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The Challenge of Cultural Integrity in Writing

When I first started writing the Fionn mac Cumhaill Series over two years ago, I was keen to create a realistic, culturally authentic version of the famous Fenian Cycle that was recognisable to Irish readers but also accessible to non-Irish readers. As part of my overall goal with Irish Imbas Books however, I was also keen to use the series as a way of reintroducing lost Gaelic/Irish concepts (that is words, expressions and – more importantly – ways of thinking) that have been lost from common parlance as a result of colonization but which still have significance at a societal level.

This is why throughout the series, you’ll find a constant smattering of words like ‘fian‘, , draoi, ráth, and some others, words that by themselves mean little, but which in the context of Irish/Gaelic culture have a major resonance.

The word ‘Fianna‘ is a classic example of how much was lost. This word – the basis for the contemporary word ‘Fenian’ – is believed by most people (including many Irish people who’ve never been taught any better) to be the name of Fionn mac Cumhaill’s war band. In fact, ‘Fianna’ was simply nothing more than the plural of the ‘fian‘ (which meant ‘war party’). This means that Fionn’s fian was one of a number of such war parties and that they were a recognised dynamic in the society of the time. It’s a little thing, but when you take the downstream consequences of that new knowledge into account you can see how it changes the interpretation of the story.

Trying to balance those competing goals (the requirements of cultural integrity and the requirement to deliver an accessible and enjoyable story to an international audience) can actually be quite a challenge at times. The truth is that any decision you make with one can have a huge consequence with the other.

One of my earliest decisions, for example, was to retain the original Gaelic spelling for the character names (Fionn, Liath Luachra, Bodhmhall, Fiacail etc.) and place names (Seiscenn Uarbhaoil etc.). This demonstration of cultural accuracy – naturally – clashed bigtime with the accessibility goal. For non-Gaelic speakers, Irish names can be the equivalent of having a broken stick in your mouth – whatever comes out is going to come out mangled! Anyone used to thinking in English – understandably – struggles with the unfamiliar combination of vowels and consonants.

Naturally, the advice I received from everyone was to use an anglicization of the names to make the reader more comfortable. After all, that’s why in the early days Fionn mac Cumhaill’s name was anglicized to the meaningless ‘Finn Mac Cool’. Sure, the latter is easier to say for an English speaker but the English name doesn’t carry the strong cultural associations of the Irish one (Fionn means ‘fair-headed’ but also has related connotations of ‘insightfulness’ etc.). ‘Finn’ is a meaningless term that includes no such depth or resonance (and, here, I’ll have to apologise in advance to those parents who’ve gone and named their kids, Finn!).

If you’ve read any of the Fionn mac Cumhaill Series books, you’ll already know I went with my heart rather than my head on this particular issue (although I did soften the challenge for readers by providing an audio pronunciation guide). In some respects that actually seems to have paid off in that readers predominantly respect what I’m trying to achieve and have demonstrated immense patience and willingness to overcome the temporary pronunciation challenge. At the end of the day, I guess what my experience has really demonstrated is that if you produce something that’s good enough/intriguing enough/interesting enough for people to enjoy, they’ll put up with your whims and even support you.

As an aside, here’s a question I once held up at Irish cultural/heritage class I was running:
How would you pronounce the following?

  • Zach Galifianakis
  • Michelle Pfieffer
  • Arnold Schwarzenegger
  • Nikolaj Coster-Waldau
  • Chiwetel Ejiofor

Everyone in that group of attendees (about 18) was able to pronounce at least four of those names and where they couldn’t they knew exactly what that person had achieved as part of their creative career.

Basically, culture is not a barrier to success unless you let it be.
And, seriously! If an English speaker can manage to pronounce Schwarzenegger, Fionn is never going to be a problem.

