An Irish Adventure Story with Cultural Depth

I’m always a bit wary when new films, books or games that use Ireland or Irish culture as a core part of their story are released.  Many of these tend to target the “Oirish” market (the overly romantic Irish-identity market that flows from the Irish diaspora) or the “Celtic fantasy” market, which joyfully whips key elements of Irish/Gaelic culture and uses them out for context for entertainment purposes. Overall, it’s rare enough for Irish creatives to have genuine control of a large budget production, not to mind one that actually reflects their culture with any degree of accuracy or authenticity.

I was pretty stoked then, when I finally got around to watching Lance Daly’s “Black 47”, a film that had been on my peripheral vision for over eight months prior to its release. At the time, it had struck me as a bit odd to choose two Australian actors for the main roles and the thought of a commercial release around something as culturally sensitive as An Gorta Mór (The Great Famine) seemed incredibly insensitive, particularly given the British Channel Four’s misjudged attempt (in 2015) to do a comedy series based on that traumatic period. Fortunately, all baggage aside, “Black 47″confidently and competently stands on its own.

A grim, broody “Irish Western” and revenge thriller, “Black 47” follows the adventures of Feeney, an Irish soldier who deserts the British army in Afghanistan and returns home, only to discover the true scale and effect of colonisation. Learning of his mother and brother’s death and observing first-hand the evidence of his family being allowed to die in squalor and misery, Feeney ends up opposing the people and the administration that has allowed this to happen.  Repurposing the military skills gained in Afghanistan, Feeney follows a trajectory of violent opposition to the landlords, land agents and their constabulary, becoming an almost “Rambó Gaelach“,  an implacable force of justice against the rampant greed and cultural prejudice of that period. Soon, a ‘posse’ consisting of reluctant English hunter, Hannah (Hugo Weaving), and Pope (Freddie Fox), a fanatical British officer and Empire enthusiast, are set on his trail.

Fortunately, the movie is not just a simplistic revenge thriller. The Australian actor James Frenchville is impressive as the brooding Feeny, his immense physical presence and ready use of Irish language adding real depth to his character, but the real strength of the narrative is the cleverly-woven social commentary provided through the supporting characters. Conneely (Stephen Rea), a wry translator hired by the pursuing party, serves as an excellent foil to the over-privileged and obnoxious Lord Kilmichael (Jim Broadbent) who frequently releases statements such as:

‘Soon, a Celtic Irishman will be as rare in Connemara as is the Red Indian on the shores of Manhattan.’

When Kilmichael boldly states:

“I love this country. The scenery. You peasants are all the same, no appreciation of beauty. “

Conneely slyly replies:

“Beauty would be held in much higher regard, sir, if it could be eaten.”

It’s the wry and insightful gems like these, hidden throughout the script that give this movie it’s real resonance. That, the smattering of Gaeilge, the historical accuracy and the melancholic but beautiful scenery of Connemarra.

Overall, Black 47 can be enjoyed as a simple action movie but there really is much more going on than that. The film also serves as a subtle reminder of the ongoing cultural-PTSD that pervades Irish society as a result of 300 years of colonization and why most Irish people speak English today.

You can find the official trailer here: Black 47

 

 

 

Trying Times with The Irish Imbas: Celtic Mythology Short Story Competition

[Photo by Alexander Csontala]

Back in 2014, we came up with the idea for running a short story competition based on the cultural mythology of Ireland, Scotland and Wales (the ‘Celtic’ countries). They key aim of this project was to produce a number of free resources to help counter the huge volume of misinformation and inaccuracies on the internet. Since then, we’ve held an annual competition from 2015 to 2017 and produced three separate collections that we’re extremely proud of. These are:

Irish Imbas: Celtic Mythology Collection 2016

Irish Imbas: Celtic Mythology Collection 2017

Irish Imbas: Celtic Mythology Collection 2018

The Irish Imbas: Celtic Mythology Short Story Competition has always been a loss-making project and it’s something we do only because we’re extremely passionate about the subject and enjoy the process immensely. That said, over the three years that we’ve run the competition there have been a number of developments and learnings that have really caught us by surprise:

(1) Very few people out there actually understand what mythology is. Obviously, we anticipated a certain amount of confusion due to over a hundred years of misinformation, but the level of incomprehension in some of the works submitted during the competition was quite staggering. We’ve received some absolutely brilliant short stories but, often, we just couldn’t publish them as they didn’t even meet the competition criteria. Given that we’d set a $7 entry fee to keep the submissions down to a workable number, we felt this outcome wasn’t a good one for us or the submitters.

(2) Most people tend to confuse the term ‘mythology’ with ‘fantasy’. In hindsight, this is understandable. Although mythology is culturally-based, it sometimes contains elements of fantasy. Unfortunately, it turns out that this is the limit of many people’s understanding.

