Interview on Irish Mythology And Folklore

irish-mythology-folklore

It’s been something of a hectic June here in Wellington this year but I did manage to fit in an interview with Capital Irish Radio (based here in the city). Capital Irish Radio are a volunteer-run group who produce a weekly, 28 minute programme for Irish people (I occasionally present a show – about 2/3 times a year). Usually they provide a range of music, interviews and news from Ireland but recently I was asked to come in and explain what exactly Irish Imbas Books does.

During this interview with Finbarr Murray, I explain where Irish Imbas Books comes from and also discuss aspects of Irish mythology and Irish folklore.

Irish Mythology: When Irish Druids go Bad

irish-druid-irish mythology

One of my favourite characters in Irish mythology is a little known individual by the name of Beag mac Dé (literally, Small One of God). Ironically, from the few clues we have, Beag (in Old Irish, Becc) seems to have actually been a very well-known (if physically diminutive) figure back in his day. This is confirmed by the fact that, later, Christian writers tried to incorporate him into Christian literature [they’re the ones who added the artificial soubriquet ‘Son of God’]).

According to the sources, Beag not only was a supremely talented poet and linguist (two skills considered essential for druids – Irish druids, at least) but also had the skill of prophecy. That’s all very fascinating of course but the real reason I like this character is because he’s so pessimistically loufoque. There are only a few stories about him still in existence but they’re quite hilarious as most of them concern his rather pessimistic view of the future.

The first of these stories – and probably the most famous – concerns the period shortly after his birth when (like many Irish poet stories) he demonstrated the first signs of his future brilliance. According to the texts, a group of guests came around to visit his parents and started to comment openly on how tiny he was.

Beag, finally losing patience, managed to stand up on his bed and proclaimed that he might be small but he had no bloody small knowledge of matters, be they general or esoteric. With this, he then proceeded to proclaim a series of prophecies that were doom-laden and pessimistic, the guests went running for the door.

Whenever I remember this story I always imagine it being played out along the lines of ‘Stewie’ from ‘The Family Guy.’

There are a number of other stories in which Beag plays a part and many of these involve the high-king Diarmaid mac Cearrbheoil, for who, he acted as druid and advisor. These two had a bit of a fractious relationship. Diarmuid was … well, he was a king and Beag a dramatically pessimistic teller of futures who seemed to love nothing more than telling people when they were going to die, when their loved ones were going to die, etc. etc. It was no wonder they had so many arguments.

Ironically, given his predilection for death prophecies, the best story about Beag concerns his own death prophecy. According to the tale, the druid was approached one day by Saint Colm Cille. The saint knew that Beag never made a false prophecy but he was curious because he had a prophecy of his own which indicated the druid would make two false prophecies before he died. In his usual, friendly and upfront manner Colm Cille approached the druid and asked him the following question:

“Hast thou knowledge also of when thou shalt thyself die?”

“I do indeed”, answered Beag. “I have yet another seven years before my life is ended.”

“A man might do good works in shorter space than that,” said Colm Cille. “And knowest thou for a surety that thou hast so much of life still?”

Beag went all quiet at this and then gave something of an embarrassed shrug. “I may have overstated it,” he admitted. “The truth is I actually only seven months of life left in me.”

“Ah, that is well,” said Colm Cille. “And art thou certain thou hast still so much of life to come?”

“Well, feck you, anyway, Colm Cille” said Beag. “I cannot withstand the prophecy you’ve come up with which has me making two false prophecies before I die. Now, thanks to you, I’ve only got seven hours left.” He sighed. “I suppose you’d better give me the feckin sacrament.”

“It was to give thee this that I came hither today,” said Colm Cille, helpfully. “For God revealed to me that thou shouldst die today.”

(picture credit: http://www.brunosart.com/)

Irish Folklore/ Mythology: The Danger of the Hungry Grass!

hungrygrass

In ancient Ireland there were patches of grass called ‘Hungry Grass’ that leapt up off the ground to swallow you whole, digest you down and spit you out like a …

Actually, er … No, wait .. Hang on.

Oh, yeah!

Hungry Grass was actually a patch of grass that was completely indistinguishable from other sections of grass but if you stood on it you were immediately overtaken by a great hunger or weariness.
And, there was A REAL RISK you might swoon to your death.

There you go. That’s much more credible.

As you can see, there’s a fair amount of shite spinning out there on the internet with respect to ‘hungry grass.’ The Celternet, as usual, has delivered some fascinating hypotheses. Read through many of the Celtic “information” websites and you’ll learn that ‘hungry grass’ was, in fact, caused by fairies (the Little People!) or leprechaun spirits (Dun-dun-dun!).

The Wikipedia entries on ‘hungry grass’ and ‘féar gorta’ are also hilariously bad and use some pretty nefarious links as references. Yet another site – my favourite – describes with great cultural authority how Hungry Hill (a mountain in Beara, West Cork, get its name due to the belief of local peasants that “many patches of Féar Gortha grew on it.” To anyone from Beara, this is, of course, not only remarkably stupid but a bit insulting.
[Note: The Irish – and real – name of the mountain is Cnoc Daod and is more likely related to the changeable weather around the summit].

The problem of course, is that most of the Celternet bloggers usually copy verbatim from outdated sources such as books by 18th and 19th century authors like William Carleton (a writer in the vein of W.B. Yeats who wrote somewhat disparagingly about jolly Irish peasants and their foolish cultural beliefs). The internet, being what it is of course, means that these errors are continuously being reproduced.

Today, given the amount of grass in Ireland, the whole concept of ‘hungry grass’ would be a bit alarming if people still believed in it. One or two hundred years ago, when scientific reasoning wasn’t particularly widespread however, it was probably a fair attempt at rationalising the unexplained deaths or episodes of fainting that would occur from time to time. The psychological impact of An Gorta Mór (the Great Famine), would also have remained very strongly in the minds of those people living after the 1850s. This is why, in most variations of the ‘hungry grass’ folklore, the effects are attributed to a person stepping on the grave or burial plot of a victim from An Gorta Mór. It’s also why (probably) the Irish term is ‘féar gorta’ which may be more accurately translated as ‘famine grass’ rather than ‘hungry grass’.

