What Ireland Looks Like as a Woman

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Like many other Western countries, poets, politicians and artists in Ireland also fell into the trap of trying to personify their nation, that is, trying to characterise the concept of the country as a person, usually a beautiful young woman.

Such personifications are mostly restricted to the western world and were most popular in the late 19th and early 20th century. Usually, they tended to be used by governments in times of upheaval to ‘bolster’ the population when that nation was at risk (or portrayed to be at risk) from other influences. This is why most of the personifications are actually quite militaristic in their visual manifestations (they were often modelled on female war goddesses). If you look closely at the classic examples such as Britannia (England), Germania, (Germany) Marianne (France) and so on you’ll see they all carry weapons.

In Ireland, things were slightly different in that our first national personifications were usually a helpless young woman of great beauty (or an old woman) beset by oppressors. This is probably because they were created from a subjugated society as opposed to an oppressive (and foreign) government. Certainly, they were all intended for propaganda purposes but at least the independent earlier creations had (slightly) more depth than those military representations used by the latter.

The personification of Ireland as a nation originally started with the Aisling (Dream) poetry genre produced by Gaelic poets such as Aodhagán Ó Rathaille and Eoghan Rua Ó Súilleabháin from the mid-to late- 1600s right up to the late-1700s. In these poems, Ireland is represented as a young woman/old woman (generally referred to as ‘spéirbhean’) who lament the excruciating existence of the Irish people and prophesises the imminent coming of heroes to save thsem. They were very much political poems, of course. By the mid-1600s, most of Ireland was pretty much under the military yoke of the English Crown and the Penal Laws (forbidding many basic Gaelic cultural expressions) had been introduced. This, then, was the Gaelic poets’ attempt at rallying the people and giving them hope against the invaders.

Unfortunately, of course, the heroes never came. All elements of Irish military resistance were overcome, the English Crown secured complete control of the country and over the next four hundred years the Gaelic language and culture was substantially eroded.

As with all oppressive regimes, however, rebellion and nationalised sentiment fermented and arose once more, particularly towards the start of the early 20th century. By then, of course, Gaelic culture had been largely eradicated but in an effort to revive some of the old traditions, the Aisling poems were brought out and dusted off. The original 16th century Irish spéirbhean was updated and reframed into more contemporary versions such as Róisín Dubh (by the likes of James Mangan and Pádraig Pearse) or Cathleen Ní Houlihan (by WB Yeats and lady Gregory) in 1902. Ironically, the English Punch magazine introduced their own version (called Hibernia) around this point but it never really took off back home.

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Following the Easter 1916 rebellion and the War of Independence, the Anglo-Irish treaty was signed. Keen to have its own national personification to show how unique and different this new country was, the Irish Free State government immediately mimicked other countries by inviting an artist (Lavery) to create one for the new Irish banknotes.

John Lavery was something of an anomaly and an interesting choice for creating the national personification picture. A Catholic-born painter (from Belfast), he’d been offered the post of official artist for the British Government during the First World war and later awarded a knighthood. Lavery was a rare individual in that he was equally at home in both the English/Protestant and Irish/Catholic/nationalist camps. With a foot in both, he must also have been one of the few people of his time to be made a free man of both Dublin and Belfast.

Lavery used his wife (Chicago-born, Hazel Martyn – also known as Lady Lavery because of her husband’s title) as the model and its her likeness on the personification of Ireland that’s probably the most well known today. This likeness was reproduced on Irish banknotes from between 1928 until the 1970s but when these were superseded, it continued to be used as a watermark on some notes until the euro was introduced in 2002.

In conclusion therefore, the personification of Ireland is a painting of an American woman created by a Belfast-born Catholic and based on a 20th century regurgitation of a 16th century Gaelic poetry concept.
In an odd way, that seems to quite accurately summarise where Ireland is today

The Moving Statues and Me

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When people talk of 1985 in Ireland, a lot of them mention how awful the weather was that summer. Oddly enough, for me it was one of the brightest and sunniest summers I can recall. It’s all down to perspective, of course. In the summer of 1985, I was in Kinsale, a beautiful seaside town/ tourist centre on the Cork coast. Having completed my university exams (successfully, for once!), I’d been unable to find work (Ireland was in mid-recession at the time) and a result, I was living on my Dad’s boat on Kinsale marina. I had a whole summer of sailing, drinking and partying ahead of me and I was blissfully unaware of the storm blowing in from about five miles off to the south west, a storm that was about to set the country alight.

The story of the moving statues started in Ballinspittle one evening in July. I have memories of meeting a French girl I really liked so around that time so I was desperately preoccupied trying to win her affections. Over in Ballinspittle however, two local girls had just told their parents they’d seen a roadside statue of the Virgin Mary move while they were praying. Most people who’ve been to Ireland will be familiar with these roadside grottos and their statues of the Virgin Mary. There are hundreds of these statues dotting the country in all sorts of places as a result of the religious fervor during the Marian Year in the 1950s.

By late July, the French girl was well gone, continuing her tourist trip around Ireland. I consoled myself by sailing with my family at the Schull and Baltimore regattas and then returning to skim around Kinsale harbour on my Lazer (a very fast and fun one-man sailing dinghy). Most nights, I’d end up drinking at a friend’s house (or at my cousins) as I rarely had enough money to actually get to a pub. By then, people were already talking about the “Ballinspittle Miracle” and the small groups of four or five congregating around the grotto. By the time I got back from Schull a week or two later, the Cork Examiner was reporting on the matter at length. The one thing that really indicated how serious things were getting however, was the sudden and startling presence of a double decker bus on the tiny streets of Kinsale as it brought the faithful down from Cork city to see the miracle.

Looking back now, in many respects it seems strange that nobody really took notice or reacted to the event for such a long time. I guess, the truth is that most of us kind of took it for granted. Miracles weren’t exactly unheard of. In Ireland, we’d always been raised with tales of the miracle up at the Knock shrine in Mayo. My parents – and most of my friends’ parents – had visited Lourdes or Fatima at least once to see the miracle sites there. I don’t think my friends were ‘believers’ by any stretch of the imagination but our generation had been raised to adhere to the beliefs of those that preceded us. The interesting thing was that although we accepted their religious beliefs, we were never truly confronted with them (not, really). They were our parents’ “thing”, not ours and we were fortunate in that we had sufficient freedom that they didn’t really touch us as much.

In August, the country started to get a bit crazy when a Marian statue was reported moving at the grotto in Mount Melleray (County Waterford). The papers picked up the story and connected it with Ballinspittle and almost immediately, competing Marian statues started shifting at thirty other grottos around the country. Everybody was now talking about it – mockingly or fervently – and it was becoming a phenomenon that could no longer be ignored. A tangible religious fervor was picking up amongst the more fanatical believers although the developing sceptics movement was just as strong. Thousands of people had started to gather at Ballinspittle every Sunday, although it has to be said that not all of them were believers. A large proportion were going out of sheer curiosity, for the craic, or simply to take the piss (something not unheard of in Ireland).

Even at the time, feckless youth that I was, I remember being surprised that the Catholic Church were so silent on the whole matter, refusing to be drawn on whether this was a genuine miracle or not. Fortunately, I’d discovered the joys of sex by then. That and the sheer physical pleasure of skimming across the waves in the Kinsale’s outer harbour held much more appeal than discussing the theological strangeness of moving statues although the subject seemed impossible to ignore. At this stage, reports of moving statues were on the television every night and public opinion seemed to be polarised predominantly along the lines of:

  • Yes, this is some kind of supernatural event and God is sending us a message (we’re just not exactly sure what it is)
  • No, it’s all an illusion driven by religious hysteria

Keen to get in on the action, a group of scientists from University College Cork (the Psychology Department) declared that the visions were either optical illusions caused by staring at static objects too hard in the evening light or a general psychological and sociological reaction to the recession, the crippling unemployment, the wet summer (WTF? It’s raining?!). Given the fact that I was actually studying Science at University College Cork, I was immediately skeptical, although for no particularly strong reason. I ‘knew’ many of the scientific ‘experts’ (albeit more for their personal foibles than for their professional competence and when you know people in one light it’s hard to accept them in another). To be honest, I suppose that even back then I was something of a cynic. Personal experience with both groups meant that I distrusted the religious ‘experts’ just as much as I distrusted the scientific ‘experts’.

In September, the situation took a sharp turn off Bizzare Street to career precariously down Wierdo Avenue. Up in Culleens (County Sligo), another moving statue had been spotted and strange things had started to appear in the sky. People were reporting ‘red balls of fire’ and ‘lights descending from the sky’ and for a moment, attention switched away from Ballinspittle. One night, watching the Late Late Show, I saw an interview with some local boy talking wide-eyed about ‘angels in the sky’ (the actual interview can still be found here: http://oldportal.euscreen.eu/play.jsp?id=EUS_F2B237A5C9B1497786593EBDF0F4B31F).

