Irish Culture (as represented through … money!)

The Irish banknotes are an interesting litmus test for the progression of Irish self-identity back home.

Prior to the late 1970s, Irish banknotes consisted almost exclusively of the ‘Lady Lavery issue’ banknotes (also known as the ‘A Series’) which had been printed by the Bank of England in London and circulated in Ireland since 1928. This was always an odd choice in that the’ Lady Lavery’ in question was actually an American painter, and the second wife of portrait artist Sir John Lavery.

Known for her good looks, she’d also been used as the model for the portrait of Kathleen ní Houlihan (a kind of anglicized mythical representation of Ireland invented by W.B. Yeats) which was subsequently adapted for the banknotes.

Eventually, the Central Bank of Ireland hired Servicon – an Irish design company – to design the new banknotes which became known as the ‘B Series’. This series had a bit more cultural authenticity than the ‘Lady Lavery Issue’ and the most common of these – the green One Pound note – included a portrait of Medb of Connacht with design features based on archaeological artefacts (bone slips) and a text excerpt from An Táin (from Lebor na hUidre).

The Series C Banknotes were introduced from 1992 (replacing the Series B banknotes) and featured a number of famous Irish historical figures such as Catherine McAuley, Daniell O’Connell, James Joyce and others over the different denominations. They remained in circulation until 2002 when the Euro became the national monetary currency.

Because it crosses so many different cultures, the Euro design is, by necessity, incredibly bland (mostly based on somewhat boring architectural features). You can get souvenir-style ‘diddly-dee’ euro notes representing various sites or events in Ireland (mostly made to sell to gullible tourists).

The downside? They have a monetary value of 0.00 Eu.

Clealry, a lose-lose situation. Sheesh!

Seven Fianna

I came across an interesting project last week by artist Zhaochen Vincent Wu (based in the States) who was working on a cross-cultural proposal merging Akira Kurosawa’s ‘Seven Samurai’ with the Fenian stories.

He explains it as follows:

“This set of design is for my project “Seven Fianna”, which is an adoption to the classic movie “Seven Samurai”. My version took place in Medieval Ireland: A Mountain Spirit robs and kills shepherds and their herds from a small village. The village lost almost all food and sacrifice to the Gods. In order to save the village, the village head hired the “Fianna” to fight for them.”

Obviously, this reveals that the artist had a very limited knowledge  or understanding of Irish culture, what a fian was, etc. etc.

I have to admit, blending themes and elements from two or more different genres can often produce some interesting work however when you attempt to do it with two different cultures, it its a whole different ‘kettle of fish’. It’s not uncommon to see such projects ending up with a complete mess of a final product.

Intriguing though the concept of a potential blend of ancient Irish culture and Japanese culture might be, the truth is that it’s actually the individual resonance and authenticity of those different cultures, that makes them interesting. Once you meld one with the other you end up with something completely different (a bit like melding colours like yellow and green to make the colour blue), The final product has no cultural integrity or authenticity and, as an  entertainment, will probably resemble a generic fantasy story at best.

That said, I could be wrong. It may be possible to create a narrative product that successfully merges two cultures.

I just haven’t come across one yet.   

Sometimes you Need a Second Blade

FIONN: The Tightening Trail‘ goes out to ‘Paid’ newsletter subscribers in the next two weeks (once the final edits are done).

This – the penultimate book in the series – will be released wide, later this year (in June or July). There’s a link to it in the comments below:

Much of the story in this work concerns a difficult and dangerous journey across the Great Wild. This time, however, having learned from previous mistakes, Liath Luachra (The Grey One) is keen to ensure she has a spare blade in her sheath. This scene outlines some of her planning with Gnathad – another warrior – in this regard.


A small lean-to shelter had been constructed just inside the treeline and when the Grey One arrived, this was occupied by the fair-haired Gnathad and her foster son, Bran. Alerted to her approach by the rustle of movement through the foliage however, both had emerged to stand waiting, javelins raised, when she stepped out of the trees to their rear.

