Irish Mythological Concepts, Books and the Writing Process

This is an interview I had with Finbarr Murray of Capital Irish – the Irish Access Radio channel in Wellington – back in 2016.  I actually spent a few years as one of the presenters on this show but had to give it up a year before the interview due to competing time commitments.

In this particular episode, I discuss the context behind Irish – and other – mythology, how it developed over time and how that’s influenced the way I publish  my own materila through Irish Imbas Books.

You can listen to (or download) the episode below.

IRISH IMBAS PROJECTS IN PRODUCTION

It may be hard to see but there’s a lot of work going on in the background at the moment, most of which won’t become evident until later this year (or early next year). The sheer volume of work has significantly impacted on progress with a number of other projects I’m champing at the bit to complete.
 
Anyway, here’s a quick summary of where things are at with the more immediate projects:

LIATH LUACHRA III
Currently half-way through chapter 8 of Liath Luachra III which introduces Bodhmhall from the Fionn mac Cumhaill Series. This is the point at which the Liath Luachra Series starts to overlap with the Fionn mac Cumhaill Series. Although to date, the Liath Luachra books have been very much stand-alone, this book introduces the first aspects of a longer-term plot/mystery that eventually gets resolved towards the end of the Fionn mac Cumhaill Series. That said, this book can still be read and enjoyed as a stand-alone too. Its only people following both series who’ll really pick up on what’s happening.

LIATH LUACHRA IV
I had intended to finish the Liath Luachra Series with the third book but after four chapters in, it quickly became apparent I’d need a 4th to complete the story the way I wanted. I’ve done an initial – very skimpy – outline for this but I won’t be anywhere near writing it until next year. This book will cover some pretty dramatic elements that haven’t been covered by Irish writers before (at least to my knowledge, but I’ve researched it quite a bit). I’m very much looking forward to this one!
 
DARK DAWN
I had two days set aside to complete the final elements of the Dark Dawn project and prepare it for launch but then our Covid-19 lock-down happened. As a result, I now have no idea when I can get this back on track. I must admit, I pull this out and look at it from time to time and, for something that will actually look very simple in its finished form, it’s been devilishly complex.

FIONN IV (Fionn: Stranger at Mullán Bán
This is the book I had to put aside in order to focus on Liath Luachra III. Seven chapters have already been completed and edited. It’s my intention to finish the book once LL III has been released.
 
Probably best to keep an eye on the website or the newsletter for announcements on the release dates. When they’re ready, they’ll be available here for a few weeks before they’re released to the ebookstores.

DARK DAWN/ CAMHAOIR FUILSMEARTHA

A gorgeous image from artist Bryan Mahy for the “Dark Dawn/ Camhaoir Fuilsmeartha Project” I’m currently working on.

This was intended to be released this month but delays outside my control mean it probably won’t be available for a little longer.

Subject-wise, this is a story about a dying warrior defending the isolated settlement of Ráth Bládhma, future home of Fionn mac Cumhaill. It’s a stand-alone, once-off, spin-off from the Fionn mac Cumhaill Series and people will either love it or hate it.

It will have its own page soon but for the moment the best source of information is probably here:

Escaping The Chains Of Genre

It’s hard to believe that it’s almost four years since I published FIONN 3: THE ADVERSARY – the book that completed the first three-book arc of the Fionn mac Cumhaill Series.

The above image is an alternative cover for that book (developed from a series that the artist went off and created predominantly to satisfy her own creative urgings).  An incredibly talented cover designer, she had the whole fantasy genre down to a tee and, hence, thought I’d love what she sent me. And I did – anything this artist does is amazing!

Unfortunately, by then, I’d also been feeling increasingly uncomfortable with having my work locked into the ‘fantasy’ genre, predominantly due to my growing understanding around the confusion between genuine mythology and ‘fantasy’ (particularly where it relates to anything Irish). The over-sexualised imagery that tends to accompany the fantasy genre was also wrong for the kind of books I produce.

In the end, we used a different variant for the cover (using the original photostock – you can see the final here) but I ended up paying the artist for the additional set of images as well. She’d done some amazing work for me in the past and, frankly, she deserved it. Although I’ll probably never use any them, its nice to pull them out on occasion and appreciate the great skill she put into them

Six Years Ago Today

I received one of those social media reminders today that it’s been six years since I first published FIONN: Defence of Ráth Bládhma, an anniversary that’s triggered some quiet reflection for me.

