The Pleasure of Irish Place Names

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

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

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

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

Finn (cough) MacCool versus Ming The Merciless

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

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

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

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

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

The Strange Truth behind the Irish Mythological Cycles

Irish Mythological Cycles

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

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

“I think he was foreign.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The detective nodded stiffly and left.

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

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

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

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

“Yes,” the detective confirmed.

The Inspector nodded in appreciation.

“And all in relation to colour.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Poor Mouth

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

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

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

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

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

A New Fionn mac Cumhaill Series Tale

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

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

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

THE STORY

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

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

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

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

THE TWISTED TRAIL

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

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

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

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

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

‘Who are they, Grey One?’

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

‘Headed east.’

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Liath Luachra rubbed her nose and sniffed.

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

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

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

PERFORATING TIME

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

QUEEN MAEVE’S VULVA AND OTHER MATTERS

QUEEN MAEVE’S VULVA AND OTHER MATTERS

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

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

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

The link is just below:

Placenames

Poetry, Storms and Jet-Lag

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

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

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

You can hear the full interview here:

 

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

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

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

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

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

SAMHAIN: A Ninety-Second Quiz

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

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

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

Back to the Past in Beara

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

 

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

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

*****

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

Naturally, we went in.

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

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

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

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


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

*****

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

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

 

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

 

 

An Irish Adventure Story with Cultural Depth

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

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

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

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

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

When Kilmichael boldly states:

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

Conneely slyly replies:

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

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

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

You can find the official trailer here: Black 47

 

 

 

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

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

Irish Imbas: Celtic Mythology Collection 2016

Irish Imbas: Celtic Mythology Collection 2017

Irish Imbas: Celtic Mythology Collection 2018

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

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

2. Most people tend to confuse the term ‘mythology’ with ‘fantasy’.

In hindsight, this is understandable. Although mythology is culturally-based, it sometimes contains elements of fantasy. Unfortunately, it turns out that this is the limit of many people’s understanding.

3. It’s surprisingly difficult to get free products out there.

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

4. We’ve received quite a lot of backlash from faux mythology writers and internet “experts”.

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

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

For the above reasons therefore, we’ve decided to postpone the Irish Imbas: Celtic Mythology Short Story Competition and to focus instead on other projects that will help address the issues outlined above.  Longer term, we do hope to recommence the competition.

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

How Useful are ‘Language Weeks?’

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Truth about Leannán Sidhe (or Leannán Sí)

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Why you shouldn’t toss a Coin in a Sacred Well

Back in ancient Ireland, we know that those areas where water emerged from the earth (springs and wells.) were held in great reverence by our early ancestors. We know this, not only because of the huge number of valuable votive offerings recovered from such locations, but because of the prehistoric patterns still discernible, just below the surface of more contemporary rituals that take place at such sites.

In prehistory, tobair (wells and springs) conveying water up from deep within the earth, were believed to be conduits for imbas – esoteric or forbidden knowledge – to enter the world. As a result, those areas where water emerged for the ground were considered highly sacred.

Ancient communities gathered around such sites for occasions of note but also to celebrate significant social milestones that involved a new start, often symbolised through cleansing rituals. Over time, the waters of these wells and springs were also believed to have great healing powers, often specific to a particular body part or ailment type. As a result, the wells grew in popularity, with many people visiting to drink the water or bathe in them.

In addition to their healing properties, sacred wells were also believed to be a means for people to commune with those ancestors who’d passed on. For that reason, when an individual or a community were in a bad way and sought the intercession of the ancestors for improved health, good fortune, crops, good weather etc., they’d assemble at the sacred wells to seek their favour.

One of the key means of obtaining such favour was through the use of votive offerings and, generally, it was believed that the more value and the more worth an object had to the supplicant (in other words, the greater the sacrifice), the more likely it was that they’d be heard. That’s why the discovered deposits include beautiful artefacts that range from decorated golden bridles to highly ornate weapons, to gold and silver broches and so on.

When the Christian church came to Ireland (around the start of the fifth century), they initially established churches and holy communities around those areas where people tended to gather (such as the venerated wells). Gradually, over time, the Christian church took those sites over, replacing the existing pre-Christian rituals with their own (this is, for example, where the whole ritual of baptism comes from) or claiming their healing powers to be the result of miracles by Christian saints. This was also where the concept of a ‘sacred well’ was irrevocably transformed to ‘holy well’, with all of the associated religious trappings.

These days in Ireland, most sacred springs and sacred wells are now known as St Patricks Well, St Brigit’s Well, St Senan’s Well etc. and the patron days (the particular day when the celebration of the well takes place) are usually linked to the Christian calendar.

With the erosion of Gaelic culture and the old belief systems through colonisation and Christianity, sacred wells are now most often sold by the Irish tourist industry as quaint little “mystic wells”. Every time a busload of foreign tourists are disgorged to study the ‘mystic well’ therefore, they invariably interpret them as ‘wishing wells’ and depart, leaving them half-full of euro or two-euro coins. It’s hard to feel any anger towards them, of course. They don’t know the background to such sites and most Irish bus tour companies transporting them have no real idea either (and in the quest for commercial gain, don’t particularly care). The key frame of reference that most tourists tend to operate from therefore are ‘fantasy’ or fairy-tale stories from the likes of Disney, the sanitised Brother Grimm tales and so on.

