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A Grá for Gaeilge—Irish language picture-books

A Grá for Gaeilge—Ruth Ennis chooses Irish language picture-books

The superb quality of Irish language contemporary picture-books are a testament to the thriving language. Each story can be enjoyed by readers of all ages, and are worth reading beyond Seachtain na Gaeilge, made to be loved all year round.

by Ruth Ennis

The annual Irish language and culture festival Seachtain na Gaeilge runs from the 1st to the 17th of March 2023. This period has become synonymous with celebrations of Irish, with events that showcase the grá that so many people hold for the national language.

If you are eager to embrace the ethos of the festival and are looking to incorporate Irish into your everyday life, then there is no better place to start than with some excellent picture-books written as Gaeilge.

These books are ideal for building confidence in readers (both young and old!) with beautiful illustrations to accompany the text. Whether you are a beginner or are fluent, Irish language picture-books are truly made for everyone, so here are some examples that the whole family can enjoy together. 

Ná Gabh ar Scoil!  by Máire Zepf, illustrated by Tarsila Krüse (Futa Fata)

Ná Gabh ar Scoil! by Máire Zepf and illustrated by Tarsila Krüse (Futa Fata) is something of a household favourite, and for good reason. Cóilín the little bear is about to start his first day at school. He is confident and ready for his big day – Mamaí bear, not so much. She doesn’t want him to leave, saying “don’t go to school!” With some reassurance from Cóilín, she learns school is a wonderful place, and now she doesn’t want to leave!

This is a brilliantly funny picture-book that perfectly encapsulates the first-day-at-school-jitters, and does a wonderful job of flipping the narrative on its head that young readers will just adore. Krüse’s illustrations are delightfully cosy and animated, with lots of visual humour to match Zepf’s expert storytelling. A delightful read (available in both Irish and English) that is a must for every family home. 

Amuigh Faoin Spéir by Sadhbh Devlin, illustrated by Brian Fitzgerald (Futa Fata)

A book perfect for a weekend read is Amuigh Faoin Spéir by Sadhbh Devlin and illustrated by Brian Fitzgerald (Futa Fata). After a long week at school, Rua the kitten is all set to spend his Saturday morning relaxing and watching telly. But Mamaí has other plans. Rua and his sister are whisked away on a walk in the forest against his will, and he does everything he can to convince Mamaí to return home.

But after some fun and chasing, Rua begins to enjoy his time in the forest and doesn’t want to go home. A cheerful book with lots of cheeky humour, Amuigh Faoin Spéir will endear you with its lovable characters. The illustrations are wonderfully autumnal and will make you long for September strolls in the woods. 

Scúnc Agus Smúirín by Muireann Ní Chíobháin and illustrated by Paddy Donnelly (Futa Fata)

A long-time favourite, Scúnc Agus Smúirín is written by Muireann Ní Chíobháin and illustrated by Paddy Donnelly (Futa Fata). The story follows a young skunk, who loves their comfort teddy, or smúirín, more than anything else in the world. What makes smúirín so special is the unique smell that can be recognised a mile away.

But one day, smúirín gets a wash and loses that special smell, so Scúnc looks all over the place to try and recreate it. This is such a wonderfully wholesome story, full of originality and heart. The illustrations are fabulously playful, and the book’s endpapers have a fun maze where you can reconcile Scúnc and the Smúirín. 

Míp agus Blípín, by Máire Zepf and Paddy Donnelly (Futa Fata)

For fans of science-fiction stories, Máire Zepf and Paddy Donnelly’s Míp agus Blípín (Futa Fata) is the second in a two-part series and a must read. Míp is an adorable robot who spends all of her time searching for aliens on Mars. But it’s a very lonely job, so the scientists on earth decide to send a friend her way on her birthday.

Introducing Blípín, the flying robot! Though they face some hiccups, they soon become close friends in their ongoing search for extra-terrestrial life. This is a super fun book with lots of humour peppered throughout. Young readers will particularly enjoy admiring the dynamic illustrations, and might even spot some aliens before the robots do!

