The Lies Behind the Use of Irish Family Crests:

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The Lies Behind the Use of Irish Family Crests:

If you’re a person of Irish descent, there are a few things you should really think about if you’re considering a purchase of your ‘family coat-of-arms/ family crest’.

  • Heraldry – the assigning of coats-of-arms/family crests – was originally used so that those people (the aristocracy) who’d gained more cows and more soldiers than their neighbours, could identify and manage the property they controlled
  • The tradition of heraldry (and therefore of family crests/coats of arms) is an English/Norman one. It is not, and never was, a Gaelic one
  • The concept of family crests for Irish clans of Gaelic origin (e.g. MacCarthy’s, O’Sullivans, O’Briens, Murphy’s etc.) makes no sense as they never used them and would not have recognised/respected them
  • A very limited number of later Hiberno-Norman clans (the Fitz’s, de Burgs, etc.) did have a family crest but most of these clans didn’t last long enough to utilise them in any meaningful way
  • There’s actually no such thing as a ‘family coat of arms’. Traditionally, heralds awarded family crests to INDIVIDUALS, not to families
  • A single family surname, therefore, might have a multitude of different family crests. I could, for example, apply to the Herald Office of Ireland for a family coat of arms. My brother could also apply for one and end up with a completely different design. So could my sisters and each one of us would be right
  • If you already have a mass-produced crest-of-arms on your wall, you might want to know who had it made. It was quite possibly granted to someone who walked in off the street and paid the necessary fee
  • Given the fact that heraldry was predominantly an English institution and Ireland is a republic, few Irish people have any great emotional connection to a coat-of-arms that claims to bear their name
  • Generally speaking, it is only the uninformed, the psychologically insecure and politicians who enjoy the false pomp and ceremony of heraldry
  • The Office of the Chief Herald at the National Library of Ireland (the official government department responsible for “grants” of family crests/coats of arms) has a direct conflict of interest in providing real information around the true basis of heraldry in Ireland (“just keep sending in cheques with your applications , thanks!”)
  • This is the same Irish government, by the way, who wants to sell you the laughable Certificate of Irish Heritage at €45 (plus VAT) and a framed certificate is €120 (plus VAT)
  • I will sell you a Certificate of Irish Heritage for half that price as long as you don’t mind it being written in crayon (I subcontract to the kids!)
  • The only people who really benefit from people’s ignorance of the concepts behind the heraldry/ coat-of-arms are mass producers of plastic “Irish Family Crests” flags/ badges/products for ill-informed tourists

Has any one noticed there’s a lizard on the O’Sullivan Beare coat-of arms? 🙂

Quiet Moments of Beauty and How to Use Them in Writing

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A few years ago in West Cork, on the cusp of winter-spring, I took my son down to one of my favourite places – a mountain valley with a lake that feeds into the River Laoi.

It was a typical winter’s day for that part of the country; cold showers, low lying cloud, intermittent patches of watery sunshine between the wisps of mist. At the same time, there was something very unique about the quality of the illumination. The damp sunlight combined with the black rock, the black water, the black clouds – black on black on black – to create a kind of monochromatic landscape softened only by burnt patches of withered fern on the surrounding hills.

The sight was beautiful, in the same way that photos of the moonscape or a desert at night are beautiful; bleak, remote and melancholic. All of a sudden, a single swan appeared out of the gloom, a blaze of white on the still black waters like the prospect of joy on a dour day and it was as though the valley had released a sigh.

I was lucky enough to capture the latter parts of the swan’s approach moment on a shitty camera (see the clip above). On the clip you can hear my son saying “Oh, do chuaigh se faoin uisce!’ – ‘Oh, he’s gone under the water!’ when it finally disappeared beneath the causeway and out of sight.

Such moments are rare but they tend to stay with you. Last week, the memory resurfaced – unlike the swan – for some reason, and in a fit of creativity, I drew on it to write a short but important character development scene from the third book in the Fionn mac Cumhal series. This is a rough, unedited first draft so bear with me:

