8 of the best Irish children's books as chosen by author Sinead O'Hart
Published on: 13 February 2019 Author: Sinead O'Hart
Looking for children's books set in Ireland to share with your family? Author Sinead O'Hart gives us some of her childhood favourites, plus a few recent gems.
Irish authors are producing some of the best work in children’s fiction at the moment, from the glorious Tin by Pádraig Kenny to Dave Rudden’s Knights of the Borrowed Dark trilogy.
But I think all of us Irish authors who write for children owe a debt of gratitude to writers like Pat O’Shea, who showed us, 30 years ago, what a children’s book set in Ireland could do. I couldn’t kick off my favourite Irish children’s books without her.
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The Hounds of the Morrigan, Pat O’Shea
The Hounds of the Morrigan is gloriously, joyfully Irish, from the speech patterns to the landscape to the mythology. It tells the story of Pidge and his sister Brigit, who must stop an ancient goddess from recovering her lost power. Madcap, fast-paced, hilarious, and at times deeply, thrillingly, satisfyingly frightening, it’s a book I treasure and return to over and over again.
Under the Hawthorn Tree, Marita Conlon-McKenna
Under the Hawthorn Tree is a story set during one of the most painful periods of Irish history – the Great Famine, which raged from 1845 to the early 1850s. The Famine left a long-lasting mark on the Irish collective consciousness, and this is probably the widest-read children’s book dealing with it.
It tells the story of three children (siblings Eily, Peggy and Michael) who lose almost everything they have at the outset of the Famine, but whose love for one another keeps them going as they fight for survival in a chaotic world. The first in a trilogy, this book was monumental to me as a child, feeding my love for history and storytelling.
The Singing Stone, O R Melling
The Singing Stone follows Canadian teenager Kay whose fascination with Ireland, and the appearance of mysterious, anonymous clues to a mystery there, lead her to travel to the country of her dreams. She is drawn into the fabric of mythology, meeting a foundling girl named Aherne who helps her to navigate the strange new realm, and together they must find the four lost treasures of the Tuatha De Danann. Spellbinding in its evocative descriptions of Bronze Age Ireland and fascinating in its treatment of Irish mythology, it’s a time-slip adventure story with a lot of heart.
The Last of the Fianna, Michael Scott; cover illustration by Jim Fitzpatrick
I read my copy of Michael Scott’s The Last of the Fianna so many times as a child that it practically fell apart; it’s held together now by copious amounts of Sellotape and a lot of hope! The cover art (by the incomparable Jim Fitzpatrick) was almost as impressive and inspirational to me as the story inside.
Perhaps unsurprisingly for a child (who grew into an adult) who loves mythology, I adored the story of Colum, forcibly brought to Tír na nÓg by a mysterious magical horse, where he meets the majestic Oisin, hero of the Fianna, the ancient warriors of Ireland. This story has it all: peril, thrills, monstrous creatures, unstoppable heroes and a brave child at the heart of it all.
The Switchers Trilogy, Kate Thompson
Switchers is a story about Tess and Kevin, children with the power to become any animal they like at will. They are the titular Switchers, and it’s up to them to save the world from the threat of icy doom. The other two volumes in the trilogy take the characters further: how can they Switch? What does it all mean? And how can they possibly choose what to become by the time they turn fifteen – the age at which they’ll stay permanently in whatever form they wish? These books are wonderful, mingling modern-day Ireland with the stories and legends of its past, and adding a special layer of uniqueness all their own.
And then on to three more modern reads…
The Maloneys’ Magical Weatherbox, Nigel Quinlan
When I first read Nigel Quinlan’s debut novel, The Maloneys’ Magical Weatherbox, the first comparison I could make was with Pat O’Shea. The madcap humour, slightly bonkers characters, zippily humourous plot, and irrepressible Irishness are all there in spades. This charming story about Neil and Liz Maloney, children whose father is the Weatherman with responsibility for changing the seasons at the right time. Then, one year, autumn doesn’t come when it should… and the children’s quest to find out why not makes a story with timeless, classic appeal.
Arthur Quinn and the World Serpent, Alan Early
Arthur Quinn and the World Serpent kicks off a fantastic, fast-paced, thrilling trilogy for readers 9+. The eponymous Arthur Quinn is a kid thrown into a new life when his father is sent to work in Dublin on a new underground railway. During an exploration of a subterranean tunnel, Arthur and some new friends discover something ancient sleeping beneath the busy city streets, something which was buried there by the long-ago Vikings who shaped Dublin city. When it’s disturbed, all manner of trouble and danger is let loose! These books are brimming with history and humour, fast-paced action, and a brilliantly realised bunch of characters.
Begone the Raggedy Witches, Celine Kiernan
This book begins with one of the most compelling opening chapters I’ve ever read. A young girl called Mup is in the back of her mother’s car as they drive through the dusk, her little brother Tipper by her side. Then, in the trees overhead, Mup sees the pale blank face of a witch – and the witch stares right back at the terrified girl. The witches follow the family home, and the tale that unfolds from this pivotal night is gripping, dark, and unputdownable. Mup is a wonderful character, full of heart and courage and love, and her quest to save her dad – and her whole family – from the grip of the Raggedy Witches makes for an unforgettable story. Dotted with flecks of Irish language and gems from folklore, woven together with a magic all Kiernan’s own, this is a book to treasure.