What Ireland Looks Like as a Woman

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Like many other Western countries, poets, politicians and artists in Ireland also fell into the trap of trying to personify their nation, that is, trying to characterise the concept of the country as a person, usually a beautiful young woman.

Such personifications are mostly restricted to the western world and were most popular in the late 19th and early 20th century. Usually, they tended to be used by governments in times of upheaval to ‘bolster’ the population when that nation was at risk (or portrayed to be at risk) from other influences. This is why most of the personifications are actually quite militaristic in their visual manifestations (they were often modelled on female war goddesses). If you look closely at the classic examples such as Britannia (England), Germania, (Germany) Marianne (France) and so on you’ll see they all carry weapons.

In Ireland, things were slightly different in that our first national personifications were usually a helpless young woman of great beauty (or an old woman) beset by oppressors. This is probably because they were created from a subjugated society as opposed to an oppressive (and foreign) government. Certainly, they were all intended for propaganda purposes but at least the independent earlier creations had (slightly) more depth than those military representations used by the latter.

The personification of Ireland as a nation originally started with the Aisling (Dream) poetry genre produced by Gaelic poets such as Aodhagán Ó Rathaille and Eoghan Rua Ó Súilleabháin from the mid-to late- 1600s right up to the late-1700s. In these poems, Ireland is represented as a young woman/old woman (generally referred to as ‘spéirbhean’) who lament the excruciating existence of the Irish people and prophesises the imminent coming of heroes to save thsem. They were very much political poems, of course. By the mid-1600s, most of Ireland was pretty much under the military yoke of the English Crown and the Penal Laws (forbidding many basic Gaelic cultural expressions) had been introduced. This, then, was the Gaelic poets’ attempt at rallying the people and giving them hope against the invaders.

Unfortunately, of course, the heroes never came. All elements of Irish military resistance were overcome, the English Crown secured complete control of the country and over the next four hundred years the Gaelic language and culture was substantially eroded.

As with all oppressive regimes, however, rebellion and nationalised sentiment fermented and arose once more, particularly towards the start of the early 20th century. By then, of course, Gaelic culture had been largely eradicated but in an effort to revive some of the old traditions, the Aisling poems were brought out and dusted off. The original 16th century Irish spéirbhean was updated and reframed into more contemporary versions such as Róisín Dubh (by the likes of James Mangan and Pádraig Pearse) or Cathleen Ní Houlihan (by WB Yeats and lady Gregory) in 1902. Ironically, the English Punch magazine introduced their own version (called Hibernia) around this point but it never really took off back home.

Kathleen_Ni_HoulihanCathleen Ní Houlihan

Following the Easter 1916 rebellion and the War of Independence, the Anglo-Irish treaty was signed. Keen to have its own national personification to show how unique and different this new country was, the Irish Free State government immediately mimicked other countries by inviting an artist (Lavery) to create one for the new Irish banknotes.

John Lavery was something of an anomaly and an interesting choice for creating the national personification picture. A Catholic-born painter (from Belfast), he’d been offered the post of official artist for the British Government during the First World war and later awarded a knighthood. Lavery was a rare individual in that he was equally at home in both the English/Protestant and Irish/Catholic/nationalist camps. With a foot in both, he must also have been one of the few people of his time to be made a free man of both Dublin and Belfast.

Lavery used his wife (Chicago-born, Hazel Martyn – also known as Lady Lavery because of her husband’s title) as the model and its her likeness on the personification of Ireland that’s probably the most well known today. This likeness was reproduced on Irish banknotes from between 1928 until the 1970s but when these were superseded, it continued to be used as a watermark on some notes until the euro was introduced in 2002.

In conclusion therefore, the personification of Ireland is a painting of an American woman created by a Belfast-born Catholic and based on a 20th century regurgitation of a 16th century Gaelic poetry concept.
In an odd way, that seems to quite accurately summarise where Ireland is today

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.

Magic Roads in Ireland

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The Magic Hill up in Louth (or ‘The Angel’s Highway’ as it’s sometimes called) is one of a number of magic roads in Ireland where, if you park at the ‘bottom’ of the hill, turn of the engine and shift it out of gear, your car will actually run back uphill.

Magic roads are, in fact, what are sometimes referred to as ‘gravity roads’ (that’s an area where the landscape creates an optical illusion so that a downhill slope actually looks like an uphill slope). There are actually quite a number of such places around the world (and there’s a least three of them in Ireland that I’m aware of). Most have their own folklore associated with them although most of that lore is usually derived after the invention of the motorcar.

When my Dad took us on our very memorable trip to Dundalk (county Louth, we went to see the magic road there and there’s an amusing summary of it here on youtube: http://talkofthetown.ie/2014/02/25/the-real-magic-hill/

It’s hardly deep, intellectual folklore but it’s great craic!!

Common Misconceptions About Irish Rituals

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Rituals are the practices we use to mark something important to us – birthdays, weddings, funerals and so on. Each of these events usually has a specific set of traditional practices associated with it and these form the basis of the ritual. Think of a wedding for example (a Western one). The bride wears white, there’s a ring and an exchange of vows etc. Combined, with a few others, these pretty much make up the marriage ritual.

The interesting thing about rituals is that the importance we give to them is very much associated with two things;

  1. the event’s personal relevance for us; and
  2. the relevance the ritual has in general society.

In Ireland for example, if you’re going to a funeral it’s easy to slip into the familiar routine of the removal mass, the ceremony at the church where everyone’s dressed in black, the lowering of the coffin, the socialising afterwards etc. That’s because funerals in Irish society have an established ritual based on traditions of behaviour and belief systems that have been established over hundreds of years. Most of us don’t have too much of a problem with that.

