An Gadaí Dubh, by Siobhán Ní Mhuimhneacháin (An Gúm €8)
A SHADOWY thief dressed all in black steals a valuable horse under cover of night.
He gallops away on the stolen steed, but when dawn breaks, the thief finds that instead of being miles away from the scene of his crime, he has been riding round in circles and is back where he started.
The tale of the Gadaí Dubh has long been associated with St Gobnait, who established her religious settlement in Baile Mhúirne in the 6th Century, and whose church still bears a carved stone effigy said to represent the face of the ill-fated robber.
The dark folktale has now provided a Cork national school teacher with the inspiration for a new story based in the modern world.
An Gadaí Dubh, newly published by An Gúm in its Séideán Sí Irish language series, and aimed at fifth and sixth-class pupils, is the debut children’s novel from Siobhán Ní Mhuimhneacháin, who lives only a few miles from Reilig Ghobnatan, the Baile Mhúirne churchyard where a shrine to St Gobnait has for centuries been a popular pilgrimage site.
Siobhán was teaching in Gaelscoil Dhroichead na Banndan last year when she identified a need for a new novel in Irish that would interest the pupils in her class.
She decided that “if I were to write an Irish novel, it would have some kind of historical context”.
“I thought about a local slant on it and the story of the Gadaí Dubh always captures the public’s imagination.
“The Gadaí Dubh has black hair, a black beard, a black cloak, a black bag and he comes i ndubh na hoíche, in the black of night, gets up on the horse and tries to get away as fast as he can, but spends the whole night just going round in circles and only realises this the next morning.”
Siobhán, a native Irish-speaker who now teaches in Scoil Chúil Aodha/Barr d’Inse, decided to take a modern perspective on the traditional tale, from which Baile Mhúirne’s bookshop An Gadaí Dubh also derives its name.
“I used it as a springboard for a new novel based in the modern world,” she said.
“It’s based on a 12/13-year-old character in sixth class, called Dáibhí Ó Dálaigh, who’s too cool for school and he creates this image of himself as the tough guy.
“He doesn’t believe in any traditional tales, in folklore or superstition. His teacher tells them of these stories but he’s highly sceptical.
“Dáibhí has been a gadaí himself — he has stolen things at school — so there’s a parallel between the gadaí beag and the gadaí dubh story,” said Siobhán.
“The last five chapters are based in Reilig Ghobnatan and the wood just beyond it.
"The supernatural world and the modern world mingle and he begins to question things and we see his character develop.”
Woven into the story are details of the rituals observed on the feast day of St Gobnait on February 11, and readers also learn about the more modern history of Reilig Ghobnatan, including the names of some of the culturally significant figures buried there, such as composer Seán Ó Riada and poets Seán Ó Ríordáin and Liam Ó Muirthile.
Siobhán, whose first Irish-language translation work, a children’s picture book by Fiona Rose entitled Lá le Daideó, was also published recently by Mantra Lingua, has previously had her poetry published in An Gúm’s Séideán Sí series, while her father Seán is also a noted composer of Irish language verse and song.