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:
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
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 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.
Even in contemporary times, we continue to pass on mistakes and errors of record, particularly where it relates to Irish mythology. Sometimes however, these mistakes are quite entertaining in their own right.
One of my favourites is the famous ‘Tests of the Fianna’ – a set of difficult trials which ancient Irish warriors reportedly had to pass if they wished to enter Fionn mac Cumhaill’s famous ‘Fianna’ war band. This set of trails is most well known as a result of T. W. Rolleston’s book Myths and Legends of the Celtic Race (first published in 1911) but it’s highly likely he originally gleaned the reference from Seathrún Céitinn’s flawed ‘Foras Feasa ar Éirinn’ (completed in 1634). Rolleston couldn’t speak Irish so he anglicized ‘Fionn’ to ‘Finn’ and his ‘Tests of the Fianna’ goes as follows:
“In the time of Finn no one was ever permitted to be one of the Fianna of Erin unless he could pass through many severe tests of his worthiness. He must be versed in the Twelve Books of Poetry, and must himself be skilled to make verse in the rime and metre of the masters of Gaelic poesy. Then he was buried to his middle in the earth, and must, with a shield and a hazel stick, there defend himself against nine warriors casting spears at him, and if he were wounded he was not accepted. Then his hair was woven into braid; and he was chased through the forest by the Fianna. If he were overtaken, or if a braid of his hair were disturbed, or if a dry stick cracked under his foot, he was not accepted. He must be able to leap over a lath level with his brow, and to run at full speed under one level with his knee, and he must be able while running to draw out a thorn from his foot and never slacken speed. He must take no dowry with a wife.”
Generally speaking therefore, the ‘Test of the Fianna’ are usually summarised as follows:
Candidates for the Fianna must display competence in:
1. Jumping over a branch as tall as yourself
2. Running under a stick placed at the height of your knees
3. Plucking a thorn from your foot as you run at top speed (assuming you stuck one in there in the first place!)
4. Running through the forest without breaking one single twig under your foot, or tearing your clothes/hair braid on a bush
5. Learning 12 books of poetry off by heart (despite the fact that this was prehistory and there were no books in the country, not to mind the actual skill of literacy)
6. Standing in a hole up to your waist and defending against nine warriors, using only a shield and a hazel stick (because trench warfare was … er, a thing)
7. And er, …. taking no dowry with a wife.
To this day, many Irish people still refer to these tests and most have at least a passing familiarity with them. Although, if you think about it for a moment, the tests couldn’t possibly have any kind of veracity, people continue to pass them on because:
(a) they enjoy the concept; and
(b) they like lists.
I have to admit, the naive simplicity of the ‘Test for the Fianna’ has always appealed to me as well which is why it’s used in my own Fionn mac Cumhaill Series (although, to be fair, I take it all far less seriously).
Fionn mac Cumhaill is arguably the most important figure in Irish mythology, and he and his company – Na Fianna – are the subject of several thousand narratives collected in written and oral form across Ireland, Scotland and the Isle of Man (a collection known collectively as the Fenian Cycle).
Because of its wide-spread origins, the Fenian Cycle has no clearly defined beginning. Nevertheless, in the most well-known narratives, the saga commences with the death of Fionn’s father, Cumhal.
Over the course of many centuries, the stories of the Fianna (and how they were portrayed) changed in relation to the audience at whom the tales were targeted. In the earliest stories, Fionn was much more of a loner and a seer. In the later tales, as the stories spread to wider audiences, he has a number of intrepid warriors gathered around him in a similar manner to King Arthur, Robin Hood and other literary heroes who came to the fore in the late medieval period. For Fionn, these include his son, Oisín, an accomplished poet and fighter; his grandson Oscar, the most renowned warrior within the Fianna; Goll mac Morna; and Goll’s braggart brother Conán Maol. The group also includes the handsome warrior Diarmaid Ua Duibhne and Caoilte Mac Ronáin, a great warrior renowned for his running ability.
If you look at the history of how the Fianna are portrayed over time however, you soon see patterns which most people outside academia aren’t aware of. ‘Fianna’, for example, is the plural noun of ‘fian’, a Latin word that was adopted very early in Ireland. Originally, it meant “pursuing” or “hunting” but over time the meaning of the word changed to refer to a band of warriors, usually on a battle footing.
