The True Story behind ‘The Fianna’

Fionn mac Cumhaill is arguably the most important figure in Irish mythology, and he and his company – Na Fianna – are the subject of several thousand narratives collected in written and oral form across Ireland, Scotland and the Isle of Man (a collection known collectively as the Fenian Cycle).

Because of its wide-spread origins, the Fenian Cycle has no clearly defined beginning. Nevertheless, in the most well-known narratives, the saga commences with the death of Fionn’s father, Cumhal.

Over the course of many centuries, the stories of the Fianna (and how they were portrayed) changed in relation to the audience at whom the tales were targeted. In the earliest stories, Fionn was much more of a loner and a seer. In the later tales, as the stories spread to wider audiences, he has a number of intrepid warriors gathered around him in a similar manner to King Arthur, Robin Hood and other literary heroes who came to the fore in the late medieval period. For Fionn, these include his son, Oisín, an accomplished poet and fighter; his grandson Oscar, the most renowned warrior within the Fianna; Goll mac Morna; and Goll’s braggart brother Conán Maol. The group also includes the handsome warrior Diarmaid Ua Duibhne and Caoilte Mac Ronáin, a great warrior renowned for his running ability.

If you look at the history of how the Fianna are portrayed over time however, you soon see patterns which most people outside academia aren’t aware of. ‘Fianna’, for example, is the plural noun of ‘fian’, a Latin word that was adopted very early in Ireland. Originally, it meant “pursuing” or “hunting” but over time the meaning of the word changed to refer to a band of warriors, usually on a battle footing.

The historical literature also indicates that a ‘fian‘ was made up of warriors outside of the established tribal systems – landless men, or simply individuals out to avenge some private grievance. From the commentary of the time, you can tell that the Church wasn’t particularly fond of them, but they obviously held a far greater status than that of simple marauders (díberg). The little information that does exists suggests the fian weren’t a standing military force but one that came together for a common purpose on occasion. It’s unlikely they remained in the field as a cohesive unit for any lengthy periods of time.

Within the fian, each member was called a fénnid (or fénnid). The leader was called the rígfénnid (or rígfénnid). In the late medieval period, the term banfénnid was also introduced to describe female members of a fian but this was very much more for literary/storytelling reasons than historical ones.

In the early literature, the various fianna also appear to have taken their names from their leaders so, ‘fian Maicc Cais’, for example, would refer to the war-group of Maic Cais. Fionn mac Cumhaill’s group would have been called ‘fian Find’ or ‘fian Find ua Baoiscne’. ‘Find’ was the earliest form of the name ‘Fionn’. The latter didn’t actually develop until several centuries later.

As late as the tenth century, fian Find was just one of a bunch of different fianna in the surviving literature and Fionn was just one of the rigfénid mentioned. The Annals of Ulster, for example, has an entry for an individual by the name of Máelcíaráin Mac Rónáin who was said to have led a fian in engagements against the Norse. The Annals of Tighernach meanwhile, record the death of another rigfénid – Máelumai Mac Báitáin – charmingly known as “Garg the Fierce”.

What’s interesting is that, although there are numerous references to different fianna in the earlier manuscripts, from around the ninth century onwards the stories and literary references become increasingly dominated by Fian Find. By the twelfth century therefore (the period in which many of the oral stories were first collated and written down), all reference to other fianna has completely disappeared and their adventures subsumed into those of Fian Find. The original meaning of the word fian also appears to have been almost completely lost by that time, to the point that whenever people heard the term ‘fianna’, they automatically assumed it was in reference to that group of warriors headed by Fionn mac Cumhaill. Most Irish people still believe that to this day.

There’s something inherently fascinating about Fionn mac Cumhaill and the Fianna. The mythology surrounding them has survived in relatively intact form for more than a thousand years which, in itself, is quite astounding. Despite this, most of the stories that Irish people are familiar with tend to be versions which have been sanitized by the Church and colonial interests, often anglicized to a point of cultural irrelevancy. Nowadays, it’s very difficult for many people to tell the difference between a story derived from genuine elements of Gaelic (and earlier) culture and one derived from Walt Disney-like commercial interests (anyone who’s visited the not-so ‘cultural’ centre at The Giant’s Causeway will understand what I mean).

It was to counter this Disney-like portrayal of our native mythological characters that I first started republishing the original stories but, this time, from a far more culturally-authentic perspective. At present, because so much has been lost, very few Irish people are aware of key elements of their own cultural heritage. As a result, there is no way that we, as a distinct culture, can reclaim and retain that culture if we do not regain control of our own stories.

Irish Mythology Conversations for Six Year Olds

There’s quite an amusing story in the Guardian Newspaper site about an ‘ancient’ Scottish stone circle that actually turned out to be built in the 1990s (you can find it here: Stone Circle Story). It’s also a good example of how disconnected people from the “Celtic” countries can be from their own cultural heritage (and I use the term ‘Celtic’ with caution).

Most people in modern-day Ireland, Wales and Scotland tend to have a cultural understanding that’s still tainted by centuries of ‘colonial overlay’. Much of that understanding is garnered from what we were taught at school and what we see in the commercial entertainment sphere (films books, games etc.).

Unfortunately, we now know that much of what we learned in school wasn’t correct. In addition, given that most of the commercial entertainment sector output rarely has any kind of cultural integrity, that leaves us at a serious disadvantage in terms of authentic learning about our own culture.

