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  • Writer's picturePicture Book Snob

Why Ireland is known as the land of saints and scholars

Holy Shocking Saints by Síne Quinn and Margaret Anne Suggs

"When we think of Irish saints, we often imagine them as just being 'holy', either deep in prayer or busy helping people. What many of us don't know is that these saints were either brave, bold and shocking in their deeds or shocking things happened to them." Síne Quinn, Holy Shocking Saints

If you've ever wondered why Ireland is called the land of saints and scholars, then this account of twelve ancient Irish people is for you. The extraordinary deeds and accomplishments attributed to these hermits, healers, mystics, academics and explorers are presented in a cheerful and entertaining format. Accompanying the text are attractive illustrations which further illuminate these individuals and the places, objects, creatures and astonishing events associated with them.

Most of the information in this book was new to me and while some of the subjects are famous, many are obscure. I learned about Patrick, Brigid and Brendan in school, but I hadn't known much about them, and I'd never heard of the others. As these people are commemorated all over Ireland with wells, towns, mountains, and schools called after them, it's useful to know the histories behind the names.

Author Síne Quinn is careful to mention in the introduction that some of these accounts "might be exaggerated or made up completely." True or false, they all have roots in Irish culture and folklore and are of significance for that reason. Síne writes that, "the stories of these Irish saints have been passed down to us from our ancestors." Some of these people, such as Brigid, have been appropriated from paganism and some stories, such as Dymphna's, bear a resemblance to fairy tales. Even Croagh Patrick, famous for Christian pilgrimages, was a sacred place in Ireland, and the site of the Lughnasa festival, long before its namesake arrived to convert the Irish. Here's a list of Christian festivals with links to our Celtic and pagan past, from the Irish Times.

Throughout the text, Síne highlights the influences of Celtic and pagan spirituality on the tale of each saint, where appropriate. Síne also mentions the links between Lugh and Croagh Patrick, that archaeologists have dated an oratory on this site to pre-Christian times and that zoologists have confirmed there were never snakes in Ireland. Síne may joke, "why let the truth get in the way of a good story?" but she is diligent about providing a balance to many of the more outrageous claims and stressing the pagan aspects of each narrative.

This is quite a feminist book as it highlights the role of women in early Christianity before the misogynistic theory that "female sinfulness and inferiority demanded their subordination to men" became the dominant attitude. Despite being marginalised by the modern catholic church, which forbids female priests, women were powerful supporters of early Christianity and instrumental in its success (here's an article exploring this in more detail). I love how Síne ensures women are given the recognition they deserve - six of the twelve saints celebrated by this book are female.

There is historical evidence that some of these people did exist and that some of the claims are accurate. Whether or not you share their beliefs, it's difficult not to admire the endurance and dedication of the saints, many of them martyrs. Síne writes beautifully with short, clear sentences that don't overwhelm young readers. There's just enough information about each person to keep children interested. Also included is a thoughtful glossary in case readers have difficulty understanding what some of the words and references might mean.

Fabulous illustrations make this book even more engaging and child-friendly. I love Margaret Anne Suggs' dreamy watercolours and her gentle palette with so much blue and green. The images evoke an ancient Ireland bursting with natural splendour and they possess a wonderful energy. There are lots of intricately drawn maps, artefacts, crests and symbols, as well as adorable animals. I love the playful little foxes that appear next to Brigid and Ciarán - it is believed they both had pet foxes that they trained to do tricks! Even the glossary and acknowledgements are ornate and decorated with motifs from earlier parts of the book.

The fascinating details, albeit of varying veracity, and the gorgeous images, have managed to charm even a committed agnostic like myself! Best suited to readers aged seven and upwards, Holy Shocking Saints would make a lovely souvenir for visitors to Ireland. It's also ideal for teachers looking to liven up religion lessons. Why not give this book as a gift to children making their first communion or confirmation instead of money?

Holy Shocking Saints was published by Veritas in October 2020. I received a complimentary copy of this book from the author in exchange for an honest review - all opinions expressed are my own.


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