‘Rising up into the air, they took to the sky and flew. From west and beyond west, into the wind and through it, they came past countless moons and suns. One laughed and briefly wore a scarf of raindrops in her hair, and then with wicked feet she kicked a cloud and caused rain to swamp a boat … They had been silent for so long … Silent, while man followed man as tiny blushes of life.’
Patricia Mary Shiels was born 22 January 1931 in Galway, the youngest of five children. She went to school in the Presentation and then the Mercy. In 1947 she went on holiday to England, but stayed and began working in a bookshop. She married J.J. O’Shea in 1953 and they had one child, Jim. In 1962 she moved to Manchester.
She began her writing career with the theatre in the 1960s. Here she was supported by David Scase and his successor Tony Colegate, who were directors of the Library Theatre in Manchester. She wrote for a number of years for both theatre and television. From 1969 however she began to write alone on a number of different projects: short stories, poems, and an unpublished comic novel. She then started on what was to become her magnum opus The Hounds of the Morrigan largely to please herself, her friends and their children.
Although it reads now with great ease and light-hearted spontaneity, every word had been weighed meticulously with, as Pat was to later claim, many of the chapters written eight or nine times. Such devotion reflected her wish to create something worthy of her own favourite books: John Masefield’s The Box of Delights, James Stephens’ The Crock of Gold and The Demi-Gods, Bulgakov’s The Master and Margarita, and the novels of Flann O’Brien. Her book is a fantasy aimed at children and young adults, yet it is difficult to categorize. It has been hailed as a classic by many reviewers; Benedict Kiely once claimed that Pat’s “own uninhibited fancy sets fire to all this in a most extraordinary fashion.” By 1982 the book was almost finished, and she decided to submit it to publishers. On six occasions it came back within a fortnight, unopened. The Oxford University Press published it in 1985, a wise move as it was a bestseller and was swiftly translated into five languages.
The story begins with the discovery of a mysterious manuscript in a Galway bookshop, which leads to the reappearance of the Celtic war-goddess, the Morrigan, who seeks a blood-stained pebble that will ensure her return to power. She is opposed by the good-god Dagda and his human agents, a young brother and sister, Pidge and Brigit. They are chased throughout the hills of Connemara by the Morrigan, on a high-powered motorbike, and her hounds. Along the way they encounter sweaty Gardai, cart-wheeling nuns, an angler who transforms into an angel, swans who turn into Gypsies, a frog with an inferiority-complex and an earwig who thinks he’s Napoleon. The Hounds of the Morrigan is a highly original and moving work and should be of interest to anyone young or old familiar with Galway.
She wrote a few ‘brilliant’ chapters of an unfinished sequel containing: a Christmas card scene, candelit shop windows, carol singers and a robin … and into this cheerful scene rides the great Irish witch the Morrigan with her wild sisters, bringing mayhem and magic and mischief. Pat O’Shea died 3 May 2007.
The Hounds of the Morrigan (Oxford University Press, 1985)
Finn MacCool and the Small Men of Deeds (Holiday House, 1987)
The Magic Bottle (Scholastic, 1999)
David Fickling, ‘Obit: Pat O’Shea’ The Guardian (23 June 2007)
Published Tuam Herald, 11 April 2018