Two years ago when I was back home, I was asked for an interview around the “scandal” of Danny Healy-Rae, an independent TD (Irish member of parliament) for County Kerry who suggested that “there was something in these places you shouldn’t touch” when speaking about a road that passed through an area rich in fairy-related folklore and which was constantly requiring repair.

The Irish press at the time were useless, most of their reports going for the cheap jab story along the lines of “Politician believes in Fairies” rather than looking at the fundamental belief systems underpinning the issue. What was particularly striking was the fact that the Irish newspapers and television news programmes were still referring to ‘fairy forts’ instead of ‘ráth’, as though the entire findings and learning of the past century had completely passed them by.

Most Irish newspapers are still comically inept when it comes to reporting on Irish mythology and cultural belief systems. Others, like the American Irish press, have veered so far into the commercial “Celtic Fantasy” interpretations that they have very little residual connection to Irish culture at all.

One thing is clear, however. As a society, we need a fundamental and commonly understood terminology to genuinely discuss those elements of our own cultural heritage. We also need a certain amount of cultural maturity to achieve that. Until then, any conversation we have around Irish culture/mythology is pretty much like trying to explain nuclear physics to a six-year old.

The King With Horse’s Ears

This is a picture of Labhraidh Loingseach, the mythological king/ancestor of the Leinster people (the Laighin) who’s probably most known in Ireland as the “King with Horses Ears”. The Irish version of the story (written in the 10th century) goes like this:

“Labhraidh Loingseach was said to have had horse’s ears. He kept this secret by growing his hair long and having it cut once a year and then putting the barber to death.
One day when a widow’s only son was chosen for the unpopular job of cutting the king’s hair, the widow begged the king not to kill him. Moved Labhraidh Loingseach agreed on the condition that the barber never tell a living person of his secret.

The burden of the secret weighed so heavily on the widow’s son that after a time he took ill. On the advice of a druid, he released himself of the secret by passing it onto to the first tree (a willow) he came to. Divested of the burden, he soon became well again.

Sometime later, Labhraidh Loingseach’s harpist broke his instrument and made a new harp out of the very willow the widow’s son had passed the secret to. One night, during a great feast at Labhraidh Loingseach’s hall, he started to play and suddenly the harp sang:

Dá chluais chapaill ar Labhraidh Loingseach
Two horse’s ears on Labhraidh Loingseach!

This version of the story is actually a mish-mash of an earlier story associated with the Welsh King March ap Meirchion. In the Welsh version of the story, March ap Meirchion also has a barber who divests himself of the terrible secret by telling it to a hole in the ground and subsequently covering it up. On that piece of ground, a crop of reeds appears and one of March ap Meirchion pipers, seeing the reeds used them to make a new pipe … leading to similar consequences.

Both of these versions however, are variations of another even older story based on the legendary Greek King Midas whose ears were transformed to those of a donkey by the God Apollo. Like Labhraidh Loingseach and March ap Meirchion, Midas hid his deformity but his secret was also revealed by his barber who dug a hole in the meadow and whispered the story into it to get rid of the secret and then covered the hole up again. A bed of reeds was later seen to spring up out of the meadow and when the wind blew them, they were heard to whisper ‘King Midas has an ass’ ears’.

Current thinking is that the original reference to the King with Donkey’s Ears (subsequently amended to “horse’s ears”) goes all the way back to King Tarkasnawa, a king of the Hittite vassal state Mira in the west of present-day Turkey (the Hittites were an Anatolian people who established an empire at Hattusa in north-central Anatolia around 1600 BC.). If that’s true, then variations of this story have possibly been doing the rounds for thousands of years.

The concept of the galar rúnach (an Irish concept of illness caused by the burden of a terrible secret) was a much later development, but it’s what first attracted me to rewriting a contemporary version of the story in the first place.

By the way, the picture above was actually something “thrown together” by Bryan Mahy (the artist who designed the cover for my Celtic Mythology Collection 2018). That cover featured Labhraidh Loingseach and Bryan, amused by the story, started a doodle, the result of which you can see here.

To be honest, I’ve always been something of a frustrated visual artist. I’ve always wanted to draw or sketch, but I simply lack the skill to do so. As a result, I’m quite jealous of someone with the talent to effortlessly throw something like this together. If you’re interested, you can find more of Bryan’s work here: Bryan Mahy

Bows and Chariots in Ancient Ireland: The Facts and the Fantasies

I regularly get asked two questions related to the portrayal of 2nd century Ireland in my fiction works (particularly those based on the Fenian Cycle – the Fionn mac Cumhaill Series/ the Irish Woman Warrior Series). These are:

  • Why do the Irish mythological characters never use bows?
  • Why don’t they have any chariots?

The reasons for that are as follows:

Why do the Irish mythological characters never use bows?
Despite what you might have thought, bows weren’t really popular in 2nd century Ireland. Bows were used in Ireland during the Neolithic and Bronze Ages but all evidence of arrows disappears by about 1500 B.C. and archery didn’t really return to Ireland until the Vikings turned up in the 8th century. This may also explain why the Irish word for bow (boga) is actually derived from Norse.

