Celina Buckley is bringing Irish mythology to children’s books

Cork author Celina Buckley has launched her debut take on Irish legends, writes Marjorie Brennan

Celina Buckley at the launch of her book The Salmon of Knowledge at Waterstones, Cork. Picture: Eddie O’Hare

IRELAND has a rich tradition of legend and mythology which has nurtured the imaginations of children for generations. One of the most beloved and familiar tales is the Salmon of Knowledge, where Fionn MacCumhaill, hero of the Fianna, inadvertently gains the gift of unlimited wisdom from sucking his burnt finger while cooking the eponymous fish.

Illustrator and author Celina Buckley, like countless children before her, was spellbound by the legend, and it has inspired her to produce her first picture book for children. The book took shape when Buckley, from Rylane in Co Cork, took a sabbatical from her job as a primary teacher to complete a masters in children’s illustration at the prestigious Cambridge School of Art in 2017.

“My first degree is primary teaching but I’ve always loved art. I was always drawing as a child, and I entered a lot of art competitions when I was young. I loved Beatrix Potter and Peter Rabbit and my mum would have read us stories every night going to bed, like CS Lewis’s The Chronicles of Narnia. For my teaching practice I was looking through picture books and I was thinking ‘This is something I could do’.”

Buckley found the books of legends she had read as a child text-heavy and thought there would be a place for a more accessible, picture-led approach for younger children. She was also inspired by the children she was teaching in first class, who weren’t yet able to read big amounts of smaller-size text.

“As a child I remember the stories, they were mainly words, it wasn’t illustrations so much. For my version, I cut out as many words as I could, trying to get the picture to tell the story as much as possible,” she says.

Buckley needed to complete a project for her masters thesis, which gave her the perfect opportunity to bring The Salmon of Knowledge to fruition. She had to pinch herself when the book was snapped up by a publisher at Bologna Children’s Book Fair before she even graduated with her masters.

“That was amazing, I didn’t think I would get a book published for at least another five years,” she says.

“The course was absolutely brilliant, I’d say about a third of our class got book deals.”

Buckley likes to work with collage, which allows her to play with colour, pattern and texture.

“For the illustrations, I used a mix of collage and observational drawing. I really enjoyed the process. It took me a long time to work out text to go with the illustrations, I tried a lot of different things. I made 26 lower and 26 upper case letters, full stops, and publishers commented on it. I think it makes for a unique visual language.”

Buckley grew up on a farm and the natural environment has been a big source of inspiration in her work.

“For the observational drawing, I used the trees outside my house, or I would go to Gougane Barra or Mullinhassig waterfall and woods.”

Buckley has been lucky enough to have an instant source of feedback from her target audience in her work as a primary teacher.

“The children I teach have been amazing. I read them a story every day but when I first read The Salmon of Knowledge to them, I didn’t tell them I had written it. They were fascinated. They loved the salmon, and all the little details, it was great to see them going back and taking it out of the library to read. It would make you feel you did a good job.”

Buckley is hoping to do a series of Irish legend picture books and is currently working on The Children of Lir.

“I’d hope if you look at them you would know straight away ‘that’s Celina Buckley’s work’, just by looking at the illustrations. Eventually I’d like to write and illustrate something that’s completely my own story.”

She has also been passing on her knowledge to children by giving illustration classes at Griffin’s Garden Centre in Dripsey, Co Cork.

“I put all their pictures together and print them off so they have their own little books. I can’t wait to see them when they’re done.”

What is her advice to budding illustrators and storytellers?

“Draw every day, from observation, if you can, and keep a diary even if it’s just one line a night. And keep experimenting.”

The Salmon of Knowledge, retold and illustrated by Celina Buckley, published by Starfish Bay Children’s Books, out now

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