‘Grey One,’ greeted Gnathad. She lowered her weapon to rest the haft on the ground. ‘This is a surprise.’

Bran remained silent but he dipped his head to acknowledge the woman warrior’s appearance.

Liath Luachra returned their greeting with a cursory nod of her own.

‘A word with you, Gnathad.’

She glanced at Bran and, taking the hint, the youth kissed his foster mother on the cheek and started back along the summit path. Both women watched him go, waiting in silence until the sound of his footsteps had receded.

‘You should talk to him, Grey One,’ Gnathad suggested at last. ‘Bran still bears the shame of his actions from your last excursion together.’

The woman warrior shrugged.

‘Bran remedied his errors through his deeds on the return trip to Ráth Bládhma.’

‘Then perhaps you should make that clear to him. Young people don’t always grasp the unexpressed word. Sometimes it’s best to simply say it aloud.’

Liath Luachra made no response as she glanced back along the trail. The distant sound of Bran’s movement could now barely be heard. She turned her gaze back to the Coill Mór woman.

‘I have a task for you, Gnathad.’

‘A task?’

Gnathad’s curiosity was plain to see.

‘Yes. The travel party leaves at dawn tomorrow.’

The fair-haired woman perked up at that.

‘You’d have me join the travel party? Accompany you with the techtaire?’

‘No.’

‘Oh!’

The disappointment in her voice was audible.

‘I’d have you follow us.’

Gnathad went quiet at that, watching the Grey One warily because of the initial disappointment. Over the years, she’d taken to wearing her hair in tight braids in imitation of the Grey One. Some of these thick, fair strands had worked their way loose, and now she brushed at them fretfully to clear them back from her eyes. ‘What do you mean?’ she asked at last.

‘I’d have you follow the travel party. As a hidden rearguard.’

Liath Luachra paused and turned to look out over the green stretch of the western lands, the endless serrated horizon of green treetops against the blue-grey sky. Her features retained their usual dispassion and her voice remained steady as she spoke.

‘The last time we dispatched a travel party from Glenn Ceoch, events didn’t go as planned. Tadg mac Nuadat had a force waiting beyond the Bládhma hills. They took up our trail and stalked us in stealth, eventually arranging themselves at our rear so we were driven into an ambush.’

The woman warrior turned to fix her grey eyes on the other woman.

‘That’s a snare I’d skirt on this occasion.’

Gnathad considered her words for a moment.

‘It’s unclear to me what you’re proposing. What is it you’d have me do?’

‘Before I say more, I need to know if this is a task you’d be willing to fulfil.’

The Coill Mór woman didn’t hesitate.

‘Of course, it is.’

The Grey One grunted softly in satisfaction.

‘Then, tomorrow, once the travel party’s departed, gather what supplies and weapons you need in preparation for your own departure.’

‘My own departure? We don’t leave together?’

Liath Luachra shook her head.

‘And tell no-one of your intention to leave.’

‘No-one?’

‘Not even your children.’

Gnathad frowned at that.

‘My children are old enough to lead their own lives without my interference. All the same, that won’t prevent them from worrying should I disappear without trace.’

‘Then provide them with a plausible excuse. Tell them I’ve dispatched you to seek out new hunting grounds.’

The fair-haired woman mulled on that but made no contention, apparently satisfied that such a story would put her children at their ease.

‘When you leave Glenn Ceoch, keep two day’s distance from the travel party for the first six days. Any less, and you’re unlikely to spot sign of any pursuing party. If anything, it’s more likely you’ll expose your own presence.’

She shrugged.

‘There may be no pursuit, of course, but its a precaution we must take. Should you find no trace of activity to our rear, pick up your pace on the seventh day and reduce the distance between us. But stay out of sight.’

‘You don’t want me to enter the camp?’