Interestingly, all the archaeological evidence to date suggests the bow wasn’t popular during the entire La Téne period in Europe (dating from the mid-5th century BC, when the European tribes came into contact with Greek and Etruscan influences to the mid-1st century BC). The sling is believed to have been far more common both in Ireland and on the Continent which is why this particular long range weapon turns up so frequently in the books. Several possible reasons for the popularity of the sling over the bow and arrow, include:

  • Ease of manufacture: Bows and arrows took a lot of time and a fair degree of skill to construct. A sling however (depending on the type you used) utilised less parts (and those tended to be more available in nature) and was far easier to construct and replace.
  • Replacing ammunition: If you lost an arrow (something that would have been very easy to do in the dense forests of Iron Age century Ireland) you’d have to go through the laborious task of making another one. Ammunition for the sling (the stone bullets) were far more easily obtained (usually from riverbeds).
  • The absence of a professional warrior class: Evidence to date suggests that there wasn’t really a warrior class in Ireland (and hence no standing military force such as that employed to such effect by the Romans). Most warriors tended to be part-time/weekend warriors who only fought in defence or when required to do so for an overlord (usually during the warmer seasons).

The military impact of bows is far superior when you have a lot of them (and, hence can launch a very destructive flight of arrows). Given the above and the fact that historical accounts suggest the ‘warriors’ of European tribes were very much individual fighters, getting them organised to line up and create a synchronized release of arrows would have been a hard call. A similar problem would have been faced with slings of course but there are reports of slings being used in such a manner from hill forts in Britain and elsewhere.

Many people assume that the Irish used bows quite substantially during the Iron Age period but most of this is due to the influence of covers from works of commercial fiction and of course the 2004 film King Arthur didn’t help with its organised lines of expert bow-wielding Picts who would have put most later medieval armies to shame.

Keira Knightly: Personally responsible for most contemporary people’s interpretation of what a Pict looked like.

Why don’t they use chariots?
Again, all the archaeological evidence in Ireland suggests that wheeled transport – not to mind chariots – was relatively limited in prehistoric Ireland. The earliest evidence of wheeled transport is a set of block wheels dating back to around the 5th century and these would have been for an agricultural cart.

Again, part of the problem when dealing with historical accuracy is that you always have to counter several hundreds years of misinformation (continued today with great enthusiasm through the internet). Most people associate chariots with An Táin and the Ulster Cycle recorded in the Lebor na hUidre and the Book of Leinster (both compiled in the 12th century). In those stories, Cú Chulainn had his own personal chauffer/charioteer, Láeg, who shuttles him around from place to place like a prehistoric Uber driver).

How Cú Chulainn is usually portrayed – zipping around Ulster in his souped-up chariot!

Fortunately, we now know that the early medieval authors of these particular works were very much influenced by other classical literature of the time, particularly by the Illiad and the De Excidio Troiae (The History of the Destruction of Troy) which was actually translated into Irish in the tenth century or earlier. There are clear influences in the portrayal of Cú Chulainn as an Achilles-like figure but the portrayal of major combat using chariots is probably far more relevant to the stony plains of Asia Minor than the boggy and forested lands of 2nd century Ulster where you’d have been hard pressed to find a route suitable for a horse, not to mind a two-wheeled chariot.

The Pleasure of Irish Place Names

This is the hill known as Suí Finn – Fionn’s Seat (sadly anglicized to ‘Seefin’), a coastal view point on the beautiful Sheep’s Head peninsula in Cork (and the highest point on the peninsula). One of at least ten sites around the country with this name (or some derivative), most of them tend to be associated with the mythological Irish hero, Fionn mac Cumhaill.

One point that’s common to all of these sites, is that they’re located on hill tops or other highland features that usually offer spectacular views over the local terrain. One of the romantic notions behind the naming, of course, was that the mythological seer and warrior had passed some time at that site to admire the view (no doubt thinking deep thoughts and pondering profound concepts as he did so). A number of these sites are cairns, thereby also linking the character with access routes to the Otherworld.

Back in the day, it wasn’t that uncommon to name high points or features in the terrain after national “celebrities” (such as Fionn or one of the saints) but most places tended to be named after local chieftains or strongmen. There are many other sites which include ‘fionn’ or a derivative in the name but, in most cases, these tend to relate to the other meaning of the word (white, blond or bright). Examples for this might include Fintragh (Fionn trá – ‘The white beach’), Finnis (Fionnais – ‘white back’, or ‘white ridge’) etc. etc.

That’s one of the things I’ve always liked about Ireland. Our landscape nomenclature really is saturated with history and reeks with connections to ancient stories and legends. It’s only when you live or visit “new” countries like New Zealand, Australia etc. and see indigenous names completely eroded by colonization and replaced with the sterile names of (relatively) recent politicians or bureaucrats, that you release how good we have it. We owe a huge debt of gratitude to the foresighted people who managed to save our native placenames.

Finn (cough) MacCool versus Ming The Merciless

Because we specialize in culturally accurate Irish ‘mythology’, we come across a lot of examples where our culture is misrepresented (or manipulated to be something it’s not) but one of my absolute favourites of this whole “Oirish” genre is the following trailer for a film called “Finn MacCool” (they couldn’t even get the name right!). This regularly turns up on You Tube and other sites.

As far as I can tell, the trailer is actually a promotional piece because (fortunately) the film was never released and, possibly, never completed. This happens sometimes when a movie’s being proposed and talked-up but the funding is never actually raised. It’s also unclear as to whether this was an Irish movie or one made by an overseas company – so if you know please give me a yell. Either way, though, you have to give the producers credit for using Irish actors (or at least someone who can successfully put on an Irish accent – not looking at you, Tom Cruise!) although the Ming the Merciless character who plays … actually, I’m not entirely sure who he’s meant to be, does seem a bit miscast. Having such a strong Dublin accent several centuries before Dublin ever came into being, well….