Even then, I felt things were balancing precariously on the hysterical. Despite this, another two or three weeks passed without major event. Life went on. Leaving the freedom of Kinsale behind, I returned to University for another gruelling year of study and socialising. The weather grew colder, it rained more often. Slowly, but surely, the statues started to reclaim their immobile pedestals. Despite the transfer of attention to Sligo and the subsequent ‘statue fatigue’, crowds of people (markedly smaller) kept flocking to Ballinspittle but it was clear the party was drawing to a close.

On Halloween (October 31st), it all flared back to life again when the Ballinspittle statue was attacked by three men wielding axes and hammers. Destroyed in front of a number of praying onlookers, the men (led by a man called Robert Draper) were arrested by Gardaí and the ensuing court case filled the headlines for weeks. The three men were some opposing religious group who disbelieved in praying to false idols. Like all fanatics, rather than protesting or getting their own message across though peaceful means, they’d taken it upon themselves to ensure nobody else could pray to them either. Despite boasting publically of what they’d done, the men were never sentenced. This caused immense resentment but the response was remarkably restrained (apart from a number of broken windows at Draper’s home). Apparently, buoyed by success, Draper went on a roll smashing other statues and ended up doing six months in prison in 1987. Whatever you believe however, following the Draper attack, I’ve not heard of the Ballinspittle statue ever moving again. Things went all quiet and the resulting silence was ear-splitting.

Thirty years have passed since the whole Moving Statues event and yet, despite all the weirdness, the thing I find most striking is the total silence surrounding the topic since 1985. In some respects, it’s as though it never happened. Loathe to be ridiculed, few people are willing to discuss the subject (although there have been one or two small documentaries where the original witnesses were sticking strongly to their stories). To be honest, to this day, I still don’t completely understand the madness that overtook the country.

A few years ago, when I was back home I finally went down to the grotto in Ballinspittle. Ironically, despite everything (and the fact that I was living just a few miles up the road) I’d never actually got around to visiting the site of all the action. On two separate occasions, I’d actually been invited to join a group of friends going over to the statue for a ‘squizz’ but on both, I’d declined. The first time, because I was still chasing the French girl, the second because of more ‘generic’ party reasons. I’ve never really regretted either decision.

It was early morning when I got there. I’d driven over from Kinsale where I’d spent the night revisiting some old friends and some old haunts and I was in a melancholic state of mind. Conscious of the fact that my plane back to New Zealand was in two days time, I was feeling ‘homesick’ although in hindsight, I think it was a homesickness for my youth and the freedom I’d enjoyed in Kinsale rather than for my country.

The grotto is actually a pretty place that reminds me of my childhood, with its white balustrade and blue concrete letters reading “The Immaculate Conception”. The new statue has small electric bulbs around its head in the form of a halo. Because it was so early, there was no-one else around although I’m not sure if people still come here anymore. Before I hopped into the car to drive back to Cork, I looked up at the statue one last time, waved and shouted goodbye.

But it didn’t move.

Magic Roads in Ireland

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The Magic Hill up in Louth (or ‘The Angel’s Highway’ as it’s sometimes called) is one of a number of magic roads in Ireland where, if you park at the ‘bottom’ of the hill, turn of the engine and shift it out of gear, your car will actually run back uphill.

Magic roads are, in fact, what are sometimes referred to as ‘gravity roads’ (that’s an area where the landscape creates an optical illusion so that a downhill slope actually looks like an uphill slope). There are actually quite a number of such places around the world (and there’s a least three of them in Ireland that I’m aware of). Most have their own folklore associated with them although most of that lore is usually derived after the invention of the motorcar.

When my Dad took us on our very memorable trip to Dundalk (county Louth, we went to see the magic road there and there’s an amusing summary of it here on youtube: http://talkofthetown.ie/2014/02/25/the-real-magic-hill/

It’s hardly deep, intellectual folklore but it’s great craic!!

Tiring of the Heart

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Tuirse croí – literally, ‘tiring of the heart’ – is a wearing down of the spirit or the soul or whatever you want to call it. It’s not really a state that’s easy to define or classify as it changes all the time, depending on circumstances, and tends to be driven by the intangibles in our lives (pressure to succeed, familial expectations, societal expectations etc.).

In some ways, it’s similar to another term ‘lagar spride’ (literally ‘weakness of the spirit’) which is the official translation for the English word ‘depression’. Both terms absolutely suck.

Lagar spride uses the word ‘weakness’ which is hardly positive or supportive. The English word – depression – is more of a clinical term which has been incorporated into everyday speech and gives the impression of a ‘drop’ in ‘spirits’ that needs to be remedied.

In my limited experience, tuirse croí is brought on through a gradual erosion of a person’s self-confidence by events or circumstances outside of that person’s control. In that respect, the Irish language concept is so much better than the English one because in Irish you’d say tuirse croí orm / tuirse croí air (I have tuirse croí on me/ he has tuirse croí on him). This really incorporates the understanding that it’s a transitory thing that’s ‘on you’, not a specific state of being.

In modern society, tuirse croí seems increasingly because, I suspect, as individuals we’re exposed to more intangible pressures than at any other time in the history of humankind (through the constant pressure of connection with mobile phones, saturation by social media, marketing etc.). I’m certainly no expert in these matters but I can’t help thinking that the Irish approach to understanding these pressures and issues would be so much better than what exists in the English-speaking world at present.

And, no – before you ask – fortunately, níl tuirse croí orm.

(Irish Folklore) The Mystery of Bog Butter

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Bog butter has always fascinated me, probably because I love those topics where there’s an element of mystery or no definitive answer. That’s probably not a particularly appropriate thing to say for someone with scientific training but, then again, there are some limitations with the scientific approach. Besides, science has never been about the confirmation of absolutes so much as the reduction of uncertainty.

For those of you who don’t know what bog butter is, it’s a kind of wax-like organic material often discovered around Ireland (mostly in peat bogs) although there have also been several finds in Great Britain as well. Generally, it looks like a giant lump of lard (see picture) and it’s often sealed in wooden churns/pots, although that varies a lot as well.

Much of the academic theory about ‘bog butter’ relates to it being an ancient preservation method for food or alternatively a food processing method to make a food taste differently (the early age equivalent of cuisine flavouring).

Both of these theories hold water. It’s certainly reasonable to assume that our ancestors would try to preserve surplus butter produced over the dairy production periods. There are however, a number of elements that tend to be forgotten.

  • ‘Bog butter’ has actually been around for millennia. The Museum of Scotland has ‘bog butter’ dated as 2000 years old. More recently in Ireland (2011), the largest recorded volume of the material (about 45 kg) ever discovered was found in Tullamore. This is believed to be more than 3000 years old.
  • It’s not actually butter. Tests on some of the waxy material also indicates the presence of adipose or tallow (i.e. they would have been meat-based)
  • There’s a hell of a lot of it – relatively speaking. People have been ‘discovering’ bog butter remnants for many centuries. Back in the day it was apparently found often enough that there’s one report of it being sold at a market fair to grease wheels.

Most of the more recent folklore around ‘bog butter’ supports the theory that they’re the result of dairy preservation. At the same time, folklore contains many references to ‘magical’ qualities of butter and various stories about how lumps of butter were thrown into loughs and waterways to wash sick cattle and return them to health. One of the problems with folklore though, is that it’s often developed around things that people don’t understand in an effort to make sense of them or to rationalise them. That’s particularly the case where ancient cultural practices have been forgotten and only the physical remnants remain. Generally, people try to explain such mysteries based on their own experience and thus their interpretation can’t always be trusted.

Back in the day, dairy and other agricultural products were clearly perceived as items of great value. It would have taken a lot of resource and effort to produce them and, correspondingly, their use would have involved elements of respect and, probably, ritual. This is why we have the large quantity of folklore stories which illustrate those aspects.

Theories about the other deposits (e.g. gold and other valuable items found in bogs and waterways) have, however, changed over time. Experts are now inclined to believe that these objects were purposely deposited as an offering to appease a land deity rather than being hidden or buried for later use (and then lost or forgotten). Given the value of agricultural products, it’s very likely that these were also intentionally  deposited. Given the fact that ancient Ireland was very much an agricultural-based society, that would also explain why ‘bog butter’ is found in such large quantities.

Needless to say, this is all still speculation. The truth is we’re not certain and with the various theories we’re essentially making educated guesses. Another truth is that we’ll probably never know for sure, that it’ll always be something of a mystery unless some new piece of conclusive evidence comes along.

Despite the scientist in me, I suppose I’m fine with either version.

