of confidence they will turn on themselves, become fiercely protective and yet find little that is loveable among or about themselves. Part of this bequest is the self-hatred and dolorousness that poisons so many of the lives around us." These marks the author says she carried still: "that part of me which is still connected with their suffering makes me want to turn on my rational present educated other part and rend myself in half, or tear one part from the other so that one part of me can wholly hate."
ALL OF US THERE, which you might call an interesting experiment in autobiography, if the phrase (or one very like it) hadn't already been used by H G Wells to describe Dorothy Richardsons's Pilgrimage, a work of entirely different provenance is both very good and very bad. Once you have read it, however, it's the impression of excellence that remains.
What are its faults? Deep feeling, and the 'fine' writing it engenders, mar the opening. The author is poring over an old photograph of herself, her five sisters and brother, all arranged in descending order, as it might be in a bygone advertisement for Fry's Cocoa. 'The bodies of the children held there for ever in their old poses are alert, as though something within them is perpetually poised for flight,' she says. There is something wrong with the tone of this observation. You have the snapshot, which is fine as a device to get the narrative started, and the emotion imposed on it, which has a jarring effect. Slightly modish expressions - 'apartness'; 'utterly together' - make us a bit uneasy too, especially if we've lately been reading an extraordinary anthropological study, by an American called Henry Glassie, of a small area in the county (Fermanagh) that borders on Polly Devlin's Tyrone; this scholarly work gets the utmost mystical and emotional significance out of everything it mentions, down to the bucket of water on the kitchen floor.
There are times, reading All of Us There, when you wonder if the Glassie manner is catching ('.....the ordinarly flux of time, hastening as it is sucked towards its end, seems to us to part and close round sisterly time as though we are boulders in a stream...' and so on). But you soon realise that overwriting, which doesn't occur all that frequently, is simply Polly Devlin's way of establishing the children in their setting, and at the same time avoiding a chatty or whimsical approach. Whenever the author falls into a reverie, a sudden impressive evocation or a forthright assertion gets her out of it before it seriously affects the style of the book.
The children's names are a worry, though. If three of the sisters, let us suppose, are called Marie, Margaret and Clare, is anything achieved by spelling the first backwards to get Eiram, and exchanging the other two for Morgan and Sinclare? This hardly protects anyone's privacy, and it will probably leave the casual reader with an impression that the typical Co Tyrone Catholic family of the 1940' was less conservative in the matter of names than it actually was. (Towards the end of the book you find Polly Devlin describing as a marvellous eccentricity the American habit of turning surnames like Kelly and Donovan into Christian names; What about Morgan and Sinclare, then, you want to ask). When the sisters are allowed to speak for themselves, in the present, their voices often sound stilted, self-conscious and unironic, and this is odd because dialogue remembered from the past is always natural and authentic. Among Polly Devlin's assets is a facility in reproducing dialect: all kinds of robust phrases and catch-phrases turn up in the book. 'The devil's in her as big as a goat'. 'I don't give a hait'; 'She's in glaur to the oxters' - such expressions make for liveliness, as well as embodying the charm of local distinctiveness.
This is virtually all Ardboe, where the Devlins grew up, has to offer in the way of charm - a rich sense of the past, with its accompanying afflictions of the spirit, and an oppressive Catholicism have seen to that. Poverty and backwardness, too, are not conducive to an optimistic outlook. In a place where it is not unusual to find a family of ten inhabiting a two-roomed, tin-roofed cottage, the Devlins' relative prosperity make them outstanding, without diminishing their ties with the community. They live in an Edwardian two-story house with a large garden. They own a car. Their mother is a schoolteacher and their father the proprietor of a pub. A maidservant called Ellen is employed to help with the children, and it is from Ellen - good humoured and perpetually harassed - that the most expressive dialect outbursts come.
