Irish Women and Children's Books

Story Spinners: Irish Women and Children’s Books
This exhibition celebrates the skill and artistry of Irish women writers and illustrators and offers a fascinating glimpse into the wealth of material produced for girl and boy readers over several centuries. The exhibition marks the centenary of suffrage in Ireland and highlights the central role that women played in Irish history, politics, and culture, including literary arts. 
The books on display are drawn from holdings at the Library of Trinity College Dublin and include works from the more than 10,000 items in Trinity’s Pollard Collection of Children’s books (dating from 17th century to early 20th century). The exhibition is curated by staff and students from the masters programme in Children’s Literature at TCD: Dr Jane Suzanne Carroll, Dr Pádraic Whyte, Ming Ming Cheung, Shane Christie, Tony Flynn, Elizabeth Goldrick, Jenna Hodgins, Kate Marshall, Sarah May, Aoife O’Ceallachain, and Luise Rössel; with assistance from Valerie Coghlan, Brian McManus, and Róisín Adams. March-May 2018 Long Room, Old Library, Trinity College Dublin
The history of Irish women and children's books can be traced to 1794 with the publication of Extracts and Original Anecdotes for the Improvement of Youth. In this section, we trace the intersections between history and children's books written and illustrated by Irish women.

Mary Leadbeater
Extracts and Original Anecdotes for the Improvement of Youth
Dublin, 1794

Mary Leadbeater (neé Shackleton) (1758-1826) was a Quaker and lived her entire life in the village of Ballitore, Co. Kildare. She corresponded with writers such as Maria Edgeworth and Edmund Burke.

You can read more about Mary Leadbeater on the NCCB database.

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This is the earliest known children's book by an Irish woman published in Dublin and is notable for its efforts to entertain and amuse young readers.

This first edition is held in the Pollard Collection of Children’s Books.

A writer of moral tales for and about children, Maria Edgeworth (1768-1849) was born in England. She spent most of her life in Ireland, and was one of the most acclaimed authors of her day. She was elected as one of the first female Honorary Members of the Royal Irish Academy in 1842.

Maria Edgeworth
Illustrated by Norah McGuinness
The Most Unfortunate Day of My Life, and also The Purple Jar; The Two Plums; The Thorn; The Rabbit; Waste Not, Want Not
London, 1931

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This collection of Edgeworth's stories was illustrated by Norah McGuinness (1901-1980) who studied at The Metropolitan School of Art, Dublin, under Patrick Tuohy and Harry Clarke. She was a founding member of The Irish Exhibition of Living Art and became its president in 1944.

McGuinness's edition breathes new life into Edgeworth's stories and shows their continued appeal to modern readers. The lessons learned by the child characters - about good moral decisions and savvy consumer choices - are just as applicable in the 21st century as in the 19th.

Mrs. S.C. Hall
Grandmamma’s Pockets
London, 1880

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Anna Maria Fielding (1800-1881) was born in Dublin. She later moved to England, married Samuel Carter Hall, and published as Mrs. S.C. Hall.

Grandmamma’s Pockets was originally published in 1849 and although the Irish Famine is not directly mentioned, the text encourages English readers to assist rather than ignore their neighbours.

LT Meade
Illustrated by Lewis Baumer
A Wild Irish Girl
London, 1910

Born in Co. Cork, Elizabeth Thomasina Meade (1844-1914) was one of the most prolific Irish authors of all time and has been referred to as ‘the JK Rowling of her day.’

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Meade moved to London in her early thirties and published in the region of 280 books, most of them for girl readers.

In Lewis Baumer's frontispiece for Meade's A Wild Irish Girl the main character, Patricia, wears purple, white, and green - an echo of the suffragettes' colour scheme.

Violet Finny
Illustrated by Gertrude D. Hammond
A Daughter of Erin
London, 1898

When translated into Irish, the title of Finny’s book is ‘Iníon na hÉireann’. ‘Inghinidhe na hÉireann’ (Daughters of Ireland) would later become the name of the Irish nationalist women’s group founded and led by Maud Gonne in 1900. The cover art by Gertrude D. Hammond depicts a woman wearing the colours of the Women’s Social and Political Union – green, white and purple.