It’s also easy -if unfair – to mock the movie as it looks to be very much a product of its time (seventies or eighties, at a guess). There’s plenty of commentary (in the comments) on the long hair, the terrible special effects, the fact that Fionn – sorry, Finn – is fighting Vikings (who didn’t turn up in Ireland until the 8th century) etc. etc. My personal favourite is the way that people killed in the battle scenes do this amazing kind of pirouette when they die, spinning off to the ground with an enthusiasm they clearly didn’t have when they were fighting. Honestly, it looks as though the battle scenes were choreographed by Ballet Ireland – it’s that good!

But I’m only joking. I’m actually very fond of this piece of film as it represents how people saw the whole Fenian Cycle back in the seventies, how insecure we were in terms of our own culture and how easily we were influenced in our attempts to monkey others.

There was a rumour going around two years ago about a movie on Cú Chulainn being developed by Michael Fassbender however that now seems to be languishing in “development hell”. Maybe in a few decades, we’ll have something to compare with this trailer!

The Strange Truth behind the Irish Mythological Cycles

Irish Mythological Cycles

In the mid-eighteenth century, an English detective working in Dublin was assigned to investigate the disappearance of a missing Irishman. On travelling to the up-market suburb where this individual had lived in a tiny hovel amongst the splendid Georgian architecture, the detective questioned the various individuals that lived nearby.

What the detective found surprised him. Although most of the man’s neighbours knew him to see, none knew much about him beyond a friendly wave or a shared “good morning” when they ran into each other. “He kept to himself”, was the phrase the detective heard repeatedly over the course of the morning and it was only when he started talking to the next-door neighbour that he finally learned something more.

“I think he was foreign.”

The next-door neighbour was a young, well-to-do Englishman. The house he lived in was a clean and modern townhouse that looked very much at odds with the missing man’s ramshackle cabin.

“I’d hear him talking to himself every now and again,’ he continued. ‘Out in the back garden.”

“And what was he saying?” asked the detective.

“I don’t know”, the young man replied. “I never actually understood a word he was saying. That’s why I think he was foreign.” His brow furrowed as he regarded the detective, a sudden concern in his eyes. ‘You don’t think he’s dead, do you?”

“That’s what I’m trying to establish”, the detective replied.

Leaving the neighbour, the detective strolled towards the missing man’s house, thoughtfully stroking his chin. The young man’s comments had been interesting, informative in a way but hardly enlightening in any form that mattered.

Fortunately, the front door of the missing man’s home was ajar when the detective tried it and after a cursory ‘hallo’ he entered. Stepping across the threshold into a gloomy inner room however, he at once felt nervous and ill at ease. As his eyes adjusted to the light, the detective stared about the dark little space with a growing sense of incredulity. Surrounding him was a bizarre array of awkward looking furniture, chairs – and what looked like a sofa, but in a shape and form the detective had never encountered before. There was also a tall lamp with no visible light switch, a hat-stand with no hooks and

Moving to examine a flat table beside the entrance to the kitchen, he found that the flat surface contained a number of carved niches and had strange holes in the side. Both the top and the legs were decorated in coiled, spiral designs that were alien to his experience but undeniably attractive.

The English detective continued his search and in each room of the house found more unusual and unfamiliar items, bits and pieces of equipment, exotic musical instruments with strings and strange moving parts, books and tattered manuscripts in a peculiar script he couldn’t read, clothing of irregular shapes and sizes and a multitude of small knick-knacks that looked like personal mementos. He was unable to tell what exactly they were used for.

Bewildered, the detective left the house and returned to his headquarters at Dublin Castle to confront his superior.

“Inspector, this is an odd case you’ve assigned me.”

“What’s so difficult?” asked the Inspector. “You have all the resources you could need, the city’s willing to pay for overtime, there are several witnesses … Why would it be difficult?”

“Because I’m missing context,” the detective answered. “No-body knows anything about the missing man.”

His superior carefully arranged a series of files on his table as he formulated his reply.  “Should I assign this case to someone more … amenable?” he asked at last.

The English detective paused, nettled but also resenting the inspector’s response. “No,” he said at last. “I have an idea that could possibly work.” He sniffed and rubbed his noise. “Give me until the end of the day”, he suggested. “By then, I should be able to present my final conclusions.”

The Inspector regarded him coldly. “Very well. But, be warned. I’ll make a point of coming around to see your results for myself.

The detective nodded stiffly and left.

Returning to the wealthy suburb and the missing man’s house, the detective methodically moved through each room, gathering up every moveable item of furniture, every stitch of clothing, every book, and unfamiliar briq-a-braq and deposited them in a large heap on the long lawn to the rear of the house. Removing his jacket, he hung it on the branch of a nearby tree and got to work.

The detective commenced by placing four different objects separately, about one metre apart. Once he’d satisfied himself with his choice, he then proceeded to add other items next to the first ones until he’d created four distinct lines.

It was early evening before the detective finally completed his chore and he was standing back to admire his work when the Inspector from Dublin Castle suddenly emerged through the rear door of the house and out onto the lawn. Advancing towards the detective, he sidled up alongside him and stared down to examine what the detective had done. Frowning, he turned his head to glance at his colleague, then studied the four lines before returning his attention to the detective again.

“I see what you’ve done,” he said. “You’ve arranged all the elements of the missing man into four separate lines.”

“Yes,” the detective confirmed.

The Inspector nodded in appreciation.

“And all in relation to colour.”

“That’s right. The first line contains all the red objects in the missing man’s house. The second line contains all the green elements. The third line contains all the yellow elements and the last line contains all those other bits and pieces that don’t seem to match the colour of the other three.”

