There was one morning when the world dissolved, obliterated in a downpour that melted the distant islands, then the immediate surroundings as well. Preceded by a cluster of unusually threatening, blue-bruised clouds, the incoming deluge had given plenty of warning. As a result, the girl was comfortably settled under a solitary oak at the tip of the inlet outcrop, cloak tugged tight around her shoulders as she waited to watch the clouds unload their burden.
The downpour rattled the lake’s surface with a startling intensity that she’d not seen before, a ferocious hail that scattered white-foamed eruptions across the water around her. Mirrored by countless ripples on that shuddering surface, the resulting kaleidoscope of movement was giddyingly, but terrifyingly, beautiful.
Tethered to the island by nothing but a thin strip of rock, the girl felt a swell of panic when even that link disappeared, and her existence reduced to the tree above and three paces of the rocky outcrop. Conscious that there was nothing beyond the fusillade of rain, she was struck by a sudden, shocking sense of absence. Terrified at the prospect of being cut adrift, she peered desperately through the deluge for any hint of physical substance, for any trace of natural solidness, for … anything.
To her trembling relief, the downpour eased soon after, and although it seemed to take far too long a time, the outline of the island took substance through the rain. Whole and expansive, the Great Mother’s bulk emerged from the surrounding murk. Slowly, ponderously, it reached across the thin strip of stone, embraced the girl in her fulsome whole and, soothingly, reassuringly, brought her home.
Liath Luachra: The Great Wild was released on 2 June 2023. You can find the details here: The Great Wild
I’m currently behind on where I want to be with Liath Luachra: The Great Wild. At this stage, the draft is sitting at over 30,000 words and although I had planned to keep it around that length, the final product is looking more like 40-50,000 (in other words, it’s about 3-4/5 complete).
This means that the final version it won’t be released in April as intended. I’m now postponing release until the start of June (although Patrons and paid newsletter subscribers will get it earlier).
In the deep, green depths of the Great Wild, a naked girl awakes in a forest clearing. With no belongings – bar a cloak and a bloody knife – and no memory to guide her, she must adapt and survive in an unfamiliar world.
For those of you who aren’t aware, an updated version of An Seabhach’s “Cath Fionntrá” came out last year.
The story concerns the King of France’s ire (clearly, this was pre-revolutionary France) when his wife and daughter run off with his guest Fionn Mac Cumhaill. Joining up for vengeance with Dáire Donn (the King of all the World who wants to add Ireland to his collection) and a host of other famous kings and warriors, they sail in a gigantic fleet to Fionntrá in Ventry (Kerry) where the biggest battle the world has ever seen, takes place.
The white sands of Ventry will be white no more.
Although a little formulaic, this classic is still an interesting read for anyone interested in the non-kernel Fenian narratives.
When I first started writing the Fionn mac Cumhaill Series almost nine years ago, I was keen to create a realistic, culturally authentic version of the famous Fenian Cycle. In particular, I wanted to write stories that were genuinely Irish while also accessible to non-Irish readers.
As part of my overall goal with Irish Imbas however, I was also keen to use the books as a means of reintroducing lost Gaelic/Irish concepts (that is words, expressions and – more importantly – ways of thinking) that have been lost from common Irish parlance as a result of language decline, the impacts of colonization and so on, but which still have significance at a societal level.
This is why throughout my books (and other projects), I always add a smattering of words like ‘fian‘, ‘rí‘, draoi, ‘ráth‘, and so on – words that by themselves mean little, but which in the context of understanding Irish/Gaelic culture, have a hugely significant resonance.
The word ‘Fianna‘ is a classic example of how much has been lost. This word – the basis for the contemporary word ‘Fenian’ – is believed by most people (including many Irish people who were never told any better) to be the name of Fionn mac Cumhaill’s war band.
In fact, ‘Fianna’ was simply nothing more than the plural of the word ‘fian‘ (which meant ‘battle group’ – usually in a tribal context). This means that Fionn’s fian was just one of a number of such groups and a recognised dynamic in the society of the time.
It’s a little thing, but when you take the downstream consequences of that new knowledge into account you can see how it changes the interpretation of both story and culture. For creators who want to retain cultural integrity in their work, this absolutely has to be done.
