My Writing: Who was Liath Luachra?

Who was Liath Luachra?

I’ve had a few people ask me whether my book Fionn: Defence of Ráth Bládhma is based on real characters and, in particular, whether Liath Luachra was real or not. I figured I’d focus this weeks post on that.

There really isn’t much information available on the original source of the character, Liath Luachra.  When I first started the initial chapters of that particular novel, it wasn’t even my intention for that character have much of a role beyond the second chapter. If you’ve read the book, then she know she ends up dominating the entire story. Characters work like that sometimes when you’re writing a longer piece of fiction.

But back to the facts!

All we really know about this character is what we’re told in the 12th century text Macgnímartha Finn (the Boyhood Deeds of Fionn) and even that’s pretty sparse. The relevant part of that text reads as follows:

Cumall left his wife Muirne pregnant. And she brought forth a son, to whom the name of Demne was given. Fiacal mac Con­chinn, and Bodball the druidess, and the Gray one of Luachar came to Muirne, and carried away the boy, for his mother durst not let him be with her. Muirne afterwards slept with Gleor Red-hand, king of the Lamraige, whence the saying, “Finn, son of Gleor.” Bodball, however, and the Gray one, and the boy with them, went into the forest of Sliab Bladma. There the boy was secretly reared.

Ancient Irish Tales. ed. and trans. by Tom P. Cross & Clark Harris Slover. 1936

Hardly much to go on but, to be honest, from a writer’s perspective that’s absolutely fine. The text provides the skeleton of a story and a basic outline of a character but there’s plenty of room to have fun and to flesh out the story as you see fit.

Basically the name Liath Luachra means the Grey One of Luachair. Why she was known as ‘The Grey One’ – it’s impossible to tell. The text collates oral narratives that were in existence well before the story was ever written down. It’s possible the character was meant to be an old woman (i.e. grey-haired). Another possibility was that she had a ‘grey’ personality or – as I suggested in my book – she simply dressed in grey.

Luachair, meanwhile, is an Irish word that means ‘rushes’ (as in reed plants) but could also mean ‘a place of rushes’. There was a Luachair in West Kerry mentioned in many of the early texts (Luachair Deaghaidh – Sliabh Luachra) but, of course, it’s impossible to tell if that was where the author of Macgnímartha Finn was referring to.

Another, possibility, of course is that the author simply made her up. Writers do that.

[Update Apr 2016: If you’re interested, the book Fionn: Defence of Ráth Bládhma is now available for free, simply by registering for the monthly newsletter – top RHS.]