The Hill of Tara, British Israelites and ISIS

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I’m currently in the process of writing a section in the third book of the Fionn mac Cumhal series (The Adversary) which deals with a Neolithic passage grave and I thought I’d share two photos from a research trip I did back home about two years ago.  These show what is probably the most famous of Irish passage grave outside of those found at Brú na Bóinne (Newgrange) – that is, Dumha na nGiall (in English, the Mound of the Hostages) at Tara.

This particular passage grave is estimated to date back to about 3400 B.C. In other words, it was already almost three thousand years old by the time the Celts wandered over to Ireland from the Continent (about 500 B.C.). Like many of the other passage tombs, the alignment allows the morning sun to shine down the passageway twice a year to illuminate the internal chamber. Excavations carried out between 1955 and 1959, found more than 200 cremated or inhumed burials (often placed in upturned earthenware urns with burial gifts).

 

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It really is an impressive piece of work and astounding to consider that it’s still in such good condition almost 5000 years later. Naturally however, despite such proof from the potential of human achievement, it’s also important to consider the more idiotic side to humanity as well. The most famous of these at Tara occurred between 1899 and 1902 when Dumha na nGiall was almost destroyed by a group known as the ‘British Israelists’. Convinced that the Irish were one of the Lost Tribes of Israel (yes, that is hard to believe!!) and that the Hill of Tara contained the Ark of the Covenant.

That such crazed extremists were allowed to go ahead with their destruction of such a unique national monument says a lot about the times. A big part of the problem, of course, was that many of those involved were members of the British aristocracy and as the English Crown was in control over Ireland at this time, local outrage was pretty much ignored.

There were, of course, many protests. Arthur Griffith carried out a major campaign against the ‘excavations’  with many of the hoi polloi of the day (WB Yeats, George Moore and Douglas Hyde etc.) despite being ordered off-site by armed men and police. The crazed activist Maud Gonne also turned up and created a scene by lighting a bonfire and singing “A nation once again” in her very genteel English accent (the early 1900s were certainly a wild time in Ireland). Many people believe the destruction to the site of Tara was one of the many national indignities that went on to spur the subsequent rebellion in 1916.

Two nights ago, I was looking at a television report where a bunch of Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS) thugs were smashing up a beautiful 2700 year old monument in the famed ancient Assyrian capital of Khorsabad. As I watched the inbred with the sledgehammer smashing the ancient statue into smithereens, it struck me that as a species, human beings are never going to evolve unless they learn from their past mistakes and escape the destructive cycles of repetition.

5000 years on, and it seems as though we’re still just spinning.

Irish Tribes and The Iron Age

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Ireland’s Iron Age (600 BC to 400 AD) is one of the most mysterious and enigmatic periods of Irish history which is why – I guess –  it’s always appealed to me. In many ways the period is a blank canvas. We know very little about it and the limited snippets of information we do have are tantalizingly vague and easy to interpret in a multitude of different ways.

A key part of the problem is that there are no documents or records for this period that have been written by Irish hands (the skill of writing wasn’t introduced to Ireland until the fifth century with the arrival of Christianity). There’s also a dearth of archaeological evidence linked to that period. This latter is particularly striking when you consider the fact that millennia before, thriving communities existed who not only carried out extensive dairy and cereal farming but constructed complex and well-designed stone structures as well. The Boyne Valley mounds at Newgrange, Knowth and Dowth for example, were built around 3200 BC. The extensive dairy farms at the amazing Céide Fields, are almost 6,000 years old.

For this reason, there’s always been a sense in some Irish historical circles that human activity subsided or stagnated over the Iron Age. To be fair, this is confirmed to a degree through pollen analysis which shows evidence of substantial forest regeneration (i.e. lands that had been cleared for farming purposes were simply left grow wild again) over this period. Some historians refer to the Iron Age as the ‘Irish Dark Ages’. One Irish archaeologist (Barry Raftery) described the population of this time period as ‘the Invisible People’ because of the scarcity of archaeological evidence of their existence.

Numerous theories have abounded for this decline in human activity and these range from climate change to natural catastrophes (e.g. Icelandic volcanos) to plague and warfare. This truth is that no-one really knows for certain. What we do know however, is that human activity picked up and recovered dramatically in the third and fourth centuries. In general, this recovery is usually attributed to the influence of the increasingly wealthy Roman Britain which provided a great source of trade, knowledge transfer (and booty and slaves for Irish raiders)

As you’ve probably guessed, given the above, very little is known about Irish tribes before the fifth century. Again, we do have some clues – the earliest source of tribal information is a map compiled by Ptolemy (a Graeco-Roman who lived in Alexandria during the 2nd century AD.). Unfortunately, it’s very hard to reconcile the tribes identified in Ptolemy’s map with those identified in later records. Some of the names are teasingly familiar; the Brigantes, for example, might be related to a tribe known to have been living in what is now northern/ midland Britain and another tribe mentioned – the Manapii – are potentially linked to the Menapii, a Belgic tribe of northern Gaul. Other tribes Ptolemy mentions however, have disappeared completely from history, fallen out of time never to be heard of again.

When writing a narrative set in Ireland’s Iron Age, such information – or rather such ambiguity – is absolute gold dust in terms of inspiration. It’s essentially the equivalent of being given an outline of a mysterious and fantastic world with specific detail for some elements and absolute free rein for others. When I write the Fionn mac Cumhal series, for example, I tend to use a lot of reference books (historical, archaeological, language mostly) to give parameters such as culture, topography, belief systems and so on, an authentic flavour but in terms of activity, characters and action, that world is my oyster.

As a writer/historian, it really doesn’t get better than that.

The Secret Life of Irish Fairies

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The nice thing about fairies is that anyone can be one.

No, seriously! If you actually look at the modern day interpretation of the ‘fairy’ you’ll find it incorporates not only elements of ‘Ye Olde English folklore’ but Germanic elves, Scandinavian leshyi, classical Romano-Greek nymphs and satyrs, a mish-mash of Tolkien and of course Disney’s plastic, sugar-coated Tinkerbell!

So, where you might ask are the Irish fairies in all this?

Weeelll … That’s kind of a long story.

The first thing you should know is that you should never actually use the word ‘fairy’ when referring to creatures of Irish mythology. Those namby-pamby, flower-hoppers with wings that adorn the Enid-Blyton books of old were never part of Irish culture. If you’re talking about Irish mythological creatures it’s always better to use the Irish term ‘’ (pronounced ‘shee’) or ‘síog’ or – in plural form – ‘Na síoga’ or ‘Na Sidhe’.

The word ‘sí’ actually comes from an ancient Celtic word ‘síd’ – the giant mounds making up the tumuli or passage graves in which our far distant ancestors buried their dead (the example in the picture was taken at Knowth). This is why ‘Na Sidhe’ in Ireland – until the last century or two – were often thought to be representations of the dead.

In pre-medieval Ireland, Na Sidhe were usually understood to be a kind of mirror image of humanity. They spoke like us, looked like us and, generally, they seemed to act like us, showing all the usual traits – positive (loving, passionate, etc.) and negative (murderous, vengeful etc.) – of your normal human population. The two key things that differentiated them from their human equivalents were that they (a) lived in the Otherworld and (b) had access to magic arts and powers. In the surviving pre-1600 Gaelic literature, although Na Sidhe mostly dealt with their own kind, when they did interact with humans they were generally portrayed doing so as equals, if not superiors.

The common interpretation of Na Sidhe changed slowly (but dramatically) in Ireland from the 1600s onwards due to the increasing influence of the Christian church but more importantly to the expanding power of the English Crown – two parties with a strong self-interest in suppressing the earlier belief systems of the native people. As the Gaelic power structure (feudal lords) was eroded this had the additional effect of undermining the traditional mechanisms for the transfer of Gaelic cultural knowledge between generations (the poets, Gaelic-based education systems, etc.).

By the late 18th century, a significant proportion of lore about Na Sidhe was already lost or being misinterpreted by the majority of the native Irish population. Little material was being conserved or transferred in written form (as Irish Catholics – the majority of the population – were excluded from education) although some knowledge continued to be transferred through the storytellers (the remnants of the poets). Transfer of traditional Sidhe lore also suffered from disruptive events like the Great Famine and the subsequent weakening of the Irish language as native speakers died or immigrated in great numbers. Knowledge of Na Sidhe was also eroded by the Church who saw belief in such entities as ‘competition’ at best, expressions of evil at worst. Most of the stories with negative connotations associated with Na Sidhe developed from this time on.

Oppressed on all sides, Na Sidhe also took on an increasingly derivative form, shrinking (metaphorically and descriptively) in the stories in which they occurred.