Trying to balance those competing goals (the requirements of cultural integrity and the requirement to deliver an accessible and enjoyable story to an international audience) can actually be quite a challenge at times. The balance is never easy and any creative decision you make with one can have a huge consequence for the other.
One of my earliest decisions, for example, was to retain the original Gaelic spelling for the character names (Fionn, Liath Luachra, Bodhmhall, Fiacail etc.) and place names (Seiscenn Uarbhaoil etc.). This goal for cultural accuracy – naturally – clashed enormously with the accessibility goal. For non-Gaelic speakers, Irish names can be the equivalent of having a broken stick in your mouth – whatever comes out is going to come out mangled! Anyone used to thinking in English – understandably – struggles with the unfamiliar combination of vowels and consonants.
Naturally, the advice I received from everyone was to use an anglicization of the names to make the reader more comfortable. After all, that’s why in the early days Fionn mac Cumhaill’s name was anglicized to the meaningless ‘Finn Mac Cool’. Sure, the latter is easier to say for an English speaker but the English name doesn’t carry the strong cultural associations of the Irish one (Fionn means ‘fair-headed’ but also has related connotations of ‘insightfulness’ etc.). ‘Finn’ is a meaningless term that includes no such depth or resonance (and, here, I’ll have to apologise in advance for to those parents who’ve gone and named their kids, Finn!).
Most of the books and other products I produce are strongly influenced by my decision to always lead with the ‘heart’ (cultural authenticity) as opposed to the ‘head’ (commercial ease). That said, I usually try to improve the accessibility where and when I can. For example, with the names and placenames, I soften the challenge for readers by providing an audio pronunciation guide.
In most respects, that actually pays off in the longer term as readers can generally work out when something’s authentic or not. Most readers tend to respect what I’m trying to achieve and have demonstrated immense patience and willingness to overcome things like the initial pronunciation challenge.
At the end of the day, I guess what my experience has really demonstrated is that if you produce something that’s good enough/intriguing enough/interesting enough for people to enjoy, they’ll put up with your whims and, often, they’ll support you.
As an aside, here’s a question I once held up at Irish cultural/heritage class I was running: How would you pronounce the following?
Everyone in that group of attendees (about 18) was able to pronounce at least two of those names. Even when they couldn’t, they still knew exactly who those individuals were and what they had achieved as part of their creative career.
Basically, culture is not a barrier to success unless you let it be.
As of today, it’s 9 years exactly since I published FIONN: Defence of Ráth Bládhma – my first attempt at producing a genuine (as culturally authentic as I could make it) Irish historical/ adventure novel.
To be honest, at the time I had no idea whether people would like it. I’d never written anything similar before and given my insistence on using Irish cultural concepts and – occasionally – language, I assumed most people would be scared off.
Nine years on, four books in the Fionn mac Cumhaill Series have been published and five books will have been published in the spin-off series (The Irish Woman Warrior Series) by April this year.
Since their initial publication, several have been bestsellers, one of the series was fully adapted for a television series, another for a video game. I’ve been very lucky to have worked with some amazingly talented people at the top of their game in different sectors and I’ve learned a lot over the last decade.
2023 will bring some major changes in the way I work. My longer-term intent is not just to publish books but to revitalise Irish genuine cultural knowledge in a meaningful way and that requires working in other formats as well as books. As a result, over 2023, although I’ll be increasing the amount of time I spend writing and publishing, I’ll also be expanding my work in the production of other projects, the details of which will be revealed when, and if, they become available.
A key principle I adhere to is that any project I work on must retain its cultural authenticity and meaning. That approach places practical limitations on what you can do with an international audience, but it also forces you to apply levels of innovation and creativity that provide their own opportunity and reward.
I’d like to say ‘thank you’ to all of you who’ve taken the time to support the work I do. I hope you continue to enjoy what I do over the next decade
Father Sun had neared his peak when the girl in the clearing stirred.
Stretched across the ankle-high grass, her initial shiftings were indiscernible beneath the black cloak that swathed her. As vigorous ripples of activity shifted through the garment however, it loosened and slowly unravelled. A bare pair of legs slid into the open and a solitary figure unfolded from it in a series of awkward angles.
