Extra Ordinary (Irish-style)

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.

The Portrayal of Irish Mythology and Prehistory in Graphic Storytelling

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 info@irishimbas.com 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.

Fitzpatrick's Nuada of the Silver Arm

Fitzpatrick’s Nuada of the Silver Arm

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.

Conclusion:

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 info@irishimbas.com. We’d be happy to help where we can.

 

An Interesting New Irish Movie

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

Folcadán Bodhmhall (Bodhmhall’s Bath)

Writing about Ireland in the 2nd century can sometimes be a bit of a challenge because the country was so very different to what it looks like nowadays. Back in 195 AD, most of the island was still covered by dense forest and the centre of the country was undrained marsh and swamp. The population at the time was also far lower than today with some estimates putting it at around 100,000 to 200,000 people or so. Most of these would, most likely, have been living around the coast or along the inland waterways as much of the ‘Great Wild’ was impenetrable.
 
To research my books I do a lot of forest walks and tramps as that really helps to give a sense of how people lived back then. Their lifestyle was far more immediate, far more physical and their lives very much depended on their ability to interact successfully with their environment. Unless you get up close and personal with the forest you really miss a lot of the routine dynamics that they’d have had to deal with and incorporating such details really adds a level of authenticity to the books that they wouldn’t otherwise have.

Sometimes, during these tramps I come across some beautiful (or dramatic) spots that are incredibly evocative in a creative sense. This is one of my most recent favourites, a spot I discovered deep in the bush less than half an hour from where I live. I call this place Folcadán Bodhmhall (Bodhmhall’s bath) – named after a woman that the ancient literature describes as Fionn mac Cumhaill’s aunt and his main guardian as a child.  This individual is mentioned briefly in the 12th century manuscript Macgnímartha Finn (The Boyhood Deeds of Fionn) where she and her comrade, Liath Luachra, raise the young Fionn in secret in the forested hills of Sliabh Bladhma. 
   

Ireland’s Most Incompetent Warrior

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

The Woman Warrior Branches Out

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:

Apple (iBooks)
Kobo
Barnes and Noble
Smashwords
Google Play; and
Amazon

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.

Passing Down Irish Cultural Knowledge (and what happens next)

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.

An Tóraíocht (The Pursuit): Fianna Warriors With Guns

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.

Surviving Another Sunset

I got shot in the arm once when I was living in Lille (Northern France), walking from the metro to my place of work. Fortunately, it was with an air-rifle so I wasn’t badly hurt although my arm hurt like a bastard for the rest of the day. It took me a moment or two to work out what had actually happened and I was out in the open for several seconds before I understood and legged it for cover. From there, I tried to work out where the shot might have had come from but, surrounded by apartment blocks it was impossible to pinpoint. There were simply too many open windows, hundreds and hundreds of them.

For a while, I considered calling the cops (les Flics) but in the end I decided against it. I’d never really got on with French cops and had always found them somewhat arrogant and pugnacious, often hassling Algerian friends at the local Wazemmes market. That’s a gross misrepresentation of course, but it’s how I felt at the time.

From that point on I took a different route from the metro so, fortunately, the incident didn’t become a big thing and after a few weeks I forgot about it. It was probably some stupid, unsupervised kid after all, and there was nothing I could realistically do to find him. That said, I do remember the fury and helplessness I felt for about two or three weeks afterward.
Those sensations came back earlier this month when some white supremacist nutter chundered through Christchurch on a self-defined death mission. Armed to the teeth, dressed in combat gear, he bravely slaughtered fifty unarmed and mostly elderly men, a few women and kids. A true hero for such a warped cause!

As an Irish person living in New Zealand, I often feel outside some of the cultural events here but I was very moved by the country’s incredibly compassionate and dignified response. To be fair, I think a lot of that is due to the leadership of the current Prime Minister – she’s a politician but since she first appeared on the scene there’s never really been any doubt concerning her genuine empathy. I think this country was very lucky to have her here at this time. To be honest, I can’t imagine any of the leaders of the opposition parties demonstrating the sheer scale of leadership she did. Her decision to put a silence on any mention of the terrorist and focus on the victims was very much in line with the Norwegian approach when another white-supremacist nutter killed over 70 people in 2011 – mostly children, unarmed of course (you can see the recurring pattern). Shunning individuals who’ve caused immense distress or extreme crimes against society has always been an effective and appropriate response in ancient cultures. That mechanism is just as relevant today, probably even more so in the age of unregulated and unaccountable social media. Such individuals deserve no further mention in our world. We don’t need them. We don’t want them. Their actions meant that they no longer have the right of relevance in our communities.

Two weeks after the massacre, I get the sense that people are finally coming to grips with the violence, processing it. Legislation outlawing automatic weapons was passed rapidly and has the support of the vast majority of the population. A large number of New Zealand women have been wearing hijab – the headscarves worn by some Muslim women – to demonstrate their solidarity and support for the Muslim community. It’s hard to believe that this piece of headgear, which a number of politicians have been using as a means to create division within society and rally up support around a false issue for political purposes, has ended up being used a mechanism to bring us all together. That was an incredibly empathetic and emotional response which, frankly, took everyone by surprise.

Photo from https://stuff.co.nz

Last week, there was some anger here when the American NRA got involved and tried to lobby against the change in gun control. The sheer gall of their greed to interfere in another country’s affairs was pretty spectacular. In general, I find New Zealanders exceptionally polite and friendly but as a result of that I certainly noticed a cold contempt here for the NRA and political leaders who by not denouncing such attacks are essentially, in stealth, supporting the people who carry them out.

Two years back, I was in Barcelona and got caught up in the terrorist attack there as well. On that occasion, some 22 year-old jihadist ran a van down La Rambla and killed over thirteen people just around the corner from where I was standing. That involved a bunch of disaffected kids who’d been brainwashed by some fanatical Iman (who, in a nice twist of justice, blew himself up by accident the day before). Despite the difference in political ideology, of course, there’s really no difference between him and the 28 year-old loser who carried out the murders in Christchurch. Both had twisted social /political agendas that the vast majority of people don’t agree with. Both were individuals who blamed others for their own problems. Both were weak men who decided to attack innocent, vulnerable people instead of confronting the true cause of the issues they were unhappy with.

I haven’t thought much about the kid in the Wazemmes tower block for almost twenty years. Over the next few years, I’m sure I’ll think of the victims in Christchurch but I have no interest in hearing of that white supremacist again.

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.

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.