Polly Devlin writes about a moment of transition, when the district was about to be overtaken by the bleakest kind of modernisation -heralded in the presence, near-by, of a disused aerodrome which had been constructed during the Second World War, by flattening the land and erasing an entire village - the only village in Ardboe.' Tarmacced roads and television follow, and, much later, bungalows and other horrid small buildings start to disfigure the landscape in a different way. In All of Us There, personal recollection and social observation are admirably blended: Polly Devlin is especially perceptive about the rough-and-ready treatment meted out to children in her generation, the effects of in-breeding and isolation, occasions of devilment and merriment, the Irish instinct for hyperbole, and the psychological predispositions of the Northern Irish Catholic. No one who has experienced a convent education, I think, will fail to appreciate her telling reticence on the subject of nuns; enough is said to make the author's disenchantment plain, it's true, but you feel a great deal has been left unsaid. She also shows great insight into the condition of having had inferiority thrust upon you (an inescapable effect of growing up Catholic in a Protestant state); though in her case and that of her sisters, it is mitigated by a liberal, unembittered atmosphere at home.
The source of every one of the stories in The Far Side of the Lough is disclosed in All of Us There; you cannot tax the author with failing to make the most of her childhood, experiences. The stories - 'suitable for children or adults' the publishers say - all follow the same pattern: the servant, Mary-Ellen from Ardboe, is persuaded to recount an incident from her own past for the benefit of the small motherless girl she is bringing up. (The book is illustrated by Ian Newsham who seems not to have realised that small boys in the 1920's wore short trousers: he puts them all in jeans).'When I was a little girl and Mary-Ellen was looking after me...' the majority of these tales begin. You nearly lose patience when you find the word 'wore' repeated five times on the first half-page; but fortunately such carelessness isn't typical. The writing for the most part is dispassionate and lucid, and the details of a remote country upbringing are set out with striking clarity: '...every griddleful of soda bread was baked on the stove that had to be kept full of wood or coal from morning to night and needed to be riddled free of ashes hourly' - and so on.
It's a sorry life, however, in many ways; and one which children, who generally require from the fiction an outcome satisfactory in terms of justice and vindication for the heroine, probably won't relish as much as the sympathetic adult reader. Poor Mary-Ellen, the youngest of seven, briefly possesses a cherished doll which is destroyed by a lunatic (this is an actual memory of the real-life servant Ellen's), loses a small collection of wild strawberries to a bullying boy (in this one, it's true, retribution is exacted, but not in a way that really compensates the deprived child), gets a fright when a horse-and-cart in the charge of a madman thunders past her, and is affected so profoundly by the slaughter of a pig that she never eats bacon again. Mary-Ellen, a brisk and cheerful adult, is the victim of so many small miseries in childhood that you wonder why her stories don't have a more dispiriting effect. That they don't, in fact, is due to their unpretentious, anecdotal tone, and also to the story teller's capacity for extracting drama from the visit of a man selling paraffin, or the description of a flaxhole. Legends, traditions and landmarks are plentiful too in the locality - we learn from both books - and these contribute picturesqueness to The Far Side of the Lough; in the more substantial work (the autobiography) they are more cogently connected with the social and historical background. Both books, indeed contain much that we should be grateful for; and both deserve to be read with the closest attention.
The Far Side of the Lough by Polly Devlin (Gollanz)
It is rare enough that two books are published simultaneously by the same author, especially if that author has no other books to his or her credit. But then Polly Devlin is hardly unknown, at least to readers of "The Sunday Times," "The Observer," "Vogue" and other papers, and she also impressed people on this side of the water with a recent Late Late Show appearance.
"All of Us There" is basically autobiographical while "The Far Side of the Lough" consists of tales from that Irish and Catholic childhood. The first is altogether a braver book as she attempts something that fails many other authors - recreate their early years.
At first glance the material for this task is not overly promising - a relatively uneventful upbringing in Ardboe, a remote region, as she says, of a remote county - Tyrone. But the author invests this telling with a sense of place, a sense of time. Remote Ardboe may have been - bounded by a lough on one side and disused aerodrome on the other - but it was a living community with a tale behind every nickname or sorrowed face.
