All of Us There

By Polly Devlin

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The power of this book is in the intensity of the language and the closeness of attention to little details. Devlin, for instance, describes how the fleeces of sheep, freshly cut, move and almost breathe and give of a soft mist where they are piled together.

“There is no place in this world for aspirations towards ancestry. In any case our ancestry and that of everyone around lives on in the foundations of our daily lives, and is enshrined in the names of the townlands, the landmarks, the small hillocks - the Moor Hill, Biddy’s Brae, the Eglish Rising; in the corners and twists of a single road - Dan Daisy’s Bend, the Kiln Corner, Grainne’s Corner; in the names of the trees - Matty’s Thorn, the Pig Tree, Treanor’s Rookery, the Pin Tree. Every field too has its name, crop, characteristic and lore. The Fallow Field has never been ploughed; the Bush Hill has a fairy tree in the middle which is never lopped or disturbed; the Car road Field lies alongside the old original road that once was the main traverse across the district; and Matty’s Hill commemorates an old widower whose tiny cottage has long since gone to earth. Yet we have already begun to slip out of this world, or occupy a slightly ambivalent position within it - partly because of our parents’ occupations in a district where everyone else’s work is connected with the land or the water, and partly because of that long reach our male forebears made to bring in mates from outside the district and from a different class - the class that finds it demeaning, rather than descriptive, to be called peasants.”

Extract courtesy of the author and Little, Brown Book Group

This is a lyrically beautiful account of growing up in rural Tyrone in the 1950s.

The book describes the enclosed rural culture within which, as Devlin has said, minds were fettered by religion and politics.

It is also one of the most memorable evocations of an Ulster childhood in print, full of love, vivid recollection, and an intensity of focus on family and tradition and place to which is brought a particularly female perspective, not common in Irish literature as a whole.

Further Infomation


“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.”
Eavan Boland - Guardian

“All of us There was originally published in 1983. Some twenty years later, Virago Press has categorised it as a Modern Classic, published it in paperback for a new audience, and provided a good, solid Introduction by Emma Donoghue, suggesting that this is the kind of book that might be ‘studied’ as well as read at leisure…”
Paul Harron, Ulster Tatler.

“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

“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

“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 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

“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

“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





Virago, 2003

Original publisher: Weidenfeld and Nicholson, 1983




ISBN-10: 1844080447 / ISBN-13: 978-1844080441