Stories based on Irish mythology and culture have been bowdlerised quite a lot over the last two hundred years or so, often to the point where, now, many people struggle to differentiate genuine Irish history and mythology with commercially-produced “Celtic” fantasy. That’s something that, as an Irish fiction writer (non-fiction, on occasion), I’m regularly confronted with. It’s also why I’m so pedantic in telling stories that are as historically and culturally authentic as I can make them.
Telling stories based on authentic elements of Irish mythology can be something of an effort, however. Not only do you have to get the history right, you also have to introduce ancient Gaelic concepts into the story in a way that a contemporary audience can (a) understand them and (b) enjoy them. That takes research (a lot), it takes language skills (Irish) and of course, the ability to put a story together in a way that allows those elements to shine.
Creating those kinds of Irish mythological stories was a bit exhausting over 2019, fortunately for all the right reasons. The key reason was the recent sale of the screen option (and the subsequent adaptation) for Liath Luachra: The Grey One which took up a major proportion of my year.
There’s still a long path to travel before any decision is made on whether this appears on a screen near you, of course. There will be a post about it all at some stage in the future but, until then, here’s a little teaser (ironically, made before we had interest from Hollywood).
But, screenwork aside, here’s a little update on the other projects currently taking place.
Fionn: Stranger at Mullán Bán
Book number four in the popular series (the Fionn mac Cumhaill Series) concerns the growing pains of the young Fionn (Demne) who’s struggling to solve the mystery of his father’s death, supported as always by this three guardians; his aunt – the bandraoi Bodhmhall, the woman warrior Liath Luachra and the eccentric womaniser Fiacail mac Codhna. This story is maturing quietly in our office drawer like a potentially fruitful wine. There are six books in total planned for this series. We had intended to release this volume in December 2019 but, for reasons explained above, this is now delayed until the first half of 2020.
Liath Luachra: The Seeking.
This will be the third in the Irish Woman Warrior Series and follows on directly from book two (Liath Luachra: The Swallowed) with the woman warrior Liath Luachra returned to help a comrade rescue his sister from a mysterious group of raiders. Needless to say, this turns out to be far more complicated than expected.
This book returns to many of the themes and characters in Book 1 but also commences the overlap between this series and the Fionn mac Cumhaill Series. Originally, we had planned three books in total but that’s now likely to expand to four.
We’re hoping to release this book in the first quarter of 2020. The current cover is undergoing revision so this is a standby cover until its completed.
This is a bit of a trial project I’m currently working on and involves the story of a dying warrior attempting to protect a settlement. The settlement in question is Ráth Bládhma.
Expect to see an announcement on this sometime in the first quarter of 2020.
Despite all the excitement over 2019, we have actually released a few items, mainly the following short stories. Note, however, that these are currently only available through the Irish Imbas website:
While hunting with two children in the depths of the Great Wild, the woman warrior Liath Luachra becomes involved in a pursuit she’d rather have no part of.
After completing her ‘tasking’ in the Lonely Lands, the woman warrior Liath Luachra retreats to spend another winter alone in the bleak Luachair valley.
It’s by no means certain she’ll make it through to Spring.
In ancient Ireland, a mother seeks a boon of an old lover, now the most ferocious and feared chieftain in the land.
Probably one of the most well-known stories from the ancient early Irish literature, the fascinating tale of Labhraidh Loingseach (Labhraidh is pronounced ‘Lowry’ in English), has never been accurately portrayed for a contemporary audience.
This, then, is the story of the mythical Irish chieftain, the founding ancestor of Na Laighin (a major tribe in Ireland’s south-east for which the province of Leinster is named) and the man to which a very strange attribute is associated.
After a year’s hard slog, I’m certainly ready for a break. In the meantime, all our books can be obtained through THE IRISH IMBAS BOOK SHOP of course. Updates on the latest releases will be made available through our newsletter Vóg (last one for 2019 will be end of November).
In ancient Ireland, a mother seeks a boon of an old lover, now the most ferocious and feared chieftain in the land.
One of the most well known stories from the ancient early Irish literature, the fascinating tale of Labhraidh Loingseach (Labhraidh is pronounced ‘Lowry’ in English), has never been accurately portrayed for a contemporary audience.
This, then, is the story of the mythical Irish chieftain, the founding ancestor of Na Laighin (a major tribe in Ireland’s south-east for which the province of Leinster is named) and the man to which a very strange attribute is associated.
It’s a little sad, and somewhat indicative of the lingering impacts of colonisation, when you see one of your national newspapers get so much wrong with respect to ancient Irish belief systems (mythology). You can certainly respect a newspaper’s desire to produce relevant articles for an upcoming event of national relevance (Samhain) but it would really have been nice if they’d done even some basic research on the subject beyond Wikipedia (the equivalent to getting your mythology information from a telephone book).
The ‘Dullahan’ and the ‘cóiste bodhar’ referred to in the Irish Times article (here) are both references from W.B. Yeats’ “Fairy and Folk Tales of the Irish Peasantry”, a book which has been discredited by every credible university or Celtic Studies course out there (but remains beloved by fantasy aficionados).
To his credit, W.B. Yeats was an excellent poet but when it comes to mythology, he tends to be completely unreliable. A product of the Protestant Aristocracy (not a religious term but the official term for the privileged and powerful Anglo forces who dominated Ireland’s social and economic existence from the late 17th and 20th century), Yeats disliked the Irish language, referred to rural Irish people as “The Peasantry” and plundered elements of their ancient belief systems to support his own ‘spiritual’ work as a Theosophist. This is something we continue to see in much of the ‘Celtic Paganism’ and ‘Celtic Spiritualism’ products out there today.
It’s important to respect the achievements of people like Stoker, Thomas Johnston Westropp, Yeats and others. At the same time, it’s also important to recognise and acknowledge when they got things wrong. Promoting their mistakes, diminishes the cultural belief systems of our ancestors. Sadly, it also continues to pull us further and further away from our true cultural heritage.
