With ‘Fionn: Stranger at Mullan Ban’ now sorted and ready for release next month I’ve been focusing more on ‘Liath Luachra: The Great Wild’, which I’m hoping to release in the first half of 2023.
Usually, when I’m starting a new book, I play around with the first chapter for a time as this cements the overall mood and theme of the story. I’m currently on the fifth or sixth rough draft of ‘The Great Wild’ and although I’m still shifting various sequences and descriptions around, I’m getting close to locking it in.
This work was always going to be something of an experimental piece as you can see from the attached mood/theme images I’ve been working with (mostly from artist Leila Amat Ortega but also from Reza Afshar and Julie Cherki).
Because I tend to feel my way intuitively with a lot of this stuff, I can never really tell whether the final product is going to work or not. Fortunately, the process seems to have worked so far with other books.
This is the cover image for a small project called ‘Liath Luachra: The Great Wild‘ which I’m hoping to release sometime next year – probably towards the end of the year. Essentially, it’s a prequel novella to the Liath Luachra Series (The Irish Woman Warrior Series) that tells of an event during Liath Luachra’s first year with mercenary group Na Cinéaltaí – The Friendly Ones.
Currently in outline only, I’m expecting the final work to be around 35-40,000 words in length. In terms of style, this story reverts back to the more simple and rugged approach of the first book in the series (Liath Luachra: The Grey One). A simple, stand alone story, it won’t have the ongoing ‘plot baggage’ (that’s a technical term us arty types use!) of the other books in the series which should make it easier (faster) to write.
Prior to releasing that, I have to publish Liath Luachra: The Metal Men(probably in December 2021) and Fionn: Stranger at Mullán Bán (planned for June 2022).
I’m also hoping to get at least five chapters of Beara: Cry of the Banshee (the second inthe Beara Trilogy) drafted but that will really depend on my freelance workloads. Meanwhile, I also have a non-fiction (Irish mythology based) book planned for next year but that’s a pretty big project so I’m not committing to delivery as yet.
Apparently it’s been three years since I last released a Liath Luachra book through the usual ebook stores. I do recall that, on that last occasion, I mistakenly made the book exclusive to Amazon. As a result, it was another three months before anyone who didn’t buy it through Amazon could obtain a copy.
I don’t particularly enjoy distributing my books through a monopolistic corporate that doesn’t pay its taxes. For that reason, with the most recent Liath Luachra book (Liath Luachra: The Seeking), I released the book directly through my own website.
To be honest, It’s always bothered me to have so little control over my own creative products and to support the greed of entities who take so much and return so little to society. This decision really felt like the best for me and, longer term, I suspect I’ll continue down that route.
As a result, for those who’d like to access the latest Liath Luachra in digital form, this is currently available through this site only. THe book will be available through the corporate ebookstores in about two months time (30 June 2021). The fourth (and possibly final) Liath Luachra book will be available before the end of the year. Initially – and predominanlty – through the Irish Imbas store.
Today I sent the completed manuscript off to my editor for a final check prior to its release in March so it seems apt to put it out again.
Emerging from the cave, the warrior woman found Murchú already mounted and waiting below the yew trees. Swaddled against the cold in his black cloak, he had the lower hem drawn up and held in place beneath his inner thighs. The sight of the Uí Loinge man poised so casually astride the animal took Liath Luachra by surprise. Too dazed to take note when he’d first arrived, she’d assumed Murchú had managed to make it to Luachair on horseback only through a combination of good fortune and determination. The restful pose and the relaxed manner in which the reins dangled loosely from his fingers however, suggested he was a more than competent horseman.
She was even more surprised when he reached down with one hand to help her mount. Looking from the hand to Murchú, then back at the hand again, she firmly shook her head.
‘All the way to Briga?’ He adjusted the folds of his cloak. ‘That could cost us days. Days we don’t have, Grey One.’
The woman warrior frowned and regarded the horse with a measure of distrust. She didn’t know much about horses and had always viewed them with wary circumspection. They were beautiful creatures to look at and had their obvious uses but they were also skittish and could let you down when you needed them most.
