Eilís Dillon was born in Galway on 7 March 1920.
Educated at the Ursuline Convent in Sligo, she married in 1940 and moved to Cork. From the mid-1940s she began to write children’s books in Irish and English, then detective stories and novels, mostly published by Faber and Faber. During the 1960s she lived in Rome.
Across the Bitter Sea, her big historical novel about the road to Irish independence, was published in 1973 and became an instant bestseller. Having married the critic Vivian Mercier after her first husband’s death, she divided her time between Dublin and California during the 1970s and 1980s, continuing to write historical novels and other books.
Eilís Dillon served on the Arts Council, the International Commission for English in the Liturgy, and the boards of the Irish Writers’ Union and the Irish Writers’ Centre. She was a Fellow of the Royal Society of Literature, and a member of Aosdána, for the establishment of which she had long argued. She received an honorary doctorate from University College Cork in 1992. Her last publication was her edition of Vivian Mercier’s posthumous Modern Irish Literature: Sources and Founders (Oxford, 1994).
Her scholarly work on this book meant that her own last novel remained unfinished. Of her some fifty books, twelve are currently in print, including The Lost Island (London, Beaver Books, 1952), The San Sebastian (London, Faber and Faber, 1953), The Bitter Glass (Faber and Faber, 1958), The Coriander (Faber and Faber, 1963), The Seekers (New York, Charles Scribner’s Sons, 1986) and Children of Bach (Faber and Faber, 1992/ Charles Scribner’s Sons, 1993); other titles will shortly be reissued.
A special prize, the Eilís Dillon Award, is given each year as part of the Bisto Book Awards. She herself had won the Bisto Book of the Year award with The Island of Ghosts (Faber and Faber, 1989).
She died in 1994.