The historical literature also indicates that a ‘fian‘ was made up of warriors outside of the established tribal systems – landless men, or simply individuals out to avenge some private grievance. From the commentary of the time, you can tell that the Church wasn’t particularly fond of them, but they obviously held a far greater status than that of simple marauders (díberg). The little information that does exists suggests the fian weren’t a standing military force but one that came together for a common purpose on occasion. It’s unlikely they remained in the field as a cohesive unit for any lengthy periods of time.
Within the fian, each member was called a fénnid (or fénnid). The leader was called the rígfénnid (or rígfénnid). In the late medieval period, the term banfénnid was also introduced to describe female members of a fian but this was very much more for literary/storytelling reasons than historical ones.
In the early literature, the various fianna also appear to have taken their names from their leaders so, ‘fian Maicc Cais’, for example, would refer to the war-group of Maic Cais. Fionn mac Cumhaill’s group would have been called ‘fian Find’ or ‘fian Find ua Baoiscne’. ‘Find’ was the earliest form of the name ‘Fionn’. The latter didn’t actually develop until several centuries later.
As late as the tenth century, fian Find was just one of a bunch of different fianna in the surviving literature and Fionn was just one of the rigfénid mentioned. The Annals of Ulster, for example, has an entry for an individual by the name of Máelcíaráin Mac Rónáin who was said to have led a fian in engagements against the Norse. The Annals of Tighernach meanwhile, record the death of another rigfénid – Máelumai Mac Báitáin – charmingly known as “Garg the Fierce”.
What’s interesting is that, although there are numerous references to different fianna in the earlier manuscripts, from around the ninth century onwards the stories and literary references become increasingly dominated by Fian Find. By the twelfth century therefore (the period in which many of the oral stories were first collated and written down), all reference to other fianna has completely disappeared and their adventures subsumed into those of Fian Find. The original meaning of the word fian also appears to have been almost completely lost by that time, to the point that whenever people heard the term ‘fianna’, they automatically assumed it was in reference to that group of warriors headed by Fionn mac Cumhaill. Most Irish people still believe that to this day.
There’s something inherently fascinating about Fionn mac Cumhaill and the Fianna. The mythology surrounding them has survived in relatively intact form for more than a thousand years which, in itself, is quite astounding. Despite this, most of the stories that Irish people are familiar with tend to be versions which have been sanitized by the Church and colonial interests, often anglicized to a point of cultural irrelevancy. Nowadays, it’s very difficult for many people to tell the difference between a story derived from genuine elements of Gaelic (and earlier) culture and one derived from Walt Disney-like commercial interests (anyone who’s visited the not-so ‘cultural’ centre at The Giant’s Causeway will understand what I mean).
It was to counter this Disney-like portrayal of our native mythological characters that I first started republishing the original stories but, this time, from a far more culturally-authentic perspective. At present, because so much has been lost, very few Irish people are aware of key elements of their own cultural heritage. As a result, there is no way that we, as a distinct culture, can reclaim and retain that culture if we do not regain control of our own stories.
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!
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.
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.’
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.’
LIATH LUACHRA : THE PURSUIT
Depending on which side of the planet you’re on, the short story LIATH LUACHRA : THE PURSUIT is due for release tomorrow.
Or,… er, the day after.
This follows the adventures of the character best described as “The thinking woman’s warrior!”
Background Context: This was originally a 12th century tale from the manuscript ‘Acallam Na Senorach’ which concerns the two Fenian heroes Oisín (son of Fionn mac Cumhaill) and Caoilte mac Rónáin. Both warriors have returned to Ireland from the Otherworld Tír na nÓg (the Land of Youth) but many centuries have passed and their homeland has very much changed. The two warriors have split up to travel around the country and visit old sites they once knew. Caoilte is currently being hosted by the rí of Kinelconall (around modern day Wicklow) at his home in Dún na mBarc.
