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Update on Forthcoming Productions

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Winter is coming.

Not that you’d know it in Wellington at the moment with all the gorgeous weather. Despite this though, the days are getting shorter, it’s darker in the mornings and at night. Meanwhile, there’s lots of quiet industry going on in the downstairs office.

I thought it might be useful if I gave a quick update on where things are at in terms of …. eh … upcoming productions. People have been hounding me for the third Fionn book for a while now (not to mind Beara 2 which I still feel pretty bad about having to put aside). So, here’s the plan.

Fionn 3: The Adversary

I completed chapter 5 of this, last week. I have bits and pieces of 6 and 7 written but they need to go through the narrative melding process. My target for publication was June this year and although I’m still working to that, work and family responsibilities mean it’s probably going to be more like July/Aug. This isn’t helped by the fact that this looks like it might be a longer book than 1 or 2. It covers quite a lot of Bodhmhall’s background story (much of it is centred around Dún Baoiscne and her relationship with her father) as well as the ongoing narrative.

Liath Luachra: The Kindly Ones

I just completed chapter four of this manuscript tonight. It’s essentially a kind of prequel to the Fionn series and focusses on the backstory of the character, Liath Luachra. Given the complexity of this particular character, I felt she needed a full story to herself and it was one I needed to complete in order to clarify some of the plot points that pop up in Fionn 3.

Oh, and yes, I should warn you it’s slightly darker than the other books in the series.

The story here is a  very much a stand alone one concerning Liath Luachra’s days with Na Cinéaltaí  – the Friendly Ones – the mercenary group she was part of prior to meeting Bodhmhall us Baoiscne and the events in Fionn: Defence of Ráth Bládhma. She doesn’t actually encounter Bodhmhall in this particular story as I wanted to focus on my research on fian (war parties) and tribal dynamics – particularly for those individuals who, through no fault of their own, weren’t actually part of a tribe.  I have left scope for a sequel to this but that’s low on the list of priorities for the moment.

Non-Fiction Book

This is a book I’ve been wanting to write for several years. If you’ve read my blog you’ll know that I see myself more as an amateur folklorist/historian  than a writer and over the years I’ve spent researching Irish culture and heritage, there are a number of things I’ve discovered that I’m really keen to pass on. These are the kinds of things which I – in my great wisdom – believe are increasingly important but which nobody else seems to understand or even consider. Anyway, if I do succeed in writing it and publishing it, it’ll probably be the most important thing I’ve ever done.

Well that’s one person anyway!

In terms of timeline, I think it’ll be late next year before this is published as there are a few items I still need to get clear in my head so I can articulate them clearly.

Beara 2:

Ah, yes! The guilty conscience.

I have to confess, the Fionn series is great to write as it allows me to work through and introduce a lot of ancient cultural concepts, Gaelic vocabulary and elements of history that people wouldn’t normally get to hear or think about. For me, though, the Beara Trilogy is really where the intellectual grey pedal hits the cultural metal (Yes, sorry. Talk about forced metaphors! It’s late. I’m tired.)

The plot for Beara 2 is pretty much outlined in my head but I didn’t want to leave Fionn readers in the lurch with a cliff hanger, hence the rationale for finishing Fionn 3 first. This will be the next thing I launch into after the first two books are completed.

Fionn: The Stalking Silence – Audiobook

I’ve been planning to do a pilot audiobook for some time and I’m pretty sure that this will finally occur before Christmas this year. Naturally, I’m using this book as the pilot because it’s (a) short (b) stand-alone and (c) I have the audio style already mapped out in my head. This is really just a fun project for me – a chance to play around and do something different so please just bear with me. Like the book Fionn: The Stalking Silence (Kindle) and Fionn: The Stalking Silence (Smashwords), this will be a freebie I’ll probably make available on this site.

Anyway, that’s as much as I know at the moment. Apologies if you visited looking for some insightful commentary on Irish cultural folklore.

(Irish Folklore) The Mystery of Bog Butter

Bog butter has always fascinated me, probably because I love those topics where there’s an element of mystery or no definitive answer. That’s probably not a particularly appropriate thing to say for someone with scientific training but, then again, there are some limitations with the scientific approach. Besides, science has never been about the confirmation of absolutes so much as the reduction of uncertainty.

For those of you who don’t know what bog butter is, it’s a kind of wax-like organic material often discovered around Ireland (mostly in peat bogs) although there have also been several finds in Great Britain as well. Generally, it looks like a giant lump of lard (see picture) and it’s often sealed in wooden churns/pots, although that varies a lot as well.

Much of the academic theory about ‘bog butter’ relates to it being an ancient preservation method for food or alternatively a food processing method to make a food taste differently (the early age equivalent of cuisine flavouring).

Both of these theories hold water. It’s certainly reasonable to assume that our ancestors would try to preserve surplus butter produced over the dairy production periods. There are however, a number of elements that tend to be forgotten.

  • ‘Bog butter’ has actually been around for millennia. The Museum of Scotland has ‘bog butter’ dated as 2000 years old. More recently in Ireland (2011), the largest recorded volume of the material (about 45 kg) ever discovered was found in Tullamore. This is believed to be more than 3000 years old.
  • It’s not actually butter. Tests on some of the waxy material also indicates the presence of adipose or tallow (i.e. they would have been meat-based)
  • There’s a hell of a lot of it – relatively speaking. People have been ‘discovering’ bog butter remnants for many centuries. Back in the day it was apparently found often enough that there’s one report of it being sold at a market fair to grease wheels.

Most of the more recent folklore around ‘bog butter’ supports the theory that they’re the result of dairy preservation. At the same time, folklore contains many references to ‘magical’ qualities of butter and various stories about how lumps of butter were thrown into loughs and waterways to wash sick cattle and return them to health. One of the problems with folklore though, is that it’s often developed around things that people don’t understand in an effort to make sense of them or to rationalise them. That’s particularly the case where ancient cultural practices have been forgotten and only the physical remnants remain. Generally, people try to explain such mysteries based on their own experience and thus their interpretation can’t always be trusted.

Back in the day, dairy and other agricultural products were clearly perceived as items of great value. It would have taken a lot of resource and effort to produce them and, correspondingly, their use would have involved elements of respect and, probably, ritual. This is why we have the large quantity of folklore stories which illustrate those aspects.

Theories about the other deposits (e.g. gold and other valuable items found in bogs and waterways) have, however, changed over time. Experts are now inclined to believe that these objects were purposely deposited as an offering to appease a land deity rather than being hidden or buried for later use (and then lost or forgotten). Given the value of agricultural products, it’s very likely that these were also intentionally  deposited. Given the fact that ancient Ireland was very much an agricultural-based society, that would also explain why ‘bog butter’ is found in such large quantities.

Needless to say, this is all still speculation. The truth is we’re not certain and with the various theories we’re essentially making educated guesses. Another truth is that we’ll probably never know for sure, that it’ll always be something of a mystery unless some new piece of conclusive evidence comes along.

Despite the scientist in me, I suppose I’m fine with either version.

The Hill of Tara, British Israelites and ISIS

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I’m currently in the process of writing a section in the third book of the Fionn mac Cumhal series (The Adversary) which deals with a Neolithic passage grave and I thought I’d share two photos from a research trip I did back home about two years ago.  These show what is probably the most famous of Irish passage grave outside of those found at Brú na Bóinne (Newgrange) – that is, Dumha na nGiall (in English, the Mound of the Hostages) at Tara.