When I returned home to Ireland in 2017, I was contacted by an Irish radio station to do a quick interview on a ‘scandal’ that was taking place at the time. This concerned some issues with the ongoing cost of maintenance with the N22 (one of our national roads that passes through Cork and Kerry) particularly in one area Curraglass near Killarney where a persistent dip continued to reappear despite previous repair work.
This all became a “scandal” when an independent Irish politician (Danny Healy-Rae) suggested that the problems with the N22 could be due to “numerous fairy forts in that area” and that “anyone that tampered with them back over the years paid a high price and had bad luck.”
Needless to say, the media jumped into this story faster than a pig into a mud-pond and Healy-Rae’s comments got a level of international coverage that the politician could previously only have dreamed of. At the time, the reporting lines in the media tended to follow two distinct narratives:
- Look at what that ‘muck savage’ Healy Rae believes- shock/horror! (mostly Irish media – Irish Times, Irish Examiner, Irish independent, etc.)
- Folk beliefs still hold powerful sway in good old, romantic Ireland – please buy our associated products (overseas media, Irish Central, etc.)
What really struck me at the time was that neither narrative progressed beyond childlike fact-finding or churlish commercial thinking. What was even more striking was the fact that both the international and Irish media insisted on using the term ‘fairy fort’ as this term had connotations they could use for whichever version of the story the wanted to spin.
This is one of the problems we face when trying to have a grown-up conversation around Irish mythology. Beyond academia, there isn’t any commonly accepted nomenclature around Irish mythological concepts which means that when you attempt to have a conversation, people come into that with hugely varying comprehensions of the concepts being discussed. Another problem is that a large number of vested interests out there (usually businesses or creatives dependent on the ‘fantasy portrayal of mythology for their business model) have no interest in allowing such facts to come to the fore.
Here, however, are the basic facts associated with “Fairy forts”.
- The correct term for these structures is ‘ráth’ (pronounced like ‘raw’ in English). The plural is ráthanna.
- Essentially, a ráth was an ancient circular settlement that were enclosed by one or more earthen banks. The banks were usually constructed using upcast dirt from the ditch; an effective way of forming a second defensive structure for the effort of a single one. On occasion, the inner bank was also topped with a timber palisade which made entry even more difficult.
- Because of its relative constructive and design simplicity, the ráth was a relatively common defensive living area with more than 60,000 identified surviving examples in Ireland. The vast majority of recorded ráthanna date back to a period between 500 – 900 A.D. but there’s some evidence of much earlier prehistoric pre-ringfort activity and, indeed, later re-use into the later and post-Medieval periods.
- In the west of Ireland, where stone was far more prevalent, stone versions called caiseal were built. These generally consisted of a large circular stone wall with stone huts in the interior.
- Sometimes, the remains of a ráth is called a lis (or lios) but this actually refers to the circular enclosed courtyard within the embankment.
- Ráthanna were probably preceded in most cases by open settlements which became more defensive as the population grew and the need for protection became necessary. Although sometimes known as a ‘ringforts’ this is really a poor description as they were primarily intended as agricultural settlements, not martial structures. The defensive structures tended to defend the inhabitants and their cattle – their most prized possessions – against predators such as wolves and occasionally (if they were unlucky) raiders. They certainly weren’t designed with major warfare in mind – although they certainly would have helped. [Note: In my book Fionn: Defence of Ráth Bládhma, I included a military siege story in a ráth towards the end of the second century – a slight stretch but, to be honest, not too much].
- The inhabitants of a ráth were largely self-sufficient and it wasn’t uncommon in the early medieval period (when the population had grown much larger and the settlement would have grown too crowded) to have neighbouring ringforts.
- Traces of iron and bronze working have also been recovered at some ráthanna suggesting some ringforts had very specific uses while others were multifunctional.
- With the colonisation of Ireland from the 1100s and the subsequent disruption of indigenous cultural knowledge transfer mechanisms, much of the native Irish population was essentially uncoupled from the teaching of its own history. Because of this, much of the history around native structures like ráthanna was lost or forgotten.
- As a result, to explain these imposing structures, local people started linking them to stories about ‘fairies’, which colonial literary influences at the time, strongly encouraged. This is how ‘fairy forts’ became a thing.
Back in 2017, I pulled out of the radio interview when it became obvious the interviewer was only interested in giving his audience a particular spin on the story, much of which ignored the fundamental facts.
The next time you hear someone going on about ‘fairy forts’, ask yourself what their motivation is in using that term. Are they trying to sell you a fantasy story, are they trying to spin you a romantic ‘Oirish’ meme or are they, actually, just completely ignorant on the subject?
That’ll be up to you to decide.
Note: My advice is to avoid Wikipedia when it comes to the subject of Irish mythology- their current section on ‘ringforts’, for example is completely wrong.
A friend of mine passed two books on to me last week as he knew he’d get a rise. Both books were in the Celtic fantasy genre, a genre which often involves fantasy stories loaded with ‘Oirish’ cultural elements for branding purposes. Sometimes that’s not too much of an issue but, on this occasion, both books (one written by an Australian and one by an American) dropped a clanger within the first few pages through the names of their protagonists; ‘Liam’ and ‘Seán’.
There’s absolutely nothing wrong with either name of course. Most people on the internet have a cousin or friend called ‘Seán’ or ‘Liam’. The issue in this case however was that both characters, Seán and Liam, happened to be having fantasy adventures in a prehistoric time period set several hundred years before either name was even derived (both names are actually far more modern, derived at the very earliest from the 12th or 13th century onwards but not gaining popularity until far later).
Again, you wouldn’t think there’s anything wrong with that. This is fantasy after all …
Except that from an Irish perspective it’s a bit jarring, like watching an episode of the television series “Vikings” where the heroes are called Ragnar, Loki, Steve and Reginald.
