The Strange Truth behind the Irish Mythological Cycles

Irish Mythological Cycles

In the mid-eighteenth century, an English detective working in Dublin was assigned to investigate the disappearance of a missing Irishman. On travelling to the up-market suburb where this individual had lived in a tiny hovel amongst the splendid Georgian architecture, the detective questioned the various individuals that lived nearby.

What the detective found surprised him. Although most of the man’s neighbours knew him to see, none knew much about him beyond a friendly wave or a shared “good morning” when they ran into each other. “He kept to himself”, was the phrase the detective heard repeatedly over the course of the morning and it was only when he started talking to the next-door neighbour that he finally learned something more.

“I think he was foreign.”

The next-door neighbour was a young, well-to-do Englishman. The house he lived in was a clean and modern townhouse that looked very much at odds with the missing man’s ramshackle cabin.

“I’d hear him talking to himself every now and again,’ he continued. ‘Out in the back garden.”

“And what was he saying?” asked the detective.

“I don’t know”, the young man replied. “I never actually understood a word he was saying. That’s why I think he was foreign.” His brow furrowed as he regarded the detective, a sudden concern in his eyes. ‘You don’t think he’s dead, do you?”

“That’s what I’m trying to establish”, the detective replied.

Leaving the neighbour, the detective strolled towards the missing man’s house, thoughtfully stroking his chin. The young man’s comments had been interesting, informative in a way but hardly enlightening in any form that mattered.

Fortunately, the front door of the missing man’s home was ajar when the detective tried it and after a cursory ‘hallo’ he entered. Stepping across the threshold into a gloomy inner room however, he at once felt nervous and ill at ease. As his eyes adjusted to the light, the detective stared about the dark little space with a growing sense of incredulity. Surrounding him was a bizarre array of awkward looking furniture, chairs – and what looked like a sofa, but in a shape and form the detective had never encountered before. There was also a tall lamp with no visible light switch, a hat-stand with no hooks and

Moving to examine a flat table beside the entrance to the kitchen, he found that the flat surface contained a number of carved niches and had strange holes in the side. Both the top and the legs were decorated in coiled, spiral designs that were alien to his experience but undeniably attractive.

The English detective continued his search and in each room of the house found more unusual and unfamiliar items, bits and pieces of equipment, exotic musical instruments with strings and strange moving parts, books and tattered manuscripts in a peculiar script he couldn’t read, clothing of irregular shapes and sizes and a multitude of small knick-knacks that looked like personal mementos. He was unable to tell what exactly they were used for.

Bewildered, the detective left the house and returned to his headquarters at Dublin Castle to confront his superior.

“Inspector, this is an odd case you’ve assigned me.”

“What’s so difficult?” asked the Inspector. “You have all the resources you could need, the city’s willing to pay for overtime, there are several witnesses … Why would it be difficult?”

“Because I’m missing context,” the detective answered. “No-body knows anything about the missing man.”

His superior carefully arranged a series of files on his table as he formulated his reply.  “Should I assign this case to someone more … amenable?” he asked at last.

The English detective paused, nettled but also resenting the inspector’s response. “No,” he said at last. “I have an idea that could possibly work.” He sniffed and rubbed his noise. “Give me until the end of the day”, he suggested. “By then, I should be able to present my final conclusions.”

The Inspector regarded him coldly. “Very well. But, be warned. I’ll make a point of coming around to see your results for myself.

The detective nodded stiffly and left.

Returning to the wealthy suburb and the missing man’s house, the detective methodically moved through each room, gathering up every moveable item of furniture, every stitch of clothing, every book, and unfamiliar briq-a-braq and deposited them in a large heap on the long lawn to the rear of the house. Removing his jacket, he hung it on the branch of a nearby tree and got to work.

The detective commenced by placing four different objects separately, about one metre apart. Once he’d satisfied himself with his choice, he then proceeded to add other items next to the first ones until he’d created four distinct lines.

It was early evening before the detective finally completed his chore and he was standing back to admire his work when the Inspector from Dublin Castle suddenly emerged through the rear door of the house and out onto the lawn. Advancing towards the detective, he sidled up alongside him and stared down to examine what the detective had done. Frowning, he turned his head to glance at his colleague, then studied the four lines before returning his attention to the detective again.

“I see what you’ve done,” he said. “You’ve arranged all the elements of the missing man into four separate lines.”

“Yes,” the detective confirmed.

The Inspector nodded in appreciation.

“And all in relation to colour.”

“That’s right. The first line contains all the red objects in the missing man’s house. The second line contains all the green elements. The third line contains all the yellow elements and the last line contains all those other bits and pieces that don’t seem to match the colour of the other three.”

“That’s ingenious!” The Inspector was impressed and to show his regard he designed to shake the detective’s hand. “You’ll get a commendation for this, of course. And, ….” He paused and tapped hi lower lip. “I think that in future, we’ll ensure that all similar cases use the exact same deductive technique to understand the situation.”

“Hang on!” exclaimed the neighbour, who’d been leaning unobserved over the backyard fence that separated his property from the missing mans.  “What about the missing man?”

The Inspector’s face screwed up in annoyance and he shrugged dismissively. “The fate of the missing Irishman was never really the issue,” he answered. “He’s gone and it’s the remains that we need to make sense of. Besides, if he’s foreign, his foreign-thinking ways are hardly in our best interest, are they?”

This somewhat ambiguous parable goes some way to explaining the problem with the famous “Irish Mythological Cycles” (although anyone who knows this stuff will see the parallels straight off).

Even today, despite the fact that most specialists in the “Irish/Celtic Studies” arena know that it makes absolutely no sense to try and explain ancient Irish belief systems through the mechanism of ‘The Cycles’, most non-academics (amateur “mythology” writers and online “experts”) still try to push this hoary old approach, usually due to a lack of knowledge or for reasons of commercial ease (it’s easier and cheaper to go with the most commonly known mistakes than to portray the actual truth).

Trying to explain Irish belief systems through the structure of mythological cycles is just as ridiculous and ineffective as the detective trying to explain the absence of the missing man through lines of belongings separated on the basis of colour. The problem of course is that both approaches are based on arbitrarily created frameworks. In the former, the missing man’s belonging are arranged on the basis of colour. With the mythological cycles, different bits of cultural narratives and belief systems are arranged on the basis of “similar theme” (Fenian stories – The Fenian Cycle, stories set in Ulster – The Ulster Cycle, stories to do with certain myths – The Mythological Cycle, and a mishmash of different stories that are ingloriously crammed together under the title – The Historical Cycle).

As the detective in the story points out, it’s impossible for one culture to understand another culture’s mythology/cultural constructs without that critical missing element … Context.

New Book News

It’s been a tough few months with challenging workloads on all fronts but fortunately I’ve had the chance to work with some fascinating and talented people this year. As a result, I’m hoping this year’s output is going to be one of our most substantial and best to date.

The second book to appear this year will be the next LIATH LUACHRA adventure (THE SWALLOWED) which should be out sometime in the next 3 months. This follows the experiences of the 2nd century Irish woman warrior Liath Luachra (the future guardian to Irish mythological hero Fionn mac Cumhaill) and her fian (war party) ‘The Friendly Ones’.

The draft blurb outlining the story currently reads as follows:

Ireland: Second century.

The Lonely Lands: Ireland’s shadowy centre, a desolate region of dense forest and swamp where unwary travellers are swallowed up … to disappear forever.

Caught up in a tribal conflict when their latest mission goes sour, the woman warrior Liath Luachra and war party “The Friendly Ones” find themselves coerced into a new undertaking:

* Lead a mismatched group of warriors into the Lonely Lands.

