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Magic Roads in Ireland

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The Magic Hill up in Louth (or ‘The Angel’s Highway’ as it’s sometimes called) is one of a number of magic roads in Ireland where, if you park at the ‘bottom’ of the hill, turn of the engine and shift it out of gear, your car will actually run back uphill.

Magic roads are, in fact, what are sometimes referred to as ‘gravity roads’ (that’s an area where the landscape creates an optical illusion so that a downhill slope actually looks like an uphill slope). There are actually quite a number of such places around the world (and there’s a least three of them in Ireland that I’m aware of). Most have their own folklore associated with them although most of that lore is usually derived after the invention of the motorcar.

When my Dad took us on our very memorable trip to Dundalk (county Louth, we went to see the magic road there and there’s an amusing summary of it here on youtube: http://talkofthetown.ie/2014/02/25/the-real-magic-hill/

It’s hardly deep, intellectual folklore but it’s great craic!!

Liath Luachra – The Grey One

Ireland 188 A.D. A land of tribal affiliations, secret alliances and treacherous rivalries.
Youthful woman warrior Liath Luachra has survived two brutal years with mercenary war party “The Friendly Ones” but now the winds are shifting.

Dispatched on a murderous errand where nothing is as it seems, she must survive a group of treacherous comrades, the unwanted advances of her battle leader and a personal history that might be her own undoing. Clanless and friendless, she can count on nothing but her wits, her fighting skills and her natural ferocity to see her through.

Woman warrior, survivor, killer and future guardian to Irish hero Fionn mac Cumhaill – this is her story.

Dark, dangerous and strikingly original.”

FIONN: The Adversary

The Fionn mac Cumhaill Series – Book Three

Ireland: 198 A.D. The druid Bodhmhall and her nephew Demne have survived a bloody ambush but the cost has been substantial. The Ráth Bládhma allies have been decimated and the ragged survivors lie strung along the banks of a harsh river valley.

With their pursuers closing in.

Despite the odds, Bodhmhall must reach the fortress of Dún Baoiscne where the shadows of her childhood await her. Only there can she confront her tribal competitors, her scheming father and finally unearth the identity of the mysterious Adversary.

The woman warrior Liath Luachra however, pushed to the edge of her abilities, has a more direct approach in mind.

The future is balanced on a precarious sword edge. No-one will escape unscathed.

Based on the ancient Fenian Cycle texts, the Fionn mac Cumhaill Series recounts the fascinating and pulse-pounding tale of the birth and adventures of Ireland’s greatest hero, Fionn mac Cumhaill.

This book includes the following EXTRA CONTENT:

  • a glossary with explanations of ancient Irish cultural concepts
  • historical notes on the Fenian Cycle
  • a pronunciation guide and links to an online audio pronunciation guide

Liath Luachra – The Grey One (Initial Draft of Cover)

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2015 has been a bit of a tough year on the work front so far but I’m pleased to say that we’re actually making good progress on the book and website fronts (amongst others).

At this stage, I’m approximately two thirds of the way through Liath Luachra – The Grey One (which is something of a prequel to the Fionn Mac Cumhal Series). I usually find that by the fifth chapter, the plot lines are cohesive but that I need to go back and rewrite/amend some of the earlier sections to ensure the linear flow of the narrative. This tends to delay the completion but it really is the most important part for me in terms of ‘plot quality’ so getting over that ‘hump’ is important. Everything after this feels like “walking downhill” (as one of the Ents in LOTR says).

I know other writers are much more focussed in terms of outlining their plot but I find that when I do that, the emotional resonance of the story tends to falter. Everyone has their own way of doing things, I guess.

Word count with Liath Luachra at this point is 54000 words or thereabout. I realise some people are waiting for Fionn 3: The Adversary but I needed to get this story done first as part of it is relevant to  the plotting in the latter. Fionn 3 is sitting at about 48000 words. Both will definitely be complete in the last quarter of 2015.

The above is an early draft of the cover image for Liath Luachra but the finished version is quite different. I’ll be putting out the back cover blurb (the summary of the plot) next week with an updated version.