Although the superstition of ‘hungry grass’ is pretty much outdated nowadays, it’s still quite a curious concept that seems very specific to Ireland and has a lot of narrative appeal. That’s pretty much why I ended up using the concept as a minor plot device in Beara Dark Legends (where the protagonist has the supernatural power of being able to detect where dead people are buried). In that book, the protagonist is an archaeologist/historian and his success at finding ancient historical sites and bodies is very much based on that ability.

In hindsight, I suppose I’d probably have been better off making the character a mortician or a police pathologist although, to be honest, that wasn’t really my area of interest. And, besides, from Quincy to Crossing Jordan to Silent Witness and so on, that morbid area of entertainment already seems to have been adequately catered for.

It does beg the question however – how cool would it be to have a television series about an Irish pathologist? You could really have fun with that.

A Visual Representation of Irish Prehistory and Mythology

When you mention the word ‘prehistoric’ to people, most of them immediately conjure up images of Neanderthals walking around, scratching their arses and dragging huge heavy clubs on the ground behind them. What ‘prehistoric’ actually refers to though, is that period of time before which historical records were maintained. In a sense, you can think of ‘prehistory’ as a distant undiscovered country or a kind of ‘dark web’ for history. It’s an unknown territory, full of immense, untapped potential, deception and people who have an interest in controlling it.

When I imagine pre-historic Ireland therefore, it looks a little bit like this.

IMG_0976

The problem with history, of course, is that it’s something we all think we understand whereas if you actually stand back and kick the conceptual tyres in the same way you’d kick those of a new car, you’ll quickly work out how much of it is based on dangerous assumptions and potential falsehoods. The ‘recording’ of history has always been the privilege of societies’ winners and most powerful. The problem, unfortunately, is that those in power often have an agenda of their own when writing or recording history, mostly linked to retaining that power. What actually happened in the past comes in a distant second.

Napoleon Bonaparte is often quoted as saying ‘history is a bunch of lies agreed upon’. If he did actually say that, then he was an exceptionally insightful individual because he recognised how the reporting of the truth (not the truth itself) can be manipulated.

Essentially, history in most countries only comes into existence with the establishment of written records and therefore, the arrival of literacy. In Ireland, written records were first introduced with the arrival of Christian missionaries in the early fifth century. For that reason, for Ireland, anything that happened before that period is generally referred to as a ‘prehistoric’ event. Naturally, the first people holding the pen in Ireland looked at the world through a Christian religious lens and many of the early historical accounts are often very biased in that regard. With the spread of the church-dominated written account we can see the first steps in the ongoing erosion of native (non-Christian) belief systems. This is what we now refer to as ‘mythology’.

Winners of the Celtic Mythology Short Story Competition (2015-2016)

Irish Imbas Books are pleased to announce the winners of the 2015-2016 Celtic Mythology Short Story Competition. These are:

First prize ($500): Sighle Meehan for ‘Hawthorne Close
Second Prize ($250): Sheelagh Russell Brown for ‘A Mainland Mansie Meur
Third Prize ($100): Marc McEntegart for ‘In a Small Pond

All three stories will appear in the forthcoming Irish Imbas Celtic Mythology Collection 2016 due for release in March this year with two additional stories:
• ‘Transit Hours’ by Marie Gethins
• ‘Lir’ by Coral Atkinson

As well as the short stories, the Irish Imbas Celtic Mythology Collection 2016 will contain explanatory context/notes on the various elements of Celtic Mythology associated with each story. A key purpose of this competition is to provide a source of authentic context and information on aspects of Celtic mythology for the general public.

Comments from the judges:

In total, 37 submissions received (initially there were 40 but 3 were withdrawn). The vast majority of stories covered aspects of Irish mythology. Stories related to elements of Welsh mythology were the next most popular (in terms of numbers).

The three criteria used by the judges were:

  1. Celtic mythology or folklore forms a fundamental element of the story
  2. Any Celtic folklore or mythological reference should be as authentic as possible
  3. A compelling story/theme, engaging characters.

Submissions were received from all over the world, including countries such as Australia, New Zealand, America, Canada, Norway, Denmark, France etc. The majority of submissions came from Ireland.

In terms of the mythological content used within the stories, the most common were:

  • Elements from the Fenian Cycle (Fionn mac Cumhaill and related stories)
  • Seilchidh (Selkie)-related stories
  • Beansaí (Banshee)-related stories

The quality of submissions varied extensively both in terms of writing quality and authenticity of mythological content. A number of the submitted stories were excellently written but used elements of mythology in the wrong context. It was a difficult decision not to accept these submissions

We’d like to thank all entrants for taking the time to make submissions.

An announcement on the 2016-2017 Celtic Mythology Short Story Competition will be made later this year.

Three Ways to Test the Authenticity of your Celtic Mythology Article (or, when Celtic Culture Goes Bad!)

When Celtic Culture Goes Bad

Celtick

Did you know that fairies are always sexy and like to wear revealing, gossamer outfits? Did you know that Banshees were vampires? Did you know that Ireland is awash with proverbs of great wisdom that no Irish person has ever heard of but which turn up regularly in internet articles on Irish culture?

These are just some of the more outlandish elements we’ve come across over the (almost) two years since working in this area. Some of the claims made by self-proclaimed internet experts on Irish and/or Celtic Mythology are jaw-breakingly hilarious although the sheer level of ignorance and misinformation that exists out there with respect to Celtic mythology is a bit of a concern.

As a result, we thought it might be useful to come up with a set of criteria to help you work out the genuine cultural value of the article, book, web-page you’re reading. Hopefully this will help you determine if it’s Celtic fact or Celtic fantasy, if it’s culturally accurate or simply culturally autistic.