With crazy workloads and various schedule upsets last year (not looking at you, Covid!), Liath Luachra 3 (The Seeking) was one of the main projects I was working on to suffer unexpected delays. Originally, my intention had been to release the final book in December 2020, but the on again-off again nature of the way I’d been obliged to work throughout the year, meant that completing the project by that date just wasn’t feasible.
This situation probably wasn’t helped by the length of the story. Originally developed as an outline for a potential second season in the proposed television series, this required a plot that was far more complex than I’d originally planned. Add in the need to incorporate the first links and overlaps with the Fenian Cycle (and the later Fionn mac Cumhaill Series) and the wordcount quickly expanded.
At this stage, my current draft stands at 130,000 words (The Grey One – the first book with Liath Luachra – was about 97,000 words) and I don’t think the story I want to tell (in the manner I want to tell it, at least) will take less than 170-180,000 words to complete. As an independent creator, (or, at least for someone who does as much research and writes as slowly as myself) this amount of work to produce a single book isn’t viable. I’ve therefore decided to release Liath Luachra: The Seeking in two parts and as two separate books.
Given that the first half of the story (Part 1) is already done and dusted (edited, proofed etc. etc.), this will be released in a limited form on 1 March 2021.
I’ll be aiming to complete and release Part Two by June 2021.
For those who really, really want Part 1, the full details and links to reading options will be outlined in the next issue of our newsletter (Vóg) but at this stage, the plan is to make it available for download here on the Irish Imbas website and probably in limited paperback form.
Once Part 2 is ready to go, they’ll both be available far more widely (for those who prefer to read the entire story in one sitting).
Scáthach – the Shadowed – is a woman warrior who turns up in the tenth century manuscript Tochmarc Emire (The Wooing of Emer). A supporting character to the narrative adventure that focuses on Irish hero Cú Chulainn, her main purpose is to add an element of depth and context to Cú Chulainn’s legendary fighting skills and, of course some 10th century feminine (cough) “pizzazz”. In the Tomharc Emire, advised by his friends that to complete his martial training he should learn from Scáthach, Cú Chulainn immediately sets sail for Alba (in modern-day Scotland) and the fortress where she’s based.
To be honest, whenever I think of Scáthach, I have this mental image of a longsuffering professional working woman, gritting her teeth and doing her best to hide her irritation at an extended visit from her daughter’s boorish boyfriend. To imagine Cú Chulainn’s visit as a pleasing or welcome one would be to ignore the other interesting elements of the tale. Most people sadly, enamoured by the romanticised aspect of a woman warrior teaching the mythological hero, tend to limit their focus on that.
When Cú Chulainn first arrives and enters Scáthach’s domain, he inveigles his way into her fortress by manipulating the romantic passions of her teenage daughter, Úathach. Despite Cú Chulainn breaking her fingers (and the slaying of the warrior Cochair Cruibne), Úathach is so besotted she casts any loyalty to Scáthach aside, advising her new beau on how to overcome her mother while she’s resting. Following Úathach’s advice, Cú Chulainn overcomes his host, places his sword between her breasts and threatens her with death unless she grants him three wishes:
• that she trains him without neglect, • that she pays the bride price for him to marry Úathach; and • that she uses her seer skills to warn him of anything that might befall him.
Over the course of Cú Chulainn’s visit, Scáthach puts up with her unwelcome visitor’s regular acts of violence and trains him as obliged without comment. When Cú Chulainn attacks Aífe and forces her to have his child (Úathach has disappeared from the narrative at this point), she continues to keep her silence.
In the end however, it’s Scáthach who has the last bitter laugh. Prior to his departure back to Ireland and Eamain Macha, she draws up her seer skills and recites the events she sees in store for him, foretelling the bloody slaughter of the Táin Bó Cuailgne. Cú Chulainn, preoccupied, pays her recitation as much attention as a blind man to the cinematic trailer of a subtitled movie.
The moment passes, nothing is learned.
I’m occasionally asked why I’ve never written a contemporary version of Cú Chulainn or An Táin, given that – in some ways – he’s far more well known to non-Irish, English-speaking audiences. The truth of it is I find it hard to write about characters I don’t particularly like. For a contemporary audience, the actions of the Iron Age Cú Chulainn are difficult to get across in a way that would remain true to the original stories. Particularly as, in many of those stories, he comes across as a violent meathead (and, to be honest, a bit of a bastard).