The author was born into a large family and any reader with half a dozen brothers and sisters will recognise the family factors shaping her life. As she recalls "There were every day in our linked world endless opportunities for betrayal, self-betrayal and treachery. These power struggles, so gargantuan and dynastic to us, were merely irritating squabbles to adult eyes, squabbles about nothing, and there was no use trying to explain that to us they were about everything on earth." Yet we really get to know only one of the other five sisters, Eiram "who looks like a true Celt... and who looms all over life". Ellen, the home "help", also looms large throughout the narrative. The author slips effortlessly between the tenses, between the years, past and present - too effortlessly sometimes, as we do not know what age she was when particular incidents took place. There are some find passages as the author lovingly describes a childhood that seemed timeless but was overtaken by time. The honeyed tones of the earlier years and chapters are in sharp contrast with the bitterness that seeps in when she describes the activities of money-grabbing priests in the parish.
The taste is even sourer when she turns to the Unionist hegemony to recall in a tired tirade the sins against the minority (using, incidentally, old "Sunday Times" Insight material). This chapter, presumably written for her English readers, tried to explain the rage that beats in many a Catholic's heart. "We are bequeathed this nervous interest and enmeshment in our past as our best inheritance, entrusted with it like a sacrament," she writes. what a pity that the fire and indignation in this chapter is ruined by an extraordinary error in which she refers to Lord Brookborough as "a man who was head of a state which there were almost two million Catholics in a population of four million people."
For all that, it is a worthwhile endeavour but do not, I suggest, read the second volume immediately afterwards. If you do you will be infuriated to discover that the opening story is really an extended version of an incident recalled in her autobiography. There are only six others, interspersed with some fine line drawings, in this slim volume.
John Walshe - Irish Independent
Even though one might not guess it from the blurb on the cover, there is more to this book than "the touching and lyrical and nostalgic" about which The Guardian newspaper speaks and Home and Gardens enthuses. There is indeed that, for the author takes us very firmly by the hand and guides us slowly through the countryside in which she grew up, introducing us to her parents, five sisters and only brother, to the neighbours who peopled her childhood in Northern Ireland in the early 1950s, and to the home farm situated on the shores of Lough Neagh, where the "soughing music" of the biggest lake in the UK formed "the aural background to each day." Yes, there is something lyrical in the description of the Devlin children's early years in "a left-over place operating on a time-scale of its own, with a way of life that still clung softly to the earth, nourishing it and being nourished by it like the fleece on a sheep."
But Polly Devlin does not only write about "the moment in the rose garden", had this been the case, one would have been tempted to ask, as T S Eliot did in another context "to what purpose disturbing the dust on a bowl of rose leaves," since romanticism is no longer enough, and certainly not when Northern Ireland is involved. NO, she writes about Ardboe where her family lived, a place "too poor and too wild to have been lived in by the Scottish Presbyterian and English immigrants who took over the land but lived in prettier places," and about the lough where fishermen had fished from time immemorial but where the rights all belonged to a London company. She describes at length growing up under two tyrannies: that of the Catholic Church, whose priests were all to often "well-meaning men of narrow and bigoted education" and who showed a greater capacity for dispensing guilt than grace, and that of a political system which treated Catholics as second-class citizens. Until the early 1950s, when a scholarship examination was introduced Catholic children had no hope of going to grammar school, no matter how intelligent they were. It would have been beyond the financial reach of their parents. Polly Devlin was among the lucky ones who did not have to count on a scholarship to continue studying, for her parents were not poor But she mourns for those who were less fortunate and whose "astonishing talents" lay fallow or went to waste. "left without a future, many people of the district had a double grief: grief for themselves as they were and for the person they might have become."
All of Us There contains anger "for the psychic violence done to the native Irish" and hate for a system which could produce iron-gloved men like Lord Brookeborough who, during his twenty years as Northern Ireland prime minister (1943-63), boasted that he would never employ a Catholic on his staff. Yet, though the author wishes at one moment that she could turn on her "rational present educated" part so that "one part of me could wholly hate," this is not a bitter book. It ends, as it began, on a note of love.
