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Happy St Paddy’s …. Or not!

About twenty years ago when people first started wishing me a ‘Happy Saint Paddy’s Day’, I felt a bit left-footed and unsure how to respond. Back then, most Irish people didn’t really use that expression as Saint Patrick’s Day wasn’t really a celebration you ‘wished happiness’ to someone for and, in English, the term sounded wrong and clunky. When you look at the Irish form of celebrating the event you can really see why.

Beannachtaí na Féile Pádraig ort.

Beannachtaí na Féile Pádraig ort (literally “the Blessings of St Patrick’s Day on you”) is very much an Irish/Gaelic way of thinking. When you think in Irish, emotions are generally ‘on’ you so when you offer blessings, you offer then ‘on’ someone (in the same way you’d wish happiness on them). Emotions in an English sense of speaking is generally more static or more a state of being (‘I’m happy, I’m sad’ instead of ‘Happiness is on me, sadness is on me,’ etc.)

The first time I was wished a happy St Paddy’s, I’d just emigrated from Ireland. In my own head the construct felt wrong. At the same time, because I’m fluent in English and exposed to media and influence from English-speaking countries, I also understood what was meant. It was just a bit … odd. I experienced the same thing many times over the following years but it was really only a few years ago that I finally understood what was happening out of sight and at a far deeper, cultural level.

But first some context:

For a lot of people growing up in Ireland in the seventies and eighties, St Patrick’s Day was much more of a religious festival, sober and a bit up-tight, dominated by an extended St Paddy’s Day Mass and alleviated only by the prospect of a parade (a sea of black umbrellas, sodden kids up on a truck with paper maché castles that were melting in the rain!). Occasionally, on television, we’d see stories about giant parades in the States where some cities made the rivers run green for the day and the parades themselves ran like giant Hollywood productions. In our eyes, they seemed oddly surreal, disconnected from what we were living in Ireland and, in some ways, weirdly plastic.

Up to the early 1990s, the main ‘foreign’ influence on Irish culture (in terms of language, entertainment, employment options, sales markets, etc.) was undoubtably Great Britain, although this was tempered to a degree due to the animosity between both countries over that period. With improved international transportation, increased international sales of media entertainment (and later, the internet and social media) other diverse influences and ways of thinking came to the fore. From that point on, you could say that Irish culture and society started to become more influenced by American influence (particularly television and other media, etc.) to the point where today, some Irish people are more familiar with certain aspects of American life than their own.

Other influencers, were the first, second, third (etc.) descendants of Irish people living overseas who, on days of significance (like St Patrick’s day) were understandably keen to engage with the culture/country they felt affiliated to. Some of them, keener to embrace Irish culture than others, took a step further and make an effort to engage in the Irish language. That’s why online today you’ll find a lot of people who use the following version of the blessing/greeting:

Lá Fhéile Pádraig Sona Duit!

Literally, of course, this means ‘Happy St Patrick’s Day to you’, although the Irish/Gaelic cultural intent /context has been soundly replaced by an English/American cultural context (it’s simply an extension of the ‘Happy Birthday’, Happy Mother’s Day, Happy Christmas structure). It’s a very little thing but it does demonstrate how Irish/Gaelic cultural concepts – the things that make us different and unique in the world – are slowly being eroded.

To be fair, it’s also important to recognise that no culture is static. All cultures evolve as they’re exposed to outside influences and Irish culture is no exception. No-one wants to be part of a culture that doesn’t adapt with the times because such cultures risk being erased by other, more dominant, cultures. Ireland certainly was in that situation for a very long time but, fortunately, seems to have taken on new confidence over the last few decades.

The downside of that ‘non-static’ argument of course, is that if one culture dominates, then that removes any ability for diversity and, longer term, innovation. The Blue Mink’s misguided “Great Big Melting Pot” would have essentially removed any form of individual ethnic or cultural variety, reduced the world to a uniform and very bland way of thinking and living.

If you’d like to ‘stick it to the man’ and make a small gesture for genuine Irish/ Gaelic concepts, then this St Paddy’s why not raise your glass and bless everyone there with a heartfelt Beannachtaí na Féile Pádraig ort! instead.

[Note: In celebration of the day that’s in it, Irish Imbas is having the usual St Paddy’s Day sale on 17th March (Saturday). If you’re interested just check out the books page.

New Book News

It’s been a tough few months with challenging workloads on all fronts but fortunately I’ve had the chance to work with some fascinating and talented people this year. As a result, I’m hoping this year’s output is going to be one of our most substantial and best to date.

The second book to appear this year will be the next LIATH LUACHRA adventure (THE SWALLOWED) which should be out sometime in the next 3 months. This follows the experiences of the 2nd century Irish woman warrior Liath Luachra (the future guardian to Irish mythological hero Fionn mac Cumhaill) and her fian (war party) ‘The Friendly Ones’.

The draft blurb outlining the story currently reads as follows:

Ireland: Second century.

The Lonely Lands: Ireland’s shadowy centre, a desolate region of dense forest and swamp where unwary travellers are swallowed up … to disappear forever.

Caught up in a tribal conflict when their latest mission goes sour, the woman warrior Liath Luachra and war party “The Friendly Ones” find themselves coerced into a new undertaking:

* Lead a mismatched group of warriors into the Lonely Lands.

* Find ‘The Swallowed’.

But intra-tribal rivalry is never what it seems, old enemies bear fresh grudges and predators move in the dark heart of the forest …
Awaiting their moment to feed.
————————————————-

PRAISE FOR THE LIATH LUACHRA SERIES

“The thinking woman’s warrior!”

