Speaking Irish


The most common question that pops up in my website correspondence (and yes, apologies, I know the contact form is down at the moment), concerns my use of Irish (language) in the books I write. A few people have quizzed me specifically on (a) why I do it and (b) is it really necessary.

I suppose, for me, these aren’t really questions I’ve ever particularly asked myself and it’s actually a bit hard to answer. The truth is you always have to be a bit politic when discussing the Irish language in Ireland because there’s some extreme views on the topic. A small (but vocal) proportion of Irish people were forced to learn Irish in school, failed at it miserably and have resented it ever since. That grudge is worsened by what they see as preferential treatment for people in the Gaeltacht (those areas where Irish is still the first language) who receive grants/subsidies to support the preservation of the language. As a result, it’s often impossible to have a rational conversation with them on the topic.

On the other extreme, you also have a number of fanatical gaelgóir who feel that, as the native language, EVERYONE should be speaking Irish at ALL times. Again, it’s also hard to talk with these people.

Obviously, the sane view lies somewhere in the middle and, to be fair, that’s where most Irish people stand. There’s a great fondness for An Gaeilge amongst most Irish people. That’s certainly been my experience. The ones who hate it are usually to be found complaining bitterly on the internet to anyone who’ll ‘listen’ (or not).

All the same, having passed through the Irish educational system (and survived) and having seen some of the government grant/subsidies used to preserve the language, I really have to shake my head at the overall inefficiency of many of the services provided. Nothing new there! If you depend on a government department to resolve an issue of importance, you’re really wasting your time.

In any case, that’s neither here nor there. For me, using Irish is really just a reflection of who I am and what I believe in. I’m not really what I consider a gaelgóir (a native speaker). I wasn’t brought up speaking Irish, I don’t come from a Gaeltacht and, to be honest, the fact that I’ve been living overseas and restricted to speaking predominantly with my kids, means my vocab has suffered and diminished over the years (fortunately the presence of our Grúpa Cómhrá here in Wellington has helped remedy this situation ).

Despite the fact that I’m based in New Zealand, we speak Irish at home (me and my kids, that is, although my Maori partner also understands everything we say). Occasionally, we forget that we’re a minority, though. On Christmas Day we had a visitor at the table and although we usually revert to English when this happens, the look on his face when we started yacking ‘as Gaeilge’ was pretty funny. Having conversed in English as part of a large group for over twenty minutes, he was completely thrown when a large proportion of us suddenly – and, for him, inexplicably – started yabbering in some incomprehensible language. When we finally stopped laughing at his reaction, he confessed that he’d thought he’d suddenly gone mad. He hadn’t even known the Irish had their own language.


Creating the “Great Wild” in the ‘Fionn mac Cumhaill’ Series

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Given that most of what I write has a strong Irish element to it, people are often surprised to learn that I’ve been based in New Zealand for years, particularly given my strong views on cultural authenticity and respect for historical accuracy. To be honest, that’s not really a problem these days due to the broad connectivity of the internet and my own frequent trips back home to ‘draw from the well’.

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One of the things I do have to keep in mind when I’m writing however, is the Irish landscape. This is a very important characteristic – and sometimes a very dominant one – in many of my stories. Beara, for example, has a particularly characteristic landscape that you’ll never find beyond West Cork and thus forms a critical part of the overall Beara Trilogy narrative.

Because of its history and location, Ireland has been quite “tamed” or “domesticated”. The land has been occupied and has had its topography altered and managed by human activity for over thousands of years. New Zealand, however, with its much more ‘recent’ history, remains a very ‘physical’ country with a dramatic landscape that’s very different from home.

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Because my local landscape is so impressive, I’ve sometimes struggled to prevent myself from incorporating the drama of those landscapes into my own stories. One of those areas where the New Zealand landscape has been really useful however is in the Fionn series. In that set of stories, the narrative is based in a time period when Ireland was completely different from what we know today; very sparsely populated, covered in dense forest and teeming with wildlife. Hence the characters referring to it as ‘The Great Wild.


Although from a botanical perspective, there’s very little commonality between the Great Wild and the New Zealand forests, I’ve found my tramps through the latter extremely useful when trying to imagine the Great Wild from a social/historical and survival perspective. In this respect, both are very similar; vast, impenetrable in parts and potentially dangerous for the unwary or the unprepared.

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Two weeks ago, I was visiting a South Island forest with friends, following the course of a tannin-drenched river (which gives the water the colour of diluted blood) to some local stone archways. Even at the time, I was struck by the creative potential of what at I was seeing – in terms of the “Great Wild” and ended up taking hundreds of shots for later inspiration.

Much of the third Fionn book takes place over the course of a violent pursuit along the forested banks of a waterway in a constricted river valley so, from that perspective alone, the visit was very opportune. In any case, I thought I’d add these in here so you could see what’s going through my mind at the moment. At some stage, when I get time to draw breath I’ll put up a pin board of images so people can see this story development more easily.

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The Secret Life of Irish Fairies

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The nice thing about fairies is that anyone can be one.

