Born 26 December 1867, Fenagh, County Antrim, Ireland; died 25 July 1956, Oceana, California
When she was three years old, Ella Young's family moved from northeastern Ireland to Limerick in the southwest, where she developed the love of the country so marked in her poems and stories. She was deeply religious even as a child, but tales of banshees, sprites, giants, and various other creatures of Irish folk lore nourished her imagination. She studied political economics, history, and law at the Royal University. Some years after graduation, she moved to Dublin, where she became involved with the Celtic Renaissance and the Irish National movements. She learned Gaelic and traveled around the countryside gathering myths and tales from the peasants. After the deaths of many of her friends in the conflicts with England, she emigrated to the U.S. in 1925. She taught Celtic mythology at the University of California at Berkeley for many years and lectured at other American colleges.
Young's earliest books were published in Ireland, but the first book published in America, The Wonder-Smith and His Son (1927), is also the first in which her style is truly distinctive. She retells stories gathered in Ireland; some are reproduced almost exactly as she heard them; all are true to the spirit of Irish folklore. The tales present a short biography of the Wonder-Smith, the Gubbaun Saor, maker of the universe and the gods. These are uncomplicated, fast-moving and highly entertaining tales, filled with humor and some terror.
Young wrote two more children's books based on Irish folklore, The Tangle-Coated Horse (1929) and The Unicorn with the Silver Shoes (1932). The last is not as successful as the first two; it exudes "old Irish charm," but events are contrived and the tone is condescending. She also published several books of poetry, both in Ireland and the U.S. As in her prose works, much of the subject matter stems from Irish folklore and much of the imagery is drawn from nature. Mostly regular in rhyme and meter, Young's poems are particularly notable for their evocation of haunting worlds of fairyland and mystery.
Flowering Dusk (1945) is Young's memoirs. Written in poetic prose with sharp flashes of imagery and humor, it includes many lively anecdotes and some tales and poems. Some critics praised it, but others found it excessively "arty" and self-conscious. The book is valuable, however, for the picture it gives of the intellectuals and nationalists—such as William Butler Yeats, George Russell, Maud Gonne, Seamus O'Sullivan, and Standish O'Grady—with whom Young associated at a critical period in Irish history.
Although Young made important contributions both as a teacher and writer to the knowledge and appreciation of Celtic literature, her works have not endured, being too romantic for present-day tastes. She had, however, a storyteller's eye for homely and magical detail. She had also a keen ear for euphonious language and the ability to capture the cadence of Irish speech. She once said that she had talked with elves and understood the language of forest and sea. It is her deep feeling for the Ireland of myth and magic and her skill in investing with life that ancient realm that make her books unique and led Padraic Colum to call her a "reincarnated Druidess."
Poems (1906). The Coming of Lugh (1909). Celtic Wonder Tales (1910). The Rose of Heaven (1920). The Weird of Fionavar (1922). To the Little Princess (1930). Marzilian (1938). Seed of the Pomegranate (1949). Smoke Myrrh (1950).
Authors of Books for Young People (1964). Junior Book of Authors (1951). TCA.
Horn Book (May 1939).
—ALETHEA K. HELBIG