“This is an Ancient Ireland that is entrancing and savage, much like Liath Luachra herself.”

“Liath Luachra is an engaging protagonist – deliciously sensual, yet calculatingly violent when the cause demands it. Never a dull moment, difficult to put down.”

“You don’t often come across such a compelling hero(ine), written with such depth and understanding.”

“She’s intriguing – fierce and capable of killing…but loyal and gentle too at times. I love the picture painted of old Ireland and the wildness of it – and the occasional use of the Irish language adds another dimension to the story – a kind of authenticity. I’m looking forward to reading more.” (less)

Further details on our expected output this year should appear in the next edition of Vóg (our monthly newsletter). You can find a copy of last month’s edition here: Vóg

A Bad Cover for a Great New Fantasy Novel by Award Winning Irish Author

Proud of Modernity is a new novel by Irish author Brian O’Sullivan. Although a mind-shattering and life-altering novel (in a good way!), the cover is very bad. Laughably bad.
So let’s have some fun with it. Tell us what you think of it in the poll below by suggesting some new responses and we’ll pick ten random entries to win a signed copy of the hardcover. We’ll pick the ten winners on March the 1st (2070). Everyone’s welcome to play. Just cast your vote and post a comment.

Thanks to Terry Goodkind for this awesome idea!!

This cover is good enough to:

  • make me stop drinking for ever
  • make me cut my hand off to free myself and flee
  • makes a pig’s arse look oddly attractive
  • makes me feel suddenly kinda sexist

[Note: For those who are a bit slow on the uptake, this is a pastiche of the recent scandal wrt Terry Goodkinnd’s cover for a book called Shroud of Eternity(?), Modernity … something like that].

Results for the Celtic Mythology Short Story Competition 2017

Well, one bottle of Sauvignon down, twenty-five minutes of intense discussion and this must have been one of the fastest judging sessions I’ve ever partaken in for the Celtic Mythology Short Story Competition.

To be fair, we have learned a lesson or two from the previous competitions. For last year’s session we had about ten short stories and two bottles of wine (which, in truth, probably didn’t help to focus the discussion). We also had the additional dynamic in that we changed the voting system to reduce my input so the story I had expected to win didn’t (although it was in the top three) and one I’d assumed would score highly didn’t even make it into the final compilation. That took over an an hour and a half of painstaking argument before we finally agreed on the competition winners and the awarding of prizes. After the seriousness of the hangover I had the next morning, I knew we had to make it simpler and reduce the shortlist to a more manageable number the next time around.

This year therefore, we started with a shortlist of six stories. Interestingly, even before we had the wine bottle open, the initial discussion had already reduced the shortlist to three stories (on which the judges were unanimous). The remaining twenty minutes of discussion were really limited to the allocation of the prizes.

But enough about us and our alcoholic, self-indulgent ramblings. Here are the stories shortlisted for the Celtic Mythology Short Story Competition 2017.

  • Homecoming by Damien J. Howard
  • Moireach by Donna Rutherford
  • The Ancient Ash by Margaret McCarthy
  • The Ford of The Fork by Will O’Siorain
  • The Shadow of the Crow by Jerry W. Vandal
  • The Quest of Oscar and Plor na mBan by Aoife Osborne

And without further ado, here are the three winners in descending order

FIRST PRIZE
$500 and story published in Irish Imbas Celtic Mythology Collection
‘Moireach’ by Donna Rutherford

 

SECOND PRIZE
$250 and story published in Irish Imbas Celtic Mythology Collection
‘Homecoming’ by Damien J. Howard

 

THIRD PRIZE
$100 and story published in Irish Imbas Celtic Mythology Collection
‘The Shadow of the Crow’ by Jerry W. Vandal

Congratulations to the winners who we’ll be very pleased to see appear in the final Irish Imbas: Celtic Mythology Collection 2018. Commiserations also to Margaret McCarthy, Will O’Siorain and Aoife Osborne who despite some good storytelling, unfortunately missed out on this occasion.

So What Happens Next?

The winning authors should receive payment over the next seven days.
The Irish Imbas: Celtic Mythology Collection 2018 should be released towards the end of April 2018. We’ll be posting on the website and elsewhere when this occurs.

Next year, there will be some significant (very significant) changes to the way we run the competition in order to make it more inclusive and more closely aligned with our own objective for it. But we’ll tell you all about that when it’s closer to the time.

Until then, our congratulations once again to the winning authors and our thanks to those of you who took the time to enter or follow the competition.

Father Ted and Me- Twenty Years

I learned this morning that Dermot Morgan (the Irish actor who played Father Ted) died twenty years ago today.

Back in the late 90’s I used to let my young kids watch Father Ted with me as a way to familiarise them with Irish humour, something that was a bit of a challenge as we’d moved to the other side of the world from Ireland and the possibilities of the internet were still in their infancy. To this day, they still make quips like “Careful now, Dad!”, “Down with that sort of thing” (usually when they dislike my cooking!) or “That would be an ecumenical matter” (when they’re losing an argument).

As a result, even twenty years later, like a lot of Irish people I still have a huge affection for Father Ted.

Suaimhneas síoraí duit, a Dermot Morgan. Somehow it’d seem a bit hypocritical to use the usual “Ar dheis Dé go raibh a anam” (that you soul stands on Gd’s right side – the old Irish expression for ‘rest in peace’).

