The Stolen Child: WB Yeats and Carl Jung – Relationship, Belonging and Compassion in Caring for Children in Care

The Stolen Child Maurice Fenton

By Maurice Fenton

Maurice Fenton is a social care worker in Ireland and has written extensively about child welfare.

He has often been inspired by the work of W B Yeats and even used the title of one the poet’s most famous verses in the title of his book about children in care. Here he explains why W B Yeats has been such a powerful influence on his life and work.

The verse of poetry on the dedications page of my 2015 book Social Care and Child Welfare in Ireland: Integrating Residential Care, Leaving Care and Aftercare reads:

The Stolen Child

Come away, O human child!
To the waters and the wild
With a faery, hand in hand,
For the world’s more full of weeping
Than you can understand.
W.B. Yeats

I have worked with children and young people in care, predominately in residential care and with those who care has left, what is euphemistically referred to as aftercare, over a 25-year timespan in Ireland. I say euphemistically termed as aftercare as in my experience for too many young people who turn 18 they do not choose to leave care, rather care leaves them. It leaves them, regardless of their inability to cope following childhoods marred by trauma, ill prepared and alone, labeled by ignorance and assumption with their distress and pain too often condoned by societal and political indifference. I have known too many such young people who have died far too young, and this has for me been the most distressing aspect of my work over these years.

My father died when I was 12 and his death had a profound, and for many years painful, impact on my life. He was a man of rural Ireland and loved his folklore and the Gaelic language. I left education as soon as I could as a 17-year-old and had zero interest in poetry or the arts as, for me, they represented what school had tried to force me to appreciate but which I rejected precisely because I was being forced. I felt poetry was for the pretentious as it required study to understand this poetry. However, music is one artistic medium I could always appreciate with nature being another, as they do not require education to understand and appreciate. I first heard of The Stolen Child listening to The Waterboys more than ten years ago.

One of the best explanations for what Yeats meant when he wrote The Stolen Child I found was on which I included in the book to give readers an understanding of the concepts involved.

In the book, I make these matters explicit:

So, Yeats’s poem, immersed as it is in this lore of faeries and the folklore of rural Ireland, resonates deeply within me. It is a poem I can understand. It also helps that this poem has been beautifully put to song with a haunting melody by the Waterboys and available here:

But it’s not the folklore aspect of this poem alone that resonates with me; it is also pain, loss and sadness that effects this resonance. I lost my father at age 12, and it took many years for me to come to terms with this loss. He was stolen from me and also from the promise of his own life that he had worked hard to create. Yet, he still lives within me, partly through the stories and cultural heritage he passed on to me and also through my undying connection to him. To this day he plays a key role in shaping my identity, and these stories connected me to my cultural heritage thus affording me a deep sense of belonging.

I have always been struck by the line ‘for the world’s more full of weeping than you can understand’ which speaks to me of immense sadness and hurt which I can identify with through my own experience of the loss of my father. This loss is a personal experience I recognise as a prior wounding event as theorised by Carl Jung in his concept of the ‘wounded healer’. This was my wounding event which I believe rather than rendering me a flawed professional has enabled me to attune better to those I care for as Jackson (2001) outlines with regards to ‘wounded healers’.

The book itself is relatively short, just over 100 pages. It makes clear that I believe that the relationship between worker and child/young person is the most important factor in caring for children and young people in care. I address the relationship between poetry, science and magic and, for example, posit that, ‘magic begat science’ with chemistry coming from alchemy, astronomy from astrology and pharmacology from herbalism. I develop the link between the work of Yeats and Jung and the unconscious for which there exists a sizeable body of literature linking Yeats’s magic to Jung’s science. I offer alternative perspectives on concepts such as resilience, science, belonging and adolescence whilst considering folklore, loss, hope, social justice and recovery from trauma calling on the work of Yeats and Dylan Thomas as well as Jung and Einstein coupled with lived experience and academic learning.

Rather than attempting to promote this work myself any further I offer the thoughts of those who were kind enough to participate in the peer review process and after that offered these endorsements:

This is a beautiful, sensitively written little book which makes for compelling and inspirational reading giving us a vivid picture of the stolen lives of young people in care, identifying clearly the importance of caring for young people in a deeply human, compassionate and professional manner.