For those who do not control hate, there is no way out except violence turned against one's self or against others. For those who do, there remain those places of the mind where reality is transmuted into a poetic vision. This vision is what Polly Devlin has chosen to share with us as she guides us through time past to that Ardboe where she grew up and which was "as much a place of the mind as a place in itself."
Kathleen Bernard - I.L.S.
All of Us There by Polly Devlin. I pay homage to Polly Devlin (Magnet). She discusses the Ulster Catholic woman's plight with humour, dignity and brilliance. A childhood drawn with no blemish of whimsy in a country where to state your surname is to provoke instant assumptions about your religion and politics. The painful split identify of a woman brought up with the impossible task of populating God's Heaven while emulating the Virgin. I felt great shudders of relief that someone understood and said it out loud.
Frances Tomelty - Women's Review
All of Us There is the fruit of a spiritual journey of another kind - back to Polly Devlin's Northern Irish Catholic childhood in search of meaning and continuity. She describes the faces looking out at her from old family photograph albums, her own and those of her five sisters and brother: 'a look of bruised innocence, of anxious love'. Later she writes of 'the sullen, self-inflicted pain of blame' shared by her and her siblings - the legacy, we are to suppose, of their Catholicism, of a father sentimentally committed to melancholy and of a mother who was unhappy because she could not pursue a middle-class way of life in the remote, rural County Tyrone to which marriage had brought her, All of Us There, however, is also, or really, about the people of the province. The sister who is married to the poet Seamus Heaney is quoted as saying that once she had grown up ;she 'realised what I'd always know, but had never discovered - that a secret other life had been going on all the time which we missed partly because it wasn't regarded, partly because we were cut off from it by our expectations, our education, our position as children of our parents.' Polly Devlin is concerned here to make up for her family's separation, throughout her childhood, from that secret life. The Ulster of the Fifties is presented as a world of grinding poverty, inadequate employment, overcrowded housing conditions, arbitrary decisions by landlords and clergy: we are shown a priest escorting the parishioner with the collection plate and calling out the value of each offering. Under the pressure of poverty and of the Church's repressive views sexual relationships are devalued and treated with scorn. This may help to explain the investment of so much romance in the notion of Ireland. Celibacy and late marriages are widespread, and responsible, Ms Devlin thinks, for the large numbers of her fellow-countrymen who live a marginal existence, their minds on the borderline between sanity and madness - sad, silent figures who occasionally erupt. These are tolerated in Ireland to a degree that may be uncommon elsewhere: but so, too, is a high level of domestic violence. Children are widely thought to need the badness knocked out of them. One of the adults in All of Us There is the maid, Ellen - the children's principal link with the peasantry. She is the model for Mary-Ellen in Far Side of the Lough, a collection of short stories. Mary-Ellen tells the little motherless girl in her charge stories of her own childhood - a technique adopted, one feels, in deference to the Irish oral tradition, part of the 'secret life' from which the middle classes are excluded....
Marguerite Alexander - London Review of Books
"'We lived on Sugar Island', she said, 'and from the windows of the drawing room, which was on the first floor, you could see everything that was happening!'"
Polly Devlin remembers her mother's words in her new book All of Us There (Weidenfeld & Nicolson). She conjures places as vividly as feelings, and feelings as exactly as her surroundings: a fear is pegged down in words as closely as an image of a rhubarb patch or barn. Her book is not autobiography, or novel, or poetical yarn or love story, yet has the fine qualities of all of these. It roams imaginatively far away from its source, the limits of an Irish childhood, spurred always by the paradox that, because of the effects of time, the woman writing both is and is not the person whose world she is writing about. The subject shifts constantly from memory to place and on into an adult, foreign land, where mind is distinct from place. But a definition for the book need not be found; it creates its own reality from common experience, and has that characteristic of good travel writing, a shifting mix of immersion, experience and clairvoyant aloofness. Her voice is unmistakably daring in its exhaustive details of feeling, not hiding in deep pot-holes of Irishness, the excuse of unexplained magic and the right to be inspired by grievance worn on the sleeve like some badge. She re-invents the past with the aid of photographic prose, an album not only for herself and her sisters in Ireland, but full of pictures many who read this book will recognise.