* Find ‘The Swallowed’.

But intra-tribal rivalry is never what it seems, old enemies bear fresh grudges and predators move in the dark heart of the forest …
Awaiting their moment to feed.
————————————————-

PRAISE FOR THE LIATH LUACHRA SERIES

“The thinking woman’s warrior!”

“This is an Ancient Ireland that is entrancing and savage, much like Liath Luachra herself.”

“Liath Luachra is an engaging protagonist – deliciously sensual, yet calculatingly violent when the cause demands it. Never a dull moment, difficult to put down.”

“You don’t often come across such a compelling hero(ine), written with such depth and understanding.”

“She’s intriguing – fierce and capable of killing…but loyal and gentle too at times. I love the picture painted of old Ireland and the wildness of it – and the occasional use of the Irish language adds another dimension to the story – a kind of authenticity. I’m looking forward to reading more.” (less)

Further details on our expected output this year should appear in the next edition of Vóg (our monthly newsletter). You can find a copy of last month’s edition here: Vóg

Submission Titles for the Celtic Mythology Short Story Competition

It’s always fun to look through the titles of submissions for the Celtic Mythology Short Story Competition and this year has been no exception. Since we first started the competition (back in the Dark Ages of 2015), I’ve got into a routine of running through the title list without the author names attached just to see the kind of reaction the titles trigger.

A story title can often be extremely evocative but their interpretation, of course, is usually linked to the personal experience and background or the person reading them. As a result, what I’d read into a title would be very different to what another person would.

Despite the old saying, I’ve learned that these days you actually can judge a book by its cover – at least in terms of genre (except in those cases where you have an inept publisher). That doesn’t work with a story/book title, though. The gold standard for titles is to have something that’s evocative but which also gives you an accurate expectation of what you’re about to read. That’s quite a difficult skill to master.

These are the title that took my fancy from this year’s batch and the reasons why.

  • … Loves company – I thought this was a clever play on the expression ‘Misery loves Company’  and (I’m assuming) transforms it into something else entirely.
  • A Tune and a Magic Bicycle – Juxtaposition in a title always tends to make that title stronger, particularly where you mix the esoteric with the banal. I like this one
  • Away with the Fairies – Again a possible double meaning on the old expression used for people with dementia.
  • Fionn and the Banshee – Given my own special interest in the Fenian Cycle, this was always going to catch my eye. I’m intrigued to see how the author merges two such different cultural concepts.
  • Jimmy Macpherson’s Dream – On seeing this title I immediately thought of James MacPherson – a Scottish outlaw made famous by poet Robbie Burns. I have no idea if there’s a link or not.
  • Moireach – Interesting title. The word looks Irish in structure but it’s not one (a name?) I’m familiar with. Usually I run off to research the word when confronted by something like this but of course I won’t be doing this yet as I don’t want to spoil the story.
  • The Halloween Footballers – For some reason this just tickles me. I’m not quite sure why.
  • The Three Faces of Me – Again, I’ve imposed my own interpretation on this title based on my personal experience and background and have therefore assumed this has something to do with the triad system of Celtic/Gaelic belief. It’ll be interesting to see how completely wrong or right I was.

This year we ended up with a sharp decline in submissions compared to last year (from over seventy to thirty-five in this year’s slot).  I’m quite happy with this result as it means the additional clarification on criteria and entry requirements is working. Last year, we received at least 20 submissions which had absolutely nothing to do with mythology (some ghost stories, some stories vaguely related to Ireland and so on) despite the guidelines. We also received a large number of specific fantasy stories set in Ireland from authors that also seemed to have missed what we’re trying to do. It’s a bit distressing to receive these as we know people have made the effort of paying the $7 entry fee and yet they’re so completely off the mark, they can’t progress to the shortlist. This is particularly the case when you come across stories that are actually of excellent quality!

In any case, the 2017 submissions are currently undergoing an initial review to assess how many go through to the short-list. The results will be posted by the end of the month.

Thanks to all of you who’ve taken the time to submit.

 

PS: A note of apology is necessary for the delay in getting this post up. We’ve had a bit of a disastrous holiday period with yours truly managing to get himself baldy injured in a running accident and we’ve also suffered two separate IT malfunctions. Because of our regular back–up processes we haven’t lost any data but trying to find IT support to reboot our systems over the Christmas holidays (in New Zealand) has meant we’re about two weeks behind schedule. We should be back on track in the next few days.

Irish Mythology: The Bastard Child of Colonialism – Part II

Following three centuries of colonization and much brutal cultural repression, in 1922, Ireland had finally obtained independence and thrown off the yoke of British imperialism. With independence, there was an enormous resurgence of enthusiasm to resurrect Gaelic culture and regain the glory days of Gaelic culture.

Unfortunately, it didn’t really happen as planned.

To understand why it didn’t happen, you first need to understand how colonization works.

Understanding colonization

Colonization is defined as:
“the action or process of settling among and establishing control over the indigenous people of an area”

Way back in the day, it was pretty much de rigeur for upstanding entrepreneurs with the necessary military backing, to invade neighbouring territories, subjugate the indigenous population and take control of the natural resources. The whole invasion/subjugation thing worked because, if those early entrepreneurs were successful, it not only ensured their wealth and influence (within their own culture) but the continuing survival of their line. That’s pretty much why the Egyptians did it, the Greeks did it, the Romans did it (they were probably the most effect colonization machine in the Ancient World), the Vikings did it and so on. In later times, the Spanish also did a bit of colonization in South America, the Portuguese in Africa and, of course, the English colonised Scotland, Wales, Ireland and, later, Australia, New Zealand etc.

The problem with invading a foreign civilization however is that you’re subsequently obliged to maintain a presence (to ensure your captured resources aren’t reclaimed) and to subjugate the indigenous culture to get them to accept the reality of the new power structures. A key part of achieving this (and reducing the likelihood of rebellion) was to suppress the indigenous knowledge systems and impose the invading culture’s way of thinking on the local population.

In Ireland therefore, under British rule, the use of the Penal Laws and military meant that many aspects of Gaelic culture were actively suppressed from the mid-1600s on. Gaelic poets and scholars were eradicated, religious expression was purged, and the Gaelic language was prohibited from the education system until 1871. Combined with the Great Famine, which forced a disproportionately high number of Gaelic speakers to emigrate (most Gaelic speakers lived in the poorer areas heavily hit by famine deaths), this sent the language into a spinning decline. Given that language is the key mechanism for the transmission of unique cultural concepts from one generation to the next, this was a serious blow.

The After-effects of Colonization

By the time the Irish Free State was founded therefore, much of the Gaelic cultural frameworks and ways of thinking had already been eroded and in some cases, completely lost. Luckily, there had been some attempts at revitalisation by visionaries such as Douglas Hyde (founder of the Gaelic League who was keen to “de-anglicize” the country as a cultural goal). The early work of Hyde and his contemporaries, helped to ensure the continuing survival of Gaelic music, sport and dance.

In 2017, there are estimated to be approximately 450 Gaelic Athletic Association Clubs around the world. Irish music is thriving in Ireland and internationally and continues to influence and inspire musicians from every country and culture to this day. Irish dancing, although less successful, is also strong on the home and international front.

So then – you might ask – what the hell happened with Irish art and literature?