Lying face down in the flattened grass, the dark-haired girl who’d emerged, raised her head to peer at the forest standing twenty paces away. A long moment passed as she stared blankly at the trees, engrossed by the shifting depths of its mottled browns and greens, the smooth sway of branches that throbbed with the sound of birdlife.
In fact, this is an early image of the ráth at the Irish National Heritage Park. It has a very similar layout to the fictional crannóg as, in general, there wasn’t major differences in terms of structural designs back in the day. People used the natural materials available and the fundamental designs of what worked were easily adapted to many structures.
Our ancestors were eminently practical as, a lot of the time, their lives depended on it.
Initial thoughts. Predominantly one character alone in the forest. No dialogue apart from limited self-dialogue.
This book is quite an experimental work for me but one I’ve really felt compelled to write. I’m particularly enjoying the challenge of trying to make the story work effectively (in terms of mystery and action) within such a limited setting.
If I get it wrong, the final product will be like that ‘wanky’ art-house movie you once got dragged into, to please a friend or partner.
For all of the bad news over 2022 (the Ukraine War, Climate change disasters, attacks on democracy etc.), the year was a relatively calm time at Irish Imbas Books and we managed to release a trio of works that I’m quite proud of.
In March, the fourth book in the Irish Woman Warrior Series – Liath Luachra: The Metal Men – was released (and well received by followers of that series). This was accompanied by a supporting short story, ‘Liath Luachra: The Consent’ (note: this is only available through this website) which resolved a gap in the plotline that I hadn’t been able to cover in the books without disrupting the flow (it brings the character Bressal back into the series). Overall, I’m very satisfied with both
Meanwhile, in about two weeks, the digital version of FIONN: Stranger at Mullán Bán, book four in the Fionn Mac Cumhaill Series finally gets released.
This book marks a step change in the direction of the series as the maturing Fionn (Demne) starts to make his mark and begins his struggle to solve the mystery around his heritage. As always, he’s supported by his three guardians: his aunt – the bandraoi Bodhmhall, the woman warrior Liath Luachra, the eccentric womaniser Fiacail mac Codhna, and a number of other characters from Rath Bládhma (and further afield).
At this stage, I’ve seen three reviews for the book. All three have been very positive, which is always something of a relief.
What’s coming in 2023?
For the next six months, I’ll be working full time in the creative space and focused on completing the following projects:
Liath Luachra: The Great Wild.
The Great Wild is a prequel to the Irish Woman Warrior Series. The first ‘chapter’ is now complete but its slightly experimental nature means I’m still a bit uncertain as to what the final product is going to look like. The target for release to Patrons is Mar/April 2023. I’m not sure when it’ll be publicly available, yet.
Liath Luachra: The Raiders
This isn’t a new book but a repackaging of two previous ones (Liath Luachra: The Seeking and Liath Luachra: The Metal Men) so if you’ve read those, this probably won’t be of interest
Given the strong positive feedback on these books, I wanted to bring the two stories together into a single narrative (which had always been the original intention). This will require some minor rewriting to make the story more accessible for people who haven’t read the other books, but it shouldn’t be significant.
‘The Raiders’ will be exclusive to Amazon for a few months (which means the digital versions of Liath Luachra: The Seeking and Liath Luachra: The Metal Men will be unavailable from all other bookstores over that time. If you’re thinking about getting either of those books from Apple/Kobo/Google Play/Barnes & Noble/ etc., I’d recommend getting them before Christmas as they won’t be available from those suppliers for several months.
Fionn: The Betrayal
Are you a follower of the Fionn mac Cumhaill Series? Have you ever wondered who facilitated the deadly ambush in Fionn: Traitor of Dún Baoisnce or how’The Adversary’ managed to obtain physical tokens from Bodhmhall and Liath Luachra? Have you, perhaps, wondered what exactly happened at the great battle of Cnucha (where Fionn’s father Cumhal was killed) or why so many vested interests have it in for Demne/Fionn?
