Irish Children's Literature

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Irish Children's Literature


The contributions of Irish authors to and the depiction of Irish history, culture, and mythology in the children's literature genre.


Despite being regularly categorized as among the great literary nations of Europe, Ireland has only recently begun emerging as an international force in the realm of children's literature. That is not to say that pre-twentieth-century Irish children's texts do not exist, but within the tradition of Irish literature as a whole, there have been relatively few appreciable and enduring works of children's literature written by native Irish authors. Overshadowed for centuries by the publishing predominance of the United Kingdom, Ireland witnessed a "literary revival" in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, thanks in large part to the contributions of such noted authors as Lady Augusta Gregory, Maria Edgeworth, and Oscar Wilde. However, even with the Literary Revival, Ireland still struggled to establish a cohesive national literature in the early twentieth century due to decades of political turmoil and cultural neglect. The course of Irish history in the twentieth century was filled with repeated conflict and struggle, born in part from attempts to create an independent Irish state and the resulting conflicts that flourished due to the separation of Ireland into two distinct entities: the autonomous Republic of Ireland and the six colonies of Northern Ireland under the stewardship of the United Kingdom. As the nation's political strife settled near the end of the century, more and more Irish authors began delving into the genre of children's literature, mining the nation's mythological, cultural, linguistic, and contemporary history to create works that appeal to children both in Ireland and abroad. With the recent record growth of Irish publishing houses independent from their larger cousins in England, Irish children's literature is finally thought to be offering both the quantity and quality of works worthy of Ireland's literary heritage, although continuing economic and political issues do remain.

While mythology and folklore have long been a hallmark of the Irish cultural heritage, there has been some debate surrounding what constitutes Ireland's first official work of children's literature. Many historians regard Jonathan Swift's Gulliver's Travels (1726) as one of the first authentically Irish children's texts. Although Swift initially intended the book as an adult work, the fantastic tone and universal theme of the work so appealed to children that its ascendancy into the pantheon of children's literature, in retrospect, now seems inevitable. Another candidate for the honor of "first" Irish children's story is the commonly anthologized ninth-century poem "Pangur Bán" ("White Pangur"), a simple rhyming tale of a monk's cat named White Pangur. Perhaps the first Irish work published solely to appeal to a young audience is The History of Goody Two Shoes (1765), likely written by Oliver Goldsmith, an Irish writer known primarily for writing novels for adults, particularly The Vicar of Wakefield (1766). The next significant Irish author to write for children was Maria Edgeworth, a writer of moral tales set amongst high society. She is also the author of Castle Rackrent (1800), often considered the first historical novel of the modern era. Among her best known children's works are The Parent's Assistant; or, Stories for Children (1796) and Early Lessons (1801). Edgeworth was active in Irish political affairs throughout her life, and these thematic concerns found their way into her stories for children. Celia Keenan has argued that, "conscious educational and political intentions of Maria Edgeworth characterize her children's fiction in the first half of the 19th century, a period dominated by Irish writers, who unlike those of America, Britain, and Continental Europe, are now of merely academic interest." Edgeworth's juvenile fiction is distinctly Irish in both tone and setting, despite her English origins, and reflect a high point in the Irish canon, before the growing influence of the British Empire would begin to overtake and overshadow most Irish culture. In 1800 the English and Irish Parliaments passed the Act of Union which merged Ireland and Great Britain into the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Ireland, and thus, Ireland came under direct English rule. As a result, Irish nationalism flourished in the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, even during such cataclysmic events as Ireland's Great Famine of the 1840s, which decimated the Irish population. Meanwhile, also during the nineteenth century, England was experiencing the "Golden Age" of children's literature, in which English books for children reached an artistic peak under the guidance of such luminaries as Randolph Caldecott, Kate Greenaway, and Walter Crane. However, as Keenan notes in her essay in The Oxford Encyclopedia of Children's Literature, Ireland lacked a corresponding "Golden Age" within its own borders and was instead forced to import children's works from England, suggesting that both England's political dominance and the devastating effects of the Great Famine helped limit the ability of Ireland to further develop a prototypical Irish national literature for children. As the nineteenth century came to a close, the noted Irish-born wit Oscar Wilde offered a welcomed break from this relative literary paucity, releasing several works of innovative fairy tales clearly influenced by both his Irish religious heritage and the folk traditions espoused by his mother, an Irish author herself who wrote under the pseudonym of "Sperenza." Combining the spirit of myth with overt religious morality, these stories—including such better known tales as "The Selfish Giant" and "The Nightingale and the Rose"—are still widely anthologized today.

By the dawn of the twentieth century, Ireland was in the midst of the Irish Literary Revival, a trend which carried over into the genre of children's literature. Spurred in part by nationalism and a late nineteenth-century initiative to revitalize Irish as a viable spoken language, literary groups such as the Gaelic League began emphasizing the need for a uniquely Irish literature to accompany the growing Irish cultural revolution. Among the leaders of this movement were W. B. Yeats and Lady Augusta Gregory, both of whom issued children's tracts which helped revitalize the body of Irish juvenile literature. Cuchulainn of Muirthemne, Gregory's 1902 translation of the ancient Irish myth of Cuchulainn into poetic vernacular English—initially intended for use in Irish schools—remains among the best-known works of Irish children's literature to date. These gains in the prestige and awareness of Irish children's literature were unfortunately ill-timed, as the 1920 Irish War of Independence, a violent and jarring event in the island's already troubled history, made establishing a national children's literature a secondary concern. Máire West has lamented the fleeting influence of the Literary Revival on Irish children's literature, commenting that, "[s]ynonymous with the Anglo-Irish literary renaissance in Ireland, there would appear to have been an equally thriving period of creativity in the production of children's books of specifically Irish nature, aimed at the British, Irish, and American markets. Such a situation seemed to augur well for the future development of a native Irish genre of children's literature written through the medium of English. However, the promise of a literary revival was never fulfilled with regards to children's literature." The aftermath of the War of Independence led to Ireland being divided into two separate states—the self-governing and largely Catholic Republic of Ireland and the largely Protestant Northern Ireland, which remained under British rule. The partition of Ireland led to several more decades of political turmoil and bloodshed, beginning with the Irish Civil War of the 1920s. However, by the 1940s, a newly redeveloped sense of Irish national pride began to favor a greater presence of Irish culture as well as the rise of a limited second Irish literary revival of sorts. One of the immediate benefactors of this literary renewal was Eilís Dillon, who wrote over fifty young adult novels characterized by distinctly Irish protagonists, fashioning a canon that Keenan has suggested, "enshrined the west of Ireland and Gaelic culture as proper bridges between traditional and modern societies." Still, the growth of a uniquely Irish children's canon remained relatively stunted within the boundaries of Irish literature throughout much of the century. Ciara Ní Bhroin has stated that, "the promise of the Literary Revival was unfortunately not achieved in relation to Irish children's literature, which was characterised by its national orientation rather than its literary innovation. It was not until the 1980s, with the growth of an indigenous publishing industry for children's books, that a renaissance occurred in Irish children's literature. Nevertheless, the Revival marked the beginning of a fascination with myths, legends and folktales which remains prevalent in Irish children's literature today." It should be noted that the dearth of native Irish children's works in the early to mid-twentieth century existed in sharp contrast to the burgeoning wealth of world-renowned Irish adult writers for which Ireland was becoming increasingly famous, among them, James Joyce, Samuel Beckett, Frank O'Connor, Cathal Ó Sándair, and Seamus Heaney. Valerie Coghlan has explained this disparity between Irish adult and children's literature by asserting that, "much of the best of adult Irish literature rebels against and frequently rejects the constraints of society in which the authors grew to maturity, and until very recently this questioning spirit would not have been acceptable in contemporary Irish children's books."

As a body of literature as a whole, perhaps the most important inspiration for the distinctive voice of Irish children's literature is the country's strong heritage of myth and legend—the resounding tales of the god-like Tuatha Dé Danann, the great hero Cúchulainn, the warring Fir Bolg, and the spirited faerie folk and leprechauns that reputedly dwell in the island nation. While these folktales are largely cultural in origin, born from Ireland's proud bardic tradition, they have been co-opted with relish by Irish children who revel in the daring adventures of their national heroes and the spirited lives of the hidden magic folk. Borrowing heavily from the four major cycles of Irish mythology—defined as the Mythological Cycle, The Ulster Cycle, the Fenian Cycle, and the Historical Cycle—Irish children's literature has been far more preoccupied with the nation's cultural folklore and legends than any of its adult counterparts. Cormac Mac Raois has suggested that, "[j]ust as Jonathan Swift's Gulliver's Travels survives in the popular mind as an engaging children's fantasy with mild ironic overtones rather than the biting adult satire it originally was, so many of the ancient, mythological tales survive mainly in the realm of children's literature, only occasionally finding expression in adult form through drama, art, music, or texts of scholarly interest." In part, this reliance on myth was often a ploy by authors to instill nationalistic tendencies in Irish children. Ciara Ní Bhroin has argued that such works as Lady Gregory's Cuchulainn of Muirthemne were written with the idea that "raising the consciousness of the young is a powerful way of shaping the future of a nation." Similarly, Ní Bhroin has noted the efforts of critic Daniel Corkery in the 1930s to establish an indigenous literature that "would decolonize the minds of Irish children by inculcating in them a distinctive Irish identity."

The late 1980s and early 1990s witnessed a widespread renewed interest in Irish children's books, abetted in part by an increasingly strong and viable Irish publishing industry, for the first time existing separately from the formidable English publishing tradition. For Siobhán Parkinson, this change in the fabric of Irish publishing was a refreshing development, harkening a "steadily growing range of books written by Irish writers, set in Irish contexts, featuring Irish characters, and published in Ireland for Irish children, some of them in the Irish (Gaelic) language. Now, in addition to continuing easy access to British children's literature, Irish children have the option of reading about their own experience and their own country, and this can only be counted a Good Thing." The economic boom that swept through the nation in the late 1990s further strengthened the abilities and desire of Irish publishing houses to offer culturally manifest works marketed exclusively to an Irish readership. While the boom has since leveled out—which led to a slight decrease in children's publishing due in part to reduced national spending—the gains achieved over the course of the past twenty years have revitalized both the interest in and worldwide recognition of the national canon of Irish juvenile literature. However, some critics have warned of the external pressures that will inevitably accompany the more global presence of Irish children's literature. Celia Keenan has suggested that, "the effects of globalization can be clearly seen in that their subsequent work is less obviously Irish both thematically and in its frame of reference. On a more positive note, the interrelated threads of writing in Irish ad English are perhaps stronger in the 21st century than in earlier times, and awareness of children's literature continues to grow." As testament to the renewed vigor of Irish children's publishing, the industry has recently seen the emergence of an ancillary tier of magazines, associations, and awards dedicated exclusively to works by Irish authors. Among the agencies supporting the viability of Irish children's literature are: Children's Books in Ireland, a biannual publication devoted exclusively to Irish works (later renamed Inis); two national literary awards; the Bisto Book of the Year Award and the Reading Association of Ireland Award; and a national children's literature organization called the Irish Society for the Study of Children's Literature. Of this increased support for children's literature, Siobhán Parkinson has asserted that these changes are "due partly to the efforts of the publishers and writers themselves, partly to Arts Council and other government support (royalties for creative artists are tax-free), and largely to the growth in both the Irish economy and the Irish sense of self-esteem, particularly in cultural areas. It is one marker of the coming-of-age of a nation which, not all that long ago, exercised such draconian censorship that many of its writers fled its shores; and over which loomed the shadow of a richer, stronger neighboring country that was a world center for English-language publishing."


Brendan Behan
The King of Ireland's Son [illustrations by P. J. Lynch] (folklore) 1996
Eoin Colfer
Benny and Omar (young adult novel) 1998
Artemis Fowl (young adult novel) 2001
Marita Conlon-McKenna
Under the Hawthorn Tree [illustrations by Donald Teskey] (young adult novel) 1990
Eilís Dillon
The Lost Island [illustrations by Richard Kennedy] (young adult novel) 1952
The Fort of Gold [illustrations by Richard Kennedy] (young adult novel) 1961
The Coriander [illustrations by Richard Kennedy] (young adult novel) 1963
A Family of Foxes (juvenile fiction) 1964
The Sea Wall [illustrations by Richard Kennedy] (juvenile fiction) 1965
The Cruise of the Santa Maria [illustrations by Richard Kennedy] (young adult novel) 1967
The Island of Ghosts (young adult novel) 1989
The Children of Bach (young adult novel) 1992
The House on the Shore (young adult novel) 1995
Robert Dunbar and Gabriel Fitzmaurice, editors
Rusty Nails and Astronauts: A Wolfhound Poetry Anthology [illustrations by Marie-Louise Fitzpatrick] (children's poetry) 1999
Maria Edgeworth
The Parent's Assistant; or, Stories for Children. 3 vols. (juvenile short stories) 1796
Early Lessons. 5 vols. (juvenile short stories) 1801
Oliver Goldsmith
The History of Goody Two Shoes (juvenile fiction) 1765
Lady Augusta Gregory
Cuchulainn of Muirthemne [editor and translator] (folklore) 1902
Seamus Heaney and Ted Hughes, editors
The Rattle Bag (children's poetry) 1982
James Joyce
The Cat and the Devil [illustrations by Richard Erdoes] (picture book) 1964
Edmund Leamy
Irish Fairy Tales (fairy tales) 1890
The Fairy Minstrel of Glenmalure and Other Stories for Children (fairy tales) 1899
Joan Lingard
The Twelfth Day of July (juvenile novel) 1970
Across the Barricades (juvenile novel) 1972
Into Exile (juvenile novel) 1973
A Proper Place (juvenile novel) 1975
Hostages to Fortune (juvenile novel) 1976
Patricia Lynch
The Turf-Cutter's Donkey [illustrations by Jack B. Yeats] (juvenile novel) 1935
Tales of Irish Enchantment [editor; illustrations by Fergus O'Ryan] (folklore) 1952
Liam Mac Uistín
The Táin (folklore) 1989
Celtic Magic Tales (folklore) 1993
The Hunt for Diarmaid and Gráinne (folklore) 1996
L. T. Meade
A Wild Irish Girl (juvenile fiction) 1910
Standish O'Grady
Finn and His Companions (juvenile novel) 1892
Colmán Ó Raghallaigh
An Tóraíocht [The Hunt for Diarmuid and Gráinne] (graphic novel) 2002
Patrick Pearse
Íosagán agus Scéalta Eile [Iosagan and Other Stories] (juvenile short stories) 1907
Michael Scott
The Song of the Children of Lir (folklore) 1983
Irish Fairy Tales (fairy tales) 1988
Irish Animal Tales (fairy tales) 1989
The Last of the Fianna (folklore) 1992
Magical Irish Folk Tales (folklore) 1995
Jonathan Swift
Gulliver's Travels: Travels into Several Remote Nations of the World. In Four Parts. By Lemuel Gulliver, First a Surgeon, and Then a Captain of Several Ships. 2 vols. (juvenile fiction) 1726
Martin Waddell (as Catherine Sefton)
The Sleepers on the Hill (young adult novel) 1973
The Black House Ghosts (young adult novel) 1974; published in the United States as The Haunting of Ellen: A Story of Suspense
Emer's Ghost
(young adult novel) 1981
Island of the Strangers (young adult novel) 1983
The Ghost Girl (young adult novel) 1985
Starry Night (young adult novel) 1986
Frankie's Story (young adult novel) 1988
The Beat of the Drum (young adult novel) 1989
Oscar Wilde
*The Happy Prince and Other Tales [illustrations by Walter Crane and Jacob Hood] (fairy tales) 1888
A House of Pomegranates (fairy tales) 1891
W. B. Yeats
Fairy and Folk Tales of the Irish Peasantry [editor] (fairy tales) 1888
Ella Young
The Coming of Lugh [illustrations by Maud Gonne] (folklore) 1909
Celtic Wonder Tales [illustrations by Maud Gonne] (folklore) 1910
The Wonder Smith and His Son (folklore) 1927
The Unicorn with Silver Shoes (folklore) 1932

*Includes the fairy tales "The Happy Prince," "The Nightingale and the Rose," "The Selfish Giant," "The Devoted Friend," and "The Remarkable Rocket."

†Includes the fairy tales "The Young King," "The Birthday of the Infanta," "The Fisherman and His Soul," and "The Star Child."


Valerie Coghlan (essay date 1996)

SOURCE: Coghlan, Valerie. "Ireland." In International Companion Encyclopedia of Children's Literature, edited by Peter Hunt, pp. 695-98. London, England: Routledge, 1996.

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Siobhán Parkinson (essay date March-April 2001)

SOURCE: Parkinson, Siobhán. "A View from the Other Island: Children's Books in Ireland." Horn Book Magazine 77, no. 2 (March-April 2001): 173-78.

[In the following essay, Parkinson discusses recent developments in Irish children's literature which have shifted the genre away from its long-standing Anglo-centric roots towards greater representation by Irish-born writers.]

In my country, at the first hint that one is a children's writer, otherwise thoughtful and sometimes even moderately cynical adults will launch into lauds. Words like wonderful and great will be used, whether or not such adjectives are remotely justified by one's work—the mere fact of doing it is, apparently, praiseworthy in itself, rather in the way that giving money to the poor is, or being kind to the infirm. One will be told at length, with much sorrowful shaking of the head and as if the speaker is the first person to have had this piercing (and wildly inaccurate) insight, how dreadful it was "when we were children—nothing but Enid Blyton."

There is in fact an honorable tradition in Ireland of writing for children, going right back to Maria Edgeworth. (Perhaps honorable is not quite the word—or, on second thought, perhaps it is rather too accurate.) Indeed, though its status as a children's book is questionable, we might even go back as far as Gulliver's Travels. Still (for all sorts of reasons, political, economic, and cultural), the Irish tradition of writing for children is quite a thin one, certainly by comparison with that of our nearest neighbor. When people say "nothing but Enid Blyton," what they mean is that, with some exceptions (notably Patricia Lynch), there was very little writing for children here between the foundation of the state (1922) and the current so-called flowering of Irish writing and publishing for children. Most Irish adults, even those now only in their thirties, relied very heavily in childhood on whatever was being written for and read by children in Britain. We all grew up not only on Enid Blyton but also on William and Jennings, Paddington and Pooh, Greyfriars and the Chalet School, Biggles and the Borrowers. It was not exclusively a British diet, to be sure: we had access to a certain little house on the prairie, and we had heroines like Pollyanna, Anne, and Caddie; we had the March sisters, too, and the Hardy Boys and the Bobbsey Twins (the last deliberately imported from America in the mid-century, as Professor of Anglo-Irish Literature Declan Kiberd has said, in order to divert Irish children from perfidious British influence). But by and large, the world we read about was a British one.

It might be expected that the sheer volume of English fiction we read would have tended to suggest, even in vehemently-differentiated-from-England, Catholic nationalist Ireland, that England represented the norm. And it's true that we accepted this world of nannies and nursery teas, boarding schools and (field) hockey matches, vicarages and village fetes; words—like poorly, pillar-box, Father Christmas, and apple pie—that an Irish child would be unlikely to use or even to hear much (it's always apple tart in this country, whether or not it has a top crust); place names like Maidstone and Piccadilly Circus; and things like anchovy toast, Guy Fawkes Day, the Tube, Yorkshire pudding, and Hadrian's Wall.

We did accept all this, but not as the norm. We knew it was alien, exotic even. What happened in books was not what happened in experience, not because the books were fantasies, but because the experience they described was somebody else's. We didn't think of it like that, of course. It was just what went on "in books."

Being, as far as we were concerned, a mythical place, the England of our childhood reading was perhaps more enchanting for us than it was for the children for whom it was a reality. It was even a little disappointing to grow up and find that the Tube, for example, actually exists. I still find walking around London rather disconcerting: I cannot bring myself fully to believe that it wasn't all invented by E. Nesbit. Indeed, to find that London is real is almost as surprising as it might be to discover that Narnia is the next station after Mornington Crescent.

Since the 1980s, though, we have a steadily growing range of books written by Irish writers, set in Irish contexts, featuring Irish characters, and published in Ireland for Irish children, some of them in the Irish (Gaelic) language. Now, in addition to continuing easy access to British children's literature, Irish children have the option of reading about their own experience and their own country, and this can only be counted a Good Thing.

Nowhere is this more salient than in the area of historical fiction, and it is hardly a coincidence that the first wave of the recent resurgence of Irish children's literature contained a high proportion of fictional accounts of events in Irish history. One reason for this burst of Irish historical novels for children is surely that historical fiction is easily identifiable as the area in which Irish children's need for a literature of their own is most acute; and indeed, historical fiction is the area in which Irish children's authors have been most sure-footed in their writing and in which Irish children have been best served by their writers.

Martin Waddell (a.k.a. Catherine Sefton), who is Northern Irish, claims to feel left out of the Irish children's book world. In fact he is much respected in the Republic, and it is not his Northern Irishness that tends to set him somewhat apart. When we talk about this recent flowering of Irish children's books, Waddell is sometimes overlooked, not because he is regarded as not-Irish, but because he has been flowering away all along. Moreover, and this is more important, he is published principally in Britain, rather than in Ireland, and it is this, along with his international reputation, that removes him slightly from the general Irish children's book scene, where international recognition is slow and the home market is the main focus of attention.

This perceived outsideness of Waddell and of Sam McBratney, who is also Northern Irish and also published mainly outside Ireland (and those facts are surely related), points up an essential feature of the current wave of Irish children's writing: it may not be entirely fair to say that the phenomenon has been publisher-driven, but it is certainly true that the growth and success of Irish publishers and their commitment to developing their children's lists has been crucial. Without the activities of a corps of Irish publishing houses publishing for children and marketing and publicizing Irish children's books, it is very likely that there would have been no "flowering" of Irish children's literature in the past decade or two.

The success in recent years of Irish children's publishing is due partly to the efforts of the publishers and writers themselves, partly to Arts Council and other government support (royalties for creative artists are tax-free), and largely to the growth in both the Irish economy and the Irish sense of self-esteem, particularly in cultural areas. It is one marker of the coming-of-age of a nation which, not all that long ago, exercised such draconian censorship that many of its writers fled its shores; and over which loomed the shadow of a richer, stronger neighboring country that was a world center for English-language publishing.

If a certain level of economic stability and national self-confidence is a necessary condition for the existence of a thriving children's book culture, the activity of the children's book community is vital for its sustenance. Children's Books Ireland, an association of people professionally or personally interested in children's books, is the most general and accessible organization devoted to promoting children's books in this country. It publishes a twice- / thrice-yearly reviewing journal and runs seminars and similar events. CBI is of particular value to children's writers as a forum where they can meet, socialize, and exchange information. It comes in for criticism at times, but CBI remains at the heart of activity and thinking in the area of children's books in this country.

Part of CBI's work is the organization of the annual Bisto Book of the Year Award (£1500), with ancillary merit awards (£500 each). Along with the Reading Association of Ireland Award (which also has an ancillary merit award and is biennial and non-monetary), the Bisto serves to focus the thinking of those interested in children's books on the notoriously slippery concept of standards. As is the way with awards, not everyone agrees with the decisions of the judging panels, but both awards get it roughly right most of the time (at least if we extend our consideration to the shortlists rather than concentrating exclusively on the winners), and there is no doubt that the awards have played an important role in the setting and maintaining of standards in Irish children's publishing.

The main problem surrounding these awards is lack of media coverage and lack of debate. The shortlists are announced regularly; regularly they are completely ignored. The winners may be mentioned in the press, or the authors' photographs published (the most recent Bisto winner even made it onto TV), but the books themselves are almost never discussed. Children's book people the world over will no doubt recognize this pattern, but the case is surely worse here than is general: utter silence on the subject of the shortlists; a brief notification (sometimes) of the winners; and a single, controversial article some years ago challenging the choice of winner, by a journalist whose motivation seemed to be largely extraliterary.

Indeed, CBI's own magazine, Children's Books in Ireland, serves us not much better in this regard. The shortlist is published in advance (sometimes barely in advance) of the announcement of the award, but the magazine publishes neither any consideration of the shortlist's deficiencies and omissions, nor any assessment of the books shortlisted, nor any speculation on the likely winners, nor any reaction to the choice of winners—none of the sort of coverage that is normal with regard to literary awards.

This seems to me to be a serious state of affairs. If children's books are forced to continue to exist in a ghetto, where coverage of awards is practically nonexistent and reviewing is, on the one hand, polite (as, with honorable exceptions, it tends to be in Children's Books in Ireland) and, on the other, both sparse and superficial (as, again with honorable exceptions, it tends to be in the general media), then this flowering of Irish children's books that we are all so busy admiring is in danger of running to seed. What, after all, is a flowering? Does it consist in a large number of books being published? Or has it something to do with quality? And who declares a flowering to be that, and not just a takeover by weeds?

