An Irish Adventure Story with Cultural Depth

I’m always a bit wary when new films, books or games that use Ireland or Irish culture as a core part of their story are released.  Many of these tend to target the “Oirish” market (the overly romantic Irish-identity market that flows from the Irish diaspora) or the “Celtic fantasy” market, which joyfully whips key elements of Irish/Gaelic culture and uses them out for context for entertainment purposes. Overall, it’s rare enough for Irish creatives to have genuine control of a large budget production, not to mind one that actually reflects their culture with any degree of accuracy or authenticity.

I was pretty stoked then, when I finally got around to watching Lance Daly’s “Black 47”, a film that had been on my peripheral vision for over eight months prior to its release. At the time, it had struck me as a bit odd to choose two Australian actors for the main roles and the thought of a commercial release around something as culturally sensitive as An Gorta Mór (The Great Famine) seemed incredibly insensitive, particularly given the British Channel Four’s misjudged attempt (in 2015) to do a comedy series based on that traumatic period. Fortunately, all baggage aside, “Black 47″confidently and competently stands on its own.

A grim, broody “Irish Western” and revenge thriller, “Black 47” follows the adventures of Feeney, an Irish soldier who deserts the British army in Afghanistan and returns home, only to discover the true scale and effect of colonisation. Learning of his mother and brother’s death and observing first-hand the evidence of his family being allowed to die in squalor and misery, Feeney ends up opposing the people and the administration that has allowed this to happen.  Repurposing the military skills gained in Afghanistan, Feeney follows a trajectory of violent opposition to the landlords, land agents and their constabulary, becoming an almost “Rambó Gaelach“,  an implacable force of justice against the rampant greed and cultural prejudice of that period. Soon, a ‘posse’ consisting of reluctant English hunter, Hannah (Hugo Weaving), and Pope (Freddie Fox), a fanatical British officer and Empire enthusiast, are set on his trail.

Fortunately, the movie is not just a simplistic revenge thriller. The Australian actor James Frenchville is impressive as the brooding Feeny, his immense physical presence and ready use of Irish language adding real depth to his character, but the real strength of the narrative is the cleverly-woven social commentary provided through the supporting characters. Conneely (Stephen Rea), a wry translator hired by the pursuing party, serves as an excellent foil to the over-privileged and obnoxious Lord Kilmichael (Jim Broadbent) who frequently releases statements such as:

‘Soon, a Celtic Irishman will be as rare in Connemara as is the Red Indian on the shores of Manhattan.’

When Kilmichael boldly states:

“I love this country. The scenery. You peasants are all the same, no appreciation of beauty. “

Conneely slyly replies:

“Beauty would be held in much higher regard, sir, if it could be eaten.”

It’s the wry and insightful gems like these, hidden throughout the script that give this movie it’s real resonance. That, the smattering of Gaeilge, the historical accuracy and the melancholic but beautiful scenery of Connemarra.

Overall, Black 47 can be enjoyed as a simple action movie but there really is much more going on than that. The film also serves as a subtle reminder of the ongoing cultural-PTSD that pervades Irish society as a result of 300 years of colonization and why most Irish people speak English today.

You can find the official trailer here: Black 47

 

 

 

The Challenge of Cultural Integrity in Writing

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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A Cultural Theft in the West Cork Heartland

Travelling to a favourite West Cork site this July took on a somewhat surreal edge. Over the morning, the drizzle congealed to mist then back again (several times) before finally deciding to settle on a light grey fog of soupish consistency. Taking the old road right some time after the Coosane – a road I’ve taken all my life – I somehow went astray, heading up into the mist coated hills and ended up negotiating an unfamiliar labyrinth of grey-green botharíns. Beside me, my French friend said nothing, calmly trusting my driving skill as he did his best to locate a view.

When we got to the lake, the water was black and still, the air heavy with moisture. Even as I parked the car however, I could see a busload of tourists down by the water and exploring the island so we retired to the Gougane Barra Hotel until they were gone. Before I went inside, I looked back just in time to see the fog come down hard, swallowing up the tourists. In the odd, fog-bound silence that followed, I could hear the sound of clicking cameras and an occasional laugh and wondered what they could possibly be taking photos of.

One of the girls serving in the café told me that there’d been a theft from the island two months earlier.

‘The mass box?’ I asked, assuming they’d have gone for the little donation box in the rectory, the only cash on the island.

‘No,’ she told me, her voice full of unexpected outrage. ‘An altar stone.’

That threw me. The altar stones are flat, very heavy stones that mark some of the stop points for pilgrims doing a round on the island (the prehistoric ritualistic route still followed by pilgrims today). Most are a few hundred years old and bear deep white marks on the surface where generations of pilgrims have carved crosses when they stop to pray or meditate. The stones themselves have no monetary worth. Their value is entirely historical, cultural and spiritual.

irish-mythology

There was a lot of talk in the café about who might have stolen the stone. No-one believed it was local people. The alter stone was a respected fixture in their lives and, more importantly, it would have taken at least 2-3 people to carry it. Impossible then, to keep it secret.

The initial suspicion had fallen on vandals from Cork city but given the amount of effort required, it seemed uncharacteristic behaviour. Divers had also searched the shallow waters around the island but there was no sign of it, suggesting it had been transported away from the site.

