Louth has been running a pretty fun community re-enactment of An Táin every summer since 2011 (sadly cancelled in 2020/2021 due to Covid) and it was back again in June this year.
Designed as a community walking and cultural education festival, it usually begins in Rathcroghan (where Queen Maeve first assembled her army to obtain the Brown Bull of Cooley) and terminates at Bush in Cooley, Co. Louth on the June bank holiday. The march follow Maeve’s route across the rugged terrain over three weekends (and 12 walking days) with a number of events taking place at various towns and villages along the way.
There was an amusing report in a local newspaper of the festival from back in 2012 which goes as follows:
“Brothers Eoghan and Sean Whelan made for a convincing Cuchulainn and Ferdia as they fought each other at the centre of the refurbished Market Square, where the water was turned on for their final battle at the ford of the River Dee. Members of Dundalk Red Cross administered first aid to a dying Ferdia while Cuchulainn was arrested and led away in handcuffs!”
A quick shout out to the Irish Field Archery Monthly Magazine which is running a copy of my article on “Bows and Chariots in Ancient Ireland – The Facts and the Fantasies” in their latest edition.
Kudos to the creators and their work- I know how difficult it is to produce a regular publication while struggling to ensure appropriate content and quality. You can find a link to the free PDF’s of their magazine here: Irish Archery
And interesting side-effect wrt to this article is that it always tends to draw at least a number of ‘Cardboard Celts’ out of the shadows. After republishing, I usually get at least 2/3 emails or social media comments from outraged readers who refuse to believe that history and physical fact doesn’t align exactly with events in ‘An Táin’. It’s also interesting to note that, generally, most of these outraged individuals aren’t Irish.
The first reviews from the paperback are just starting to trickle in. Usually, by the time I release a book I’m far too close to tell if its any good or not. As a result, it’s always a bit of a relief to find the reviews are positive.
The digital version gets released on on 15 December.
The first review from Padraig O’Mahony can be found here:
The second review, from Wayne McAuliffe is here:
Huge thanks to Wayne and Padraig. Go raibh mile maith agaibh!
All going well, I’m aiming to have this out in Oct/Nov 2023.
This current arc develops the ongoing direction of the series a little further. Demne/Fionn – the titular hero – is growing up and takes a more proactive role in the adventures but his three guardians (his aunt Bodhmhall, the woman warrior Liath Luachra, and the gregarious Fiacial mac Codhna) have their work cut out for them as they try to identify who’s behind the latest threat against their charge.
Cue more adventure, betrayals, and violence with a sprinkling of friendships and romance.
One of the early variations from artist Brian Mahy when developing the cover for Liath Luachra: The Seeking.
This was at a point where we were still playing with the colour palette and we hadn’t reached the final ‘look’. I’d asked Bryan to get me a somewhat shocking/bracing cover that reflected the anger/frustration of the character and his final version image certainly delivered.
So much so, that Facebook banned the image from its shop front (one of the many reasons I don’t bother adding anything new there). Hilariously, the initial reason given was because they didn’t permit the sale of animals (the screening programme thought she was a zebra). When I appealed that, the decided the image was too lewd.
That’s why I love running this on their newsfeed (where such apparently lofty regulations appear to be dispensed with)!
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.
There’s not a great amount of evidence about early Roman interaction with the island now known as Ireland but there are a few tantalising items.
Unlike Great Britain and most of the European Continent, Ireland was never controlled by Roman interests, although the Roman Empire was almost certainly aware of its existence even at that time.
Writing in the sixth century B.C., for example, Himilco the Carthaginian, made vague references to an enigmatic island he called ‘Iernei’ and to ‘Celtic’ tribes based on the North Sea. In 50 B.C. meanwhile, in the account of his campaigns in Gaul, Julius Caesar referred directly to the distant land of ‘Hibernia’.
Around the same time, Greek philosopher Strabo marveled at the shadowy country of ‘Ierne’ located on the limits of the known world, and the stories he’d heard of the savage, man-eating inhabitants and their sexual practices. This latter reference highlights some of the problems with early … er … ‘historians’.
Ptolemy, the famous geographer and astrologist, produced the first map of ‘Hibernia’ in the middle of the 2nd century A.D. This listed native tribes said to live upon its distant shores, which included the Erdin, the Nagnate, the Menapii, the Iverni and others.
