Interlude at a Cave

An excerpt from Fionn: Defence of Ráth Bládhma. While out hunting, the woman warrior Liath Luachra and her young companion Bearach have discovered tracks of a large war party in the snow. Concerned that the war party might discover their trail and follow them back to the settlement of Ráth Bládhma, they elect instead to spend the night in a nearby cave.
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By the time they’d climbed to the cleft on the hill crest, the sky was beginning to darken, the light turning brittle and grey. The wind had also increased, whipping icy gusts down from the summit to spatter their eyes and faces

‘There it is!’

Liath Luachra pointed towards a narrow slit in the side of a steep incline, just above the tree line. Pleased to find it exactly where she’d remembered, she approached the craggy cave mouth. It seemed a bit narrower than she recalled but it was definitely the place.

A rocky passage curled inwards from the entrance for a distance of about seven or eight paces before veering off sharply to the left. Here it widened to form a circular chamber with a high curved ceiling. In one wall, there was a wide ledge at the height of a tall man’s head. Accessible using a rough series of hollows and notches that pockmarked the rocky surface, it provided a secure place to sleep.

Liath Luachra dumped an armful of kindling and branches onto the floor then left Bearach to coax a fire to life while she went outside and down to the trees to seek additional fuel. After returning several times with armfuls of the driest wood she could find, she hacked a number of branches from a nearby gorse bush and used them to plug the entrance to the cave. As a barrier, the spiny shrub did not present a serious obstacle, however its voluminous branches would serve as a credible windbreak to prevent the worst of the gale from entering the cave. More importantly, they would also help to shield any light from the fire that might seep out from the inner chamber.

When the gap was sealed to her satisfaction, Liath Luachra joined the youth, sitting by the small fire he’d managed to put together. Bearach had also laid their rations out on a flat rock beside the fire; two portions of salted fish, blood cake and some hard bread, all wrapped in broad, green dock leaves.

They ate the frugal meal in silence, the woman warrior chewing without relish on the tasteless hard tack. It was hardly a feast but it was certainly not the worst she’d eaten. With her habitual pragmatism, she accepted the food for what it was; simple replenishment to keep the hunger pangs at bay.

Beside her, somewhat more forthright, Bearach sighed and grimaced melodramatically with each mouthful.

‘Some roasted meat would have been nice.’

Liath Luachra gave him a sidewards glance, one eyebrow raised.

‘You’re as bad as your brother.’

‘But Aodhán has a point. He likes his meat. This is like chewing dog turds. I wish we’d brought some decent food with us.’

Liath Luachra rewarded his opinion with a look of disdain. Tossing the empty dock leaves aside, she slowly got to her feet and then twisted her hips so that she could slip her right hand down the back of her woolen leggings. Bearach watched in growing bewilderment as she grunted loudly, forehead creased as though in immense concentration.

‘What are you doing?’

‘Be quiet. I’m trying to pull some nice fresh venison out of my arse for your dinner.’

He stared at her blankly then suddenly his head rolled back and a raucous guffaw echoed around the cave, resounding off the hard chamber walls to fill the enclosed space with laughter. Infected by his contagious good humour, Liath Luachra started to laugh as well and, for a moment, a great weight slipped from her shoulders.

When they’d finished eating the last scraps of food, Bearach climbed up to the rocky shelf to unroll their bedding; two double-layered wool blankets. He spread these out across a cushion of spruce cuttings that he’d trampled flat on the rock base and strewn with dead leaves bundled up from the cavern floor.

Liath Luachra regarded the sleeping arrangements with little enthusiasm.

Hard dreams tonight, then.

‘You go ahead and sleep,’ she instructed the boy. ‘I want to think and I need to be alone to work out the way of things. I’ll come join you when I’m ready.’

Shrugging, Bearach retired to his bedroll and lay down, fully clothed, on the thin bedding. They would have no covering layer tonight, relying on their shared body heat, the fire and the shelter of the cave to keep them warm until morning.

Exhausted from the day’s exertions, it did not take the boy long to fade and within a short period of time, a soft snore emanated from the huddle he made.