FIONN 1 was actually the second book I ever published (Beara: Dark Legends being the first). It was my first attempt at producing a genuine (as culturally authentic as I could make it) Irish historical adventure/fantasy novel and, to be honest, I had no idea whether people would like it. I’d never written anything similar before and given my insistence on using Irish cultural concepts and – occasionally – language, I assumed most people would be scared off.

Six years later there are four (by December) books in the series as well as a spin-off series (The Irish Woman Warrior Series) which will have three books by the end of the year. It still amazes me that people buy them, even more so when they leave positive reviews.

When I finish a book, it goes from my head and even a few months I struggle to remember even writing it.  I reread this book about two years ago and it was a slightly bizarre experience in that it was actually just like reading a book someone else had written. The weirdest thing was that I really enjoyed it and, overall, I thought it was great (!!?). I’m not really sure what that says about me. People often say you can be your own worst critic but I clearly run the other way.

I’d like to say ‘thank you’ to all of you who took the time to read this book and a particular thanks to those of you who were kind enough to go so far as to write a review. For any writer that will always be a buzz, no matter how old the book or how many books they’ve written.

I’ve always had a clear idea in my head where this series was going (and the Liath Luachra Series of course) and although I’m keen to move onto other projects it feels good to be edging closer to the completion of the story, the characters, the twists and the plots I wanted to reveal. Given the growing interest in a television version, this could of course end up going on in a way or a direction I’d never even envisaged but, to be honest, there are a thousand other things I need/want to do.

I think some stories never end.

Note: The above image shows the development of the cover since my initial amateurish introduction. The current cover is the image seen below.

The Rider

This is another of the images pulled from my regular weekend research of imagery – something about the mood in this image really drew me to Eve Ventrue’s ‘The Rider’ ( the image attached to this post).

I’m currently writing a chapter which involves the use of horses and was reminded of a question I occasionally get asked: Why don’t the characters in the Fionn mac Cumhaill and the Liath Luachra books ride horses?

There are several reasons for this but the most important is authenticity. Back in the 1st and 2nd century, Ireland was a very rugged land, full of dense forest, marshes and terrain that was extremely difficult to traverse. People didn’t tend to travel very far unless they had to and, a lot of the time, the journeys they took were simply too onerous for horses (because of the huge amount of clambering required).

We also have to remember that horses weren’t all that plentiful. For those communities fortunate enough to have a horse, the animals were mostly kept for critical farm work and if they were ridden, they would only have been ridden by the most important members of the tuath (tribe).

Important Locations in Ireland for Fionn mac Cumhaill and the Fenian Cycle

The original stories from the Fenian Cycle (the stories of Fionn mac Cumhaill and the warrior band mistakenly called Na Fianna) are believed to have first originated in Leinster (that’s on the eastern side of Ireland if you’re unfamiliar with it) which is why so many of the Fionn mac Cumhaill stories take place in that region. Over the subsequent centuries however, as the character’s popularity increased, professional storytellers from other parts of the country also started to adapt the tales for their local audiences and often incorporated nearby topographical features that these audiences would be familiar with. That’s why, today, you’ll struggle to find anywhere in Ireland that doesn’t have at least some kind of reference to Fionn or the Fianna.

The twelfth century Macgnímartha Finn (The Boyhood Tales of Fionn) on which the Fionn mac Cumhaill Series is based, retains those very strong links to Leinster. Here’s a map showing some of the key locations:

  • Ráth Bládhma: As a child, Fionn (or Demne, as he was originally known) was reared by two female guardians (Bodhmhall and The Grey One) in the forests of Sliabh Bládhma/ Sliabh Bloom in County Laois). This isolated spot was the most significant area of wilderness adjacent to the areas in Leinster which would have been most populated back in the Iron Age. As a result, it would have been a logical place to set the story of someone who was on the run or in hiding.
  • Seiscenn Uairbhaoil: This Leinster marsh (where the warrior Fiacail mac Codhna was said to be based) is believed to be located in present day County Wicklow. It’s placement on the map is an estimate on my part.
  • Almhu: This was the site where Tadg mac Nuadat was originally said to live. According to one or two references, the fortress was painted with alum (Almhu) from whence it gets its name. This was also the childhood home of Muirne Múncháem (Fionn’s mother). These days many people still use the anglicized (and meaningless) version of the name: The Hill of Allen.
  • Dún Baoiscne:This is the one site in the Fionn mac Cumhaill series which is pure fabrication on my part. For the purposes of the series, I needed Clann Baoiscne to have a tribal territory based around a fortress which I arbitrarily named Dún Baoiscne (literally: the fortress of Clann Baoiscne). To be fair, if there had been a Clann Baoiscne and they had a fortress, that’s probably what it would have been called.

