Folk and fairy tales from northern regions, especially Celtic folk tales, have always seemed more magical, more other-worldly and more human to me than the standard deity-driven Greek and Roman fare.
I think this is because Celtic folklore so successfully intertwined the everyday and the mysterious. Life in Bronze Age Ireland was difficult and unpredictable. People needed to know why—and how to make it less so. Belief in magic and supernatural beings explained the inexplicable, so the stories were cautionary and prescriptive, as well as entertaining.
Saints, heroes and warriors aided the worthy. Giants, spirits and the fairy folk were wildcards; banshees, kelpies and various other monsters, devils and undead stalked the foolish and the unwary. But along with tales of fear and fighting were those of great romance and rollicking humor. How to choose the best for children?
Recently, I spent a delightful afternoon at the Irish Cultural Center with the very kind and knowledgeable librarian of the center’s on-site McClelland Irish Library. She recommended some (sometimes spooky) titles for older readers and some (often funny, never scary) titles for younger readers. She also encouraged the wee ones to come to the library’s Family Story Hour (monthly, first Saturdays, 10:30 a.m. to noon) and the all-day, every-hour St. Patrick’s Day Story Hours (10 a.m. to 4 p.m.) to enjoy tales told by an expert storyteller.
For younger readers
“Fin M’ Coul: The Giant of Knockmany Hill”
Retold and illustrated by Tomie de Paola
Clever and funny tale of how Oonagh, Fin’s wife, tricks the even bigger giant, Cucullin, into running away from a fight.
“Great Irish Heroes”
Written by Fiona Waters
Pictures by Gilly Marklew
Six short tales about famous characters in Irish history—some mythical, some not.
The Story of Saint Patrick
by The St. Patrick Centre of Northern Ireland
Simple retelling of the life of Ireland’s greatest resident.
For middle grade readers
“Traditional Irish Fairytales”
Written by James Stephens
Very readable versions of 10 tales with short chapters within each. Note: A version of this book illustrated by the king of ethereal storybook artwork, Sir Arthur Packham, is available on amazon.com.
The Tain: the Great Celtic Epic
Written by Liam Mac Ulstin
Illustrated by Donald Teskey
The story of how the hero Cuchulainn defends Ulster against Queen Maeve and her troops. It is full of battles, magic, honor and treachery, as well as insight into Celtic culture.
“Celtic Fairy Tales and More Celtic Fairy Tales”
Collected and retold by Joseph Jacobs
Illustrated by John D. Batten
Jacobs was the most famous English-language folklorist of his time. His retellings are very entertaining. They are colloquial, but conversational, having been translated directly from the words of living Gaelic storytellers. CFT contains 26 stories and 75 intricate, eerie pen-and-ink drawings; MCFT has 20 additional tales with 45 illustrations.
“The Tangle-Coated Horse and Other Tales: Episodes from the Fionn Saga”
Written by Ella Young
Illustrated by Vera Bock
This chapter book was a Newbery Honor book in 1930 and recounts the many magical adventures of the hero, Fionn.
All titles, except for “The Story of Saint Patrick,” are available in multiple formats from Amazon.com. Print-only versions are available at the Irish Cultural Center for on-site use (non-members) and for checkout (members). For additional information, contact azirishlibrary.org.