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FIONN: THE ADVERSARY : First Chapter

FIONN: The Adversary is due for release on 28 February 2017.

Chapter One

The muscular curve of Fiacail mac Codhna’s buttocks was the first sight to fill Bodhmhall’s eyes when she finally came to her senses. Consistent as ever, the big warrior was standing naked outside the little cave, hands upraised in salutation to the mighty yellow orb of Father Sun.
Cossetted in the woolly remnants of sleep, Bodhmhall struggled to make out what her man was saying, although the murmured pattern of words could hardly have been much different from those uttered over the time they’d lived together at Dún Baoiscne.

With that, her forehead creased into a series of deep furrows.

Her man?

Cave?

Stirred by a pressing sense of alarm she didn’t quite understand, Bodhmhall sat up from her bed of crushed fern, exclaiming painfully at the burning sensation in her lower left arm. Looking down, she hissed at the sight of the rough wooden splints and crude strapping that encased it.
The shock of seeing the injured limb and the flare of pain dislodged her logjam of confusion. A wave of muddled memories flooded her head, all competing furiously for her attention: her father’s summons to Dún Baoiscne; the arduous traverse across the Great Wild with their Lamraighe allies; the ambush at An Bearna Garbh and the subsequent leap from the waterfall with her nephew to escape their pursuers.

She felt her breath catch as she recalled the latter, the choking sound in her throat loud in the tight confines of the cave. The leap from the high cliffs had been one of the hardest things she’d ever done and even now the memory of it caused her hands to shake. Striking the water at the foot of the falls, she’d broken a bone in her arm. Afterwards, in the watery maelstrom of the mountain river, she’d also come close to drowning. Ironically, having miraculously survived both experiences, she and her nephew had subsequently been seized by The Brotherhood, a group of Tainted Ones who’d been stalking her nephew – Demne – over the seven years since his birth.
Eaters of the dead.

A surge of bile rose in the back of her throat and she had to close her eyes and focus to keep from throwing up. When the nausea finally settled, she shook her head and looked out at the naked warrior with fresh appreciation. Had Fiacail mac Codhna not arrived to save them, Demne would have been taken by The Brotherhood and she, of little or no value to their malevolent endeavours, utilised as an ingredient for their stew pot.

With a shudder, she pushed aside those gruesome images and set herself to inspecting the injured limb, delicately loosening the rough bandages to examine it more closely. Her probing fingers produced another involuntary hiss of pain but she ignored it, pleased to find that the swelling had almost completely subsided. Several days’ rest in splints had allowed the bone to start setting and it now appeared it would heal well. Tentatively testing the limits of the limb’s extension, she found it sensitive but nowhere near as painful as it had been mere days before.
Clicking her tongue in satisfaction, she slowly rose to her feet.

‘Ah! The Cailleach Dubh – the Black Hag – awakes!’

Bodhmhall blinked as the Seiscenn Uarbhaoil man moved into the opening of the cave, a wide space between the two pillar-like standing stones. In reality, the cave was little more than an old place of worship, a rocky recess at the base of a steep cliff where the long-departed Ancient Ones must once have gathered in homage to their own gods. Displaying no fear of Otherworld consequence, Fiacail leaned against one of the standing stones and grinned broadly. He made a lazy gesture towards a glorious shaft of sunlight that struck the floor of the canyon just beyond.
‘See, Bodhmhall. It pleases Father Sun to see you stir.’

She gave a desultory wave at the golden benediction. Whatever Father Sun’s feelings on the matter, his golden rays were now showering Fiacail’s bronze skin with disconcerting intensity, highlighting the tightness of his torso and the muscular sinews of his arms and legs. Flustered, she averted her eyes from the prominent bod that dangled between his legs, silhouetted against the brightness of the canyon behind him.

Fiacail, of course, exhibited no such self-consciousness. Oblivious to her discomfort, he advanced into the cave with his habitual aplomb, retrieving a pair of leather leggings and a short-sleeved, blood-spattered tunic that he lazily pulled on. ‘Do you have a hunger on you?’ he asked. ‘A portion of yesterday’s porridge remains.’

Bodhmhall felt her stomach clench at the prospect of food. Despite the hunger, her belly felt swollen and queasy. In addition to the intellectual cloudiness, this was another unpleasant side effect of the herbs she’d been using to alleviate the pain over the previous days.
‘Is it hot?’ she asked, biding for time as she struggled to pull her thoughts together.

‘Of course, it’s not hot! We can’t risk the smoke from a fire.’

Bodhmhall bit her lip as she tried to absorb this fresh nugget of information. Her head had quietened and more manageable snippets of memory were now shooting through her mind but they dispersed too rapidly for her to grasp. With an effort, she managed to rein in some of those scattered impressions and coral them into a vague sense of coherence. ‘Gob An Teanga Gorm and his warriors. I thought … I thought they had left.’

Fiacail regarded her with visible frustration. Although he made no immediate response, he tugged irritably at the whiskers of the impressive moustache protruding from either side on his upper lip and then scraped the thick stubble beneath his chin with his fingernails. The Seiscenn Uarbhaoil man had always had a preference for a clean jaw and invariably followed his ritual greeting to Father Sun with a shave. Recent circumstances however had curtailed that particular practice.

‘They have,’ he confirmed. He picked up a nearby stick and rolled it absently between his palms. ‘But they’re just as likely to reappear when they discover that whatever drew them away from the valley wasn’t you or the boy.’

Ah!

She was starting to remember. Two days earlier, while out hunting, Fiacail had spotted Gob and his fian [war party] making their way down the river valley. Immediately backtracking to their refuge in the hidden canyon, he’d alerted Bodhmhall and after a hurried discussion, they’d reluctantly agreed to remain where they were. Bodhmhall’s injuries meant she’d have been unable to move at speed and so any attempt at flight would have been perilous. If they stayed concealed however, the chances were high that their enemies would eventually grow discouraged and leave.
This had been their belief, at least.

Cloaked in dense forest, littered with rocky hollows and interspersed with rivers and streams, the valley was a torturous terrain to search. Despite this, the fian had displayed an unexpected tenacity, doggedly scouring both sides of the river, beating through the forest and combing any natural tracks or trails with resolute determination. It was as though they’d sensed their quarry was located somewhere in that particular area.
Which, of course, was impossible.

For two days, Bodhmhall and Fiacail had huddled by the entrance to the ravine, listening fearfully as the calls of the hunters drew ominously closer then mercifully faded once more. The canyon was accessible only through a narrow cut in the ridge, a gap choked with holly trees and other heavy growth. This meant their hiding place was difficult to find but it also meant that, if discovered, there was no route of escape. Neither of them had any illusions as to their fate if it were discovered.

Towards the end of the second day, one particular group of warriors had passed closer to them than at any other point during the previous searches but, once again, failed to spot the entrance. Peering through the thick screen of foliage, Bodhmhall had fearfully observed them pass by: five lean, hard-faced men in padded tunics, bearing cruel-looking, metal-tipped javelins and other weapons. Shivering, she’d watched them leave, thankful that section of the valley was so broad. Had they been caught further upriver where it was substantially narrower and, consequently, easier to search, the outcome would have been drastically different.

On the morning of the third day, Bodhmhall had awoken to an unusual silence, a hushed stillness that seemed to pervade not only the canyon but the entire valley. Nervous, she’d remained at the hidden entrance with Fiacail for the better part of the day but over the course of the morning, heard no sound of voices, no sound of movement, no indication of any kind in fact that the fian remained within the environs.
It was late afternoon before Fiacail finally dared venture forth to investigate further. Crawling through the undergrowth on his belly, he’d worked his way towards the river where a decayed tree on a high mound overlooked the waterway. Concealing himself within the mildewed hollow of the trunk, he’d waited and watched in silence.

For the remainder of the afternoon, he observed no indication of the fian warriors’ presence. Towards nightfall however, a great ululation had arisen from the far side of the river, spreading quickly along the valley as it was taken up by different groups of warriors. The fading light and the thick forest canopy had prevented him from seeing the opposite bank but Fiacail had managed to catch a glimpse of warriors on their own side of the river, returning at a run from some point upstream. Speeding directly past him, they hadn’t even paused to look in his direction. He’d scanned them, as well as he could in the gloom, and had spotted the hatchet-face Gob An Teanga Gorm at the forefront, urging his men on with bellows of excitement.

Bodhmhall’s frown tightened as the memories returned. Clearing her throat, she made to swallow but gagged on an unexpected bitterness at the back of her tongue – yet another unpleasant side effect of the herbs.

Fiacail passed her a wooden bowl half-filled with water. She swallowed most of the liquid but kept a few drops to trickle onto her fingers which she then used to scrub her face. She needed no reminder of the precarious situation with respect to food and water. The presence of the fian had prevented Fiacail from leaving the canyon to hunt or replenish their water supply. They’d survived on what untainted food they’d managed to scavenge from the Brotherhood’s supplies and the rainwater they managed to collect but that meagre hoard was now almost exhausted.

Bodhmhall tested her arm again. ‘I am strong enough to leave, to depart for Ráth Bládhma.’

Fiacail’s gaze rested on the stick between his fingers. ‘Yes,’ he said at last. ‘I believe you are.’

The bandraoi gave him a quizzical look, surprised by the uncharacteristic vagueness of his response. ‘Then we should leave as soon as possible. As you say, the fian might return.’

The warrior tapped the ground absently with one end of the stick. ‘There is a … complication.’

Something in the way he said that caused the hairs on the back of her neck to rise. ‘A complication?’

‘Earlier this morning … I found tracks at the entrance to the canyon.’

The bandraoi felt her heartbeat stutter. ‘The fian?’ The words came out as a kind of garbled croak.
He shook his head. ‘No. A single person, a big man from the depth of his print. Whoever he was, he was familiar with the canyon for his tracks led directly to the entrance.’ Fiacail sniffed, tossed the stick over his shoulder and raised his eyes to consider the bandraoi directly. ‘He was careful. He tried to hide all trace of his visit but I found a heel print he’d overlooked in the darkness. After that, it was a simple matter to find the others.’

Bodhmhall clutched her wounded arm. ‘We should leave. Now. They could ret-’ She stopped abruptly for the warrior was regarding her with a knowing, unharried expression. The certitude in his eyes triggered a sudden flash of insight as all the facts converged in her head: a single man, a big man, a knowledge of the canyon’s location, reconnoitring and then subsequently withdrawing.

‘You think it was Futh.’

Fiacail maintained his steadfast gaze but he dipped his head in acknowledgement. Bodhmhall felt a glacial frisson pass through her. One of the Brotherhood’s more brutal members, Futh had treated her with great cruelty over the time she’d been held captive. Despite her broken arm, he’d dragged her by the hair through the Great Wild without regard for her screams of agony. He’d also held her down during an attempted rape by one of his comrades and the memory of the merciless amusement in his eyes still made her sick to the stomach. There’d been no pity to the man, no empathy of any kind and now, given the death of his brother during her rescue, there was even greater reason for antipathy towards her.
Bodhmhall looked down at her hands and realised they were trembling.

