Final Cover for Liath Luachra – The Grey One

Liath Luachra cover

Some months ago I mentioned that I was writing a prequel to the Fionn mac Cumhaill series entitled Liath Luachra – The Friendly Ones. The latter part of that title referred to the mercenary group Na Cinéaltaí (The Friendly Ones) originally mentioned in FIONN: Defence of Ráth Bládhma and to which the character Liath Luachra had at one point belonged. After some feedback from various people, the title name was changed to Liath Luachra – The Grey One and the final cover completed (at last!).

Some of you will have recognised An Grianàn Ailigh (the Grianán of Aileach) there in the background. An ancient stone structure up in Donegal that’s believed to date back to around 1700 B.C.,  I passed it by on my way to visit the ever-amazing Mel and Ruairidh last year. For the purpose of the the story, I actually transferred the Grianàn south and east to northern Leinster. It’s a pretty amazing place with spectacular views that I’ll write about again at some stage.

This particular book basically came about about as I was keen to explore some research I’d carried out on tribal dynamics and on the use of fian (the original word for a ‘war party’ but also the word that later became ‘fianna’) in pre-fifth century Ireland. I was also keen to provide some additional background context to the character of Liath Luachra in the Fionn mac Cumhaill series.

The book currently has it’s own page on this site and although it won’t be released until September/ October this year, I will be putting a sample chapter up in the next two weeks or so.

The back cover blurb reads as follows:

Liath Luachra – The Grey One
Ireland 188 A.D. A land of tribal affiliations, secret alliances and treacherous rivalries.
Youthful woman warrior Liath Luachra has survived two brutal years with mercenary war party “The Friendly Ones” but now the winds are shifting.

Dispatched on a murderous errand where nothing is as it seems, she must survive a group of treacherous comrades, the unwanted advances of her battle leader and a personal history that might be her own undoing.

Clanless and friendless, she can count on nothing but her wits, her fighting skills and her natural ferocity to see her through.

Woman warrior, survivor, killer and future guardian to Irish hero Fionn mac Cumhail – this is her story.

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To be honest, it always feels a bit weird doing the whole back cover blurb thing. Obviously, you want to give people some idea what the book’s about and try to make it sound interesting (with a limited number of words). At the same time though, it’s hard not to find yourself falling into cliché. To my ear, the blurb often rings wincingly melodramatic at times. I guess this was as good as I could make it without taking it all WAAAYY too seriously.

Hope you enjoy!

The Moving Statues and Me

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When people talk of 1985 in Ireland, a lot of them mention how awful the weather was that summer. Oddly enough, for me it was one of the brightest and sunniest summers I can recall. It’s all down to perspective, of course. In the summer of 1985, I was in Kinsale, a beautiful seaside town/ tourist centre on the Cork coast. Having completed my university exams (successfully, for once!), I’d been unable to find work (Ireland was in mid-recession at the time) and a result, I was living on my Dad’s boat on Kinsale marina. I had a whole summer of sailing, drinking and partying ahead of me and I was blissfully unaware of the storm blowing in from about five miles off to the south west, a storm that was about to set the country alight.

The story of the moving statues started in Ballinspittle one evening in July. I have memories of meeting a French girl I really liked so around that time so I was desperately preoccupied trying to win her affections. Over in Ballinspittle however, two local girls had just told their parents they’d seen a roadside statue of the Virgin Mary move while they were praying. Most people who’ve been to Ireland will be familiar with these roadside grottos and their statues of the Virgin Mary. There are hundreds of these statues dotting the country in all sorts of places as a result of the religious fervor during the Marian Year in the 1950s.

By late July, the French girl was well gone, continuing her tourist trip around Ireland. I consoled myself by sailing with my family at the Schull and Baltimore regattas and then returning to skim around Kinsale harbour on my Lazer (a very fast and fun one-man sailing dinghy). Most nights, I’d end up drinking at a friend’s house (or at my cousins) as I rarely had enough money to actually get to a pub. By then, people were already talking about the “Ballinspittle Miracle” and the small groups of four or five congregating around the grotto. By the time I got back from Schull a week or two later, the Cork Examiner was reporting on the matter at length. The one thing that really indicated how serious things were getting however, was the sudden and startling presence of a double decker bus on the tiny streets of Kinsale as it brought the faithful down from Cork city to see the miracle.

Looking back now, in many respects it seems strange that nobody really took notice or reacted to the event for such a long time. I guess, the truth is that most of us kind of took it for granted. Miracles weren’t exactly unheard of. In Ireland, we’d always been raised with tales of the miracle up at the Knock shrine in Mayo. My parents – and most of my friends’ parents – had visited Lourdes or Fatima at least once to see the miracle sites there. I don’t think my friends were ‘believers’ by any stretch of the imagination but our generation had been raised to adhere to the beliefs of those that preceded us. The interesting thing was that although we accepted their religious beliefs, we were never truly confronted with them (not, really). They were our parents’ “thing”, not ours and we were fortunate in that we had sufficient freedom that they didn’t really touch us as much.

