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Published in The Toronto Star

June 2006
Before Ireland, We Had Books

In her house in the wilds of west County Kerry, Ireland, Jane Urquhart explains how she was two-thirds into the writing of her celebrated novelAway before she visited the land where the tale is partially set. For a long time, she felt no particular urgency to see Ireland. The country had already occupied her imagination for years, she tells me, courtesy of a childhood of family lore and an adolescence of reading books.

Her mother’s clan, the Quinns, first of Hastings County, north of Belleville, and then of Northumberland, traded in vivid stories about the world they left behind for Canada. They also held strident views about the fearsome politics of Ireland and its history. As a teenager, Urquhart began reading the books her mother passed along to her. In particular, there were Frank O’Connor’s translations of Irish-language poetry, including his 1963 anthologyThe Little Monasteries.

“I thought I was a poet as a teenager,” she says of the attraction to these often thousand-year-old poems. Jane Urquhart appreciated the stature of women poets in Irish literature. She also liked the feeling for place, and verse propelled by the cadences of oral speech. “What stayed with me was that, regardless of fashion, cadence in language is important,” she says.

I am pressing her about these links for a reason. My wife and I have brought our two daughters to Ireland for a spring holiday. We want to show them where their parents first met, and were married, twenty years ago. My relationship with the country goes back further still, to a trip at age nineteen in the company of a high-school friend whose parents had emigrated from Belfast. Born then and there, I have always assumed, was my preoccupation with the landscape and speech of this island, along with a popular imagination that the playwright J.M Synge described as “fiery and magnificent and tender.”

But suddenly I am wondering about the chronology, and the true source of those preoccupations. Back in February I was asked by a newspaper to name my favourite children’s book. To my own surprise, I provided the titleThe Island of Horses and the author Eilis Dillon, a novel I likely borrowed from the North York public library when I was twelve or thirteen. I hadn’t thought of the book or its creator in three decades, despite supplying my children a steady diet of reading material.

A few weeks later I had a conversation in Shanghai with a British poet. On learning that I was Canadian, the poet asked if I knew the novelI Have Heard the Owl Call my Name. When I admitted to a fondness for Margaret Craven’s 1967 story about a minister who goes to live among the Kwakiutl natives on the Queen Charlotte islands, the man was pleased. He read Craven’s book as an adolescent, he said, and become instantly enamoured of Canada. From her portrait, he gleamed sufficient details to form a picture of a vast land of forest and mountain, ocean and river, where cultures successfully negotiated their differences. He nurtured that vision from the far side of the Atlantic. Finally given the chance to test it against reality, the poet naturally headed straight for British Columbia.

I was expecting him to admit to crashing disappointment. But the coastal landscape, along with the dynamics of Canadian society, proved exactly as he had anticipated. I Have Heard the Owl Call My Name, he decided, had pre-disposed him not only to wanting to see Canada, but to appreciating it.

The conversation started me thinking again about my selection for a favourite children’s book. An internet search reminded of what else I had forgotten about Eilis Dillon. The author of more than thirty books for children and adults, Dillon (1920-1994) had been well enough known in her day to have her titles purchased by libraries in suburban Toronto. A scan of those books revealed that my adolescent self hadn’t only readThe Island of the Horses, first published in 1956, but alsoThe Singing Cave andThe Seals.

All these stories involve boys having adventures on barren islands buffeted by the raw elements. Lives are hardscrabble and landscapes are magnificent. Speech emerges in clipped poetry, including phrases borrowed from another tongue. Eilis Dillon, who published in both English and Irish, lived for part of her life near the setting for many of her tales, includingThe Island of the Horses: among the rocky isles off the coast of Connemara. County Galway. Ireland.

Had I, too, been dreaming of the country long before I saw the place? Youth is certainly the time when we adopt passions and sympathies without full awareness. It is also when our imaginations are most open to being shaped.

Many authors from the Indian sub-continent, for instance, speak of an idealized early attachment to England, courtesy of Enid Blyton’s novels. Similarily, an Irish friend recently admitted that an adolescent immersion in a book about West Country otters—*Tanka the Otter by Henry Williamson—sparked a life-long fascination with that corner of England. He even believes his fondness for the accent of the Cornwall region can be traced to the experience.

A 2003 reissue ofThe Island of Horses allows me to find out how Eilis Dillon may have shaped—or pre-shaped, perhaps—my attachment to Ireland. I re-read it on our holiday, amidst the same landscape and language evoked by the author. The book is a sparely written story of lives lived close to nature, and to oblivion. Teenagers Danny MacDonagh and Pat Conroy risk crossing from their own island of Inishrone to the fabled island of horses, a place abandoned by humans a generation previously. Even the boat ride out is perilous, with “waves so big that every time we slid down between two of them the island disappeared from view.”

There the boys discover a secret garden of ocean light and sandy beach, with seabirds and hares sharing the splendour with packs of wild horses, including a black colt that they take as their own. Removing the colt from the island triggers a fall from this singular grace, and a ripping adventure. The act also initiates the end of childhood for the teenagers. Themes of innocence and experience, loyalty and community, along with a humility and awe before the natural world, inform the tale.

All of this is strangely familiar, and not because of any abrupt recall of the particulars ofThe Island of Horses. Rather, nearly every early conception I held of Ireland, as well as most of my initial preoccupations with the country, can be found on the pages of Dillon’s novel. I may have first touched Irish soil as a young man, but it is now obvious that Ireland first touched my imagination in a library in North York several years earlier.

“We travel, we all know, every time we dream,” asserts the travel writer Pico Iyer. We travel as well, it would seem, nearly every time we read. This may be especially true of the formative reading we do when young, before adulthood hardens our tastes and prejudices.

“Whenever I think of the island of horses now,” read the opening lines of Eilis Dillon’s book, “I remember it as it looked from the boat on the first day that I landed there.” It turns out that I remember that island, too. Or at least, I do now—once again.


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