Ironically, while lore of Na Sidhe diminished in Ireland, reduced expressions of what they represented began to flourish in England (based predominantly on their equivalent in English folklore tradition). A broken version of Na Sidhe appeared in medieval romances, initially as otherworldy enemies to the protagonists but, later, in a more alluring and less menacing form. In this new, sanitised form, Na Sidhe/’Fairies’ started turning up in literature such as Edmund Spenser’s ‘Faerie Queen’, Shakespeare’s ‘A Midsummer Night’s Dream’. Later, during the Romantic Period (at its peak from around 1800 to 1850), when older cultural tropes were mined for inspiration purposes, they became even more popular.

The famous Strand Magazine article on the ‘Cottingley Fairies’ (1920) changed the portrayal of the earlier mythological creatures forever. From that point on ‘fairies’ became the common term to describe tiny, winged creatures who hung out in nature hot-spots but who still had a bit of mystery/allure associated with them. Following that Strand article, the associated imagery became prettier as time progressed (prompted by the famous ‘flower fairies’ pictures produced by Cicely Mary Barker and others (these are the ones on the Enid Blyton books I referred to earlier). Nowadays, that’s the image that most people are familiar with.

Back in Ireland, cut off from its original interpretation, the Sidhe (now reduced to the more diminutive síoga) became increasingly associated with and influenced by the newer representation of their English counterpart.

The funny thing is that the interpretation of ‘fairies’ or ‘Na Sidhe’ is changing yet again as a result of new media distribution forms and narrative tales. Over the last decade, or so I’ve watched with some bemusement as fairies (and sometimes they even use the old Irish name) have gradually transformed to a generic kind of sexualised, metrosexual Spock (feminine types, complete with pointed ears, short skirts and a pout). I suppose I should have a bit of a disgruntled stomp about the whole ‘lack of cultural authenticity’ business but the truth is that the current representation is vastly closer to the original than the pretty flower-stompers ever were.

Which has to be good.

[Update: Apr 2016 – For those who are interested, a more substantial explanation of fairies, where they came from and how they became what we know today, is available in the ebook: Celtic Mythology Collection which you can obtain for FREE here (on this site or at your favourite ebook store).]

Quiet Moments of Beauty and How to Use Them in Writing

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A few years ago in West Cork, on the cusp of winter-spring, I took my son down to one of my favourite places – a mountain valley with a lake that feeds into the River Laoi.

It was a typical winter’s day for that part of the country; cold showers, low lying cloud, intermittent patches of watery sunshine between the wisps of mist. At the same time, there was something very unique about the quality of the illumination. The damp sunlight combined with the black rock, the black water, the black clouds – black on black on black – to create a kind of monochromatic landscape softened only by burnt patches of withered fern on the surrounding hills.

The sight was beautiful, in the same way that photos of the moonscape or a desert at night are beautiful; bleak, remote and melancholic. All of a sudden, a single swan appeared out of the gloom, a blaze of white on the still black waters like the prospect of joy on a dour day and it was as though the valley had released a sigh.

I was lucky enough to capture the latter parts of the swan’s approach moment on a shitty camera (see the clip above). On the clip you can hear my son saying “Oh, do chuaigh se faoin uisce!’ – ‘Oh, he’s gone under the water!’ when it finally disappeared beneath the causeway and out of sight.

Such moments are rare but they tend to stay with you. Last week, the memory resurfaced – unlike the swan – for some reason, and in a fit of creativity, I drew on it to write a short but important character development scene from the third book in the Fionn mac Cumhal series. This is a rough, unedited first draft so bear with me:

From her refuge in the ferns, Liath Luachra had been observing a fat pair of wood pigeons that were oblivious to her presence. Now, her belly growled and her fingers tightened unconsciously about the leather thong of the sling curled about her right hand.
I could strike one. I could strike one easily at this distance.
She scowled and took a deep breath before turning her head. Hunger was making her careless.
Averting her eyes from the feathered temptation, she rested her cheek against the rough bark of the tree and reverted to that old occupation – daydreaming – she often used to pass the long periods of inactivity while in the Great Wild.
She drew up a mental image from the past, a memory from a period when she’d still been with the mercenary group, Na Cinéaltaí. At the time, she’d been travelling through rough territory, bound for a gathering at some distant tribal stronghold. The day had been uncharacteristically mild for the winter-spring cusp but, weary from the sustained effort of hard trekking, she’d paused to rest in a deserted valley at the foothills of an isolated mountain range.
The valley, a barren and lonely passage wandering between two steep hills of jagged, grey rock and had a deep lake at its centre. Although it must have been a harsh and bitter place at the best of times, at that particular moment the watery quality of the sunlight and the overhanging cloud had combined to imbue it with a colourless intensity she’d never encountered before. Sitting quietly, she’d tried to absorb the sight but the beauty of the landscape seemed almost too much for her swollen soul to take in. Just when she thought it couldn’t possibly grow more beautiful, two swans had suddenly appeared, winging their way down the valley to alight gracefully on the waters of the little lake.
She’d watched in rapt silence for a long time as the elegant birds drifted noiselessly, their white shadows forming perfect mirror images in its still black surface. The moment couldn’t be sustained however, of course. Despite a deep desire to continue absorbing its soothing beauty, she had places to be and people depending on her. She’d left the valley shortly afterwards but she’d never forgotten what she’d seen.
A year later, when she was passing through that region again, she’d spent days criss-crossing the terrain in an effort to relocate the valley. After many frustrating and unfruitful attempts, she’d finally understood that she would never find what she was looking for. Although she’d located several valleys with lakes, none of them looked like the one she remembered. In different light, at a different time, the valley was just another valley in another forsaken piece of land. The valley that she’d experienced was gone, an element of time, of circumstance and of nature, existing now only as a ghost of what could have been.

******
This is just one example of how you can use old memories or sensations when you write. Generally speaking, its much easier to write a description of a place or of an emotion if you’ve actually been there or felt it. Because I come from Ireland and I write about events taking place in Irish landscape I my writing tends to be very – well – Irish.
Ah, well!

Irish Folklore: Magic rocks, Bullán stones and curses (Part 1)

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Given the amount of rock we have down in West Cork it probably comes as no surprise to find the occasional ‘magic’ or folklore-related rock. This is often the case where the stone has some essential feature (the shape, location etc.) that sets it apart from the other (many, many, many) rocks lying around.

This particular stone is a bullán stone found over Bantry way. Bullán stones are particularly fascinating as they’re usually associated with some particular local story. These usually relate how the stone was created or else the stone forms an essential prop (usually magical) to some other event. Of course, it’s not only in West Cork (or even only in Ireland) that you find bullán stones. There are plenty in countries such as France and Scootland as well.

Generally speaking, bullán stones are rocks that contain a cup shaped depression in it. Mostly, these tend to lie horizontal and collect rainwater but there are also examples where they appear on vertical rocks. The size and shapes of the stones vary immesely from place to place.

Of course, the truth is nobody really knows what the hell bullán stones were originally used for. Mostly, these stones date back to the Neolithic period so the reasons behind their function have been lost over the subsequent centuries /millennia.

As is often the case with impressive monuments though, subsequent populations incorporated them into their own rituals. Hence, the later Celts associated them with their traditions (particularly where water was collected in them). Subsequently, these ‘pagan’ rituals were also incorporated by the Christianity and it’s quite likely that the holy water basins found on entering and leaving a church was derived from this.

My Writing: Secrets, Sighs and Sex

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It’s always fascinating to learn how other people have interpreted something you’ve created, particularly when it’s something as complex as a novel. I’m still a bit surprised at times when a reviewer comments on my books and adds an interpretation that I really didn’t have in mind when I was writing the story.

This week, a review (here) on Beara: Dark Legends  came out from Tintean Magazine (an excellent Irish magazine from Australia). Again, as I was reading through it, the reviewer’s experience of the book was quite different (at times) to the one I’d imagined a reader would have. Still. That’s no real biggie. The reality is that different people experience different things from the same art form. Thousands, if not millions of people can study a painting and see something completely different based on their own life experiences. The same is certainly true with respect to a book.

Years ago I wrote a short story entitled Sex with Sarah which was basically about the moral corruption endemic in some large public departments. Yes, there was some sexual content in there of course – but essentially as a mechanism of reflecting that corruption (God, yes, I can be up myself sometimes!)  –  and for years afterwards people would come up asking me who Sarah (of the title) was.

I thought it was a bit funny that so few people seemed to get the key message I was trying to get across. Most seemed more interested in getting her contact details.

 

Irish Folklore: Murder and Secrets in the Land of the Mastiff

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The valley of Cummeengadhra (which probably derives from the word ‘Coimín’ – a commonage or common land and ‘gadhra’ a mastiff) is a pretty isolated spot. It’s very typical of Beara; grey slabs of mountain granite, bogland, shredded tatters of green, incessant rain. All the rock you could eat!