The Story of Berrach Brec
After they had eaten, Conall mac Neill gestured out to sea where a dark patch was just visible on the blue blade of the horizon. ‘You see the island out there?’ asked Conall. ‘Out on that island stands the ruins of an ancient fort. In those ruins there’s an enormous tomb whose origins have been lost to time.’
On hearing this, Caoilte looked towards the distant isle and surprised them all by starting to weep.
Conall approached him cautiously. ‘Caolite. You who are courageous and so skilled with a sword …’ He paused. ‘I beg that you and your companions accompany us to the island tomorrow to view it’.
‘By my word,’ said Caoilte. ‘That island is the third place in Ireland I do not wish to see for the memory of the noble people who once lived there.’ He sighed, a sigh so great it echoed down upon the distant strand. ‘But, yes. I will go with you tomorrow.’
Because of the great warrior’s melancholy mood, it was a subdued night in Conall’s dwelling. At dawn the next morning however, Conall, his wife and other members of the settlement had gathered eagerly to await his rising. Since his arrival, Caoilte’s tales and knowledge of times past had stimulated them, raised their spirits and explained much that was now unknown after the passing of so many centuries.
Day broke with a glowing sun, perfect visibility and a faint breeze. The waves were low and mild as three boatloads of people travelled across the glistening sea to the island which consisted of several forest-coated hills. Landing on a clear, white strand, they started uphill to the ruins of the small fortress which was located on the island’s highest point. There, within its cramped ruins, they found the enormous stone tomb that Conall has spoken of and which measured seven score feet in length and twenty-eight in width. Caoilte took a seat on the tomb and sat staring at the ground while the others gathered around. The bustle and chat of the crowd slowly dropped to a solemn hush as they looked about at the ancient, moss-coated stones.
‘By my soul, Caoilte,’ said Conall. ‘I have seen many tombs in my day but never one to match the marvel of this one. Can you tell us whose it is?’
The warrior did not speak for a time but when he did his voice was heavy with emotion. ‘I’ll tell you the truth of it, Conall. This is the tomb of the fourth best of all women who ever lay with a man back in the day.’
Conall paused, carefully choosing his words before posing his question. ‘And who were these four distinguished women?’
Caoilte closed his eyes as though struggling to recall but his answer, when it came, was clear and confident. ‘The first was Sabia, daughter of Conn Cétchathach (Conn of the Hundred Battles). The second was Eithne Ollamda, daughter of Cathaír Mór. The third was Cormac’s daughter Ailbhe, known as Ailbhe Gruaidbhres (Ailbhe of the feckled cheeks). The fourth – and the woman in this grave – was Berrach Brec, daughter’ of Cas Cuailgne, king of Ulster, and beloved wife of Fionn mac Cumhaill.
If any one of those four women had goodness in excess of the others, it was Berrach Brec. At her home, a guest could remain well hosted from the first day of Samhain-tide to the first of spring and had his choice to remain longer should he wish. If any man lacked arms or clothing, she ensured he received enough of both before he left.’
‘And what was the cause of her death?’ asked Conall.
Caoilte gave a sad laugh. ‘Love, of course.’ He grew quiet once more and it was some time before he spoke again.
‘Berrach Brec was raised by Goll mac Morna’s father and mother as their only fosterchild. On her eighteenth year, when she’d grown to a beautiful woman Fionn mac Cumaill begged her father for her hand. Because Fionn’s tribe – Clann Baoiscne – was a onetime enemy of Clann Morna, he agreed only on the condition that the tribal leader, Goll mac Morna, also gave his consent.
Fionn, passionate as ever, then approached his old adversary Goll and asked for the hand of his foster-sister. After much discussion, Goll finally agreed. “But there are three conditions,” he told the Clann Baoiscne warrior. “These are that you can never dismiss her as your wife; she will be your third wife and you will give her whatever she asks without refusal.”
“All of those conditions will be met,” Fionn answered him.
“And who shall you provide to Clann Morna as sureties?”
“I leave that choice to you,” said Fionn.
In the end, Fionn gave his own three foster-sons as sureties: Daighre, Garadh and Conán. Berrach Brec, for her part, was happy to go and live with Fionn and over the subsequent years she bore him three strong sons: Faelán. Aedh Beg and Uillenn Faebairdherg (Uillenn of the Red-Eye).
