The Hounds of the Morrigan by Pat O’Shea
|Book Name:||The Hounds of the Morrigan|
|Publisher(s):||Oxford University Press (US & UK)|
|Formatt:||Hardcover / Paperback|
|Release Date:||January 6, 2000 (UK) 2009 (Reissue Edition US)|
A hambone is sweet, but a pot of jam is the supreme comforter…
Thirteen years in the writing, The Hounds of the Morrigan was finally published in 1985, one of only three books completed by Galway-born author Patricia O’Shea. She spent the first sixteen years of her life in Ireland, and the people and places that she grew up with populate every page of this marvelous novel.
The book draws heavily on Irish mythology. The Morrigan herself is a triple goddess, the goddess of death and destruction, sometimes also equated with the legendary Washer at The Ford. Her way into the story is paved by her two counterparts, Macha, the Queen of Phantoms, and Bodbh, the Scald Crow, in their guise as two eccentric English artists. According to the Ulster Cycle, during the wars of the Cattle Raid of Cooley, The Morrigan and legendary Irish hero Cu Chulainn (who also has a cameo in the book) came up against each other in battle three times, and each time he wounded her with a pebble from his slingshot. These bloodstained pebbles become the focus of the quest that forms the core of the book, for if she retrieves just one of them, and combines it with the unleashed power of Olc-Glas, the evil green serpent, the Morrigan will regain her former terrible strength and unleash war on the world.
The story begins, innocuously enough, when ten-year-old Pidge discovers an ancient monastic manuscript in a mysterious second-hand bookshop in Galway. The manuscript contains the spirit of Olc-Glas, the malevolent serpent whose power is desired by the Morrigan, and Pidge inadvertently releases the snake from its bonds. He and his younger sister, five-year-old Bridget, are charged with a quest, to find one of the lost bloodstained pebbles from the Morrigan’s fights with Cu Chulainn and use it to destroy Olc-Glas before the Morrigan can use him to regain her ancient power and destroy all that is good.
They are aided in their mission by a cast of endearing talking animals, and figures from Irish mythology including Angus Og, the God of Love, Bridget the Goddess of the Hearth, Queen Maeve of Ulster and her beheaded sons, the Seven Maines. In this way, the book bears a passing similarity to John Masefield’s The Box of Delights, and its lesser-known companion work, The Midnight Folk – books which drew on English mythology in a similar fashion.
Pidge and Bridget are carried into a parallel Ireland, the land of Tir-na-nOg, only a step sideways from the real world. As they travel in search of the pebble across a land which is both familiar and mystical, they are pursued by the Morrigan’s hunting hounds. The hounds can track Pidge and Bridget, but they are magically bound not to hunt them – unless the children run.
The book is set at an unspecified and strangely timeless period in the 20th Century – there are diesel trains but Pidge and his sister still travel to and from Galway on market day in a pony and trap. This timeless quality means the real-world sections of the book are charming but not dated, while the Land of Youth is a land beyond time. The children are wonderful characters; Bridget is fierce and funny, and her innocence as to the deadly nature of their quest provides a light counterpoint to Pidge.
Pidge is on the cusp of adolescence, serious and reserved, holding back while Bridget rushes in, but the novel rests on his slender shoulders. He is willing to face the consequences that spring from his accidental release of Olc-Glas, and to take on the quest and face the wrath of the Morrigan, fully aware of the nature of the threat she holds. Pidge’s increasing maturity is a thread running through the book, but the fact that he is a child gives him a defense against the fearsome beauty of the Morrigan that older men don’t have.
There is a level of darkness in the book that would be surprising in a contemporary children’s novel. The threat from the hideous Glomach, a member of the race of Fomoiri (who also appeared in Mark Chadbourn’s The Age of Misrule and The Dark Age sequences, which draw on some of the same mythology – the Morrigan herself turns up in The Queen of Sinister) is very unnerving, and one of the most unsettling sequences in the book occurs when the fleeing children are trapped inside the Morrigan’s giant thumbprint, a maze lined with nauseating blisters of sweat where nothing can live.
Despite the fact that many classic children’s novels (The Chronicles Of Narnia, The Secret World of Polly Flint, Moondial, Tom’s Midnight Garden, The Box of Delights, Archer’s Goon – I could do this all night….) were adapted for television in the 1980’s and 1990’s, somehow The Hounds of the Morrigan was overlooked, despite being universally acclaimed when it was published. Perhaps the length was a factor, as the novel is well over 450 pages and drifts along gently, rather than being crammed with action in every scene. O’Shea lets the landscape unfurl around her young heroes, and lets adventure find them, rather than the other way about.
Pat O’Shea began, but never finished, an untitled sequel to The Hounds of The Morrigan. By the time her greatest hit was published she was already elderly and in ill-health, and she passed away in May 2007 at the age of 76. She left behind an overlooked classic of children’s fantasy, one which is well recognized and acclaimed within the genre, but that is relatively unknown outside of it.