Irish Fairy Trees and the Art of Storytelling

Ireland is a land nourished by stories.

Whether those stories were Gaelic myths or Christian bible stories, the Ireland we know today has been carved and shaped from storytelling, and they’re still prevalent to this day.

On a recent trip to Ireland, I heard first hand one of these brilliant stories, and how their meaning still holds true.

Irish Fairy Trees or Hawthorn trees rise out of the brilliant emerald landscape, like lone hands reaching for the sky. The white colouring of their flowers is stark in comparison with the green of the vegetation and the soft rolling hills in the distance. And yet, even when farmland has been cleared of all other trees, the Fairy Tree remains. This is because Fairy Trees are protected, and to cut one down is extremely bad luck. This belief is held so strongly that a recent upgrade of one of Ireland’s airports was halted so that a road could be built around a Fairy Tree, costing the Irish government an extra few million euros.

Their importance lies with a myth dating back to the original inhabitants of Ireland, who believed that these trees were gateways between the world of human beings, and the world of the Tuatha Dé Danann, or the fairy folk. Such portals were often protected by magic, or supernatural beings like Leprechauns or Pookas. Today, you might even find them with a stone circle around the base of the trunk. Due to the fantastical nature of the trees and the gateways they protect, a host of superstitution surrounds them. It’s still a commonly held belief that if you happened to chop down one of these trees, you’d be in for a world of bad luck.

So, it stands to reason that cutting down one of these trees would be taken incredibly seriously. The airport story is just one of thousands of instances of Irish workers refusing to remove a Fairy Tree in case they invoke some kind of fairy wrath. There’s another famous story about the car manufacturer DeLorean, who chopped down a Fairy Tree in Belfast when they were building their factory in the 80s. Many Irish people believe that DeLorean failed to become a success because they refused to heed warnings about saving the tree.

No matter what you believe, it’s a fascinating story. Ireland is still a very Catholic country, but they also hold fast to the old beliefs, evoking magic and fairies to explain the inexplicable. It’s beautiful and one of those amazing parts of the human story that stays with you long after you’ve returned home.

Book Review: The Girl of Ink and Stars

Title: The Girl of Ink and Stars

Author: Kiran Millwood Hargrave

Page numbers: 228 pages

Rating: 5 stars out of 5

The Girl of Ink and Stars is an amazing story, told with skill and creativity.

I read it one sitting, on the train ride home from work. It’s a gorgeous coming of age story, full of courage and cartography. The world Isabella lives in is beautifully imagined and colourfully brought to life. I was surprised that it was so short – so much happened, and the characters were so well written.

Isabella is a 13 year old who lives on what was once an island that floated around the world. Since the Governor arrived, the village has been cut off from the rest of the island, the ports have closed, and no one can leave. What used to be a magical world is now full of fear and drudgery. Isabella has a father who keeps the magic alive for her through story and through the maps he created when he was free to travel. The story itself starts when Isabella learns that one of her friends from school is missing after a trip to the forbidden orchids belonging to the Governor. What follows is an adventure told just like a fable. The writing is beautiful and lyrical, and everything a good fable should be. I adored every second of it.

Book Review: The Just City by Jo Walton

Title: The Just City

Author: Jo Walton

Page count: 368 pages

Rating: 4 out of 5 stars

Brilliantly written and based on the philosophies of Plato, I really enjoyed reading this thoroughly unique novel. Essentially, it involves the Greek goddess Athene travelling through time to collect people who had prayed to her to rescue them from situations they deemed unjust. She had developed a city on an island we now know as Atlantis and set up an experiment – to create Plato’s Republic in the flesh, to test out whether his theories on justice, love, and the human condition could make for a peaceful, just, and completely successful society.

I found the discussions between characters plucked straight from history (like Socrates!) utterly engrossing, and the idea that Greek mythology is just one ring of gods from many that were no more true than any other religion fascinating. I found myself increasingly uncomfortable with the rules enforced on the children – apparently free will and equality really weren’t key parts of Plato’s philosophy – and the ideas on child raising and marriage were truly horrifying. All in all, it was a fantasy, disturbing, interesting, and totally different to anything else I have ever read. Very much looking forward to reading more in the series to see how it plays out, but ultimately, I’m fairly certain Plato’s philosophy won’t be a success.

200 Years of Jane Austen

200 Years of Popularity

Last Tuesday (18th July 2017) marked the 200th anniversary of Jane Austen’s death. In that time, she’s become a beloved figure of English literature, known not only for the beautiful romance that occurs between the pages, but for her sparkling wit and tongue-in-cheek commentary on Regency society. Her characters have become synonymous with romance and what it means to be romantic in all its forms – whether you prefer Mr Darcy, Captain Wenthworth, Mr Knightly, or Mr Tilney is still hotly debated amongst Janeites the world over. Indeed, there are no signs whatsoever of the passion for Austen’s novels abating, despite the 200 year gap since her last book was published.