‘maith agat, Father Ted!

The Truth About Irish Woman Warriors – What They Never Tell You

Lagertha, from the television series: Vikings - often misrepresented as 'Celtic' or 'Oirish' warrior online

[Pic: Lagertha, from the television series: Vikings – often misrepresented as a ‘Celtic’ or ‘Oirish’ woman warrior online]

There’s a lot of fantasy out there when it comes to women warriors, particularly where it relates back to those in the Irish or “Celtic” realm. To be fair, the subject of women warriors is hardly a new one. Since the development of literature itself, writers (usually male) and readers have been enamored by tales of fighting women (particularly Herodotus with his notes on the inaccurately-named Amazons), probably because they’re such a rarity in ancient warfare, an area generally dominated by men.

The role of women in ancient warfare certainly differed between different cultures but in ancient Irish, Scottish, Welsh and Manx societies – a far more physical society than today –  warfare was generally left to the men. That’s not to say that women didn’t fight, of course. The histories of these countries are full of examples of women fighting to defend themselves, fighting to protect the ones they love, or fighting each other. In terms of recognised warrior status warrior in actual warfare context however, this would have been a rarity indeed.

When it comes to women warriors in the ancient Irish mythological context (i.e. not historical), we certainly seem to have more references in the surviving literature than other contemporary societies of the same period. Some people mistakenly use this fact to argue that female fighters were common in early Irish society and that it was a far more ‘gender equal’ society but that’s a pretty big leap to make.

As an Irish person I’d LOVE to boast that ancient Ireland was the role model for gender equality but I think it’d be pretty dishonest of me if I did. At their most basic level, people don’t tend to change too much. Human societies have always been based around the established holders of power and, in ancient Ireland, most of that power was held by men.

Whatever you believe, the mythological tales still have to be treated with caution and never treated literally. The writers/recorders of that time were not above a bit of creative licence or prejudice and people often forget that just because something was written a long time ago, it doesn’t necessarily mean it’s true.

 

The Pattern of Women Warriors in Irish Mythology

If we look at Irish mythology then, the most well-known women warriors referred to in the literature tend to include:

  • Scáthach– a woman warrior who appears in the Ulster Cycle who was based in modern-day Scotland. She instructs the hero Cú Chulainn in a number of martial feats and (depending on the version) when he catches her with her guard down, is forced to take him as a lover
  • Aífe– a rival of Scáthach who Cú Chulainn forces to lie with him at swordpoint and who subsequently bears him a son
  • Neasa (Ness)– a woman warrior forced into marriage at swordpoint by the warrior/druid Cathbad and future mother of the famous Conchobhar mac Nessa
  • Liath Luachra – a guardian of the young Fionn mac Cumhaill, briefly mentioned in the Fenian Cycle

The surviving literature is very limited when it comes to these characters but with the first three, there’s an overpowering impression that the character of the powerful woman warrior was created specifically to highlight the sexual domination and military prowess of the male ‘hero’ who subsequently overpowers her (a pattern also found with other women warrior characters in mythology).

The final figure (Liath Luachra) is probably the only one that doesn’t follow this pattern. This is predominantly because as a guardian to the much younger hero (Fionn mac Cumhaill), any relationship between them is desexualised.

Other figures in Irish Mythology cited as Women Warriors

Other female figures from Irish mythology occasionally offered up as examples of women warriors include:

  • Meadhbh (also spelt Medb, Maeve etc.) – Queen of Connacht in the Táin (The Cattle Raid of Cooley)
  • The Morríghan (or Mór-ríoghain)

Again, if you look at either of these in any detail, you’ll immediately find that neither actually make the cut. All of the literary and archaeological evidence to date indicates that these figures were personifications of female deities as opposed to warrior women. Articles or literary works suggesting that they were warriors usually indicates that the authors haven’t even done the most basic of homework or they’re pushing an argument driven more by wish fulfilment than fact.

Irish Women Warriors in Literature

For a long time, Irish women warriors pretty much lingered as an ‘interesting’ footnote in the republications of old academic works on Irish mythology. Over the last thirty to forty years however, representation of women warriors has become far more prevalent in commercial fiction, particularly in the fantasy genre where mythological characters occasionally end up “borrowed” for contemporary stories.

The final products are usually fine from a basic entertainment perspective even if, from a cultural perspective, things can get a little … ‘iffy’, when creators miss the underlying cultural context. Unfortunately, with Irish warrior women, this can particularly result in works that are not only overly romanticised but which ignore some of the strong negative gender undercurrents associated with the characters, something of which the authors often seem – disturbingly – unaware.

Note: This is an updated version of an older article published on this website and later published on the Fantasy Hive.

Apparently, I’m Getting Better

Apparently, I’m getting a bit better with this whole writing malarkey. Usually, my co-director/partner rolls her eyes when she gets asked to do the initial pre-final draft peer review. Today, she actually demanded the next chapter of LIATH LUACHRA: THE SWALLOWED,

Honestly! That is a good thing.

https://www.goodreads.com/book/show/38086182-liath-luachra—the-swallowed

Shortlist for the 2017 Celtic Mythology Short Story Competition

In summary, forty submissions were received for the  Irish Imbas: Celtic Mythology Short Story competition this year and the standard was far more diverse in terms of submission quality than for any of the previous competitions. As always, some submissions were of very high quality but quite a number this year really weren’t at a level quite ready for publication in that they needed significant review and editing. To be fair, this reflects the experience of the writers – some who are clearly at an early stage of their writing career. With some additional polish, there are some genuine gems there.

