Signposts on the road to discovery

13th February 1998 at 00:00
ENCHANTED JOURNEYS: Fifty Years of Irish Writing for Children. Edited by Robert Dunbar. O'Brien Press. #163;8.99

World literature, it has been claimed, has two plots: a stranger comes to town and a person goes on a journey. In Enchanted Journeys Robert Dunbar has skilfully tapped into the second of these simple but powerful and exciting holds on the imagination.

His 17 extracts selected from Irish novels describe, if not actual journeys, metaphorical or imaginative ones. The half-century span is somewhat misleading, however, in that 10 of the works featured were published in the 1990s; the only explanation is that the other decades yielded poor material - for Dunbar can be trusted to have read everything in children's fiction since 1940 - and that the Nineties material proved stronger.

And yet this puzzled me when I read the more recent extracts. These could have been written decades earlier, and indeed many of them are set in the past: the fifth, 10th, 18th centuries all feature. A boy enjoys butter and brown bread, strong, sweet tea; Amelia goes shopping with her mother to buy "damp strings of sausages, a score of eggs, washing soda and cakes of soap".

No one here eats at McDonald's; television or washing machines, when they get a mention, almost surprise. Dunbar displays an admirable resistance to what is fashionable or trendy or second-rate. Every extract is an example of very fine writing, and his introduction is clear-sighted and authoritative.

Irish children inherit a culture which is still singular and unique. Dunbar is a careful and imaginative guardian of that tradition and culture.But, for better or worse, Irish children are now mid-Atlantic, too; they live in Spiceworld. Young readers may well feel alienated occasionally from writing such as we find in Frank Murphy's Lockie and Dadger: "We had done near 40 miles that day, and when we got to the village of Knocknamona in the County Kerry, poor old Rosie was ready to drop." And yet, if given half a chance, its simplicity and clarity will captivate and engage.

The age group for whom this book was compiled (10-plus) has yet to read Roddy Doyle, but, significantly, none of the pieces here is contemporarily urban or hard-edged. The first extract, from Marita Conlon-McKenna's Fields of Home, is set in rural Ireland during the famine; the same author's No Goodbye, for example, a contemporary and much more immediate story about family break-up, is not here. Dunbar's criterion at all times is quality of writing. The pieces by Elizabeth O'Hara, Matthew Sweeney, John Quinn, Janet McNeill and Eil!s Dillon are outstanding.

Anthologies serve as signposts, and the better ones send the reader towards the editor's source. Children who begin with this beautifully produced book will embark on many enchanting, enriching journeys.

Niall MacMonagle is head of English at Wesley College, Dublin

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