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Celtic Mythology Short Story Competition: Results

As mentioned in my last post, the initial shortlist of 19 short stories (this was actually a long-list – we’ll know better next time) was reduced to a more manageable number for the judges. The ten stories in question were:

  • A Face in the Snow by Majella Cullinane
  • All Man by Philomena Byrne
  • Gebann’s Daughter by Jane Dougherty
  • In the Hour of Greatest Need by Will O’Siorain
  • Joe Malshy by Farren McDonald
  • Lexi on her Sixty-second Journey by Randee Dawn
  • Revival by Méabh Browne
  • Seasick by Molly Aitken
  • The Black Hen by Diana Powell
  • The Good Man by Damian Keating

It was a tough job culling the nine stories that we did. Certainly, some of them were good, others we thought had immense potential but at the end of the day we had to make a decision.

These then were the ten stories considered by the judges. Even with the reduced number however, the choice remained a difficult one with extremely close scores between the first and second place winners and an even tinier gap between the third and fourth places. Certainly, in our view, any of these ten stories are suitable for publication.

Still at the end of the day, this is a competition so the three winners are as follows:

First Prize
$500 and story published in Irish Imbas Celtic Mythology Collection

‘In the Hour of Greatest Need’ by Will O’Siorain

Second Prize
$250 and story published in Irish Imbas Celtic Mythology Collection
‘The Black Hen’ by Diana Powell

Third Prize
$100 and story published in Irish Imbas Celtic Mythology Collection
‘The Good Man’ by
Damian Keating

Special mention also needs to be made for:

  • Joe Malshy by Farren McDonald
  • Revival by Méabh Browne
  • Seasick by Molly Aitken

All three of these were within a hairsbreadth of the top three places and we’re very pleased that they’ll at least appear in the final Irish Imbas: Celtic Mythology Collection 2017.

So What Happens Next?

  • The winning authors should receive payment by the end of this week
  • Irish Imbas Books is closing down for a much-needed break next week so we’ll probably not be contactable for several days
  • The Irish Imbas: Celtic Mythology Collection 2017 will be released sometime towards the end of March 2017. We’ll keep you posted on that.
  • Once that publication’s complete, we’ll provided feedback to those authors who didn’t make the initial shortlist (and who requested feedback). We’re still not sure how/when that will occur but I imagine this will happen between April-June 2017.

Congratulations to the winners and immense thanks to those of you who took the time to enter or follow the competition.

Odd Dynamics of the Celtic Mythology Short Story Competition

ODD DYNAMICS IN THE CELTIC MYTHOLOGY SHORT STORY COMPETITION

In 2015, when we ran the very first Celtic Mythology Short Story Competition, we received about 35 submissions. This year, we were expecting a slight increase but, in fact, that number more than doubled. This caught us by surprise and it involved a lot more work than we’d originally envisaged. The shortlist we finally released (see here) contained 19 short stories but it soon became obvious we’d have to reduce that number again so as not to overwhelm the judges. After another reading and using the same criteria, that list was subsequently reduced to ten.

Today (Sunday 26 February) a number of the judges met to consider that reduced shortlist. We’re still awaiting the results of the final judge (who unfortunately couldn’t make it due to illness) but there are some interesting dynamics which have already become apparent.

The Judging Process:

This year, we amended the judging process to reduce the Irish Imbas Books input into the final decisions (I had the sense that we were just a little too close last year). As a result, for decisions on the 2017 Celtic Mythology Collection we had four judges instead of three and Irish Imbas Books (through myself) had a single vote out of four. The judging process was also different this year in that three of the judges were male and one was female (the previous year, the majority of judges were female). You might think such minor changes wouldn’t have too much of an impact but, interestingly, I suspect they do. Two of the stories I had considered shoo-ins for the top five actually ended up getting far lower scores from the other judges than I’d anticipated. One story I hadn’t expected to get in, is now up there in the top five/six.

The Dynamics

Mythology not fantasy:

Something that did surprise us (and which I referred to in an earlier post) was the substantial confusion out there with respect to what mythology is and how it relates to fantasy. Some of the submitted entries seemed to have no connection with any established mythology from the Celtic countries (apart from being set in Ireland, Wales, Scotland etc.). In one respect, I suppose I wasn’t surprised – this gaping lack of understanding of mythological knowledge was why I set up Irish Imbas Books in the first place. What did shock me though was the sheer scale of the misunderstanding out there.

