Getting Lost with the Ancient Hillfort Atlas

Earlier this year, a database entitled The Atlas of Hillforts of Great Britain and Ireland was made available online but, unfortunately, this wasn’t without some controversy. In particular, a lot of people were unhappy with the term ‘hillfort’ because it’s quite an inaccurate term to use for many of the sites identified in the Atlas, most of which were believed to have a ritualistic/social nature rather than a military/defence one.

Funded though through the British Arts and Humanities Research Council (AHRC), the Atlas was established through a project facilitated by University College Cork, the University of Edinburgh and the University of Oxford. The information gathered for it was collected by over a hundred volunteers who visited the sites and input the data gathered. Over time, the plan is to allow the Atlas to be updated by volunteers who upload their own images and text.

Like most projects there are pros and cons with the ‘Hillfort Atlas/Database’. The ‘pro’ is that it identifies where many ancient sites are located and by making this information available online, it encourages people to go and interact with them – certainly a positive outcome.

The ‘con’ is that although the ancient sites are identified, there’s very little information provided on the site and much of that (from the database title down) is misleading and encourages misinterpretation. In addition, there very little actual data available on the website apart from the locations, a minimal explanation of hillforts, and links to a few related (university) books.

Essentially, the Atlas project team seem to be saying

“Look, here’s a map of old sites we’re generically going to call “hillforts” – even if they’re not. Also, here’s a list of books you might like to read if you want to try and make sense of it. Good luck with all that!”

Generally speaking, therefore, the Atlas is all a bit of a half-assed job and one gets the impression the universities only carried it out to obtain some easy funding from the AHRC or as a cheap publicity gimmick. From the final product, there certainly doesn’t appear to have been any attempt to:

  • define the project in a way that would assemble some meaningful data
  • analyse and present that information to the public in a way that might actually have been useful

The Hillfort Atlas itself can be found here: The Atlas

Good luck. You’ll probably need it.

Irish Mythology, Newly Discovered Werewolves and Other People’s Spin

Much of what people see as Irish folklore and Irish mythology today, is actually a confused muddle of snippets of fact, cultural misinterpretation, Chinese whispers, intentional and unintentional misinformation. Generally speaking, the latter tends to be disseminated by bloggers who aren’t Irish (but have an interest in what they call ‘Celtic’ mythology) however most people are surprised to learn that the more proactive form of cultural misinformation started way back in the 12th century with an individual known as Giraldus Cambrensis (Gerald of Wales).

Born in 1146, Gerald of Wales was the scion of a noble family (he was the son of William Fitz odo de Barry or Barri, one of Wales most powerful Anglo-Norman barons). Like his peers, Gerald had a healthy appreciation for power and for those who wielded it. Driven by ambition, he placed himself in positions associated with powerful men, ceaselessly self-promoted and worked his way up the social/political ladder until he was appointed archdeacon of Brecon in 1174 (a role he obtained by ‘dobbing in’ the previous archdeacon for having a live-in mistress).

Propelled by this success, Gerald soon managed to inveigle his way into the role of royal clerk and chaplain to King Henry II and, following the Norman invasions of Ireland (in 1169 and 1171), secured the prestigious position of accompanying the King’s son (Earl John – later, King John as of Robin Hood fame) on a tour of the conquered lands.

During this exploratory visit to Ireland, in an effort to impress his masters, Gerald commenced a propaganda piece known as the Topographia Hibernica (The Topography of Ireland). Even at the time, this document was remarkable not only for its length but the amazing depths of prejudicial description that portrayed the native Irish as depraved barbarians.

Published in 1188, Gerald’s account proved immensely popular in Great Britain with the ruling Norman classes as it’s dehumanisation of the Irish helped justify their invasion and the subsequent treatment of the natives. It’s important not to dismiss the impact of the Topographia Hibernica as many of its ‘factual’ descriptions established those stereotypes of the “wild Irish” that continued up to the early modern period (and which some would argue continue today).

Surprisingly, despite the fact that the Topographia Hibernica has been discredited for centuries, you’ll still find contemporary bloggers quoting liberally from it in an effort to justify their own particular passions or interests (usually related to fantasy beliefs or ‘Celtic Reconstructionist’ ramblings which are then linked – kicking and screaming – to Irish mythology). To be fair, reading some of Gerald’s writing is actually quite hilarious from a contemporary viewpoint but the fact that this was a propaganda document written by a non-Irish person and an official government spin-doctor for the Norman government, seems to have flown over the heads of many of the quoting bloggers. As in Geralds’ day, it seems people will still rearrange the facts to suit themselves.

Most internet content about Irish mythology tends to be created by non-Irish fantasy and ‘Celtic’ Reconstructionists – hence most of it is completely wrong.