A few decades earlier however,in his book ‘Agricola’, the Roman historian and politician, Tacitus, famously described how Gnaeus Julius Agricola, a governor of Roman Britain from AD 78-84, considered conquering Ireland. In that book, Agricola apparently claimed that the island could be held with a single legion. The number of soldiers in a legion tended to vary over time but it’s generally estimated at somewhere between 4000 to 5000 legionaries, and auxiliaries (non-citizen troops). Agricola was Tacitus’ father-in-law however, and Roman politics was a dicey game, so just because Tacitus wrote this, it doesn’t necessarily mean it’s true.
What most historians and academics do seem to agree on, was that at least some interaction (predominantly trade) existed between the island of Ireland, modern day Great Britain, and the European continent over the first and second century. Given the huge social disruption caused by the expansion of the Roman Empire over this time, it’s almost certain those tribes on Ireland’s eastern coast would have heard of the Romans, even if they weren’t directly affected. It’s also likely that at least some of the displaced people in modern-day Great Britain would have fled across the waves to escape the impacts of Roman invasion and colonization.
Interpreting Romans from an Ancient Irish Perspective
Most ‘Irish mythology’ presented through English language media tends to reflect a very Anglocentric view of ancient Irish culture. When it came to creating an Irish story that introduced culturally foreign ‘Roman’ elements therefore, I was keen to try and present the events from a more authentic perspective of ‘native’ people in first century Ireland.
When I started working on the book (one from my ‘Liath Luachra’ series) however, this proved something of a challenge. When you’re describing the impacts of a non-Irish culture on Ireland at the time, I knew it would be a mistake to start thinking of the ‘foreigners’ as ‘Romans’. If you start off with that concept, that immediately blinkers any further interpretation from a native Irish perspective and you end up with the usual monocultural, English-language tropes.
Given the lack of records from pre-fifth century Ireland, we don’t know how Ireland’s early inhabitants would have referred to the people of the Roman Empire – but they certainly wouldn’t have called them ‘Romans’. We can surmise however, that they would have referred to them using terms that articulated key behaviours of these new arrivals, behaviours interpreted in a way that made sense from the native Irish cultural perspective.
Like all authoritarian regimes, to fulfil the ambitions of its leaders (and the greed of its politicians), the Roman Empire had a constant need to subjugate other cultures and appropriate their wealth and resources. This predominantly meant taking control of their lands and other natural resources but it also meant using the subjugated populations for slave labour.
Other cultures would have looked on this behaviour – the ‘Great Roman Dream’ – and the scale of it, with a mixture of astonishment and horror. As a result, I opted for the name ‘The Hungry People’ as I felt this captured how this distressing cultural characteristic of the Romans might have been expressed from a native Irish perspective. This, however, is really only a best guess on my part as the truth is we’ll never know. In the final book (Liath Luachra: The Metal Men), I haven’t used the Gaelic term as I felt the book (and the series) was already sufficiently loaded with Irish concepts/language for a mainly English-speaking audience.
The naming of the ‘The Metal Men’ – the military forces of’ ‘The Hungry People’, uses the same creative approach and is, I think, self-explanatory.
Macnas have put together another impressive art creation for the Halloween celebrations in Galway (down at Fisheries Field, on the banks of the River Corrib) this year. It’s accessible on Saturday 29th & Sunday 30th October. [Images from Macnas]
The blurb is as follows:
Inventors and explorers from all over the world are baffled by startling evidence of an ancient giant living underneath the Fisheries Field in Galway city. Professor Marjorie Morrigan, an expert on “Giants & Where They Come From”, reported – “This giant seems to have been here for centuries. There is a very large iron nose, so big and rusty, you could park a car in one of the nostrils.”
Professor Marjorie Morrigan went on to confirm that this big giant is called Con Mór and originates from the ancient ‘Island of Giants’ off the coast of Connaught. Con Mór was so famous across Ireland for his love of birds and nature, his friends used to call him ‘The Bird King.
Some of the fantasists are probably going to miss the fact that this is a production with kids in mind, so I’ll just clarify here … This is not true!
I really enjoy making landscape and topography part of a story but of course in ancient Ireland you also have neolithic structures and other features that add a new level of resonance to the land.
When writing the Fionn or Liath Luachra series, this kind of inclusion is critical, not only for imbibing the landscape with a character but also to add atmosphere or when setting up a plot.
This short segment from ‘Liath Luachra: The Grey One’ is the first mention of Carraig An Fhírinne Buí? (The Stone of the Yellow Truth), an ancient standing stone of importance to the Éblána tribe. This particular scene sets up some of the background context for later plot development but also allows a bit of dialogue to further develop the characters of Liath Luachra and her band of mercenaries.
