When I get back home, I usually do at least three or four folklore or mythological site visits to test out various bits of research I’m working on. The Long Woman’s Grave near Carlingfor Lough is a bit of a feint but it’s hilarious marketing would put many other, far more authentic sites to shame.
This is the ‘official’ story of the Long Woman’s Grave (which is situated up in the mountains overlooking Carlingford Lough).
Lorcan O Hanlon was the youngest son of the “Cean” or Chieftain of Omeath. His father, upon his deathbed, ordered that his lands be divided between his two sons, Conn óg and Lorcan.
However, Conn óg tricked his brother Lorcan by bringing him up to the Lug or Hollow in the mountains at Aenagh, telling him that he would give him the land “as far as he could see”. The mist and the bleakness of the hollow was Lorcan’s only legacy (as the walls of the hollow blocked any sight of the surrounding land).
However, Lorcan owned a ship and began trading in the East, making his fortune and becoming prosperous. On one of his voyages to Cadiz, he bravely saved the lives of a Spanish nobleman and his daughter. Lorcan was enchanted by Cauthleen, a Spanish descendant of the great O’Donnells of Ulster and he fell in love with her. The pair made a handsome couple as she was 7ft tall, only three inches smaller than Lorcan.
Cauthleen was already engaged to be married but was wooed by Lorcan’s professions of love and the promises of the the good life they would have back in Omeath. The pair eloped. When the couple arrived in Carlingford Lough the locals were enchanted by this tall beauty adorned with jewels.
The couple set along the mountain path until they came to the Lug or Hollow in the rocks. Lorcan bade his bride to stand in the centre and look around as far as she could see as he “Was Lord of all she could survey”. Cauthleen looked around, so great was her disappointment at the realisation of what she’d left behind in Spain, she fell to the ground and died.
Lorcan was horrified that his duplicity had caused his wife to die and flung himself into the murky waters of the marsh at the crossroads. His body was never recovered. The locals found the long woman’s body and dug a grave for Cauthleen in the “Lug Bhan Fada” (Long Woman’s Hollow) where she lay. Each person laid a stone on the grave to raise her burial cairn and here she sleeps today in the hollow of her disappointment and unfilled promises.
Needless to say, the story is complete tosh used for the more gullible tourists (but, holy hell, there’s quite a few who actually believe it!). Last time I was there (last year) there were two minibus loads of tourists hanging around, taking pictures. For the cheap investment of a story and a few hastily arranged rocks, the site has proven a remarkably effective (and hilarious) income stream for the locals.
The marketing campaign for ‘The Long Woman’s Grave’ hit another notch in 2016 when … Well, just read it yourself. This is from the ‘Irish Independent newspaper:
October 29 2016 12:00 AM Irish Independent
As proposals go it was daring, divisive, and imaginative. Self-proclaimed Leprechaun Whisperer Kevin Woods, whose leprechaun cavern is listed on TripAdvisor as the second most popular thing to do in Carlingford, announced that he was going to exhume the remains of the Spanish princess who is buried at the Long Women’s Grave and re-inter her a grave over looking Carlingford Lough.
He told the willing national media that the Spanish Nobel woman had dropped dead on the spot after being deceived by Lorcan O’Hanlon from Omeath who had wooed her with his boast that he owned all the land the eye could see. When she saw his kingdom at a hallow near the Windy Gap she was so shocked that she dropped dead and later buried on the spot by locals.
‘It was a horrible thing to do and it needs to be put right. No one deserves an end like that” said Kevin. “I intend to write to the Spanish Minster of Foreign Minister Affairs José Manuel García-Margallo of the People’s Party (PP).to secure support and to Charlie Flanagan own Foreign Minister.’
Local Cooley Tourism Officer Frances Taylor an employee of The Omeath Development Company, entered the fray commenting: ‘I believe Kevin’s heart is in the right place but the people of Omeath will fight tooth and nail to keep her where she is.’
The Omeath Development Association responded, organising a protest march at the Long Women’s Grave on Friday night, which according to Frances was attended by ‘around 180-200 protesters including five of the land owners and locals that work in the Midlands and Dublin travelled to be present.’
The story of the Long Woman was recounted and it was suggested that an annual wake be held at the grave in her honour. The possibility of increasing security at the site was also discussed. Comments on the Association’s Facebook page, however, show that people were unsure whether Kevin’s proposal was a serious threat to remove part of their heritage or a publicity stunt.
Suspicions that it was the latter were fuelled by his announcement: ‘In view of the magnificent turnout by the people of Omeath to protect the Long Woman I have decided to end my efforts to have her moved and will concentrate instead on moving the magic hill at Jenkinstown to Carlingford.’
The truth may never be known but it certainly got people talking.
If you’re ever thinking of starting a business in some out of the way location, ‘The Long Woman’s Grave’ is certainly a good working model!
An interesting study in the Journal of Archaeological Science suggests that Viking intervention through colonisation etc. had an important impact on Ireland’s population.
Over the last twenty to thirty years or so, the actual impact of Viking influence really only started to become recognised and nowadays it’s pretty much accepted that the vast majority of Irish people carry at least a trace of Scandinavian DNA (which must create some interference for those companies selling DNA tests to people who want to prove that they’re ‘physically’ Irish).
Again, its really only in the last few decades that we’ve also started to understand the cultural links as well. A lot of Irish mythological stories have parallels in Scandinavian mythology and often its hard to know which is the chicken and which is the egg (i.e. whether the story started in Ireland and was adapted in Scandinavia or vis versa). Either way, there’s still plenty under the cultural bedcovers that remains to be discovered.
You can find the link here: https://theconversation.com/viking-migration-left-a-lasting-legacy-on-irelands-population-122148?fbclid=IwAR0ajrg7Y1IVRBvdgyUFgjtXu2d2pRfR7SUMsyqZ3XAUQ6NkbnoerqOKOKw
A very dense and philosophical article in the Irish Times today considers the revitalization of the Irish language from a number of different angles. Unfortunately, although the article raises some valid and interesting points, it sadly becomes bogged down in its own internal arguments. Trying to pull the intellectual wheat from the chaff is something of a challenge.
As someone with a strong interest in Irish revitalization and Irish culture, it’s always struck me that if a language isn’t personally or publicly relevant then it’s going to have an uphill battle achieving wider acceptance. It also doesn’t help if Irish people remain ignorant of the enormous wealth they miss out on by not having access to that part of their heritage and culture.
All the same, there’s been an unmistakable groundswell of support and interest in Irish over the last two decades and that’s certainly linked created an increasing number of opportunities for Irish language users. As with all articles on the Irish language however, you’ll find the usual frenzied nutters moaning in the comments section about how Irish is a dead language, etc. etc. The best response to such people is ‘Fág an Bealach!’ – Get out of the way! You might be too dumb to work out the benefits of using our own language but you sure as hell aren’t going to stop the rest of us.
Although most people are familiar with the names of Irish military heroes as a result of commercial books and movies, there are a lot of names in Irish mythology that people aren’t so familiar with and this article from the Irish Times lists a few.
Many of the names here are problematic in that commentators often don’t know how to refer to them and, hence, the decision by academics in the past (and subsequently in this article) to refer to them as ‘Gods’.
