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Belfast’s An tSathaid Mhor Offers Beautiful Irish Language Books for Kids

“There never was a great master plan for world dominance; instead the company was born out of necessity.”

By Dennis Abrams

BELFAST: Since its first publication in 2007, An tSathaid Mhor (aka Dragonfly Press, or, more literally “The Big Needle”) has been making a name for itself with its beautifully illustrated Irish-language children’s books, and winning award after award, including the IBBY Award 2010. The Belfast-based publishing company is owned by husband-and-wife team Andrew Whitson and Caitriona Nic Sheain, and as Whitson states, “There was never a great master plan for world dominance; instead the company was born out of necessity; the need to preserve once-forgotten Irish language tales and sagas and bring them back to life for contemporary readers.”

Whitson had been working in a special-needs school, while at the same time illustrating books for Appletree Press in Belfast and Cassell in London with what he felt were “second-rate results.” But he soon found the inspiration he needed at the Folklore Department in University College Dublin.

It was as if, he said, he’d “discovered the lost city of Atlantis.” He immersed himself in the world of forgotten Irish tales and sagas through catalogs that listed motifs of every description, ranging from “The Dragon Slayer” to “The Heart in the Egg.” Within hours, he’d found what he was looking for — an obscure tale recorded at a kitchen table in County Claire in the 1920s. The Irish was disjointed and not at all suitable for young contemporary readers, “but its contents, although long and complex, made for an exciting discovery synonymous with a bygone age of Irish storytelling.”

Gaiscioch na Beilte Uaine became their first publication and the catalyst that gave birth to An tSnathaid Mhor. Caitrionia was raised with Irish as her first language and had taught Irish in a school established in part by her parents — it fell to her to restructure the story for the modern reader while Andrew set about illustrating the text. For the couple, it was a total leap of faith. “When I look back on it now, words like ‘loose cannon’ and ‘bonkers’ come to mind.”

They secured funding to produce the book and an accompanying audio disc. A cousin was brought in to help design the book, and after months of “to-ing and fro-ing and countless changes to both the text and layouts, the book was ready to go to print.” With the help of a local printer, boxes of books soon arrived at the couple’s house. Just six months later, the book went into a second printing. There was no looking back.

Since 2007, An tSnathaid Mhor has published five titles, three of them re-tellings; four by acclaimed author Caitronia Hastings. Her latest title, O Chrann go Crann was a milestone for the company in two ways: it was the first newly written text rather than a re-telling of an existing tale, and it was also their first foray into the world of book apps — it was released in March of this year. This latest project raised the company’s awareness of the changes that are taking place in the world of publishing, and led them to a realization that all books have to be considered not just in one format but several, from paper books to audio, e-books and book apps. “Although the traditional hard copy book is at the core of our passion,” proclaimed Whitson, “the emerging formats are proving significant in influencing our planning.”

But whatever the format, what doesn’t change is An tSnathaid Mhor’s commitment to Irish identity and culture, and its belief that “the unique qualities (to a greater or lesser degree) that can collectively be categorized as ‘Irish,’ provide the unique ingredients with which its books are served. It’s important to us that tales, which were originally handed down from generation to generation in Irish, should be available to the reading public in that language.”

And with that, as Whitson proudly says, “Welcome to An tSnathaid Mhor, an Irish publishing house for children where evolution rather than revolution is its mantra. Humility rather than pride is its sea shanty. Respect rather than envy is its narrative and success rather than failure is its desire.”

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