Stu Harrison is a Liverpool-based artist, working in illustration.
When you meet him, you’ll be swept up, in a world busier than a Black Friday sale. Stu’s immersed in comic culture and has the energy of a Hallowe’en bag of Haribo. So, who better to create a kids’ book than him?
Stu applied to our open-call Irish-language commission, run annually in partnership with Gael Linn and An tUltach. When it came through, we were blown away! Consequently, we commissioned Stu to produce a children’s book: Brave Maeve. It’s available to buy now on Kindle (link to follow). Additionally, there’ll be 250 hard copies available during #LIF2023. Look out for copies at the Family Day and Samhain Céilí.
Brave Maeve connects 6,000-years of Irish folklore to today. This celebratory work ties beautifully with anniversary and legacy, commemorating thousands-of-years of storytelling, culture and history.
- Leprechauns – an overview
- Stu – who is he?
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Leprechauns: they’re cute and cuddly. They pop up, cheerily, each St Patrick’s day with a Guinness, a smile and a sly sense of humour. They look grand in their shamrock-green top hats and orange beards…
…But, what would you say if I told you the origin began differently to today’s ‘Disney-fied’ cliche? Meet the ancestor of the leprechaun: the púca. These shape-changing, supernatural goblins are bringers of good and bad fortune. They “were wicked-minded, black-looking, bad things … [they’d] come in the form of wild colts, with chains hanging about them, [harming] unwary travellers” (Keightley, Thomas (1880), The Fairy Mythology, p371). Thus, ancient Irish folklore often differs from commercial interpretations seen today. Look deeper and its both magical. fantastical, spooky and sometimes downright terrifying!
A quick introduction to me: Stuart Harrison. I’m a kids’ book writer and illustrator. I like researching material. I’m often asked to refresh certain subjects in fun, contemporary ways to help children -who may not be attracted to the topic- learn. Recently, in a job for Oxford University Press, I re imagined a Shakespeare play in the style of games avatars. We told the story of Romeo and Juliet using online social media formats. Using comic strips or cartoons is a great approach to make subjects accessible and more entertaining. Similarly, when I worked for Scholastic, I illustrated books to teach foreign readers to speak English, using skateboarding skeletons! A free CD helped readers listen along with the comic strip.
I saw Liverpool Irish Festival’s advert, seeking inventive ways to promote Gaeilge (Irish language). The prompt helped me come up with a bilingual format, which included English in one speech bubble and Gaeilge in another. This meant the reader could easily read both -and learn- while being entertained by a fast-paced yarn.
I decided I wanted to produce a kids’ book; the subject matter had to be instantly exciting. I planned an irreverent, quick-flowing story; brimming with energy. When I started my research, into ancient Irish myths, I was spoiled for choice! There were so many fascinating characters, locations and stories to include; but I only had about 15 pages! What plot-type would allow a wealth of material and who would be my leading character? Could I squeeze in references to Liverpool and did we have any of our own mythical creatures?
My studio is at The Bluecoat. The Bluecoat is the UK’s oldest art centre and Liverpool’s oldest building. An imperious golden Liver Bird sits over the main entrance, greeting all visitors. I was sketching away when my pal, Nicky, called in with her niece, Maeve.
Maeve proceeded to jump about the room; opine about my artwork and generally jazz things up a bit. Hmmm. Maybe this gal could be the one to face up to a pesky púca and take a trip, to Tir Na nÓg (The Land of the Young)?
Plotwise, I’d send Maeve on a perilous quest, via a portal, into the ancient Irish ‘otherworld’. There she would fight for the return of her grandad’s mobile phone, stolen by a púca. Grandad Mac had been happily minding his own business in Anfield during Hallowe’en. Hallowe’en cunningly allowed me to allude to the origin of Samhain and a quest would let me include multiple folktales.
Without a thought for her own safety, Maeve embarked on a rough and tumble chase through a fantastical realm. On the journey she meets some truly amazing figures from Irish myth, as the cheeky púca evades her clutches.
The first character she meets is a friend. Áine the Fairy Queen, a goddess of summer and wealth, guides Maeve through this strange land. As they travel, they take directions from the Salmon of Knowledge, who’s a right know-all! Well, wouldn’t you be if you ate nine hazelnuts that fell into the Well of Wisdom?
Next, they bump into the Banshee. To give things a contemporary twist, the Banshee’s rehearsing for Ireland’s Got Talent. Maeve and Áine scarper; the sound of her singing’s so shocking it could only score 4 red buzzers. The authentic Banshee was a ragged dishevelled “woman of the fairy mound”, whose screaming and wailing was thought to foretell the death of a family member. Eek!
Another important mythological creature I included was the kelpie. Here, it gives a mischievous púca a ride across a wide river. I’ve drawn it as a rather colourful, jazzy beast; but in folklore it was a swimming horse. Like the púca, kelpies can shape shift, taking on numerous guises; from a rough shaggy old man that “devoured humans” to a pretty, young girl.
Giving chase, Maeve’s helped across the river by three swans. In mythology, The Children of Lir were turned into swans by their wicked stepmother, envious of their father’s love. On the opposite river bank, they turn back into children (perhaps with Maeve’s help)?
Though this epic tale revolves around myth, I wanted to include real locations. An important -and globally recognised place- is the Giant’s Causeway (County Antrim, Northern Ireland), formed of thousands of hexagonal basalt columns. According to legend the causeway (a raised road over wet ground) was built by behemoths to link Ireland and Scotland. In my story, these behemoths are two giants; the Irish Finn MacCool and the Scottish Benandonner. They’re so busy fighting they don’t even notice Maeve.
I couldn’t resist including lots of background detail throughout. I’ve included enigmatic ancient stone circles, structures and figures in homage to Ireland’s culture and past. I particularly like the Janus figure found in Caldragh Cemetery (Boa Island, Co Fermanagh, NI). It’s thought to represent a Celtic deity or goddess.
Our chase ends -in a titanic fashion- when Maeve catches the púca who transforms into a mighty raven! But wait! Something magical is happening to Maeve. Using a lucky Liver Bird charm, she unlocks her true persona, to become Queen Maeve. Embodying an ancient warrior, and with the help of her own mythical beast (a now mighty Liver Bird), she vanquishes the púca to recover the phone!
Then, it’s back home to Anfield for a chippy tea (no mushy peas).
Buy Brave Maeve
The Festival has printed 250 hard copies. Any left after the Festival will be available in our online shop (liverpoolirishfestival.com/shop), for £5 plus post and packaging.
I hope I’ve created a book filled with a bit of mythical (and local) magic. It would be nice to think I’d educated -or reminded- my readers about the rich folklore of Ireland. Now has anyone seen my phone? It was here a minute a go…
For more information on Stu, visit https://stu-art.biz/