Reviews 2013

Young Irelands: Studies in Children’s Literature

Young Irelands: Studies in Children’s Literature. Mary Shine Thompson (ed.). Dublin: Four Courts Press, 2011. 200 pages. €55.00 (hardback).

Ireland is a nation whose sense of national and international identity has been in transition for the past few centuries and has been profoundly influenced by its political past, perhaps most significantly its conflictual relationship with imperial Britain. This marked tension between nationalism and imperialism in the search for Irish identity from the eighteenth to the twenty-first century has been captured by a variety of cultural and artistic representations, including children’s literature. Young Irelands seeks to demonstrate the value of exploring various facets of Ireland’s past through this particular medium.

Editor Mary Shine Thompson provides a comprehensive introduction to the volume in which her consideration of the relationship between childhood and nationalism and its impact on Irish identity provides a strong context for the essays which follow. Thompson clearly defines the thesis of the collection and then teases out three different angles from which the various articles approach the topic: 1. Children’s literature that reflects aspects of nationalism and imperialism in Irish identity; 2. Texts that “resist the empire and the nation’s normative concepts”; and 3. The international interpretation of Irish children’s literature. The format of the collection does not follow a linear categorical approach, however, and it is up to the reader to discern which of the aforementioned subcategories each chapter fits into, if any.

In the first article, Sharon Murphy examines the work of Maria Edgeworth, an influential writer of children’s literature in late eighteenth century Ireland, and analyses the extent to which her strong views on morality, education and imperialism permeate her written work. Although the paper is well-crafted and insightful, the relevance to the central thesis of the book is not always clear as many of the works Murphy cites are among Edgeworth’s work for adults rather than children, and the discussions of imperialism are not adequately related to Ireland. This deviation from the central thesis also appears in Joy Alexander’s article which focuses on Arthur Mee’s invention of the children’s encyclopaedia, as the reader strains to identify the suitability of such a topic, which only briefly mentions representations of Ireland seven pages into a sixteen-page essay, to the general theme of Irish identity.

The centrality of Ireland to the argument is clear in the next two articles, the first of which looks at the propaganda of the activities and publications initiated by Na Fianna Éireann, a nationalist youth group in early twentieth century Ireland. Although Marnie Hay gives a thorough analysis of the literary qualities and historical context of the text, the social impact and long lasting effects of the publications on the promotion of nationalist attitudes among Irish youth could have been expanded. The next article presented by Michael Flanagan on the literary materials distributed by religious organisation the Christian Brothers gives a better account of the role of Irish children’s literature in reawakening a sense of enthusiasm for fairy tales and folklore among the general society in Ireland at the start of the twentieth century. Ciara Ní Bhroin’s article entitled ‘Recovering a heroic past: the Táin retold’ introduces a discussion of traditional Celtic mythology and, in particular, retellings of the popular Irish myth the Táin. Ní Bhroin not only contributes to the central tenet of the book by arguing that old Celtic tales and folklore inspired republican and nationalist ideals in twentieth century Ireland but she also explores the complexities of maintaining a sense of meaning and cultural identity through translation (in this case Irish Gaelic to English), an area which is given further attention later in the book.

Several articles in the collection take the author-based approach and propose to examine the work of a particular prominent children’s writer within the context of representing Irish identity. Such papers include Valerie Coghlan’s examination of a retelling of a French folktale by James Joyce, ‘Irish and European echoes in Oscar Wilde’s fairy tales’ by Anne Markey, Anne Marie Herron’s discussion of the contemporary fiction of Kate Thompson and Jane O’Hanlon’s paper on the Narnia series by C.S. Lewis entitled ‘Narnia: the last battle of the imaginative man’. These chapters comprise a very ‘literature heavy’ section of the book and each offers an in-depth analysis of the work of its chosen author including historical context, significant cultural and artistic influences, links with other writers and linguistic considerations of the literature. While these articles provide interesting and informative accounts of the work of various Irish writers, again the foundation of a relevance of such analysis to the proposed theme of Irish identity, nationalism and/or imperialism is weak if not entirely absent. The article ‘Padraic Colum, the Horn Book, and the Irish in American children’s literature in the early twentieth century’ details the work of the prolific Irish writer in America, and while the Aedín Clements makes some interesting points about the construction of the Irish image through children’s literature in America, the potential for developing this topic further is overshadowed by an overly narrow author-centred focus.

Conversely, Coralline Dupuy’s treatment of an international understanding of “the Irishness” of Morgan Llywelyn’s novel Cold Places has a refreshingly clear connection to what Thompson initially defines as the thesis of the collection. Not only is Dupuy’s argument thoughtful and precise, its commitment to representing a piece of literature undeniably aimed at children rather than adults and to identifying concepts of Irish identity throughout is a first in this book. Similarly, the relevance to the collection’s proposed theme is evident throughout Emer O’Sullivan’s analysis of the international understanding and reception of contemporary Irish children’s literature. Through her extensive and considered investigation of the efficacy of the transmission of Irish culture in German translations of the work of Roddy Doyle, Siobhán Parkinson and Eoin Colfer, O’Sullivan simultaneously explores the intricacies of linguistic culture, the challenge of translation and the literary expression of Irish identity.

Shine Thompson concludes the volume with an article of her own reflecting on the image of Irish childhood presented in Swift’s Gulliver’s Travels. Although Thompson’s paper is by far the longest in the collection, it fails to offer any clear conclusions about Swift’s popular tale. Like many of the other chapters, it does not adequately adhere to the central focus of the initially stated agenda of the collection: children’s literature which actively accepts or rejects ideas of nationalism and/or imperialism and international response to the ‘Irishness’ of Irish children’s literature.

In conclusion, this is a collection of well-drafted, well-informed articles on a wide range of fascinating topics, varied historical periods and diverse writers, broadly grouped under the theme of Irish identity. However, disappointingly, the impact of such innovative and commendable work is greatly reduced by the general lack of consistency to the original thesis put forth in the introduction. Although there are some notable exceptions, the reader’s continuously unmet expectations leave a general impression of dissatisfaction with what is otherwise a valuable contribution to the study of Irish children’s literature.

Sophia Klein
Independent scholar