This particular passage grave is estimated to date back to about 3400 B.C. In other words, it was already almost three thousand years old by the time the Celts wandered over to Ireland from the Continent (about 500 B.C.). Like many of the other passage tombs, the alignment allows the morning sun to shine down the passageway twice a year to illuminate the internal chamber. Excavations carried out between 1955 and 1959, found more than 200 cremated or inhumed burials (often placed in upturned earthenware urns with burial gifts).

 

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It really is an impressive piece of work and astounding to consider that it’s still in such good condition almost 5000 years later. Naturally however, despite such proof from the potential of human achievement, it’s also important to consider the more idiotic side to humanity as well. The most famous of these at Tara occurred between 1899 and 1902 when Dumha na nGiall was almost destroyed by a group known as the ‘British Israelists’. Convinced that the Irish were one of the Lost Tribes of Israel (yes, that is hard to believe!!) and that the Hill of Tara contained the Ark of the Covenant.

That such crazed extremists were allowed to go ahead with their destruction of such a unique national monument says a lot about the times. A big part of the problem, of course, was that many of those involved were members of the British aristocracy and as the English Crown was in control over Ireland at this time, local outrage was pretty much ignored.

There were, of course, many protests. Arthur Griffith carried out a major campaign against the ‘excavations’  with many of the hoi polloi of the day (WB Yeats, George Moore and Douglas Hyde etc.) despite being ordered off-site by armed men and police. The crazed activist Maud Gonne also turned up and created a scene by lighting a bonfire and singing “A nation once again” in her very genteel English accent (the early 1900s were certainly a wild time in Ireland). Many people believe the destruction to the site of Tara was one of the many national indignities that went on to spur the subsequent rebellion in 1916.

Two nights ago, I was looking at a television report where a bunch of Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS) thugs were smashing up a beautiful 2700 year old monument in the famed ancient Assyrian capital of Khorsabad. As I watched the inbred with the sledgehammer smashing the ancient statue into smithereens, it struck me that as a species, human beings are never going to evolve unless they learn from their past mistakes and escape the destructive cycles of repetition.

5000 years on, and it seems as though we’re still just spinning.

Irish Tribes and The Iron Age

Ireland’s Iron Age (600 BC to 400 AD) is one of the most mysterious and enigmatic periods of Irish history which is why – I guess –  it’s always appealed to me. In many ways the period is a blank canvas. We know very little about it and the limited snippets of information we do have are tantalizingly vague and easy to interpret in a multitude of different ways.

A key part of the problem is that there are no documents or records for this period that have been written by Irish hands (the skill of writing wasn’t introduced to Ireland until the fifth century with the arrival of Christianity). There’s also a dearth of archaeological evidence linked to that period. This latter is particularly striking when you consider the fact that millennia before, thriving communities existed who not only carried out extensive dairy and cereal farming but constructed complex and well-designed stone structures as well. The Boyne Valley mounds at Newgrange, Knowth and Dowth for example, were built around 3200 BC. The extensive dairy farms at the amazing Céide Fields, are almost 6,000 years old.

For this reason, there’s always been a sense in some Irish historical circles that human activity subsided or stagnated over the Iron Age. To be fair, this is confirmed to a degree through pollen analysis which shows evidence of substantial forest regeneration (i.e. lands that had been cleared for farming purposes were simply left grow wild again) over this period. Some historians refer to the Iron Age as the ‘Irish Dark Ages’. One Irish archaeologist (Barry Raftery) described the population of this time period as ‘the Invisible People’ because of the scarcity of archaeological evidence of their existence.

Numerous theories have abounded for this decline in human activity and these range from climate change to natural catastrophes (e.g. Icelandic volcanos) to plague and warfare. This truth is that no-one really knows for certain. What we do know however, is that human activity picked up and recovered dramatically in the third and fourth centuries. In general, this recovery is usually attributed to the influence of the increasingly wealthy Roman Britain which provided a great source of trade, knowledge transfer (and booty and slaves for Irish raiders)

As you’ve probably guessed, given the above, very little is known about Irish tribes before the fifth century. Again, we do have some clues – the earliest source of tribal information is a map compiled by Ptolemy (a Graeco-Roman who lived in Alexandria during the 2nd century AD.). Unfortunately, it’s very hard to reconcile the tribes identified in Ptolemy’s map with those identified in later records. Some of the names are teasingly familiar; the Brigantes, for example, might be related to a tribe known to have been living in what is now northern/ midland Britain and another tribe mentioned – the Manapii – are potentially linked to the Menapii, a Belgic tribe of northern Gaul. Other tribes Ptolemy mentions however, have disappeared completely from history, fallen out of time never to be heard of again.

When writing a narrative set in Ireland’s Iron Age, such information – or rather such ambiguity – is absolute gold dust in terms of inspiration. It’s essentially the equivalent of being given an outline of a mysterious and fantastic world with specific detail for some elements and absolute free rein for others. When I write the Fionn mac Cumhal series, for example, I tend to use a lot of reference books (historical, archaeological, language mostly) to give parameters such as culture, topography, belief systems and so on, an authentic flavour but in terms of activity, characters and action, that world is my oyster.

As a writer/historian, it really doesn’t get better than that.

The Mystery of the ‘Top Toilet in Ireland’

Ireland HOliday 2012 094This is a true story that’s probably not a true story so, by definition, a perfect example of how folklore is created. I originally heard this tale from my aunt so if you know the truth behind it do please let me know. I’ve always wondered. Anyway, it goes as follows.

Back in the late 1990’s or early 2000’s (depends who’s telling the story), plans were drawn up for a public toilet at an isolated beauty spot in West Cork, the site of an ancient monastery set up by St Finbar. A large increase in traffic in recent times had meant a significant number of tourists were passing through (sometimes arriving in buses) and there’d been numerous complaints about the limited public facilities to cater for them.

In the version of the story I heard, a request for proposals for a new toilet block was sent out by Cork County Council. Several submissions were received, a decision was made and a contract finally drawn up and signed (or, possibly, not).  A year or so later, the Council received an invoice from the architect/builder/supplier for an absolutely extravagant amount of money.

Flabbergasted, they immediately sent a man out to Gougane Barra to find out what the hell was going on and when he saw the finished product – an artistic combination of ancient Iron Age style and modern interior design – his jaw hit the ground with a thump. Apparently he sent a note to his superior along the lines of ‘I thought we’d ordered a simple toilet block not a feckin space-age tribal hut!!’

According to my aunt, the Council would have taken action except for the fact that the toilet ended up wining an award for the ‘Top Toilet in Ireland’. Naturally, this being Cork, word spread almost immediately and for years afterwards, people were traveling all the way to Gougane Barra to see the new, extremely expensive, award-wining toilet rather than the ancient monastery.

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As I said earlier, I have no idea if this story is true or not. I suspect not but out of curiosity I did do some research to see if there actually was a Top Toilet Award in Ireland. I did come a similar award for a toilet in Kerry for the same year but the absence of any other reference does make me wonder. Two top toilets in the same year?  The competition must have been fierce in 2002!

Funnily enough, I also came across the Toilets of Ireland Association website (Seriously! Who the hell knew!!) where a quote on the left hand side from the Chief Executive states:

“I’m going to make your toilet experience even more special!”

 Honestly, it’s enough to make you shiver!!