Irish names are a lot of fun when you get into how they’re derived. Up until the 20th century, the long-term impacts of colonisation meant that many people had already given into various social pressures and aped their colonial masters by assuming English names or English derivatives. From the start of the 20th century however, the period leading up to (and following on from) the war of independence, there was a major revitalisation of old Gaelic names. It actually became quiet trendy about ten to fifteen years ago, to find really obscure Gaelic names for your children.
There were winners and losers there too of course. Fechín, a very old name associated with a saint in Mayo, was never going to be particularly popular as most non-Irish speakers would pronounce it ‘feckin’ (it’s actually pronounced ‘feck-een’). I also heard a funny story (and I don’t know if it’s true) that there was a competition to come up with a name for the baby of an Irish-speaking woman who had the family name ‘Gunn’. Apparently, one wag came up with the winning submission, which was the old Gaelic name ‘Sonobha’ (possibly a derivative of the Norwegian name Synnove). That makes a lot more sense when you remember that ‘bh’ in Irish often has a ‘v’ sound.
The original stories from the Fenian Cycle (the stories of Fionn mac Cumhaill and the warrior band mistakenly called Na Fianna) are believed to have first originated in Leinster (that’s on the eastern side of Ireland if you’re unfamiliar with it) which is why so many of the Fionn mac Cumhaill stories take place in that region. Over the subsequent centuries however, as the character’s popularity increased, professional storytellers from other parts of the country also started to adapt the tales for their local audiences and often incorporated nearby topographical features that these audiences would be familiar with. That’s why, today, you’ll struggle to find anywhere in Ireland that doesn’t have at least some kind of reference to Fionn or the Fianna.
The twelfth century Macgnímartha Finn (The Boyhood Tales of Fionn) on which the Fionn mac Cumhaill Series is based, retains those very strong links to Leinster. Here’s a map showing some of the key locations:
- Ráth Bládhma: As a child, Fionn (or Demne, as he was originally known) was reared by two female guardians (Bodhmhall and The Grey One) in the forests of Sliabh Bládhma/ Sliabh Bloom in County Laois). This isolated spot was the most significant area of wilderness adjacent to the areas in Leinster which would have been most populated back in the Iron Age. As a result, it would have been a logical place to set the story of someone who was on the run or in hiding.
- Seiscenn Uairbhaoil: This Leinster marsh (where the warrior Fiacail mac Codhna was said to be based) is believed to be located in present day County Wicklow. It’s placement on the map is an estimate on my part.
- Almhu: This was the site where Tadg mac Nuadat was originally said to live. According to one or two references, the fortress was painted with alum (Almhu) from whence it gets its name. This was also the childhood home of Muirne Múncháem (Fionn’s mother). These days many people still use the anglicized (and meaningless) version of the name: The Hill of Allen.
- Dún Baoiscne:This is the one site in the Fionn mac Cumhaill series which is pure fabrication on my part. For the purposes of the series, I needed Clann Baoiscne to have a tribal territory based around a fortress which I arbitrarily named Dún Baoiscne (literally: the fortress of Clann Baoiscne). To be fair, if there had been a Clann Baoiscne and they had a fortress, that’s probably what it would have been called.
Many of these place names may pose a challenge for non-Irish speakers to pronounce but why not have a go and then check it against the audio guide to see how close you were.
When you’re dealing with Irish mythology, Irish history, Irish archaeology and so on, one of the more difficult concepts to get across to people is that our ancestors back in the day were just as smart as we were. In contemporary societies, there’s a general assumption that OUR society is going to continue indefinitely, without any major change. There’s also a common, generally unarticulated, belief, that we’re far smarter or more advanced because ancient societies didn’t have science or believed in a whole bunch of ‘mumbo-jumbo’ religions.
The reality, of course, is that this simply isn’t true and one obvious example of our ancestor’s abilities are the passage tomb clusters spread around Ireland at Brú na Bóinne (Newgrange), Knowth, Loughcrew etc. These passage tombs were incredibly complex edifices that not only required huge structural design, engineering and architectural ability but social organisational skills and in-depth knowledge of astronomy (not to mention the artistic design skills that can still observed to this day).
Complex edifices like the passage grave clusters required a stable and organised society to build them. In practical terms, for example, it’s estimated that the main passage grave at Brú na Bóinne could have been completed over a sixteen-year period provided there was a well-managed workforce of over four hundred people (who ceased other agricultural activities for two months of every year – probably after the seasonal sowing of crops etc.). Such a workforce, however, could only have existed if they formed part of a much larger, secure and organised society. Like many other preceding and subsequent societies, the society that built Brú na Bóinne is now long gone, of course, but the physical remains of their achievements and aspirations still impress us today.
If we look at contemporary Irish society, the only true advantage we have over our ancestors is that we’re more technologically advanced. Unfortunately, technology is not an effective measure of societal health (science and technology doesn’t make our human behaviour any better, it simply amplifies the impact of our behaviour – good or bad). The true problem for societies is that, at heart, humanity doesn’t really change. Many people within our modern-day populations are just as arrogant, just as misinformed, just as selfish, just as power hungry and just as self-destructive as the people within ancient societies and, unfortunately, it’s people’s behaviour that decides the longevity of a culture.
It’s more than likely that the people who built the passage grave complexes at Brú na Bóinne and Knowth had the same condescending opinion as us for those who’d gone before them, for that certainly seems to be a consistent human failing. Nevertheless, it’s interesting to imagine what people will make or our contemporary edifices when they excavate the ruins in another thousand years or so.
When I get back home, I usually do at least three or four folklore or mythological site visits to test out various bits of research I’m working on. The Long Woman’s Grave near Carlingfor Lough is a bit of a feint but it’s hilarious marketing would put many other, far more authentic sites to shame.
This is the ‘official’ story of the Long Woman’s Grave (which is situated up in the mountains overlooking Carlingford Lough).
Lorcan O Hanlon was the youngest son of the “Cean” or Chieftain of Omeath. His father, upon his deathbed, ordered that his lands be divided between his two sons, Conn óg and Lorcan.