These days it’s a pretty tranquil area apart from some isolated farmhouses, the Shronebirrane stone circle and, of course, The Rabach’s Way. Prior to the Great Famine, though, there was actually a relatively large community living here with at least 29 people registered in the 1824 Tithe Applotment Books. The area is probably most famous, however, because of the deeds of one particular inhabitant; Cornelius O’Sullivan (An Rabach – The Rabach).

One evening in the early 1800s, a mariner is said to have arrived at the house of the O’Sullivans Raib (ráib meaning ‘active’ or ‘bold’ was a family nickname), seeking shelter. During the course of the evening, that mariner was killed because he was believed to be carrying a sum of money. Although all of the family would probably have had some complicity in the murder, it was Cornelius O’Sullivan – the eldest of three sons – who’s said to have completed the fatal deed by cutting the mariner’s throat. Unfortunately for him, one of his neighbours (Máire Caoch) happened to be passing and saw either the murder or the subsequent disposal of the body.

Fearful of the violent O’Sullivan Raib family, Máire Caoch had the sense to keep her tongue for several years but, one day, after a period of sustained, but unrelated, harassment from the family, she foolishly threatened Cornelius by telling him:

Tá rún agam ort, agus ní ar ba ná ar caoiribhe.

I know a secret about you and it’s not about cows or sheep.

 Cornelius must have been convinced by the threat for, on a dank June morning in 1814, he followed her up into the high-country grazing pastures and strangled her to death. Once again, however, An Rabach was unfortunate in that there was a witness to this particular murder as well; Daniel Sullivan – a frail man – who was also scared of the violent farmer and decided to keep his mouth shut.

The body of Máire Caoch was discovered, ironically, by a servant girl from the Rabach household. Alerting her friends, they carried the body back to the Rabach family home where she was laid out in preparation for her burial. It was at this point that the community’s initial suspicions of An Rabach were roused. A local at the time belief with respect to murder was that, if the murderer entered into the same room as his victim, the victim’s corpse would immediately gush blood. Unwilling to take the chance, the Rabach refused to enter the house, odd behaviour in such a small community that immediately made his neighbours look at him sideways.

Whatever their suspicions however, nothing more transpired for another 16 years (1830), when Daniel Sullivan was badly injured in an accident at the Allihies mines. Convinced that he was dying, Daniel confessed what he’d seen all those years before to his priest. Horrified, the priest immediately took it to a magistrate and a warrant of arrest was issued for An Rabach.

Forewarned by other family members, An Rabach (who was now about fifty years old) fled his family home and headed much deeper into the valley, finally taking refuge in a cave (now known as The Rabach’s Cave) which offered an excellent view of anyone coming up the valley trail. In total, An Rabach remained in hiding for about nine months and there are numerous tales of the various tricks he used to evade the local authorities. Eventually, however, he was lured back to his home in January 1831 where his wife was due to give birth to his son.

The Rabach was captured by two local constables and a man called Patrick Sullivan (the son of Máire Caoch). In a capricious twist of fate, An Rabach’s son was stillborn. Escorted to Tralee Gaol, he was tried and hanged two months later.

Irish Folklore: Magic Realism and a Haunted House in Beara

Beara10 - Haunted house (2)Catching up with comments on the brilliant Goodreads Ireland community the other day, I came across a fascinating thread on ‘Magic Realism’ that I’d missed while away. Somehow, while writing a response I got carried away with an example of a haunted house story from my own childhood. See below:

Haunted House in West Cork

It seems that when I return home, certain slivers of reality – or perhaps perceptions of reality – tend to differ from what I see outside the country. Any time I’m down in Beara, for example, we invariably get to talking about the ‘hunted house’ down the road from where we were based.

This particular haunted house was haunted even back in my Da’s time. He had plenty of stories about how he ran pass it, terrified, as a kid. The building itself was a pretty interesting place in that it was set in an isolated spot, hidden away from the road by an extremely thick, overgrown hedge. As a kid, I was driven past or cycled past as well and, occasionally, we’d look in out of curiosity although we’d never dare to venture beyond the gate. The truth was, it’s was a bleak and foreboding looking ruin. Quite a big house for it’s day as well and odd in that it’s been deserted for the whole of my lifetime (and my Da’s).

When I brought my own kids home from NZ on holiday, I’d also bring them past the old haunted house and pas on the stories that Dad told me. To this day our family still refer to it as the “Haunted House’.

Several years ago, however, when the boom was in full blast, I returned to Beara and found, to my horror, that the
external hedges around the house had been completely removed to expose the building to the clear light of day. Not only that, but someone had obtained ownership of the property and was in the process of carrying out major structural work including a major extension to the back. I found my own reaction to this a bit strange. I had no real connection to the place, after all. At the same time, being able to see the site clearly for the very first time felt as though an important element of my childhood had been irretrievably desecrated.

Five years ago, I was back home again and, to my delight, (yes, weird reaction, I know) the house remained unchanged. All the scaffolding I’d seen two years earlier was still up but absolutely no progress had been made since then. When I asked my uncle about it, he informed me that the builders had left the place after hearing strange noises (or seeing something). He’d seen the building regularly but heard about the reasons behind it second-hand as well. I’ve no idea if this is true or whether it was simply one of those many consequences resulting from the financial impact of the recession.

Last month I was back home again and the house still sits deserted, in off the road, looking even more depleted and worn out than ever. I felt some sympathy for the person who must own the property now but when I saw how the hedges have started to grow back again I couldn’t repress a smile.

Mise (me): The Accidental Beara Dark Legends Book Launch

It always takes me a few days to open up when I return to New Zealand. It’s a little strange I know but at those times I just want to hold my experiences in Ireland close. Interacting or talking with people in New Zealand always soak the memories and sensations away faster than I’m willing to give them up.

As ever, Ireland was fun, emotional, refreshing, filling, etc. I had some time with family and friends, did some interviews for the Beara: Dark Legends book and, surprisingly,  ended up doing a book launch for it back in Beara – something I hadn’t really anticipated.  Given that I only had two spare copies of the book with me that was a challenge.

The launch took place with little warning down at the Anam Cara Writers and Artist’s Retreat near Na hAoraí  (Eyeries) – a beautiful spot with a staggering view of the Kerry Coast across the bay. Had a very nice crowd of people (about 35-40) there but the highlight for me was seeing some of my family I haven’t seen since I was a kid. There was a nice surreal twist as well with one of the individuals attending Anam Cara turning out to be a juggler/hoola-hooper. She very kindly offered to perform while the various attendees were arriving so as they turned up they found her in full regalia hoola-hooping to some traditional music at the entrance way

In any case, I had a good night so much thanks to all the family (particularly Patrick-Gerard Murphy), Jim O’Sullivan (Beara Tourism), Sue Booth-Forbes (Anam Cara), The Allihies Museum folk and of course Kirsten and Todd (for performing duties).

Some photos of the night are on my facebook page. An interview with Cork Now magazine is also available here http://www.magazine.corknow.ie/ .

Now, back to writing.

 

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My Writing: Taking the Bog Road Home

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Finally heading home to carry out some final research on the second book of my Beara Trilogy.

With this particular series, as well as the usual thriller and mystery element, I’ve always been keen to include a strong contemporary issue that’s recently been to the fore in Ireland. Unfortunately, these days, I seem a bit spoiled for choice. Events in Ireland  over the last few years have pretty much been overshadowed by the recession but, more recently, we’ve also had to deal with a new wave of emigration, Garda upper management that cannot be trusted with issues of justice, a complete dearth of political  leadership (seriously, anyone voting for either of the two larger political parties really has to ask themselves why), the impacts of climate change in terms of flooding etc. blah, blah, blah and so on.

If you’ve read the first book in this trilogy, you’ll know of course that, structurally, it consists of two separate (but interlinking) mystery stories – a style to be reproduced in the remaining two books.  For the second book, I can finally say that I have the contemporary section completely plotted out – something that proved decidedly difficult.

Now, however, I have to work in the folklore an mythology linkages that connect the contemporary mystery not only to the Beara of the 1960s but to an issue the country faces today. I do have one particular theme in mind which I found through my research some years ago and which encompasses all of the issues raised above. It is something, in fact, so important I’m pretty shocked that it seems to have disappeared through the cracks of history.

Needless to say, I’m really looking forward to getting into it.

Once I finish the second Fionn book (due in September).

Until then, research, friends and lots of yacking beckons.

