Pirates of Ancient Ireland

I was amused the other day to find a Russian-based pirate site offering free downloads of one of my books – “Liath Luachra: The Seeking” – the only copy of which, sits on my desktop, awaiting the last few chapters to be written.

Obviously, this was one of the many false ‘pirate’ sites that are actually scams intending to obtain a person’s credit card details.

That said, I was actually tempted to download a copy to see how it ended!

Arrrrr!!

DARK DAWN/ CAMHAOIR FUILSMEARTHA

A gorgeous image from artist Bryan Mahy for the “Dark Dawn/ Camhaoir Fuilsmeartha Project” I’m currently working on.

This was intended to be released this month but delays outside my control mean it probably won’t be available for a little longer.

Subject-wise, this is a story about a dying warrior defending the isolated settlement of Ráth Bládhma, future home of Fionn mac Cumhaill. It’s a stand-alone, once-off, spin-off from the Fionn mac Cumhaill Series and people will either love it or hate it.

It will have its own page soon but for the moment the best source of information is probably here:

Book News on Irish Mythology – A Summary for 2019

Stories based on Irish mythology and culture have been bowdlerised quite a lot over the last two hundred years or so, often to the point where, now, many people struggle to differentiate genuine Irish history and mythology with commercially-produced “Celtic” fantasy. That’s something that, as an Irish fiction writer (non-fiction, on occasion), I’m regularly confronted with. It’s also why I’m so pedantic in telling stories that are as historically and culturally authentic as I can make them.

Telling stories based on authentic elements of Irish mythology can be something of an effort, however. Not only do you have to get the history right, you also have to introduce ancient Gaelic concepts into the story in a way that a contemporary audience can (a) understand them and (b) enjoy them. That takes research (a lot), it takes language skills (Irish) and of course, the ability to put a story together in a way that allows those elements to shine.

Creating those kinds of Irish mythological stories was a bit exhausting over 2019, fortunately for all the right reasons. The key reason was the recent sale of the screen option (and the subsequent  adaptation) for Liath Luachra: The Grey One which took up a major proportion of my year.

 

There’s still a long path to travel before any decision is made on whether this appears on a screen near you, of course.  There will be a post about it all  at some stage in the future but, until then, here’s a little teaser (ironically, made before we had interest from Hollywood).

 

 

But, screenwork aside, here’s a little update on the other projects currently taking place.

Fionn: Stranger at Mullán Bán

Book number four in the popular series (the Fionn mac Cumhaill Series) concerns the growing pains of the young Fionn (Demne) who’s struggling to solve the mystery of his father’s death, supported as always by this three guardians; his aunt – the bandraoi Bodhmhall, the woman warrior Liath Luachra and the eccentric womaniser Fiacail mac Codhna. This story is maturing quietly in our office drawer like a potentially fruitful wine.  There are six books  in total planned for this series. We had intended to release this volume in December 2019 but, for reasons explained above, this is now delayed until the first half of 2020.

Fionn mac Cumhaill Series

 

Liath Luachra: The Seeking.
This will be the third in the Irish Woman Warrior Series and follows on directly from book two (Liath Luachra: The Swallowed) with the woman warrior Liath Luachra returned to help a comrade rescue his sister from a mysterious group of raiders. Needless to say, this turns out to be far more complicated than expected.

This book returns to many of the themes and characters in Book 1 but also commences the overlap between this series and the Fionn mac Cumhaill Series. Originally, we had planned three books in total but that’s now likely to expand to four.

We’re hoping to release this book in the first quarter of 2020. The current cover is undergoing revision so this is a standby cover until its completed.

 

Dark Dawn:
This is a bit of a trial project I’m currently working on and involves the story of a dying warrior attempting to protect a settlement. The settlement in question is Ráth Bládhma.
Expect to see an announcement on this sometime in the first quarter of 2020.

 

Despite all the excitement over 2019, we have actually released a few items, mainly the following short stories. Note, however, that these are currently only available through the Irish Imbas website:

 

Fionn: The Twisted Trail

While hunting with two children in the depths of the Great Wild, the woman warrior Liath Luachra becomes involved in a pursuit she’d rather have no part of.

 

Liath Luachra: The Winter Cave

After completing her ‘tasking’ in the Lonely Lands, the woman warrior Liath Luachra retreats to spend another winter alone in the bleak Luachair valley.

It’s by no means certain she’ll make it through to Spring.

 

The Cut:

In ancient Ireland, a mother seeks a boon of an old lover, now the most ferocious and feared chieftain in the land.

Probably one of the most well-known stories from the ancient early Irish literature, the fascinating tale of Labhraidh Loingseach (Labhraidh is pronounced ‘Lowry’ in English), has never been accurately portrayed for a contemporary audience.