If, however, you change either of the two elements above you’d see something very different taking place. Take Easter, for example. I haven’t spent an Easter in Ireland for many years but here in New Zealand, for example, although most Kiwis enjoy the Easter weekend, most of them are a bit bemused as to why the laws enforce the closure of shops/bars/cafes etc. over that period. To them it seems daft.

And it is a bit. The problem is that the Easter ritual was enshrined in societal legislation many years ago, mainly as a result of the Christian religious beliefs that dominated the major proportion of the population at the time. As religious faith decreased dramatically over the last century (in the 2013 census over 50% of New Zealanders identified themselves as non-religious) you now have a situation where the majority of the population find themselves confronted by an Easter ritual which has no personal relevance for them. Naturally, being human, that whole social relevance of religion has since been replaced by a more personal celebration with chocolate Easter eggs. Ask most kids today what Easter is about and you can bet it’ll be more to do with rabbits and eggs than crucifixions.

This is one of the reasons folklore and history can be so damn problematic. A lot of the time we’re trying to make sense of left-over rituals for events in a society where the events no longer exist. Given that back in the day our ancestors had different values and belief systems to ours, we also lack the context that would make them comprehensible. That’s why we struggle to make sense of things like the Wrenboys, the Caoiners (keeners), the use of fire on mid-summer vigils and so many other rituals. In some respects it’s like trying to measure the character of a man by using nothing more than the evidence of a coat he’s discarded.

The Hill of Tara, British Israelites and ISIS

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I’m currently in the process of writing a section in the third book of the Fionn mac Cumhal series (The Adversary) which deals with a Neolithic passage grave and I thought I’d share two photos from a research trip I did back home about two years ago.  These show what is probably the most famous of Irish passage grave outside of those found at Brú na Bóinne (Newgrange) – that is, Dumha na nGiall (in English, the Mound of the Hostages) at Tara.

This particular passage grave is estimated to date back to about 3400 B.C. In other words, it was already almost three thousand years old by the time the Celts wandered over to Ireland from the Continent (about 500 B.C.). Like many of the other passage tombs, the alignment allows the morning sun to shine down the passageway twice a year to illuminate the internal chamber. Excavations carried out between 1955 and 1959, found more than 200 cremated or inhumed burials (often placed in upturned earthenware urns with burial gifts).

 

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It really is an impressive piece of work and astounding to consider that it’s still in such good condition almost 5000 years later. Naturally however, despite such proof from the potential of human achievement, it’s also important to consider the more idiotic side to humanity as well. The most famous of these at Tara occurred between 1899 and 1902 when Dumha na nGiall was almost destroyed by a group known as the ‘British Israelists’. Convinced that the Irish were one of the Lost Tribes of Israel (yes, that is hard to believe!!) and that the Hill of Tara contained the Ark of the Covenant.

That such crazed extremists were allowed to go ahead with their destruction of such a unique national monument says a lot about the times. A big part of the problem, of course, was that many of those involved were members of the British aristocracy and as the English Crown was in control over Ireland at this time, local outrage was pretty much ignored.

There were, of course, many protests. Arthur Griffith carried out a major campaign against the ‘excavations’  with many of the hoi polloi of the day (WB Yeats, George Moore and Douglas Hyde etc.) despite being ordered off-site by armed men and police. The crazed activist Maud Gonne also turned up and created a scene by lighting a bonfire and singing “A nation once again” in her very genteel English accent (the early 1900s were certainly a wild time in Ireland). Many people believe the destruction to the site of Tara was one of the many national indignities that went on to spur the subsequent rebellion in 1916.

Two nights ago, I was looking at a television report where a bunch of Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS) thugs were smashing up a beautiful 2700 year old monument in the famed ancient Assyrian capital of Khorsabad. As I watched the inbred with the sledgehammer smashing the ancient statue into smithereens, it struck me that as a species, human beings are never going to evolve unless they learn from their past mistakes and escape the destructive cycles of repetition.

5000 years on, and it seems as though we’re still just spinning.

(Irish Folklore) Shite that W.B. Yeats says!

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When it comes to Irish Folklore, a useful rule of thumb to apply is to avoid anything ‘factual’ written by W.B. Yeats. Lovely man I’m sure, grand poet but, God, he was a complete flake when it came to his writing on Irish folklore.

Despite much of his ‘academic’ work being dismissed many years ago , he’s still revered as an authority in certain circles. His work on Irish ‘fairies’ in particular is constantly quoted on the internet continuing that great tradition of misinformation.

To understand WB’s limitations with respect to Irish culture though, you really have to take the man’s life into context. An important point of context is that WB was of Anglo-Irish descent and a member of a very privileged Protestant aristocracy. Nothing specifically wrong with that of course, but it’s important to consider as back in the day this would essentially have meant Yeats:

(a) was disconnected from the lives of the Irish peasantry (from who he mined much of his folklore and inspiration)

(b) couldn’t speak Irish (again, another significant barrier to accessing folklore)

Yeats also spent quite a substantial period of his life in England which, once again, would have restricted his connection to authentic sources of information on Irish culture and folklore.

Yeats introduction to Lady Gregory in 1986 was probably his most important break when it came to accessing genuine Irish culture and folklore. A strong nationalist, Lady Gregory encouraged him to focus on writing that was ‘identifiably Irish’ in content but, more importantly, she also introduced him to a new generation of up and coming Irish authors such as Synge and Sean O’Casey who were able to offer insights and personal experience on aspects of folklore he would not have known about.