‘The possibility of that man stalking us … It terrifies me.’

‘And so it should. That big, bald fucker terrifies me as well.’ Fiacail unconsciously reached one hand up to touch the wound on his shoulder. Futh had sliced him there with a quarterstaff tipped at either end with a metal blade and although the wound had scabbed over and was healing, he hadn’t forgotten how close he’d come to being killed. Futh and his brother had been the most dangerous members of the Brotherhood and although Fiacail had succeeded in slaying one, it’d been a close thing. Disconcerted by the unexpected deaths of his comrades, Futh had panicked and taken off into the forest and, in that respect, they’d been exceptionally lucky. If he’d stayed and fought it out, it was more than likely he’d have killed them all.
A sudden thought struck the bandraoi and she peered anxiously over the warrior’s shoulder, out into the canyon. ‘Where’s Demne?’

‘He keeps a watch on the entrance.’

Bodhmhall’s eyes widened. ‘You left him to guard the entrance? By himself.’

‘I left him to watch it,’ he corrected her. ‘And to call out at any sign of danger.’ He scowled then, vexed by the bandraoi’s accusatory tone. ‘I needed rest, Bodhmhall. In your dream stupor, you were of little use and even I can only go so long without sleep.’

Rebuffed, Bodhmhall shrank back, momentarily lost for words. She raised both hands, palms outwards, in apology. ‘Forgive me. The sleeping potion leaves me … cranky.’

Fiacail shrugged, dismissing the slight with an airy gesture. ‘You have endured great hardship. Some crankiness is to be expected. But…’ He eyed her closely. ‘Do not take the potion again. I will need your help when he returns.’

She became aware that her hands were clenched. ‘You believe he’ll come back?’

‘If someone killed my brother I’d come back.’

Bodhmhall frowned at that, knowing Fiacail had the right of it. Futh and his brother Ruth had formed a true Man Pair, physically and mentally identical to the point of mirroring each other’s actions. Unrestrained by the instruction of Rogein or Regna of Mag Fea, the two leaders of the Brotherhood, Futh would almost certainly be determined to avenge his brother, something Fiacail was quick to affirm.

‘From what little I have seen of Futh, I judge him a man of basic instincts. He’s had days to mull over his purpose and without the guidance of his leaders he’ll fall back on basic emotions. And none are as basic as the yearning for vengeance.’

He rolled his head back and yawned loudly. ‘And so you see. Our situation is … complicated. We should depart for Dún Baoiscne with haste, but we cannot. Futh has had days to prepare, to scout the terrain and the most viable routes from the valley. If we leave the safety of this little canyon, there’s little doubt he’ll be awaiting us, preparing an ambush we’re unlikely to survive.’

‘But … Then what should we do?’

‘As to that …’ The warrior gave a lop-sided grin. ‘I confess I have no answer. But rest assured, I will think on it further.’

***
Leaving Fiacail to take her place on the bed of fern, Bodhmhall left the cave to find her nephew standing outside, several paces to the right of the entrance. A slight figure with little more than seven years on him, he looked a fragile defence against the potential return of the brutal Brotherhood warrior.

And yet, she reminded herself, he’d taken Regna of Mar Fea down with a single sling cast, smashing his skull from the force of the bullet when the fat man had tried to kill her.

My nephew has always been more than he appeared.

She stood and watched the boy in silence for a moment. Oblivious to her presence, he continued to stare towards the thick stand of holly that marked the passage into the canyon. His sling dangled loosely from his right hand, a smooth river stone cupped snugly in the woven reed pouch. Studying him, Bodhmhall experienced a heady outpouring of affection and pride, a sensation so intense it caused her lips to tremble. She took a moment to compose herself before she called out to him.

‘Demne.’

The boy’s head snapped around and he stared at her briefly before twisting back to face the distant entrance. ‘A Aintín, I can’t talk. I’m on watch duty. So the bad man can’t creep up on us.’

Bodhmhall looked towards the holly trees and slowly drew on her tíolacadh – her Gift. After a moment, her view of the intense green foliage shimmered, fading into a beautiful pattern of tiny yellow flames, the internal lifelights of every living being within that space. Studying the vibrantly glowing spectacle, she finally allowed herself to relax. There were no flames of any substance to be seen, confirming the absence of anything larger than small birds, rodents or insects. Loosening her hold on the Gift, she watched the yellow colours gradually dissolve back into different shades of green and brown once more.

‘You can relax for now,’ she told the boy. ‘I’ve studied the trees and no-one is in hiding. We can continue to watch while we talk.’

Because of his familiarity with his aunt’s abilities, the boy accepted her assurance without dispute. His shoulders drooped with relief and he surprised her by moving forwards to wrap his arms about her waist, embracing her firmly. With a mild sense of bemusement, she stroked his head as she returned that embrace. The child’s scalp was still shorn as a result of the Brotherhood’s preparation for his initiation ceremony but now, after a few days of growth, a fine fuzz was discernible against her fingertips. Bodhmhall briefly wondered whether her nephew’s hair would grow back a darker shade or whether he’d retain the dramatic blond colouring of his father.

With a start, she realised the child was shivering, his head trembling against her stomach. Pulling his hands away, she went down on one knee and clasped his cheeks between her palms, forcing him to face her. ‘What is it Demne?’

The boy chewed his lips anxiously. ‘I’m scared, a Aintín,’ he confessed at last, his shame at the admission evident in his tone. ‘Fiacail says that Futh wants to hurt us.’

‘I know, little one. But an intruder cannot get to us without crossing that open ground and Fiacail is just inside the cave. We’ll have more than enough time to call him should we have need.’

‘Futh scares me.’

‘And me,’ she confessed. ‘But we must find the resolve to face him down. Otherwise we allow him to win and we do not let cruel men win, do we?’
Demne thought about that. His jaw firmed up and he shook his head.

‘Besides,’ the bandraoi continued. ‘I’ve seen you stand and fight. You killed Regna of Mar Fea when he was about to spill my blood.’ She stroked his cheek. ‘Do not doubt yourself, Demne. You have a rare inner strength, a mark of greatness.’

A mark that others too had noticed. According to Regna, the Brotherhood had been seeking the child since the year of his birth, drawn by some mysterious prophecy in the stars that only they could comprehend. The Adversary – that mysterious and relentless opponent – had also gone to great lengths to lay his hands on the boy, dispatching two separate war parties to capture him.

Bodhmhall played with a loose thread on the hem of her dress. It infuriated her that, after all this time, she remained ignorant to the identity and motivation of the individual who’d created such havoc with their lives.
And you bear responsibility for at least a portion of that.

That much was true. After the first assault on Ráth Bládhma, she’d foolishly allowed herself to grow negligent, lulled into complacency by the passage of time and the incessant grind of leading the settlement. Now it was clear the Adversary would never give up, would never abandon his efforts until Demne was in his grasp.

Without thinking, she drew on the Gift once more, using it to re-examine her nephew’s lifelight. As always, the boy’s unusually intense internal flame radiated power, a deep yellow flare that pulsated with the regularity of a beating heart. The bandraoi bit her lip. Even after all these years, the sight never failed to impress her. The exceptional fervour of that flame alone was enough to confirm her nephew unique, but as to how that uniqueness might one day manifest itself, she didn’t have the slightest notion.

‘Bodhmhall, is my mother dead?’

The sudden question took the bandraoi completely by surprise and as the tíolacadh faded she struggled to conceal her reaction. Since their rescue from the Brotherhood the boy had spoken very little and rarely on issues beyond those related to their immediate survival. The specificity of this particular question therefore intrigued her. ‘I don’t know,’ she admitted.

Demne appeared to mull over the subject for a time. As he did, he pulled the stone from the pouch of the sling and rolled it between his fingers, enjoying the firm sensation of smoothness. Bodhmhall caught a glimpse of the crude image of a deer that had been painstakingly carved into the hard surface by Liath Luachra. It must have taken the woman warrior an age to produce and she’d fashioned more than a dozen such stones for the boy.

How typical! The Grey One openly scorns any thought of tenderness towards the child and yet, when least expected, performs great acts of affection.

At the thought of the missing woman warrior she had to resort to her druidic training to calm herself, slowing her breathing and her heartbeat to regain her composure. The Grey One had been supposed to follow her and Demne off the falls after the ambush at An Glenn Teann. When the bandraoi and her nephew had broken free of the white water and waited on shore however, she had not shown. And many days had passed since then.

‘Can we go home to Ráth Bládhma?’ Demne asked, mercifully interrupting such bleak considerations. ‘Can we go back there now?’

He pulled back to look up at her. Close to despair, she made to embrace him again but he backed away even further. ‘My mother took me away from Ráth Bládhma. I didn’t want to leave. It’s my home. All my friends are there.’

‘None of us wanted you to leave, a bhuachaill. But, as your mother, Muirne had the right to make that decision.’

‘It was the wrong decision.’

She continued to regard him closely, struck by the adamant condemnation. In their conversations together, her nephew had an unusual trait of switching from the typical speech of a child to that of someone with much greater maturity. Despite her familiarity with this peculiar mannerism, Bodhmhall still found such conviction in a mere seven year old quite disturbing.

Demne continued to stare at her, as though challenging her to deny the truth of it.

Bodhmhall sighed. ‘Home is that place that’s most dear to us, a bhuachaill. The place where we are – or have been – most loved. Ráth Bládhma’s your home now but in later years you’ll call other places home, places where you find or create love of your own.’ She clasped her hands together, carefully preparing the words at the heart of what she intended to say. ‘Your mother never experienced love at Ráth Bládhma. When she came to us, it was under trying circumstances and she was alone amongst strangers. I suppose, from her perspective, Ráth Bládhma was never much of a home. That may be why she was keen to take you away.

How very diplomatic, Cailleach. You defend a woman you despise out of love for her son.

‘Liath Luachra says my mother is untrust-.’ Demne’s tongue fouled on the syllables. He tried again. ‘She says my mother is un-trust-worthy.’
Bodhmhall’s lips gave a wry twist. ‘Liath Luachra is forthright. Perhaps overly so.’

‘But she never lies.’ Demne raised his hand and looked wistfully at the smooth stone held between his fingers. ‘I wish Liath Luachra was here. I miss her.’

Bodhmhall looked at her hands. ‘So do I,’ she said.

***
Hampered by her broken arm, there was little of practical use Bodhmhall could do to pass the time but keep her nephew company while he remained on watch. This was not something that displeased her however. Over the course of their journey across the Great Wild, Muirne Muncháem had done everything in her power to prevent the bandraoi from spending time with the boy. The ambush at An Glenn Teann and their subsequent capture by the Brotherhood had also meant there’d been little real opportunity to talk.

