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 week’s 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 you’ll 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 simply dressed in grey. The possibility I introduce in Liath Luachra: The Grey One is very much my own

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.

Satire and ‘Practical’ Magic

According to legend, the Irish poet Cairbre was the original ‘inventor’ of satire.  This ancient narrative ‘The Second Battle of Moytura’ describes how, during a visit to Bres – the Formorian king of the Túatha Dé Danann – Cairbre was hosted in a miserly hut without any furniture or a fire in the hearth. As a meal, he was provided with three small, dry oatcakes.

Outraged by what he saw as an insult to the respect he was due, Cairbre proceeded to compose a virulent satire against Bres, a composition of words so powerful that they caused his cheeks to break out in boils and blemishes. Given that no king could rule if he was, in any way, physically or mentally ‘blemished’, Bres was quickly removed from power.

Although the Second Battle of Moytura narrative can hardly be considered the most credible of sources (with respect to ‘facts’, at least), we can still be pretty sure the Irish filid (druid-poets) spread it about as widely as they could at the time. Not only did it obfuscate the relationship between a ‘satire’ and a ‘spell’ (both are compositions of words that cause an end effect), it also included a veiled threat to anyone who was considering the possibility of not recognising the power and status the filid felt was their due.

In ancient Ireland, a person’s status (or “honour price ­­– lóg enech­ – as it was more usually known) was particularly important. People in power retained that power through physical force, through a social authority or status based on the accepted consensus of key players in the community, or a combination of both. Hence their love of ritual, pomp and ceremony, anything that elevated their status into a position of status above the rest. If, however, the status of a person (or indeed a representative group) was damaged, then his authority was undermined and his power in the community subsequently diminished.

Obviously, we have to take the ancient descriptions of the filid’s power with a grain of salt (particularly given that many of these stories originated from self-serving poets with one eye on reinforcing their own social status at the expense of others). Although, back in the day, people would have been much more credible, with the advent of technology and easy availability of information, most people nowadays discount the ability of satire to cause physical blemishes.

Despite this inability to cause a physical end effect, the power of the satire remained a powerful instrument, particularly when used against an unjust ruler, a corrupt hierarchy or authority.  Like the ancient tradition of fasting in protest against someone, it had the effect of ruining a person’s reputation, making them a source of mockery in the community or shaming them. In this respect, the satire is just as effective today as it was back in ancient times.

A contemporary Irish example of the power of satire is the television series Father Ted which absolutely lambasted the Catholic Church in Ireland for three seasons between 1995-1998. Initially, this series had to be produced using non-Irish funding as no investor in Ireland was willing to put up the money for fear of the political and social lashback from the Church (evidence of the power it still retained in certain circles). Once the programme was up on screen of course, the thick vein of anger at resentment at the clergy that many Irish people felt (but rarely spoke about in public) quickly became apparent. Within a short time, the priesthood had openly become a subject of ridicule.

Although it cannot be doubted that the influence of the Catholic Church in Ireland had already been on the wane, the arrival of Father Ted marked the death knell of its social authority. Nowadays, politicians speak openly against the church (having initially assessed the public mood, of course) and the organisation is finally being held accountable for the great social harm it was carrying (in terms of child abuse etc.) under the cloak of its better deeds

Image courtesy of [creativedoxfoto] / FreeDigitalPhotos.net

Folklore: A Great Leap of Faith

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Down on the Beara peninsula in West Cork, if you look hard you’ll find this beautiful spot called ‘The Priest’s Leap’ (although you’ll have to try hard as it’s poorly signposted). According to local tradition, a priest on horseback was being chased across these mountain by English soldiers and, from this particular rock, his horse made a gigantic leap that carried him all the way to another rock outside the town of Bantry. Given that this second rock isn’t visible in the photo, you’ll have worked out this is quite a long way.

Some locals claim that the priest involved in this incident was a Fr Dominick Collins who was later killed by the English forces during a siege at the (relatively) local Castle Dún Baoi, stronghold of the O’Sullivan-Beara clan. Others claim it was a different priest called Fr James Archer who also has associations with Dún Baoi. The truth, in fact, is that the tale (or rather its associated tradition) predates both of these religious men and, indeed, the entire Christian religion.

Down in the Beara peninsula with its impressive mountains, valleys and formidable topographical features, it was not unusual for our early ancestors to tell stories about the landmarks that they saw every morning on rising and before they went to bed at night. This region – and, indeed, many other parts of Ireland – abounds with tales of individuals or creatures that carried out gigantic leaps across vast precipices, valleys and wide bays.