So what is it that makes Jane Austen so fascinating to people, and why does she continue to be so popular?

In my opinion, it has less to do with Mr Darcy and his fellow male characters, and more to do with Elizabeth Bennet, Anne Elliot, Elinor Dashwood and Catherine Moreland (I’ll leave out Emma Woodhouse and Fanny Price here, because they’re really two of the most annoying female protagonists ever created. More on that later). Jane Austen’s female characters truly shine on the page – you feel yourself stepping into their shoes, feeling what they feel, and becoming a part of the story in a way that was very unique at the time. They aren’t just characters – they feel like real women, who very well might have existed in Regency England, with real problems faced by women of their class at that time. How glorious for women to suddenly have starring roles in their own lives, rather than playing bit parts in the lives of men. Jane Austen showed that women are capable of more than marrying well and providing children – her characters take action and have have intellectual conversations about social conventions and local politics, as well as expressing strong opinions on issues of the day like slavery. In short, Jane Austen’s women are what ensures her enduring popularity.

Austen and Me

I came late to the Austen party. Most people seem to discover her in their early teens. I first read Pride and Prejudice when I was nearly 19 and just finishing my first year of uni. The 2005 version of Pride and Prejudice with Keira Knightly and Matthew McFaddyn was due for release and I was curious. Once I grew used to the language I was hooked – Persuasion, Sense and Sensibility, and Northanger Abbey quickly followed. They remain among my favourite books today, and among my favourite movies and TV series. They’ve even been responsible for spawning some of my favourite books and movies – Bridget Jones’ Diary is a hilarious re-imagining of Pride and Prejudice, and Austenland plays with the idea of super fans who can’t get enough of Jane Austen’s characters. I love that J J Field (who played Henry Tilney in the ITV adaption of Northanger Abbey) plays a Darcy-like character in the film. It’s such wonderful escapism, and I think that is definitely a part of Jane Austen’s charm in the 21st century.

Just like any Austen fan, I have my obvious favourites. Emma and Mansfield Park are definitely not that. Emma as a character reads very awkwardly, almost cringeworthy – she comes across as grating, like fingernails on a blackboard, using her wit and her privilege to cower Harriet Smith into submitting to the ‘fact’ that Emma knows better. After a series of mishaps where her actions hurt the people around her, she learns her lesson in the end, but too late to save her for me. I never understood what Mr Knightly saw in her.

In Mansfield Park, Fanny Price gets the opposite treatment. She is sent away to live with wealthy relatives as a young child, who never let her forget her origins. She is cowered into submission by people who believe that their wealth somehow means they know better, and she never really stands up for herself. I have never found novels where the characters in the wrong escape any kind of consequence for their actions satisfying; Mansfield Park is definitely one of those. Edmund, the cousin Fanny grows up with and ends up falling for, is completely unsatisfying as a hero as well. He has no idea what he wants or who he is, and takes his cues from his incredibly flawed older brother and father. He shows no spine when he fails to stand up for himself or his cousin, and a lack of judgement in character when he falls for Mary Crawford. Ultimately, it feels like poor Fanny would have been much better off looking outside the family for affection; and definitely with someone who has strength of character and mind.

That novels written over 200 years ago can still inspire so much emotion and debate would surely be immensely satisfying to the author. I wonder what she’d make of all the Regency-themed balls she’s inspired, or the wonderful Jane Austen Centre in Bath?

Book Review: A Piece of the World by Christina Baker Kline

Title: A Piece of the World

Author: Christina Baker Kline

Page Numbers: 320 pages

Rating: 4 out of 5 stars

A Piece of the World by Christina Baker Kline was one of those reads that gets right to the heart of you and latches on. A literary squid of a novel, I really couldn’t put it down.

I felt intensely Christina’s yearning for someone to want to put in the effort to understand her and accept her for who and what she was, warts and all, and the loneliness and isolation that followed. Her whole life, all she wanted was one person to accept and love her despite or even because of her flaws, only to be continually disappointed. That kind of heartbreak has a permanent effect on a person, and it’s no wonder it was hard for her to let go of those she loved.

I was unaware going in that this novel was based on a true story, which the author discovered through the chance encounter of a painting. The painting is of Christina, a lonely, misshapen figure that inspired the author to find out more. What follows is Christina’s life and the lives of her close family.

Her story was heartbreaking and sad, with tiny glimpses of content and small doses of happiness that had to be enough. Her sadness probably hit a little too close to home to read on the train in full view of the public.

Art and Mental Illness

I’ve always had a fascination with Vincent Van Gogh.

I know, it’s a little obvious – everyone loves his paintings, and his tragically short life makes for a moving story. Self-harming at 36, ending his own life at 37 – all the while creating an amazing body of work that amounted to nothing during his lifetime. It’s incredibly sad, and it’s been the inspiration for countless artists and writers.

What fascinates me most about Vincent though is his bravery.

