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Bows and Chariots in Ancient Ireland: The Facts and the Fantasies

I regularly get asked two questions related to the portrayal of 2nd century Ireland in my fiction works (particularly those based on the Fenian Cycle – the Fionn mac Cumhaill Series/ the Irish Woman Warrior Series). These are:

  • Why do the Irish mythological characters never use bows?
  • Why don’t they have any chariots?

The reasons for that are as follows:

Why do the Irish mythological characters never use bows?
Despite what you might have thought, bows weren’t really popular in 2nd century Ireland. Bows were used in Ireland during the Neolithic and Bronze Ages but all evidence of arrows disappears by about 1500 B.C. and archery didn’t really return to Ireland until the Vikings turned up in the 8th century. This may also explain why the Irish word for bow (boga) is actually derived from Norse.

Interestingly, all the archaeological evidence to date suggests the bow wasn’t popular during the entire La Téne period in Europe (dating from the mid-5th century BC, when the European tribes came into contact with Greek and Etruscan influences to the mid-1st century BC). The sling is believed to have been far more common both in Ireland and on the Continent which is why this particular long range weapon turns up so frequently in the books. Several possible reasons for the popularity of the sling over the bow and arrow, include:

  • Ease of manufacture: Bows and arrows took a lot of time and a fair degree of skill to construct. A sling however (depending on the type you used) utilised less parts (and those tended to be more available in nature) and was far easier to construct and replace.
  • Replacing ammunition: If you lost an arrow (something that would have been very easy to do in the dense forests of Iron Age century Ireland) you’d have to go through the laborious task of making another one. Ammunition for the sling (the stone bullets) were far more easily obtained (usually from riverbeds).
  • The absence of a professional warrior class: Evidence to date suggests that there wasn’t really a warrior class in Ireland (and hence no standing military force such as that employed to such effect by the Romans). Most warriors tended to be part-time/weekend warriors who only fought in defence or when required to do so for an overlord (usually during the warmer seasons).

The military impact of bows is far superior when you have a lot of them (and, hence can launch a very destructive flight of arrows). Given the above and the fact that historical accounts suggest the ‘warriors’ of European tribes were very much individual fighters, getting them organised to line up and create a synchronized release of arrows would have been a hard call. A similar problem would have been faced with slings of course but there are reports of slings being used in such a manner from hill forts in Britain and elsewhere.

Many people assume that the Irish used bows quite substantially during the Iron Age period but most of this is due to the influence of covers from works of commercial fiction and of course the 2004 film King Arthur didn’t help with its organised lines of expert bow-wielding Picts who would have put most later medieval armies to shame.

Keira Knightly: Personally responsible for most contemporary people’s interpretation of what a Pict looked like.

Why don’t they use chariots?
Again, all the archaeological evidence in Ireland suggests that wheeled transport – not to mind chariots – was relatively limited in prehistoric Ireland. The earliest evidence of wheeled transport is a set of block wheels dating back to around the 5th century and these would have been for an agricultural cart.

Again, part of the problem when dealing with historical accuracy is that you always have to counter several hundreds years of misinformation (continued today with great enthusiasm through the internet). Most people associate chariots with An Táin and the Ulster Cycle recorded in the Lebor na hUidre and the Book of Leinster (both compiled in the 12th century). In those stories, Cú Chulainn had his own personal chauffer/charioteer, Láeg, who shuttles him around from place to place like a prehistoric Uber driver).

How Cú Chulainn is usually portrayed – zipping around Ulster in his souped-up chariot!

Fortunately, we now know that the early medieval authors of these particular works were very much influenced by other classical literature of the time, particularly by the Illiad and the De Excidio Troiae (The History of the Destruction of Troy) which was actually translated into Irish in the tenth century or earlier. There are clear influences in the portrayal of Cú Chulainn as an Achilles-like figure but the portrayal of major combat using chariots is probably far more relevant to the stony plains of Asia Minor than the boggy and forested lands of 2nd century Ulster where you’d have been hard pressed to find a route suitable for a horse, not to mind a two-wheeled chariot.

The Pleasure of Irish Place Names

This is the hill known as Suí Finn – Fionn’s Seat (sadly anglicized to ‘Seefin’), a coastal view point on the beautiful Sheep’s Head peninsula in Cork (and the highest point on the peninsula). One of at least ten sites around the country with this name (or some derivative), most of them tend to be associated with the mythological Irish hero, Fionn mac Cumhaill.

One point that’s common to all of these sites, is that they’re located on hill tops or other highland features that usually offer spectacular views over the local terrain. One of the romantic notions behind the naming, of course, was that the mythological seer and warrior had passed some time at that site to admire the view (no doubt thinking deep thoughts and pondering profound concepts as he did so). A number of these sites are cairns, thereby also linking the character with access routes to the Otherworld.

Back in the day, it wasn’t that uncommon to name high points or features in the terrain after national “celebrities” (such as Fionn or one of the saints) but most places tended to be named after local chieftains or strongmen. There are many other sites which include ‘fionn’ or a derivative in the name but, in most cases, these tend to relate to the other meaning of the word (white, blond or bright). Examples for this might include Fintragh (Fionn trá – ‘The white beach’), Finnis (Fionnais – ‘white back’, or ‘white ridge’) etc. etc.

That’s one of the things I’ve always liked about Ireland. Our landscape nomenclature really is saturated with history and reeks with connections to ancient stories and legends. It’s only when you live or visit “new” countries like New Zealand, Australia etc. and see indigenous names completely eroded by colonization and replaced with the sterile names of (relatively) recent politicians or bureaucrats, that you release how good we have it. We owe a huge debt of gratitude to the foresighted people who managed to save our native placenames.

Finn (cough) MacCool versus Ming The Merciless

Because we specialize in culturally accurate Irish ‘mythology’, we come across a lot of examples where our culture is misrepresented (or manipulated to be something it’s not) but one of my absolute favourites of this whole “Oirish” genre is the following trailer for a film called “Finn MacCool” (they couldn’t even get the name right!). This regularly turns up on You Tube and other sites.

As far as I can tell, the trailer is actually a promotional piece because (fortunately) the film was never released and, possibly, never completed. This happens sometimes when a movie’s being proposed and talked-up but the funding is never actually raised. It’s also unclear as to whether this was an Irish movie or one made by an overseas company – so if you know please give me a yell. Either way, though, you have to give the producers credit for using Irish actors (or at least someone who can successfully put on an Irish accent – not looking at you, Tom Cruise!) although the Ming the Merciless character who plays … actually, I’m not entirely sure who he’s meant to be, does seem a bit miscast. Having such a strong Dublin accent several centuries before Dublin ever came into being, well….

