Clare storyteller Eddie Lenihan years of telling his own children stories at bedtime gave him the ultimate preparation to write children’s books on Irish mythology and folklore.
Speaking to The Clare Champion at the time of the re-release of his children’s book Irish Tales of Mystery and Magic, the Crusheen man says children still love a good story.
“When my own children were young, I told them bedtime stories and for whatever reason – now quite a number of years later, I don’t know why – I picked Fionn MacCumhail and the Fianna as the story at night time?” he says.
“And then it went on and on and on and there’s at least 30 books I could still write based on the stories I have at home.”
Eddie says they are all his original stories but are based on the Fionn MacCumhaill legend, while he maintains all the places, names, settings, characters and, of course, the Fianna.
Irish Tales of Mystery and Magic is written in a simple, engaging style with illustrations by Alan Clarke, which bring the stories to life.
Yet, do children have an interest in Irish folklore and mythology?
“Absolutely,” Eddie says. “When you hear about the Harry Potter books, I guarantee you if there was one film made out of one of these Fionn MacCumhail books they would take off and then there could be sequel after sequel after sequel because the stories are already there.”
Eddie says his favourite story out of the seven in the book has a Chinese connection.
“Alan illustrated a story called Fionn MacCumhail and the Feathers from China, where they found out that a better way of doing business rather than beating people to death would be to torture them to death with feathers” he says.
“They got this notion where they tickle people to death and you torture them to death and make them laugh themselves to death, rather than beat them to death like they always did in Ireland before they became civilised.”
Eddie says Fionn MacCumhail and the Making of the Burren is a humorous story that gives a new and unique explanation for how the Burren came to be.
“It would be a humorous way of saying how the hell did that come about? I could equally do one on the Giants Causeway and say well how did that come about?” he says.
“There are such things all around the country, as you know the old story about how Fionn MacCumhail scooped out the piece of ground, which is now Lough Neagh, and threw it and it landed in the Irish Sea, which is now the Isle of Man. That’ll tell you the size of the man he was.”
Eddie says Alan was inspired by the stories and that helped him as he attempted to create the images of the characters.
“Alan Clarke told me he enjoyed the stories so much that it was easy to illustrate them and I think you can see that. His illustrations were outstanding because he enjoyed them,” he says.
“It’s the language of ordinary daily speech and it’s meant to be that. It isn’t literary language. I hope that children would understand it as well as adults because those stories, I hope, are for adults as well.”
In relation to how he feels about this latest re-release of the book, he says, “How proud am I? Well if I died in the morning, the books would be there after me. It’s as simple as that. The other side of it is you can wear yourself out going from school to school to wherever seven nights a week or days a week but a book stays or a recording stays and you can’t be everywhere.”
Eddie says he now has a greater interest in looking after his energy levels and his well-being and not trying to take on too much.
“A live performance is wonderful and we all know that from storytelling but you can only do so much of it and as you get older [it gets harder]. I don’t tour in America anymore because it’s too big a country. I used to come back exhausted and no money will pay you back for that kind of thing,” he says. “Whereas you can sit down, you can write a book and it doesn’t matter that that book won’t be a bestseller, forget about that.”
Eddie says he is not bothered by delivering bestsellers and his main focus is on creating a book that young people can immerse themselves in.
“Bestsellers come and go. I sometimes think that the bloody things are written by computer but if it’s a good book, well written and it’ll make a few children happy, that’s all I’m interested in.”
Irish Tales of Mystery and Magic is aimed at children and young teenagers and Eddie says he still gets a big buzz out of travelling around the country storytelling.
Speaking from the principal’s office in a primary school in Cashel, Eddie says he can see in the children that they love the art of storytelling.
“The storytelling takes up all of my time now. I’m constantly busy around the country. Sometimes it takes up seven days a week,” he says.
“The children really enjoy it. I was telling them this morning about the black dog and a lot of them don’t know about the black dog anymore or the priest meeting the black dog on the road going to the sick person at night. I always tell them at the end, if you’re lucky enough to have grandparents still alive, ask them and ask them am I telling the truth or am I telling you lies in these stories I’m telling you.”
Eddie’s fairy book, Meeting the Other Crowd, has just been translated into a number of international languages but Eddie is slightly despondent about the appreciation of Irish folklore in Ireland.
“My fairy book, Meeting the Other Crowd, has just been translated into Japanese and it’s in Italian and Irish Tales of Mystery and Magic is being translated into Chinese,” he says.
“It’s great to see that people abroad are sometimes even more interested in our folklore than we are here ourselves. We’ve let it slip for a generation but maybe we’ll learn and maybe it’ll come back but an awful lot has been lost.”
Eddie thinks Irish people have lost their sense of identity.
“We’ve got too smart for our own good in some ways but we’ll pay for that. We have paid for that,” he says.
“You see a whole generation who have no roots. That’s part of the reason for so much crime and you see a lot of these teenage crimes now. They wouldn’t do that if they had a sense of community and they haven’t.”
He is writing two books at the moment, a novel on the Civil War in his home county of Kerry and another children’s book, so he is kept very busy. However, he says there was no major interest in his home that influenced his love for storytelling.
“There was nobody growing up. It was when I was doing my degree in college that I had to go out and listen to old people; I did a degree in phonetics in UCG. And I had to go out and listen to people’s accents in order to hear the phonetics of them and, of course, found out that there were a lot more interesting things than their accents and their stories behind what they were telling me,” he says.
“My father was a harness maker so the farmers who were waiting in the workshop to get their work done, they would have been chatting and talking but I was too young really to appreciate that. The harness maker’s workshop would have been the equivalent of the forge.”
Eddie stumbled across the art of storytelling in many ways and he says he believes what is meant for you in life will not pass you by.
“That’s why I always say to any of my young lads, ‘just go with the tide and you never know where things will lead you’. All you can do really is encourage your children and don’t get in their way. Encourage them as much as you can because you never know where they are going to end up.”
By Trevor Quinn