The problem with mythology is that it generally involves a dominant culture summarising the belief systems of a repressed culture. Most early Irish mythology (and that of other countries) tended to be described and summarised by English writers/academics (the dominant culture controlling the money and the education in Ireland for several hundred years). Because the early English academics never really understood the full cultural significance of what they were talking about, they occasionally made the mistake of attributing deity status to names they came across which involved characters who had powers associated with them. The word for this process is ‘anthropomorphism’ and the pattern is well recognised today among modern academics (although someone clearly needs to let staff at the Irish Times, in on the secret).
To be fair, though, a lot of this stuff isn’t common knowledge and the Met Éireann idea of naming storms with these names makes far more sense than they probably realise.
The Irish Times article can be found here but it reads as follows:
Holy God! How many of Ireland’s deities can you name?
Éanna Ó Caollaí
Met Éireann asked the public this week to submit suggestions for names for next season’s storms. The last such call-out resulted in thousands of entries, among them were personal names and the names of mythological figures from the Roman and Greek classics.
Of course, fans of TV shows such as Vikings and the Marvel superheroes films will be familiar with the likes of Thor, Odin and Loki. And as many classical deities relate to aspects of the weather it should be no surprise that such characters would feature in the list.
While the better known gods and warriors may have struck gold with Hollywood and their TV director cousins in recent years, the myths and stories associated with Ireland’s rich oral tradition have largely been ignored on the silver screen.
As with Greek and Roman gods such as Aphrodite, Mars, Zeus, Apollo and Ares, Ireland’s gods were immortal, supernatural beings who also had control over many aspects of life on earth.
Many readers will be familiar with Fionn Mac Cumhaill, Oisín, na Fianna, Tóraíocht Dhiarmada agus Ghráinne (The Pursuit of Diarmuid and Gráinne) and other tales from the Fiannaíocht or Fenian Cycle. In the main, these are stories of heroes and their exploits. Of course some have supernatural abilities but few are considered to be deities.
Many of Ireland’s immortal beings exhibit positive and negative human qualities such as strength, weakness, beauty, jealousy, greed and anger. Some have shape-shifting capabilities while others are associated with nature and natural phenomena such as the wind, the sea, seasons and the earth.
According to the 11th century book Lebor Gabála Érenn (the book of the taking of Ireland), Ireland was settled six times. The settlers were the people of Cessair, the people of Partholón, the people of Nemed, the Fir Bolg, the Tuatha Dé Danann, and the Milesians.
The majority of Ireland’s gods and supernatural figures seem to originate with three of those races – the Fomorians, the Fir Bolg and the Tuatha Dé Danann (people of the goddess Danú).
The Fomorians were generally hideous characters and displayed characteristics more associated with death and destruction. The Tuatha Dé Danann on the other hand had a far more positive image.
The Fir Bolg were descendants of Muintir Nemhidh (people of Nemed), the third race to occupy Ireland. Muintir Nemhidh abandoned the country but the Fir Bolg returned before they in turn were overthrown by the Tuatha Dé Danann.
While the Fomorians and the Tuatha Dé Danann were essentially enemies, they had a complicated relationship and some intermarriage did take place resulting in some interesting intra-familial tensions at times.
So, how many of Ireland’s Gods are you familiar with?
The following is a brief selection of some gods and other prominent figures from Ireland’s mythological past. Who knows, some might be a good fit for the Met Éireann list.
Who better to start with than Balor, a member of the Fomhóraigh (or Fomorians). Fomorian gods often represent the destructive power of nature and are sometimes depicted with the body of a human and the head of a goat. A striking figure, Balor was himself a formidable character.
Sometimes referred to as Balór Bailc-Bhéimneach (Balor of the mighty blows) or Balor Birugderc (Balor of the piercing eye, aka Balor of the Evil Eye), this Fomorian king was the son of Buarainech, husband of Cethlenn, and grandson of Neit. He had an evil eye in the centre of his forehead which, when opened, wrought destruction all around. He was based on the Fomronian stronghold of Tory Island off the coast of Co Donegal and was the bane of all in Ireland. Balor was killed by his grandson Lugh Lámhfhada at Cath Dédenach Maige Tuired (the last battle of Magh Tuiread) when the Tuatha dé Danann broke free of Fomorian rule. According to one legend, when he fell face down on the ground, his eye burned a hole deep into the ground . This hole filled with water to become a lake and is known to this day as Loch na Súil (lake of the eye) in Co Sligo.
The Morrigan (Morrigú or Mór-Ríoghain)
Associated with war but also said to have protective qualities, the Morrígan is a war goddess of the Tuatha Dé Danann with a shape-shifting ability who often takes the form of a crow.
She has the power to change the course of a battle by instilling fear and confusion into opponents and bravery in her warriors. As is often the case with many Celtic gods, the Morrigan is often referred to as a triadic deity where three individuals (Badb, Macha and Nemain) are worshipped as one. Other characters sometimes associated with the Morrigan include Eriu, Banba and Fódla. Most famously perhaps, the Morrigan feature in the death of Cú Chulainn during the Battle of Muirthemne. Oliver Shepard’s sculpture of the death of Cú Chulainn featuring a crow standing on his shoulder can be seen in the GPO.
The only daughter of Balor and mother of Lugh, Eithniu was locked into a tower by her father after he heard a prophecy foretelling his death at the hands of her son.
She was freed from the tower by a member of the Tuatha Dé Danann and subsequently gave birth to three sons who Balor then attempted to drown. One, named Lugh, survived and was raised by Manannán (the sea god). Lugh later became king of the Tuatha Dé Danann and ultimately killed Balor in battle.
Son of Eithniu, he is also known as Lugh Lámhfhada (Lugh of the long arm) and Samildánach (master of many crafts). One of the foremost figures in Irish mythology, Lugh is member of the Tuatha Dé Danann and is known as a warrior, a king and master craftsman. He is said to have invented Fidchell (which is where the Irish word for chess – ficheall – originates). He carries the fiery Sleá Luin Lugh, one of the Four Treasures of the Tuatha Dé Danann (brought from the four great cities of Murias, Falias, Gorias and Findias) and he is accompanied in battle by his hound, Fáil Inis, which besides being invincible in battle also has the power to turn the water it touches into wine.
Lugh is reputed to be the divine father of Cú Chulainn and the maternal grandson of Balor whom he beheads in Cath Dédenach Maige Tuired (the last battle of Magh Tuiread) when the Tuatha dé Danann broke free of Fomorian rule. The festival of Lughnasa, marking the beginning of the harvest, bears his name.
Sometimes referred to as Ana, Anu or Annad, Danú was the divine mother of the Tuatha Dé Danann, of the Gods and of the earth. The Tuatha Dé Danann take their name directly from her. Danú is considered to be the mother goddess of Ireland and is the personification of nature, fertility, wisdom and strength.
Dagda (An Dágdha)
The Dagda was considered to be a father figure and creator of life. Also known as Ruad Rofhessa (Red/Mighty One of Great Knowledge) and Eochaid Ollathair (horseman, great father). Son to king of the Fomorians, Elatha, he was brother to Ogma and Lir.
One of the kings of the Tuatha Dé Danann, the Dagda had control over life and death and carried the lorg mór, a long staff with magical qualities which could kill but could also be used to restore life. While he was a formidable warrior, he was also considered to be a protector. He carried a bottomless cauldron, known as the “coire ansic”, which never ran empty.
