What If New Zealand Maori Colonised England?

Few things get my blood curdling but one was a media announcement in New Zealand yesterday when an individual by the name of Don Brash introduced a lobby group of ‘like-minded individuals’ vowing to vanquish radial separatism of the New Zealand political landscape (i.e. suppress the uppity indigenous people).

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[Pic: Maori woman warrior wielding ‘patu’ from the film ‘The Dead Lands’]

To be honest, I was a bit surprised they gave this racially-prejudiced lunatic any media time. A previous Reserve Bank Governor and past leader of New Zealand’s ‘National Party’, he ran a campaign back in 2004 based on pretty racist, anti-Maori sentiment. His claim at the time, was that the indigenous people of New Zealand (the New Zealand societal group who are the worst represented in terms of education, income, health and crime statistics – in fact every feckin quality of life statistic you can measure) were apparently being more favorably treated than whites and received special privileges that white people didn’t.

[I should probably mention here that my kids are Maori (and Irish, of course) and have a very strong sense of both cultures].

Unexpectedly, at the time, that appealed to large mass of the New Zealand population who’d been conned (by the National Party and a pretty inept New Zealand media) into believing Maori were going to ‘own’ all the beaches in the country and block white New Zealanders from using them. Fortunately, sanity prevailed, Brash lost the election and over time the dodgy tactics he was using came to light (as did a better media understanding of the genuinely poor state of Maori in New Zealand). Since then, Brash has become something of a figure of amusement/contempt although he still has enough friends in the political and media establishment to get a hearing when he has some money to throw around.

Seeing Brash on screen, peddling his well-heeled prejudice like some kind of high-end, soft porn, was genuinely infuriating and brought back a lot of memories of 2004/2005. Back then, I was so furious at the injustice of it all I wrote a short story called ‘Morris Dancing’ which imagines a scenario where Great Britain is visited by Maori explorers and missionaries and subsequently colonised. Most of the story reflects key aspects (and events) of New Zealand’s colonisation by the English Crown but by putting the boot on the other foot, I was able to play around and have a lot of fun with the concept. Much of the narrative in the story incorporates material from Don Brash’s speech notes of 2004, much of which is recognisable to New Zealanders.

The story was originally published in the short story collection Leannán Sidhe – The Irish Muse but I’ve put a free version of it here (see below) if you’re interested. I don’t think it’s one of my best stories by any means, but it was a way of dealing with the anger. To my surprise, when it was released it received quite a lot of positive commentary and a lot of Kiwis seemed genuinely intrigued (and amused) by the idea. It turns out that sometimes, we can better more effectively see our own faults and prejudices through a contorted mirror image.

If you’re interested, you can download a copy (PDF) of the story here at morris-dancing.

Ireland’s Worst Heath Professional of All Time (Irish mythology)

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There’s been increasing reports concerning the state of Ireland’s deteriorating healthcare systems over the last few years but, in some respects, we should be glad for what we’ve got. We have, for example, mostly avoided hiring the likes of Dr Slop (an inept character from Tristram Shandy who spends most of the book trying to undo the tie to an obstetric bag), Dr Moreau, or even Dr Hannibal Lecter, as healthcare professionals. Irish mythology does however, include a somewhat infamous healer/physician by the name of Dian Cécht that you should probably be aware of.

Dian Cécht was an exceptionally talented medical practitioner, whose name turns up in the old manuscripts going back as far back as the 8th century. According to these, Dian Cécht was responsible not only for Nuadu’s famous arm transplant (he created the silver arm to replace the one Nuadu lost in battle ) but for the famous ‘health spa’ of Slane at Achad Abla as well (where the wounded or infirm could come to bathe and be healed). Such was Dian Cécht’s skill, he was actually deified by later generations and occasionally thought to be one of the gods of the Tuatha Dé Danann.
Unfortunately like many individuals in high-paid, high-stress professions, Dian Cécht also had some serious shortcomings, in his case a bad streak of professional envy.

Dian Cécht, it turned out, had a son (Miach) who became an even more exceptional healer than his father. Miffed by his offspring’s superior skillset, Dian Cécht lost it completely when Miach managed to replace Nuadu’s silver with one made from flesh and blood. Lashing out in a jealous rage, he killed his son dead.

Later when Miach was buried, his grieving sister Airmed cried over the grave but when her tears touched the freshly turned earth, the family were astounded to see 865 herbs grow up out of the grave from each of Miach’s 865 joints and sinews (we’re assuming here, that somebody counted them). Airmed, immensely practical, immediately arranged all the herbs in order and started to catalogue the wide range of beneficial effects, so effective they’d cure every illness in Ireland. Dian Cécht however, infuriated at being outdone once again, scattered all the herbs and all knowledge of the herb’s healing properties were lost forevermore.

So there you go!

If you ever find yourself having a need to vent about the Irish health service, just remember Dian Cécht, how much better it could have been and how he managed to screw it up for everyone.

Sounds like any number of our previous Health Ministers!

The Most Incompetent Warrior in Ancient Ireland (Irish Mythology)

I’ve got to admit, I’ve always kinda liked Lóegaire Búadach (Lóegaire the Victorious).

Ulster Cycle hero, contemporary of Cú Chulainn, husband to Fedelm Niochride and warrior in Conchobhar mac Nessa’s court, Lóegaire’s main function seems to have been as a comedic extra on the periphery of the principal action. In that respect, Lóegaire Búadach often filled the role of inept everyman, the hapless loser we all have a soft spot for.