The Criteria
The article/book/ web-page you’re reading probably doesn’t have any cultural credibility if the writer:
1) uses W.B. Yeats as a source of information
2) uses the word ‘Fae’ or ‘Faerie’ or some other such derivative
3) has no genuine familiarity with a Celtic language

(1) Using W.B. Yeats as a source of information
If you’re reading anything on Irish/Celtic mythology that cites W.B Yeats or uses his work as its main source of information, you’d be better off avoiding it like a lift-full of sweating joggers. Yeats was a poet and an artist but mythology/folklore formed only a small part of his overall interests. He was predominantly fascinated by mysticism, spiritualism and occultism and as a result, much of what he came across in Irish folklore/culture was adapted to align to these alternative belief systems. The result was often a complete nonsense.

On a more pragmatic level, it should also be remembered that Yeats was a member of the Protestant Ascendancy (an early-1900s group in Irish society made up of Protestant landowners, clergy and professionals). In practice, this meant he was quite insulated from ‘native culture’ and the cultural beliefs of people he referred to as “the peasantry”. It’s probably true to say he had a much better theoretical knowledge of Western esotericism than he ever did of Irish mythology and cultural beliefs.

There’s a reason Yeats is not used in contemporary tertiary education programmes for Celtic Studies.

(2) Use of the word ‘Fae’ or ‘Faerie’ or some other such derivative
The words ‘Fae’ or ‘Faerie’ are predominantly derived from old words in Continental European languages. In the English context, these words are found mostly in old books by long-dead writers (because they actually spoke like that) or in the books of more contemporary writers who want to make the word ‘fairy’ sound more ancient or ‘otherworldy’.

Some of the best names in fiction have done this at some stage and as a writing technique, there’s really nothing wrong with it as long as it remains within the realm of fiction/fantasy. If, however, someone is attempting to claim cultural authenticity while using these terms, you really need to take those claims with … well, a pinch of ‘fairy dust’!

Wikipaedia – not normally somewhere I’d advise for accurate or in depth information – actually has a surprisingly useful summary on the historical development of the word ‘faerie’ and ‘fairy’ as follows:

According to Thomas Keightley, the word ‘fairy” derives from the Latin fata, and is from the Old French form “faerie”, describing “enchantment”. Other forms are the Italian “fata”, and the Provençal “fada”. In old French romance, “fee” was a woman skilled in magic, and who knew the power and virtue of words, of stones, and of herbs.

Faie became Modern English fay. Faierie became fairy, but with that spelling now almost exclusively referring to one of the legendary people, with the same meaning as fay. The word “fairy” was used to in represent an illusion, or enchantment; the land of the Faes; collectively the inhabitants thereof; or an individual such as a fairy knight.

To the word faie was added the suffix -erie (Modern English) -(e)ry), used to express either a place where something is found (fishery, nunnery) or a trade or typical activity engaged in (cookery, thievery). In later usage it generally applied to any kind of quality or activity associated with a particular type of person, as in English knavery, roguery, wizardry. In the sense “land where fairies dwell”, the distinctive and archaic spellings Faery and Faerie are often used.

In essence, the word ‘fairy’ is just as inaccurate as ‘fae’ or ‘faerie’ in that they’re all words created from a mish-mash of different cultural concepts that have become warped over time and lacking in meaning. Again, there’s nothing wrong with that in the context of fiction/fantasy.

Generally speaking, there is some folklore about ‘fairies’ developed from the 1800s as a result of cultural disruption but its relatively shonky. If you’d like to read more on that you can find an earlier article here (The Secret life of Irish Fairies):

(3) Lack of genuine familiarity with a Celtic language
To understand a culture, you really have to have at least some comprehension of the language the population of that cultural society speak (or spoke). Without that understanding, it’s incredibly difficult to appreciate how people in that society thought, how they lived, how they loved, what values they held dear and so on. Even today, although international languages are translated on an almost continuous basis, anyone who speaks more than one language will tell you there are often concepts in one language for which there’s no direct equivalent translation in another language. These cultural concepts generally have to be explained in a different way (usually involving a lot more words) or the word from the original language is used. Examples of this might include ‘schadenfreude’, ‘déjà vu’ or even a little bit of ‘craic’.

This holds just as well for Celtic languages as it does for other more broadly spoken languages. There are expressions and concepts in Celtic languages that don’t translate exactly and which require more clarification. Having some familiarity with the language is very useful in that regard. For example, on occasion, because I speak Irish, I find that I sometimes get a better sense from a particular Irish story or piece of Irish mythology than a non-Irish speaker might get from the same material. This is not because I’m smarter or more insightful, it’s simply because I have a better cultural context.
There are limitations to this particular criterion of course. The Irish I speak today (and being based in New Zealand means I’m getting rusty) is not the same as the Irish spoken by our ancestors (Old Irish or Middle Irish) so my contextual understanding of material from that time is necessarily limited. Similarly, I’d also be extremely reluctant to comment on specific elements of Celtic mythology derived from sources in other Celtic languages (Welsh, Cornish etc.).

There are also occasions of course, where non-Celtic language speakers or people of non-Celtic heritage have made great contribution to the overall body of Celtic knowledge but this usually occurs where they bring an associated skill-set (e.g. in archelogy, philology, language etc. etc.). One of the more famous and respected early experts on Irish philology and early Irish literature, for example, was actually German (Kuno Meyer).

In summary, having a grasp of a Celtic language will not ensure your comprehension/ appreciation of Celtic mythology by any means – but it will certainly help.
Hopefully these criteria will give you some idea of what to look out for but please feel free to suggest others you think might work.

The Gateway to the Otherworld on the Beara Coast

Teach Donn

Most cultures have their own creation myth. And their own myth to explain the departure of the dead. The absence of life in those we love has always been a difficult concept to grasp, both emotionally and intellectually. Even now, with all our scientific data, we’re not really any closer to understanding where they go or if, in fact they go anywhere at all. Science can tell us that someone or something is biologically inactive but that’s as far as it goes.