(3) It’s surprisingly difficult to get free products out there. Part of our original goal was to make the resources free but we were a bit surprised to find how hard this was based on the multitude of different (and picky) requirements from the different ebookstores. We tried a number of different mechanisms but in the end, we got so frustrated we just set the last two copies of the Celtic Mythology Collection at 99c/99p and left it at that. We’ve tried to make the digital version of the first collection available free everywhere but despite our efforts some readers still end up paying. Go figure!

(4) We’ve received quite a lot of backlash from faux mythology writers and internet “experts”. This was one we certainly didn’t expect. It turns out there’s a substantial number of people online (and offline) who produce flawed mythology content/products for the entertainment/tourist market. Most of these have a genuine interest in the subject matter and if they knew they’d got something wrong I’m pretty sure they’d correct it. Unfortunately, there’s also a few more feral content producers who have no qualms putting out content that they know to be incorrect (or didn’t care to check). Some of these, feeling threatened by the books and articles we produce (that reveal their own works to be flawed or lacking in authenticity), have vented some anger our way. A few have been doing some petty sabotage online – kinda sad, but true.

A big part of what we’res seeing with the problem with mythology is that there’s no commonly understood basis as to what it is, what it consists of or what we should actually do with it. Without a common terminology or a common conceptual basis, it’s almost impossible to have any kind of meaningful conversation on the topic.

For the above reasons therefore, we’ve decided to postpone the Irish Imbas: Celtic Mythology Short Story Competition this year (2018) and to focus instead on a project that will help address them. Needless to say, that’s all going to take time and given anticipated workloads over the next 12 months (including a new website), we’re simply not going to have the capacity to run a competition this year. We do intend to recommence the competition in 2019.

Our apologies to those of you who were intending to partake this year.

How Useful are ‘Language Weeks?’

It’s Te Wiki O Te Reo (Maori Language Week) here in New Zealand, a week when the general population are encouraged to speak Te Reo (meaning, literally, “the language”), attend classes or special events in Te Reo. As someone who works in the conservation and revival of Irish culture, I watch Te Wiki O Te Reo with interest because I know how critical language is for the generational transfer of cultural concepts and ideas. Although living in New Zealand, my kids and I speak Irish (Gaelic) at home. Even that limited exposure to the Irish language allows them to think in a Gaelic manner and strengthens their connection with that part of their heritage. Because of their Maori whakapapa (my partner is Maori), my kids are also fluent in Te Reo. They wouldn’t be able to fully engage in Maori culture if they weren’t.

Overall, Te Wiki O Te Reo is a positive event and the festival certainly garners an element of interest in Te Reo from people who wouldn’t otherwise have been exposed to the language. In terms of actual outcomes for language sustainability/conservation however, I’m probably a little more pessimistic.

Maori Language Week reminds me a lot of Seachtain na Gaeilge (Irish Week) which is takes place every year in the lead up to St Patrick’s Day, focusing on events of Irish interest, predominantly language but also culture and music. The problem with ‘Language Weeks’ like Seachtain na Gaeilge is that they’re one-off, “feel good” marketing events that don’t form part of a cohesive strategic campaign to revitalise the language. Although successful in terms of raising interest, they don’t work so well at sustaining that interest or developing it into something more meaningful.

In Ireland, for example, Seachtain na Gaeilge has been running since 1903 (originally funded and run by Conradh na Gaeilge but now funded through Foras na Gaeilge, the Irish Government’s institution for promoting the Irish Language) and despite all that activity, the number of Gaelic speakers dropped substantially over that time. In addition, any tangible long-term benefits of those Language Weeks have never been fully clarified. In all that time, there have been few (or no) independent assessments of Seachtain na Gaeilge’s effectiveness or value for money. If there have been, the results certainly haven’t been made easily available.

Part of the problem, of course, is that language revitalisation takes far more effort, resource and commitment than a week-long language festival can deliver. In addition, language conservation (and subsequent revitalisation) requires a long-term dedication which means that it’ll never be effectively carried out by national governments. (the long-term goal of language revitalisation doesn’t align well with short-term government re-election goals [3-4 years]). To give the impression of doing something to assist the language therefore, governments generally tend to opt for easier, short-term programmes. In this respect, a Language Week fits the bill perfectly in that it offers immense public marketing hype, positive messages and numerous photo opportunities.

Although it’s certainly good to celebrate the Maori or Irish language every now and again, there does need to be some sense of recognition on what such government-funded Language Weeks can realistically provide. In Ireland and New Zealand, the most successful programmes I’ve seen with respect to language retention and development (Gaelscoils, TnaG, Whare Kohunga etc) invariably originated from community groups and private individuals working quietly but tirelessly, on a sustained daily basis, to keep their language (and through it, their culture) alive and well. If they’re successful and become public, suddenly the Government are there to take the credit.

