Secrets of Celtic Mythology

Secrets of Celtic Mythology 02 (2)

For those of you based in Wellington, you may be interested in a seminar we’re holding on Friday 11 December at the Mezzanine in the Wellington Central Library. The seminar is called ‘The Secrets of Irish Mythology’ but will actually focus predominantly on Irish mythology, which is what we know best.

I’m still working through the structure of the seminar but it will probably involve some initial explanation of mythology (what is it, exactly?) followed by some living examples of it in Ireland today. I’m also keen on running through the practical ramifications of this for society as this is an area I’m quite keen on and hope to do some more of in the future.

In any case, the details are below:

“Irish Imbas Books presents Secrets of Celtic Mythology at the mezzanine of Wellington Central Library from 6:00 to 7:30 on Friday 11 December 2015. This one hour presentation will explore the background to the development of mythology, examine some practical examples of Irish mythology in Irish folklore and explain why this is relevant to us all. The event is free to enter. Irish Imbas Books will have a selection of books available for sale for those who are interested.”

Location/venue:
The Mezzanine, Wellington Central Library 65 Victoria Street Wellington
Date:
11 Dec 2015

It’s always a bit of a thrill to see the physical end product

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It’s always a bit of a thrill to see the physical end product from your creative work. Even after five or six printed books, the tangible experience of holding the first physical copy in my hand still gives a bit of a buzz. Oddly enough, from experience, I also know that sensation fades pretty rapidly. Within a month or so, whenever I pick it up a book I’ve written, it always feel as though it’s someone else’s book.
I’m not quite sure why such ‘distancing’ occurs. In some ways it’s good in that I can actually pick up and read one of my previous books with a very objective eye. I recently reread Fionn: Defence of Rath Bladhma and the nice thing was that I actually quite enjoyed reading it. How weird is that?

I suppose I’ve never really thought about it too much until yesterday (when I picked up the physical sample copy of Liath Luachra – The Grey One from the printers we use here in Wellington). Now, I suspect that what happens is, once one creative project is completed, I just mentally “chuck it” as I move onto the next. This is probably good in that it actually makes me quite productive but it also means I no longer have such a strong sense of creative ownership of the works I produce. I suppose that just doesn’t become so important any more once you’ve delivered your first “creative baby”! With each new creative work you become a lot more pragmatic and substantially less precious about them.

Anyway, Liath Luachra – The Grey One is now available for pre-order on Kindle. It’ll also be available in hard copy from Amazon in the next 1-3 days.

For those who live in Wellington, I’ll have paperbacks available from sometime next week providing all goes to plan.

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By the way, the white paper to the right of the computer is the rough draft of Fionn: The Adversary. I’m taking a week or two off from it at the moment but, yes, I am working on it.

The Warrior Woman

The Woman Warrior

Writing Liath Luachra – The Grey One turned out to be a lot harder than I’d anticipated. Most of it was written over a miserable New Zealand winter (in Wellington, at least), we had a number of other strenuous work contracts on and constant repair work on the house meant it was difficult to focus at times. This slowed down the writing immensely but, to be honest, in some ways I think this was a good thing. When you push yourself to write a pre-determined plot you can end up writing an almost perfect outline that lacks genuine emotional resonance. When the plot’s clear in your head but you take additional time to work through the different scenes in terms of characterisation, motivation, additional twists and so on, the story usually ends up much more powerful and dramatic for that.

Although ‘The Grey One’ is essentially a ‘stand-alone’ prequel to the Fionn series, for me it was an interesting opportunity to explore the dynamics of war-parties and inter-tribal relationships in Iron Age Ireland. There’s a surprising amount of material available on early war-parties – particular on fian – although, as always, you have to take what’s written with a grain of salt. The Church in Ireland hated them with a passion and, hence, wrote very negatively about them but other sources describe them as a pragmatic part of society at the time. Interestingly, the word ‘fian’, eventually disappeared out of common usage and instead, the plural noun ‘Fianna’ was used. This is, of course, what most people mistakenly believe to be the name of the war band led by Fionn mac Cumhaill (as well as the origin of the more modern term ‘Fenian’).

Having a single female protagonist in a male-dominated world (particularly one involving violence) has proven a particularly interesting challenge in that it creates powerful tensions between characters that I normally don’t delve into in great detail. Obviously, the main one is that of sexual harassment/coercion – particularly with more vulnerable younger women – and that’s dealt with pretty bluntly throughout the novel. Most of my previous books have strong female characters but it’ll be interesting to see what people think of the approach I use in this particular one.

When it comes to female warriors in the ancient world, there are of course, occasional snippets available in the historical sources but, again, you really have to take care with these as well. Most of the writers tended to be male and that almost certainly influenced their descriptions and interpretation. It’s also probable that at least some of them sensationalised the topic just as much as in contemporary times. The truth is that, for some very obvious practical reasons, women didn’t tend to engage in physically dangerous and violent combat unless there was a particularly compelling reason to do so. Given that ‘The Grey One’ is a work of fiction with elements of fact, this is something I’ve had to dance around somewhat carefully.

To give people a sense/taste for what the book’s about, I prepared a three-chapter pre-launch teaser in ebook form under the title ‘The Warrior Woman’ which went up on Amazon last week. Being Amazon of course, they insist on charging a minimum of 99 cents however if you want a free copy in mobi. (Kindle) or ePub (Apple, Kobo etc.) you can find one at Smashwords or at Noisetrade. If you read/print off your computer you can get a good, old-fashioned PDF document here under ‘Download sample chapters’.

