Shamrocks & leprechauns: The Turf Cutter’s Donkey, Patricia Lynch (1934)

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.


12 responses to “Shamrocks & leprechauns: The Turf Cutter’s Donkey, Patricia Lynch (1934)

  1. Holyhoses Rob

    Fascinating. Such good news when you manage to identify something you loved as a child. One of the best things about the internet is that it’s probably easier than it has ever been to do this sort of thing – thanks to things like Google and I helped a friend out a few years ago when he was trying to remember an author of children’s adventure books (Willard Price). All he could remember was that the stories featured a father and his two sons.

  2. Abebooks are brilliant – I’ve bought a number of books from them that I would never have got anywhere else (or at least not nearly as easily).

  3. H Bamford

    The book which you read as a child on holiday in Wales may have been Strangers at the Fair, a collection of short stories which, if I remember correctly, included one entitled ‘The Lost Silver Mine’. The tattered paperback copy which I used to possess is now missing – probably disintegrated – so I cannot furnish details of publishers or date of publication,other than that it was before 1947. As a young child in Ireland Patricia Lynch (1898-1972)was left for a while in the care of one of the last of the traditional Irish story tellers and many of her stories for children incorporate elements of the folk tales and legends which formed the repertory of the shanachie, but her books used to be widely read in the UK as well as Ireland and were among my favourites when I was a child (although the one I liked best was the partly fictionalised autobiography of her childhood and early adolescence A Story Teller’s Childhood). A biography of her has recently been published by Liberties Press

  4. Oh, thank you, I’ll check that one out.

  5. I was very interested to come across these comments on SHAMROCKS & LEPRECHAUNS. I am the author of ‘Patricia Lynch, Storyteller’, a biography of this lovely writer, which was published by Liberties Press, Dublin in October 2005. It is great to know that so many people have nostalgic memories of reading Patricia Lynch’s stories. I myself loved her work, and spent lots of my childhood engrossed in her tales of fantasy and fun! I spent many years researching her fascinating life, and was delighted to be her very first biographer. The book is available from Liberties Press direct, or from all the big Irish bookshops such as Easons, Waterstones, Hodges Figges etc. Hope all her fans out there will enjoy it.

  6. alec robson

    I, too, read The Turf-Cutter’s Donkey, when I was about 8 or 9. The other excellent Patricia Lynch books are King of the Tinkers, The Turf-cutter’s Donkey goes Visiting, & Long Ears. The Brogeen stories are good, & The Turf-Cutter’s Donkey Kicks up his Heels is pretty good. There are many others, several of which I have read, fairly recently, but none so far have matched the excellent ones, & some are rather tame. My feeling is that the early ones were probably the most exciting & the funniest. A few are still in print in paperback, but some of the hardbacks are hard to find, & often in poor condition.

  7. Kitty W.

    As a pre-teen with a bit of Irish ancestry growing up in Montreal in the 1950s, I discovered Patricia Lynch’s books and devoured all the ones my community library carried. I remember this one as well as The Turf-Cutter’s Donkey Goes Visiting. One (The Mad O’Haras?) was about a girl named Grania O’Hara who was a gifted artist. It was a favourite as I fancied myself an artist too. There was a magical atmosphere to Lynch’s stories that drew the young, imaginative reader in and they stuck with me. When I finally visited Ireland as an adult, and saw peat being cut, I remembered these books and the pleasure they gave me, though I have not come across them again these many years. I will look for her autobiography.

  8. My mother died recently and I have her copy of Strangers at the Fair in hardback. There is a handwritten dedication dated 1946 on the flyleaf and I understand the book was first printed 1945. However this book has no print details at all, so I do not know how to tell if this is a first or not. Can anyone help?
    It is in reasonable condition and I will be selling it, but have no idea what it is worth as yet.

    Regards, Mike.

  9. shahd siam

    Hello well I’am a Canadian and I went to Ireland to meet my relatives and I saw this book and I started reading it is surely a book about Eileen and Seamus they live in a white washed cottage at the edge of an old bog their father works as a turf-cutter they made friends with a donkey who takes them to a place of fantasy adventures and they meet strange people… Well that’s all that I can tell you if you hadn’t read the book well see you and post back!

  10. Phil Young

    The book is called The Turf-Cutter’s Donkey, by Patricia Lynch, and was first published in 1934. It is just one of this author’s wonderful stories – she had 52 books published in her lifetime. Some are still in print, some in paperback. If you would like to find out more about Lynch, you should read my biography of her – PATRICIA LYNCH, STORYTELLER, published in 2005 by Liberties Press of Dublin.
    P. Young

  11. Bernadette Shannon

    I think your book was called “the Seventh Pig and other stories” originally. I think it was republished later with a different title.

  12. Phil Young

    It is very gratifying to know that there is still an interest in the work of Patricia Lynch. As her biographer (Patricia Lynch Storyteller, published in 2005 by Liberties Press of Dublin) I have collected most of her books, many of them being first editions. They have come to me from places as far afield as Australia, New Zealand, Canada, England, as well as here in Ireland. This, I believe, shows the popularity of her work at home and abroad – and of course her books were translated into many languages. She herself was a fascinating character and lead quite a colourful life.
    Phil Young

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