Mary Kenny: In the last of our August revisiting of writers of yesteryear: Patricia Lynch, once the leading Irish children's author
A recent reading list of summer stories for children produced a cornucopia of choice - children's literature is booming - but Patricia Lynch, once almost regarded as the children's laureate in this country, no longer features in the canon.
Her writings - over 50 books, more than 200 short stories - are often delightful and imaginative tales which share the common themes of children's literature: orphans, fairies, magical places, legends, animals with special powers, and exciting adventures. But her work is regarded now as too dated, and perhaps this is because of one specific theme that recurs: the presence, in so many of the narratives, of Travellers, whom she always calls "tinkers". This appears even in the titles, such as King of the Tinkers and Tinker Boy.
Patricia Lynch's view of Travellers is not unkind, by the lights of her time. Actually, when she was growing up in the Cork area in the early 1900s, Travelling people had, in some ways, a more specific role in country life. They mended pots and pans, and did other handyman jobs. For some children - including Patricia Lynch - "tinkers" were also exotic and even thrilling. "There's many a girl has run from a good home to join the tinkers - wild young lassies!" remarks a Traveller woman in Tinker Boy.
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Subsequently, a "respectable" woman, Miss Blake, is asked whether she likes "the tinkers", and she replies, "Well, they're the same as us - good and bad and in-between!" Which is the takeaway message of tolerance.
Yet modern literary critics would also see the Travellers portrayed as "the other" in Patricia Lynch's stories: dark, different, sometimes cruel to animals, impetuous, ramshackle.
Her own childhood was disruptive and insecure, prompting an escape into fantasy. She was born in Cork in 1894: her mother made lace, her father was a sometime journalist and adventurer who disappeared abroad to seek his fortune and was never seen again. When her mother and elder brother went in search of him, Patricia was left in the care of a Mrs Hennessy, known to be a seanchaí - the traditional storyteller - who was clearly an influence. Subsequently, Patricia joined her mother and brother in a wandering life around England and Belgium, seeking the elusive father, and an equally elusive inheritance.
Patricia Lynch recalls her Cork childhood in her autobiography, A Storyteller's Childhood (delightfully illustrated by Harry Kernoff), describing a world where life was simple, but not ignorant: people recited from Walter Scott, Byron and Robbie Burns, and a schoolteacher might know Greek and Latin. But there weren't many entertainments - the Fair Day was a big excitement. The memoir is evocative rather than exact: Maeve Friel, the children's author, describes it as "an autobiography which re-edits the past, displays a reckless disregard for facts and glosses over unpleasant truths".
She married R.M. Fox in 1922, a Leeds-born socialist and pacifist whom she first met at Speakers' Corner in London. He wrote about Larkin and Connolly and, unlike the disappearing father, was constantly supportive of Patricia - patiently typing her stories when eventually she went blind. They were described as an "unworldly" couple, living at 39, The Rise, Glasnevin, which remained "a time capsule from 1936".
They had no children, but they became close to Eugene Lambert (of Lambert Puppet Theatre) and his wife, Mai, who had 10 children, and more or less adopted Patricia and her husband. When Dick Fox died in 1969, Patricia moved in with the Lamberts in Monkstown and lived there until her death in 1972. She was impractical with children - when left to mind the kids, she'd share wine with them.
The child's life, for Patricia Lynch, was in her imagination, where children can roam freely across the bog, amidst bog-cotton, bees and heather, find a donkey, meet a leprechaun, discover a magic pool that is a mirror to the past of Irish legend, speak with a Wise Woman, encounter the Firbolgs - and an encampment of "tinkers".
The Bookshop on the Quay (published in America as Shane Comes to Dublin) is an astute picture of a young boy alone in Dublin at a time of high emigration - 1956 - and the emigrant ships down by the Dublin docks. Her series about Brogeen the leprechaun was widely appreciated, and translated into several other languages. She won international awards and her work attracted distinguished illustrators: Jack B. Yeats provided engaging watercolours for The Turf- Cutter's Donkey, and other books were illustrated by Sean Keating RHA, Eileen Coghlan and Peggy Fortnum.
Some writers are considered "dated" in their references, and no longer "relevant" to today: others weather the changes of fashion to gain "classic" status. Enid Blyton, whose stories are based on narrow English suburban stereotypes of the 1950s, has survived the shifts in fashion. Louisa May Alcott's Little Women, which is almost insufferably preachy about Protestant virtue, is reborn as a feminist tract and a forthcoming film. But Patricia Lynch didn't make the transition to modern times. Maybe she needs smarter marketing?