Folklore: Messing with the Past

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I’ve always been a bit fascinated by the prehistoric structures around Aghabullogue (there’s an ancient bivallate ring fort to the south-west, sacred saint stone and of course the Ogham stones etc.). Although the prehistoric remnants there are quite cool, what I find particularly fascinating is the way that later communities of that region have actually interacted with them. In present day Ireland there’s, generally, a pretty decent respect for historic monuments and for ‘old stuff’. That hasn’t always been the case, though.

A classic example are the Aghabullogue Ogham stones.  One of these – the eight foot stone in the picture – now stands in a position of honour down by St Olan’s Well in mute attestation of the pattern that takes place in honour of St Olan every year.  To be honest, that’s actually quite funny because an ancient non-Christian spiritual icon is now being used as a prop for what is essentially a Catholic (Christian) process (admittedly also ‘borrowed’ from the early pagan rituals – see previous posts). What’s even funnier, though, was the use to which this monolith was put prior to being placed in its current location. According to the records, this Ogham stone was actually discovered in a nearby drain where it had been used in a much more practical sense as a bridge across the local stream for many centuries.

This Olan’s Well stone (as it’s now pretty well known) has the inscription “Madora MaQi Deag” which shows it’s connection to Clann Deag, a tribe who lived in the region many centuries earlier. It’s quite probable, though that the stone was removed and put to this practical purpose after the English Crown had become established in Ireland (from early 1600’s onwards). Most likely, the stone was removed around 1690 and used as building material for the local Church of Ireland church built around that same time. Despite the fact that the Ogham stone had been standing up straight (possibly from the 5th or 6th century) it was given pretty short shift when there was a new king in town.

Irish Folklore: The Truth of the Children of Lir

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The Children of Lir is one of the three great ‘tragedy’ narratives of ancient Ireland (the other two being The Fate of the Sons of Tuirenn and Deirdre of the Sorrows). It’s a tale that pretty much everyone in Ireland knows, primarily from school but also through a number of other routes (plays, television, books). Because of its popularity back in our ancestor’s time, it was relatively common for storytellers to link the tale to places near to where their audience were located. This not only helped to provide an explanation or rationale for key topographical features in the local environment but also made the story that much more relevant for people who were hearing it for the first time. This is why, we find the final resting place for the children of Lir in Beara.

For those who are unfamiliar with the story, a local sign erected by Beara Tourism summarises the most commonly known version of the story as follows:

The story of the children of Lir is a well known legend in Ireland. Many areas in Ireland claim to be the landing spot of the swans after their 900 year journey on the seas and lakes of Ireland. The children were the sons and daughters of Lir, a member of the Tuatha de Danaan clan, who married Eve daughter of King Bov the Red, King of the Tuatha de Danaan. Eve and Lir were blissfully married and had a set of twins-Aed and Finola, and after a short period there followed another set of twins, 2 boys, Conn and Fiara.

Unfortunately Eve died soon after and Lir, not wanting his children growing up without the love of a mother, married Eva, King Bov’s second daughter. This was a happy marriage until Eva became jealous of Lir’s devotion of his children. Overcome with hatred she brought the children to Lough Darravagh near their home and transformed them into swans. Realising what she had done and overcome with remorse, she attempted to release the spell but could only ease their distress by enabling them to speak and sing and to remain as swans for 900 years until Christianity was introduced into Ireland.

The swans spent the first 300 years on Lough Darravagh close to their home. The next 300 years was spent on the Sea of Moyle, a cold and desolate area between Scotland and the north of Ireland. The last 300 years they endured on the Atlantic sea. When their time was over the swans attracted by the ringing of a bell rung by a monk living in Allihies village in the Beara Peninsula, came ashore and immediately were changed back into their human form. The children were by now old men and women (and) were baptised by the monk. A short time later they died and were buried under these large white boulders.

In fact, the story that we all know today, is believed to originally have come from a tale told in the Netherlands around the 12th century. In Ireland, this was the period when Norman knights had established a firm foothold in Ireland and it seems likely that they brought the tale over with them. Subsequently, a local author incorporated it into local legend.

Sometimes, though, the story is actually more important or more valuable than the reality. In the past, in Beara, people use to do the rounds at this stone, firmly believing in the story. I’ve often walked past this particular spot myself and gazed down at that coin-coated rock and wondered what lay beneath. I’m sure, like me, countless others have been tempted to try digging under the stone just out of sheer curiosity. Possibly, someone has.  I suspect, however, that most of them have simply walked on, sufficiently satisfied with the richness of the story itself.

 

Irish Writing: Prologue to Fionn: The Traitor of Dun Baosicne

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Something a little different today.

This is the prologue for the second book in my Fionn series (Fionn Traitor of Dun Baoiscne). Essentially it’s a stand-alone short story that introduces a number of characters who turn up in that book.  The Book (Fionn: Traitor of Dún Baoiscne) is due for release in September this year.

The main group of characters in this particular story are based on a group of aosdána (individuals who were very skilled or respected) that Fionn encounters in the Macgnímartha Finn manuscript (The Boyhood Deeds of Fionn).  The description of those characters in the original written manuscript was quite skeletal (most of the manuscripts were concise to the point of sketchiness to say the least) so I had a lot of fun playing around with it and filling in the gaps.

Hope you enjoy.

 

Prologue:

Sárán an Srón smelled it as he emerged from the rock-strewn pass of Bealach Cam. Drifting in on a gentle breeze from the south, it hung heavy in the air around the rocky entrance, striking his nostrils with a meaty intensity that stopped him in his tracks.

Stew!

His body reacted immediately, from instinct, even as his head struggled to register the presence of a scent so alien to the Great Wild. Slipping into the shelter of the nearest tree, a tall holly thick with green fern and scrub about its base, he crouched in silence, scrutinising the surrounding terrain, as he subconsciously worked through the individual elements beneath the smell.

Some kind of meat. Wild mushrooms and onions. Herbs … but not any he immediately recognised.

His mouth watered as he turned his eyes to the south but beyond the rocky entrance to the pass there was little enough to see, nothing but a rough landscape choked in places with oak and pine. Despite his habitual caution on encountering strangers so far Out in the Great Wild, Sárán allowed himself to relax. There was no evidence of any immediate threat, he was well concealed and the smell was not one to provoke any particular sense of dread. It was not, for example, the acrid stink of urine and shit, the tang of adrenalin or the iron-tinged stench of freshly spilled blood, all distinctly foul odours he’d encountered in the past and which still had the ability to raise the hairs on the back of his neck.

A long period of time passed without incident and Sárán slowly rose to his feet, although he made sure to remain within the shadow of the holly tree. A big, shaggy-haired man of twenty-seven years, he had a muscular frame and a range of scars on his left cheek and shoulder that marked him as an experienced warrior. In his right hand, he carried a javelin with an easy grip that, although loose, allowed him to raise and cast the weapon at speed should the need arise. At the small of his back, tucked into his belt, he felt the reassuring weight of a small – but deadly – hand-axe. Three additional javelins were strapped to a wicker basket that hung from his shoulders. Intended to transport the game he’d caught, the basket was dispiritingly empty.

He tugged at a greasy moustache as he stood in the shadows, closing his eyes to better appreciate the scent of stew. Raising his hand, he wiped a gob of saliva from his lips for it did smell delicious.

He found himself drooling happily at the prospect of food. It had been over five days since Sárán an Srón had left his wife and two boys at Seiscenn Uarbhaoil, a settlement far beyond the eastern swampland. Since then he’d eaten nothing but hard tack and water cress, drunk nothing but river water. Such hardships would have been borne more easily with company but, on this occasion, he was travelling alone. Both his usual hunting companions had remained behind at Seiscenn Uarbhaoil, preoccupied with more pressing matters of their own. Domhnall Dubh, a keen hunter, was awaiting the birth of his first child. When Sárán had called on him to propose the expedition he’d looked longingly at his own javelins but his wife, an irritable woman rendered all the more ill-tempered from the pregnancy, had threatened him with no sex if he dared to leave.

Dalbach, his other regular companion, was also unavailable due to a twisted ankle obtained during a romantic tryst with a local girl on the rocks at Carraig. Flaunting his leaping ability, the warrior had slipped on one of the moss-coated boulders and fallen from a substantial height. He’d been lucky not to break his leg or worse but that hadn’t stopped him moaning when Sárán informed him of his intention to go Out alone. He’d consoled his friend by promising to bring him back a haunch of venison. A big one.

Given his lack of success to date, that boast now looked overly optimistic.

Sárán scrutinised the southern forest once more, this time pleased to note a tendril of smoke rising up from the green canopy not too far to the south-east.

A campfire.

That would be the source of the smell. He stroked his nose, an overly large proboscis that had earned his nickname: Sárán an Srón – Sárán The Nose. Because of its size, many of the people at Seiscenn Uarbhaoil believed that he had sensory skills beyond that of ordinary mortals, that he could in fact ‘sniff out’ potential threats or dangers. Although he encouraged the stories because he enjoyed the attention, Sárán knew there was no truth in them. His sense of smell was no better, no worse, than most others at the settlement.