The latest theory was that it was some over-avid tourist or an overseas collector of antiquities, individuals so impressed by the site they decided to destroy it.

Later, on the island, a small poster and photo in the rectory confirmed the theft and plaintively asked anyone with information to pass it onto the Gardaí. Staring down at the empty spot where the stone used to sit, I shared some of the girl from the café’s outrage. I wondered whether the stone was now lying in some idiot’s garden, or in their home like a prized museum piece.

I’ve always had a sense of key aspects of Irish culture being eroded but generally these have been mostly at an intellectual level – the different way of thinking we have compared to other cultures, the different way we look at and see the world. The stone however, was a physical representation, a corporeal snippet of native culture.

In some respects, we can consider ourselves quite lucky. The stolen stone is now just a stone with a few crosses on it and has no other meaning that that. In Gougane Barra however, the ritual continues, more popular than ever.

And there are plenty of other stones in West Cork.

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Praise youth and it blossoms!

Mol an óige agus tiocfaidh sí
Praise youth and it will blossom (or literally, “praise youth and it will go!”).

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Last week I attended a powhiri (a Maori welcoming ceremony) up in Fielding for the uptake of new Maori students joining Manukura, a Maori kaupapa-based school/sports academy. It was a two-hour drive up from Wellington and an early start but we had time and it was important to support our niece who was starting an exciting new milestone in her life.

Powhiri can be drawn out affairs. They follow a strict etiquette with a formal welcoming, the exchange of songs between hosts and visitors, speeches from both sides and of course, there’s always time put aside for individual people to stand up and say their own piece if they want to (they did!).
It was a dazzling 31°C by the time we took our seats and the speeches (in Te Reo – the Maori language) started. I thought the ceremony would drag but, in fact it sped through relatively easily and quickly, assisted by some beautiful singing from the school’s students and a powerful haka. Afterwards, all the students and staff lined up to hongi (press noses in greeting) the visitors. Given there were a few hundred on each side this was quite a challenge and I almost had a flat nose by the time we’d finished.

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There’s something really powerful about attending powhiri for they’re one of the few occasions where the true strength of Maori culture is given full and authentic expression, not only in terms of language and haka and songs but in terms of the cultural concepts and rituals that inform them. Many westernised people (including some New Zealanders) often experience a sense of impatience at the time taken at powhiri (and I’m guilty of this myself). They feel the event should be wrapped up a bit faster, that the traditional rituals should give way to the needs and time pressures of contemporary life. Naturally, when people think like that, their expectations are based on their own cultural and personal experiences. Attending a Maori ritual like a powhiri is a rare event for most people and as a result, the Maori cultural concepts are sometimes not only unfamiliar but not relevant to the way they live their own lives. Sometimes, this leads to individuals who believe that Maori cultural concepts are unimportant and they can end up displaying a startling lack of respect. Such scorn is very much a symptom of where two cultures exist together but one is dominant over the other in terms of population, resource or political power-sharing.

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As I was sitting there, listening to the speeches and the songs, I got to thinking how Maori managed to save at least some elements of their culture from the oppression of colonization and how similar that situation was with the impact of Norman/English colonisation back in Ireland. Colonisation is a mechanism to suppress and destroy a competing culture that encompasses a different way of thinking. It’s a way of forcing people in one culture to adhere to the way of thinking of a more dominant culture. In truth, its best to think of colonization as the competition between cultures as opposed to countries, the latter being little more than a red herring when you talk about societies.

In Ireland, from the mid-1600s onwards (when all native military power had pretty much been extinguished), the Gaelic way of thinking was systematically eroded through the Penal Laws and other social repressions enforced by the English Crown. Between the mid-1600s and today, the vast majority of the Irish population lost their language and their societal infrastructure and belief systems. Nowadays, despite 400 years of resistance, the War of Independence, the sacrifice of 1916, the cultural concepts of modern day Ireland are more like those of modern day England than the Gaelic culture pre-1650. In some respects you could say that Irish-Gaelic society won a few battles but they lost the war although you could argue that this is a good or bad thing.

It’d be a bit like looking through rose-tinted spectacles however to believe the old Gaelic social system was any better as a society than the newly imposed English rule. It might have been but then again it might not. We don’t know – and never will – but there are plenty of examples of how the Gaelic political leaders of the day could be just as big a pack of bastards as the invading colonists. No, the big loss here is the ultimate demise of a unique way of thinking that was developed over centuries (and possibly millennia). By supressing the culture of one society and forcing its members to adapt to another society we’re actually suppressing the intellectual diversity of the human race (not just the biodiversity). This, of course, has longer term and larger scale ramifications for our ability for long term survival.

Back in New Zealand, Maori lost a huge proportion of their culture and have been forced to adhere to the British system of governance, the English language and property control systems. I think the truth is that they’ll never regain their original culture (although they’ve managed to salvage important and impressive elements of it). Sitting there in the sun, listening to the songs being sung by future leaders of Maoridom (and possibly New Zealand), I realised that I was seeing something new, a resurgence, a re-melding. Despite all the oppression, these kids are still singing in Maori, talking in Maori, performing haka. More importantly, Maori have even managed to insert some of their cultural concepts into modern-day, western-dominated New Zealand (the concepts of mana, whanau, manaakitanga, tangi and so many more) so its no longer a one way road. If this can happen here, I wonder whether Irish Gaelic concepts can, or already are, working that well back home.