However, Conn óg tricked his brother Lorcan by bringing him up to the Lug or Hollow in the mountains at Aenagh, telling him that he would give him the land “as far as he could see”. The mist and the bleakness of the hollow was Lorcan’s only legacy (as the walls of the hollow blocked any sight of the surrounding land).
However, Lorcan owned a ship and began trading in the East, making his fortune and becoming prosperous. On one of his voyages to Cadiz, he bravely saved the lives of a Spanish nobleman and his daughter. Lorcan was enchanted by Cauthleen, a Spanish descendant of the great O’Donnells of Ulster and he fell in love with her. The pair made a handsome couple as she was 7ft tall, only three inches smaller than Lorcan.
Cauthleen was already engaged to be married but was wooed by Lorcan’s professions of love and the promises of the the good life they would have back in Omeath. The pair eloped. When the couple arrived in Carlingford Lough the locals were enchanted by this tall beauty adorned with jewels.
The couple set along the mountain path until they came to the Lug or Hollow in the rocks. Lorcan bade his bride to stand in the centre and look around as far as she could see as he “Was Lord of all she could survey”. Cauthleen looked around, so great was her disappointment at the realisation of what she’d left behind in Spain, she fell to the ground and died.
Lorcan was horrified that his duplicity had caused his wife to die and flung himself into the murky waters of the marsh at the crossroads. His body was never recovered. The locals found the long woman’s body and dug a grave for Cauthleen in the “Lug Bhan Fada” (Long Woman’s Hollow) where she lay. Each person laid a stone on the grave to raise her burial cairn and here she sleeps today in the hollow of her disappointment and unfilled promises.
Needless to say, the story is complete tosh used for the more gullible tourists (but, holy hell, there’s quite a few who actually believe it!). Last time I was there (last year) there were two minibus loads of tourists hanging around, taking pictures. For the cheap investment of a story and a few hastily arranged rocks, the site has proven a remarkably effective (and hilarious) income stream for the locals.
The marketing campaign for ‘The Long Woman’s Grave’ hit another notch in 2016 when … Well, just read it yourself. This is from the ‘Irish Independent newspaper:
October 29 2016 12:00 AM Irish Independent
As proposals go it was daring, divisive, and imaginative. Self-proclaimed Leprechaun Whisperer Kevin Woods, whose leprechaun cavern is listed on TripAdvisor as the second most popular thing to do in Carlingford, announced that he was going to exhume the remains of the Spanish princess who is buried at the Long Women’s Grave and re-inter her a grave over looking Carlingford Lough.
He told the willing national media that the Spanish Nobel woman had dropped dead on the spot after being deceived by Lorcan O’Hanlon from Omeath who had wooed her with his boast that he owned all the land the eye could see. When she saw his kingdom at a hallow near the Windy Gap she was so shocked that she dropped dead and later buried on the spot by locals.
‘It was a horrible thing to do and it needs to be put right. No one deserves an end like that” said Kevin. “I intend to write to the Spanish Minster of Foreign Minister Affairs José Manuel García-Margallo of the People’s Party (PP).to secure support and to Charlie Flanagan own Foreign Minister.’
Local Cooley Tourism Officer Frances Taylor an employee of The Omeath Development Company, entered the fray commenting: ‘I believe Kevin’s heart is in the right place but the people of Omeath will fight tooth and nail to keep her where she is.’
The Omeath Development Association responded, organising a protest march at the Long Women’s Grave on Friday night, which according to Frances was attended by ‘around 180-200 protesters including five of the land owners and locals that work in the Midlands and Dublin travelled to be present.’
The story of the Long Woman was recounted and it was suggested that an annual wake be held at the grave in her honour. The possibility of increasing security at the site was also discussed. Comments on the Association’s Facebook page, however, show that people were unsure whether Kevin’s proposal was a serious threat to remove part of their heritage or a publicity stunt.
Suspicions that it was the latter were fuelled by his announcement: ‘In view of the magnificent turnout by the people of Omeath to protect the Long Woman I have decided to end my efforts to have her moved and will concentrate instead on moving the magic hill at Jenkinstown to Carlingford.’
The truth may never be known but it certainly got people talking.
If you’re ever thinking of starting a business in some out of the way location, ‘The Long Woman’s Grave’ is certainly a good working model!
An interesting study in the Journal of Archaeological Science suggests that Viking intervention through colonisation etc. had an important impact on Ireland’s population.
Over the last twenty to thirty years or so, the actual impact of Viking influence really only started to become recognised and nowadays it’s pretty much accepted that the vast majority of Irish people carry at least a trace of Scandinavian DNA (which must create some interference for those companies selling DNA tests to people who want to prove that they’re ‘physically’ Irish).
Again, its really only in the last few decades that we’ve also started to understand the cultural links as well. A lot of Irish mythological stories have parallels in Scandinavian mythology and often its hard to know which is the chicken and which is the egg (i.e. whether the story started in Ireland and was adapted in Scandinavia or vis versa). Either way, there’s still plenty under the cultural bedcovers that remains to be discovered.
You can find the link here: https://theconversation.com/viking-migration-left-a-lasting-legacy-on-irelands-population-122148?fbclid=IwAR0ajrg7Y1IVRBvdgyUFgjtXu2d2pRfR7SUMsyqZ3XAUQ6NkbnoerqOKOKw
A very dense and philosophical article in the Irish Times today considers the revitalization of the Irish language from a number of different angles. Unfortunately, although the article raises some valid and interesting points, it sadly becomes bogged down in its own internal arguments. Trying to pull the intellectual wheat from the chaff is something of a challenge.
As someone with a strong interest in Irish revitalization and Irish culture, it’s always struck me that if a language isn’t personally or publicly relevant then it’s going to have an uphill battle achieving wider acceptance. It also doesn’t help if Irish people remain ignorant of the enormous wealth they miss out on by not having access to that part of their heritage and culture.
