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A Christmas tale that puts language in the picture

A Christmas tale that puts language in the picture

You don’t have to be fluent in a language to bring a story to life, as 75-year-old Catherine Sheridan discovered with her bilingual tale for Christmas

This year, aged 75, Dublin grandmother Catherine Sheridan fulfilled a huge ambition. After a life filled with family committments and a long-held interest in art, she published her first children’s picture book. What makes the achievement – and the book itself – more intriguing is the fact that it’s published in Irish even though she is not a fluent speaker of the language.

Réiltín agus Banríon na Gealaí (Twinkle and the Moon Queen) was inspired by a personal story.

“I was always interested in art,” says Sheridan. “I went to classes and lectures, and whenever I drew, I veered towards toys and witches and fairies. Some years ago I found a photo of my eldest granddaughter, where she was sitting under the Christmas tree. I painted a version of it and it became part of this story.”

The tale concerns a tattered Christmas fairy and Sheridan liked the idea of our connections with the past and how old, well-loved things should be valued, rather than binned. Gabriel Rosenstock translated the story into Irish (it appears bilingually on each page). “It wasn’t my original intention to publish it in Irish, but I started to think that if it made the language more accessible, that could only be a good thing.”

The book is the first publication by the newly founded Páistí Press, run by Jean Harrington, an experienced publisher. Harrington’s children attend a gaelscoil, so Irish language children’s books seemed like a useful challenge.

“My son was in a naíonra [an Irish-language pre-school] and I noticed that it was very hard to find books in Irish. I asked in local bookshops but there was very little available, as well as a real lack of interest.”

Harrington was inspired to set up her specialised press, but crucial to its ethos is the publication of bilingual books. “It wouldn’t dawn on many parents to buy books in Irish.

For some it’s because they don’t speak the language, and are embarrassed by that. We’re hoping that it might encourage parents to get back into the language and share that experience with their children who are learning Irish in schools.”

Harrington points out that 80 per cent of the books on Irish bookshop shelves are by UK publishers, and that print runs of Irish language books are small.
“Réiltín has glitter on the pages, which makes production expensive, so you need higher print runs to bring costs down. But while we’re competing with huge publishers, there is a level playing field for all of us in Irish language publishing and we support each other.”

Tadhg Mac Dhonnagáin echoes Harrington’s sentiments, having set up Futa Fata (which means “a buzz or babble of excitement”) in 2005. “There are now more books for children published in Irish than English in this country and because we are working in Irish, we’re more immune to the very challenging competition that Irish publishers working in English face.” He cites publishers such as Móinín, Cló Mhaigh Eo and the oldest Irish language publisher (which is Government run), An Gúm. The target audience of these publishers is the 12-15 per cent of children who are either native speakers or attend gaelscoileanna.

Futa Fata published 15 children’s books this year, aimed at babies and readers up to the age of 12. Picture books dominate and in January they will launch a new series of books – Danger Zones – that take a humorous look at history. The fact that picture books fare so well, is not surprising, says David Maybury, editor of Inis children’s books magazine.

“There’s a huge link between illustration and Irish language publishing – due to both translating foreign titles and introducing new illustrators and author teams.

“Irish language publishers react faster to market changes and tastes and with more publishers joining the market next year we have some great books to look forward to.” Maybury also cites the long career of Éilís Ní Dhuibhne, who has written several young people’s books in Irish. Ní Dhuibhne, along with authors Úna Ó Boyle and children’s laureate Siobhán Parkinson, was nominated for this year’s Reics Carlo Irish language book prize.

Tone and theme vary, but there is a steady audience for these books. Caroline Clery, a senior librarian in Dolphin’s Barn library, says that while the books in Irish are niche, they are consistently borrowed. “The same people check them out, and the most popular titles are usually based around first words or fairytales. It’s often helpful if people know a familiar story in English and want to read it in Irish.”

For Catherine Sheridan, getting published was something she never expected. “When I decided that I really wanted to do this, I signed up for a picture-book course. On the first day there, I was three times as old as most of the others. It was initially really daunting but I loved it. Now that it has been published, I’m just so pleased.”

Foilsithe ar - 22 Nollaig 2011

The Irish Times - Sinéad Gleeson

Bí ar an eolas - Cláraigh dár ríomhirisí

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