Liath Luachra: The Seeking has now passed 80,000 words – essentially the first eight chapters (and I’m currently working on Chapter 9). The book is planned for release later this year.
Above is a section of the new cover for this book. Below is the current draft of the back cover blurb.
In the bleak Luachair valley, the woman warrior Liath Luachra’s seclusion is disrupted by a desperate plea to rescue a comrade’s abducted sister. Raising her ‘fian’ to pursue the raiders, this ‘Seeking’ turns out far more perilous than first imagined.
Pursuing a mysterious war party across ancient Ireland’s Great Wild, she soon finds herself confronted on every side. Old enemies seek to undermine her, new allies can’t be trusted and in the deep south-east, a dark threat rises, roused by a chilling spectre from her past.
Faced with horrors she’d thought long forgotten, Liath Luachra must revert to the worst part of herself to survive the phantoms of her past and present.
This is a silly little video I threw together during a moment of whimsy while doing my monthly newsletter.
When the updated cover for Fionn 2 (FIONN: Traitor of Dún Baoiscne) was being developed, the artist put together a series of cover versions for the different clothing options he’d come up with for Liath Luachra. I happened to come across the files again last week and, as I was flicking through them, I found it had an amusing ‘film’ effect.
Anyway, judge for yourself but prepare to be underwhelmed. For some reason, the transfer to You Tube seriously diminished the quality of the images and, deep and meaningful, this is not.
Instead of posting another picture of the cover, I’ve decided to celebrate with this gorgeous image of Liath Luachra by artist Vin Hill (and if you like this image, I’d highly recommend giving his site a look at https://vinhillart.wordpress.com/ ).
For those of you unfamiliar with the character, Liath Luachra (which means The Grey One of Luachair) was a woman warrior who had a very (very!) small role in Macgnímartha Finn (The Boyhood Deeds of Fionn).
In that narrative, she was one of two guardians to the mythological hero Fionn mac Cumhaill when he was just a child and she’s a great character to write.
[Pic: Lagertha, from the television series: Vikings – often misrepresented as a ‘Celtic’ or ‘Oirish’ woman warrior online]
There’s a lot of fantasy out there when it comes to women warriors, particularly where it relates back to those in the Irish or “Celtic” realm. To be fair, the subject of women warriors is hardly a new one. Since the development of literature itself, writers (usually male) and readers have been enamored by tales of fighting women (particularly Herodotus with his notes on the inaccurately-named Amazons), probably because they’re such a rarity in ancient warfare, an area generally dominated by men.
The role of women in ancient warfare certainly differed between different cultures but in ancient Irish, Scottish, Welsh and Manx societies – a far more physical society than today – warfare was generally left to the men. That’s not to say that women didn’t fight, of course. The histories of these countries are full of examples of women fighting to defend themselves, fighting to protect the ones they love, or fighting each other. In terms of recognised warrior status warrior in actual warfare context however, this would have been a rarity indeed.
When it comes to women warriors in the ancient Irish mythological context (i.e. not historical), we certainly seem to have more references in the surviving literature than other contemporary societies of the same period. Some people mistakenly use this fact to argue that female fighters were common in early Irish society and that it was a far more ‘gender equal’ society but that’s a pretty big leap to make.
As an Irish person I’d LOVE to boast that ancient Ireland was the role model for gender equality but I think it’d be pretty dishonest of me if I did. At their most basic level, people don’t tend to change too much. Human societies have always been based around the established holders of power and, in ancient Ireland, most of that power was held by men.
Whatever you believe, the mythological tales still have to be treated with caution and never treated literally. The writers/recorders of that time were not above a bit of creative licence or prejudice and people often forget that just because something was written a long time ago, it doesn’t necessarily mean it’s true.
