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A wondrous happening in 558

Marianne McShane.

Page Turner / By Peter McDermott

“I am a seanchaí, a traditional Irish storyteller, and love to tell the old Irish folk and wonder tales.”

So said Marianne McShane, and there is no better way to introduce the author and her first book for children, “Rónán and the Mermaid: A Tale of Old Ireland,” published this week.

It is inspired by an ancient legend from her own home town. “The medieval Annals of the Four Masters recorded a wondrous happening in the year 558 - the mermaid Liban was brought to the shores of Belfast Lough, and baptized by Comgall, founder of the famous Abbey of Bangor,” she explained.

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“The annals give only a brief mention of the legend, but the tale intrigued me so much that I couldn’t get it out of my mind. It set my imagination on fire and I came up with the idea of a young foundling boy, Rónán, who had been reared at the abbey after being mysteriously discovered half-drowned on the beach by one of the monks,” said McShane, who was a children’s librarian for many years in the United States.

“It was a mystery where Rónán had come from, but he is convinced it was Liban who sang him to shore and saved his life. Rónán spends his days listening for her song but hears only the blackbirds singing, until one moonlight night he is awakened by a sweet sorrowful singing that floated in from the sea. It is a song he remembers,” said of a book that Candlewick Press suggests for a 5 to 8 age group.

“The painterly illustrations, with their natural browns, greens, and blues, are somber but fit well with the traditional tone of the story,” commented Kirkus Reviews about Jordi Solano’s artwork, adding “With this ode to music and mermaids, McShane deftly uses old stories to create a lyrical, satisfying new one.”

Marianne McShane

Place of birth: Bangor, Co. Down

Spouse: Tim Dwyer

Children: Catriona

Residence: Bangor, Co. Down.

What is your writing routine? Are there ideal conditions?

My stories come to me long before I put pen to paper. The “writing” begins in my imagination with ideas for setting and characters and what might happen to them. I like to start the day with a long walk, letting threads of the story drift through my mind. At this point I may not yet know how to weave them together, but I always write them down. I make lists of place names and characters. I draw up a very rough outline of how the story might develop, even though the writing might take me in a completely different direction. When I finally sit down to write, I need to be alone at my desk, in a quiet room with no distractions, and just get lost in the world of the story.

What advice do you have for aspiring writers?

Write the story that you want to read. That is the story in your heart. Read your words out loud. How do they sound? Is there rhythm and flow? Read, read, read. Read like a writer. Think of the books you love. Why do you love them so much? How has the writer captured you? And, most of all, never give up.

Name three books that are memorable in terms of your reading pleasure.

“Pride and Prejudice” has to be my top choice. I have loved it ever since I read it in my teens. I am drawn to quirky books that are lyrical, witty and wry. Jane Gardam’s “Queen of the Tambourine” is a favorite, and more recently I discovered Caitriona Lally’s debut novel “Eggshells,” a dark comedy set in Dublin. Not to be missed!

What book are you currently reading?

“Chasing Ghosts: An Arctic Adventure” by Irish writer Nicola Pierce. It’s an incredible piece of historical research and imagination. Pierce entwines the story of Franklin’s ill-fated search for the North West Passage with strange, ghostly happenings in the Derry family of young Ann Coppin, after her young sister Weesy died of a fever in 1849. Unforgettable.

If you could meet one author, living or dead, who would it be?

It would have to be Jane Austen. She was so perceptive, witty and wise. I’d love to have a good old gossip with her over a pot of tea.

What is your favorite spot in Ireland?

I must say it’s hard to beat County Down with its soft rolling hills and gentle coastline. Where else would you want to be?