Tuesday, March 17, 2009

Irish Tales Retold for Children

In honor of Saint Patrick's Day, I'd thought I'd mention a few children's books based on Irish legends that I've had the pleasure of reading lately.

I've noticed that the older the Irish legend, the less appropriate it seems for a children's book. Several storybooks present these tales "as is," leading to the sort of faithful and depressing retellings I would have disliked as a child. I believe, however, that my childhood self would have approved of the books below.

The Children of Lir written by Sheila MacGill-Callahan, illustrated by Gennady Spirin. I actually like the sadder, more familiar, Christianized version of this story better, but as a child, I would have appreciated MacGill-Callahan's happy ending, the addition of Jasconius the whale (borrowed from the legend of Saint Brendan), and the large role played by animals throughout the story. Spirin's detailed illustrations are both fantastical and formal, reminding me of a Renaissance stage play.

The King of Ireland's Son, told by Brendan Behan and illustrated by P.J. Lynch, was transcribed from a audio-recording of Behan, and the text vibrantly reflects the best qualities of oral storytelling. The story is light-hearted and lyrical, and Lynch's pictures are a perfect match: the characters are lovingly detailed and humorously expressive.

Irish Fairy Tales and Legends, written by Una Leavy and illustrated by Susan Field, is possibly my favorite of the three. First, you get ten tales to delight in, instead of one. Second, Leavy does the best job I've ever read of staying true to the nature of old Irish legends while fitting them into a language and tone appropriate for children. Third, the collection is a generous mix of serious and comic stories. Fourth, Field's pictures are absolutely marvelous: expressive, warm, colorful, and childlike.

(Images from Amazon and LitWeb. )


  1. i took a wonderfully fun and interesting class about fairy tales and wholeheartedly agree that older tales are inappropriate for children! they were so violent and it was difficult to determine what their moral was - or sometimes the moral was just flat out APPALLING (can you say S-E-X-I-S-T?!?!) i can't think about some of the tales because they were so graphic!

  2. Wow. That sounds like an awesome class--what was it called?

    The older (more violent, fatalistic) Irish legends always make me think of a wonderful quote by G.K. Chesterton: "For the great Gaels of Ireland/ Are the men that God made mad,/ For all their wars are merry/ And all their songs are sad."