Locations for Fionn mac Cumhaill

For a core narrative that some people reckon at almost a thousand years old, the Fenian Cycle is remarkably consistent with respect to some of the key locations mentioned in the narratives.

The original stories of Fionn mac Cumhaill are actually believed to originate from Leinster, hence the accumulation of story locations to the east. As the character’s popularity increased however, professional storytellers from other parts of the country started to adapt the stories to include nearby features for the local audience. 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 I based the Fionn mac Cumhaill Series, retains those very strong links to Leinster and, hence most of the action in the novels take place there. I’ve had two or three people ask for a map to give some idea of the key locations from the Fenian Cycle to provide some kind of sense of where the various incidents take place. These are as follows:

 

  • Fiodh Gaibhle (Feegalva in County Monaghan): In the Fenian Cycle narrative, this is where the warrior Fiacail mac Codhna rescues the young Fionn from the “craftsmen” mentioned in the Macgnímartha Finn (the Brotherhood of Gifted Ones in Traitor of Dún Baoiscne). I never actually mention the name of the site in the book as the setting’s always struck me as a bit too far north to fit logically with the mythological narrrative. The name Fiodh Gaibhle actually means “Gabul’s Wood” but I don’t think anyone knows who Gabul was.
  • 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 apt area of wilderness contiguous to the areas in Leinster which would have been most populated back in the Iron Age. It would have been a logical place to set someone who’s 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).
  • 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 (the fortress of Clann Baoiscne). To be fair, if there had been a Clann Baoiscne and they had a fortress, this is probably what it would have been called.

[Note: I’d like to thank Agnes Conway Davey for assistance with the map image ]

The Challenge of Cultural Integrity in Writing

When I first started writing the Fionn mac Cumhaill Series over two years ago, I was keen to create a realistic, culturally authentic version of the famous Fenian Cycle that was recognisable to Irish readers but also accessible to non-Irish readers. As part of my overall goal with Irish Imbas Books however, I was also keen to use the series as a way of reintroducing lost Gaelic/Irish concepts (that is words, expressions and – more importantly – ways of thinking) that have been lost from common parlance as a result of colonization but which still have significance at a societal level.

This is why throughout the series, you’ll find a constant smattering of words like ‘fian‘, , draoi, ráth, and some others, words that by themselves mean little, but which in the context of Irish/Gaelic culture have a major resonance.

The word ‘Fianna‘ is a classic example of how much was lost. This word – the basis for the contemporary word ‘Fenian’ – is believed by most people (including many Irish people who’ve never been taught any better) to be the name of Fionn mac Cumhaill’s war band. In fact, ‘Fianna’ was simply nothing more than the plural of the ‘fian‘ (which meant ‘war party’). This means that Fionn’s fian was one of a number of such war parties and that they were a recognised dynamic in the society of the time. It’s a little thing, but when you take the downstream consequences of that new knowledge into account you can see how it changes the interpretation of the story.

Trying to balance those competing goals (the requirements of cultural integrity and the requirement to deliver an accessible and enjoyable story to an international audience) can actually be quite a challenge at times. The truth is that any decision you make with one can have a huge consequence with the other.

One of my earliest decisions, for example, was to retain the original Gaelic spelling for the character names (Fionn, Liath Luachra, Bodhmhall, Fiacail etc.) and place names (Seiscenn Uarbhaoil etc.). This demonstration of cultural accuracy – naturally – clashed bigtime with the accessibility goal. For non-Gaelic speakers, Irish names can be the equivalent of having a broken stick in your mouth – whatever comes out is going to come out mangled! Anyone used to thinking in English – understandably – struggles with the unfamiliar combination of vowels and consonants.

Naturally, the advice I received from everyone was to use an anglicization of the names to make the reader more comfortable. After all, that’s why in the early days Fionn mac Cumhaill’s name was anglicized to the meaningless ‘Finn Mac Cool’. Sure, the latter is easier to say for an English speaker but the English name doesn’t carry the strong cultural associations of the Irish one (Fionn means ‘fair-headed’ but also has related connotations of ‘insightfulness’ etc.). ‘Finn’ is a meaningless term that includes no such depth or resonance (and, here, I’ll have to apologise in advance to those parents who’ve gone and named their kids, Finn!).