Occasionally, in quiet periods within the conversation, her thoughts turned to Ráth Bládhma and the people she’d left behind. She wondered vaguely how her lubgort [vegetable garden] was faring, whether Aodhán was maintaining a sufficiently close guard on the valley and whether the slender Morag was swelling at the belly. At the thought of the pregnant young woman, Bodhmhall exhaled heavily in displeasure. Aodhán’s spouse had specifically asked her to be present for the birth and given the couple’s previous misfortune with a stillborn child, she’d given her word to do so. It was a promise she’d had every intention of keeping, although at the time of making it she could hardly have imagined her current predicament. Liath Luachra and their Lamraighe allies were missing or killed and the relative safety of the Clann Baoiscne stronghold was still some distance over harsh and unforgiving terrain. They were being hunted by killers and now, to make matters worse, they had the additional threat of Futh to contend with.

Her lips turned down as she looked around the little canyon. It was hardly the most defensible refuge were an enemy to penetrate the entranceway. Roughly rectangular in shape, it extended from the narrow cluster of holly trees, widening gradually for a distance of sixty paces or so until it reached the rock wall set at an oblique angle to the entrance, where the cave was located. On the southern side of the canyon – where the sunlight rarely touched – there was minimal growth, mostly sickly grey grass and lichen. On the northern side however, a thin stand of mountain ash – about two or three trees deep – stretched three quarters of the length of the canyon, terminating abruptly at a point opposite the cave entrance and offering a direct line of sight into the rocky hollow.

Rising to her feet, Bodhmhall crossed the rough stone floor to the ash trees. There she delved about in the undergrowth before returning to Demne, a thick bunch of slánlus [ribwort plantain] clutched in her right arm. Taking a seat on the rock beside her nephew, she began to instruct him on the rules and tactics behind Gaiscíoch – Warrior – a game she’d enjoyed playing with the other Dún Baoiscne children.
Before being selected by the draoi Dub Tíre for less childish instruction.

The bandraoi’s grip on the cluster of slánlus grew tighter as she banished those memories, turning her attention instead to explaining the rules of the game.

To play Gaiscíoch, both players had to pull a slánlus stalk – the gaiscíoch – from the bunch, the thicker and more flexible the better. The object of the game was to behead the other’s gaiscíoch by decapitating the seedcap. This was achieved by both players taking it in turns to hold their gaiscíoch out in a horizontal position and allowing the other player to make a downward strike with their own gaiscíoch. Sometimes, if you were lucky, you obtained a particularly hardy stalk that outlived your opponent’s for the course of several ‘combats’. As in life however, the wear and tear eventually took its toll and the winning stalk was, in turn, beheaded by a new victor.

They were still immersed in play later that afternoon when a bare-chested Fiacail emerged from the cave, announcing his return with a booming yawn. Standing alongside them, he stretched the muscles of his shoulders before pulling on a fresh green tunic. Bodhmhall regarded the item of clothing with interest, noting the delicate needlework of the spiral designs about the neck and cuffs. The big warrior had never wanted for good clothing, she recalled wryly. There’d always been plenty of women willing to make him a quality garment in exchange for a smile.

Or more.

She awkwardly shifted her position on the rocky seat. The uncharacteristic flush of resentment had surprised her. When she and Fiacail had lived together, his tomcat ways had caused her no end of distress but such days were long past and she hadn’t considered them for many years. Any romantic notions she’d held for the Seiscenn Uarbhaoil man had long since been extinguished, even before she’d left Dún Baoiscne for a new life at Ráth Bládhma.

Despite Fiacail’s own feelings on the matter.

She suppressed such considerations beneath a smile as the warrior moved closer, standing behind her right shoulder and staring towards the holly-screened entrance to the canyon. ‘No movement?’ he asked. He scratched absently at an itch under his arm.

She shook her head. ‘Nothing.’

‘You used the Gift?’

‘Yes.’

‘And there is no-one concealed there now?’

‘Not at the moment.’

He grunted. ‘Good. Warn me if you see anything, anything at all.’

With this, Fiacail returned to the cave, reappearing a few moments later with a set of three metal-tipped javelins. Standing directly outside the cave, he set them point first into the ground.

He took some time to place his feet, meticulously adjusting his stance before shaking his arms and allowing his hands to hang, relaxed, by his sides. Suddenly, in what seemed like a single, seamless movement, he grasped the haft of the first javelin, raised it shoulder height and launched it directly at the foremost tree of the ash stand across the canyon. Even as the first missile left his hand, he’d grasped the second and cast it, followed immediately afterwards by the third.

The first javelin shot left of the tree, smacking hard against the cliff face behind before tumbling noisily to the ground with a metallic clatter. The second passed to the right, falling into the undergrowth between the trees. The third missile, however, slammed into the trunk with a heavy thunk, the sound of the haft quivering violently from the force of the impact, audible even at that distance.

Bodhmhall watched her nephew nod appreciatively, impressed by the warrior’s cast. The Seiscenn Uarbhaoil man however, had an unsatisfied expression while he considered the results of his efforts. Clicking his tongue non-committedly, he walked off to retrieve the javelins.
A few moments later, he was back again, taking up the exact same position, adjusting his stance and repeating the entire process.

It continued like that all afternoon, the big man targeting his tree, casting tirelessly then retrieving the missiles and trying again. As the afternoon progressed however, Bodhmhall grew increasingly uncomfortable for she could see that Fiacail’s accuracy was not improving. If anything, the fading sunlight seemed to cause his aim to deteriorate for by the time the sun was out of sight behind the southern wall, he was barely striking the tree trunk once for every nine casts he made.

Finally, covered in sweat, he stopped and laid the weapons aside, gratefully accepting the bowl of water Bodhmhall was offering him. ‘You should rest,’ she told him. ‘You press yourself too hard.’

He looked at her, arching one eyebrow.

‘Are you using your Gift to read me, Cailleach?’

She couldn’t repress the guilty smile. ‘How did you know?’

‘It’s an on old habit of yours.’

‘What old habit?’ she asked, genuinely surprised.

‘Back in Dún Baoiscne, whenever you used your Gift to examine me, you always nagged afterwards.’

Bodhmhall stared at him.

‘Don’t look so shocked. A sensitive man like myself can pick up on such womanly ways.’ He guffawed loudly at the expression on her face. ‘I have a question, Cailleach Dubh. A serious question concerning An tíolacadh.’

Amused but curious, she gestured for him to continue.

‘When you consider me with your Gift …’

‘Yes?’

‘Is my internal flame as handsome as my external features?’

Her lips curled into a sardonic smile. ‘It is even more handsome.’

‘I knew it!’ he exclaimed effusively, slapping his knee with enthusiasm. ‘I knew I had the right of it.’

Both laughed with genuine good humour.

‘Tell me,’ he said and his voice was suddenly serious. ‘With your Gift, do you see the life force of the plants and trees as well as those of animals?’

Bodhmhall took a moment to prepare an answer. ‘It is more … indistinct. Like a blur. There is some light but it merges together and … It forms a moody background.’

Fiacail nodded sagely. ‘So you could not, for example, distinguish that tree that I’ve been striking with my javelins all afternoon from the others?’

She looked at the tree. The surface of the trunk bark on the closer side was badly pitted from the rare strikes the Seiscenn Uarbhaoil man had succeeded in making and white parts of the inner trunk were exposed. ‘No,’ she said, shaking her head.

‘Ah,’ he said simply. He sounded oddly disappointed.

Bodhmhall’s left eyebrow formed a sardonic arch. ‘You display uncommon interest in An tíolacadh. Back in Dún Baoiscne, it never seemed a subject of great significance.’

His eyes dropped to her breasts and he grinned broadly. ‘When we lived together there were always other … distractions. I suppose that my interests extend with age.’ He raised both hands in the air and regarded her with exaggerated shock that could not disguise the true humour behind it. ‘Perhaps I am growing wise!’

She gave a cynical smile. ‘I never noticed your interest extend beyond a comely shape.’

He shrugged with unforced nonchalance. ‘I cannot extend beyond a comely shape. You cannot distinguish between the life force of the trees.’

‘I may not be able to distinguish the tree but I can make out the bird’s nest in the upper branch.’

Fiacail looked at her blankly and she laughed out loud. ‘The nest, oh wise one. The nesting season is well over but a spideog – a robin – is using it as a refuge. I can see the spideog.’

The warrior’s eyebrows raised at that and his face broke into a satisfied smile. ‘Well now, Cailleach Dubh,’ he declared. ‘Well, that is truly more interesting.

***

With their supplies exhausted, dinner that evening was a particularly lacklustre affair consisting of the previous day’s porridge sweetened with a handful of berries. Sharing a single bowl, the trio ate with appetite but not enthusiasm, despite the fire that Fiacail now permitted. Normally a man who enjoyed his food more than most, Bodhmhall noticed that the warrior refrained from any comment over the course of the meal. It was evident that, even with the threat of Futh, they’d be obliged to leave the canyon if they wanted to eat.

Nightfall slunk in with the zeal of a hungry predator. Absorbed in her contemplation of the campfire flames, when Bodhmhall looked up she was shocked to discover the darkness already enveloping the canyon beyond the immediate circle of light thrown out by the fire. The Seiscenn Uarbhaoil warrior had stacked the base much higher than normal and Demne had gathered so much firewood that an impressively high pile now sat ready to be tossed onto the flames.

Bodhmhall considered the ruddy blaze with some misgivings. The rocky confines of the canyon seemed to amplify the noisy crackle of burning logs and she feared the yellow glare reflected off the walls might draw Futh to them in the same way moths were drawn to a flame.
Turning to the side, she glanced uneasily towards the canyon entrance and stiffened, a gesture which did not go unnoticed by the big warrior. ‘Do you see – ?’

‘Lifelight,’ she confirmed.

‘Is it him?’

‘The flame is too large for an animal,’ she confirmed. Her voice was short, her vocal chords tight with tension, but she managed to control the quaver.

Fiacail muttered something unintelligible under his breath. ‘Do not turn your face towards the passage. Keep a watch from the corner of your eye.’ He transferred his gaze across the fire to her nephew. ‘Or you Demne. Do not reveal that we’re aware of his presence. Understand?’

The boy looked frightened but he gripped his sling tight and nodded silently.

Bodhmall realised she was scratching the inside of her palms with her fingernails, a nervous habit she’d thought to have overcome. She purposely pushed both hands down by her sides, taking a deep breath before she addressed the warrior. ‘What should we do, Fiacail?’

‘We will ignore him and finish this delightful meal.’ The Seiscenn Uarbhaoil man wiped a smudge of porridge from his chin, stroking his stubbled jaw with disfavour. ‘This lack of water vexes me however. I have need of a shave.’

The bandraoi continued to stare at him, confused by his apparent nonchalance. ‘Fiacail, the entrance way is the single point narrow enough to prevent him gaining entry to the canyon.’