(Irish Folklore) Shite that W.B. Yeats says!

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When it comes to Irish Folklore, a useful rule of thumb to apply is to avoid anything ‘factual’ written by W.B. Yeats. Lovely man I’m sure, grand poet but, God, he was a complete flake when it came to his writing on Irish folklore.

Despite much of his ‘academic’ work being dismissed many years ago , he’s still revered as an authority in certain circles. His work on Irish ‘fairies’ in particular is constantly quoted on the internet continuing that great tradition of misinformation.

To understand WB’s limitations with respect to Irish culture though, you really have to take the man’s life into context. An important point of context is that WB was of Anglo-Irish descent and a member of a very privileged Protestant aristocracy. Nothing specifically wrong with that of course, but it’s important to consider as back in the day this would essentially have meant Yeats:

(a) was disconnected from the lives of the Irish peasantry (from who he mined much of his folklore and inspiration)

(b) couldn’t speak Irish (again, another significant barrier to accessing folklore)

Yeats also spent quite a substantial period of his life in England which, once again, would have restricted his connection to authentic sources of information on Irish culture and folklore.

Yeats introduction to Lady Gregory in 1986 was probably his most important break when it came to accessing genuine Irish culture and folklore. A strong nationalist, Lady Gregory encouraged him to focus on writing that was ‘identifiably Irish’ in content but, more importantly, she also introduced him to a new generation of up and coming Irish authors such as Synge and Sean O’Casey who were able to offer insights and personal experience on aspects of folklore he would not have known about.

Another important access point for Yeats was the output of academic scholars who were translating ancient Irish manuscripts at that time or doing their best to conserve the Irish language (e.g. Douglas Hyde, also a Protestant but a fluent Irish speaker). These translations introduced the whole country to previously unknown mythological sagas and Ossianic poetry from Ireland past’s and its probable that Yeats was more comfortable with this kind of source material than the more contemporary folklore.

The truth is that although Yeats managed to get a foot in the ‘Irish folklore door’ through his contacts, his background and his inability to speak (or apparently learn) Irish were something of a barrier. When dealing with the little people (the Irish peasantry as opposed to the ‘f-f-faeries!!), he was often dependent on others to translate for him or to provide abridged details. There’s a sad kind of humour to be found, for example, when reading his efforts to list and classify Irish fairies in Irish Fairy and Folk Tales. Not only did he completely misunderstand what ‘fairies’ were, one cant help getting the impression that his sources were either forelock-tugging peasants desperately making up any old shite to please him or local smartarses taking the mickey out of the ‘bigwig’ from the capital.

The biggest problem with Yeats however was not so much the barrier of his background as his fascination with spiritualism/mysticism and the occult (magic). This passion very much coloured his interpretation of Irish folklore, as it did with much of his writing throughout his life. Not only was he a member of occult groups such as ‘The Ghost Club’ (a kind of paranormal research organisation formed in 1862 but still going, apparently) and the ‘Golden Dawn’ (an organization devoted to the study and practice of the occult) he also studied and was influenced by many of the self-proclaimed ‘wizards’ and ‘magicians’ of his day.  In 1892, he wrote:

“If I had not made magic my constant study I could not have written a single word of my Blake book, nor would The Countess Kathleen ever have come to exist.”

Which explains a lot. Mind you, although Yeats based the play on a supposed Irish legend, later tracing of that legend identified it as a French work

In fairness, though, Irish Fairy and Folk Tales and other works by Yeats were very much a product of their time. Yeats, no doubt, had his own artistic and reputational agenda but there’s no denying his passion for his subject. In addition, with the rise of nationalism you can be sure that certain Irish elements were more than happy to have an internationally recognised poet and a sanitised national cultural history for them to wave about as a flag in support of their cause.

Are Irish Clans and Tribes Gone Forever: Part One?

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In European countries, when people talk of ‘clan’ (from the medieval Gaelic word ‘clann’) they’re basically using a more localised word for ‘tribe’. Both relate to a community or social grouping established from a common kinship or family tie although, over time, as the grouping grows larger, that definition can change. Most people believe the concept of a tribe has pretty much had its day in Ireland but if you look carefully you’ll still see remnants of it around in certain parts of the country.

The first clue is the link between family names and homeland location. Most Irish genealogists and social researchers are more than aware how closely aligned the two are in Ireland, not only in terms of country but in terms of townland as well. In Beara, for example, the old adage is that “you can’t throw a stone in the bush without hitting an O’Sullivan” and anyone who’s ever studied the shop names in Catletownbere knows that to be true.

Needless to say, that holds just as well for the Harringtons and, of course, the Murphys who, judging from their numbers and geographical spread, seem to have single-handedly dominated reproduction in Ireland for several centuries.

‘nuff said!

Living in New Zealand, I’ve been lucky enough to have the opportunity to compare the impact of colonization (the invasion of another country and the oppression of its native people/culture) on Maori tribal societies here with Gaelic tribal societies back home. This has been exceptionally useful when writing the Fionn series not only because Clan politics play an important part of the story but in terms of cultural authenticity – a key part of what I’m trying to do with Irish Imbas Books.

Unlike Ireland, where the undermining of Gaelic culture commenced in earnest from an early date (early 1600s), the colonization process in New Zealand didn’t truly kick in until the mid- to late-1800s. Even then, because of its relative isolation compared to the invading countries and its tough topography, the colonization process was never fully completed to the point that the Crown and associated business interests would probably have liked.

Although it was pretty much brought to the brink, Maori society has managed to retain/reclaim very strong elements of its culture as well as parts of its tribal structure. What’s fascinating to watch, though, is that with the legal power of the Treaty of Waitangi (the treaty signed between the English Crown and most tribes) and subsequent financial compensation (albeit minimal) for lands stolen and damage sustained, Maori communities are now, once again, re-establishing their tribal organisations. There are of course, major differences to the structures of 150-200 years ago but this is still something I’ve not seen anywhere else in the world (although I understand something similar may be occurring in Canada and the United States). I don’t think people here have truly understood the impact those changes are going to have (hopefully better –  but who knows?) in society over the next ten to twenty years.

By studying the tribal dynamics here, I find that I can extrapolate quite a lot of the cultural subtleties to the Gaelic context, to work out how Irish (or rather, ‘Gaelic’) clan/tribal structures worked long ago – and,  potentially – how they might work in the future.  I’ll be covering that in more detail in my next blog article.

Locations for Beara: Dark Legends

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When I write, I find it useful to have a pre-existing model for where various events or actions in the story take place. I don’t think I’m particularly lazy in this respect, I just find that having a clear mental image of a location allows me to focus more on plot and character dialogue. Obviously, with Beara: Dark Legends, I used areas down in West Cork that I’m most familiar with to recreate a location that suited the plot and feel of the novel.

When writing about Carraig Dubh (pronounced ‘Corr-igg Duv’ for the non-Irish speakers) I was trying to instil a very strong sense of heritage and ‘sanctuary’. In the book, the ‘farm’, has been in Diarmuid and Demne’s family for generations and is strongly linked to the concept of generational – almost tribal –  O’Sullivan land. The house and the surrounding area, therefore had to be described with a particular level of detail that only comes from long familiarity. I think that worked pretty well, overall. These days, when I reread sections of the novel, the ones I most enjoy most tend to be those more domestic scenes where Mos or Demne are at home or wandering around fields that I can still remember clearly after all these years.