If you’ve answered ‘yes’ to any of the above, then Fionn: The Betrayal may be for you. This series is slowly but surely drawing to its conclusion, so I’m planning to resolve a number of plotlines with this particular book. It won’t be the last in the series, but it will certainly answer some of the mysteries lurking in the background since book 1. There’s also an overlap with the Liath Luachra Series in there although I don’t think you’ll be able to identify it just yet.
The projected release date for this is June/July 2023.
Beara: Cry of the Banshee
Yes. It’s finally happening. After six or seven years of distraction with the Fionn mac Cumhaill Series and the Irish Woman Warrior Series, I’m finally returning to West Cork and Beara, the most south-western point of Ireland. There, more skullduggery and mythological detective work, await the ever-cynical Mos O’Suilleabháin (O’Sullivan).
Beara: Dark Legends was my first self-published book and it took about 4 years to research and write. It was quite successful at the time of its release, but the effort of producing it left me wrung out to the point where I couldn’t cope with starting the second book (hence the detour into the Fionn and Liath Luachra series). I’m now satisfied that I can get this series up and running again, so expect to see an announcement towards the end of 2023.
There are also a number of other projects sitting at different stages of development or completion, that I’ll also be working on over 2023. Some of these include audiobooks, film/tv scripts, a non-fiction project (The Fundamental Concepts of Irish Mythology) and two more ambitious projects that I’m not in a position to talk about yet. These kinds of projects are hard to scope out in terms of timelines but they’re important from a creative perspective in that they allow me t explore different aspects of storytelling. I’m also hoping to carry out at least one or two collaborations over 2023 so if you have an interesting (and appropriate) project, send me an email before I get overloaded.
All in all, 2023 is looking like a very important year from my perspective. Roll on New Years Eve!
Louth has been running a pretty fun community re-enactment of An Táin every summer since 2011 (sadly cancelled in 2020/2021 due to Covid) and it was back again in June this year.
Designed as a community walking and cultural education festival, it usually begins in Rathcroghan (where Queen Maeve first assembled her army to obtain the Brown Bull of Cooley) and terminates at Bush in Cooley, Co. Louth on the June bank holiday. The march follow Maeve’s route across the rugged terrain over three weekends (and 12 walking days) with a number of events taking place at various towns and villages along the way.
There was an amusing report in a local newspaper of the festival from back in 2012 which goes as follows:
“Brothers Eoghan and Sean Whelan made for a convincing Cuchulainn and Ferdia as they fought each other at the centre of the refurbished Market Square, where the water was turned on for their final battle at the ford of the River Dee. Members of Dundalk Red Cross administered first aid to a dying Ferdia while Cuchulainn was arrested and led away in handcuffs!”
A quick shout out to the Irish Field Archery Monthly Magazine which is running a copy of my article on “Bows and Chariots in Ancient Ireland – The Facts and the Fantasies” in their latest edition.
Kudos to the creators and their work- I know how difficult it is to produce a regular publication while struggling to ensure appropriate content and quality. You can find a link to the free PDF’s of their magazine here: Irish Archery
And interesting side-effect wrt to this article is that it always tends to draw at least a number of ‘Cardboard Celts’ out of the shadows. After republishing, I usually get at least 2/3 emails or social media comments from outraged readers who refuse to believe that history and physical fact doesn’t align exactly with events in ‘An Táin’. It’s also interesting to note that, generally, most of these outraged individuals aren’t Irish.
The first reviews from the paperback are just starting to trickle in. Usually, by the time I release a book I’m far too close to tell if its any good or not. As a result, it’s always a bit of a relief to find the reviews are positive.
The digital version gets released on on 15 December.
The first review from Padraig O’Mahony can be found here:
The second review, from Wayne McAuliffe is here:
Huge thanks to Wayne and Padraig. Go raibh mile maith agaibh!
With ‘Fionn: Stranger at Mullan Ban’ now sorted and ready for release next month I’ve been focusing more on ‘Liath Luachra: The Great Wild’, which I’m hoping to release in the first half of 2023.
Usually, when I’m starting a new book, I play around with the first chapter for a time as this cements the overall mood and theme of the story. I’m currently on the fifth or sixth rough draft of ‘The Great Wild’ and although I’m still shifting various sequences and descriptions around, I’m getting close to locking it in.
