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 Crofton Croker. 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, a man who, says, Diano, "was a pioneer in linking together times, traditions, cultures and spiritual views."
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: 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.
Francesca Diano: On the little island in the middle of that lake, in the 6th century, 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.
|The Rock of Cashel|
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