‘Rest easy, Bodhmhall. The Bald One will not be the match of me.’

She gaped, the warrior’s brash confidence doing little to reassure her.

‘Fiacail, I -’

‘Bodhmhall please. Let me savour the full flavour of this repast.’

The bandraoi lapsed into anxious silence as she watched him chew on the last of the gritty porridge. Despite his instructions, she struggled to avoid using her Gift although she repeatedly peeked furtively towards the cluster of trees at the canyon entrance. ‘Futh is inside,’ she hissed urgently. ‘He’s positioned at the far end of the mountain ash. I told you we should have-’

The warrior’s hand reached across to grip her wrist, silencing her. He turned then to the boy who’d been anxiously following their talk. ‘Demne,’ he said, his voice surprisingly light. ‘You should return inside the cave. Take your sling and remain within its shelter. Whatever you do, do not look towards the ash trees when you stand. And do not run. Do you understand?’

With a gulp, the boy nodded. Swallowing again, he rose stiffly, eyes focussed on the entrance to the cave. As he walked towards it, Bodhmhall could see the tension in his shoulders as he resisted the natural inclination to run.

Fiacail picked up a loose twig and absently began to pick his teeth with it. Spitting out a loose white glob of crushed kernel, he spoke to her from the side of his mouth. ‘Where is he now?’

She started to turn but his hand abruptly shot out, grabbing her arm and preventing her from moving. He shook his head. ‘From the corner of your eye, dear one. From the corner of your eye.’

Disconcerted and angered in equal measure, she furiously tugged her hand free but did as he asked. ‘He remains in the trees by the entrance,’ she said after a moment or two. ‘He probably watches us, forming his plans.’

‘Probably.’ The warrior appeared unfazed.

‘Fiacail,’ she pleaded. ‘Futh has had several days. He may have prepared javelins.’

‘I would think so. That’s what I’d have been doing had I been in his place.’

She stared at him incredulously. ‘But he might cast them!’

‘From that position? I wouldn’t think so. Even your young Aodhán, good as he is, would struggle to make an effective cast at such a distance in this light.’

‘But he can move closer, work his way through the trees.’

‘Then we will join Demne in the cave. The angle of the entrance means that no javelin strike will hit us.’

‘Not if he proceeds to the end of the ash stand. From there, he can see directly into the cave and the strength of the fire means he’ll view us clearly.’

‘Bah! You worry too much, Cailleach.’

She glared at him with a mixture of outrage and desperation then watched with horror as the warrior dropped another log on the fire.

What is he doing? He blinds us to the darkness.

She froze then, her posture rigid for a fresh flicker of movement had caught her eye. ‘He draws closer through the ash trees.’ The bandraoi shivered, recalling the expression on the bald man’s face when he’d held her in place for his aroused little comrade, the gruesome leer and the bulge against the cloth in the crotch of his leggings. She suddenly felt very sick.

Looking down at her hands, she was disturbed to find she’d started scratching the palms again. The skin was now grazed with deep lines of red scored into the flesh. She growled unconsciously, hating the tremor in her voice, hating the Brotherhood warrior even more for reducing her to such a state of terror.

Unmindful of her mounting despair, Fiacail frowned. ‘Very well. We’d better return to the cave. It would be pointless to tempt fate. Or the Bald One’s casting arm.’

Bodhmhall rose to her feet and regarded him in consternation. The Seiscenn Uarbhaoil man seemed oblivious to the true extent of the danger.
‘I’ll put out the fire.’

‘No time for that. Besides, if he crosses the canyon to the cave we’ll be able to see him.’

‘If he has javelins he will have no need to cross. Fiacail, please! I beg of you.’ There was real fear in her voice now, a discernible quaver that she could no longer disguise. The warrior caught it for he now regarded her with quiet intensity. ‘Do you truly believe, dear one, that I would place you in harm’s way?’
With that, he started slowly towards the cave.

Bodhmhall stared, slack-jawed, after him then, rousing herself, stumbled hurriedly in his shadow. As she drew alongside, he reached out to grasp her arm and draw her close. ‘Come take my hand. Steady now. Walk easy towards the cave. See! Isn’t this pleasant? You haven’t held my hand in such a long time. I’d truly forgotten how soft you were, a chroí.

Once again, Bodhmhall struggled to make sense of the warrior’s increasingly irrational behaviour. Terrified, she glanced back over her shoulder and caught sight of a bright yellow blur, moving purposefully down the southern side of the canyon towards them.

‘He’s almost on us!’ She almost broke into a run but Fiacail’s grip on her hand tightened, holding her in place. Fearing the increasing likelihood of a javelin arching in out of the darkness, it took all of her self-control not to struggle free, despite the knowledge that any shelter in that cave would be short-lived. A soon as Futh reached the end of the trees, shrouded in darkness, he could pick them off at his leisure.

‘Look here,’ Fiacail crowed proudly, gesturing towards his own set of three javelins that remained poking up out of the ground by the entrance to the cave. ‘See how prepared I am.’ She gaped, unable to make sense of the comment. It was all as though she was trapped in some kind of surreal dream.
Or nightmare.

Without any warning, he suddenly reached forward, clasped her in his arms and kissed her full on the lips. Taken completely by surprise, she struggled to think straight as she felt his dry lips clamped upon her own. Before she had time to react, he whirled her around so that she was facing the end of the ash stand directly behind him.

‘Use the Gift, Bodhmhall. Where is he?’

Enveloped in his embrace, she suddenly realised that the tension of his body was not a result of passion but of stress. Looking into his brown eyes, she saw them flared with furious determination. ‘Towards the end of the trees,’ she managed to gasp.

‘Where exactly?’

‘At the very end of the ash stand, now. His stands upright, just beside the tree with the nest.’ Her voice went hollow. ‘He has moved to the left.’

He prepares to cast.

Suddenly, Fiacail whirled away, thrusting her aside with such force that she was pitched back against the stone pillar to the left of the entrance. In one single dynamic movement, he’d whipped up the nearest javelin and flung it out into the darkness. Even before her mind fully grasped what he’d done, the second javelin was in his hand and it too went whirring into the darkness. There was a sudden terrifying, agonzied scream but already the third missile too was off, following the others. Bodhmhall stared as the warrior lunged forwards, knife in hand, and disappeared into the darkness beyond the fire.

With belated insight, she realised Fiacail had been standing in exactly the same position from which he’d been casting that afternoon, that he’d even been holding the exact same stance.

He never missed his target this afternoon! He wasn’t aiming for the tree but the position to the left. The position from which Futh was most likely to cast.

All that time, over the course of the entire afternoon, he’d been training his body, establishing a muscle memory so that when he cast, he’d hit that exact spot. She shook her head. It had truly been a plan of remarkable ingenuity.
Pulling herself off the ground, she drew on her Gift, staring across the canyon to the trees where the invader’s lifelight was now stirring weakly, much closer to the ground than before. Even as she watched, another more brazen flame rushed in and leaped upon it. A moment later, the first flame was completely extinguished.

She sat staring in shock until Fiacail returned, emerging out of the darkness and into the red glow thrown out by the fire. He was breathing heavily and his clothing was scuffed but he contrived to put on a casual air as he drew closer. Drawing to a halt alongside her, he looked down with surprising gentleness. ‘You can sleep easy tonight, dear one.’

Unable to speak, she nodded dumbly. Looking very weary, Fiacail continued on towards the cave, stroking his chin as he did so. ‘And in the morning,’ he said. ‘I will celebrate this moment with a shave.’

Driving across a Mythological Line

You know the way you sometimes start up the car and then park at your destination but have absolutely no recollection of having driven there?

That’s pretty much how I’m feeling at the moment. After three intense months of writing, research, half-finished articles, external contracting, publishing infrastructure, admin etc. etc. we’re coming to the close on a number of projects and, looking back, I honestly have no recollection of how we got to this point.

We also have a bit of a production line going on this week to finalise a number of those projects. With K away on the external contracting route however, most of the production has inevitably fallen to one lucky individual; me!

First up is the fourth book in the Fionn mac Cumhaill Series (coming in at about 120,000 words), Fionn: The Adversary. This will be released in digital form on 28th February (next Tuesday week).

Next up is the Irish Imbas: Celtic Mythology Collection. At present, we’re in the process of assembling the shortlisted stories and organising a time for the judges to meet. The plan is have an announcement on the winners by Feb 28th as well but given the hectic schedule at the moment this may end up being delayed. We’ll see.

Apologies are probably due to all of you who’ve tried to contact us over the last two months. Apart from a rare and very occasional foray on Twitter/Facebook, we’ve remained pretty much off-line, we’ve had to delay last months newsletter and respond very selectively to emails.

Once we’ve resurfaced in March and had a chance to gasp some air, we’ll be back to normal.

A Long Shortlist for the Celtic Mythology Short Story Competition

The Irish Imbas: Celtic Mythology Short Story Competition kicked off with an unexpected roar this year. As a very small niche press with less than a three year history we weren’t expecting the degree of interest we ended up receiving and, to be honest, we were a bit overwhelmed.

In summary, seventy four submissions were received for the 2016 Competition and the standard was … well, pretty exceptional really. This created some issues in that the short-listing process proved far more difficult than anticipated but it also revealed some challenges in terms of communicating what the Competition was actually set up to achieve. Some of those stories that didn’t make it to the shortlist, frankly, deserved to be published. The problem was that sometimes they just didn’t align with objective of the series: mythology. Some submissions, good as they were, felt as though they’d been sent to the wrong competition.

That said, there are two or three stories in the final list that have scraped by on the sniff of a mythological connection, mainly because they were intriguing enough to offer them a chance. It’ll be interesting to see how that works out.

But enough of that. A more detailed analysis will be provided in a later post but, meanwhile, here’s the (long) short-list for the Celtic Mythology Short Story Competition 2016:

  • A Face in the Snow by Majella Cullinane
  • A Fire in Emain by Sheelagh Russell Brown
  • All Man by Philomena Byrne
  • Daughter of Sorrows by Fiona Honor Hurley
  • Delusion of Grainne by Paul Moore
  • Fairy Hill by Patrick Belshaw
  • Gebann’s Daughter by Jane Dougherty
  • In the Hour of Greatest Need by Will O’Siorain
  • Joes Malshy by Farren McDonald
  • Lexi on her Sixty-second Journey by Randee Dawn
  • My Fair Lady by Paula Puolakka
  • My Sprightly Tailor by Owen Townsend
  • The Fairy Child by Nicola Cassidy
  • Revival by Méabh Browne
  • Sá an Bhrú – The Passage Home by Delaney Greene
  • Seasick by Molly Aitken
  • The Black Hen by Diana Powell
  • The Good Man by Damian Keating
  • Up The Airy Mountains by Eithne Cullen

So What Happens Next?