Fionn had her for a loving wife for many years until the peace between Clann Morna and Clann Baoiscne was broken. Clann Morna turned on Fionn and raised a war party that numbered three thousand warriors.’
At this point, Caoilte closed his eyes and uttered a quatrain in an ancient form of the language that was now no longer spoken:
Ten hundred and twenty hundred there
That was the bulk of proud Clann Morna’s rank and file
Over and above which chiefs and their chieftains
Who numbered fifteen hundred
‘The Clann Morna war party travelled to Daire Taebdha (Oakwood of the Bulls) in Connacht. There, three groups of Fionn’s warriors caught them by surprise, attacking at dawn before they’d arisen from their camp. In the oakwoods, we felled fifteen of the most battle-hardened and well-armed Morna warriors and would have felled more had Goll mac Morna, that experienced battler, not arranged to protect their rear. As they retreated, we were unable to inflict any further damage.
Infuriated by the defeat, Clann Morna decided then to slay anyone who was aligned or friendly with Fionn and his Fianna. Conán Maol (Bald Conán) was the one who gave this advice. Goll’s brother, Conán was a man whose mind knew no peace. A breeder of quarrels, he was a malicious mischief-maker in times of war or peace.
Making their way to this island and this fortress where Berrach Bec was staying, Clann Morna paused on one of the nearby green-grassed meadows to decide what to do with her. Berrach Bec was their foster-sister after all. After much argument and discussion, they decided to offer her a choice: to bring away all her possessions and valuables and leave Fionn. In that way, they reasoned, by returning to her foster kin, she’d never have to fear Clann Morna again.
When this message was conveyed to her, Berrach Bec appeared on the ramparts of the little fortress and cried out to them. “Would you truly injure me? Would you truly injure me, my own beloved foster brothers?”
“We would,” they answered.
“Then do your worst,” she countered. “By no means will I forsake my husband Fionn mac Cumhaill, my first family and gentle love.”
Angered by her response, the Clann Morna war party approached the fortress in battle formation and surrounded it, each man within touching distance of his neighbour. When it was completely encircled, they set it alight from every side.
The panic-stricken Berrach Bec somehow managed to flee the settlement with a number of her serving women. Slipping through the Clann Morna battle line, they made a break for the sea. Up on the rampart of the burning fortress however, Art mac Morna, spotted her hurrying towards a sailing ship on the long white strand. Slipping a finger into the thong of his javelin, the Clann Morna warrior raised it and cast at her.
Down on the strand, Berrach Bec heard the javelin’s whistle and, startled, glanced about to see what was causing it. The missile struck her full in her chest, cleaving straight through her breast to break her spine in two.’
Caoilte sighed. ‘And that is how she died.’
The warrior got to his feet and leaning against one of the moss-coated walls, he stared down at the impressive stone structure. ‘Afterwards, once this fortress had been plundered, her own people carried her up from the shore and laid her here. This then was the woman whose tomb this is. The loyal Berrach Bec.’
The first batch of hardcopies for Fionn: The Adversary arrived in this morning. Fifteen copies and they’re already gone, mostly committed to people who’ve helped with the production, editing, reviewing etc. I think I have a single copy left which is remaining here on the home shelf.
Even after all these years, there’s still a great thrill and satisfaction in seeing all your intellectual work captured and consolidated into physical form. Digital copies are fine but I still prefer the tactile experience of flipping pages and the tangible weight of a book in my hand when I’m reading.
Overall, I’m pretty pleased with the way the book has been received. Given the rush to complete it on time, I was growing too close to the final product by the last stage of edits and found it increasingly difficult to tell whether the story was working as I wanted (really need to work on those self-imposed deadlines!). In the end, I went with gut instinct and the advice of my test readers and editor and, fortunately, that seems to have worked. The reviews to date (on Goodreads – it seems to be getting increasingly harder to get reviews on Amazon) have been extremely positive so that’s a major relief.