‘No. I bear this techtaire no level of trust. It’s best he knows nothing of your presence. If any of the others know you’re there, they could inadvertently reveal your presence despite their best efforts.’

The Grey One paused to regard her closely.

‘You will be my second blade, Gnathad. The weapon I keep sheathed unless there’s a need to draw it free.’

The Tightening Trail

Demne (Fionn) and Liath Luachra traversing The Great Wild.

This is a scene from “The Tightening Trail’ – the forthcoming story from the Fionn mac Cumhaill Series which I hope to release within the next 6-8 weeks.

Number five in the series, its slowly bringing the story towards its culmination in Book Six – FIONN: The Betrayal.

Liath Luachra talks with Feoras

This is a scene from the upcoming novel ‘FIONN: The Betrayal‘ (although that title is likely to change).

Set in the settlement of Ráth Bládhma, in this scene, the woman warrior Liath Luachra, is attempting to plan a dangerous trip to the distant Tailte Méithe – The Fat Lands.

To do this however, she needs information from the punacious techtaire (messenger) Feoras -and a conversation she has not been looking forward to.


Leaving the firepit, Liath Luachra worked a path between the roundhouses, slowly making her way to the southern side of the ráth embankment and the lean-to where Feoras was sequestered. There, despite the mildewed light and the lean-to’s interior shadows, she had little difficulty making out the sour puss on the techtaire as he watched her approach.

Cónán, standing guard to the left of the lean-to, rolled his eyes and shook his head as the Grey One drew closer. The previous evening, the young warrior had expressed his weariness at the techtaire’s incessant complaining. According to Cónán, when Feoras wasn’t bitching about the food, he was carping on about the accommodation, neither of which he considered commensurate with a messenger of his standing. His treatment at Ráth Bládhma had drawn particular vitriol, although there at least Liath Luachra felt he might have had some grounds for complaint given that, on their return to Glenn Ceoch, she’d drugged the cantankerous old man and transported him on a litter, to conceal the settlement’s location. When the techtaire had finally come to, he’d been furious to learn what she’d done. Bizarrely, that fury towards her had been exceeded by his fury at the ignominy of being billeted in a lean-to used for the storage of winter fuel.

It was hard to know where the techtaire’s delusional expectations of hospitality might have come from, but Liath Luachra had little interest in trying to find out. As she slid in under the shelter’s slanted roof, she ignored his scowling features, quietly grabbing a nearby stump of wood and rolling it into an upright position. Sitting herself on the makeshift seat, she shifted around so that she was facing the old man directly.

‘We leave Ráth Bládhma tomorrow,’ she said bluntly. Feoras wasn’t a nice man so there seemed little point in social niceties.

The techtaire’s scowl softened a little at that announcement.

‘You’ll hear no complaints from me,’ he answered haughtily, raising one hand to ruffle his thick bush of white hair. ‘Arriving at Ráth Bládhma has been akin to stumbling upon a precipice marking the limit of human influence. My welcome has been nothing but a litany of insults and injury. My hospitality, little more than cast-offs a mottled swine would reject.’

He waved a hand to indicate the cramped, wood-strewn interior, as though to support the validity of his grievance. Liath Luachra said nothing, waiting for him to complete his querulous griping before she proceeded to the reason for her visit.

‘We’ll leave Glenn Ceoch at first light. By then, the final preparations should have been completed. More importantly, that allows a full day for the ground to firm up after last night’s rain.’

Feoras’ forehead creased a little at that. He pursed his lips and squinted at her uncertainly.

‘If the ground is firm,’ she explained, ‘we leave less trace of our passage on the Great Mother’s mantle. Tracks become less important the further we get from Gleann Ceoch but with Clann Morna haunting the nearby hills, I’ve no desire to leave a trail that leads straight back to the settlement.’

The techtaire scratched at his beard but made no comment.

