One summer, when I was a child, we stayed in a holiday cottage in Wales. There were some books in the cottage, one of which was a marvellous collection of Irish stories, full of magic silver mines, donkeys and market fairs. It has niggled me for years that I could remember neither the title nor the author, so didn’t have a hope of identifying it. Then recently, a friend suggested it might have been by Patricia Lynch. This sounded promising and I got hold of The Turf Cutter’s Donkey, her most famous book, but one which appears to be out of print. Sadly this wasn’t it, although I recognise both the writing style and the milieu in which the story is set. Lynch published rather a lot of books, so I’m not sure if I will ever manage to identify the one I’m looking for.
Written for a younger age group than the children’s books I have discussed previously, it’s interesting that it was written at around the same time. Lynch lived in both Ireland and England, but it’s unclear to me whether the primary audience for the book is Irish or British. There is, of course, none of that bombastic Britishness so prevalent in the likes of Violet Needham and other firmly British authors of that date. Also, I am thankfully not reminded of such later writers as Lillian Beckwith who spent years writing books patronising life in the Scottish Islands. If you have never read any of her stuff, I wouldn’t bother as it gives a peculiarly twee and Anglo-centric view of Highland life that induces a strong feeling of nausea. On the contrary, while the rural setting of The Turf Cutter’s Donkey is undoubtedly idealised, it seems to give a flavour of reality that is neither patronising nor twee, but sympathetic and matter of fact, and it was this that stuck in my mind for so many years.
I found the two main characters however, a brother and sister, rather tiresome, and I didn’t feel their characterisation was particularly strong. Other ‘non-magic’ characters such as the children’s parents seemed to be more part of the scenery than characters in their own right. Although, having said that, this is often the case with children’s adventure literature. For example, the mother in Swallows and Amazons is very much a background character. The magical characters were interesting, partly because I was not familiar with most of them – they all come from Irish folk tales, I understand.
Anyone interested in mid 20th century children’s literature should certainly read at least one of Lynch’s books – they give a different perspective to it.