A Visual Representation of Irish Prehistory and Mythology

When you mention the word ‘prehistoric’ to people, most of them immediately conjure up images of Neanderthals walking around, scratching their arses and dragging huge heavy clubs on the ground behind them. What ‘prehistoric’ actually refers to though, is that period of time before which historical records were maintained. In a sense, you can think of ‘prehistory’ as a distant undiscovered country or a kind of ‘dark web’ for history. It’s an unknown territory, full of immense, untapped potential, deception and people who have an interest in controlling it.

When I imagine pre-historic Ireland therefore, it looks a little bit like this.

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The problem with history, of course, is that it’s something we all think we understand whereas if you actually stand back and kick the conceptual tyres in the same way you’d kick those of a new car, you’ll quickly work out how much of it is based on dangerous assumptions and potential falsehoods. The ‘recording’ of history has always been the privilege of societies’ winners and most powerful. The problem, unfortunately, is that those in power often have an agenda of their own when writing or recording history, mostly linked to retaining that power. What actually happened in the past comes in a distant second.

Napoleon Bonaparte is often quoted as saying ‘history is a bunch of lies agreed upon’. If he did actually say that, then he was an exceptionally insightful individual because he recognised how the reporting of the truth (not the truth itself) can be manipulated.

Essentially, history in most countries only comes into existence with the establishment of written records and therefore, the arrival of literacy. In Ireland, written records were first introduced with the arrival of Christian missionaries in the early fifth century. For that reason, for Ireland, anything that happened before that period is generally referred to as a ‘prehistoric’ event. Naturally, the first people holding the pen in Ireland looked at the world through a Christian religious lens and many of the early historical accounts are often very biased in that regard. With the spread of the church-dominated written account we can see the first steps in the ongoing erosion of native (non-Christian) belief systems. This is what we now refer to as ‘mythology’.

Winners of the Celtic Mythology Short Story Competition (2015-2016)

Irish Imbas Books are pleased to announce the winners of the 2015-2016 Celtic Mythology Short Story Competition. These are:

First prize ($500): Sighle Meehan for ‘Hawthorne Close
Second Prize ($250): Sheelagh Russell Brown for ‘A Mainland Mansie Meur
Third Prize ($100): Marc McEntegart for ‘In a Small Pond

All three stories will appear in the forthcoming Irish Imbas Celtic Mythology Collection 2016 due for release in March this year with two additional stories:
• ‘Transit Hours’ by Marie Gethins
• ‘Lir’ by Coral Atkinson

As well as the short stories, the Irish Imbas Celtic Mythology Collection 2016 will contain explanatory context/notes on the various elements of Celtic Mythology associated with each story. A key purpose of this competition is to provide a source of authentic context and information on aspects of Celtic mythology for the general public.

Comments from the judges:

In total, 37 submissions received (initially there were 40 but 3 were withdrawn). The vast majority of stories covered aspects of Irish mythology. Stories related to elements of Welsh mythology were the next most popular (in terms of numbers).

The three criteria used by the judges were:

  1. Celtic mythology or folklore forms a fundamental element of the story
  2. Any Celtic folklore or mythological reference should be as authentic as possible
  3. A compelling story/theme, engaging characters.

Submissions were received from all over the world, including countries such as Australia, New Zealand, America, Canada, Norway, Denmark, France etc. The majority of submissions came from Ireland.

In terms of the mythological content used within the stories, the most common were:

  • Elements from the Fenian Cycle (Fionn mac Cumhaill and related stories)
  • Seilchidh (Selkie)-related stories
  • Beansaí (Banshee)-related stories

The quality of submissions varied extensively both in terms of writing quality and authenticity of mythological content. A number of the submitted stories were excellently written but used elements of mythology in the wrong context. It was a difficult decision not to accept these submissions

We’d like to thank all entrants for taking the time to make submissions.

An announcement on the 2016-2017 Celtic Mythology Short Story Competition will be made later this year.

Update on the 2016 Irish Imbas Celtic Mythology Short Story Competition

We’re pleased to announce the short-list of submissions for the 2016 Celtic Mythology Short Story Competition. Please note that submissions are listed in alphabetical order and a final decision on the winners has yet to be made:

A King’s Fancy’ ‘ by Ann Rhodes
A Mainsland Mansie Meur’ by Sheelagh Russell-Brown
Hawthorne Close ‘ by Sighle Meehan
In a small Pond ‘ by Marc McEntegart
Letting Go’ by Alison Walker
Lir’ by Coral Atkinson
Muse’ by Catriona Murphy
Oisin and the Hunt ‘ by Nicola Cassidy
Tara and The Yoke ‘ by Emlyn Boyle
The Great Birds of High Imbolc ‘ by Derek Fennell
The Seafarer and the Lord of Inis Mean ‘ by Mairead Rooney
Transit Hours‘ by Marie Gethins
Wondres Spelle‘ by Rina Bruinsma

The winning entrants will be contacted by email in the next week or two. A final decision on the stories to appear in the 2016 Irish Imbas Celtic Mythology Collection will be made by the end of January.