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Myth & Magic
Irish mythology and folklore provided a source of inspiration for Irish women writers and illustrators, particularly during the Celtic revival in the late 19th and early 20th century.

Frances Browne
Illustrated by Joseph Kenny Meadows
Granny’s Wonderful Chair and Its Tale of Fairy Times (1857)

Frances Browne (1816-1879), the ‘Blind Poetess of Ulster’, was born in Donegal. She lost her sight when she contracted smallpox at eighteen months.

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One of twelve children, Browne was educated by her family, who recited lessons from school. She started writing poetry at the age of seven. Granny’s Wonderful Chair is her most well-known children’s book.

Violet Russell
Illustrated by Beatrice Elvery
Heroes of the Dawn
Dublin, 1913

Also known as Lady Glenavy, Beatrice Elvery (1883-1970) was an illustrator, stained-glass artist, and sculptor. She attended the Dublin Metropolitan School of Art from the age of thirteen. She painted the above picture while living in Howth. Violet Russell and her husband George Russell (Æ) were actively involved in the Irish Cultural Revival.

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Lady Gregory
Illustrated by Margaret Gregory
The Golden Apple: A Play for Kiltartan Children
London, 1916

Lady Augusta Gregory (1852-1932) was an editor, author, playwright, and co-founder of the Abbey Theatre. Her daughter-in-law, Margaret Gregory (1884-1979), was a prolific artist in both ink and watercolour. The Golden Apple is a play written in the Kiltartan dialect, created by Lady Gregory to portray realistic Irish voices.

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Read more about this item on the NCCB database.

Ella Young
Illustrated by Maud Gonne
Celtic Wonder-Tales
Dublin, 1910

Ella Young (1867-1956) was an Irish poet and mythologist who later held a Chair in Irish Myth and Folklore at the University of California Berkeley. Born in England, Maud Gonne (1866-1953) was a suffragette and Irish revolutionary who founded Inghinidhe na hÉireann (Daughters of Ireland) in 1900. In a 1949 speech, Gonne pointed to the continued need for Irish girls to fight for equality, remarking - ‘Irish girls of today, don’t be flappers. Do your work for your country as Inghinidhe na hÉireann did.’


Herminie Templeton Kavanagh
Darby O’Gill and the Good People
New York, 1932

In her 1903 literary fairy tale "The Banshee's Comb", Anglo-Irish-American children's author Herminie Templeton Kavanagh (1861-1933) celebrates empowered and autonomous women with her representation of the iconic banshee from Irish folk tradition. She is ultimately revealed in this extract as a misunderstood figure who is kind and compassionate and has a wry sense of humour. In 1959, Walt Disney released a film based on Kavanagh’s tales called Darby O’Gill and the Little People.

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Sinéad de Valera
Illustrated by Charles Bradbury
Irish Fairy Tales (1973)

Sinéad de Valera (neé O’Flanagan) (1878-1975) published over thirty books for children in both Irish and English. A lifelong patriot, she was a founding member of Inghinidhe na hÉireann (Daughters of Ireland). She wrote fairytales and folktales to help build a specifically Irish national identity, complemented by her teaching of the Irish language.

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In this story, three girls defeat a witch with the help of their local wise-woman. De Valera plays with the tropes of fairy tales and depicts women - particularly older women - in both positive and negative roles.

Everyday life
While some writers were inspired by the fantastic, others were more interested in writing about real life. These stories are full of everyday details that tell us about the clothes people wore, the food they ate, the way they spoke. Above all, they give us a glimpse into attitudes towards women and girls and how these attitudes may have changed - or crystallized - over time. 

Mary Lavin
Illustrated by Edward Ardizzone
The Second Best Children in the World (1972)

Mary Lavin (1912-1996) is one of Ireland’s most celebrated short-story writers and novelists. The Second Best Children in the World follows the adventures of three siblings as they travel around the world. Her other story for children is A Likely Story (1957). Edward Ardizzone (1900-1979) was an English illustrator and in 1957 was awarded the first Kate Greenaway Medal for the best illustrated children’s book that year.