The Impact of Colonization on Irish Literature

The rallying call for the revival of Gaelic culture was also taken up by artists and writers at the end of the nineteenth century. Unfortunately, most of the artists doing the rallying at the time, tended to be associated with the British ascendency, privileged in upbringing and linked to the right social circles. There was a strange irony in that although these descendants of the invaders identified strongly as Irish and were rabid nationalists, they were also completely unfamiliar with the nature of the Gaelic culture they were trying to revive. Artistic “luminaries” of the time such as W. B Yeats, Lady Gregory J.M. Synge and so on, launched the Abbey Theatre to perform “Irish” plays yet, paradoxically, the majority of the plays about Ireland were performed in English. Despite the fervent rhetoric, it turned out that, few Abbey Theatre playwrights spoke more than a few words of Irish and some actively disliked the language.

When it came to using Gaelic cultural constructs for their creative works, the new, self-appointed literati scoured manuscripts surviving from medieval and pre-medieval times for content. Unfortunately, much of what they produced was watered down for the genteel audience of the time and given the writer/artist’s habit of selectively plucking cultural elements they liked (and pretty much ignoring what they didn’t) this meant that resulting cultural elements were often staged incorrectly and completely out of context. The works that were subsequently presented as the mythology of Ireland often had more to do with creative fantasy than genuine Gaelic culture.

At the time, W.B. Yeats (who actually disliked the Irish language) was reported as saying:
“Remember, it is the tales of Cú Chulainn and Deirdre of the Sorrows that are immortal and not the tongue that first told them”.

What Yeats never seemed to understand was that if there hadn’t been a separate tongue or a separate culture, those tales would never have been produced in the first place. Given that those stories were also based on cultural concepts that many non-Irish speakers (like him) wouldn’t have been familiar with (or understood), by reinterpreting them to suit his own interests, he’d already changed them to something different, something that suited the colonial mind.

So much for ‘immortal’.

To be concluded in Part III

Read Irish Mythology: The Bastard Child of Colonialism – Part I

Irish Mythology: The Bastard Child of Colonialism – Part I

One of the most fascinating aspects of mythology is the fact that, at its most fundamental, the subject reflects the battle between cultural dominance and cultural repression, the difference between cultural independence and enforced colonization.

When mythology first became an academic discipline towards the latter half of the nineteenth century, it generally involved the study of a suppressed culture by the members (or the descendants of members) of the dominant culture. In other words, members of the colonizing culture were studying the colonized culture). Naturally, this posed a bit of an issue in that those people doing the studies:

  • often didn’t really understand the indigenous culture of the country they lived in
  • were weighed down by their own prejudices in that they generally saw that indigenous culture as inferior to their own

This, of course, resulted in some particularly biased interpretation and much of the 19th century “academic study” of ‘mythology’ tended to interpret as a failed way of thinking or primitive religious beliefs of an inferior people. This is why books by people such as W.B. Yeats often had titles like “Fairy and Folk Tales of the Irish Peasantry“.

It’s very doubtful W.B. Yeats considered himself a peasant.

Ireland, as a colonized country, had its Gaelic culture suppressed from about the mid-1600s (the period from which the English Crown had military control over the entire country). From that time on, Gaelic belief systems were systematically and purposefully eradicated by the English Crown, aided in no small part by the Roman Church who wanted more spiritual control over the native population. Gaelic language and Gaelic ways of thinking were dissuaded and forcibly disallowed. Gaelic belief systems and intellectual concepts were, for the most part eradicated, except in those isolated rural areas where the influence of the government and the church held far less sway.

Some three hundred years later, when Ireland finally regained its independence (the Free State in 1922), there was an immense surge of enthusiasm and nationalism followed by an intense effort to revive Gaelic culture (some of it genuine, some of it nonsensical). At that time, there was a genuine belief that with Irish people back in control of their own country, they could “remove the yoke of English repression” and regain the glory days of Gaelic culture.

Clearly, that was all a bit optimistic. If that goal had been successfully achieved, Irish people would be speaking Irish as a first language and we, as an independent culture, would regularly offer unique cultural insights and intellectual concepts that contributed to, and influenced, the Western way of thinking.

Evidently, something had gone badly wrong.

But what was it?

Part II to follow.

Read Irish Mythology: The Bastard Offspring of Colonialism – Part II

Irish Mythology, Negative Spins, and Newly discovered Werewolves

Much of what people see as Irish folklore and Irish mythology today, is actually a confused muddle of snippets of fact, cultural misinterpretation, Chinese whispers, intentional and unintentional misinformation. Generally speaking, the latter tends to be disseminated by bloggers who aren’t Irish (but have an interest in Celtic mythology) however most people are surprised to learn that the more proactive form of cultural misinformation started back in the 12th century with an individual known as Giraldus Cambrensis (Gerald of Wales).

Born in 1146, Gerald of Wales was the scion of a noble family (he was the son of William FitzOdo de Barry or Barri, one of Wales most powerful Anglo-Norman barons). Like his peers, Gerald had a healthy appreciation for power and for those who wielded it. Driven by ambitions, he placed himself in positions associated with powerful men, ceaselessly self-promoted and worked his way up the social/political ladder until he was appointed archdeacon of Brecon in 1174 (a role he obtained by ‘dobbing in’ the previous archdeacon for having a live-in mistress).

Propelled by this success, Gerald soon managed to inveigle his way into the role of royal clerk and chaplain to King Henry II and, following the Norman invasions of Ireland (in 1169 and 1171), secured the prestigious position of accompanying the King’s son (Earl John – later, King John as of Robin Hood fame) on a tour of the conquered lands.

During this exploratory visit to Ireland, in an effort to impress his masters, Gerald commenced a propaganda piece known as the Topographia Hibernica (The Topography of Ireland). Even at the time, this document was remarkable not only for its length but the amazing depths of prejudicial description that essentially portrayed the native Irish as depraved barbarians.

Published in 1188, Gerald’s account proved immensely popular in Great Britain with the ruling Norman classes as it’s dehumanisation of the Irish helped justify their invasion and the subsequent treatment of the natives. It’s important not to dismiss the impact of the Topographia Hibernica as many of its ‘factual’ descriptions established those stereotypes of the “wild Irish” that continued up to the early modern period (and which some would argue continue today).

Surprisingly, despite the fact that the Topographia Hibernica has been discredited for centuries, you’ll still find contemporary bloggers quoting liberally from it in an effort to justify their own particular passions or interests (usually related to fantasy beliefs which are then linked – kicking and screaming – to Irish mythology). To be fair, reading some of Gerald’s writing is actually quite hilarious from a contemporary viewpoint but the fact that this was a propaganda document written by a non-Irish person and an official government spin-doctor for the Norman government, seems to have flown over the heads of many of the quoting bloggers. As in Geralds’ day, it seems people will still rearrange the facts to suit themselves.

One example I pulled from the Topographia Hibernica involves a fanciful ‘record’ of some Irish people being ‘part-wolf’. It reads as follows:

Of the prodigies of our times, and first of a wolf which conversed with a priest

I now proceed to relate some wonderful occurrences which have happened within our times. About three years before the arrival of Earl John in Ireland, it chanced that a priest who was journeying from Ulster to Meath, was benighted in a certain wood on the borders of Meath. While, in company with only a young lad, he was watching by a fire which he had kindled under the branches of a spreading tree, lo! A wolf came up to them and immediately addressed them to this effect.

“Rest secure, and be not afraid, for there is no reason you should fear, where no fear is.”