Our ancestors had a different way of looking at things that didn’t involve scientific rationale. For them, time was cyclical. Time only ever became linear when were events were written down in sequence and calendars were added. This idea of cyclical time came from what our ancestors saw in the world about them – the continuous ebbing and flow of tides, the repeating pattern of seasons, the growth and harvest of crops and, most strikingly of all, the rise of the morning sun in the east and its sinking at night in the west.

For this reason, they also had a strong belief that the spirits of the dead departed towards the west with the setting sun, sinking with it into the Otherworld each night where it rested with the dead. Celtic cultures weren’t the only culture to believe this of course. The Greeks – amongst others – believed in Elysian Fields “at the world’s end” in the West. Ireland is, however, one of the few areas of Celtic culture the entrance to the Otherworld has actually been identified in some of the older manuscripts – Bull Rock.

Bull Rock is an islet sitting about five miles south-west of the Beara peninsula and it looks like a pyramid-shaped black from some angles. Nevertheless, it’s a substantial chunk of granite poking up out of the Atlantic and it’s the most westerly piece of land in that region). Known in Irish as Teach Donn or Tech Doinn(the House of Donn), this rock was said to be where the souls of the dead departed, following the line of the descending sun by passing via an impressively amazing passage that cuts directly through the heart of the giant rock in a westerly direction.

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA


[Photo from site: http://ruttledge.se/2008/01/25/bull-island/]

Donn is generally regarded as a sort of overlord of the Dead but of course he’s actually nothing more than a personification of the coming of darkness (the night) and, metaphorically, death. ‘Donn’, in Irish, means ‘brown’ (for modern Irish ) but its meaning was closer to ‘dark’ in the past. The Metrical Dindshenchas (an account of the origins of Irish place-names and traditions – which can’t always be believed) says the following about Tech Duinn. You’ll note this was written from a very Christian perspective that ‘poo-poos’ ‘the heathen’

Tech Duinn, whence the name? Not hard to say.

When the sons of Mil came from the west to Erin, their druid said to them, ‘If one of you climbs the mast’, said he, ‘and chants incantations against the Tuatha De, before they can do so, the battle will be broken against them, and their land will be ours; and he that casts the spell will die.’
They cast lots among themselves, and the lot falls on Donn to climb the mast. So was it done: Donn climbed the mast, and chanted incantations against the Tuatha De, and then came down. And he said: ‘I swear by the gods’, quoth he, ‘that now ye will not be granted right nor justice.’

The Tuatha De also chanted incantations against the sons of Mil in answer from the land. Then after they had cursed Donn, there came forthwith an ague into the ship. Said Amairgen: ‘Donn will die’, said he, ‘and it were not lucky for us to keep his body, lest we catch the disease. For if Donn be brought ashore, the disease will remain in Erin for ever.’

Said Donn: ‘Let my body be carried to one of the islands’, said he, ‘and my people will lay a blessing on me for ever.’ Then through the incantations of the druids a storm came upon them, and the ship wherein Donn was foundered.

Let his body be carried to yonder high rock’, says Amairgen: ‘his folk shall come to this spot.’ So hence it is called Tech Duinn: and for this cause, according to the heathen, the souls of sinners visit Tech Duinn before they go to hell, and give their blessing, ere they go, to the soul of Donn. But as for the righteous soul of a penitent, it beholds the place from afar, and is not borne astray. Such, at least, is the belief of the heathen. Hence Tech Duinn is so called.”

In this 12th-14th century document, the concept of ‘death’ has been personified through thousands of years of ‘Chinese whispers’ to a character called Donn who forms part of the Melesian invasion force of Ireland (according to this, the Melesians invaded Ireland, replacing the native Tuath De Danann).

Nowadays Bull Rock holds a lighthouse (established in 1889 and still in use today) and its function is about saving lives as opposed to easing them onto the afterlife. When I go home and sit on a ditch on those rare clear days when you can look out across the water, I often wonder how many people truly understand what a amazing edifice we have lying just off the coast.

Secrets of Celtic Mythology

Secrets of Celtic Mythology 02 (2)

For those of you based in Wellington, you may be interested in a seminar we’re holding on Friday 11 December at the Mezzanine in the Wellington Central Library. The seminar is called ‘The Secrets of Irish Mythology’ but will actually focus predominantly on Irish mythology, which is what we know best.

I’m still working through the structure of the seminar but it will probably involve some initial explanation of mythology (what is it, exactly?) followed by some living examples of it in Ireland today. I’m also keen on running through the practical ramifications of this for society as this is an area I’m quite keen on and hope to do some more of in the future.

In any case, the details are below:

“Irish Imbas Books presents Secrets of Celtic Mythology at the mezzanine of Wellington Central Library from 6:00 to 7:30 on Friday 11 December 2015. This one hour presentation will explore the background to the development of mythology, examine some practical examples of Irish mythology in Irish folklore and explain why this is relevant to us all. The event is free to enter. Irish Imbas Books will have a selection of books available for sale for those who are interested.”

Location/venue:
The Mezzanine, Wellington Central Library 65 Victoria Street Wellington
Date:
11 Dec 2015

The Warrior Woman

The Woman Warrior

Writing Liath Luachra – The Grey One turned out to be a lot harder than I’d anticipated. Most of it was written over a miserable New Zealand winter (in Wellington, at least), we had a number of other strenuous work contracts on and constant repair work on the house meant it was difficult to focus at times. This slowed down the writing immensely but, to be honest, in some ways I think this was a good thing. When you push yourself to write a pre-determined plot you can end up writing an almost perfect outline that lacks genuine emotional resonance. When the plot’s clear in your head but you take additional time to work through the different scenes in terms of characterisation, motivation, additional twists and so on, the story usually ends up much more powerful and dramatic for that.

