A Test for Irish Cultural Authenticty

 

Did you know that Irish fairies are always sexy and like to wear revealing, gossamer outfits?

Did you know that Banshees are actually a form of vampire?

Did you know Ireland swarms with werewolves?

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?

Working in Irish mythology and folklore, we’ve come across a few outlandish notions on Irish culture over the past few years and the above are just a few. 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 Irish mythology and culture is a bit of a concern.

As a result, we thought it might be useful to come up with a set of ‘cultural criteria’ to help you work out the authenticity of the Irish/Celtic article/ book you’re reading. Hopefully this will help you to determine if it’s fact or 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 the Gaelic or Welsh 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 a reference, you’d be better off edging carefully away. Yeats was a poet and an artist but mythology and folklore formed only a small part of his overall interests. Predominantly fascinated by mysticism, spiritualism and occultism, he adapted much of what he came across in Irish folklore/culture to align to these alternative belief systems. The resulting ‘facts’ 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 privileged 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”. He refused to make any attempt to speak Irish and it’s true to say he had a much better theoretical knowledge of Western esotericism than he ever did of Irish mythology and cultural beliefs.

Despite the marketing of vested interests in the commercial and tourism world, there’s actually a reason Yeats is not used in contemporary 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 genuine folklore about ‘fairies’ developed in Ireland from the 1800s as a result of cultural disruption (i.e. being invaded and colonised!) 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 that cultural communicate(d) with. 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 knows 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 languages like Gaelic (and Welsh, Manx and Breton as it does for other more broadly spoken languages. There are expressions and concepts in these ‘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 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. Having a grasp of the language will not ensure your comprehension of Gaelic/Irish mythology and culture 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

The Fate of Irish women taken as Vikings Slaves

In local Beara folklore, most people are pretty much aware of how Oileán Baoi (Dursey Island) was used by the Vikings as a staging depot to export Irish slaves (mostly female) to overseas markets. A recent study from Iceland however gives some idea of where some of those women might have ended up.

Building on previous research around the Iceland genome (a geneticist’s wet dream because of the isolated population), a team led by the University of Iceland and biopharmaceutical company deCODE Genetics carried out a whole genome analysis on the ancient remains of twenty-seven Icelanders buried across the island. These were estimated at about 1000 years old – clearly some of the earliest human settler population.

That study showed that the settlers had a roughly even split of Norse (from modern-day Norway/ Sweden) and Gaelic (modern-day Irish or Scottish) ancestry, an interesting insight into the fate of thousands of slaves – mostly women – who were taken by Norse Vikings from Ireland and Scotland before they put down roots on the North Atlantic island.

Medieval histories suggest Iceland was first settled between 870 A.D. and 930 A.D. by seafaring Vikings and the people they enslaved, who possessed a mélange of genes from what is now Norway and the British Isles (Ireland was first ‘visited’ by Vikings in about 750 AD).

To be fair, however, slavery already existed in Ireland prior to the arrival of the Vikings. Centuries earlier, it was pretty common for Gaelic raiders to cross the Irish seas and raid current day Great Britain (which, in fact, is where we nabbed our patron saint!)

The New Liath Luachra Book [Liath Luachra: The Swallowed]

Osraighe: Ireland’s shadowy centre, a desolate region of forest, marshes and mountainous terrain where unwary travellers are ‘swallowed’ and never seen again.

Caught up in an intra-tribal conflict when her latest mission turns sour, the woman warrior Liath Luachra finds herself coerced into a new undertaking. Dispatched to Osraighe to find a colony of missing settlers, she must lead a mismatched group of warriors, spies, and druids through a land of spectral forest, mysterious stone structures, and strange forces that contradict everything she knows of the Great Wild.

Haunted by a dead woman, struggling to hold her war-band together, Liath Luachra must confront her own internal demons while predators prowl the shadow between the trees …

Awaiting their moment to feed.

***

Liath Luachra: The Swallowed is the second stand-alone book in a spin-off series from my original Irish mythological cycle, the Fionn mac Cumhaill Series. Although originally envisaged as a minor character in that series, the woman warrior Liath Luachra’s compelling personality meant she became a dominant force in every book. This particular novel is the direct result of a stream of emails from readers demanding more background to the character.

As you can see, ancient Ireland wasn’t exactly the most comfortable of spots. The more complex stone monuments that pepper the countryside were there two thousand years before the Celts turned up. By the 2nd century, the majority of the land was challenging to traverse in that it was heavily forested, the midlands were reeking swamp and the island itself was sparsely populated.

And that’s not even counting Na Torathair, misshapen creatures lurking in the darkness to snatch the unwise and unworthy.

Liath Luachra: The Swallowed unsheathes its sword on 1 July 2018 and is available for pre-order on Amazon. A limited number of ARCs are available to reviewers who like to dip their toes in new worlds … that are remarkably ancient.

***

The Mandatory Excerpt!