Linking such heroic-scale acts of endeavours to the land that surrounded them was a means for our ancestors to explain – but also to come to terms with – the great natural forces that surrounded them. These stories were a means of ‘taming’ the land, making it more familiar and comfortable to interact with. Back in the day, a person’s survival depended on his/her ability to interact with the natural world. Closeted as we are today with such a significantly larger human population, technology and increased knowledge, it is difficult for us to comprehend that relationship.

Initially, therefore, our ancestors’ stories concerned mythological creatures and heroes (such as the Hag of Beara and Fionn mac Cumhal). Later, as the land became more settle and ‘civilised’, those great feats were assigned to more local, more human figures (such as the two priests in the story above).

Today, however, we no longer need such close interaction with our local topography. Many of us now live in artificially constructed environment or change the area or country that we live in at least once in our lives, further diluting that connection. Despite this, the stories that go with the land still exist in our social and cultural subconscious which is why, in later years, those of us who’ve left home (and our own descendants) find ourselves longing for something we don’t quite understand. Fortunately, although we all know you can’t return to your past or reclaim your childhood, you can go back and access the stories that filled it.

And sometimes, that is enough.

 

 

Mise: The Bird Messenger

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(Image source: James Barker at freedigitalphotos.net)

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A funny thing happened to me on the way to this office this morning. That, in itself, is quite peculiar. My office – a basement separate from the rest of the house – is, literally, ten steps down from my front door.

Anyway, there I was enjoying the sun, looking out at the green hills in the distance when this wee bird suddenly flaps down and starts hovering right in front of me at eye level, staying in place through some pretty deft, and probably exhausting, wing work.
We both kinda stayed there, staring at each other for several moments, me in shock, him in – I don’t really know what; challenge, outrage, curiosity, impossible to tell. Finally, the wing work must have got too much for him for he suddenly whipped around and disappeared out of sight. I hung around for a few minutes, wondering if he was going to come back and trying to figure out why he’d acted in such an of odd manner. Was he some kind of oblique teachtaire – messenger? Had he mistaken me for some kind of territorial invader? The only realistic possibility I could come up with was that he was trying to draw me away from a nest (seen that behaviour quite frequently in the past) but it seemed unlikely there was a nest at the front of the house and I’m pretty sure it’s out of nesting season.

I’m a bit embarrassed to admit this but I actually have no idea what kind of bird it was. My best guess would be some kind of chaffinch but I really don’t know. That’s something I’ve noticed over the years I’ve spent in New Zealand. As an emigrant in another country, living for the most part in the city, I‘m embarrassingly unfamiliar with the native wildlife. I’d like to think that if I was back in Cork, this would be different and, to be fair, it probably would. I’m much more familiar with the native fauna back there. I was fortunate enough to spend a lot of time in the country as a kid and I have a pretty good grasp of Irish birds and other mammals and their behaviours. These days, I’m also much more acquainted with the folklore around them, the myths and stories we took for granted as kids.

Here in New Zealand, my interaction with my physical environment is much more stilted. I’m not that familiar with the varieties of birdlife or their birdsong (although I’ve learned to recognise some of them). More importantly I’m not familiar with the associated folklore and stories about them. As a result, I’m also ignorant of their long-term interaction with humans here. This means my interaction with my physical environment is stilted, making my connection to New Zealand more tenuous and my experience of the country that much more limited.
Back in Ireland, even up to the not so distant past, people interacted more intensively with their environment. From many years of careful and extended observation, they learned lessons on how to best ensure their own survival. As a reaching tool for their descendants, they also created stories and sayings to pass on this acquired knowledge. For example: Má lábhríonn an chuach ar chrann gan duilliúr, díol do bhó and ceannaigh arbhar (If the cuckoo calls on a leafless tree sell your cow and buy corn). Meaningless words to today’s city-dwelling audience but practical advice to a farmer in the past.

Irish draoi (druids) were also said to be able to prophesise the future from the movement of birds and, to an extent, I get that. Anyone who’s sat down and put the time into observing bird populations in their local environment will be able to identify behavioural trends for climate events, feeding patterns and unusual environmental events that might change those trends. As I said earlier, this takes time – a lot of time – and as I sit here thinking of my teachtaire this morning, it seems clear to me that I have a long wait ahead of me.

Stories: Death on the Mountain

Sligo(Benbulben)

Benbulben or Binn Ghulbain in Irish (the Peak of Gulbain) is a substantial piece of rock that dominates the country north of Sligo. I was lucky enough to catch it on a clear day and had the time to sit back and stare at it. It truly is an impressive chunk of granite.

