Among the many treasures of gutenberg.org are stories about Irish children. By and large these are stories for the American market; most likely no Irish children ever read them. Sometimes they are stand-alone works; more often they are part of a series featuring children of different nationalities.
The book above, ‘Shaun O’Day of Ireland’, was part of the Children of All Lands series written by Madeline Brandeis and published between 1928 and 1938. The series is illustrated by way of still photographs rather than sketches; Brandeis was a film producer, and her child models were stars of stage and screen. A characteristic of her books was a sweet foreword, referencing her ‘very little daughter, Marie’. Marie was there when, driving from New York to California in 1937, her mother, Princess-Grace-like, crashed and died.
A sad ending for a very innovative children’s author. Brandeis’ stories not only look like movies; they read like the very best movie plots of the era, with just the right mix of cliche, whimsy, psychological insight and period detail to keep even the modern reader entertained.
‘Shaun O’Day’ is a good example. The eponymous hero, shown below, is a little Irish boy of unfeasibly swoonable good looks who wears a red flannel petticoat. This is so that the fairies will think he is a girl and will not take him; the fairies, like most Irish mothers, are only interested in boys.
Shaun has a devoted tam-o-shantered girlfriend Eileen, with whom he hangs out on the rocks beside his home.
When his father, a fisherman, is drowned, Shaun casts off his red petticoat and, throwing it into the lake beside his home, bids farewell to Eileen and stowaways to America.
Having considerably matured on the voyage out, he meets a spoilt rich little girl called Marjorie whom, in true Quiet Man fashion, he returns kicking and screaming over-shoulder to her parents for giving him cheek.
Naturally, she falls in love with him, and despite the considerable age difference, the pair of them become good pals.
Alas, due to a misunderstanding when Shaun spills hot chocolate on another little girl’s dress, they lose contact. Shaun returns to Ireland, marries Eileen (henceforth referred to as ‘Dawn’ due to his habit of calling her ‘Dawn o’ the Day’) and has a son, John. I can’t say if Shaun kept his looks, since there are no further photos of him. Presumably he was no longer cute enough to interest a Hollywood producer.
Marjorie, on the other hand, grows up with the face of an angel and the figure of Jean Harlow (photo above). Rootless and unsettled, she heads to Ireland, seeking to assuage the loss of Shaun by making friends with his son John, who is now the same age that she was when she met Shaun. She shows him her beautifully vintage car and takes him for a trip in it around Ireland.
Naturally, given her ethereal-yet-voluptuous appearance, strange vehicle and the fact that he wasn’t wearing his red petticoat the day they met, John assumes Marjorie is a fairy. When other boys say she isn’t he fights them. A doubt has been set off in his mind, however – is this wonderful lady really the otherworldly creature of his imagination, or, heaven forbid, merely human?
Eventually he hits upon a test worthy of Solomon - he will make a date with Marjorie, but this time wear the red petticoat, and see if she appears. If she does, she’s no fairy (see above for red petticoats, fairies, girls etc); if she doesn’t, she’s the real deal. Marjorie knows what he is doing and elects to play along, though it means forever losing what she most cares for in the world. The story ends with little red-petticoated John alone by the lake, stood up – but happy that his fairy really was a fairy after all. The last line of the book? “He will always keep his dreams”.
The moral of the story, perhaps, is that men are happier, left alone with their ideals of women, than they would be living with those same women in actuality? In a world which persistently insists that all one has to do to merit love is to show one’s true self, an unusual – but perhaps not entirely incorrect – idea.
‘Shaun O’Day of Ireland’ is a most excellent read and the photographs lovely in their innocence. Link to the full book here. Bio of Brandeis here. You can access other books in the Children of All Lands series at this Project Gutenberg page here.