Thank you for being patient with the – ahem – creative process!

(Irish Folklore) The Souls of Butterflies

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Some elements of Irish folklore refer to butterflies as ‘souls of the dead’, making their way from the physical world into the Otherworld. You can actually see why this might occur. The transformation of the caterpillar into a butterfly provides a perfect model to explain the concept of changing states (i.e. from life to death) and the stuttering, almost hesitant, fragility of butterfly flight aligns perfectly with what we’d expect of some confused soul in the process of passing on. In fact, this conceptual interpretation is a common one found in many different cultures and religions and I’ve even used it myself in Fionn 2: Traitor of Dún Baoiscne.

Although we have limited knowledge on what our oldest ancestors believed (prior to the introduction of writing in the 5th century) what we do know is that they utilised imagery and symbolism to explain the world about them much more than we do today. This is essentially because they didn’t have the technology and scientific rationale we have today to clarify and explain things with greater certainty. In effect, our ancestors were explaining things through extrapolation of what they did know.

Naturally, religions like Christianity were also quick to grab onto the butterfly symbolism because it allowed the concept of a soul to be explained in a way most people could understand (religions are also founded on faith-based concepts rather than tangible realities that we can measure or prove). Because we lack information on pre-Christian Ireland however, we have a chicken and egg situation in that we don’t know if the butterfly-soul imagery existed prior to Christianity or whether it was introduced because of Christianity. Either way, fragments of the belief exist now in some parts of common culture or in Irish expressions such as ‘na féileacán a bhrú as duine – to crush someone (literally ‘to push the butterflies out of someone’).

The best known example of changing state and butterflies in Ireland is the famous Irish myth, Tochmarc Étaín, (The Wooing of Étaín). In this story, Étaín (daughter of Ailill, king of the Ulaid) is transformed by a jealous woman into the form of a fly (this was later romantised to the more aesthetically pleasing butterfly). Later, Étaín falls into the drinking cup of the wife of Étar (a warrior of the Ulaid), who swallows her, becomes pregnant, and subsequently gives rebirth to her.

The existing manuscripts of Tochmarc Étaín are estimated to date back to the 8th or 9th century – a time by which Christianity was well established in Ireland, so again, it’s impossible to tell whether the belief was an ethnic thing or not.

Another, more recent – if somewhat surreal – example involving a butterfly and changing states is to be found in the wonderful Fiche Blian ag Fás (Twenty-Years A Growing), the autobiography of Muiris O’Súilleabháin and his childhood on the Blasket Islands. In the relevant scene, the author describes a dream that he had concerning himself and his friend.

After a while it seemed that Mickail fell asleep. I was looking at him, snoring fine and easy. While I sat thinking what a strange thing was that sleep, when what would I see come out of his mouth but a pretty white butterfly. It began to walk down over his body. I stopped and reflected that it was a queer thing to come out of his mouth. Down went the butterfly through the meadow, I after it, ever and ever, till it came to an iron gate. It began to climb the bars of the gate, from bar to bar, slow and easy, I watching. When it came to the top of the gate, down it went on the other side. I stood watching every turn it was taking. It came down into another meadow where there was an old skull of a horse which looked as if it had been there for years. In went the butterfly through the holes of the eyes, I still watching intently.

It must have been five minutes before I saw it coming out again through the mouth of the skull. Back it came to the gate, up each bar and down the other side, just as it had done before, then up through the meadow, I following it ever and ever, till it went back into Mickail’s mouth.

At that moment he awoke.

‘Where am I?’ said he looking round.

‘Don’t you know the place?’ said I, not letting on to him yet about the butterfly.

‘Oh, Maurice,’ said he, ‘sit down till I tell you the fine dream I am after having. Would you believe it, I dreamt we went astray on each other when we were gathering the flowers, and that I walked on for a long, long way till I came to some railway tracks which crossed each other like the threads of a stocking. I didn’t know where in the world I was. I kept shouting and calling out to you but that was all the good I got out of it. When I came to the end of the railway line, I saw a big bright house. I went up to it. There was a big round doorway with no door in it. I stopped and looked. God save my soul, said I, what place is this? Will I go inside? Oh, there is not a lie in what I am saying, Maurice.’