‘Before we leave,’ the woman warrior continued, ‘it would suit my purposes to learn what you can tell me of the character of the land we’ll be traversing, any relevant water sources, impassable rivers or other obstacles …’

Her voice stalled momentarily as she registered the particularly sour expression he’d turned towards her, but she continued with fresh resolve.

‘That knowledge would allow me to take proper account of the supplies we’ll need.’

‘The Cailleach Dubh has agreed to follow my guidance,’ the techtaire countered, his jaw jutting forward with mulish obstinacy. ‘It should be my role to decide on what might be needed over the course of our travels.’

Liath Luachra regarded him coldly.

‘The argument was lost before it even started, Feoras. I lead the travel party. You’re a guide, Nothing more.’

The old man glared at her, but the heat of that glare glanced harmlessly off the smoothness of her serene, somewhat remote features. Defeated by that unruffled composure and the finality of her response, he turned his angry gaze away.

‘Well?’ she prompted.

She noted the techtaire’s jaw clench a little and, for a moment, she thought he was about to sink into an outraged sulk. To her surprise however, he seemed to think twice about it for when he spoke again, his voice was smooth and calm if, troublingly, cordial.

 ‘What is it you wish to know?’

Note: FIONN: The Betrayal should be available in May/June 2024

Some old (and slightly mysogenistic) Covers

I’d just started the process of redesigning the Fionn mac Cumhaill Series book covers this week when these arrived in yesterday as part of a historical post.

About eight years ago, I’d commissioned some covers and the artist came back with the attached images. At the time, although I was really impressed with her design skills (she did the first Liath Luachra book cover and one or two more) I felt these images were very ‘genre dated’ – harking back to the misogynistic, old-style, fantasy covers of the sixties, seventies, eighties and nineties.

It’s also worth noting that there was absolutely no stock images out there to represent 1st/2nd century Ireland in a meaningfully accurate way (and there still isn’t, hence my preference for hiring my own illustrators).

I never used these versions but went with a far more restricted set that I’ve slowly being replacing over the years. I’m hoping to start introducing the new covers in the next edition of my newsletter (Vóg).

Monoliths

Monoliths by Jonan Booth Remmers.

Obviously, we have many variations of these back home, particularly around the Cork-Kerry area. People tend to forget however, that what we see today are little more than the ‘bones beneath the skin’.

Most of these structures are the remnants of something that existed thousands of years ago. They don’t look the same today as they were when they were first embedded into the land.

Patterns in Irish History and ‘Mythology’

You can’t really understand ‘mythology’ if you don’t have the culture and the historical context – one of the reasons Western-based “internet mythology” remains an ‘entertainment’ or a false promise of mystic wisdom, rather than actual ‘knowledge’.

When it comes to ‘mythology’, one of the biggest mistakes people tend to make is an enthusiatic and frenzied focus on individual events and records rather than the longer term patterns. It’s a basic scientific principle that nothing makes sense unless it’s repeated (ie. it’s reproducible) and that truth holds just as well for ‘mythology’.

The attached link to a NYT article on an ancient Roman pandemic, gives a good example of this kind of thinking (although its related to defined historical events rather than ‘mythological’ events).

Obviously, you can’t compare apples with oranges but the patterns are clear and there to be found if you know your own culture and look close enough.

Coming in 2024

After a hectic, but production poor 2023, I’m proactively returned to creative mode. At the moment, my key focus is on finishing ‘FIONN: The Betrayal’ – the fifth book in FIONN mac Cumhaill Series and, probably, the second last.

This particular work has been a lot harder to write than most other books in the series thus far. That’s not really a surprise as it’s also the first book to start reeling in all the different plotlines spread across the FIONN series (and some elements from the overlapping Liath Luachra books).

For that reason, it’s a lot more ‘talky’ and includes far more character development than many of the other books but that’s critical to maintaining an appropriate narrative pace leading up to the series culmination.

That’s all boringly technical, I know, but the last thing I want to do is rush the story (in a manner similar to the last season of the Game of Thrones television series, for example).