It was quite fun to write.
Liath Luachra grunted. ‘And Carraig An Fhírinne Buí? Does this hold significance for the Éblána?’
Flannán shook his head. ‘No particular significance. Although there are some who say the stone is a marker.’
‘What does it mark?’
He shrugged. ‘Boundaries. Spaces that are different. I don’t know. You’d have to ask the draoi.’
There was a snigger from the others at this and even Liath Luachra had to wonder at the Éblána man’s obtuseness. A draoi was the last person anyone would approach for information. Jealously possessive of their restricted knowledge, they resented any efforts to make them share their secrets. Powerful in terms of magic and tribal authority, everyone knew they were best avoided.
Flannán bristled, misunderstanding the reason for their laughter. His lips formed a thin line and his forehead furrowed so deeply that the circular tattoo halved in size. ‘You can laugh but I tell you sites like Carraig An Fhírinne Buí are best avoided. That stone marks the entrance to a pretty little valley and yet none of the Éblána dare to venture there.’
‘How do you know?’ asked Sean Fergus, scratching his beard with thick fingers.
‘How do you know there’s a pretty valley? You said your tribe do not venture there.’
Flannán looked at him askew. ‘A kinsman of mine entered the forest beyond the stone by accident, when he was hunting and veered astray. He saw the valley through the trees but he was too fearful to go there for he swore it was haunted.’
The Éblána man paused, as though struggling to recall something he’d been told a long time before. ‘He said the air was wrong. My kinsman is not a man prone to false embroidery of a tale. Neither is he one to panic easily so his words bear the weight of truth for me.’
‘What did he see?’ asked Canann, his eyes bright with nervous curiosity. ‘Your kinsman. What did he see?’
‘Hah!’ roared Conall Cacach.
Flannán tossed the large warrior a heated look, infuriated by his blatant disrespect. ‘My kinsman did not see anything but he felt something.’
‘He felt something? What did he feel?’ Canann was leaning forward eagerly now, like a child hearing a ghost story for the very first time.’
‘He felt a coldness, an unnatural texture to the air. It frightened him deeply.’
Conall Cacach snorted. ‘Your kinsman must shit himself every time the wind shifts to the east.’
Flannán reddened. ‘If you are a man of such courage perhaps you would spend the night at Carraig An Fhírinne Buí by yourself.’
Conall Cacach sneered. ‘I have better things to do than sit around a piss-coloured rock, Éblána man.’
‘Of course, of course. You are so very, very busy.’
The bickering continued until Liath Luachra growled at them both to shut up. Furious, Flannán retreated into himself and said nothing more. Conall Cacach, for his part, led a fresh discussion on a subject that was the fénnid’s unfailing favourite: their plans for their newfound wealth and reputation following the completion of their service.
The 4th book in the Fionn mac Cumhaill Series (Fionn: The Stranger at Mullán Bán) is now a close to final draft (another three to four weeks are required to complete the reviewing and editing process).
Irish Imbas Patreon supporters should be contacted by the end of October. The book gets officially released on 14 December.
It’s fascinating to see what happens when fantasy becomes strong enough to merge with reality (or vice versa where Amazon, hobbits, and Ireland are concerned).
When the LOTR movies were first released a few years back, Tourism New Zealand was busy branding New Zealand as ‘Middle Earth’. When the first few series of Game of Thrones came out however, Northern Ireland started to give them some serious competition.
This 80-metre, ‘Bayeux Tapestry’ styled linen piece was part of that branding exercise and can still be found in the Ulster Museum in Belfast.
I don’t know how many readers have been following that LOTR spin-off (‘The Rings of Power’) but from an Irish perspective, I can tell you that a lot of people are angry at the creators’ appropriation of Irish accents for their Hobbit/Hapfoot (or whatever they’re called) characters.
Misrepresentation of someone else’s culture has a longer-term detrimental impact on that culture when it occurs on a sufficiently large scale – definitely the case with Irish culture. The fact that the Amazon show runners have demonstrated such little understanding or appreciation of the Irish struggle to shuck off the impact from centuries of colonization (and the undermining of our culture) is incredibly disappointing.
I really get the sense that this one was really that ‘step too far’ and its going to come back and bite fantasy creators on the butt.
Irish people are often told by such creators that this misuse of their culture is ‘in homage’.
As a result, I’ve decided to make a little homage of my own with this short, sharp review of the Rings of Power Series.
