#LoveIrishResearch Blog: Rebecca Long on Irish Myths in Children's Literature

Rebecca Long is a Postgraduate Scholar in the School of English, Trinity College, Dublin. In addition to working on her research project, entitled “Narratives of Ireland: Childhood and Cultural Heritage in Irish Children’s Literature,” Rebecca is also the host of The Word, a book show for older children on RTÉjr Radio.

Rebecca will be leading a reading workshop for children at our #LoveIrishResearch event on Culture Night, in Boston College Ireland on Friday 16th September.

Vladimir Nabokov wrote that ‘there is no science without fancy, and no art without facts’. That sentence is like two mirrors facing each other, endlessly reflecting an endlessly occurring image. What it means for me, in my capacity as an academic researcher, is that there is nothing without curiosity. There is nothing without the drive to discover, without the desire to create. There could be no science without research – but I would argue that the arts could not exist without research either. And without any of these, there would most certainly be no culture.

In my research I have discovered that the most accessible definitions are often the most valid. Culture has been defined as the stories we tell ourselves about ourselves. Myths can be defined as the stories we tell to explain the world around us. My research focuses on the stories that come back – the stories that constitute Ireland’s cultural and mythological heritage, and the patterns they have made and are making in Irish children’s literature since the Celtic Revival.

The texts I'm examining transmit images of cultural heritage through engagement with landscape, myth, time, and selfhood, and in doing so become part of a pattern of recurring archetypal stories within Irish children’s literature; stories that return, stories that are always being re-told. Irish children’s literature can be seen as an interactive map of the physical and metaphysical landscapes of Ireland. Its imagined pasts, its living presents and its possible futures are connected by the narratives which constitute this map; individual texts are points on the grid, locating and emplacing the reader in multiple and diverse narratives of Ireland. These returning and repeating narratives are also narratives of childhood which in turn become the medium through which images of Irish cultural heritage are re-claimed, rejuvenated and re-imagined.

I use theories of childhood, space, narrative, mythopoeia, and time to explore the ways in which the texts I have chosen preserve and transmit images of cultural heritage. I believe my research is important because acts of re-imagination are essential for any society to survive. It is vital that we engage with the things we remember and question the ways in which we remember them. One of those ways is to tell stories – which means that stories are important. And stories for children are the most important stories of all.

The myth of Cuchulainn, the Hound of Ulster has been retold in almost every decade since the Celtic Revival in 1888. Standish O’Grady, Eleanor Hull, Lady Gregory, Alice Dease, Rosemary Sutcliff, Orla Melling – these are just a few of the authors who have presented a re-imagined version of such a foundational myth to new generations of readers. The mythical figure of Aengus Og makes an appearance in texts from the early 1900s such as Ella Young’s Celtic Wonder Tales – only to crop up again in 1985 in Pat O’Shea’s The Hounds of the Morrigan, and again in 2005 in Kate Thompson’s The New Policeman. He is always himself, always recognizable – but always different. We remember these stories, these wonder tales, because they are important to us. We retell them because they are part of our cultural heritage.

So why should the general public also love Irish research? Because we need ideas. That’s how a society grows and changes. The Irish have always been a curious race. We need that curiosity now more than ever. It doesn’t matter if it takes us back into the past, forwards into the future, or sideways down an unfamiliar path. Because that’s where we’ll find the ideas that we need. Research and discovery in any field can be the lifeblood of a community. Research in the Arts and Humanities very often constitutes the soul of a community. That’s why it’s so important. If what Yeats believed is true, and the arts really do ‘lie dreaming of what is to come’, then the impulse to discover and re-discover, to imagine and re-imagine must be nurtured and celebrated. Dreams and ideas of the future are very often the same things. The Sciences and the Humanities deal with both – they just tell different stories about them. Call it research, or call it Irish curiosity - we wouldn’t be who we are without it.