Mac Amhlaigh, Dónall Peadar (1926–89), author, journalist, and labourer, was born 10 December 1926 in Co. Galway, the eldest of three sons and one daughter of James McCauley and his wife, Mary McCauley (née Condon). James McCauley was born in Limerick and served with the Munster fusiliers in the first world war, subsequently joining the East Clare brigade of the IRA, and then serving in the new Irish army (1922–57), in which he attained the non-commissioned rank of battalion quartermaster sergeant. Dónall's mother was a member of an Irish-speaking family from Cnoc na Cathrach (Knocknacarra) on the edge of Galway city. The writer Pádraic Ó Conaire (qv) was a frequent visitor to her parents' home.
Dónall began his formal education at the St Vincent de Paul School, Henry Street, Limerick, and it was to one of his teachers at this school, Miss Hanrahan, that he attributed his enduring love of the Irish language. His later education was received at Scoil Fhursa, Galway, and with the Christian Brothers in Galway and Kilkenny. From 1939, the family home was in Kilkenny; though for much of Dónall's adolescence his father was generally stationed elsewhere. Although he continued his education after the school-leaving age of fourteen, Dónall left at sixteen, without taking the intermediate certificate examination, in order to contribute to the family income.
His first employment, in Kilkenny, was as a wool sorter in a woollen mill. In 1947 he joined the Irish-speaking 1st infantry battalion stationed at Renmore Barracks, Galway. He left the army in 1950 and, having failed to find a suitable opportunity in Ireland, he ‘took the boat’ to England in 1951, to be followed by all his siblings. His first employment in England was as a hospital orderly in Northampton. From 1952 he was engaged in labouring work, which remained his employment for the rest of his life. He worked on civil engineering projects, such as the motorways that were then beginning to transform Britain's infrastructure, and for public employers including the electricity board and the engineering division of British Rail.
In 1958 Dónall married Bridget Noone, most of whose family (including her parents) had migrated from Strokestown, Co. Roscommon, to Northampton. They had two children, a boy and a girl. Marriage and the consequent move from crowded lodgings assisted Mac Amhlaigh's emergence as a writer.
Dónall made his first attempt to write fiction, a ‘wild west’ romance in English, in his teens. From 1957 onwards he published essays, commentaries, and short stories in Irish-language periodicals, including Amárach, Feasta, and Comhar. When a reader of Amárach praised Mac Amhlaigh's writing, suggesting that Dónall should undertake a novel based on the lives of Irish migrants, the latter replied (Amárach, 9 Apr. 1959) that he had such a project in hand. The outcome was Dialann Deoirí (published by An Clóchomhar in 1960, with a glowing introduction by Niall Ó Dónaill, and translated as An Irish navvy: the diary of an exile (1964), by Valentin Iremonger (qv)), which drew on diaries that Mac Amhlaigh had been writing since 1948. This was followed in 1962 by Saol saighdiúra, an autobiographical work based on his army life. His first novel, Diarmuid Ó Dónaill (1965), was both a Bildungsroman and a study of life chances in an economy characterised by under-employment. There followed two collections of short stories, Sweeney (1970) and Beoir Bhaile (1981), a literary satire Schnitzer Ó Sé (1974) – an extended and modified English translation of which he published in 1985 as Schnitzer O'Shea – and Deoraithe (1986). The last is a novel, which extended his project of ‘documenting the fifties’ and represents his highest achievement in that vein of social realism which (with the exception of Schnitzer Ó Sé) characterised his fiction. The experiences of its three protagonists are narrated in the contrasting contexts of a stagnant Kilkenny and labour-hungry London and Norwood (Northampton), with their varying challenges for the individual. Mac Amhlaigh also published two adventure stories for children, An tÓrchiste Mallaithe and An Dia-phéist. An unpublished television play, ‘Saighdiúirí’, was produced on RTÉ in 1965.
On the jacket of Dialann Deoirí is written: ‘Tá rún daingean aige filleadh ar an bhfearann dúchais, an dá luaithe agus a bheas obair oiriúnach le fáil ann’ (he is determined to return to his native place, as soon as suitable work may be found there). However, the acquisition of a family and his wife's lack of interest in going back to Ireland made return less likely, intensifying his sense of being an exile. By the 1970s Mac Amhlaigh's journalistic efforts had increased, and he was making regular contributions to the Connolly Association's Irish Democrat, Ireland's Own, the newer Irish-language periodicals such as Inniu and Anois, and occasionally to the Irish Times and other organs. His response to the crisis in Northern Ireland and to international political, economic, and social developments from the later 1960s onwards (including ‘Thatcherism’ in Britain) led to his emergence as an acute, humane socialist commentator on public affairs through his journalism and lecturing. A founder of the Northampton Northern Ireland Civil Rights Association, he later became a member of the Northampton Connolly Association. There was a price to be paid for this commitment by Mac Amhlaigh (and his family) in terms of state surveillance and raids upon his home.
He was the recipient of five Oireachtas literary awards; he also received the Hennessy Literary Award and an Irish Post Community Award for Literature.
Dónall Mac Amhlaigh died of a heart attack on 27 January 1989. He had been cycling to Northampton station to catch the train to London, where he was to lecture that evening. Feeling unwell, he walked to his doctor's surgery where he collapsed and died. He was buried in Northampton. His diaries and notebooks are in the NLI (MS 32,596/1–53).