Update on Forthcoming Productions

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Winter is coming.

Not that you’d know it in Wellington at the moment with all the gorgeous weather. Despite this though, the days are getting shorter, it’s darker in the mornings and at night. Meanwhile, there’s lots of quiet industry going on in the downstairs office.

I thought it might be useful if I gave a quick update on where things are at in terms of …. eh … upcoming productions. People have been hounding me for the third Fionn book for a while now (not to mind Beara 2 which I still feel pretty bad about having to put aside). So, here’s the plan.

Fionn 3: The Adversary

I completed chapter 5 of this, last week. I have bits and pieces of 6 and 7 written but they need to go through the narrative melding process. My target for publication was June this year and although I’m still working to that, work and family responsibilities mean it’s probably going to be more like July/Aug. This isn’t helped by the fact that this looks like it might be a longer book than 1 or 2. It covers quite a lot of Bodhmhall’s background story (much of it is centred around Dún Baoiscne and her relationship with her father) as well as the ongoing narrative.

Liath Luachra: The Kindly Ones

I just completed chapter four of this manuscript tonight. It’s essentially a kind of prequel to the Fionn series and focusses on the backstory of the character, Liath Luachra. Given the complexity of this particular character, I felt she needed a full story to herself and it was one I needed to complete in order to clarify some of the plot points that pop up in Fionn 3.

Oh, and yes, I should warn you it’s slightly darker than the other books in the series.

The story here is a  very much a stand alone one concerning Liath Luachra’s days with Na Cinéaltaí  – the Friendly Ones – the mercenary group she was part of prior to meeting Bodhmhall us Baoiscne and the events in Fionn: Defence of Ráth Bládhma. She doesn’t actually encounter Bodhmhall in this particular story as I wanted to focus on my research on fian (war parties) and tribal dynamics – particularly for those individuals who, through no fault of their own, weren’t actually part of a tribe.  I have left scope for a sequel to this but that’s low on the list of priorities for the moment.

Non-Fiction Book

This is a book I’ve been wanting to write for several years. If you’ve read my blog you’ll know that I see myself more as an amateur folklorist/historian  than a writer and over the years I’ve spent researching Irish culture and heritage, there are a number of things I’ve discovered that I’m really keen to pass on. These are the kinds of things which I – in my great wisdom – believe are increasingly important but which nobody else seems to understand or even consider. Anyway, if I do succeed in writing it and publishing it, it’ll probably be the most important thing I’ve ever done.

Well that’s one person anyway!

In terms of timeline, I think it’ll be late next year before this is published as there are a few items I still need to get clear in my head so I can articulate them clearly.

Beara 2:

Ah, yes! The guilty conscience.

I have to confess, the Fionn series is great to write as it allows me to work through and introduce a lot of ancient cultural concepts, Gaelic vocabulary and elements of history that people wouldn’t normally get to hear or think about. For me, though, the Beara Trilogy is really where the intellectual grey pedal hits the cultural metal (Yes, sorry. Talk about forced metaphors! It’s late. I’m tired.)

The plot for Beara 2 is pretty much outlined in my head but I didn’t want to leave Fionn readers in the lurch with a cliff hanger, hence the rationale for finishing Fionn 3 first. This will be the next thing I launch into after the first two books are completed.

Fionn: The Stalking Silence – Audiobook

I’ve been planning to do a pilot audiobook for some time and I’m pretty sure that this will finally occur before Christmas this year. Naturally, I’m using this book as the pilot because it’s (a) short (b) stand-alone and (c) I have the audio style already mapped out in my head. This is really just a fun project for me – a chance to play around and do something different so please just bear with me. Like the book Fionn: The Stalking Silence (Kindle) and Fionn: The Stalking Silence (Smashwords), this will be a freebie I’ll probably make available on this site.

Anyway, that’s as much as I know at the moment. Apologies if you visited looking for some insightful commentary on Irish cultural folklore.

(Irish Folklore) The Mystery of Bog Butter

Bogbutter

Bog butter has always fascinated me, probably because I love those topics where there’s an element of mystery or no definitive answer. That’s probably not a particularly appropriate thing to say for someone with scientific training but, then again, there are some limitations with the scientific approach. Besides, science has never been about the confirmation of absolutes so much as the reduction of uncertainty.

For those of you who don’t know what bog butter is, it’s a kind of wax-like organic material often discovered around Ireland (mostly in peat bogs) although there have also been several finds in Great Britain as well. Generally, it looks like a giant lump of lard (see picture) and it’s often sealed in wooden churns/pots, although that varies a lot as well.

Much of the academic theory about ‘bog butter’ relates to it being an ancient preservation method for food or alternatively a food processing method to make a food taste differently (the early age equivalent of cuisine flavouring).

Both of these theories hold water. It’s certainly reasonable to assume that our ancestors would try to preserve surplus butter produced over the dairy production periods. There are however, a number of elements that tend to be forgotten.

