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Dublin Folk Tales For Children – Quest for the Smelly River

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When writing Dublin Folk Tales For Children, I was (in part by necessity!) strongly inspired by ‘place’.  Not just a geographical place, however, but also an emotional and sensory place.  This for me was the Dublin that smelled of salty shores, sugary teas and ripe rivers. 

When you say ‘ripe river’ to a Dubliner of a certain age, I’d be very surprised if you didn’t get some sort of recognition! Sweet Anna Livia – The River Liffey flows right through the centre of Dublin, parting the land North from South. She is a river definitely known to stir the senses, particularly on a hot day!  For me, Dublin was the sound of seagulls, machinery and barking dogs– a landscape, where as a child, a red brick house and a beech tree stood side by side – each one an equal portal to adventure.  This sense of place, as I revisited it through my stories, began to reveal even more shades of my own journey as a storyteller.

I grew up, as many of us in Ireland did, telling stories myself– sure weren’t we fed on a diet of stories! Ones received through wide eyes and ears on the knee of my Granddad, ones told to me over and over again from a favourite book, ones told to us solemnly in school, ones stolen from the conversations that the grown ups had, and of course the ones that just ‘came to us’.  In a strange way the last ones were the hardest to quantify. They were like some strange delicious cake, made with an elusive recipe – part dream, part legend, part history, part childhood detangling of the world - these stories were the ones we invested in most – they were ours. 

I have always been interested in truth in storytelling. Now this may be a bit of controversial thing for a storyteller to say! We are known for our ‘tall tales’. In fact there are numerous ‘professional liar competitions’ with storytellers making up a sizeable amount of the contestants!  But truth doesn’t always have to mean ‘fact’, or something that is always ‘by the book’ historically. No – truth can exist beyond that, often hiding in the realms of the moral and the emotional. A good story can weave a preposterous tale, once at the core there is a truth, anchoring you to its heart.

As a young adult, there were new adventures to be had. I wanted to travel. I continued to use the filter of fiction and fancy to explore this odd notion of truth – through poetry, prose and of course writing plays.  I wanted to experience this even further, so I became an actor, trying out the words of others. I became an improviser, exploring the worlds of all. I listened a lot to radio documentaries. I loved the way people used their voices – to me it was no different to music in the way it painted pictures. I began listening for truth.  I inhaled it.  When I lived in the US that meant binging on episodes of This American Life and The Moth Hour on National Public Radio. All this led me of course, in a full circle, back to where I started – a place of telling stories in order to figure things out.

It is not lost on me that my quest was also mirrored in my geographic. I was born in Dublin, and grew up there, but with theatre, by necessity I often wandered around Ireland and beyond.  I moved to the US initially for a play, and later found myself teaching and performing improvised theatre there and throughout Europe. I now live in Galway, on the beautiful West coast of Ireland, but I travel over to Dublin every week. Some of the smells and sounds have changed, but many haven’t, and they’ll probably always be there. The Liffey is less ripe on hot days now than she was years ago. She is cleaner and has shiny new bridges, but her essence is still the same.  It’s the same place where I dropped my pocket money forever, the same place where I saw a seal sit right there on the steps (a selkie?), and the place where a life sized Gulliver sailed down. It is still the river that carries many stories.

Though I have now come full circle, I land back at my fireplace with a ‘bag’ full of ideas that may seem odd to some, but to me fit perfectly.  I have returned from my own travels, stocked up with bundles of improvisation, fiction, truth, exploration, history, characters, quest seeking, magical realism and other things I have yet to unpack – all these sit beside each other on my shelves of story.  

When I began writing this book, one for young storytellers and readers, I enquired of my own younger self, ‘What interested you? What made you curious?’ Surprisingly much of it was the same as what I find interesting as an artist today – many of these elements are the same regardless of our age.

Dublin Folk Tales For Children, I hope, reflects many of these elements: A true story about finding the ordinary things wrapped in an extraordinary day (Sugary Tea), the extraordinary truth that exists in a very ordinary object like sea glass (Mr. Shh Shh), and the sense of history and newness for a young immigrant wrapped in a veil of magic (Filou Filou). It’s exploring what makes a character the way they are (Dalkey Danny), or the sheer simple pleasure of jumping up and down while shouting things (G’wan Oura Dat).

I truly hope my readers will become tellers, and of course listeners themselves. I wish that these stories I have written, will, much like a river, twist and change with each generation, finding new pathways - a river sometimes smelly, sometimes sweet, carrying truth, and flowing forth.

By Órla Mc Govern

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