Since the publication, I’ve done absolutely no creative writing and have been focussed mostly on editing the next Irish Imbas: Celtic Mythology Collection (due for release this week if everything comes together). The timing for this release has actually been seriously hampered by New Zealand Post losing our final edited version between the north and the south islands (despite having paid for tracking, they were unable to find it). Essentially, NZ Post has been run into the ground by the current New Zealand government over the last few years and can no longer be trusted for even the most basic of deliveries. We certainly won’t be using them again.
Apart from that our monthly newsletter will also be released later this week. I’ll be outlining my next writing projects in that and on this website in a future post.
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‘, ‘rí‘, 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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Within the Fenian Cycle, the character of Cumhal (Fionn mac Cumhaill’s father) is sometimes referred to with the interesting patronymic “mac Trénmóir” (or “mac Tréanmór” or in modern Irish) which, literally, means ‘Strong-Big’. This unlikely name is believed to originate from genealogists of the seventh century Leinster families who were keen to link the famous hero to their own ruling dynasties – even if they had to bend the truth to do so.
Apart from those original references, there’s no other mention of Tréanmór within the various historical narratives (which, given its invention, is hardly a surprise). That said, there is a hill called Comaghy Hill in County Monaghan which holds a large grave that’s fancifully claimed to be the spot where he was buried.
This lack of definition around a character who should play an important role in the Cycle (he is Fionn/Demne’s grandfather, after all) provides a lot of room for creative licence and I’ve taken full advantage of that, of course. Over the last twelve months I’ve had a lot of fun creating the character to fit in with the ongoing Fionn mac Cumhaill Series. As a result, for the next book in the series (The Adversary) Tréanmór plays a much larger role than in any other version of the Fenian Cycle in recent times (truth be told, I’ve yet to come across any literary use of the character in the last 100 years!).
Developing the Character of Tréanmór
When developing the character of Tréanmór I was keen to incorporate the world of 2nd century Ireland and link him to some of the issues associated with the tribal society that existed at the time (and which – amazingly – very little literature on Fionn mac Cumhaill refers to). In The Adversary therefore, Tréanmór holds the title of rí – chieftain – of Clann Baoiscne.
Back in the second century, a person’s tribe would not only have played a dominant part in that individual’s personal identity but in his/her entire social interaction as well. Dominant, shrewd, politically astute and completely ruthless, in this particular story, Tréanmór’s driving motivation is the expansion of the Clann Baoiscne tribal powerbase, an objective that’s often attained at the expense of friends and family members. For that reason, although he’s her father, Bodhmhall knows she cannot completely trust him and this becomes clear from the very first reference to him (when Demne – or Fionn – asks about the fortress of Dún Baoiscne:
‘Will we see my grandfather there?’
‘Tréanmór? Yes. As rí of Clann Baoiscne, he rules the stronghold.’
‘Is he nice?’
Bodhmhall blinked, taken aback by the simplicity of the question, the naive reduction of people to those who were ‘nice’ or ‘not nice’.
‘In some ways he is … nice. In other ways, he is not.’
The boy frowned at her. ‘Well,’ he persisted. ‘Do you think he’s nice?’
‘No,’ she admitted. She shook her head. ‘No, I don’t.’
And then of course there’s the little issue of the reason Bodhmhall was expelled from the fortress of Dún Baoiscne in the first place.
In this book, the character of Tréanmór tends to dominate many of the scenes, some of which involve dramatic verbal duelling between himself and Bodhmhall, who also has to contend with his ‘Whispers’ and his ‘Cúig Cairdre’ – his ‘Five Friends’. This has been a lot of fun to write.
This kind of creative licence is one of the things I most enjoy about writing with Irish mythology and lore. The original Fenian Cycle is strong enough and linear enough to provide the basis of the story but it’s also broad enough to allow immense creativity, even when the story needs to align with the historical realities of the period. It really doesn’t get better than that!
The Adversary is expected to be available at the end of February 2017.
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It’s all been a bit quiet on the communication front from my end as there’s been a lot of changes going behind the scenes with the Irish Imbas Books website at the moment. Anyway, here’s the update since March 2015.