Again, this year, despite the changes to our criteria, we also received a number of what I’d call ‘ghost stories’ or ‘fantasy stories’ – stories that were actually very good but which related to issues and topics we don’t really deal with. That situation very much reflects one of the biggest problems Irish Imbas faces in trying to achieve its goals – the confusion of fantasy and mythology.

Most people have been raised with a kind of ‘Disneyfied’ understanding of what mythology’ is all about and commercial interests have been fostering that for the fantasy market for several decades. As a result, this isn’t a surprise but again we’ll have to change how we do things in the future to make that even clearer.

But enough of that. Here’s the short-list for the Celtic Mythology Short Story Competition 2017.

  • Homecoming by Damien J. Howard
  • Moireach by Donna Rutherford
  • The Ancient Ash by Margaret McCarthy
  • The Ford of The Fork by Will O’Siorain
  • The Shadow of the Crow by Jerry W. Vandal
  • The Quest of Oscar and Plor na mBan by Aoife Osborne

 

So What Happens Next?

Those authors who made the short-list will be looked at again for minor editing where needed before they’re sent onto the judges for final consideration. Four judges will then consider them (where I’ll have one vote out of the four). Last year, this had quite a big impact on the final outcome in that only three of the five stories I’d thought were going to be in the final publication actually made the final cut.

The winning authors and those being published in the final Celtic Mythology Collection will be announced around the beginning of March 2018.

Congratulations to all those who made the list and the best of luck. I’d also like to thank those of you who made the effort to submit but who didn’t make the shortlist. I can’t contact you all individually but several of you have excellent stories that I believe another publisher would snap up.

Maith agaibh!

Brian O’Sullivan

Public Art on the Irish West Coast

If you get over to Ireland’s west coast (or you’re already there!) you might want to check out some of the public art projects in Mayo. One of these – Tír Sáile – was Ireland’s largest public arts trail with fourteen separate sculptural emplacements set in specific sites along the north mayo coast. Originally conceived and implemented in in 1993 to coincide with the formal opening of the Céide Fields visitors’ centre (and the associated Mayo 5000 celebrations), the art trail starts in Killala and follows the coastal route around through Ballycastle, Belderrig and down to An Fód Dubh at the end of the Belmullet peninsula. Although there were originally 14 site-specific art installations, only eleven survive today (a number were decommissioned due to lack of maintenance).

Tír Sáile is actually a conceptually interesting project in that it involved the alignment of large structural artworks with some pretty rugged landscape and dramatic natural backdrops with the objective of producing sculptures that “added to rather than detracted from, their settings”. As part of this, one of the fundamental requirements was that only natural materials could be used to ensure the structure in sympathy with their surroundings.

Another aspect of the project was envisioning the utilisation of the old Irish tradition of meitheal where people in rural communities worked together with neighbours to bring in the hay or help out with some other urgent crop. Generally speaking, each farmer/property owner person would help out their neighbour in the knowledge that when they too needed help, that assistance would be reciprocated. This allowed communities to act as a team, build strong relationships and allow benefit to be shared for everyone.

Needless to say, as with all art projects Tír Sáile’s not all about art (Sheesh, really!). Part of the rationale for Tír Sáile (and no doubt part of the reason they managed to get so much public funding) was the justification that the structures and associated marketing would help draw people to that part of Ireland for tourism and local business development reasons. As usual however, when you mix two such different objectives, the results can be very hit and miss.

The success of the project will very much depend on a number of perspectives. From a commercial perspective (in terms of tourism and benefit to local businesses), it’s hard to know if the project was a success. The project was mixed (and overshadowed by) the success of Céide fields and, of course, Irish tourism marketing campaigns like the ‘Wild Atlantic Way’. No doubt there has been some financial evaluation of the project although with local government organisations, public art projects often tend to be ‘closed shop’ affairs, controlled by a certain number of people  with limited accountability and no meaningful consultation. In that respect, the ongoing planning corruption investigation carried out by the Irish Standards in Public Office Commission (SIPOC) doesn’t really inspire confidence.

From a personal perspective, the success of the various artistic installations will very much depend on personal taste. Some people loathe the installations, some people love them. Most people don’t actually seem to know about them (of the ten people I asked, maybe one had heard of them). From those structures I’ve seen (about five), I personally felt that some of the artworks worked whereas others really didn’t and, in this regard, it wasn’t really helped by the absence of any interpretive material (although given that these works are based one persons’s personal vision – not the public’s – I’m not sure how much this would help either).

Tonnta na mblianta was visually … meh. Tearmon na Gaoithe, set on a dramatic headland on Killala Bay, ironically seemed to have the aim of constricting that spectacular view to a single frame (which seems a bit daft). Other structures meanwhile like Court Henge seemed just seemed like a bad decision. The concept behind it (making a structure that looked like a court cairn) was apt but placing in its current location (by the Ballycastle Cottages) just seemed stupid.

Court Hence – poor positioning

 

Tonnta na mblianta – Meh!

Others will have a completely different view and that’s fine.

Another example of public art (again in north Mayo) is ‘The Crossing’ (a project funded by Mayo County Council, Fáilte Ireland and other stakeholders) which is a ráth-like structure around the blowhole at Dún Briste (Downpatrick Head).