Authors need considered responses to their books, and supplying these is surely one important function of the reviewing process. The composite reviews that the newspapers are so fond of, consisting largely of instant plot summaries of several titles, come into a category not far removed from advertising and serve a marketing function only (though there are reviewers who manage to say a lot in a paragraph).

I can think of several Irish children's writers who were well regarded not many years ago and who no longer write for children. Writers move on to other things, of course; that is to be expected, and there are new authors coming up to take their place all the time; but perhaps the loss of more than a few of our best children's writers is one warning signal that everything is not entirely rosy in the garden. Whether this has to do with lack of recognition, lack of finance, or disillusionment with publishers, we can only speculate.

Another warning signal is that, although the number of Irish publishing houses establishing children's lists is growing, one of our two largest publishers of Irish children's books, Poolbeg, seems to have withdrawn sharply from this area of publishing, leaving a single publisher, O'Brien Press (my own publisher, incidentally), dominating the market in Irish children's books. Other publishers active to varying degrees in children's books include Blackwater, The Children's Press, Mentor, Mercier, Wolfhound Press, and several Irish-language publishers. Wolfhound is O'Brien's closest rival, but publishes considerably fewer children's books annually. O'Brien is a fine publisher with an excellent children's list, but it is not good, either for children's books in general or for the publisher itself, for any one publisher to be pushed into such a position of dominance.

Another threat to the health of Irish children's publishing is the recent trend for Irish writers of children's books to look to Britain for publishing opportunities. It is difficult for Irish publishers to compete with the advances and markets that British publishers can offer (it is notoriously difficult for Irish publishers to penetrate the British market, which is already oversupplied with titles; conversely, it is difficult to do deals with British publishers, who are reluctant to separate their territory, which they perceive as including Ireland, into British and Irish components), and it is unreasonable to expect writers to turn down these opportunities. But there is a danger, however remote, that Irish publishers—all small and independent—could eventually be forced out of children's books.

Perhaps a more likely outcome is the development of a two-tier system, where the "best" Irish children's books are published in Britain—that is to say, the books considered "best" by large, market-driven British publishing houses—leaving books of a distinctively local appeal, and perhaps the books of new Irish writers, to the Irish publishers. This might seem an ideal compromise, for Irish publishers are bound to benefit if authors on their lists become big names in the British market; but in the long run Irish publishers, confined to a particular, more locally appealing type of children's book, might not have the range to build credible children's lists.

No child growing up in this country today is offered "nothing but Enid Blyton"—even if we take Blyton to stand for the whole of British children's books. And Irish children's publishing is visibly thriving. But there are threats and pressures, and even gardens in full flower—in fact, especially ones in full flower—need assiduous tending.

Ciara Ní Bhroin (essay date 2005)

SOURCE: Ní Bhroin, Ciara. "Championing Irish Literature." Bookbird 43, no. 2 (2005): 13-21.

[In the following essay, Ní Bhroin relates the pioneering role that Lady Augusta Gregory's Cuchulainn of Muirthemne played in the development of the Irish Literary Revival and the genre of Irish children's literature in general.]

Lady Augusta Gregory (1852–1932) was a leading member, along with the poet W. B. Yeats, of the Irish Literary Revival. She took a passionate interest in the Irish language, collected folktales, wrote several plays and was a founder member of the Abbey Theatre. In 1902, she published Cuchulainn of Muirthemne, a translation of the ancient Irish myth of Cuchulainn into a poetic vernacular English, intended for use in Irish schools. Now mainly of antiquarian or academic interest, Cuchulainn of Muirthemne was nevertheless a seminal book of the Revival and a rare instance of the innovative influence of Irish children's literature on that for adults.

In his influential essay 'On National Culture' Frantz Fanon (1961) argues that national consciousness is a precursor to international consciousness and that both should be informed by a humanist philosophy based on consciousness of social and political needs. Central to his theory of decolonisation is that 'the building of a nation is of necessity accompanied by the discovery and encouragement of universalizing values'. 'Far from keeping aloof from other nations', he argues, 'it is national liberation which leads the nation to play its part on the stage of history.'

In relation to the stage of international literature, it is certainly true that Ireland's greatest contribution was produced at a time of national awakening, a time that has come to be known as the Irish Literary Revival. An increasingly crisis-ridden Home Rule campaign had caused disillusionment with parliamentary politics in Ireland at the turn of the 20th century and led to the birth of local self-help initiatives (Mathews 2003). In tandem with activity in other areas was an increased cultural activity, much of which aimed at transcending the sectarian and political division of the time through evoking a shared glorious and heroic ancient past. Charles Stewart Parnell's charismatic leadership and tragic demise in 1891 no doubt inspired the cult of the tragic hero which permeates the literature of the Revival and is embodied in the archetypal image of Cuchulainn.

Transformative and Subversive Translation

A member of the Anglo-Irish Ascendancy, Lady Gregory was uncharacteristic of her class in her passion-ate nationalism. Cuchulainn of Muirthemne was written primarily to repudiate statements made by Drs Atkinson and Mahaffy of Trinity College in response to the demands of the distinguished Gaelic scholar, Douglas Hyde, that Irish language and literature be taught in secondary schools. They claimed that Irish literature lacked imagination and idealism, was generally either silly or obscene and should therefore not be introduced into the school system (O'Connor 1984; Kiberd 2000). Determined to defend the integrity of Irish literature and to prove Atkinson and Mahaffy wrong, Lady Gregory undertook the task of translating transcripts of the Cuchulainn tales recorded by Eugene O'Curry and collating them with other manuscripts, primarily those of Stokes, De Jubainville and Kuno Meyer.

Finding that the different versions lacked coherence, Gregory selected sections from many manuscripts, inserting a few sentences of her own to impose unity on the work as a whole. The result of her labours, Cuchulainn of Muirthemne, is characterised not only by the qualities of imagination and idealism, but also by the 'Kiltartanese' dialect (Hiberno-English as spoken in Lady Gregory's home area of Kiltartan, County Galway) in which it is written. This, more than anything else, distinguishes Cuchulainn of Muirthemne from previous translations into English of ancient Irish sagas and transforms the act of translation itself.

For other Anglo-Irish writers, such as Charlotte Brooke, Samuel Ferguson and Standish O'Grady, translation was an act of unification, a means of uniting Anglo-Irish and native Irish through a shared ancient culture and of enhancing esteem and partnership between Ireland and England within the context of Empire. Matthew Arnold's (1919) theories on the complementary natures of Celt and Saxon lent weight to a vision of union that accommodated and indeed encouraged Celtic difference. Though they embraced ancient Irish culture, the underlying motives of Brooke, Ferguson and O'Grady—the preservation of their own class and the naturalising of landlord-tenant relationships—were not very different from those of writers such as Maria Edgeworth, who rejected native tradition in favour of modern imperial progress. Indeed, Cairns and Richards (1988) describe the explicit identification of many Ascendancy intellectuals with Irish culture as a deliberate strategy amounting to 'little less than an act of cultural appropriation', an attempt to shape and control the emerging discourse in the interests of their own class.

Lady Gregory's translation of the Cuchulainn saga was subversive in a number of ways. Firstly, it was a deliberate challenge to the Trinity College professors who wished to denigrate Irish culture, an attempt to subvert the ideological control of the Trinity College establishment, which upheld the imperial values of a privileged class. To those who held the imperialist's contempt for the native culture and equally to those who enthusiastically sought to absorb its 'otherness' into imperialist hegemony, Lady Gregory intended to pose a challenge. She wished to validate native Irish culture through use of epic mythology and to show that this rich heritage was not the preserve of scholars and academics, but could be enjoyed by the masses through a living and distinctively Irish literature.

Lady Gregory's inclusiveness, her desire to make epic material available to the peasantry and to children—a powerless and often marginalised audience—was a direct contradiction of those, like Standish O'Grady, who urged writers 'to leave the heroic cycles alone and not to bring them down to the crowd' (Kiberd 2000). In her 'Dedication of the Irish Edition to the People of Kiltartan', she very deliberately addresses a native audience, a small local community, in an act that is the very antithesis of the provincialism which looks to the imperial capital. While distancing herself from the Trinity College establishment, she closely identifies herself with the local community in a manner similar to that of the oral storyteller.

However, Lady Gregory's description of herself in the book under discussion as 'a woman of the house, that has to be minding the place, and listening to complaints, and dividing her share of food' highlights the difficulty of the Ascendancy intellectual who wishes to identify with the native peasantry. Fanon has described the precarious position of the native intellectual wishing to reconnect with the peasantry, but alienated by an assimilative colonial education. The position of the Anglo-Irish intellectual, who was both settler and native, was doubly precarious, however. Any attempt by Lady Gregory to identify with the peasant perspective, particularly her use of dialect, involved the risk of unconsciously appearing patronising. Nevertheless, her desire to do so, however precarious, deserves acknowledgement, as does her use of dialect as an empowering means of self-expression. Indeed, what is most subversive about Cuchulainn of Muirthemne is the way in which it reshapes the imperial language.

Reshaping the Imperial Language

In his preface to Gregory's Cuchulainn, W. B. Yeats writes of the difficulty he had experienced in writing stories of medieval Irish life with no language available to him but 'raw, modern English'. The search for a fitting language to express ancient Irish experience and a new awakening Irish consciousness was the challenge facing Irish writers in the English language. Fanon (1961) has drawn attention to the problem facing the native artist trying to create an authentic cultural work using the imperial language and derived forms: 'He contents himself with stamping these instruments with a hall-mark which he wishes to be national, but which is strangely reminiscent of exoticism.' Ironically, emphasising the otherness of Irish writing, through use of dialect and through a stress on ancient spirituality, fed into imperial notions of Irish exceptionalism, as expounded by the theories of Matthew Arnold in particular. Yet such an emphasis seemed necessary in order to establish Irish distinctiveness and therefore justify the claim to a separate national identity.

Lady Gregory was hugely influenced in her choice of idiom by the prose translations in Douglas Hyde's Love Songs of Connacht (1893). Recognising the literary potential of a distinctively Irish rendering of the English language, Lady Gregory tried to evolve a style deriving partly from the speech of the local community of Kiltartan and partly from her knowledge of the Irish language and her experience of translation. The resulting idiom had the advantage of seeming truer to the original transcripts than previous translations, closer to the native oral tradition and similar to a living, though transitional dialect of peasants who still thought in Irish. While Standish O'Grady related the epics in a formal, apocalyptic style, using elegant Victorian English and little dialogue, Lady Gregory's aristocratic heroes and heroines speak in a peasant idiom, yet with ancient nobility. This is particularly effective in the laments throughout the book, those of Deirdre, Ferb and Emer and Cuchulainn's laments on the deaths of Ferdiad and of his son Conlaoch. The idiom captures the raw personal grief and elegiac dignity of the caoineadh (lament).

In radically altering the English language to give a new voice to awakening national consciousness, translations such as those of Hyde and Lady Gregory 'mark a transition from translation as an act of exegesis to translation as an agent of aesthetic and political renewal. Translations no longer simply bore witness to the past; they were to actively shape a future' (Cronin 1996).

Decolonising the Future

The association of myth with the sacred and of epic with the heroic made Lady Gregory's choice of form alone an effective answer to any allegations of lowness of tone or lack of idealism in Irish literature. Irish mythology evoked an ancient Gaelic civilisation equal to that of Greece or Rome, with the added advantage of being relatively unknown to the modern world and therefore wonderfully new and unused. While literary critics of the time such as John Eglinton (1899) questioned the relevance to a modern literature of legends 'which cannot be transplanted into the world of modern sympathies', Fanon (1961) has shown that the reclamation of the past through myth is vital to the process of decolonisation. In delving into the pre-colonial past, the writer uncovers 'beyond the misery of today … some very beautiful and splendid era', whose existence 'rehabilitates the nation' and 'serves as a justification for the hope of a future national culture'. The past, therefore, is recovered with an eye to the future.

That Cuchulainn of Muirthemne was written for children is doubly significant: raising the consciousness of the young is a powerful way of shaping the future of a nation. In his study of Levi-Strauss's structural analysis of myth, Edmund Leach (1974) emphasises the important role of myth in conveying the ancient collective wisdom of a society to its junior members. As a vehicle of continuity between the ancestors and descendants of a race or nation, myth is a powerful antidote to the disruptive force of colonialism.

Furthermore, as a source of national 'rehabilitation' or salvation, myth is endowed with sacred significance. Terence Brown (1991) writes that

Cultural nationalism invests the records of the past with the spiritual charge of the sacred. Archaic texts are not simply archaeological remnants; they are chapters in the sacred book of the people.

This is evident in Yeats's preface to Cuchulainn of Muirthemne, in which repeated references to the Bible, along with numerous classical allusions, emphasise the book's symbolic significance. Indeed, his close association of the people, the land and the sacred has echoes of the Old Testament in particular. Just as Abraham led the chosen people to the Promised Land, and Moses delivered them out of slavery in Egypt, the Revival writers aspired to reconnect the Irish people with their ancient past and with their native land, in order to awaken the national soul.

Cuchulainn as National Soul

The ultimate personification of national soul was Cuchulainn. Lady Gregory's Cuchulainn is characterised most notably by youth and vigour, but also by beauty, bravery and loyalty. He is semi-divine, son of the sun-god, Lugh, and of a human mother, Dechtire, and has access to the supernatural aid of the sidhe (fairy people) in times of trouble. Such qualities made him the ideal icon to regenerate a disillusioned and emasculated Ireland, traditionally figured as a poor old widow. Cuchulainn's supernatural conception and the wonderful boyhood deeds by which he earns his name anticipate his subsequent heroism. Indeed, he is still a boy when Cathbad the druid tells him, in Gregory's translation, that 'all the men in the whole world will some day have the name of Cuchulainn in their mouths'.

Cathbad's prophecy of great fame and early death establishes Cuchulainn as tragic hero on the very day he takes up arms. He is outrageously glorious in battle, defending Ulster single-handedly against the forces of Maeve and Ailell. In love, too, he is successful, wooing and winning the beautiful Emer through riddles and dangerous feats. Desirable to women and having numerous lovers, Cuchulainn's sexual vigour is directly antithetical to the prudish moral code that led to the denunciation of Parnell, whose relationship with a divorcée was considered scandalous.

The extent to which Lady Gregory herself subscribed to Victorian sensibilities in sanitising much of the sexual material of the saga is debatable. Indeed, P J Mathews (2003) argues that 'in some respects … Lady Gregory can be accused of internalising the colonial critiques of Mahaffy and Atkinson'. Undoubtedly, Lady Gregory did not want to leave her book open to any charges of 'indecency' or 'lowness of tone', an indication of the pressure felt by Irish writers following the Atkinson/Mahaffy controversy to prove the inherent purity and morality of Irish writing. That Cuchulainn of Muirthemne was intended for use in schools was also a major consideration—an early instance of the dilemma continually facing writers of children's literature and arising from the tension between the authenticity of a literary text and its perceived appropriateness to a juvenile audience.

As with all tragic heroes, Cuchulainn's sorrows are as great as his joys. His heart-rending battle with his boyhood friend, Ferdiad, is all the more tragic to the modern reader in the light of the Irish civil war, which broke out only twenty years after Cuchulainn of Muirthemne was first published. Most tragic of all is the unwitting killing of his son, Conlaoch, which is the subject of Yeats's play, On Baile's Strand (1904). The powerful image of Cuchulainn fighting the waves became for Yeats a symbol of the individual's struggle for heroism in a modern world.

Cuchulainn's death is in keeping with his life. Tying himself to a pillar in order to die fighting in an upright position, Cuchulainn is the ultimate Irish image of heroic self-sacrifice (see photo, p. 16). His short but intensely lived life exemplifies what Yeats (1902) writes of myths in general:

The great virtues, the great joys, the great privations come in the myths, and, as it were, take mankind between their naked arms, and without putting off their divinity.

Cuchulainn for Children

Declan Kiberd (2000) points out that all treatments of the Cuchulainn story are explorations of contemporary issues by means of a narrative set in the remote past. For Standish O'Grady, Cuchulainn served as an inspiring example of nobility to the Ascendancy class, while Yeats saw in him an inspiration to each individual to awaken an inner heroism. The Irish revolutionary Patrick Pearse saw in the young Cuchulainn a shining example for the youth of Ireland in particular and, more specifically, a means of inculcating patriotic fervour in his students at St Enda's boys' school. The obvious parallels with the Christian story, explored explicitly in Pearse's portrayal of Cuchulainn, lent weight to the cult of heroic self-sacrifice which inspired the revolutionaries of 1916.

Lady Gregory's portrayal, which omits some of the more grotesque accounts of Cuchulainn's occult powers, emphasises the hero's humanity. Without diminishing his heroism, she managed to create a character with whom modern readers could more easily identify. Moreover, since her intention was to demonstrate the idealism of Irish literature, it possibly seemed better to omit accounts of Cuchulainn's distortions, explaining instead that his appearance changed to that of a god.

Subsequent treatments of Cuchulainn in children's literature emphasise not only his humanity, but, unsurprisingly, his boyhood heroism. Indeed, many focus exclusively on Cuchulainn's boyhood deeds and in particular on how he got his name (by killing a dog, whose role as guard-dog he subsequently had to take on, thus becoming 'Cú Chulainn', the hound of Culann).

Symbol of Celtic Regeneration

All treatments of Cuchulainn, whatever their specific emphases, portray him as a symbol of regeneration. Furthermore, his heroic qualities rendered him the very antithesis of modern British philistinism and promoted an image of the romantic and noble Celtic spirit, at odds with a tawdry and essentially reductive modern world. Cuchulainn embodies what Arnold (1919) describes as the 'Titanism of the Celt, his passionate, turbulent, indomitable reaction against the despotism of fact', ironically the very quality which, according to Arnold, made the Celt unsuccessful in the material world and incapable of self-government. In promoting Arnold's image of the romantic Celt through a figure such as Cuchulainn, Revival writers were defining Irish national identity in discursive terms set by the colonial context.

Irishness thus became the antithesis of Britishness. Since an increasingly industrialised and urbanised Britain was seen to epitomise modernity, Ireland was conceived of as rural, spiritual and traditional. Irish cultural nationalism in the late 19th and early 20th centuries, therefore, was profoundly reactionary, and its apparent antimodern cast drew censure, not only from critics like John Eglinton, but also from Irish writers such as George Moore and James Joyce. However, Fanon (1961) argues that this reactionary stage is part of the process of decolonisation. Through the reclamation of a pre-colonial native culture, the writer reconnects with the native population and accords their shared past the value denied it by the colonial power. Essentialism, in such a context, becomes a strategic step in the resistance of imperial hegemony.

For writers such as Lady Gregory and Yeats, myth was the key to imaginative repossession of the past as an inspiration for the future. Equally important, it was the key to emotional reconnection with local places and landmarks and, by implication, to imaginary repossession of the land. Yeats (1902) urges the Irish people to keep Cuchulainn and his friends 'much in our hearts' and says that 'If we will but tell these stories to our children the Land will begin again to be a Holy Land'.

Irish Mythology and Children's Literature

Lady Gregory was one of the first of many writers to 'tell these stories' to Irish children in the English language; but the promise of the Literary Revival was unfortunately not achieved in relation to Irish children's literature, which was characterised by its national orientation rather than its literary innovation. It was not until the 1980s, with the growth of an indigenous publishing industry for children's books, that a renaissance occurred in Irish children's literature. Nevertheless, the Revival marked the beginning of a fascination with myths, legends and folktales which remains prevalent in Irish children's literature today.

However, as Robert Dunbar (1996) points out, this inheritance

in the hands of the less gifted writer … has proved to be more of an encumbrance than an inspiration. This is a genre which too easily lends itself to clichés and stereotypes, both linguistic and thematic.

Cormac Mac Raois (1997), himself a writer of Irish fantasy for children, has questioned—with echoes of Yeats's reservations regarding Lady Gregory's exclusion of some sexual passages from Cuchulainn of Muirthemne—the appropriateness of retelling for children myths originally intended for adults, when sanitisation compromises authenticity: 'In the further toning down required for children's versions there is a risk of presenting a narrative of unappealing blandness.' Certainly, the current outpouring of glossy 'Irish myths and legends' collections needs scrutiny. It arguably reflects the wider fashion of packaging Celtic culture as a marketable commodity—in other words, nativism for profit—rather than a need to reinvent and recreate our ancient past, and by implication ourselves.

Cuchulainn of Muirthemne was a seminal book in translating tradition at a key moment in Ireland's decolonisation and in laying the foundations for a national children's literature in the English language, which is today gaining increased international exposure. Today, the notion of Irish exceptionalism in children's literature is giving way to the exploration of Irish experience as representative of human experience. An increasingly global Anglo-American culture, however, raises new questions about national identity and cultural diversity in the new millennium. Perhaps we should bear in mind Fanon's (1961) argument that

It is at the heart of national consciousness that international consciousness lives and grows. And this two-fold emerging is ultimately the source of all culture.


Arnold, Matthew (1919) On the Study of Celtic Literature and Other Essays London: Dent.

Ashcroft, Bill, Gareth Griffiths, and Helen Tiffin (1998) Key Concepts in Postcolonial Studies London: Routledge.

Brown, Terence (1991) 'Cultural Nationalism' in Seamus Deane (ed) The Field Day Anthology of Irish Writing II: 188-93, Derry: Field Day Publications.

Cairns, David and Shaun Richards (1988) Writing Ireland: Colonialism, Nationalism, and Culture Manchester: Manchester University Press.

Cronin, Michael (1996) Translating Ireland Cork: Cork University Press.

Dunbar, Robert (1996) 'Fantasy' in Valerie Coghlan and Celia Keenan (eds) The Big Guide to Children's Books pp 40-45, Dublin: Irish Children's Book Trust.

Eglinton, John (1899) 'National Drama and Contemporary Life' in Literary Ideals in Ireland, republished in Seamus Deane (ed) The Field Day Anthology of Irish Writing II, pp 959-60, Derry: Field Day Publications 1991.

Fanon, Frantz (1961) 'On National Culture' in The Wretched of the Earth London: Penguin 2001, originally published in France (in 1961) by Francois Maspéro as Les damnés de la terre.

Gregory, Lady Augusta (1902) Cuchulainn of Muirthemne London: John Murray, republished Gerrards Cross: Colin Smythe 1970.

Kiberd, Declan (2000) Irish Classics London: Vintage.

Leach, Edmund (1974) Levi-Strauss London: Fontana/Collins.

Mac Raois, Cormac (1997) 'Old Tales for New People: Irish Mythology Retold for Children' The Lion and the Unicorn 21: 330-40.

Mathews, P J (2003) Revival: The Abbey Theatre, Sinn Féin, the Gaelic League, and the Cooperative Movement Cork: Cork University Press.

O'Connor, Ulick (1984) Celtic Dawn: A Portrait of the Irish Literary Renaissance London: Hamish Hamilton.

Said, Edward (1990) 'Yeats and Decolonisation' in Dennis Walder (ed) Literature in the Modern World pp 34-41, Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Yeats, William Butler (1902) Preface to Lady Augusta Gregory Cuchulainn of Muirthemne London: John Murray, republished Gerrards Cross: Colin Smythe 1970.

Celia Keenan (essay date 2006)

SOURCE: Keenan, Celia. "Ireland." In The Oxford Encyclopedia of Children's Literature, Volume 2, edited by Jack Zipes, pp. 296-99. Oxford, England: Oxford University Press, 2006.

[In the following essay, Keenan offers an overview of Irish children's poetry and fiction, commenting that, "[t]hough territorial, political, and religious divisions are reflected in Irish literature for children, it does not make literary sense to consider the literature only in that light."]

The whole island of Ireland is considered in this article, though since 1922 the former British colony has been divided politically into independent Ireland and Northern Ireland, which has remained part of the United Kingdom and is a society divided along both religious and political lines. Though territorial, political, and religious divisions are reflected in Irish literature for children, it does not make literary sense to consider the literature only in that light.


The 9th-century Old Irish poem "Pangur Bán" (White Pangur) figures in translation in many contemporary Irish anthologies for children or edited by Irish anthologists, including The Rattle Bag (1982), edited by Seamus Heaney and Ted Hughes, and Rusty Nails and Astronauts (1999), edited by Robert Dunbar and Gabriel Fitzmaurice. This charming poem about a scholar and his pet cat is probably the earliest example of Irish children's literature, and exemplifies its complex world. It is not known who wrote it, for whom it was written, when it was written, how it appears in manuscript, where it was written, or what other texts surround it. It is, however, indisputably a children's poem—more accessible and immediately resonant to young readers and much less oppressively didactic than works with similar themes such as Isaac Watts's "Against Idleness and Mischief."

