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A Moment on the Islet

There was one morning when the world dissolved, obliterated in a downpour that melted the distant islands, then the immediate surroundings as well.

Preceded by a cluster of unusually threatening, blue-bruised clouds, the incoming deluge had given plenty of warning. As a result, the girl was comfortably settled under a solitary oak at the tip of the inlet outcrop, cloak tugged tight around her shoulders as she waited to watch the clouds to unload their burden.

The downpour rattled the lake’s surface with a startling intensity that she’d never seen before, a ferocious hail that scattered white-foamed eruptions across the water around her. Mirrored by countless ripples on that shuddering surface, the resulting kaleidoscope of movement was giddyingly, but terrifyingly, beautiful.

Tethered to the island by nothing but a thin strip of rock, the girl felt a swell of panic when even that link disappeared, and her existence reduced to the tree above and three paces of the rocky outcrop. Conscious that there was nothing beyond the fusillade of rain, she was struck by a sudden, shocking sense of absence.

Terrified at the prospect of being cut adrift, she peered desperately through the deluge for any hint of physical substance, for any trace of natural solidness, for … anything.

To her trembling relief, the downpour eased soon after, and although it seemed to take far too long a time, the outline of the island took substance through the rain. Whole and expansive, the Great Mother’s bulk emerged from the surrounding murk. Slowly, ponderously, it reached across the thin strip of stone, embraced the girl in her fulsome whole and, soothingly, reassuringly, brought her home.

[Excerpt from ‘Liath Luachra: The Great Wild’, released 2023]

Raiders of the Lost Irish Crown!

I was quietly amused this week when I came across an article on Clare TD Cathal Crowe who apparently submitted a parliamentary question demanding that the Tánaiste work with the Irish Ambassador to the Holy See to ensure the (ahem) legendary crown of Brian Ború was returned.

Crowe, it seems, is a supporter of one the nuttier conspiracy theories about how Brian Ború’s ‘crown’has been hidden away in a Vatican vault – Indiana Jones style – for almost a thousand years.

According to Crowe, his request was prompted as a result of contact with a direct descendant of Brian Ború. To be honets, given the number of people supposedly descended from Brian Ború, that could have been anyone.

The thought that a rí like Brian Ború would actually bother with a crown (a Continental and British concept, never an ancient Irish one) is also quite amusing and tends to follow the fantastical thinking associated with other supposed Brian Ború relics like the Brian Ború Harp (supposedly owned by Brian Ború but not actually manufactured until 300-400 years later).

If you’re interested, you can find a link to the parliamentary question (and its response) in the comments below.

Clíodhna – hammered by waves and ‘waves’

One tale about Cliona – the female figure from Irish literary and oral tradition – tells how she ended up landing on the beach of Trá Théite (close to modern day Glandore) after fleeing from Tír Tairngire with her lover Ciabhán.

There, desperate for food, Ciabhán left her sleeping on the beach while he took the boat out and went further along the coast to catch some fish. While he was absent, a mysterious wave swept in and washed the sleeping Clíodhna away. Known as ‘Tonn Clíodhna’, this ‘wave’ is actually believed to have been some kind of waterline marker for the local shore.

Sadly, although Clíodhna has long been known to be a land goddess – a figurative representation of nature and the land – she continues to get misrepresented online, predominantly through recurring waves of a strange ‘Chinese Whispers’ style of misinformation, predominantly spread via English language ‘mythology’ sites.

Wikipedia, probably one of the major sites of such misinformation (its ‘Irish’ content is mostly entered by people who have a limited understanding of Irish language and culture) not only suggests that Clíodhna is ‘Cleena’ in English (it’s not – that sounds more like a cheap brand of manufactured tissues) but claims that she’s ‘Queen of the Banshees’.

Seriously?

A few years back, it was revealed that almost all of Wikipedia’s ‘Scottish’ language content had bene entered by an eighteen-year-old American who’d “read some books” on the subject. I think its probably safe to assume a similar standard of quality assurance has been applied for Irish cultural entries.