 

The Crossing [Photo from North Mayo Art Trail]

I have to confess, this work really appealed to me and I liked the way it had been incorporated into the landscape but I did wonder why more of the rich local folklore hadn’t been incorporated. This became a bit clearer when I searched online and found the artist wasn’t a local at all but an American artist (Travis Price) associated with the Catholic University of America. His rationale behind the installation was explained as follows:

The Crossing evokes the struggle and the sublime slipstream between the mystical and the material, between cultural history and the eternal sacred.’

Hmmm. Right.

Have to admit my eyes glazed over there at ‘sublime slipstream’.

On a personal level, I’d hoped we’d grown out of that florid, wince-inducing language (‘mystical’, ‘spiritual’ etc) that foreigners tend to ascribe to Ireland and the Irish. It’s a bit sad to see local authorities in Mayo encouraging it on publicly-funded monuments.

Clearly, they weren’t using the meitheal approach!

Submission Titles for the Celtic Mythology Short Story Competition

It’s always fun to look through the titles of submissions for the Celtic Mythology Short Story Competition and this year has been no exception. Since we first started the competition (back in the Dark Ages of 2015), I’ve got into a routine of running through the title list without the author names attached just to see the kind of reaction the titles trigger.

A story title can often be extremely evocative but their interpretation, of course, is usually linked to the personal experience and background or the person reading them. As a result, what I’d read into a title would be very different to what another person would.

Despite the old saying, I’ve learned that these days you actually can judge a book by its cover – at least in terms of genre (except in those cases where you have an inept publisher). That doesn’t work with a story/book title, though. The gold standard for titles is to have something that’s evocative but which also gives you an accurate expectation of what you’re about to read. That’s quite a difficult skill to master.

These are the title that took my fancy from this year’s batch and the reasons why.

  • … Loves company – I thought this was a clever play on the expression ‘Misery loves Company’  and (I’m assuming) transforms it into something else entirely.
  • A Tune and a Magic Bicycle – Juxtaposition in a title always tends to make that title stronger, particularly where you mix the esoteric with the banal. I like this one
  • Away with the Fairies – Again a possible double meaning on the old expression used for people with dementia.
  • Fionn and the Banshee – Given my own special interest in the Fenian Cycle, this was always going to catch my eye. I’m intrigued to see how the author merges two such different cultural concepts.
  • Jimmy Macpherson’s Dream – On seeing this title I immediately thought of James MacPherson – a Scottish outlaw made famous by poet Robbie Burns. I have no idea if there’s a link or not.
  • Moireach – Interesting title. The word looks Irish in structure but it’s not one (a name?) I’m familiar with. Usually I run off to research the word when confronted by something like this but of course I won’t be doing this yet as I don’t want to spoil the story.
  • The Halloween Footballers – For some reason this just tickles me. I’m not quite sure why.
  • The Three Faces of Me – Again, I’ve imposed my own interpretation on this title based on my personal experience and background and have therefore assumed this has something to do with the triad system of Celtic/Gaelic belief. It’ll be interesting to see how completely wrong or right I was.

This year we ended up with a sharp decline in submissions compared to last year (from over seventy to thirty-five in this year’s slot).  I’m quite happy with this result as it means the additional clarification on criteria and entry requirements is working. Last year, we received at least 20 submissions which had absolutely nothing to do with mythology (some ghost stories, some stories vaguely related to Ireland and so on) despite the guidelines. We also received a large number of specific fantasy stories set in Ireland from authors that also seemed to have missed what we’re trying to do. It’s a bit distressing to receive these as we know people have made the effort of paying the $7 entry fee and yet they’re so completely off the mark, they can’t progress to the shortlist. This is particularly the case when you come across stories that are actually of excellent quality!

In any case, the 2017 submissions are currently undergoing an initial review to assess how many go through to the short-list. The results will be posted by the end of the month.

Thanks to all of you who’ve taken the time to submit.

 

PS: A note of apology is necessary for the delay in getting this post up. We’ve had a bit of a disastrous holiday period with yours truly managing to get himself baldy injured in a running accident and we’ve also suffered two separate IT malfunctions. Because of our regular back–up processes we haven’t lost any data but trying to find IT support to reboot our systems over the Christmas holidays (in New Zealand) has meant we’re about two weeks behind schedule. We should be back on track in the next few days.

The Mystery of the Bare-ass Dolmen Dancers

Back in the eighties in Ireland there was a famous ad going around from the Irish Development Authority (IDA), a government agency responsible for developing enterprise and attracting foreign investment. A component of one of their marketing campaigns, it consisted of a series of photos taken around some of our more famous prehistoric monuments (stone circles, passage graves, dolmens and so on). On this occasion though, those monuments were occupied by serious-looking Irish corporate types, standing around in business suits and looking about as comfortable as a funeral attendee in a clown costume.

The inference was pretty obvious of course. We’re the IDA! We are stable and dependable – just like the 2500+ year old prehistoric structures standing there in the background.

Needless to say, the IDA have long since been restructured and rebranded as ‘IDA Ireland’ which puts some of that arrogant hubris in perspective.

The IDA weren’t the only people drawn to the monoliths that dot the countryside, however. People have been visiting these monuments out of curiosity for centuries and to get a sense of perspective it’s good to remember that when the Celts first arrived in Ireland (sometime around 400-500 B.C.), those monoliths had already been standing for over a thousand years. It’s really no wonder the Celts were in such awe of them, an aspect I try to get across in my books (particularly the Fionn mac Cumhaill Series and the Liath Luachra Series).

