I may have forgotten to put on any green this morning, but that doesn’t mean we weren’t prepared to celebrate St. Patrick’s Day with a bundle of carefully selected, holiday-themed story books. We had five books this evening, and I felt four were truly worthy of mention here.
If you have a holiday coming up, it’s always a good idea to make sure you have a Gail Gibbons book queued up for the reading list. Her picture books are a great way to introduce the history and traditions of a holiday in a form that is accessible to younger listeners, while almost always sharing some information that is new to the adults in the room as well.
“St. Patrick’s Day” is a relatively quick read but still manages to provide a brief biography of St. Patrick and explain his significance to the Irish people while also introducing all the major symbols people associate with the holiday (except for green beer). New knowledge I acquired from Ms. Gibbons this evening included the fact that St. Patrick was not originally Irish (he was English?!?), that the holiday was first celebrated in (what would become) the United States in 1737 in Boston, and that St. Patrick used the three-leafed shamrock to explain the concept of the Holy Trinity.
Overall, it was a great introduction to a fun and festive holiday, and an entertaining start to our St. Patrick’s day book bundle.
“Fiona’s Lace” by Patricia Polacco isn’t a St. Patrick’s Day book per se. It is a story about a family – the family of Ms. Polacco’s great-great-grandmother Fiona – who emigrated to the United States from Ireland. Like one of our favorite Christmas books “An Orange for Frankie” (another Polacco creation), “Fiona’s Lace” takes a chapter from Ms. Polacco’s family history and turns it into a delightfully moving storybook that the entire family can enjoy together.
Fiona lives in the little village of Glen Kerry, Ireland – not far from Limerick – with her mother, Annie, her father, Mick, and her sister, Ailish. Ailish never tires of hearing their father tell the story of how he and Annie met, and how he was led straight to her door by the pieces of homemade lace she had tied to lamp posts and bushes all along the way. Annie is no longer able to make lace due to the arthritis afflicting her hands, but she is confident that her oldest daughter Fiona’s lacework is destined to be the pride of Limerick.
Unfortunately for Fiona’s family, the textile mill on which the town of Glen Kerry depends for its livelihood is shutting down. Where can the family go to find work? The O’Flarity’s next door have a possible solution: sign a contract to be in domestic service for a rich family in return for passage to America – a country where, Ailish assures Fiona, “…servants have servants of their own.” With tearful farewells, Mick and the girls pack up their belongings and head for Chicago.
After a long and challenging ocean voyage from Ireland to New York, followed by a similarly draining train ride from New York to Chicago, Fiona’s family arrives at their new home. However, what they find is not the land of bounty that Ailish anticipated – it’s a two room apartment in a rundown area of town that they must share with another family – the O’Flaritys from Glen Kerry! Mrs. O’Flarity educates Fiona’s family on the reality of their new situation: with all of their wages from domestic work going to pay off the cost of their tickets to America, the only way to survive is to find a second job – which they do (Annie scrubbing linens in a local hotel, and Mick at the slaughterhouse).
But there is hope! Mrs. O’Flarity mentions a dressmaker who is looking for fine Irish lace like that which Fiona makes. When presented with Fiona’s samples, the dressmaker tells Annie: “We’ll buy as much as the girl can make!”. Celebrations ensue back at the apartment – Mick talks of using the earnings from selling Fiona’s lace to move the family to their own farm, across the lake in Michigan. That evening, however, while Mick and Annie are working their second jobs, a fire – presumably the Chicago fire – comes tearing through the neighborhood and Fiona and Ailish must flee. They make it to safety, but how will their mother and father find them?
Inspired by Ailish’s favorite story about their parents, Fiona cuts up her beautiful – and now extremely valuable – lace and uses it to mark a path to a basement where the girls eventually lie down to sleep. The next morning, shortly after they awake, they hear a familiar voice cry out “My lambs…my meek little lambs!” It is their father and mother at last – overjoyed at having found their girls amid the devastation of the fire. Ailish is heartbroken over the destruction of Fiona’s lace, but Mick assures them both that their family “…and generations after…will cherish this lace…always!” And they do; according to Ms. Polacco’s end note, those pieces of lace continue to be family heirlooms to this day.