Another important access point for Yeats was the output of academic scholars who were translating ancient Irish manuscripts at that time or doing their best to conserve the Irish language (e.g. Douglas Hyde, also a Protestant but a fluent Irish speaker). These translations introduced the whole country to previously unknown mythological sagas and Ossianic poetry from Ireland past’s and its probable that Yeats was more comfortable with this kind of source material than the more contemporary folklore.

The truth is that although Yeats managed to get a foot in the ‘Irish folklore door’ through his contacts, his background and his inability to speak (or apparently learn) Irish were something of a barrier. When dealing with the little people (the Irish peasantry as opposed to the ‘f-f-faeries!!), he was often dependent on others to translate for him or to provide abridged details. There’s a sad kind of humour to be found, for example, when reading his efforts to list and classify Irish fairies in Irish Fairy and Folk Tales. Not only did he completely misunderstand what ‘fairies’ were, one cant help getting the impression that his sources were either forelock-tugging peasants desperately making up any old shite to please him or local smartarses taking the mickey out of the ‘bigwig’ from the capital.

The biggest problem with Yeats however was not so much the barrier of his background as his fascination with spiritualism/mysticism and the occult (magic). This passion very much coloured his interpretation of Irish folklore, as it did with much of his writing throughout his life. Not only was he a member of occult groups such as ‘The Ghost Club’ (a kind of paranormal research organisation formed in 1862 but still going, apparently) and the ‘Golden Dawn’ (an organization devoted to the study and practice of the occult) he also studied and was influenced by many of the self-proclaimed ‘wizards’ and ‘magicians’ of his day.  In 1892, he wrote:

“If I had not made magic my constant study I could not have written a single word of my Blake book, nor would The Countess Kathleen ever have come to exist.”

Which explains a lot. Mind you, although Yeats based the play on a supposed Irish legend, later tracing of that legend identified it as a French work

In fairness, though, Irish Fairy and Folk Tales and other works by Yeats were very much a product of their time. Yeats, no doubt, had his own artistic and reputational agenda but there’s no denying his passion for his subject. In addition, with the rise of nationalism you can be sure that certain Irish elements were more than happy to have an internationally recognised poet and a sanitised national cultural history for them to wave about as a flag in support of their cause.

Are Irish Clans and Tribes Gone Forever: Part One?

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In European countries, when people talk of ‘clan’ (from the medieval Gaelic word ‘clann’) they’re basically using a more localised word for ‘tribe’. Both relate to a community or social grouping established from a common kinship or family tie although, over time, as the grouping grows larger, that definition can change. Most people believe the concept of a tribe has pretty much had its day in Ireland but if you look carefully you’ll still see remnants of it around in certain parts of the country.

The first clue is the link between family names and homeland location. Most Irish genealogists and social researchers are more than aware how closely aligned the two are in Ireland, not only in terms of country but in terms of townland as well. In Beara, for example, the old adage is that “you can’t throw a stone in the bush without hitting an O’Sullivan” and anyone who’s ever studied the shop names in Catletownbere knows that to be true.

Needless to say, that holds just as well for the Harringtons and, of course, the Murphys who, judging from their numbers and geographical spread, seem to have single-handedly dominated reproduction in Ireland for several centuries.

‘nuff said!

Living in New Zealand, I’ve been lucky enough to have the opportunity to compare the impact of colonization (the invasion of another country and the oppression of its native people/culture) on Maori tribal societies here with Gaelic tribal societies back home. This has been exceptionally useful when writing the Fionn series not only because Clan politics play an important part of the story but in terms of cultural authenticity – a key part of what I’m trying to do with Irish Imbas Books.

Unlike Ireland, where the undermining of Gaelic culture commenced in earnest from an early date (early 1600s), the colonization process in New Zealand didn’t truly kick in until the mid- to late-1800s. Even then, because of its relative isolation compared to the invading countries and its tough topography, the colonization process was never fully completed to the point that the Crown and associated business interests would probably have liked.

Although it was pretty much brought to the brink, Maori society has managed to retain/reclaim very strong elements of its culture as well as parts of its tribal structure. What’s fascinating to watch, though, is that with the legal power of the Treaty of Waitangi (the treaty signed between the English Crown and most tribes) and subsequent financial compensation (albeit minimal) for lands stolen and damage sustained, Maori communities are now, once again, re-establishing their tribal organisations. There are of course, major differences to the structures of 150-200 years ago but this is still something I’ve not seen anywhere else in the world (although I understand something similar may be occurring in Canada and the United States). I don’t think people here have truly understood the impact those changes are going to have (hopefully better –  but who knows?) in society over the next ten to twenty years.

By studying the tribal dynamics here, I find that I can extrapolate quite a lot of the cultural subtleties to the Gaelic context, to work out how Irish (or rather, ‘Gaelic’) clan/tribal structures worked long ago – and,  potentially – how they might work in the future.  I’ll be covering that in more detail in my next blog article.

Locations for Beara: Dark Legends

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When I write, I find it useful to have a pre-existing model for where various events or actions in the story take place. I don’t think I’m particularly lazy in this respect, I just find that having a clear mental image of a location allows me to focus more on plot and character dialogue. Obviously, with Beara: Dark Legends, I used areas down in West Cork that I’m most familiar with to recreate a location that suited the plot and feel of the novel.

When writing about Carraig Dubh (pronounced ‘Corr-igg Duv’ for the non-Irish speakers) I was trying to instil a very strong sense of heritage and ‘sanctuary’. In the book, the ‘farm’, has been in Diarmuid and Demne’s family for generations and is strongly linked to the concept of generational – almost tribal –  O’Sullivan land. The house and the surrounding area, therefore had to be described with a particular level of detail that only comes from long familiarity. I think that worked pretty well, overall. These days, when I reread sections of the novel, the ones I most enjoy most tend to be those more domestic scenes where Mos or Demne are at home or wandering around fields that I can still remember clearly after all these years.

