Tuesday, March 17, 2015

St. Patrick's Day post: A love letter to Irish stories

It is nine in the morning, and the cops are already picking up piss-drunk college students all dressed as leprechauns.
I am not Irish. As far as I know, none of my close or far ancestors are even remotely Irish. I am also not American, so I am experiencing this whole day through the double lens of an outsider.
And yet, I can't help but take it personally.
As a storyteller.

Take my advice: Do NOT visit Amazon.com today. The green will burn your eyes out. There is green nail polish, glittery green shamrocks, leprechaun costumes from all points of the Halloween spectrum, Irish cookbooks, and a scattering of Irish History for Dummies. Out of morbid curiosity, I visited the children's books section. I shouldn't have.
Not. A single. Irish story in sight.
Believe me, it is not for the lack of available materials.
So, instead of ranting even more, I decided to get personal, and give you a little tour of my love affair with Irish stories, through a list of books.

Dömötör Tekla: Germán, Kelta Regék és Mondák [German and Celtic Tales and Legends]
I found this book on my uncle's bookshelf when I was maybe twelve or thirteen years old. It was my first venture outside of Greek mythology, and instantly enchanted me forever. The first part of the book was Norse mythology, the Niebelungenlied, and German folktales; the second half was Irish mythology, Welsh mythology, and Arthurian legends. It was my very first encounter with Lugh, Angus Og, Conn of the Hundred Battles, Maeldun, Cú Chulainn... and Fionn Mac Cool.

Rosemary Sutcliff: The High Deeds of Finn Mac Cool
I was in high school, preparing for an ESL competition. Every contestant had to read a book in English and then do a presentation on it. Digging around in the gloomy "foreign languages" section of our library, stuffed under a bunch of Dick and Jane books, I found a tiny volume titled The High Deeds of Finn Mac Cool. The name sounded familiar. I read the book.
I fell in love. Hard.
This was the late 1990's. All of my classmates were throwing screaming fangirl fits over Leonardo DiCaprio and the Backstreet Boys. Meanwhile I, being the nerd of the herd, had a hardcore crush on Oisín, and wanted to be a bard.
(My English teacher told me I could keep the book if I won the contest. I didn't. When six years later I came to the USA for the first time, this book was my first Amazon order).

Arthur Cotterell: The Encyclopedia of Mythology 
I also found this one (in Hungarian) in our high school library, and pretty much had it constantly checked out until I graduated. Some of the pictures burned into my mind so deep I still recall them every time I tell the corresponding story. For example, here is the picture of Macha's Curse - see my experience with telling in the previous post about Epic Day.

Lady Augusta Gregory: Gods and Fighting Men
The first Hungarian translation of this book came out in 2006. I fell in love with the Fianna around 2000-2001. I found the English version online or Sacred Texts, and spent hours applying my shaky English reading skills to it, page by page. It was a lot of work, but every deciphered story came as a new discovery. It was about the same time i started telling some of them to my friends. I didn't know what a storyteller was yet, but the stories wanted out.

Michael Foss: Celtic Myths and Legends
I stared at this book in the window of our local book shop (on my way to school) for a long time before I decided to spend my allowance money on it. Even in Hungarian it was a hard read, not the child-friendly rendition of tales I was used to. But it was also my first introduction to stories like the Children of Lir or the Battles of Magh Tuireadh.

W. B. Yeats: Fairy and Folk Tales of the Irish Peasantry
I got a large, heavy, English print version of this for my 17th birthday from my parents (who by then learned what my taste was in books). I didn't only get to practice advanced English on it, but also learned a whole lot about the Irish fairy folk. If I had any doubts before about the "cute fairy" stereotype, this book completely slayed it for me. Teig O'Kane is still one of my favorite stories.

When I decided to become a storyteller and travel, the world of Irish storytelling opened up for me. I got to meet people like Richard Marsh, Yvonne HealyClare Murphy, Liz Weir, and Brendan Nolan (among many, many others), and I finally had others to talk with about all the stories I have loved and cherished for so long. I got to visit American libraries and delve into their collections in search of more stories, more legends, and most of all, more Fianna. I grew as a storyteller and as a person; but none of this would have happened if I had not wanted to be an Irish bard first.

There is a saying that claims that if the name of Fionn Mac Cumhail is not spoken at least once every day, the world will come to an end.
Well, not on my watch.
(I still have a crush on Oisín)

Finally, here is a new find of mine. This book I got as a gift from my mentor Cathryn Fairlee. It is significant because it is the first novelization of Fianna legends that I actually like, because the author's idea of Finn and his men is very close to how I have imagined them over the years. I am only halfway through the book, but I am loving it.


  1. I feel sure you have looked at James Stephens' Irish Fairy Tales, can't really find his sources, may be him playing an active part in the 'folk tradition,'but they're wonderful. i count Mongan and Duv Laca as personal friends.

  2. Heck yes! I think I first found Mongan in some weird book on esoteric religions... I love that story :D

  3. I think different parts of the US get more into St. Paddy's day than other parts. Of course bars always want to hop on the bandwagon in hopes of increased sales.

  4. I met Clare Murphy for tea in 2008 and she mentioned Marie Heaney's Over Nine Waves as seminal in her storytelling. I picked it up soon thereafter, and began collecting books of Irish legends, but I have to say... none of them came alive for me until years later (2012-2013) when I got to hear them told by storytellers (Clare, and Cassie Cushing).

  5. Clare mentioned that book to me too, I have been keeping an eye out for it. But yeah, nothing like live storytelling :)

  6. I don't remember when I fell in love with Ireland and Irish myth, but I've been a fantasy reader for as long as I can rememebr, so probably it was one or another fantasy rendition.
    As you, I was a Greek mythology buff first, then I fell in love with Arthurian legends and then (I think, it might even hav ebeen first) with Irish mythology and right after with Scandinavian legends.

    Well, that's a lot of northern mythology, ocnsiderign I'm a Mediterranean woman ;-)

    Yeats's book is one of my favourite too.