The travellers being struck with astonishment and alarm, the wolf added some orthodox words referring to God. The priest then implored him, and adjured him by Almighty God and faith in the Trinity, not to hurt them, but to inform them what creature it was that in the shape of a beast uttered human words. The wolf, after giving catholic replies to all questions, added at last:

“There are two of us, a man and a woman, natives of Ossory, who, through the curse of one Natalis, saint and abbot, are compelled every seven years to put off the human form, and depart from the dwellings of men. Quitting entirely the human form, we assume that of wolves. At the end of the seven years, if they chance to survive, two others being substituted in their places, they return to their country and their former shape. And now, she who is my partner in this visitation lies dangerously sick not far from hence, and, as she is at the point of death, I beseech you, inspired by divine charity, to give her the consolations of your priestly office.”

At this word, the priest followed the wolf trembling, as he led the way to a tree, at no great distance in the hollow of which he beheld a she-wolf, who under that shape was pouring forth human sighs and groans. On seeing the priest, having saluted him with human courtesy, she gave thanks to God, who in this extremity had vouchsafed to visit her with such consolation. She then received from the priest all the rites duly performed, as far as the last communion. This also she importantly demanded, earnestly supplicating him to complete his good offices by giving her the viaticum. The priest stoutly asserting that he was not provided with it, the he-wolf, who had withdrawn to a short distance, came back and pointed out a small missal-book, containing some consecrated wafers, which the priest carried on his journey, suspended from his neck, under his garment, after the fashion of the country. He then intreated him not to deny them the gift of God, and the aid destined them by Divine Providence; and, to remove all doubt, using his claw for a hand, he tore off the skin of the she-wolf, form the head down to the navel, folding it back. Thus she immediately presented the form of an old woman. The priest, seeing this, and compelled by his fear more than his reason, gave the communion; the recipient having earnestly implored it, and devoutly partaking of it. Immediately afterwards, the he-wolf rolled back the skin and fitted it to its original form.
These rites having been duly, rather than rightly, performed the he-wolf gave them his company during the whole night at their little fire, behaving more like a man than a beast. When morning came, he led them out of the wood, and, leaving the priest to pursue his journey, pointed to him the direct road for a long distance. At his departure, he also gave him many thanks for the benefit he had conferred, promising him still greater returns of gratitude if the Lord should call him back from his present exile, two parts of which he had already completed. At the close of their conversation, the priest inquired of the wolf whether the hostile race which had now landed on the island would continue there for the time to come, and be established in it. To which the wolf replied: –

“For the sins of our nation, and their enormous vices, the anger of the Lord, falling on an evil generation, hath given them into the arms of their enemies. Therefore, as long as this foreign race shall keep the commandments of the Lord, and walk in his ways, it will be secure and invincible; but if, as the downward path to illicit pleasures is easy, and nature is prone to follow vicious examples, this people shall chance, from living among us, to adopt our depraved habits, doubtless they will provoke the divine vengeance on themselves also.”

It’s quite likely that Gerald received additional brownie points from his masters for the final paragraph which essentially suggests the native Irish deserved everything they got (i.e. being invaded) as they were essentially sinful.

As you can see, Gerald of Wales had no particular qualms using fiction to portray the natives as partly inhuman (something which aligned well with the Roman Church who often likened native Irish war parties as ‘wolf bands’). This is something he also did in other sections of the document such as:

  • Of a fish which had three golden teeth
  • Of a woman who had a beard, and a hairy crest and mane on her back
  • Of an animal who was half-ox, half-man
  • Of a goat who had intercourse with a woman
  •  Yadda, yadda, yadda.

You get the idea.

I came across the above section as a result of some research I was recently carrying out on Irish wolves and, to my great amusement, discovered numerous bloggers have used this section to argue their belief that there’s always been werewolves in Ireland.

On the bright side of course, we should probably thank our lucky stars they didn’t quote Mein Kampf.

Wading in the Cultural Shallows – How Irish Mythology Became A Commodity

One night at a party I was introduced to a woman who proudly informed told me she’d named her baby daughter ‘Banshee’ in celebration of her Irish heritage. Even at the time I was pretty stunned by the announcement. For an Irish person (and I would have thought most people would have known this), this was the equivalent to naming her daughter – Death.

About two weeks later, at another party, (I had a life back then!) I was cornered by a different woman demanding a translation for the chorus from Clannad’s haunting Theme Song from Harry’s Game. The Irish lyrics for the chorus had been written on her CD sleeve as ‘Fol dol de doh fol-de de day’!) which she thought was absolutely beautiful and must mean something mythically profound.’ Needless to say, she wasn’t particularly impressed when I translated it as ‘La, la la la, la la laaah!’

These are just two examples of the cultural disconnect between Irish people and those who dabble in Irish mythology. They are however only two of the hundreds I’ve personally experienced over the last twenty years or so and I know many other Irish people who’ve had similar experiences. It’s actually a source of continual bemusement to see how bizarrely and inaccurately our culture’s been represented over that time.

In some respect, Clannad actually bear some responsibility for the situation given that their moody ‘Robin of Sherwood’ and other music (aided in equal amounts by ‘Celtic’ films such as Excalibur etc.) helped to create this situation. During the 1970s and 1980s, with the explosion of fantasy entertainment through books, comics and movies, stories based on Celtic mythology suddenly became extremely hip. Atmospheric visuals and music from musicians such as Clannad and others helped to fan the flames to the point where ‘Celtic Mythology Fantasy’ (what some call ‘Celtic Fantasy’) based entertainment is now a minor industry.

Celtic Mythology = ?
Unfortunately, the term ‘Celtic Mythology’ is a bit of a misnomer. The main problem is that the terms ‘Celtic’ or ‘Celt’ don’t actually mean anything (and therefore can mean whatever you want it to mean). Certainly back in early Europe, there were populations with similar cultural characteristics that the Romans generically referred to as Celts but even amongst those peoples there were substantial cultural differences. In a sense, using the word ‘Celt’ is a bit like using the word ‘European’. Modern-day Europe covers a defined geographical area with populations that have many similar characteristics but, again, the truth is that it’s the differences that define them. A German, for example, wouldn’t primarily identify himself/herself as a European. Neither would a French person. A Welshman wouldn’t identify himself as Irish or vice versa.

Another problem with ‘Celts’ is that the ancient culture referred to as ‘Celts’ (by other people) are pretty much gone (eradicated by the Romans or subsequently colonized out of existence) and the records of them are extremely sparse. Hence, most of the, time the closest thing (Gaelic records or Welsh records) are used instead. Because of their age, the cultural context in these records is very broadly interpreted and their modern-day expression tends to reflect the particular bias of the people interpreting them.

Several years ago, my family attended a friend’s ‘Celtic’ wedding which turned out to be some strange mix of Revisionist Celt, New Age, Wicca and other influences. It was a great celebration and we were having a lot of fun until the marriage ceremony proper began and the celebrants started praying to the Salmon of Knowledge. At that point, my two kids started cracking up and I was struggling to keep a straight face myself because it was immediately obvious what had happened. In their attempts to ‘Celticise’ the ritual, the celebrants had clearly gone through various ‘Celtic’ books (Gaelic books) and selectively pulled out elements that they could incorporate. Unfortunately, because they were missing the cultural context, what they eventually ended up with made absolutely no sense and the poor old salmon was elevated to some kind of symbolic messenger of the Gods. As my daughter said to me a few years later, it was like going to a church as a kid and discovering that everyone was praying to Kermit the Frog.

This is, unfortunately, a common pattern you’ll find in modern fantasy that incorporates Irish mythology. A non-Irish author/film-maker or other creative type will browse through some ‘Celtic’ source book, pluck out a few cultural elements and then rearrange them with other elements to create a narrative that’s subsequently used for commercial entertainment.