Cú Chulainn and Ferdia

Cú Chulainn and Ferdia in combat at Áth Fhirdia (the Ford of Ferdia).

With the intial series of FIONN mac Cumhaill coming to a close next year, I’ve been giving some thought to doing a series based on the Ulster narratives.

To be honest, I’ve still not decided. Developing a workable narrative for Cú Chulainn is no easy task and would require some serious adaptation from An Táin to make it work (unless you go down the whole Celtic Fantasy which doesn’t really interest me and which, frankly, has had its day).

We’ll see. I’ll give an update in Vóg – (my newsletter – link available in the comment below) on my thoughts around that at the end of June.

Liath Luachra – A New Project

On the work front, I’m fully occupied with an intense freelance project which means it’ll be a few more weeks before I can launch back into writing.

That’s a delay that’s always a bit frustrating but I’ve spent the few free hours I have, relaxing with a fun project I hope to bring to frution at some point in the future.

Attached is a cartoon/comic-book image of Liath Luachra associated with that.

Irish Headhunters

I came across an interesting story last year about a British anthropologist (Professor Alfred C Haddon) and a researcher colleague (Andrew F Dixon). Both men were academics in anthropology and ethnology at Trinity College Dublin.

‘Craniometry’, the unscientific study of human skull size and shape to determine a person’s intelligence (a disproven belief) was very popular among colonial academics at the time and went on to create much of the basis of unscientific ‘race-based science’ in the 20th century, later used with such zeal by the Nazis and other groups. Surprisingly, for English academics, Irish islands had become very attractive at the time as they were believed to home some of the few ‘undiluted’ indigenous populations remaining within the British Isles.

Conveniently, the populations were also very poor and easily compelled.  

It’s worth remembering, that in the late 1800s, Irish universities were predominantly utilised by English people or the offspring of English colonisers. Very few native Irish people could afford – or were allowed – to go to these institutions, which goes someway to explaining why the academics believed they could behave the way they did.

Following a visit to Inishboffin in 1890, Professor Haddon and a colleague (Andrew Dixon) stole thirteen skulls from the Island graveyard at St Colman’s Monastery and quickly smuggled them off the island. It took the islanders a day or two to realise the graves had been interfered with, but when they did, they were not happy.

Because they were, essentially, powerless however, there was little the islanders could actually do to reclaim the skulls of their family members. As a result, Haddon and his colleagues played ‘pretend science’ with his booty for a few years, wrote a few papers and then the skulls were disposed of in the anatomy museum of Trinity College where they languished for over a hundred years, .   

It was only in February 2023 that Trinity College finally decided to return the skulls. In July 2023, the remains were placed in a specially designed coffin, returned to Inishboffin and reburied in the shadow of the church ruin from where they were originally stolen.

Living in New Zealand, I see many instances of different Māori tribes trying to recuperate the remains of their people (stolen by colonial scientists and ‘collectors’) from international museums. Such looting was pretty common practice on native Americans, indigenous Australians and other indigenous peoples under colonial regimes. Ireland was no different of course, but its still a bit of a shock to see its impact in practice.

Irish Culture (as represented through … money!)

The Irish banknotes are an interesting litmus test for the progression of Irish self-identity back home.

Prior to the late 1970s, Irish banknotes consisted almost exclusively of the ‘Lady Lavery issue’ banknotes (also known as the ‘A Series’) which had been printed by the Bank of England in London and circulated in Ireland since 1928. This was always an odd choice in that the’ Lady Lavery’ in question was actually an American painter, and the second wife of portrait artist Sir John Lavery.

Known for her good looks, she’d also been used as the model for the portrait of Kathleen ní Houlihan (a kind of anglicized mythical representation of Ireland invented by W.B. Yeats) which was subsequently adapted for the banknotes.

Eventually, the Central Bank of Ireland hired Servicon – an Irish design company – to design the new banknotes which became known as the ‘B Series’. This series had a bit more cultural authenticity than the ‘Lady Lavery Issue’ and the most common of these – the green One Pound note – included a portrait of Medb of Connacht with design features based on archaeological artefacts (bone slips) and a text excerpt from An Táin (from Lebor na hUidre).