Staring at the distant plume of smoke, he frowned and scratched at the stubble on his jaw. He should be moving east, using the remaining sunlight to travel back in the direction of Seiscenn Uarbhaoil before he was obliged to set up camp for the night.

A dry camp.

With hard tack.

And cold water.

He sighed. Travelling alone as he was, he knew it would be wise to avoid strangers in the Great Wild, despite the fact that he was a fearsome warrior, a fact that several opponents – now dead – had discovered to their detriment.

His stomach grumbled in counter argument.

Sárán mulled over the possibilities. He could always, he reasoned, scout out the source of the odour. If the people responsible for it looked in any way dangerous, he could simply slip away and continue his journey.

He stared to the south. The smell of the stew was delectable.

And he was hungry.

***

Once Sárán had reached the trees, he worked his way through the forest with the ease of an experienced hunter, carefully avoiding sections of woody debris where branches or twigs might crack beneath his feet and alert others to his presence. As he advanced, the smell of stew grew perceptibly stronger. Soon he was able to make out the muffled sound of a distant conversation.

Dropping to his stomach, he wriggled forward, working his way towards a heavily vegetated mound coated with a thick copse of ash trees and heavy foliage. As far as he could tell, the voices were coming from somewhere on the other side and this particular route offered both the best concealment for his approach and his possible flight, if that were required.

It was almost dark when he reached the crest of the mound. Shuffling sideways to one of the wider tree trunks, he cautiously eased his head around it.

Ah!

The campsite was located in a little grotto, part of a long gully carved out of the ground by some ancient waterway and still strewn with smooth, green boulders. That section of the grotto closest to Sárán’s hiding place was relatively level and held a flattened rock that reached up to waist height. In the centre of this boulder was a deep depression full of rainwater from the previous night’s shower. Beside the rock, an impressive fire was crackling. Sárán’s eyes, however, were drawn less to the flicker of the flames than to the metal cauldron that dangled over it, the source of the delicious odour that now completely filled the air.

He licked his lips.

It was something of an effort to pull his eyes away to study the grotto’s human occupants. All six were seated at the fire, three each in a single line on separate logs, facing each other across the flames. They were a strange looking group. Of the trio looking in his direction, two were big men, bald but stocky. Because of their size, both would have drawn the eye even if it hadn’t been for the fact that they were completely identical. From the bald, sunburned skulls, right down to the rough dark robes they were wearing, each was a perfect copy of the other.

A Man Pair.

Sárán bit his lip. He had heard of man pairs before but he’d never actually seen one. Apparently, there’ been such a family at Seiscenn Uarbhaoil in the past. It had been before his time but people still spoke of the cursed mother who’d given birth to two sets of Man Pairs. On both occasions, the babies had died and, after the second pair, the woman had succumbed to fever. Grief-stricken, the father had wandered out into the Great Wild, never to be seen again.

The man seated to the left of the Man Pair, staring into the flames, was a skinny, old man. He too was bald but had countered the absence of hair on the back of his head with a thick growth of beard on his face that fell all the way to his waist.

Although he couldn’t see the faces of the threesome on the closest side of the fire as they had their backs to him, they too looked quite odd. One of them, a cowl pulled tight over his head, looked to be extremely short and was probably a child. Seated beside him, another, taller, individual seemed all the taller for the shortness of his companion. He too was completely bald. On the far right of this trio, the final figure appeared to be of a more normal height but rather rotund given the tightness of the material around his girth and frame.

Sárán nodded in approval at their choice of campsite. It was a good location, one that provided shelter from the wind and which was well hidden. He himself would have bypassed it, completely unaware of their presence, if it hadn’t been for the smell.

With this, his lips formed into a thin line. Despite their clever choice of location, this little group did not appear to have taken any other precautions. There was no-one standing guard and, as far as he could see, only two of them sported weapons – the two staffs carried by the Man Pair.

He gave a scornful shake of his head. Out in the Great Wild, death lurked behind every tree, lay waiting in every shadow for the unwary. Wolves and other predators prowled the land. If he had been a bandit, he could have snuck in and murdered them all without too much difficulty.

Reassured by this initial assessment and confident in his ability to deal with any threat that might arise from this particular group, Sárán got to his feet, stepped out of the trees and started walking down towards the fire.

Naturally, because they were facing in his direction, the Man Pair were the first to spot him. Startled, they quickly jumped to their feet, pulling their staffs up to hold them at the ready.

Sárán suppressed a smile. He could take both of them out easily with a javelin cast, leaving him with the hand axe to take care of the others.

And he was deadly with a hand-axe.

Seeing the Man Pair’s reaction, the others had also turned about and quickly stood up to examine the unexpected arrival. Only the old man with the beard took his time, stiffly rising to his feet to face the newcomer.

Sárán raised a placatory hand. ‘Hallo, Travellers,’ he called out. ‘I come in peace.’

The six strangers looked at one another. In the end, it was the bearded elder who finally stepped forward. He coughed and cleared his throat. ‘I see you, stranger. I am named Rogein.’

‘I see you, Old One. I am named Sárán ua Baoiscne.’

‘Welcome to our campsite, Sárán ua Baoiscne. We are preparing our meal. Would you care to eat with us? There is not much but we are happy to share.’

The old man’s voice sounded oddly brittle as though he’d done some damage to his throat in the past.

Sárán glanced at the steaming cauldron and nodded curtly, not trusting himself to successfully disguise his hunger for its contents. He advanced further into the little grotto and stood closer to the fire. ‘I will join you,’ he said, taking a seat on a small rock set back at an angle from the two logs on which the others were seated. As he sat, he made sure to keep his javelin close to hand. The men seemed harmless enough but he did not intend to take any chances. If necessary, the rock was sufficiently far from the group to allow him time to respond to any hostility.

And they will pay dearly if they tried.

If the old man noticed his caution, he showed no sign of it. Instead, he plunged a ladle into the little cauldron and scooped out a portion of stew which he slapped into a wooden bowl. He passed it to the big warrior who took it in one hand and held it under his nose. Briefly closing his eyes, he inhaled and savoured the aroma one last time before raising the bowl to his mouth and swallowing the contents whole.

‘Aaah!’

He smacked his lips with relish. The food had tasted every bit as good as it smelled. He glanced at his empty bowl then back towards the cauldron but Rogein seemed to miss the hint. The other members of the group, meanwhile, were regarding him quietly as though unsure what to make of him. After a moment, they all sat down again.

‘From where do you hail, Sárán ua Baoiscne?’ asked Rogein.

‘From Seiscenn Uarbhaoil. It is located to the east.’

‘You are far from home.’

‘I am on the hunt. Seiscenn Uarbhaoil is a growing settlement. The local forest has been hunted out.’ He glanced at the other members of the party. ‘Who are your friends?’

‘Forgive me,’ the old man answered. ‘I am a poor host.’ He pointed to the Man Pair. ‘These are Futh and Ruth. They are brothers but you may have already noticed the family resemblance.’

Sárán considered them uneasily. Seeing them sitting there side by side was like looking at a reflection in still waters. It seemed unnatural. Despite his disquiet, he smiled politely and nodded a greeting which the two men returned. Rogein, meanwhile, had moved on to the corpulent man to Sárán’s left. The warrior observed the fleshy face and pendulous jowls hanging below his jaw with silent censure. The folds of fat almost obscured a small tattoo of a spider on his right cheek.

‘And this is Regna of Mag Fea,’ said Rogein. ‘He is the man who prepared the repast which you are enjoying.’

Sárán stared at Regna’s stomach which protruded obscenely, pressing against the material of his robe like the belly of a pregnant woman. Although he’d never seen a man with so much useless bulk, he hid his distaste and nodded.

‘This,’ Rogein was indicating the extremely tall figure with the cowl, ‘is Temle’. Temle lowered his cowl to reveal another bald head, a muted pair of eyes and a strikingly bulbous nose. Like Regna of Mag Fea, he too had a spider tattooed on his left cheek. Sárán glanced at the Man Pair and realised that they too had the spider marking although he’d missed it in the flickering shadows thrown up by the fire.

‘And finally,’ said the old man, gesturing towards the smallest figure at the far end of the log. ‘This one is named Olpe.’

Sárán leaned forward in order to see the little shape more clearly.

‘Hallo, little one.’

The figure turned to look at him but beneath the shadowed cowl it was impossible to tell if it was a boy or a girl.

The big warrior grinned. ‘I have two boys about your age.’