It’s also easy -if unfair – to mock the movie as it looks to be very much a product of its time (seventies or eighties, at a guess). There’s plenty of commentary (in the comments) on the long hair, the terrible special effects, the fact that Fionn – sorry, Finn – is fighting Vikings (who didn’t turn up in Ireland until the 8th century) etc. etc. My personal favourite is the way that people killed in the battle scenes do this amazing kind of pirouette when they die, spinning off to the ground with an enthusiasm they clearly didn’t have when they were fighting. Honestly, it looks as though the battle scenes were choreographed by Ballet Ireland – it’s that good!

But I’m only joking. I’m actually very fond of this piece of film as it represents how people saw the whole Fenian Cycle back in the seventies, how insecure we were in terms of our own culture and how easily we were influenced in our attempts to monkey others.

There was a rumour going around two years ago about a movie on Cú Chulainn being developed by Michael Fassbender however that now seems to be languishing in “development hell”. Maybe in a few decades, we’ll have something to compare with this trailer!

The Poor Mouth

If you get a chance over the Christmas period, you might want to wallow in your “Irishnessness” with the animated satire of Flann O’Brien’s 1941 novel ‘An Béal Bocht’ (The Poor Mouth) which premiered last year at the Galway Film Fleadh.

Flann O’Brien’s original tale was actually a fond piss-take of Irish autobiographies like Peig Sayers’ “Peig” and Tomas O’Criomhthains’s “An t-Oiléanach” (The Islandman) which were forced down every Irish schoolkid’s throat for decades following independence. Mercifully, that’s stopped now, although I’m sure many of you will have shared that particular ‘pleasure’!

In terms of plot, the story concerns the erratic life of Bónapárt Ó Cúnasa (Bonaparte O’Coonassa) who lives in an isolated part of Ireland called Corca Dhorcha where it’s always raining and everyone lives in abject poverty (but speak the purest and “learned smooth Gaelic”!). The film stars Seán Misteál, Donncha Crowley, Tommy Tiernan and Bob Quinn. A pretty decent cast.

The book was absolutely hilarious and it’ll be nice to enjoy the film version poking fun at all the associated childhood baggage.

You can find the trailer here: Irish Movie An Béal Bocht

A New Fionn mac Cumhaill Series Tale

It’s been a hectic few weeks but the next tale in the Fionn mac Cumhaill Series is finally available.

FIONN: THE TWISTED TALE is a short story set four years after the events in the last book in the series (FIONN: The Adversary).

This story is only available in Kindle form (mobi) or in ePUB from (i.e. Apple, Kobo, Nook etc.) in the “Books” section of the Irish Imbas website (HERE). It’s unlikely to be released anywhere else.

THE STORY

This tale involves the woman warrior called Liath Luachra. While out hunting in the Great Wild with seven year-old Rónán and fifteen year-old Bran, she comes across the tracks of a fian (old Irish word for ‘war party’) hunting a solitary traveler who seems bound for the Bládhma hills where Ráth Bládhma (the settlement of Bládhma and Liath Luachra’s home) is located.

The following is a taster for the full story which sits at about 11,500 words. The accompanying glossary may also be useful:

An Poll Mór – The Big Hole (a cave refuge)
Clann Morna – A tribe
Fian – A band of warriors or war party
Fénnid – a member of a fian. The noun can be plural or singular)
Óglach – A young, unblooded warrior (plural: Óglaigh)
Ráth Bládhma – A settlement (literally, the ráth of Bládhma)

A full pronunciation guide is available at the FIONN mac Cumhaill Series Pronunciation Guide

THE TWISTED TRAIL

It was a death-sun that revealed the strangers’ tracks south-east of the Bládhma mountains. Sliding in on the heel of dusk, its rare, slanted glare cast a bloodstained hue that illuminated the wide spread of footprints. Liath Luachra, the Grey One of Luachair, regarded them in silence. In all her years travelling that territory, she’d never once encountered evidence of another person’s passage. To find such a number and such a diversity of tracks in that rough and isolated area therefore, was enough to make her gut clench in unease.

Kneeling beside the nearest footprint, she brushed a thick strand of black hair from her face while keeping one wary eye on the surrounding forest. Because of the dense vegetation, there was little enough to see; a dark wall of tall oak trees climbing the ridges to the north and south, the distant blur of the Bládhma mountains peeking above the canopy to the east but no sign of movement or anything else out of the ordinary.

Reassured at the absence of any immediate danger, she bent closer, probing the footprint’s shallow depth with the fingers of her right hand. Conscious of the ruddy evening sky fading to grey, she scraped a piece of dirt free, raised it to her nose and sniffed.

It smelled, naturally enough, of earth. Of The Great Mother’s damp breath.

Tossing the gritty residue aside, she wiped her hand on the leather leggings that hugged her haunches and regarded the two boys standing nervously off to her right. Bran, with fifteen years on him, was more youth than boy but by nature tended to be the more solemn of the two. That sombre temperament was evident now in the furrows that lined his forehead and the nervous manner in which he chewed on his fingernails while studying the erratic mesh of tracks. The youth was visibly troubled by the prospect of strangers in Bládhma territory. Old enough to remember the brutal murder of his parents at Ráth Dearg more than a decade earlier, he was certainly old enough to realise that incursions like this didn’t bode well for anyone.

‘Who are they, Grey One?’

The younger boy, the dark-haired Rónán, had little more than seven years on him but was decidedly more buoyant than his friend. Despite the weight of a wicker backpack across his shoulders – a burden made up of cuts of wild pig from a successful hunt in Drothan valley – he stared down at the scattered tracks with unbridled excitement at such a novel discovery.

The woman warrior shrugged dispassionately. ‘Read the story in the Great Mother’s mantle. Read what the earth shows you and tell me what you see.’

The dark-haired boy reacted to the suggestion with his usual animation, nodding fervently to himself as he moved closer to the tracks. Ever keen to accompany the woman warrior on her forays into the Great Wild, he invariably responded to such tests of his woodcraft skills with enthusiasm. Crouching alongside her, his features fixed into a frown as he chewed on the inside of his cheek in unconscious mimicry. His long hair was held from his eyes by a leather headband but several strands had worked free, prompting him to brush at them with an irritated gesture.

Liath Luachra watched as his gaze fixed on the single footprint in front of him then transferred to the jumbled network of other tracks that surrounded them.

He’s just like Bearach. Happy and eager as an eager puppy.

She suppressed that thought immediately, burying it deep inside her heart, locking it in a dark and forlorn part of herself where she rarely dared to venture. Such memories were places best avoided, dangerous, fathomless chasms it was best not to shine a light down. And some things should never be exposed to the light of day.