Although ‘The Grey One’ is essentially a ‘stand-alone’ prequel to the Fionn series, for me it was an interesting opportunity to explore the dynamics of war-parties and inter-tribal relationships in Iron Age Ireland. There’s a surprising amount of material available on early war-parties – particular on fian – although, as always, you have to take what’s written with a grain of salt. The Church in Ireland hated them with a passion and, hence, wrote very negatively about them but other sources describe them as a pragmatic part of society at the time. Interestingly, the word ‘fian’, eventually disappeared out of common usage and instead, the plural noun ‘Fianna’ was used. This is, of course, what most people mistakenly believe to be the name of the war band led by Fionn mac Cumhaill (as well as the origin of the more modern term ‘Fenian’).

Having a single female protagonist in a male-dominated world (particularly one involving violence) has proven a particularly interesting challenge in that it creates powerful tensions between characters that I normally don’t delve into in great detail. Obviously, the main one is that of sexual harassment/coercion – particularly with more vulnerable younger women – and that’s dealt with pretty bluntly throughout the novel. Most of my previous books have strong female characters but it’ll be interesting to see what people think of the approach I use in this particular one.

When it comes to female warriors in the ancient world, there are of course, occasional snippets available in the historical sources but, again, you really have to take care with these as well. Most of the writers tended to be male and that almost certainly influenced their descriptions and interpretation. It’s also probable that at least some of them sensationalised the topic just as much as in contemporary times. The truth is that, for some very obvious practical reasons, women didn’t tend to engage in physically dangerous and violent combat unless there was a particularly compelling reason to do so. Given that ‘The Grey One’ is a work of fiction with elements of fact, this is something I’ve had to dance around somewhat carefully.

To give people a sense/taste for what the book’s about, I prepared a three-chapter pre-launch teaser in ebook form under the title ‘The Warrior Woman’ which went up on Amazon last week. Being Amazon of course, they insist on charging a minimum of 99 cents however if you want a free copy in mobi. (Kindle) or ePub (Apple, Kobo etc.) you can find one at Smashwords or at Noisetrade. If you read/print off your computer you can get a good, old-fashioned PDF document here under ‘Download sample chapters’.

This book itself becomes available through Amazon on 4 December 2015. Hardcopy versions will also be available in hardcopy through Amazon (sometime in December) and by ordering through other bookshops (from February). If you really, really, absolutely have to get an ePub version just email me though the website and I’ll see what I can do.

Sample Chapters for ‘Liath Luachra – The Grey One’ now available

 

Liath Luachra cover

After numerous interruptions, distractions and rewrites, the final draft of “Liath Luachra – The Grey One” is nearing completion and a two chapter ‘sampler’ ‘is now available here on the Irish Imbas Books website.

I’m in the process of tidying up the last chapters prior to final editing but the finished book should be available at the end of November (about 6-7 weeks). For those who are interested, the back cover summary reads as follows:

Ireland 188 A.D. A land of tribal affiliations, secret alliances and treacherous rivalries.
Youthful woman warrior Liath Luachra has survived two brutal years with mercenary war party “The Friendly Ones” but now the winds are shifting.
Dispatched on a murderous errand where nothing is as it seems, she must survive a group of treacherous comrades, the unwanted advances of her battle leader and a personal history that might be her own undoing.
Clanless and friendless, she can count on nothing but her wits, her fighting skills and her natural ferocity to see her through.
Woman warrior, survivor, killer and future guardian to Irish hero Fionn mac Cumhaill – this is her story.

*********************

I have to admit, the story’s been an interesting one to develop in that it’s darker, grittier and much more character driven than some of my other work – particularly interesting when writing from the perspective of a woman with violent tendancies (a big thanks to my ‘advisors’). Although it’s a stand-alone work, it’s also a prequel of sorts to the Fionn Mac Cumhaill series in that it deals with the backstory to one of the main characters from that series.

Unfortunately, the sample’s available in PDF form only as we’re holding off on ebook conversion until the final draft has completed the editing process.

Numerous people have expressed interest in getting their hands on this so I will keep posting as things develop.

There’s something about Brighid (Irish Folklore and Mythology)

Photos - May-June 2011 068 (2)

Growing up in Ireland, it’s practically impossible to escape Brighid. A huge proportion of my family or friends are called Brigit, Brigette, Bríd, Bride, Bridie, etc. etc. When I was in university, I also had a friend called Brída who formed part of a group of girls (Brída, Nuala, Gráinne, Aoife and two others) known as ‘The A-Team’ (Irish people will get this). With almost half the Irish population named after one particular individual, you’d be forgiven for wondering whether that figure was someone of particular importance.

Because you’d be right!

The first major figure associated with this name is the Celtic (and possibly pre-Celtic) land goddess, Brigit, who was worshipped by a number of Celtic tribes including the Brigantes (and that tribal name is certainly no coincidence). Interestingly, parts of this tribe are also believed to have moved from central England and settled in the south-east of Ireland during the first century A.D. It’s therefore quite possible (although not certain by any means) that it was these original settlers who brought the belief – and the name – to Ireland.

The second major figure associated with the name is the Leinster saint – Saint Brighid – a figure said to be from the Fortharta sept and who’s probably most famous for founding the convent at Cill Dara (Kildare), the huge number of miracles associated with her and, of course, the festival on St Brighid’s Day (1 February).

In some respects, Saint Brighid has always struck me as a kind of Celtic version of the Virgin Mary. She’s always been a bit of a poster girl for the Church (at least in Ireland) and if you look through all the old religious material about her, she reads very much like:
(a) a kind of ‘perfect’ role model that all woman should aspire to; or
(b) a kind of ‘sop’ to the female members of the congregation along the lines of: Yes, ladies. God likes women too – they just can’t hold positions of authority in his male-dominated church.

Given the odd similarity in names between the saint and the original land goddess (and the Church’s long established habit of ‘borrowing’ elements of local belief systems) you’d also be forgiven for wondering if – just possibly – the two might be linked. To work that out of course, you’d first have to go back to the key sources of information available on Saint Brighid.