‘I believe you well,’ said I. ‘Go on with your story.’

Well, in I went. But, if so, there was no one alive or dead to be seen. I was passing from room to room, but upon my word, Maurice, my fill of fear was coming over me.’

‘It was no wonder for you.’’

‘Well, faith, I thought I was going astray in the rooms and that I would never be able to find the way out. I was groping my way, ever and ever, till at last I reached the doorway, and the devil if I didn’t come back again over the same railway tracks, and just as I found myself in the meadow again, I awake.’

I first read that book over twenty years ago and I don’t know what you think but it pretty much left me gobsmacked. I was so impressed by the book that when I wrote the first serious novel of my own (Beara Dark Legends) I ended up using Muiris O’Suilleabhain (Maurice O’Sullivan) as the name of the protagonist.

(My Writing) Update on new Writing Projects

Metaphysical sweat pouring from the brow over the last three weeks due to huge workloads in other – non-writing – areas. Hence, the great silence for such a long time. A brief post this week therefore, just to share some of the background work going on in the covers for Fionn Book 3: The Adversary.

I really like working on book covers. Visual design is a new creative skill for me (and one I’m not particularly good at). Hence, I love to dabble and work with people who are. Here, for your interest, is one of the early proposals for Fionn III.

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Giggling Stones near Beara

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There really are few activities more fun than skimming stones with your kids. In Irish, to skim stones is ‘sciotar uisce a dheanamh’ which is where the anglicised word ‘skittering’ comes from (i.e. sciotar). What I really love about the Gaelic though, is that ‘sciotar‘ is also the word for ‘giggle’ or ‘titter’. In my head whenever I see the stone hit the water I see it producing a giggle – probably completely deluded but, sure, there you go!

The attached video was taken back in 2011 when I took my kids down to Loch an Ghleanna Mhóir to teach them how to make water giggle. It’s nice to be able to pass on these … er … practical skills that they can utilise for the rest of their lives.  They now know how to use saighdiúrí (soldiers – another post, I’m afraid), suck Fiúise (Fuschia) and pop lus mór (foxglove) so that’s the next generation sorted.

My work here is done!

 

Tiring of the Heart

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Tuirse croí – literally, ‘tiring of the heart’ – is a wearing down of the spirit or the soul or whatever you want to call it. It’s not really a state that’s easy to define or classify as it changes all the time, depending on circumstances, and tends to be driven by the intangibles in our lives (pressure to succeed, familial expectations, societal expectations etc.).

In some ways, it’s similar to another term ‘lagar spride’ (literally ‘weakness of the spirit’) which is the official translation for the English word ‘depression’. Both terms absolutely suck.

Lagar spride uses the word ‘weakness’ which is hardly positive or supportive. The English word – depression – is more of a clinical term which has been incorporated into everyday speech and gives the impression of a ‘drop’ in ‘spirits’ that needs to be remedied.

In my limited experience, tuirse croí is brought on through a gradual erosion of a person’s self-confidence by events or circumstances outside of that person’s control. In that respect, the Irish language concept is so much better than the English one because in Irish you’d say tuirse croí orm / tuirse croí air (I have tuirse croí on me/ he has tuirse croí on him). This really incorporates the understanding that it’s a transitory thing that’s ‘on you’, not a specific state of being.

In modern society, tuirse croí seems increasingly because, I suspect, as individuals we’re exposed to more intangible pressures than at any other time in the history of humankind (through the constant pressure of connection with mobile phones, saturation by social media, marketing etc.). I’m certainly no expert in these matters but I can’t help thinking that the Irish approach to understanding these pressures and issues would be so much better than what exists in the English-speaking world at present.

And, no – before you ask – fortunately, níl tuirse croí orm.

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!!

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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