‘There’s at least six or seven sets of tracks,’ noted Rónán. ‘The prints are spaced wide apart so they’re travelling fast.’

She nodded, pleased both by the keenness of his observation and the distraction it offered. ‘Yes.’

‘Headed east.’

She inclined her head to her left shoulder but made no response. That simple fact was plain to see from the direction in which the tracks were facing.

Sensing that he’d disappointed her, the boy tried again. ‘They’re men,’ he said warily, as though not entirely convinced of his own conclusion.

Again, easy enough to work out to see from the breadth of the imprints and the depths of their impressions.

‘Yes. But what else? What’s the pattern?’

Rónán looked at the prints once more. Unable to distinguish any obvious configuration, he threw an anxious glance towards Bran but the older boy had already turned away, directing his attention to other more distant tracks.

Realising that there’d be little succour from that quarter, the boy turned back to scrutinise the nearest imprint, bending to examine it more closely in the fading light. Despite staring at it intently for a time, his study produced no fresh intuition and finally, he raised his eyes to the woman warrior, conceding defeat with a frustrated shake of his head.

Liath Luachra had already moved away by then, taking up position at a nearby elm where she leaned casually against the trunk, her backpack pressed against the coarse bark to take some of the weight from her shoulders. She was looking towards the dying sun when she caught the movement of his head from the corner of her eye and, squinting against the ruddy light, she turned back to consider him with an impassive regard.

‘It’s a tóraíocht,’ she said. A pursuit. ‘A group of men are chasing another man, a solitary traveller.’ She gestured towards a particular line of tracks that had a visibly different appearance to the others. ‘See how those footprints look older? The edges are friable, the flat sections drier. All the other tracks are still damp because they haven’t fully dried out. That means they were made more recently, probably just a little earlier this afternoon.’

Rónán thought that explanation through for several moment before raising his eyes to regard her, his lips turned down in a frown. ‘But why are they chasing the single traveller?’

The woman warrior shrugged. ‘You know as well as I, there’s only so much of a story the Great Mother ever shares.’

Bran, who’d been observing their interaction in silence, cleared his throat and shifted his weight awkwardly from one leg to another. ‘Grey One. If they’re travelling east, they’ll strike Ráth Bládhma.’

Liath Luachra rubbed her nose and sniffed.

‘Just because the tracks here show them moving east that doesn’t mean their final destination lies in that direction.’ She gestured loosely towards the forested ridges north and south. ‘In this terrain it makes sense for the intruders to travel east. It’s likely they’ll drift to a different course once the land opens out.’
Bran kept his eyes lowered and made no response but she sensed he was unconvinced by the argument.
Sighing, the Grey One stepped away from the tree, grunting as the full weight of the backpack bore down on her shoulders. ‘Rest easy. Our own course to An Poll Mór follows their trail for a time yet. If they veer off the eastern path, we’ll know they’re no threat to Ráth Bládhma.’

‘What if they don’t veer off?’ asked Rónán.

‘That …’ The woman warrior gave another noncommittal shrug. ‘That is an issue we’ll address if we come to it.’

PERFORATING TIME

 One of the things I love about Ireland is how the thin film of that present we inhabit is so often perforated by the reality of previous millennia. Many people believe that time travels in a linear fashion from past to present to future but of course that conceptual model doesn’t work in reality. The truth is that the past informs and affects everything we do in the present (and hence in the future). It’s physical, but sometimes intangible, and yet inescapable in all its forms.
 
We’ve had many recent examples of such temporary intrusion over previous months with the ongoing discovery of gold hoards and bog butter, the unearthing of new passage graves and henges at Brú Na Bóinne and now most recently with this new find on the banks of the river Boyne.
 
Despite all the crap going on in the world at the moment, we do truly live in fascinating times.
You can find the link to the Irish Independent article here: Ancient find on the Boyne

QUEEN MAEVE’S VULVA AND OTHER MATTERS

QUEEN MAEVE’S VULVA AND OTHER MATTERS

This article in the Irish Times gives a very nice rundown on the astounding work carried out by the Placenames Branch of the Department of Culture, Heritage and the Gaeltacht. In a sense, this particular group carries out a similar kind of preservation/conservation work to the very effective Irish Folklore Commission (who started work back in the 1930s and finished in 1971).

Ireland’s extremely lucky to have such a treasury of placenames because each placename carries elements of language, history, geography, beliefs and so on. Some names are based on people or events who have disappeared from societal history but there are enough in the reminder to establish overall patterns that give insights into our ancestors’ lives and how we ended up where we are in the world today. This is particularly important when it comes to a placename for a townland or field, which often has a more immediate relevance for families living in a particular area.

Although it’s a great article overall, there’s an amusing irony in the fact that the author refers to ‘ráth’ and ‘lios’ as fairy forts. At this stage, most people know they had very little to do with either fairies OR with forts.

The link is just below:

Placenames

Poetry, Storms and Jet-Lag

I was lucky enough to catch up with Doireann Ní Ghríofa in the city this weekend where we met up for a brief interview at Capital Irish Radio. Doireann was in Wellington City as part of the Lit Crawl (a kind of literature festival taking place in Wellington this weekend that’s based on a pub crawl model – don’t ask!) and as a fan of her work it was great to sneak in an opportunity to meet her.

For those of you unfamiliar with her work, Doireann writes prose and poetry, in both Irish and English, and has several collections to her name. She’s also won numerous awards and her list of literary achievements reads like a kind of who’s-who (or a what’s what) of literary respectability: Ireland Chair of Poetry Bursary 2014-2015, Rooney Prize for Irish Literature, 2016, The Michael Hartnett Poetry Prize, 2016, a Seamus Heaney Fellowship at Queen’s University, Belfast, 2018, etc. etc. etc.

I’m not one to put too much credence in mainstream literary prizes but in Doireann’s case, I’ll admit that she pretty much deserves the accolades she’s received. Once you’ve listened to her speak or read her work, it’s easy to see why her poetry is so popular (and you’ll work that out yourself when you listen to the interview). Humane and gracious, in a period of such prevalent international toxicity (read; the American elections, the refugee crisis, Brexit etc.), she comes across a genuine balm on a troubled world, an articulate reminder that despite all the crap going on right now, there’s light to be found at the end of the tunnel in the simple acts of being human.

You can hear the full interview here:

 

I’m very grateful to Doireann but also to Marian from Capital Irish for help with the interview.