"... I remember reading once of how mushrooms had, over four hundred years, raised a huge flagstone with their subtle and stubborn growth; looking at ourselves in these photographs, time seems like that - silently pressing on to that young skin with a terrible, tiny power until suddenly it has arrived whole and I am here, now, as I am."
Patrick Kinmonth - Vogue
All of Us There by Polly Devlin. Weidenfeld & Nicolson.
Polly Devlin's book starts as a densely poetic thesis on the strains and strengths of sisterhood and at first it is a bit of a puzzle. Why does she take such pains to introduce us to the family of six little girls and a boy growing up on a farm in Co Tyrone, who are neither famous enough for biography nor infamous enough for history? In fact the book is neither biography nor history and yet it's much more than another family saga. It is a breathtaking visual and intellectual display of the effects of life's elements - relationships, environment, nationality - on its most delicate and absorptive material - the child.
At first the children are seen as sepia figures in an old photograph, posed and faded, and then they step out, the six little Devlin scamps, dance around us in a ring of fascination and magic and drag us back to a world where wonder exists at knee level (strawberries under a hedge, a giant rhubarb plant, oil in a puddle) and where the blurred baby outlines are carved into the sharper lines of personality by the lasting little wounds of childhood.
Polly Devlin's technique of seductive imagery reminds me of the application of this skill in another favourite book Vladimir Nabokov's Transparent Things in which a pencil found neglected in a drawer becomes a parable for time. Devlin talks of "a way of life that still clung softly to the earth, nourishing it and being nourished by it, like the fleece on a sheep."
When fleece is cut from the sheep and is collected at nightfall, the fleeces are still live and warm. If the summer night is cold after a hot day, a mist like the haze on the Lough clouds the wool and the cooling fleeces stir slightly all night through. In an old wood-room you could hear the fleeces stirring - a faint sound like soft breathing. Our generation in Ardboe were like fleeces cut from the last of the flock.
No adjective but the well-worn 'shimmering' could describe Miss Devlin's prose. The gentle mist of poetry which overhangs it rises to reveal an enchanting lucidity and lightness. She gives us a child's eyes. We are drawn into that slow motion world of childhood where minutes spin out as melodramas and the real action occurs so swiftly, with a child's lure to impulse, that one is made vividly aware that adults are outsiders in this world.
One of the best sequence is a description of an outing with their father to take tea to the men in the field at harvest time. Their father goes to the pub to buy stout for his workers, leaving four little girls in the car with the engine running (to turn it off would mean a handle start), full of tense excitement first and then, boredom.
After a while Elizabeth puts her basket of sandwiches on the floor, clambers into the driver's seat, grasps the steering wheel, lets off the handbrake and away we go. The car rolls down the Brae Hill, past Biddy's house, her eyes glittering from the darkness, past the well where Lena seeks watery nirvana, past John-Joe Campbell, rocking himself on his hunkers at the end of his loaning and as unmoved by the sight of three small children being driven at some speed by one only marginally bigger, as he is by any other event.
She beautifully captures a Tyrone child's confusion, on delving into the Children's Encyclopaedia, to read descriptions of the British Empire and the 'White Man's Burden.'
Naturally, much of the book's emphasis rests on the religious influences and divisions of our island. She refers to us as a "wounded, modest people" and recalls such barbaric practices as the priest reading out the amount of each contribution with the name of the donor at the major church collections.
There was the glorious mystery of 'bad thoughts' against which growing children were constantly warned until their innocent heads were full of them.