From her refuge in the ferns, Liath Luachra had been observing a fat pair of wood pigeons that were oblivious to her presence. Now, her belly growled and her fingers tightened unconsciously about the leather thong of the sling curled about her right hand.
I could strike one. I could strike one easily at this distance.
She scowled and took a deep breath before turning her head. Hunger was making her careless.
Averting her eyes from the feathered temptation, she rested her cheek against the rough bark of the tree and reverted to that old occupation – daydreaming – she often used to pass the long periods of inactivity while in the Great Wild.
She drew up a mental image from the past, a memory from a period when she’d still been with the mercenary group, Na Cinéaltaí. At the time, she’d been travelling through rough territory, bound for a gathering at some distant tribal stronghold. The day had been uncharacteristically mild for the winter-spring cusp but, weary from the sustained effort of hard trekking, she’d paused to rest in a deserted valley at the foothills of an isolated mountain range.
The valley, a barren and lonely passage wandering between two steep hills of jagged, grey rock and had a deep lake at its centre. Although it must have been a harsh and bitter place at the best of times, at that particular moment the watery quality of the sunlight and the overhanging cloud had combined to imbue it with a colourless intensity she’d never encountered before. Sitting quietly, she’d tried to absorb the sight but the beauty of the landscape seemed almost too much for her swollen soul to take in. Just when she thought it couldn’t possibly grow more beautiful, two swans had suddenly appeared, winging their way down the valley to alight gracefully on the waters of the little lake.
She’d watched in rapt silence for a long time as the elegant birds drifted noiselessly, their white shadows forming perfect mirror images in its still black surface. The moment couldn’t be sustained however, of course. Despite a deep desire to continue absorbing its soothing beauty, she had places to be and people depending on her. She’d left the valley shortly afterwards but she’d never forgotten what she’d seen.
A year later, when she was passing through that region again, she’d spent days criss-crossing the terrain in an effort to relocate the valley. After many frustrating and unfruitful attempts, she’d finally understood that she would never find what she was looking for. Although she’d located several valleys with lakes, none of them looked like the one she remembered. In different light, at a different time, the valley was just another valley in another forsaken piece of land. The valley that she’d experienced was gone, an element of time, of circumstance and of nature, existing now only as a ghost of what could have been.

******
This is just one example of how you can use old memories or sensations when you write. Generally speaking, its much easier to write a description of a place or of an emotion if you’ve actually been there or felt it. Because I come from Ireland and I write about events taking place in Irish landscape I my writing tends to be very – well – Irish.
Ah, well!

Come Taste the Flowers

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Whenever I feel homesick – as I did last night – I have this habit of poring through photos of the last trip home, extracting the memories associated with each particular image.

Going through this process last night, I was a bit surprised to discover the number of photographs of fuchsia hedgerows clogging up my photo library. To be honest, that’s hardly surprising. I tend to return home in the summer after all, when they’re blooming to maximum effect. Driving down some roads in Beara at that time is like driving down a passage framed by two walls of brilliant scarlet and green, interspersed with white wild flowers. In winter, of course, those same hedges resemble little more than sickly networks of pale brown sticks that give the winter land an even more skeletal aspect.

Until about ten years ago, I’d been under the impression the fuchsia was a native plant. In actual fact, it was originally sourced from South America (introduced to England in the 18th century and, subsequently, to Ireland) and because of the weather conditions in West Cork, it has absolutely thrived there.

Despite this, when I think of fuchsia, I think of childhood memories of sucking nectar, plucking scarlet outer petals to create a miniature bouquet from the purple heart.

And, of course, the scent …

Hitting your nostrils like some kind of perfumed, French, wet kiss.

 

Update on Writing Projects

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The above road sign is from the Gaeltacht (area in Ireland where Irish is still the first language). Essentially it’s a ‘Yield right of Way’ sign which kind of outlines how I feel at the moment. It’s been a pretty exhausting year with various work, writing and family projects on the go.  Needless to say, I’m nowhere as far as advanced as I’d like to be in terms of my writing. Two things in particular have changed my priority:

  1. The popularity of the Fionn mac Cumhal series: This one took me a wee bit by surprise.  The first book (Defence of Ráth Bládhma) was pretty popular – despite a complete absence of advertising or marketing on my part. Ironically, the second book seems to be even more popular (go figure!). When I originally started writing the first book, the plan was essentially to give myself a bit of a break/change before starting the next Beara book. This is because, in terms of writing technique, the Fionn series is easier. It’s a complete linear narrative (unlike Beara which intermingles historical and contemporary stories) and the plot and underlying themes are nowhere near as complex. In any case, people are now hounding me for the next in the series (which I can’t really complain about)  so I feel a bit of responsibility for delivering the goods
  2. The lack of interest by Irish book distributors:  Ireland is quite interesting in that we only have two distributors for new books in the entire country (Easons and Argosy). For commercial reasons, both of these tend to deal only with large and very established publishing companies. Easons – almost a monopoly – make it very difficult to even try and contact them for distribution purposes. Argosy were at least kind enough to rely to my query and explain why they wouldn’t be doing so. I’ll probably start working around them and sell directly to bookshops in future but for the moment, this means that my main focus has to be in digital books (ebooks).

As a result, therefore, I’ve had to amend my – ahem – ‘production schedule’.  In summary, this is where things stand at present:

  • Beara Two: “Cry of the Banshee” – two chapters completed. It now looks like this won’t be completed until the end of next year at the earliest.
  • Fionn 3: “The Adversary”  – Estimated release date May/June 2015
  • Fionn 0: “The Kindly Ones”  – A prequel to the Fionn series based on the earlier life of the Liath Luachra character – Estimated release date May/June 2015
  • A non-fiction book on Irish folklore and practical magic – title yet to be confirmed – Estimated release date December 2015

I’m very keen to make some progress on the second Beara book so I may move this up depending on how things go. My apologies to those of you waiting for this.