Needless to say, that’s Cnoc Daod up there in the background, dominating the world with it’s granite bulk. People asked me why I never give it the English name but I suppose, for me, the English name just doesn’t sound right. It’s probably just a personal thing. I like it’s English name fine but it’ll never have the same emotional resonance or connection that ‘Cnoc Daod’ has.

 

A Merry Christmas and a Legless New Year

Escape from Wellington to Paraparaumu beach - 1 March 2013

I love New Zealand Christmases. It’s not so much the fact that it’s warm (Santa Claus comes dressed in shorts and a singlet) and the sunniest time of the year so much as the fact that New Zealand seems to come to a complete halt from Dec 24. For a period of at least three weeks, you can put up a sign that says ‘Gone Fishing!’ and it applies to the whole country. If you’re ever planning an invasion, this is really the time to do it!

In Wellington, that break seems to extend even further, in that we have at least two long weekends to ease ourselves back into long pants and the humdrum routine of work.   Most Wellingtonians don’t really get back into that routine until the end of January. This pause and change of practice is surprisingly beneficial.  For one of the few times in the year, you have the space to step out of your rut, veer away from convention and reconsider your existence in a new light. That’s probably why so many people make various life-changing decisions at this time of year.

We had a pretty muted Christmas this year but still managed to get away for four days  up the coast, sleeping, yacking, drinking, walking on the endless stretch of beach.  There were no real life-changing experiences, no eureka moments or great thoughts. If anything, there was a complete absence of thought which is also a great thing. Sometimes the mind just needs to shut down, filter out all the shite and rest.

I had great plans to write at least three chapters of the next Fionn book over Christmas but I didn’t. I also had great plans to catch up with friends and contact relatives I haven’t seen for a while but I didn’t. I suppose I needed the rest after a pretty full year but ‘Casa O’Sullivan’ do seem to have come up with a new vision statement for 2105:

Should have,

could have,

would have.

Didn’t.

Happy New Year!!

Speaking Irish

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The most common question that pops up in my website correspondence (and yes, apologies, I know the contact form is down at the moment), concerns my use of Irish (language) in the books I write. A few people have quizzed me specifically on (a) why I do it and (b) is it really necessary.

I suppose, for me, these aren’t really questions I’ve ever particularly asked myself and it’s actually a bit hard to answer. The truth is you always have to be a bit politic when discussing the Irish language in Ireland because there’s some extreme views on the topic. A small (but vocal) proportion of Irish people were forced to learn Irish in school, failed at it miserably and have resented it ever since. That grudge is worsened by what they see as preferential treatment for people in the Gaeltacht (those areas where Irish is still the first language) who receive grants/subsidies to support the preservation of the language. As a result, it’s often impossible to have a rational conversation with them on the topic.

On the other extreme, you also have a number of fanatical gaelgóir who feel that, as the native language, EVERYONE should be speaking Irish at ALL times. Again, it’s also hard to talk with these people.

Obviously, the sane view lies somewhere in the middle and, to be fair, that’s where most Irish people stand. There’s a great fondness for An Gaeilge amongst most Irish people. That’s certainly been my experience. The ones who hate it are usually to be found complaining bitterly on the internet to anyone who’ll ‘listen’ (or not).

All the same, having passed through the Irish educational system (and survived) and having seen some of the government grant/subsidies used to preserve the language, I really have to shake my head at the overall inefficiency of many of the services provided. Nothing new there! If you depend on a government department to resolve an issue of importance, you’re really wasting your time.

In any case, that’s neither here nor there. For me, using Irish is really just a reflection of who I am and what I believe in. I’m not really what I consider a gaelgóir (a native speaker). I wasn’t brought up speaking Irish, I don’t come from a Gaeltacht and, to be honest, the fact that I’ve been living overseas and restricted to speaking predominantly with my kids, means my vocab has suffered and diminished over the years (fortunately the presence of our Grúpa Cómhrá here in Wellington has helped remedy this situation ).

Despite the fact that I’m based in New Zealand, we speak Irish at home (me and my kids, that is, although my Maori partner also understands everything we say). Occasionally, we forget that we’re a minority, though. On Christmas Day we had a visitor at the table and although we usually revert to English when this happens, the look on his face when we started yacking ‘as Gaeilge’ was pretty funny. Having conversed in English as part of a large group for over twenty minutes, he was completely thrown when a large proportion of us suddenly – and, for him, inexplicably – started yabbering in some incomprehensible language. When we finally stopped laughing at his reaction, he confessed that he’d thought he’d suddenly gone mad. He hadn’t even known the Irish had their own language.

Sheesh!

Creating the “Great Wild” in the ‘Fionn mac Cumhaill’ Series

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Given that most of what I write has a strong Irish element to it, people are often surprised to learn that I’ve been based in New Zealand for years, particularly given my strong views on cultural authenticity and respect for historical accuracy. To be honest, that’s not really a problem these days due to the broad connectivity of the internet and my own frequent trips back home to ‘draw from the well’.

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One of the things I do have to keep in mind when I’m writing however, is the Irish landscape. This is a very important characteristic – and sometimes a very dominant one – in many of my stories. Beara, for example, has a particularly characteristic landscape that you’ll never find beyond West Cork and thus forms a critical part of the overall Beara Trilogy narrative.

Because of its history and location, Ireland has been quite “tamed” or “domesticated”. The land has been occupied and has had its topography altered and managed by human activity for over thousands of years. New Zealand, however, with its much more ‘recent’ history, remains a very ‘physical’ country with a dramatic landscape that’s very different from home.