This, then, is the story of the mythical Irish chieftain, the founding ancestor of Na Laighin (a major tribe in Ireland’s south-east for which the province of Leinster is named) and the man to which a very strange attribute is associated.

 

After a year’s hard slog, I’m certainly ready for a break. In the meantime, all our books can be obtained through THE IRISH IMBAS BOOK SHOP of course. Updates on the latest releases will be made available through our newsletter Vóg (last one for 2019 will be end of November).

Folcadán Bodhmhall (Bodhmhall’s Bath)

Writing about Ireland in the 2nd century can sometimes be a bit of a challenge because the country was so very different to what it looks like nowadays. Back in 195 AD, most of the island was still covered by dense forest and the centre of the country was undrained marsh and swamp. The population at the time was also far lower than today with some estimates putting it at around 100,000 to 200,000 people or so. Most of these would, most likely, have been living around the coast or along the inland waterways as much of the ‘Great Wild’ was impenetrable.
 
To research my books I do a lot of forest walks and tramps as that really helps to give a sense of how people lived back then. Their lifestyle was far more immediate, far more physical and their lives very much depended on their ability to interact successfully with their environment. Unless you get up close and personal with the forest you really miss a lot of the routine dynamics that they’d have had to deal with and incorporating such details really adds a level of authenticity to the books that they wouldn’t otherwise have.

Sometimes, during these tramps I come across some beautiful (or dramatic) spots that are incredibly evocative in a creative sense. This is one of my most recent favourites, a spot I discovered deep in the bush less than half an hour from where I live. I call this place Folcadán Bodhmhall (Bodhmhall’s bath) – named after a woman that the ancient literature describes as Fionn mac Cumhaill’s aunt and his main guardian as a child.  This individual is mentioned briefly in the 12th century manuscript Macgnímartha Finn (The Boyhood Deeds of Fionn) where she and her comrade, Liath Luachra, raise the young Fionn in secret in the forested hills of Sliabh Bladhma. 
   

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.’

Why you shouldn’t toss a Coin in a Sacred Well

Back in ancient Ireland, we know that those areas where water emerged from the earth (springs and wells.) were held in great reverence by our early ancestors. We know this, not only because of the huge number of valuable votive offerings recovered from such locations, but because of the prehistoric patterns still discernible, just below the surface of more contemporary rituals that take place at such sites.

In prehistory, tobair (wells and springs) conveying water up from deep within the earth, were believed to be conduits for imbas – esoteric or forbidden knowledge – to enter the world. As a result, those areas where water emerged for the ground were considered highly sacred.

Ancient communities gathered around such sites for occasions of note but also to celebrate significant social milestones that involved a new start, often symbolised through cleansing rituals. Over time, the waters of these wells and springs were also believed to have great healing powers, often specific to a particular body part or ailment type. As a result, the wells grew in popularity, with many people visiting to drink the water or bathe in them.

In addition to their healing properties, sacred wells were also believed to be a means for people to commune with those ancestors who’d passed on. For that reason, when an individual or a community were in a bad way and sought the intercession of the ancestors for improved health, good fortune, crops, good weather etc., they’d assemble at the sacred wells to seek their favour.

One of the key means of obtaining such favour was through the use of votive offerings and, generally, it was believed that the more value and the more worth an object had to the supplicant (in other words, the greater the sacrifice), the more likely it was that they’d be heard. That’s why the discovered deposits include beautiful artefacts that range from decorated golden bridles to highly ornate weapons, to gold and silver broches and so on.

When the Christian church came to Ireland (around the start of the fifth century), they initially established churches and holy communities around those areas where people tended to gather (such as the venerated wells). Gradually, over time, the Christian church took those sites over, replacing the existing pre-Christian rituals with their own (this is, for example, where the whole ritual of baptism comes from) or claiming their healing powers to be the result of miracles by Christian saints. This was also where the concept of a ‘sacred well’ was irrevocably transformed to ‘holy well’, with all of the associated religious trappings.

These days in Ireland, most sacred springs and sacred wells are now known as St Patricks Well, St Brigit’s Well, St Senan’s Well etc. and the patron days (the particular day when the celebration of the well takes place) are usually linked to the Christian calendar.

With the erosion of Gaelic culture and the old belief systems through colonisation and Christianity, sacred wells are now most often sold by the Irish tourist industry as quaint little “mystic wells”. Every time a busload of foreign tourists are disgorged to study the ‘mystic well’ therefore, they invariably interpret them as ‘wishing wells’ and depart, leaving them half-full of euro or two-euro coins. It’s hard to feel any anger towards them, of course. They don’t know the background to such sites and most Irish bus tour companies transporting them have no real idea either (and in the quest for commercial gain, don’t particularly care). The key frame of reference that most tourists tend to operate from therefore are ‘fantasy’ or fairy-tale stories from the likes of Disney, the sanitised Brother Grimm tales and so on.