Needless to say, that’s Cnoc Daod up there in the background, dominating the world with it’s granite bulk. People asked me why I never give it the English name but I suppose, for me, the English name just doesn’t sound right. It’s probably just a personal thing. I like it’s English name fine but it’ll never have the same emotional resonance or connection that ‘Cnoc Daod’ has.

 

A Merry Christmas and a Legless New Year

Escape from Wellington to Paraparaumu beach - 1 March 2013

I love New Zealand Christmases. It’s not so much the fact that it’s warm (Santa Claus comes dressed in shorts and a singlet) and the sunniest time of the year so much as the fact that New Zealand seems to come to a complete halt from Dec 24. For a period of at least three weeks, you can put up a sign that says ‘Gone Fishing!’ and it applies to the whole country. If you’re ever planning an invasion, this is really the time to do it!

In Wellington, that break seems to extend even further, in that we have at least two long weekends to ease ourselves back into long pants and the humdrum routine of work.   Most Wellingtonians don’t really get back into that routine until the end of January. This pause and change of practice is surprisingly beneficial.  For one of the few times in the year, you have the space to step out of your rut, veer away from convention and reconsider your existence in a new light. That’s probably why so many people make various life-changing decisions at this time of year.

We had a pretty muted Christmas this year but still managed to get away for four days  up the coast, sleeping, yacking, drinking, walking on the endless stretch of beach.  There were no real life-changing experiences, no eureka moments or great thoughts. If anything, there was a complete absence of thought which is also a great thing. Sometimes the mind just needs to shut down, filter out all the shite and rest.

I had great plans to write at least three chapters of the next Fionn book over Christmas but I didn’t. I also had great plans to catch up with friends and contact relatives I haven’t seen for a while but I didn’t. I suppose I needed the rest after a pretty full year but ‘Casa O’Sullivan’ do seem to have come up with a new vision statement for 2105:

Should have,

could have,

would have.

Didn’t.

Happy New Year!!

Speaking Irish

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The most common question that pops up in my website correspondence (and yes, apologies, I know the contact form is down at the moment), concerns my use of Irish (language) in the books I write. A few people have quizzed me specifically on (a) why I do it and (b) is it really necessary.

I suppose, for me, these aren’t really questions I’ve ever particularly asked myself and it’s actually a bit hard to answer. The truth is you always have to be a bit politic when discussing the Irish language in Ireland because there’s some extreme views on the topic. A small (but vocal) proportion of Irish people were forced to learn Irish in school, failed at it miserably and have resented it ever since. That grudge is worsened by what they see as preferential treatment for people in the Gaeltacht (those areas where Irish is still the first language) who receive grants/subsidies to support the preservation of the language. As a result, it’s often impossible to have a rational conversation with them on the topic.

On the other extreme, you also have a number of fanatical gaelgóir who feel that, as the native language, EVERYONE should be speaking Irish at ALL times. Again, it’s also hard to talk with these people.

Obviously, the sane view lies somewhere in the middle and, to be fair, that’s where most Irish people stand. There’s a great fondness for An Gaeilge amongst most Irish people. That’s certainly been my experience. The ones who hate it are usually to be found complaining bitterly on the internet to anyone who’ll ‘listen’ (or not).

All the same, having passed through the Irish educational system (and survived) and having seen some of the government grant/subsidies used to preserve the language, I really have to shake my head at the overall inefficiency of many of the services provided. Nothing new there! If you depend on a government department to resolve an issue of importance, you’re really wasting your time.

In any case, that’s neither here nor there. For me, using Irish is really just a reflection of who I am and what I believe in. I’m not really what I consider a gaelgóir (a native speaker). I wasn’t brought up speaking Irish, I don’t come from a Gaeltacht and, to be honest, the fact that I’ve been living overseas and restricted to speaking predominantly with my kids, means my vocab has suffered and diminished over the years (fortunately the presence of our Grúpa Cómhrá here in Wellington has helped remedy this situation ).

Despite the fact that I’m based in New Zealand, we speak Irish at home (me and my kids, that is, although my Maori partner also understands everything we say). Occasionally, we forget that we’re a minority, though. On Christmas Day we had a visitor at the table and although we usually revert to English when this happens, the look on his face when we started yacking ‘as Gaeilge’ was pretty funny. Having conversed in English as part of a large group for over twenty minutes, he was completely thrown when a large proportion of us suddenly – and, for him, inexplicably – started yabbering in some incomprehensible language. When we finally stopped laughing at his reaction, he confessed that he’d thought he’d suddenly gone mad. He hadn’t even known the Irish had their own language.

Sheesh!

Creating the “Great Wild” in the ‘Fionn mac Cumhaill’ Series

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Given that most of what I write has a strong Irish element to it, people are often surprised to learn that I’ve been based in New Zealand for years, particularly given my strong views on cultural authenticity and respect for historical accuracy. To be honest, that’s not really a problem these days due to the broad connectivity of the internet and my own frequent trips back home to ‘draw from the well’.

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One of the things I do have to keep in mind when I’m writing however, is the Irish landscape. This is a very important characteristic – and sometimes a very dominant one – in many of my stories. Beara, for example, has a particularly characteristic landscape that you’ll never find beyond West Cork and thus forms a critical part of the overall Beara Trilogy narrative.

Because of its history and location, Ireland has been quite “tamed” or “domesticated”. The land has been occupied and has had its topography altered and managed by human activity for over thousands of years. New Zealand, however, with its much more ‘recent’ history, remains a very ‘physical’ country with a dramatic landscape that’s very different from home.

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Because my local landscape is so impressive, I’ve sometimes struggled to prevent myself from incorporating the drama of those landscapes into my own stories. One of those areas where the New Zealand landscape has been really useful however is in the Fionn series. In that set of stories, the narrative is based in a time period when Ireland was completely different from what we know today; very sparsely populated, covered in dense forest and teeming with wildlife. Hence the characters referring to it as ‘The Great Wild.

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Although from a botanical perspective, there’s very little commonality between the Great Wild and the New Zealand forests, I’ve found my tramps through the latter extremely useful when trying to imagine the Great Wild from a social/historical and survival perspective. In this respect, both are very similar; vast, impenetrable in parts and potentially dangerous for the unwary or the unprepared.

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Two weeks ago, I was visiting a South Island forest with friends, following the course of a tannin-drenched river (which gives the water the colour of diluted blood) to some local stone archways. Even at the time, I was struck by the creative potential of what at I was seeing – in terms of the “Great Wild” and ended up taking hundreds of shots for later inspiration.

Much of the third Fionn book takes place over the course of a violent pursuit along the forested banks of a waterway in a constricted river valley so, from that perspective alone, the visit was very opportune. In any case, I thought I’d add these in here so you could see what’s going through my mind at the moment. At some stage, when I get time to draw breath I’ll put up a pin board of images so people can see this story development more easily.

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The Secret Life of Irish Fairies

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The nice thing about fairies is that anyone can be one.

No, seriously! If you actually look at the modern day interpretation of the ‘fairy’ you’ll find it incorporates not only elements of ‘Ye Olde English folklore’ but Germanic elves, Scandinavian leshyi, classical Romano-Greek nymphs and satyrs, a mish-mash of Tolkien and of course Disney’s plastic, sugar-coated Tinkerbell!

So, where you might ask are the Irish fairies in all this?

Weeelll … That’s kind of a long story.