The Fionn Series:
For once, I actually seem to be holding to schedule (on some books at least). I’m on the last chapter of Liath Luachra – The Grey One which is on track for release in Oct/Nov 2015. I’ve been spread pretty thin these last six months so I haven’t completed any further progress on Fionn 3: The Adversary but I’m still looking to release that later this year – probably in December now, given the delays.
Still only three chapters in. Given the complexity of the storylines, I am seriously going to have to commit to taking a large segment of time aside to make a further dent in this. Because of family and other commitments, I’m not really free to do that yet.
Fionn: The Stalking Silence – Audiobook
I had great plans for an audiobook and although providing information and books through audio is something I’m keen to do, this has now been postponed until late next year. Too many other pieces of work to finish first.
Yes, I know. Considering all the whinging above, you’re absolutely right. Whys the hell am I even looking at producing yet another book?
The truth is, I was going through my files the other day and came across some old short stories I’d put to one side at least seven years ago. Two were relatively decent drafts which don’t require too much work to finalise. A third is a longer and more complex story that I wrote more than ten years ago but which I was never able to finish in a way that satisfied me. Last year, I finally developed an ending that works (yes, it’s been mulling around in my head that long) so I’ve decided to make this into a minor collection of stories – a bit like Leannan Sidhe – the Irish Muse. All three stories are set in Kinsale – a coastal town in Cork – so I’m probably going to call make it a specific Kinsale-themed book. I’m having a cover drawn up at the moment under the title ‘Sleepwalking at Altitude.’ This probably won’t be available until mid- to late next year.
The Non-Fiction Book: Project ‘Tobar’
I first mentioned this book back in March and explained that its something I’ve been wanting to write for several years. Aaaaaaanyway, I’ve finally decided to get off my butt and do it. I now have the structure I need to use pretty much sorted out so I’m hoping to get the bulk of this out of me and into draft form by Jan/Feb next year. Given the title ‘Tobar’ (the Irish word for ‘well’ – as in a source of water), you may be able to work out what it’s going to be about but I’m only going to offer vague hints for the next wee while at least. I think it’ll be mid next year before this is available and given that it isn’t really something that will work well as an ebook, I’m looking at different options for publication. Possibly, I might just distribute this in some form from my own site. Speaking of which …
Selling Directly from the Irish Imbas Books Website:
In a week or so, I’m hoping to be able to sell some books direct from this site. This, essentially, allows me to get around the whole DRM issue (which for those of you who don’t know what ‘DRM’ means, stands for ‘Digital Right Management’ ). DRM essentially establishes monopolies for large companies. In a practical sense, it means that if you download a file for Kindle e-readers, you can’t use it on another e-reader such as Apple or Kobo etc. (and vis-versa). This essentially locks readers into a particular device and prevents sharing of files. By selling them on my site, I can make works available in different formats so that nobody is locked out. More importantly, it means I have more control over my own work and I can actually make new work available on the website that isn’t available elsewhere.
Cover, covers covers:
I went a bit mad on covers this year and produced, or commissioned quite a few different ones. To my surprise, the one I liked most was one that my designer Marija sent to me out of the blue yesterday. Basically, she went off and rejigged the covers for the Fionn series and sent me a number of associated wallpapers – all of which are stunning (I’ll probably make those available on the website for anyone who wants one when I actually work out how to do that).
I really love Marija’s work and have also commissioned her to do the ‘Sleepwalking at Altitude’ cover. I’ve added the new look of Fionn: Defence of Ráth Bládhma in this post. What do you think?
Finally learning how to do these. I feel a bit guilty as these were supposed to start going out earlier this year. At the moment, I’m assuming they’ll be quarterly only, have a section on folklore, news from me and some pieces of what I’m working on so people can add feedback or comment if they want to.
Righto! That’s all for me. I’m off for a beer!
Some months ago I mentioned that I was writing a prequel to the Fionn mac Cumhaill series entitled Liath Luachra – The Friendly Ones. The latter part of that title referred to the mercenary group Na Cinéaltaí (The Friendly Ones) originally mentioned in FIONN: Defence of Ráth Bládhma and to which the character Liath Luachra had at one point belonged. After some feedback from various people, the title name was changed to Liath Luachra – The Grey One and the final cover completed (at last!).