Nice, atmospheric image by artist Joseph Feely depicting a spear volley by a group of Ceithrenn (normally referred to as ‘Kern’ by non-Irish speakers).
I get a lot of overseas fantasy militarists visiting the website who get quite turned on by the idea of Ceithrenn. Some of these have quite strange views about what they were and how they operated (usually based on information from other non-Irish-speaking militarists), much of which doesn’t align with what we know of them from a historical context.
As a general rule, I wouldn’t put too much fate in anything you see on the internet relating to Ceithernn unless it comes from a recognisable Irish historian/academic.
I’m just in the process of completing the last chapter in Fionn: Stranger at Mullán Bánand felt it might be timely to offer a small taster of what that book will be about.
For those of you who’ve been following this series, the events in this fourth book take place six years after Fionn: The Adversary. By now, the settlement of Ráth Bládhma is well-established, even if it’s inhabitants are still haunted by the unknown forces arrayed against over the previous three books. Demne – soon to be Fionn – is now a young teenager and dealing with the ramifications of drastic actions to keep him safe. Bodhmhall, meanwhile, continues to lead the growing settlement while dealing with her Gift and the disturbing premonitions it continues to send her.
Liath Luachra, meanwhile, continues to roam the wild, hunting and teaching the younger members of Ráth Bládhma … where this story begins
It was a death-sun that revealed the strangers’ tracks, south-east of the Bládhma mountains. Sliding in on the heel of dusk, its slanted glare cast a bloodstained hue that clearly illuminated the broad spread of footprints. Liath Luachra, the Grey One of Luachair, regarded them in silence, her expression grave and hard as stone. In all her years travelling that isolated territory, she’d never once encountered evidence of another person’s passage. To find such a number, and such a diversity, of tracks all at once, made her stomach muscles clench in unease.
Kneeling beside the nearest footprint, she chewed on the inner tissue of her left cheek and glanced warily around at the surrounding forest. The dense vegetation meant there was little enough to see: a series of endless dark walls where tall oak trees layered the ridges to the north and south, the distant blur of the Bládhma mountains peeking above the canopy to the east. Within that landscape however, there was no sign of movement or anything else out of the ordinary.
Reassured by the absence of any immediate danger, the woman warrior bent closer, probing the footprint’s shallow depth with the fingers of her right hand. Conscious that the early evening sunlight would soon be fading to grey, she scraped a piece of dirt free, raised it to her nose and sniffed.
It smelled, naturally enough, of earth.
Of The Great Mother’s moist and muddy breath.
Tossing the gritty residue aside, she wiped her hand on the leather leggings that hugged her haunches and considered the two boys who stood nervously to her right. Bran, with almost seventeen years on him, was more youth than boy and by nature tended to solemnity. That sombre temperament was evident now in the furrows that lined his forehead and the nervous manner in which he chewed at his fingernails while studying the erratic mesh of tracks. The youth was visibly troubled by the prospect of strangers in Bládhma territory. He might not have been able to remember the full detail of his parents’ brutal murder at Ráth Dearg fourteen years earlier, but he was certainly old enough to realise that incursions like this didn’t bode well for anyone.
‘Who are they, Grey One?’
The younger boy, the dark-haired Rónán, had little more than seven years on him but was markedly more upbeat than his friend. Despite being burdened with a wicker backpack full of pork and venison cuts – the prize from a successful hunt in the Drothan valley – he stared down at the scattered tracks with unbridled excitement.
The woman warrior shrugged dispassionately. ‘Read the story in the Great Mother’s mantle. Read what the earth tells you and tell me what you see.’
The dark-haired boy reacted to the suggestion with his usual animation, nodding fervently as he moved closer to the tracks. Ever keen to accompany the woman warrior on her forays into the Great Wild, he invariably responded to such tests with enthusiasm. Crouching alongside her, features fixed into a frown, he chewed on the inside of his own cheek in unconscious mimicry as he studied the tracks. His long hair was held from his eyes by a leather headband, but several strands had worked free, and he brushed them away with an irritated gesture.
Liath Luachra watched as his gaze fixed on the single footprint in front of him before transferring to the jumbled network of other tracks that surrounded them.
He’s just like Bearach. Happy, eager as a puppy.
She suppressed that thought immediately, burying it deep in a dark place where she rarely chose to venture. Some memories were best embedded in dark caverns, places best avoided, crannies where it was wiser not to light a torch for fear of what you’d see.