This ‘pollution’ of the sacred wells increasingly pits the objectives of commercial tour companies against the values of local communities and that’s why we’re now seeing increasing numbers of signs asking people not to throw money in the scared/holy well (although contributions to its upkeep are usually welcomed in a separate collection box).

It seems foolish to me that tourist operators continue the whole ‘fantasy’ style approach to sacred sites like this and don’t pass the genuine story onto their customers. Most tourists would be happy to hear the true story of sacred/holy wells and an accurate explanation would ensure they have a greater understanding and respect for what they are seeing. This, in turn, would appease those local communities who have to take care of the sites. At the end of the day, truth and authenticity is a win-win situation and, quite frankly, always a far better outcome.

[Note: This article first appeared in Vóg – the Irish Imbas monthly newsletter – in July 2018]

Getting Lost with the Ancient Hillfort Atlas

Earlier this year, a database entitled The Atlas of Hillforts of Great Britain and Ireland was made available online but, unfortunately, this wasn’t without some controversy. In particular, a lot of people were unhappy with the term ‘hillfort’ because it’s quite an inaccurate term to use for many of the sites identified in the Atlas, most of which were believed to have a ritualistic/social nature rather than a military/defence one.

Funded though through the British Arts and Humanities Research Council (AHRC), the Atlas was established through a project facilitated by University College Cork, the University of Edinburgh and the University of Oxford. The information gathered for it was collected by over a hundred volunteers who visited the sites and input the data gathered. Over time, the plan is to allow the Atlas to be updated by volunteers who upload their own images and text.

Like most projects there are pros and cons with the ‘Hillfort Atlas/Database’. The ‘pro’ is that it identifies where many ancient sites are located and by making this information available online, it encourages people to go and interact with them – certainly a positive outcome.

The ‘con’ is that although the ancient sites are identified, there’s very little information provided on the site and much of that (from the database title down) is misleading and encourages misinterpretation. In addition, there very little actual data available on the website apart from the locations, a minimal explanation of hillforts, and links to a few related (university) books.

Essentially, the Atlas project team seem to be saying

“Look, here’s a map of old sites we’re generically going to call “hillforts” – even if they’re not. Also, here’s a list of books you might like to read if you want to try and make sense of it. Good luck with all that!”

Generally speaking, therefore, the Atlas is all a bit of a half-assed job and one gets the impression the universities only carried it out to obtain some easy funding from the AHRC or as a cheap publicity gimmick. From the final product, there certainly doesn’t appear to have been any attempt to:

  • define the project in a way that would assemble some meaningful data
  • analyse and present that information to the public in a way that might actually have been useful

The Hillfort Atlas itself can be found here: The Atlas

Good luck. You’ll probably need it.

A New Liath Luachra Story Coming Shortly

After two pretty shocking workload months, we’re finally at a point where we can actually release some new writing. This short story (The Pursuit) should be selectively available at the end of next week (before we close down for the month of August) and more widely in September.

The story takes place sometime after the events in Liath Luachra: The Grey One. It’s a stand-alone short story but will form the first chapter of the next Liath Luachra book in 2018.

To be honest, even now it still surprises me how fiercely people like this character. When I first introduced her, I didn’t think honestly believe many readers would relate to a Gaelic, sword-wielding, gay woman. I should have got some inkling however, when despite the much smaller role planned for the character, she took on a life of her own (to the point where she ended up completely dominating the first book in the Fionn mac Cumaill series).

And then of course there was the review feedback:

“The thinking woman’s warrior.”

“An intriguing female protagonist unlike any I’ve come across before. Intelligent and competent, she’s also tragically damaged and vulnerable and yet somehow manages to cling to her fragile moral core.”

“Tough, tenacious and unflinchingly truthful, Liath Luachra is an admirably strong female protagonist. Her own inner conflict – between her past and present self, her loyalty to Bodhmhall and her own sense of right and wrong – is as engaging as her woodland exploits, and her fighting scenes are stark and exhausting.”

“A female heroine who is commanding and fascinating.”

“In the legends of Fionn mac Cumhaill, Liath Luachra is an intriguing name with minimal context, but in Brian O’Sullivan’s adaptions she becomes a most fascinating and formidable character in her own right.”

“In Fionn’s aunt, Bodhmall, and her lover Liath Luachra, O’Sullivan has created an intruiging warrior women who each provide their own strength to the narrative. I could continue reading a series about just them without any difficulty.”

Etc.
Etc.
Etc.

As a writer, you really can’t get more positive or more affirmative feedback than that and I’m extremely grateful to all of those who made the effort to write those comments. At the end of the day, I guess that as long as people enjoy those stories, I’ll keep writing them.

Go raibh míle maith agaibh.