He also had a harp – another one of the Four Treasures of the Tuatha Dé Danann – which was known as the “Daur da Bláo” (the Oak of Two Blossoms). It was also sometimes referred to as the “Coir Cethar Chuir”, the Four Angled Music, and with it, he could control the seasons and any man’s emotions. The Dagda was an important deity as he played an important role in the invasions of Ireland which are portrayed in the 11th century book Lebor Gabála Érenn (the book of the taking of Ireland).
Another member of the Tuatha Dé Danann, Ogma is reputed to be the inventor of Ogham, the early Irish alphabet used on stone monuments that can still be seen around Ireland.
He is sometimes referred to as the god of eloquence and learning. But as with most other gods and heroes of his ilk, Ogma was also a fearsome warrior. He was made champion of Nuada and then fought as Lugh’s champion in Cath Maige Tuired (the first Battle of Magh Tuiread) when the Tuatha Dé Danann won Ireland from the Fir Bolg.
Associated with the spring season, fertility and healing, Brigid is the daughter of Dagda. As a triple deity she had three main attributes: poetry, healing and smithcraft. As with many Christian festivals and saint days in Ireland pre-Christian traditions were adopted or co-opted to proselytise the population. The feast day of Saint Brigid (Lá Fhéile Bríde) falls on February 1st, the same day as Imbolc, the pre-Christian feast day celebrating the beginning of spring which was associated with the goddess.
Ériu was the daughter of Delbáeth and Ernmas of the Tuatha Dé Danann and along with her two sisters Banba and Fódla (whose names were often used as poetic names for Ireland) is often represented as the goddess of Ireland and from whom the name Éire is derived.
She was purportedly married to Mac Gréine (Céthur and grandson of Dagda). She is also said to have been the lover of the Fomorian prince Elatha and was also associated with Lugh.
Fódla was also the daughter of Delbáeth and Ernmas of the Tuatha Dé Danann. Along with her sisters Banba and Ériu, she was one of the tutelary goddesses of Ireland. When the Milesians invaded Ireland from Galecia, legend has it that she and her sisters demanded that their name should be given to the country.
While Fódla and Banba sometimes feature as literary figures representing Ireland in Irish poetry and literatire, Éiriú won this particular contest. In Tochomlad mac Miledh a hEspain i nErind (The Progress of the Sons of Mil from Spain to Ireland) Fódla is married to Mac Cécht and is the reigning queen of Ireland in the years that he also rules as king.
Medb (Meadhbh or Médhbh)
Medb was the Queen of Connacht. She ruled from Cruachan, the traditional capital of Connacht and one of the six royal sites of Ireland.
She is best known for her role in Ireland’s epic tale The Táin Bó Cuailgne (Cattle Raid of Cooley). She is said to be buried in Miosgán Médhbh, one of Ireland’s largest cairns, on the summit of Knocknarea in Co Sligo and is said to have been buried standing up, facing her enemies in Ulster.
Lir was associated with the sea. According to legend, he married Aoife after his first wife died. She didn’t get on with his children, Fionnula, Aodh, Conn and Fiachra and soon grew jealous of them. She took the children to Lough Derravaragh in Co Westmeath for a swim one day and cast a spell (geasa) on them. They were transformed into four swans and were condemned to their fate for 900 years.
When Lir discoverd what Aoife ha done he banished her and spent the rest of his days talking to his children from the side of the lake. Many will be familiar with the Clann Lir statue in Dublin’s Garden of Remembrance. The statue, by sculptor Oisin Kelly. represents the rebirth of the nation.
Also known as Nuada Airgetlám (silver arm) Nuada was the first king of the Tuatha Dé Danann and is said to be the great grandfather of Fionn Mac Cumhaill. Nuada carried the Claidheamh Soluis (sword of light), another of the Tuadtha Dé Danann’s Four Treasures.
Nuada lost his arm during the First Battle of Moytura ina battle with Streng, a champion of the Fir Bolg (who preceded the Tuatha de Danann in Ireland). Their king, Eochaid Mac Erc, was killed in the battle and the Tuatha dé Danann won the war. According to Tuatha Dé Danann custom, the king had to be physically perfect to hold his position and, despite his popularity wth his subjects, the loss of a limb prevented Nuada from continuing as king and he had to step down. His arm was later replaced with a silver arm by Dian Cecht, the Tuatha Dé Danann’s healer.
An Cailleach Bhéara
A counterpart to Brigid, An Cailleach Bhéara is referenced in Gaelic mythology across Ireland, Scotland and the Isle of Man. The word cailleach translates as hag or veiled one and she was generally considered to be a weather deity associated mostly with the winter months.
According to Leabhar Mór Leacain (The Book of Lecan c.1400 ad) she was worshipped as a goddess of the Corcu Duibne people of Kerry. She is also associated with several passage tombs in Ireland, along with topographical features such as Ceann Caillí (Hags Head, Cliffs of Moher) and Sliabh na Caillí (the highest point in Co Meath) and other locations throughout Ireland and Scotland. She is credited in Scotland as having created mountains and carries a hammer to help her shape the hills. Ruling during the dark half of the year, an Cailleach Bhéara comes to life in Samhain (Nov 1st) and is active until Bealtaine (May 1st). She features in Mise Éire, the poem by the revolutionary leader of the Easter Rising Patrick Pearse. The song was performed by Sibéal Ní Chasaide during the centenary celebrations in 2016.
Part of the problem with doing creative work on a part-time basis is that there are always more projects than you can actually complete. Personally speaking, I always have at least ten projects on hand at different stages of development. Some may never see the light of day but most of them will. In any case, this is a list of the top five projects we’re working on at the moment.
FIONN: Stranger at Mullán Bán
Six chapters into this fourth novel of the Fionn mac Cumhaill Series and we’re looking at a release date around the end of 2019. I’m still not wiling to give much away but the series does follow the Fenian Cycle narratives and we’ll be finishing up with book six.
LIATH LUACHRA: The Seeking
At present I’m working on a short story which will set the scene for the third Liath Luachra Series novel. At this stage, the wider plot is well established with some returning characters, some unique antagonists and an interesting slant on the period that Irish mythology hasn’t taken before. To be honest, I’m champing at the bit to get into this and it’s a struggle to pace myself so that can complete FIONN 4 first. The short story will be out in the next month or two. Development of the potential television series based on the first book may stymie this of course.
Project Scéalta (a side-project based on FIONN: Defence of Ráth Bládhma) has so many components, it’s been one of the more frustrating pieces of work I’ve done to date (two steps forward, one step back). It’s now sitting on the back burner for another three weeks but once time frees up in August, I’ll be almost at a point where I have a working model.
Attached is the first conceptual image for the project. Some of you may recall that this initially started last year with the great line “It’s raining and my arse aches”.
As you can see that’s changed a bit. Some might say, for the better!
This is a non-fiction, Irish mythology-based project and it’s going into initial design stage later this year. This is going to the biggest project we’ve done so far so it’ll probably swallow our full capacity for 2020. That’s why we’re not going to do any actual development work until at least two of the previous projects are completed. Watch this space.
Celtic Mythology Collection 4
After a lot of consideration and redesign, we’re finally ready to kick off a new Irish Imbas: Celtic Mythology Short Story Competition next year (all dependent on completing Project Tobar first, of course). The plan is to launch the competition in September 2020. We’ll be commissioning illustrations for that at the start of next year. Until last month, I was convinced, we wouldn’t run another of these.
