Song of Granite – A Review

As an Irish publisher, I’m always interested in Irish stories no matter what the medium used, hence I’d heard of the film Song of Granite long before I finally got a chance to see it earlier this month. A movie by Irish art-house director Pat Collins, Song of Granite tells – or rather illustrates – the life story of Seosamh Ó hÉanaí (known in English as Joe Heaney), the famous Irish sean-nós (unaccompanied, old style) singer from County Galway.

No one could deny Heaney was an accomplished singer and the folklorists adored him as his repertoire reputedly included over five hundred different songs in Irish, many whose origins had been lost and which were impossible to date definitively.

Collins approaches the story in an interesting way, splitting the film into three parts: Heany’s childhood in Carna, his life as an emigrant labourer in Glasgow and his later his years in America where he eventualy died in 1984. On a cinematographic level, the first part of the movie is certainly the most spectacular with many scenes – including the opening scene of the boats – reminiscent of the famous ‘Man of Aran’.

Although Collins approaches Heaney’s story in an indirect manner, it seems to suit the subject of the movie. Heany, by all accounts, was something of an elusive and prickly figure. Never entirely comfortable with his life in the city and his growing reputation as a singer, he often disappeared without warning, deserting his family for periods of over a year, sometimes returning back to the country where he worked on simple labouring jobs. It’s never stated directly that he’s fleeing the city but there’s one telling shot where he’d looking down at his kids in Glasgow, where they’re trying to play football in the concrete confines of a narrow alley-way. After the panoramic freedom and grandeur of Carna, the comparison is obvious.

The singing, of course, forms an essential part of the story and is present throughout the film. My favourite scene is one very-well recreated pub-scene where Heaney (played by Micheál Ó Confhaola) sings while getting that supportive touch of another sean-nós singer, something that’s totally distinctive to that particular art-form.

One aspect of Heany that came across (and which I wasn’t aware of) was his refusal to sing songs derived from the Irish music-hall stage (the ‘Oirish’ songs overseas audiences were used to hearing, and which many people demanded). Most people feel comfortable when another culture is presented to them in a familiar (i.e. in their language, in concepts they’re accustomed to dealing with etc.) and I really appreciated the way that Heany appeared to see himself as much more than that.

Either way, if you’re interested in sean-nós singing, Joe Heany’s life or a beautiful and poetic rendition of an earlier time and art-from, than this is very much the film for you.

Beara Dreaming

Twenty years ago, during a particularly tough winter, I found myself thumbing along a country road in Beara, trying to make my way back to Cork city. To be honest, it probably wasn’t the smartest of moves given that it was New Year’s morning and the landscape was empty of human activity. In the two hours I’d spent walking in the direction of Bantry, only two vehicles had passed: a van and a Morris Minor driven by a tight-faced old woman. Both had been headed in the opposite direction.

The previous night in Glengarrif had been a typical New Year’s Eve, heavy on the traditional music and the booze and a singing session that went on till the early hours. For some reason, I still woke up at six in the morning and, despite the hangover, had this deep-rooted drive to move on. This was some weird kind of personality glitch that plagued me from my late teens until about the age of thirty, a strange apprehension that I was enjoying something too much and that, if I didn’t let the joy go voluntarily, it would somehow be taken off me. Even today, I’m still not sure what was behind all that.

After two hours of walking the empty road, I couldn’t really feel my fingers or my toes. Fortunately, there was a liquid sun that kept the worst of the cold at bay and transformed Beara’s habitual grey bleakness into one of the most beautiful landscapes I know, and which still holds a death-grip on me.

Eventually, I heard a puttering sound in the distance behind me. When I looked hopefully back over my shoulder however, it turned out to be a motorbike, a tiny Honda 50, already loaded down with two people. As it drew nearer, I realised that I recognised both the motorbike and the two people on it. The driver, was one of my best friends from university while the person on the back was a girl I’d had a romantic fling with two years earlier (ironically, the last time I’d been home to Cork). The latter was wearing a hurling facemask as they only had one helmet. She was also wearing a large black, plastic rubbish bag to keep the cold off. The motorbike didn’t sound too healthy, you could actually hear the motor’s relief as it crested the hill and started downhill towards me.

This is typical Beara of course. It’s always been a strikingly surreal place, full of fascinating characters, dreamlike encounters and an odd sense of magical realism that’s tempered with the brutal weather, the unemployment and the other harsh practical realities of living there.

In New Zealand, where I’m currently living,  Maori have a word – turangawaiwai (literally, it means ‘the place where I stand’) – to express the connection between a person and a particular place, or a piece of land. The word, and the concept, really encapsulate that idea of attachment in terms of familial, generational, spiritual and cultural connection in a way that English words like ‘homeland’ (or even most Irish words I can think of) fail to capture. It’s the kind of word that necessitates a ‘walking of the land’ –  a regular and consistent of land to the point where you know the ground intimately and it forms part of your vocabulary.

Down where we lived, each field had its own name, generally associated with a physical characteristic, an event or a use or a person. The field in front of our house was called ‘An Páirc Mor’ – the Big Field – nothing like stating the bleeding obvious. A bit further on, you came to An Páirc Glas – the Green Field – because of the vibrant grass colour, and so on.

I used that kind of in-depth cultural background when I wrote my first book – Beara Dark Legends – because when you first start writing, you pretty much use what you know and in that particular case, it was a means of lancing the power of homesickness. The location for much of the land where the action takes place – Carraig Dubh (pronounced ‘Corr-igg Doov’ for the non-Irish speakers) is essentially drawn from the house and surrounding land where I spent a substantial part of my childhood and I occasionally used some of the local field names.