“That’s ingenious!” The Inspector was impressed and to show his regard he designed to shake the detective’s hand. “You’ll get a commendation for this, of course. And, ….” He paused and tapped hi lower lip. “I think that in future, we’ll ensure that all similar cases use the exact same deductive technique to understand the situation.”

“Hang on!” exclaimed the neighbour, who’d been leaning unobserved over the backyard fence that separated his property from the missing mans.  “What about the missing man?”

The Inspector’s face screwed up in annoyance and he shrugged dismissively. “The fate of the missing Irishman was never really the issue,” he answered. “He’s gone and it’s the remains that we need to make sense of. Besides, if he’s foreign, his foreign-thinking ways are hardly in our best interest, are they?”

This somewhat ambiguous parable goes some way to explaining the problem with the famous “Irish Mythological Cycles” (although anyone who knows this stuff will see the parallels straight off).

Even today, despite the fact that most specialists in the “Irish/Celtic Studies” arena know that it makes absolutely no sense to try and explain ancient Irish belief systems through the mechanism of ‘The Cycles’, most non-academics (amateur “mythology” writers and online “experts”) still try to push this hoary old approach, usually due to a lack of knowledge or for reasons of commercial ease (it’s easier and cheaper to go with the most commonly known mistakes than to portray the actual truth).

Trying to explain Irish belief systems through the structure of mythological cycles is just as ridiculous and ineffective as the detective trying to explain the absence of the missing man through lines of belongings separated on the basis of colour. The problem of course is that both approaches are based on arbitrarily created frameworks. In the former, the missing man’s belonging are arranged on the basis of colour. With the mythological cycles, different bits of cultural narratives and belief systems are arranged on the basis of “similar theme” (Fenian stories – The Fenian Cycle, stories set in Ulster – The Ulster Cycle, stories to do with certain myths – The Mythological Cycle, and a mishmash of different stories that are ingloriously crammed together under the title – The Historical Cycle).

As the detective in the story points out, it’s impossible for one culture to understand another culture’s mythology/cultural constructs without that critical missing element … Context.

The Poor Mouth

If you get a chance over the Christmas period, you might want to wallow in your “Irishnessness” with the animated satire of Flann O’Brien’s 1941 novel ‘An Béal Bocht’ (The Poor Mouth) which premiered last year at the Galway Film Fleadh.

Flann O’Brien’s original tale was actually a fond piss-take of Irish autobiographies like Peig Sayers’ “Peig” and Tomas O’Criomhthains’s “An t-Oiléanach” (The Islandman) which were forced down every Irish schoolkid’s throat for decades following independence. Mercifully, that’s stopped now, although I’m sure many of you will have shared that particular ‘pleasure’!

In terms of plot, the story concerns the erratic life of Bónapárt Ó Cúnasa (Bonaparte O’Coonassa) who lives in an isolated part of Ireland called Corca Dhorcha where it’s always raining and everyone lives in abject poverty (but speak the purest and “learned smooth Gaelic”!). The film stars Seán Misteál, Donncha Crowley, Tommy Tiernan and Bob Quinn. A pretty decent cast.

The book was absolutely hilarious and it’ll be nice to enjoy the film version poking fun at all the associated childhood baggage.

You can find the trailer here: Irish Movie An Béal Bocht

A New Fionn mac Cumhaill Series Tale

It’s been a hectic few weeks but the next tale in the Fionn mac Cumhaill Series is finally available.

FIONN: THE TWISTED TALE is a short story set four years after the events in the last book in the series (FIONN: The Adversary).

This story is only available in Kindle form (mobi) or in ePUB from (i.e. Apple, Kobo, Nook etc.) in the “Books” section of the Irish Imbas website (HERE). It’s unlikely to be released anywhere else.

THE STORY

This tale involves the woman warrior called Liath Luachra. While out hunting in the Great Wild with seven year-old Rónán and fifteen year-old Bran, she comes across the tracks of a fian (old Irish word for ‘war party’) hunting a solitary traveler who seems bound for the Bládhma hills where Ráth Bládhma (the settlement of Bládhma and Liath Luachra’s home) is located.

The following is a taster for the full story which sits at about 11,500 words. The accompanying glossary may also be useful:

An Poll Mór – The Big Hole (a cave refuge)
Clann Morna – A tribe
Fian – A band of warriors or war party
Fénnid – a member of a fian. The noun can be plural or singular)
Óglach – A young, unblooded warrior (plural: Óglaigh)
Ráth Bládhma – A settlement (literally, the ráth of Bládhma)

A full pronunciation guide is available at the FIONN mac Cumhaill Series Pronunciation Guide

THE TWISTED TRAIL

It was a death-sun that revealed the strangers’ tracks south-east of the Bládhma mountains. Sliding in on the heel of dusk, its rare, slanted glare cast a bloodstained hue that illuminated the wide spread of footprints. Liath Luachra, the Grey One of Luachair, regarded them in silence. In all her years travelling that territory, she’d never once encountered evidence of another person’s passage. To find such a number and such a diversity of tracks in that rough and isolated area therefore, was enough to make her gut clench in unease.

Kneeling beside the nearest footprint, she brushed a thick strand of black hair from her face while keeping one wary eye on the surrounding forest. Because of the dense vegetation, there was little enough to see; a dark wall of tall oak trees climbing the ridges to the north and south, the distant blur of the Bládhma mountains peeking above the canopy to the east but no sign of movement or anything else out of the ordinary.

Reassured at the absence of any immediate danger, she bent closer, probing the footprint’s shallow depth with the fingers of her right hand. Conscious of the ruddy evening sky fading to grey, she scraped a piece of dirt free, raised it to her nose and sniffed.

