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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