Lóegaire first appears in Fled Bricrenn (Bricriú’s Feast) where he’s generally represented as a somewhat inept third contender for the Champion’s Portion (a prize that he and the two other Ulster warrior heroes, Cú Chulainn and Conall Cernach, are competing for). In every competition the three partake in, Lóegaire inevitably comes off worse.

When the three heroes meet an ogre on their way to Cú Roí’s dwelling, Lóegaire is forced to flee without his weapons, horses, chariot and charioteer. Later when the heroes stand guard at Cú Roí’s dwelling, another ogre casts him into a pile of cowshit. When they’re sent to fight the Amazon’s of the Glen, the Amazons strip him of his clothes and weapons and, humiliated, let him leave.

Lóegaire’s most embarrassing story, of course, is the story of how he died.

When King Conchobhar mac Nessa discoverd that his wife was being unfaithful with the poet Aed, he immediately ordered the latter to be put to death. Because of his status as a poet however, Aed was offered the opportunity to choose the manner of his death and, having a secret spell to dry up water, he slyly opted for ‘Death by Drowning’.

Despite several attempts to submerge him in local rivers and springs (that all mysteriously dried up), Conchobhar’s men eventually dragged the poet to Loch Lai (extremely close to Lóegaire’s residence). Here, with Aed’s spell now waning, they were finally able to get him into the water.

Hearing the poet’s yells for help, Lóegaire jumped up for his sword, outraged that anyone would treat a poet in such a manner and determined to save him. So outraged was Lóegaire, that he forget to duck when hurtling out through the door of his dwelling and subsequently managed to have the top half of his head sheared off by the low lintel.

With his clothes coated in gore and half his head missing, Lóegaire demonstrated that, in fact, his brain was superfluous to his fighting ability. In the ensuing battle, he killed thirty of Conchobhar’s men before he finally dropped dead.

And of course, Aed slipped away unharmed.

The Truth About Irish Woman Warriors (Irish Mythology)

There’s a lot of fantasy out there when it comes to women warriors, particularly where it relates back to those in the Irish or Celtic realm. To be fair, the subject is hardly a new one. Since the development of literature itself, writers and readers have been enamoured by tales of fighting women (particularly Herodotus with his notes on the inaccurately-named Amazons), probably because they’re such a rarity in ancient warfare, an area generally dominated by men.

That’s not to say, of course, that woman don’t or didn’t fight. There are numerous historical and contemporary examples of women fighting to defend themselves or, more often, fighting to protect the ones they love. And, in most cases, that’s the key difference. Men were most often portrayed as fighting for abstracts like patriotism or glory. Women, less so. Women’s role in ancient warfare obviously differed within cultures but, in a (very) general sense, women were portrayed as fighting only when it was absolutely necessary or when it was necessary for some other element in the tale. People have different opinions on whether that’s a product of biology, society, upbringing or something entirely different. Either way, it’d be foolish to ignore the patterns of millennia across ancient (and modern) societies.

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When it comes to the concept of women warriors in the ancient Irish mythological context, there’s certainly a lot more literary references compared to other contemporary societies of the same period. Some people use this fact to argue that female fighters were common in early Irish society and that it was a far more ‘gender equal’ society but that’s a pretty big leap to make. In general, most academics tend to agree that this discrepancy is simply due to the fact that the Irish mythological narratives (and here you can loosely use the term ‘Celtic’ as it also covers modern-day Scotland) were much more successively conserved in Ireland than they were in the other, more directly colonised countries.

Whatever you believe, the ancient tales still have to be treated with a lot of caution. The writers/recorders of that time were not above a bit of creative licence or prejudice. People forget that just because something was written a long time ago, that doesn’t necessarily mean it’s true.

If we look at Irish mythology then, the best known women warriors tend to include:

  • Scáthach – a woman warrior who appears in the Ulster Cycle who was based in modern-day Scotland. She instructs Cú Chulainn in a number of martial feats and when he catches her with her guard down, is forced to take him as a lover
  • Aífe – a rival of Scáthach who Cú Chulainn forces to lie with him at swordpoint and subsequently bears him a son
  • Neasa (Ness) – a woman warrior forced into marriage at swordpoint by the warrior/druid Cathbad and future mother of the famous Conchobhar mac Nessa
  • Liath Luachra – a guardian of the young Fionn mac Cumhaill, briefly mentioned in the Fenian Cycle but for whom there’s very little information available

In the first three examples, one gets an overpowering impression from the literature that the character of the powerful woman warrior was created specifically to highlight the sexual accomplishment and domination of the male ‘hero’ who subsequently overpowers her (a pattern also found with other women warrior characters in the mythology). With the third example, Liath Luachra is actually a guardian to the young hero, a relationship that, in a sense, is desexualised.

Other women mentioned in the ancient Irish literature who are often offered as examples of women warriors include:

  •  Meadhbh (also spelt Medb, Maeve etc.) – Queen of Connacht in the Táin (The Cattle Raid of Cooley)
  •  The Morríghan (or Mór-ríoghain)

In fact, neither of these actually make the cut if you look at them in any kind of detail. All of the literary and archaeological evidence to date suggests the characters are personifications of female deities as opposed to warrior women. Articles or literary works suggesting that they are, generally indicates the author hasn’t done his/her homework or is pushing an argument that’s probably driven more by wish fulfilment than fact.

Over the last twenty years or so, representation of women warriors has become much more prevalent, particularly where entertainment aligns with more contemporary underlying themes of gender equality etc. Given the prevalence of characters in the Irish mythology, there’s also been a tendency to ‘borrow’ them for contemporary fictions but without any real consideration of the underlying cultural context. This occasionally results in works that are not only overly romanticised but which ignore some of the strong negative gender undercurrents associated with the characters, something of which the authors often seem – disturbingly – unaware.