I’m hoping to publish this on the Irish Imbas website at the end of March /start of April. It’ll then go wide to all the other ebookstores a month or two after that.

On completing this book, I had intended to start the next in the Liath Luachra series but, given the overlapping narratives, it’s important that I’m further along in the next FIONN series before I can do that. As a result, I’ll probably start immediately on the sixth FIONN book (title not yet decided).

I’ll also be working on a shorter Liath Luachra work (LIATH LUACHRA: The Quiet One) once that’s completed. That will follow the story from ‘Liath Luachra: The Great Wild.’

Not to be confused with ‘The Quiet Girl’.

My last priority is non-fiction work entitled ‘Irish ‘Mythology 101 (How Irish ‘Mythology’ Works) which I’ve been working on for some years but which I’ve regularly had to put aside due to other commitments.

This should be available by the end of the year.

I have other projects and creative work on the go, but these are the ones I’m focussed on delivering in 2024.

Maith agaibh!

Ten Years

It’s hard to believe but it’s now coming up to ten years since I first started publishing books on Irish culture and Irish cultural belief systems.

Back in 2013/14, I’d originally planned to write (and publish through a mainstream publisher) a non-fiction book related to Irish Fenian stories. What I ended up discovering through my research however, completely upended my plans (both in terms of WHAT I decided to publish and HOW I published)

I started off with BEARA: Dark Legends in 2014, as it was closest to my heart. After that, I published FIONN: Defence of Rath Bládhma which subsequently went on to become a finalist in the SPFBO competition (it came in 4th place out of 300).

Over the following ten years, I published about 1-1.5 books a year and currently have 14 books on the catalogue (with some separate short stories/novellas and another book to come out in the next 3-4 months).

Throughout those ten years, I learned a huge amount about Irish ‘mythology’, what people think that is, and what it really is. One of my more ambitious projects is to produce a work on those findings by the end of the year. I also learned a lot about computer game production, script writing and negotiating with Hollywood lawyers.

I’ve also learned that no matter what my plans, life will always come barging in to disrupt them. That was originally a source of great frustration for me, but I’ve got over myself and just learned to accept it.

Creatively, I’ve become faster at producing work and the books and other products. Meanwhile, the works I’ve developed continue to increase in popularity (which is a reward in itself, of course).

Over the next year or two, I’m hoping to get to a point where I can support myself uniquely through my creative work and I’m very grateful to all those people (readers, reviewers, advisors, etc. ) who’ve supported me over the years and helped me get to this place.

Go raibh mile maith agaibh!

Fionn mac Cumhaill … The Poet

A lot of people tend to forget that Fionn mac Cumhaill also held a reputation as a talented poet (which has a whole bunch of relevant associations) and the Fenian narratives are strongly linked with what’s generally referred to as ‘nature poetry’.

A number of ‘nature poems’ are actually attributed to Fionn (and I’ve a bridge to sell you if you believe that). This one is a 9th century poem (in Irish and English) which was translated by the German philology scholar, Kuno Meyer, back in the early 1900s.

Note, this was written in 9th century Irish, so it’s quite different to modern Irish. I have to say, though, Meyer did a superb job of the translation.

Scél lem duíb

Dordaid dam

Snigid gaim

Ro-faíth sam

Gàeth ard uar

ísel grian

gair a rith

ruirthech rían

—————

Here’s a song

stags give tongue

winter snows

summer goes

high cold blow

sun is low

brief his day

seas give spray.

Darthuala

‘Darthuala’ – a variant name for Deirdre (as in Deirdre of the Sorrows) – by British artist Henry Tidey. Tidey produced this sometime back in the 1980s.

The painting was based on James Macpherson’s somewhat fraudulent representation of Gaelic works which, amusingly, makes this ‘a reinterpretation of a misrepresentation’.

It’s quiet surprisingly how common this is, even in contemporary society.

Actually, perhaps even more so!