All the same, there’s been an unmistakable groundswell of support and interest in Irish over the last two decades and that’s certainly linked created an increasing number of opportunities for Irish language users. As with all articles on the Irish language however, you’ll find the usual frenzied nutters moaning in the comments section about how Irish is a dead language, etc. etc. The best response to such people is ‘Fág an Bealach!’ – Get out of the way! You might be too dumb to work out the benefits of using our own language but you sure as hell aren’t going to stop the rest of us.
Although most people are familiar with the names of Irish military heroes as a result of commercial books and movies, there are a lot of names in Irish mythology that people aren’t so familiar with and this article from the Irish Times lists a few.
Many of the names here are problematic in that commentators often don’t know how to refer to them and, hence, the decision by academics in the past (and subsequently in this article) to refer to them as ‘Gods’.
The problem with mythology is that it generally involves a dominant culture summarising the belief systems of a repressed culture. Most early Irish mythology (and that of other countries) tended to be described and summarised by English writers/academics (the dominant culture controlling the money and the education in Ireland for several hundred years). Because the early English academics never really understood the full cultural significance of what they were talking about, they occasionally made the mistake of attributing deity status to names they came across which involved characters who had powers associated with them. The word for this process is ‘anthropomorphism’ and the pattern is well recognised today among modern academics (although someone clearly needs to let staff at the Irish Times, in on the secret).
To be fair, though, a lot of this stuff isn’t common knowledge and the Met Éireann idea of naming storms with these names makes far more sense than they probably realise.
The Irish Times article can be found here but it reads as follows:
Holy God! How many of Ireland’s deities can you name?
Éanna Ó Caollaí
Met Éireann asked the public this week to submit suggestions for names for next season’s storms. The last such call-out resulted in thousands of entries, among them were personal names and the names of mythological figures from the Roman and Greek classics.
Of course, fans of TV shows such as Vikings and the Marvel superheroes films will be familiar with the likes of Thor, Odin and Loki. And as many classical deities relate to aspects of the weather it should be no surprise that such characters would feature in the list.
While the better known gods and warriors may have struck gold with Hollywood and their TV director cousins in recent years, the myths and stories associated with Ireland’s rich oral tradition have largely been ignored on the silver screen.
As with Greek and Roman gods such as Aphrodite, Mars, Zeus, Apollo and Ares, Ireland’s gods were immortal, supernatural beings who also had control over many aspects of life on earth.
Many readers will be familiar with Fionn Mac Cumhaill, Oisín, na Fianna, Tóraíocht Dhiarmada agus Ghráinne (The Pursuit of Diarmuid and Gráinne) and other tales from the Fiannaíocht or Fenian Cycle. In the main, these are stories of heroes and their exploits. Of course some have supernatural abilities but few are considered to be deities.
Many of Ireland’s immortal beings exhibit positive and negative human qualities such as strength, weakness, beauty, jealousy, greed and anger. Some have shape-shifting capabilities while others are associated with nature and natural phenomena such as the wind, the sea, seasons and the earth.
According to the 11th century book Lebor Gabála Érenn (the book of the taking of Ireland), Ireland was settled six times. The settlers were the people of Cessair, the people of Partholón, the people of Nemed, the Fir Bolg, the Tuatha Dé Danann, and the Milesians.
The majority of Ireland’s gods and supernatural figures seem to originate with three of those races – the Fomorians, the Fir Bolg and the Tuatha Dé Danann (people of the goddess Danú).
The Fomorians were generally hideous characters and displayed characteristics more associated with death and destruction. The Tuatha Dé Danann on the other hand had a far more positive image.
The Fir Bolg were descendants of Muintir Nemhidh (people of Nemed), the third race to occupy Ireland. Muintir Nemhidh abandoned the country but the Fir Bolg returned before they in turn were overthrown by the Tuatha Dé Danann.
While the Fomorians and the Tuatha Dé Danann were essentially enemies, they had a complicated relationship and some intermarriage did take place resulting in some interesting intra-familial tensions at times.
So, how many of Ireland’s Gods are you familiar with?
The following is a brief selection of some gods and other prominent figures from Ireland’s mythological past. Who knows, some might be a good fit for the Met Éireann list.
Who better to start with than Balor, a member of the Fomhóraigh (or Fomorians). Fomorian gods often represent the destructive power of nature and are sometimes depicted with the body of a human and the head of a goat. A striking figure, Balor was himself a formidable character.
Sometimes referred to as Balór Bailc-Bhéimneach (Balor of the mighty blows) or Balor Birugderc (Balor of the piercing eye, aka Balor of the Evil Eye), this Fomorian king was the son of Buarainech, husband of Cethlenn, and grandson of Neit. He had an evil eye in the centre of his forehead which, when opened, wrought destruction all around. He was based on the Fomronian stronghold of Tory Island off the coast of Co Donegal and was the bane of all in Ireland. Balor was killed by his grandson Lugh Lámhfhada at Cath Dédenach Maige Tuired (the last battle of Magh Tuiread) when the Tuatha dé Danann broke free of Fomorian rule. According to one legend, when he fell face down on the ground, his eye burned a hole deep into the ground . This hole filled with water to become a lake and is known to this day as Loch na Súil (lake of the eye) in Co Sligo.
The Morrigan (Morrigú or Mór-Ríoghain)
Associated with war but also said to have protective qualities, the Morrígan is a war goddess of the Tuatha Dé Danann with a shape-shifting ability who often takes the form of a crow.
She has the power to change the course of a battle by instilling fear and confusion into opponents and bravery in her warriors. As is often the case with many Celtic gods, the Morrigan is often referred to as a triadic deity where three individuals (Badb, Macha and Nemain) are worshipped as one. Other characters sometimes associated with the Morrigan include Eriu, Banba and Fódla. Most famously perhaps, the Morrigan feature in the death of Cú Chulainn during the Battle of Muirthemne. Oliver Shepard’s sculpture of the death of Cú Chulainn featuring a crow standing on his shoulder can be seen in the GPO.
The only daughter of Balor and mother of Lugh, Eithniu was locked into a tower by her father after he heard a prophecy foretelling his death at the hands of her son.