The Series C Banknotes were introduced from 1992 (replacing the Series B banknotes) and featured a number of famous Irish historical figures such as Catherine McAuley, Daniell O’Connell, James Joyce and others over the different denominations. They remained in circulation until 2002 when the Euro became the national monetary currency.

Because it crosses so many different cultures, the Euro design is, by necessity, incredibly bland (mostly based on somewhat boring architectural features). You can get souvenir-style ‘diddly-dee’ euro notes representing various sites or events in Ireland (mostly made to sell to gullible tourists).

The downside? They have a monetary value of 0.00 Eu.

Clealry, a lose-lose situation. Sheesh!

Seven Fianna

I came across an interesting project last week by artist Zhaochen Vincent Wu (based in the States) who was working on a cross-cultural proposal merging Akira Kurosawa’s ‘Seven Samurai’ with the Fenian stories.

He explains it as follows:

“This set of design is for my project “Seven Fianna”, which is an adoption to the classic movie “Seven Samurai”. My version took place in Medieval Ireland: A Mountain Spirit robs and kills shepherds and their herds from a small village. The village lost almost all food and sacrifice to the Gods. In order to save the village, the village head hired the “Fianna” to fight for them.”

Obviously, this reveals that the artist had a very limited knowledge  or understanding of Irish culture, what a fian was, etc. etc.

I have to admit, blending themes and elements from two or more different genres can often produce some interesting work however when you attempt to do it with two different cultures, it its a whole different ‘kettle of fish’. It’s not uncommon to see such projects ending up with a complete mess of a final product.

Intriguing though the concept of a potential blend of ancient Irish culture and Japanese culture might be, the truth is that it’s actually the individual resonance and authenticity of those different cultures, that makes them interesting. Once you meld one with the other you end up with something completely different (a bit like melding colours like yellow and green to make the colour blue), The final product has no cultural integrity or authenticity and, as an  entertainment, will probably resemble a generic fantasy story at best.

That said, I could be wrong. It may be possible to create a narrative product that successfully merges two cultures.

I just haven’t come across one yet.   

Sometimes you Need a Second Blade

FIONN: The Tightening Trail‘ goes out to ‘Paid’ newsletter subscribers in the next two weeks (once the final edits are done).

This – the penultimate book in the series – will be released wide, later this year (in June or July). There’s a link to it in the comments below:

Much of the story in this work concerns a difficult and dangerous journey across the Great Wild. This time, however, having learned from previous mistakes, Liath Luachra (The Grey One) is keen to ensure she has a spare blade in her sheath. This scene outlines some of her planning with Gnathad – another warrior – in this regard.


A small lean-to shelter had been constructed just inside the treeline and when the Grey One arrived, this was occupied by the fair-haired Gnathad and her foster son, Bran. Alerted to her approach by the rustle of movement through the foliage however, both had emerged to stand waiting, javelins raised, when she stepped out of the trees to their rear.

‘Grey One,’ greeted Gnathad. She lowered her weapon to rest the haft on the ground. ‘This is a surprise.’

Bran remained silent but he dipped his head to acknowledge the woman warrior’s appearance.

Liath Luachra returned their greeting with a cursory nod of her own.

‘A word with you, Gnathad.’

She glanced at Bran and, taking the hint, the youth kissed his foster mother on the cheek and started back along the summit path. Both women watched him go, waiting in silence until the sound of his footsteps had receded.

‘You should talk to him, Grey One,’ Gnathad suggested at last. ‘Bran still bears the shame of his actions from your last excursion together.’

The woman warrior shrugged.

‘Bran remedied his errors through his deeds on the return trip to Ráth Bládhma.’

‘Then perhaps you should make that clear to him. Young people don’t always grasp the unexpressed word. Sometimes it’s best to simply say it aloud.’

