The Surprising Irishness of Thomas The Tank Engine

For most people, mention of Thomas the Tank Engine conjures images from childhood of brightly coloured, moon-faced locomotives happily chugging along under guardianship of the Fat Controller. It sparks a memory of the honky-tonk theme tune and gentle Liverpudlian accent of Ringo Starr, who narrated the show’s first two series. But the adventures of Thomas and his friends began long before the animated show aired on television, in the form of a series of children’s books called The Railway Series. Delving into the original world created by Reverend Wilbert Awdry, an Anglican cleric and railway enthusiast, makes for a fascinating journey, perhaps especially for Irish readers.

The Island of Sodor: Its People, History and Railways was first published by Awdry and his brother, George, in 1987, the result of Awdry’s desire to create a ‘credible and consistent’ world for his stories.

By then, The Railway Series had enjoyed momentous success (26 books had been published since 1945), and Awdry claims he was inundated with letters ‘from readers aged eight to eighty’ who had begun asking more detailed questions about the books’ setting. He received letters, too, from ‘sharp-eyed youngsters’ pointing out that engines and buildings often looked different in different books. It was with this feedback that Awdry was prompted to examine his fictional world more closely.

Pouring over maps of the British Isles, Awdry and his brother discovered a suitable location for the Island of Sodor between the town of Barrow-in-Furness in England and the Isle of Man. They mapped it carefully, putting in hills, valleys, lakes and rivers, as well as railways and the towns and villages they served. At this stage, having ignited ‘something of an absorbing interest’ in Sodor, the pair continued to flesh out its details, markedly delving into Scots, Manx and Irish history for inspiration.

In a chapter on the Sudrian Character, Awdry notes that the island’s earliest known inhabitants were of Celtic stock, and that their language, Sudric, was a variation of the Gaelic language, Manx. He states that the difference between the languages ‘was not enough to prevent Sudrians and Manx understanding each other.’ That Manx and Sudric are understood to be mutually intelligible gives us reason to believe that Thomas the Tank’s native language likely shared similarities with Irish, too. After all, much of Manx can easily be understood by anyone with even a basic grasp of Irish, e.g.:

Manx: moddey (dog) / Irish: madra
Manx: Jelune (Monday) / Irish: Dé Luain
Manx: bwee (yellow) / Irish: buí
Manx: Ta mee braew (I’m fine) / Irish: Tá mé go breá
Manx: Kanys ta shiu? (how are you?) / Irish: Conas atá tú?

Further similarities with Irish can be seen in the postcolonial attitude of Sudrians towards their native language. Awdry humorously writes: ‘Throughout their long and stormy history as an appanage of one occupying power after another, Sudrians have learnt the art of putting officious and official people in their place. Though nearly all Sudrians are bilingual, nevertheless “I have no English” has been, and still is, a time honoured defense against unwanted foreign interference.”

In the chapter, People and History, Awdry introduces Sigrid, daughter of Ulf, a prominent lieutenant, and wife of Orm, son of the Lordship of Arlesdale. Described as a “lady wise and brave, as skilled with sword and bow as any man”, Sigrid sounds not unlike our own Queen Méabh, and The Saga of Sigrid not unlike the epic tale from early Irish literature, Táin Bó Cúailnge. The Saga of Sigrid tells of Sigrid going into battle and trapping an army ‘more than ten times the size of her own’ before ultimately facing defeat. It was written in 11th century Sudric (the earliest Táin manuscript was written in 11/12th century Irish) and Awdry asserts that – ‘making due allowance for poetic exaggeration customary at the period’ – it is, much like the Táin, ‘basically reliable as a historic document.’

In the same chapter, Awdry gives a detailed description of the Saints of Sodor, many of whom have explicitly Irish names (e.g. St. Ronan, St. Finan and St. Brendan) and share similarities with some of Ireland’s saints. St. Ebba of the 6th century, for example, is said to have dug a holy well whose water ‘effected many remarkable cures.’ She could easily be compared to the 6th century Irish saint, St. Deirbhile, whose own eye sight is said to have been restored by the curative water of her well in County Mayo. Meanwhile, St. Luoc, an Irish missionary of the 5th century, bears obvious resemblance to Ireland’s most prominent patron saint, St. Patrick. Awdry even claims St. Luoc is of the “St. Patrick school”. St. Luoc is said to have arrived on the shores of Suddery Bay by accident (St. Patrick’s arrival to Ireland was not exactly planned either), and preached to the natives ‘with considerable acceptance’ the message of Christianity.

The extent to which Awdry built upon his already established world in this 156 page book is  astounding, and distinguishes Sodor as one of the most richly-developed fictional landscapes in children’s literature. That Sodor bears such a striking resemblance to Ireland in terms of its history, culture and language makes it all the more enthralling. What a special thing it is to think that one could greet Thomas the Tank as Gaeilge, and that he might nod in understanding and reply!

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