She was freed from the tower by a member of the Tuatha Dé Danann and subsequently gave birth to three sons who Balor then attempted to drown. One, named Lugh, survived and was raised by Manannán (the sea god). Lugh later became king of the Tuatha Dé Danann and ultimately killed Balor in battle.
Son of Eithniu, he is also known as Lugh Lámhfhada (Lugh of the long arm) and Samildánach (master of many crafts). One of the foremost figures in Irish mythology, Lugh is member of the Tuatha Dé Danann and is known as a warrior, a king and master craftsman. He is said to have invented Fidchell (which is where the Irish word for chess – ficheall – originates). He carries the fiery Sleá Luin Lugh, one of the Four Treasures of the Tuatha Dé Danann (brought from the four great cities of Murias, Falias, Gorias and Findias) and he is accompanied in battle by his hound, Fáil Inis, which besides being invincible in battle also has the power to turn the water it touches into wine.
Lugh is reputed to be the divine father of Cú Chulainn and the maternal grandson of Balor whom he beheads in Cath Dédenach Maige Tuired (the last battle of Magh Tuiread) when the Tuatha dé Danann broke free of Fomorian rule. The festival of Lughnasa, marking the beginning of the harvest, bears his name.
Sometimes referred to as Ana, Anu or Annad, Danú was the divine mother of the Tuatha Dé Danann, of the Gods and of the earth. The Tuatha Dé Danann take their name directly from her. Danú is considered to be the mother goddess of Ireland and is the personification of nature, fertility, wisdom and strength.
Dagda (An Dágdha)
The Dagda was considered to be a father figure and creator of life. Also known as Ruad Rofhessa (Red/Mighty One of Great Knowledge) and Eochaid Ollathair (horseman, great father). Son to king of the Fomorians, Elatha, he was brother to Ogma and Lir.
One of the kings of the Tuatha Dé Danann, the Dagda had control over life and death and carried the lorg mór, a long staff with magical qualities which could kill but could also be used to restore life. While he was a formidable warrior, he was also considered to be a protector. He carried a bottomless cauldron, known as the “coire ansic”, which never ran empty.
He also had a harp – another one of the Four Treasures of the Tuatha Dé Danann – which was known as the “Daur da Bláo” (the Oak of Two Blossoms). It was also sometimes referred to as the “Coir Cethar Chuir”, the Four Angled Music, and with it, he could control the seasons and any man’s emotions. The Dagda was an important deity as he played an important role in the invasions of Ireland which are portrayed in the 11th century book Lebor Gabála Érenn (the book of the taking of Ireland).
Another member of the Tuatha Dé Danann, Ogma is reputed to be the inventor of Ogham, the early Irish alphabet used on stone monuments that can still be seen around Ireland.
He is sometimes referred to as the god of eloquence and learning. But as with most other gods and heroes of his ilk, Ogma was also a fearsome warrior. He was made champion of Nuada and then fought as Lugh’s champion in Cath Maige Tuired (the first Battle of Magh Tuiread) when the Tuatha Dé Danann won Ireland from the Fir Bolg.
Associated with the spring season, fertility and healing, Brigid is the daughter of Dagda. As a triple deity she had three main attributes: poetry, healing and smithcraft. As with many Christian festivals and saint days in Ireland pre-Christian traditions were adopted or co-opted to proselytise the population. The feast day of Saint Brigid (Lá Fhéile Bríde) falls on February 1st, the same day as Imbolc, the pre-Christian feast day celebrating the beginning of spring which was associated with the goddess.
Ériu was the daughter of Delbáeth and Ernmas of the Tuatha Dé Danann and along with her two sisters Banba and Fódla (whose names were often used as poetic names for Ireland) is often represented as the goddess of Ireland and from whom the name Éire is derived.
She was purportedly married to Mac Gréine (Céthur and grandson of Dagda). She is also said to have been the lover of the Fomorian prince Elatha and was also associated with Lugh.
Fódla was also the daughter of Delbáeth and Ernmas of the Tuatha Dé Danann. Along with her sisters Banba and Ériu, she was one of the tutelary goddesses of Ireland. When the Milesians invaded Ireland from Galecia, legend has it that she and her sisters demanded that their name should be given to the country.
While Fódla and Banba sometimes feature as literary figures representing Ireland in Irish poetry and literatire, Éiriú won this particular contest. In Tochomlad mac Miledh a hEspain i nErind (The Progress of the Sons of Mil from Spain to Ireland) Fódla is married to Mac Cécht and is the reigning queen of Ireland in the years that he also rules as king.
Medb (Meadhbh or Médhbh)
Medb was the Queen of Connacht. She ruled from Cruachan, the traditional capital of Connacht and one of the six royal sites of Ireland.
She is best known for her role in Ireland’s epic tale The Táin Bó Cuailgne (Cattle Raid of Cooley). She is said to be buried in Miosgán Médhbh, one of Ireland’s largest cairns, on the summit of Knocknarea in Co Sligo and is said to have been buried standing up, facing her enemies in Ulster.
Lir was associated with the sea. According to legend, he married Aoife after his first wife died. She didn’t get on with his children, Fionnula, Aodh, Conn and Fiachra and soon grew jealous of them. She took the children to Lough Derravaragh in Co Westmeath for a swim one day and cast a spell (geasa) on them. They were transformed into four swans and were condemned to their fate for 900 years.
When Lir discoverd what Aoife ha done he banished her and spent the rest of his days talking to his children from the side of the lake. Many will be familiar with the Clann Lir statue in Dublin’s Garden of Remembrance. The statue, by sculptor Oisin Kelly. represents the rebirth of the nation.
Also known as Nuada Airgetlám (silver arm) Nuada was the first king of the Tuatha Dé Danann and is said to be the great grandfather of Fionn Mac Cumhaill. Nuada carried the Claidheamh Soluis (sword of light), another of the Tuadtha Dé Danann’s Four Treasures.