And although thoughts that were labelled 'bad' were supposed to be vanquished or banished by prayer or by the rite of confession, they skulked in a depth of the mind, under a trapdoor, hunkered and hideously shapely, waiting for any weak moment to come pushing up to the surface.
Most of us grow up pining for the loss of our childhood. Polly Devlin, a mature, compassionate and consummately skilful guide, gives us a second chance, a reverse telescopic view. It is a lovely redemptive book, fluent and fluid and as Ireland irrevocably emerges from its 'wounded modesty' as a small and seedy slice of Europe, it becomes, too, a unique non-violent historic document about the importance of unimportant people.
Clare Boylan - Inside Tribune
AN ULSTER CHILDHOOD On our own nastiest Civil War, the one that has been raging intermittently since Strongbow, Polly Devlin is a startlingly enlightening writer, although in All of Us There, this is only obliquely what she is writing about. The subject to the forefront of this singularly beautiful book is her own childhood in a small settlement on the shores of Lough Neagh.
She was born in 1944, the third daughter in a family of six daughters and then one son, the children of a Catholic farmer who had married a schoolmistress as his own father had done. It was the only family in the neighbourhood that had, in the father's generation, produced a professional man, and the only family where, in Polly Devlin's own generation, the children went on to secondary education.
I have said this is a beautiful book, and so it is, and it can be read for the poetry of its prose alone; for its descriptions of the eel-filled lough that was known to claim a death a year; of the people, poor and often strange, even beyond the capacity of this isolated, inbred community to absorb; of the magics that everyone believed and practised as devoutly as their formal religion; and of Ellen, the maid or mother's help, whose 20-year-long hopes of marriage must at last fade until "at some point Ellen began to mourn instead of to plan."
Much of what Polly Devlin tells us is terrible. It isn't only that the existence of this degree of poverty, here, in the British Isles is shameful, not only that the Devlins' only radio when Polly was a child, was a crystal set, with paraffin lamps a startlingly civilising modern innovation. The tragedy was and no doubt is far more in the outlook. This community is a generation, several generations, a century and more removed from our modern world as we see it from southern England at least.
Children in that community in Ulster were still, as before our own Romantic Age, born as imps of Satan, casually ill-treated, without any rights to courtesy or consideration. as witness the apparently unremedied wrong of the decapitated doll. Even though Polly Devlin's handsome, seemingly admirable father never raised a hand to his own brood, still the children she meets when on a seaside visit to an aunt are as if from another world: "These children are casually engaged in activities that previously I have encountered only in library books.
"They arrange meetings in each other's houses by telephone, hold parties with conjurors who perform magic tricks, they ride, swim, play tennis, join the Girl Guides or Boy Scouts, go camping with rucksacks and tents. Their parents meet for meals, for coffee, to play golf or bridge, or to arrange fund-raising events to help deprived children overseas. They lead, in other words, a perfectly ordinary mid-twentieth-century, middle-class existence."
"It was through them," Polly Devlin writes, "that the first intimation that we are inferior is subtly brought home to me."
Knowing that we are inferior is, of course, something common to most of us, unless we are white, at least middle-class, Anglo-Saxon Protestant or of the French ancien élite. Few of us need endure the sense of inferiority the Devlin children and their kind had to learn about, not only because they are children but because they are Irish Catholics in Ulster, living under two tyrannies; the tyranny of their own priests, and the tyranny of the ruling Protestants.
No outsider can begin to know what this feel like, but Polly Devlin's book brings the reader to some sense of beginning to know. Coarsely, I cannot help but feel that, for all the harm we know it may do, that Great Emancipator, Prosperity, is needed first if there is ever to be a beginning towards good.
ALL OF US THERE. By Polly Devlin. Weidenfield & Nicholson. Autobiographical account of a Co Tyrone childhood. "Most of us grew up pining for the loss of our childhood," wrote Clare Boylan in July. "Polly Devlin, a mature, compassionate and consummately skilful guide, gives us a second chance, a reverse telescopic view. It is a lovely redemptive book, fluent and fluid..."