It smelled, naturally enough, of earth. Of The Great Mother’s damp breath.

Tossing the gritty residue aside, she wiped her hand on the leather leggings that hugged her haunches and regarded the two boys standing nervously off to her right. Bran, with fifteen years on him, was more youth than boy but by nature tended to be the more solemn of the two. That sombre temperament was evident now in the furrows that lined his forehead and the nervous manner in which he chewed on his fingernails while studying the erratic mesh of tracks. The youth was visibly troubled by the prospect of strangers in Bládhma territory. Old enough to remember the brutal murder of his parents at Ráth Dearg more than a decade earlier, he was certainly old enough to realise that incursions like this didn’t bode well for anyone.

‘Who are they, Grey One?’

The younger boy, the dark-haired Rónán, had little more than seven years on him but was decidedly more buoyant than his friend. Despite the weight of a wicker backpack across his shoulders – a burden made up of cuts of wild pig from a successful hunt in Drothan valley – he stared down at the scattered tracks with unbridled excitement at such a novel discovery.

The woman warrior shrugged dispassionately. ‘Read the story in the Great Mother’s mantle. Read what the earth shows you and tell me what you see.’

The dark-haired boy reacted to the suggestion with his usual animation, nodding fervently to himself as he moved closer to the tracks. Ever keen to accompany the woman warrior on her forays into the Great Wild, he invariably responded to such tests of his woodcraft skills with enthusiasm. Crouching alongside her, his features fixed into a frown as he chewed on the inside of his cheek in unconscious mimicry. His long hair was held from his eyes by a leather headband but several strands had worked free, prompting him to brush at them with an irritated gesture.

Liath Luachra watched as his gaze fixed on the single footprint in front of him then transferred to the jumbled network of other tracks that surrounded them.

He’s just like Bearach. Happy and eager as an eager puppy.

She suppressed that thought immediately, burying it deep inside her heart, locking it in a dark and forlorn part of herself where she rarely dared to venture. Such memories were places best avoided, dangerous, fathomless chasms it was best not to shine a light down. And some things should never be exposed to the light of day.

‘There’s at least six or seven sets of tracks,’ noted Rónán. ‘The prints are spaced wide apart so they’re travelling fast.’

She nodded, pleased both by the keenness of his observation and the distraction it offered. ‘Yes.’

‘Headed east.’

She inclined her head to her left shoulder but made no response. That simple fact was plain to see from the direction in which the tracks were facing.

Sensing that he’d disappointed her, the boy tried again. ‘They’re men,’ he said warily, as though not entirely convinced of his own conclusion.

Again, easy enough to work out to see from the breadth of the imprints and the depths of their impressions.

‘Yes. But what else? What’s the pattern?’

Rónán looked at the prints once more. Unable to distinguish any obvious configuration, he threw an anxious glance towards Bran but the older boy had already turned away, directing his attention to other more distant tracks.

Realising that there’d be little succour from that quarter, the boy turned back to scrutinise the nearest imprint, bending to examine it more closely in the fading light. Despite staring at it intently for a time, his study produced no fresh intuition and finally, he raised his eyes to the woman warrior, conceding defeat with a frustrated shake of his head.

Liath Luachra had already moved away by then, taking up position at a nearby elm where she leaned casually against the trunk, her backpack pressed against the coarse bark to take some of the weight from her shoulders. She was looking towards the dying sun when she caught the movement of his head from the corner of her eye and, squinting against the ruddy light, she turned back to consider him with an impassive regard.

‘It’s a tóraíocht,’ she said. A pursuit. ‘A group of men are chasing another man, a solitary traveller.’ She gestured towards a particular line of tracks that had a visibly different appearance to the others. ‘See how those footprints look older? The edges are friable, the flat sections drier. All the other tracks are still damp because they haven’t fully dried out. That means they were made more recently, probably just a little earlier this afternoon.’

Rónán thought that explanation through for several moment before raising his eyes to regard her, his lips turned down in a frown. ‘But why are they chasing the single traveller?’

The woman warrior shrugged. ‘You know as well as I, there’s only so much of a story the Great Mother ever shares.’

Bran, who’d been observing their interaction in silence, cleared his throat and shifted his weight awkwardly from one leg to another. ‘Grey One. If they’re travelling east, they’ll strike Ráth Bládhma.’

Liath Luachra rubbed her nose and sniffed.

‘Just because the tracks here show them moving east that doesn’t mean their final destination lies in that direction.’ She gestured loosely towards the forested ridges north and south. ‘In this terrain it makes sense for the intruders to travel east. It’s likely they’ll drift to a different course once the land opens out.’
Bran kept his eyes lowered and made no response but she sensed he was unconvinced by the argument.
Sighing, the Grey One stepped away from the tree, grunting as the full weight of the backpack bore down on her shoulders. ‘Rest easy. Our own course to An Poll Mór follows their trail for a time yet. If they veer off the eastern path, we’ll know they’re no threat to Ráth Bládhma.’

‘What if they don’t veer off?’ asked Rónán.

‘That …’ The woman warrior gave another noncommittal shrug. ‘That is an issue we’ll address if we come to it.’

PERFORATING TIME

 One of the things I love about Ireland is how the thin film of that present we inhabit is so often perforated by the reality of previous millennia. Many people believe that time travels in a linear fashion from past to present to future but of course that conceptual model doesn’t work in reality. The truth is that the past informs and affects everything we do in the present (and hence in the future). It’s physical, but sometimes intangible, and yet inescapable in all its forms.
 