  • ‘Bog butter’ has actually been around for millennia. The Museum of Scotland has ‘bog butter’ dated as 2000 years old. More recently in Ireland (2011), the largest recorded volume of the material (about 45 kg) ever discovered was found in Tullamore. This is believed to be more than 3000 years old.
  • It’s not actually butter. Tests on some of the waxy material also indicates the presence of adipose or tallow (i.e. they would have been meat-based)
  • There’s a hell of a lot of it – relatively speaking. People have been ‘discovering’ bog butter remnants for many centuries. Back in the day it was apparently found often enough that there’s one report of it being sold at a market fair to grease wheels.

Most of the more recent folklore around ‘bog butter’ supports the theory that they’re the result of dairy preservation. At the same time, folklore contains many references to ‘magical’ qualities of butter and various stories about how lumps of butter were thrown into loughs and waterways to wash sick cattle and return them to health. One of the problems with folklore though, is that it’s often developed around things that people don’t understand in an effort to make sense of them or to rationalise them. That’s particularly the case where ancient cultural practices have been forgotten and only the physical remnants remain. Generally, people try to explain such mysteries based on their own experience and thus their interpretation can’t always be trusted.

Back in the day, dairy and other agricultural products were clearly perceived as items of great value. It would have taken a lot of resource and effort to produce them and, correspondingly, their use would have involved elements of respect and, probably, ritual. This is why we have the large quantity of folklore stories which illustrate those aspects.

Theories about the other deposits (e.g. gold and other valuable items found in bogs and waterways) have, however, changed over time. Experts are now inclined to believe that these objects were purposely deposited as an offering to appease a land deity rather than being hidden or buried for later use (and then lost or forgotten). Given the value of agricultural products, it’s very likely that these were also intentionally  deposited. Given the fact that ancient Ireland was very much an agricultural-based society, that would also explain why ‘bog butter’ is found in such large quantities.

Needless to say, this is all still speculation. The truth is we’re not certain and with the various theories we’re essentially making educated guesses. Another truth is that we’ll probably never know for sure, that it’ll always be something of a mystery unless some new piece of conclusive evidence comes along.

Despite the scientist in me, I suppose I’m fine with either version.

The Hill of Tara, British Israelites and ISIS

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I’m currently in the process of writing a section in the third book of the Fionn mac Cumhal series (The Adversary) which deals with a Neolithic passage grave and I thought I’d share two photos from a research trip I did back home about two years ago.  These show what is probably the most famous of Irish passage grave outside of those found at Brú na Bóinne (Newgrange) – that is, Dumha na nGiall (in English, the Mound of the Hostages) at Tara.

This particular passage grave is estimated to date back to about 3400 B.C. In other words, it was already almost three thousand years old by the time the Celts wandered over to Ireland from the Continent (about 500 B.C.). Like many of the other passage tombs, the alignment allows the morning sun to shine down the passageway twice a year to illuminate the internal chamber. Excavations carried out between 1955 and 1959, found more than 200 cremated or inhumed burials (often placed in upturned earthenware urns with burial gifts).

 

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It really is an impressive piece of work and astounding to consider that it’s still in such good condition almost 5000 years later. Naturally however, despite such proof from the potential of human achievement, it’s also important to consider the more idiotic side to humanity as well. The most famous of these at Tara occurred between 1899 and 1902 when Dumha na nGiall was almost destroyed by a group known as the ‘British Israelists’. Convinced that the Irish were one of the Lost Tribes of Israel (yes, that is hard to believe!!) and that the Hill of Tara contained the Ark of the Covenant.

That such crazed extremists were allowed to go ahead with their destruction of such a unique national monument says a lot about the times. A big part of the problem, of course, was that many of those involved were members of the British aristocracy and as the English Crown was in control over Ireland at this time, local outrage was pretty much ignored.

There were, of course, many protests. Arthur Griffith carried out a major campaign against the ‘excavations’  with many of the hoi polloi of the day (WB Yeats, George Moore and Douglas Hyde etc.) despite being ordered off-site by armed men and police. The crazed activist Maud Gonne also turned up and created a scene by lighting a bonfire and singing “A nation once again” in her very genteel English accent (the early 1900s were certainly a wild time in Ireland). Many people believe the destruction to the site of Tara was one of the many national indignities that went on to spur the subsequent rebellion in 1916.

Two nights ago, I was looking at a television report where a bunch of Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS) thugs were smashing up a beautiful 2700 year old monument in the famed ancient Assyrian capital of Khorsabad. As I watched the inbred with the sledgehammer smashing the ancient statue into smithereens, it struck me that as a species, human beings are never going to evolve unless they learn from their past mistakes and escape the destructive cycles of repetition.

5000 years on, and it seems as though we’re still just spinning.

Irish Tribes and The Iron Age

Ireland’s Iron Age (600 BC to 400 AD) is one of the most mysterious and enigmatic periods of Irish history which is why – I guess –  it’s always appealed to me. In many ways the period is a blank canvas. We know very little about it and the limited snippets of information we do have are tantalizingly vague and easy to interpret in a multitude of different ways.