Liath Luachra made no response as she glanced back along the trail. The distant sound of Bran’s movement could now barely be heard. She turned her gaze back to the Coill Mór woman.

‘I have a task for you, Gnathad.’

‘A task?’

Gnathad’s curiosity was plain to see.

‘Yes. The travel party leaves at dawn tomorrow.’

The fair-haired woman perked up at that.

‘You’d have me join the travel party? Accompany you with the techtaire?’

‘No.’

‘Oh!’

The disappointment in her voice was audible.

‘I’d have you follow us.’

Gnathad went quiet at that, watching the Grey One warily because of the initial disappointment. Over the years, she’d taken to wearing her hair in tight braids in imitation of the Grey One. Some of these thick, fair strands had worked their way loose, and now she brushed at them fretfully to clear them back from her eyes. ‘What do you mean?’ she asked at last.

‘I’d have you follow the travel party. As a hidden rearguard.’

Liath Luachra paused and turned to look out over the green stretch of the western lands, the endless serrated horizon of green treetops against the blue-grey sky. Her features retained their usual dispassion and her voice remained steady as she spoke.

‘The last time we dispatched a travel party from Glenn Ceoch, events didn’t go as planned. Tadg mac Nuadat had a force waiting beyond the Bládhma hills. They took up our trail and stalked us in stealth, eventually arranging themselves at our rear so we were driven into an ambush.’

The woman warrior turned to fix her grey eyes on the other woman.

‘That’s a snare I’d skirt on this occasion.’

Gnathad considered her words for a moment.

‘It’s unclear to me what you’re proposing. What is it you’d have me do?’

‘Before I say more, I need to know if this is a task you’d be willing to fulfil.’

The Coill Mór woman didn’t hesitate.

‘Of course, it is.’

The Grey One grunted softly in satisfaction.

‘Then, tomorrow, once the travel party’s departed, gather what supplies and weapons you need in preparation for your own departure.’

‘My own departure? We don’t leave together?’

Liath Luachra shook her head.

‘And tell no-one of your intention to leave.’

‘No-one?’

‘Not even your children.’

Gnathad frowned at that.

‘My children are old enough to lead their own lives without my interference. All the same, that won’t prevent them from worrying should I disappear without trace.’

‘Then provide them with a plausible excuse. Tell them I’ve dispatched you to seek out new hunting grounds.’

The fair-haired woman mulled on that but made no contention, apparently satisfied that such a story would put her children at their ease.

‘When you leave Glenn Ceoch, keep two day’s distance from the travel party for the first six days. Any less, and you’re unlikely to spot sign of any pursuing party. If anything, it’s more likely you’ll expose your own presence.’

She shrugged.

‘There may be no pursuit, of course, but its a precaution we must take. Should you find no trace of activity to our rear, pick up your pace on the seventh day and reduce the distance between us. But stay out of sight.’

‘You don’t want me to enter the camp?’

‘No. I bear this techtaire no level of trust. It’s best he knows nothing of your presence. If any of the others know you’re there, they could inadvertently reveal your presence despite their best efforts.’

The Grey One paused to regard her closely.

‘You will be my second blade, Gnathad. The weapon I keep sheathed unless there’s a need to draw it free.’

The Tightening Trail

Demne (Fionn) and Liath Luachra traversing The Great Wild.

This is a scene from “The Tightening Trail’ – the forthcoming story from the Fionn mac Cumhaill Series which I hope to release within the next 6-8 weeks.

Number five in the series, its slowly bringing the story towards its culmination in Book Six – FIONN: The Betrayal.

Liath Luachra talks with Feoras

This is a scene from the upcoming novel ‘FIONN: The Betrayal‘ (although that title is likely to change).

Set in the settlement of Ráth Bládhma, in this scene, the woman warrior Liath Luachra, is attempting to plan a dangerous trip to the distant Tailte Méithe – The Fat Lands.

To do this however, she needs information from the punacious techtaire (messenger) Feoras -and a conversation she has not been looking forward to.