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Because my local landscape is so impressive, I’ve sometimes struggled to prevent myself from incorporating the drama of those landscapes into my own stories. One of those areas where the New Zealand landscape has been really useful however is in the Fionn series. In that set of stories, the narrative is based in a time period when Ireland was completely different from what we know today; very sparsely populated, covered in dense forest and teeming with wildlife. Hence the characters referring to it as ‘The Great Wild.

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Although from a botanical perspective, there’s very little commonality between the Great Wild and the New Zealand forests, I’ve found my tramps through the latter extremely useful when trying to imagine the Great Wild from a social/historical and survival perspective. In this respect, both are very similar; vast, impenetrable in parts and potentially dangerous for the unwary or the unprepared.

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Two weeks ago, I was visiting a South Island forest with friends, following the course of a tannin-drenched river (which gives the water the colour of diluted blood) to some local stone archways. Even at the time, I was struck by the creative potential of what at I was seeing – in terms of the “Great Wild” and ended up taking hundreds of shots for later inspiration.

Much of the third Fionn book takes place over the course of a violent pursuit along the forested banks of a waterway in a constricted river valley so, from that perspective alone, the visit was very opportune. In any case, I thought I’d add these in here so you could see what’s going through my mind at the moment. At some stage, when I get time to draw breath I’ll put up a pin board of images so people can see this story development more easily.

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The Secret Life of Irish Fairies

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The nice thing about fairies is that anyone can be one.

No, seriously! If you actually look at the modern day interpretation of the ‘fairy’ you’ll find it incorporates not only elements of ‘Ye Olde English folklore’ but Germanic elves, Scandinavian leshyi, classical Romano-Greek nymphs and satyrs, a mish-mash of Tolkien and of course Disney’s plastic, sugar-coated Tinkerbell!

So, where you might ask are the Irish fairies in all this?

Weeelll … That’s kind of a long story.

The first thing you should know is that you should never actually use the word ‘fairy’ when referring to creatures of Irish mythology. Those namby-pamby, flower-hoppers with wings that adorn the Enid-Blyton books of old were never part of Irish culture. If you’re talking about Irish mythological creatures it’s always better to use the Irish term ‘’ (pronounced ‘shee’) or ‘síog’ or – in plural form – ‘Na síoga’ or ‘Na Sidhe’.

The word ‘sí’ actually comes from an ancient Celtic word ‘síd’ – the giant mounds making up the tumuli or passage graves in which our far distant ancestors buried their dead (the example in the picture was taken at Knowth). This is why ‘Na Sidhe’ in Ireland – until the last century or two – were often thought to be representations of the dead.

In pre-medieval Ireland, Na Sidhe were usually understood to be a kind of mirror image of humanity. They spoke like us, looked like us and, generally, they seemed to act like us, showing all the usual traits – positive (loving, passionate, etc.) and negative (murderous, vengeful etc.) – of your normal human population. The two key things that differentiated them from their human equivalents were that they (a) lived in the Otherworld and (b) had access to magic arts and powers. In the surviving pre-1600 Gaelic literature, although Na Sidhe mostly dealt with their own kind, when they did interact with humans they were generally portrayed doing so as equals, if not superiors.

The common interpretation of Na Sidhe changed slowly (but dramatically) in Ireland from the 1600s onwards due to the increasing influence of the Christian church but more importantly to the expanding power of the English Crown – two parties with a strong self-interest in suppressing the earlier belief systems of the native people. As the Gaelic power structure (feudal lords) was eroded this had the additional effect of undermining the traditional mechanisms for the transfer of Gaelic cultural knowledge between generations (the poets, Gaelic-based education systems, etc.).

By the late 18th century, a significant proportion of lore about Na Sidhe was already lost or being misinterpreted by the majority of the native Irish population. Little material was being conserved or transferred in written form (as Irish Catholics – the majority of the population – were excluded from education) although some knowledge continued to be transferred through the storytellers (the remnants of the poets). Transfer of traditional Sidhe lore also suffered from disruptive events like the Great Famine and the subsequent weakening of the Irish language as native speakers died or immigrated in great numbers. Knowledge of Na Sidhe was also eroded by the Church who saw belief in such entities as ‘competition’ at best, expressions of evil at worst. Most of the stories with negative connotations associated with Na Sidhe developed from this time on.

Oppressed on all sides, Na Sidhe also took on an increasingly derivative form, shrinking (metaphorically and descriptively) in the stories in which they occurred.

Ironically, while lore of Na Sidhe diminished in Ireland, reduced expressions of what they represented began to flourish in England (based predominantly on their equivalent in English folklore tradition). A broken version of Na Sidhe appeared in medieval romances, initially as otherworldy enemies to the protagonists but, later, in a more alluring and less menacing form. In this new, sanitised form, Na Sidhe/’Fairies’ started turning up in literature such as Edmund Spenser’s ‘Faerie Queen’, Shakespeare’s ‘A Midsummer Night’s Dream’. Later, during the Romantic Period (at its peak from around 1800 to 1850), when older cultural tropes were mined for inspiration purposes, they became even more popular.

The famous Strand Magazine article on the ‘Cottingley Fairies’ (1920) changed the portrayal of the earlier mythological creatures forever. From that point on ‘fairies’ became the common term to describe tiny, winged creatures who hung out in nature hot-spots but who still had a bit of mystery/allure associated with them. Following that Strand article, the associated imagery became prettier as time progressed (prompted by the famous ‘flower fairies’ pictures produced by Cicely Mary Barker and others (these are the ones on the Enid Blyton books I referred to earlier). Nowadays, that’s the image that most people are familiar with.