The Truth about Leannán Sidhe (or Leannán Sí)

Back in 2007, when I published my first collection of short stories, I called it “Leannán Sidhe – The Irish Muse”. I chose that title, not only because it was the title of the first story in that collection but because I believed (at the time) that it was a relevant Irish mythological concept to use. Eleven years later, eleven years wiser, and that title remains an embarrassing example of just how ignorant I truly was.


The sad truth of course, is that there was never any such thing as a Leannán Sidhe (or a Leannán sí, a Lanawn shee, leanhaun shee, or a lannan shee etc.), at least not in Ireland. The minimum of research reveals that the term was only ever used from the beginning of the 20th century (from the early 1900s on), mostly as a result of W.B. Yeats and his contemporaries.

In fact, the original concept of Leannán Sidhe is an English one based on the ‘Dark Muse’, an artistic conceit derived by Romantic poets and artists. In England during the late medieval period, it became quite fashionable for romantic artists to portray themselves as tortured individuals, inspired to create amazing works of art by beautiful but fickle temptresses who often treated them badly. This conceit continued well into the 18th and 19th century, portrayed most famously through John Keats’ ‘La Belle Dame Sans Merci’.

W.B. Yeats, born almost fifty years after Keats passing, was also a notable romantic poet and, given his situation (he was a frustrated celibate until his thirties), was very taken by the whole concept of the Dark Muse.  Like Keats, W.B. utilised a very romantic (if slightly misogynist) approach to women, placing them on an idealised pedestal and becoming infatuated to such an extent that any life after the end of a relationship had all the appeal of cold bone and ashes. It wasn’t much of a stretch therefore, for Yeats to extend this approach in his portrayal of his own idea of what a creative muse looked like. Never happier than when misrepresenting an Irish cultural concept for his own (Celtic Twilight designs), Yeats decided to call this muse the Leanhaun Shee (unable to speak Irish, he had someone do a literal translation of “fairy lover” which came out as ‘Leannán Sidhe’). In his infamously flawed book “Fairy and Folk Tales of Ireland”, Yeats went on to define said creature as follows:

The Leanhaun Shee (Ir. Leanhaun sidhei.e. fairy mistress). — This spirit seeks the love of men. If they refuse, she is their slave; if they consent, they are hers, and can only escape by finding one to take their place. Her lovers waste away, for she lives on their life. Most of the Gaelic poets, down to quite recent times, have had a Leanhaun Shee, for she gives inspiration to her slaves and is indeed the Gaelic muse — this malignant fairy. Her lovers, the Gaelic poets, died young. She grew restless, and carried them away to other worlds, for death does not destroy her power.

This was all total gibberish of course. Yeats wouldn’t have recognised a Gaelic poet if the latter had clobbered him with a giant bat engraved with the words “I’m a Gaelic Poet!”. More of a concern however, was the fact that this act of so fraudulently portraying the Leannán Sidhe as an Irish/Gaelic mythological concept, seemed to trigger no sentiment of guilt or remorse. Yeats was a man on a creative mission and facts were not about to get in his way. Adding insult to injury, Yeats subsequently went on to drag in other Gaelic unrelated cultural constructs (the banshee etc.), erroneously portraying them with vampiric tendencies to align with his own ideas.

This is why, today, so many people mistakenly believe that Leannán Sidhe are some breed of Irish vampire. It doesn’t help of course that Yeats’ nutter misrepresentations are continually disseminated through the internet. Under Wikipedia for example (the absolute maximum many bloggers will go to check their facts) you’ll find the following definition:

“In Celtic Folklore, the leannán sí (“Fairy-Lover”; Scottish Gaelic: leannan sìth, Manx: lhiannan shee; [lʲan̴̪-an ˈʃiː]) is a beautiful woman of the Aos Sí (“people of the barrows”) who takes a human lover. Lovers of the leannán sídhe are said to live brief, though highly inspired, lives. The name comes from the Gaelic words for a sweetheart, lover, or concubine and the term for inhabitants of fairy mounds (fairy).

To be honest, I’m still somewhat embarrassed to have Leannán Sidhe in the title of my first book (although the more recent version is simply titled “The Irish Muse”). That said, in comparison to the Wikipedia article, I feel that all my sins can be forgiven. There’s hardly a single correct fact in the Wikipedia summary and yet, at the same time, there’s something comically quaint about how the author’s gone to such trouble to try and find Scottish Gaelic and Manx Gaelic variations for the term ‘Leannán Sidhe’.

All the time, completely oblivious to the fact that the whole concept behind it is as culturally authentic as a plastic dreamcatcher in an Irish souvenir shop.