The first thing you should know is that you should never actually use the word ‘fairy’ when referring to creatures of Irish mythology. Those namby-pamby, flower-hoppers with wings that adorn the Enid-Blyton books of old were never part of Irish culture. If you’re talking about Irish mythological creatures it’s always better to use the Irish term ‘’ (pronounced ‘shee’) or ‘síog’ or – in plural form – ‘Na síoga’ or ‘Na Sidhe’.

The word ‘sí’ actually comes from an ancient Celtic word ‘síd’ – the giant mounds making up the tumuli or passage graves in which our far distant ancestors buried their dead (the example in the picture was taken at Knowth). This is why ‘Na Sidhe’ in Ireland – until the last century or two – were often thought to be representations of the dead.

In pre-medieval Ireland, Na Sidhe were usually understood to be a kind of mirror image of humanity. They spoke like us, looked like us and, generally, they seemed to act like us, showing all the usual traits – positive (loving, passionate, etc.) and negative (murderous, vengeful etc.) – of your normal human population. The two key things that differentiated them from their human equivalents were that they (a) lived in the Otherworld and (b) had access to magic arts and powers. In the surviving pre-1600 Gaelic literature, although Na Sidhe mostly dealt with their own kind, when they did interact with humans they were generally portrayed doing so as equals, if not superiors.

The common interpretation of Na Sidhe changed slowly (but dramatically) in Ireland from the 1600s onwards due to the increasing influence of the Christian church but more importantly to the expanding power of the English Crown – two parties with a strong self-interest in suppressing the earlier belief systems of the native people. As the Gaelic power structure (feudal lords) was eroded this had the additional effect of undermining the traditional mechanisms for the transfer of Gaelic cultural knowledge between generations (the poets, Gaelic-based education systems, etc.).

By the late 18th century, a significant proportion of lore about Na Sidhe was already lost or being misinterpreted by the majority of the native Irish population. Little material was being conserved or transferred in written form (as Irish Catholics – the majority of the population – were excluded from education) although some knowledge continued to be transferred through the storytellers (the remnants of the poets). Transfer of traditional Sidhe lore also suffered from disruptive events like the Great Famine and the subsequent weakening of the Irish language as native speakers died or immigrated in great numbers. Knowledge of Na Sidhe was also eroded by the Church who saw belief in such entities as ‘competition’ at best, expressions of evil at worst. Most of the stories with negative connotations associated with Na Sidhe developed from this time on.

Oppressed on all sides, Na Sidhe also took on an increasingly derivative form, shrinking (metaphorically and descriptively) in the stories in which they occurred.

Ironically, while lore of Na Sidhe diminished in Ireland, reduced expressions of what they represented began to flourish in England (based predominantly on their equivalent in English folklore tradition). A broken version of Na Sidhe appeared in medieval romances, initially as otherworldy enemies to the protagonists but, later, in a more alluring and less menacing form. In this new, sanitised form, Na Sidhe/’Fairies’ started turning up in literature such as Edmund Spenser’s ‘Faerie Queen’, Shakespeare’s ‘A Midsummer Night’s Dream’. Later, during the Romantic Period (at its peak from around 1800 to 1850), when older cultural tropes were mined for inspiration purposes, they became even more popular.

The famous Strand Magazine article on the ‘Cottingley Fairies’ (1920) changed the portrayal of the earlier mythological creatures forever. From that point on ‘fairies’ became the common term to describe tiny, winged creatures who hung out in nature hot-spots but who still had a bit of mystery/allure associated with them. Following that Strand article, the associated imagery became prettier as time progressed (prompted by the famous ‘flower fairies’ pictures produced by Cicely Mary Barker and others (these are the ones on the Enid Blyton books I referred to earlier). Nowadays, that’s the image that most people are familiar with.

Back in Ireland, cut off from its original interpretation, the Sidhe (now reduced to the more diminutive síoga) became increasingly associated with and influenced by the newer representation of their English counterpart.

The funny thing is that the interpretation of ‘fairies’ or ‘Na Sidhe’ is changing yet again as a result of new media distribution forms and narrative tales. Over the last decade, or so I’ve watched with some bemusement as fairies (and sometimes they even use the old Irish name) have gradually transformed to a generic kind of sexualised, metrosexual Spock (feminine types, complete with pointed ears, short skirts and a pout). I suppose I should have a bit of a disgruntled stomp about the whole ‘lack of cultural authenticity’ business but the truth is that the current representation is vastly closer to the original than the pretty flower-stompers ever were.

Which has to be good.

[Update: Apr 2016 – For those who are interested, a more substantial explanation of fairies, where they came from and how they became what we know today, is available in the ebook: Celtic Mythology Collection which you can obtain for FREE here (on this site or at your favourite ebook store).]

The Lies Behind the Use of Irish Family Crests:

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The Lies Behind the Use of Irish Family Crests:

If you’re a person of Irish descent, there are a few things you should really think about if you’re considering a purchase of your ‘family coat-of-arms/ family crest’.

  • Heraldry – the assigning of coats-of-arms/family crests – was originally used so that those people (the aristocracy) who’d gained more cows and more soldiers than their neighbours, could identify and manage the property they controlled
  • The tradition of heraldry (and therefore of family crests/coats of arms) is an English/Norman one. It is not, and never was, a Gaelic one
  • The concept of family crests for Irish clans of Gaelic origin (e.g. MacCarthy’s, O’Sullivans, O’Briens, Murphy’s etc.) makes no sense as they never used them and would not have recognised/respected them
  • A very limited number of later Hiberno-Norman clans (the Fitz’s, de Burgs, etc.) did have a family crest but most of these clans didn’t last long enough to utilise them in any meaningful way
  • There’s actually no such thing as a ‘family coat of arms’. Traditionally, heralds awarded family crests to INDIVIDUALS, not to families
  • A single family surname, therefore, might have a multitude of different family crests. I could, for example, apply to the Herald Office of Ireland for a family coat of arms. My brother could also apply for one and end up with a completely different design. So could my sisters and each one of us would be right
  • If you already have a mass-produced crest-of-arms on your wall, you might want to know who had it made. It was quite possibly granted to someone who walked in off the street and paid the necessary fee
  • Given the fact that heraldry was predominantly an English institution and Ireland is a republic, few Irish people have any great emotional connection to a coat-of-arms that claims to bear their name
  • Generally speaking, it is only the uninformed, the psychologically insecure and politicians who enjoy the false pomp and ceremony of heraldry
  • The Office of the Chief Herald at the National Library of Ireland (the official government department responsible for “grants” of family crests/coats of arms) has a direct conflict of interest in providing real information around the true basis of heraldry in Ireland (“just keep sending in cheques with your applications , thanks!”)
  • This is the same Irish government, by the way, who wants to sell you the laughable Certificate of Irish Heritage at €45 (plus VAT) and a framed certificate is €120 (plus VAT)
  • I will sell you a Certificate of Irish Heritage for half that price as long as you don’t mind it being written in crayon (I subcontract to the kids!)
  • The only people who really benefit from people’s ignorance of the concepts behind the heraldry/ coat-of-arms are mass producers of plastic “Irish Family Crests” flags/ badges/products for ill-informed tourists

Has any one noticed there’s a lizard on the O’Sullivan Beare coat-of arms? 🙂

Quiet Moments of Beauty and How to Use Them in Writing

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A few years ago in West Cork, on the cusp of winter-spring, I took my son down to one of my favourite places – a mountain valley with a lake that feeds into the River Laoi.

