Feature Articles

TREASURE ISLANDS 2004 by Carole Redford

(Poetry Ireland News, May/June 2004)

Opening the first Irish summer school on children's literature in June 1991, the newly-elected President, Mary Robinson, described Eilís Dillon as the 'doyenne of Irish children's literature.' Thirteen years later, at a very different gathering, those active in the study of literature for the young met in St. Patrick's College in Drumcondra, Dublin for an academic conference under the aegis of the Irish Society for the Study of Children's Literature, (ISSCL). This, the society's second conference, marked the tenth anniversary of Dillon's death. The conference's title, Treasure Islands, alludes to the island setting of many of Dillon's works, and the emphasis of the conference itself paid tribute, as did Robinson's remarks, to the significant contribution Dillon made to the world of Irish children's books, both as a writer, and, as her son, Cormac Ó Cuilleanáin, in an after-dinner speech reminded delegates, as one of the instigators of the Irish Children's Book Trust.

Fittingly, the author's daughter, Eiléan Ní Chuilleanáin, gave the key-note address, Daddies and Telephones: The Wild and the Tame in Children's Literature, in which she ranged widely from a position of unique insight into her mother's working habits and literature, to a consideration of the authority figures in the 'Harry Potter' novels.

Given the theme of the conference, several papers examined Dillon's preoccupation with Irish islands, a number expanding on Ní Chuilleanáin's observation of the critical stance which viewed Dillon's creation of fictional islands as a platform for a critique of the emerging Irish state. While Breege O'Brien, who teaches on the island of Achill, stressed the realism which underpins Dillon's depiction of islands, other speakers emphasised her subversion of the perceived Blytonesque view which saw such books as being concerned with the exploits of outsiders, of those who do not belong, of invaders. A number of papers allied what was viewed as Siobhán Parkinson's sedition in her 1997 novel, Four Kids, Three Cats, Two Cows, One Witch (maybe), with Dillon's writing. But Parkinson, it was argued, goes beyond Dillon's implied criticism of the adventure story, toying as she does with notions of actual structure and genre.

The acknowledged expert on the fiction of Enid Blyton, David Rudd, senior lecturer at Bolton Institute in Greater Manchester, while not seeking to excuse the seeming insularity of Blyton's islands, sought to explain what he saw as their fragile fabric, symbolised by tunnels, caves and passages which eat into their very foundations. While it points to a private life in turmoil, it also provides an image of an island under threat, the threat of invasion, for, significantly, many of her island novels were written in the 1940s. For Rudd, Churchillian notions of 'our famous island race' resonate through the books.

Such patriotic, some would argue jingoistic, rhetoric smacks of the days of empire. In an Irish context, to utilise a phrase from another speaker, AJ Piesse, it is at the centre of 'the relationship of the lesser land mass to the greater.' The examination of this association reached its most political in Michael Flanagan's fascinating and intelligent consideration of how the Christian Brothers' magazine, Our Boys, was informed by Irish Nationalistic and anti-British sentiments, epitomised, perhaps, in an illustration which depicts John Bull, both literally and metaphorically, in the company of devils and serpents, and in opposition to Ireland's spotless youth. By the simple expedient of reversing the depiction of the Irish found in British periodicals for children, the Christian Brothers suggest the inferiority, bestiality and immorality of the English. Marnie Hay's paper augmented Flanagan's, dealing as it did with nationalist propaganda aimed at the young in such publications as Irish Freedom, Fianna, and the Fianna Handbook.

Perfidious Albion's thirst for empire is, arguably, reflected in the island stories of her people; various speakers made reference to Robinson Crusoe, Swallows and Amazons and Peter Pan. These works, with novels such as Stevenson's Treasure Island and Wyss's Swiss Family Robinson allowed presenters to engage with Darwinian theories of the nature of humankind in situations where man is forced to exist without either society or culture. Other papers saw the savagery inherent in nineteenth-century island tales as being diluted by modern notions of sexual equality and environmental concerns.

Both Robert Dunbar and Máire Uí Mhaicín sought to demonstrate the influence of earlier writing on modern authors for the young. While the latter compellingly made connections between Irish mythology and the work of modern Irish children's authors, Dunbar explored a number of contemporary teenage novels in which Shakespeare's island play, The Tempest, has a central role. Picture books allowed for an examination of the line between sea and land, afforded an opportunity to depict social change in Scottish society, and were used to argue for the notion of 'islands of the mind.' The only presentation devoted exclusively to film was given by Celia Keenan. She compared and contrasted an Irish and a New Zealand film, both of which deal with their country's minorities, with the relationship between old and young and with a mythological past.

That no man is an island was born out by the heady and enriching mix of delegates from six countries assembling to celebrate and enhance the study of children's literature, an area which, although only newly recognised as an academic discipline in this country, is both vibrant and intellectually rigorous. ISSCL was established to serve the growing number of people in Ireland active in the serious study of children's literature. In the approximately two years of its existence it has demonstrated that it can attract to its conferences world renowned speakers from both Ireland and abroad. This conference, as the one before it, also demonstrated that Irish scholarship in the sphere of children's literature is diverse, and, at its best, impressive. If, as the society's president, Celia Keenan, suggested in her closing remarks, the spirit of Eilís Dillon did hover over the proceedings, one would like to think that it was not displeased.

Carole Redford is a teacher at St. Patrick's College, Drumcondra.

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