Beara 2 and Beara 3:
Probably the two most books I still get most emails about. These are sequels to Beara: Dark Legends and they will come. One day
Most major topographical features in Ireland have a number of stories and folkloric tales associated with them, often in an attempt to explain the derivation of the placename. To be honest, much of the time, you really have to treat such stories with a serious dose of salts as many of them have been heavily romanticised or ‘fanticized’ , however there’s still some entertainment value to be eked out of them.
One of the more intriguing stories I’ve always enjoyed is that linked to the hill of Dún Ailinne (or ‘Knockaulin’ for the Gaelically challenged). This hilltop in Kildare actually has a number of different stories associated with it but the most interesting is certainly the story of Bailé Binnbérlach mac Búain (Bailé, the Sweet-Spoken son of Buan).
The story goes a bit like this.
Buan’s only son Bailé was loved and admired by everyone (both men and women) who ever heard him (or heard of him), predominantly because of the astounding stories he told. Bailé was particularly loved, however, by Aillinn, daughter of Lughaidh. This woman who had never met him had heard all his tales and through them had developed a deep affection unlike any she’d ever felt before.
Through shared messages, Bailé and Aillinn planned a tryst at Ros na Righ in Lann Maolduibh, on the south brink of the Bóinn (the Boyne) in Bregia. To reach this place, Bailé travelled from Ulster, leaving from Emain Macha and travelling south over Sliabh Fuaid and Muirtheimhne until he arrived at the long beach now known as Traigh Bailé (The Beach of Bailé – Dundalk).
Here, Bailé and his party unyoked their chariots, released their horses out to graze, and turned their thoughts to celebration. After amusing themselves for a time, they noticed a fearsome and spectral figure approaching swiftly from the south. The ferocious manner in which the figure closed on them, speeding over the landscape, was terrifying to behold for its swiftness was similar to that of a hawk darting down a cliff or to the west wind rising up off the green sea.
Regarding this odd figure, Bailé spoke to his men ‘Let us meet with him and ask his news,’ he said. ‘To ask where he’s going, where he comes from, and to discover the cause of his great haste.’
When he reached the party of travellers, the stranger’s address proved as abrupt as his arrival. ‘To Tuagh Inbher (the Mouth of the River Bann) I return,’ he announced brusquely. ‘To the north, now, from Sliabh Suidhe Laighen (now called “Mount Leinster”); and I have no news but that concerning the daughter of Lughaidh. In love with Bailé Mac Buain, she was on her way to meet him until the youths of Leinster overtook and killed her, just as foretold by druids and prophets. It has always been ordained that the love of Bailé and Ailenn was so great and so intense they’d never meet in person. Instead, after their deaths they’ll meet and not part for ever after. This is my news.’
Bailé’s party stared at the stranger in shock and before anyone could react, he’d darted away from them again, moving like a blast of wind over the green sea until he was gone from sight.
Struck by the news, Bailé collapsed on the spot and despite all attempts to resuscitate him, he could not be saved and lay dead and lifeless on the beach. Grieving, his friends set a tomb at the spot where he fell and raised a large tombstone beside it. A great caoining (keening) began and his wake was held by the men of Ulster, lamenting the loss of Bailé Binnbérlach mac Búain.
Some years later, when his friends passed through that area and visited the gravesite, they found a yew tree had grown up through his grave, and the form and shape of Bailé’s head was visible at its top.
Meanwhile, as for the furtive stranger who’d shared his news with Bailé, he continued travelling south to the grianán (sunny place) where the maiden Aillinn was known to sit chatting with her friends. Noting the arrival of the mysterious figure, she approached and asked him. ‘Where do you come from, Stranger?’
‘From the northern half of Erinn, from Tuagh Inbher, and I travel through this place on my way to Sliabh Suidhe Laighen.
‘And have you any news?’ asked Aileen.
‘I have no real news worth relating,’ the strange man answered. ‘Although I have seen the men of Ulster holding funeral rites at Traigh Bhailé. There they were erecting a tombstone with the name Bailé mac Búain, heir to the Ulster chieftainship, who died while travelling to meet the woman to whom he’d dedicated his love. Unfortunately, their love was so powerful it was not destined for them to meet while alive.’
Having imparted his terrible news, the figure rushed from the grianán.
Traumatised by this revelation, Aillinn fell dead and, as was the case with Bailé, a tomb and tombstone were raised at the site where she fell. Some years later, an apple-tree grew through her grave and local people would claim her features were visible at its top.
Seven years after Bailé’s death, the filidh (poets) of Ulster cut down the yew which had grown through his grave and used its wood to manufacture a poet’s tablet (Taball Filidh). On this, they wrote of all the most famous visions and weddings and courtships of the Ulster people.
In Leinster too, the filidh chopped down the apple-tree from Aillinn’s grave and, in the same way, the great courtships of Leinster were recorded on it.
Many years later, during the festival of Samhain, the great chieftain Art mac Conn, the poets and the craftsmen of every art came to the feast and they brought their Taball Filidh with them. Seeing the two beautifully ornate wooden tablets, Art asked to examine them and held them in his hands, face to face, appreciating their beauty and workmanship. Suddenly, one of the tablets sprang upon the other, and they became united as fast as woodbine around a twig, and it was impossible to separate them forever more.
Even in contemporary times, we continue to pass on mistakes and errors of record, particularly where it relates to Irish mythology. Sometimes however, these mistakes are quite entertaining in their own right.
One of my favourites is the famous ‘Tests of the Fianna’ – a set of difficult trials which ancient Irish warriors reportedly had to pass if they wished to enter Fionn mac Cumhaill’s famous ‘Fianna’ war band. This set of trails is most well known as a result of T. W. Rolleston’s book Myths and Legends of the Celtic Race (first published in 1911) but it’s highly likely he originally gleaned the reference from Seathrún Céitinn’s flawed ‘Foras Feasa ar Éirinn’ (completed in 1634). Rolleston couldn’t speak Irish so he anglicized ‘Fionn’ to ‘Finn’ and his ‘Tests of the Fianna’ goes as follows:
“In the time of Finn no one was ever permitted to be one of the Fianna of Erin unless he could pass through many severe tests of his worthiness. He must be versed in the Twelve Books of Poetry, and must himself be skilled to make verse in the rime and metre of the masters of Gaelic poesy. Then he was buried to his middle in the earth, and must, with a shield and a hazel stick, there defend himself against nine warriors casting spears at him, and if he were wounded he was not accepted. Then his hair was woven into braid; and he was chased through the forest by the Fianna. If he were overtaken, or if a braid of his hair were disturbed, or if a dry stick cracked under his foot, he was not accepted. He must be able to leap over a lath level with his brow, and to run at full speed under one level with his knee, and he must be able while running to draw out a thorn from his foot and never slacken speed. He must take no dowry with a wife.”
Generally speaking therefore, the ‘Test of the Fianna’ are usually summarised as follows:
Candidates for the Fianna must display competence in:
1. Jumping over a branch as tall as yourself
2. Running under a stick placed at the height of your knees
3. Plucking a thorn from your foot as you run at top speed (assuming you stuck one in there in the first place!)
4. Running through the forest without breaking one single twig under your foot, or tearing your clothes/hair braid on a bush
5. Learning 12 books of poetry off by heart (despite the fact that this was prehistory and there were no books in the country, not to mind the actual skill of literacy)
6. Standing in a hole up to your waist and defending against nine warriors, using only a shield and a hazel stick (because trench warfare was … er, a thing)
7. And er, …. taking no dowry with a wife.
To this day, many Irish people still refer to these tests and most have at least a passing familiarity with them. Although, if you think about it for a moment, the tests couldn’t possibly have any kind of veracity, people continue to pass them on because:
(a) they enjoy the concept; and
(b) they like lists.
