Q&A with Francesca Diano on The Wild Geese.com Part 1

I’m greatly indebted to the wonderful people of The Wild Geese website: Maryann Tracy for her constant presence, help and ethusiastic support,  Gerry Regan for his  great help and presence. my special thanks to Belinda Evangelista, who introduced me to The Wild Geese and with her loving presence made all this possible.

FROM: The Wild Geese The history of the Irish worldwide




An interview to Francesca Diano. 


Italian’s Affair With Irish Antiquarian:
A Q&A With Writer Francesca Diano 

Writer and teacher Francesca Diano seems likely to be among Italy’s greatest living experts on Irish folklore, with her particular focus on the work of 19th century Irish folklorist Thomas CroftonCroker. She is what one might call in American slang “a chip off the old block,” the daughter of Carlo Diano, a famous philosopher and scholar of ancient Greek and professor at the University of Padua. He had a great influence on her interest in mythology and ancient cultures.

A graduate of Padua University, she lived in London for a time, where she taught courses on Italian art at the Italian Institute of Culture and worked at the Courtauld Institute of Art. In the late 1990s, she lectured in Italian at University College Cork.

A literary translator, having worked for well-known Italian publishers, she has done translations of many famous authors, including Croker. With Irish folklore and oral tradition among her main interests, she was lucky to find one of the few and very rare original copies of the 1825 first edition of Croker’s “Fairy Legends.”

Diano was curator for Collins Press, Cork, of the facsimile edition of “Fairy Legends,” which was released on the bicentenary of Croker’s birth [Editor’s Note: Croker was born at Cork on January 15, 1798]. For the occasion, she was interviewed by The Irish Times about her interest in Croker and Irish folklore. Her Italian translation of Croker’s work was launched at the Irish Embassy in Rome.

She has lectured extensively on art, literature, translation studies and Irish folklore. Her work been published in journals and newspapers. She writes poetry, in Italian and English, short stories and essays, and has served as art critic for some well known Italian artists.

In May, she will present on Irish funeral traditions and keening, a focus of Croker’s, at an international meeting in Tuscany on the 10th anniversary of the death of Italian-English writer and scholar Elémire Zolla.

Diano has her own blog, “Il ramo di corallo” (The Coral Branch) and is a teacher at the Art High School in Padua. The Wild Geese Folklore Producer Maryann Tracy decided to learn more about Diano’s fascinating Irish focus. Here’s what she learned:

The Wild Geese: You mentioned that everything connected to Ireland is a joy for your soul. How did you develop this love of Ireland?

Francesca Diano (left, with her T.C.Croker’s original book): Yes, it’s true. Ireland has this power of attraction and fascinates many people. I suppose this has something to do with its beautiful, intact nature, but also with a special energy radiating from the island. But, as far as I’m concerned, there is much more. It’s a long story, starting in London, in the early 70s, when I lived there for some years. I’m Italian, but although I love my country, since the first time I went to UK, I felt a strange sense of belonging. It was in London that I found this very special book. It all started from it. I’ve always loved fairy tales, myth and legends, and the past. The very distant past, but at the time I didn’t know much about Irish folklore and traditions.

Yet, as soon as I started to read this book, something clicked inside me. Like a faint bell ringing deep inside. I was extremely puzzled, because the anonymous author’s elegant style, encyclopedic culture and the same structure of the work clearly revealed a refined education and a great knowledge of the subject.

I have a very enquiring nature (I love detective stories), and discovering the name of the author was a challenge. At that time, the Internet had yet to come, as well as personal computers, so it was very difficult to do research from abroad. I was back in Italy then and from here I couldn’t find any clue about this work. In fact, in my country it was totally unknown. It took me 15 years to unveil the mystery, but all along those years of research my love for Ireland grew stronger and stronger. It was, you see, like digging for a treasure, or going on a quest, but that country, where I had never been before, didn’t seem unknown at all. It seemed like a place I knew and that was gradually coming back into my life. The time had come for the soul to find its way back to my soul country. That was how I got interested in Irish folklore. It was an act of love. Like if I was just rediscovering a great and long lost love.