The problem however, is that mythology is CULTURALLY based. Mythology contains elements of fantasy but at its most fundamental it’s an intellectual framework used by our ancestors to make sense of the world around them. Because it’s culturally based, many of the mythological elements and associated context have been passed down through generations and incorporated into national identity and belief systems. Today of course, the use of Irish mythology has been superseded by scientific rationale but its core narratives remain intrinsically linked to Ireland’s self-identity and cultural values.

From an Irish perspective therefore, when you see your native cultural icons plucked from their normal environment, repackaged in some pseudo-Celtic bullshit and then reproduced out of context in a fantasy product, you can start to appreciate why other native groups complain about the commercial appropriation and exploitation of their cultures. For Irish people in particular, it feels as though we’ve been bombarded by mawkish, overly romanticised and culturally inaccurate interpretations of our own mythology for decades. Even today, if you really want to bug an Irish friend, show him or her a copy of ‘Darby O’Gill and The Little People (starring that famed Irish actor … Sean Connery) or perhaps a section from the execrable ‘Mystic Knights of Tir Na nÓg’ (a kind of ‘Oirish Transformers’ television series). Alternatively, you could share the ‘Disneyfied’ commercial version of Fionn mac Cumhaill created by the British National Trust Board at the Giants Causeway or read them any number of twee ‘Oirish Fairytales’. The choice is truly endless but some of them are so culturally offensive they should have been put down at birth of concept.

Over the last few decades, within all genres, we’ve seen increasing numbers of English-speaking writers explore other ‘exotic’ cultures (and their historical belief systems) as a source of creative inspiration. More recently however, we’ve also seen increasing kickback from ethnic minorities (and majorities) at the continued misrepresentation of their cultures. This has resulted in an increased use of ‘sensitivity readers’ (and whoever came up with that term needs to have their head examined!) by mainstream publishing companies although the trend hasn’t really extended to indie publishing.

This situation, I think, reflects a shift in the reading population in that readers are cottoning onto the fact that some of the ‘cultural’ stories they’re being presented with aren’t exactly authentic. It also reflects increased scrutiny and accountability on authors/publishers who misrepresent other people’s mythology/belief systems. In the fantasy genre, you may recall the recent furore associated with J.K. Rowling’s portrayal of Navajo belief systems in “History of Magic in North America’ but keep an eye out because you’ll probably be seeing a lot more of this over the years to come.

I don’t believe for a moment that it’s any author’s intention to be offensive when they use mythologies that aren’t their own. In fact, I’d suspect the vast majority of them would be dismayed if they knew their work was somehow considered offensive. Unfortunately, authors write stories based on their own experiences or what they’ve managed to learn and, frankly, sometimes you just don’t know what you don’t know. Different cultures aren’t easily transferable (although if you spend enough time living in them or studying them intensely you can certainly pick up a lot) and this makes wading in the mythological shallows that much more dangerous. This is particularly the case with Irish mythology as there’s so much misinformation already out there (many people, for example, through no fault of their own, still believe W.B. Yeats is a credible authority on Irish mythology!).

Neither do I believe that Irish people have a particular aversion to non-Irish authors writing fantasy based on Irish mythology. That said, it would probably help if those authors acknowledged it, treated it with a minimum of respect and managed to get even some of the basic cultural context correct. Unfortunately, many ‘Celtic Fantasy’ authors don’t and in some cases their idea of cultural authenticity is to chuck in some Irish names and a smattering of Gaelic – a language they neither speak nor understand and care even less about. Given all of this, it’s no surprise Irish mythological fiction has such a bad name among Irish readers and, consequently Irish writers.

And this is probably one of the saddest ironies about this situation. If you look up any ‘Irish mythology’ or ‘Irish fantasy’ list on Amazon or elsewhere you’ll struggle to find a single Irish author (although you’ll find plenty of Paddywhackery). This is because most of those authors are non-Irish authors writing a commercial kind of ‘Oirish’ mythology fiction for American/Canadian/ Australian etc. markets – not an Irish one. As a result, you now have a bizarre situation where Irish/Gaelic culture has now become a commercial commodity that the English-speaking creative world feel perfectly entitled to use as it sees fit.

Watching the recent upsurge in protest publishers and film producers, it’s no real surprise to see parallel occurrences with Irish people increasingly pouring online scorn on fantasy authors/filmmakers who couldn’t be bothered to get the basic facts right or who try to establish themselves as authorities on something they clearly don’t understand. With Irish (and Sottish and Welsh etc.) creators now finally starting to reassume control of their own mythology/cultural heritage, it’s more than likely that clashes between ‘authentic Irish’ and ‘commercial Oirish’ are only going to increase from here on in. This is a shame because, at heart, this is essentially a question around how far the argument of creative licence allows you to go in terms of using someone else’s culture for your own commercial benefit. That’s actually a tough call for anyone to make as it comes down to an individual’s personal values and judgement. Given that there’s no real consensus on this at present, for the next few years you can probably expect to keep encountering young girls called ‘Death’ obliviously wreaking cultural havoc at the far ends of the earth.

Irish Sea Monsters in Mythology

Interestingly, for an island, Ireland has a surprisingly limited number of references to sea monsters in the existing mythological literature and folklore (although there’s quite a lot relating to inland rivers). Naturally, there are tales aplenty involving seals (i.e. selkie). These are most common to the north and along the coast of current-day Scotland but, for the most part, the tales portray the creatures as relatively benign (i.e. they’re certainly not described as fearful or terrifying), probably because of their small size.

Basking Shark in Cork Harbour: picture from Evoke.ie (http://evoke.ie/news/were-gonna-need-a-bigger-boat-awesome-video-of-a-massive-shark-in-cork-harbour)


Back in the day, the native Irish population would certainly have been accustomed to seeing physically impressive animals such as the basking shark and the whale when they were at the water’s edge or travelled offshore. That’s probably why we have a relatively substantial body of Irish mythology around the míol mór (the whale). Such mythology tales are predominantly found in the immram (a name sometimes applied to Irish sea voyage stories) such as the Voyage of Maol Dúin or the Voyage of Saint Brendan the Abbot (Navigatio sancti Brendani abbatis) and can actually be quite entertaining. In the latter, for example, the sailing saint and his companions land on an island and set a fire to warm themselves. The island abruptly moves in response to the great heat of the fire and turns out to have been a slumbering giant whale.

Irish stories of sea creatures would also have been influenced in later times by the mythology of other cultures introduced as a result of invaders (e.g. the Vikings, Normans etc.), traders and Christians. The Normans for example, are believed to have brought numerous stories from Greek mythology over with them which merged over time with the local tales (e.g. Irish stories of mermaids are predominantly based on this). Again, however, even the merged tales do not usually incorporate sea monsters.

On a more local basis, the stories of sea creatures would almost certainly have been supported by the discovery of carcasses along the Irish coastline and the incorporation of such facts in to the tales of the native population. Whales certainly washed up on a relatively frequent basis and, as a kid, I was the proud owner of an immense whale rib-bone found on the beach in West-Cork and displayed it to anyone who’d let me.

This week, there was a lot of media attention around the discovery of a 5.8 metre giant squid caught in a trawling net 190km off the Kerry coast. Interestingly, the father of the that fishing vessel’s skipper also caught two giant squids off the Kerry coast back in 1995 – the last recorded sighting in Irish waters. In all of Ireland’s documented history, there have in fact been only six sightings of this creature (the first being in 1673, the next in 1875 around Inisbofin and three others in 1995).