We’d like to thank those of you who entered this competition but did not make the short list. Having entered several such competitions ourselves in the past, we’re aware of the disappointment that can accompany such outcomes. As a result, the judges have decided to offer all entrants a complimentary digital copy of the final collection as a ‘thank you’ for taking the time to submit.

Update to Competition conditions:

Although it was originally envisaged to place the top 9-10 stories in 2016 Irish Imbas Celtic Mythology Collection, this number is now likely be reduced to 5-9 stories. This is to allow sufficient room for explanatory notes etc.

Three Ways to Test the Authenticity of your Celtic Mythology Article (or, when Celtic Culture Goes Bad!)

When Celtic Culture Goes Bad

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Did you know that fairies are always sexy and like to wear revealing, gossamer outfits? Did you know that Banshees were vampires? Did you know that Ireland is awash with proverbs of great wisdom that no Irish person has ever heard of but which turn up regularly in internet articles on Irish culture?

These are just some of the more outlandish elements we’ve come across over the (almost) two years since working in this area. Some of the claims made by self-proclaimed internet experts on Irish and/or Celtic Mythology are jaw-breakingly hilarious although the sheer level of ignorance and misinformation that exists out there with respect to Celtic mythology is a bit of a concern.

As a result, we thought it might be useful to come up with a set of criteria to help you work out the genuine cultural value of the article, book, web-page you’re reading. Hopefully this will help you determine if it’s Celtic fact or Celtic fantasy, if it’s culturally accurate or simply culturally autistic.

The Criteria
The article/book/ web-page you’re reading probably doesn’t have any cultural credibility if the writer:
1) uses W.B. Yeats as a source of information
2) uses the word ‘Fae’ or ‘Faerie’ or some other such derivative
3) has no genuine familiarity with a Celtic language

(1) Using W.B. Yeats as a source of information
If you’re reading anything on Irish/Celtic mythology that cites W.B Yeats or uses his work as its main source of information, you’d be better off avoiding it like a lift-full of sweating joggers. Yeats was a poet and an artist but mythology/folklore formed only a small part of his overall interests. He was predominantly fascinated by mysticism, spiritualism and occultism and as a result, much of what he came across in Irish folklore/culture was adapted to align to these alternative belief systems. The result was often a complete nonsense.

On a more pragmatic level, it should also be remembered that Yeats was a member of the Protestant Ascendancy (an early-1900s group in Irish society made up of Protestant landowners, clergy and professionals). In practice, this meant he was quite insulated from ‘native culture’ and the cultural beliefs of people he referred to as “the peasantry”. It’s probably true to say he had a much better theoretical knowledge of Western esotericism than he ever did of Irish mythology and cultural beliefs.

There’s a reason Yeats is not used in contemporary tertiary education programmes for Celtic Studies.

(2) Use of the word ‘Fae’ or ‘Faerie’ or some other such derivative
The words ‘Fae’ or ‘Faerie’ are predominantly derived from old words in Continental European languages. In the English context, these words are found mostly in old books by long-dead writers (because they actually spoke like that) or in the books of more contemporary writers who want to make the word ‘fairy’ sound more ancient or ‘otherworldy’.

Some of the best names in fiction have done this at some stage and as a writing technique, there’s really nothing wrong with it as long as it remains within the realm of fiction/fantasy. If, however, someone is attempting to claim cultural authenticity while using these terms, you really need to take those claims with … well, a pinch of ‘fairy dust’!

Wikipaedia – not normally somewhere I’d advise for accurate or in depth information – actually has a surprisingly useful summary on the historical development of the word ‘faerie’ and ‘fairy’ as follows:

According to Thomas Keightley, the word ‘fairy” derives from the Latin fata, and is from the Old French form “faerie”, describing “enchantment”. Other forms are the Italian “fata”, and the Provençal “fada”. In old French romance, “fee” was a woman skilled in magic, and who knew the power and virtue of words, of stones, and of herbs.

Faie became Modern English fay. Faierie became fairy, but with that spelling now almost exclusively referring to one of the legendary people, with the same meaning as fay. The word “fairy” was used to in represent an illusion, or enchantment; the land of the Faes; collectively the inhabitants thereof; or an individual such as a fairy knight.