In spite of "Pangur Bán" and the later Anglo-Irish examples of Oliver Goldsmith's playful verse such as "Elegy on the Death of a Mad Dog" and the 19th-century Donegal poet William Allingham's evocative poems such as "The Fairies," contemporary Irish writing for young people is surprisingly thin in poetry. Mathew Sweeney's verses reenact young adult cynicism in Fatso in the Red Suit (1995). Gabriel Rosenstock, an Irish-language poet, has written a large number of humorous and thought-provoking poems in a variety of forms for young people. Pulitzer Prize—winning poet Paul Muldoon, who has an international reputation for his adult poetry, also published two books of poetry for children, The Last Thesaurus (1995) and The Noctuary of Narcissus Batt (1997), both notable for the variety and playfulness of their form and the sophistication and inventiveness of their language.


Irish children's fiction has less ancient roots than Irish children's poetry, but it is more substantial and continuous—though no less resistant to clear definition. Gulliver's Travels (1726) is a good example: Swift's savage and ultimately despairing work was not written for children, nor is it, in its unabridged form, suitable for them. By contrast, Goody Two Shoes (1765), presumed to have been written by Oliver Goldsmith, is clearly intended for children. Both these works take their place in an Irish canon. The conscious educational and political intentions of Maria Edgeworth characterize her children's fiction in the first half of the 19th century, a period dominated by Irish writers who, unlike those of America, Britain, and Continental Europe, are now of merely academic interest. Conflicting Unionist and nationalist ideologies are pitted against each other as the century moves on.

There was no golden age of Irish children's literature in that most miserable century in Irish history, with the Great Famine at its center. Frances Browne created modest literary fairy tales in the mid century. However, between 1888 and 1892 Oscar Wilde followed the example of Hans Christian Andersen by creating literary fairy tales that charmed children and continue to worry adults. These have not yet received the full critical attention they deserve. Given their Irish, socialist, Catholic, masochistic, and homoerotic possibilities, they are arguably richer and more complex than Wilde's richest adult works. Wilde's stories profoundly affected the founding father of modern Irish militant nationalism, the passionate educationalist and writer Patrick Pearse. His stories in Irish, Íosagán agus Scéalta Eile (Iosagan and Other Stories, 1907), echo almost all of Wilde's themes and many of his images, but are more spare and simple in language. The influence of Wilde's stories, in particular of "The Selfish Giant," is also evident in the work of the Belfast-born writer C. S. Lewis, creator of Narnia, the land "where it is always Winter and never Christmas."

Since the 19th century, Irish myth, legend, and folklore have continued to underpin much of what is written for children, and continue to be published with unabated popularity. Ella Young, Padraic Colum, Sinead de Valera, Liam MacUistín, Michael Scott, and Marie Heaney have been major contributors. The best-known illustrator of contemporary retellings is undoubtedly P. J. Lynch. Colmán Ó Raghallaigh and the Cartoon Saloon have published a stunning graphic novel in the Irish language, An Tóraíocht (The Hunt for Diarmuid and Gráinne, 2002). This modern version of a classic story speaks to the 21st century in its brutal and tragic power.

In the first half of the 20th century, an essentialist vision of a traditional Ireland finds its strongest expression in the fiction of Patricia Lynch. Subsequently Éilis Dillon enshrined the west of Ireland and Gaelic culture as proper bridges between traditional and modern societies, but in a literary landscape peopled by boy heroes and untouched by contemporary feminist thinking.

The Northern Ireland "Troubles" erupted in the late 1960s, and subsequently much children's literature illustrated the folly of sectarianism and extremism. The consistently best writing on this topic has come from within Northern Ireland itself, from three writers in particular: Martin Waddell, Sam McBratney, and Maeve Friel. Waddell's The Beat of a Drum presents a challenging and authentic view of a Loyalist community. McBratney in The Chieftains Daughter and Friel in Distant Voices view the present through the lens of the remote historical past.

The 1990s saw a rapid expansion in publishing for children in Ireland, which in the 2000s seems to be declining: some publishers have abandoned children's publishing, the number of books published has dropped dramatically, and state support for children's publishing has waned. It can only be hoped that writers whose work came to the fore in that period, including Marita Conlon-McKenna, Aubrey Flegg, Tom McCaughren, Mark O'Sullivan, Ré Ó'Laighléis, Siobhán Parkinson, and Gerard Whelan, can continue to write for children. British publishers have adopted a significant number of authors and illustrators who were initially published in Ireland, including Mary Arrigan, Eoin Colfer, Margaret Cruikshank, Marie-Louise Fitzpatrick, Maeve Friel, Kate Thompson, and Niamh Sharkey. This can be seen as a welcome development for writers as it offers them better rewards; however, the effects of globalization can be clearly seen in that their subsequent work is less obviously Irish both thematically and in its frame of reference. On a more positive note, the interrelated threads of writing in Irish and English are perhaps stronger in the 21st century than in earlier times, and awareness of children's literature continues to grow—as instanced in the activities of a range of societies such as Children's Books in Ireland and the recently formed Irish Society for the Study of Children's Literature.


Anderson, Celia Catlett, and Robert Dunbar, guest eds. The Lion and the Unicorn 21.3 (September 1997). Special issue on Irish children's literature.

Coghlan, Valerie, and Celia Keenan, eds. The Big Guide to Irish Children's Books. Dublin, Ireland: The Irish Children's Books Trust, 1996.

Coghlan, Valerie, and Celia Keenan, eds. The Big Guide 2: Irish Children's Books. Dublin, Ireland: Children's Books Ireland, 2000.

Inis, formerly Children's Books in Ireland, issue No. 1, 1989, ongoing.

Keenan, Celia, and Mary Shine Thompson, eds. Studies in Children's Literature, 1500–2000. Dublin, Ireland: Four Courts, 2004.


Cormac Mac Raois (essay date September 1997)

SOURCE: Mac Raois, Cormac. "Old Tales for New People: Irish Mythology Retold for Children." Lion and the Unicorn 21, no. 3 (September 1997): 330-40.

[In the following essay, Mac Raois explores the role of mythology in Irish children's literature, delineating the four major mythological cycles of Irish legend that dominate much of Irish literature.]

"Old Tales" is something of an understatement when used to describe stories that were first committed to writing in Ireland some thirteen centuries ago. If we further consider that these tales were current in the oral tradition for a significant period before that, their antiquity becomes even more impressive. In fact, the astonishing truth is that the roots of many of these stories lie in the mythologies of the Celts, who spread westward across Europe, settling in Ireland more than a thousand years before Christ.

It is therefore a matter of considerable importance that many of them still have currency in modern Ireland, though they have undergone a number of striking metamorphoses with the passage of time. Just as Jonathan Swift's Gulliver's Travels survives in the popular mind as an engaging children's fantasy with mild ironic undertones rather than the biting adult satire it originally was, so many of the ancient, mythological tales survive mainly in the realm of children's literature, only occasionally finding expression in adult form through drama, art, music, or texts of scholarly interest.

The impact of Irish mythology on modern children's literature is well attested to by the fact that there are at present at least thirty books dedicated to the retelling of mythological tales on the children's shelves of Irish book shops. There is also a growing number of contemporary children's magical adventure stories that draw upon mythological sources for their characters and themes.

While this outpouring of mythology in the form of children's literature must, of course, be viewed in the context of the general resurgence in publishing that has occurred in Ireland over the past twenty years, the full explanation for the phenomenon lies in the nature of Irish mythology itself. These ancient tales offer us a window into the psyche of our ancestors as well as an inside view of early Celtic society, its manners and values, its whole way of life. As well as this, many of these stories concern themselves with the major themes and preoccupations of the mystery of humanity that lie at the heart of all great art and literature. Such an inheritance demands to be passed on.

What is Irish mythology? Basically, we are talking about stories our ancestors told one another, stories that arose out of their understanding of themselves and of the society in which they lived. They had serious political, historical and religious (pre-Christian) significance for the tellers and their audience. These tales were handed down over the centuries, mainly in the oral tradition, and in the process have developed into a rich, complex, and oftentimes confusing body of work. What we know of Irish mythology is but a small fragment of a vast tradition. Kuno Meyer estimated in 1900 that up to six hundred sagas had survived in manuscript form, of which only one hundred and fifty had been translated and annotated (Ellis 8).

Modern scholars recognize this vast corpus of material as falling into four main categories: the Mythological Cycle, the Ulster Cycle, the Cycle of the Kings, and the Fianna Cycle. (See the appendix for a fuller explication of the plots and characters of these cycles.) Outside these four divisions there lies a vast store of what may be designated as "folklore," including tales of animals, ghosts, saints, voyages, and, of course, leprechauns—although the last of these appear much less in Ireland than foreign preoccupation with them would suggest.

Retelling the Tales

With such a wealth of characters and plots available it would be surprising if this resource were not exploited by writers and publishers. Fortunately, most of those who have represented these tales to the young have done so in a manner that indicates their own appreciation of their material and their desire to communicate their enthusiasm to others. That the ancients took their storytelling seriously is witnessed by the ruling of the Brehon Laws, Ireland's ancient legal code, that only qualified storytellers should relate these tales. The qualified storyteller should know at least two hundred main stories and one hundred substories by heart (Ellis 9)!

This is quite an impressive act to follow. To attempt to do so in the realm of children's literature is to take on an array of daunting challenges, on a par with those faced by the hero in any saga. In spite of this, some eighteen authors whose work is readily available today have accepted the challenge. But in surveying this body of work we must keep in mind certain constraints (the modern version of the ancient geis!) with which the writers have to contend.

In the first instance the originals are not children's stories. They reflect adult preoccupations of their time and their style and subject matter are designed for the adult listener. Violence and physical suffering are described in graphic, even gory, detail: entrails are spilled on the ground; warriors' heads are displayed as trophies of war. The tales' forthright sexuality reflects a pre-Christian lack of inhibition. While, for example, Cú Chulainn is receiving advanced training in the martial arts from Scáthach, her prophetic daughter Uathach gives him an equally good grounding in the art of love-making. When he overpowers Scáthach's female rival, Aife, he spares her life on condition that she bear him a son. All this occurs while our hero's betrothed—to whom he has promised to remain faithful—waits for him in Ireland. His was not exceptional conduct. Fionn Mac Cumhaill did not leave his sexual appetites unsatisfied either. (These texts were later copied by Christian monks who censored unacceptable paganisms. Considering what they left in, one can only wonder what must have been cut out!) In the further toning down required for children's versions there is a high risk of presenting a narrative of unappealing blandness. Some tales would be better reserved for older readers, who might be able to deal with more robust versions. Our young readers' appetite for mythology could well be spoiled by too thin a gruel served too soon.

Much of our mythology belongs to an oral tradition and the style and construction of the tales reflect this. The immediacy and drama of the spoken word can easily be lost in the written versions. Since an exact retelling will not do, a new style of narrative must be invented. The stories were also told in Irish—and Old Irish at that. The necessary translations for the largely English-speaking population of today lose much of the richness and power of the originals. Many of the ancient Gaelic names are now unfamiliar. Attempts at Anglicization further complicate the situation by throwing up differing versions of the same name. Thus Sadhbh is rendered Sive or even Saba, while one of the three sons of Tuireann (in the Dé Danann tale) appears variously as Uchar, Urchar, Lurchar, or lurcharba.

As one might expect in a tradition so ancient, many versions of the tales grew up in different localities and times. New tales were added, not always coherent with the already existing body of mythology. This is particularly true of the Dé Danann tales and the Fianna stories. Modern children are often irked by these varying, sometimes contradictory, versions. As many stories are presented in anthologies, the same tales turn up in differing combinations, causing further irritation. Thus, some of the more popular tales come to suffer from overexposure.

The style and content of the retelling are naturally affected by the age of the target readership, which may vary from eight to eighteen. While the writers may be motivated by a desire to pass on what is perceived as a valuable part of the national heritage, the young reader will primarily expect the story to be readable and enjoyable. Unless these latter criteria are satisfied all other aims will fail.

Among the first to attempt this feat of retelling the old stories for a young readership was Patricia Lynch, with her Tales of Irish Enchantment (1952). These stories have now been reissued in two volumes, Tales of Irish Enchantment and Enchanted Irish Tales. In all, thirty tales are told, including a full life story of Cú Chulainn and a well-rounded collection of eleven tales of Fionn Mac Cumhaill. While the outdated over-Anglicization of names—Kian for Cian, Mac Cool for Mac Cumhaill, Cullen for Culann—and the rather far-fetched use of Ultonians to describe the men of Ulster are a little off-putting, Lynch's narrative style is powerful, direct, and frequently charged with all the heroic emotion that imbues the original tales. It would be hard to better her final sentence in The Táin describing the death of Cú Chulainn: "He died there, standing, with his face to his enemies, and the glory of Ulster died with him."

Liam Mac Uistín, a Celtic scholar and writer and playwright, produced a version of The Táin in 1989, followed by Celtic Magic (a collection of four tales), and The Hunt for Diarmaid and Gráinne. Of all the retellings Mac Uistín's are the ones which will probably most please the purists. His narrative is more disciplined than Lynch's. His swift-moving, well-honed text keeps the action flowing. This is particularly true in The Hunt for Diarmaid and Gráinne, where the pace of the narration mirrors the speed of the pursuit. As well as this, Mac Uistín achieves a remarkable feat of fidelity to the original texts while keeping the language simple enough for young readers and the content suitable to their age.

In Irish Myths and Tales, Carolyn Swift has presented an anthology of fourteen tales, with samples from all four of the main mythological groupings. All are told with a deceptive simplicity, suiting them to a younger readership than many other versions. The appeal of the work is somewhat lessened by the publisher's failure to provide any illustration—even on the cover! The opposite may be said of Brendan Behan's version of The King of Ireland's Son, recently reissued with lavish illustration by P. J. Lynch. In this instance the artwork is of so high a quality that it almost overwhelms the text.

The O'Brien Book of Irish Fairy Tales and Legends is also beautifully produced, on quality paper, with very attractive illustrations by Susan Field. Una Leavy retells the tales with a quiet simplicity that is well complemented by the style and color tones of the illustrations. This is a book for readers too young to be exposed to the reality and ugliness of violence, treachery, and the destructiveness of selfishly indulged passions.

By far the most outstandingly prolific writer of children's mythology in Ireland today is Michael Scott. From his first venture into this field—a beautiful retelling of The Children of Lir—Scott has produced some twenty-six volumes of mythology retold or of mythologically based tales. Always professionally conscious of the age profile of his readership, Scott fleshes out the old tales, making them immediate and powerfully effective. Where Mac Uistín's narrative has the strength of discipline and fidelity, Scott's retellings have the feel of modern novels, with which the young will be instantly comfortable.

Lynch, Mac Uistín, and Scott have all published versions of The Quest of the Sons of Tuireann, in which the druid Cian turns himself into a pig in order to escape being slain. Lynch relates this incident as: "At once he turned himself into a pig and joined the herd …" (1952, 14). Mac Uistín writes, in Celtic Magic Tales:

He touched his own shoulder with the staff and changed into a wild boar. With a triumphant snarl he raced away through the trees. (28)

By contrast, Scott's version in The Quest of the Sons is magically graphic:

Cian threw off his white cloak, tossing it into some bushes along with his tunic and sword belt, followed by his sandals. Then he crouched down on his hands and knees on the ground, which had been churned into muck by the pigs. Resting both elbows in the filth, he dropped his head down until his chin almost touched the ground, and he drew his legs in tightly to his chest and stomach. And then something moved across his body, something white and misty … like a dusting of fine white powder…. As they watched it thickened and hardened into a crust, like ice or hard snow, until the outline of the man was lost.

And then the crust cracked.

Thin black lines ran across its surface and chunks of it fell way—to reveal the body of a pig underneath! (16)

Equally, Scott is not afraid to take liberties in order to increase his impact on his young audience, as for example his use of the boy Colum in The Last of the Fianna, where the boy joins Oisín in Tír na nóg and returns to Ireland with him, witnessing his sudden aging. Again, this gives the story a more child-centered, up-to-date tone. In his anthologies, such as Irish Fairy Tales, Irish Hero Tales, Irish Animal Tales, and Magical Irish Folk Tales, Scott skillfully uses brief prologues and epilogues with each tale to establish its context within the overall anthology and to make it intelligible to the young reader. Viewed from any perspective Scott has made a major contribution to the popularization of mythology for modern Irish youth.

No retelling of our old tales can ever be perfect. Children's versions will always be less than the originals, but in refashioning these old tales for new people our modern writers carry on a tradition that is thousands of years old and they ensure that at least an echo of the voice of our ancient ancestors still sounds among those who inhabit the land of Ireland today.


The four main categories into which the corpus of Irish myth is usually divided are as follows:

1. The Mythological Cycle (The Invasion, or Dé Danann Tales)

This is a collection of stories dealing with other world beings, their main focus being the struggle between the Tuatha Dé Danann and the Fomhóire, a conflict between the divine and the demonic that parallels similar themes in Norse, Vedic, and Greek literature (Ó Hógáin 312). Two major battles are described, both occurring at Magh Tuireadh (Moytirra) in the west of Ireland. In the first, the Tuatha Dé Danann arrive in Ireland and overcome the inhabitants, the Fir Bolg, in a five-day battle. Written accounts of this collection date from the eleventh century A.D. In the second, the Fomhóire, a demonic race living to the north of Ireland, impose tribute on the country but are overcome by the Tuatha Dé at Moytirra. The first written account of this occurs in the eighth century A.D. Characters from these tales include:

Nuadhu: king of the Tuatha Dé. He lost an arm in the first battle and had to resign his kingship. On having a silver arm fitted by the physician Dian Ceacht he is reinstated as king.

The Daghdha: a god associated with hugeness, generosity, and large appetite. His magic cauldron can provide unlimited food. The rough end of his club can slay nine men together, while the smooth end can revive them.

Aonghus: son of the Daghda and Boinn, the goddess of the river Boyne. Aonghus lives at Brugh na Boinne, i.e., Newgrange, in Co Meath. He is associated with youth and love.

Oghma: brother of The Daghdha. He is associated with speech and poetry and credited with inventing ogham script.

Balar (also Balor) of the evil eye: gigantic leader of the Fomhóire. A glance from his evil eye could destroy all who beheld it. He was killed at the second battle of Moytirra by his grandson Lugh, an event foretold that he had tried to prevent.

Lugh Lamhfhada ('long-armed'): master of all the arts. He led the Tuatha Dé in the second battle of Moytirra and slew his grandfather Balar by driving his evil eye through his head with a sling-stone. He is associated with the harvest. ("Lughnasa" is Irish for 'August'.) The second battle of Moytirra takes place at Samhain (November) when the sun (Balar) is overcome by dark winter (Lugh).

Manannan Mac Lir ('Son of the Sea'): originally not counted among the divine Tuatha Dé, but accepted as such by the tenth or eleventh century (Ó Hógáin 287). He is god of the sea and of inland waterways and rides his chariot over the waves. His country is known as Tír Tairngire (The Land of Promise), also as Eamhain Abhlach (The Region of Apples). He carries a branch with three golden apples, the music of which brings healing sleep to the ill. He organized the retreat of the Tuatha Dé Danann into the sidh ('fairy-forts') after their defeat by the son of Mil, the legendary ancestors of the Gaelic people.

Badhbh, Mascha and the Mór-Ríoghain ('Morrigan'): a sisterly triad of goddesses of war, who fling showers of hailstones, javelins, and flails against the enemies of the Tuatha Dé and drain away the courage of warriors. They are shape changers, who foretell and attend on battle slaughter. Their memory lingers on in folklore in the form of the banshee who wails as a death warning.

Two well-known stories were tacked onto the older Dé Danann mythology. "The Quest of the Sons of Tuireann," in which three sons are obliged to seek out seven heavily guarded treasures from various parts of the world, is a tenth-century development, while the more famous "The Children of Lir," in which a jealous stepmother changes her four stepchildren into swans, is a fifteenth-century Irish version of a European folktale.

2. The Ulster Cycle (or Rudhraigheacht)

This is a large body of heroic tales concerning the Ulaidh, after whom the province of Ulster is named. They call themselves the Rudhraighe ('Rightful occupiers'). Medieval writers confused the name with ruadh (red) and from this came the name Red Branch Knights as a description of the Ulster warriors (Ó Hógáin 413).

These tales involve incredible feats of military prowess, shape changing, magical prohibitions (geis), interventions by Lugh, the Morrigan and Badhbh, boasting, disputes about honor and explicit sexuality. They seem to have been particularly popular among the elite of society and survived more in the literary than in the oral tradition.

The central story is the Táin Bó Cuailnge (Cattle Raid of Cooley) which was recorded in writing as early as the seventh century. The earliest surviving texts are in Leabhar na hUidre (Book of the Dun Cow) and Leabhar Laighneach (Book of Leinster), both from the twelfth century. Together with the preparatory tales that lead up to The Táin and the romances that were added later to account for the subsequent fates of the main characters, the Ulster Cycle boasts an epic range and power comparable to the Iliad. The scholar Alfred Nutt has estimated that the literature of the Ulster cycle would occupy a volume of two thousand pages—even after all the repetitions were edited out (Ellis 11)!

Among the stories included in the preparatory tales are the following: how Conchobar is begotten and how he becomes King of Ulster; how the men of Ulster become afflicted with birth-pangs; Deirdre of the Sorrows and the exile of the Sons of Uisliu; how Cú Chulainn is begotten and reared; Cú Chulainn's courting of Emer and his training in arms with Scáthach in Scotland; Cú Chulainn's slaying of his own son; how the bulls are begotten.

The central story, the Táin Bó Cuailnge, tells of how Meadhbh, Queen of Connacht, invades Ulster to capture the Brown Bull of Cooley so that she will have a bull equal to her husband's white-horned one. The men of Ulster are stricken by a magical illness, leaving only the young warrior hero Cú Chulainn to stand against the invaders. This he does with great panache and prowess, all across the southern borders of Ulster. Many combats are recounted, including his confrontation with his former tutor Fearghus and his most famous single combat, against his foster-brother Fear Diadh, who has been tricked into fighting him. Eventually, the men of Ulster recover and Meadhbh is driven back into Connacht. She manages, however, to steal the Brown Bull. The Ulster bull meets the Connacht bull, kills it, and carries it back to Ulster on its horns. There, its heart bursts and it dies.

The subsequent tales include Cú Chulainn's death at the hands of the six children of Cailitín, a warrior he had killed during the war with Meadhbh. They trick him into breaking his geasa (magical prohibitions) and pierce him with a javelin.

3. The Fianna Cycle (or Fiannaíocht)

This body of tales concerns Fionn Mac Cumhaill, the great warrior-seer and leader of the band of astonishingly skilled hunter-warriors known as the Fianna, who traveled around Ireland fighting invaders—especially Vikings—, dealing with other world intrusions or themselves intruding into the other world, rescuing the distressed, quarreling among themselves and generally expecting hospitality from whomever they met.

Originally associated with the cult of wisdom in the Boyne Valley, Fionn became popular in the province of Leinster and thereafter throughout Ireland as a mythical local, then national, champion. Stories about him and the Fianna are found in eighth-century texts but it is obvious that they were popular in the oral tradition well before that. While Cú Chulainn seems to have been the national hero up to the eleventh century, Fionn takes over after that (Ellis 11). Tales abound associating him with different localities. Thus the Fiannaíocht has been added to, developed, and enriched in a tradition that has extended into the present century, where Fionn appears, for example, in Joyce's Finnegans Wake and in O'Brien's At Swim-Two-Birds. The most notable Fiannaíocht tales include the following:

Fionn and the Salmon of Knowledge. This relates how as a boy Fionn is left in charge of a magical salmon caught in the River Boyne by the seer Finneageas. While supervising the cooking of the fish, Fionn burns his thumb, sucks it to ease the pain, and gets the gift of wisdom. Thereafter, when Fionn is in need of enlightenment, he chews upon his thumb.

How Fionn Takes Command of the Fianna. Fionn defeats the fire-breathing Aillen who had burned down the royal palace of Tara at every November feast. The grateful High King, Conn Céadchathach, appoints him head of the Fianna, displacing Goll Móirne who had slain Fionn's father before the hero's birth. While they cooperate on most occasions, tensions between the Morna clan and Fionn's clan are a recurring theme in the Fiannaíocht, as are strains on the Fianna's loyalty to the High King. Numerous battles are listed, among them one at Ventry, Co Kerry, dating from the twelfth century, where with great slaughter Fionn overcomes "The King of the World" with the support of the Tuatha Dé Danann. There are many stories of single combats, challenges to contests of prowess by strangers from overseas, entrapments in other world hostels, hunts with Fionn's favorite hounds, Bran and Sceolaing, and encounters with giants who are often overcome by trickery.