 

One example I pulled from the Topographia Hibernica involves a fanciful ‘record’ of some Irish people being ‘part-wolf’. It reads as follows:

Of the prodigies of our times, and first of a wolf which conversed with a priest

I now proceed to relate some wonderful occurrences which have happened within our times. About three years before the arrival of Earl John in Ireland, it chanced that a priest who was journeying from Ulster to Meath, was benighted in a certain wood on the borders of Meath. While, in company with only a young lad, he was watching by a fire which he had kindled under the branches of a spreading tree, lo! A wolf came up to them and immediately addressed them to this effect.

“Rest secure, and be not afraid, for there is no reason you should fear, where no fear is.”

The travellers being struck with astonishment and alarm, the wolf added some orthodox words referring to God. The priest then implored him, and adjured him by Almighty God and faith in the Trinity, not to hurt them, but to inform them what creature it was that in the shape of a beast uttered human words. The wolf, after giving catholic replies to all questions, added at last:

“There are two of us, a man and a woman, natives of Ossory, who, through the curse of one Natalis, saint and abbot, are compelled every seven years to put off the human form, and depart from the dwellings of men. Quitting entirely the human form, we assume that of wolves. At the end of the seven years, if they chance to survive, two others being substituted in their places, they return to their country and their former shape. And now, she who is my partner in this visitation lies dangerously sick not far from hence, and, as she is at the point of death, I beseech you, inspired by divine charity, to give her the consolations of your priestly office.”

At this word, the priest followed the wolf trembling, as he led the way to a tree, at no great distance in the hollow of which he beheld a she-wolf, who under that shape was pouring forth human sighs and groans. On seeing the priest, having saluted him with human courtesy, she gave thanks to God, who in this extremity had vouchsafed to visit her with such consolation. She then received from the priest all the rites duly performed, as far as the last communion. This also she importantly demanded, earnestly supplicating him to complete his good offices by giving her the viaticum. The priest stoutly asserting that he was not provided with it, the he-wolf, who had withdrawn to a short distance, came back and pointed out a small missal-book, containing some consecrated wafers, which the priest carried on his journey, suspended from his neck, under his garment, after the fashion of the country. He then intreated him not to deny them the gift of God, and the aid destined them by Divine Providence; and, to remove all doubt, using his claw for a hand, he tore off the skin of the she-wolf, form the head down to the navel, folding it back. Thus she immediately presented the form of an old woman. The priest, seeing this, and compelled by his fear more than his reason, gave the communion; the recipient having earnestly implored it, and devoutly partaking of it. Immediately afterwards, the he-wolf rolled back the skin and fitted it to its original form.

These rites having been duly, rather than rightly, performed the he-wolf gave them his company during the whole night at their little fire, behaving more like a man than a beast. When morning came, he led them out of the wood, and, leaving the priest to pursue his journey, pointed to him the direct road for a long distance. At his departure, he also gave him many thanks for the benefit he had conferred, promising him still greater returns of gratitude if the Lord should call him back from his present exile, two parts of which he had already completed. At the close of their conversation, the priest inquired of the wolf whether the hostile race which had now landed on the island would continue there for the time to come, and be established in it. To which the wolf replied: –

“For the sins of our nation, and their enormous vices, the anger of the Lord, falling on an evil generation, hath given them into the arms of their enemies. Therefore, as long as this foreign race shall keep the commandments of the Lord, and walk in his ways, it will be secure and invincible; but if, as the downward path to illicit pleasures is easy, and nature is prone to follow vicious examples, this people shall chance, from living among us, to adopt our depraved habits, doubtless they will provoke the divine vengeance on themselves also.”

It’s quite likely that Gerald received additional brownie points from his masters for the final paragraph which essentially suggests the native Irish deserved everything they got (i.e. being invaded) as they were essentially sinful.

As you can see, Gerald of Wales had no particular qualms using fiction to portray the natives as partly inhuman (something which aligned well with the Roman Church who often likened native Irish war parties as ‘wolf bands’). This is something he also did in other sections of the document such as:

  • Of a fish which had three golden teeth
  • Of a woman who had a beard, and a hairy crest and mane on her back
  • Of an animal who was half-ox, half-man
  • Of a goat who had intercourse with a woman
  •  Yadda, yadda, yadda.

You get the idea.

I came across the above section as a result of some research I was carrying out on Irish wolves for one of my books (Liath Luachra: The Swallowed)  and, to my great amusement, discovered numerous bloggers have used this section to argue their belief that there have always been werewolves in Ireland.

On the bright side of course, we should probably thank our lucky stars they weren’t quoting Mein Kampf.

LIATH LUACHRA : THE PURSUIT being released tomorrow (or… today)

LIATH LUACHRA : THE PURSUIT

Depending on which side of the planet you’re on, the short story LIATH LUACHRA : THE PURSUIT is due for release tomorrow.