With this a small pair of hands appeared from out of the sleeves and reached up to pull the cowl back. To his horror, Sárán found himself staring at the wizened face of a very old man. Like the others, he was completely bald.

Regna of Mag Fea roared with laughter. ‘I very much doubt that!’

Sárán bristled, angered at being embarrassed in this manner. ‘Who are you?’ he demanded. ‘Why does such an odd group travel Out in the Great Wild?’

Rogein quickly made a mollifying gesture. ‘Forgive Olpe’s little joke, Sárán ua Baoiscne. We are like you. Simple travellers.’

‘I am not a traveller. I am a hunter.’

‘Of course, of course.’ He nodded. ‘My comrades and I …’ He paused. ‘We too are hunters of a sort. Hunters of knowledge.’

‘Hunters of truth.’ Sárán could not hide the scepticism in his voice.

‘Indeed. The stars reveal their secrets to us and we hunt their associated knowledge.’

Sárán continued to look at him blankly.

‘If you can read them, the stars reveal many secrets. Some years past, for example, the stars told us that a great leader, a most powerful figure, had been born. Since then we have been travelling the land to seek him out.’ He made a shrugging gesture. ‘The problem is that although the stars tell us of such events, they do not tell us where they occur. That is why we travel now, seeking the one who was born.’

‘Why would you seek out a baby?’

‘To pay homage to him.’

Sárán struggled to keep the incredulity from his voice. ‘To pay homage to a baby?’

‘Yes.’

‘How would you pay homage to a mewling infant?’

‘Well, we are not wealthy men but we have gathered gifts of significance.’

‘Oh?’ asked Sárán with renewed interest.

‘Temle.’ Rogein looked to the tall man. ‘Show our guest.’

With a sigh, the tall man reached down to open a little backpack resting on the log alongside him. Undoing the upper cord that sealed it, he withdrew three large clay pots and laid them on the ground before him. Removing the sealed lid of the first container, he tilted it forwards so that Sárán could see its contents: a large mixture of some papery bark, paired leaves, and flowers with white petals and a yellow or red centre.’

‘Flowers. Very nice. I’m sure the babe’s mother will appreciate that.’

‘These are no ordinary flowers, Sárán of Seiscenn Uarbhaoil. They come from the lands far to the East and produce an alluring fragrance.’

Sárán ignored him, peering at the other containers. ‘What else do you have?’

Temle opened the second pot. This was full to the brim with a powdery, reddish resin. Sárán leaned forward to examine it more closely only to draw back in alarm as he caught a whiff of the overpowering scent it gave off.

‘This is another fragrance from the Myrrh trees. Again, they are found far to the East. And finally … ’

The last clay pot was opened. Sárán stared. It seemed to contain a large collection of shiny metal disks.’

He looked at Rogein with a quizzical expression.

‘They call this gold,’ explained the old man. ‘It is of great worth.’

‘Of course, of course.’ Despite his disappointment, Sárán supressed a great desire to roll his eyes. He had been hoping for more food of the quality of the stew, some weapons or even jewellery he could have appropriated to bring back to his wife in compensation for the lack of food. He tried not to laugh as he imagined the expression of the babe’s family when this group arrived offering homage and pots of useless junk. The thought prompted his next question.

‘You say you have been seeking this child for some time.’

‘Yes. For some years. Although we know the child was born, we do not know where. Recently, we learned that he was to be found in a settlement said to be led by a woman.’

‘A woman!’ Sárán scoffed. ‘What settlement would let a woman lead them?’

‘It’s true,’ the old man conceded. ‘It is difficult to believe but we were also told that this woman was a Gifted One and has received training as a bandraoi – a female druid. Have you heard of such a place?’

The warrior thought about that. ‘I know of no such settlement in these parts but I have heard tales of a place far to the west, in the Sliabh Bládhma region. My sister’s man once told me that it has links to Clann Baoiscne but I do not know what those links are.’

Rogein looked eagerly towards his companions who were now all whispering excitedly together. ‘You see, brothers! Our informant did not fail us.’ He quietened then as though absorbed in deep thought but after a moment he returned his attention to the warrior.

‘You have our gratitude, Sárán. Can we offer you more stew as an expression of our appreciation?’

Sárán looked guiltily at the little cauldron. There did not seem to be enough for everyone but the flavours were still raging on his tongue, demanding more.’

‘Very well.’ He did his best to sound as though he was doing them a kindness accepting the reward that was his due for helping them in their bizarre search.

Rogein ladled another measure into his bowl and he immediately lapped it up, fearful that he might have to share. When he was finished, he wiped the leather sleeve of his tunic across his lips. ‘Do not take this the wrong way, Rogein. It is not my intent to insult your hospitality but you are foolish to wander about in the Great Wild without protection. These lands can be very dangerous.’

As he spoke, he eased his javelin onto his knees and slowly, casually, allowed his left hand to drift behind his back to where his hand-axe waited. It was ungrateful of him, he knew, but he had come to the decision to rob this little company. They could keep their smelly pots but he intended to leave the camp with that cauldron. If they did not attempt to stop him, they did not need to die.

‘I have a weapon,’ said Regna of Mag Fea. The fat man held up a short boning knife that, although sharp, would have done little more than cause a gash in a real fight. ‘And both Futh and Ruth have their stout staves.’

Sárán bit his tongue. These men were fools. Simple-minded idiots whose bones would inevitably litter the floor of the Great Wild’s forests.

‘You would not frighten a sandfly with such a knife. Staves are useful up close but they are no match for a sword or a battle axe. And they offer no defence against spear or javelin. You would require real weapons, Rogein.’ He tapped his own javelin to emphasise his point. ‘Something to strike fear into those who would attack you.’

Rogein looked at him in surprise. ‘Why would anyone attack us? Apart from our gifts – which we keep concealed – we have nothing of value, nothing that anyone would want.’

Sárán glanced guiltily at the cauldron from the corner of his eye.

‘You should fear travellers in the night,’ the big warrior said. ‘Death comes easily in the Great Wild.’

‘We are six,’ insisted Rogein. ‘How can you claim to advise us when you are but a single man?’

‘Because I am a warrior from Seiscenn Uarbhaoil. My blades are stained with the blood of many enemies. I am not one to be waylaid or interfered with. I am strong. I kill easily, without passion. You cannot compare us.’

There was a dull thump.

Sárán looked down to find that the wooden bowl had slipped from his fingers, hitting the rocky ground. He started to laugh and was about to make a joke of it but when he attempted to speak only a barely audible croak came out of his mouth.

Surprised, he raised his fingers to touch his lips and tried again. Once again, there was no sound but a croak.

Rogein was looking at him with mild curiosity. ‘What is it, Sárán ua Baoiscne? Is the stew not to your liking?’

Sárán pointed urgently at his mouth and grunted.

‘You cannot speak?’ Rogein leaned forward and peered closely at his guest. Annoyed, Sárán opened his mouth wide, offering the old man a better view in the hope that he could see what was wrong.

After a moment, the old man pulled back and tugged thoughtfully on his long beard. ‘I believe I know the cause. It will be the white root, an ingredient Regna of Mag Fea adds to his stews. It enhances the flavour, magnifies both the taste and the odour. Manipulation of scent is one of the many secret skills he learned in his travels through the Eastern Lands.’

Sárán glanced at the fat man who returned it with a smug smile then chuckled loudly. ‘On occasion, it has the interesting effect of rendering an eater silent. A perfect antidote for boastful guests.’

Furious, the warrior made to reach for the javelin lying across his knees but found that his hand did not move. Alarmed, he tried to stand but found that his legs were not responding either.

‘Ah, yes.’ Regna of Mag Fea was stroking the smooth skin of his meaty jowls as he observed Sárán’s efforts. He got to his feet, waddled towards the warrior and squatted down before him. ‘That is another side effect. The more common one in fact. The white root causes a great lassitude of the limbs. It makes a person still and unmoving.’

He smiled at the growing alarm in Sárán‘s eyes. ‘You are a man of sage advice, Sárán of Seiscenn Uarbhaoil. One should not travel without care within the Great Wild. It is a dangerous place. And it is a shame you are unable to follow your own counsel.’

Pulling the javelin from the warrior’s knees, he tossed the weapon aside.

‘I am glad you enjoyed our cooking. You were aware there was not much food but that did not stop you. Still, it can be said you enjoyed your last meal. The last visitor to our campfire enjoyed his meal just as you enjoyed him.

He nodded at the horrified comprehension in the frozen man’s eyes.

‘And now you see the truth of it. Yes, that is how we travel so light. When we are low on supplies we set our web at sites such as this valley entrance where travellers are, eventually, bound to pass.’

He pulled out the little boning knife and held it up in front of the stricken man.

‘But you will forgive me, I’m sure. The night grows late and my companions grow hungry.’