Why the Moon Travels, Reviewed

Folklore is entrenched in the culture of the Irish Traveller community.

Stories have journeyed from the sandy coattails of this fair isle to the rocky coastline of the west and beyond, past patchwork fields and along dusty roads carried by Ireland’s indigenous nomadic people — The Pavee. The keepers of tales.

Why the Moon Travels gathers a selection of these stories together into one magical collection.

Beautifully retold by Oein DeBhairduin and illustrated by talented artist Leanne McDonagh, this is possibly the first collection of folktales about Travellers that is both written and illustrated by people from the Traveller community. And what a gathering of tales it is. DeBhairduin himself describes it as “new telling of old tales.”

In the anthology, we meet giants and fairies, and an army of bees and screaming griwógs. There’s the eye of a fish that grows to the size of a lake and a swindler who took flight in the final throes of a storm. We find out how the rivers were born, spiders came to be, and how the sun, the moon, and stars can all be found in the common dandelion.

Like a lot of good books, this one begins with death. The tale of a grief-stricken Mincéir féin, a man who “had neither north nor south, nor the track of the road back to who he had been.” When tragedy strikes, he refuses to leave the graveside of his wife and child, and gradually begins to undergo an unusual transformation. Immediately, this sets us on our way with the idea that this is more than just a book of entertaining stories. This work is about the world around us and our connection with the past. It’s a way of understanding our place and of making sense of tragedy in order to move on from it.

The author points out that stories are a way of reminding that “Travellers are part of the world and the world is part of Travellers.” They also work as a tool to pass knowledge from one generation to the next, like in the piece “Airmid’s voice”, the story of the first healer to teach the Mincéiri the ways of herb-crafting.

We are told of the medicinal benefits of native plants. Red clover to loosen the chest, cowslip to soothe inflamed skin, and dead nettles to ease muscles. In “Where The Stars Come From” we meet a description of how to make a simple fishing rod from willow and hair and a clothespin bent to resemble the curved neck of a resting swan. While the story of how the hedgehog gained his spikey coat makes mention of wild food; blackberries, dock roots, ram, mushrooms, and chickweed, the type that can be foraged in woodland throughout the countryside.

This connection with nature isn’t just part of the scenery. It’s in the movement of the characters and in their physical make-up, underlining traditional beliefs that people and nature are intrinsically linked. A young Mincéir féin’s legs are “soft like willow” when fever hits, his body “as heavy as dark, moist peat trodden on by innumerable feet.” The curls of a foreteller “danced as she walked, like autumn leaves caught in a soft breeze.”

At times nature is the crux of the whole piece. “The Birth of Rivers” tells of a battle of wills between a kunia (priest) and the shadowy water spirit who lives in the river, the medill. “The Old Man of the Mountain” is about loneliness and the things in life that help bring people together.

Like the Suleen River through lands familiar to the Travellers of Galway, these tales course from the soul of ancient Ireland. They are drawn from the hardships of those who went before, times of hunger, or times of drought when “the earth itself called out in dry raspy groans at night.”

They sing of the importance of family, the evidence clearly seen in DeBhairduin’s story introductions. Like music or ballad, each piece stirs memories in the author and he shares the time and place where he first encountered the tale. It’s clear that these stories are as much part of his life as “the grums” where he played as a child or the paraffin lamps dug out from under the kitchen sink on stormy nights.

“Why the Moon Travels”, the story for which the book gets its name, tells of a time long ago when the moon would visit the earth in the form of a beautiful lady, guiding people at night “with light she borrowed from the day”. A tale of betrayal and lost love, it’s easy to imagine it was born on those rolling calm nights when there is little want but to stare at the heavens and watch as the face of the moon slowly turns toward you.

The collection is made of poetry and romance. It is one of those special books that awakens the imagination and rekindles the flame of stories once heard as a child. DeBhairduin stresses how “For many Travellers, the gift of a story comes with the responsibility to retell it, for untold stories pass into the forgotten.”

Perhaps, I may never visit a cemetery again without seeing the image of a man in the tangle of branches of the yew tree or see the flash of scales in a river and not think of Skai, the child of the waves and daughter of the island queen. These tales deserve to be read by all. Young and old, Traveller and settled. Those who dance with their love on a quiet roadside or who spin flax like a spider will spin web, or those who are blessed to walk in the company of the moon on the deepest of nights.

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Author:

Daniel Seery: Daniel Seery is a writer from Dublin. A regular contributor to RTÉ’s Arena, his work has appeared in a number of anthologies and magazines. His stage play Eviction was a winner of the Shadow of the Rising competition in 2016, and his debut novel A Model Partner, originally published by Liberties Press, is due to be released in the US by publisher Melville House.

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