There’s actually two processes from this point on.
Those authors who made the short-list will be looked at again before they’re sent onto the judges for consideration. In an effort to avoid any prejudice on my part (being human, I already have some favourites), the final group will be considered by a group of my judges where I will have one vote out of four.

The winning authors and those being published in the final Celtic Mythology Collection will be announced by the end of February 2017.

For those authors who didn’t make the shortlist, we’re offering an opportunity to receive some feedback on submissions. This was a policy decision we made about two months back because we were keen to provide at least some feedback to people who made the effort to submit but didn’t actually make it to the shortlist. At this stage, given the number of submissions and our own workloads, we’re treating this as a pilot which we’ll implement as follows:

  • If you are a submitting author who didn’t make the shortlist and would like to be eligible for feedback, please confirm by email (some of you have already done so based on a post we did on the website when we first made that decision so if you did we already have you listed).
  • We’ll provide feedback to a certain percentage of eligible authors but given that we’re feeling our way on this, we just can’t tell how many we’ll be able to complete. We will do as many as we can.
  • At this stage therefore, we propose to provide the feedback as a scanned file of the hard-copy submission with hand-written notes (this will be emailed to the author).
  • Feedback will be provided only after the Celtic Mythology Collection 2017 has been published. We simply won’t have time to do it before then.
  • Obviously, any feedback provided will be based on ‘judgements’ of some (not all) judges and is only meant to be of assistance. We can’t enter into any further correspondence once that feedback is provided.

I’d like to wish the best of luck to those shortlisted authors.

A Quick but Important Update

Wellllll, I think I’ve finally got the message that the summer holidays are done and dusted although, to be honest, it’s been something of a working holiday this year. For over a week, we were ensconced at a beach in Australia with temperatures hitting 35°C and over. The holiday dips consisted of a dash to the (lukewarm) water and then another rapid dash back to shade. There was really no way of remaining out on the beach in that temperature unless you were wearing a radiation suit.

In some respects, that was probably a good thing as being forced indoors meant a lot of work was actually completed. Of course it never actually stops! These next few days are going to be pretty hectic on the work front as we’re running a special offer on Fionn: Defence of Ráth Bládhma, I’m going hell for leather finishing the next Fionn book (Fionn: The Adversary) and then, of course, there’s the Celtic Mythology Short Story Competition.

I’ll start off with the special offer on Fionn.

Fionn: Defence of Ráth Bládhma

It’s very hard to believe but there hasn’t been a contemporary version of the Fenian Cycle (written by an Irish person) professionally published for almost one hundred years.

For those of you with an interest in Irish historical fantasy, Irish Imbas Books is making Fionn: Defence of Ráth Bládhma available for 99c or 99p at all the major ebook outlets over the next two days (possibly three – I still haven’t worked out the time differences!).

Currently a finalist in Mark Lawrence’s SPFBO 2016 competition, this first book in a contemporary series of the Fenian Cycle has probably been our most popular over the last two years. Just be aware though, it really is a very different take on the sanitized Fenian Cycle tales we grew up with as kids, far grittier and more realistic (i.e. it’s not Celtic-Lite). I’d be particularly keen to hear what other Irish readers think.

Other Updates:

The Celtic Mythology Short Story Competition – Bloody hell! The quality of the submissions this year has certainly jumped several notches. Thus far, I’ve read about 54 of the more than 70 entries. Only 20 have been identified and put aside as unsuitable at this stage (and I’ll be doing a post to explain that in the next 2/3 weeks). The shortlist will be posted on the website on Tuesday 31 January.

Fionn 3: The Adversary – Currently working on the first draft of the last chapter. The book will be released on 28 February.

Newsletter: We’ll be recommencing the monthly newsletter (after the Christmas break) this month but with the current workload it may be running two or three days late. That will contain a full update on what to expect over the next year.

The Surprising Truth about Irish Women Warriors

There’s a lot of fantasy out there when it comes to women warriors, particularly where it relates to characters mentioned in Irish/Celtic mythology. To be fair, the subject’s hardly a new one. Writers and readers have been enamoured by tales of fighting women since people first started telling stories (particularly Herodotus with his notes on the inaccurately-named Amazons, the High Medieval literary references to supernatural Valkyrie/shield-maidens etc.), probably because they’re such a rarity in ancient warfare, an area generally dominated by men.

Obviously, that’s not to say that woman didn’t fight. There’s plenty of historical examples of women fighting to defend themselves or, more often, fighting to protect the ones they love. In terms of real female warriors however, who specifically followed the warrior path, the archaeological and historical evidence seems to indicate they were very much a rarity in ancient times.

When it comes to women warriors in the ancient Irish mythology, there’s actually quite a lot of literary references compared to other contemporary societies of the same period. Some people 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 veeerrrrry big leap to make. The early writings on mythology tended to express older cultural belief systems as fiction and the authors/recorders of the time weren’t above a bit of creative license or prejudice, so you really have to take what they say with copious amounts of salt. The fact that, until relatively recently, the skill of writing (and, thus, recording Irish mythology) was almost completely dominated by male authors (often of a religious bent) created a pretty substantial bias as well.

Portrayal of Warrior Women in the Ancient Irish Mythology
It’s the latter, more than anything else, that explains why male and female warriors were portrayed so differently in the Irish mythological narratives. In the surviving literature (mostly from the early medieval period onwards), male warriors were the main protagonists and were most commonly depicted as fighting for abstracts like honour or glory. The depiction of women warriors however, was very different.
If we look at Irish mythological, the most well-known women warriors tend to include:

  • Scáthach – a woman warrior who appears in the Ulster Cycle. Based in modern-day Scotland. She instructs Cú Chulainn in a number of martial feats and when he catches her with her guard down, he forces her to take him as a lover
  • Aífe – a rival of Scáthach who Cú Chulainn forces to lie with him at swordpoint and 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 but for whom there’s very little information available

From the pattern of the first three examples from the literature, it’s hard not to come to the conclusion that powerful, woman warrior characters were introduced predominantly as a device to emphasize the skill, accomplishments and sexual dominance of the male ‘hero’ (who subsequently ‘conquers’ them). With respect to the last example, Liath Luachra is portrayed as a guardian to the young hero Fionn mac Cumhaill, a relationship that is, in a sense, desexualised. There was probably a body of lore associated with this character as well but, unfortunately, it didn’t survive.
Two other female figures mentioned in the ancient Irish literature who are occasionally offered 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) – a female war spirit most prevalent in ‘An Táin’

In fact, neither of these really make the cut if you look at them in any kind of detail. All the literary and archaeological evidence to date suggests the characters were personifications of female deities as opposed to warrior women.

Contemporary Portrayal of Irish Warrior Women

Over the last forty-plus years or so, the representation of women warriors has become far more prevalent, particularly in the fantasy fiction genre and, naturally, reflect more modern-day social values such as gender equality, cultural diversity etc. Generally speaking, the fictional women warrior characters we read today are far more rounded and well developed, they’re often the main protagonist in a story but even when they’re not, they tend to get equal treatment to their male counterparts.

Given the prevalence of woman warriors in the Irish mythology, over the years there’s also been a tendency to ‘borrow’ Irish characters for alternative fictions. Thankfully, the contemporary representations are far more positive than they used to be but I often wonder if the authors are aware of the strong negative gender undercurrents associated with the originals.

Note: This is an updated version to an earlier article from last year

Farting around with Covers: The Fionn mac Cumhaill Series

For me, one of the real pleasures of independent publishing is having the opportunity to work with some incredibly talented artists and graphic designers. As someone who’s always wanted to draw or sketch (but had no talent for it), I’ve always been fascinated and a little bit envious of those people who could not only do so, but were very good at it. Since we started Irish Imbas Books almost three years ago, we’ve had some great artists working with us, some of whom we hope to work with again.

A few weeks ago, as a trial, we decided to run some ‘alternative’, more fantasy-based covers for some of the Fionn mac Cumhaill Series books which can be seen below.

The first one is a version of the original cover (by the same artist) but, at the time, we felt it didn’t reflect the look we were going for so we decided not to run with it. The Fionn mac Cumhaill series is very much designed for an Irish audience (as opposed to the international ‘Celtic’ audience) and we work hard to make it as historically realistic and authentic as we can. We felt this version just didn’t support that intent.

The second cover variation – for Fionn: Traitor of Dún Baoiscne – was in a similar vein and portrays the woman warrior Liath Luachra in an almost ‘model-like’ fashion. Again, although its a nice image, we felt it didn’t accurately represent the character or the mood of the series.

At this stage, the intention is to replace these covers next month. We had intended to play around with them for only a week or two but I successfully managed to screw up some technical details, preventing us form doing so yet. In February however, we’ll resort back to the original, more realistic and gritty look.

We also have a new cover for the hard copy version of Fionn 1 (Defence of Ráth Bládhma) which we’ll be using for books ordered through non-Amazon/Createspace routes and will probably be commissioning a follow-up for the second and third books. The prequel to the series (Liath Luacha) will remain as it is for the moment.

Working on the Beach: Update on Future ‘Productions’

God, I love Christmas/New Year in New Zealand!

Through a pure twist of timing and climate, the Christmas celebration here falls at the very start of the summer holiday season. As a result, holidays in this country can stretch from 24th December, all to the way through to the end of January. That’s not to say you don’t work over that period – most people do – but the cities are definitely a lot emptier, people are more laid back and there’s a great holiday vibe that just keeps rolling on (when the weather and earthquakes allow, of course).

This year, given other responsibilities, I’ve had to spend a lot less time at the beach to catch up on writing projects that have lapsed throughout the year. The main pieces of work coming through over the next few months are as follows:

Fionn 4: The Adversary

I’ll be starting the last chapter (plus epilogue) on Fionn: The Adversary next week. It’s been something of a struggle to complete this book given workloads last year, the length and the structural approach I’ve taken with it. Essentially, this book ties up a number of loose ends, reveals the identity of the mysterious Adversary, the reasons for Bodhmhall’s expulsion from her tribe and of course it sets up key elements for the last 2-3 books in the series. It currently sits at about 110,000 words.
I’ll be leaking bits and pieces on this over the next 1-2 months prior to the launch (planned for some time at the end of February 2017).

Audiobooks
We had some bad news with audiobooks last year as a result of the November earthquake. Naturally this all happened at a time when we’d just started the preparations to finish three audiobooks (short stories from ‘The Irish Muse’) before Christmas. Now that the building we used for recordings is no longer available, we’re holding off until we can find a suitable alternative to complete the final touches.

The Celtic Mythology Collection 2017
I’ll be releasing a more detailed update on this shortly but submissions are currently being read and selected for the shortlist (which will be released by January 31st). The final collection will be released in March 2017.

Meanwhile … once more unto the beach dear friends!!!