The Wild Geese: How did you acquire Croker’s “Fairy Legends”?

Francesca Diano: It was while living in London that, on a late summer afternoon, I met for the first time an Irishman without a name. I was unaware at that time that he would completely change the course of my life.

I met him in an antiquarian bookshop in Hornsey, so the bookseller was actually a go-between. I had befriended the bookseller, and we shared a passion for old books, for things of the past, for the lovely smell of old dusty paper. In that shop I could dig into the past – a past that proved to be my future.

Often, on my way back from the Courtauld Institute, where I worked, I stopped there and he displayed his treasures in front of my adoring eyes — prints and books that rarely I could afford, as he was well aware of their value and he wasn’t very keen on parting with the objects of his love. But he liked me, so, that afternoon, knowing that soon I would return to Italy after my years in London, he went at the back of his bookshop, and after a while he emerged with a little book that he handed me with great care.

“I am sure you will like this very much,” he told me with a knowing smile. He charged me only £3.6. This book is now worth hundreds and hundreds of pounds. I often wonder, thinking of how this book dramatically changed my life, if the bookshop in Hornsey and the bookseller really ever existed, or were they just a fairy trick.

The Wild Geese:  Why is Croker’s work so significant?

Francesca Diano: Thomas Crofton Croker was an incredible man and a unique character. Since he was a young boy, he was fascinated by antiquities and old curiosities, so he started to collect them very early in his life. His family belonged to the Ascendency, but he developed a great interest in old Irish traditions and tales, a subject not at all considered at that time, if not with [disdain]. In his teens, he toured Munster, sketching old ruins and inscriptions, collecting tales and superstitions from the peasantry, noting them down, an interest quite unusual for an Anglo-Irish. Then, on the 23rd of June 1813, he went with one of his friends to the lake of Gougane Barra, to attend a “Pattern,” such was called the festivity of a Patron Saint.

On the little island in the middle of that lake, in the 6thcentury, Saint Finnbarr (or Barra), the patron and founder of Cork, had his hermitage. For centuries, around the lake, Saint John’s Eve was celebrated and a great number of people gathered there, even coming from distant places, to pray, sing, dance, play and feast.
It was on that occasion that Croker heard for the first time a caoineadh,recited by an old woman.  He noted it down and was so impressed, that he decided he would devote himself to collect and write down oral traditions.
Later he went to live and work in London as cartographer for the Admiralty, and in 1824 the publisher John Murray released his first work, Researches in the South of Ireland, a unique collection of observations, documents, descriptions and tales of the places and people, a sort of sentimental journey, so to say. Croker had collected so much of oral tales and traditions that Murray asked him to write a book. So, in 1825, he did, and that was the first collection of oral tales ever published on the British Isles.
 Croker greatly admired the Brothers Grimm, and their work inspired him. In fact, the “Fairy Legends” were translated into German by them that same year, as they acknowledged the great importance of this work, although it was anonymous. Later, they became friends and they even contributed to a later edition of Croker’s legends with a long essay.
The 1825 first edition bears, in fact, no author’s name. This was because Croker had lost the original manuscript, and he asked his friends in Cork to help him in reconstructing it. So, honest and true as he was, in this first edition he only refers to himself, not by name, but as “the compiler.”
This edition was printed in 600 copies and sold out in a week! And Croker became a famous man. The importance of Croker’s work lays in its very modern structure and research method. That is, in the fact that he gives the tales as they were told to him, and all his rich notes and comments are confined at the end of each tale, thus showing great respect for his informants and for the truth. This is why he is regarded as the pioneer of Irish folklore and of folklore research in the British Isles.
The Wild Geese:  What compelled you to translate Croker’s work into Italian?
Francesca Diano: My father was one of the greatest Italian translators of the Greek tragedies, but also of German and Swedish authors. So I can say I breathed the art of translation since I was born. Translating, as I said, is first of all an act of love, that is, knowledge and a way to share this knowledge with others. A way to connect cultures and times.
But I started to translate Croker’s work long before I decided to publish it. It was because I loved it and because I wanted my children to love it with me. I’ve always had the spirit of a storyteller, and I told my children stories every night, at bedtime, for years and years. So, that was the first reason why I translated it. They were its first Italian public. Later I submitted my work to a publisher.
The Wild Geese:  I understand that you just completed your first novel. Tell me about it.
Francesca Diano: Yes, after more than seven revisions in the course of some years, I eventually resolved it was time to print my novel. I’m an obsessive editor! “The White Witch” (“La Strega Bianca” in Italian) is, as according to the subtitle, an Irish story, set mainly in Ireland and partly in Italy. It came first as short story I wrote while living in Ireland, which later developed into a novel.
Sofia, the main character of the story, sets on a long journey through Ireland on a very special quest, a mystery to be unravelled. There is also a love story that belongs to another life and a surprising encounter with a woman, who is both a witch and a psychic — the White Witch. She will help to lift the veil hiding Sofia’s past.
The beauty and magic of the island reveal to Sofia the power of the feminine, the healing power of the Great Mother Goddess, as a means of a total transformation.
Sofia’s is a journey through time and space, paralleled by a journey inside her. …
 While meeting the various characters in her new homeland, Sofia recalls people and events of her life, and all the things that were before unclear and confused. These will now acquire a new meaning and place through the unexpected events of her new life.
Cork, Cobh, Dublin, Monkstown, the Killarney lakes, Glandore, the National Museum, are all for Sofia places of learning and discovery. Each one of them is a center. In Ireland, Sofia will find the mother she never had. WG