Tóraíocht Dhiarmada agus Ghráinne (The Pursuit of Diarmaid and Gráinne). This tragic tale relates how the aging Fionn's young wife-to-be, Gráinne, daughter of King Cormac Mac Airt, elopes with the handsome young Fianna warrior, Diarmaid Ua Duibhne. The enraged Fionn pursues them all around Ireland, Diarmaid eventually falling victim to Fionn's spitefulness. It is noteworthy that the character of Fionn is so well developed in mythology that he passes from wondrous youth, through heroic manhood, to sad, even embittered, old age.

Oisín i d Tír na nóg (Oisín in the Land of Youth). This is a favorite in children's anthologies. Oisín ('Little Fawn'), son of Fionn, is enticed away to Tír na nóg by the beautiful Niamh. In this paradise no one grows old and time passes without reckoning. When Oisín insists on revisiting Ireland he is warned not to set foot on the ground but his saddle girth breaks, he falls from his horse and suddenly ages. He wanders desolate around Ireland but the Fianna are long since dead. (The phrase Oisín i ndiaidh na Féinne [Oisín after the Fianna] is used in Ireland to describe a person pining for his companions.) Eventually Oisín meets St. Patrick and in a series of dialogues known as Agallamh na Seanórach (The Colloquy of the Ancients) they debate the contrasting excellencies of the life of the Fianna and that of Christian monks.

4. The Cycle of the Kings

These are accounts of the doings of mythical and semi-mythical rulers of Ireland from 300 B.C. to 700 A.D. Best known among these are Labhraidh Loingseach ('Exiled one') or Lorc ('dumb' or 'fierce'), ancestor of the Leinster people, but remembered for having horse's ears!; Conn Céadchathach, ancestor of the dominant Connachta peoples; Cormac Mac Airt, the grandson of Conn and the most honored of all the kings, whose reign was a golden age of plenty; Niall Naoighiallach, a mainly historical king of the fifth century, credited with capturing the youthful St. Patrick; Guaire, king of Connacht, 655-66, noted for his generosity.

Works Cited

Behan, Brendan. The King of Ireland's Son. Illus. P. J. Lynch. Dublin: Poolbeg, 1996.

Ellis, Peter Berresford. A Dictionary of Irish Mythology. London: Constable, 1987.

Leavy, Una. The O'Brien Book of Irish Fairy Tales and Legends. Illus. Susan Field. Dublin: O'Brien, 1996.

Lynch, Patricia. Tales of Irish Enchantment. Dublin: Clonmore & Reynolds, 1952.

―――――. Enchanted Irish Tales. Cork: Mercier, 1989.

―――――. Tales of Irish Enchantment. Cork: Mercier, 1980.

Mac Uistín, Liam. The Táin. Dublin: O'Brien, 1989.

―――――. Celtic Magic Tales. Dublin: O'Brien, 1993.

―――――. The Hunt for Diarmaid and Gráinne. Dublin: O'Brien, 1996.

Ó Hógáin, Daithi. Myth, Legend and Romance. London: Ryan, 1990.

Scott, Michael. The Song of the Children of Lir. Dublin: De Vogel, 1983.

―――――. Irish Fairy Tales. Cork: Mercier, 1988.

―――――. Irish Animal Tales. Cork: Mercier, 1989.

―――――. Irish Hero Tales. Cork: Mercier, 1989.

―――――. The Quest of the Sons. London: Mammoth, 1989.

―――――. The Last of the Fianna. Dublin: O'Brien, 1992.

―――――. Magical Irish Folk Tales. Cork: Mercier, 1995.

Swift, Carolyn. Irish Myths and Tales. Dublin: Pool-beg, 1990.

Mary Ellen Snodgrass (essay date 1998)

SOURCE: Snodgrass, Mary Ellen. "Celtic Fable." In Encyclopedia of Fable, pp. 67-70. Santa Barbara, Calif.: ABC-CLIO, 1998.

[In the following essay, Snodgrass presents a critical history of the fable in Celtic and Irish children's literature.]

Celtic lore, among the oldest body of folk stories in Europe, belongs to an elaborate structure of myth and legend that captures in the wandering harper's metrics an ancient culture, ritual, and language. Unchallenged by the Roman invasions that adulterated and weakened British lore, the Celtic strand survived entire. It speaks through a runic script that dates to the preliterate druidic schools. The cult appears in the seven-volume Commentarii de Bello Gallico [The Gallic Wars] (58–52 B.C.E.), the war correspondence of Julius Caesar after his troops encountered Continental white-robed druid priests around 55 B.C.E. After Christian scribes established monastic settle-ments and began recording Irish vernacular stories in the eleventh and twelfth centuries, they produced vellum copies of the Lebor Gabala Erenn [Book of the Taking of Ireland] (eighth century), a sanitized, Church-sanctioned version of four widely spaced cycles:

  • the mythological cycle of the semidivine gnomes, warlocks, magi, and fairy folk of pre-Gaelic pagan Ireland (1500 B.C.E.)
  • the Ulster cycle of Cuchulainn's exploits and the tales of King Conor Mac Nessa of Ulster and Maeve, Queen of Connacht, from the first century C.E.
  • the parallel Fenian cycle of the warrior-hunter Finn Mac Cumhaill—popularized as Finn Mac Cool—and his followers, lauded in third-century tales and ballads
  • the historical cycle, namely, the ninth-century stories of the kings of Tara and of Saint Patrick

Less common to Celtic collections are straightforward Aesopic fables. One author of morality tales, the Welsh poet Siôn Cent, approached the classic genre in a dour reflection on morality around 1430:

     Three lifetimes of a valiant-footed horse
     For a man, and the life is short.
     Three lifetimes of a man, nimble rover,
     For a stag, keen leaper.
     Three lifetimes of a stag, long-lived, long, lean,
     For the blackbird of the wood, golden, proud, pretty,
     Three lifetimes of the proud, pretty blackbird
     For the oaktree above a fair soil.
     Each one of these, a wheel's band,
     Dies without warning.
                                   (Breeze 1997, 142)

Obsessed with the inevitability of death, the verse departs from the heroic and magical story world for a somber reflection on evanescence, a subject that dominates the nature fables of the eighth-century Greek farmer-poet Hesiod and his successor, the late seventh-century B.C.E. soldier-poet Archilochus.

A more entertaining motif of Irish folklore is the traditional fool tale, a timeless folk story in which the unwise suffer at the hands—or beaks or fangs or claws—of smarter beasts. "The Cold May Night" embodies nature's punishment of fools in a cumulative tale about a miserably cold spring in which a crow eats an eagle's fledgling and steals its place in the warm nest. When the eagle returns and mothers the crow in the dark nest below, she comments on the uncommon weather. He surprises her by comparing the night to one years before. The mother, disconcerted by her clever young, follows his direction and visits the blackbird at the forge, a bull in a field, and the Blind Salmon of Assaroe before finding a witness to the earlier cold night. The salmon, like a jolly peasant roisterer, chaffs the eagle for being tricked by the clever crow, which devoured her babe and stole its berth.

The eagle is also at the heart of "The Fox and the Eagle," a standard revenge plot in which the eagle's snatching of two ducks during a time of famine results in a greater loss to the thief. Because the story hinges on food for the hungry rather than reward for the greedy, the turn of events serves nature's ends. At the close of the fable, the eagle carries off a third duck whose feathers conceal embers. After she inadvertently sets the nest on fire, the three ducks as well as the eagle's chicks fall to the ground, where the clever fox awaits. A similar end awaits the protagonist in "The Fox in Inishkea," the tale of a wily fox who boasts of tricking local people. Overconfident in his lair, he realizes too late that stalkers have cut the briar through which he swings out of range of dogs. Like his victims, he falls to the treacherous rocks below. A parallel tale, "The Magpie and the Fox," places the despoiler of nestlings in the power of the angry mother bird, who overfeeds the fox, then sics the hounds on him. Perhaps from their historic perspective as the prey of raiders and usurpers, the Irish relish revenge against the rapacious.

An Irish story that reprises the motif of the hare and the tortoise relies on less vindictive animal behaviors for its action. In "The Cat and the Dog," the dog challenges the cat for its place by the fire. The two run a race that puts the dog far ahead. When a beggar strikes the dog, precipitating a squabble with the angry animal, the cat takes advantage of their tiff and makes for home. According to pourquoi logic, she sits grinning by the hearth when the dog returns and keeps her spot to this day. A tale of innate qualities fuels "The Sow and Her Banbh," a brief exchange between mother and piglet, who reminds her that she will never stop thieving and risking flight from a pack of guard dogs. Wittier is "The Old Crow Teaches the Young Crow," a tit-for-tat between the wise elder and wiseacre young bird, who reminds his parent that danger exists in more guises than the old crow's simple lesson suggests. Satisfied that the young crow will survive the world's evils, the old crow urges, "Off you go…. You know more than myself!" (O'Sullivan 1966, 15) These fables examine animals in their normal settings and enliven nature's direc-tives with anthropomorphic dialogue, the genius stroke of Aesopic fable.

As is common to more sophisticated post-Aesopic lore, Celtic beast tales may cluster into a cycle of episodes involving a focal animal. In "The Fox and the Heron," three strands form the text. In the opening segment, the fox advises the heron on how to trick the wrens into repaying a debt. A brief reprise of trickery enables the heron to get workmen to empty a pool in search of a purported lost purse. The heron profits by carrying off the eels that the diggers scoop up from the mucky bottom. The heron grows so enamored of her adviser that she marries him, but, true to his nature, he deceives her. The grim comeuppance to the fox is typical of Celtic glee in besting an opponent. As dogs rip the fox apart, he calls to the heron to fly down to his aid, but she abandons him to his doom.

Examples of less violent Celtic fable express a benevolent relationship among earthly creatures. "The Man Who Swallowed the Mouse" deals with a bizarre mishap and with a wise woman who suggests that he bait the mouse with plates of hot meat. "The Grateful Weasel" is a reward story about a man who holds a rat until the weasel can kill it. When his foot swells from rat bite, the grateful weasel carries healing leaves for the man to use as a poultice. A curious fable, "Two Women or Twelve Men," describes the training of three kit foxes. The sire takes the young ones to a house where voices indicate a spirited conversation. The first two foxes can't guess how many people are in the house, but the third proves worldly-wise. In the end, the old fox is pleased that one of his brood will cope well with humankind.


Breeze 1997; Cross and Slover 1996; Curtin 1996; Dames 1992; Danaher 1972; Dillon 1968; Evans-Wentz 1994; O'Sullivan 1966; Rosenberg 1997; Squire 1994.


Máire West (essay date autumn 1994)

SOURCE: West, Máire. "Kings, Heroes, and Warriors: Aspects of Children's Literature in Ireland in the Era of Emergent Nationalism." Bulletin of the John Rylands University Library of Manchester 76, no. 3 (autumn 1994): 165-84.

[In the following essay, West argues that the Anglo-Irish literary renaissance—which thrived between 1880 and 1920—failed to inspire "an equally thriving period of creativity in the production of children's books of a specifically Irish nature."]

Commenting on the paucity of children's literature and the shortage of critical literature in modern Ireland on the topic of children's books, Dr Patricia Donlon wrote in 1985:

Ireland has a great tradition of folklore and fairytale, but one cannot grow up on a diet of just one foodstuff—adventure, magic, poetry, fantasy, nonsense, all are necessary to nourish the imagination. Literature is all about making sense of life—and where more than Ireland in the mid-eighties do our young people need such an aid?1

Where indeed, if not in a country struggling to discover its own national identity? During the period 1880 to 1920, political events determined that Ireland moved rapidly from being a province of the United Kingdom to independent status and self-government. During these crucial years which saw the fall of Parnell, the decline of the Anglo-Irish ascendancy class, the bitter controversies concerning the revival of the Irish language and the trauma of the Easter rebellion of 1916, two main literary movements gathered momentum, and sought, through a study of the past, to find a national and cultural identity. These movements were the Anglo-Irish literary revival and the Gaelic League. Broadly speaking, one of the main differences between the two movements was their chosen language of self-expression, either the English vernacular used in the daily life of the people, or the dying Irish language in which was vested the traditional culture of the island.2 The unifying force of these two movements was their growing sense of nationalism which strove to resurrect, out of the dying embers of an Irish tradition, a new Irish identity.3

A great deal has been written about the Anglo-Irish literary renaissance and the conscious attempts by gifted writers such as W. B. Yeats, George Russell (AE), Douglas Hyde, Lady Augusta Gregory and J. M. Synge to explore and define Irish culture and tradition.4 However, the literature written at that time in Ireland for children has never been examined to see if it too bears traces of an effort to revive 'the spirit of the nation'. The aim of the present article is to explore the role heroic mythology and legend played in the emergence of a national identity in Irish children's literature.5

Synonymous with the Anglo-Irish literary renaissance in Ireland, there would appear to have been an equally thriving period of creativity in the production of children's books of a specifically Irish nature, aimed at the British, Irish and American markets. Such a situation seemed to augur well for the future development of a native Irish genre of children's literature written through the medium of English. However, as we shall see, the promise of a literary revival was never fulfilled with regard to children's literature.

But the scene in the early twentieth century was sufficiently healthy for Fr Stephen Brown, writing between 1918 and 1919, to identify some 160 'suitable Irish story books for boys' from the ages of ten to sixteen.6 He categorized these books according to their subject matter into school and home stories, tales of adventure, hero tales, historical tales, fairy tales, humorous stories and sketches and miscellaneous stories, which were essentially Irish folktales suitable for children. School stories were scarce, causing Brown to lament that 'If our Irish boys want stories of school life they must read of school life as lived in English Protestant public and private schools', a milieu which was 'wholly alien to that of our Catholic schools at home'. However, he found that stories with an historical backdrop were plentiful, written by both Irish and British children's authors. These tales were set in eras as far apart as that of the Norman Strongbow and Oliver Cromwell,7 and included swashbuckling adventures which often transported young Irish heroes over the high seas to America8 and other far-off places.

In his article, Brown referred with some pride to the vast treasury of heroic epic literature, which had become known in Ireland through the upsurge of interest in Old Irish texts and translations during the nineteenth century.9 He observed that although the Arthurian legends, the folktales of Germany and tales of the Arabian Nights were securely established favourites in the nursery and schoolroom, nevertheless 'to the average European boy or girl Cúchulain and Finn were strangers, and our Irish children were scarcely less ignorant'.10 Yet, at that time, children were becoming more familiar with the characters of Irish saga literature through tales of kings, heroes and warriors which were being tailored by writers specifically to suit the younger taste. Recommended unreservedly by Brown was Joseph Jacob's Celtic Fairy Tales, beautifully illustrated by J. D. Batten.11 However, singular praise was given by Brown to the stories of Standish James O'Grady. He commented: 'There is in his style an epic grandeur, a vividness of colour, a something, so to speak, wild and primitive, which gives a unique flavour to his writings about old Irish legends'.12

Indeed, Standish O'Grady (1846–1928) was revered in the Anglo-Irish literary circles of the time as the 'father of the Irish literary revival'.13 A member of the Anglo-Irish ascendancy class, O'Grady became acutely aware of his Irish heritage through reading Sylvester O'Halloran's A General History of Ireland from the Earliest Accounts to the Close of the Twelfth Century.14 He devoted the remainder of his life to reconstructing the ancient history of Ireland and, in so doing, to reviving the heroic tales and legends for the Irish nation.15 His twin aims—to be faithful to the original Old Irish texts and also to make these tales both readable and exciting adventure stories—were quite impossible to achieve, since the sources from which he derived his material were often fragmentary and the culture they portrayed so foreign to his Victorian readers that his manuscripts required extensive revision and explanation to make any sense at all. However, his greatest contribution to Anglo-Irish literature was the fact that he renewed, through his writings, extensive interest in a long-forgotten heritage.

Cú Chulainn,16 heroic defender of Ulster in the Old Irish epic tale Táin bó Cúailnge (The Cattle-Raid of Cooley), was the central figure in a trilogy of adventure stories founded in mythology and entitled by O'Grady: The Coming of Cuculain (1894), In the Gates of the North (1901), The Triumph and Passing of Cuculain (1920). The first two books are mentioned in Brown's article as being eminently suitable for Irish boys and it is easy to see the appeal of the story of a lone boyish figure valiantly defending Ulster against the might of the Connaught forces, while the menfolk of his province lie on their beds suffering from a debilitating disease.17 Nevertheless, O'Grady's portrait of Cú Chulainn is very stilted when compared with descriptions of that hero in children's literature only a few years later.18

The character of Finn mac Cumail19 is more vividly drawn by O'Grady than that of Cú Chulainn. Here he employs his imagination to write an ornate prose which elaborates on the original tales of this mighty warrior and wise leader of a band of fíana (warriors/adventurers). The adventures of semi-mythical Finn mac Cumail were related by his son Oisín to St Patrick in early Christian times and thus recorded for posterity.20 Doubtless, O'Grady saw in the many tales about that heroic figure untold possibilities to instill in the young mind the morals and values embodied in these tales. His book, Finn and His Companions was published by T. Fisher Unwin in the Children's Library series,21 which also included another gem for children—Irish Fairy Tales by William Butler Yeats.22 Both books are beautifully, if somewhat traditionally, illustrated by Jack B. Yeats. In the preface to his book about Finn's adventures, O'Grady explained to his young readers that, despite the fact that the Roman world had lost the simple virtues of truth, courage and generosity, these qualities were preserved by the Irish people amongst whom Finn and Oisín lived:

Finn, who was the father of Ossian, Oscur his son, Diarmid his chivalrous cousin, Caelta, MacLewy, and the rest were very brave, upright, true-hearted, and affectionate men, who in their forests and their rude simple homes preserved certain virtues which the Romans and the Romanised Britons had lost in spite of all their wealth.23

There are strong moralistic tones in these tales of Finn, somewhat reminiscent of the tales of Maria Edgeworth some hundred years earlier.24 Generosity of heart and spirit was a prized quality among the fíana and O'Grady places overt emphasis on this theme lest it be lost on his young readers. Finn comes into contact with a curmudgeonly character by the name of Nod, but by dint of his example and the open-heartedness of his men, Nod's meanness is overcome and after some harrowing adventures:

Nod became as famous for hospitality as he had been formerly notorious for the want of it. So greatly was he changed that he was said to be the third most hospitable man of his time in all Ireland … the story shows how Finn by force, example and precept, taught the men of Ireland to live in a more generous, kindly, and human manner than they had done. Those who look deeper into these strange stories will find that the numerous serpents which Finn slew were ugly practices and savage unnatural habits.25

O'Grady also wrote a number of historical novels, eminently suitable for children. In these, characters such as Red Hugh O'Donnell and a supporting historical cast come to life and fight their way through Elizabethan Ireland with great vigour.26 However, it was chiefly through his interpretations of Irish heroic mythology that he became known to, and an acknowledged influence on, the pioneers of the Irish revivalist movement in the last quarter of the nineteenth century. Many of these writers paid tribute to his influence on their outlook in life: 'Whatever is Irish in me he kindled to life', W. B. Yeats wrote, while George Russell (AE) felt that Tennyson's Knights of the Round Table paled into insignificance when com-pared with the heroic figures created by O'Grady: 'It was the memory of a race which rose up within me as I read, and I felt exalted as one who learns he is among the children of kings'.27 Small wonder then that O'Grady's reconstruction of the heroic lives of a host of mythological characters set the scene for the forays of other writers into Irish mythology.

Lady Augusta Gregory (1852–1932) followed O'Grady's example and adapted and retold stories concerning, for the most part, the mythical heroes and heroines of the Red Branch cycle of tales, of whom the foremost was Cú Chulainn. Her book Cuchulain of Muirthemne traces primarily the birth, life and death of Cú Chulainn, but to this she added tales of Emer his wife, Angus Óg, Déirdre and the sons of Usna, and King Conaire of Tara.28 Her style was direct and she told her tales 'in plain simple words, in the same way my old nurse Mary Sheridan used to be telling stories from the Irish long ago, and I a child at Roxborough'.29 Her friend and mentor, W. B. Yeats, was fulsome in his praise of her edition of these tales and quick to recognize the value of these stories for the children of the Irish nation. He urged readers in his prefatory remarks to this book in 1902:

If we will but tell these stories to our children the Land will begin again to be a Holy Land, as it was before men gave their hearts to Greece and Rome and Judea. When I was a child I had only to climb the hill behind the house to see long, blue, ragged hills flowing along the southern horizon. What beauty was lost to me, what depth of emotion is still perhaps lacking in me, because nobody told me, not even the merchant captains who knew everything, that Crúachan of the Enchantments lay behind those long, blue, ragged hills!30

A more scholarly approach was adopted by Eleanor Hull (1860–1935), historian, Irish scholar and founder of the Irish Texts Society, which had, and still has, as its main aim the publication of early Irish manuscripts. She also contributed to children's literature in this period, by writing in 1909 a splendid book for children entitled Cuchulain the Hound of Ulster.31 The book has sixteen superb illustrations by Stephen Reid, in which much attention has been paid to 'Celtic' details. Given Hull's scholarly background, it is not surprising that her approach to the sources at her disposal was more methodical than the books we have mentioned thus far. Whereas she allowed herself some minor pruning of detail, she did not deliberately alter a tale or add material to it. Neither did she include tales which did not belong to the Cú Chulainn cycle, a factor which gave the book a unity and continuity not found in the works of either O'Grady or Lady Gregory. The book was written 'for the pleasure of the young'.32 Her character portrayal of the valiant young Cú Chulainn, grasping Queen Medb,33 acquiescent Ailill her spouse, wise King Conchobar34 and a host of other minor characters, is vibrant, and entirely believable, as is her depiction of the excitement of battle and the warmth of the evening camp fires. Her ultimate aim was the same as that of O'Grady, Yeats and the other writers—to rescue these old tales from oblivion and in so doing, 'to recall the minds of men in our own day to some noble ideals'.

For her, as for other Irish writers of the time, the young Cú Chulainn represented the embodiment of these noble ideals. The title-page of the book contained a famous extract in Old Irish from the stories of the boyhood deeds of Cú Chulainn, translated by Hull. It represented a pertinent philosophy for the children of the emerging Irish nation.35

'Bec a brig liomsa sin', ar Cuchulaind, 'gen go rabar acht aonlá no aonoidchi ar bith acht go mairit m'airdsgeula dom és'.

'Though the span of my life were but for a day,' Cuchulain said, 'little should I reck of that, if but my noble deeds might be remembered among men'.

The events in the tale which give rise to this famous saying were as follows. When he was seven years old, Cú Chulainn overheard Cathbad36 the magician tell his pupils that that very day was a lucky one on which any youth who should assume arms would attain eternal fame. Cú Chulainn immediately put aside his hurley-stick and ball and asked King Conchobar to give him the weapons of a warrior, telling him that Cathbad had instructed him to ask for them. Some time later Cathbad came on the scene and expressed sorrow that the lad had assumed arms so soon. Cú Chulainn explained what he had overheard Cathbad tell his pupils:

'True is that, indeed,' said Caffa, 'noble and famous thou shalt be, but short and brief thy life'.

'Little care I for that,' replied the lad, 'nor though my life endured but for one day and night, so only that the story of myself and of my deeds shall last'.37

The stark image of a small boy putting aside his playthings to assume the trappings of the fighting-man and to adopt the warrior's heroic philosophy as his own appealed strongly to nationalist feelings. Heroic images of this type contributed to the evolution of an educational ideal which saw as its ultimate aim blood-sacrifice in the name of nationhood, as we shall see below.