Vincent spent his entire life moving from one occupation to another, from one woman to another, never finding whatever it was he was searching for. He came by painting honestly – his mother was a painter of watercolours based on nature – but he never obtained any sort of fame or acknowledgment of his talent. He suffered his entire life from depression and what we now know as Bi-Polar disorder, so any professional or personal set back hit him harder than most.

Despite all of this, despite never receiving anything remotely like positive feedback or celebration of his immeasurable talent, he continued to create.

To me, that’s incredibly brave. It takes a lot of heart to continue to pour so much of your soul, and so much effort, into something and receiving almost nothing in return. It takes a lot of bravery to continue to pursue art when so many have told you that what you’re producing isn’t good enough. When you’ve been told that you aren’t good enough. That definitely resonates with me.

As ever, his art seems like a compulsion.  He had all of these turbulent, violent emotions inside him and instead of raging at the unfairness of it all, he used them to create astounding works of beauty and colour. As a coping mechanism, it’s probably one of the best.

Recently I visited the Musee d’Orsay in Paris. There was a wonderful landscape exhibition near the entrance where a few of Vincent’s paintings were displayed alongside pieces from other artists like Paul Gauguin, Maurice Denis, Ferdinand Hodler, and Wenzel Hablik. Wandering around amongst the art, you couldn’t help but wonder what Vincent would make of it. His art had been belittled his whole life – would he be thrilled to finally have the recognition he deserved, or would he feel that his work wasn’t good enough to be presented alongside artworks from his more successful peers?

Whatever he might have thought, his Starry Night Over the River Rhone had pride of place in the centre of the exhibition, with every visitor stopping for as long as they could to take in what was, in my opinion, one of the most beautiful paintings in the entire building.

There’s a beautiful episode of Doctor Who entitled Vincent and the Doctor, where Amy and the Eleventh Doctor travel to rural France a year before Vincent’s death, to meet him. They find a brilliantly creative man prone to fits of violent emotion and deep despair, and take him into the future, to the Musee d’Orsay in the 21st Century, to show him how he’ll be remembered. It never fails to make me cry, but it also fills me with hope. It’s such a hopeful episode, and it’s everything that makes Doctor Who wonderful. What’s more, it’s a tiny window into what Vincent might have been like had his talent been celebrated like he deserved. It might not have changed anything for him. It might have made him a tad happier, or maybe a little braver in his choices.

In the end, Vincent was mentally ill. His mental illness was a huge part of him, and might have had a big impact on his art, or the way he created. Whether mental illness and creativity are linked is something often argued – in my experience, a creative person with a mental illness often uses their creativity as a coping mechanism and their illness as a motivator. With Vincent, the two are inexplicably linked.

Book Review: The Blind Astronomer’s Daughter

Title: The Blind Astronomer’s Daughter

Author: John Pipkin

Page count: 480 pages

Rating: 4 out of 5 stars

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I hardly know where to begin with this astounding story. At its heart are two Carolines (one Irish, one German, with some 30 odd years between their ages) who are swept into astronomy by the obsessions of their strong-willed male relatives. Each goes on to make their own fascinating discoveries about the solar system, the universe, and the forces that govern it. Each Caroline also has a physical deformity which she is told makes it impossible for her to marry, and so each devotes her life to science instead of possible love and future happiness.

My heart broke for both, though especially the younger Irish Caroline, who had no idea who she was or that there had been someone who’d loved her all along. Her scientific discoveries came to naught, since, as a female, her male colleagues didn’t believe her discoveries held merit.

Overall it’s a beautiful story of adversity, passion, and obsession, accurately portraying how scientific discovery held a kind of mania over the populace at the time and those society deemed intelligent (or male) enough to obtain it.

New Starts and Storytelling

Introductions are always so awkward, aren’t they?

Instead of the usual boring block of text introducing myself and this blog, I’m going to begin as I intend to go on – by telling a story.

I was five, and had just started year one in primary school. I had a fascination with stones – smooth polished agate, amethyst, or smoky quartz. If it was pretty and shiny, I loved it. Being five, I also liked to put the stones in my mouth.

One weekend, I was hanging upside down from my swing set like the tiny little monkey I was. I had a pretty polished stone in my pocket, and I decided my mouth was the perfect place to keep it safe. Obviously, I swallowed it.

After the prerequisite trip to the doctor, I went back to school, where we were encouraged to write about what we had done on our weekends in our journals. Instead of sticking to the facts, I wrote a really simple story about swallowing the stone, how at its centre was a seed, and that seed grew into a tree in my belly, which in turn produced more and more trees. Instead of a stone, I now had a forest in my stomach. I drew a picture underneath of a tiny brown-haired girl with a giant tree in her middle.

It’s the first clear memory I have of properly writing down a story. I’ve since written and discarded so many ideas that might have eventuated into something more, if I’d had a little more patience. This blog seems like the perfect way to keep track of what I write, of patiently collecting ideas and snippets of prose, and maybe turning one of those ideas into something worth publishing.

I guess we’ll just have to wait and see. In the meantime, welcome!