John Bowman - The Sunday Tribune
All of Us There by Polly Devlin. These recollections of childhood in Northern Ireland are full of the sadness of time passing. Polly Devlin says of her father: "He seemed able to turn over the leaves of our future and embed in them, just under the surface, a dolorous watermark." Her memories of growing up with five sisters and a brother are warmly evocative of the strong feelings of protectiveness, jealousy and shared secrets that bind large families so tightly. Her description of her and her sisters' sense, as Catholics in Northern Ireland, of being neither Irish nor British, and of her encounters with the former Ulster prime minister, Lord Brookeborough, are ripe with feelings of indignation and downright hostility. (Pavanne)
Austin MacCurtain - The Sunday Times
Polly Devlin born after the war, one of seven children growing up in a remote part of County Tyrone where an abandoned wartime airfield had left a scar on both landscape and the way of life of the small, insular Roman Catholic community. All of Us There (Weidenfeld & Nicholson) is a brooding, evocative study of Irish childhood, of the strong bonds of love and jealousy that sisters especially feel (there was only one son), the guilt-ridden pressures of religion, the magical countryside, the eccentric villages. The book is beautifully written, with a poetic intensity which seems to encapsulate the Irish character with all its wit and bitterness and gift for words. Reading it, I felt I understood for the first time much of what sometimes baffles me in the characters of my Irish friends. A hauntingly lovely work.
Polly Devlin's memoirs take us to the Ireland of her childhood, where they depict a rural way of life that seems to have little place in the 20th century. The Ireland she writes about may now belong to a past era but it is certainly not temps perdu for Ms Devlin. As with most good autobiographies the memoirs are still a potent force in the writer's present life, reflected on with perceptive insight; the result falls somewhere between diary and literature. Actually this one is definitely closer to literature
Polly Devlin's flinty memoir of life in a middle-class Catholic family in Northern Ireland, All of Us There, is a great critical success.
Joe Ambrose - Sunday Times
Every woman who reads Polly Devlin's book will share in some way the experience that she is speaking for all of us. Polly Devlin was the third of seven children, 6 girls and one boy. Born in 1944 in Ardboe, Tyrone, she grew up in a world that was virtually untainted by modern advances, a world few of her contemporaries would ever have experienced. In her book 'All Of Us There' she returns to her birthplace and explores, with tremendous insight, the relationships between the children, their parents and neighbours and the landscape within and around them.
In this memorable work of literature, Polly Devlin reaches out beyond her own childhood, and the tragic past and present of Ireland, to create a remarkable documentation of the isolated world she knew.
There is great emotion in this book for women in Northern Ireland. Polly's description of her mother is so true of so many of our mothers and perhaps, of ourselves. "She keeps about her an extraordinary innocent quality, a bruised innocence, and even after bearing seven children she still wears the same look that she has in the only photograph we see of her as a child." Polly Devlin is able to see as no writer has before, the great pathos in the Irish woman, her resilience to trauma and inherent lack of sophistication.
Polly Devlin knows us better than we think we know ourselves, and her tremendous insight is both unnerving and reassuring. The raw emotions of women are something Polly describes with clear understanding.
There is great potency in all Polly Devlin's writings. The reader will find her book thought provoking. Her perception of her own life lays bear our own lives in many ways.
Maria McCann - Northern Woman
Old people have died, taking with them a lifestyle that the children of today may not be able to imagine existed. Polly Devlin in her novel All Of Us There brings it all back.
The place in question is Muinterevlin, the country of the Devlins, that ragged, low lying silent place where she, her five sisters and brother were born in a ten year period during and after the second world war.
They were a privileged family compared to some of their neighbours and lived in a situation that was very pastoral, green and disordered, in a way of life that was far behind the times.
Vivien Igoe - Catholic Herald
In this book Polly Devlin's imagination and fancy wander over the scenes and atmosphere of her childhood and use actual incidents to spark off prose poetry.
G D Hammerton - Derby Evening Telegraph