Another member of this Anglo-Irish revivalist circle who used the tradition of Irish mythology as inspiration was Ella Young (1865–1951). She developed an interest in Irish mythology while still a student in Dublin and was encouraged to collect folktales and learn the Irish language by her friend and mentor, Standish O'Grady. Young's political sympathies lay with an Irish Republic and she played an active rôle in the republican movement, running guns and ammunition for the members of the Irish Republican Army from a farmhouse in county Wicklow.38 However, through her membership of the movement Inghinidhe na héireann (Daughters of Ireland), one of whose founders was Maud Gonne, and through her voluntary work for their projects, she achieved a unity of philosophy and writing. One of the greatest successes of the Inghinidhe was their provision of free classes in Irish, history, music, dance and drama for the children of Dublin.39 Ella Young taught history at these classes by retelling the myths and legends of ancient Ireland. Despite the deprivations of their upbringing and the hardship of their surroundings, these children were highly motivated and eager to learn. Young gave a lively account in her memoirs which provides us with an insight into the popularity of these history classes:

In a room perched at the head of a rickety staircase and overlooking a narrow street, I have about eighty denizens of untamed Dublin: newsboys, children who have played in street alleys all their lives, young patriot girls and boys who can scarcely write their own names. Outside there is a continuous din of street cries and rumbling carts. It is almost impossible to shout against it if the windows are open, and more impossible to speak in the smother of dust if the windows are shut. Everyone is standing, closely packed—no room for chairs.40

Two books based on Celtic mythology were written by her during this time; The Coming of Lugh (1909) and Celtic Wonder Tales (1910).41 Both books were beautifully illustrated by Maud Gonne, 'with her own re-workings of Celtic designs',42 and her ethereal depictions of the ancient gods and heroes. Young did not confine herself to the more popular characters in mythology but drew on the whole Celtic pantheon of gods, goddesses, kings, heroes and anti-heroes. Celtic Wonder Tales is a collection of fourteen stories treating of such diverse themes as the fantastic Gobán Saor and the sad and lonely fate of the Children of Lir, metamorphosed into white swans by their wicked, jealous step-mother and condemned to spend hundreds of years flying relentlessly from lake to lake in Ireland.

Three hundred years they flew over Lake Darvra and swam on its waters. Often their father came to the lake and called them to him and caressed them; often their kinsfolk came to talk with them; often harpers and musicians came to listen to the wonder of their singing. When three hundred years were ended the swans rose suddenly and flew far and far away. Their father sought them and their kinsfolk sought them, but the swans never touched earth or rested once till they came to the narrow sea of the Moyle that flows between Ireland and Scotland. A cold stormy sea it was, and lonely. The swans had no one to listen to their singing, and little heart for singing amid the green curling, bitter waves. The storm-wind beat roughly on them, and often they were separated and calling to one another without hope of an answer.43

However, the story of the sons of Mil (eponymous ancestors of the Irish race) landing in Inis Fáil (the Isle of Destiny, i.e. Ireland) has a lyrical and nationalistic quality all of its own:

They came in ships, and it is said by some that they came from a land beyond the utmost blue-ness of the sky and that their ships left the track among the stars that can still be seen on winter nights.44

Their chief poet and druid Amairgen was the first to set foot on the land and after various encounters with the original inhabitants, the Túatha Dé Danann, the sons of Míl are victorious and lift their heads to get their first glimpse of the land of Ireland:

They saw the sunlight on the grass like emerald fire; they saw the blueness of the sky and the solemn darkness of the pine trees; they heard the myriad sound of shaken branches and running water and behind it echoed the laughter of Brigit.45

In these early tales, Young adhered rigidly to the traditional material. It was only in later years, when she used this same material to launch her imagination, that she was at her most creative. For example, in The Unicorn with Silver Shoes (1932) she took figures out of Irish mythology or otherwise and transposed them out of their milieu into unusual situations—a unicorn who is calmed by listening to the recitation of epic poetry, a djinn who ends up in a Dublin zoo, a Pooka who has mischievous adventures.46

If Ella Young's books for children were at their best when she imprinted her own character on traditional themes, the same could also be said of the writings of James Stephens (1880 or 1882–1950). Stephens lived in Dublin during the Easter Insurrection of 1916 and his reaction to this period cultivated intense patriotic feelings within him, which were sublimated in a re-discovery of his interest in Old Irish literature.47 The three books which he listed as his best among his novels were Irish Fairy Tales (1920), Deirdre (1923) and In the Land of Youth (1924).48 Of these, Irish Fairy Tales has to be the epitome of pure Irish mythological literature for children, beautifully recounted tales and magically illustrated plates by Arthur Rackham. In the ten tales recounted here, Stephens achieves the perfect blend of fantasy and reality. O'Grady's Finn is a cardboard character when compared to the exuberant lad in Stephens's tale 'The boyhood of Fionn'.49 There are wonderful flights of imagination such as that which describes how Finn first learns to jump:

He learned to jump by chasing hares in a bumpy field. Up went the hare and up went Fionn and away went the two of them, hopping and popping across the field. If the hare turned while Fionn was after her it was switch for Fionn, so that in a while it did not matter to Fionn which way the hare jumped, for he could jump that way too. Longways, sideways or baw-ways, Fionn hopped where the hare hopped, and at last he was the owner of a hop that any hare would give an ear for.50

His understanding of children is well illustrated in a paragraph about Finn's son Oisín, who leaves his mother in another land, comes to live with Finn and his band of fíana and at last learns their speech so that he can tell his story to his father:

There were many blanks in the tale, for a young child does not remember very well. Deeds grow old in a day and are buried in a night. New memories come crowding on old ones, and one must learn to forget as well as to remember. A whole new life had come to this boy, a life that was instant and memorable, so that his present memories blended into and obscured the past and he could not be quite sure if that which he told of had happened in this world or the world he had left.51

Stephens's own philosophy of life blended effortlessly with the adventures he narrated to give a barely perceptible moralistic tone, such as in the tale called 'The birth of Bran':

When Iollan and Tuiren were married, they went to Ulster and they lived together very happily. But the law of life is change; nothing continues in the same way for any length of time; happiness must become unhappiness, and will be succeeded again by the joy it has displaced. The past also must be reckoned with; it is seldom as far behind us as we could wish: it is more often in front, blocking the way and the future trips over it just when we think that the road is clear and joy our own.52

It should be noted that the books written for children by the writers mentioned thus far all subscribe to the same aims in varying degrees, in that the mythological heritage of the past was unveiled in its own traditional context both to inform and to inspire its readers. Curiously enough, none of these writers, apart from Ella Young, as we have already mentioned, used the traditional material as a stepping-stone for their own creativity. But this development in Young's writing was almost certainly precipitated by the fact that in 1925, disillusioned with the government of the new Irish Free State, she left to make her home permanently in America,53 as did a number of other Irish writers at that time.

However, there was one Irish writer, namely Edmund Leamy (1848–1904), who began in the late nineteenth century to mould traditional Irish legends and folklore in his own inimitable way, to create magical adventure stories for children. Leamy's books for children were aimed primarily to entertain and can therefore be said to represent children's fiction in the purest sense.54 His books were peopled with ordinary boys and girls who were transported into fairy realms to meet mythical heroes and heroines, who were tested by supernatural challenges and returned to the mortal world to be enfolded in the secure embrace of their 'mammy', none the worse for wear. But the milieu of that mortal world was unmistakably Irish and the fairy realms which he created were also the legendary realms of the aos sí (the fairy folk reputed to populate the Irish otherworld).

In the foreword to a collection of his posthumously published stories and anecdotes, Leamy was described by his friend, Katharine Tynan, as 'the beau-ideal of a chivalrous Irish gentleman, patriot and Christian'; he was 'Ireland's man; all he did was for Ireland.'55 Leamy was an active politician, a Member of Parliament and an ardent supporter of Charles Stewart Parnell.56 When Parnell seized the newspaper United Ireland back from his opponents in 1890, Leamy was entrusted with editorial control of this important Parnellite mouthpiece.57 Notwithstanding his intense political involvement and poor health, his literary interests impelled him to write poetry and prose which displayed a wealth of colour and imagination. His two most popular books for children—Irish Fairy Tales, first published in 1890 and The Fairy Minstrel of Glenmalure and Other Stories for Children, published in 1899—were re-issued many times in the course of subsequent years. Irish Fairy Tales was also issued many times in an abridged version, entitled The Golden Spears and Other Fairy Tales.

Leamy used as his sources a mixture of legends and folklore gleaned from Eugene O'Curry's seminal volumes, Lectures on the Manuscript Materials of Ancient Irish History (1861) and On the Manners and Customs of the Ancient Irish (1873), and P. W. Joyce's Old Celtic Romances.58 However, his interest in archaeology59 led him to recreate pictures for his young readers of the Ireland of ancient times, as depicted in the second story in Irish Fairy Tales, which is entitled 'The house in the lake', and describes quite accurately a crannóg or dwelling-place on an island in a lake:

The hut was built on stakes driven into the bed of the lake, and was so high above the waters that even when they were stirred into waves by the wind coming down from the mountains they did not reach the threshold of the door. Around, outside the hut, on a level with the floor, was a little wicker-work platform, and under the platform, close to the steps leading up to it from the water, the fisherman's curragh, made of willows, covered with skins, was moored, and it was only by means of the curragh that he and his son, Enda, could leave their lake dwelling.60

This is the setting to launch young Enda, the humble fisherman's son, on the adventure of a lifetime, in which he rescues 'the Princess Mave', held in thrall in the shape of a swan by her wicked step-mother, by pouring on her plumage 'the perfumed water that fills the golden bowl that is in the inmost room of the palace of the fairy queen, beneath the lake'. But first he must fetch the perfumed water, slay the dragon of the deep, defeat a thousand poisonous hissing serpents and kill with his spear the hideous monster guarding the fairy palace. Thrilling stuff indeed, and worthy of a modern day Indiana Jones!

The world which Leamy painted for children was devoid of any mention of the political turmoil which was the reality of late nineteenth-century Ireland. He used his pen to re-create a legendary Ireland of make-believe, where the rightful king was restored to Tara and the usurper banished,61 where warriors were lured to fairyland never to know old age or pain or sorrow or sickness,62 where warriors passed tests of strength and endurance before claiming the fairest princess in the land,63 where 'the sweetest music that was ever heard in all the world' was played by the nine little pipers of fairy land.64 The legend of the 'Fairy tree of Dooros' is used by Leamy in a story in which an ugly princess has her former beauty restored by eating a berry from the famous fairy tree growing in Dooros Wood. His description of how the magic tree came to grow there is quite enchanting:

Once upon a time the fairies of the west, going home from a hurling-match with the fairies of the lakes, rested in Dooros Wood for three days and three nights. They spent the days feasting and the nights dancing in the light of the moon, and they danced so hard that they wore the shoes off their feet, and for a whole week after the leprechauns, the fairies' shoemakers, were working night and day making new ones, and the rip! rap! tap! tap! of their little hammers were heard in all the hedgerows.

The food on which the fairies feasted were little red berries, and were so like those that grow on the rowan tree that if you only looked at them you might mistake one for the other; but the fairy berries grow only in fairyland, and are sweeter than any fruit that grows here in this world, and if an old man, bent and grey, ate one of them, he became young and active and strong again; and if an old woman, withered and wrinkled, ate one of them, she became young and bright and fair; and if a little maiden who was not handsome ate of them, she became lovelier than the flower of beauty.65

These berries were guarded jealously by the fairies but, because of their euphoria at winning the hurling-match, 'a little weeny fairy' called Pinkeen lost his head and, while travelling through the wood, dropped a berry from which grew the magic tree. This conjunction of fairy and mortal worlds, caused by the presence of a fairy tree on mortal soil, enables both worlds to mix in a magical adventure.

Such a conjunction invariably occurs in Leamy's book The Fairy Minstrel of Glenmalure and Other Stories for Children (1899), which contains three stories, each having as its theme the entry by human children into the fairy world, their encounter with its inhabitants and their conviction that they will eventually return to the arms of their mother. Emun answers the giant's third riddle correctly and the children escape from the giant's evil clutches in the story 'The fairy minstrel of Glenmalure':

The club fell of itself, and groaned as if it were alive. The roar of the disappointed giant made the woods tremble. But Emun, dragging Kathleen along with him, rushed like the wind. They had scarcely got outside the enchanted wood, when they heard—

'Kathleen! Kathleen! Emun! Emun! where are you?'

'Emun! Emun! that is mothereen!' cried Kathleen.

'Hurrah, hurrah!' shouted Emun, and at the sound of the dear, sweet voice, their fears and terrors left them as the nightmare leaves the sleeper, awakening to the songs of the birds and the light of the rosy morning.

The fascination of Leamy's stories is undoubtedly proven by the fact that each book was reprinted many times during the course of the subsequent forty years.66 Not only were Leamy's books appreciated by the general public, but also by Irish language enthusiasts such as Father Eugene O'Growney (1863–99), one of the founders of the Gaelic League, who wrote to Leamy on 15 December 1889:

Allow me to say how much I have enjoyed reading your beautiful little 'Irish Fairy Stories'. I trust you will soon give us more of them. My present object in writing is to ask permission to translate some of them into our own language—Irish-Gaelic—for publication.67

Although O'Growney's letter was prompted by his recognition of the dearth of such literature for children written in the medium of the Irish language, his wish for the translation of Leamy's books was not, in fact, realised until 1932, with the publication of Sidhe-scéalta. i. Irish Fairy Tales, translated by Brighid Ní Loingsigh. This was followed in 1933 by Píobaire sídhe Ghleann Maoiliughra. i. The Fairy Minstrel of Glenmalure, translated by Proinnsias Ó Brógáin.68

O'Growney's request highlights the fact that the present article's exploration of children's literature in Ireland at the turn of the century would not be complete without a consideration of what was being provided through the medium of the native Irish tongue. To appreciate fully the status of the Irish language at that time, it should be understood that before 1876 the Irish educational system made no provision for that section of the population for which Irish was the vernacular and only language, nor for that section which was bi-lingual.69 Irish-speaking parents proscribed the use of Irish among their children and policed them to prevent them uttering a single word of Irish. Parents cooperated with school-masters to eradicate the language, because it was generally recognized that, if their children did not become profi-cient in English, they had not the slightest chance of economic advancement in the world. As David Greene commented:

That world was one of increasing literacy and books and newspapers were becoming part of everyday life, literacy was available only through the national school system, for the hedge schools and the Irish manuscript tradition were dying out everywhere and the national school system offered only English.70

However, with the foundation of the Society for the Preservation of the Irish Language in 1876, pressure was brought to bear on the National Education Board which, in 1879, resulted in Irish being granted recognition in schools as a voluntary subject to be taught outside school hours. In 1893, the foundation of the Gaelic League marked the beginning of an important reaction against anglicization, in that the League's two main aims were, first, the revival of Irish as the vernacular of all Irish people and, second, the creation of a new literature in the Irish tongue. Thus, side by side with the Anglo-Irish literary movement at the end of the nineteenth century, there existed a Gaelic revivalist movement which regarded the Irish language as a crucial factor in the realization of the Irish identity. An ongoing controversy between these two movements centred about the possibility of having a genuine Irish literature written in the English vernacular. The use of traditional elements in literary form by W. B. Yeats, George Russell (AE), Lady Gregory and others provoked a great deal of criticism among Gaelic revivalists who felt that there could not be a genuine Irish literature unless it was written in the Irish language.71 Needless to say, this Irish literature would have to be written anew, as the Anglo-Irish revivalists writing as they did in the English vernacular, represented the true language situation in Ireland.

In order to provide a literature in the Irish medium, the Gaelic League inaugurated a publishing scheme at the turn of the century, which, during the next twenty years, provided plays, short stories, novels, folktales and translations of literary material from English and other languages. O'Growney's contribution was a series of lessons on the Irish language first published in 1894 under the title Simple Lessons in Irish, which sold thousands of copies. The Gaelic League's weekly newspaper, An Claidheamh Soluis (The Sword of Light) played a leading role in the campaign to encourage use of the Irish language in the schools and homes of Ireland. The editor of that newspaper, Patrick Pearse (1879–1916), was also an innovator in the field of education and a prolific writer of prose and poetry in the Irish language. His plays and short stories were written mainly for children. His contribution, in the twin roles of writer and educationalist, is important for our understanding of the fosterage of a political awareness of national identity in the children's literature of the time.

As a writer, Pearse contributed to the establishment of a simple, fresh prose style based on spoken Irish, rather than on the archaic, literary tongue of previous centuries. His innovative style tended more towards the modern short story form, as opposed to the folktale. His themes were drawn from the everyday lives of the Connemara people, native Irish speakers in the west of Ireland, whom he idealized and sentimentalized in his first collection of short stories: Iosagán agus sgéalta eile (1907).72 Critics have sometimes faulted these stories for their simplicity and lack of polish, yet their simplicity was a true reflection of the daily poverty and hardship of the people in Irish-speaking districts. Few children could fail to be moved when reading the story 'Eoghainín na n-éan' (Eoineen of the birds), which tells the story of a delicate boy, whose sole interest was in nature and who watched and waited until the swallows came each summer. Eoineen's frail hold on life was measured by the swallows' migrations from Ireland and their return every summer, until one summer he followed them forever:

The little flock of birds rose in the air and faced the southern world …

'Mother', Eoineen said, 'they're calling me. "Come to the country where the sun is always shining—come, Eoineen over the wild seas to the country of light, come, Eoineen of the Birds!" I can't refuse them. A blessing with you, little mother. My thousand, thousand blessings to you, little mother of my heart. I'm going from you … over the wild seas … to the country where the sun is always shining'.73

But it was in Pearse the educationalist and playwright that the differing views of national identity promulgated by the Anglo-Irish revivalists and the members of the Gaelic League were united at last. Through him and through his educational theories the national heritage unlocked by writers such as Standish O'Grady came alive once more. Pearse's educational vision formed the bridge between the present and the past, inspired as it was by the early Irish system of education, and Cú Chulainn, the youthful warrior-hero of early Ireland, seemed to him the ideal embodiment of its virtues. He saw in his pupils at St Enda's, the school which he founded in 1908,74 a recreation of the boy corps entrusted in fosterage to the legendary King Conchobar at Eamhain Macha. He wrote:

It is a long time since I was attracted to the Gaelic plan of educating children. One of my oldest recollections is of a kindly grey-haired seanchaidhe, a woman of my mother's people, telling tales by a kitchen fireplace … one of her tales was of a king, the most famous king of his time in Ireland, who had gathered about him a number of boys, the children of his friends and kinsmen, whom he had organised into a little society, giving them a constitution and allowing them to make their own laws and elect their own leaders. The most renowned of the king's heroes were appointed to teach them chivalry, the most skilled of his men of art to teach them arts, the wisest of his druids to teach them philosophy …75

He sought constantly to inspire his pupils with the heroic example set by Cú Chulainn and with the moral values of Finn mac Cumail, warrior-leader of the fíana. The mottoes attributed to Cú Chulainn, prominently displayed in the school, were 'Better is short life with honour than long life with dishonour', and 'I care not though I were to live one day and one night, if only my fame and my deeds live after me'. This latter was the motto on the title-page of Eleanor Hull's book, Cúchulain the Hound of Ulster, to which we have already referred. The school crest of a helmeted warrior with a sword, bore the motto of Finn and his fíana, 'Strength in our hands, Truth in our tongues, and Purity in our hearts'. He exhorted each of his pupils to live up to his finest self in the following way:

We must be worthy of the tradition we seek to recreate and perpetuate in Éire, the knightly tradition of the macradh of Eamhain Macha, dead at the Ford, 'in the beauty of their boyhood', the high tradition of Cúchulainn, 'better is short life with honour than long life with dishonour', 'I care not though I were to live but one day and one night, if only my fame and my deeds live after me;' the noble tradition of the Fíanna, 'we, the Fíanna, never told a lie, falsehood was never imputed to us', 'strength in our hands, truth on our lips, and cleanness in our hearts'; the Christ—like tradition of Colm Cille, 'if I die, it shall be from the excess of the love I bear the Gael'. It seems to me that with this appeal it will be an easy thing to teach Irish boys to be brave and unselfish, truthful and pure; I am certain that no other appeal will so stir their hearts or kindle their imaginations to heroic things.76

An intense interest in his life was drama. Pearse used his knowledge of the early Irish heroic age to provide a springboard for the writing and production of plays for children. Between 1909 and 1916 he wrote eight dramatic works, six of them in the Irish language, specifically for production at St Enda's. These included two outdoor pageants based on the 'Boyhood deeds of Cú Chulainn', a passion play and four one-act plays. Anglo-Irish writers such as W. B. Yeats were extremely interested in Pearse's educational experiment at St Enda's. Yeats himself attended plays produced at the school at Pearse's invitation, gave a half-term lecture to the boys, and offered to produce Pearse's play An rí (The king) to help the school overcome its financial difficulties.77 Although Pearse was not a good dramatist, he did produce dramatically intense pieces and his young pupils thoroughly enjoyed the heroic rôles in which they were cast. With such important patrons as the Anglo-Irish revivalists, it was small wonder that he believed his plays for children to be a vital contribution to the resurgence of drama that had been spearheaded by Yeats and Synge.

The plays Pearse wrote for children proclaimed a messianic message of heroic self-sacrifice for a noble ideal. They are interesting as part of the Irish literary revival and as revelations of the motivating force in their author which spurred him ever onwards to the blood-sacrifice of the Easter Rebellion of 1916. He wrote in 1913:

… one must be generous in service and withal joyous, accounting even supreme sacrifices slight. Mr J. M. Barrie makes his Peter Pan say (and it is finely said) 'To die will be a very big adventure', but I think, that in making my little boy in An Rí offer himself with the words 'Let me do this little thing', I am nearer to the spirit of the heroes.78

The blood-sacrifice became a reality. Some of Pearse's child-warriors did fight to the death for the ideal of nationhood.

In the political upheaval, some three years after the 1916 Rebellion in Ireland and the execution of Pearse and others, it was evident to Fr Stephen Brown that the idealism which had provided the impetus to create a literature for children had become extinct. In his 1919 article he commented: 'Publishing in Ireland is almost at a standstill', and predicted that there would be a long interval of transition before the situation could be remedied.79 A number of writers such as Ella Young, James Stephens and Padraic Colum had already emigrated to America, where they continued to write for children on Irish themes.80 But the political chaos and stagnant economic climate of Ireland in the 1920s precluded the promotion of any literary activity.81

Nor was this lack of creativity confined only to the 1920s. As late as 1946, Kenneth Reddin was decrying the stage-Irishness portrayed in whatever children's books were being produced:

Pigs in the kitchen and little red hens and tinkers splitting skulls down bohereens, and ass carts and clamps of turf and heaps of muck, cabins, sleans, Seáns, illiteracy, bad whiskey and general 'divilment'82

He bitterly criticized the scant attention being paid to the literary needs of an Irish middle class child rooted in an emerging urban environment and wondered about the origins of 'this phoney peasant stuff', only to come to the conclusion that since the Irish book market was non-existent, Irish writers continued to perpetrate the 'stage-Irish bogey' because there was a market for this type of literature in England and America.

Plus ça change, and the situation did not greatly change until the 1970s, when the production and publication of children's books in Ireland underwent something of a revival.83 Books in the Irish language are now being produced by the Irish publications branch of the Department of Education—An Gúm. The publication of books for children in English is also assured by the establishment by the larger publishing houses of separate children's imprints—nota-bly Brogeen Books (Dolmen Press) and Lucky Three Books (O'Brien Press). Needless to say, this revival includes the publication of many modern re-tellings of Old Irish legends, such as Edmund Lenihan's Stories of Old Ireland for Children,84 Michael Scott's Irish Hero Tales,85 and Patricia Lynch's Tales of Irish Enchantment.86 Recent years have also seen the reissue by Mercier Press of 'golden oldies', such as those stories taken from Lady Gregory's book, Gods and Fighting Men (1904) and re-titled: Irish Legends for Children,87 and Edmund Leamy's Irish Fairy Tales.88 It is heartening to realize that the tradition of kings, heroes and warriors, so earnestly preserved and fought for in the period of emergent nationalism, will be preserved for present and future generations of children everywhere.


I should like to thank Drs David Blamires, Ian Roberts and Jonathan West for their invaluable help and support during the writing of this article. The following people also provided information and encouragement: Dennis Butts, Patricia Donlon, Cherie Gladstone, Clive Hurst and the staff concerned with the Opie collection, Gearóid Mac Eoin, Brian Murdoch, Ruth Potterton, Kimberley Reynolds, Mireia Sagarra, Janet Wallwork and Christine Wilkie. The absence of bibliographical and critical material specifically related to literature for children in Ireland has made investigation of this topic difficult and all suggestions have been gratefully received.

1. Patricia Donlon, 'Irish Children's Fiction', Linen Hall Review (Autumn 1985), 12-13.

2. For the background, see F. S. L. Lyons, Ireland since the Famine (London: Fontana, 1973).

3. For a study of the period, see A. Norman Jef-fares, Anglo-Irish literature (Dublin: Gill and Macmillan, 1982).

4. For a good synopsis, see Thomas Flanagan, 'Literature in English, 1801–91', A New History of Ireland, vol v, ed. W. E. Vaughan (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1989), 482-522.

5. This article draws on the work of a joint study on the history of children's books in Ireland from 1700 to 1920 which is now being prepared for publication by my colleague, Dr Ian Roberts, and myself.