It was a typical winter’s day for that part of the country; cold showers, low lying cloud, intermittent patches of watery sunshine between the wisps of mist. At the same time, there was something very unique about the quality of the illumination. The damp sunlight combined with the black rock, the black water, the black clouds – black on black on black – to create a kind of monochromatic landscape softened only by burnt patches of withered fern on the surrounding hills.

The sight was beautiful, in the same way that photos of the moonscape or a desert at night are beautiful; bleak, remote and melancholic. All of a sudden, a single swan appeared out of the gloom, a blaze of white on the still black waters like the prospect of joy on a dour day and it was as though the valley had released a sigh.

I was lucky enough to capture the latter parts of the swan’s approach moment on a shitty camera (see the clip above). On the clip you can hear my son saying “Oh, do chuaigh se faoin uisce!’ – ‘Oh, he’s gone under the water!’ when it finally disappeared beneath the causeway and out of sight.

Such moments are rare but they tend to stay with you. Last week, the memory resurfaced – unlike the swan – for some reason, and in a fit of creativity, I drew on it to write a short but important character development scene from the third book in the Fionn mac Cumhal series. This is a rough, unedited first draft so bear with me:

From her refuge in the ferns, Liath Luachra had been observing a fat pair of wood pigeons that were oblivious to her presence. Now, her belly growled and her fingers tightened unconsciously about the leather thong of the sling curled about her right hand.
I could strike one. I could strike one easily at this distance.
She scowled and took a deep breath before turning her head. Hunger was making her careless.
Averting her eyes from the feathered temptation, she rested her cheek against the rough bark of the tree and reverted to that old occupation – daydreaming – she often used to pass the long periods of inactivity while in the Great Wild.
She drew up a mental image from the past, a memory from a period when she’d still been with the mercenary group, Na Cinéaltaí. At the time, she’d been travelling through rough territory, bound for a gathering at some distant tribal stronghold. The day had been uncharacteristically mild for the winter-spring cusp but, weary from the sustained effort of hard trekking, she’d paused to rest in a deserted valley at the foothills of an isolated mountain range.
The valley, a barren and lonely passage wandering between two steep hills of jagged, grey rock and had a deep lake at its centre. Although it must have been a harsh and bitter place at the best of times, at that particular moment the watery quality of the sunlight and the overhanging cloud had combined to imbue it with a colourless intensity she’d never encountered before. Sitting quietly, she’d tried to absorb the sight but the beauty of the landscape seemed almost too much for her swollen soul to take in. Just when she thought it couldn’t possibly grow more beautiful, two swans had suddenly appeared, winging their way down the valley to alight gracefully on the waters of the little lake.
She’d watched in rapt silence for a long time as the elegant birds drifted noiselessly, their white shadows forming perfect mirror images in its still black surface. The moment couldn’t be sustained however, of course. Despite a deep desire to continue absorbing its soothing beauty, she had places to be and people depending on her. She’d left the valley shortly afterwards but she’d never forgotten what she’d seen.
A year later, when she was passing through that region again, she’d spent days criss-crossing the terrain in an effort to relocate the valley. After many frustrating and unfruitful attempts, she’d finally understood that she would never find what she was looking for. Although she’d located several valleys with lakes, none of them looked like the one she remembered. In different light, at a different time, the valley was just another valley in another forsaken piece of land. The valley that she’d experienced was gone, an element of time, of circumstance and of nature, existing now only as a ghost of what could have been.

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This is just one example of how you can use old memories or sensations when you write. Generally speaking, its much easier to write a description of a place or of an emotion if you’ve actually been there or felt it. Because I come from Ireland and I write about events taking place in Irish landscape I my writing tends to be very – well – Irish.
Ah, well!

Come Taste the Flowers

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Whenever I feel homesick – as I did last night – I have this habit of poring through photos of the last trip home, extracting the memories associated with each particular image.

Going through this process last night, I was a bit surprised to discover the number of photographs of fuchsia hedgerows clogging up my photo library. To be honest, that’s hardly surprising. I tend to return home in the summer after all, when they’re blooming to maximum effect. Driving down some roads in Beara at that time is like driving down a passage framed by two walls of brilliant scarlet and green, interspersed with white wild flowers. In winter, of course, those same hedges resemble little more than sickly networks of pale brown sticks that give the winter land an even more skeletal aspect.

Until about ten years ago, I’d been under the impression the fuchsia was a native plant. In actual fact, it was originally sourced from South America (introduced to England in the 18th century and, subsequently, to Ireland) and because of the weather conditions in West Cork, it has absolutely thrived there.

Despite this, when I think of fuchsia, I think of childhood memories of sucking nectar, plucking scarlet outer petals to create a miniature bouquet from the purple heart.

And, of course, the scent …

Hitting your nostrils like some kind of perfumed, French, wet kiss.

 

Update on Writing Projects

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The above road sign is from the Gaeltacht (area in Ireland where Irish is still the first language). Essentially it’s a ‘Yield right of Way’ sign which kind of outlines how I feel at the moment. It’s been a pretty exhausting year with various work, writing and family projects on the go.  Needless to say, I’m nowhere as far as advanced as I’d like to be in terms of my writing. Two things in particular have changed my priority:

  1. The popularity of the Fionn mac Cumhal series: This one took me a wee bit by surprise.  The first book (Defence of Ráth Bládhma) was pretty popular – despite a complete absence of advertising or marketing on my part. Ironically, the second book seems to be even more popular (go figure!). When I originally started writing the first book, the plan was essentially to give myself a bit of a break/change before starting the next Beara book. This is because, in terms of writing technique, the Fionn series is easier. It’s a complete linear narrative (unlike Beara which intermingles historical and contemporary stories) and the plot and underlying themes are nowhere near as complex. In any case, people are now hounding me for the next in the series (which I can’t really complain about)  so I feel a bit of responsibility for delivering the goods
  2. The lack of interest by Irish book distributors:  Ireland is quite interesting in that we only have two distributors for new books in the entire country (Easons and Argosy). For commercial reasons, both of these tend to deal only with large and very established publishing companies. Easons – almost a monopoly – make it very difficult to even try and contact them for distribution purposes. Argosy were at least kind enough to rely to my query and explain why they wouldn’t be doing so. I’ll probably start working around them and sell directly to bookshops in future but for the moment, this means that my main focus has to be in digital books (ebooks).

As a result, therefore, I’ve had to amend my – ahem – ‘production schedule’.  In summary, this is where things stand at present:

  • Beara Two: “Cry of the Banshee” – two chapters completed. It now looks like this won’t be completed until the end of next year at the earliest.
  • Fionn 3: “The Adversary”  – Estimated release date May/June 2015
  • Fionn 0: “The Kindly Ones”  – A prequel to the Fionn series based on the earlier life of the Liath Luachra character – Estimated release date May/June 2015
  • A non-fiction book on Irish folklore and practical magic – title yet to be confirmed – Estimated release date December 2015

I’m very keen to make some progress on the second Beara book so I may move this up depending on how things go. My apologies to those of you waiting for this.