The Pattern of Women Warriors in Irish Mythology
If we look at Irish mythology then, the most well-known women warriors referred to in the literature tend to include:
Scáthach– a woman warrior who appears in the Ulster Cycle who was based in modern-day Scotland. She instructs the hero Cú Chulainn in a number of martial feats and (depending on the version) when he catches her with her guard down, is forced to take him as a lover
Aífe– a rival of Scáthach who Cú Chulainn forces to lie with him at swordpoint and who subsequently bears him a son
Neasa (Ness)– a woman warrior forced into marriage at swordpoint by the warrior/druid Cathbad and future mother of the famous Conchobhar mac Nessa
Liath Luachra – a guardian of the young Fionn mac Cumhaill, briefly mentioned in the Fenian Cycle
The surviving literature is very limited when it comes to these characters but with the first three, there’s an overpowering impression that the character of the powerful woman warrior was created specifically to highlight the sexual domination and military prowess of the male ‘hero’ who subsequently overpowers her (a pattern also found with other women warrior characters in mythology).
The final figure (Liath Luachra) is probably the only one that doesn’t follow this pattern. This is predominantly because as a guardian to the much younger hero (Fionn mac Cumhaill), any relationship between them is desexualised.
Other figures in Irish Mythology cited as Women Warriors
Other female figures from Irish mythology occasionally offered up as examples of women warriors include:
Meadhbh (also spelt Medb, Maeve etc.) – Queen of Connacht in the Táin (The Cattle Raid of Cooley)
The Morríghan (or Mór-ríoghain)
Again, if you look at either of these in any detail, you’ll immediately find that neither actually make the cut. All of the literary and archaeological evidence to date indicates that these figures were personifications of female deities as opposed to warrior women. Articles or literary works suggesting that they were warriors usually indicates that the authors haven’t even done the most basic of homework or they’re pushing an argument driven more by wish fulfilment than fact.
Irish Women Warriors in Literature
For a long time, Irish women warriors pretty much lingered as an ‘interesting’ footnote in the republications of old academic works on Irish mythology. Over the last thirty to forty years however, representation of women warriors has become far more prevalent in commercial fiction, particularly in the fantasy genre where mythological characters occasionally end up “borrowed” for contemporary stories.
The final products are usually fine from a basic entertainment perspective even if, from a cultural perspective, things can get a little … ‘iffy’, when creators miss the underlying cultural context. Unfortunately, with Irish warrior women, this can particularly result in works that are not only overly romanticised but which ignore some of the strong negative gender undercurrents associated with the characters, something of which the authors often seem – disturbingly – unaware.
Note:This is an updated version of an older article published on this website and later published on the Fantasy Hive.
After two pretty shocking workload months, we’re finally at a point where we can actually release some new writing. This short story (The Pursuit) should be selectively available at the end of next week (before we close down for the month of August) and more widely in September.
The story takes place sometime after the events in Liath Luachra: The Grey One. It’s a stand-alone short story but will form the first chapter of the next Liath Luachra book in 2018.
To be honest, even now it still surprises me how fiercely people like this character. When I first introduced her, I didn’t think honestly believe many readers would relate to a Gaelic, sword-wielding, gay woman. I should have got some inkling however, when despite the much smaller role planned for the character, she took on a life of her own (to the point where she ended up completely dominating the first book in the Fionn mac Cumaill series).
And then of course there was the review feedback:
“The thinking woman’s warrior.”
“An intriguing female protagonist unlike any I’ve come across before. Intelligent and competent, she’s also tragically damaged and vulnerable and yet somehow manages to cling to her fragile moral core.”
“Tough, tenacious and unflinchingly truthful, Liath Luachra is an admirably strong female protagonist. Her own inner conflict – between her past and present self, her loyalty to Bodhmhall and her own sense of right and wrong – is as engaging as her woodland exploits, and her fighting scenes are stark and exhausting.”
“A female heroine who is commanding and fascinating.” “In the legends of Fionn mac Cumhaill, Liath Luachra is an intriguing name with minimal context, but in Brian O’Sullivan’s adaptions she becomes a most fascinating and formidable character in her own right.”
“In Fionn’s aunt, Bodhmall, and her lover Liath Luachra, O’Sullivan has created an intruiging warrior women who each provide their own strength to the narrative. I could continue reading a series about just them without any difficulty.”
Etc. Etc. Etc.
As a writer, you really can’t get more positive or more affirmative feedback than that and I’m extremely grateful to all of those who made the effort to write those comments. At the end of the day, I guess that as long as people enjoy those stories, I’ll keep writing them.
Go raibh míle maith agaibh.
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