A key part of the problem is that there are no documents or records for this period that have been written by Irish hands (the skill of writing wasn’t introduced to Ireland until the fifth century with the arrival of Christianity). There’s also a dearth of archaeological evidence linked to that period. This latter is particularly striking when you consider the fact that millennia before, thriving communities existed who not only carried out extensive dairy and cereal farming but constructed complex and well-designed stone structures as well. The Boyne Valley mounds at Newgrange, Knowth and Dowth for example, were built around 3200 BC. The extensive dairy farms at the amazing Céide Fields, are almost 6,000 years old.

For this reason, there’s always been a sense in some Irish historical circles that human activity subsided or stagnated over the Iron Age. To be fair, this is confirmed to a degree through pollen analysis which shows evidence of substantial forest regeneration (i.e. lands that had been cleared for farming purposes were simply left grow wild again) over this period. Some historians refer to the Iron Age as the ‘Irish Dark Ages’. One Irish archaeologist (Barry Raftery) described the population of this time period as ‘the Invisible People’ because of the scarcity of archaeological evidence of their existence.

Numerous theories have abounded for this decline in human activity and these range from climate change to natural catastrophes (e.g. Icelandic volcanos) to plague and warfare. This truth is that no-one really knows for certain. What we do know however, is that human activity picked up and recovered dramatically in the third and fourth centuries. In general, this recovery is usually attributed to the influence of the increasingly wealthy Roman Britain which provided a great source of trade, knowledge transfer (and booty and slaves for Irish raiders)

As you’ve probably guessed, given the above, very little is known about Irish tribes before the fifth century. Again, we do have some clues – the earliest source of tribal information is a map compiled by Ptolemy (a Graeco-Roman who lived in Alexandria during the 2nd century AD.). Unfortunately, it’s very hard to reconcile the tribes identified in Ptolemy’s map with those identified in later records. Some of the names are teasingly familiar; the Brigantes, for example, might be related to a tribe known to have been living in what is now northern/ midland Britain and another tribe mentioned – the Manapii – are potentially linked to the Menapii, a Belgic tribe of northern Gaul. Other tribes Ptolemy mentions however, have disappeared completely from history, fallen out of time never to be heard of again.

When writing a narrative set in Ireland’s Iron Age, such information – or rather such ambiguity – is absolute gold dust in terms of inspiration. It’s essentially the equivalent of being given an outline of a mysterious and fantastic world with specific detail for some elements and absolute free rein for others. When I write the Fionn mac Cumhal series, for example, I tend to use a lot of reference books (historical, archaeological, language mostly) to give parameters such as culture, topography, belief systems and so on, an authentic flavour but in terms of activity, characters and action, that world is my oyster.

As a writer/historian, it really doesn’t get better than that.

The Mystery of the ‘Top Toilet in Ireland’

Ireland HOliday 2012 094This is a true story that’s probably not a true story so, by definition, a perfect example of how folklore is created. I originally heard this tale from my aunt so if you know the truth behind it do please let me know. I’ve always wondered. Anyway, it goes as follows.

Back in the late 1990’s or early 2000’s (depends who’s telling the story), plans were drawn up for a public toilet at an isolated beauty spot in West Cork, the site of an ancient monastery set up by St Finbar. A large increase in traffic in recent times had meant a significant number of tourists were passing through (sometimes arriving in buses) and there’d been numerous complaints about the limited public facilities to cater for them.

In the version of the story I heard, a request for proposals for a new toilet block was sent out by Cork County Council. Several submissions were received, a decision was made and a contract finally drawn up and signed (or, possibly, not).  A year or so later, the Council received an invoice from the architect/builder/supplier for an absolutely extravagant amount of money.

Flabbergasted, they immediately sent a man out to Gougane Barra to find out what the hell was going on and when he saw the finished product – an artistic combination of ancient Iron Age style and modern interior design – his jaw hit the ground with a thump. Apparently he sent a note to his superior along the lines of ‘I thought we’d ordered a simple toilet block not a feckin space-age tribal hut!!’

According to my aunt, the Council would have taken action except for the fact that the toilet ended up wining an award for the ‘Top Toilet in Ireland’. Naturally, this being Cork, word spread almost immediately and for years afterwards, people were traveling all the way to Gougane Barra to see the new, extremely expensive, award-wining toilet rather than the ancient monastery.

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As I said earlier, I have no idea if this story is true or not. I suspect not but out of curiosity I did do some research to see if there actually was a Top Toilet Award in Ireland. I did come a similar award for a toilet in Kerry for the same year but the absence of any other reference does make me wonder. Two top toilets in the same year?  The competition must have been fierce in 2002!

Funnily enough, I also came across the Toilets of Ireland Association website (Seriously! Who the hell knew!!) where a quote on the left hand side from the Chief Executive states:

“I’m going to make your toilet experience even more special!”

 Honestly, it’s enough to make you shiver!!