When I first met her, I could tell that Doireann was suffering from bad jet-lag so I was impressed, not only that she managed the interview, but that she answered my questions so succinctly and articulately. You could also tell she was a bit shell-shocked by the terrible weather that’s been rocking the city since she landed and you could see her looking dubiously from the corner of one eye when told the sun normally shone at this time of year.

The combination of jet-lag, a new environment and weather that closes in around you, can create strange sensations and an odd, dislocated sense of reality. As I watched her struggling down the street, buffeted by merciless gusts and icy rain, I confess I did wonder what such surreal experiences in Wellington might produce in terms of future creative works.

You can find out more about Doireann and her work at: Doireann Ní Ghríofa

Meanwhile, you can pick up a copy of Lies by clicking on the image below.

Back to the Past in Beara

The accepted view is that you can never go back to the past and of course, to a degree, that’s true. Personal experiences aren’t something you can really replicate, particularly the more intense ones, the formative ones that influence or create the core of your character and make you who you are.

I managed to go back to Beara in a geographical sense in August. I’ve been back many times over the years but, to be honest, it’s never really been the same since our house was sold while I was living overseas. Losing the house in Beara severed one of my most fundamental ties to West Cork. Whenever I go home now, I no longer have that footprint, the physical anchor that attaches you firmly to a piece of land.

On this occasion, things were slightly different. K had somehow managed to find a rental cottage on the old botharín just down from our old home, a major feat given that there’d never been more than five houses on that road, two little more than stone wall skeletons.

It turned out the rental cottage was one of the latter. I remembered the building as a spooky place, a tumble-down ruin covered in ivy, but it turned out that the grandkids of the original owner (who’d emigrated to the States back in the fifties or sixties and struck it rich) had managed to do it up and now hired it out on occasion.

When we arrived at the rental that first evening, I looked north towards the old place but couldn’t see anything as it was too far off the road, obscured by trees and the curve of the land. Instead, I wandered down to the nearby strand, a small beach that’s almost private in that there’s hardly anyone ever there, particularly at that time of day. I spent a good half-hour sitting on a favourite rock, occupying the same space I’d occupied as a child forty years ago, relishing the fact that it still fit me like a glove. It was a windless evening, an occasional wave lapped half-heartedly against the rocks, gulls swooped low over the water and kept an eye on the solitary intruder. The sun was starting its descent behind the hill to the north and the distant chug of a fishing boat reverberated softly in the heavy air. I had hoped to see one of the seals that used to frequent the rocks but there were none in sight.

 

Tired, I was wandering back to the rental cottage when a flash of colour in the woods off the side of the road caught my eye. Intrigued, I moved close to the ditch, peered through the trees and managed to make out an old caravan that had been swallowed up by the vegetation. To my surprise, it was one I recognised, although it’d been a good twenty years since I’d last seen it (and I’d passed that spot several times since then). This particular sliver of land had been bought by a man who’d spent a few summers living in that caravan. One summer he wasn’t there and then I’d not heard of him again. It seemed odd to discover that fresh physical evidence of his existence.

 

I managed to get over the ditch and pushed my way through the trees to reach the vehicle. Over time, the caravan’s axle had sunk into the earth so there was no way it was ever going to move again. The exterior was mouldy and turning green, the same colour as the surrounding woods. The door had fallen off to reveal a worn curtain made up of multi-coloured strips of plastic. Every now and again, a breeze would catch it and flick some of the strips up and it was this movement that had caught my eye. Beyond the garish curtain, the caravan’s interior looked shadowed and creepy, but you could still see an old moss-covered electric kettle sitting on a battered table as though ready and waiting to boil up a cup of tea.

Clambering back the way I’d come, I returned to the road and made my way to the rental cottage. That night we slept with the window open so I could hear the sea.

*****

The following morning, to the rear of the cottage, we discovered an odd, shadowy tunnel that had been carved through the woods and which led north through the trees. When you see a passage beckoning you in like that it’s almost impossible to resist.

Naturally, we went in.

The tunnel led us in a long, slow curve and eventually deposited us in a thick wood with a labyrinth of different, weaving pathways. Like much of the woodland in this area, it had a distinct musty smell, despite the warm weather. Water flows down from the hills in Beara and much of it ends up trapped in boggy woodland like this.

Following my nose, I led the way through the shadowed trees for what felt like an age until we finally hit an overgrown jumble of briars and shrubs and a low wall with a gap in it. Stepping through the gap, I stopped dead because standing less than twenty metres away, across a wide stretch of field, was our old house. With the weaving paths in the woods, I’d lost my sense of direction and hadn’t recognised any of the terrain we’d been passing through. To be confronted by that sight in such a sudden and unexpected manner, completely threw me.

I stood staring at the house for a good while and actually felt my heart-rate quicken. An Páirc Mór – the Big Field – the pasture in which I was standing, was the same place I’d played in as a kid, carving tunnels through the thick fern, hiding in them when my mother came out to call us in for dinner. Back then, I’d never once thought of bypassing the wall I’d just walked through. Back then, that barrier has been an impenetrable obstacle. There’d been no gap. The wall hadn’t even been visible due to the tall, layers of tangled briars and trees, vegetation so thick you couldn’t even see through them.

By passing through the gap, I’d experienced a genuine sense of having passed through time and as I headed up towards the house, that feeling intensified. The building and the yard were exactly as I remembered them – although far more overgrown and clearly deserted. Approaching the windows, I looked inside, and if stepping through the gap had been like stepping into the past, looking into our old house was like tumbling headlong into it. Nothing had changed. The hall still held the same cheap, wooden cabinetry that we’d used to store our boots and coats. The fridge and the kitchen cupboards were the same. Even the dingy, old carpet in the main room and leading up the stairs hadn’t changed, which meant that it’d been sitting there for at least 35-40 years.


Looking through that foggy glass, I felt an almost irresistible urge to break in and charge up those stairs to see if my old bed was still there. Instead, I sucked in a deep breath, grabbed the window-sill with both hands and pulled myself firmly back to the present.

*****

Later, back at the rental cottage, K could tell the experience had cut me up, although at the time it was hard to articulate why. I suppose the truth of the matter was that, for a short time, I’d actually had one foot back in my own childhood and the strong surge of memories that triggered had sent me reeling. Even now, several weeks later, those memories still flush in from time to time, briefly pummeling me with waves of nostalgia for what was and what could have been, a melancholic mixture of homesickness and wistfulness for old comforts, old times, old places. Fortunately, I’m also realistic enough to recognise that even if the physical location hasn’t changed, the person who inhabited it surely has.

I’ve continued to mull over that whole experience since returning to New Zealand and now, although it still shakes me a bit, I can savour the experience for what it was. I’ve been insanely lucky. For a moment – just a moment – I was able to relive my childhood, to taste my past with an immediacy and intensity that far surpasses memory. And that, brief second life, is worth its weight in personal gold.