As a general rule, it’s probably best to think of mythology as a mechanism our ancestors used to explain the world around them. It operated through narrative as our ancestors didn’t have access to the scientific rationale that we utilise today. Essentially, mythology is culturally based (which is why different cultures have their own characteristic mythological elements). It contains fantastical elements but it’s not fantasy.

Recurring Themes:

With last years competition, we noticed a number of recurring themes with the stories submitted (i.e. some of the mythological aspects used in the stories occurred fare more often than others – Bean sí, selkies. etc.). This year, we also noticed a surprising number of recurring themes that included:

  • Bean sí / Banshees (again – 7 entries)
  • An Toraíocht/ Diarmuid agus Grainne (five stories)
  • Changelings – replacement of young children by supernatural creatures (five stories)

This pattern of recurring themes is a bit odd but it does seem to occur purely by chance (certainly, there’s no way I’d have anticipated so many An Toraíocht-based stories). Last year, we had a surplus of Selkie stores (which was why I suggested not submitting a selkie story this year). Next year, I’ll probably add Bean sí.

I suppose, in hindsight, it wasn’t really surprising to receive so many Bean sí stories. Internationally, the Bean sí is one of the more well-known elements of Irish mythology. Ironically, it’s also one that most Irish people tend to avoid like the plague. We’re all very familiar with these stories so to an Irish person, many of those stories hold limited interest. In addition, when someone from overseas writes those they often feel overly melodramatic or overly romanticised. As one of the judges commented – banshees felt like the default/easy option.

Unfortunately, I think those submitters who happen to get caught up in a recurring theme are at a (slight) disadvantage when it comes down to the shortlist and winner selection. That’s because these short stories not only have to compete against other mythological short stories but stories within their own subject area as well.

Faux Irish

A surprisingly large number of entries (at least ten) also seemed to be attempting to put an Irish ‘voice’ to the characters in their stories (particularly where the story was set in Ireland – fair enough). As a general rule however, the old adage – write what you know – is particularly relevant when it comes to writing about a culture that’s not your own. Certainly, it’s possible but it really does help to have more than a passing familiarity with the culture (i.e. you’ve lived in the country for an extended period etc.).

This was particularly obvious with respect to dialogue where the judges were exposed to a number of ‘clangers’ (i.e. words or expressions introduced by a character that no Irish person would use) or with cultural contexts that just jarred and didn’t ring true. This was probably more important this year as three of the four judges were Irish.

That’s probably enough of a tease for the moment.
The final results will be posted here tomorrow or the day after.

Note: We’ve estimated that the free digital version of last year’s Celtic Mythology Collection was downloaded between 40,000-45,000 times (minimum).

When Game of Thrones Goes Bad

Here’s a potential Christmas gift for the Fantasy fan in your life!

You’ve heard of GAME OF THRONE’S MONOPOLY …

Well, now, EVEN BETTER comes ………………

GAME OF THRONES CLUEDO!!!!!

Possibly the most challenging of games ever played. Essentially YOU play the role of a city warden – one of King’s Landing’s finest – and YOU have the unenviable task of working out who did NOT murder the victim.

Simple?

Well, maybe not. This is a game that requires a keen and subtle mind and the task is a little more complicated than it might appear at first.

In King’s Landing, EVERYONE murders everyone else! The city is awash with homicides, patricides, fratricides and any oul-cide you can think of. Finding an innocent man or woman is like finding an unpoxied doxy in Chataya’s Brothel!

At the end of the game, it’s YOU – and only YOU – who must report back to the King’s Hand to boldly proclaim:

X did not kill Y in the Z with the:

  • thumbs in the eye-sockets
  • rats in the chest cavity
  • knife to the eye
  • molten gold on the head
  • crossbow bolts through the bedpost

And SO MANY MORE!!!

Endless hours of fun for ALL the family!!

Note: For the more gullible among you, this is not a real game … unfortunately!

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

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.

Bored? In need of scintillating cultural stimulation?

Then consider our monthly newsletter (below). More in-depth articles on Irish culture (contemporary or historical), mythology/ folklore, occasionally news on new books, writing or other things that amuse us.

 

 

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.