This might be a somewhat reductive thing to say about what was the dominant way of communicating in Ireland for the vast majority of its recorded history, but Gaeilge—the Irish language—is having something of a moment of late. There has been a surge of numbers in Irish immersion schools in the past few years (though travel restrictions during the pandemic have stalled that rise slightly) and now around 8% of students in Ireland are taught solely in the medium of Irish, and some 2% in Northern Ireland. Undoubtedly owing to the Ireland’s Irish language requirement in all schools, at the last census 1.8 million people claimed to speak Irish, almost 40% of the population.
Against this backdrop, it is no surprise that last year Children’s Books Ireland (CBI) named Áine Ní Ghlinn as its first Laureate na nÓg (Children’s Laureate) who writes entirely in the Irish language.
One of the chief beneficiaries of this Gaeilge resurgence and, in a virtuous circle sort of way, one of the entities which is also boosting it, is the children’s publisher Futa Fata, based in the Gaeltacht (Irish-speaking) County Galway district of Connemara. Founder Tadhg Mac Dhonnagáin explains that while the public’s overall interest in preserving Gaeilge has fluctuated in the century since the birth of the Irish state, “it wasn’t really until the 1960s that these immersion schools began to appear in Dublin and they have in the intervening years become more and more popular. They’re kind of prestigious now, and I think perhaps it’s a growing confidence in Irish people about who they are, and what they are.”
Mac Dhonnagáin does concede, with a smile and shake of the head, that it is unfortunate that Ní Ghlinn’s Laureate na nÓg role has been during Covid-19: “Yes, the pandemic has been a very strong headwind for [Ní Ghlinn’s] laureateship. But I will say that the mere fact that there is an Irish-language laureate shows the growing support from CBI, which is a really important organisation in this area. They have helped us get across the idea that with the Irish language it’s a question of inclusiveness. So, whatever projects or initiatives are happening, it is only fair that a certain amount of activity will take place in the Irish language.”
Creating a buzz
Futa Fata (which means a buzz or a babble of excitement, like the sound in a hall before a concert begins) primarily caters to that immersion market. Mac Dhonnagáin explains: “The immersion group are the kids who have the actual level of Irish to be able to read the length of something like a middle-grade book—a child who is in an English medium school wouldn’t have that level. So, we are publishing for children who are Irish speakers, not doing high/low titles which are really more educational texts.”
The list is split between translations and home-grown Irish-language originals. The Anglophone authors and illustrators are “those iconic brands most recognisable in Ireland”, such as David Walliams and Tony Ross, Jeff Kinney, Oliver Jeffers and Julia Donaldson (Mac Dhonnagáin, incidentally, has translated all five of the Donaldson/Axel Scheffler books on the list). There are also a number of Belgian, Dutch and German translations, “for no real reason”,” says Mac Dhonnagáin, “other than I saw them [at the Bologna Children’s Book Fair] and thought they would work well”.
But its Irish language output can go toe-to-toe with any of the imports. Futa Fata is particularly strong in picture books, having had titles shortlisted this and last year for the CBI Book of the Year Award (not so common for Gaeilge books): Marie Zepf and illustrator Paddy Donnelly’s Míp (“Meep” is the name of the robot title character) this year; and Scúnc agus Smúirín (“Skunk and Sniffy”) by Muireann Ní Chíobháin—and again illustrated by Donnelly—in 2020. Indeed, picture books are the driver of its rights business, which Futa Fata has been giving a lot of welly to in recent years, with licences sold into 15 territories across the list.
Mac Dhonnagáin was born in Aghamore, County Mayo, and spoke Irish at home growing up. He started out as a teacher in an immersion school himself before going to RTÉ in Dublin to work as a presenter and writer in children’s and adult television—all while also performing as a singer/songwriter. He moved west when RTÉ set up an Irish-language service in Galway and in 2005 he decided to put out a book/CD of traditional Irish rhymes and songs for kids, Gugalaí Gug. He talked to a few publishers about it, then opted to publish it on his own. “I figured I might make more money. But it was unusually successful for an Irish book and I thought, ‘Wow, publishing is really easy.’ That was the beginning and we’ve built it up ever since. Of course, we never matched those sales again—except perhaps when we first published the Wimpy Kid.”
Futa Fata is branching out this year with a new adult contemporary fiction imprint, Barzaz, which has two titles on the launch list: Algerian novelist Yasmina Khadra’s Khalil (translated from the French by Máirín Nic Con Iomaire), about a disaffected young Muslim who has become radicalised; and Mac Dhonnagáin’s own Madame Lazare, which sees a woman looking into the secret past of her Paris-based Holocaust survivor grandmother, which just might lead to Ireland.
Mac Dhonnagáin says: “We’re starting on a modest basis, but the idea kind of goes back to these immersion schools again. For years we have had them and there didn’t seem to be any follow-on after students left school, particularly for those who don’t live in Irish-speaking areas. But then with social media in the past 10 years or so, that’s begun to change. You have a lot of interaction online, bringing these fluent adults together, which has led to a surge in interest for Irish reading, with book clubs springing up. We wanted to tap into that. Sure, it’s niche—anything we do will always be a niche—but there is a market. We also want to see what we can do with foreign rights, because we have learned a lot over the last few years. So, we thought we’d have a go.”
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