Nowadays, Ireland makes a small fortune from cultural tourism associated with such sites, although such blatant commercial use would certainly have been frowned on until very recently. Up until the late-sixties or so, dolmens and standing stones were still very much localised features, respected and – in some cases – still feared due to the attribution of curses, hauntings and spirits from local folklore.

With the seventies and early eighties however, much of that reverence began to fade and in some cases a less … venerable approach to the monuments began to occur. Occasional complaints began to be heard about people (those feckin hippies!) dancing naked around some of the less-visited (but just as significant) monuments. Movies or television programmes would also throw up the old trope of “comely maidens dancing around a stone monument”. [Outlander anyone?’]

‘Dolmen Dancing’ was a throwaway term that I invented to reflect the societal change taking place over our generation with respect to the increased understanding of native history and the physical structures on our landscape associated with that. In a more practical sense of course, it also described what was actually happening as people got up front and personal with the monuments without fear of breaking any taboo. In fact, in some cases breaking taboos was actually the point.

My own, personal experience of Dolmen Dancing was up at the Poulnabrone Dolmen in Country Clare when I was part of a student group headed to Galway in a minibus for a sailing weekend. We ended up taking a slight detour to go and see the dolmen, arriving sometime in the early evening before it got too dark.

Given that we ‘d been drinking since noon, that we were in an isolated location without supervision and confronted by a famously revered monument … well, I’ll leave the rest up to your imagination. In my defence however, I will say however, that I am (of course) a fantastic dancer. No -one can compare after I’ve had a few scoops and my throwing of shapes on the dance floors of Cork is a matter of official record. I’m only sorry that my recall of the events at Poulnabrone is so hazy.

For years after the Domen Dancing incident, there were rumors floating around of compromising photos taken that day, stories in jest that invariably emerged after a fresh session of drinking. To be honest, no-one really believed them. Back in the late eighties, there weren’t any mobile phones – if they were, we didn’t have them. Cameras were also rare enough as they still took film and they were a pain to use after 3-4 pints. I did actually see three photos from that day but they weren’t exactly National Geographic material as the individual who took them had been just as steamed as the rest of us. One of the three he managed to take consisted of a close-up of his own foot (still wearing his boot), one was a picture of a section of rock that could have been anywhere in the country and the last was just a total blur. Needless to say, I wasn’t overly concerned.

Imagine my surprise earlier this year therefore, when I was browsing through a second-hand shop and came across a ripped magazine with the following images:

HOLY CRAP!
For a moment, I swear to God, my heart actually stopped. Even the haziness of the images seemed to fit my recollection of that particular day. I rummaged frantically through those ripped pages and it was only when I saw the photos had been taken by Robert Merrill (who?) that it finally dawned on me.
I wasn’t in them.

A bit more rummaging finally revealed the magazine’s cover.

So what the hell was the Arts in Ireland?
Who were the people dancing around Poulnabrone?

It took a bit of research work to find out what exactly was going on and it was only when I got home in September that I learned the Arts in Ireland magazine was a now defunct publication. Run in the seventies, it had been published by Charles Merill (the photographer) an American described online as a “self-made millionaire” and an “artist, gay activist and iconoclast”.

When living in Ireland, Charles had traveled to Poulonabrone in 73/74 and taken these photos (God knows with who but at least it wasn’t me!) and subsequently included them with a short written piece in a literary supplement of the 4th edition of The Arts in Ireland.

I read the associated piece by Merrill and, to be honest, it was quite surreal and typical of the romanticised spiritual tosh often written about Ireland during the 70s/80s by people from overseas. Essentially, it involves a story where he sees Isadora Duncan (an American dancer most famous for dying when her scarf got entangled in the wheel of a car – honestly, you couldn’t make this stuff up!) at Poulnabrone. Isadora talks a stream of nonsense about her Irish background (er….) and leaves Merill a message that “Ireland could become a cultural center in the world in the next few years.”

So there you go. All a bit surreal but the mystery was solved and, more importantly, my ass was – literally – out of the picture.

To be honest, I am a bit miffed by the discovery. Back in the late eighties, I’m sure I must have been all gung-ho and imagined I was doing something outrageously original. Now, of course, its clear someone else had already done it a decade earlier (and probably many others before that).

Either way, you’ll also be delighted to learn that the National Monuments Service have taken past intrusions of Poulnabrone seriously and have since installed a high-tech security perimeter around it. Here’s a picture of me studying it carefully with the son last year, while reliving old glory days! After careful assessment, I came to the conclusion that there was no way I could possibly have overcome such an obstacle.
Well done, the NMS!

Next time you visit Poulnabrone I hope you think of me and Charles Merrill!

Congratulations and well done, Mr De Luca.

Note: This article was first published in Vóg, our monthly newsletter in Nov 2017.


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Self-Beauty in Glendalough

This year, I managed to sneak a quick visit to one of my favourite sites back in Ireland, the beautiful valley of Gleann Dá Loch (Valley of Two lakes), anglicized as Glendalough.

The valley’s always been inhabited although, given the spiel at the local visitor centres and tourist offices, you’d be forgiven for thinking life didn’t exist there until the sixth century when a Christian monastic-style settlement was founded by St. Kevin. Following a particular Christian belief system based around strict reflection and meditation, St. Kevin chose Gleann Dá Loch not only for it’s beauty but for its isolated location. The site would almost certainly have had some tribal importance as well but its isolation certainly made it perfect for the monks to live a quiet life of spiritual reflection.