Who was Tréanmór -The Fionn mac Cumhaill Series

Within the Fenian Cycle, the character of Cumhal (Fionn mac Cumhaill’s father) is sometimes referred to with the interesting patronymic “mac Trénmóir” (or “mac Tréanmór” or in modern Irish) which, literally, means ‘Strong-Big’. This unlikely name is believed to originate from genealogists of the seventh century Leinster families who were keen to link the famous hero to their own ruling dynasties – even if they had to bend the truth to do so.

Apart from those original references, there’s no other mention of Tréanmór within the various historical narratives (which, given its invention, is hardly a surprise). That said, there is a hill called Comaghy Hill in County Monaghan which holds a large grave that’s fancifully claimed to be the spot where he was buried.

This lack of definition around a character who should play an important role in the Cycle (he is Fionn/Demne’s grandfather, after all) provides a lot of room for creative licence and I’ve taken full advantage of that, of course. Over the last twelve months I’ve had a lot of fun creating the character to fit in with the ongoing Fionn mac Cumhaill Series. As a result, for the next book in the series (The Adversary) Tréanmór plays a much larger role than in any other version of the Fenian Cycle in recent times (truth be told, I’ve yet to come across any literary use of the character in the last 100 years!).

Developing the Character of Tréanmór

When developing the character of Tréanmór I was keen to incorporate the world of 2nd century Ireland and link him to some of the issues associated with the tribal society that existed at the time (and which – amazingly – very little literature on Fionn mac Cumhaill refers to). In The Adversary therefore, Tréanmór holds the title of – chieftain – of Clann Baoiscne.

Back in the second century, a person’s tribe would not only have played a dominant part in that individual’s personal identity but in his/her entire social interaction as well. Dominant, shrewd, politically astute and completely ruthless, in this particular story, Tréanmór’s driving motivation is the expansion of the Clann Baoiscne tribal powerbase, an objective that’s often attained at the expense of friends and family members. For that reason, although he’s her father, Bodhmhall knows she cannot completely trust him and this becomes clear from the very first reference to him (when Demne – or Fionn – asks about the fortress of Dún Baoiscne:

‘Will we see my grandfather there?’
‘Tréanmór? Yes. As rí of Clann Baoiscne, he rules the stronghold.’
‘Is he nice?’
Bodhmhall blinked, taken aback by the simplicity of the question, the naive reduction of people to those who were ‘nice’ or ‘not nice’.
‘In some ways he is … nice. In other ways, he is not.’
The boy frowned at her. ‘Well,’ he persisted. ‘Do you think he’s nice?’
‘No,’ she admitted. She shook her head. ‘No, I don’t.’

And then of course there’s the little issue of the reason Bodhmhall was expelled from the fortress of Dún Baoiscne in the first place.

In this book, the character of Tréanmór tends to dominate many of the scenes, some of which involve dramatic verbal duelling between himself and Bodhmhall, who also has to contend with his ‘Whispers’ and his ‘Cúig Cairdre’ – his ‘Five Friends’. This has been a lot of fun to write.

This kind of creative licence is one of the things I most enjoy about writing with Irish mythology and lore. The original Fenian Cycle is strong enough and linear enough to provide the basis of the story but it’s also broad enough to allow immense creativity, even when the story needs to align with the historical realities of the period. It really doesn’t get better than that!

The Adversary is expected to be available at the end of February 2017.

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Intriguing Titles from the Celtic Short Story Competition Submissions

irish-books

Well the entries are in and the submission folder has been removed to a separate hard drive.

Yesterday, while we were doing the admin for the registration and processing, we were struck by the number of intriguing titles this year. I’ve learned long ago not to put too much stock in a title, of course. A good one can draw a susceptible reader towards a book or a story but its effectiveness very much depends on the individual and the personal experiences/ interests of that individual. Titles can also be a double-edged sword, of course, in that if they insinuate or evoke one thing and the story delivers something different, that can work against it.

In any case, here are some that immediately appealed to me (only me – the other judges haven’t seen them yet) and my first thoughts on seeing them:

Konla’s Dream (A reference to Connla – the son of Conn Céadcathach?)
Lexi on her Sixty-Second Journey (Time travel or a journey across the room?)
Mama’s Skin (Possibly a selkie but could really be anything)
My Sprightly Tailor (I just love the image this brought to mind)
Seasick (Brings back many pleasant memoires!)
Strangers in a Familiar Setting (Lovely juxtaposition)
The Black Hen (Intriguingly simple – for some reason I like that)
The Curse of Ulster (Possibly a reference to the ‘Pangs’ of Ulster?)
The King Who Could Not Die (now that certainly rouses interest)
Tiny Broken Horses (?!)
The Púca with the Swivelling Head (Actually, no. Sorry. I think I just imagined that one!)

How to Write Sex Scenes

That made you sit up.

I suppose I should start by saying I really don’t particularly enjoy writing sex scenes. Writing protracted sexual encounters always seems to lead into pornographic territory or, even worse, purple prose. Then of course there’s always the thought of your mother peering over your shoulder, shaking her head and tutting with disapproval. Previous experience also means I’m pretty sure the first draft will come back from Madame Blackwing (editor extreme) pointing out some critical error (“That’s a physical impossibility”, “It’s not located there” or perhaps even more disturbingly, “Is this meant to be a sex scene?”).

Photocredit: Tertia van Rensburg

Photocredit: Tertia van Rensburg

Diligent individual that I am, to research this article I asked a few writer friends about how they wrote sex scenes. The responses included:

“I’m probably more of a ‘doer’ than a talker/writer'”

“Writers do it sitting down”

“Are you serious? My target audience are 8-12 years olds

All very helpful, of course.

Carrying out even further research, I headed off to the Literary Review magazine and looked up the “Bad Sex in Fiction Award”. This particular competition has been around for over twenty years and I’ve always quite enjoyed it, not only because it’s deliciously funny but because it provides a good-natured but well-needed poke to the pomposity of the mainstream publishing industry. Think of it as a kind of antidote to the Nobel Prize for Literature and you’ll be on the right track.

Originally started by the Literary Review in 1993, the approach is simplicity itself. Every year, reviewers at the Literary Review nominate the worst sex scene passages they’ve read during the year and a committee pick the, eh, … winner. Although it’s never been intended to cover pornographic or erotica, it sometimes comes pretty damn close.

This year’s crop of nominees included a number of well-known names like Ian McEwan, Eimear McBride, Gayle Forman (a New York Times bestselling author) Erri De Luca (a European Prize for Literature winner) and many more. Here are a number of the passages that caught the judges’ attention this year:

“Anne,” he says, stopping and looking down at me. I am pinned like wet washing with his peg. “Till now, I thought the sweetest sound I could ever hear was cows chewing grass. But this is better.” He sways and we listen to the soft suck at the exact place we meet. Then I move and put all thoughts of livestock out of his head.
The Butcher’s Hook by Janet Ellis

“His heart immediately started hammering like mad, and a fiery heat welled up inside him. He wanted to ask something, something tremendously urgent, something incredibly important, something that was tingling on the tip of his tongue but already her other hand was on his other buttock.”
The Tobacconist by Robert Seethaler

“When she was sufficiently aroused, a hush would finally settle and then with a sigh she would roll over gently onto her back, like a doe turning in leaves.”
A Doubter’s Almanac by Ethan Canin

“She wiggled her breasts beneath my hands and intensified the pushing. I went in up to my groin and came out almost entirely. My body was her gearstick.”
The Day Before Happiness by Erri De Luca

“Our sexes were ready, poised in expectation, barely touching each other: ballet dancers hovering en pointe.”
The Day Before Happiness by Erri De Luca

“With one thrust I sank into her without coming back out. She took her hands from my hips and from my prick came the entire “yes” that had coursed through her. The “yes” of my emptying and my goodbye, my welcome, the “yes” of a marionette that flops without a hand to hold its strings.”
The Day Before Happiness by Erri De Luca

“During sex she would quiet, moving suddenly on top of him like a lion over its prey. Her eyes stayed wide, Andret liked to keep his own closed; but whenever he opened them, there she would be, staring down at him, her black pupils gyroscopically inert.”
A Doubter’s Almanac by Ethan Canin

“The act itself was fervent. Like a brisk tennis game or a summer track meet, something performed in daylight between competitors. The cheap mattress bounced. She liked to do it more than once, and he was usually able to comply. Bourbon was his gasoline.”
A Doubter’s Almanac by Ethan Canin

“He jerked off with the determination of someone within sight of Everest’s summit, having lost all his friends and Sherpas, having run out of supplemental oxygen, but preferring death to failure.”
Here I am by Jonathan Safran Foer

I don’t know about you but most of this didn’t leave me hot and bothered so much as, well …. gyroscopically inert, I suppose. Just to be sure I wasn’t missing anything, I decided to check up on what’s considered to be this year’s strongest contender for the prize.

“His finger is inside me, his thumb circling and I spill like grain from a bucket.”

The Butcher’s Hook by Janet Ellis

Spilled grain aside, I’m pleased to say that I’ve since come up with the perfect formula for writing sex scenes and because you’ve been so patient I’m going to share that secret with you. To start with, you really have to approach the whole sex scene in the correct manner. In that regard, I tend to make a bit of an effort. I usually wait until it’s a little late, put on some soft music, slip into my Hugh Heffner dressing gown. If I’m in the mood, I’ll have a sip of wine or two, dim the lights right down. massage the fingers in oil as I ease my way towards the computer and then …

[scroll down]









……. The next Morning dawned cool and rainy.

I won’t tell if you don’t.

Update:
The winner of this award was announced last week and it was …… Italian novelist Erri De Luca’s genital ‘ballet dancers’.
Congratulations and well done, Mr De Luca.

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Earthquakes and Irony on the Shaky Isles

A bit hectic this week and people have been asking so I figured I’d give some information/ context on what we’re dealing with here – at least from a personal perspective. Even after many years in New Zealand, coming from one of the most stable pieces of land on the planet (the good ole conservative rock that’s Ireland), means this earthquake stuff can still be a bit new to me.

Around midnight on 10 November, New Zealand’s south island was hit by a magnitude 7.8 earthquake. Normally, at least in my experience to date, when an quake occurs at night, you screw your eyes tight, snuggle deeper under the covers and wait for it to pass.

Unless it keeps going.

And boy, did it keep on going!

This particular quake went on for over a minute by which time we were all out in the hallway sheltering under the door jam (usually the sturdiest area in the house). Finally, it eased off but aftershocks kept rolling in over the next few hours. Nobody really got any sleep that night.

In most respects of course, we were exceptionally lucky. Although quite violent (the ground lifted in over three meters in places), the quake was centered in an area of the south island that had a very small population. Two people died but if it had happened at a different time and in a different place that could have been dramatically more. In Wellington – the closets city – because we’re on the coast, a tsunami warning went out with sirens going on and off irregularly. Many people evacuated to higher ground – not easy with the aftershock, others remained in bed. It was a complete shambles with mixed messages and nobody clear on what the safest course of action was.