 

My writing: Excerpt from Traitor of Dún Baoiscne

One of the more enjoyable aspects of writing is the ability to create a conversation between two or more characters  whose  personality and mannerisms you know intimately. For me, these ‘dialogue’ scenes are probably the most fun and – at the same time – the easiest scenes to write. If you have your characters well defined, the dialogue between them flows easily onto the page however you also need to have a context for the dialogue  (i.e. why the characters are talking together in the first place). Often, dialogue is a handy mechanism for getting plot details across in a fast and natural manner without laboriously having to describe them. Sometimes however – and these are the one I really enjoy – the dialogue is just a scene to cement character development.

This scene is from my new novel Fionn: Traitor of Dún Baoiscne and outlines the discussion between the battle weary Liath Luachra (a hardened warrior woman who has difficulty connecting with her emotions or getting close to people) and the six year old Demne (who is soon to be taken away by his real parents).

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Before she started, she paused for a moment to rest her head in her hands. Fatigue lay heavy on her, the sleepless night and the after effects of the battle adrenalin combining to wear her down. From experience, she knew that she could force herself to remain alert for a while longer if necessary but, at some stage, she would need to curl up in a dark corner and sleep.

Using a ladle from the rainbucket, she poured water over her feet. The liquid was already tepid from the morning sun and its touch briefly reminded her of the moment the blood had spurted over them. That sticky warmth of spilled battle blood was a distinct sensation that wasn’t easily forgotten. There was really no other feeling like it. Even the slaughter of animals was different for it lacked the heady intoxication of violence, the overpowering sensations of desperation and relief.

She wiped the remaining stains away with her hands, watching the pinkish liquid dribble off her skin and onto the surface of the lis where it was immediately absorbed by the dusty soil.

Another offering to the Great Mother.

She felt no remorse at the taking of the scout’s life. The scout and his comrades had posed a threat to those she held dear and she was very clear about where her priorities lay.

A dark shadow slid across the earth in front of her and she looked up to find Demne standing before her, staring down at the pink stains with a troubled expression.

‘The blood of your opponent,’ she said. ‘Always better than the blood of your friend.’

She spoke quietly for most of the Lamhraighe warriors were still dozing in the makeshift beds off to the far side of the hearth. Demne too had slept with the visitors, his mother insisting on removing him from Lí Bán’s roundhouse, where he usually slept with the other children, to spend the night with her and Gleor.

The boy nodded sagely, acknowledging the wisdom of her words although he couldn’t possibly have understood the context behind what she was saying.

‘You do not remain with your mother?’

‘She sleeps.’ He sniffed and looked up towards the sun as though to verify that it was still up there. ‘The old man is tired. He snores.’

‘Uh-huh,’ Liath Luachra grunted sympathetically. The news came as no surprise. The Lamhraighe party had travelled a significant distance in a very short time. Anyone would have been taxed by such a hike. And Gleor was not a young man.

‘You do not like my mother.’

Liath Luachra looked at the boy, surprised by such intuition in one so young. ‘No,’ she admitted and looked down, her attention focussed on scrubbing the last of the blood from her hands and feet.

‘Why?’

‘Your mother is … untrustworthy.’

‘Un-trust-wor-thy,’ he pronounced the word out in four distinct syllables. ‘What does that mean?’

‘It means that she is scant with the reason of things. She does not always tell the full truth.’

‘Do you always tell the full truth?’

This time she stopped what she was doing and raised her eyes to consider him intently. Demne could be an odd one at times and had the annoying habit of switching from the temperament of a gregarious child to that of a worldly old fogy without any warning. ‘Usually,’ she admitted. ‘Unless I have strong reasons not to. People who lie are fearful of others or fear repercussions for their actions. I have been close to death too often to truly fear the Dark Leap anymore. When you do not fear, you can tell the truth and when you tell the truth you make any problem belong to someone else.’

‘My mother says I am to leave Ráth Bládhma, that I will live in a fortress far from Glenn Ceoch and never see you or Bodhmhall again. Is she telling the full truth?’

Liath Luachra returned to scrubbing her feet. ‘She is probably telling the full truth as she sees it.’

Demne went very quiet and stared down at the ground. The woman warrior glanced sideways at him and saw that he was trembling and his face had gone very pale.

With a grunt, she got to her feet. ‘Perhaps this is a good time to give you something.’ She started across the lis in the direction of her roundhouse, trailed by Demne’s haunted eyes. Her flax backpack lay against the wall by the entrance way and as she knelt to rummage through it, she could hear Bodhmhall and the others arguing inside. The voices were heated and full of emotion, not anger so much as concern and fear.

Ignoring them, she pulled an object wrapped in dock leaves from the basket and returned to where the boy was waiting. His face was still pale and his lip quivered but his eyes held an unmistakable trace of curiosity. She held out the package. ‘This is for you.’

Demne looked at it and then at her. ‘What is it?’

‘A weapon.’

‘A weapon?’ His eyes widened.

‘You are no longer a child of the hearth ashes. Tomorrow you go Out. You travel in the Great Wild so you will need a weapon of your own, something more threatening than the wooden sword we practise with.’

Face bright with suppressed excitement, he took the package and started to rip it apart, tossing the torn leaves aside until the contents were exposed: a hand-woven flax cradle attached to two separate lengths of braided flax and a small leather bag.

‘It’s a sling.’ The boy’s voice was flat.

Liath Luachra scowled. ‘Do you want a weapon or do you not?’

‘I want a real weapon. A man’s weapon.’

‘You’re too small to fight with a full-grown man’s weapon. You need something you can use from a distance. Something that’s accurate and fast but allows you to flee if you miss.’

The boy’s eye brightened at that. ‘I could use a javelin. Or a harpoon. Like Aodhán.’

She shook her head. ‘No. You’re too small. Your cast would lack force.’

‘Bran’s small. And he casts javelins.’

‘He’s bigger than you. And he’s had practice casting javelins for many years.’ There was no give in the woman warrior’s voice. For her, at least, the subject was closed. She picked up the leather bag, undid the leather string that bound the opening. ‘Hold out your hand.’

Demne did as he was told and she poured a number of smooth, pigeon-egg sized stones into his palm. Each individual stone had been painstakingly decorated with small carvings, basic but creative depictions of wild-fern curls, bird’s wings, or badger claws.

Demne stared at them, intrigued and suddenly looking more impressed. Noting his expression, the woman warrior put the leather pouch aside. ‘These stones … They are not playthings, do you understand? They are carriers of death and should be respected as such.’

The boy reluctantly dragged his eyes away from the stones and glanced up to give a half-hearted nod before his attention turned once more to his gifts.

‘The sling carries no name for it does not draw blood. It is the stones – the bullets – that do that.’ Liath Luachra took the sling from his hand and hefted its weight in hers. ‘Don’t underestimate this weapon. The fools do, the loose-mouths who brag about close quarter fighting. Close quarter fighting’s all hack and cut. It doesn’t matter how skilled you are. It all comes down to brute force and strength and it’s only a question of time before you get cut.’

She grew silent for a moment, haunted by some distant memory until she realised, with a start, that Demne was waiting for her to continue. She drew herself up straight. ‘With practice, a good sling cast can hit a man at seventy paces and kill him dead. Even if he’s wearing leather armour the blow from a stone will break him on the inside.’

She reached over to pluck one of the bullets from his hand and dropped it into the cradle. ‘The sling stone is placed in the cradle, like so. You see how I have cut a slit. That allows the flax to fold around the bullet to hold it more securely.’

Demne peered closely. ‘I see, Grey One.’