To the word faie was added the suffix -erie (Modern English) -(e)ry), used to express either a place where something is found (fishery, nunnery) or a trade or typical activity engaged in (cookery, thievery). In later usage it generally applied to any kind of quality or activity associated with a particular type of person, as in English knavery, roguery, wizardry. In the sense “land where fairies dwell”, the distinctive and archaic spellings Faery and Faerie are often used.

In essence, the word ‘fairy’ is just as inaccurate as ‘fae’ or ‘faerie’ in that they’re all words created from a mish-mash of different cultural concepts that have become warped over time and lacking in meaning. Again, there’s nothing wrong with that in the context of fiction/fantasy.

Generally speaking, there is some folklore about ‘fairies’ developed from the 1800s as a result of cultural disruption but its relatively shonky. If you’d like to read more on that you can find an earlier article here (The Secret life of Irish Fairies):

(3) Lack of genuine familiarity with a Celtic language
To understand a culture, you really have to have at least some comprehension of the language the population of that cultural society speak (or spoke). Without that understanding, it’s incredibly difficult to appreciate how people in that society thought, how they lived, how they loved, what values they held dear and so on. Even today, although international languages are translated on an almost continuous basis, anyone who speaks more than one language will tell you there are often concepts in one language for which there’s no direct equivalent translation in another language. These cultural concepts generally have to be explained in a different way (usually involving a lot more words) or the word from the original language is used. Examples of this might include ‘schadenfreude’, ‘déjà vu’ or even a little bit of ‘craic’.

This holds just as well for Celtic languages as it does for other more broadly spoken languages. There are expressions and concepts in Celtic languages that don’t translate exactly and which require more clarification. Having some familiarity with the language is very useful in that regard. For example, on occasion, because I speak Irish, I find that I sometimes get a better sense from a particular Irish story or piece of Irish mythology than a non-Irish speaker might get from the same material. This is not because I’m smarter or more insightful, it’s simply because I have a better cultural context.
There are limitations to this particular criterion of course. The Irish I speak today (and being based in New Zealand means I’m getting rusty) is not the same as the Irish spoken by our ancestors (Old Irish or Middle Irish) so my contextual understanding of material from that time is necessarily limited. Similarly, I’d also be extremely reluctant to comment on specific elements of Celtic mythology derived from sources in other Celtic languages (Welsh, Cornish etc.).

There are also occasions of course, where non-Celtic language speakers or people of non-Celtic heritage have made great contribution to the overall body of Celtic knowledge but this usually occurs where they bring an associated skill-set (e.g. in archelogy, philology, language etc. etc.). One of the more famous and respected early experts on Irish philology and early Irish literature, for example, was actually German (Kuno Meyer).

In summary, having a grasp of a Celtic language will not ensure your comprehension/ appreciation of Celtic mythology by any means – but it will certainly help.
Hopefully these criteria will give you some idea of what to look out for but please feel free to suggest others you think might work.

Surviving Christmas And an Irish ‘Sword’ Film

If you ever decide to invade New Zealand, I’d really recommend you do so over the Christmas period. Because of the fact that the Christmas holidays here take place in the middle of summer, you essentially end up with a double-whammy of a summer holiday and everything – everything! – comes to a complete halt for several days.

I love New Zealand during this period. Even if you wanted to work (and, hell, I’ve already got a crippling work schedule!) it’s actually quite hard to do so. And that’s not just because of the sun beckoning in through the window every morning.

In Wellington, we’ve had an amazing few weeks of sun this year, despite a harsh winter that dangled us by the short and curlies for several months. I had great plans to achieve a great many things but, in the end, I just gave in and went with the flow and feel so much better for that!

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In between eating, running, drinking and reading I also surfed the internet for an extended period and one of the little gems I came across was this interesting mini-film on You Tube (https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=VYAcYNg64UY ). Called ‘The Last Grasp’, it’s a short film project by Claíomh Productions (Claíomh is the Irish word for sword). To quote from their website, “Claíomh are an Irish military ‘living history’ group that re-create ‘live’ images of the country’s past, particularly related to the turbulent late medieval to early modern history period”. I’m personally more interested in the pre- [pre-5th century] history, myself but these guys stuff has always impressed me.

The film itself is about four years old or so. It’s pretty short with a limited story-line but I do like the camera work and the attention to detail, which marks the company’s fantastic research and high production values. More recently they did some reproduction work for 1916 so I’ll be interested to see what they get up to during the centenary events. Their Facebook page (here: ) has a number of photos which display their work and I’d highly recommend a visit.