Nuada lost his arm during the First Battle of Moytura ina battle with Streng, a champion of the Fir Bolg (who preceded the Tuatha de Danann in Ireland). Their king, Eochaid Mac Erc, was killed in the battle and the Tuatha dé Danann won the war. According to Tuatha Dé Danann custom, the king had to be physically perfect to hold his position and, despite his popularity wth his subjects, the loss of a limb prevented Nuada from continuing as king and he had to step down. His arm was later replaced with a silver arm by Dian Cecht, the Tuatha Dé Danann’s healer.
An Cailleach Bhéara
A counterpart to Brigid, An Cailleach Bhéara is referenced in Gaelic mythology across Ireland, Scotland and the Isle of Man. The word cailleach translates as hag or veiled one and she was generally considered to be a weather deity associated mostly with the winter months.
According to Leabhar Mór Leacain (The Book of Lecan c.1400 ad) she was worshipped as a goddess of the Corcu Duibne people of Kerry. She is also associated with several passage tombs in Ireland, along with topographical features such as Ceann Caillí (Hags Head, Cliffs of Moher) and Sliabh na Caillí (the highest point in Co Meath) and other locations throughout Ireland and Scotland. She is credited in Scotland as having created mountains and carries a hammer to help her shape the hills. Ruling during the dark half of the year, an Cailleach Bhéara comes to life in Samhain (Nov 1st) and is active until Bealtaine (May 1st). She features in Mise Éire, the poem by the revolutionary leader of the Easter Rising Patrick Pearse. The song was performed by Sibéal Ní Chasaide during the centenary celebrations in 2016.
Part of the problem with doing creative work on a part-time basis is that there are always more projects than you can actually complete. Personally speaking, I always have at least ten projects on hand at different stages of development. Some may never see the light of day but most of them will. In any case, this is a list of the top five projects we’re working on at the moment.
FIONN: Stranger at Mullán Bán
Six chapters into this fourth novel of the Fionn mac Cumhaill Series and we’re looking at a release date around the end of 2019. I’m still not wiling to give much away but the series does follow the Fenian Cycle narratives and we’ll be finishing up with book six.
LIATH LUACHRA: The Seeking
At present I’m working on a short story which will set the scene for the third Liath Luachra Series novel. At this stage, the wider plot is well established with some returning characters, some unique antagonists and an interesting slant on the period that Irish mythology hasn’t taken before. To be honest, I’m champing at the bit to get into this and it’s a struggle to pace myself so that can complete FIONN 4 first. The short story will be out in the next month or two. Development of the potential television series based on the first book may stymie this of course.
Project Scéalta (a side-project based on FIONN: Defence of Ráth Bládhma) has so many components, it’s been one of the more frustrating pieces of work I’ve done to date (two steps forward, one step back). It’s now sitting on the back burner for another three weeks but once time frees up in August, I’ll be almost at a point where I have a working model.
Attached is the first conceptual image for the project. Some of you may recall that this initially started last year with the great line “It’s raining and my arse aches”.
As you can see that’s changed a bit. Some might say, for the better!
This is a non-fiction, Irish mythology-based project and it’s going into initial design stage later this year. This is going to the biggest project we’ve done so far so it’ll probably swallow our full capacity for 2020. That’s why we’re not going to do any actual development work until at least two of the previous projects are completed. Watch this space.
Celtic Mythology Collection 4
After a lot of consideration and redesign, we’re finally ready to kick off a new Irish Imbas: Celtic Mythology Short Story Competition next year (all dependent on completing Project Tobar first, of course). The plan is to launch the competition in September 2020. We’ll be commissioning illustrations for that at the start of next year. Until last month, I was convinced, we wouldn’t run another of these.
Beara 2 and Beara 3:
Probably the two most books I still get most emails about. These are sequels to Beara: Dark Legends and they will come. One day
Most major topographical features in Ireland have a number of stories and folkloric tales associated with them, often in an attempt to explain the derivation of the placename. To be honest, much of the time, you really have to treat such stories with a serious dose of salts as many of them have been heavily romanticised or ‘fanticized’ , however there’s still some entertainment value to be eked out of them.
One of the more intriguing stories I’ve always enjoyed is that linked to the hill of Dún Ailinne (or ‘Knockaulin’ for the Gaelically challenged). This hilltop in Kildare actually has a number of different stories associated with it but the most interesting is certainly the story of Bailé Binnbérlach mac Búain (Bailé, the Sweet-Spoken son of Buan).
The story goes a bit like this.
Buan’s only son Bailé was loved and admired by everyone (both men and women) who ever heard him (or heard of him), predominantly because of the astounding stories he told. Bailé was particularly loved, however, by Aillinn, daughter of Lughaidh. This woman who had never met him had heard all his tales and through them had developed a deep affection unlike any she’d ever felt before.
Through shared messages, Bailé and Aillinn planned a tryst at Ros na Righ in Lann Maolduibh, on the south brink of the Bóinn (the Boyne) in Bregia. To reach this place, Bailé travelled from Ulster, leaving from Emain Macha and travelling south over Sliabh Fuaid and Muirtheimhne until he arrived at the long beach now known as Traigh Bailé (The Beach of Bailé – Dundalk).
Here, Bailé and his party unyoked their chariots, released their horses out to graze, and turned their thoughts to celebration. After amusing themselves for a time, they noticed a fearsome and spectral figure approaching swiftly from the south. The ferocious manner in which the figure closed on them, speeding over the landscape, was terrifying to behold for its swiftness was similar to that of a hawk darting down a cliff or to the west wind rising up off the green sea.
Regarding this odd figure, Bailé spoke to his men ‘Let us meet with him and ask his news,’ he said. ‘To ask where he’s going, where he comes from, and to discover the cause of his great haste.’
When he reached the party of travellers, the stranger’s address proved as abrupt as his arrival. ‘To Tuagh Inbher (the Mouth of the River Bann) I return,’ he announced brusquely. ‘To the north, now, from Sliabh Suidhe Laighen (now called “Mount Leinster”); and I have no news but that concerning the daughter of Lughaidh. In love with Bailé Mac Buain, she was on her way to meet him until the youths of Leinster overtook and killed her, just as foretold by druids and prophets. It has always been ordained that the love of Bailé and Ailenn was so great and so intense they’d never meet in person. Instead, after their deaths they’ll meet and not part for ever after. This is my news.’