When daylight came, the extent of the damage in Wellington began to become clear with damaged buildings, and lots of broken glass (this would have showered down and probably killed – or at least seriously hurt – people in the streets had it happened during the day). The city centre was blocked off until the city and government officials gave the all clear (which turned out to be a remarkably bad idea). Although the aftershocks had declined , a huge storm blew in over the subsequent two days, flooding parts of the city, the main roads in and out of the city and causing numerous landslides in areas already weakened by the shakes. Many people going into town for work ended up getting stuck and unable to make it home (we had two people stay over at our place). Conflicting messages kept coming out from the media. It’s safe/its not safe! Come in/ stay home!

After three days, a sense of normality returned. The storms stopped, the roads dried out. The tremors had reduced to an occasional perceptible shake but that was it. Everything seemed okay until, suddenly, people started being evacuated from buildings and told to go home. First it was one building, then two, then over ten and by the last count, somewhere between 20-30 buildings. It turns out the building owners and the government departments had demonstrated far more optimism than they had any right to. Many of the buildings considered safe turned out to be a major risk hazard. Three significant buildings in the inner city have now been programmed for demolition as they can’t be saved. There’s construction work going on all over the city and bizarrely, the most damaged buildings are those which were most recently constructed (to higher standards). A lot of people are asking questions that no-one seems capable of answering.

irish-earthquake

And there there was us:
Fortunately, our house is located on a hill inland from the sea. As a result, we didn’t have to deal with the whole tsuanmi issue. In addition, because I’m a complete paranoid, I’ve been carrying out major house strengthening work (removing the brick chimney, increasing the strength of the roof, screwing cupboards to the wall etc.) and as a result, we came through remarkably unscathed. At the time we had a lot of books falling off the shelves, food flying out of cupboards but, otherwise, nothing major. A quick look around the structure of the house the following day revealed a number of cracks in our garden wall and paths up to the house that may be a problem in the future but not for the moment at least.

We were also lucky in that we’d both finished our external contract work so anything we had to do, we could do in the home office and hence, didn’t need to go into town. As a result, we missed the flooding debacle, the initial construction work etc.(in fact, I didn’t leave the house for four days). We were also lucky in that although some of the city lost power and communications, we managed to escape all that. Our systems are also backed up on mirror servers in other countries. As long as we have access to a computer we can access most of what we need.

Overall, therefore, we were remarkably lucky and its seemed oddly surreal to be sitting in front of the television, in the comfort of our own home, watching “low-key Armageddon” as our city floundered from one event to another. It’s been twenty days since the quake now and although we still get the odd aftershock everyone seems to have put it behind them. Underneath it all of course, they’re still going around with baited breath and frayed nerves. Generally speaking, I consider myself quite brave and even heroic (except where it comes to actual danger!) but I have no problems saying this whole event scared the crap out of me.

God, the trauma!

You know, this has actually been quite therapeutic. It feels oddly liberating to vent all this onto someone. I haven’t really spoken to anyone else about it (they usually start running away). But, hey! I feel a hell of a lot better!

Eh … How much do I owe you?

Update:
Since originally writing this article, I returned to the city centre for a very short external contract to facilitate a conceptual workshop on – get this – impacts on the Christchurch earthquake sequence in 2010-2013. Ten minutes before the workshop was due to start, the alarms went off and the building was evacuated. I had to escape down the stairwells from the seventh floor.
Now THAT’s irony!

A Cultural Theft in the West Cork Heartland

Travelling to a favourite West Cork site this July took on a somewhat surreal edge. Over the morning, the drizzle congealed to mist then back again (several times) before finally deciding to settle on a light grey fog of soupish consistency. Taking the old road right some time after the Coosane – a road I’ve taken all my life – I somehow went astray, heading up into the mist coated hills and ended up negotiating an unfamiliar labyrinth of grey-green botharíns. Beside me, my French friend said nothing, calmly trusting my driving skill as he did his best to locate a view.

When we got to the lake, the water was black and still, the air heavy with moisture. Even as I parked the car however, I could see a busload of tourists down by the water and exploring the island so we retired to the Gougane Barra Hotel until they were gone. Before I went inside, I looked back just in time to see the fog come down hard, swallowing up the tourists. In the odd, fog-bound silence that followed, I could hear the sound of clicking cameras and an occasional laugh and wondered what they could possibly be taking photos of.

One of the girls serving in the café told me that there’d been a theft from the island two months earlier.

‘The mass box?’ I asked, assuming they’d have gone for the little donation box in the rectory, the only cash on the island.

‘No,’ she told me, her voice full of unexpected outrage. ‘An altar stone.’

That threw me. The altar stones are flat, very heavy stones that mark some of the stop points for pilgrims doing a round on the island (the prehistoric ritualistic route still followed by pilgrims today). Most are a few hundred years old and bear deep white marks on the surface where generations of pilgrims have carved crosses when they stop to pray or meditate. The stones themselves have no monetary worth. Their value is entirely historical, cultural and spiritual.

irish-mythology

There was a lot of talk in the café about who might have stolen the stone. No-one believed it was local people. The alter stone was a respected fixture in their lives and, more importantly, it would have taken at least 2-3 people to carry it. Impossible then, to keep it secret.

The initial suspicion had fallen on vandals from Cork city but given the amount of effort required, it seemed uncharacteristic behaviour. Divers had also searched the shallow waters around the island but there was no sign of it, suggesting it had been transported away from the site.

The latest theory was that it was some over-avid tourist or an overseas collector of antiquities, individuals so impressed by the site they decided to destroy it.

Later, on the island, a small poster and photo in the rectory confirmed the theft and plaintively asked anyone with information to pass it onto the Gardaí. Staring down at the empty spot where the stone used to sit, I shared some of the girl from the café’s outrage. I wondered whether the stone was now lying in some idiot’s garden, or in their home like a prized museum piece.

I’ve always had a sense of key aspects of Irish culture being eroded but generally these have been mostly at an intellectual level – the different way of thinking we have compared to other cultures, the different way we look at and see the world. The stone however, was a physical representation, a corporeal snippet of native culture.

In some respects, we can consider ourselves quite lucky. The stolen stone is now just a stone with a few crosses on it and has no other meaning that that. In Gougane Barra however, the ritual continues, more popular than ever.

And there are plenty of other stones in West Cork.

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Update on the Celtic Mythology Short Story Competition

competition-small
Less than four weeks now remain before submissions close for the Celtic Mythology Short Story Competition (closing date is 10 December 2016).

Feedback on your submissions:
After some discussion amongst ourselves, we’ve decided to offer the possibility of feedback (from the judges/editor) to those authors whose stories didn’t make the final Celtic Mythology Collection. Having gone through a number of competitions ourselves in the past, we know what it’s like to have work rejected and this is our way of giving something back to those of you who’ve made the effort of submitting.

Given that this is a last-minute decision however, we’re going to implement the process as a limited pilot (to see how it might be more effectively implemented in future competitions):
At this stage therefore, we propose to provide the feedback:
(1) as a scanned file of the hard-copy submission with hand-written notes (this will be emailed to the author)
(2) for a percentage (yet to be decided) of the total submissions that didn’t make it to the final selection.

photo-1470169048093-08ac89858749

Given that we’re still feeling our way on this we can’t guarantee your submission will receive feedback but if you’d like to be eligible for this feedback, please make a note of that in your email when you make your submission.

Obviously, any feedback provided will be based on ‘judgements’ of the various judges and is only meant to be of assistance. Because of workloads, we won’t be entering into any further correspondence once that feedback is provided.

A link to this post will be sent out to those authors who’ve already made submissions.

The Last of the Fir Bolg (Irish Mythology)

Earlier this year when visiting the Aran Islands I came across a story I’d not heard before concerning the Fir Bolg.

But first, a bit of context:

According to that very dubious source of Irish history/mythology, the Lebor Gabála Érenn (The Book of Invasions), the population of Ireland was derived from a series of numerous (well … six) consecutive colonising invasions from six different population groups. The fourth of these invading groups were known as the Fir Bolg and were said to be descendants of the third group (the Nemed) who died from disease or fled the country (commencing the long tradition of Irish emigration!)

According to the Lebor Gabála Érenn, the Fir Bolg were enslaved by the Greeks and obliged to toil by carrying bags of stone and soil, an uneasy rationale for how they got their name (one possible interpretation for “Fir Bolg” is “Men of bags” although it’s now believed actually mean “those who swell up” with battle fury). Somehow surviving 230 years of slavery, the Fir Bolg manage to depart from Greece and returned to Ireland where they divided the country up into Ireland into five separate provinces.

irish-mythology

Unfortunately, after all that effort, a mere thirty-seven years later, the fifth invading population group (the Tuath Dé Dannann) turned up and defeated the Fir Bolg in battle at Mag Tuired (Moytirra). At this point the narrative of the text varies with some versions indicating the Fir Bolg left Ireland altogether and others saying they retreated to Connacht to live in peace.

For a long time, as a result of the Lebor Gabála Érenn and other sources, many people believed that the inhabitants of the more isolated islands off the western Irish coast were the descendants of the Fir Bolg. More importantly, these people were also believed to be almost direct descendants as the population on the western islands had remained relatively untouched and unspoiled by the undue influences of civilization and progress.

From 1859 onwards, this particular belief became more important as a result of Charles Darwin’s “On The Origin of the Species”. Following its publication, there was immense interest in theories of evolution and the idea that physical characteristics such as height, hair and eye colour etc. might show a direct line of progress from ‘ape/uncivilised’ man to ‘civilised’ man. With reference to the Irish situation, Alfred Haddon (an English anthropologist and ethnographic) co-founded Dublin’s Anthropometric Laboratory in 1891, ‘with the explicit aim of understanding the racial characteristics of the Irish people’.

The people of the islands in the west of Ireland suddenly became very important because their “pure pedigree” (as descendants of the Fir Bolg) meant that they potentially held the key to the origins of the Irish race. In an increasingly nationalistic Ireland, there was keen interest from many nationalists to use these new ‘sciences’ to justify and support their own political beliefs. From the English camp meanwhile, there was also great interest in locating evidence that might explain the existence of the ‘black’ or ‘Africanoid’ Irish and the presence of such a primitive (white) race living so close to the United Kingdom (during this period, the Irish were regularly portrayed as apelike in English newspapers such as ‘Punch’ etc.)

It came as no surprise therefore, when Haddon and an Irish doctor by the name of Charles Browne arrived on the Aran Islands in 1893 and started recording the head size, cranial capacity, eye colour, skin pigmentation etc. of every islander (whom they referred to as “Aranites”) they could get their hands on. Women, of course, following the prejudices of the time, were excluded from analysis.

The study created immense interest and in the end, the results were published in 1893 in the Proceedings if the Royal Irish Academy. In terms of the Fir Bolg theory, unfortunately it all turned out to be something of a damp squib for all concerned with the report author’s summarizing it as follows:

“To what race the Aranites belong we do not pretend to say, but it is pretty evident they cannot be Firbolgs, if the latter are correctly described as small, dark-haired and swarthy.”