The earliest surviving record of St Brigid is an origin story for the Fotharta, dating back to about 600 AD and linking the saint to them. I haven’t seen the original but it reportedly describes her as ‘another Mary’ (i.e. the Virgin Mary), a reference that indicates the record was made with a Christian hand (hardly surprising given that it was said to have been written by Saint Broccán).
A few decades later (in 633 A.D.) an Uí Dhúnlainge leader by the name of Faolán mac Colmáin became king of Leinster. Connected to the Fotharta by marriage and to the Church through a brother who was Bishop of Kildare, Faolán mac Colmáin clearly had a vested interest in encouraging the belief and worship of Brighid in order to cement the authority of his own rule. It comes as no surprise therefore to discover that, around this time, the church of Kildare actually engaged a cleric (by the name of Cogitosus) to prepare a biography of the saint to support this claim.

Arguably, the most fascinating thing about Cogitosus’ biography of Brighid (entitled Vita Brigitae) is the fact that it doesn’t actually contain any biographical material – it’s essentially a compilation of the various miracles attributed to the saint (a kind of “Best Of” collection ). This substantive absence of biographical information suggests:
(a) there wasn’t any biographical material to be included in the first place; and
(b) the biography was written predominantly to cement the Kildare church’s position and authority against competing religious centres who had saints of their own.

The case supporting the actual existence of a ‘Saint Brighid’ therefore starts to look a little shaky when you look at it in detail and this is probably why (over the last few years) there have been so many reports that she was de-canonized” following the establishment of the second Vatican Council (Vatican II). Generally, when it’s worked out that a particular saint has a dubious historicity or no credible basis for existence (and yes, this happens) the Church doesn’t formally de-canonize them. They are sometimes however, removed from the liturgical calendars (the religious equivalent of locking your insane and socially embarrassing Uncle Seán away in the back room).

In this respect, the Catholic Church is in something of an unenviable ‘lose-lose’ situation. They can’t officially “get rid of” a saint that they’ve previously used to convert the masses as this would undermine their spiritual credibility. At the same time, neither can they completely ignore the issue as that too would undermine their credibility. This is probably why Saint Brighid hasn’t been removed from the liturgical calendar (if that happened there’d probably be uproar – in Ireland, at least). For now, the Church seems to be doing the only thing it can do – keeping quiet and hoping no-one will notice.

Irish Imbas – Celtic Mythology Short Story Competition

 

 

Secrets of Celtic Mythology Poster 03

Tomorrow (or today, depending on what part of the planet you currently occupy) we’re launching our first Celtic Mythology Short Story Competition. Over the next few week therefore, you might see the above image turning up on various website/Facebook pages etc. It also has it’s own page (with all the rules and what-not) located here (if you’re feeling particularly ‘devil-may-care’ you can throw caution to the wind and look upwards to the top of the screen to find the tab!)

At this stage, the plan is to publish a compilation that includes the best of the submitted stories but also some commentary (in terms of the mythology/folklore aspects) in 2016. If we can cover the production costs, the digital version of the book will be available for free. A hard copy version will also be available.

Please feel free to forward to anyone you think might be interested.

What Irish Mythology Is Not

Blarney-West Cork18-20April 2011 031 (2)[I had a fascinating, if somewhat surreal, conversation about two weeks ago with someone (not Irish) asking me about elements of Irish mythology for a book he was writing. This is a summarised version of that discussion.]

HIM: ‘So there’s no vampires in Irish mythology, then?’
ME: ‘No.’
HIM: ‘But what about Bram Stoker?’
ME: ‘Well, I suppose it’s true he came from Ireland but he was one of the more privileged Anglo-Irish types so it’s probably unlikely he had much time for native folklore. He certainly knew his Transylvanian legends though because that’s what Dracula was based on.’
HIM: ‘How about werewolves then?’
ME: ‘Nah. No werewolves in Irish mythology.
HIM: ‘Dragons?’
ME: ‘Dragons? They’re feckin Welsh or Chinese!’
HIM: ‘Huh! OK. That’s pretty boring, then. Did you, like, have monsters and stuff. Or wild animals? Lions and sharks and shit.’
ME: ‘We have basking sharks.’
HIM: ‘Are they dangerous?’
ME: ‘Well, if one sat on you you’d know about it.’
HIM: ‘I was being serious.’
ME: ‘Me too. Basking sharks are fucking huge.’
HIM: ‘Do they kill many people?’
ME: ‘No. They’re harmless. I hit one by accident years ago when I was out sailing in Kinsale but he didn’t seem to care too much. We did actually have monsters though.’
HIM: ‘Really? What kind?’
ME: ‘Monster worms.’

Momentary silence.

HIM: ‘Monster worms. You have got to be shitting me!’
ME: ‘No, no.’ [Laughing.] ’There were quite a few.’
HIM: ‘And what did they do? Mug a bunch of midget sparrows?’
ME: ‘Actually, they were said to have carved the earth to make rivers and lakes. I suppose you could say they were our creation stories.’
HIM: ‘Creation stories?’
ME: ‘Stories developed by a local population to explain how their world and local environment were made. I suspect the Loch Ness monster was probably based on one of those.’
HIM: ‘But the Loch Ness Monsters in Scotland.’
ME: ‘Same thing. It was the same cultural and societal grouping as in Ireland. The defined territories of Scotland and Ireland came in much later but, to be honest, borders don’t really mean anything from a mythological perspective.’

Laughter.

ME: ‘What’s so funny?’
HIM: ‘Giant worms. It’s hardly … scary.’
ME: ‘Fair enough. But we also had some badass pigs. They did pretty much the same as the worms although usually on a slightly smaller scale.’
HIM: ‘I’m hanging up now.

This is going to be a bestseller!!!

I received a personal message from the Rain Gods

Rainbow2

 

Thank God it’s spring!

After a long and particularly arduous winter we were rewarded last weekend with this stunning double rainbow over the Miramar peninsula. Set at the very end of the peninsula, it really was an amazing sight from the other side of the harbour. In some respects it felt like a personal message from the Gods along the lines of “All right, lads! Enough’s enough. You can have some sun now.”