Liath Luachra remained seated before the small fire, adding some dry sticks then rubbing her palms together before the brief flare of heat they produced. Outside, the temperature would have plummeted but it was still pleasantly warm within the cave, the rocky walls reflecting the heat of the fire back on her. Later in the night, when the fire had died down, the accumulated heat would slowly seep out through the cave entrance, despite her best efforts to seal them in.

She glanced back over her shoulder and up to the ledge where Bearach was visible, sleeping quietly. She released a long sigh. Originally intending to travel alone, she’d allowed the boy to beat her resistance down with his good humour and boundless enthusiasm, somehow convincing her to let him come. She was still unsure how he’d actually managed to do that, to weasel his way past her habitual resolve.

The fire crackled and a low draught stirred the scent of burning pine up to her nostrils.

She had never been particularly good with children, unable to relate to their weakness, their innocence and complete dependency on adults. Her own childhood had taught her that there were only two types of people: those who were tough enough to survive and those who died.  It was a simple as that.

And yet it wasn’t, of course.

Three years at Ráth Bládhma had changed her beliefs on many things. Somehow, over that time, the routine domesticity and Bodhmhall’s calming influence had mellowed her, worn down her more jagged edges. Until accompanying Bodhmhall to Ráth Bládhma she had never really known such an extended period of calm, of tranquility. In the new settlement, for the first time in her life, she was surrounded by people she actually liked, people who respected her presence there as much for her company as for her martial skills.

You are getting soft, Liath Luachra. Life at Ráth Bládhma has made you soft and fat.

Sometimes she wished she could cut old memories from her mind, peel them away in the same way she’d peel the skin from a potato. If such things were possible she would have pared away all the pain, all the memories, long ago and tossed them into the air to let the wind take them away.

She chuckled at her own inanities. She was only fooling herself. The pain made her who she was. The pain made her hard and ruthless and, sometimes, ruthlessness was necessary to combat those who threatened you.

And there was always someone who would threaten you.

Blood Spatter and the Global Colonisation Tool

The title in the image above – Camhaoir Fuilsmeartha – is the Irish title for a project I currently have on the back burner. The English title  – Dark Dawn –  is one you may have come across elsewhere (it’s a bilingual Irish/English project).

As with all languages, translation often doesn’t work the way you’d expect and Irish is no exception. As a literal translation, ‘Dark Dawn’ just doesn’t work particularly well in Irish. That’s probably because it doesn’t have the same cultural connotation in English (at least, not in my head). Rather than resorting to béarlachas (the word we use where an Irish language or cultural concept is forced into an English structural form or word pattern), I’ve therefore used a different translation instead.

Literally, ‘Camhaoir Fuilsmeartha’ means ‘Bloodspattered Dawn’.  The meaning is slightly different from the English title but, more importantly, the connotation is correct, from a cultural perspective it’s far more apt and it still captures the theme of the story (a dark, action-adventure tale set in the Fenian Cycle).

Because I work in Irish mythology, a lot of my books tend to end up in the ‘Fantasy’ genre where I see a lot of writers (particularly, the Celtic Fantasy genre authors) use Irish terms to try and give their books a bit of (cough!) ‘cultural integrity’. The main problem I come across is where such authors use Google Translate for various terms in their books and the results are often disastrously hilarious. At it’s best, this tool is really a kind of  ‘béarlachas machine’: with Irish, it translates everything literally and therefore gets at least 80% of it’s translations technically correct but culturally and socially wrong.

At its worst,  you could say that Google Translate is like a global colonisation tool where any foreign concept from a different language/culture is sanitized to a ‘nice’, English-comprehensible equivalent.

Even where the original concept is left behind  and rendered meaningless.

———————-

Note: This project was originally due for release in January 2020. Unfortunately, workloads have now delayed it’s publication until March/April 2020.

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

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

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

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

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

The King With Horse’s Ears

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Locations for Fionn mac Cumhaill

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

The original stories of Fionn mac Cumhaill are actually believed to originate from Leinster, hence the accumulation of story locations to the east. As the character’s popularity increased however, professional storytellers from other parts of the country started to adapt the stories to include nearby features for the local audience. That’s why, today, you’ll struggle to find anywhere in Ireland that doesn’t have at least some kind of reference to Fionn or the Fianna.

