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.

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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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)

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!

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.

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.