Back in Ireland, cut off from its original interpretation, the Sidhe (now reduced to the more diminutive síoga) became increasingly associated with and influenced by the newer representation of their English counterpart.

The funny thing is that the interpretation of ‘fairies’ or ‘Na Sidhe’ is changing yet again as a result of new media distribution forms and narrative tales. Over the last decade, or so I’ve watched with some bemusement as fairies (and sometimes they even use the old Irish name) have gradually transformed to a generic kind of sexualised, metrosexual Spock (feminine types, complete with pointed ears, short skirts and a pout). I suppose I should have a bit of a disgruntled stomp about the whole ‘lack of cultural authenticity’ business but the truth is that the current representation is vastly closer to the original than the pretty flower-stompers ever were.

Which has to be good.

[Update: Apr 2016 – For those who are interested, a more substantial explanation of fairies, where they came from and how they became what we know today, is available in the ebook: Celtic Mythology Collection which you can obtain for FREE here (on this site or at your favourite ebook store).]

The Lies Behind the Use of Irish Family Crests:

sullivan-beare

The Lies Behind the Use of Irish Family Crests:

If you’re a person of Irish descent, there are a few things you should really think about if you’re considering a purchase of your ‘family coat-of-arms/ family crest’.

  • Heraldry – the assigning of coats-of-arms/family crests – was originally used so that those people (the aristocracy) who’d gained more cows and more soldiers than their neighbours, could identify and manage the property they controlled
  • The tradition of heraldry (and therefore of family crests/coats of arms) is an English/Norman one. It is not, and never was, a Gaelic one
  • The concept of family crests for Irish clans of Gaelic origin (e.g. MacCarthy’s, O’Sullivans, O’Briens, Murphy’s etc.) makes no sense as they never used them and would not have recognised/respected them
  • A very limited number of later Hiberno-Norman clans (the Fitz’s, de Burgs, etc.) did have a family crest but most of these clans didn’t last long enough to utilise them in any meaningful way
  • There’s actually no such thing as a ‘family coat of arms’. Traditionally, heralds awarded family crests to INDIVIDUALS, not to families
  • A single family surname, therefore, might have a multitude of different family crests. I could, for example, apply to the Herald Office of Ireland for a family coat of arms. My brother could also apply for one and end up with a completely different design. So could my sisters and each one of us would be right
  • If you already have a mass-produced crest-of-arms on your wall, you might want to know who had it made. It was quite possibly granted to someone who walked in off the street and paid the necessary fee
  • Given the fact that heraldry was predominantly an English institution and Ireland is a republic, few Irish people have any great emotional connection to a coat-of-arms that claims to bear their name
  • Generally speaking, it is only the uninformed, the psychologically insecure and politicians who enjoy the false pomp and ceremony of heraldry
  • The Office of the Chief Herald at the National Library of Ireland (the official government department responsible for “grants” of family crests/coats of arms) has a direct conflict of interest in providing real information around the true basis of heraldry in Ireland (“just keep sending in cheques with your applications , thanks!”)
  • This is the same Irish government, by the way, who wants to sell you the laughable Certificate of Irish Heritage at €45 (plus VAT) and a framed certificate is €120 (plus VAT)
  • I will sell you a Certificate of Irish Heritage for half that price as long as you don’t mind it being written in crayon (I subcontract to the kids!)
  • The only people who really benefit from people’s ignorance of the concepts behind the heraldry/ coat-of-arms are mass producers of plastic “Irish Family Crests” flags/ badges/products for ill-informed tourists

Has any one noticed there’s a lizard on the O’Sullivan Beare coat-of arms? 🙂

Quiet Moments of Beauty and How to Use Them in Writing

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A few years ago in West Cork, on the cusp of winter-spring, I took my son down to one of my favourite places – a mountain valley with a lake that feeds into the River Laoi.

It was a typical winter’s day for that part of the country; cold showers, low lying cloud, intermittent patches of watery sunshine between the wisps of mist. At the same time, there was something very unique about the quality of the illumination. The damp sunlight combined with the black rock, the black water, the black clouds – black on black on black – to create a kind of monochromatic landscape softened only by burnt patches of withered fern on the surrounding hills.

The sight was beautiful, in the same way that photos of the moonscape or a desert at night are beautiful; bleak, remote and melancholic. All of a sudden, a single swan appeared out of the gloom, a blaze of white on the still black waters like the prospect of joy on a dour day and it was as though the valley had released a sigh.

I was lucky enough to capture the latter parts of the swan’s approach moment on a shitty camera (see the clip above). On the clip you can hear my son saying “Oh, do chuaigh se faoin uisce!’ – ‘Oh, he’s gone under the water!’ when it finally disappeared beneath the causeway and out of sight.

