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The Baldwin Project: Seumas MacManus

Seumas MacManus

(1869 - 1960)

1899 In Chimney Corners Fairy Tales
1900 Donegal Fairy Stories Fairy Tales


Autobiographical sketch from the Junior Book of Authors, 1935; courtesy of the H.W. Wilson Company

I was born in County Donegal, which is Ireland's northwestern cornerstone. It is the wildest, most remote, most rugged and mountainous, the most barren and the most beautiful, as well as the most Irish, corner of Ireland.

I am one of the mountain people. As a barefoot boy I herded cattle and sheep on the hills, labored on the farms, attended the mountain school, where I got the little education that is mine. At night I rambled, like the other lads, from cottage to cottage, among the hills, sitting in the fireside circle around the big, blazing turf-fire, listening to the old men telling the fairy tales and the ancient folk tales, and the old women singing the ancient songs, or someone reciting a thousand-year-old poem—of all of which I was passionately fond.

When I was seven years of age, I was myself a shanachie—could tell a hundred of the old tales, as I had learned them by a hundred firesides. I told the tales to the lads who came with me for the herding, the lads who traveled with me three miles over the hills for mass on Sunday, to the lads who went to and came from school with me. Many of my tales I learned in the little mountain school, for oftentimes when the master saw five or six of us with our heads together, puzzling over a mathematical problem (as he thought), we, the boys from five or six different mountain glens, were, each of us, telling in turn, the best story we had heard the night before. Or we were telling some wonderful fairy happenings of the week before—for the Donegal hills are, perhaps more than any other part of Ireland, favored of the fairies—or one of us was teaching to the rest an old ballad he had learned yesterday.

I was passionately fond of books, and during my boyhood devoured every book that was to be found among our hills, altogether as many as thirteen or fourteen or fifteen.

At the age of sixteen I began making poems, made them while I herded, or plied the spade on my father's hillside—chiefly patriotic poems, dealing with Ireland's long long struggle for freedom from England, and of the herces who in ages past had fought and died for freedom's cause throughout our land. Within another year I was publishing prose and verse, in the little weekly newspaper of our county, which was printed in Belashanny. I filled columns of this paper for the editor every week—columns that were written in school copybooks, on my knee, at the fireside at night, after my day's work was over. At the end of three years he gave me my first pay, a check for ten shillings, or two and a half dollars. And I was a proud man. Then he printed for me my first book of poems, with the Irish title, Shuilers, meaning Vagrants. Twelve hundred copies of it were bought at a shilling each—making me a wealthy young man.

But I had greater wealth now, for I had become the schoolmaster of our mountain school, teaching sixty or seventy boys in a little room that was thirty feet long by fifteen feet wide; and receiving therefore a great salary of three pounds, or sixteen dollars, a month, as well as a school penny which every scholar brought me every Monday morning.

Now also, a penny weekly story paper in Dublin ordered from me a series of nine stories at two and a half dollars each—which I wrote within nine days—still writing in copybooks on my knee at my father's kitchen fireside at night.

Hearing that American story papers paid higher than two and a half dollars a story, I wrote the full of a bag of stories, and then, closing my school, sailed for America in the steerage of a big liner. Arrived in New York I asked the names of papers and magazines that would pay well for stories, and was told that the best were Harper's and the Century. I went to Harper's with seven stories, and kind old Mr. Alden (then editor), much interested in the mountain boy dressed in homespun, read the stories himself, and kept six of them. And, to my dumbfounding, gave me a hundred dollars each for them. I went to the Century with ten stories, and they bought eight. With other stories, then, I tried the other five or six magazines that America knew at that time—and every one of them bought stories. I arrived in America in September, and sailed back to Ireland the following May, with a fortune, with which I bought a fairy hill in Donegal, of which I had always been enamored.

I returned to America again the next fall, with a new bag of stories, and carried home in the spring three times as big a fortune as that of twelve months before. My Donegal neighbors, knowing that anyone who wished could shovel up bags full of such stories among our hills, could hardly credit the simplicity of the American people!

American publishers began putting out my books, not only folk tale books, like Donegal Fairy Stories, In Chimney Corners, The Donegal Wonder Book, but also novels and original stories of Irish life, and Irish history—about fifteen or sixteen books, altogether. And I, who had never seen a college before I came to America, found a great field lecturing, and telling our old stories, to the big colleges and universities of this country, as well as the big clubs. This I have been doing for many, many winters. But for my summers I always go back to my own Donegal hills and my own Donegal people and my own Donegal fairies.

Under the ocean, off the coast of Donegal, lies a fairy paradise called Tirna'an-Og, the Land of Perpetual Youth, which has often been seen by our fishermen, rising over the waters, afar off, on beautiful evenings. It is a special annex of Heaven provided by the good Lord for His favorites, the Irish, whose bliss He desires to safeguard from the intrusion of Americans and the other common peoples of earth—and there I hope to go when I die.

That is, if I die.

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