‘There’s five or six sets of tracks,’ noted Rónán. ‘The prints are spaced wide apart so they’re travelling fast.’
She nodded, pleased by the keenness of his observation.
‘They’re headed east.’
She inclined her head to her left shoulder but made no response. That fact was plain enough to see from the direction in which the tracks were pointing.
Sensing that he’d disappointed her, the boy tried again. ‘They’re men,’ he said warily, as though not entirely convinced of his own conclusion.
Again, easy enough to work out from the breadth of the imprints and the depths of their impressions.
‘Yes,’ she pressed. ‘But what else? What’s the pattern?’
Rónán looked down at the prints once more. Unable to distinguish any obvious configuration, he threw an anxious glance towards Bran, but the youth had already turned away, focussed on other, more distant tracks.
Realising there was little succour to be had from that quarter, Rónán turned back to scrutinise the nearest imprint, bending to examine it more closely in the fading light. Despite further study however, his efforts garnered no fresh intuition. Finally, raising his eyes to the woman warrior, he conceded defeat with a frustrated shake of his head.
By then, Liath Luachra had already changed position, moving away to lean against a holly tree, her backpack pressed against the coarse trunk to take some of the weight from her back and shoulders. She was looking towards the dying sun when she caught the movement of his head from the corner of her eye and, squinting against the ruddy light, turned back to consider him with an impassive regard.
‘It’s a tóraíocht. A pursuit.’ She shifted to adjust the balance of the backpack against her shoulders. ‘A group of men is chasing a single man, a solitary traveller from the looks of it.’
She gestured towards a particular line of tracks that had a visibly different appearance to the others.
‘See how those footprints look older? The edges of the prints are friable, the flat sections drier. All the other tracks are still damp because they haven’t fully dried out. That means they were made more recently, probably just a little earlier this afternoon.’
Rónán thought that explanation through for several moments before raising his eyes to look at her, his lips turned down in a frown. ‘Why are they chasing the single traveller?’
The woman warrior shrugged. ‘I don’t know. The Great Mother only ever reveals part of the stories of those traversing her mantle.’
Bran, who’d turned back to observe their interaction in silence, cleared his throat and shifted his weight awkwardly from one leg to another. ‘Grey One. If they’re travelling east, they’ll strike Ráth Bládhma.’
Liath Luachra rubbed her nose and sniffed.
‘Perhaps. Perhaps not. Just because the tracks here show them moving east, that doesn’t necessarily mean they’ll continue in that direction.’ She gestured loosely towards the forested ridges north and south of where they were standing. ‘In the confines of this landscape, it makes sense for the intruders to travel east but they might well drift to a different course once the ridges drop and the land opens out.’
Bran kept his eyes lowered and he made no response, but she sensed he was unconvinced by the argument.
Sighing, the Grey One stepped away from the tree, grunting as the full weight of the backpack settled back down on her shoulders. ‘Rest easy. Our own course to An Poll Mór follows their trail for a time yet. If they veer off the eastern path, we’ll know they’re no threat to Ráth Bládhma.’
‘What if they don’t veer off?’ asked Rónán. ‘That …’ The woman warrior gave another noncommittal shrug. ‘That’s an issue we’ll address if we come to it.
Ráth Meadhbha is looking a bit run down these days but after 3000 years (best estimates put its construction in the early Bronze Age (2000–1500 BC) I guess that’s pretty understandable.
Climb in over the shaky ‘geata’, slip through the trees and you find yourself in an open field that could be a farming meadow anywhere in Ireland.
It’s only as you return to the road and notice the wide, almost indistinguishable ditches to either side that you realise you’ve been standing in the ‘lis’ of an enormous ráth.
Although the ráth’s current name relates to Meadhbh Leathdearg (or Meabh or Cruachan) it’s obviously got little connection with the mythological character. It’s not clear when that name was assigned but at a rough guess (without checking) it was around medieval times (at the very least 1000 years later) when they were just as good at self-promotion as in contemporary times.
I came across this beautifully moody pic by Italian-based artist Daniele Gay this morning while researching a new cover concept. Generally his work tends more to dark sci-fi or futuristic imagery but he has the occasional more ‘historically based’ works as well.
Generally, in my day-to-day work, I don’t place too much focus on Norse mythology or storytelling. There are certainly overlaps with Gaelic/Irish mythology but both are very different given the very distinct cultures they originate from (despite what you’ve heard or seen on social media where some people can’t seem to tell the difference! ).
Given the quality of this particular image, however ….