We’ve had many recent examples of such temporary intrusion over previous months with the ongoing discovery of gold hoards and bog butter, the unearthing of new passage graves and henges at Brú Na Bóinne and now most recently with this new find on the banks of the river Boyne.
 
Despite all the crap going on in the world at the moment, we do truly live in fascinating times.
You can find the link to the Irish Independent article here: Ancient find on the Boyne

QUEEN MAEVE’S VULVA AND OTHER MATTERS

QUEEN MAEVE’S VULVA AND OTHER MATTERS

This article in the Irish Times gives a very nice rundown on the astounding work carried out by the Placenames Branch of the Department of Culture, Heritage and the Gaeltacht. In a sense, this particular group carries out a similar kind of preservation/conservation work to the very effective Irish Folklore Commission (who started work back in the 1930s and finished in 1971).

Ireland’s extremely lucky to have such a treasury of placenames because each placename carries elements of language, history, geography, beliefs and so on. Some names are based on people or events who have disappeared from societal history but there are enough in the reminder to establish overall patterns that give insights into our ancestors’ lives and how we ended up where we are in the world today. This is particularly important when it comes to a placename for a townland or field, which often has a more immediate relevance for families living in a particular area.

Although it’s a great article overall, there’s an amusing irony in the fact that the author refers to ‘ráth’ and ‘lios’ as fairy forts. At this stage, most people know they had very little to do with either fairies OR with forts.

The link is just below:

Placenames

Poetry, Storms and Jet-Lag

I was lucky enough to catch up with Doireann Ní Ghríofa in the city this weekend where we met up for a brief interview at Capital Irish Radio. Doireann was in Wellington City as part of the Lit Crawl (a kind of literature festival taking place in Wellington this weekend that’s based on a pub crawl model – don’t ask!) and as a fan of her work it was great to sneak in an opportunity to meet her.

For those of you unfamiliar with her work, Doireann writes prose and poetry, in both Irish and English, and has several collections to her name. She’s also won numerous awards and her list of literary achievements reads like a kind of who’s-who (or a what’s what) of literary respectability: Ireland Chair of Poetry Bursary 2014-2015, Rooney Prize for Irish Literature, 2016, The Michael Hartnett Poetry Prize, 2016, a Seamus Heaney Fellowship at Queen’s University, Belfast, 2018, etc. etc. etc.

I’m not one to put too much credence in mainstream literary prizes but in Doireann’s case, I’ll admit that she pretty much deserves the accolades she’s received. Once you’ve listened to her speak or read her work, it’s easy to see why her poetry is so popular (and you’ll work that out yourself when you listen to the interview). Humane and gracious, in a period of such prevalent international toxicity (read; the American elections, the refugee crisis, Brexit etc.), she comes across a genuine balm on a troubled world, an articulate reminder that despite all the crap going on right now, there’s light to be found at the end of the tunnel in the simple acts of being human.

You can hear the full interview here:

 

I’m very grateful to Doireann but also to Marian from Capital Irish for help with the interview.

When I first met her, I could tell that Doireann was suffering from bad jet-lag so I was impressed, not only that she managed the interview, but that she answered my questions so succinctly and articulately. You could also tell she was a bit shell-shocked by the terrible weather that’s been rocking the city since she landed and you could see her looking dubiously from the corner of one eye when told the sun normally shone at this time of year.

The combination of jet-lag, a new environment and weather that closes in around you, can create strange sensations and an odd, dislocated sense of reality. As I watched her struggling down the street, buffeted by merciless gusts and icy rain, I confess I did wonder what such surreal experiences in Wellington might produce in terms of future creative works.

You can find out more about Doireann and her work at: Doireann Ní Ghríofa

Meanwhile, you can pick up a copy of Lies by clicking on the image below.

SAMHAIN: A Ninety-Second Quiz

A few years ago, a New Zealand friend asked if we were going to host another Sam Hayne party in November. The question actually threw me a bit at first (I thought he was referring to some traditional Irish musician I hadn’t heard of) until I realised he was actually talking about Samhain, the ancient festival that’s bizarrely ended up as a precursor to Halloween.

Over the years, I’ve become less and less enamoured with the increasingly commercialized Halloween, which of course bears little resemblance (okay, none) to the original  festival from which it was derived. As a result, I’ve been doing some work on possible revitalizations of the original Samhain festival and, as part of that, created a simplified quiz to work through how it transformed over time. This is still at a very early stage of development and forms only a tiny part of the whole story but if you want to test your understanding of what Samhain was and how it relates to the contemporary celebration of Halloween, please feel free to give it a go by clicking on the image below.

If you have any feedback, suggestions etc. that would be warmly received.

Back to the Past in Beara

The accepted view is that you can never go back to the past and of course, to a degree, that’s true. Personal experiences aren’t something you can really replicate, particularly the more intense ones, the formative ones that influence or create the core of your character and make you who you are.

I managed to go back to Beara in a geographical sense in August. I’ve been back many times over the years but, to be honest, it’s never really been the same since our house was sold while I was living overseas. Losing the house in Beara severed one of my most fundamental ties to West Cork. Whenever I go home now, I no longer have that footprint, the physical anchor that attaches you firmly to a piece of land.

On this occasion, things were slightly different. K had somehow managed to find a rental cottage on the old botharín just down from our old home, a major feat given that there’d never been more than five houses on that road, two little more than stone wall skeletons.