In this excerpt, Liath Luachra, the Grey One of Luachair, is awaiting a meeting with the Mical Strong Arm, (Chieftain) of the Uí Bairrche tribe. While waiting, she comes across his daughter.

——————————————————————————————————————–

Mical Strong Arm’s daughter looked up from her play, her lips compressed in a prim expression of suspicion and annoyance at the intrusion. Skinny and pale, she had straw-coloured hair and her wide blue eyes assessed the newcomer with cool disdain. The Grey One thought her quite small for her age, for Dalbach had told her the girl had ten or eleven years on her.

Ignoring the cold reception, the woman warrior reached over to pluck one of the dry mud cakes from the stone, raised it to her nose and pretended to sniff it.

‘Mmm. That smells good. Shall I eat the cake?’ She licked her lips in exaggerated appreciation of the prospect. ‘Num-num.’

The girl stared, her expression a mixture of irritation and incomprehension. ‘You don’t eat mudcakes. They’re … They’re mud!’ She regarded the woman warrior in exasperation, her jaw jutting out with comical self-righteousness.

‘My brothers and I, we made mudcakes. We made the best mudcakes in Luachair. People came from all over to try them.’

‘Really?’ Despite her suspicions, the girl’s expression softened. Her features were quite delicate the Grey One noted, the small nose and distinct cheekbones probably due more to her mother than her father.

Liath Luachra shook her head. ‘No,’ she confessed. ‘Our cakes were terrible. They were so bad everyone avoided Luachair. Even the rats wouldn’t eat them.’ She screwed her face into an exaggerated grimace causing the girl to giggle effusively.

‘Does your father beat you?’ Liath Luachra asked.

The girl’s eyes widened. ‘No! He …Why would he …?’ She went silent, too confused to articulate what was clearly an alien concept.

‘You’re not afraid of him?’

‘Of my father? Of course not.’ She puffed up her tiny chest. ‘I’m not afraid of anything. I’m not … Well, except for the black shadows at night of course.’ Her face took on a worried expression.

‘You don’t need to be afraid of the black shadows,’ the woman warrior reassured her. ‘That’s simply what happens when the colours of the world go to sleep.’

This time the girl stared at her, completely intrigued. ‘The colours of the world go to sleep?’

‘Yes. Every night, Father Sky opens his bag, gathers up the colours of the world and sets them all inside. When the colours have gone, there’s nothing left in the world but black, the colour of night, the colour even Father Sky has no use for.’

‘Why does Father Sky put them in his bag?’

‘Because colours have to rest too. Just like us. In Father Sky’s bag they can sleep the good sleep so that when he releases them again the next morning, they’re refreshed and new and shine as brilliant as the day before.’ She made a loose gesture with one hand. ‘Except for the dull days when they didn’t get enough sleep.’

The Uí Bairrche girl sat back on her haunches, her lips pursed in thought as she considered the logic of Grey One’s explanation. ‘Is that true?’ she asked at last.

‘I don’t know for sure,’ Liath Luachra admitted. ‘But I think so. My mother told me that story and she wasn’t the kind of person to tell lies.’

The girl looked at Liath Luachra with fresh interest. ‘Lígach’s the name on me,’ she said at last, the revelation apparently a formal confirmation of the Grey One’s approval. ‘What name do you have on you?’

‘I don’t have a name on me. Not anymore.’

Lígach’s nose crinkled in adult-like incredulity. ‘That’s silly. Everyone has a name.’

‘Not me. Not a real name. I lost my real name … long ago. Back when I was a little girl. Just a few years older than you.’

The girl shook her head. ‘That doesn’t make sense. How can you lose your name?’

The Grey One looked at her, silent for a moment. ‘I’m not sure,’ she said at last and gave a shrug. Perhaps …’ She paused. ‘Perhaps it fell out of my pocket.’

Lígach giggled. ‘That’s silly.’

The Grey One looked down at the ground. ‘Perhaps,’ she said again.

Lígach nodded with certainty, as though her own answer resolved that particular conundrum. ‘Are you here to speak with my father?’

‘I am.’

‘Is he sending you away to An Díthreabh Uaigneach [The Lonely Land] too?’

Taken by surprise, the woman warrior pulled back a little. ‘Yes.’

The girl leaned forward in a conspiratorial manner, pressing her lips close to the woman warrior’s ear. ‘When you’re in The Lonely Land,’ she whispered urgently. ‘Stay away from the dark shadows. The dark shadows eat you up.’

Liath Luachra blinked and regarded Mical Strong Hand’s daughter in consternation but before she could question her further, a loud voice called out to her rear. Glancing back over her shoulder, she saw Dalbach standing in the doorway of the stone hut, waving urgently for her to join him.

‘Grey One! Come. Mical Strong Arm and the others are waiting.’

As the woman warrior got to her feet, he disappeared inside again. ‘I have to go,’ she told the Uí Bairrche girl. Thank you for talking with me.’

Lígach nodded again, apparently knowing better than to interfere in her father’s business. ‘Remember,’ she said. ‘When you’re in the Lonely Land, stay away from the dark shadows.’