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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.

An Historical Irish Revenge Thriller

For those with an interest in film, an interesting ‘Irish film’ premiered at the Berlin Film Festival in February this year and although I’ve been keeping an eye out for it on the international scene, it seems to have pretty much disappeared beneath the radar. Entitled ‘Black 47,’ it refers of course to 1847, the nadir of The Great Famine – An Gorta Mór.

Irish films based on An Gorta Mór are pretty few and far between (I can’t actually think of any), probably because as a tragedy and cultural injustice so epic in scale, the topic is still a somewhat sensitive subject, at least for our older population.

Fortunately, director’s like Lance Daly are young enough to avoid the worst of that burden so it’ll be interesting to see how he manages to balance that interaction between respect and voyeurism.

Daly was smart enough to approach the topic through the medium of a historical thriller/revenge movie – the plot basically concerns an Irish soldier who deserts and returns to the west of Ireland to seek revenge during the famine. Interestingly, Daly chose two Australian actors in the two major roles (Hugo Weaving and James Frenchville). The latter – in the attached scene – speaks pretty good Irish but I must admit I’m curious as to what it’ll turn out like.

Has anyone seen it?

The Irish Imbas: Celtic Mythology Collection 2018 is Out!

The third in our series of Celtic Mythology Collections – the Irish Imbas: Celtic Mythology Collection 2018 – is now available in hard copy through Amazon/Createspace HERE.

The digital version of the book is currently available for pre-order from Amazon HERE and will be formally released on 1 JUNE 2018.

This series, which we first started to publish three years ago, was our first attempt at distributing accurate cultural information on what’s generally referred to as ‘Celtic Mythology‘.

As well as a new introductory essay on the misinterpretation of Irish Mythology in ‘Commercial Fantasy’, this particular collection contains fours stories:

  • ‘Moireach’ by Donna Rutherford, which concerns the adventures of a young girl who’s convinced she’s a selkie (this is truly a funny and quite touching story).
  • ‘Homecoming’ by Damien J. Howard (also concerning a little girl ‘taken’ as a changeling); and
  • ‘The Shadow of the Crow’ by Jerry Vandal – the story of an avian intermediary between this world and the Otherworld.

The collection also includes one of my own short stories which concerns the infamous tale of of Labhraidh Loingseach – the fascinating individual on the cover.

Although this particular version is priced at 99c, the first two collections in the series remain free in digital form.

The Liath Luachra Series – Pronunciation

 

Character NamePronunciation

An Giobach

Biotóg

Bressal Binnbhéalach

Dalbach

Dubba

Fallaman

Feirgil

Felic

Garalt

Ímar

Íta

Liath Luachra

Murchú

Munnu

Na Cinéaltaí

Na Slogaithe

Na Torathair

Senach

 

PlacenamePronunciation

An Díthreabh Uaigneach

Carna

Gallán Baroc

Luachair

 

Common TermsPronunciation

Bandraoi

Conradh

Draoi

Éclann

Fénnid

Fian

Óglach

Ráth

Torathar

Choosing the Next Book

You can tell it’s been a busy first quarter when you’re already wishing it was the Christmas holidays!

In terms of writing and other creative work, the last four months have been a bit of a strain but we’re approaching the end of a creative cycle. For at least two months now, I’ve barely been visible on social media and, here on the blog, there’s obviously been a notable absence.

Two of the reasons for that will become apparent shortly with the release of two new books (but I’ll post on those soon).  With those projects coming to a close however, I’m now looking at what other writing projects we can start this year. We do have two ongoing projects, however I’m also keen to start another book and this is where – if you’re interested – you get a chance to yell out if there’s anything you’d prefer to see. The options are as follows:

  1. Fionn 4: The Salmon of Secret Knowledge
  2. Liath Luachra 3: The Seeking
  3. Beara 2: Cry of the Banshee

If you drop me a line at info@irishimbas.com with your preference, that would be great. If you don’t feel like sending an in-depth missive with a critique of my writing style, dress sense or poor life-choices, just stick your preference in the title space. Naturally, I’ll go with the book that gets the highest number of votes. I’ve already pout this out on our monthly newsletter Vóg and so far the two favourites are Fionn 4 and Beara 2 – both of which are neck and neck.

Sometimes, I could kick myself for not finishing one series before starting another but I guess that’s just the way of it. From a creative perspective, I tend to grow weary of a project as I reach the conclusion and I’m usually keen to start something different. Hence, the jumping from one series to another.

In terms of future projects I’m keen to start, these are highest on the list (although I know I’ll have one or two ‘revelations’ over the next year which I’ll – no doubt – want to follow up on as well).

  • Dún: This is a series of three books based around the events leading up to a famous battle way back in Ireland’s dim past. Although there are no historical records for the battle, the story itself is deeply ingrained in local folklore and has a lot of surrounding placenames associated with it. These books would be about 60,00-70,000 words each, so shorter than my usual but at least I’d deliver a finished series in one hit.
  • Máire: A stand-alone novel based on the adventures of an Irish Olympic athlete. This is probably more sci-fi than anything else I’ve done (only because it’s set in the future – the science itself is actually very light) and it’s very much a character-driven story. If it ends up a goer, I might look at a trilogy.

In terms of non-fiction projects:

  • Field Guide to Irish Mythology

In any case, we’re looking forward to your feedback.

Saint Patrick’s Day Book Sale

As most people are no doubt aware, the 17th of March has something of a symbolic significance for us here at Irish Imbas (hint-hint: It’s Saint Patrick’s Day!)

Given that we’re going to be uncontactable (and, most likely, incomprehensible) over the next 24-36 hours or so, we figured it might be a good time to have a sale. And to be honest, if you don’t have a sale of Irish-themed books on Saint Patrick’s Day, when are you going to have it?

Most of the books listed on this site(HERE) therefore are either at half-price, substantially reduced (Fionn: Defence of Ráth Bládhma) or free (The Celtic Collection books). I hope you find something you like.

Beannachtaí na Féile Pádraig ort!!

Brian O’Sullivan