Leaving the firepit, Liath Luachra worked a path between the roundhouses, slowly making her way to the southern side of the ráth embankment and the lean-to where Feoras was sequestered. There, despite the mildewed light and the lean-to’s interior shadows, she had little difficulty making out the sour puss on the techtaire as he watched her approach.

Cónán, standing guard to the left of the lean-to, rolled his eyes and shook his head as the Grey One drew closer. The previous evening, the young warrior had expressed his weariness at the techtaire’s incessant complaining. According to Cónán, when Feoras wasn’t bitching about the food, he was carping on about the accommodation, neither of which he considered commensurate with a messenger of his standing. His treatment at Ráth Bládhma had drawn particular vitriol, although there at least Liath Luachra felt he might have had some grounds for complaint given that, on their return to Glenn Ceoch, she’d drugged the cantankerous old man and transported him on a litter, to conceal the settlement’s location. When the techtaire had finally come to, he’d been furious to learn what she’d done. Bizarrely, that fury towards her had been exceeded by his fury at the ignominy of being billeted in a lean-to used for the storage of winter fuel.

It was hard to know where the techtaire’s delusional expectations of hospitality might have come from, but Liath Luachra had little interest in trying to find out. As she slid in under the shelter’s slanted roof, she ignored his scowling features, quietly grabbing a nearby stump of wood and rolling it into an upright position. Sitting herself on the makeshift seat, she shifted around so that she was facing the old man directly.

‘We leave Ráth Bládhma tomorrow,’ she said bluntly. Feoras wasn’t a nice man so there seemed little point in social niceties.

The techtaire’s scowl softened a little at that announcement.

‘You’ll hear no complaints from me,’ he answered haughtily, raising one hand to ruffle his thick bush of white hair. ‘Arriving at Ráth Bládhma has been akin to stumbling upon a precipice marking the limit of human influence. My welcome has been nothing but a litany of insults and injury. My hospitality, little more than cast-offs a mottled swine would reject.’

He waved a hand to indicate the cramped, wood-strewn interior, as though to support the validity of his grievance. Liath Luachra said nothing, waiting for him to complete his querulous griping before she proceeded to the reason for her visit.

‘We’ll leave Glenn Ceoch at first light. By then, the final preparations should have been completed. More importantly, that allows a full day for the ground to firm up after last night’s rain.’

Feoras’ forehead creased a little at that. He pursed his lips and squinted at her uncertainly.

‘If the ground is firm,’ she explained, ‘we leave less trace of our passage on the Great Mother’s mantle. Tracks become less important the further we get from Gleann Ceoch but with Clann Morna haunting the nearby hills, I’ve no desire to leave a trail that leads straight back to the settlement.’

The techtaire scratched at his beard but made no comment.

‘Before we leave,’ the woman warrior continued, ‘it would suit my purposes to learn what you can tell me of the character of the land we’ll be traversing, any relevant water sources, impassable rivers or other obstacles …’

Her voice stalled momentarily as she registered the particularly sour expression he’d turned towards her, but she continued with fresh resolve.

‘That knowledge would allow me to take proper account of the supplies we’ll need.’

‘The Cailleach Dubh has agreed to follow my guidance,’ the techtaire countered, his jaw jutting forward with mulish obstinacy. ‘It should be my role to decide on what might be needed over the course of our travels.’

Liath Luachra regarded him coldly.

‘The argument was lost before it even started, Feoras. I lead the travel party. You’re a guide, Nothing more.’

The old man glared at her, but the heat of that glare glanced harmlessly off the smoothness of her serene, somewhat remote features. Defeated by that unruffled composure and the finality of her response, he turned his angry gaze away.

‘Well?’ she prompted.

She noted the techtaire’s jaw clench a little and, for a moment, she thought he was about to sink into an outraged sulk. To her surprise however, he seemed to think twice about it for when he spoke again, his voice was smooth and calm if, troublingly, cordial.

 ‘What is it you wish to know?’

Note: FIONN: The Betrayal should be available in May/June 2024