Over a hundred years later, St Kevin must have been spinning in his grave for by the middle of the seventh century, Glendalough was an enormous and very wealthy monastery. By the eight century, the monastery is believed to have employed almost 1000 laypeople.

In some ways, Glendalough success was also its undoing. As a rich site, it was ripe for plundering and between 775 and 1095 it was raided numerous times, not only by Vikings but by local tribes. Generally each time it was raided, the buildings were set alight which is why you won’t find anything there today that dates from before the 10th century. By the time, English forces left it in ruins (1398), the dioceses of Glendalough and Dublin had also been united which meant that from that point onwards, its political and ecclesiastical status were also substantially eroded. By the 18th and 19th century, the site was a religious backwater, famous only for the raucous celebrations held on the 3rd of June (St Kevin’s Day) and otherwise ignored.

I was a bit blown away when I got to Gleann Dá Loch. It had probably been at least twelve years or more since I’d last visited (and even then the place was heaving) but I was genuinely gobsmacked by the sheer volume of buses dumping people off to be flushed through the visitor centre, the monastery, the lakes and of course the tourist shops. The tourism turnover at Glendalough is clearly a well-oiled machine.

Having seen the ruins and the visitor centre years ago, I bypassed all of that, making a dash to escape two busloads of westerners in orange, Oriental style ‘monk’ suits (I was tempted but I didn’t ask!). I was hoping to get to the lake ahead of them and have a minute or two by myself but instead I found it was already occupied by several Asian couples. That didn’t particularly bother me but I was struck by the huge number of them taking selfies with the lake as a backdrop.

It was only as I was walking around the Wicklow hills later that day that I began to understand the significance of what I’d seen. Gleann Dá Loch, like all beautiful scenic spots has always attracted seasonal tourists. That’s no biggie. It’s a simple fact of life and you can always enjoy it’s beauty more selfishly outside the tourist period.

No, I think what had really startled me was the selfies. One hundred years ago, fifty years ago and even twenty years ago, when tourists went to see a famous site of immense beauty they tried to capture that beauty by taking photographs so that they could look on it and enjoy it in years to come. Nowadays, when tourists go to a beauty spot, photographic memories are cheap and instantly downloadable online. As a result, they take photographs of themselves at the tourist spot.

It’s an interesting variant but I’m still not entirely sure what it means or even what it says about us as a species.

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The Tailor and Ansty- A Review

I first came across a copy of The Tailor and Ansty about 25 years ago when I was dossing in the basement of a large house in Bath (England). I’d been visiting my girlfriend for the weekend and the whole event had taken on a surreal nature as we’d broken up during a burlesque circus that was performing there. I ended up stuck, penniless, in a city where I knew no-one and had to spend a full Saturday night there before I could catch the train (and ferry) back to Cork. In the end, I was fortunate enough to find accommodation in the basement of a (very) large house in the centre of town, where a distant acquaintance was flatting.

I found the copy of ‘The Tailor and Ansty’ discarded on the floor of that basement with some old magazines. To be honest, I was a bit surprised to find that particular Irish book there – and a bit curious as well. Over the years, I’d heard it references to it at home but never fully in context, so although I was familiar with the title, I actually had no idea what it was about. I think, at the time, I simply assumed it would be similar to Joyce or Myles na gCopeleen.

With nothing else to do, I picked it up and read it.

The first thing that struck me was the easy readability. Cross had a lovely, nonchalant style that made it a pleasure to read from the very first page.

“In the townland of Garrnapeaka, in the district of Inchigeela, in the parish of Iveleary, in the barony of West Muskerry, in the county of Cork, in the province of Munster” – as he magniloquently styles his address, lives the Tailor.
His small whitewashed cottage, with its acre of ground, stands at the brow of a hill, at the side of a road which winds and climbs into a deep glen of the mountains bordering Cork and Kerry.

If you don’t know much about the story, it really is very simple and concerns Eric Cross’ record of his interactions with two elderly individuals: Timothy Buckley (the laid back and talkative Tailor) and his ever-nagging wife Anastasia (Ansty) in 1940’s Gougane Barra (West Cork). For me, it was something of a surprise to learn that not only was the setting close to where I’d lived and grown up but that the characters were (or, rather, had been) real individuals.

The book is gently humorous (very funny at times) and gives a beautiful insight into the lives of people in rural Ireland at a time when there was no entertainment apart from shaggy stories and philosophical musings. Mostly, the book concerns the Tailor’s amusingly erudite – if unscholarly – ramblings and various interactions between the couple and their friends and neighbours and their almost obsessive care of their single cow. Because of their age (the Tailor and Ansty were quite elderly and retired at the time Eric Cross knew them) both were very much set in their ways and, after over forty years of living together, had a polished routine of abuse and affection that comes through in the book. If you’re looking for action and high drama, you won’t find it here but you’ll not find a better antidote to modern life either.

Now that you know a bit about what the book, you might be surprised to learn the associated history. Back in 1942, when the book was first published, it ended up being banned by the Irish Censorship Publications Board as it didn’t align with de Valera’s view of what the new Ireland should look like (Ireland had only recently become independent). Neither did the old couples’ belief in the ‘fairies’ align with the spiritual purity demanded by the increasingly powerful Irish Catholic church. The book was described as ‘pornographic’, which was, of course, utter nonsense. That didn’t prevent a number of senior Catholic priests arriving to the Tailor’s house in Gougane Barra and forcing the old man down on his knees to burn a copy of the book.