6. Stephen Brown S.J., 'Irish Fiction for Boys', Studies, 7 (1918), 665-70; 8 (1919), 469-72, 658-63.

7. John G. Rowe, With Strongbow at Wexford (1917); Randal McDonnell, When Cromwell Came to Drogheda (1906), both works cited by Brown, 'Irish Fiction', 470.

8. See Edmund Downey, Captain Lanagan's Log (1891); Mary E. Mannix, Michael O'Donnell, or The Fortunes of a Little Emigrant (1900); James Riley, Christy of Rathglin (1907); all works cited in Brown, 'Irish Fiction', 668.

9. For a summary of work in these areas at that time, see J. E. Caerwyn Williams and Patrick K. Ford, The Irish Literary Tradition (Cardiff: University of Wales Press, 1992).

10. Brown, 'Irish Fiction', 669.

11. Joseph Jacobs, Celtic Fairy Tales (London: David Nutt, 1892).

12. Brown, 'Irish Fiction', 670. For a general discussion of O'Grady and his work, see Philip Marcus, Standish O'Grady (Lewisburg, Pa.: Bucknell University Press, 1970).

13. Thomas Flanagan, 'Literature in English', 517. Ulick O'Connor, Celtic Dawn (London: Black Swan, 1985), 23-6.

14. Published in London in 1778.

15. The centre of O'Grady's work is a history of Ireland in two volumes: History of Ireland: The Heroic Period (London: Sampson Low, Searle, Marston, & Rivington/Dublin: E. Ponsonby, 1878) and History of Ireland: Cuculain and His Contemporaries (London: Sampson Low, Searle, Marston, & Rivington/Dublin: E. Ponsonby, 1880). In addition he expounded his methods in History of Ireland: Critical and Philosophical (London: Sampson Low/Dublin: E. Ponsonby, 1881) and Early Bardic Literature, Ireland (London: Sampson Low, Searle, Marston, & Rivington/Dublin: E. Ponsonby, 1879).

16. Literally 'The Hound of Culann'. Readers will note that there was no agreed standard orthography for the Irish names of saga-characters at the time, thus Cú Chulainn appeared as Cuchulain/Cuchulainn/Cuculain; likewise Finn mac Cumail/Fionn Mac Cumhaill, Oisín/Ossian and Medb/Medhbh/Maeve/Mave. I have standardized the orthography as far as possible when referring to these characters in general terms. However, the authors' orthography is preserved in any titles or textual excerpts reproduced here.

17. For a synopsis of the epic saga, see David Greene, 'Táin bó Cúailnge', Irish Sagas, ed. Myles Dillon (Cork: Mercier Press, 1970), 93-105,

18. The character of Cú Chulainn as described by Lady Gregory and Eleanor Hull is dealt with below.

19. Literally 'Finn son of Cumal'.

20. For further reading on the genre of Fenian/Ossianic literature in early Ireland, see Myles Dillon, Early Irish Literature (Chicago and London: University of Chicago Press, 1948, reprinted 1972), 32-50.

21. See Finn and His Companions (London: T. Fisher Unwin, 1892). I am indebted to Dr David Blamires, who kindly lent me his copy of this edition for reference purposes.

22. Irish Fairy Tales (London: T. Fisher Unwin, 1892). This is a collection of fairy and folktales, selected and edited by Yeats from the collections of Douglas Hyde, Samuel Ferguson, William Allingham, William Carleton and other collectors of folklore.

23. Standish O'Grady, Finn and His Companions, x-xi.

24. See J. S. Bratton, The Impact of Victorian Children's Fiction (London: Croom Helm, 1981), 43.

25. See Standish O'Grady, Finn and His Companions, 83-4.

26. See Red Hugh's Captivity (London: Ward and Downey, 1889); Lost on Du-Corrig, (London, Paris and Melbourne: Cassell, 1894); The Chain of Gold (London: T. Fisher Unwin, 1895); Ulick the Ready (London: Downey, 1896); The Flight of the Eagle (London: Lawrence and Bullen, 1897); Hugh Roe O'Donnell (Belfast: Nelson and Knox, 1902).

27. Ulick O'Connor, Celtic Dawn, 25.

28. See Lady Augusta Gregory, Cuchulain of Muirthemne (London: John Murray, 1902). A further book, Gods and Fighting Men (London: John Murray, 1904), gives translations of other sagas and legends.

29. Lady Augusta Gregory, dedication to the Irish people of Kiltartan, Cuchulain, i.

30. Preface by W. B. Yeats, to Lady Augusta Gregory, Cuchulain, vi.

31. Eleanor Hull, Cuchulain the Hound of Ulster (London: George C. Harrap, 1909).

32. Hull wrote an interesting and scholarly introduction to Cuchulain, in which she discussed the manuscript materials from which she derived her tales and her approach to them, see particularly 12-13.

33. Hull anglicizes this name as 'Meave' in the book.

34. Anglicized as 'Conor' in the book.

35. See the discussion of P. H. Pearse below, and the manner in which he incorporated this into his educational philosophy.

36. Anglicized as 'Caffa' by Hull in Cuchulain.

37. See Hull, Cuchulain, 40-3.

38. M. Kelly Lynch, 'Ella Young', The Macmillan Dictionary of Irish Literature, ed. Robert Hogan (London: Macmillan 1984).

39. For a summary of the work carried out by this early, extraordinarily (for its time) emancipated women's movement, see Margaret Ward, Maud Gonne: A Life (London: Pandora, 1990), 65-70.

40. Ella Young, Flowering Dusk (New York: Longmans, 1945), 70.

41. Ella Young, The Coming of Lugh (Dublin: Maunsel, 1909); Celtic Wonder Tales (Dublin: Maunsel, 1910). The latter has been re-issued by Floris Books, Edinburgh, 1988, reprinted in 1991.

42. On Maud Gonne's art, of which far less is known than of her political activities, see Ward, Maud Gonne, 90.

43. Ella Young, Celtic Wonder Tales, 148-9.

44. Ibid., 117.

45. Ibid., 125.

46. See Ella Young, The Unicorn with Silver Shoes (New York: Longmans, 1932). Her book The Wonder Smith and His Son (New York: Longmans, 1927), deals with the adventures of Goibniu, a kind of Irish Hephaestus, who outwits the evil Fomorian Balor.

47. He was friendly with Irish scholars such as Os-born Bergin, Richard Best and Stephen MacK-enna and these encouraged him to read editions of Old Irish texts which gave him a background for subsequent poetry and prose.

48. See Hilary Pyle, James Stephens: His Works and an Account of His Life (London: Routledge and Kegan Paul, 1965); Irish Fairy Tales (London and New York: Macmillan, 1920); Deirdre (London and New York: Macmillan, 1923); In the Land of Youth (London and New York: Macmillan, 1924).

49. Stephens, Irish Fairy Tales, 33-90.

50. Ibid., 46-7.

51. Ibid., 130.

52. Ibid., 96.

53. See Ward, Maud Gonne, 67.

54. See F. J. Harvey Darton, Children's Books in England (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1958), 1, where he gives his interpretation of children's literature: 'By "children's books" I mean printed works produced ostensibly to give children spontaneous pleasure, and not primarily to teach them, nor solely to make them good, nor to keep them profitably quiet'.

55. Edmund Leamy, By the Barrow River (Dublin: Sealy, Bryers and Walker, 1907), foreword by Katharine Tynan to this edition, v-vi.

56. For background information, see Margaret Leamy (his wife), Parnell's Faithful Few (New York: Macmillan, 1936), and F. S. L. Lyons, Charles Stewart Parnell (London: Fontana/Collins, 1978).

57. See Lyons, Parnell, 549-50.

58. Leamy cites his sources in Fairy Tales, 159-65.

59. Ibid., 160.

60. Ibid., 20. For a verification of this description from an archaeologist's viewpoint, see more recently, Eamon P. Kelly, 'Crannogs', in The Illustrated Archaeology of Ireland, ed. Michael Ryan (Dublin: Country House, 1991), 120-4.

61. See, for example, 'The Fairy Tree of Dooros' in Leamy, Fairy Tales, 106-7.

62. 'The Enchanted Cave' in Leamy, Fairy Tales, 109-33.

63. 'The Huntsman's Son', Leamy, Fairy Tales, 134-55; 'The Little White Cat', Leamy, Fairy Tales, 44-68.

64. 'The Golden Spears', Leamy, Fairy Tales, 68-89.

65. Leamy, Fairy Tales, 89-90. He states that he used as his source for this legend the tale as told in 'The Pursuit of Diarmuid and Grania', taken from Joyce's Old Celtic Romances.

66. For example, Irish Fairy Tales was reprinted in 1894, 1906, 1907, 1911, 1930, 1938.

67. This letter from Father O'Growney is printed, together with a letter from Laurence A. Waldron, dated 25 September 1906, at the back of the book The Fairy Minstrel of Glenmalure (Dublin: H. M. Gill, n.d.).

68. Sidhe-scéalta. i. Irish Fairy Tales, Brighid Ní Loingsigh d'aistrigh go Gaedhilg (Baile Átha Cliath: Oifig Díolta Foillseacháin Rialtais, 1932); Píobaire sídhe Ghleann Maoiliughra. i. The Fairy Minstrel of Glenmalure, Proinnsias Ó Brógáin d'aistrigh (Baile Átha Cliath: Oifig Díolta Foillseacháin Rialtais, 1933).

69. For background reading on this, see Séamus Ó Búachalla, 'Educational Policy and the Role of the Irish Language from 1831 to 1981', European Journal of Education, 19 (1984), 75-92.

70. On the foundation and history of the Gaelic League, see David Greene, 'The Founding of the Gaelic League', The Gaelic League Idea, ed. Seán Ó Tuama (Dublin and Cork: Mercier Press, 1972), 10-11; and further Maureen Wall, 'The Decline of the Irish Language' and Tomás Ó hAilín, 'Irish Revival Movements', A View of the Irish Language, ed. Brian Ó Cuív (Dublin: Stationery Office, 1969), 81-101.

71. See Kevin B. Nowlan, 'The Gaelic League and Other National Movements', The Gaelic League Idea, ed. Ó Tuama, 41-51.

72. Published in Dublin in 1907 by the Gaelic League. The book was translated into English by Joseph Campbell, Iosagán and Other Stories by Patrick Pearse (Dublin and London: Maunsel, 1918).

73. Translation taken from the dual-language book, Short Stories of Padraic Pearse, selected and adapted by Desmond Maguire (Dublin and Cork: Mercier Press, 1968), 44-7.

74. See Pat Cooke, Scéal Scoil Éanna, The Story of an Educational Adventure (Dublin: Office of Public Works, 1986).

75. On Pearse's educational philosophy, see Séamas Ó Buachalla, A Significant Irish Educationalist (Dublin and Cork: Mercier Press, 1980), 360.

76. Ó Buachalla, Irish Educationalist, 324. The macradh mentioned was the boy corps of the King.

77. Ibid., 344-5.

78. Ibid., 343.

79. Stephen Brown S.J., 'Irish Fiction for Boys', Studies, 8 (1919), 663.

80. Colum's book of children's stories, The King of Ireland's Son (New York: Macmillan, 1916/London: Harrap, 1920), quickly established his reputation as a writer for children in the United States.

81. For background see L. M. Cullen, An Economic History of Ireland since 1660, second edition (London: Batsford, 1987), 168-73.

82. Kenneth Reddin, 'Children's Books in Ireland', Irish Library Bulletin, 7 (1946), 74-6.

83. See Patricia Donlon, 'Irish Children's Fiction', Linen Hall Review (Autumn 1985), 12-13; Jeffrey Garrett, 'Publishing for Children in Celtic Languages', Celtic Cultures Newsletter, eds Gearóid Mac Eoin and Anders Ahlqvist, (Gal-way: Unesco, November 1986), 23-9.

84. Edmund Lenihan, Stories of Old Ireland for Children (Dublin and Cork: Mercier Press, 1986), reprinted 1990 and 1991.

85. Michael Scott, Irish Hero Tales (Dublin and Cork: Mercier Press, 1989).

86. Patricia Lynch, Tales of Irish Enchantment (Dublin and Cork: Mercier Press 1980), stories taken from Patricia Lynch, Tales of Irish Enchantment (Dublin: Clonmore and Reynolds, 1952) and re-issued subsequently in full by Mercier Press in two volumes: Patricia Lynch, Tales of Irish Enchantment and Enchanted Irish Tales (Dublin and Cork: Mercier Press, 1993).

87. Lady Augusta Gregory, Irish Legends for Children (Dublin and Cork: Mercier Press, 1983).

88. A synopsis and commentary on popular books for children, which have either been re-issued or newly published may be found in Patricia Donlon, 'Children's Literature in Ireland', Iris na Roinne Gnóthaí Eachtracha, Bulletin of the Department of Foreign Affairs, no. 1037 (1987), 7-11. I am indebted to Dr Donlon for having provided me with a copy of this article.

Celia Catlett Anderson (essay date September 1997)

SOURCE: Anderson, Celia Catlett. "Born to the 'Trouble': The Northern Ireland Conflict in the Books of Joan Lingard and Catherine Sefton." Lion and the Unicorn 21, no. 3 (September 1997): 387-401.

[In the following essay, Anderson studies how the works of Irish young adult writers Joan Lingard and Martin Wad-dell—who writes under the pseudonym "Catherine Sefton"—echo the pain and difficulties of the historical period of Northern Irish conflict known as "The Troubles."]

The battle for the allegiance of young people is a crucial part of the Ulster conflict. From their early years, children in Northern Ireland are exposed to the slogans and ballads and sermons that proclaim the righteousness of the Protestant or the Catholic cause. And they are early aware that this righteousness may turn violent at any street corner. Until recently, the curriculum of religiously segregated schools reinforced these divisions. In counterbalance are both personal and fictional accounts, which have at their center a plea for a resolution to the conflict, a chance for the new generation.

In 1985, the Standing Conference of Youth Organizations in Northern Ireland sponsored the publication of a collection of writings by young people. While some of the pieces emphasize the warmth of family or the beauty of the land, the majority are dark indeed. A teenager in Northern Ireland, Elaine Harbinson, seventeen at the time of a 1984 visit to her home by "The Organization," writes of opening the back door of her house only to be "confronted by a small hand gun and beckoned into the living room" (Being Young in Northern Ireland 16). The family, held captive throughout the night, was forced to let The Organization borrow the family's car. After a week filled with police interrogations, the car was found, "but the army blew it up, not taking any chances. It might have been booby-trapped" (18). Harbinson comments, "My mother still bears the scars of that night; she still imagines we are being watched" (18). Among the many other pieces of prose and poetry one of the most moving is a poem entitled "Rainy Sunday" by Gavin Stewart. It reads in part

    The rain cries at my window
    The mask laughs and the children weep;
            rain falls on earth;
    Yet nothing good dare grow here
    For fear of being washed away in tears and blood
    A rain of sorrow, a hail of bullets,
    Cannot the sun pierce this blanket of dark?
    I have no memory of its shining.
    Eighteen years it has rained in our hearts.
                 (Being Young in Northern Ireland 21)

"I have no memory of its shining." Between the summer of 1969 when the most recent era of Irish "Troubles" erupted with riots in the Northern Ireland cities of Derry and Belfast and the summer of 1994 when Sinn Fein announced the much heralded IRA ceasefire, a generation of young people in Ulster grew up believing that bombings and reprisal killings were just the way life was. In fact, many of their children have grown to consciousness under the same political tensions: grown up in close companionship with armored car patrols, military checkpoints, and the ongoing possibility that the bus they ride, the store where they shop, even the home where they live may be subject to a bombing, a shooting, or an intrusion by terrorists or soldiers. They are the latest victims of a centuries-old struggle between the Protestant British presence in Ireland and the Catholic Celtic population. The ceasefire has itself ceased on occasion, and, although, according to a local source, the tension and violence have not yet returned to pre-1994 levels, a resolution seems ever receding.

Martin Waddell, in an unpublished paper that he presented at a 1989 UNESCO conference in Paris, speaks of the children he has met during school visits throughout Northern Ireland, children who

go home through street[s] that are marred by a so-called Peaceline, through fields guarded by watch towers, to houses impoverished by bitterness in some cases, and resignation in so many others.

These children are the experts in their own predicament, but the problem is that the ideas that form them and the ideas they articulate when confronted by a camera or a journalist or a writer-on-the-make are the ideas imposed on them by their daily lives in their own communities.


If there has been an easing of these hardline beliefs among the current generation, teachers and organizers who have worked for the integration of religious groups in schools are due some of the credit.1 So are those authors who have written thoughtful fictional accounts of the blighting effects that the recurring violence has on those raised under its threat. A focus on the young is frequent even in "Troubles" fiction written for an adult audience,2 but a number of authors have specifically reached out to a youthful audience.3 Their aim is, avowedly, to educate the upcoming generation about the physical, emotional, and political waste that sectarian disputes have visited on their land.

Two of the most widely read of these authors for young people are Joan Lingard and Martin Waddell4 (writing under his pseudonym Catherine Sefton). Lin-gard's quintet (The Twelfth Day of July, Across the Barricades, Into Exile, A Proper Place, and Hostages to Fortune, 1970–1976) has been extremely popular and widely used in school systems in Northern Ireland. The five books explore the difficult relationship between Catholic Kevin McCoy and Protestant Sadie Jackson. The Sefton Irish trilogy (Starry Night, Frankie's Story, and The Beat of the Drum, 1986–1989), linked thematically rather than through a continuing story line, has also had an impact on the school children of the area. In addition, both authors have written several other books that deal less directly with the "Troubles" and covered the topic in their fiction for adults, Lingard in The Lord on Our Side (1970) and Waddell in A Little Bit British: Being the Diary of an Ulsterman, August 1969 (1970).

Lingard and Waddell/Sefton share more than just a topic for fiction. Although both are from Protestant backgrounds (she Christian Scientist and he Presby-terian), they assign responsibility for the "Troubles" to both Protestants and Catholics. They each give vivid fictional accounts of the numbing effect of growing up with violence; they each use the sorrows and struggles of their young characters to convey the need for mutual acceptance. They differ, however, in the aspect of the conflict that is central to their novels on the "Troubles." Lingard's series, centering as it does on the problems of a mixed marriage, emphasizes the personal harm that the religious divisions inflict. Waddell/Sefton's Irish trilogy, with its three separate stories, considers the interpenetrating harm to all communities in Northern Ireland.

Both authors strive to paint a clear picture of the political situation in Northern Ireland and to integrate the problems of sectarian conflict with the lives of their characters. For example, the title of Lingard's opening novel The Twelfth Day of July refers to the yearly Protestant celebration of the 1690 victory of King William over the Papist-tainted James II at the battle of the Boyne (a river a few miles above Drogheda in County Louth in the current Republic).

The Orange Lodges, named for this same William of Orange, hold an annual July parade, featuring flutes and the huge lambeg drums, which have become a symbol of militant Protestantism. Each Protestant neighborhood strives to have the biggest bonfire, on which an effigy of the Pope (or of some contemporary Catholic agitator) is burned. Working-class Protestant areas go all out to decorate their streets with red, white, and blue streamers and to repaint the curbs and the gigantic murals of King Billy, who rides his white horse on the gable ends of many row houses.

This Protestant political artwork figures in the opening of Lingard's The Twelfth Day of July. Kevin McCoy, who lives a few blocks away on a Catholic street, plans with a friend "to go into the Prods area and paint 'Down with King Billy' under one of his murals" (19). It happens to be the mural on the Jacksons' house that they deface, and Sadie and her brother Tommy surprise them in the act. Retaliatory raids turn serious. Kevin's gentle sister Brede, the voice of peace and reason, is gravely hurt in a gang battle between the two territories. Sadie and Tommy have developed a grudging respect for Kevin and Brede, and the life-threatening injury causes them to reassess the meaning of the July 12th celebration. They forego their chance to march, much to their parents' shocked dismay. Instead they visit the hospital to inquire about Brede's state. Lingard's first book on the "Troubles" ends hopefully with friendship overcoming sectarianism as Kevin, Sadie, and her brother share an outing on a beach in Bangor, a resort town near Belfast.

In Waddell/Sefton's novel Frankie's Story, there is an example of the Catholic version of gable painting, but a less unified neighborhood reaction to it than on Lingard's fictional Protestant street, where support is virtually unanimous. Catholic Frankie's cynical voice informs us that

"The end gable of the row the Hagens [the street's militant Catholic family] live in is covered in Republican slogans and painted flags. It is their way of showing the world, but it doesn't go down well with most of the neighbours…. The Provo [Provisional IRA] supporters don't mind, I suppose, and the others can't do much about it for fear of getting a stone through the window. Anyway, the words are on the wall, and as far as the cops are concerned that makes everybody down here a potential cop-killer, which we're not."


In Waddell/Sefton's The Beat of the Drum, the title refers to the boom of the lambeg, the rallying sound of the Protestant marching season. IRA crippled, Protestant but tolerant Brian Hanna, hero of the book, informs us that the "demented beating … wasn't a heart beat, although it made the blood race. It was the bam-bam-bam of something waiting to burst" (23). Brian understands the psychology behind the bravado of the parades:

Fear is the stitch that holds the whole thing together. You can sense it, in the beat of the drum.


Lingard and Waddell/Sefton also use Protestant and Catholic slogans, street songs, and taunts to create an atmosphere of prevailing prejudice and to allow their young readers to examine the harm bred by this streetlore that is so familiar to them. In the opening pages of Lingard's first book of the series, Sadie Jackson and her brother Tommy are counting down the days to the "Glorious Twelfth!" Their father is good-humoredly catechizing them:

    "Who's the good Man?"
    "King Billy," they chorused….
    "[W]ho's the bad man?"
    "The Pope!" they shrieked….
    They knew all the right answers, for he had taught them well.
                                        (Twelfth 7)

This exchange is, in fact, the genesis of Lingard's book. In 1969 an Orangeman, the husband of a visiting friend, taught it to Lingard's young children:

It was a joke, but underneath the fun the message was serious.


I pondered on how easy it was to brainwash children and how early the prejudice starts.

                         ("Through Seven Years" 21)

Lingard and Waddell are well aware of the cultural conditioning they are contending with in their attempts to reach young people through the art of fiction when the street art of primitive paintings and taunting chants has preceded them. As Waddell put it in his UNESCO speech, these and "the endless heroic pub and street songs of the glories of Our side and Our heroes. These jingles perpetuate evil" (n.p.).

In Lingard's third book, Into Exile, when Sadie, reluctantly agrees to a second marriage ceremony before a priest, even as the priest performs it she is distracted by a Belfast street jingle running through her head:

    If I'd a penny,
    Do you know what I'd do?
    I'd buy a rope
And hang the pope
    And let King Billy through.

I quoted this bit of verse during a presentation to the faculty of my university about my research in Northern Ireland, and the next day a colleague e-mailed me the Catholic riposte that her Irish-American husband had known since childhood:

    Up the long ladder and down the short rope,
    To hell with King Billy and God bless the pope.
    If that doesn't do it, we'll tear him in two
    And send him to hell with his red, white and blue.

The childish cleverness of this pair of rhymes is both humorous and heartbreaking. Similar street songs and graffiti serve as refrain in many novels about the "Troubles." In Frankie's Story, Waddell/Sefton includes some grafitti slogans of radical Catholics: "PROVOS RULE! … BRITS OUT … SS R.U.C. BASTARDS and TIOCFAIDH ÁR LA—Our Day Will Come" (12). Lingard's and Waddell's novels are reasoned responses to such a barrage of angry words.

Joan Lingard wrote The Twelfth Day of July at a time when Northern Ireland's sectarianism was in a violent stage, but perhaps about to be solved by the presence of supposedly neutral British troops and by promises of greater educational and professional equity. Lingard had intended for the book to stand alone, but the further escalation of the "Troubles," as well as requests from young readers, prompted her to write more about Kevin and Sadie. In Across the Barricades the exchanges between Protestant and Catholic neighborhoods have gone beyond teenage high jinks, slogan-trading, and stone throwing. Grim headlines in the newspapers speak of the more deadly violence that has superseded them. This second novel recounts the blossoming of the young couple's love in an atmosphere of terrorism, and the tone is set at the beginning of the book when Kevin and Sadie, meeting by chance, pass "a newspaper billboard, SHOP GUTTED BY BOMB, TWO KILLED, ONE INJURED" (8). Kevin, who now works in a scrapyard, reflects Scrap in the streets: burnt-out cars and buses and armoured vehicles, torn-up paving stones, barbed-wire coiled up to form barricades. And along the streets went soldiers on patrol with fingers on the triggers of their guns, men and women eyeing them watchfully, suspiciously, and bands of children playing at fighting and sometimes not just playing. Sadie and Kevin were quiet. The subject was too difficult to talk about. (7)

Northern Ireland, Joan Lingard, and the young characters she created had traveled a dark road since the July 12th that ended the first novel. The three years between brought more riots, the British army, and no solutions. The promise of reconciliation and friendship that Lingard presented symbolically at the end of the first book—the peaceful and happy day on the beach—had not (and has not) been fulfilled. Lingard has a more pessimistic message in Across the Barricades. She is saying that reasonable people are being and will be driven away by the mindless sectarianism that is destroying the possibility of a decent life in Northern Ireland. The second book ends with the young couple's flight to England.