When my kids were growing up here in Wellington, I taught them a little poem to help them remember the names of the colours in Irish. It went:

Dearg agus glas – red and green
Gorm agus buí – blue and yellow
Feach sa spéir – look up at the sky
An bogha báistí – the rainbow!

Because of their sheer scale and striking visual impact, it’s hard not to be impressed by a rainbow, particularly the big ones that span large swatches of space. Its’ hardly surprising so, that every culture has some associated mythology or folklore. In Hindu mythology, their Thunder God uses a rainbow as a form of bow to shoot arrows made of lightning. Maori have a legend about Hina (the mother of Maui), the moon, who causes a rainbow to span the heavens for her husband to return to earth. In Ireland of course, the most famous legend is the story of the leprechaun’s pot of gold at the end of the rainbow. Although most Irish people hate the plastic paddy shite associated with leprechauns, I have to admit the central concept of this particular story is quite clever. Rainbows don’t have an end so you can never get the gold. In fact, to see a rainbow you have to have the sun behind you. Hence it’s only got one side as well – truly a no-win situation!!

Ironically then, I once saw the end of the rainbow. This happened when we were kids and my Dad was driving the family home from a weekend in Beara. Naturally, this being West Cork, it was raining but as we drove through the Cousane Pass the clouds cleared and this beautiful rainbow opened up, one end filling the field with the standing stone at the top of the Cousane.

Needless to say, the event caused some consternation amongst the four kids stuffed in the back of the car. My poor Dad nearly crashed when we started screaming at him to stop so we that could run in and get the gold. We were smart. We all knew that you could only reach the gold for as long as the rainbow remained.

For some reason, my father ignored the screeching from behind and kept on driving but I’ll never forget how galling it was to see the rainbow’s end just alongside, marking untold wealth and riches. And us driving placidly (not) by.

I’ve never really forgiven my father for that excruciating lapse of judgement. If he’d only stopped the car for twenty seconds, we’d all be multi-millionaires today.

(Irish Folklore and mythology) The Mystery of the Jumping Church

20-kildemock-church-aka-the-jumping-church-co-meath

Our family got dragged up north years ago, when my Dad took us to stay at a friend’s house in Dundalk (county Louth). I have particularly fond memories of that trip, not only because we had access to the luxury of children’s morning television from the BBC (this didn’t come into the Republic until about the same year as legalised condoms!) but because of some of the downright weird places we visited while we were there.  The two places I still recall most vividly were ‘The Jumping Church’ and ‘The Angel’s Highway’ (next blog article). Back in the day, the famous Jumping Church of Kildemock wasn’t particularly famous and sounded more like the title for an episode of Father Ted than a place to visit.

Nowadays, the site is actually a popular visitor destination for tourists. The church ruin that remains dates back to the 14th century and there’s only one wall remaining but it’s still a fascinating spot for according to local folklore, the west gable of the building jumped two feet inside the wall of the original foundation (marked in red). The reason as to why it did this? To exclude an excommunicated church member who’d been buried in the church.

For kids of course, the weirdness of this story was instantly appealing although I remember that when we were passing through, the version we heard from the locals concerned a Protestant landlord who’d insisted on being buried within the church (and, no, even at the time that didn’t seem to make much sense). The more commonly touted version, of course, states that someone buried an apostate of the Catholic Church just inside the wall of the building (some of the stories claim that the man had been excommunicated) … and the church didn’t like it. The building was so incensed at the presence of this ‘heathen’ that it shore off its own west wall and ‘jumped’ it back three feet so that the body lay outside the building.

A third story – a MUCH more scientific one –suggests that a terrible storm in 1715 caused the wall to fall over so that it was subsequently rebuilt. Two feet inside the foundations. I know that Irish people have a bad rep as ‘cowboy’ builders but, come on!

1772410_43455f86

In fact, none of the above stories are probably true (although fragments of the storm story may hold weight). The real story is very much older than that. Burial places and cemeteries (and, much later, church graveyards) have always had an important physical and symbolic importance in Ireland (and still do today) and often, to understand the past or appreciate how the past is reflected in modern customs or beliefs we need to understand that context.

Long ago, communities held great pride in local warriors, saints or political heroes (essentially the celebrities of the day – albeit usually dead). As most of them ended up in the burial place eventually, this was often the sacred site associated with their veneration. For this reason, there are a lot of stories about these sacred sites being ‘guarded’ by the people buried there. Probably the most well-known example of this is Lóegaire, who was said to have demanded to be buried upright at Tara to defend it against enemies but there are plenty other examples as well.

In later times, insults to the community were often articulated through ‘sacrilege stories’ – insults against the community’s sacred site (cemetery) and in order to create a suitable ‘satisfactory’ ending, ‘justice’ was often achieved through contrived intercession of its ghostly occupants. This is why, all over Ireland, you’ll find cemeteries with similar stories where villains (English, Protestants, landlords or all of the above!) create a ‘sacrilege situation’ but are then resoundingly ‘outdone’ by the inhabitants or the character of the site itself.

Everyone loves a ‘happy’ ending!

Liath Luachra – The Grey One (Initial Draft of Cover)

Liath Luachra 03

2015 has been a bit of a tough year on the work front so far but I’m pleased to say that we’re actually making good progress on the book and website fronts (amongst others).

At this stage, I’m approximately two thirds of the way through Liath Luachra – The Grey One (which is something of a prequel to the Fionn Mac Cumhal Series). I usually find that by the fifth chapter, the plot lines are cohesive but that I need to go back and rewrite/amend some of the earlier sections to ensure the linear flow of the narrative. This tends to delay the completion but it really is the most important part for me in terms of ‘plot quality’ so getting over that ‘hump’ is important. Everything after this feels like “walking downhill” (as one of the Ents in LOTR says).

I know other writers are much more focussed in terms of outlining their plot but I find that when I do that, the emotional resonance of the story tends to falter. Everyone has their own way of doing things, I guess.