Bailé’s party stared at the stranger in shock and before anyone could react, he’d darted away from them again, moving like a blast of wind over the green sea until he was gone from sight.
Struck by the news, Bailé collapsed on the spot and despite all attempts to resuscitate him, he could not be saved and lay dead and lifeless on the beach. Grieving, his friends set a tomb at the spot where he fell and raised a large tombstone beside it. A great caoining (keening) began and his wake was held by the men of Ulster, lamenting the loss of Bailé Binnbérlach mac Búain.
Some years later, when his friends passed through that area and visited the gravesite, they found a yew tree had grown up through his grave, and the form and shape of Bailé’s head was visible at its top.
Meanwhile, as for the furtive stranger who’d shared his news with Bailé, he continued travelling south to the grianán (sunny place) where the maiden Aillinn was known to sit chatting with her friends. Noting the arrival of the mysterious figure, she approached and asked him. ‘Where do you come from, Stranger?’
‘From the northern half of Erinn, from Tuagh Inbher, and I travel through this place on my way to Sliabh Suidhe Laighen.
‘And have you any news?’ asked Aileen.
‘I have no real news worth relating,’ the strange man answered. ‘Although I have seen the men of Ulster holding funeral rites at Traigh Bhailé. There they were erecting a tombstone with the name Bailé mac Búain, heir to the Ulster chieftainship, who died while travelling to meet the woman to whom he’d dedicated his love. Unfortunately, their love was so powerful it was not destined for them to meet while alive.’
Having imparted his terrible news, the figure rushed from the grianán.
Traumatised by this revelation, Aillinn fell dead and, as was the case with Bailé, a tomb and tombstone were raised at the site where she fell. Some years later, an apple-tree grew through her grave and local people would claim her features were visible at its top.
Seven years after Bailé’s death, the filidh (poets) of Ulster cut down the yew which had grown through his grave and used its wood to manufacture a poet’s tablet (Taball Filidh). On this, they wrote of all the most famous visions and weddings and courtships of the Ulster people.
In Leinster too, the filidh chopped down the apple-tree from Aillinn’s grave and, in the same way, the great courtships of Leinster were recorded on it.
Many years later, during the festival of Samhain, the great chieftain Art mac Conn, the poets and the craftsmen of every art came to the feast and they brought their Taball Filidh with them. Seeing the two beautifully ornate wooden tablets, Art asked to examine them and held them in his hands, face to face, appreciating their beauty and workmanship. Suddenly, one of the tablets sprang upon the other, and they became united as fast as woodbine around a twig, and it was impossible to separate them forever more.
All digital versions of our books are available through the major ebookstores (links provided).
Alternatively, if you’d like to ‘stick it’ to the tax-evading tech giants and support what we do, you can purchase through the Irish Imbas Books ‘button’. They’ll be delivered directly to your ereader or computer through the Bookfunnel system.
Paperbacks of all our books can be ordered through Amazon or through any half-decent physical bookshop.
Even in contemporary times, we continue to pass on mistakes and errors of record, particularly where it relates to Irish mythology. Sometimes however, these mistakes are quite entertaining in their own right.
One of my favourites is the famous ‘Tests of the Fianna’ – a set of difficult trials which ancient Irish warriors reportedly had to pass if they wished to enter Fionn mac Cumhaill’s famous ‘Fianna’ war band. This set of trails is most well known as a result of T. W. Rolleston’s book Myths and Legends of the Celtic Race (first published in 1911) but it’s highly likely he originally gleaned the reference from Seathrún Céitinn’s flawed ‘Foras Feasa ar Éirinn’ (completed in 1634). Rolleston couldn’t speak Irish so he anglicized ‘Fionn’ to ‘Finn’ and his ‘Tests of the Fianna’ goes as follows:
“In the time of Finn no one was ever permitted to be one of the Fianna of Erin unless he could pass through many severe tests of his worthiness. He must be versed in the Twelve Books of Poetry, and must himself be skilled to make verse in the rime and metre of the masters of Gaelic poesy. Then he was buried to his middle in the earth, and must, with a shield and a hazel stick, there defend himself against nine warriors casting spears at him, and if he were wounded he was not accepted. Then his hair was woven into braid; and he was chased through the forest by the Fianna. If he were overtaken, or if a braid of his hair were disturbed, or if a dry stick cracked under his foot, he was not accepted. He must be able to leap over a lath level with his brow, and to run at full speed under one level with his knee, and he must be able while running to draw out a thorn from his foot and never slacken speed. He must take no dowry with a wife.”
Generally speaking therefore, the ‘Test of the Fianna’ are usually summarised as follows:
Candidates for the Fianna must display competence in:
1. Jumping over a branch as tall as yourself
2. Running under a stick placed at the height of your knees
3. Plucking a thorn from your foot as you run at top speed (assuming you stuck one in there in the first place!)
4. Running through the forest without breaking one single twig under your foot, or tearing your clothes/hair braid on a bush
5. Learning 12 books of poetry off by heart (despite the fact that this was prehistory and there were no books in the country, not to mind the actual skill of literacy)
6. Standing in a hole up to your waist and defending against nine warriors, using only a shield and a hazel stick (because trench warfare was … er, a thing)
7. And er, …. taking no dowry with a wife.
To this day, many Irish people still refer to these tests and most have at least a passing familiarity with them. Although, if you think about it for a moment, the tests couldn’t possibly have any kind of veracity, people continue to pass them on because:
(a) they enjoy the concept; and
(b) they like lists.
I have to admit, the naive simplicity of the ‘Test for the Fianna’ has always appealed to me as well which is why it’s used in my own Fionn mac Cumhaill Series (although, to be fair, I take it all far less seriously).