Book Review: Twiggy Woman – Oein DeBhairduin


Posted 5 months ago in Print

DDF apr-may-24 – Desktop

“DeBhairduin’s tales function within an uncanny world of ghostly realism”

If the recent successes of ‘Seanchoíce’ (an Ireland-based storytelling night that continuously sells out in seconds — for those not in the know) is anything to go by, the act of storytelling is having a revival…or perhaps it never really went away. Far from a dying art, we are witnessing the modernisation of the oral tradition, and Oein DeBhairduin’s collection, Twiggy Woman, is no exception.

Beautifully and spookily illustrated by Helena Grimes, DeBhairduin’s collection of eerie folktales weaves ‘threads of connection between our mundane outer lives and our deep inner world’. From eyes appearing in bathtubs, to hungry grass and boots with a mind of their own, DeBhairduin’s tales function within an uncanny world of ghostly realism, constantly reminding us of the overlap between what is ‘real and surreal’ and our attempts at ‘command over both’.  

Often these tales seem to function more as parables than ghost stories, bringing with them ‘slivers of wisdom about how to engage with the unexpected’. In “Lantern,” DeBhairduin shares these cautionary words — ‘The living, if unrelenting in their grief, can hold the dead on the threshold and twist them into something unnatural,’ and in “Hungry Grass” we are reminded that ‘a well-fed friend, living or dead, is better than a hungry one’. My personal favourite lesson is shared in “Wisht”— ‘having a voice…is a thing to protect’. With these warnings DeBhairduin is reminding us that, far from silly superstitions, heeding these tales is wise if we want to keep the ghosts at bay… even if we tell ourselves we don’t believe in ghosts.

 

There is a slight contradiction within this collection between the written and the oral. Storytelling, particularly in Ireland, is inherently tied to the act of speaking aloud, some old stories are even forbidden from being put to paper. It is tempting to question whether DeBhairduin’s written folktales can really embody the same essence as those spoken around a campfire. However, it is clear that DeBhairduin has succeeded in lifting his stories from the page. What really stands out is the peppering of forgotten Irish phrases — ‘Shade-ogs’ describing Gardai, for example: even some internet digging only reaches as far as ‘Shades’ — relating to the Irish for whistle. These words enhance the stories, imbuing them with a sense of legitimacy and history. DeBhairduin’s preambles before each tale also act in the same way, grounding each story in personal experience and allowing DeBhairduin to truly embody the role of storyteller.

But it is DeBhairduin’s prose style that really cements this collection with an ‘essence of oral storytelling’. He has a knack for rhythmic descriptions that are almost lyrical and certainly poetic; two sisters are described as ‘close like a shoe and a sock’ and a story settles in a child’s imagination ‘faster than the turn of a key and heavier than a set of locks’.

Twiggy Woman is a collection that earns its place in the Irish folktale tradition and will undoubtedly settle in the imagination also.

Words: Holly Gash

Twiggy Woman

Oein DeBhairduin

[Skein Press]

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