If you’ve read any of the Fionn mac Cumhaill Series books, you’ll already know I went with my heart rather than my head on this particular issue (although I did soften the challenge for readers by providing an audio pronunciation guide). In some respects that actually seems to have paid off in that readers predominantly respect what I’m trying to achieve and have demonstrated immense patience and willingness to overcome the temporary pronunciation challenge. At the end of the day, I guess what my experience has really demonstrated is that if you produce something that’s good enough/intriguing enough/interesting enough for people to enjoy, they’ll put up with your whims and even support you.

As an aside, here’s a question I once held up at Irish cultural/heritage class I was running:
How would you pronounce the following?

  • Zach Galifianakis
  • Michelle Pfieffer
  • Arnold Schwarzenegger
  • Nikolaj Coster-Waldau
  • Chiwetel Ejiofor

Everyone in that group of attendees (about 18) was able to pronounce at least four of those names and where they couldn’t they knew exactly what that person had achieved as part of their creative career.

Basically, culture is not a barrier to success unless you let it be.
And, seriously! If an English speaker can manage to pronounce Schwarzenegger, Fionn is never going to be a problem.

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Update on Forthcoming Productions: Irish Imbas Books

It’s always difficult writing these particular updates. I sometimes feel a bit like a minute cork on the ocean, floating around at the whim of waves and tides that can change direction at a moment’s notice (and generally drag me along with them). As a result, despite the best of intentions laid out here, circumstances can often force us to amend the programme.

The Celtic Mythology Collection:
Keep an eye out as this book will be released in digital form at some stage over the next 2-3 weeks. The initial book will probably be available here and then in the other major ebookstores. Its an anthology of Celtic Mythology short stories but with a difference in that each of the five stories is accompanied with a cultural context explaining where the mythological concept originates. Its essentially our first book that attempts to balance and counteract all the misinformation about Celtic mythology that’s out there on the internet these days.

Fionn 3: The Adversary: I had hoped to finish an initial draft of this over the Christmas holidays but unfortunately, given the fact that we actually took a real holiday, I’m still only on Chapter 8. Because of all the work going on with the Celtic Mythology Collection at the moment, completion of this particular book looks like it will be delayed by 3-4 months and won’t be out until mid-2016. Once completed, I’m going to lay the Fionn mac Cumhaill Series aside for the rest of the year to focus on other projects. I love writing the series and it allows me to research a number of historical concepts I wouldn’t otherwise get to but I just need a short break from it to keep it fresh. In the meantime, here’s an alternative picture of the cover for this particular book. We didn’t go for it in the end as it was a bit “too fantasy” for what we wanted.

The Adversary small

Project Tobar: This is a non-named, non-fiction book related to Irish culture that I’m hoping to release later this year. It’s based on about ten years of thinking and observation and although I haven’t written a word yet I have quiet a lot of unpublished work which will make up most of the content. Later this year, I’ll be taking a weekend away by myself to scope it out and design the final structure. I won’t give a date at this stage but we’re relatively confident of releasing it later this year. Expect a more detailed outline and a final title in about 3-4 months.

Beara 2: Cry of the Banshee
I’ve been dying to get back to Beara for a while as various ideas and scenes have been fermenting at the back of my head, repressed while I work on other projects. We won’t get this published this year but I do want to get a substantial part of it written by next Christmas. There is a bit of research I need to do back in Ireland for this so that’s a good excuse to go home!

Short Stories
I’ve been writing short stories less and less as the larger projects tend to take up most of my creative energy and there’s only so many plots you can hold together in your head at one time. I have a book of short stories in process (The Kinsale Trilogy) of which two are almost complete but one (the longest remains to be written). This will remain on the ‘to be completed’ pile for a while. I also have a new short story for the 1916 celebrations (The Fenian) which I would love to finish before Easter. I suspect I’ll have to lock myself away for another weekend to find the time to do this. Alternatively, I suppose, I could lock the family downstairs in the office. Hmmmm.

Project Nua: This is an intellectually based tool that I’m hoping to convert into something that be used in a much more practical sense. I’m still mulling around how to do this effectively and I’ve decided to hold off and use the learnings from ‘The Celtic Mythology Collection’ and ‘Project Tobar’ before I do so. There’s a lot of subconscious thought going into this (pre-sleep analysis and post-waking reflection) but until I manage to formulate an approach I think will work, this remains to one side.

Audiobooks
We’re currently in the process of cleaning up two short stories (The Morning After and Sleepwalking in Irish). Both of these will be available on this site in a month or so. The next audiobook will probably be ‘The Irish Muse’ and, if a suitable narrator is identified, Defence of Ráth Bládhma.