I have to admit, the naive simplicity of the ‘Test for the Fianna’ has always appealed to me as well which is why it’s used in my own Fionn mac Cumhaill Series (although, to be fair, I take it all far less seriously).
Studying the patterns in mythology has a way of changing the mind and one of the personal side effects of such research is that over the last few years, I’ve slowly ceased to believe in ‘countries’.
Society Versus Geography
When you look at mythology, you’re essentially looking at the cultural belief systems of a specific society. Societies don’t align well with “countries” however because they often traverse borders and people don’t fit neatly between such tidily drawn lines. Interestingly, in the questionably “good old days”, Gaelic society covered not only the island that we now call Ireland, but also parts of modern-day Scotland and a small part of Wales as well. That grouping was never defined as a country, however.
Nations and borders have always been something of an artificial construct, basically created in the past by ruling dynasties to maintain political power over a specific geographical territory. I can’t think of many examples where a country was actually established to represent the specific cultural population within its borders. Possible exceptions are those smaller ‘countries’ who broke away from larger ‘countries’ that didn’t represent their people or failed to recognise their culture difference (think Bosnia and Herzegovina and other states who broke up from Yugoslavia, East Timor which separated from Indonesia, etc. etc.). One of the key arguments raised with respect to the more recent Brexit scenario in the United Kingdom, is that many people believe the British Government no longer represents them. It’ll be interesting to see where that goes. It’s a sobering fact to learn that 34 new countries have been created since 1990 and the patterns in mythology and anthropology suggest that particular process is never going to cease. Countries and empires are not static and it’d be foolish to think they are.
Questioning the Cult of Patriotism.
In general, the concept of a country seems to serve exclusive minorities because it allows a large population to be structured and controlled, often to their own detriment. That’s why some nationalist-minded governments (the new ruling classes) continue to condition their young, programming them to obtain an emotional response from a waving flag or the tune of a national anthem. People are essentially trained to be ‘patriots’, to love their country without questioning the origin of its establishment or the real costs of doing so.
In many modern western countries, we’re encouraged (from an early age) to adhere to a false concept – that we’re all part of some mutually beneficial collective or brotherhood. The reality of course is that there is huge inequality. Most of a “country’s” wealth is held by a very small number of its inhabitants. Human nature being what it is, most don’t want to share.
It’s true that some countries have populations of a very similar cultural background and heritage. Ireland was a classic example of this, particularly as our island status ensured a relatively consistent cultural system over the centuries. Northern Ireland, of course, was the major exception. Planted with a new population (‘new’ being a few hundred years ago) that had different belief systems to the existing population, it was inevitable that plantation created adversity and violence. It’ll take a few more generations to smooth that particular wrinkle out but it is inevitable (despite what politicians with their own agendas tell you).
When you see growing inequality within a nation, when your ‘countryman’ is more than happy to screw you for his own personal benefit, you really have to ask yourself if you want to be associated with that particular grouping?
If you’re someone who flies your national flag outside your house – something I’m guilty of myself in the past – you might want to consider the possibility that you’ve actually been duped. You don’t want to be the person who loves his country but hates more than 50% of the people in it.
Darby O’Gill (and the
Village Little People)
Walt Disney aimed the film at Americans with ‘shamrocks in their eyes’. He missed
I learned today that it’s the 60th anniversary of that famous “Irish” film Darby O’Gill and the Little People (which came as something of a surprise). Burdened by stereotypes, loaded with clichés and struggling beneath the weight of a hundred-thousand mawkish factual errors, DoG was a fantasy movie that doesn’t even try to get the basics right but at least it introduced some brilliant new Irish actors (Sean Connery and Janet Munro!).
For me, riding into town on my High Shetland Pony (couldn’t afford the horse), this Disney production epitomises everything that’s wrong with how Irish people and Irish culture/mythology have been represented by overseas entertainment productions to date.
I’m always ready to be corrected but I suspect it’s probably the one movie most hated by Irish people all over the world.
Either way, there an excellent article in this week’s Irish Times on the making of the movie, which is fascinating in itself. You can find it here: OIRISH FILM
I’ve always had a soft spot for Meave Higgins and her wryly oddball sense of humour. Ever since catching her ‘mockie ah’ cooking programme (Fancy Vittles), I’ve never been able to look a coffee mug straight in the eye again. I’ve also pretty much followed everything else she’s done since then with a lot of interest. It came as a bit of a surprise, therefore, to find her in a new, supernatural comedy movie called ‘Extra-Ordinary’.
Supernatural comedies tend to be very hit or miss, probably because it’s so difficult to develop a successful merging of two such contrary genres. For every hit (Ghostbusters, The Frighteners.) there are probably ten that are financial disasters (High Spirits etc.) and its always a bit of a risky genre to work in. The blurb for this one runs as follows:
Rose, a sweet, lonely driving instructor in rural Ireland, is gifted with supernatural abilities. Rose has a love/hate relationship with her ‘talents’ & tries to ignore the constant spirit related requests from locals – to exorcise possessed rubbish bins or haunted gravel. But! Christian Winter, a washed up, one-hit-wonder rock star, has made a pact with the devil for a return to greatness! He puts a spell on a local teenager- making her levitate. Her terrified father, Martin Martin, asks Rose to help save his daughter. Rose has to overcome the fear of her supernatural gift & work with Martin to save the girl, get the guy and be home in time for a light snack…maybe a yogurt or something…
As you can see, Extra-Ordinary reads like a kind of “Cosy” Ghostbusters. The humour’s sweet and relatively light but it’s also quite loufoque and beautifully surreal/twisted at times. In rural Ireland, it’s not the castles that are haunted, so much as the dustbins, smalls stones and pieces of cheese. Part of the main character’s backstory involves a tragedy around a “haunted pothole” and there are some very funny intentionally dated/cheesy videos from the protagonist’s deceased father – a psychic ads “spiritual investigator”.
As Rose Dooley, a driving instructor with a secret power, Higgins plays her usual persona; a shy but sharply funny woman, somewhat worn down by events outside of her control. Having used that character-type multiple times, Higgins knows her to the core and brings a great level of authenticity to the role that adds weight to the overall movie.
Anyway, if this sounds like you, you can find the trailer HERE.
Irish people used to be in the unique, if somewhat unenviable, position of having our cultural mythology and history (in particular, our prehistory) regularly misrepresented in narratives by overseas entertainment interests. Fortunately, the recent shift to plundering Scandinavian culture means that, in that respect at least, we now have some company.
It’s an interesting phenomenon but whatever story-telling entertainment medium you look at (literary, film, television, etc.), you’ll inevitably find Irish (Oirish) prehistory portrayed in there somewhere, usually inaccurately and out of context, despite the creators’ best intentions. One story-telling sector where Irish mythology/prehistory hasn’t been so poorly represented, however, is the graphic storytelling industry (comics/graphic novels/animation).
As an industry, commercially produced graphic narratives are a relatively recent innovation, commencing as an art form with comics sometime in the late 1950s. Initially sneered at as an amusement for children (which, admittedly, they did target), nowadays graphic narratives are very much an adult-targeted, multi-billion-dollar industry. Stories told in a complex melding of visual and narrative forms, when done correctly, they have the emotional punch and intellectual grunt to equal any other form of storytelling.