It turned out the rental cottage was one of the latter. I remembered the building as a spooky place, a tumble-down ruin covered in ivy, but it turned out that the grandkids of the original owner (who’d emigrated to the States back in the fifties or sixties and struck it rich) had managed to do it up and now hired it out on occasion.

When we arrived at the rental that first evening, I looked north towards the old place but couldn’t see anything as it was too far off the road, obscured by trees and the curve of the land. Instead, I wandered down to the nearby strand, a small beach that’s almost private in that there’s hardly anyone ever there, particularly at that time of day. I spent a good half-hour sitting on a favourite rock, occupying the same space I’d occupied as a child forty years ago, relishing the fact that it still fit me like a glove. It was a windless evening, an occasional wave lapped half-heartedly against the rocks, gulls swooped low over the water and kept an eye on the solitary intruder. The sun was starting its descent behind the hill to the north and the distant chug of a fishing boat reverberated softly in the heavy air. I had hoped to see one of the seals that used to frequent the rocks but there were none in sight.

 

Tired, I was wandering back to the rental cottage when a flash of colour in the woods off the side of the road caught my eye. Intrigued, I moved close to the ditch, peered through the trees and managed to make out an old caravan that had been swallowed up by the vegetation. To my surprise, it was one I recognised, although it’d been a good twenty years since I’d last seen it (and I’d passed that spot several times since then). This particular sliver of land had been bought by a man who’d spent a few summers living in that caravan. One summer he wasn’t there and then I’d not heard of him again. It seemed odd to discover that fresh physical evidence of his existence.

 

I managed to get over the ditch and pushed my way through the trees to reach the vehicle. Over time, the caravan’s axle had sunk into the earth so there was no way it was ever going to move again. The exterior was mouldy and turning green, the same colour as the surrounding woods. The door had fallen off to reveal a worn curtain made up of multi-coloured strips of plastic. Every now and again, a breeze would catch it and flick some of the strips up and it was this movement that had caught my eye. Beyond the garish curtain, the caravan’s interior looked shadowed and creepy, but you could still see an old moss-covered electric kettle sitting on a battered table as though ready and waiting to boil up a cup of tea.

Clambering back the way I’d come, I returned to the road and made my way to the rental cottage. That night we slept with the window open so I could hear the sea.

*****

The following morning, to the rear of the cottage, we discovered an odd, shadowy tunnel that had been carved through the woods and which led north through the trees. When you see a passage beckoning you in like that it’s almost impossible to resist.

Naturally, we went in.

The tunnel led us in a long, slow curve and eventually deposited us in a thick wood with a labyrinth of different, weaving pathways. Like much of the woodland in this area, it had a distinct musty smell, despite the warm weather. Water flows down from the hills in Beara and much of it ends up trapped in boggy woodland like this.

Following my nose, I led the way through the shadowed trees for what felt like an age until we finally hit an overgrown jumble of briars and shrubs and a low wall with a gap in it. Stepping through the gap, I stopped dead because standing less than twenty metres away, across a wide stretch of field, was our old house. With the weaving paths in the woods, I’d lost my sense of direction and hadn’t recognised any of the terrain we’d been passing through. To be confronted by that sight in such a sudden and unexpected manner, completely threw me.

I stood staring at the house for a good while and actually felt my heart-rate quicken. An Páirc Mór – the Big Field – the pasture in which I was standing, was the same place I’d played in as a kid, carving tunnels through the thick fern, hiding in them when my mother came out to call us in for dinner. Back then, I’d never once thought of bypassing the wall I’d just walked through. Back then, that barrier has been an impenetrable obstacle. There’d been no gap. The wall hadn’t even been visible due to the tall, layers of tangled briars and trees, vegetation so thick you couldn’t even see through them.

By passing through the gap, I’d experienced a genuine sense of having passed through time and as I headed up towards the house, that feeling intensified. The building and the yard were exactly as I remembered them – although far more overgrown and clearly deserted. Approaching the windows, I looked inside, and if stepping through the gap had been like stepping into the past, looking into our old house was like tumbling headlong into it. Nothing had changed. The hall still held the same cheap, wooden cabinetry that we’d used to store our boots and coats. The fridge and the kitchen cupboards were the same. Even the dingy, old carpet in the main room and leading up the stairs hadn’t changed, which meant that it’d been sitting there for at least 35-40 years.


Looking through that foggy glass, I felt an almost irresistible urge to break in and charge up those stairs to see if my old bed was still there. Instead, I sucked in a deep breath, grabbed the window-sill with both hands and pulled myself firmly back to the present.

*****

Later, back at the rental cottage, K could tell the experience had cut me up, although at the time it was hard to articulate why. I suppose the truth of the matter was that, for a short time, I’d actually had one foot back in my own childhood and the strong surge of memories that triggered had sent me reeling. Even now, several weeks later, those memories still flush in from time to time, briefly pummeling me with waves of nostalgia for what was and what could have been, a melancholic mixture of homesickness and wistfulness for old comforts, old times, old places. Fortunately, I’m also realistic enough to recognise that even if the physical location hasn’t changed, the person who inhabited it surely has.

I’ve continued to mull over that whole experience since returning to New Zealand and now, although it still shakes me a bit, I can savour the experience for what it was. I’ve been insanely lucky. For a moment – just a moment – I was able to relive my childhood, to taste my past with an immediacy and intensity that far surpasses memory. And that, brief second life, is worth its weight in personal gold.

 

Note: This article first appeared in VÓG, our monthly newsletter of  in-depth articles on Irish culture, mythology/ folklore, occasional news on new projects, writing or other things that amuse us.

 

 

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.