Word count with Liath Luachra at this point is 54000 words or thereabout. I realise some people are waiting for Fionn 3: The Adversary but I needed to get this story done first as part of it is relevant to  the plotting in the latter. Fionn 3 is sitting at about 48000 words. Both will definitely be complete in the last quarter of 2015.

The above is an early draft of the cover image for Liath Luachra but the finished version is quite different. I’ll be putting out the back cover blurb (the summary of the plot) next week with an updated version.

Thank you for being patient with the – ahem – creative process!

(Irish Folklore) The Souls of Butterflies

butterfly-6

Some elements of Irish folklore refer to butterflies as ‘souls of the dead’, making their way from the physical world into the Otherworld. You can actually see why this might occur. The transformation of the caterpillar into a butterfly provides a perfect model to explain the concept of changing states (i.e. from life to death) and the stuttering, almost hesitant, fragility of butterfly flight aligns perfectly with what we’d expect of some confused soul in the process of passing on. In fact, this conceptual interpretation is a common one found in many different cultures and religions and I’ve even used it myself in Fionn 2: Traitor of Dún Baoiscne.

Although we have limited knowledge on what our oldest ancestors believed (prior to the introduction of writing in the 5th century) what we do know is that they utilised imagery and symbolism to explain the world about them much more than we do today. This is essentially because they didn’t have the technology and scientific rationale we have today to clarify and explain things with greater certainty. In effect, our ancestors were explaining things through extrapolation of what they did know.

Naturally, religions like Christianity were also quick to grab onto the butterfly symbolism because it allowed the concept of a soul to be explained in a way most people could understand (religions are also founded on faith-based concepts rather than tangible realities that we can measure or prove). Because we lack information on pre-Christian Ireland however, we have a chicken and egg situation in that we don’t know if the butterfly-soul imagery existed prior to Christianity or whether it was introduced because of Christianity. Either way, fragments of the belief exist now in some parts of common culture or in Irish expressions such as ‘na féileacán a bhrú as duine – to crush someone (literally ‘to push the butterflies out of someone’).

The best known example of changing state and butterflies in Ireland is the famous Irish myth, Tochmarc Étaín, (The Wooing of Étaín). In this story, Étaín (daughter of Ailill, king of the Ulaid) is transformed by a jealous woman into the form of a fly (this was later romantised to the more aesthetically pleasing butterfly). Later, Étaín falls into the drinking cup of the wife of Étar (a warrior of the Ulaid), who swallows her, becomes pregnant, and subsequently gives rebirth to her.

The existing manuscripts of Tochmarc Étaín are estimated to date back to the 8th or 9th century – a time by which Christianity was well established in Ireland, so again, it’s impossible to tell whether the belief was an ethnic thing or not.

Another, more recent – if somewhat surreal – example involving a butterfly and changing states is to be found in the wonderful Fiche Blian ag Fás (Twenty-Years A Growing), the autobiography of Muiris O’Súilleabháin and his childhood on the Blasket Islands. In the relevant scene, the author describes a dream that he had concerning himself and his friend.

After a while it seemed that Mickail fell asleep. I was looking at him, snoring fine and easy. While I sat thinking what a strange thing was that sleep, when what would I see come out of his mouth but a pretty white butterfly. It began to walk down over his body. I stopped and reflected that it was a queer thing to come out of his mouth. Down went the butterfly through the meadow, I after it, ever and ever, till it came to an iron gate. It began to climb the bars of the gate, from bar to bar, slow and easy, I watching. When it came to the top of the gate, down it went on the other side. I stood watching every turn it was taking. It came down into another meadow where there was an old skull of a horse which looked as if it had been there for years. In went the butterfly through the holes of the eyes, I still watching intently.

It must have been five minutes before I saw it coming out again through the mouth of the skull. Back it came to the gate, up each bar and down the other side, just as it had done before, then up through the meadow, I following it ever and ever, till it went back into Mickail’s mouth.

At that moment he awoke.

‘Where am I?’ said he looking round.

‘Don’t you know the place?’ said I, not letting on to him yet about the butterfly.

‘Oh, Maurice,’ said he, ‘sit down till I tell you the fine dream I am after having. Would you believe it, I dreamt we went astray on each other when we were gathering the flowers, and that I walked on for a long, long way till I came to some railway tracks which crossed each other like the threads of a stocking. I didn’t know where in the world I was. I kept shouting and calling out to you but that was all the good I got out of it. When I came to the end of the railway line, I saw a big bright house. I went up to it. There was a big round doorway with no door in it. I stopped and looked. God save my soul, said I, what place is this? Will I go inside? Oh, there is not a lie in what I am saying, Maurice.’

‘I believe you well,’ said I. ‘Go on with your story.’

Well, in I went. But, if so, there was no one alive or dead to be seen. I was passing from room to room, but upon my word, Maurice, my fill of fear was coming over me.’

‘It was no wonder for you.’’

‘Well, faith, I thought I was going astray in the rooms and that I would never be able to find the way out. I was groping my way, ever and ever, till at last I reached the doorway, and the devil if I didn’t come back again over the same railway tracks, and just as I found myself in the meadow again, I awake.’

I first read that book over twenty years ago and I don’t know what you think but it pretty much left me gobsmacked. I was so impressed by the book that when I wrote the first serious novel of my own (Beara Dark Legends) I ended up using Muiris O’Suilleabhain (Maurice O’Sullivan) as the name of the protagonist.

(My Writing) Update on new Writing Projects

Metaphysical sweat pouring from the brow over the last three weeks due to huge workloads in other – non-writing – areas. Hence, the great silence for such a long time. A brief post this week therefore, just to share some of the background work going on in the covers for Fionn Book 3: The Adversary.

I really like working on book covers. Visual design is a new creative skill for me (and one I’m not particularly good at). Hence, I love to dabble and work with people who are. Here, for your interest, is one of the early proposals for Fionn III.

The Adversary 04