Historically, most of the English-speaking graphic narrative market has always been dominated by American companies, in particular the two publishing behemoths; Marvel and D.C. As a result, between the fifties and the nineties, when Irish culture or Irish stories were portrayed in this format, it was often as a means to add colour or exoticism to existing American storylines (i.e. Irish culture was incorporated into other countries’ stories as opposed to having Irish stories being produced by Irish creators). This occasionally led to some amusing unintentional cultural gaffes such as:
- The Gay Ghost (seriously!) – a fictional Irish superhero from DC (this involves a dead Irishman whose spirit form remains in his castle until 1941 when he ends up fighting Nazis while saving his ex (and no, I’m not making this up),
- Banshee – An X-Man from Marvel, he has a power called a “sonic scream” (if you haven’t worked out why this is screamingly wrong, here’s a hint: “bean sí”)
- Jack O’Lantern – An Irish fairy (FFS!) provides a man with a magic lantern that holds a whole range of different powers (Clearly, Jack is related to the O’Lanterns of West Donegal!)
The graphic storytelling industry has changed dramatically over the last twenty years or so, mainly as a result of new technology that allows artist/writers to distribute their work far more widely and through a broader range of media. In the past, graphic stories could only be distributed through printed paper in the form of comic strips, comic books or individual graphic novels (and, much more rarely, in animation). Nowadays, creators can distribute their stories through a wider range of receivers outside of paper (computers/e-readers/ipads etc. but also through their own websites and internet services such as Youtube, etc.).
Graphic Novels in Ireland
Ireland has its own share of graphic story creators of course but the native industry is very small by international standards. In the past, most of the graphic stories in Ireland were produced by individuals who laboriously published, printed and distributed their own work or who somehow managed to achieve that holy grail of achievement, publication by a national publisher. Other Irish creators, taking a different path, ended up working for overseas companies as illustrators or writers.
So what kind of Irish mythology/prehistory content does the graphic story-telling industry produce?
Mythology is a prehistoric framework of cultural beliefs that often contains elements of what most contemporary audiences would think of as ‘fantasy’ or ‘make believe’. This is the reason so many people mistakenly believe that mythology and fantasy are the same thing. Graphic creators, meanwhile, driven by ambition and ability to push the boundaries, often end up creating spectacular visual works of exotic grandeur and dramatic interpretation that work very well in the fantasy genre.
This draw towards fantasy means that it’s almost a natural progression for an artist of Irish background (or for those with an interest in Irish mythology) to portray those stories in graphic style.
This is also the reason, so many graphic creators have tended to focus on tales from An Lebor Gabála Érenn and, in particular tales from the Ulster Cycle (that body of Irish mythological stories with the most fantastical elements). Generally speaking, it’s only native Irish creators who delve beyond these more well-known and well-hashed tales.
The Most Successful Representations of Irish Mythology/Prehistory
The following are probably the most famous (and most successful) representations of Irish mythology/prehistory that I’m aware of to date. No doubt, there are several that I’ve missed so feel free to correct me at firstname.lastname@example.org with any omissions.
Nuada of the Silver Arm (1974-1975)
Irish artist, Jim Fitzpatrick, first came to major public attention with his series Nuada of the Silver Arm, which was published in the Sunday Independent from 1974 to 1975 and featured his trademark intricate scrollwork/knotwork and fantasy-style influences. The series concerns the adventures of a character called Nuada (a Conan the Barbarian styled version of Nuada Airgetlám (Nuada Airgetlám was actually the mythological leader of the Tuatha de Danann, a character that Guillermo del Toro subsequently turned into an elf [WTF!!!?] in the film Hell Boy II). During Nuada of the Silver Arm’s run, many people complained about the strip’s fantasy style violence and scantily-clad women (this was 1970’s Ireland, remember) and it was eventually cancelled.
The Book of Conquest (1978)
Undaunted, Fitzpatrick subsequently went on to publish The Book of Conquest in 1978. This wasn’t a typical graphic novel for the time but its dramatic illustrations and glorious use of colour meant it was a major inspiration for any subsequent graphic representation of prehistoric Ireland from that point forward.
Sláine (1983 – onwards)
Created by British writer Pat Mills, Sláine was one of the titles published in the ground-breaking British comic, 2000 AD. This series (running in different forms from the eighties up to a few years ago) concerns the adventures of an Irish warrior called Sláine mac Roth. Like Fitzpatrick’s Nuadu, this series is very much a mish-mash of Conan the Barbarian-style fantasy and the more fantastical elements of An Lebor Gabála Érenn. A kind of prehistory anti-hero, Sláine is directly modelled on the mythological hero Cú Chulainn in that he has a spear called An Gae Bolga and the unfortunate habit of breaking into An ríastrad (a berserker-like combat frenzy) during battle. Sláine is probably one of the longest enduring graphic representations of Irish mythology/prehistory and although the core story remains consistent, the visual representation varies dramatically depending on the artist used.
Cló Mhaigh Eo Comics (1999 to present)
Colmán Ó Raghallaigh, an award-winning Irish author was the first person to produce and publish a graphic novel in Ireland (through his own publishing house, Cló Mhaigh Eo). An Sclábhaí/ The Slave – told the story of a young St. Patrick and won several awards but Ó Raghallaigh subsequently followed that up with a number of other gorgeous graphic novel adaptations of Irish mythology (in Irish) that included:
- An Tóraíocht/ The Pursuit(2002) – An adaptation of Tóraíocht Dhiarmada agus Ghráinne Fionn mac Cumhaill chases his intended bride Gráinne, who’s eloped with the warrior Diarmaid ua Duibhne.
- An Táin (2006) – An adaptation of the 10th century epic Táin Bó Cúailnge/The Cattle Raid of Cooley.
- Deirdre agus Mic Uisnigh/ Deirdre and the sons of Uisnech (2009) – An adaptation of the famous tragedy involving Deirdre and Naoise. It’s a prequel to An Táin Bó Cúailnge.
The Táin Bó Cúailnge, unsurprisingly, also turns up in a number of other innovative graphic stories, all offering very different renditions of the epic tale.
The Cattle Raid of Cooley (2008-2015)
Belfast illustrator Paddy Brown serialised his epic webcomic The Cattle Raid of Cooley on his own website from 2008 to 2015 (winning Best Irish Webcomic in 2011) and it really is an exceptional feat. Brown’s version of the story is realistic, extremely well researched and avoids all the fantasy clichés by focussing on the characters and their motivations, effectively capturing the violent reality of inter-tribal warfare and feuds.
About a Bull (2011-2012)
M.K. Reed’s webcomic About a Bull took a much more ‘cartoon’ approach to An Táin, through the use of more simplistic drawings, bright watercolors and humour. Although she tells the same story that many others have done before her, she does so from the perspective of Meabh Leathdearg (usually portrayed as the villainess of the piece). Her version cleverly incorporates the remscéla (the side stories or set-up stories to the core narrative) through the use of guest artists who offer a very different visual interpretation. Stylistically, this creates a somewhat inconsistent approach to the story that could be considered jarring, however, in the context, it’s effective. Sadly, the online story stopped in 2012 and doesn’t seem to have continued since.
