Leave out the leprechauns

28th November 1997 at 00:00
Tales of the 'little people' too often collapse into embarrassing whimsy, but the literary giants of children's fiction in Ireland today have higher aims - and a far wider agenda, argues Robert Dunbar.

Ireland's complexities of history, politics and language, all mainly resulting from its centuries of colonisation by the neighbouring island, are reflected in most of its product, its literature included.

For most people, "literature" in this context means the drama of O'Casey or the fiction of Joyce or the poetry of Yeats, but the same complexities have had a significant role in literature for children. The result is a body of writing which, in terms of its precise origins and historical development, eludes easy classification. The difficult task of defining "children's literature" becomes even harder when we preface it with "Irish".

Ireland's place in the world has changed over the past 50 years, and its sense of self has also undergone considerable transformation. In preparing an anth-ology of the children's literature from these exciting years, it has become clear that, literary merits apart, this work offers symbolic representation of a country's growing confidence in its own identity, and that this identity can manifest itself in a multiplicity of ways.

Over the past two decades there has been a remarkable increase in the amount of Irish writing, illustration and publishing for the young - and the last of these has been particularly important. Where Irish children's writers once had to look for publication in Britain if their work was to reach a sizeable audience, they now have access to an indigenous industry skilled in modern marketing techniques.

Co-productions between Irish and foreign publishers have brought important opportunities for international exposure, opportunities enhanced when the foreign publishers obtain rights (as they increasingly do) to Irish titles. Books suchas Marita Conlon-McKenna's Great Famine trilogy and Tom McCaughren's fox sagas have now attained worldwide acclaim.

This contemporary flowering of Irishchildren's literature is the latest development in a tradition which dates back 300 years, and far longer if you include Ireland's wealth of oral story, folktale and legend, the forerunners of its children's literature and still the source of much of it.

It is a history which can find room for names such as Jonathan Swift, Maria Edgeworth, Oliver Goldsmith and Oscar Wilde, though it is not until the beginning of the present century that we have writers who saw their children's writing as a central part of their output. Many of these were associated with the Irish Literary Revival, producing a children's literature perceived as an aid in moulding a new Irish identity and marking the first move from colonial to post-colonial status.

Important and influential as this writing was in its time, its almost quasi-mystical emphasis on heroism and history makes much of it now seem very dated. What gives it lasting interest is its notion of what being Irish entails, a perception which, over the succeeding years of accelerating social and economic change, moved from an insular view to one that is today much more pluralistic. But in terms of its children's literature, Ireland's abandonment of conservative themes and forms has been a slow business.

For many writers, confusion set in as to what was "Irish" and what was "Oirish", a dilemma we have by no means yet fully resolved. Leprechauns and talking donkeys have their charm, but in the hand of the less gifted writer that charm becomes embarrassing whimsy.

The 70 years or so which separate the Revival period from the developments of the 1970s onwards were dominated by four writers - Meta Mayne Reid, Janet McNeill, Patricia Lynch and Eilis Dillon - whose total output amounted to more than 100 novels. Reid and McNeill, although born respectively in Yorkshire and Dublin, were based in Northern Ireland, often the setting for their stories. Lynch and Dillon were born in the Republic and, in the main, lived and wrote there. The books of all four were, in the first instance, usually published in Britain. This all serves to remind us that for some 70 years Ireland has comprised two separate political entities, each with a sizeable input into children's literature - though the precise characteristics of the Northern Ireland contribution have yet to be assessed in any detail. When such an assessment takes place, it will have to recognise such historical figures as Frances Browne and Ella Young, Belfast-born C S Lewis and a long list of contemporary names including Martin Waddell and illustrator P J Lynch who have set some of the highest contemporary standards for the picture book. Such an assessment will also have to contend with the proliferation of "Ulster troubles" fiction for the young which the civil strife of the past three decades has brought in its wake.

Where the Republic of Ireland is concerned, the phrase "children's literature" was for many years of this century synonymous with the prolific output of Patricia Lynch and Eilis Dillon. Their writing can be seen as reflecting societal moves between traditional and more modern responses to development on their island.

For Lynch, Irish myth, history and native folklore are the starting points for her best known fictions, which are often imbued with a strong sense of the kind of "magic" which perpet-uates a view of an Ireland where around every corner there is the possibility of supernatural adventure.

Real and imaginary worlds are never far apart here, though the "real" is never quite the contemporary Ireland where Lynch's first readers would actually have lived. In Dillon's fiction there is a pervasive sense of a landscape at a time of transition and, at the very least, a tentative reaching out to embrace change; each of the islands which provide most of her settings becomes a microcosm of the larger one around whose shores she places her exciting adventures.

All good stories for children offer the prospect of enchanted journeys, the opportunity for young readers to embark imaginatively on voyages of discovery. But when these stories are drawn from the riches of Irish writing the voyages assume a fascinating character of their own.

As we have already seen, this uniqueness derives from a blend of factors, among which the country's geography, history and long association with oral and written narrative are of central significance.

The fact of Ireland's being an island has influenced the nature of much Irish writing for adults and children alike. But particularly for its children's literature, the appeal of an island setting has always been strong - understandably, given the possibility of thrilling adventures on the seas around an often treacherous coastline and the opportunities for narratives where the young, in isolated locations, can find and be themselves.

Add to these attractions a history which can itself be seen in terms of a narrative composed of journeys to and from an island, and we have the starting points for numerous stories of exploration and survival.

Robert Dunbar is the editor of Enchanted Journeys: Fifty Years of Irish Writing for Children (O'Brien Press: Pounds 8.99)

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