Like many dominant topographical sites in Ireland, Benbulben’s often linked to legendary or mythological characters. This was an old trick of the ancient storytellers, their way of making stories more interesting and personally relevant. By linking a tale they’d heard elsewhere to part of the local topography well known to their audience, it added impact and resonance. This is why it’s so common to find the same – or very similar – versions of the same ancient tale set in a number of different localities (sometimes with local variations added on). A nightmare for the professional folklorist attempting to establish the true origin of the narrative but fun for the local population all the same.

Benbulben is particularly associated with the Fenian Cycle tale Tóraíocht Dhiarmuida agus Gráinne (the Pursuit of Diarmuid and Grainne). The earliest surviving text with this story dates back to the 16th century but it’s pretty clear that the material contains much older elements that go back as least as far as the tenth century (and possibly before).

The Tóraíocht – as it’s more commonly known back home – is a tragic love triangle at heart. It concerns the great warrior Fionn mac Cumhaill, the princess Gráinne and the Fenian warrior Diarmuid Ua Duibhne. The story’s striking, not only because of its rich epic tragedy, but also because it’s one of the first times in Irish literature where Fionn mac Cumhaill is shown in a poor light.

The Tóraíocht relates how Fionn – now an aging man – seeks the hand of Gráinne (the daughter of king Cormac mac Airt). An unwilling participant in the deal, however, Gráinne falls in love with the handsome warrior Diarmuid during the pre-marriage feast. Slipping a sleeping potion into the wine, she places Diarmuid faoi geasa – under a magical obligation – to elope with her.
The tóraíocht – pursuit – commences in earnest then with Fionn and the Fianna chasing the couple around the country, occasionally pulling in celebrity cameos from the likes of Aengus to help them when all seems lost. After many adventures, peace is finally made with Fionn and the lovers settle in Keshcorran.

One day, years later, Fionn and the Fianna pass by and invite Diarmuid to join them on a boar hunt. Despite the warnings of his lover, he leaves with them only to be fatally wounded by the supernatural boar. Because of his own powers, Fionn has the ability to save the warrior by simply allowing him to drink water from his hands. Still smouldering from the insult of their elopement however, he refuses to do this despite the warnings of his own warriors. On two occasions, he pretends to help but allows the water to slip through his fingers. Finally, his own grandson, Oscar, threatens him and Fionn reluctantly agrees to help. By the time he returns from the well however it’s all too late and Diarmuid’s already succumbed to his wounds.

Originally, when I was writing Beara: Dark Legends – which contains a very strong Fenian component – I had intended to include Benbulben and the Tóraíocht within the storyline. In the end, though, I decided against it and now it’s just referenced briefly towards the beginning of the novel. The way I figured it, Benbulben was very much a Sligo feature. The Beara storyline is focused very much at the opposite end of the country in a place which has strong topographical features of its own.

Maybe another time.

Stories: Dancing on the cliffs

 

By Fair Means of Foul1

One of the reasons I return home as often as I do is to collect stories, snippets of songs or local folklore that provide plot ideas or concepts for books I’m writing. Recently, I was out visiting Rathlin Island off the Northern Ireland coastline (offshore from Ballycastle) and came across a particularly striking ‘local legend’ about Fair Head. The rocky headland of Fair Head is actually onshore (not on Rathlin) and can be easily seen from Ballycastle. According to “local legend” this striking piece of rock is named after a princess who actually lived on Rathlin.

When it comes to placenames you have to treat the authenticity of “local legend” with a bit of caution, particularly if the name associated with the origin story is English. This is an important clue as an English placename usually indicates it was derived from after the early 1600s (when the colonisation process in Ireland commenced in earnest). A second thing to consider with respect to placenames is topography. In this particular case, the Irish name – An Bhinn Mhór (The Big Peak or The Big Tip) – seems more apt for such a striking topographical feature, thereby suggesting you could probably treat the veracity of the ‘legend’ with a strong keg of salt.

Despite all that, the story about the princes is quite a striking story. According to the “local legend”:

She was a beautiful creature with long blond hair. There were two particularly ardent young men amongst her admirers. Naturally, they hated each other. At a feast on the island, their hatred turned to rage. They fought and eventually one was fatally wounded. As he lay dying, he made his liegeman swear to take revenge on his behalf. The winner called for music and dancing to celebrate his betrothal. The liegeman danced with the princess. He whirled her round and round, closer and closer to the edge of the cliff and flung her over the edge. The body was eventually washed ashore at Fair Head.

So, there you have it. Love, violence, drinking and dancing and a terrible revenge. All the elements for a powerful piece of fiction in less than a hundred words.

Folklore: Stone Confessions

Actually, I have a bit of a confession to make.

