Why the Moon Travels
Oein DeBhairduin | Skein Press | hb €12.95 | 144pp| 9781916493506
Review by Eoghan Smith
Why the Moon Travels contains twenty folktales from the Mincéirí or Traveller community, written by Oein DeBhairduin with illustrations by Leanne McDonagh. According to the author and publishers, it is the first known collection of Traveller folktales that has been written by a Traveller.
To the contemporary reader, folktales often appear exotic and distant because within them the fissure we have created between the human and natural worlds does not exist. DeBhairduin’s collection recalls an oral culture that has a more profound understanding of how nature can speak to us and offer healing. In one story a fox saves the life of a child whose mother is dying in labour; in another, we learn that the first spiders were basket-making old women who grew smaller over time with weaving and spinning. In the powerful and moving Famine story, ‘The hedgehog and its coat’, starving people are brought food by a selfless hedgehog until ‘the seasons moved forward and nature found her own balance again’. But, though nature is usually restorative in Why the Moon Travels, it is not always so. In ‘The screech of the owl’, for instance, the Mincéirí, first afraid and then emboldened, ignore the bird’s constant refrain of ‘death is coming’, but as the months pass to years and the generations turn, ‘those who had the heart to listen understood the message of the owl’.
Frank O’Connor argued that the oral folktale was characterised by magic and implausibility while the modern short story was rooted in the quotidian world of the everyday. To read these folktales, then, is to enter a more enchanted space, although, as the author points out, stories in Mincéir culture are always presented as truthful and real. In this sense, these folktales translate the experiential wisdom of the commonplace world into the images, symbol and metaphor of story. Here there are wondrous stories of grief, love, protection, sorrow, joy, death, hunger, healing, friendship, cruelty and kindness. As with other folkloric traditions, animals and the source of their particular characteristics are related. Various tales recount the origins of the sting of the bee, the stripe of the badger, the hood of the crow, the scales of fish. Very often the tales feature transformations of one kind or another, whereby the human, the animal and even the plant become indistinguishable. In one story, an old man is made so rigid by his grief that he is transformed into a graveyard yew tree; in another, dandelions are the eternal spirit of a dead girl. The moon itself is a woman who has fallen in love with a heartbroken man, and whose love cannot be reciprocated.
These stories of origin raise profound questions of where people and the world they inhabit come from. One answer might be found in the importance of stories themselves as (in DeBhairduin’s words) ‘anchors of living history’. And, yet, to read these tales is to experience in many senses the modern rupture with the past, which makes the recording of these stories so important. As the author points out in a short and lucid introduction, stories for Travellers are a reminder of the ‘ever-present’ voice of their ancestors, a spiritual voice deeply rooted in the sacredness of nature, which in DeBhairduin’s evocative phrase is filled with a ‘whispering animism’.
Equally as interesting as the tales of Why the Moon Travels is how the collection has been framed. Each story has a preface, typically recalling where and when the author first heard the story, usually from his father, who emerges as a kind, wise and generous man with a hypnotic gift for storytelling. These short quasi-biographical sketches, which are often nostalgic and imbued with a sense of bewitchment, offer a fascinating window into DeBhairduin’s bucolic childhood as he recalls it. Nonetheless, the author’s family were considerably materially poorer than he realised at the time. As he tells us, photographs—an invention of modernity that helped destroy magic—reveal a world of meagre provisions and substandard housing that is at odds with the richness of his childhood memories. Other glimpses of the challenges Travellers face are mentioned: precarious employment, denial of care and housing, and daily discrimination. These short vignettes, which are both subtle and striking, place the splendour of the folklore in a wider context, and in turn help to reveal a deep and ancient culture that is wonderfully rich and yet largely unknown to most Irish people. Of central importance, too, is the inclusion of many words from the Gammon language (with a helpful glossary at the back of the book), which are interspersed through the stories.
DeBhairduin writes with extraordinary lyricism and deep passion. He has said that he collected one hundred stories in the writing of this book. One can only hope the other eighty stories will also be published in the future.
Eoghan Smith is a writer, critic and academic. He is the author of the novel The Failing Heart (Dedalus, 2018)