Some of you will have recognised An Grianàn Ailigh (the Grianán of Aileach) there in the background. An ancient stone structure up in Donegal that’s believed to date back to around 1700 B.C., I passed it by on my way to visit the ever-amazing Mel and Ruairidh last year. For the purpose of the the story, I actually transferred the Grianàn south and east to northern Leinster. It’s a pretty amazing place with spectacular views that I’ll write about again at some stage.
This particular book basically came about about as I was keen to explore some research I’d carried out on tribal dynamics and on the use of fian (the original word for a ‘war party’ but also the word that later became ‘fianna’) in pre-fifth century Ireland. I was also keen to provide some additional background context to the character of Liath Luachra in the Fionn mac Cumhaill series.
The book currently has it’s own page on this site and although it won’t be released until September/ October this year, I will be putting a sample chapter up in the next two weeks or so.
The back cover blurb reads as follows:
Liath Luachra – The Grey One
Ireland 188 A.D. A land of tribal affiliations, secret alliances and treacherous rivalries.
Youthful woman warrior Liath Luachra has survived two brutal years with mercenary war party “The Friendly Ones” but now the winds are shifting.
Dispatched on a murderous errand where nothing is as it seems, she must survive a group of treacherous comrades, the unwanted advances of her battle leader and a personal history that might be her own undoing.
Clanless and friendless, she can count on nothing but her wits, her fighting skills and her natural ferocity to see her through.
Woman warrior, survivor, killer and future guardian to Irish hero Fionn mac Cumhail – this is her story.
To be honest, it always feels a bit weird doing the whole back cover blurb thing. Obviously, you want to give people some idea what the book’s about and try to make it sound interesting (with a limited number of words). At the same time though, it’s hard not to find yourself falling into cliché. To my ear, the blurb often rings wincingly melodramatic at times. I guess this was as good as I could make it without taking it all WAAAYY too seriously.
Hope you enjoy!
Given that most of what I write has a strong Irish element to it, people are often surprised to learn that I’ve been based in New Zealand for years, particularly given my strong views on cultural authenticity and respect for historical accuracy. To be honest, that’s not really a problem these days due to the broad connectivity of the internet and my own frequent trips back home to ‘draw from the well’.
One of the things I do have to keep in mind when I’m writing however, is the Irish landscape. This is a very important characteristic – and sometimes a very dominant one – in many of my stories. Beara, for example, has a particularly characteristic landscape that you’ll never find beyond West Cork and thus forms a critical part of the overall Beara Trilogy narrative.
Because of its history and location, Ireland has been quite “tamed” or “domesticated”. The land has been occupied and has had its topography altered and managed by human activity for over thousands of years. New Zealand, however, with its much more ‘recent’ history, remains a very ‘physical’ country with a dramatic landscape that’s very different from home.
Because my local landscape is so impressive, I’ve sometimes struggled to prevent myself from incorporating the drama of those landscapes into my own stories. One of those areas where the New Zealand landscape has been really useful however is in the Fionn series. In that set of stories, the narrative is based in a time period when Ireland was completely different from what we know today; very sparsely populated, covered in dense forest and teeming with wildlife. Hence the characters referring to it as ‘The Great Wild.
Although from a botanical perspective, there’s very little commonality between the Great Wild and the New Zealand forests, I’ve found my tramps through the latter extremely useful when trying to imagine the Great Wild from a social/historical and survival perspective. In this respect, both are very similar; vast, impenetrable in parts and potentially dangerous for the unwary or the unprepared.
Two weeks ago, I was visiting a South Island forest with friends, following the course of a tannin-drenched river (which gives the water the colour of diluted blood) to some local stone archways. Even at the time, I was struck by the creative potential of what at I was seeing – in terms of the “Great Wild” and ended up taking hundreds of shots for later inspiration.
Much of the third Fionn book takes place over the course of a violent pursuit along the forested banks of a waterway in a constricted river valley so, from that perspective alone, the visit was very opportune. In any case, I thought I’d add these in here so you could see what’s going through my mind at the moment. At some stage, when I get time to draw breath I’ll put up a pin board of images so people can see this story development more easily.