 

Note: This article first appeared in VÓG, our monthly newsletter of  in-depth articles on Irish culture, mythology/ folklore, occasional news on new projects, writing or other things that amuse us.

 

 

An Irish Adventure Story with Cultural Depth

I’m always a bit wary when new films, books or games that use Ireland or Irish culture as a core part of their story are released.  Many of these tend to target the “Oirish” market (the overly romantic Irish-identity market that flows from the Irish diaspora) or the “Celtic fantasy” market, which joyfully whips key elements of Irish/Gaelic culture and uses them out for context for entertainment purposes. Overall, it’s rare enough for Irish creatives to have genuine control of a large budget production, not to mind one that actually reflects their culture with any degree of accuracy or authenticity.

I was pretty stoked then, when I finally got around to watching Lance Daly’s “Black 47”, a film that had been on my peripheral vision for over eight months prior to its release. At the time, it had struck me as a bit odd to choose two Australian actors for the main roles and the thought of a commercial release around something as culturally sensitive as An Gorta Mór (The Great Famine) seemed incredibly insensitive, particularly given the British Channel Four’s misjudged attempt (in 2015) to do a comedy series based on that traumatic period. Fortunately, all baggage aside, “Black 47″confidently and competently stands on its own.

A grim, broody “Irish Western” and revenge thriller, “Black 47” follows the adventures of Feeney, an Irish soldier who deserts the British army in Afghanistan and returns home, only to discover the true scale and effect of colonisation. Learning of his mother and brother’s death and observing first-hand the evidence of his family being allowed to die in squalor and misery, Feeney ends up opposing the people and the administration that has allowed this to happen.  Repurposing the military skills gained in Afghanistan, Feeney follows a trajectory of violent opposition to the landlords, land agents and their constabulary, becoming an almost “Rambó Gaelach“,  an implacable force of justice against the rampant greed and cultural prejudice of that period. Soon, a ‘posse’ consisting of reluctant English hunter, Hannah (Hugo Weaving), and Pope (Freddie Fox), a fanatical British officer and Empire enthusiast, are set on his trail.

Fortunately, the movie is not just a simplistic revenge thriller. The Australian actor James Frenchville is impressive as the brooding Feeny, his immense physical presence and ready use of Irish language adding real depth to his character, but the real strength of the narrative is the cleverly-woven social commentary provided through the supporting characters. Conneely (Stephen Rea), a wry translator hired by the pursuing party, serves as an excellent foil to the over-privileged and obnoxious Lord Kilmichael (Jim Broadbent) who frequently releases statements such as:

‘Soon, a Celtic Irishman will be as rare in Connemara as is the Red Indian on the shores of Manhattan.’

When Kilmichael boldly states:

“I love this country. The scenery. You peasants are all the same, no appreciation of beauty. “

Conneely slyly replies:

“Beauty would be held in much higher regard, sir, if it could be eaten.”

It’s the wry and insightful gems like these, hidden throughout the script that give this movie it’s real resonance. That, the smattering of Gaeilge, the historical accuracy and the melancholic but beautiful scenery of Connemarra.

Overall, Black 47 can be enjoyed as a simple action movie but there really is much more going on than that. The film also serves as a subtle reminder of the ongoing cultural-PTSD that pervades Irish society as a result of 300 years of colonization and why most Irish people speak English today.

You can find the official trailer here: Black 47

 

 

 

Trying Times with The Irish Imbas: Celtic Mythology Short Story Competition

Back in 2014, we came up with the idea for running a short story competition based on the cultural mythology of Ireland, Scotland and Wales (the ‘Celtic’ countries). They key aim of this project was to produce a number of free resources to help counter the huge volume of misinformation and inaccuracies on the internet. Since then, we’ve held an annual competition from 2015 to 2017 and produced three separate collections that we’re extremely proud of. These are:

Irish Imbas: Celtic Mythology Collection 2016

Irish Imbas: Celtic Mythology Collection 2017

Irish Imbas: Celtic Mythology Collection 2018

The Irish Imbas: Celtic Mythology Short Story Competition has always been a loss-making project and it’s something we do only because we’re extremely passionate about the subject and enjoy the process immensely. That said, over the three years that we’ve run the competition there have been a number of developments and learnings that have really caught us by surprise:

  1. Very few people out there actually understand what mythology is. Obviously, we anticipated a certain amount of confusion due to over a hundred years of misinformation, but the level of incomprehension in some of the works submitted during the competition was quite staggering. We’ve received some absolutely brilliant short stories but, often, we just couldn’t publish them as they didn’t even meet the competition criteria. Given that we’d set a $7 entry fee to keep the submissions down to a workable number, we felt this outcome wasn’t a good one for us or the submitters.

2. Most people tend to confuse the term ‘mythology’ with ‘fantasy’.

In hindsight, this is understandable. Although mythology is culturally-based, it sometimes contains elements of fantasy. Unfortunately, it turns out that this is the limit of many people’s understanding.

3. It’s surprisingly difficult to get free products out there.

Part of our original goal was to make the resources free but we were a bit surprised to find how hard this was based on the multitude of different (and picky) requirements from the different ebookstores. We tried a number of different mechanisms but in the end, we got so frustrated we just set the last two copies of the Celtic Mythology Collection at 99c/99p and left it at that. We’ve tried to make the digital version of the first collection available free everywhere but despite our efforts some readers still end up paying. Go figure!

4. We’ve received quite a lot of backlash from faux mythology writers and internet “experts”.

This was one we certainly didn’t expect. It turns out there’s a substantial number of people online (and offline) who produce flawed mythology content/products for the entertainment/tourist market. Most of these have a genuine interest in the subject matter and if they knew they’d got something wrong I’m pretty sure they’d correct it. Unfortunately, there’s also a few more feral content producers who have no qualms putting out content that they know to be incorrect (or didn’t care to check). Some of these, feeling threatened by the books and articles we produce (that reveal their own works to be flawed or lacking in authenticity), have vented some anger our way. A few have been doing some petty sabotage online – kinda sad, but true.

A big part of what we’re seeing with mythology is that there’s no commonly understood basis as to what it is, what it consists of or what we should actually do with it. Without a common terminology or a common conceptual basis, it’s almost impossible to have any kind of meaningful conversation on the topic.

For the above reasons therefore, we’ve decided to postpone the Irish Imbas: Celtic Mythology Short Story Competition and to focus instead on other projects that will help address the issues outlined above.  Longer term, we do hope to recommence the competition.

Our apologies to those of you who were intending to partake.