The Legend of Cú Chulainn (2013)
Cork artist Will Sliney’s The Legend of Cú Chulainn was a graphic novel published by The O’Brien Press in 2013 and it remained high in the Irish Times bestseller list for a time. For his adaptation, Sliney used a very “heroic-fantasy” style and also changed a few core elements of the story such as the character of Meadhbh Leathdearg. Sliney’s illustrations display the influence of working for American comics but there’s no denying his storytelling talent.
The League of Volunteers (2011 -)
This one scrapes in as there’s limited representation of Irish mythology and prehistory and most of the story is set in 20th century Dublin. Nevertheless, it deserves inclusion. Written by Rob Curley and drawn by Barry Keegan, The League Of Volunteers is set during the Irish Emergency (the period just after Ireland became a Republic) and concerns a group of contemporary and mythological Irish heroes assembled by De Valera to protect the country against the threat of Nazi enemies (and a demon called Bocanach). The Volunteers include ‘The Glimmerman’ (an anti-Nazi street fighter), a human/demon called Blood Rose, Fionn mac Cumhaill, Lúgh Lamhfada from the Tuatha Dé Danann etc. etc.
This series is very much based on the American comic staple of superhero team ups (where a team of superheroes join forces to confront some great challenge) along the lines of The Avengers or Alan Moore’s ‘League of Extraordinary Gentlemen’, but then twists that model and adapts it to an Irish setting. In that regard, you’ve really got to admire its sheer ballsiness and ambition.
Finn & Fish (2010 – 2014)
Irish artist/writer Leann Hamilton is one of the few people in the Irish graphic storytelling industry (with the possible exception of Ó Raghallaigh and Curley) to venture into mythological ground outside the well-trampled stories of the An Lebor Gabála Érenn and The Ulster Cycle (in this case, delving into the Fenian stories instead). Initially self-published by Hamilton in 2010, Finn and Fish is a contemporary and more humorous retelling of the old Salmon of Knowledge tale. It won several awards in 2013 and 2014.
The Secret of Kells (2009) and Song of the Sea (2014)
The Cartoon Saloon is an Irish animation film and television studio based in Kilkenny which has been producing short films, cartoon series and other services since it was first set up by Paul Young, Tomm Moore and Nora Twomey in 1999. It’s probably best known however, for the beautifully animated feature films, the Secret of Kells and Song of the Sea, both of which incorporate strong elements of Irish mythology and history with innovative design and storytelling.
Cú/Hound (2014 – 2019)
Cú/Hound – Protector/Liberator /Defender are a trilogy of graphic novels created and drawn by Paul Bolger and co-written by Barry Devlin. One could yawn and say this is just another adaptation of the Ulster Cycle/Cú Chulainn, but what sets Cú apart from its predecessors is the sheer scale of ambition in terms of the artistry and the fact that it’s development was funded directly (through Kickstarter). Cú/Hound – Protector, the first in the series focuses on Cú Chulainn’s childhood and his travels to Skye to train with the woman warrior, Scatach. All three novels are beautifully illustrated in black and white but make dramatic use of red on occasion. Cú is also an excellent example of how much graphic storytelling has changed over the years in that the writers are also attempting to crowdfund for a movie version of the original graphic novels.
Given the above examples, it does seems as though Irish mythological and prehistory stories are more effectively represented in the graphic storytelling sector and it’s easy to see why. Mythological stories lend themselves extremely well to transmission through graphic media.
In addition, with recent technology, innovative Irish graphic creators are obtaining greater independent access to markets through their own webcomics, website sales or crowd funding. By consequence, this has also led to far more Irish creators producing their own adaptations of Irish mythological stories, thereby avoiding the fantasy excesses that occasionally result when such stories are told by people who aren’t genuinely familiar with Irish culture.
Either way, it continues to be an innovative and exciting sector to watch.
Note: If there are any Irish graphic creators of Irish mythology and prehistory-related stories out there who’d like some reviews/exposure through Irish Imbas please feel free to email us at email@example.com. We’d be happy to help where we can.
Working with Irish stories and such, I follow a number of Irish writers. One of those I usually enjoy is Limerick author Kevin Barry so the recent news of a film based on his Dark Lies the Island is interesting, if unexpected news.
For those not in the know, Barry’s ‘Dark Lies the Island’ is actually a collection of short stories so, collating that into a workable narrative for a visual feature is no mean feat. I haven’t seen the film myself yet but all the reviews suggest it’s probably one that most hibernophiles should at least be aware of.
To rally the different characters and their individual journeys from the short stories into a meaningful central plot, the film is cleverly based around the activities of the inhabitants of the small town of Dromord. Dominated by the vicious Mannion clan (led by patriarch, Daddy Mannion – Pat Shortt) Dromord’s existence swerves into new territory when a mysterious and scarred newcomer (Tommy Tiernan) arrives in town and … buys the local chip shop.
Given the unwieldy provenance, this film could have been a disaster but, fortunately, Kevin Barry’s screenplay is supported by a very able director (Ian Fitzgibbon – who did Perrier’s Bounty) and cinematographer Cathal Watters (Papi Chulo). As a result, most reviews to date indicate that although unwieldy at times, the final product works. The trailer is quite gorgeous and, overall, the story is intriguing.
If you’re interested in Irish movies, you can find the trailer here: Trailer
I’ve got to admit, I’ve always kinda liked Lóegaire Búadach (Lóegaire the Victorious).
Ulster Cycle hero, contemporary of Cú Chulainn, husband to Fedelm Niochride and warrior in Conchobhar mac Nessa’s court, Lóegaire’s main function seems to have been as a comedic extra on the periphery of the principal action. In that respect, Lóegaire Búadach often filled the role of inept everyman, the hapless loser we all have a soft spot for.
Lóegaire first appears in Fled Bricrenn (Bricriú’s Feast) where he’s generally represented as a somewhat inept third contender for the Champion’s Portion (a prize that he and the two other Ulster warrior heroes, Cú Chulainn and Conall Cernach, are competing for). In every competition the three partake in, Lóegaire inevitably comes off worse.
When the three heroes meet an ogre on their way to Cú Roí’s dwelling, Lóegaire is forced to flee without his weapons, horses, chariot and charioteer. Later when the heroes stand guard at Cú Roí’s dwelling, another ogre casts him into a pile of cowshit. When they’re sent to fight the Amazon’s of the Glen, the Amazons strip him of his clothes and weapons and, humiliated, let him leave.
Lóegaire’s most embarrassing story, of course, is the story of how he died.
When King Conchobhar mac Nessa discoverd that his wife was being unfaithful with the poet Aed, he immediately ordered the latter to be put to death. Because of his status as a poet however, Aed was offered the opportunity to choose the manner of his death and, having a secret spell to dry up water, he slyly opted for ‘Death by Drowning’.
Despite several attempts to submerge him in local rivers and springs (that all mysteriously dried up), Conchobhar’s men eventually dragged the poet to Loch Lai (extremely close to Lóegaire’s residence). Here, with Aed’s spell now waning, they were finally able to get him into the water.
Hearing the poet’s yells for help, Lóegaire jumped up for his sword, outraged that anyone would treat a poet in such a manner and determined to save him. So outraged was Lóegaire, that he forget to duck when hurtling out through the door of his dwelling and subsequently managed to have the top half of his head sheared off by the low lintel.
With his clothes coated in gore and half his head missing, Lóegaire demonstrated that, in fact, his brain was superfluous to his fighting ability. In the ensuing battle, he killed thirty of Conchobhar’s men before he finally dropped dead.
And of course, Aed slipped away unharmed.