Or,… er, the day after.

This follows the adventures of the character best described as “The thinking woman’s warrior!”

The Celtic Mythology Short Story Competition – Three Years on

When we set up the first Celtic Mythology Short Story Competition back in 2015, we were pretty clear with respect to our overall goal: improving the appreciation and comprehension of Gaelic/Celtic mythology. At the time, merging that goal with the ability to increase the visibility of new authors seemed like a win-win situation and, to be honest, it still is.

That said, over the last three years we’ve learned a lot, not only about producing collections with other writers, but also around the whole concept of ‘Celtic’ and ‘Mythology’ – two words which still tend to be completely misunderstood. That’s helped our conceptual thinking on culture in more ways than I can succinctly describe here.

The third Irish Imbas: Celtic Mythology Short Story Competition has now been officially launched but there are a few changes which I’ve summarised below.

Updated Judging Process:
Last year was an eye-opener for me personally as a result of taking a much more back-seat approach to the final judging process. Having gone through the initial short-list, I was pretty clear in my head as to who the winners were going to be, so imagine my surprise when the other judges came up with something different. After the votes were counted, one story I was convinced should have been in the final collection no longer was (although to be fair all the others were, albeit in a different order). Either way, that experience really opened my eyes and to avoid bias we’re going to continue the judging process in that vein.

One shortcoming with last year’s judging process was the ratio of 3:1 males to females. I had the sense this also impacted on the final outcomes so this year we’re bringing one more female judge on board.

Updated Criteria:
If you look carefully you’ll see that we’ve amended the second criterion slightly. This now reads:

  • Any Celtic folklore or mythological reference used should be culturally accurate (for example; no dedicated pantheon of Irish Gods, no werewolves, vampires or other elements that don’t fit with the established mythology of ‘Celtic’ countries

Over the course of last year’s competition, we received a number of submissions that were really good (REALLY good) but which didn’t make the shortlist as they didn’t align with objective of the series: mythology. That was a real shame. Some of the stories were excellent but you could tell the authors hadn’t read (or possibly misunderstood) the criteria and were submitting pure fantasy as opposed to mythology-related narratives. The change is minor but we’re hoping It’ll help clarify things.

Last year’s Feedback Pilot
Last year, we also decided to trial a pilot offering the possibility of feedback (from the judges/editor) to those authors whose stories didn’t make the final Celtic Mythology Collection. Having gone through several competitions ourselves, we know what it’s like to have work rejected and this was intended as a way of giving something back to those who’d made the effort of participating.

To be honest, this was something of a failure. Because of unexpected workloads last year, I was able to provide feedback on only two of the submissions (out of the 12 requests) received so apologies to those of you who never heard back. This year, our workload is already shaping up to be substantial so we’re not going to attempt it again as we know there simply won’t be enough time.

Digital Copy to go Exclusive to Amazon
This is something we’ve ‘hummed and hawed’ about for several months but, in the end, we’ve decided to publish the next collection in the series through KDP Select (i.e. exclusive to Amazon – at least for the first three months). There are a number of different reasons for this but the main ones are:

  • The administration for a ‘free’ book has turned out to be surprisingly complex across the different ebook store platforms. Under the current process, you can never really be certain if the main one (Amazon) is going to release it as ‘free’ or not. That creates enormous problems with respect to book launches and other events for ongoing visibility. Going through KDP Select avoids that.
  • Most of the people with an interest in the digital collection tend to be based on Amazon. There are readers who receive the books on other platforms (Apple, Nook etc.) via Smashwords but due to problems with this distributor last year we’re loathe to go through them again (we’ve since used a different distributor for the second collection in the series).

The main advantage from our perspective with this approach is that it’ll reduce the amount of administration time we need to input and free us up to work on our other projects, which – looking ahead – are going to be substantial. Once the initial three months exclusivity is done we’ll review the situation.

The first two collections will continue as they are unless something changes.

The Irish Imbas: Celtic Mythology Short Story Competition 2017 is now open

Irish Imbas Books are pleased to announce the launch of the Irish Imbas: Celtic Mythology Short Story Competition 2017.

This is the third of these annual competitions and digital copies of the previous collections can be obtained free from the Irish Imbas Bookshop or from all good ebook stores.

Submissions will be accepted from midnight 2 September 2017 to midnight 10 December 2017.

First prize consists of 500 and story published in Irish Imbas Celtic Mythology Collection
Second Prize: $250 and story published in Irish Imbas Celtic Mythology Collection
Third Prize: $100 and story published in Irish Imbas Celtic Mythology Collection

Full details can be found at Irish Imbas: Celtic Mythology Short Story Competition 2018.

A further post clarifying minor changes to the competition and giving further context will go up on this site tomorrow.

Go raibh míle maith agaibh!