Making kids and countries through Irish Myth
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For many adults, their only exposure to their country’s mythology is through the books they read as children. Children’s books, then, have a huge part to play in how adults think of myth — as well as having what Zohar Shavit calls in The Presence of the Past in Children’s Literature a ‘fundamental role in the construction of a national past.’
In Ireland (both the Republic and Northern Ireland), Irish mythology has long been used to promote differing political agendas and ideas of national identity. The tripartite Irish goddess, the Morrígain (/more-reegin/), for example, has been used this way, appearing in over 20 children’s fantasy novels from the UK and Ireland in the last 50 years.
The mid-1980s saw the publication of what would become some of the most enduring children’s books that use Irish mythology: Galway author Pat O’Shea’s The Hounds of the Mórrígan (1985), and Irish-born Canadian O.R. Melling’s The Druid’s Tune (1983) and The Singing Stone (1986). Both women draw from the eighth-century medieval Táin Bó Cuailnge (/toyne boe kwoolingə/), ‘the Cattle Raid of Cooley,’ which features, among other things, a battle between the Morrígain and Ireland’s most famous mythological hero, Cú Chulainn (/koo hullin/).
Each novel engages with nostalgia, where memories and history are key to navigating the present. This ‘tug-of-war between the past and the future,’ as described by Clémentine Beauvais, can be best seen in O’Shea’s Galway, where the modern city, multiple layers of the past, and the landscape of myth all meet. Similarly, Mellings’s pseudo-historical Ireland helps her characters come to terms with their place in the Irish diaspora. The relationship of the landscape to history, and of history to the present (and the nebulous future), ties the protagonists deeply to the land in which they have their adventures. Myth offers not only a framework for the story, but also, for the reader, a visceral connection to Ireland itself.
The late 80s and early 90s saw two more children’s fantasy series: Cormac Mac Raois’s The Battle Below Giltspur (1988), Dance of the Midnight Fire (1989), and Lightning over Giltspur (1991), and Mary Regan’s The Pit of the Hell Hag (1994), The Spirit of the Foyle (1994), and The Red Stone of the Curses (1994).
Unlike O’Shea’s and Melling’s novels, these did not pull directly from any one medieval Irish source, but the Morrígain rears her frightening head in all of them. Both authors have crossed the island’s border in their work. Mac Raois was born in Belfast, but has lived most of his life in Bray (in the Republic), while Regan was born and lives in Derry (in the North). Bray and Derry/Londonderry, respectively, are central to their stories. Mac Raois and Regan, perhaps because they never had to leave Ireland, do not idealize the landscape as much as O’Shea or Melling, using Irish myth, then, to explore other ideas.
Regan, for example, writing four years before the Good Friday Agreement of 1998 that drew the Troubles to a close, specifically set her novels around Lough Foyle, an estuary that divides Co. Derry/Londonderry in Northern Ireland from Co. Donegal in the Republic. The children of her novels repeatedly cross the border, allowing her to explore this division. When the supernatural Morrigan takes control of the river, straddling the border, children from both the UK and Ireland must work together to defeat her.
Meanwhile, as with O’Shea and Regan, the fantastic intrudes into Mac Raois’ real-world Bray, rendering the Morrigan’s threats frighteningly immediate to an Irish readership. As C.S. Lewis wrote, a child ‘does not despise real woods because he has read of enchanted woods: the reading makes all real woods a little enchanted.’
Unlike O’Shea, Regan, and Melling, however, Mac Raois is interested in using mythology to explore personal morality, with his Morrígain a victim of despair. Mac Raois’s villain is eventually defeated not by violence, but through compassion and understanding, coming to recognize the human sadness within herself. Here myth allows readers to reflect on their own experience and judgement of right and wrong.
As T. Watkins reminds us in Literature for Children, the stories we tell are ‘maps of meaning’ that help children make sense of their cultural experience and the larger world, in turn contributing to the child’s personal and social identity. Children need heroes to identify with, to tell them that they aren’t helpless, that they can take control of their surroundings and face the villains they find inside themselves.
Through myth, children encounter difficult and frightening challenges in a safe environment; villains are fought, but also redeemed, and a sense of place in the world is found. During the current boom in fantasy literature, a genre which draws so much from myth, children will only continue to explore their personal and national identities by new and thoughtful paths.