Writer who created a novel for children to marvel

 

Pat O'Shea:For Irish author Pat O'Shea, who died at her home in Manchester on May 3rd after a long illness, Galway was "a good place to grow up", and the unspoilt countryside around Lough Corrib provided the inspiration for her best-selling children's novel, The Hounds of The Morrigan.

Steeped in Celtic mythology, and peopled with fantastical characters and creatures, The Hounds of the Morrigantells the story of two modern children, Pidge and Bridget, and their quest to save the world from the evil witch-queen of the title.

It took Pat O'Shea 10 years to complete her epic tale of bravery, sorcery and magic, but her diligence paid off: since its publication in 1985, the book has been translated into several languages and has been continuously reprinted, allowing subsequent generations of children to be enthralled by its magical weave of language and lore.

The adventure begins in Kenny's bookshop in Galway, and travels to familiar locations around Galway and its environs - and to less-familiar places in the world of faerie.

For the very young Patty Shiels, born in 1931 and growing up in the Bohermore area of Galway, the west was awake with creative possibilities, and her imagination ran free in the narrow streets and arches of the city, all the way to the fields and forests beyond. She was the youngest of five children; her mother, Bridget, had died when she was a little girl, leaving her eldest sister, Teresa, to care for the siblings and their elderly father.

Young Patty haunted the bookshops and libraries of Galway, often borrowing three books at a time from the library, and reading them as fast as she could borrow. Her cousins remember her writing plays and staging them in an old shed, recruiting relations and pals to act in these mini-dramas. She had the storytelling talent of one much older, and could keep a roomful of listeners mesmerised by an incredible tale she had made up on the spot.

She went to secondary school - a rare privilege in the less well-off parts of Galway in the 1940s - and went to the UK at 16, where her older siblings had already emigrated. She got a job in a bookshop and met her then-husband, Jack O'Shea. They had one child, Jim, before amicably going their separate ways.

Her playwriting ambitions brought her to the Library theatre in Manchester, where she helped out on productions of O'Casey's plays, The Plough and The Stars and Juno and the Paycock. She staged three of her own one-act plays there in the early 1970s, helped by a stipend from the British Arts Council; one of her plays, The King's Ears, was commissioned by BBC Northern Ireland.

When Hounds of the Morrigan was published in 1985, it was hailed as a masterpiece of children's literature, and drew comparisons with CS Lewis's The Chronicles of Narnia, Alan Garner's The Weirdstone of Brisingamen, and even Tolkien's The Lord of the Rings. Irish Times book reviewer Ben Kiely put it succinctly: "the Morrigan is a marvel".

The book stirred up a renewed interest in Irish folklore, thanks to its cast of mythical characters that included Queen Maeve, Cúchulainn, The Dagda, Bodb the Scald Crow and Macha, Queen of Phantoms. Even old Saint Patrick makes an appearance.

When she launched the paperback edition of the novel in Dublin (at the crypt in Christ Church Cathedral, with Irish wolfhounds and models dressed as witches) she brought this writer on a magical mystery tour around the Co Galway locations which provided settings for the novel, and we stopped for a lingering visit to one of her favourite places of inspiration, Yeats's castle at Thoor Ballylee. With the proceeds of the Italian translation of the novel, she was able to purchase an old house in Garra, Ballyglooneen, near Tuam, and she returned there every summer right up to her final years.

She published only two other, shorter, books, Finn MacCooland the Small Men of Deedsand The Magic Bottle, but there is enough magic and adventure in the Morrigan classic to keep generations of children spellbound for years to come.

She died at her home in Chorlton in Manchester. She will be sadly missed by her lifelong partner, Geoff Windle, her son Jim, her daughter-in-law Sheena, her granddaughter Alexx, her family and friends, and by the countless readers who have lost themselves in the lush pathways of her prose. Her ashes will be brought home to her beloved Galway, but her spirit will always be skipping through the pages of her children's classic, and dancing merrily on the western wind.

Pat O'Shea: born January 22nd, 1931; died May 3rd, 2007