In August, the country started to get a bit crazy when a Marian statue was reported moving at the grotto in Mount Melleray (County Waterford). The papers picked up the story and connected it with Ballinspittle and almost immediately, competing Marian statues started shifting at thirty other grottos around the country. Everybody was now talking about it – mockingly or fervently – and it was becoming a phenomenon that could no longer be ignored. A tangible religious fervor was picking up amongst the more fanatical believers although the developing sceptics movement was just as strong. Thousands of people had started to gather at Ballinspittle every Sunday, although it has to be said that not all of them were believers. A large proportion were going out of sheer curiosity, for the craic, or simply to take the piss (something not unheard of in Ireland).

Even at the time, feckless youth that I was, I remember being surprised that the Catholic Church were so silent on the whole matter, refusing to be drawn on whether this was a genuine miracle or not. Fortunately, I’d discovered the joys of sex by then. That and the sheer physical pleasure of skimming across the waves in the Kinsale’s outer harbour held much more appeal than discussing the theological strangeness of moving statues although the subject seemed impossible to ignore. At this stage, reports of moving statues were on the television every night and public opinion seemed to be polarised predominantly along the lines of:

  • Yes, this is some kind of supernatural event and God is sending us a message (we’re just not exactly sure what it is)
  • No, it’s all an illusion driven by religious hysteria

Keen to get in on the action, a group of scientists from University College Cork (the Psychology Department) declared that the visions were either optical illusions caused by staring at static objects too hard in the evening light or a general psychological and sociological reaction to the recession, the crippling unemployment, the wet summer (WTF? It’s raining?!). Given the fact that I was actually studying Science at University College Cork, I was immediately skeptical, although for no particularly strong reason. I ‘knew’ many of the scientific ‘experts’ (albeit more for their personal foibles than for their professional competence and when you know people in one light it’s hard to accept them in another). To be honest, I suppose that even back then I was something of a cynic. Personal experience with both groups meant that I distrusted the religious ‘experts’ just as much as I distrusted the scientific ‘experts’.

In September, the situation took a sharp turn off Bizzare Street to career precariously down Wierdo Avenue. Up in Culleens (County Sligo), another moving statue had been spotted and strange things had started to appear in the sky. People were reporting ‘red balls of fire’ and ‘lights descending from the sky’ and for a moment, attention switched away from Ballinspittle. One night, watching the Late Late Show, I saw an interview with some local boy talking wide-eyed about ‘angels in the sky’ (the actual interview can still be found here: http://oldportal.euscreen.eu/play.jsp?id=EUS_F2B237A5C9B1497786593EBDF0F4B31F).

Even then, I felt things were balancing precariously on the hysterical. Despite this, another two or three weeks passed without major event. Life went on. Leaving the freedom of Kinsale behind, I returned to University for another gruelling year of study and socialising. The weather grew colder, it rained more often. Slowly, but surely, the statues started to reclaim their immobile pedestals. Despite the transfer of attention to Sligo and the subsequent ‘statue fatigue’, crowds of people (markedly smaller) kept flocking to Ballinspittle but it was clear the party was drawing to a close.

On Halloween (October 31st), it all flared back to life again when the Ballinspittle statue was attacked by three men wielding axes and hammers. Destroyed in front of a number of praying onlookers, the men (led by a man called Robert Draper) were arrested by Gardaí and the ensuing court case filled the headlines for weeks. The three men were some opposing religious group who disbelieved in praying to false idols. Like all fanatics, rather than protesting or getting their own message across though peaceful means, they’d taken it upon themselves to ensure nobody else could pray to them either. Despite boasting publically of what they’d done, the men were never sentenced. This caused immense resentment but the response was remarkably restrained (apart from a number of broken windows at Draper’s home). Apparently, buoyed by success, Draper went on a roll smashing other statues and ended up doing six months in prison in 1987. Whatever you believe however, following the Draper attack, I’ve not heard of the Ballinspittle statue ever moving again. Things went all quiet and the resulting silence was ear-splitting.

Thirty years have passed since the whole Moving Statues event and yet, despite all the weirdness, the thing I find most striking is the total silence surrounding the topic since 1985. In some respects, it’s as though it never happened. Loathe to be ridiculed, few people are willing to discuss the subject (although there have been one or two small documentaries where the original witnesses were sticking strongly to their stories). To be honest, to this day, I still don’t completely understand the madness that overtook the country.

A few years ago, when I was back home I finally went down to the grotto in Ballinspittle. Ironically, despite everything (and the fact that I was living just a few miles up the road) I’d never actually got around to visiting the site of all the action. On two separate occasions, I’d actually been invited to join a group of friends going over to the statue for a ‘squizz’ but on both, I’d declined. The first time, because I was still chasing the French girl, the second because of more ‘generic’ party reasons. I’ve never really regretted either decision.