Such moments are rare but they tend to stay with you. Last week, the memory resurfaced – unlike the swan – for some reason, and in a fit of creativity, I drew on it to write a short but important character development scene from the third book in the Fionn mac Cumhal series. This is a rough, unedited first draft so bear with me:

From her refuge in the ferns, Liath Luachra had been observing a fat pair of wood pigeons that were oblivious to her presence. Now, her belly growled and her fingers tightened unconsciously about the leather thong of the sling curled about her right hand.
I could strike one. I could strike one easily at this distance.
She scowled and took a deep breath before turning her head. Hunger was making her careless.
Averting her eyes from the feathered temptation, she rested her cheek against the rough bark of the tree and reverted to that old occupation – daydreaming – she often used to pass the long periods of inactivity while in the Great Wild.
She drew up a mental image from the past, a memory from a period when she’d still been with the mercenary group, Na Cinéaltaí. At the time, she’d been travelling through rough territory, bound for a gathering at some distant tribal stronghold. The day had been uncharacteristically mild for the winter-spring cusp but, weary from the sustained effort of hard trekking, she’d paused to rest in a deserted valley at the foothills of an isolated mountain range.
The valley, a barren and lonely passage wandering between two steep hills of jagged, grey rock and had a deep lake at its centre. Although it must have been a harsh and bitter place at the best of times, at that particular moment the watery quality of the sunlight and the overhanging cloud had combined to imbue it with a colourless intensity she’d never encountered before. Sitting quietly, she’d tried to absorb the sight but the beauty of the landscape seemed almost too much for her swollen soul to take in. Just when she thought it couldn’t possibly grow more beautiful, two swans had suddenly appeared, winging their way down the valley to alight gracefully on the waters of the little lake.
She’d watched in rapt silence for a long time as the elegant birds drifted noiselessly, their white shadows forming perfect mirror images in its still black surface. The moment couldn’t be sustained however, of course. Despite a deep desire to continue absorbing its soothing beauty, she had places to be and people depending on her. She’d left the valley shortly afterwards but she’d never forgotten what she’d seen.
A year later, when she was passing through that region again, she’d spent days criss-crossing the terrain in an effort to relocate the valley. After many frustrating and unfruitful attempts, she’d finally understood that she would never find what she was looking for. Although she’d located several valleys with lakes, none of them looked like the one she remembered. In different light, at a different time, the valley was just another valley in another forsaken piece of land. The valley that she’d experienced was gone, an element of time, of circumstance and of nature, existing now only as a ghost of what could have been.

******
This is just one example of how you can use old memories or sensations when you write. Generally speaking, its much easier to write a description of a place or of an emotion if you’ve actually been there or felt it. Because I come from Ireland and I write about events taking place in Irish landscape I my writing tends to be very – well – Irish.
Ah, well!

Come Taste the Flowers

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Whenever I feel homesick – as I did last night – I have this habit of poring through photos of the last trip home, extracting the memories associated with each particular image.

Going through this process last night, I was a bit surprised to discover the number of photographs of fuchsia hedgerows clogging up my photo library. To be honest, that’s hardly surprising. I tend to return home in the summer after all, when they’re blooming to maximum effect. Driving down some roads in Beara at that time is like driving down a passage framed by two walls of brilliant scarlet and green, interspersed with white wild flowers. In winter, of course, those same hedges resemble little more than sickly networks of pale brown sticks that give the winter land an even more skeletal aspect.

Until about ten years ago, I’d been under the impression the fuchsia was a native plant. In actual fact, it was originally sourced from South America (introduced to England in the 18th century and, subsequently, to Ireland) and because of the weather conditions in West Cork, it has absolutely thrived there.

Despite this, when I think of fuchsia, I think of childhood memories of sucking nectar, plucking scarlet outer petals to create a miniature bouquet from the purple heart.

And, of course, the scent …

Hitting your nostrils like some kind of perfumed, French, wet kiss.

 

Update on Writing Projects

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The above road sign is from the Gaeltacht (area in Ireland where Irish is still the first language). Essentially it’s a ‘Yield right of Way’ sign which kind of outlines how I feel at the moment. It’s been a pretty exhausting year with various work, writing and family projects on the go.  Needless to say, I’m nowhere as far as advanced as I’d like to be in terms of my writing. Two things in particular have changed my priority:

  1. The popularity of the Fionn mac Cumhal series: This one took me a wee bit by surprise.  The first book (Defence of Ráth Bládhma) was pretty popular – despite a complete absence of advertising or marketing on my part. Ironically, the second book seems to be even more popular (go figure!). When I originally started writing the first book, the plan was essentially to give myself a bit of a break/change before starting the next Beara book. This is because, in terms of writing technique, the Fionn series is easier. It’s a complete linear narrative (unlike Beara which intermingles historical and contemporary stories) and the plot and underlying themes are nowhere near as complex. In any case, people are now hounding me for the next in the series (which I can’t really complain about)  so I feel a bit of responsibility for delivering the goods
  2. The lack of interest by Irish book distributors:  Ireland is quite interesting in that we only have two distributors for new books in the entire country (Easons and Argosy). For commercial reasons, both of these tend to deal only with large and very established publishing companies. Easons – almost a monopoly – make it very difficult to even try and contact them for distribution purposes. Argosy were at least kind enough to rely to my query and explain why they wouldn’t be doing so. I’ll probably start working around them and sell directly to bookshops in future but for the moment, this means that my main focus has to be in digital books (ebooks).

As a result, therefore, I’ve had to amend my – ahem – ‘production schedule’.  In summary, this is where things stand at present:

  • Beara Two: “Cry of the Banshee” – two chapters completed. It now looks like this won’t be completed until the end of next year at the earliest.
  • Fionn 3: “The Adversary”  – Estimated release date May/June 2015
  • Fionn 0: “The Kindly Ones”  – A prequel to the Fionn series based on the earlier life of the Liath Luachra character – Estimated release date May/June 2015
  • A non-fiction book on Irish folklore and practical magic – title yet to be confirmed – Estimated release date December 2015

I’m very keen to make some progress on the second Beara book so I may move this up depending on how things go. My apologies to those of you waiting for this.

 

(Irish Folklore) The Truth Behind The King With Horse’s Ears

Lough Ine

THE TRUTH BEHIND THE KING WITH HORSES EARS

Loch Íne (or Lough Hyne for the Gaelically impaired) is a popular spot a few miles outside Skibbereen that’s very pleasant for swimming, walking and picnics. Despite its popularity, most people who visit this tranquil area are completely unfamiliar with its connection to one of Ireland’s most famous legends – the King with the Horse’s Ears.