How Useful are ‘Language Weeks?’

It’s Te Wiki O Te Reo (Maori Language Week) here in New Zealand, a week when the general population are encouraged to speak Te Reo (meaning, literally, “the language”), attend classes or special events in Te Reo. As someone who works in the conservation and revival of Irish culture, I watch Te Wiki O Te Reo with interest because I know how critical language is for the generational transfer of cultural concepts and ideas. Although living in New Zealand, my kids and I speak Irish (Gaelic) at home. Even that limited exposure to the Irish language allows them to think in a Gaelic manner and strengthens their connection with that part of their heritage. Because of their Maori whakapapa (my partner is Maori), my kids are also fluent in Te Reo. They wouldn’t be able to fully engage in Maori culture if they weren’t.

Overall, Te Wiki O Te Reo is a positive event and the festival certainly garners an element of interest in Te Reo from people who wouldn’t otherwise have been exposed to the language. In terms of actual outcomes for language sustainability/conservation however, I’m probably a little more pessimistic.

Maori Language Week reminds me a lot of Seachtain na Gaeilge (Irish Week) which is takes place every year in the lead up to St Patrick’s Day, focusing on events of Irish interest, predominantly language but also culture and music. The problem with ‘Language Weeks’ like Seachtain na Gaeilge is that they’re one-off, “feel good” marketing events that don’t form part of a cohesive strategic campaign to revitalise the language. Although successful in terms of raising interest, they don’t work so well at sustaining that interest or developing it into something more meaningful.

In Ireland, for example, Seachtain na Gaeilge has been running since 1903 (originally funded and run by Conradh na Gaeilge but now funded through Foras na Gaeilge, the Irish Government’s institution for promoting the Irish Language) and despite all that activity, the number of Gaelic speakers dropped substantially over that time. In addition, any tangible long-term benefits of those Language Weeks have never been fully clarified. In all that time, there have been few (or no) independent assessments of Seachtain na Gaeilge’s effectiveness or value for money. If there have been, the results certainly haven’t been made easily available.

Part of the problem, of course, is that language revitalisation takes far more effort, resource and commitment than a week-long language festival can deliver. In addition, language conservation (and subsequent revitalisation) requires a long-term dedication which means that it’ll never be effectively carried out by national governments. (the long-term goal of language revitalisation doesn’t align well with short-term government re-election goals [3-4 years]). To give the impression of doing something to assist the language therefore, governments generally tend to opt for easier, short-term programmes. In this respect, a Language Week fits the bill perfectly in that it offers immense public marketing hype, positive messages and numerous photo opportunities.

Although it’s certainly good to celebrate the Maori or Irish language every now and again, there does need to be some sense of recognition on what such government-funded Language Weeks can realistically provide. In Ireland and New Zealand, the most successful programmes I’ve seen with respect to language retention and development (Gaelscoils, TnaG, Whare Kohunga etc) invariably originated from community groups and private individuals working quietly but tirelessly, on a sustained daily basis, to keep their language (and through it, their culture) alive and well. If they’re successful and become public, suddenly the Government are there to take the credit.

The Trouble With Liath – Aar, me hearty! Pirate Irish Books

Anyone who’s anyway capable with Irish (the language), or familiar with my work, is probably aware that  ‘Liath’ is the Irish word for ‘Grey’ (although it can also mean a grey-haired person). ). Like most Irish adjectives, the word is pretty flexible: Sioc liath is a ‘hoar frost’ for example. Bainne liath is a kind of watery milk whereas arán liath means bread that’s gone a bit mouldy … and so on and so forth.

The word doesn’t tend to turn up too often on the Amazon website so you can imagine my surprise when I went to check one of my books the other day (Liath Luachra: The Swallowed which I released about a month ago)  and found a whole slew of  “Liath-themed” Irish books as follows.

These are just a small selection. There were actually quite a few others (all with ‘Liath’ in the title, all claiming to be  an “Irish Edition”) Interestingly, when I took a closer look at them I found that, not only were they all at ridiculously high prices (none of them are less than $65),  the interior sample content of each one was complete garbage, meaningless Irish words scooped up with some app and combined together in nonsense form.

I did a quick google image check for ‘Gaoth Liath”- the first pic above and found it had been nicked from a wallpaper engine site. When I searched out the authors, they were all pretty much empty – a single name, a single book, nothing more.

So obviously, someone has gone to a bit of trouble to create a whole bunch of faux Irish Edition books (I’m assuming the common word ‘Liath’ was included so that they’d be easier to find).   I have seen other reference online to books like these appearing and disappearing and most of the theoretical discussion seems to suggest these books are use for fraud purposes (where someone steals a credit card, orders hundreds of hugely-inflated price books and scoops up the profit for example). They’re certainly no use as books.

To be honest, finding this has pissed me off a bit. Getting decent Irish language books on places like Amazon is pretty hard as the larger ebook stores tend to focus on the English-speaking mass market only. Most Irish-language books tend to be published for the home market by specialist publishers (I’d like to rectify that one day) and frankly, An Gaeilege simply isn’t large enough or profitable enough for them to care.

Crap like this though, is hardly going to help.

Needless to say, I raised the issue with Amazon over a month ago and their response was the usual …… meh!  This morning I looked again and, lo and behold, those gorgeous Oirsih Books continue to be shine brightly from their shop screen.

Anois tá fiamh agam leo!

(Now, they’re in my bad books! Boom-boom!)

 

 

 

 

 

 

The Fate of Irish women taken as Vikings Slaves

In local Beara folklore, most people are pretty much aware of how Oileán Baoi (Dursey Island) was used by the Vikings as a staging depot to export Irish slaves (mostly female) to overseas markets. A recent study from Iceland however gives some idea of where some of those women might have ended up.

Building on previous research around the Iceland genome (a geneticist’s wet dream because of the isolated population), a team led by the University of Iceland and biopharmaceutical company deCODE Genetics carried out a whole genome analysis on the ancient remains of twenty-seven Icelanders buried across the island. These were estimated at about 1000 years old – clearly some of the earliest human settler population.

That study showed that the settlers had a roughly even split of Norse (from modern-day Norway/ Sweden) and Gaelic (modern-day Irish or Scottish) ancestry, an interesting insight into the fate of thousands of slaves – mostly women – who were taken by Norse Vikings from Ireland and Scotland before they put down roots on the North Atlantic island.

Medieval histories suggest Iceland was first settled between 870 A.D. and 930 A.D. by seafaring Vikings and the people they enslaved, who possessed a mélange of genes from what is now Norway and the British Isles (Ireland was first ‘visited’ by Vikings in about 750 AD).