This ‘pollution’ of the sacred wells increasingly pits the objectives of commercial tour companies against the values of local communities and that’s why we’re now seeing increasing numbers of signs asking people not to throw money in the scared/holy well (although contributions to its upkeep are usually welcomed in a separate collection box).

It seems foolish to me that tourist operators continue the whole ‘fantasy’ style approach to sacred sites like this and don’t pass the genuine story onto their customers. Most tourists would be happy to hear the true story of sacred/holy wells and an accurate explanation would ensure they have a greater understanding and respect for what they are seeing. This, in turn, would appease those local communities who have to take care of the sites. At the end of the day, truth and authenticity is a win-win situation and, quite frankly, always a far better outcome.

[Note: This article first appeared in Vóg – the Irish Imbas monthly newsletter – in July 2018]

The Trouble With Liath – Aar, me hearty! Pirate Irish Books

Anyone who’s anyway capable with Irish (the language), or familiar with my work, is probably aware that  ‘Liath’ is the Irish word for ‘Grey’ (although it can also mean a grey-haired person). ). Like most Irish adjectives, the word is pretty flexible: Sioc liath is a ‘hoar frost’ for example. Bainne liath is a kind of watery milk whereas arán liath means bread that’s gone a bit mouldy … and so on and so forth.

The word doesn’t tend to turn up too often on the Amazon website so you can imagine my surprise when I went to check one of my books the other day (Liath Luachra: The Swallowed which I released about a month ago)  and found a whole slew of  “Liath-themed” Irish books as follows.

These are just a small selection. There were actually quite a few others (all with ‘Liath’ in the title, all claiming to be  an “Irish Edition”) Interestingly, when I took a closer look at them I found that, not only were they all at ridiculously high prices (none of them are less than $65),  the interior sample content of each one was complete garbage, meaningless Irish words scooped up with some app and combined together in nonsense form.

I did a quick google image check for ‘Gaoth Liath”- the first pic above and found it had been nicked from a wallpaper engine site. When I searched out the authors, they were all pretty much empty – a single name, a single book, nothing more.

So obviously, someone has gone to a bit of trouble to create a whole bunch of faux Irish Edition books (I’m assuming the common word ‘Liath’ was included so that they’d be easier to find).   I have seen other reference online to books like these appearing and disappearing and most of the theoretical discussion seems to suggest these books are use for fraud purposes (where someone steals a credit card, orders hundreds of hugely-inflated price books and scoops up the profit for example). They’re certainly no use as books.

To be honest, finding this has pissed me off a bit. Getting decent Irish language books on places like Amazon is pretty hard as the larger ebook stores tend to focus on the English-speaking mass market only. Most Irish-language books tend to be published for the home market by specialist publishers (I’d like to rectify that one day) and frankly, An Gaeilege simply isn’t large enough or profitable enough for them to care.

Crap like this though, is hardly going to help.

Needless to say, I raised the issue with Amazon over a month ago and their response was the usual …… meh!  This morning I looked again and, lo and behold, those gorgeous Oirsih Books continue to be shine brightly from their shop screen.

Anois tá fiamh agam leo!

(Now, they’re in my bad books! Boom-boom!)

 

 

 

 

 

 

A Test for Irish Cultural Authenticty

 

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

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

Did you know that Ireland swarms with werewolves?

Did you know that Ireland is awash with proverbs of great wisdom that no Irish person has ever heard of (but which turn up regularly in internet articles on Irish culture)?

Yup. Me neither.

Working in Irish mythology and folklore, I’ve come across a few crazy notions over the past few years and the above are really just the tip of the iceberg. Some of the claims made by self-proclaimed internet experts on Irish and/or ‘Celtic’ Mythology are jaw-breakingly hilarious although the sheer level of ignorance and intentional misrepresentation of Irish culture (particularly with respect Irish mythology) is a bit of a concern. Much of this misinformation tends to come from non-Irish writers who produce fantasy books in the dreaded “Celtic Mythology” genre but there’s also plenty of inaccuracies and falsification from mar dhea pagan and ‘spiritual’ sites as well.

Fortunately, over the last four or five years, there’s also been an increasing trend of Irish people standing up to criticise and call out the worst offenders (whereas, in the past, they’d just put up with it), so that’s definitely something to be thankful for.

It’s important to call out rubbish cultural representation when you see it so, in this regard, I thought it might be useful to develop a set of basic ‘cultural criteria’ to help work out the authenticity of the Irish/Celtic article/ book you’re reading. The criteria here are pretty simplistic but, hopefully, will help you to determine if what you’re reading is fact or fantasy, if it’s culturally accurate or simply culturally autistic.