Out in the centre of the lake is an island called Castle Island with the ruins of the O’Driscoll stronghold (Cloghan Castle now completely overgrown – see red circle), from which the island derives its English name. According to local folklore, this is the area where the events of the ‘King with Horse’s Ears’ take place.

In the local version of the story, an O’Driscoll king was said to have had donkey’s ears. Because a blemish such as this would traditionally have meant the king was unfit to rule, he kept this secret by growing his hair long and having it cut once a year and then putting the barber to death. At the Loch Íne site, the barber was supposedly drowned and a bed of reeds was later seen to spring up out of the water at that spot. Some time later, the king’s piper, seeing the reeds used them to make a new pipe and at a feast thrown in the hall by the O’Driscoll King, the pipes took on a life of their own and started calling:

 “The King has Horses Ears!”

 This version of the story seems to be a mish-mash of the more famous tenth century version of the story associated with the great king Labhraidh Loingseach, (king and mythological ancestor of the Leinster people – the Laighin) and the story associated with Welsh King March ap Meirchion. Both of these are quite similar in that they deal with a physical blemish and the ramifications of holding a terrible secret, a situation known in Ireland as a galar rúnach (a malady of secrets).

The Labhraidh Loingseach version goes as follows:

Labhraidh Loingseach was said to have had horse’s ears. He kept this secret by growing his hair long and having it cut once a year and then putting the barber to death.

One day when a widow’s only son was chosen for the unpopular job of cutting the king’s hair, the widow begged the king not to kill him. Moved, Labhraidh Loingseach agreed on the condition that the barber never tell a living person of his secret.

 The burden of the secret weighed so heavily on the widow’s son that after a time he took ill. On the advice of a druid, he released himself of the secret by passing it onto to the first tree (a willow) he came to. Divested of the burden, he soon became well again.

 Sometime later, Labhraidh Loingseach’s harpist broke his instrument and made a new harp out of the very willow the widow’s son had passed the secret to. One night, during a great feast at Labhraidh Loingseach’s hall, he started to play and suddenly the harp sang

Dá chluais chapaill ar Labhraidh Loingseach

Two horse’s ears on Labhraidh Loingseach!

 In the Welsh version of the story, the Welsh King March ap Meirchion also has a barber who divests himself of the terrible secret by telling it to a hole in the ground and subsequently covering it up. On that piece of ground, a crop of reeds appear and one of March ap Meirchion pipers, seeing the reeds used them to make a new pipe leading to similar consequences.

Both of these version are variations of another even older story based on the legendary Greek King Midas whose ears were transformed to those of a donkey by the God Apollo. Like Labhraidh Loingseach and March ap Meirchion, Midas hid his deformity but his secret was also revealed by his barber who dug a hole in the meadow and whispered the story into it to get rid of the secret and then covered the hole up again. A bed of reeds was later seen to spring up out of the meadow and when the wind blew them they were heard to whisper ‘King Midas has an ass’ ears’.

Although the galar rúnach concept was a much later development, it was one that very much appealed to me which is why it became an essential part of my book Beara Dark Legends It does not, however, have any real connection to the earliest development of the story.

Current thinking is that the original reference to the King with Donkey’s Ears (subsequently amended to “horse’s ears”) goes all the way back to King Tarkasnawa, a king of the Hittite vassal state Mira in the west of present-day Turkey (the Hittites were an Anatolian people who established an empire at Hattusa in north-central Anatolia around 1600 BC.). If that’s true, then variations of this story have possibly been doing the rounds for thousands of years.

[irishimbasbooks.com]

Irish Folklore: Magic rocks, Bullán stones and curses (Part 2)

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(ref: inishmurray.com)

How to Curse Someone with a Bullán!

Cursing someone (basically wishing bad luck or evil on someone by invoking a non-human power) is found in many different cultures around the world and, in most cases, involves the use of a formula (e.g. prayer, spell – whatever you want to call it!) and an associated prop such as a wand, personal object associated with the person you want to curse, a magic doo-dah or …. a cursing stone!

Most of what  we know about cursing – in terms of cursing stones – comes from folklore and the remnants of ritual traditions but when you take a step back and look at it in context you can see that in most cases its all about a kind of reverse of ‘positive’ based powers.  This ‘reverse’ motif occurs everywhere. A spell, for example, is often considered the opposite or the reverse of a prayer. This is also why, for example, you can supposedly hear the Devil’s voice when you play certain records backward (unless, of course, it’s by Cliff Richard!).

In Ireland, cursing stones are generally associated with early ecclesiastical sites and involve the invoking of power by an early Christian saint. As part of the early Christian tradition, pilgrims would often go to these sites and recite a prayer while turning the stone clockwise or, if they wanted to curse someone, anti-clockwise (against the sun and other natural processes).  There is absolutely no recognition in ancient literature of the irony of a Christian Saint (supposedly positive) using such an unchristian-like power for negative effect.

My favourite Irish cursing stones are the Clocha Breacha located out in Inismurray. These are pretty hefty stones (so you know you’re getting your effort’s worth) but the real reason I like them so much was that I was out there once with a friend who’d recently been involved in a very messy and poisonous divorce process.  When I showed him the cursing stones, my friend leaped forward, grasped one with both hands and stood there, head bowed, sweat pouring for his forehead with concentration for a good five minutes before replacing the stone.

Needless to say, I didn’t have to ask who the object of his concentration was directed at.