That sweater should have been perfect for me, because I was a picky granddaughter, who believed that I was too old for fairy tales, but I’m not too old for them now, Gramma.
I chose these for Irish Short Story Week for nostalgic reasons; the tales are original, inspired by tradition, but written by Sinéad de Valera, who was married to the Irish President; she wrote several collections of Irish fairy tales until she died in 1975, at the age of 96.
These are clearly written for children, but they do incorporate traditional elements which I found of interest.
“The Captive Princess” includes a bean feasa, which the text translates as “a woman of knowledge”, a woman “with magic powers and with knowledge of things distant and hidden”, a woman descended from a druidical family.
Other tales include a Bandraoi (a witch, one powerful in magic), a geasa (a magical spell or injunction), a biordán suain (a pin of sleep), the Fainne Si (the fairy ring), a geantraighe (a laughing tune), a suantraighe (a lullaby), a goltraighe (a weeping song), and dreimire gorm (night shade, bitter sweet), whose leaves, when gathered, can break a spell.
The tales contain wise statements such as “fairies remember kind and unkind actions and…reward or punish those who do them” and have endings in which “[e]verything ended well and happily and the prince went back to his own country to find another wife”.
Princes dress up like commoners, children foolishly choose the whole cake and forsake their mother’s blessing, and flowers get picked that should have been allowed to grow. The only thing startling about these tales are the distinctly ’70s-styled illustrations.
My favourite story from this volume was “Jack and His Animals”, which features an innovative Jack, who conceives of a quintet complete with braying donkey, barking dog, mewing cat, and bleating goat, who “sing” while he plays his fife.
Still in the mood for more Irish tales, I turned to Alice Kane’s work.
Alice Kane was born in Belfast, Ireland in 1908 and died in Toronto in 2003; she began her career as a storyteller for adults after she had worked for more than 40 years as a children’s librarian.
(I bet she never told anybody that SHE was too old for fairy tales, and happily wore the pickiest of wool sweaters while reading them.)
When she told stories, she stood tall and straight. She did not use a lot of gestures. “The choreography was all in her voice,” explains the notes to Tales of Wonder.
This 3-CD set of Alice Kane’s Irish tales, Tales of Wonder, some traditional and some literary, is available from Goose Lane Editions as part of the Storytellers of Canada: Conteurs du Canada series from Storysave.
She also published two books, Songs and Sayings of an Ulster Childhood (edited by Edith Fowke) and The Dreamer Awakes, a collection of her favourite wonder tales (edited by Robert Bringhurst, available from Broadview Press).
(I haven’t read the former, though have made a note for next year’s Irish stories reading, but I have read The Dreamer Awakes; the tales are wonderful.)
There is nothing fancy about the narration, but there is something mesmerizing about her voice; not only was this a perfect companion for my reading for this week, but the rhythm and delivery of these tales is lovely for evening listening.
Have you read any Irish fairy tales? Or have you some favourite collections of wonder tales?