‘Put your middle finger through the loop at the end of this length of flax. The other length has a release tab that you hold between your thumb and forefinger, like so. When you’re ready, you swing your sling to build up speed, then flick your wrist to release the tab and the bullet flies out to hit the target.’

The woman warrior got to her feet. Turning towards the southern embankment, away from the sleeping Lamhraighe warriors, she slowly started to swing the sling in a vertical loop, adjusting her position until she was facing the lean-to where firewood, tools and other items were stored. To the left of the lean-to was a wide, flat section of wood used as a base for chopping wood. Standing on top was a solitary wedge of firewood.

‘You see the wood there, waiting to be split?’

Demne nodded.

Using the momentum of the arc, Liath Luachra snapped the sling upwards, releasing the tab at the exact same time. The discharged bullet flew through the air, smashing the firewood backwards off the base. Demne clapped enthusiastically, his earlier sorrow forgotten. Off to the side of the lis, one of the Lamhraighe warriors cursed and turned on his side, angrily drawing his cloak tight over his shoulder.

The woman warrior bent down and started to wrap the sling about the boy’s forearm. ‘This way,’ she explained, ‘you can carry your weapon at all times.’

Demne looked up at her shyly. ‘Thank you, Grey One. This truly is a wondrous gift.’

He moved as though to hug her but the woman warrior quickly shifted backwards. ‘The sling extends the strength and the length of your arm,’ she said hurriedly. ‘That means you can cast your shot farther and faster than you would if you tried to throw it by hand. If you cast from higher ground you can increase that range. If you have enough comrades you can create a hailstorm of stone that no force will resist.’

Demne stared at her, confused and unsure how to respond to the woman warrior’s sudden coldness. Liath Luachra, meanwhile, continued with her awkward lecture. ‘You might wonder why the flax cords are braided. That would be a good question. It’s because the braiding stops the flax from twisting when it’s stretched. It improves the accuracy of-’

‘Liath Luachra.’

Taken by surprise, the woman warrior turned to find Bodhmhall standing beside her.

Excerpt from Fionn: Traitor of Dún Baoiscne

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This is an excerpt from the soon to be released Fionn: Traitor of Dún Baoiscne.
In this piece, the woman warrior Liath Luachra is making her way back to Ráth Bládhma (the ringfort Bládhma) after an encounter with the youth Fintán mac Gleor when she finds some disturbing sign.

People occasionally ask why I write such detailed descriptions for the Great Wild. The truth is because it’s a central part (or element) to the series. Given that the story is set in a time period when there was very little safety or security from the elements and people greatly mistrusted anything or anyone they weren’t familiar with, I felt that needed to be reflected in the storyline.

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Liath Luachra left An Folamh Mór at a rapid pace, initially following the same route taken by the Lamhraighe youth. As she ran along the trail, she crossed sign of his passing on a regular basis, every ten paces or so, and her lips compressed into a tight line. Confident in his ability and fleetness of foot, Fintán was making no effort to cover his tracks, a potentially lethal oversight in the hostile lands of the Great Wild.

The trail she followed was a natural track from the low hills where An Folamh Mór was situated. Several hundred paces south of the clearing the forest faded into a stony flatland that resulted from the poor topsoil and the rocky terrain which she knew as An Slí Cráite – the Tormented Path. This rough flatland extended towards the south-east, spotted with occasional clusters of trees and scrub. Although Liath Luachra didn’t like being out in the open, on this occasion her desire to get away from An Folamh Mór meant that she was willing to compromise safety for speed.

As she progressed further south-west, the forest gradually began to close in again on either side and An Slí Cráite grew more and more constricted. Further on, she knew, it would reduce to little more than a narrow passage through the forest before, eventually, petering out.

Soon she reached a natural fork in the path where a new trial branched off to the south-west along the remains of an old river bed. This turn-off marked the point where her shared route with Fintán ended for it was her intention to follow the south-westerly trail.

Throwing one last look at An Slí Cráite, she veered off to the left.

And came to a complete stop.

Slowly turning about, she backtracked to the fork in the trail and stared down at what had caught her eye.

A footprint.

Dropping to a crouch, she reached around to the wicker basket on her back and slid a javelin free. After carefully scrutinising the surrounding scrub, she shuffled forwards on all fours and lay on her stomach in front of the track to examine it in more detail.
It was an impression of a bare foot. No boots, no moccasins. No missing toes either from the look of it. It was an adult size, big enough to assume it’d been made by a man but whoever it was, he’d been travelling light for the imprint wasn’t deep. The footprint was also pointed in the direction of the north-east, the direction Fintán had taken.

Snapping a dry spine off a withered blackthorn bush beside the track, she used it to poke the imprint gently on its outer side. It did not crumble.

Recent then.

She frowned. Very recent. In this heat, the shallow imprint would have dried out very quickly and the brittle remnants crumbled apart at the slightest poke.

But it hadn’t.

Studying the surrounding trees with care, she rose to her feet and cautiously advanced along An Slí Cráite once more. Sure enough, now that she was actively looking for it, she found another, similar, imprint several paces further on from the first. This one lay in the shade of the treeline where the soil was still soft, untouched from the sun.

A few paces on from that she found another and now she was able to see that the tracks were quite widely spaced. The person who had left them was running, apparently in a hurry. Unlike Fintán, this individual had made some effort to hide his passing but given the speed at which he was travelling he couldn’t avoid leaving some trace, like this imprint, behind.

So why is he hurrying?

She frowned and chewed thoughtfully on her inner cheek, an old habit of hers when she was absorbed in concentration.
A stranger travels on An Slí Cráite. He is hurrying, trailing Fintán who also travels at speed.
She frowned. Perhaps she was being too suspicious. This new stranger might simply be on the same trail. It happened.
Except she didn’t believe it. Her instincts were telling her that this was not right. In terms of timing, this person would have had to come across Fintán’s track after he left An Folamh Mór and before she herself had left. Besides, as a general rule in the Great Wild, people tended to avoid contact with strangers and, when an unfamiliar track was encountered, would often take a more circuitous route to their destination to avoid any kind of engagement.

She bit her lower lip.

No. Whoever this person was, he was following Fintán. She was convinced of that. Given the freshness of the tracks, she was equally convinced that if she backtracked to An Folamh Mór, she’d find similar tracks somewhere along the edge of the clearing. This person had probably been watching while she’d been talking with the youth and then followed him directly once he’d departed.
A good thing there was no rutting in the long grass.

Liath Luachra cursed quietly under her breath. Once again, Fintán was unconsciously interfering in her plans. Despite her dislike of the youth she could not ignore the fact that someone was following him and possibly intended harm.
She considered her options a little further.

She’d directed him to Ráth Bládhma via the longer route that circled about Ros Mór and brought him into Glenn Ceoch from the west. She herself could return much more quickly via a route through the secret pass at Gág na Muice. Her directions for the slower Ros Mór passage had not been given out of spite so much as from simple necessity. The Gág na Muice route was a secret known only to the members of Ráth Bládhma and she didn’t want it spread further than that. The western route was also more practical and easier for a stranger to find. If the youth strictly followed the topographical bearings she’d provided, he would find his destination. If he did not, he might wander the forests for years, despite the directions that Muirne Muncháem had given him.
If she moved fast, she could reach Glenn Ceoch before him and intercept him – and his pursuer – in the woods at the entrance to the valley.

She sighed as she replaced the javelin.

It was time to run.