As the third book, Into Exile, opens, Kevin and Sadie have escaped the immediate threats to their safety, but the fear that the violence will touch their families back home has followed them across the water. In London, Sadie reads over the shoulder of a fellow commuter:

BOMB EXPLOSION IN BELFAST said the headline, leaping out from the paper to hit her in the eye. FIVE KILLED TEN INJURED. Her heart beat faster, she felt sickness rise from her stomach to her throat. She stood on tiptoe craning her head to read a bit more of the report. It was not in her area, or in Kevin's. It was probably all right. It was strange: in a way she worried more about the bombs and shootings here than she had done in Belfast. There, they had lived with them, accepting them as part of everyday life; here,… it seemed fantastic to expect to live with such horror every day.


And yet, Sadie "wanted to go home to Belfast bombs and all" (28). Kevin, at his place of work, reads the same news story and has a similar reaction. When the homesick pair do make up their minds to quit their jobs and take the ferry back, on the next morning

The first item on the news was about Ulster. Two soldiers had been shot in Belfast during the night, one was dead…. A bomb had exploded in a public house: two people were injured…. And a young girl had been tarred and feathered for going out with British soldiers.


They realize sadly that they cannot possibly return until that elusive "someday when it's all settled" although "How it could be settled they could not begin to imagine" (Exile 44). They increasingly worry about the safety of their families, especially Kevin's who "lived in one of the most troublesome areas in Belfast" (98). The fear is legitimate: Kevin's father is killed in a pub bomb blast; his Uncle Albert loses his legs in the same bombing.

In the last two books of Lingard's quintet, the Ulster violence crosses the water in the form of psychologically damaged relatives who come to visit Kevin and Sadie—or to live with them. Kevin's younger brother Gerald (who had connections with the Provos) is sent over by the desperate mother for straightening out. Kevin cannot reach him with words and knows that a friend's advice to "kick him" is equally futile. "Gerald was almost immune to violence; he had seen too much of it" (Proper Place 64). Immune, or so we think, until a gas main explosion shatters Gerald's composure and leaves him dazed, icy, and trembling violently. We learn that not only has he lost his father in the pub bombing, but that when Gerald and a friend once attempted to take a car for a joy ride, "There was a bomb planted in it. Gerald was blown across the street…. His friend was blown to bits" (Proper Place 79). Sadie, in spite of her speculation that Gerald and his friend might well have planted the bomb, begins to try to understand the boy. Ultimately he does come around. However, in the last book of the quintet, Hostages to Fortune, another of Kevin's younger siblings, his sister Clodagh, arrives at their doorstep. Clodagh proves to be beyond redemption. The theme of exile runs through the last three books.

The Waddell/Sefton books are all set in Northern Ireland and more immediately woven into the life of that country than are Lingard's. Lingard's Kevin and Sadie leave Ulster just when violence is becoming a part of daily life (early 1970s). In Waddell/Sefton's Irish trilogy (1980s) his three protagonists are enmeshed in the religious bigotry of their communities and the violence it begets. The "Troubles" constantly rumble in the background in the first book and crash into the characters' lives in the latter two.

During an interview I had with him in 1994, Waddell said of Starry Night that it poses the questions about sectarianism which the other two books deal with more specifically. Starry Night is set in Kiltarragh, a fictional town in Northern Ireland which, in its Catholic population's assessment, is "just the wrong side of the border" (5). A quiet rural place, it has its calm marred by British troops and helicopter surveillance. Children nonchalantly bicycle past "the blast hole at Cone Cross, where the soldier lost his leg" (28). The protagonist Kathleen has absorbed the local attitude that the British presence is the entirety of the problem, and believes, "If we can't vote them out, we'll blow them out" (34). She cannot grasp her Belfast friend Ann's broader understanding of the political complexities. When Kathleen accuses Ann (who is also a Catholic) of being "for the Protestants" (34), Ann replies that she is for "ordinary people … Not men with big drums running Catholics out of the shipyards, and not Irish heroes in behind the hedge with their bombs, waiting to blow other Irish men to bits" (34).

Kathleen's sister-in-law Carmel is another catalyst for the awareness that leaves Kathleen questioning her own political beliefs. Carmel contends that the Irish "heroes" would be better off working for their ideals than killing or dying for them and that a withdrawal of the British would simply shift the battle against "somebody else that doesn't happen to agree … Somebody else with different dreams, that they call ideals" (Starry Night 107). Kathleen is left speculating about the origin of her ideals:

Where had I got my dreams from? Maybe the dreams were getting in my way, making me somebody I wasn't. Maybe the dreams were just a trap.


What a deadly trap sectarian "dreams" can be for the victims of those who hold them is demonstrated in the two following books of the trilogy. In the second, Frankie's Story, Frankie is a Catholic girl who is independent-minded about her culture rather than brainwashed by it, which nearly leads to her death when her family's house is fire-bombed in retaliation for her supposed collaboration with the "enemy"—in this case the police. At the end of the book, Frankie, like Kevin and Sadie, in a solution that has been painfully common in Northern Ireland, escapes in exile to England to live with an aunt, where, at least, "nobody's going to lay down what I should or shouldn't think" (12). The final words of the novel are

    It is funny, being free.
    It takes a bit of getting used to.

The words carry a portent they did not have before the 1994 ceasefire and so far failed peace talks. The talks could offer such freedom to the current younger generation of Protestants and Catholics in Northern Ireland—if the generation holding the talks could get used to the thought of compromise.

The final book of the trilogy, The Beat of the Drum, is told in the voice of Brian Hanna, a Protestant boy who was permanently crippled as a baby by the IRA bomb that killed his parents. A perfect candidate for the bitterness that the uncle who helps rear him feels, Brian instead develops the tolerant view that his aunt fosters. Brian comes across as the sanest of the three protagonists. Neither the grimness of being confined to a wheelchair for life nor the grimness of the history he is living has destroyed Brian's sense of humor. He comments about one ridiculous aspect of the "Troubles"—the need for the paramilitary forces to police and punish their own sides to enforce loyalty—that "The Provos blow off Catholic kneecaps, and the UDA [Ulster Defence Association] blow off Protestant kneecaps, so everybody has an even chance" (11).

Waddell told me that he tends to discuss The Beat of the Drum when his audience is mainly Catholic students and to discuss the other two books when the audience is mainly Protestant. He believes that the crucial lesson is to learn to transcend the us-them syndrome, which he sees as a universal problem, scarcely confined to Northern Ireland.

Waddell/Sefton reiterates throughout the trilogy the harm that each side inflicts on its own as well as on the enemy. Whether he is revealing the narrow-mindedness that dead-ends Kathleen and the Catholic people of Kiltarragh or the equally blinkered vision of Brian's militantly Protestant uncle or is depicting the gangster techniques that radical Protestants and Catholics use to keep their respective troops in line, Waddell/Sefton conveys to his readers the double-edged nature of sectarian violence. In Frankie's housing estate, for instance, a character named Con McCluskey is, as Frankie Rafferty sarcastically describes him, "a kind of cross between God and Gerry Adams" (Frankie's Story 13) and is "the Easter Revolution and the thirty-two county Socialist Republic all wrapped up in one person" (42), but he does not confine himself to terrorist acts against Protestants. McCluskey is behind the shooting of a Catholic cop; he is the prime suspect in the bombing of the Rafferty home. In The Beat of the Drum it is the Protestants who are depicted as vengeful against the police. The characters who are Orange Order devotees think that the RUC (Royal Ulster Constabulary) should be in business solely to keep down the "Micks." That the RUC also work to stop Protestant terrorism is unforgiveable. When the police confiscate a stash of Protestant arms, Brian's friend Hicky is killed, very likely by the UDA, for his role as police informer. Between Hicky's disappearance and the discovery of his body, Brian goes through an agony of speculations:

    Maybe Hicky will just get a beating.
    Sometimes they use planks with nails in them. Sometimes they use baseball bats….
    They might just break his arms and legs, or take a poke at his kneecaps with a power drill….
    Hicky could be dead by now

Brian blames both the British Security Forces who bribed Hicky to inform and the paramilitary UDA—both of whom are presumably on the Protestant side. At the funeral Brian wonders "how many of the mourners know who killed him" (102). Hicky's body was found in a bloody sack, under which are some "God's will for Ulster" (81) leaflets, propaganda written by a Loyalist Protestant minister. "The blood must have trickled out on to them. They were sodden with it" (103).

Although Brian has often wanted to move elsewhere and although he is shaken by his uncle's involvement with terrorist weapons and by the UDA's execution of Hicky, he decides to remain in Northern Ireland. He has developed a feeling of responsibility towards the scarred social terrain of his birthplace. This solution for a fictional Protestant protagonist is not one that Waddell believes is entirely viable for his own Catholic sons (Waddell's wife is Catholic). The problem for his sons is, as Waddell states in his UNESCO speech, "quite simply Catholic teenagers are always a possible target, both for the terrorists of both sides, and the Authorities" (n.p.). He discusses how his keen awareness of the effect of the "Troubles" on his three sons has colored his perspective. Waddell speaks of his "feeling for the reality of their lives and what their lives could be, or could have been had they been born and brought up in a different place at a different time" (UNESCO n.p.). Their childhoods were affected by such events as nearly losing their father to a bomb placed in a church and by the murder of a local policeman. Waddell says of this last that

The body lay fifty yards from our door for four hours while the police and army searched…. [His youngest son] stood at the window and watched—and watched—and watched, while we tried to explain.

I have still not found a way to explain it.

                              (UNESCO n.p.)

The Waddell/Sefton Irish trilogy is, if not an explanation, at the very least a thorough examination of the problem. Waddell, by the way, early on refused to write problem novels for children and young adults. His sons' reactions were in large part the catalyst for his taking on the "Troubles" as a subject for juvenile fiction.

Religious differences are the constant background in the Waddell/Sefton trilogy. In Lingard's quintet, religion is foregrounded. Kevin and Sadie slowly exorcise the bitterness that their differing faiths can evoke, but religion is a hot spot in their relationship with flareups that occasionally burn them. Only late in the final book of the series do they begin to make serious attempts to understand each other's viewpoint. Sadie, left by herself while the others attend Mass on Christmas Eve, falls off a ladder while trying to straighten a treetop ornament and injures herself seriously enough to bring about the loss of her unborn second child. Afterwards, in the hospital, she meditates:

It had been ridiculous to climb a pair of steps to rescue a fairy, to put her baby at risk. But she knew why she had done it. She had been seething with resentment because Kevin had gone to mass. So many people in the world were seething with resentment over something, boiling over with it, achieving no other end but wastefulness. Kevin's father dead. His Uncle Albert legless. Thousands of others killed maimed, devastated. What she had done to their child—hers and Kevin's—was no better. She had lost the baby because of those black feelings she had nourished….

If she was to go on living with Kevin she could not go on hating his religion. It would poison her and their life together. But how did you stop hating?

For a start, by wanting to, she supposed.

                              (Hostages 130-31)

Both Lingard and Waddell/Sefton emphasize this fundamental need to change attitudes in Northern Ireland in order to change the actual circumstances, although neither author is naively optimistic about the means to effect such a change.

The final book of Lingard's quintet leaves the reader with hope for Kevin and Sadie's personal future. They have the prospect of refurbishing a Welsh cottage and living in peace, even if in exile. Lingard does not touch on the future of the country they have left. Speaking of her series in an interview with Stephanie Nettell, the children's book editor of The Guardian, Lingard said that she had once planned to bring Kevin and Sadie back to Northern Ireland, "but even after all these years they couldn't return, because nothing had really changed…. [T]hey're still in exile, still suspended" (qtd. in Taylor 12). Waddell/Sefton's trilogy challenges young people to question the confining hatred of sectarianism, but he, like Lingard, does not pretend that there are easy answers in sight.

Both authors have given their young audience books that read well as fiction while carrying an important message about the need for reconciliation and tolerance in Northern Ireland, thereby creating a literature that some might label as merely didactic. Lingard has, however, the respect for her audience to craft a series with emotional impact, consistently strong plots, and sequels that develop the psychological complexity of the characters. Similarly, Martin Wad-dell, using his Catherine Sefton persona creates vivid characters and believable plots into which he interweaves the variety of religious, economic, and political factors that influence the coming of age in Northern Ireland.

Folk art forms have helped keep alive centuries of hatred in Northern Ireland. Whether King Billy or the Irish Republic's tricolor adorns a gable wall, whether the old ballads or newly coined jingles spew taunts at "Taig" or "Prod," whether the Protestant lambeg or Celtic bodhran beat to fire the pulses of followers, a metaphoric form of violence has been part of the education of many generations of Ulster's children. Can the literary art of writers like Joan Lin-gard and Martin Waddell counterbalance this long folk art tradition? Reasoned thought moves forward and outward; bigotry stands fast in its circle of closed-off argument. A few novels, destined to be read by only a percentage of working-class children, all of whom have grown up with the slogans, the songs, and the political paintings, may seem of slight weight. We can only hope that fictional voices like those of Kevin and Sadie, of Kathleen, Frankie, and Brian impel enough young Northern Irelanders to step out of the truly vicious circle that has trapped their elders for so long.


1. Education segregated by religion is being challenged. See, for example, Education Together for a Change: Integrated Education and Community Relations, edited by Chris Moffat.

2. Among those "Troubles" books written for a general audience some worth pursuing for their vivid accounts of growing up in Northern Ireland are Mary Beckett's Give Them Stones, Mary Costello's Titanic Town, Briege Duffaud's A Wreath upon the Dead, Jennifer Johnston's Shadows on Our Skin, Glenn Patterson's Burning Your Own, and John Quinn's Generations of the Moon.

3. In a paper presented to the annual conference of the Reading Association of Ireland in 1987, Robert Dunbar surveyed the "Troubles" books about Ulster written between the 1880s and the 1980s for a juvenile audience. He makes the point that both the designation the "Troubles" and the reality behind it have a long history in Ireland. In addition to the Lingard and Sefton novels covered in this present essay, he recommended as good background Lingard's The File on Fraulein Berg (set in Belfast during World War II) and Sefton's historical ghost stories, The Back House Ghosts, Emer's Ghost, The Ghost Girl, and The Sleepers on the Hill. I would add to this list the Sefton title Island of the Strangers. Dunbar also recommends (and I concur) Peter Carter's Under Goliath and Sam McBratney's Mark Time. Three "Troubles" books of interest published since Dunbar's presentation are Elspeth Cameron's In the Shadow of the Gun, Tom McCaughren's Rainbows of the Moon, and John Quinn's One Fine Day.

4. For more information on Waddell's many books for children, see Celia Catlett Anderson's "Stories for Everychild: The Books of Martin Waddell/Catherine Sefton."

Works Cited

Anderson, Celia Catlett. "Stories for Everychild: The Books of Martin Waddell/Catherine Sefton." Teaching and Learning Literature 6.4 (March/April 1997): 39-48.

Beckett, Mary. Give Them Stones. New York: Morrow, 1987.

Being Young in Northern Ireland. Belfast: Information Unit, Standing Conference of Youth Organizations, 1985.

Cameron, Elspeth. In the Shadow of the Gun. Dublin: Blackwater, 1994.

Carter, Peter. Under Goliath. London: Puffin, 1977.

Costello, Mary. Titanic Town: Memoirs of a Belfast Girlhood. London: Mandarin, 1992.

Duffaud, Briege. A Wreath upon the Dead. Dublin: Poolbeg, 1993.

Dunbar, Robert. "Children's Fiction and the Ulster 'Troubles.'" Proceedings of the 12th Annual Conference of the Reading Association of Ireland (September 1987): 73-91.

Harbinson, Elaine. "Visitors." Being Young in Northern Ireland. Belfast: Information Unit, Standing Conference of Youth Organizations, 1985: 16-18.

Johnston, Jennifer. Shadows on Our Skin. London: Penguin, 1977.

Lingard, Joan. Across the Barricades. London: Penguin, 1972.

―――――――. The File on Frauline Berg. London: Puffin, 1993; Elsevier/Nelson, Julia MacRae Books, 1980.

―――――――. Hostages to Fortune. London: Penguin, 1976.

―――――――. Into Exile. London: Penguin, 1973.

―――――――. The Lord on Our Side. London: Hodder & Stoughton, 1970.

―――――――. A Proper Place. London: Penguin, 1975.

―――――――. "Through Seven Years of Their Lives." Children's Books in Ireland (May 1993): 21.

―――――――. The Twelfth Day of July. London: Penguin, 1970.

McBratney, Sam. Mark Time. London: Abelard, 1976.

McCaughren, Tom. Rainbows of the Moon. Dublin: Anvil Books, 1989.

Moffat, Chris, ed. Education Together for a Change: Integrated Education and Community Relations in Northern Ireland. Belfast: Fortnight Educational Trust, 1993.

Patterson, Glenn. Burning Your Own. London: Minerva, 1993; London: Chatto & Windus, 1988.

Quinn, John. Generations of the Moon. Dublin: Pool-beg, 1995.

―――――――. One Fine Day. Dublin: Poolbeg, 1996.

Sefton, Catherine (pseudonym of Martin Waddell). The Back House Ghosts. London: Faber, 1974; as The Haunting of Ellen. New York: Harper, 1975.

―――――――. The Beat of the Drum. London: Hamish Hamilton, 1992, 1989.

―――――――. Emer's Ghost. London: Hamish Hamilton, 1981.

―――――――. The Ghost Girl. London: Hamish Hamilton, 1985.

―――――――. Island of the Strangers. London: Mammoth, 1990; Magnet, 1984; Hamilton, 1983; San Diego: Harcourt Brace, 1985.

―――――――. Frankie's Story. London: Teens Mandarin, 1992; Hamish Hamilton 1988.

―――――――. The Sleepers on the Hill. London: Faber, 1973.

―――――――. Starry Night. London: Teens Mandarin, 1994; rpt. from 1990/92; Hamish Hamilton, 1986.

Stewart, Gavin. "Rainy Sunday." Being Young in Northern Ireland. Belfast: Information Unit, Standing Conference of Youth Organizations, 1985, 21.

Taylor, Anne. Joan Lingard: From Belfast to the Baltic. Linden, Swindon: School Library Association, 1992.

Waddell, Martin. "Children and the War in Northern Ireland." Unpublished speech to the UNESCO Conference, Paris, 1989.

―――――――. Interview with Celia Catlett Anderson. Newcastle, Co. Down, Northern Ireland. September 13, 1994.

―――――――. A Little Bit British: Being the Diary of an Ulsterman, August 1969. London: Tom Stacey, 1970.


Alison White (essay date 1973)

SOURCE: White, Alison. "The Devil Has a Dublin Accent." Children's Literature 2 (1973): 139-41.

[In the following essay, White examines the bleak and often macabre literary perspective of acclaimed Irish writer James Joyce, particularly as seen in Joyce's novel The Dubliners and his only children's book The Cat and the Devil.]

Nursery rhymes and tales, and the books read in childhood have fired the imaginations of the world's great writers. This is of special interest in the case of James Joyce because his mind, supremely sophisticated though it was, renewed itself ceaselessly in the popular culture: folklore, puns, jokes, cartoons, politics, music-hall, street cries, games, or theater, Punch and Judy, books for children. Joyce's Dubliners, written early in this century, is a book of stories mainly about people as obscure and as odd as the characters of Edward Lear's cartoons, and as prone to folly. Joyce wrote Dubliners in his early twenties while his childhood memories were sharp, as indeed they remained to the end. Perhaps the young author recalled books of fairy tales which came on the market in the 1890's. His family was well-off then, and its many children were well-supplied with toys, books, and free time to browse in the book shops. Joseph Jacobs' English Fairy Tales, 1892, may have drawn his ten-year-old eye. Its tales had long been current orally, as they still are, and some of them had long been in print. Jacobs' first tale, "Teeny-Tiny," was copied word for word out of Halliwell's Nursery Rhymes and Tales, published in 1848. There Halli-well had explained "Teeny-Tiny" as a cante-fable, rhymes surviving in prose. Joyce may easily have heard or read the story. I've never yet met anyone who doesn't know about the teeny tiny woman who leaves her teeny tiny house to go to the teeny tiny graveyard. There she finds a teeny tiny bone for her teeny tiny soup. Later, from her teeny tiny bed she hears a great voice call, "GIVE ME MY BONE!"

In Joyce's Dubliners there is a story "Clay," first entitled "Hallow Eve." In it a tiny old maid, Maria, a laundry worker, spends Hallowe'en with a family. There, children blindfold Maria and guide her in a divination game: to choose a ring, for marriage; a prayer book, if she is to enter a convent; water, for crossing the sea. But, Maria touches a dish of clay, the symbol of death. Later, she pathetically signs "I Dreamt I Dwelt in Marble Halls" from Balfe's Bohemian Girl…. A sad tale's best for Hallowe'en. I never read this story without feeling that the leprechaun at Joyce's elbow led him to recall "Teeny-Tiny" and other nursery tales and rhymes as well. For he wrote that Maria "put her tiny dress-boots beside the foot of the bed." She had a "tiny, quavering voice," she "bent her tiny head"; laughing, "her minute body nearly shook itself asunder." The graveyard motif, the dish of clay, further recalls the teeny-tiny woman's ghoulish selection of a soupbone from the churchyard. And another child's tale of Joyce's youth comes to mind. Maria is like a household brownie. "How can you expect Maria to crack nuts without a nutcracker?" asks her host. Aside from being an indelicate allusion to Maria's profile, where "the tip of her nose nearly touched the tip of her chin," this hints at her elfin faculties. In 1874, eight years before Joyce's birth, there was published Dinah Maria Mulock Craik's Adventures of a Brownie. Brownie had "a very little mind like his little body; but he did the best he could with it." The style is that of Joyce's story, kept ever inside Maria's limited little mind. Maria sat "on the little stool … with her toes barely touching the floor." Miss Mulock's Brownie "placed himself on the milking stool, which was so high that his little legs were dangling halfway down." Brownie turns a stone into a cake. It disappears. Maria buys a cake. It disappears. Like Brownie, Maria does domestic magicking. At the laundry she cut the barnbracks so well that you could not see where the knife had been. (Last January in Dublin I cut a barnbrack and, in that sticky mess, no mere mortal could have avoided leaving clumsy marks.) To this day in Ireland, a barnbrack is served at Hallowe'en. It is a yeasty bread, heavy with fruit, into which have been put a ring for a wedding, a rag for an old maid, a pea for poverty, a button for clothes, sixpence for riches, and a stick to beat your old man with.

If I see Joyce's Maria as Teeny-Tiny and Brownie, I am in the company of critics who have seen in her a Hallowe'en witch, the Irish Washerwoman, a wife and mother manqué, Ireland, a saint, the Virgin Mary, and Mr. Punch—the last because of her profile and her singing Punch's song from Balfe's opera. I feel on surer ground, though, in tracking Maria to a limerick in The History of Sixteen Wonderful Old Women. This, the first book of limericks ever, came out in 1820. Edward Lear imitated it and so, I think, did Joyce, who was not the man to pass up a limerick and who lived in Limerick's own country. In this 1820 book the first rhyme, ironic and sour, is: "There liv'd an old Woman at Lynn [Dublin?] / Whose nose very near touch'd her chin. / You may easy suppose / She had plenty of beaux, / This charming old Woman of Lynn." Of Maria, Joyce intones again and again that "the tip of her nose nearly touched the tip of her chin." And, as for beaux, it is central to the story that Maria's "eyes shone with disappointed shyness" at any mention of them. And this draws one to speculate that Joyce may have in some recess recalled that great figure in children's literature, a countrywoman of his in Ireland, called by Byron "Maria the Great." She was the eighteenth-century novelist and writer for children, Maria Edgeworth: and her biography tells us that she never married "because she was dwarfish and plain."