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Charles Dickens e Henry Mayhew: un doppio bicentenario ignorato (in Italia).

Henry Mayhew (1812- 1887)

Charles Dickens (1812 – 1870)

Charles Dickens e Henry Mayhew nacquero entrambi a Londra ed entrambi nel 1812 ed entrambi avrebbero avuto un ruolo decisivo come scrittori nella cultura vittoriana, seppure in modo diverso.  Non solo si conoscevano, ma l’opera di Dickens fu fortemente influenzata da quella di Mayhew, anche se in Italia non lo sa nessuno.

Mayhew ebbe una vita movimentata ed avventurosa. Da ragazzo fuggì da scuola e si imbarcò su una nave diretta a Calcutta. Visse lontano dall’Inghilterra alcuni anni, tornò, divenne avvocato, iniziò a scrivere come giornalista  e fu uno dei due fondatori del gloriosissimo Punch. Scrisse romanzi di successo, commedie e articoli, ma il suo nome, famosissimo, è legato a un’opera che precorre si molto i tempi, sia per l’oggetto che per il modo in cui fu redatta. Parlo di London  Labour and the London Poor, pubblicata prima in tre volumi nel 1851 e successivamente in quattro volumi nel 1861-62,  che raccolgono  l’enorme mole di materiale pubblicato negli anni precedenti sotto forma di  articoli sul Morning Chronicle.

Come tutti sanno, le opere di Dickens costituiscono un affresco spesso terribile della Londra vittoriana.  La vita miserabile dei poveri, gli orrori delle case di lavoro o dei vicoli del West End, lo sfruttamento del lavoro minorile, l’abbrutimento, le malattie e della mancanza di ogni servizio sanitario per i diseredati, fanno a volte credere, al lettore che non possegga una conoscenza più approfondita degli strati più deprivati della società vittoriana, che Dickens abbia calcato la mano. Ma è vero l’opposto.

Dickens aveva una conoscenza diretta delle durezze di quel mondo, poiché da bambino, insieme  alla sua famiglia aveva dovuto sopportare un anno di internamento in una prigione per debitori a causa dei rovesci economici del padre.