To be fair, however, slavery already existed in Ireland prior to the arrival of the Vikings. Centuries earlier, it was pretty common for Gaelic raiders to cross the Irish seas and raid current day Great Britain (which, in fact, is where we nabbed our patron saint!)

The New Liath Luachra Book [Liath Luachra: The Swallowed]

Osraighe: Ireland’s shadowy centre, a desolate region of forest, marshes and mountainous terrain where unwary travellers are ‘swallowed’ and never seen again.

Caught up in an intra-tribal conflict when her latest mission turns sour, the woman warrior Liath Luachra finds herself coerced into a new undertaking. Dispatched to Osraighe to find a colony of missing settlers, she must lead a mismatched group of warriors, spies, and druids through a land of spectral forest, mysterious stone structures, and strange forces that contradict everything she knows of the Great Wild.

Haunted by a dead woman, struggling to hold her war-band together, Liath Luachra must confront her own internal demons while predators prowl the shadow between the trees …

Awaiting their moment to feed.

Liath Luachra: The Swallowed is the second stand-alone book in a spin-off series from my original Irish mythological cycle, the Fionn mac Cumhaill Series. Although originally envisaged as a minor character in that series, the woman warrior Liath Luachra’s compelling personality meant she became a dominant force in every book. This particular novel is the direct result of a stream of emails from readers demanding more background to the character.

As you can see, ancient Ireland wasn’t exactly the most comfortable of spots. The more complex stone monuments that pepper the countryside were there two thousand years before the Celts turned up. By the 2nd century, the majority of the land was challenging to traverse in that it was heavily forested, the midlands were reeking swamp and the island itself was sparsely populated.

And that’s not even counting Na Torathair, misshapen creatures lurking in the darkness to snatch the unwise and unworthy.

Liath Luachra: The Swallowed unsheathes its sword on 1 July 2018 and is available for pre-order on Amazon. A limited number of ARCs are available to reviewers who like to dip their toes in new worlds … that are remarkably ancient.

***

The Mandatory Excerpt!

In this excerpt, Liath Luachra, the Grey One of Luachair, is awaiting a meeting with the Mical Strong Arm, (Chieftain) of the Uí Bairrche tribe. While waiting, she comes across his daughter.

——————————————————————————————————————–

Mical Strong Arm’s daughter looked up from her play, her lips compressed in a prim expression of suspicion and annoyance at the intrusion. Skinny and pale, she had straw-coloured hair and her wide blue eyes assessed the newcomer with cool disdain. The Grey One thought her quite small for her age, for Dalbach had told her the girl had ten or eleven years on her.

Ignoring the cold reception, the woman warrior reached over to pluck one of the dry mud cakes from the stone, raised it to her nose and pretended to sniff it.

‘Mmm. That smells good. Shall I eat the cake?’ She licked her lips in exaggerated appreciation of the prospect. ‘Num-num.’

The girl stared, her expression a mixture of irritation and incomprehension. ‘You don’t eat mudcakes. They’re … They’re mud!’ She regarded the woman warrior in exasperation, her jaw jutting out with comical self-righteousness.

‘My brothers and I, we made mudcakes. We made the best mudcakes in Luachair. People came from all over to try them.’

‘Really?’ Despite her suspicions, the girl’s expression softened. Her features were quite delicate the Grey One noted, the small nose and distinct cheekbones probably due more to her mother than her father.

Liath Luachra shook her head. ‘No,’ she confessed. ‘Our cakes were terrible. They were so bad everyone avoided Luachair. Even the rats wouldn’t eat them.’ She screwed her face into an exaggerated grimace causing the girl to giggle effusively.

‘Does your father beat you?’ Liath Luachra asked.

The girl’s eyes widened. ‘No! He …Why would he …?’ She went silent, too confused to articulate what was clearly an alien concept.

‘You’re not afraid of him?’

‘Of my father? Of course not.’ She puffed up her tiny chest. ‘I’m not afraid of anything. I’m not … Well, except for the black shadows at night of course.’ Her face took on a worried expression.

‘You don’t need to be afraid of the black shadows,’ the woman warrior reassured her. ‘That’s simply what happens when the colours of the world go to sleep.’

This time the girl stared at her, completely intrigued. ‘The colours of the world go to sleep?’

‘Yes. Every night, Father Sky opens his bag, gathers up the colours of the world and sets them all inside. When the colours have gone, there’s nothing left in the world but black, the colour of night, the colour even Father Sky has no use for.’

‘Why does Father Sky put them in his bag?’

‘Because colours have to rest too. Just like us. In Father Sky’s bag they can sleep the good sleep so that when he releases them again the next morning, they’re refreshed and new and shine as brilliant as the day before.’ She made a loose gesture with one hand. ‘Except for the dull days when they didn’t get enough sleep.’

The Uí Bairrche girl sat back on her haunches, her lips pursed in thought as she considered the logic of Grey One’s explanation. ‘Is that true?’ she asked at last.

‘I don’t know for sure,’ Liath Luachra admitted. ‘But I think so. My mother told me that story and she wasn’t the kind of person to tell lies.’

The girl looked at Liath Luachra with fresh interest. ‘Lígach’s the name on me,’ she said at last, the revelation apparently a formal confirmation of the Grey One’s approval. ‘What name do you have on you?’

‘I don’t have a name on me. Not anymore.’

Lígach’s nose crinkled in adult-like incredulity. ‘That’s silly. Everyone has a name.’

‘Not me. Not a real name. I lost my real name … long ago. Back when I was a little girl. Just a few years older than you.’

The girl shook her head. ‘That doesn’t make sense. How can you lose your name?’

The Grey One looked at her, silent for a moment. ‘I’m not sure,’ she said at last and gave a shrug. Perhaps …’ She paused. ‘Perhaps it fell out of my pocket.’

Lígach giggled. ‘That’s silly.’

The Grey One looked down at the ground. ‘Perhaps,’ she said again.

Lígach nodded with certainty, as though her own answer resolved that particular conundrum. ‘Are you here to speak with my father?’

‘I am.’

‘Is he sending you away to An Díthreabh Uaigneach [The Lonely Land] too?’

Taken by surprise, the woman warrior pulled back a little. ‘Yes.’

The girl leaned forward in a conspiratorial manner, pressing her lips close to the woman warrior’s ear. ‘When you’re in The Lonely Land,’ she whispered urgently. ‘Stay away from the dark shadows. The dark shadows eat you up.’

Liath Luachra blinked and regarded Mical Strong Hand’s daughter in consternation but before she could question her further, a loud voice called out to her rear. Glancing back over her shoulder, she saw Dalbach standing in the doorway of the stone hut, waving urgently for her to join him.

