"Stolen Child". A literary comparison between McCann's short story and Yeat's poem

Hausarbeit, 2014

13 Seiten, Note: 1,7



1. Introduction

2. Identifying the topics
2.1. W.B. Yeats: The Stolen Child
2.1.1. Fairies
2.1.2. Different world
2.1.3. Child abduction
2.2. Colum McCann: Stolen Child
2.2.1. Irish past
2.2.2. Society outcasts
2.2.3. Father daughter relationship

3. Comparison and interpretation
3.1. Escaping into a better world
3.2. Dana: Irish goddess; Irish mythology and stereotypical Irish places
3.3. Fairies in “Stolen Child”
3.3.1. Dana:
3.3.2. All children
3.3.3. Will and the other veterans

4. Conclusion

5. Works Cited

1. Introduction

Quiet fields of green, wet grass; the wind howling over the highlands; an ocean so big and blue that one cannot help, but feel melancholically. Ireland has still lost nothing of its fascination that once worked as the fundament for the myths and folklore of a whole country. On the other hand, Ireland has seen many of its children emigrate into every part of the world in the last century. For many of them, this typical Irish landscape and folklore had played an important role in finding a new identity in the foreign country. It so happened with Colum McCann, when he moved to New York. When reading contemporary Irish literature, one will probably stumble across his small short story and not be able to do else but to wonder about the story’s title: “Stolen Child”. A remarkably sad topic that the Irish-American writer uses as a title for his short story. But not only that. The title is nothing new in Irish literature. About one century before the famous Irish poet William Butler Yeats had wrote his famous poem “The Stolen Child” and thereby made these words something that modern day literates quite surely know and would not use if not wanting to make a clear reference towards his poem. „Stolen Child“ by William Butler Yeats is a poem which he wrote in 1886. “Stolen Child” is a short story written by Colum McCann. It is part of “Fishing in the sloe-black river”, a collection of short stories by the same author and was first published in 1994. As Yeats is a famous Irish Poet and Colum McCann is an Irish writer, there is a high chance that he knew the poem and weaved in some of its topics on purpose. The most remarkable indication is the story’s title, which goes like the title of Yeats’s poem: Stolen child, but other themes such as that of the Irish goddess Dana or the topic of fairies seem to fit both works. I hereby pose the thesis that Irish mythology and Yeats’ poem influenced the short story written by Colum McCann. In first step, I will pick out important aspects from the two texts and give detail on topics such as fairies and Irish mythology as far as concerning either the poem or the short story. This allows me, in a second step, to connect the knowledge about the aspects shared by both works and give interpretations in a stringent manner, with all necessary background knowledge already given.

2. Identifying the topics

There are three main themes that occur in Yeats’s poem, which need to be explained in order to achieve a clear terminology before it comes to describing the actions of McCann’s short story: The imagination of a different, a parallel world; the phenomenon of fairies and the reception of fairies in the Irish folklore; and the dilemma of parents losing their children to faeries. The same procedure has to be conducted with the McCann’s short story. The themes scrutinised there will be: the fascination of Ireland and Irish past, the blind children as outcasts of the society and the father-daughter relationship between the two protagonists Padraic and Dana.

2.1. W.B. Yeats: The Stolen Child

Yeats’s poem “Stolen child” is about fairies leading a “human child” (TSC[1] 53) into their mystic haunts. Its parents are thereby robbed of their child who cannot return to the world of the humans anymore. To identify what the central terms of the poem might have meant to its author we will have to take a closer look at them:

2.1.1. Fairies

Fairies were seen as an “otherworld community”, “community of the dead living in their burial chambers” or a “spiritual community” (Dáithí Ó hÒgáin 206) following the Irish goddess Dana. Therefore they were called the “Tuatha Dé Danann” (ibd. 206). Fairies were “patrons and bestowers” (ibd. 206) but also tended to interfere with humans (cf. ibd. 210). “The Irish fairies were not imagined as being very different in form or appearance to the human race, except that they might be somewhat paler in hue […]”(ibd. 210) The leader goddess of the fairies, Dana (or Danu), a powerful goddess, was “in charge of […] the Tuathe de Dannan […]. She had magic that could control the sea, the mist, the sun and the very sounds and shapes of the morning.” (SC[2] 99) It is to be assumed that W. B. Yeats had this understanding of the Irish folklore when he wrote the poem “The Stolen Child” and that he weaved in these topics regarding their meaning for someone familiar with the mythology.

