The Stories of the Shanachies


Happy St. Patrick’s Day! Here’s to shamrocks, shillelaghs, and most of all to shanachies!

For a thousand years in Ireland, storytellers known as shanachies were ranked second only to kings. Even into the twentieth century, they could be found telling stories in villages, where they kept alive the myths, history, folk and fairy tales of the Irish people. The shanachies may be gone, but their stories live on in the bounty of picture books and story collections for children.

          My favorite of these collections is Kathleen Krull’s “A Pot o’ Gold, A Treasury of Irish Stories, Poetry, Folklore, and (of Course) Blarney.” Inspired by her grandparents, who both hailed from Ireland, Krull searched through sources old and new to find Irish stories, poems, recipes and sayings that will appeal to children.

          Included is one of the most haunting of Irish stories, “The Fate of the Children of Lir.” When their wicked stepmother transforms the four children of the sea god Lir into swans, the children are bound with a spell that cannot be broken for nine hundred years.  As the years go by, the swan children return to their father’s palace, only to see no house or hounds or welcoming fire. “Now has come the greatest of our pain – there lives no one who knows us.”  The spell finally breaks after centuries go by, and the swan children are released. The children of Lir find peace, but “The days of gods and heroes were gone forever.”

          On a lighter note is the story of Patrick O’Donnell and the leprechaun. Patrick was walking home through the bog one night when he chanced upon a leprechaun caught on a thornbush. Knowing that the leprechaun would have to lead him to his pot of gold as long as Patrick kept his eyes on the creature, he made the leprechaun show him to the particular thornbush where his gold was buried.       

Tying his red scarf to the bush to mark it, Patrick turned the leprechaun loose, and hurried home for his shovel. But when he returned to the bog, what should meet his eyes but a red scarf on every single thornbush in the bog!

          Poems by the likes of Joyce and Yeats, recipes for Irish stew and marshmallow crackers, and a rousing list of Irish battle cries round out the collection. David McPhail’s watercolors and decorative borders brighten almost every page for readers and listeners eight and up.

          More than 500 variants of Cinderella have been found world-wide, and in “Billy Beg and the Bull,” Ellin Greene presents an Irish version. Billy is a prince whose magical bull gives him three gifts: a napkin that provides food when he’s hungry, a stick that turns into a sword, and a belt that keeps him from harm.  With their help, Billy is able to slay a many-headed dragon and save a princess in distress. But when he loses a shoe as he rides away, the princess scours the countryside to find and marry the man whose foot will fit. In the end, of course, they “lived happy and well from that day to this.”

          The swirling watercolor illustrations by Kimberly Bulcken Root are the perfect complement to a story that Greene first heard over fifty years ago from famous shanachie Seumas MacManus.  

          Originally published in the 3/17/09 Free Lance-Star newspaper.