This work was always going to be something of an experimental piece as you can see from the attached mood/theme images I’ve been working with (mostly from artist Leila Amat Ortega but also from Reza Afshar and Julie Cherki).
Because I tend to feel my way intuitively with a lot of this stuff, I can never really tell whether the final product is going to work or not. Fortunately, the process seems to have worked so far with other books.
There’s not a great amount of evidence about early Roman interaction with the island now known as Ireland but there are a few tantalising items.
Unlike Great Britain and most of the European Continent, Ireland was never controlled by Roman interests, although the Roman Empire was almost certainly aware of its existence even at that time.
Writing in the sixth century B.C., for example, Himilco the Carthaginian, made vague references to an enigmatic island he called ‘Iernei’ and to ‘Celtic’ tribes based on the North Sea. In 50 B.C. meanwhile, in the account of his campaigns in Gaul, Julius Caesar referred directly to the distant land of ‘Hibernia’.
Around the same time, Greek philosopher Strabo marveled at the shadowy country of ‘Ierne’ located on the limits of the known world, and the stories he’d heard of the savage, man-eating inhabitants and their sexual practices. This latter reference highlights some of the problems with early … er … ‘historians’.
Ptolemy, the famous geographer and astrologist, produced the first map of ‘Hibernia’ in the middle of the 2nd century A.D. This listed native tribes said to live upon its distant shores, which included the Erdin, the Nagnate, the Menapii, the Iverni and others.
A few decades earlier however,in his book ‘Agricola’, the Roman historian and politician, Tacitus, famously described how Gnaeus Julius Agricola, a governor of Roman Britain from AD 78-84, considered conquering Ireland. In that book, Agricola apparently claimed that the island could be held with a single legion. The number of soldiers in a legion tended to vary over time but it’s generally estimated at somewhere between 4000 to 5000 legionaries, and auxiliaries (non-citizen troops). Agricola was Tacitus’ father-in-law however, and Roman politics was a dicey game, so just because Tacitus wrote this, it doesn’t necessarily mean it’s true.
What most historians and academics do seem to agree on, was that at least some interaction (predominantly trade) existed between the island of Ireland, modern day Great Britain, and the European continent over the first and second century. Given the huge social disruption caused by the expansion of the Roman Empire over this time, it’s almost certain those tribes on Ireland’s eastern coast would have heard of the Romans, even if they weren’t directly affected. It’s also likely that at least some of the displaced people in modern-day Great Britain would have fled across the waves to escape the impacts of Roman invasion and colonization.
Interpreting Romans from an Ancient Irish Perspective
Most ‘Irish mythology’ presented through English language media tends to reflect a very Anglocentric view of ancient Irish culture. When it came to creating an Irish story that introduced culturally foreign ‘Roman’ elements therefore, I was keen to try and present the events from a more authentic perspective of ‘native’ people in first century Ireland.
When I started working on the book (one from my ‘Liath Luachra’ series) however, this proved something of a challenge. When you’re describing the impacts of a non-Irish culture on Ireland at the time, I knew it would be a mistake to start thinking of the ‘foreigners’ as ‘Romans’. If you start off with that concept, that immediately blinkers any further interpretation from a native Irish perspective and you end up with the usual monocultural, English-language tropes.
Given the lack of records from pre-fifth century Ireland, we don’t know how Ireland’s early inhabitants would have referred to the people of the Roman Empire – but they certainly wouldn’t have called them ‘Romans’. We can surmise however, that they would have referred to them using terms that articulated key behaviours of these new arrivals, behaviours interpreted in a way that made sense from the native Irish cultural perspective.
Like all authoritarian regimes, to fulfil the ambitions of its leaders (and the greed of its politicians), the Roman Empire had a constant need to subjugate other cultures and appropriate their wealth and resources. This predominantly meant taking control of their lands and other natural resources but it also meant using the subjugated populations for slave labour.