2.1.2. Different world

Dáithí Ó hÒgáin states that in the Irish folklore: “Fairy dwellings […] are beautiful places, decorated with […] with sumptuous food and drink and melodious music.” (Dáithí Ó hÒgáin 207) and that fairies “were described as living in a timeless realm” (ibd. 206). Yeats seems to have had a similar picture of fairy realms in mind. In his poem the landscapes are beautifully described: “Where dips the rocky highland / Of Sleuth Wood in the lake”. (TSC 53) The fairies speak about food in abundance: “There we’ve hid out faery vats / Full of berries / and of the reddest stolen cherries.” (ibd.). Dancing and music are also mentioned: “We foot it all the night / Weaving olden dances / Mingling hearts ad mingling glances”(ibd.). The poem’s chorus uses the invocation “Oh human child” to speak directly to the one following the fairies into their world. “To the waters and the wild / With a faery hand in hand” gives the impression of a peaceful parallel world to which children can escape from a “world […] full of weeping”. (ibd. 53)

2.1.3. Child abduction

HÒgáin’s “Lore of Ireland” says: “Human children were also in danger of abduction, and this belief had a social dimension, for the threat of fairies was frequently used as means of warning children to stay safely near their home.” (Dáithí Ó hÒgáin 209) “In some places it was customary to sprinkle a drop of urine on children before they left the house, so as to keep fairy abducters at bay.” (ibd. 211) Several myths and narratives were built upon the scenario of fairies stealing children. (cf. ibd. 209) The idea of fairies stealing children might well be still in the minds of Irish parents and it can be expected that Yeats even grew up with this myth influencing his childhood. He probably had this in mind, when he wrote his poem in 1886.

2.2. Colum McCann: Stolen Child

In 1994, nearly a hundred years later, Colum McCann wrote his short story “Stolen Child”. It is about a social worker developing a relationship to one of his patienst who later on marries a Vietnam veteran. The protagonist “Padraic” has problems giving “Dana”, a black girl, away into the new relationship.

2.2.1. Irish past

The theme of Irish mythology or of Ireland itself is often directly referred to in the short story. Padraic himself is from Ireland and speaks to his wife Orla about it: “’Yeah, but we were normal and that was Ireland.’ ‘Since when was Ireland normal?’” (SC 102), “We can leave then. Go back to Ireland” (ibd. 103). It can be assumed that Padraic is unhappy with his life in New York and misses his very personal Irish past. It also might be that he enjoys talking about Irish mythology, because it helps him forming his identity in America. The connection to the Irish past is also used to describe the relationship between him and the blind children “Padraic had come far across an incomprehensible ocean from a place called Leitrim […]”.(idb. 97) “The man brings the child a history that she previously lacked […]” (Cahill and Flannery 21) As Dana is not able to see the appearance of Padraic, she has to listen to his voice to identify him: “[…] when Dana first heard him laugh she thought he must have swallowed a very tiny insect or bird that made his voice the way it was. […] Later, alone, she wondered whether it was a cricket or a thrush or a praying mantis that Padraic had swallowed.” (ibd. 98) For many Americans, the Irish accent sounds remarkably and is therefore another mean of identifying an Irish immigrant. The most remarkable reference to the Irish past: Dana bears the name of the ancient Irish goddess Dana or Danu, which she tries to identify with from the moment Padraic tells her about her. “She threw questions at Padraic – how old was Dana? how did she die? was she black? was she blind? did she wear coloured clothes?” (ibd. 100). She also gains interest in Ireland and asks about it.: “How far is Ireland?” (ibd. 101) “The connection to the country, in the end, helps her to form her own identity outside of the country […]” (Cahill and Flannery 21)

2.2.2. Society outcasts

Throughout the story a dark atmosphere is established, regarding the inhabitants of the blind children’s home. Either by description of the conditions in the children’s home: “puddled road”, “set fire to the couch in the living room”, “put his foot through the stereo” (SC 96) or free indirect thought: “[…] all the kids, those forgotten blind children, the snotrags of society, the disenfranchised, the unseeing […]” (ibd. 96). “Personae non gratae, Dana and her peers are kept at bay from society and secluded in a building that looks like a prison […]. (Maudet 6) The Vietnam veterans suffer the same fate. Even the priest who marries Dana and Will in the end is drunk. He completes the picture of a parallel world where community outcasts live, almost hidden to the wealthy or healthy people, who can in this context be regarded as “normal” people.


[1] (TSC 53) for the poem „The Stolen Child” by W. B. Yeats

[2] (SC 99) for the short story „Stolen Child“ by Colum McCann

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"Stolen Child". A literary comparison between McCann's short story and Yeat's poem
Katholische Universität Eichstätt-Ingolstadt
ISBN (eBook)
ISBN (Buch)
778 KB
Colum, McCann, William Butler, Yeats, Stolen Child, comparison
Arbeit zitieren
Erik Lutz (Autor:in), 2014, "Stolen Child". A literary comparison between McCann's short story and Yeat's poem, München, GRIN Verlag, https://www.grin.com/document/334882


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