On this page, Ardizzone's illustration complements Lavin's words, showing the mother hard at work in the kitchen. Lavin's text notes that "she never had time to play" because she works so hard.

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Eileen O’Faolain
Illustrated by Trefor Jones
An Circín Dubh (1948)

Though described by her daughter as “stoical and dignified and secretive”, the stories written by Cork-born revolutionary Eileen O’Faolain (1902-1988) are warm and often humorous.


An Circín Dubh (The Little Black Hen), translated by Brighid Ní Loingsigh, is a story about a changeling who takes the form of a hen, and is typical of O’Faolain’s fairy stories for children.

Trefor Jones' illustration shows an old woman in a long dark dress, apron with pockets, headscarf, and a shawl. This old-fashioned outfit lends an air of tradition to O'Faolain's new fairy story.

Maura Laverty
Illustrated by Barry Castle
The Cottage in the Bog (1992)

Maura Laverty (1907-1966) was a journalist, broadcaster, writer of cookery books, novels, children’s books and wrote Ireland’s first soap opera, ‘Tolka Row’. In the 1940s - according to Laverty - two of her novels were banned for exposing the dreadful conditions of poor Irish families. This edition of her classic text, originally published in 1945, is illustrated by her daughter, Barry Castle (1935-2006).

Read more about Maura Laverty on the NCCB database.


PD Linín (Róisín Bean Mhic Dhonnchadh)
Illustrated by A. Murray Hayden
Galway, 1957

A foreign diplomat and one of the co-founders of the Irish-language literary magazine Comhar, PD Linín wrote a series of four children's novels in the Irish language about a naughty yet good-natured schoolboy named Maidhc. Reminiscent of Richmal Crompton's Just William series, each novel features the adventures of Maidhc as he grows up in Rathmines with his three best friends, one of whom is a girl named Nuala. The fourth and final Maidhc novel was published in 1968 in the year of Linín's untimely death in New York City.

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Sisters and Friends
The relationships between women are especially important in many of these stories and the books selected in this section highlight the role of sisterhood and the friendship of peers to the lives of these young female characters.

Rosa Mulholland
Four Little Mischiefs
London, 1885

Rosa Mulholland (1841-1921), whose writing was encouraged by Charles Dickens, wrote over 40 novels for adults and children. Many of her novels are set in rural Ireland and feature bold, independent female characters who are Catholic. She was described by WB Yeats as “the novelist of contemporary Catholic Ireland”.

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Read more about Rosa Mulholland's Four Little Mischiefs on the NCCB database.

Clara Mulholland
Naughty Miss Bunny: A Story for Little Children
London, 1891?

Clara Mulholland (1876-1926), sister of author Rosa Mulholland, was a Belfast-born Catholic writer who published several books for children and young girls.

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Mulholland's embrace of Victorian values is reflected in Naughty Miss Bunny, a moral tale featuring the teaching and learning between a spoiled girl and her governess.

Siobhán Ní Shúilleabháin
Triúr Againn
Dublin, 1955

Born in Baile an Fheirtéaraigh in the West Kerry Gaeltacht, Siobhán Ní Shúilleabháin (1928-2013) was a respected and prolific author of Irish-language novels, short stories, poems and plays for adults, but she also wrote for children. Triúr Againn, from 1955, is about three teenage girls solving a mystery which unfolds as they return for another year at their boarding school, Coláiste Ghobnatan. Ní Shuilleabháin's fictional boarding school is clearly based upon Coláiste Íde in the West Kerry Gaeltacht, where she lived and studied during her own teenage years.

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Eilís Dillon
The Island of Ghosts (1990)

A key figure in Irish literature, Eilís Dillon (1920-1994) wrote nearly 40 children’s books. Her adventure stories are characterised by the tension between tradition and progress, and by a rich sense of place. In The Island of Ghosts, two girls enact the daring rescue of their brothers who have been kidnapped. Dillon began her career as a children's author by writing books in Irish, the first being An Choill Bheo (1948).

The Island of Ghosts begins as a typical boys' adventure story but when two boys are kidnapped it is their sisters, Barbara and Cait, who take charge and set out to rescue them.


This final section of the exhibition showcases books that deal with journeys. Some of these are short journeys around the home-space taken by young characters. Others are voyages into the unknown. 