Muireann agus an Teach Solais by Malachy Doyle and Andrew Whitson (An tSnáthaid Mhór)

Back on earth, there is a very important investigation underway, in Muireann agus an Teach Solais by Malachy Doyle and Andrew Whitson (An tSnáthaid Mhór). Every night in bed, Muireann counts the seconds for the lighthouse beam to shine into her bedroom. But one night, no light appears. With the lighthouse not working, Muireann’s dad is in danger as he sails on his boat in the dark.

Muireann and her friend Dónall brave the harsh weather to travel up to the lighthouse and save the day. A high-stakes journey with sweeping illustrations that brilliantly command the double spreads, this is an enticing story from beginning to end. Another book available in both Irish and English. 

Cá Bhfuil Puifín Beag? by Erika McGann and Gerry Daly (The O’Brien Press)

For a more recognisably Irish setting, Erika McGann’s and Gerry Daly’s Cá Bhfuil Puifín Beag? (The O’Brien Press) is based on the Great Skelling; Sceilg Mhichíl. Our protagonist is a baby puffin – puffling – who is full of spunk and is always ready for adventure. But when she wanders too far away from home and is lost, her worried parents search all over the island to find her. With the help from the many creatures Puifín Beag met on her travels, she is found and brought back home safe and sound.

A nice addition to this book is an index at the end, with the names of the many animals found on Sceilg Mhichíl – perfect for a vocabulary boost! A sweet and simple story with charming illustrations, this is the first book in a two-part series that is available in both Irish and English. 

An tOileán Thiar, by Patricia Forde, illustrated by Nicola Bernardelli (Little Island)

For another island adventure, look no further than An tOileán Thiar, written by Patricia Forde and illustrated by Nicola Bernardelli (Little Island). Fia is lying in bed when she feels called to step out to the west coast of Ireland and travel across to the mythical island only visible once every seven years, Hy-Brasil.

There she explores the magical fields and meets ethereal creatures in what is a once-in-a-lifetime night, before the mysterious island slips beneath the sea and disappears again. Filled with epic poetic writing and whimsical illustrations that are sure to fill you with awe, this would make an ideal bedtime read (also available in both Irish and English). 

Síscéal ó Ghaillimh by Caitriona Sweeney (The O’Brien Press)

Venture further inland for a modernised fairytale, with Síscéal ó Ghaillimh by Caitriona Sweeney (The O’Brien Press). A retelling of Hansel and Gretel, siblings Gráinne and Seán head out to Galway city in search of the perfect birthday present for their mam; a Claddagh ring.

On their way, they visit iconic local landmarks and meet famous historical figures native to Galway, who help rescue them from the intimidating witch who captures them. Anyone who has visited the Croí Cultúrtha na hÉireann will enjoy pointing out the recognisable locations in the book, with its expertly executed watercolour artwork. This is another story available in Irish and English. 

An Slipear Gloine by Fearghas Mac Lochlainn, illustrated by Paddy Donnelly (Futa Fata)

Lastly, but by no means least, is another fairy-tale retelling; An Slipear Gloine by Fearghas Mac Lochlainn and illustrated by Paddy Donnelly (Futa Fata) reimagines the story of Cinderella (now called Luaithrín) in a fantastic new light.

Told in verse, the writing cuts to the core of the rags-to-riches story, with Fearghas Mac Lochlainn’s lyrical writing demonstrating expert command of the form. The illustrations are nothing short of astonishing, beautifully spreading across each page with striking character designs and magnificent backgrounds. An incredible book that showcases the very best of Irish language picturebooks. 

The superb quality of Irish language contemporary picture-books are a testament to the thriving language. Each story can be enjoyed by readers of all ages, and are worth reading beyond Seachtain na Gaeilge, made to be loved all year round. 

Ruth Ennis is a children’s literature writer based in Kildare. Her writing has been included in several publications and she was awarded an Arts Council Literature Bursary in 2021 and an Agility Award in 2022.