Summer voyages: The Hounds of the Morrigan

This extravagant journey into reinvented Irish legend is a believable fantasy – and retains its magic through endless rereadings

"Rising up into the air, they took to the sky and flew. From west and beyond west, into the wind and through it, they came past countless moons and suns. One laughed and briefly wore a scarf of raindrops in her hair, and then with wicked feet she kicked a cloud and caused rain to swamp a boat … They had been silent for so long.

"Silent, while man followed man as tiny blushes of life."

Pat O'Shea's 1985 fantasy The Hounds of the Morrigan, richly layered with Irish legend and 10 years in the writing, is a story of innumerable journeys. This is the first. "From west and beyond west," the Morrigan, tripartite goddess of war and human suffering, is returning to the world of men. 

Her sister aspects Macha and Bodbh, witches of bright hair, dark powers and black humour, take up residence in an old glasshouse, where their pack of long, lean, shape-changing hounds wait to be set at prey. The goddesses gather because, in Galway, a 10-year-old boy called Pidge has found an old manuscript in a secondhand bookshop. Now Pidge and his indomitable little sister Brigit must fight for the good god Dagda and guard the manuscript from the covetous Morrigan. They must also find a pebble, stained with a drop of her old, strong blood, with which to destroy it. Crossing deep waters, storm-lashed earth, stony valleys and cornfields blighted by sudden snow, Pidge and Brigit are tracked by the long lean hounds who may not kill them – unless the children run in their sight.

Throughout the book, the children travel widely in an Ireland at once contemporary and ageless. O'Shea drew on her idyllic childhood memories, especially of summers spent roving in east Galway, to create a landscape on the soft border between the here-and-now and the never-was, between Ireland and Tír na nÓg. There are moments of saturated beauty throughout, when the reader's entire attention focuses on the drowse of deep summer, the cool splashing joy of a waterspout, or the sweetness of ripe fruit eaten with "natural greed".

Into this landscape, which feels entirely believable, even at its most humorous and surreal, elements of the Ulster Cycle and the Mythological Cycle are woven with astonishing assurance. The great warrior Cúchulainn, Maeve and Aillil and their sons the Seven Maines, Angus Og the god of love and the hearth-goddess Brigit, protect the children alongside more homely figures – a brave dogfox, a farmer aunt, and a dwarf who serves one of the best meals (broth, bread, field mushrooms and fresh trout) in children's fiction.

The book is a bravura feat of writing. The earth's quiet beauty and the horror of ancient battles, malevolent pot-bellied giants and castles tenanted by grey-clad husks of malice are conveyed in mellifluous, ornate prose, never overwhelming for all its richness. Its characterisation also stands the test of time. Gentle, observant Pidge is a perpetually anxious older brother, trying in vain to restrain his little sister's wildness; five-year-old Brigit is full of hilarity, seizing the opportunity to "look for that bloody pebble" with a glint of mischief at uttering a forbidden word.

It's unlikely that such a fat, meaty book, full of abstruse sayings and riotous absurdity, would be published for young readers today. But I was encouraged, not daunted, by its size as a child – it's the sort of book you hope will never come to an end - and as an adult, I realise that I have reread it so regularly that it has become indelibly part of me. My mind unconsciously patters out its joyous, nonsensical, splendidly Irish phrases whenever an opportunity arises. "People who pedester here do so on pain of measles," I mutter. "My fubsy one! You shall have Red Cap Pasty, Peggy's Leg, Kiss Pie and Walking Stick, Hafner's Pie and Soup of the Day." Its impossibly delicate balance of surreal humour and evoked beauty, knowledge, fearfulness, joy, and courage have never been bettered – I hope to read it again and again, summer after summer.


Imogen Russell Williams

The GuardianTramp

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