As a boy in national school many years ago my English primers for several years were the “Land of Youth” Readers.  They were published around 1950 by the Educational Company and had blue stiff cardboard covers. There was no indication of who edited or selected the contents which consisted of an eclectic and sometimes idiosyncratic mix of short pieces of prose and poetry covering, in the main, figures from Irish history and legend.

Tales of Finn and the Fianna were strongly represented in the Junior book together with pieces from history such as St. Patrick,  Brian Boru at Clontarf, the capture (and later escape) of Hugh Roe O Neill and the exploits of Sergeant Custume at Athlone. The material was carefully edited for the intended young readers (eight and nine years).

The more advanced Intermediate book had a broader stretch of material, with a good proportion of the pieces and poems identified by author. Again there was an emphasis on Irish history and some mythology but there were also pieces on Robinson Crusoe, Johnny Appleseed and Robert Peary at the North Pole as well as Kingsford Smith’s transatlantic flight  from Portmarnock in 1930. There was a translation of Pearse’s story Eoghanin na nEain as well as the words of “A Nation Once Again”.

While there continued to be careful editing for the intended audience, several  items introduced a deeper dimension and one even now seems heady stuff for 10 year olds. The piece on Robinson Crusoe focused not on Man Friday or the cannibals but on Crusoe’s realisation of the impossibility, and hence the futility, of attempting to build a boat to escape. Another quite short piece was entitled “The Man who was Ill” and is historically well attested to. It recounted a consultation with a doctor in early 19th Century London. There was nothing physically wrong with the patient, who was manifestly suffering from depression. The doctor’s suggested remedy was that he should cheer himself up by going to see the great clown Grimaldi. The patient explained, sadly, that this was impossible, simply because he was Grimaldi.

One piece was of a different order. Entitled “The Bog of Stars” it was a shortened version of Standish O Grady’s story of the same name published in 1893 in a work entitled “The Bog of Stars and other stories and sketches of Elizabethan Ireland”. The eight other stories include The Battle of the Curlew Mountains and Don Juan de Aquila, The Hero of Kinsale, but the title story is preeminent.  It is an account of an expedition some time late in the Nine Years War by Lord Deputy Mountjoy to attack the stronghold of an Irish chieftain, Ranal, known as the Raven. The expedition’s route took it past a bog called Mona-Reulta, which, it was explained to Mountjoy, meant the Bog of Stars, as its pools reflected stars at night.

Mountjoy’s forces included a drummer boy, Raymond Fitzpierce, who had been raised for several years at the court of the Raven, a period of which he had only happy memories. During the expedition he learned that its aim was to kill or capture the Raven. He determined this would not happen. So, when the chieftain’s camp was in sight and the element of surprise all but complete, he drummed out a warning. The Raven, his family and followers escaped. The boy was court martialled, saying in his defence that a star shone before him. Mountjoy, declaring “Then is a traitor turned poet” commanded that the boy not be shot but rather drowned in the Mona-Reulta so that he could add “his star to the rest.”

The Land of Youth version spared the detail of the execution (the boy bound hand and foot and weighed down with stones) and mentioned Mountjoy’s unease at the sentence he handed down, asking was there another prisoner. But it concluded with the moving and memorable last paragraph of the original:

“Then the sun set, and still night increased, and where the drummer boy had gone down a bright star shone; it was the evening star, the star of love, which is also the morning star, the star of hope and bravery.”

Heady stuff indeed.


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