For those who’ve read the book, that’s the house and that’s Cnoc Daod up there in the background, dominating the world with its granite bulk. Some people have asked why I never give it the English name but I suppose, for me, the English name just doesn’t sound right. It’s probably just a personal thing. I like its English name fine, but it’ll never have the same emotional resonance or connection that ‘Cnoc Daod’ has.

Living here in New Zealand has by necessity meant that I’m unable to ‘walk the land’ like I used to. It also means that I can sometimes feel my culture – and its creative associations – slipping away and I have no choice but to go back and ‘draw from the well’ once again. I’m hoping to get home again this year and will probably be spending a substantial period of time down Beara way.

Hopefully you’ll see the practical ramifications of that in future works.

An Historical Irish Revenge Thriller

For those with an interest in film, an interesting ‘Irish film’ premiered at the Berlin Film Festival in February this year and although I’ve been keeping an eye out for it on the international scene, it seems to have pretty much disappeared beneath the radar. Entitled ‘Black 47,’ it refers of course to 1847, the nadir of The Great Famine – An Gorta Mór.

Irish films based on An Gorta Mór are pretty few and far between (I can’t actually think of any), probably because as a tragedy and cultural injustice so epic in scale, the topic is still a somewhat sensitive subject, at least for our older population.

Fortunately, director’s like Lance Daly are young enough to avoid the worst of that burden so it’ll be interesting to see how he manages to balance that interaction between respect and voyeurism.

Daly was smart enough to approach the topic through the medium of a historical thriller/revenge movie – the plot basically concerns an Irish soldier who deserts and returns to the west of Ireland to seek revenge during the famine. Interestingly, Daly chose two Australian actors in the two major roles (Hugo Weaving and James Frenchville). The latter – in the attached scene – speaks pretty good Irish but I must admit I’m curious as to what it’ll turn out like.

Has anyone seen it?

The Irish Imbas: Celtic Mythology Collection 2018 is Out!

The third in our series of Celtic Mythology Collections – the Irish Imbas: Celtic Mythology Collection 2018 – is now available in hard copy through Amazon/Createspace HERE.

The digital version of the book is currently available for pre-order from Amazon HERE and will be formally released on 1 JUNE 2018.

This series, which we first started to publish three years ago, was our first attempt at distributing accurate cultural information on what’s generally referred to as ‘Celtic Mythology‘.

As well as a new introductory essay on the misinterpretation of Irish Mythology in ‘Commercial Fantasy’, this particular collection contains fours stories:

  • ‘Moireach’ by Donna Rutherford, which concerns the adventures of a young girl who’s convinced she’s a selkie (this is truly a funny and quite touching story).
  • ‘Homecoming’ by Damien J. Howard (also concerning a little girl ‘taken’ as a changeling); and
  • ‘The Shadow of the Crow’ by Jerry Vandal – the story of an avian intermediary between this world and the Otherworld.

The collection also includes one of my own short stories which concerns the infamous tale of of Labhraidh Loingseach – the fascinating individual on the cover.

Although this particular version is priced at 99c, the first two collections in the series remain free in digital form.

Choosing the Next Book

You can tell it’s been a busy first quarter when you’re already wishing it was the Christmas holidays!

In terms of writing and other creative work, the last four months have been a bit of a strain but we’re approaching the end of a creative cycle. For at least two months now, I’ve barely been visible on social media and, here on the blog, there’s obviously been a notable absence.

Two of the reasons for that will become apparent shortly with the release of two new books (but I’ll post on those soon).  With those projects coming to a close however, I’m now looking at what other writing projects we can start this year. We do have two ongoing projects, however I’m also keen to start another book and this is where – if you’re interested – you get a chance to yell out if there’s anything you’d prefer to see. The options are as follows:

  1. Fionn 4: The Salmon of Secret Knowledge
  2. Liath Luachra 3: The Seeking
  3. Beara 2: Cry of the Banshee

If you drop me a line at info@irishimbas.com with your preference, that would be great. If you don’t feel like sending an in-depth missive with a critique of my writing style, dress sense or poor life-choices, just stick your preference in the title space. Naturally, I’ll go with the book that gets the highest number of votes. I’ve already pout this out on our monthly newsletter Vóg and so far the two favourites are Fionn 4 and Beara 2 – both of which are neck and neck.

Sometimes, I could kick myself for not finishing one series before starting another but I guess that’s just the way of it. From a creative perspective, I tend to grow weary of a project as I reach the conclusion and I’m usually keen to start something different. Hence, the jumping from one series to another.

In terms of future projects I’m keen to start, these are highest on the list (although I know I’ll have one or two ‘revelations’ over the next year which I’ll – no doubt – want to follow up on as well).

  • Dún: This is a series of three books based around the events leading up to a famous battle way back in Ireland’s dim past. Although there are no historical records for the battle, the story itself is deeply ingrained in local folklore and has a lot of surrounding placenames associated with it. These books would be about 60,00-70,000 words each, so shorter than my usual but at least I’d deliver a finished series in one hit.
  • Máire: A stand-alone novel based on the adventures of an Irish Olympic athlete. This is probably more sci-fi than anything else I’ve done (only because it’s set in the future – the science itself is actually very light) and it’s very much a character-driven story. If it ends up a goer, I might look at a trilogy.

In terms of non-fiction projects:

  • Field Guide to Irish Mythology

In any case, we’re looking forward to your feedback.