St. Patrick’s Day
Irish Children’s Stories: Folk & Fairy Tales
Of Irish descent on my mother’s side and having lived for a time in Ireland, I can tell you that the inhabitants of the Emerald Isle don’t at all care for the impression left by the movie “Darby O’Gill and the Little People” — or advertisements for the cereal Lucky Charms — that they are a “fairy” people: a somehow daffy and inebriated race surrounded by green-clad leprechauns. Nonetheless, there is, in fact, something special about Irish storytelling in the way it readily embraces folkloric materials and its more matter-of-fact inclusion of fairies, Little People, and their kind. In that regard, scholar Declan Kiberd mentions the story of an American anthropologist who asked a Galway woman whether she believed in fairies and had this reply: “I do not, sir–but they’re there anyway.”
Unlike other countries, in Ireland, the appearance of folk tales in print has not spelled the end of the oral tradition. The Seanachie (pronounced shawn-a-key) or storyteller is still an honored profession these days, as it has been for centuries. The best contemporary one is Eddie Linehan, and those traveling to Ireland might do an Internet search on his name to see if they can take in a performance by this spellbinder from County Kerry.
The writing down in books of centuries of Irish oral stories did not become a major enterprise until the sun began to set on 800 years of British rule during the time known as the Celtic Twilight. Then, notably, poet William Butler Yeats in Fairy Folk Tales of Ireland (1887) and politically-minded Lady Gregory in Irish Myths and Legends (1910) began to print the country’s spoken stories. These two classics may now only be of interest to serious students of folklore, but in our own time more child-friendly versions of these tales have appeared. In that regard, I am partial to Eoin Neeson’s series Irish Myths and Legends (now gathered in his Celtic Myths and Legends) where readers will encounter easy-to-read stories about, for example, Cuchulain, Diarmuid and Graine, and the Children of Lir (pronounced coo-hool-in, deer-mid, graw-nya, and leer).
This long tradition of myths and legends has had an influence on Irish writers for children, as we can see in someone like C.S. Lewis (that vicar-like and Protestant author from Belfast) who wrote The Chronicles of Narnia (a series of seven books, some of which have been made into films). Yoking his native country’s folklore tradition with his own Anglican Christianity, this Oxford don produced stories which tell of a place where fantastic creatures like unicorns abound and where the land of Narnia is frozen until a thaw is brought about by a Christ figure (Aslan) who comes as a lion (the animal, incidentally, most often associated with ruling Britannia). As the 1993 film “Shadowlands” suggests, Lewis, himself, was thawed twice: first, when J.R.R. Tolkein–yes, the Hobbit-meister himself — persuaded Lewis to embrace Jesus; and later, when the prim professor embraced another, discovering romance for the first time at the age of 60 and marrying the bumptious Jewish-American divorcée Joy Davidman.
Another Irish author who shows the influence of the fairy tradition is Oscar Wilde whose own fairy tales improve on those of Hans Christian Andersen. The best of these remains the Buddha-like story of “The Happy Prince,” which ends with the sacrificial death of a living statue who gives away all his gold leaf to the poor and starving. In these children’s stories (where his message is social justice and compassion), Wilde shows a side of himself that is not well known because he is still popularly regarded as a wit and one of the funniest men ever to take up a pen. In that regard and in comparison with the Happy Prince’s death, on his own deathbed, Wilde is said to have pointed to the garish wallpaper in his Paris hotel room and pronounced his last words: “One of us must go.”
Jonathan Swift provides yet another example of the influence upon Irish writers of their country’s folklore about Little People and the like. While not originally intended for children, Gulliver’s Travels has become one of their favorites because of its stories where Swift’s hero passes through various fantasy kingdoms, including those of little people (Lilliputians) and giants (Brobdignagians). My own favorite, however, is the kingdom of horses (Houyhnhnms) where we learn that these animals are more intelligent than humans and the smartest of God’s creatures. I should add that horses, along with salmon, often play an important role in Irish stories; on the other hand, given the environmental depredations of St. Patrick, snakes do not frequently appear in the country’s literature.
A magical horse, in fact, plays an important part in the lovely Irish children’s film called Into the West where two boys (who belong to the race of people known as the Travelers) leave Dublin’s “blocks” (what we would call “the projects”) and journey west to Connemara in pursuit of an enchanted white horse. Also making use of traditional Irish legends is John Sayles’ wonderful children’s film The Secret of Roan Inish where Fiona goes in search of her brother Jamie who has been changed into a “selkie” (a seal or mer-creature). Both make wonderful films to watch on St. Patrick’s Day, March 17, the feast day of the race.
Still, let me confess that I have been discussing here only a certain strain in Irish children’s stories: those that have links to the country’s fairy or folk tradition. In truth, Ireland’s prolific children’s authors have produced countless other kinds of books (historical fiction, adolescent novels, picture books, etc.). Since I don’t have the space here to list more, let me recommend Valerie Coughlan and Celia Keenan’s The Big Guide 2: Irish Children’s Books–a terrific compendium and overview of Irish children’s literature (including those in the Irish language), and list after list of books with summaries and evaluations.
While Ireland is a small island — you can drive from the east coast to the west coast, or from the north to the south, in about four hours — this green and fertile land has produced more writers per square inch than any other country. And it has done so for centuries, right up to the time of James Joyce and today’s Nobel-Prize-winning poet Seamus Heaney. The same is true of Irish writing for children, a category that can be widened to include books by expats and writers of Irish descent: like the Mary Poppins books of Pamela Travers (an Irish-Australian) and the young-adult novels of Brian Doyle (an Irish-Canadian). Given the fecundity of Irish writers and their loquaciousness, you will have to excuse, then, this Irish-American for mentioning only a few titles in this, my own small island of space.
Originally appeared in Parents’ Choice (March 2006). For my views on “The Happy Prince,” see my essay on Wilde’s story. For a glimpse of contemporary young adult fiction in Ireland, see my essay in the New York Times Book Review on Roddy Doyle’s y.a. novel “Wilderness.” And, finally, click here for an account of “My Year of Living in Ireland.”