The giant squid lives in extremely deep waters (40 or 50 feet) and only rises to shallower levels when chasing fish to feed. They also tend to live quite far offshore (obviously, as this is where the water’s deepest). For this reason, the likelihood of such creatures washing up on the Irish coastline is actually pretty slim even over a prolonged time period. Most of the squid that die probably end up sinking or being eaten. Those that do float are subject to tidal currents and given the great distances from, are likely to hit the Irish coast in very tiny numbers if at all. Even if the body of such a creature did hit the coast, there’s also a low probability it would do so along an accessible part of the shore or on an area frequented by people (the population of early Iron age Ireland, for example was very low compared to today’s populations).

All in all, this probably goes someway to explaining why there are no native Irish stories of sea creatures with distinctive beaks and the ability to release impressive dark clouds of ink.

Irish Fantasy Covers, Phallic Stones and Other Disasters

I’d have to confess that, to date, the Fionn covers have been pretty much a hit and miss affair (but mostly miss). When we first started publishing we decided to use photomanipulations (where the artist/designer plays around with existing stock photography to create a suitable cover) because of budget constraints. Unfortunately, it didn’t take us long to realize the downside of that approach – it’s actually quite hard to find photos that accurately represent Ireland in the first/second century (go figure!).

Because of the dominance of the Liath Luachra character throughout the first three books, we’d also come to the conclusion that it was important to have a young woman warrior on the cover (so it was clear the books were not entirely about Fionn). Again however, when we searched the available stock, what we mostly found were pics of young girls wielding flashy fantasy-style weapons, bizarre armor that just didn’t fit the realistic style of the books, and, of course, various elements of what looked closely like soft porn or something from one of the old Gor series (without the bondage):

SOMETHING (OR OTHER) OF GOR!

SLAVE GIRL OF GOR (she’s actually wearing clothes – they’re just very small!)

In the end, for the initial covers we settled on stock from Chirinstock (who were exceptionally generous in allowing us to use their photos).

Although the figures in their photos were very much dressed in a style used by Keira Knightly in the King Arthur movie (and there was an unrealistic amount of bare skin for an Irish winter), they were still streets ahead of anything else we could find at the time (although, in fairness, the variation in stock for fantasy covers has admittedly improved over the last year or two).

To give the covers an “ancient Irish” feel, we also provided the designer with some of our own stock, mostly standing stones, stone circles, dolmens and so on.

Of course what we didn’t realise until later was that when you mix scantily clad women with tall standing stones, what you can end up with is something … well, phallic.

Phallic Stones in Ireland

It was only last year when I was looking over the covers for the two most recent books in the series that the penny dropped.

HOLY CRAP!

Needless to say, the look went against pretty much everything the books stand for in terms of strong female characters.

Desperate to change the covers last year, we made three attempts to replace them but each time we tried we just seemed to hit a brick wall. The first cover designer we used simply didn’t work out (creative differences!) and provided something like a madwoman in a Harry Potter scarf. A second cover commission fell through. The third one we used didn’t really give the look we wanted (but fortunately was still good enough to use for a separate project we’re working on).

Frustrated with the various photomanipulation flops, we decided to seek out an illustrator for the next set of covers and I’m glad to say that’s worked out extremely well. Photostock limits you to what’s available in the various stock galleries (unless you have a very talented designer) whereas with illustrations you can actually start from a completely blank canvas – a huge bonus with mythology, historical or fantasy covers. Working with an illustrator was also particularly cool in that, at long last, we could provide some visual indication of what a ráth actually looked like (good luck finding workable ráth stockphotos!) and what Glenn Ceoch looked like. More importantly, it was also a lot of fun to help design the actual characters. With Liath Luachra for example, we were able to work out a facial style derived from a character from the “Vikings” television series as follows:

 

Given the subject matter, we still have a warrior woman on the front of at least two of the covers but now, at last , we can also add provide extra detail on some of the other key figures (Bodhmhall, Fiacail, Demne). Honestly! From a creative perspective, I’m kicking myself that we didn’t do this three or four years ago!

 

 

 

 

 

Irish Imbas: Celtic Mythology Collection 2017 is Now Available (partially) Online

We initiated the release of the second Celtic Mythology Collection yesterday and it’s a pretty impressive collection. I guess as editor, I’d be expected to say that anyway but the truth is I’m genuinely impressed, probably because of the larger range and mythological depth of the stories in this edition.

From our perspective, the primary goal of these books is to counter the copious amounts of shite nonsense out there, relating to Celtic mythology. We have hundreds of years of disinformation to counter and it really is no easy task, particularly when you’re competing against the entities out there who make money from disseminating false information (and publishers who republish ‘out of copyright’ editions of Yeats, I’m looking specifically at you).

So, first, the spiel!

This time around, there’s also quite a large diversity in terms of Celtic/Gaelic topics/concepts covered. Will O’Siorain’s (winner of the Celtic Mythology Short Story Competition) Hour of Greatest Need is a very exciting retelling of the ancient tale on how Emain Macha (Eamhain Mhacha ) got it’s name. Diana Powell meanwhile has a stirringly emotive interpretation of changelings in her story The Black Hen. Damien McKeating, who came in third place in the competition, also does a brilliantly original take on An Daghdha (An Dagda) in A Good Man.

The three competition winners are ably supported by three other new talents. Darren Fecky’s The Drunken Joe Malshy is probably the most original (and funny) take on Irish mythology I’ve read for years (if ever – this guy is a serious talent). Méabh de Brún also does a very effective and individual take on the Cave of Cruachann tale with Revival and makes it very much her own. Finally, after last years ‘flood’ of selkie stories, I swore we wouldn’t do another but Molly Aitken’s story Seasick was simply too good not to include.

Seriously, though, there is some pretty amazing writing and storytelling skill at work in this year’s release and given that this is all freely available in digital form, we’d strongly urge you to give it a try.

And then there were the practicalities!

As usual, when it comes to releasing anything with a zero price, it’s fraught with difficulty and time delays. At the moment therefore, the Celtic Mythology Collection is available for free at:

Kobo as an ePUB file

Smashwords as an ePUB and Kindle file

Within a week or two (all going well) it should also be available at
Apple Barnes & Noble (Nook)

The book is also available on Amazon for 99c (Amazon are reluctant to make anything free until they have to price-match the larger ebook stores so this should happen in the next week or two). Meanwhile, if you want to get it there and enrich our copious coffers (not) feel free to do so. I think we’ll get 35c on every sale until it reverts to ‘free’. Aaaah, the wealth and the glory!

But really!

This book is a lot of work for us and we’re exceptionally proud of the final product but, obviously, it’s not a success unless readers actually enjoy it. If you’d like to leave some feedback via a review at the ebook store or on Goodreads, we and the authors would greatly appreciate it.

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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The Surprising Truth about Irish Women Warriors

There’s a lot of fantasy out there when it comes to women warriors, particularly where it relates to characters mentioned in Irish/Celtic mythology. To be fair, the subject’s hardly a new one. Writers and readers have been enamoured by tales of fighting women since people first started telling stories (particularly Herodotus with his notes on the inaccurately-named Amazons, the High Medieval literary references to supernatural Valkyrie/shield-maidens etc.), probably because they’re such a rarity in ancient warfare, an area generally dominated by men.

Obviously, that’s not to say that woman didn’t fight. There’s plenty of historical examples of women fighting to defend themselves or, more often, fighting to protect the ones they love. In terms of real female warriors however, who specifically followed the warrior path, the archaeological and historical evidence seems to indicate they were very much a rarity in ancient times.

