Given the prominent “School Edition” on the cover, the large text inside and the lack of any sort of author biography, I fully expected this to be a childish retelling of Irish legends, popularised for an American audience. I was wrong. The stories are beautifully and simply told by Violet Russell, née North, wife of Irish Nationalist and writer George “AE” Russell (whose Wikipedia article is well worth a read). There is no higher qualification needed for a recorder of myths than to be able to write, without pretension, what can be found in the beginning of the dedication “to Brian and Diarmuid”:
When you were small, and could not read for yourselves, and the long winter twilights were wearisome to you – sitting by the fire while the shadows played with each other over the room I told you these stories of ancient days, when magic and mystery and the folk of the other world were part of every one’s belief.
It is because you cared for them that I have re-written some of those about Fionn and his warriors, thinking that other children might wish – as you did – to know something about the old gods so often mentioned in the legends, and about Fionn and the Fianna Eireann.
The art by Beatrice Elvery is, even in this stripped-down, black-and-white, school version of the book, exceptional. My battered copy is missing the frontispiece (and the last page, irritatingly), but I scanned in the rest of the images since a convenient collection doesn’t seem to exist elsewhere on the internet.
A little research revealed quite a bit about the book’s author and illustrator…if only I could find out something about the book’s previous owner, who scrawled name and address several times amongst the pages. Plunket Stewart of Barrack Street No. 12, I’m thinking of you!
[Why I read it: obeying my compulsion to check the contents of vintage books that have no title printed on the spine, I found this in a Missouri antique store. I’m always on the look-out for lesser-known mythologies (basically anything that’s not Greek or Roman).]