Sophia Rosamond Praegar
The Young Stamp-Collectors (1985)

Irish artist and suffragette Sophia Rosamond Praeger (1867-1954) was a member of the London-based women artists' organization, the Suffrage Atelier. She wrote and illustrated twenty children’s books, including The Young Stamp-Collectors (1985).

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The Young Stamp-Collectors is considered one of Praegar's best works. It was originally rejected by her publishers and was only published over thirty years after her death by her good friend Godfrey Vinycomb.

Bríd Mahon
The Search for the Tinker Chief (1968)

Bríd Mahon (1922-2008) joined the Irish Folklore Commission in 1949, then taught in the Department of Irish Folklore at University College Dublin. A prolific writer, her works for children are heavily influenced by Irish folklore. The Tinker Chief was hugely popular and was optioned by Disney. Mahon uses the word ‘tinker’, an outmoded term now offensive, to refer to members of the travelling community.


Patricia Lynch
Orla of the Burren (1970)

Patricia Lynch (c. 1894-1972) was a prominent activist in the suffrage movement, who spoke at rallies and even travelled to Dublin to report first-hand on the events of the 1916 Easter Rising for The Worker’s Dreadnought. She moved in radical circles and was friends with Maud Gonne, Constance Markievicz, Hanna Sheehy-Skeffington, and with the Fabian writer, Edith Nesbit. In her autobiography, Lynch acknowledges the influence of an older writer, Miss Carmichael, who advised her to "learn shorthand and typewriting. With them and a good knowledge of English, a girl can go through the world."

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Winifred M. Letts
Illustrated by F. Gardner
The Story-Spinner (1907)

This inscription was written by a young girl named Annie Faires, who was an orphan staying at Miss Carr’s Children’s Home on Northbrook Road, Dublin, in 1921. Annie was thirteen years old at the time. In 1922 it is believed that she left Ireland for the UK, and was employed as a maid in Colwyn Bay, Wales. The title of this book from Letts (1882-1972) inspired the title for this exhibition.

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The inscription on the inside cover reads:

"Annie Faires is my name
Northbrook Rd is my
station and when
I am dead and in my
grave and all my
bones are rotten
this little book
will tell my name
When I am quite

A child reader - maybe Annie Faires herself - has coloured in the illustration in this copy of Letts' The Story-Spinner. These drawings give us clues to the way child readers interacted with their books.

Siobhán Dowd
A Swift Pure Cry (2006)

Siobhan Dowd (1960-2007) established the Siobhan Dowd Trust, a registered charity that helps young people access and enjoy literature. Set in Ireland in 1984, A Swift Pure Cry is loosely based on the events of the Kerry Babies case and the tragic death of schoolgirl Anne Lovett. The page displayed shows a vulnerable young girl, failed by her family and community, contemplating travelling to England for an abortion.

Credits: Story

The exhibition is curated by staff and students from the masters programme in Children’s Literature at TCD: Dr Jane Suzanne Carroll, Dr Pádraic Whyte, Ming Ming Cheung, Shane Christie, Tony Flynn, Elizabeth Goldrick, Jenna Hodgins, Kate Marshall, Sarah May, Aoife O’Ceallachain, and Luise Rössel; with assistance from Valerie Coghlan, Brian McManus, and Dr Róisín Adams.

The curators would like to acknowledge the support given by staff of the Library of Trinity College Dublin, especially Dr Lydia Ferguson and the team at Early Printed Books, and to thank them for all their hard work.

Story Spinners: Irish Women and Children's Books was generously supported by the School of English, Trinity College Dublin, and by the Trinity Equality Fund.

This exhibition is linked to Children’s Books Ireland’s BOLD GIRLS project - an initiative that celebrates strong, confident, intelligent, brave women and girls in children’s books, giving them much-needed visibility alongside their male counterparts. You can find out more at the BOLD GIRLS website.

Technical support for this online exhibition provided by Greg Sheaf, the Library of Trinity College Dublin.

Credits: All media
The story featured may in some cases have been created by an independent third party and may not always represent the views of the institutions, listed below, who have supplied the content.