Other cultures would have looked on this behaviour – the ‘Great Roman Dream’ – and the scale of it, with a mixture of astonishment and horror. As a result, I opted for the name ‘The Hungry People’ as I felt this captured how this distressing cultural characteristic of the Romans might have been expressed from a native Irish perspective. This, however, is really only a best guess on my part as the truth is we’ll never know. In the final book (Liath Luachra: The Metal Men), I haven’t used the Gaelic term as I felt the book (and the series) was already sufficiently loaded with Irish concepts/language for a mainly English-speaking audience.
The naming of the ‘The Metal Men’ – the military forces of’ ‘The Hungry People’, uses the same creative approach and is, I think, self-explanatory.
I really enjoy making landscape and topography part of a story but of course in ancient Ireland you also have neolithic structures and other features that add a new level of resonance to the land.
When writing the Fionn or Liath Luachra series, this kind of inclusion is critical, not only for imbibing the landscape with a character but also to add atmosphere or when setting up a plot.
This short segment from ‘Liath Luachra: The Grey One’ is the first mention of Carraig An Fhírinne Buí? (The Stone of the Yellow Truth), an ancient standing stone of importance to the Éblána tribe. This particular scene sets up some of the background context for later plot development but also allows a bit of dialogue to further develop the characters of Liath Luachra and her band of mercenaries.
It was quite fun to write.
Liath Luachra grunted. ‘And Carraig An Fhírinne Buí? Does this hold significance for the Éblána?’
Flannán shook his head. ‘No particular significance. Although there are some who say the stone is a marker.’
‘What does it mark?’
He shrugged. ‘Boundaries. Spaces that are different. I don’t know. You’d have to ask the draoi.’
There was a snigger from the others at this and even Liath Luachra had to wonder at the Éblána man’s obtuseness. A draoi was the last person anyone would approach for information. Jealously possessive of their restricted knowledge, they resented any efforts to make them share their secrets. Powerful in terms of magic and tribal authority, everyone knew they were best avoided.
Flannán bristled, misunderstanding the reason for their laughter. His lips formed a thin line and his forehead furrowed so deeply that the circular tattoo halved in size. ‘You can laugh but I tell you sites like Carraig An Fhírinne Buí are best avoided. That stone marks the entrance to a pretty little valley and yet none of the Éblána dare to venture there.’
‘How do you know?’ asked Sean Fergus, scratching his beard with thick fingers.
‘How do you know there’s a pretty valley? You said your tribe do not venture there.’
Flannán looked at him askew. ‘A kinsman of mine entered the forest beyond the stone by accident, when he was hunting and veered astray. He saw the valley through the trees but he was too fearful to go there for he swore it was haunted.’
The Éblána man paused, as though struggling to recall something he’d been told a long time before. ‘He said the air was wrong. My kinsman is not a man prone to false embroidery of a tale. Neither is he one to panic easily so his words bear the weight of truth for me.’
‘What did he see?’ asked Canann, his eyes bright with nervous curiosity. ‘Your kinsman. What did he see?’
‘Hah!’ roared Conall Cacach.
Flannán tossed the large warrior a heated look, infuriated by his blatant disrespect. ‘My kinsman did not see anything but he felt something.’
‘He felt something? What did he feel?’ Canann was leaning forward eagerly now, like a child hearing a ghost story for the very first time.’
‘He felt a coldness, an unnatural texture to the air. It frightened him deeply.’
Conall Cacach snorted. ‘Your kinsman must shit himself every time the wind shifts to the east.’
Flannán reddened. ‘If you are a man of such courage perhaps you would spend the night at Carraig An Fhírinne Buí by yourself.’
Conall Cacach sneered. ‘I have better things to do than sit around a piss-coloured rock, Éblána man.’
‘Of course, of course. You are so very, very busy.’
The bickering continued until Liath Luachra growled at them both to shut up. Furious, Flannán retreated into himself and said nothing more. Conall Cacach, for his part, led a fresh discussion on a subject that was the fénnid’s unfailing favourite: their plans for their newfound wealth and reputation following the completion of their service.
The 4th book in the Fionn mac Cumhaill Series (Fionn: The Stranger at Mullán Bán) is now a close to final draft (another three to four weeks are required to complete the reviewing and editing process).
Irish Imbas Patreon supporters should be contacted by the end of October. The book gets officially released on 14 December.