Often Joyce seems to survey his drab little Dubliners through the large end of the opera glasses. In "A Little Cloud," (Notice little) the human "cloud" is a glooming, sometimes glowing, visionary, shifting little office-worker called "Little Chandler." T. Mal-one Chandler, "Tommy", he is called by a loudmouthed city slicker from London when the two engage in a Town Mouse and Country Mouse exchange. And, indeed, Little Tommy Chandler is more of a mouse than a man. "His hands were white and small, his frame was fragile … He took the greatest care or his fair silken hair and moustache, and when he smiled you caught a glimpse of a row of childish white teeth." To his eyes there appeared a world of mice. "A horde of grimy children … squatted like mice … all that minute vermin-like life." Tommy Chandler lives in a prim, pretty prison of a house, with a mean-eyed wife. One remembers Mother Goose: "Little Tommy Tittlemouse / Lived in a little house." In the main, Dubliners presents small, dim people, poor and seedy, scuttling in the futile circles that define brown Dublin's spiritual sterility. They are the tarnished, faded images of Mother Goose's "Littles": Little Tommy Tittlemouse, Tiny Maria, the Pariah, grown to dusty adulthood and disenchantment.

But last, I wish to offer a brighter vision, though a diabolical one. This is of Joyce's only book for children. It is a good little book, akin to the comic fantasies of Ruskin, Thackeray, Dickens, and Thurber: Joyce's The Cat and the Devil, published in 1964 by Dodd Mead. Joyce wrote it in 1936, five years before his death, as a letter to his five-year-old grandson, Stephen James Joyce. Both were living in Paris. In this letter Joyce retold a folk tale of how the devil approached the lord mayor of Beaugency who "always had a great golden chain round his neck even when he was fast asleep in bed with his knees in his mouth." The devil bargained to throw an instant bridge across the Loire if he were given the first to cross it. The lord mayor set a cat down on the bridge and threw a bucket of water on it. "The cat who was now between the devil and the bucket of water" ran across and into the devil's arms. "The devil was as angry as the devil himself," but he accepted the cat, saying they would go "to warm themselves." P.S. by Joyce: "The Devil mostly speaks a language of his own called Bellsybabble which he makes up himself as he goes along, but when he is very angry he can speak quite bad French very well though some who have heard him say that he has a strong Dublin accent."

Ciara Ní Bhroin (essay date 2004)

SOURCE: Ní Bhroin, Ciara. "Forging National Identity: The Adventures Stories of Eilís Dillon." In Studies in Children's Literature, 1500–2000, edited by Celia Keenan and Mary Shine Thompson, pp. 112-19. Dublin, Ireland: Four Courts Press, 2004.

[In the following essay, Ní Bhroin studies how the young adult adventure stories of Eilís Dillon are meant to reflect the author's own ideas about establishing a new Irish national identity that reflects a more contemporary era.]

In 1931 the critic, Daniel Corkery, described national consciousness in postcolonial Ireland as 'a quaking sod … not English, nor Irish, nor Anglo-Irish'.1 Corkery drew particular attention to the debilitating effects on Irish children of the colonial mentality perpetuated by an imperial school curriculum and emphasized the need for an indigenous literature with which they could identify. Such a literature would decolonize the minds of Irish children by inculcating in them a distinctive Irish identity. Irish writers of children's literature in the English language faced a difficulty similar to that of their counterparts in adults' literature, expressed by Thomas Kinsella in his influential article, 'The Irish writer'. With no national tradition in the English language to draw upon, writers such as Patricia Lynch and Eilís Dillon were, in a sense, writing out of a literary vacuum, faced with the challenges of pioneering a new national children's literature. What the distinctive characteristics of such a literature should be was an important issue in a newly independent state anxious to establish a separate identity. While Corkery's aim was to replace a colonial notion of Irish identity with a narrowly essentialist one, Kinsella, three decades later, wrote that the very dislocation or duality of Irish experience was intrinsic to his identity. He argued that 'every writer has to make the imaginative grasp at identity for himself; and if he can find no means in his inheritance to suit him, then he will have to start from scratch'.2

The heroic image of Irish identity expressed in the literature of the Revival and emulated by Irish revolutionaries had dissipated in a post-revolutionary disillusionment exacerbated by the civil war of 1922 and postcolonial partition. 'Irishness' became increasingly associated with Catholicism, the Irish language and a traditional, rural way of life. The insularity and essentialist ideology of the new state in the early decades of independence were hugely significant in shaping Irish children's literature. While dissenting, critical voices were heard among those writing for adults, literature for children largely reflected the dominant ideology and indeed continued throughout much of the twentieth century, despite major changes in Irish society, to perpetuate an image of Ireland remarkably similar to the over-simplified pastoral envisioned by de Valera in 1943.3 The lack of a strong indigenous publishing industry for children's books until the 1980s was an influential factor. The need to satisfy the expectations of English and American publishers contributed to the continued emphasis in children's literature on Irish exceptionalism. The western island has been a predominant image in literature for both adults and children and is the setting for most of the adventure stories of Eilís Dillon. Most of the stories discussed here were published in the late 1950s and 60s, when the Irish Republic was opening up economically and culturally to the outside world, due largely to the innovative economic policy of Sean Lemass, who succeeded de Valera in 1959. Lemass' economic nationalism and Ireland's increased participation in European politics resulted in a modernizing drive that was to radically change Irish society.

Dillon's adventure stories have many of the usual characteristics of the genre—heroic boy protagonists, dangerous adversaries, an island, and sometimes a sea voyage and hidden treasure. What is particularly noteworthy, however, is Dillon's use of a genre more typically associated with the British imperial adventure to create a decolonizing, distinctively Irish literature. Kiberd's comment that 'Irish writers sometimes had to pour their thoughts and feelings into incongruous containers'4 echoes Fanon's depiction of the decolonizing writer attempting to stamp imperial forms with a native hallmark.5 Dillon, however, appropriates the form and succeeds in recreating it. Her adventure stories evoke the heroic tales of the Revival and, though set specifically in the West, reflect many of the issues that faced the wider national community. There is, as Suzanne Rahn has observed, a development apparent from Dillon's depiction of the remote, quasi-mythical island of The Lost Island6 with its Crusoe-like castaway, Jim Farrell, and its treasure of pearls and white sealskins, to her more complex portrayal of island life in a later story such as The Coriander,7 which is narrated from within the island community.8 Unlike the exotic island representing 'otherness' in imperial adventures, the island in Dillon's stories can be seen as a metaphor for Ireland and the community as a microcosm of the larger Irish community.

The Gaeltacht setting of these stories has particular resonance. From Revival times the west of Ireland had symbolic significance and represented the authentic, uncontaminated heroic Ireland, which would redeem the rest of the nation. After independence, and despite its continual decline due to poverty and emigration,9 the Gaeltacht continued to absorb the Irish literary imagination, with autobiographical accounts of island life coming from within the communities themselves. Interestingly, Kiberd suggests that 'the very construction of a Gaeltacht, a zone of pristine nativism, might itself be an effect of colonialism rather than an obvious answer to it'.10 Dillon's first books for children were written in Irish and although these adventure stories are written in English, in most of them we are given to understand that Irish is the spoken language of the community. Indeed, in A Family of Foxes Dillon deliberately estranges the English language in which she writes and establishes Irish as the norm. Referring to the arrival of a letter from a Galway lawyer, the narrator Patsy says: 'the letter was written in English, and the men were never quite happy in that strange language, though they knew it was useful for writing letters in and for people who went to school'.11

Each of the islands in these stories has a distinct identity and culture; its own patron saint, after whom it is sometimes named, its historical ruins, its particular lore, superstitions and traditions. In an article entitled 'Irish oral tradition', Seán Ó Suilleabháin expressed concern that the traditional lore of the countryside was dying with the Irish language.12 Dillon, writing at a time of economic and social transition in postcolonial Ireland, incorporates such lore into her own storytelling to invoke an ancient oral tradition for a new generation. Fanon's theory of decolonization illustrates the role of native folklore and myth in recovering a pre-colonial past.13 Equally, Said emphasizes the primacy of the geographical in the nationalist imagination and links it to repossession of the land, which is at first only imaginary.14 The history and geography of the islands in Dillon's stories are closely integrated and intimately known to the islanders, enriched by pagan and Christian lore. Yeats's dream that Ireland, through myth and folklore, would be a 'Holy Land' to her people is true of Dillon's island.15

The island, especially the western island, is a strong geographical image. Its extremity and its exposure to the elements endow the islanders, particularly the boy protagonists themselves, with heroic qualities, further highlighted by Dillon's frequent reference to Celtic and Greek mythology. Even more significantly, the island is a powerful image of geographical unity, an effective antidote to the ravages of colonialism and its legacies of civil war and partition. Joe Cleary outlines how culture can be used either to consolidate or to challenge partitionist identities and, in the case of Ireland, he emphasizes the significance for nationalists of its status as an island. Interestingly, he points out that while logo-maps of the Republic usually represent the island as a whole, logo-maps of Northern Ireland usually represent the six-county state as if it were a separate island altogether.16 That the island is an aspirational image of unity for Dillon is emphasized by her characters' frequent use of the phrase 'for Ireland free'. In The Coriander, Roddy says; 'Inishgillan is as much part of Ireland as Gal-way or Dublin or Belfast. If it weren't, why would they let us vote in the elections and pay rates and taxes?'17 In her desire to incorporate imaginatively the Northern State into a unified Ireland, Dillon denies the political border and overlooks the fact that the people of Belfast do not pay rates and taxes to the Republic, nor do they vote in its elections. Indeed, Dillon's stories could be read as allegories of union in much the same way as those of nineteenth-century author Maria Edgeworth, except that Dillon depicts a distinctive, homogeneous Gaelic community while Edgeworth tries to assimilate Irish difference into an all-embracing British imperialism.

The rugged landscape and the perils of storm and sea, vividly depicted by Dillon, contrast with cosy domestic interiors and the warmth of a closely-knit community. The versatility that Synge noted in the Aran islanders is evident in Dillon's islanders and especially in the boy protagonists themselves, whose many skills include sailing, fishing, turf cutting and thatching as well as problem solving and diplomacy. Island life is precarious but the islanders demonstrate resourcefulness, skill and, above all, cooperation. The needs of the community often take priority over those of the individual, as Pat explains to the reader in The Fort of Gold:

We all knew that no matter how exciting our private business might turn out to be, the work that we had been given to do must be carried out. The whole economy of our island depended on each person having a sense of his part in it, from the four-years old boy minding a goose to the great-grandmother of ninety left in charge of the cradle.18

Dillon's emphasis on social cohesion and the continuity of tradition renders the island in these stories a strong image of cultural unity. The islanders are distinctive even in their style of dress. Pat and John in The Sea Wall are easily recognizable to the mainlanders in Galway by their island tweed. Traditional music, song, dance and storytelling bind the community together.19 Wisdom and skill is passed down from generation to generation. The first scene of A Family of Foxes depicts the island men sitting in cottage doorways in the sun, cutting the seed potatoes and instructing the children in the proper way to do it. In The Fort of Gold, Pat attributes much of his knowledge to the teaching and example of his father. 'I learned a great deal about the good sense and the reasons behind our ancient traditions, and the dangers of not taking heed of my ancestors' wisdom. "Never make a custom, never break a custom," was one of my father's favourite proverbs'.20

It emerges, however, that the younger generation, represented by the boy protagonists, have much to teach their elders. Indeed, it is on them that the continued survival of the community depends. Emigration, modernization and potential conflict threaten to tear the community apart and the young protagonists demonstrate heroism in leading the way forward. The difficulties they face generally involve the resolution of old feuds and innovating change in order to survive, a mirroring of the challenges facing the larger national community at the time. Rapid economic and social change, due to a newly opened economy and foreign investment, rendered even more complex the already ambivalent dialectic between tradition and modernity in a republic whose cultural ideology was grounded in the revival of an ancient Gaelic heritage. Central to Dillon's stories is the struggle to achieve a harmonious balance between tradition and modernity. In this respect they reflect the wider national attempt to marry romantic conceptions of Ireland with a more practical economic nationalism. Over-adherence to tradition by the men of the community in particular, along with superstition and suspicion of outsiders, are frequent obstacles to modernization.

Often it is through partnership between the protagonists and an old woman of the island that progress is initiated. While the absence of girls in these stories is notable, each story has a strong, usually elderly, female character. The heroic youth and the old woman were popular Revival figures and are particularly evocative of Cuchulainn and Cathleen Ni Houlihan. In her use of such figures, Dillon draws on the heroic tradition of the Revival as an inspiration for the new nation-building project. In The Sea Wall it is John, Pat and Pat's grandmother, Sally, who secretly take the initiative in bringing an engineer from the mainland to mend the old sea wall on Inisharcain. They conspire to overcome the resistance of the island men whose suspicion of outsiders has blinded them to the need to protect Inisharcain from tidal waves. John explains to the chairman of Galway county council that it would be important to have the work done by the islanders themselves under the supervision of an engineer as 'the men on Inisharcain did not like strangers and were prepared to risk their island's safety rather than admit them'. (107) While initially hostile to the engineer, Mr Lynch, the men of Inisharcain are eventually won over. 'The months during which the sea wall was being prepared' we are told 'were like one long, wonderful party'. (117)

Tradition and modernity are reconciled and, indeed, in this case progress ensures the survival of tradition. Sally's wish to die in the cottage in which she was born will now be fulfilled and she expresses her gratitude to the two boys: 'There's an old wish that you often hear: "Long life to you and death in Ireland". Death in my own house I wanted, and now I'll have my wish'. (119) That Dillon's books were published in England and America and were intended for the wider diaspora is evident in these lines, which are evocative of the nostalgia of an emigrant towards the homeland. Indeed, elements of nativism in Dillon's writing fed into romanticized, essentialist notions of Irish identity commonly felt by emigrants, wishing to 'preserve' an idealized image of a traditional community in contrast to the modernized societies in which they found themselves. That the Republic of Ireland was undergoing rapid modernization made its writers for children all the more anxious to preserve traditional values perceived to be under threat. A sense of nostalgia pervades the romantic descriptions of cosy homesteads throughout these stories, with the result that the heroic is often reduced to the pastoral. Fanon, who draws a distinction between custom and culture and warns against over-valuing native traditions at the expense of a living evolving culture, derides such nostalgia.21

Beneath the apparently romantic surface of idyllic thatched cottages and traditional community values in these stories, however, the threat of violence simmers. This is particularly evident in the description of Jim O'Malley's arrival at the Faherty's cottage in The House on the Shore:

My first sight of the warm lights from a cottage came like a comforting arm around my shoulders. Its little boreen led down to mine. The lamplight showed up a pattern of flowers on the curtains and while I stood there watching, a woman's shadow moved between.22

Jim decides to seek shelter in a shed at the back of the cottage. Noticing a hard object in the warm hay beneath him, he discovers, to his astonishment, a little pile of long-barrelled guns. The men of Cloghanmore plan to enact revenge on Jim's greedy uncle Martin Walsh and his two foreign accomplices, Pietro and Miguel, who have stolen the profits from the community's lobster fishing venture. Jim and his new friend Roddy Faherty eventually succeed in recovering the stolen money and, with the help of the local women, prevent the shedding of blood. Martin is reconciled to his neighbours and even the foreign pirates go unpunished. The overwhelming emphasis is on reconciliation rather than on the perpetration of justice.

The need for peaceful resolution of conflict appears to be Dillon's message in all of the stories, with the exception of The Seals, which is set during the War of Independence. Published in 1968, it is overtly and militantly nationalist and romanticizes Irish history in a way that became unacceptable after the eruption of 'The Troubles' in the North. The interpretation of Irish history in terms of colonialism or imperialism, particularly any glorification of militant nationalism, became increasingly associated with support for the militant republican campaign in the North. In The Seals Dillon attempts to transcend the divisive legacy of the Civil War by invoking the heroic unity of the struggle for independence as an inspiration for post-colonial national reconstruction. Even here, therefore, Dillon's emphasis is on unity—the unity of the island community and, by implication, national unity. The heroism of Jerry Lynskey, whose grandfather had been an informer, earns him the admiration of the islanders who no longer bear a grudge against the Lynskey family. The enemy has been externalized and the community (nation) is united in a common cause.23

Fear of civil strife due to the resurfacing of old antagonisms is palpable in these stories in which the men are easily incited to violence. Sometimes bad blood exists between islands, between islanders and the mainland or between local inhabitants and strangers. Often tension is rooted in some event in the distant past. The alleged betrayal of a priest in the rebellion of 1798 still causes bitterness between the men of Rossmore and those of Inishrone in The Island of Horses. It is the young protagonists who lead the way in healing antagonisms and averting violence. Dillon clearly believes that it is with the younger generation, who bear no historical grudges or memories of civil war, that hopes for peace lie.

In some stories rifts exist between or even within families. In The Cruise of the Santa Maria, John, Jim and Ciarán sail to Commillas in Spain in search of Colman Flaherty's daughter, Sarah. Sarah was the last of Colman's six children to leave Flaherty's Island and he has never forgiven her for marrying a Spaniard, instead of the local man whom he had chosen for her. Flaherty's Island, with its abandoned, ruined cottages and its lonely sole inhabitant, is a stark reminder of the devastation of emigration. After a heroic voyage across the sea, the boys succeed in reuniting Colman with Sarah and her Spanish husband and children.24

The story is a comment on the wider national problems of emigration and former separatism and on the importance of closer cooperation with Europe. Again, the younger generation acts as a bridge between the past and the future and between the Irish and their European neighbours. That the protagonists make their voyage in a hooker of new design is significant. The people of Rossmore had initially disapproved of the Santa Maria, which seemed to them more foreign than native in design and, worse still, had been partially built by a red-haired woman. The boys' voyage proves not only its seaworthiness but also its superiority over traditional vessels. Superstition is overcome and the community finally acknowledges the benefit of modernization. However, while Dillon condemns blind nativism, the changes initiated by the boys are not as radical as they may appear. John's grandfather initially conceived the novel design of the Santa Maria. In helping to complete the boat and in taking it on its maiden voyage, John is actually continuing a family tradition. Similarly, in initiating contact with Colman's Spanish relatives the boys are rekindling a tradition. The references to the Spanish Armada, which permeate Dillon's stories, remind the reader of the historical alliance between the Irish and the Spanish. Progress, in Dillon's stories does not involve a complete break with tradition, rather the evolution of tradition to facilitate change. While Dillon's adolescent heroes are at a transitional stage of life, living at a transitional time in post-independent Ireland, Dillon's aim is clearly to facilitate as smooth a transition as possible. As Robert Dunbar points out '(w)hat emerges forcibly in Dillon's fiction is a sense of, in many aspects of the word, transition, though without, perhaps, a full acceptance of the upheaval which that state generally involves'.25

The boy protagonists of Dillon's adventure stories demonstrate heroism in venturing into the unknown, facing danger and acquiring through their experiences valuable skills and education. These are ultimately used to sustain and strengthen the community to which they invariably return. Such emphasis on community was at odds with trends in teen fiction in Britain and America in the late 1970s, which emphasized the autonomy of the individual and increasingly portrayed adolescent alienation and the disintegration of community. In contrast with Britain, whose empire was crumbling, postcolonial Ireland was in the relatively early stages of nation building, a project that is clearly reflected in Dillon's work. Her adventure stories can be read as allegories of national unity, which attempt to heal the divisions caused by colonialism, civil war and partition. Their emphasis on community is understandable in this context. However, considering that the protagonists of these stories are all teenagers, the lack of emphasis on more specific adolescent concerns such as individuality and developing sexuality is notable. Indeed, the lack of privacy is a difficulty often facing the protagonist whose every move on the island is noticed and open to questioning by their neighbours. Kiberd argues that:

The colonialist crime was the violation of traditional community; the nationalist crime was often a denial of the autonomy of the individual. Liberation would come only with forms that stressed the interdependence of community and individual, rather than canvassing the claims of one at the expense of the other.26

Undoubtedly, Dillon attempts to marry both, allowing her heroes personal adventure and autonomy in the service of their community. However, it is finally on the needs of the community that the greater emphasis is placed. While the distinctiveness of the community is emphasized in these stories, and by implication national distinctiveness, individual difference is not. In their emphasis on native tradition, custom and folklore, and in their tendency to romanticize the past, Dillon's adventure stories belong largely to the 'nativist' stage of Fanon's model of decolonization. However, they can be seen as transitional in their advocacy of moving forward, albeit as part of a traditional, homogeneous community, to a future of peace, opportunity and economic prosperity.


1. Daniel Corkery, Synge and Anglo-Irish Literature (Cork: Cork UP, 1931), p. 14.

2. Thomas Kinsella, 'The Irish Writer' (1966) in Seamus Deane (ed.), The Field Day Anthology of Irish Writing, vol. 3 (Derry: Field Day Publications, 1991), pp 625-9.

3. Eamon de Valera, 'The Undeserted Village, Ireland', in Seamus Deane (ed.), The Field Day Anthology of Irish Writing, vol. 3 (Derry: Field Day Publications 1991), pp 747-50.

4. Declan Kiberd, Inventing Ireland: The Literature of the Modern Nation (London: Vintage, 1996), p. 299.

5. Frantz Fanon, The Wretched of the Earth (London: Penguin, 2001), pp 180-1.

6. Eilís Dillon, The Lost Island (London: Faber, 1963, 1952).

7. Eilís Dillon, The Coriander (Dublin: Poolbeg, 1971, 1963).

8. Suzanne Rahn, '"Inishrone Is Our Island": Rediscovering the Irish Novels of Eilís Dillon' in The Lion and the Unicorn (1997), pp 349-59

9. Caoimhín Ó Danachair, 'The Gaeltacht', in Brian Ó Cuív (ed.), A View of the Irish Language (Dublin: Stationery Office, 1969), pp 112-21.

10. Kiberd, Inventing, p. 336.

11. Eilís Dillon, A Family of Foxes (London: Faber, 1991), p. 102.

12. Seán Ó Súilleabháin, 'Irish Oral Tradition', in ed. Ó Cuív, A View, pp 47-57.

13. Fanon, Wretched, pp 168-70.

14. Edward Said, 'Yeats and Decolonization', in Dennis Walder (ed.), Literature in the Modern World (Oxford: OUP, 1990), p. 36.

15. W. B. Yeats, Preface to Augusta Gregory, Cuchulainn of Muirthemne (Gerrards Cross: Colin Smythe, 1960, 1902), p. 17.

16. Joe Cleary, Literature, Partition and the Nation State (Cambridge: CUP, 2002), p. 98.

17. Dillon, The Coriander, p. 106.

18. Eilís Dillon, The Fort of Gold (London: Faber, 1961), p. 53.

19. Eilís Dillon, The Sea Wall (Dublin: Poolbeg, 1994, 1965).

20. Dillon, Foxes, p. 7.

21. Fanon, Wretched, pp 175-89.

22. Eilís Dillon, The House on the Shore (Dublin: O'Brien Press, 2000, 1995), p. 51.

23. Eilís Dillon, The Seals (London: Faber, 1968).

24. Eilís Dillon, The Cruise of the Santa Maria (Dublin: O'Brien, 1991, 1967).

25. Robert Dunbar, 'Rarely Pure and Never Simple: The World of Irish Children's Literature' in The Lion and the Unicorn, vol. 21 (1997), p. 317.

26. Declan Kiberd, Inventing, p. 292.



Dunbar, Carole. "The Wild Irish Girls of L. T. Meade and Mrs. George De Horne Vaizey." In Studies in Children's Literature, 1500–2000, edited by Celia Keenan and Mary Shine Thompson, pp. 38-43. Dublin, Ireland: Four Courts Press, 2004.

Contrasts the works of two Irish children's authors who wrote primarily for a young female audience.

Dunbar, Robert. "Rarely Pure and Never Simple: The World of Irish Children's Literature." Lion and the Unicorn 21, no. 3 (September 1997): 309-21.

Attempts to offer a basic definition of what constitutes "Irish" children literature and addresses the current state of juvenile literature in Ireland.

Nassaar, Christopher S. "The Fairy Tales." In Into the Demon Universe: A Literary Exploration of Oscar Wilde, pp. 1-36. New Haven, Conn.: Yale University Press, 1974.

Extensive critical reading of the thematic elements in Oscar Wilde's fairy tales.

Shewan, Rodney. "The Happy Prince and Other Tales." In Oscar Wilde: Art and Egotism, pp. 40-69. New York, N.Y.: Barnes & Noble, 1977.

Details the inherent conflicts between the practical and the ideal in Oscar Wilde's fairy tales.

Turton, Rayma. "Fairies with Attitude." Magpies 16, no. 2 (May 2001): 22.

Faults the cliched characters and plot in Eoin Colfer's Artemis Fowl, but praises Colfer's potent sense of humor.

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