In this respect, the Tailor and Ansty was really the first troubling signal of the potential abuse of power of the national government. It was also a warning shot for the self-justified cruelty associated with the worst of religious fanaticism (something that would eventually lead to the horrors of the Magdalene Laundries and abuse of children in Irish religious institutions).

Thirty years later, I still have the original copy I found on the floor of that basement in Bath. I’m still exceptionally grateful for finding it. Not only did it provide some timely (and well needed) distraction at a time when I needed it, it remains one of my favourite books to this day.

In case you’re wondering, I woke at dawn the following morning to get the first train out of Bath, although the whole surreal theme continued for a while. As I was making my way through the deserted – but strikingly beautiful streets – towards the station, I kept hearing an odd venting noise (something that sounded eerily like the breathing apparatus of Darth Vader’s helmet). I looked around several times trying to work out what was causing it but, on each occasion, could see absolutely nothing. Finally, something prompted me to look up and there, overhead, was a hot-air balloon in the shape of a large house, drifting low over the streets of the city.

It seemed like an apt end to the weekend.

This review originally appeared in Vóg (our monthly newsletter) in 2016.

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What Comes Next: Update On Production

It’s been a while since I provided an update about what we’re working on here at present (apart from the monthly updates in Vóg, of course).

Despite two months of frantic activity and very ink-stained hands, very little is actually visible in terms of material release. If you’re a regular reader however, you’ll probably know we generally have about ten different projects on the go at any one time, some with higher priority than others (and constantly shifting in response to circumstances). At this stage, the main focus is on the following:

Liath Luachra II:
I’m currently working on Chapter 5 of this and going hell for leather to have a very rough first draft completed by Christmas. Stylistically, this is probably going to be more commercial than my other works as it veers away from the established Fenian Cycle and mythological cannon and more into fantasy territory. That said, like most of my other books, I doubt this is ever going to be a mainstream, mass-market bestseller. I have my niche and I’m comfortable there.

The books is a ‘stand alone’ although it does follow on from the events in Liath Luachra: The Grey One. A number of characters from that book turn up in this one as well.

Project Scéalta
I hadn’t actually expected to get anything done on this before Christmas but ended up spending a full week on it earlier this month. Hoping to release this towards the end of next year. I’m VERY excited abut this one.

Celtic Mythology Collection 3
The current Celtic Mythology Short Story Competition launched in September and we’ve had a few submissions dribbling in since then – less than 10 at this stage – but given that the deadline is December, that’s not unusual. We’re also finalizing the cover and the judges for that. I’m hoping to be able to share the cover sometime in the next month or so.

Project Bán
This project – a non fiction one – has been on the go for over two years and progressing very slowly. Essentially, it’s a practical field guide to Irish mythology and we hope to get it out sometime next year. Based on a ‘white paper’ that I was working on, it simply became too complex to put it out in that form.

I guess, now that I look at it, just thinking of all the work ahead would probably be exhausting if it wasn’t so personally rewarding.

Irish Fantasy Friday: 20 Oct 2017

A weekly update of Irish fantasy-related news – from an Irish perspective!

Dominated by GoT and Star Wars today!!

  • Liam-Cunningham says Game of Thrones stars are not making millions [Aaah, c’mon Liam!] (Irish Independent)
  • Impressive independent GoT Short Film (The White Wolf) by two Belfast men: (Irish News)
  • Go mbeidh an fórsa leat! — May the force be with you! Report on Star Wars VIII filming in Ireland (Ireland.com)
  • Kerry Independent TD reckons there’s more money to be milked from Star Wars VIII (Irish Independent)
  • And just in case you’re one of the few people who didn’t see the Skellig Islands Tourism Feature Star Wars VIII Trailer (YouTube)
  • Gaelcon 29 is happening next weekend: 27-30 October (Gaelcon)

Feel free to submit appropriate (i.e. relevant) posts for inclusion.

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Irish Fantasy Friday: 13 Oct 2017

A weekly update of Irish fantasy-related news – from an Irish perspective!

  1. David Freyne’s The Cured wins ‘Best Horror Feature’ at the Fantastic Fest, America’s largest genre film festival (IFTN)
  2. Liam Cunningham insists he doesn’t when the last Game of Thrones episode goes to air (ah, c’mon Liam!!) (UPI)
  3. A Fantasy Map of Ireland stirs up more strife and argument than a Games of Thrones episode [Reddit and Poliics – a match made in heaven!] (Reddit)
  4. Derek Landy (of Skullduggery Pleasant fame) tries his hand at graphic novels with Secret Empire: Uprising (Bleeding Cool)
  5. Dublin’s Brown Bag Films working with Disney on Vampirina (RTE)

Feel free to submit appropriate (i.e. relevant) posts for inclusion.

Liath Luachra: The Pursuit

Ireland: 189 A.D.
A pursuit across the Great Wild to rescue an abducted woman leads to bloody complication for the woman warrior Liath Luachra.

Previous reviewers comments on the character Liath Luachra:

“The thinking woman’s warrior”

“A female heroine who is commanding and fascinating.”

“Liath Luachra, the troubled and withdrawn woman warrior, has always been one of the best things about the (Fionn mac Cumhaill) series and O’Sullivan does a tremendous job relating the events of her early life, presenting her as a much more vulnerable character – although just as resilient.”

“An intriguing female protagonist unlike any I’ve come across before. Intelligent and competent, she’s also tragically damaged and vulnerable and yet somehow manages to cling to her fragile moral core.”