It was early morning when I got there. I’d driven over from Kinsale where I’d spent the night revisiting some old friends and some old haunts and I was in a melancholic state of mind. Conscious of the fact that my plane back to New Zealand was in two days time, I was feeling ‘homesick’ although in hindsight, I think it was a homesickness for my youth and the freedom I’d enjoyed in Kinsale rather than for my country.

The grotto is actually a pretty place that reminds me of my childhood, with its white balustrade and blue concrete letters reading “The Immaculate Conception”. The new statue has small electric bulbs around its head in the form of a halo. Because it was so early, there was no-one else around although I’m not sure if people still come here anymore. Before I hopped into the car to drive back to Cork, I looked up at the statue one last time, waved and shouted goodbye.

But it didn’t move.

Magic Roads in Ireland

way-out-far-ireland5

The Magic Hill up in Louth (or ‘The Angel’s Highway’ as it’s sometimes called) is one of a number of magic roads in Ireland where, if you park at the ‘bottom’ of the hill, turn of the engine and shift it out of gear, your car will actually run back uphill.

Magic roads are, in fact, what are sometimes referred to as ‘gravity roads’ (that’s an area where the landscape creates an optical illusion so that a downhill slope actually looks like an uphill slope). There are actually quite a number of such places around the world (and there’s a least three of them in Ireland that I’m aware of). Most have their own folklore associated with them although most of that lore is usually derived after the invention of the motorcar.

When my Dad took us on our very memorable trip to Dundalk (county Louth, we went to see the magic road there and there’s an amusing summary of it here on youtube: http://talkofthetown.ie/2014/02/25/the-real-magic-hill/

It’s hardly deep, intellectual folklore but it’s great craic!!

(Irish Folklore and Mythology): The Flight of the Outraged Corpses

Fox's bridge

Shournagh River at Fox’s Bridge near Courtbrack, Cork (David Hawgood) / CC BY-SA 2.0

The Flight of the Outraged Corpses

The townland of Matehy is a pretty discreet and unimposing place but it has a surprisingly macabre story associated with its graveyard. Located to the north-west of Blarney, its focal point today consists of a cluster of houses, a school, a church, a bar and, nearby, on the summit of a ridge, a cemetery that overlooks east Inniscarra towards the River Laoi.

Given its circular topography and high position, it’s quite possible the site was a pre-Christian site and, in fact, some folklore references suggest that it was once the dún of a tribal chieftain called Teichthec. The cemetery itself however, seems to date from the late medieval period (most of the headstones date from the late 1700s).

The fascinating story associated with this graveyard site can be very roughly summarised as follows:

During the period when the Penal Laws were being enforced in Ireland, a party of English soldiers (led by a man named Captain Fox) came across some people performing mass at a mass rock in Ballyshoneen. A brutal man, Captain Fox killed the priest, cut off his head and carried it on his sword as he victoriously led his men away. As the soldiers were galloping by the present day Vicarstown Cross, they attempted to cross the small bridge over the Shournagh River when Captain Fox’s shied and he fell to the ground and broke his neck. The area where he fell is still called Fox’s Bridge today.

 The remaining soldiers, in a panic, saw the cemetery in Loughane and, carrying their captain’s body, buried him there, in amongst the other graves.

That night, the dead of Loughane Graveyard, unable to bear the presence of the evil (and, one supposes heretical) Captain Fox, pulled themselves up out of the ground in disgust. Lifting up their individual headstones, the corpses stumbled across the field to the Shournagh river, travelled uphill to Matehy cemetery where they set their headstones in the ground and replaced themselves into the earth. A number of the headstones were said to have been lost as they crossed the river and some of those can be seen on the riverbed today.

If you’ve read my previous post The Mystery of the Jumping Church, you’ll spot that this is simply a variation of the ‘sacrilege story’ and a clue to the story’s actual derivation can be found in the local place name. The present day name ‘Matehy’ is actually an anglicization of Magh Teicheadh (Plain of the Retreat’ or ‘Plain of the Flight’ – not, in fact, the name of a Chieftain) and this is believed to be derived from a flight or battle that took place in the locality so long ago no historical record of it exists. It’s easy to see how, over time, the placename was adapted and distorted to create the story about the flight of the corpses to Matehy.

In previous posts, I think I’ve mentioned how stories like this can be found all over Ireland if you keep your eyes and ears open. I absolutely love such tales because they add a character and an emotional resonance to the land that I’ve never been able to find in ‘newer’ countries such as New Zealand or Australia where the stories of the original inhabitants (Australian Aborigines or Maori) are often overwhelmed and lost to the influence of the colonising cultures. I’ve often wished that New Zealand could do some study along the lines of the  Irish Folklore Commission’s famous Schools’ Folklore Scheme for Maori but I suspect that although remnants of such stories could be found, many of them would have been lost by now. I think all cultures are poorer for that.

On a more positive note, if you enjoyed the story of the outraged corpses you should try watching this lovely interview with a local Matehy man from the RTE (the Irish national television station) archives. It really is quite fun.
http://www.rte.ie/archives/2013/1210/491904-moving-graves-1968/