Note: This was originally published on 28 Sep 2016
After many (many!) hiccups trying to take it off the Amazon exclusive list, the second book in the Irish Woman Warrior Series (Liath Luachra: The Swallowed) is finally available on:
Instead of posting another picture of the cover, I’ve decided to celebrate with this gorgeous image of Liath Luachra by artist Vin Hill (and if you like this image, I’d highly recommend giving his site a look at https://vinhillart.wordpress.com/ ).
For those of you unfamiliar with the character, Liath Luachra (which means The Grey One of Luachair) was a woman warrior who had a very (very!) small role in Macgnímartha Finn (The Boyhood Deeds of Fionn).
In that narrative, she was one of two guardians to the mythological hero Fionn mac Cumhaill when he was just a child and she’s a great character to write.
Every distinct society passes cultural knowledge onto the next generation and that knowledge forms the basis of ongoing cultural identification. It’s the information that defines us as a cultural group and makes us who we are.
One of the more interesting things about such cultural knowledge is that in those areas where it’s strongest, it’s often held in least regard and taken for granted. In Ireland, for example, the most authentic cultural knowledge often (but not always) tends to be retained and transferred in rural areas and Gaeltachts where people have a more intimate connection to the surrounding land, its history and cultural narratives. In such areas, social rituals, traditions and language, belief systems and lore (all forms of cultural knowledge) create a societal backbone that’s passively transferred from one generation to the next, even if nobody feels a burning need to point it out.
On occasion, some people are obliged to leave the areas where they were born and raised, exposed to and absorbed such native influence. Others leave voluntarily, keen to depart negative circumstance while also rejecting the strong cultural connections they associate with those experiences. Because they’re tainted with negative connotations, such individuals have no interest in heritage or tradition and focus instead on living new lives where such elements don’t figure.
The consequence of disassociating completely from one’s culture often kicks in later in life when living overseas or raising kids of your own. It’s usually at this point that people who’ve cut the cultural cord come to the slow realisation they’ve little in terms of authentic cultural wisdom or learnings to pass onto their children. That situation is even worse for the children (and grandchildren) of Irish emigrants keen to explore their Irish heritage. With their cultural connections effectively severed, they’ve little genuine experience or background to draw on and their understanding of Ireland is often based on the limited influence of family, snippets of outdated cultural references or tacky misrepresentations of ‘Irishness’ (Lucky Stars, Kiss me I’m Irish, ‘Oirish’ films etc.).
Interestingly, we therefore find that when people don’t have access – or no longer have access – to cultural knowledge (think expats etc.), it suddenly takes on a far greater value.
And that, of course is where commercial interests come in.
In commerce, any defined need, is a potential market opportunity to be fulfilled and there are plenty of people who’ll sell you something to satisfy your yearning (even where they lack the actual skill of experience to do so). Those seeking to reconnect with their Irish heritage can find an almost infinite slew of businesses, religions and ‘teachers’ offering to help (Oirish-themed books, Celtic revisionists, mar dhea family crest providers, commercially produced ‘Oirish’-themed toys, skin-deep “Celtic” experiences etc. etc.). Many of these, based overseas, have limited direct experience of Irish culture and, hence, trawl the internet looking for free, low hanging cultural fruit they can use for branding purposes. That’s why we still see faux “Irish cultural experts” like W.B. Yeats and others of the Celtic Twilight quoted so liberally online. They’re cheap (they’ve been out of copyright for many years) and, sure, they might not be accurate or genuine, but they’ll do the job for the uninformed.
On the home front meanwhile, there are also plenty of people happy to supply unknowing tourists with the cultural experiences they want, no matter how naff or false they might be. This is a big business for some organisations.
We’re now at a very interesting period where commercial representation of Irish identity and culture competes directly with the natural, more gradual, transfer of cultural knowledge (and the former has a far bigger marketing budget). It’s still hard to judge the true impact and longer-term ramifications of such intrusions on our cultural identify but it’s certainly something to be aware of.
Because of my interest in Irish-based dramatic narrative, I’m always keen to suss them out in other media besides books, particularly where they involve subjects linked to my own passion for mythology and cultural heritage. One such project I came across recently was Paul Mercier’s movie ‘The Pursuit’ (which was actually released back in 2015).
This core concept of ‘The Pursuit’ is actually quite an ingenious one, taking one of more famous ancient Irish tales (estimated to date from the 10th century) and transposing it into a more modern setting to make it accessible for a contemporary audience. Given that this is very similar to what I do through Irish Imbas, I was quite interested to see how it worked on film.
Most Irish people will have some familiarity with the great Fenian narrative- An Tóraíocht (The Pursuit) on which the film is based. This ancient tale concerns an aging Fionn mac Cumhaill (seer and leader of a war party known – in English – as The Fianna) who decides to marry Gráinne, the daughter of Cormac mac Art (a fictional High King of Ireland). During the wedding celebration however, Gráinne falls for the handsome Fianna warrior Diarmuid ua Duibhne. Drugging all the guests except the young warrior, she places him under a geas (a cultural/ritual obligation) and obliges him to flee the fortress where the wedding is taking place. The core of the story is about their subsequent pursuit by the enraged Fionn.
‘The Pursuit’ uses this set-up to create a unique Irish road movie/thriller but in this version the Fenian warrior element has been slyly transposed to a modern-day Gangster environment. Fionn (played by Liam Cunningham) is an aging gang leader, as opposed to a war party leader. Supported by his loyal henchman, Diarmuid (Barry Ward) he runs a drug operation for his Kingpin boss, Mr King.
Following a failed attempt on his life, Fionn decides to consolidate his power by marrying Gráinne (Ruth Bradley), the much younger daughter of Mr King. Wedding celebrations ensure but, on this occasion, instead of putting Diarmuid faoi gheasa (under obligation), Gráinne puts a gun to his head and forces him to drive her away.
The subsequent hunt of Diarmuid and Gráinne by Fionn and his men cleverly parallels the growing attraction between the young couple in the original story and the many adventures and encounters they have while eluding Fionn. One of the most obvious of these is their interaction with the Searbhán (Brendan Gleeson). In the 10th century tale, the newly-pregnant Gráinne develops a craving for a bunch of rowan berries guarded by the one eyed giant Searbhán. Although friendly at first, Searbhán angrily refuses to give up the berries and Diarmuid’s obliged to kill him. You can see how that works in the movie yourself.
All in all, the film’s a pretty decent and well-made gangster movie with some excellent action scenes and sympathetic characters. For me, its weakest element was the misjudged mingling of comedy and violence which meant that, overall, the feel of the film didn’t gel particularly well. The transfer of the ancient narrative however, was carried out relatively well and for those with any knowledge of the story (and many of us were obliged to study it in school), it’s nice to see the ongoing references to the original characters and story as the story progresses. It’s also fun to see the character Gráinne portrayed with a bit more steel in this version given that in the better-known rendition of the original, she was portrayed very much as a spoilt and vindictive troublemaker (hardly surprising given that the surviving manuscripts were mostly written by very religious males with very set views on ‘the weaker sex’).
Overall, I’d have to applaud Paul Mercier. The film’s not perfect but its a very credible effort at making our mythology relevant in a contemporary environment. In truth, if we don’t make the stories (and the cultural knowledge behind) them relevant to our contemporary society, they’re just going to remain as childish folktales for other cultures or skin-deep, ‘cultural’ market branding.