I am not proud …

But the truth is …

I am a closet stone freak, a Dolmen nerd.

Oh, yes! Stone circles, standing stones, cairns, barrows, hillforts. If I had my way, I’d be out there clambering all over them every weekend, grabbing photos, jotting down stories, associated mythologies and folklore. The truth is, though, that in many Irish rural areas these ancient monuments form a key part of the landscape. They’re familiar features that we’ve grown up with, played by, and in some cases identify with and the stories associated with them are passed down from generation to generation in local families.

Take this boulder for example, located in Kileenduff, over a mile west of Easky (County Sligo).

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This monument is known as ‘split rock’ ( the English name suggesting this was only applied after the late 1800s) and it’s set not too far inland from the coast. According to a Sligo County Council Geological Site report, the boulder was taken from the nearby Ox mountains and deposited in its present location by large sheets of ice during the last glaciation (about 30,000 – 10,000 years ago). As part of this process, the crack or ‘natural fracture’ occurred. Local legend, however, has a different interpretation of events that has been passed down from generation to generation. According to this, the boulder was cast down by Fionn mac Cumhal as part of a boulder-casting competition with a friend called Cicsatóin (literally: Kick in the Ass). Fionn’s attempt at throwing the boulder was a very poor miscast and he was so enraged he actually ran down the mountain and slashed it in two with his sword.

These days many people stop and pass through he crack but the legend also says that if you pass through it three times (circling the rock on your right), the two internal faces will close in and crush you on the final pass. Everyone scoffs at the legend but you’d be surprised how many people actually give up on the final pass and in any case it’s a great story to tell to your kids.

Which, from an Irish perspective, is often more important than the actual facts!

 

Words into the Void

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Starting a blog and releasing a post is a bit like throwing a stone into the bush. You never really know if you’ve hit anything.

Until some angry farmer with a head wound comes striding out, threatening you with a very large stick!!

Hopefully this won’t be the case with this blog.

This blog is dedicated to informing and educating you on various aspects Irish culture that you mightn’t usually come across. My hope is that it helps you to access Irish culture in a more personal and relevant way. I post once a week (on Mondays) and usually on the following topics:

  • Folklore: Irish folklore and/or mythology
  • Stories: Stories from Irish history and mythology
  • Mise (Me): Occasional commentary on how I use Irish history and culture in my writing
  • Updates – an occasional update on what I’m writing

Fáilte romhat go dtí Irish Imbas Books.  Tá súil agam go baineann tú taitneamh as do cuairt anseo.

 

Sleepwalking in English

A sleep-deprived Irish translator struggles to make sense of bizarre events in a foreign French city. A poignant tale of sleepwalking, dreams, loss and an urgent need to go home.

[Category: fiction – literary/contemporary fantasy].

AVAILABLE SOON AS AN AUDIOBOOK

Sex With Sarah

A consultant’s uncomplicated affair with a public service colleague proves anything but.  An intense and compelling short story on the costs and benefits of a sexual affair in the corporate office.

This short story was  written after several years of observation of compelling and extreme behaviour by ambitious individuals within the New Zealand public service. The story, of course, is complete fiction but much of the behaviour is not.

It can be purchased at Amazon.

The Morning After

A short story about an ‘Irish Lothario’ and a middle-aged American woman who awake in an unfamiliar apartment in a foreign city.  They have no recollection of who they are.  Or how they got there.
An hilarious story of two hungover victims struggling to come to grips with the previous night’s excesses.
Not for those of a sensitive nature.

This particular story was actually written after a mind-numbingly bad day at work. As soon as I came home  and sat down to write, the basic tale flowed out onto the page in less than twenty minutes.  It was a wonderful antidote.

This can be purchased at Amazon here

The Ringmaster’s Daughter

“A young woman escaping a dreary existence encounters a ringmaster’s daughter who is too implausible to be true – despite all evidence to the contrary.”

A unique and intriguing tale of magic, lies and female friendship.

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At some stage in our lives we all meet individuals that infatuate us because we see them as fresh and exotic. They might speak with an accent, come from a very different culture that we admire, have striking physical or mental traits. Some people have a whole combination of these attributes so when you meet them, they really have that ability to blow you away, to return you to a time when you believed – in the future, in possibility, in magic, in anything!

Infatuation, of course, has a limited shelf-life. Familiarity breeds contempt – or at least a sense of ‘ho-hum’ – and the ‘exotic’ eventually becomes ‘routine’. When I wrote this particular story, I was trying to imagine what would happen if you met someone who had the ability to rekindle that sense of magic, where the infatuation never really stopped.

It can be purchased at Amazon.