Ma la vera fonte del materiale che Dickens usa per la sua rappresentazione di una società feroce e impietosa con i meno fortunati, è questa incredibile opera di Mayhew.

Prostituzione. Illustrazione originale del testo di Mayhew 

Jack Black.jpg

Jack Black, Her Majesty’s ratcatcher. Ill. originale nel testo.

Acquistai una copia anastatica dell’opera di Mayhew quando molti anni fa vivevo a Londra e la lettura di questo testo (la cui traduzione italiana ho più volte proposto senza che alcun editore ne prendesse alcuna nota, tanto per cambiare) mi lasciò senza parole. Man mano che leggevo, ritrovavo la Londra di Dickens, i suoi personaggi, le sue atmosfere e mi permise finalmente di trovare una chiave di lettura molto più profonda dello scrittore che è tra quelli che amo di più in assoluto.  Uno scrittore il cui mondo è un abisso di cui non si distingue il fondo.

La Londra del 1840 è una megalopoli popolata da una  ricchissima alta borghesia, da una ricca media borghesia,  da una nutrita middle class, da una enorme working class e da un’ancora più enorme folla di diseredati, di disoccupati e senza fissa dimora, spesso immigrati da ogni parte d’Inghilterra e d’Europa. Londra ha già l’aspetto e i problemi di una megalopoli contemporanea.

Mayhew è forse uno dei primi veri sociologi della storia, poiché nessuno prima di lui si era messo a girare con occhio di attentissimo osservatore e cronista per le strade di una grande metropoli dell’era industriale a scrutare, interrogare, classificare e annotare con precisione maniacale i mille lavori e mestieri con cui la gente della working class e i poveracci sopravvivevano di giorno in giorno.   Spazzacamini, mendicanti, venditori di cibo, proprietari di banchi del mercato, acquaioli, lustrascarpe, prostitute, ladri, borseggiatori, truffatori, lavandaie e persino i mudlarks (gente che frugava tra i fanghi puzzolenti delle rive del Tamigi in cerca di oggetti) o quelli che raccattavano gli escrementi dei cani da vendere ai tintori di tessuti e  molto altro, sono sottoposti ad interviste (sì, proprio delle vere interviste) che poi, nel quarto volume aggiunto, concorrono a fornirgli delle rigorosissime statistiche da lui maniacalmente redatte.  Mayhew annota con rigore i gerghi usati dalle varie categorie, le espressioni tipiche, l’argot dei ladri e borsaioli, e poi le loro abitudini, gli stili di vita, i guadagni, le convinzioni religiose.

Dichiara di dividere la totalità dei poveri in tre distinte fasi della loro esistenza: quelli che lavoreranno, quelli che non possono lavorare e quelli che non lavoreranno.

Tutto annota e nulla sfugge. Ma l’aspetto davvero rivoluzionario, è che a un certo punto Mayhew ingaggia una serie di persone che vadano in giro per lui a sottoporre i suoi questionari e che istruisce rigorosamente sul metodo con cui intervistare le persone, come e quando e in che modo.

Le sue descrizioni delle scene di strada sono non raramente all’altezza di certe descrizioni dickensiane e infatti moltissimo del materiale che Dickens usa in Oliver Twist, Nichoals Nickleby, Our Mutual Friend per fare alcuni esempi è direttamente attinto da qui e ovviamente rielaborato.

Nel gran numero di articoli pubblicati in Italia per il bicentenario di Dickens, si sono scritte molte cose interessanti, ma alcune davvero superficiali e poco informate, come nell’articolo di Giuseppe Fiorentino sull’Osservatore Romano.


dove Fiorentino arriva ad affermare che Dickens non approfondisce la psicologia dei suoi caratteri, ma ne fa delle maschere in cui ci si può riconoscere (!) o che “lo scopo dei suoi romanzi non è la descrizione verista o la  denuncia sociale contingente”.  Ma davvero? Prima di fare certe affermazioni sarebbe consigliabile documentarsi meglio, sia su Dickens che sulla società vittoriana.