‘Grey One! Come. Mical Strong Arm and the others are waiting.’

As the woman warrior got to her feet, he disappeared inside again. ‘I have to go,’ she told the Uí Bairrche girl. Thank you for talking with me.’

Lígach nodded again, apparently knowing better than to interfere in her father’s business. ‘Remember,’ she said. ‘When you’re in the Lonely Land, stay away from the dark shadows.’

 

Song of Granite – A Review

As an Irish publisher, I’m always interested in Irish stories no matter what the medium used, hence I’d heard of the film Song of Granite long before I finally got a chance to see it earlier this month. A movie by Irish art-house director Pat Collins, Song of Granite tells – or rather illustrates – the life story of Seosamh Ó hÉanaí (known in English as Joe Heaney), the famous Irish sean-nós (unaccompanied, old style) singer from County Galway.

No one could deny Heaney was an accomplished singer and the folklorists adored him as his repertoire reputedly included over five hundred different songs in Irish, many whose origins had been lost and which were impossible to date definitively.

Collins approaches the story in an interesting way, splitting the film into three parts: Heany’s childhood in Carna, his life as an emigrant labourer in Glasgow and his later his years in America where he eventualy died in 1984. On a cinematographic level, the first part of the movie is certainly the most spectacular with many scenes – including the opening scene of the boats – reminiscent of the famous ‘Man of Aran’.

Although Collins approaches Heaney’s story in an indirect manner, it seems to suit the subject of the movie. Heany, by all accounts, was something of an elusive and prickly figure. Never entirely comfortable with his life in the city and his growing reputation as a singer, he often disappeared without warning, deserting his family for periods of over a year, sometimes returning back to the country where he worked on simple labouring jobs. It’s never stated directly that he’s fleeing the city but there’s one telling shot where he’d looking down at his kids in Glasgow, where they’re trying to play football in the concrete confines of a narrow alley-way. After the panoramic freedom and grandeur of Carna, the comparison is obvious.

The singing, of course, forms an essential part of the story and is present throughout the film. My favourite scene is one very-well recreated pub-scene where Heaney (played by Micheál Ó Confhaola) sings while getting that supportive touch of another sean-nós singer, something that’s totally distinctive to that particular art-form.

One aspect of Heany that came across (and which I wasn’t aware of) was his refusal to sing songs derived from the Irish music-hall stage (the ‘Oirish’ songs overseas audiences were used to hearing, and which many people demanded). Most people feel comfortable when another culture is presented to them in a familiar (i.e. in their language, in concepts they’re accustomed to dealing with etc.) and I really appreciated the way that Heany appeared to see himself as much more than that.

Either way, if you’re interested in sean-nós singing, Joe Heany’s life or a beautiful and poetic rendition of an earlier time and art-from, than this is very much the film for you.

Beara Dreaming

Twenty years ago, during a particularly tough winter, I found myself thumbing along a country road in Beara, trying to make my way back to Cork city. To be honest, it probably wasn’t the smartest of moves given that it was New Year’s morning and the landscape was empty of human activity. In the two hours I’d spent walking in the direction of Bantry, only two vehicles had passed: a van and a Morris Minor driven by a tight-faced old woman. Both had been headed in the opposite direction.

The previous night in Glengarrif had been a typical New Year’s Eve, heavy on the traditional music and the booze and a singing session that went on till the early hours. For some reason, I still woke up at six in the morning and, despite the hangover, had this deep-rooted drive to move on. This was some weird kind of personality glitch that plagued me from my late teens until about the age of thirty, a strange apprehension that I was enjoying something too much and that, if I didn’t let the joy go voluntarily, it would somehow be taken off me. Even today, I’m still not sure what was behind all that.

After two hours of walking the empty road, I couldn’t really feel my fingers or my toes. Fortunately, there was a liquid sun that kept the worst of the cold at bay and transformed Beara’s habitual grey bleakness into one of the most beautiful landscapes I know, and which still holds a death-grip on me.

Eventually, I heard a puttering sound in the distance behind me. When I looked hopefully back over my shoulder however, it turned out to be a motorbike, a tiny Honda 50, already loaded down with two people. As it drew nearer, I realised that I recognised both the motorbike and the two people on it. The driver, was one of my best friends from university while the person on the back was a girl I’d had a romantic fling with two years earlier (ironically, the last time I’d been home to Cork). The latter was wearing a hurling facemask as they only had one helmet. She was also wearing a large black, plastic rubbish bag to keep the cold off. The motorbike didn’t sound too healthy, you could actually hear the motor’s relief as it crested the hill and started downhill towards me.

This is typical Beara of course. It’s always been a strikingly surreal place, full of fascinating characters, dreamlike encounters and an odd sense of magical realism that’s tempered with the brutal weather, the unemployment and the other harsh practical realities of living there.

In New Zealand, where I’m currently living,  Maori have a word – turangawaiwai (literally, it means ‘the place where I stand’) – to express the connection between a person and a particular place, or a piece of land. The word, and the concept, really encapsulate that idea of attachment in terms of familial, generational, spiritual and cultural connection in a way that English words like ‘homeland’ (or even most Irish words I can think of) fail to capture. It’s the kind of word that necessitates a ‘walking of the land’ –  a regular and consistent of land to the point where you know the ground intimately and it forms part of your vocabulary.

Down where we lived, each field had its own name, generally associated with a physical characteristic, an event or a use or a person. The field in front of our house was called ‘An Páirc Mor’ – the Big Field – nothing like stating the bleeding obvious. A bit further on, you came to An Páirc Glas – the Green Field – because of the vibrant grass colour, and so on.

I used that kind of in-depth cultural background when I wrote my first book – Beara Dark Legends – because when you first start writing, you pretty much use what you know and in that particular case, it was a means of lancing the power of homesickness. The location for much of the land where the action takes place – Carraig Dubh (pronounced ‘Corr-igg Doov’ for the non-Irish speakers) is essentially drawn from the house and surrounding land where I spent a substantial part of my childhood and I occasionally used some of the local field names.

For those who’ve read the book, that’s the house and that’s Cnoc Daod up there in the background, dominating the world with its granite bulk. Some people have asked 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 its English name fine, but it’ll never have the same emotional resonance or connection that ‘Cnoc Daod’ has.

Living here in New Zealand has by necessity meant that I’m unable to ‘walk the land’ like I used to. It also means that I can sometimes feel my culture – and its creative associations – slipping away and I have no choice but to go back and ‘draw from the well’ once again. I’m hoping to get home again this year and will probably be spending a substantial period of time down Beara way.

Hopefully you’ll see the practical ramifications of that in future works.