This book itself becomes available through Amazon on 4 December 2015. Hardcopy versions will also be available in hardcopy through Amazon (sometime in December) and by ordering through other bookshops (from February). If you really, really, absolutely have to get an ePub version just email me though the website and I’ll see what I can do.

Out Drinking With The Witches

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Years ago, while waiting to be served at a bar in Glandore, I met a pair of witches over on holiday from England. After they told me that, they both kind of stood there waiting, clearly expecting a bit more of a reaction. What they couldn’t have known, of course, was that over the years in West Cork, we’ve seen waves of foreign new-agers, alternative life-stylers, hippies and artists come and go, all with different belief systems and claims. Having someone tell me they were a witch wasn’t really that shocking. Once, someone in Bellydehobb insisted he was a robot. Another person I went fishing with was convinced he was half-rock. It gets a bit weird down there sometimes.

We got to talking but, during the conversation, I noticed how Alice and Deirdre – although she pronounced it ‘Dear-dree’ – kept steering the conversation back to magic and witchcraft. It was obviously a subject of some personal importance and, although they were nice to talk to, they both gave off a tangible sense of desperation in the way they seemed to be seeking acceptance or recognition of the title.

At one stage, a few drinks later, Deirdre told me she had the power to cast spells and a particular expertise in secret Irish/Celtic rituals and esoteric knowledge. When I asked her how she’d learned all this, given that I’d never heard of them and they were – well, secret – she admitted to learning them from ancient Celtic manuscripts. Well, actually the more modern, English translations of those manuscripts. Given that the Celts didn’t generally write, she probably meant the documents written by Roman (and, later, English) commentators about the Celts as opposed to documents written by the Celts themselves.

Like some people, Deirdre was under the illusion that Ireland was crawling with witches and that witches were part of our culture. Of course, the truth is that we never really had witches, at least not in the way she meant it. The word ‘witch’ is an interesting one (believed to be derived from the Old English noun – wicca – but even that derivation is pretty vague) and there isn’t really a Gaelic equivalent. We use ‘cailleach’ but that’s better translated as ‘hag’ in the sense of land goddesses and also ‘bean feasa’ but again that’s in a similar vein to ‘cailleach’.
Fortunately, Ireland was spared the witch hunts and trials that plagued Europe from the mid-1400s and the States in the late 1800s. That wasn’t of course because we were had an increased level of sanity or any kind of moral superiority (hah!) but because of the particular vagaries of culture, power and authority at the time.
All entities that hold unchecked authority (political, religious, administrative etc.) invariably act against the people they’ve been set up to represent. Generally, this is done through institutional self-protection – a bid to oppose any threat to that entity’s authority – real or perceived. This is a fundamental characteristic of human society and one that will always undermine our attempts at becoming a civilised society.

So it was, in the early 1200s, that the Catholic Church – the most powerful entity in Europe at the time – driven by a need to counter the growing influence of the competing Catharist movement, launched the Albigensian Crusade (a military crusade against the Catharists in Southern France and northern Italy that lasted twenty years). This bloody, massacre-filled conquest subsequently led to the creation of the Dominican order and the Medieval Inquisition. Given that the ‘inquisitors’ in charge had been given a free hand by their masters to do as they pleased as long as any threat to the Church’s power was countered, they went on to abuse that power, commencing a pogrom that served their own political and personal goals. The rest, of course, is common history.

In Ireland from the 1200 to the 1600s however, the country was a very isolated place and there was no real national authority that could impose its will on the population (although the English crown achieved military control from the early 1600s onwards). Nevertheless, outside the Crown-controlled centres, their authority was ignored. In addition, any intent of the Catholic Church to instigate witchcraft trials was countered not only by the Protestant English Crown but by the fact that the communities the priests lived in were small and they needed the support of the local population to survive. Burning people at the stake, obviously, would not have helped to ensure that support.

For this reason, there were few witchcraft trials in Ireland over that period. Where they did occur, they tended to be restricted to the English settler population as opposed to the native population.
With the gradual reform and Catholic Emancipation from the late 1800s and early 1900s, the power and influence of the Catholic Church in Ireland grew once more. It’s from this time onwards that we start to see the Catholic Church once again flexing theological and social muscle in its attempts to crush any alternative belief systems (particularly where it came to pre-Christian – pagan – beliefs). Most witch stories in Ireland tend to be derived from this period and although the Church could be cruel at times, it didn’t – fortunately – have the power to kill anyone for having conflicting beliefs. A classic example of this is the manner in which they treated the famous herbalist, Biddy Early.

Since the sixties, we’ve seen an increase in the resurgence of paganism, Celtic Reconstructionists, Wicca and so on. In many ways I see this as a more positive alternative to the existing religious institutions but it does make we wince when I encounter some of the shaky Celtic/Irish concepts on which they base their rituals and theologies. Several years ago I was at a pagan wedding ceremony where the celebrants ended up praying to the Salmon of Knowledge, something that’s just so out of context it’s completely barmy. In fairness, this is probably a poor, single example but it does explain how I ended up drinking beer with some nice English ladies who thought they were witches.

They were, at least, much more fun than the robot.