What comes across clearly is that good caring is rooted in right relationships, right relationships with ourselves, the carers, with our colleagues and with young people. These relationships are essential interconnected components that impact on each other in the care of children and young people.

Having the appropriate tools, skills and knowledge are very important but without right relationships these are meaningless.

It captures the raw pain experienced by young people whose lives are stolen by repeated neglect, rejection and abandonment, often in their own families, stolen again through the broken promises and our failure to provide adequate care for them, and stolen once more by our lack of aftercare and yet again by the continuous rejection and stigmatisation in society, often leading to self-harm and self-rejection.

Yet, in the midst of all this there is Hope. Hope because of the resilience of so many young people and the strong belief in the power of right relationships.

The authors own relationship with nature, poetry and the arts is a huge resource and very pertinent and central to this work and a strong reminder of the important place they ought to have in the lives of those who work in this area.

This book should be essential reading for all involved in this area of work.

Sr. Stanislaus Kennedy
The Stolen Child provides a powerful blend of personal narrative and academic commentary steeped in Irish folklore, history and poetry. The author offers a unique perspective on resilience, belonging, rejection and hope. The original and accessible writing is essential reading for all working in this field.
Dr Ray Arthur, Northumbria University.

The word fabric occurs at intervals in this book. Indeed, the author himself has skillfully and provocatively woven his own analytical fabric to great effect. Opening with the poetry of Yeats, he imbues his narrative with it. He posits the absolute necessity to challenge the ‘illusionary magic’ of science as a cosy tool of bureaucracy that, despite grandiose claims, does little to put children in state care first.

Noel Howard, Treasurer, Social Care Ireland.

This short book developed out of an email to Charles Shape of the Journal who was reviewing my 2015 book Social Care and Child Welfare in Ireland: Integrating Residential Care, Leaving Care and Aftercare.

In this email, I sought to explain to Charles the reason why I choose a verse of poetry from W.B. Yeats’s poem, The Stolen Child, for the dedications page of the book. Charles recommended that I expand on this email and he kindly published what resulted, titled, The Stolen Child, at:
This article formed the basis from which this book emerged.

Here is an extract from The Stolen Child, taken from the first chapter of the book.
So the faeries beguile or entice the child into willingly going away with them and escaping a ‘world that’s full of troubles and anxious in its sleep’ by employing the allure of adventure, sweet berries and camaraderie but, in reality, the children are stolen from this world never to ‘hear the kettle on the hob again’.

I have had the folklore of faeries instilled in me since childhood, both in school and culturally, in Ireland. I acquired a deep-seated appreciation for the cultural meaning-making role of the stories of faeries and ‘other world’ entities within our rich tradition of folklore that still today is embedded in the psyche of us Irish folk wherever we may be.

We have a common expression here in Ireland for someone who is not paying full attention to something or on the same page as others on certain matters; we say that they are ‘away with the faeries’ meaning that they are in a world of their own or, for example, daydreaming.

This, I believe, demonstrates that the cultural acceptance of the concept of faeries is a widespread phenomenon here in Ireland and likely further afield amongst other races also. Rationally I may know some things are facts and others myths but still I know also that there is more to this world than ‘meets the eye’ or lies beyond perception, just as there is the conscious, subconscious and unconscious mind.

We are very fortunate here in Ireland to have a landscape dotted with faerie forts and earth rings with tress, often whitethorn or oak, growing in the middle. To this day few farmers will tamper with these structures or cut these trees because of either respect for our shared cultural heritage or for fear of upsetting the faeries and suffering the consequences of their wrath; for these Irish faeries, including banshees, dullahans, merrows, grogochs, pookas, changelings and leprechauns, are a mischievous lot, possessed of dark and oftentimes malevolent natures.

I take pride in passing this lore to my children, the younger ones, now marinating in the luscious, but fleeting, certitude of adolescence deride my stories of faeries and the like but all the while they are absorbing these stories which I know they too will, in due course, pass on to their children. This, I am conscious, is key to our identity formation and I am keen to pass on to my children what was passed on to me.