When it comes to women warriors in the ancient Irish mythology, there’s actually quite a lot of literary references compared to other contemporary societies of the same period. Some people use this fact to argue that female fighters were common in early Irish society and that it was a far more ‘gender equal’ society but that’s a veeerrrrry big leap to make. The early writings on mythology tended to express older cultural belief systems as fiction and the authors/recorders of the time weren’t above a bit of creative license or prejudice, so you really have to take what they say with copious amounts of salt. The fact that, until relatively recently, the skill of writing (and, thus, recording Irish mythology) was almost completely dominated by male authors (often of a religious bent) created a pretty substantial bias as well.

Portrayal of Warrior Women in the Ancient Irish Mythology
It’s the latter, more than anything else, that explains why male and female warriors were portrayed so differently in the Irish mythological narratives. In the surviving literature (mostly from the early medieval period onwards), male warriors were the main protagonists and were most commonly depicted as fighting for abstracts like honour or glory. The depiction of women warriors however, was very different.
If we look at Irish mythological, the most well-known women warriors tend to include:

  • Scáthach – a woman warrior who appears in the Ulster Cycle. Based in modern-day Scotland. She instructs Cú Chulainn in a number of martial feats and when he catches her with her guard down, he forces her to take him as a lover
  • Aífe – a rival of Scáthach who Cú Chulainn forces to lie with him at swordpoint and subsequently bears him a son
  • Neasa (Ness) – a woman warrior forced into marriage at swordpoint by the warrior/druid Cathbad and future mother of the famous Conchobhar mac Nessa
  • Liath Luachra – a guardian of the young Fionn mac Cumhaill, briefly mentioned in the Fenian Cycle but for whom there’s very little information available

From the pattern of the first three examples from the literature, it’s hard not to come to the conclusion that powerful, woman warrior characters were introduced predominantly as a device to emphasize the skill, accomplishments and sexual dominance of the male ‘hero’ (who subsequently ‘conquers’ them). With respect to the last example, Liath Luachra is portrayed as a guardian to the young hero Fionn mac Cumhaill, a relationship that is, in a sense, desexualised. There was probably a body of lore associated with this character as well but, unfortunately, it didn’t survive.
Two other female figures mentioned in the ancient Irish literature who are occasionally offered as examples of women warriors include:

  • Meadhbh (also spelt Medb, Maeve etc.) – Queen of Connacht in the Táin (The Cattle Raid of Cooley)
  • The Morríghan (or Mór-ríoghain) – a female war spirit most prevalent in ‘An Táin’

In fact, neither of these really make the cut if you look at them in any kind of detail. All the literary and archaeological evidence to date suggests the characters were personifications of female deities as opposed to warrior women.

Contemporary Portrayal of Irish Warrior Women

Over the last forty-plus years or so, the representation of women warriors has become far more prevalent, particularly in the fantasy fiction genre and, naturally, reflect more modern-day social values such as gender equality, cultural diversity etc. Generally speaking, the fictional women warrior characters we read today are far more rounded and well developed, they’re often the main protagonist in a story but even when they’re not, they tend to get equal treatment to their male counterparts.

Given the prevalence of woman warriors in the Irish mythology, over the years there’s also been a tendency to ‘borrow’ Irish characters for alternative fictions. Thankfully, the contemporary representations are far more positive than they used to be but I often wonder if the authors are aware of the strong negative gender undercurrents associated with the originals.

Note: This is an updated version to an earlier article from last year

Update on the Celtic Mythology Short Story Competition

competition-small
Less than four weeks now remain before submissions close for the Celtic Mythology Short Story Competition (closing date is 10 December 2016).

Feedback on your submissions:
After some discussion amongst ourselves, we’ve decided to offer the possibility of feedback (from the judges/editor) to those authors whose stories didn’t make the final Celtic Mythology Collection. Having gone through a number of competitions ourselves in the past, we know what it’s like to have work rejected and this is our way of giving something back to those of you who’ve made the effort of submitting.

Given that this is a last-minute decision however, we’re going to implement the process as a limited pilot (to see how it might be more effectively implemented in future competitions):
At this stage therefore, we propose to provide the feedback:
(1) as a scanned file of the hard-copy submission with hand-written notes (this will be emailed to the author)
(2) for a percentage (yet to be decided) of the total submissions that didn’t make it to the final selection.

photo-1470169048093-08ac89858749

Given that we’re still feeling our way on this we can’t guarantee your submission will receive feedback but if you’d like to be eligible for this feedback, please make a note of that in your email when you make your submission.

Obviously, any feedback provided will be based on ‘judgements’ of the various judges and is only meant to be of assistance. Because of workloads, we won’t be entering into any further correspondence once that feedback is provided.

A link to this post will be sent out to those authors who’ve already made submissions.

The Last of the Fir Bolg (Irish Mythology)

Earlier this year when visiting the Aran Islands I came across a story I’d not heard before concerning the Fir Bolg.

But first, a bit of context:

According to that very dubious source of Irish history/mythology, the Lebor Gabála Érenn (The Book of Invasions), the population of Ireland was derived from a series of numerous (well … six) consecutive colonising invasions from six different population groups. The fourth of these invading groups were known as the Fir Bolg and were said to be descendants of the third group (the Nemed) who died from disease or fled the country (commencing the long tradition of Irish emigration!)

According to the Lebor Gabála Érenn, the Fir Bolg were enslaved by the Greeks and obliged to toil by carrying bags of stone and soil, an uneasy rationale for how they got their name (one possible interpretation for “Fir Bolg” is “Men of bags” although it’s now believed actually mean “those who swell up” with battle fury). Somehow surviving 230 years of slavery, the Fir Bolg manage to depart from Greece and returned to Ireland where they divided the country up into Ireland into five separate provinces.

irish-mythology

Unfortunately, after all that effort, a mere thirty-seven years later, the fifth invading population group (the Tuath Dé Dannann) turned up and defeated the Fir Bolg in battle at Mag Tuired (Moytirra). At this point the narrative of the text varies with some versions indicating the Fir Bolg left Ireland altogether and others saying they retreated to Connacht to live in peace.

For a long time, as a result of the Lebor Gabála Érenn and other sources, many people believed that the inhabitants of the more isolated islands off the western Irish coast were the descendants of the Fir Bolg. More importantly, these people were also believed to be almost direct descendants as the population on the western islands had remained relatively untouched and unspoiled by the undue influences of civilization and progress.

From 1859 onwards, this particular belief became more important as a result of Charles Darwin’s “On The Origin of the Species”. Following its publication, there was immense interest in theories of evolution and the idea that physical characteristics such as height, hair and eye colour etc. might show a direct line of progress from ‘ape/uncivilised’ man to ‘civilised’ man. With reference to the Irish situation, Alfred Haddon (an English anthropologist and ethnographic) co-founded Dublin’s Anthropometric Laboratory in 1891, ‘with the explicit aim of understanding the racial characteristics of the Irish people’.

The people of the islands in the west of Ireland suddenly became very important because their “pure pedigree” (as descendants of the Fir Bolg) meant that they potentially held the key to the origins of the Irish race. In an increasingly nationalistic Ireland, there was keen interest from many nationalists to use these new ‘sciences’ to justify and support their own political beliefs. From the English camp meanwhile, there was also great interest in locating evidence that might explain the existence of the ‘black’ or ‘Africanoid’ Irish and the presence of such a primitive (white) race living so close to the United Kingdom (during this period, the Irish were regularly portrayed as apelike in English newspapers such as ‘Punch’ etc.)

It came as no surprise therefore, when Haddon and an Irish doctor by the name of Charles Browne arrived on the Aran Islands in 1893 and started recording the head size, cranial capacity, eye colour, skin pigmentation etc. of every islander (whom they referred to as “Aranites”) they could get their hands on. Women, of course, following the prejudices of the time, were excluded from analysis.