The twelfth century Macgnímartha Finn (The Boyhood Tales of Fionn) on which I based the Fionn mac Cumhaill Series, retains those very strong links to Leinster and, hence most of the action in the novels take place there. I’ve had two or three people ask for a map to give some idea of the key locations from the Fenian Cycle to provide some kind of sense of where the various incidents take place. These are as follows:

 

  • Fiodh Gaibhle (Feegalva in County Monaghan): In the Fenian Cycle narrative, this is where the warrior Fiacail mac Codhna rescues the young Fionn from the “craftsmen” mentioned in the Macgnímartha Finn (the Brotherhood of Gifted Ones in Traitor of Dún Baoiscne). I never actually mention the name of the site in the book as the setting’s always struck me as a bit too far north to fit logically with the mythological narrrative. The name Fiodh Gaibhle actually means “Gabul’s Wood” but I don’t think anyone knows who Gabul was.
  • Ráth Bládhma: As a child, Fionn (or Demne, as he was originally known) was reared by two female guardians (Bodhmhall and The Grey One) in the forests of Sliabh Bládhma (Sliabh Bloom in County Laois). This isolated spot was the most apt area of wilderness contiguous to the areas in Leinster which would have been most populated back in the Iron Age. It would have been a logical place to set someone who’s on the run or in hiding.
  • Seiscenn Uairbhaoil: This Leinster marsh (where the warrior Fiacail mac Codhna was said to be based) is believed to be located in present day County Wicklow. It’s placement on the map is an estimate on my part.
  • Almhu: This was the site where Tadg mac Nuadat was originally said to live. According to one or two references, the fortress was painted with alum (Almhu) from whence it gets its name. This was also the childhood home of Muirne Múncháem (Fionn’s mother).
  • Dún Baoiscne – This is the one site in the Fionn mac Cumhaill series which is pure fabrication on my part. For the purposes of the series, I needed Clann Baoiscne to have a tribal territory based around a fortress which I arbitrarily named Dún Baoiscne (the fortress of Clann Baoiscne). To be fair, if there had been a Clann Baoiscne and they had a fortress, this is probably what it would have been called.

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

Update on Forthcoming Productions: Irish Imbas Books

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

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

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

The Adversary small

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

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

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

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

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

Celebrating Our Two Year Anniversary with a Complimentary Book

It’s hard to believe that it’s been almost two years since Fionn: Defence of Rath Bladhma was first published (by accident, incidentally – we really were new at this whole publishing stuff at the time!). Personally, I certainly never imagined it would be so many people’s favourite book or go on to spawn two sequels and a prequel.

We published Fionn: Defence of Ráth Bládhma and Beara Dark Legends about the same time. The Beara book had been completed first but it took so long to learn the various ropes that Fionn 1 was actually finished by the time we went live.

(Fionn amended aspect ratio)

Ironically, I’d been intending to get a less ‘fleshy’ cover for the book over that entire period as well but just never found the time despite constant piss-taking from my partner, my editor, family members etc. I say ‘ironic’ because a lot of people have described the book as ‘feminist’. To be honest, I don’t think I’d go that far and, besides, I’m genuinely fond of the covers because working with the designers and Chirinstock has been really enjoyable (they’re all very nice people). It’s also been a real pleasure writing such strong female protagonists. I’ve probably mentioned this before but the book was originally supposed to be centred around the character of Fionn mac Cumhaill (hence the title). The two leading female characters were so strong however, they simply shouldered their way onto the page and pretty much took over the series.

Defence of Ráth Bládhma minor

In any case, to celebrate two years of publishing we’re making this book available without charge through this website until the end of April 2016. If you’d like to get a copy just sign up to the monthly newsletter on the RHS of the webpage. When you sign in you should be able to get an option to download an ePUB (Apple, Nook, Kobo etc.) or mobi. (Kindle) version of the file.

We hope you enjoy it.