The Criteria

The article/book/ web-page you’re reading probably doesn’t have any cultural credibility if the writer:

1) uses W.B. Yeats as a source of information

2) uses the word ‘Fae’ or ‘Faerie’ or some other such derivative

3) has no genuine familiarity with a the Gaelic or Welsh language

 

(1) Using W.B. Yeats as a source of information

If you’re reading anything on Irish/’Celtic’ mythology that cites W.B Yeats or uses his work as a reference, you’d be better off edging carefully away. Yeats was a poet and an artist but mythology and folklore formed only a small part of his overall interests. Predominantly fascinated by mysticism, spiritualism and occultism, he adapted much of what he came across in Irish folklore/culture to align to these alternative belief systems. The resulting ‘facts’ was often a complete nonsense.

On a more pragmatic level, it should also be remembered that Yeats was a member of the Protestant Ascendancy (an early-1900s group in Irish society made up of privileged Protestant landowners, clergy and professionals). In practice, this meant he was quite insulated from ‘native culture’ and the cultural beliefs of people he referred to as “the peasantry”. He refused to make any attempt to speak Irish and it’s true to say he had a much better theoretical knowledge of Western esotericism than he ever did of Irish mythology and cultural beliefs.

Despite the marketing of vested interests in the commercial and tourism world, there’s actually a reason Yeats is not used in contemporary programmes for Celtic Studies.

(2) Use of the word ‘Fae’ or ‘Faerie’ or some other such derivative

The words ‘Fae’ or ‘Faerie’ are predominantly derived from old words in Continental European languages. In the English context, these words are found mostly in old books by long-dead writers (because they actually spoke like that) or in the books of more contemporary writers who want to make the word ‘fairy’ sound more ancient or ‘otherworldy’.

Some of the best names in fiction have done this at some stage and as a writing technique, there’s really nothing wrong with it as long as it remains within the realm of fiction/fantasy. If, however, someone is attempting to claim cultural authenticity while using these terms, you really need to take those claims with … well, a pinch of ‘fairy dust’!

Wikipaedia – not normally somewhere I’d advise for accurate or in-depth information – actually has a surprisingly useful summary on the historical development of the word ‘faerie’ and ‘fairy’ as follows:

According to Thomas Keightley, the word ‘fairy” derives from the Latin fata, and is from the Old French form “faerie”, describing “enchantment”. Other forms are the Italian “fata”, and the Provençal “fada”. In old French romance, “fee” was a woman skilled in magic, and who knew the power and virtue of words, of stones, and of herbs.

Faie became Modern English fay. Faierie became fairy, but with that spelling now almost exclusively referring to one of the legendary people, with the same meaning as fay. The word “fairy” was used to in represent an illusion, or enchantment; the land of the Faes; collectively the inhabitants thereof; or an individual such as a fairy knight.
To the word faie was added the suffix -erie (Modern English) -(e)ry), used to express either a place where something is found (fishery, nunnery) or a trade or typical activity engaged in (cookery, thievery). In later usage it generally applied to any kind of quality or activity associated with a particular type of person, as in English knavery, roguery, wizardry. In the sense “land where fairies dwell”, the distinctive and archaic spellings Faery and Faerie are often used.

In essence, the word ‘fairy’ is just as inaccurate as ‘fae’ or ‘faerie’ in that they’re all words created from a mish-mash of different cultural concepts that have become warped over time and lacking in meaning. Again, there’s nothing wrong with that in the context of fiction/fantasy.

Generally speaking, there is some genuine folklore about ‘fairies’ developed in Ireland from the 1800s as a result of cultural disruption (i.e. being invaded and colonised!) but its relatively shonky. If you’d like to read more on that you can find an earlier article here (The Secret life of Irish Fairies):

(3) Lack of genuine familiarity with a ‘Celtic’ language

To understand a culture, you really have to have at least some comprehension of the language the population that cultural communicate(d) with. Without that understanding, it’s incredibly difficult to appreciate how people in that society thought, how they lived, how they loved, what values they held dear and so on. Even today, although international languages are translated on an almost continuous basis, anyone who speaks more than one language knows there are often concepts in one language for which there’s no direct equivalent translation in another language. These cultural concepts generally have to be explained in a different way (usually involving a lot more words) or the word from the original language is used. Examples of this might include ‘schadenfreude’, ‘déjà vu’ or even a little bit of ‘craic’.

This holds just as well for languages like Gaelic (and Welsh, Manx and Breton as it does for other more broadly spoken languages. There are expressions and concepts in these ‘Celtic’ languages that don’t translate exactly and which require more clarification. Having some familiarity with the language is very useful in that regard. For example, on occasion, because I speak Irish, I find that I sometimes get a better sense from a particular Irish story or piece of Irish mythology than a non-Irish speaker might get from the same material. This is not because I’m smarter or more insightful, it’s simply because I have a better cultural context.

There are limitations to this particular criterion of course. The Irish I speak today is not the same as the Irish spoken by our ancestors (Old Irish or Middle Irish) so my contextual understanding of material from that time is necessarily limited. Having a grasp of the language will not ensure your comprehension of Gaelic/Irish mythology and culture by any means – but it will certainly help.

Hopefully these criteria will give you some idea of what to look out for but please feel free to suggest others you think might work

The Fate of Irish women taken as Vikings Slaves

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

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

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

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

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