[Final Note: These days, the general academic consensus is that the Fir Bolg were an early Celtic group called the Bolgae (not to be confused with the Belgae) who established a settlement in Ireland.]

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Literature, Bob Dylan, and the Emperor’s New Clothes

litearture competition

I’ve never really been a Bob Dylan fan. That’s not because he particularly annoys me or anything, it’s simply because I never actually got around to listening to his music. Growing up in Ireland, we had a significant number of local and national musical influences that competed strongly with the international acts in demanding our attention. Bob kinda fell between the cracks and as a result, even now, if I tried to name one of his songs, I’d be struggling to come up with would anything beyond “Mr Tamborine Man” (and I’m sure he’s put out one or two more tunes since then).

All the same, Dylan came to my attention over a week ago when he was awarded the Nobel Prize for Literature (this is one of the five Nobel Prizes – the others are for Chemistry, Physics, Physiology or Medicine and, of course, the Peace Prize). This was all fine and dandy of course. Yet another celebrity getting an award (or a knighthood) is hardly anything new. What did prick my interest however was the reported absence of any reaction from the singer/songwriter in response to the announcement. Dylan never issued a public statement, he didn’t return the Swedish Academy’s phone calls (the group responsible for choosing and awarding the prize), he made no comment on his website. Strangely enough, although Dylan didn’t actually decline the prize, neither did he acknowledge it.

litearture competition

literature-competition

Again, I probably wouldn’t have taken much notice of that either if it hadn’t been for the surprising bitchiness of the Swedish Academy’s subsequent commentary. One member of the Academy sounded particularly petty when he came out publicly and stated that Dylan’s behavior was “impolite and arrogant”. There was a delicious kind of irony to the fact that what he was really saying, was ‘how dare Dylan not acknowledge the prize that WE decided to award him.”

And therein lies the key problem with the Nobel Prize for Literature. It’s chosen and awarded by a small group of Swedish critics (and occasionally some exclusively invited add-ons). When you think about it, that’s pretty weird. How can such a small group have such influence and power with respect to international literature.

The reality of course is that it can’t. Unless …
Unless it has the tacit support of a whole sector or infrastructure behind it.

And that’s pretty much the situation here. The infrastructure consists of the Nobel Foundation (which is of course a renowned institution, although it’s just not entirely clear whether it’s a good one or a bad one) and the mainstream commercial publishing industry. The latter in particular has strong vested financial interests in ensuring society as a whole accepts the authority of the Swedish Academy, the Man Booker Prize Committee, the Hugo Award Committee yadda, yadda, yadda, in deciding whether a book has merit or not.

The reason for this is fairly simple. Despite the millions of published works available out there (more than any one person could possibly hope to read over their lifetime), the only ones you’ll ever hear about are those that are commercially advertised or which you’re told have literary merit (as decided by someone you don’t know and who doesn’t know you).

Oh, and you should really go out and buy them, by the way.

That pressure from the commercial literary sector has an important downstream effect. Because so many critics, publishers, and arts funding agencies accept the authority of entities like the Academy to decide ‘literary merit’, writers too are obliged to toe the line and go along with the established storyline. There’s prize money associated with the prize after all. And lots of publicity and prestige which the more insecure writers seek for validation and, the more canny ones, for leverage.
Given its subsequent influence, the Swedish Academy is accustomed to a degree of ‘forelock pulling’, bowing and scraping from the privileged individuals blessed by their munificence.

This time around, in awarding the Prize for Literature to Dylan, the Swedish Academy shot itself in the foot. Bob Dylan is someone who doesn’t have anything to prove. He’s already made his millions, he’s achieved more fame than he’s probably ever wanted. He has no need for the official validation the Swedish Academy offered and he has no need to pander to them. In essence, they probably have no little relevance or value to him.

The Academy are furious with Dylan of course and it’s not because he was “rude” but because he’s exposed the whole “Emperor’s New Clothes” scenario associated with literature and, in particular, revealed the worthlessness of what the Swedish Academy offers. That revelation threatens the justification for their existence (and possibly the Nobel Foundation’s existence) but it also threatens the personal income/ kudos of those connected with the institutions. In their view, what Dylan has done is unforgiveable and as a result you can probably expect a substantial number of ‘safe’ (mainstream) winners of this award for the years to come.

To quote the New York Times, “Dylan’s refusal to accept the authority of the Swedish Academy has been a wonderful demonstration of what real artistic and philosophical freedom looks like.” It would be fascinating to see writers who are brave enough to step forward in that regard.

[Note and update: This article was originally published in the October Irish Imbas Books newsletter. Since then, a vague reference has been included on Bob Dylan’s website in that it now includes the declaration “winner of the Nobel prize in literature”. No other statement has been made. Go, Bob!]

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What If New Zealand Maori Colonised England?

Few things get my blood curdling but one was a media announcement in New Zealand yesterday when an individual by the name of Don Brash introduced a lobby group of ‘like-minded individuals’ vowing to vanquish radial separatism of the New Zealand political landscape (i.e. suppress the uppity indigenous people).

maori-the-dead-lands
[Pic: Maori woman warrior wielding ‘patu’ from the film ‘The Dead Lands’]

To be honest, I was a bit surprised they gave this racially-prejudiced lunatic any media time. A previous Reserve Bank Governor and past leader of New Zealand’s ‘National Party’, he ran a campaign back in 2004 based on pretty racist, anti-Maori sentiment. His claim at the time, was that the indigenous people of New Zealand (the New Zealand societal group who are the worst represented in terms of education, income, health and crime statistics – in fact every feckin quality of life statistic you can measure) were apparently being more favorably treated than whites and received special privileges that white people didn’t.

[I should probably mention here that my kids are Maori (and Irish, of course) and have a very strong sense of both cultures].

Unexpectedly, at the time, that appealed to large mass of the New Zealand population who’d been conned (by the National Party and a pretty inept New Zealand media) into believing Maori were going to ‘own’ all the beaches in the country and block white New Zealanders from using them. Fortunately, sanity prevailed, Brash lost the election and over time the dodgy tactics he was using came to light (as did a better media understanding of the genuinely poor state of Maori in New Zealand). Since then, Brash has become something of a figure of amusement/contempt although he still has enough friends in the political and media establishment to get a hearing when he has some money to throw around.

Seeing Brash on screen, peddling his well-heeled prejudice like some kind of high-end, soft porn, was genuinely infuriating and brought back a lot of memories of 2004/2005. Back then, I was so furious at the injustice of it all I wrote a short story called ‘Morris Dancing’ which imagines a scenario where Great Britain is visited by Maori explorers and missionaries and subsequently colonised. Most of the story reflects key aspects (and events) of New Zealand’s colonisation by the English Crown but by putting the boot on the other foot, I was able to play around and have a lot of fun with the concept. Much of the narrative in the story incorporates material from Don Brash’s speech notes of 2004, much of which is recognisable to New Zealanders.

The story was originally published in the short story collection Leannán Sidhe – The Irish Muse but I’ve put a free version of it here (see below) if you’re interested. I don’t think it’s one of my best stories by any means, but it was a way of dealing with the anger. To my surprise, when it was released it received quite a lot of positive commentary and a lot of Kiwis seemed genuinely intrigued (and amused) by the idea. It turns out that sometimes, we can better more effectively see our own faults and prejudices through a contorted mirror image.

If you’re interested, you can download a copy (PDF) of the story here at morris-dancing.

The Truth About Irish Woman Warriors (Irish Mythology)

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 is hardly a new one. Since the development of literature itself, writers and readers have been enamoured 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.

That’s not to say, of course, that woman don’t or didn’t fight. There are numerous historical and contemporary examples of women fighting to defend themselves or, more often, fighting to protect the ones they love. And, in most cases, that’s the key difference. Men were most often portrayed as fighting for abstracts like patriotism or glory. Women, less so. Women’s role in ancient warfare obviously differed within cultures but, in a (very) general sense, women were portrayed as fighting only when it was absolutely necessary or when it was necessary for some other element in the tale. People have different opinions on whether that’s a product of biology, society, upbringing or something entirely different. Either way, it’d be foolish to ignore the patterns of millennia across ancient (and modern) societies.

irish-woman-warrior

When it comes to the concept of women warriors in the ancient Irish mythological context, there’s certainly a lot more literary references compared to other contemporary societies of the same period. Some people 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. In general, most academics tend to agree that this discrepancy is simply due to the fact that the Irish mythological narratives (and here you can loosely use the term ‘Celtic’ as it also covers modern-day Scotland) were much more successively conserved in Ireland than they were in the other, more directly colonised countries.

Whatever you believe, the ancient tales still have to be treated with a lot of caution. The writers/recorders of that time were not above a bit of creative licence or prejudice. People forget that just because something was written a long time ago, that doesn’t necessarily mean it’s true.

If we look at Irish mythology then, the best known women warriors tend to include:

  • Scáthach – a woman warrior who appears in the Ulster Cycle who was based in modern-day Scotland. She instructs Cú Chulainn in a number of martial feats and 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 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 but for whom there’s very little information available

In the first three examples, one gets an overpowering impression from the literature that the character of the powerful woman warrior was created specifically to highlight the sexual accomplishment and domination of the male ‘hero’ who subsequently overpowers her (a pattern also found with other women warrior characters in the mythology). With the third example, Liath Luachra is actually a guardian to the young hero, a relationship that, in a sense, is desexualised.

Other women mentioned in the ancient Irish literature who are often offered 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)

In fact, neither of these actually make the cut if you look at them in any kind of detail. All of the literary and archaeological evidence to date suggests the characters are personifications of female deities as opposed to warrior women. Articles or literary works suggesting that they are, generally indicates the author hasn’t done his/her homework or is pushing an argument that’s probably driven more by wish fulfilment than fact.

Over the last twenty years or so, representation of women warriors has become much more prevalent, particularly where entertainment aligns with more contemporary underlying themes of gender equality etc. Given the prevalence of characters in the Irish mythology, there’s also been a tendency to ‘borrow’ them for contemporary fictions but without any real consideration of the underlying cultural context. This occasionally results 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.

Souvenirs from Ireland – Battle of the Books

Every time I come back from Ireland it’s a ‘Battle of the Books’ in terms of permitted baggage weight on international flights. I suppose the only good thing is that its something of a natural restriction to excess reading.

irish-books

This is a selection of the books I carried in my bag (but not all) last week. It also doesn’t include a number of graphic novels, some additional fiction and, of course, the numerous old local history books (about 20) I’ve had to photograph into digital form (the libraries don’t allow you to photocopy theses nowadays in case it causes damage). I reckon there’s at least 1.5 years of analysis, additional research and conceptual thinking associated with all this.

Still! Keeps me off the street and out of trouble.