Review: Ireland: The People, The Places, The Stories

Written by Rachel Pierce with a foreword by Dara Ó Briain
Cover Illustration by Conor Nolan
Published by Scholastic on 2nd September

First, confession time:  I’m very proudly Irish and grew up on an isolated farm just over the Irish border in rural County Donegal.  I grew up listening to and reading Irish myths and legends, spending my days outside exploring the mountains and boglands, and enjoying many a ceilidh.  We have a lone hawthorn standing in the middle of one of our fields which my father would never allow to be cut down as he thought it belonged to the Sidhe or fairies, and it would bring bad luck if it was cut down.  It still stands today. 

The fairy tree on my home farm

I was, therefore, very excited to be sent a copy of Ireland:  The People, the Places, the StoriesThis is a beautifully illustrated hardback written by Rachel Pierce with a playful foreword by wonderfully witty Irish comedian, Dara Ó Briain which celebrates what makes the Emerald Isle such a special place. 

The introduction gives a flavour of what to expect from the rest of the book:  fascinating facts, gorgeous illustrations, and an incredibly engaging writing style that immediately whets your appetite for finding out more …

Each of the ten main chapters is introduced by a fully illustrated page which, with my teacher’s hat on, would be great for inference and prediction work.  Each chapter page is then followed by a detailed map with images and facts.  I loved poring over these maps, and I can definitely see them capturing children’s attention, and drawing them into finding out more from the main chapters.  If there’s one thing I know about the Irish is that we love to spin a yarn and, oh my goodness, these maps lend themselves to a tale or two …

Illustration by Lydia Hughes

Each of the chapters focusses on an aspect of Ireland’s varied and rich culture, history, landscape and people:  The Island of Ireland, Early Ireland, Warring Ireland, Haunted Ireland, Magical Ireland, The Living Landscape, The Human Landscape, Underground Ireland, The Culture of Ireland and Fun Things to Do in Ireland. 

I can, hand on heart, say that I was completely, utterly and entirely immersed in, and fascinated by, this amazing book which offers a wealth of knowledge, sure to appeal to younger and older readers alike. 

I’m going to include a brief synopsis of each chapter with my favourite fact taken directly from each:

1.  The Island of Irelandthis chapter includes information about Ireland’s geology; lighthouses; offshore islands; and, smugglers, pirates and shipwrecks. 

My favourite fact:  The strangest lighthouse must be the Spire of Lloyd in Kells, County Meath.  It looks like a lighthouse and is tall and sturdy with a glazed lantern, but it’s nowhere near the sea.

2.      Early Ireland:  this chapter focusses on the early human history of Ireland including sections on hunting and gathering; the Céide fields, thought to be the oldest field systems in the world; burials; hill forts; and, bog bodies.

My favourite fact:  Newgrange [tomb] itself is aligned with the rising sun at the winter solstice (21 December), which is the shortest day of the year.

3.      Warring Ireland:  this chapter includes details of Ireland’s war-filled history including:  feature of castles; invaders; famous castles; and famous battles.

My favourite fact:  A truly chilling feature of some castles was an oubliette, a ‘forgotten place’.  This was a dungeon room that had one way in and no way out.

4.      Haunted Ireland:  this section focusses on the Otherworld and its beings; superstitions; Samhain night; and, famous haunted castles.

My favourite fact:  In later times, people made turnip lanterns – terrifying faces carved into a hollowed-out turnip, which was then lit from inside with a lump of coal or a candle.

5.      Magical Ireland:  this chapter includes details of Ireland’s supernatural beliefs; seasonal festivals; fairy changelings; and, magical figures and sites.

My favourite fact:  Station Island in Lough Derg is an ancient site of Christian pilgrimage, said to be an entrance to purgatory.  This gateway was closed by Papal Order in 1632 and remains firmly shut and locked to this day, …

6.      The Living Landscape:  this section includes sections on Ireland’s trees; flora and fauna; weather; volcanoes; and, sinkholes.

My favourite fact:  The si gaoithe, of ‘fairy wind’, is a mini whirlwind that whips up suddenly causing mayhem for the minutes it lasts. 

7.      The Human Landscape:  this chapter focusses on Ireland’s human-built landscape including possibly Ireland’s earliest built landscape in Mount Sandel; the use of lime kilns; cooking pits; the Poulaphuca Resevoir; Kylemore Abbey; canals; and, Eire signs.

My favourite fact:  On some high points of the Irish coastline are huge letters, made of white-washed rocks, spelling ‘EIRE’, the Irish name for Ireland.  These rock markers date back to the Second World War …

8.      Underground Ireland:  this section gives details of what lies beneath Ireland’s landscape including:  caves; souterrains; tunnels; buried bodies; and, buried treasure.

My favourite fact:  The most exciting finds at Aillwee were the bones of two brown bears, which have been dated to 10,000 years ago.

9.      The Culture of Ireland:  this chapter shares a little of what it means to be Irish from the tradition and superstition to the language and place names to sport, music and dance.

My favourite fact: There are also lost languages. In medieval Wexford there was a dialect called Yola that has since been lost.

10.    Fun Things to do in Ireland:  this final chapter directs the reader to a selection of things to see and do in Ireland such as visiting Tayto Park theme park and zoo.  When I go home to Ireland, I always indulge in Irish-bought Tayto cheese & onion crisps which are my favourite crisps ever and not to be mixed with Tayto crisps bought elsewhere!  Some wonderful historical sites are also recommended such as Kylemore Abbey and GardensI have visited this wonderful site in County Galway and can definitely recommend a visit.  Ireland really does have some spectacular places to visit and some of my favourites are mentioned here, including the North Antrim Coast, the Slieve League cliffs in my home county of Donegal, and Glenariff Forest Park in County Antrim with its spectacular waterfalls.

Each of the first nine chapters ends with a ‘Would you Believe it?’ section which is a cornucopia of fascinating, intriguing and entertaining facts that engrossed me completely. 

I can’t finish my review without mentioning the brilliant illustrations which complement the beauty and charm of this book perfectly.  Each of the ten chapters is illustrated by an Irish illustrator:  Linda Fahrlin, Diarmuid Ó Catháin, Alan Dunne, Lydia Hughes, Brian Fitzgerald, Ashling Lindsay, Graham Corcoran, Jennifer Farley, Conor Nolan, Donough O’Malley. 

Illustration by Brian Fitzgerald

This is a book that should be in every library to introduce children to this stunning country in the most wonderful way.  I can’t wait to share it with my class as I have no doubt they will be just as captivated by its words, illustrations and style as I am. 

Thank you to Harriet Dunlea and Scholastic for my copy.     

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