Many of these place names may pose a challenge for non-Irish speakers to pronounce but why not have a go and then check it against the audio guide to see how close you were.

Forthcoming Projects at Irish Imbas Books

Part of the problem with doing creative work on a part-time basis is that there are always more projects than you can actually complete. Personally speaking, I always have at least ten projects on hand at different stages of development. Some may never see the light of day but most of them will. In any case, this is a list of the top five projects we’re working on at the moment.

FIONN: Stranger at Mullán Bán
Six chapters into this fourth novel of the Fionn mac Cumhaill Series and we’re looking at a release date around the end of 2019. I’m still not wiling to give much away but the series does follow the Fenian Cycle narratives and we’ll be finishing up with book six.

LIATH LUACHRA: The Seeking
At present I’m working on a short story which will set the scene for the third Liath Luachra Series novel. At this stage, the wider plot is well established with some returning characters, some unique antagonists and an interesting slant on the period that Irish mythology hasn’t taken before. To be honest, I’m champing at the bit to get into this and it’s a struggle to pace myself so that can complete FIONN 4 first. The short story will be out in the next month or two. Development of the potential television series based on the first book may stymie this of course.

Project Scéalta:
Project Scéalta (a side-project based on FIONN: Defence of Ráth Bládhma) has so many components, it’s been one of the more frustrating pieces of work I’ve done to date (two steps forward, one step back). It’s now sitting on the back burner for another three weeks but once time frees up in August, I’ll be almost at a point where I have a working model.

Attached is the first conceptual image for the project. Some of you may recall that this initially started last year with the great line “It’s raining and my arse aches”.

As you can see that’s changed a bit. Some might say, for the better!

Project Tobar:
This is a non-fiction, Irish mythology-based project and it’s going into initial design stage later this year. This is going to the biggest project we’ve done so far so it’ll probably swallow our full capacity for 2020. That’s why we’re not going to do any actual development work until at least two of the previous projects are completed. Watch this space.

Celtic Mythology Collection 4
After a lot of consideration and redesign, we’re finally ready to kick off a new Irish Imbas: Celtic Mythology Short Story Competition next year (all dependent on completing Project Tobar first, of course). The plan is to launch the competition in September 2020. We’ll be commissioning illustrations for that at the start of next year. Until last month, I was convinced, we wouldn’t run another of these.

Beara 2 and Beara 3:
Probably the two most books I still get most emails about. These are sequels to Beara: Dark Legends and they will come. One day

The King With Horse’s Ears

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Irish Imbas: Celtic Mythology Collection 2018 is Out!

The third in our series of Celtic Mythology Collections – the Irish Imbas: Celtic Mythology Collection 2018 – is now available in hard copy through Amazon/Createspace HERE.

The digital version of the book is currently available for pre-order from Amazon HERE and will be formally released on 1 JUNE 2018.

This series, which we first started to publish three years ago, was our first attempt at distributing accurate cultural information on what’s generally referred to as ‘Celtic Mythology‘.

As well as a new introductory essay on the misinterpretation of Irish Mythology in ‘Commercial Fantasy’, this particular collection contains fours stories:

  • ‘Moireach’ by Donna Rutherford, which concerns the adventures of a young girl who’s convinced she’s a selkie (this is truly a funny and quite touching story).
  • ‘Homecoming’ by Damien J. Howard (also concerning a little girl ‘taken’ as a changeling); and
  • ‘The Shadow of the Crow’ by Jerry Vandal – the story of an avian intermediary between this world and the Otherworld.

The collection also includes one of my own short stories which concerns the infamous tale of of Labhraidh Loingseach – the fascinating individual on the cover.

Although this particular version is priced at 99c, the first two collections in the series remain free in digital form.

Apparently, I’m Getting Better

Apparently, I’m getting a bit better with this whole writing malarkey. Usually, my co-director/partner rolls her eyes when she gets asked to do the initial pre-final draft peer review. Today, she actually demanded the next chapter of LIATH LUACHRA: THE SWALLOWED,

Honestly! That is a good thing.

https://www.goodreads.com/book/show/38086182-liath-luachra—the-swallowed