Traditional Irish stories - with their tragedy, humour and violence - are still relevant to us today, says Robert Dunbar
The Orchard Book of Irish Fairy Tales and Legends By Una Leavy Illustrated by Susan Field, Orchard Pounds 12.99. The King of Ireland's Son By Brendan Behan Illustrated by P J Lynch, Andersen Pounds 9.99
A nation's stories are the repository of its longest memories. They reveal, often in starkly dramatic form, psychological and philosophical truths about a race: they encapsulate the earliest insights into those characteristics which help to make us what we are.
Looked at from this perspective, the stories which comprise, in WB Yeats's phrase, "a chief part of Ireland's gift to the imagination of the world", have a more immediate relevance to the dying years of the 20th century than might initially be thought. Their depiction of an essentially violent world, ravaged by futile carnage, infidelity and betrayal, has many contemporary resonances, not least in the land of their origins.
While this wealth of Irish traditional stories has a written history which extends back at least some 800 years (and even older oral origins), it is only within the past century that, through the medium of a proliferating number of retellings, these ancient tales have become available to a non-specialist readership.
Retellings directed mainly at a young audience have tended to focus less on the "adult" themes of the originals than on their powerful narratives and on their sharply fluctuating moods. These are domains where real and supernatural worlds collide, where chivalry and barbarism merge and where tragedy and humour, often of the black, sardonic kind, are juxtaposed.
Una Leavy's collection of 10 stories provides an attractive entry to these territories and has a particular emphasis on those narratives which exhibit a fondness for that special kind of magic by which the ordinary is transformed into the fabulous: the resulting shifts are frequently intoxicating in their drama, in their wildness and in their poignancy.
Probably the best encapsulation of all three of these are her versions of "Deirdre and the Sons of Uisneach" and "The Children of Lir", with their heart-rending evocation of a world of elemental desires and equally elemental deeds.
If the Irish story has its most elevated expression in these harsh realities, the fact that it is a sufficiently diverse world to encompass material featuring more mortal beings is pleasantly demonstrated in Leavy's inclusion of stories such as "The Pot of Gold" and "The Magic Shoes".
Susan Field, the illustrator of Leavy's text, deserves very warm commendation for her success in capturing its prevailing landscape, in both a physcal and psychological sense. Her artwork, whether in full-page or miniature cameo format, catches the rawness of emotion so evident in the stories, while simultaneously alerting us to the human dimension of their various tragedies.
Witness, for example, the depiction of Deirdre's contemplation of her bleeding fingers as she cuts herself on the briars from which she has just freed a trapped blackbird: it is a picture where the literal and the symbolic meet most tellingly.
Given its author's reputation for ebullience and for high spirits (in all senses), it should not come as a surprise that Brendan Behan's version of The King of Ireland's Son is an engaging romp of a story, characterised by a lively pace and a mischievous sense of humour.
Now resurrected some 35 years after its first appearance (in a book significantly entitled Brendan Behan's Island: an Irish Sketchbook), it remains of considerable appeal.
Today's young readers should respond easily to its combination of traditional motif (the quest, the giant, the riddles, the games of hide-and-seek) and contemporary colloquialism - not to mention its clear fascination with food and feasting.
It is, however, in the illustrations of P J Lynch that the real justification for this re-issue is to be found. The richly coloured vibrancy which has now become his hallmark is still in evidence, as is his fondness for the grotesque and the gnarled. But there is also a new development: totally in keeping with the self-conscious exaggeration of Behan's prose, there is, as the story progresses, an abandonment of all restraint, resulting - almost - in exuberant self-parody.
Nowhere is this seen better than in the frieze of dancing lords and ladies with which the book concludes. There, in the midst of them, is Behan himself. "And wasn't I at the wedding as well as everybody else?" reads the accompanying text.