The study created immense interest and in the end, the results were published in 1893 in the Proceedings if the Royal Irish Academy. In terms of the Fir Bolg theory, unfortunately it all turned out to be something of a damp squib for all concerned with the report author’s summarizing it as follows:

“To what race the Aranites belong we do not pretend to say, but it is pretty evident they cannot be Firbolgs, if the latter are correctly described as small, dark-haired and swarthy.”

[Final Note: These days, the general academic consensus is that the Fir Bolg were an early Celtic group called the Bolgae (not to be confused with the Belgae) who established a settlement in Ireland.]

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Samhain and other Ancient Festivals in Modern Society (Irish Mythology)

A friend asked if I intended having a Sam Hayne party this year. That threw me for a moment until I realised she was trying to say ‘Samhain’.

irish-mythology-samhain

Ah, yes! It’s almost the end of October, that time of the year when historians, Irish people with a genuine interest in their culture, “born again Celts”, revivalists and revisionists, recently returned German tourists and so on, clog the internet with articles on the famous pre-Christian festival.

There are plenty of excellent articles already out there on Samhain and there’s probably not much more I’d add with respect to Irish mythology. As a general rule of thumb however, I’ve always felt you shouldn’t write about Samhain unless you genuinely celebrate it, either through a party, a single shot of the hard stuff, or a simple acknowledgement of what it meant for our ancestors and consider what – in reality – it means for us today.

That’s one of the problems with ancient festivals, I suppose. To be meaningful or authentic, Samhain really has to be relevant, otherwise we end up going through the motions (like many Irish people attending mass in the past – not because they believed the particular doctrine but because that was what had always been done and everyone else did it).

Generally speaking, the point where a working ritual becomes a commemorative tradition is also the point where it starts to become meaningless. Here in New Zealand, for example, celebrating Samhain has always felt a bit weird. Samhain was a festival that marked the commencement of the winter. Its associated rituals therefore, were developed around the necessary preparations for that. The reality of my geographical location in Wellington conversely, means we’re actually heading into summer (and should probably – or more appropriately – be celebrating Bealtaine). In addition, because the ritualistic parts of the festival were very much based around agricultural practicalities (the crop season, the feeding of livestock etc.) the fact that I live in a modern city means those rituals are no longer particularly appropriate to the way I live.

In modern society, if we want to be honest and follow an authentic cultural process, we really need to find a more practical and more appropriate means of marking that celebration or, alternatively changing it entirely. That’s not the case with everyone of course. For anyone in the northern hemisphere associated with the agricultural sector, Samhain is still as relevant today as it ever was.

For those of use overseas, or living away from the land, we may have to rethink how we proceed in the future with such celebrations. If not, we’ll essentially be celebrating a festival day due to an incorrect identity alignment or for purely commercial reasons.

But, hey, that would never happen, would it?

Saint Patrick’s Day anyone?

 

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Ireland’s Worst Heath Professional of All Time (Irish mythology)

irish-mythology

There’s been increasing reports concerning the state of Ireland’s deteriorating healthcare systems over the last few years but, in some respects, we should be glad for what we’ve got. We have, for example, mostly avoided hiring the likes of Dr Slop (an inept character from Tristram Shandy who spends most of the book trying to undo the tie to an obstetric bag), Dr Moreau, or even Dr Hannibal Lecter, as healthcare professionals. Irish mythology does however, include a somewhat infamous healer/physician by the name of Dian Cécht that you should probably be aware of.

Dian Cécht was an exceptionally talented medical practitioner, whose name turns up in the old manuscripts going back as far back as the 8th century. According to these, Dian Cécht was responsible not only for Nuadu’s famous arm transplant (he created the silver arm to replace the one Nuadu lost in battle ) but for the famous ‘health spa’ of Slane at Achad Abla as well (where the wounded or infirm could come to bathe and be healed). Such was Dian Cécht’s skill, he was actually deified by later generations and occasionally thought to be one of the gods of the Tuatha Dé Danann.
Unfortunately like many individuals in high-paid, high-stress professions, Dian Cécht also had some serious shortcomings, in his case a bad streak of professional envy.

Dian Cécht, it turned out, had a son (Miach) who became an even more exceptional healer than his father. Miffed by his offspring’s superior skillset, Dian Cécht lost it completely when Miach managed to replace Nuadu’s silver with one made from flesh and blood. Lashing out in a jealous rage, he killed his son dead.

Later when Miach was buried, his grieving sister Airmed cried over the grave but when her tears touched the freshly turned earth, the family were astounded to see 865 herbs grow up out of the grave from each of Miach’s 865 joints and sinews (we’re assuming here, that somebody counted them). Airmed, immensely practical, immediately arranged all the herbs in order and started to catalogue the wide range of beneficial effects, so effective they’d cure every illness in Ireland. Dian Cécht however, infuriated at being outdone once again, scattered all the herbs and all knowledge of the herb’s healing properties were lost forevermore.

So there you go!

If you ever find yourself having a need to vent about the Irish health service, just remember Dian Cécht, how much better it could have been and how he managed to screw it up for everyone.

Sounds like any number of our previous Health Ministers!

Adam and Eve and the Salmon of Knowledge

The salmon of the River Cong didn’t strike me as particularly wise when I passed the other day. A savagely beautiful day, the fish were leaping in great numbers and to surprising height while I sat watching them from the river bank, thinking of Fionn and the Salmon of Knowledge.

salmon-of-knowledge

Tradition has it that the well of Seghais (the source of the River Boyne) was encircled by hazel trees that dropped their nuts (often used by our ancestors as a metaphor for wisdom) into the water. These floated downriver where they were eaten by a salmon that, by consuming the nuts, absorbed all the wisdom and knowledge of the hazel trees and, thus, became the fabled Salmon of Knowledge. By eating the Salmon, the understanding was that a person could, in turn, obtain that knowledge too.

Naturally, it’s all a bit more complicated than that.

It seems strange now but, in fact, the whole Salmon of Knowledge story is actually a relatively recent addition to the canon of Fenian literature (believed to have been introduced sometime in the 10th century). In the earliest versions of this story, Fionn actually acquires imbas by entering a síd (a dwelling of the Otherworld inhabitants) and swallowing water from a well located there. The Salmon was actually added in at a later date through confusion with another, similar story. Despite this mistake, most people have always enjoyed the concept of the Salmon and, hence, it’s actually out-lived the earlier stories.

At heart, of course, this tale is all about the acquisition of exclusive or forbidden knowledge (Imbas) by a hero, a story you’ll find in most other cultures. Welsh mythology, for example has a very similar version outlined in Historia Taliesin (The Tale of Taliesin) which describes how the early Brythonic poet Taliesin (Gwion Bach in the story) acquired the gift of knowledge by stealing three magic drops from Cerodwen’s cauldron.

Similarly, in Norse mythology there’s a version of the story where the legendary hero Sigurd, having killed a dragon, is asked by his comrade Regin to roast the dragon’s heart. While Sigurd is carrying out this task, a sudden spurt of blood from the heart burns his thumb and, putting it into his mouth to cool it, he finds he’s received the knowledge to understand the speech of birds. Afterwards, when he eats the dragon heart he gains the gift of ‘prophesy’, just as Fionn does.

If you look at one of the creation stories in the Book of Genesis, of course, you’ll also find that similar pattern where Eve takes a bite out of the apple from the forbidden tree of knowledge. It just goes to show how old stories hide many truths that go deeper than the literal ones