No, seriously! If you actually look at the modern day interpretation of the ‘fairy’ you’ll find it incorporates not only elements of ‘Ye Olde English folklore’ but Germanic elves, Scandinavian leshyi, classical Romano-Greek nymphs and satyrs, a mish-mash of Tolkien and of course Disney’s plastic, sugar-coated Tinkerbell!

So, where you might ask are the Irish fairies in all this?

Weeelll … That’s kind of a long story.

The first thing you should know is that you should never actually use the word ‘fairy’ when referring to creatures of Irish mythology. Those namby-pamby, flower-hoppers with wings that adorn the Enid-Blyton books of old were never part of Irish culture. If you’re talking about Irish mythological creatures it’s always better to use the Irish term ‘’ (pronounced ‘shee’) or ‘síog’ or – in plural form – ‘Na síoga’ or ‘Na Sidhe’.

The word ‘sí’ actually comes from an ancient Celtic word ‘síd’ – the giant mounds making up the tumuli or passage graves in which our far distant ancestors buried their dead (the example in the picture was taken at Knowth). This is why ‘Na Sidhe’ in Ireland – until the last century or two – were often thought to be representations of the dead.

In pre-medieval Ireland, Na Sidhe were usually understood to be a kind of mirror image of humanity. They spoke like us, looked like us and, generally, they seemed to act like us, showing all the usual traits – positive (loving, passionate, etc.) and negative (murderous, vengeful etc.) – of your normal human population. The two key things that differentiated them from their human equivalents were that they (a) lived in the Otherworld and (b) had access to magic arts and powers. In the surviving pre-1600 Gaelic literature, although Na Sidhe mostly dealt with their own kind, when they did interact with humans they were generally portrayed doing so as equals, if not superiors.

The common interpretation of Na Sidhe changed slowly (but dramatically) in Ireland from the 1600s onwards due to the increasing influence of the Christian church but more importantly to the expanding power of the English Crown – two parties with a strong self-interest in suppressing the earlier belief systems of the native people. As the Gaelic power structure (feudal lords) was eroded this had the additional effect of undermining the traditional mechanisms for the transfer of Gaelic cultural knowledge between generations (the poets, Gaelic-based education systems, etc.).

By the late 18th century, a significant proportion of lore about Na Sidhe was already lost or being misinterpreted by the majority of the native Irish population. Little material was being conserved or transferred in written form (as Irish Catholics – the majority of the population – were excluded from education) although some knowledge continued to be transferred through the storytellers (the remnants of the poets). Transfer of traditional Sidhe lore also suffered from disruptive events like the Great Famine and the subsequent weakening of the Irish language as native speakers died or immigrated in great numbers. Knowledge of Na Sidhe was also eroded by the Church who saw belief in such entities as ‘competition’ at best, expressions of evil at worst. Most of the stories with negative connotations associated with Na Sidhe developed from this time on.

Oppressed on all sides, Na Sidhe also took on an increasingly derivative form, shrinking (metaphorically and descriptively) in the stories in which they occurred.

Ironically, while lore of Na Sidhe diminished in Ireland, reduced expressions of what they represented began to flourish in England (based predominantly on their equivalent in English folklore tradition). A broken version of Na Sidhe appeared in medieval romances, initially as otherworldy enemies to the protagonists but, later, in a more alluring and less menacing form. In this new, sanitised form, Na Sidhe/’Fairies’ started turning up in literature such as Edmund Spenser’s ‘Faerie Queen’, Shakespeare’s ‘A Midsummer Night’s Dream’. Later, during the Romantic Period (at its peak from around 1800 to 1850), when older cultural tropes were mined for inspiration purposes, they became even more popular.

The famous Strand Magazine article on the ‘Cottingley Fairies’ (1920) changed the portrayal of the earlier mythological creatures forever. From that point on ‘fairies’ became the common term to describe tiny, winged creatures who hung out in nature hot-spots but who still had a bit of mystery/allure associated with them. Following that Strand article, the associated imagery became prettier as time progressed (prompted by the famous ‘flower fairies’ pictures produced by Cicely Mary Barker and others (these are the ones on the Enid Blyton books I referred to earlier). Nowadays, that’s the image that most people are familiar with.

Back in Ireland, cut off from its original interpretation, the Sidhe (now reduced to the more diminutive síoga) became increasingly associated with and influenced by the newer representation of their English counterpart.

The funny thing is that the interpretation of ‘fairies’ or ‘Na Sidhe’ is changing yet again as a result of new media distribution forms and narrative tales. Over the last decade, or so I’ve watched with some bemusement as fairies (and sometimes they even use the old Irish name) have gradually transformed to a generic kind of sexualised, metrosexual Spock (feminine types, complete with pointed ears, short skirts and a pout). I suppose I should have a bit of a disgruntled stomp about the whole ‘lack of cultural authenticity’ business but the truth is that the current representation is vastly closer to the original than the pretty flower-stompers ever were.

Which has to be good.

[Update: Apr 2016 – For those who are interested, a more substantial explanation of fairies, where they came from and how they became what we know today, is available in the ebook: Celtic Mythology Collection which you can obtain for FREE here (on this site or at your favourite ebook store).]