“Fiona’s Lace” is a moving story about the importance of family, of relying on each other and persevering. It is also set against a fascinating backdrop of Irish and American history, and Ms. Polacco’s epilogue adds to the impact of the story by letting the reader know that the tale has tentacles into her life today – that it is part of her family’s lore.
The towns of Tralee and Tralah have been rivals “for as far back as anyone can remember.” The two burgs compete with each other annually for the prize of best St. Patrick’s Day decorations – a prize awarded by the official county judge in the form of a golden shamrock. It is a prize that Tralee has never won, but with each defeat they remain confident of next year’s triumph, despite their track record and the taunts from the people of Tralah.
This year, little Fiona Riley has a foolproof plan – the people of Tralee must paint the town green…entirely green (except, of course, for the mailboxes which are government property, and the fire hydrants which must remain yellow in order to be seen). Everyone agrees this is an excellent plan, and they all set to work on this arduous task – while their counterparts in Tralah work assiduously to decorate their own town with glittery cardboard shamrocks.
One day before St. Patrick’s day, a stranger (who looks suspiciously like a leprechaun) rides into Tralah seeking aid. His cows have become stuck in a nearby river and he must free them quickly. Unfortunately, the haughty people of Tralah are too busy to spare any time for the stranger, who is forced to seek assistance in Tralee. Led by the example of little Fiona, the people of Tralee are persuaded to abandon their brushes (and their best chance yet to defeat Tralah) so that they may help the stranger wrest his herd from the mud at the bottom of the river. Upon completing the task, they arrive home too exhausted to finish decorating – and they all fall asleep with the town only partially painted.
When they awake, they find that every inch of Tralee has indeed been painted green (except of course for the mailboxes and fire hydrants – as previously explained). There is cheering, whooping, and hollering – and the people of Tralee are finally awarded the golden shamrock; their trophy case is empty no more. When they rush to tell the stranger of their good fortune, however, the only trace of him is a single golden cow bell left in a field. The grateful people of Tralee place the cow bell next to their trophy – on which little Fiona’s name has been inscribed – and decide that they will no longer compete with Tralah. From this day forward they will celebrate and decorate as they will with no regard for judges or prizes, but simply for the sheer joy of it.
I loved reading this book. The oil paint illustrations fill every page with deep and vibrant color, and the text is almost like a song with all the Irish names and expressions: O’Learys and McLeans, Reverend Flaherty, Brogan O’Neill, Fiona Riley, and a little man who keeps exclaiming “sure and begorra” when explaining how his cows are stuck in the mud. It’s a thoroughly satisfying conclusion, as well, with the kind-hearted people of Tralee richly rewarded and finally able to (figuratively) take their ball and go home so they can play their own game according to their own rules.
Oh – and more cowbell! Sorry, had to.
This book was very silly and fun. It’s based on the children’s song “Michael Finnegan” and is meant to be sung. Unfortunately for our family, I did not know the tune of the song until I looked it up online later in the evening – but I think everyone enjoyed it…I sure did. It’s repetitive, but the repetition is entertaining, and there’s something about saying the name Michael Finnegan – especially with an Irish accent – that makes me smile. The book also wins extra points because when we first bought it, our youngest wanted to hear it read again and again.
In this extended version of the song, Michael plays the violin frequently but never very well. He becomes rich being paid not to play, is laughed at by his family for never actually getting any better, and eventually finds a soul mate in a little dog, Quinn, who loves his music. The book ends with the exuberant lines:
Michael takes his violin-igan,
Quinn sits up and starts to grin-igan,
Kisses Michael on his chin-igan,
Happy Michael Finnegan, begin-igan!
And in closing…
May your glass be ever full.
May the roof over your head be always strong.
And may you be in heaven half an hour before the devil knows you’re dead.
There are many great Irish toasts that could be mentioned here, but I have always especially appreciated this one. Sláinte!