The title in the image above – Camhaoir Fuilsmeartha – is the Irish title for a project I currently have on the back burner. The English title – Dark Dawn – is one you may have come across elsewhere (it’s a bilingual Irish/English project).
As with all languages, translation often doesn’t work the way you’d expect and Irish is no exception. As a literal translation, ‘Dark Dawn’ just doesn’t work particularly well in Irish. That’s probably because it doesn’t have the same cultural connotation in English (at least, not in my head). Rather than resorting to béarlachas (the word we use where an Irish language or cultural concept is forced into an English structural form or word pattern), I’ve therefore used a different translation instead.
Literally, ‘Camhaoir Fuilsmeartha’ means ‘Bloodspattered Dawn’. The meaning is slightly different from the English title but, more importantly, the connotation is correct, from a cultural perspective it’s far more apt and it still captures the theme of the story (a dark, action-adventure tale set in the Fenian Cycle).
Because I work in Irish mythology, a lot of my books tend to end up in the ‘Fantasy’ genre where I see a lot of writers (particularly, the Celtic Fantasy genre authors) use Irish terms to try and give their books a bit of (cough!) ‘cultural integrity’. The main problem I come across is where such authors use Google Translate for various terms in their books and the results are often disastrously hilarious. At it’s best, this tool is really a kind of ‘béarlachas machine’: with Irish, it translates everything literally and therefore gets at least 80% of it’s translations technically correct but culturally and socially wrong.
At its worst, you could say that Google Translate is like a global colonisation tool where any foreign concept from a different language/culture is sanitized to a ‘nice’, English-comprehensible equivalent.
Even where the original concept is left behind and rendered meaningless.
Note: This project was originally due for release in January 2020. Unfortunately, workloads have now delayed it’s publication until March/April 2020.
Stories based on Irish mythology and culture have been bowdlerised quite a lot over the last two hundred years or so, often to the point where, now, many people struggle to differentiate genuine Irish history and mythology with commercially-produced “Celtic” fantasy. That’s something that, as an Irish fiction writer (non-fiction, on occasion), I’m regularly confronted with. It’s also why I’m so pedantic in telling stories that are as historically and culturally authentic as I can make them.
Telling stories based on authentic elements of Irish mythology can be something of an effort, however. Not only do you have to get the history right, you also have to introduce ancient Gaelic concepts into the story in a way that a contemporary audience can (a) understand them and (b) enjoy them. That takes research (a lot), it takes language skills (Irish) and of course, the ability to put a story together in a way that allows those elements to shine.
Creating those kinds of Irish mythological stories was a bit exhausting over 2019, fortunately for all the right reasons. The key reason was the recent sale of the screen option(and the subsequent adaptation) for Liath Luachra: The Grey One which took up a major proportion of my year.
There’s still a long path to travel before any decision is made on whether this appears on a screen near you, of course. There will be a post about it all at some stage in the future but, until then, here’s a little teaser (ironically, made before we had interest from Hollywood).
But, screenwork aside, here’s a little update on the other projects currently taking place.
Fionn: Stranger at Mullán Bán
Book number four in the popular series (the Fionn mac Cumhaill Series) concerns the growing pains of the young Fionn (Demne) who’s struggling to solve the mystery of his father’s death, supported as always by this three guardians; his aunt – the bandraoi Bodhmhall, the woman warrior Liath Luachra and the eccentric womaniser Fiacail mac Codhna. This story is maturing quietly in our office drawer like a potentially fruitful wine. There are six books in total planned for this series. We had intended to release this volume in December 2019 but, for reasons explained above, this is now delayed until the first half of 2020.
Liath Luachra: The Seeking. This will be the third in the Irish Woman Warrior Series and follows on directly from book two (Liath Luachra: The Swallowed) with the woman warrior Liath Luachra returned to help a comrade rescue his sister from a mysterious group of raiders. Needless to say, this turns out to be far more complicated than expected.
This book returns to many of the themes and characters in Book 1 but also commences the overlap between this series and the Fionn mac Cumhaill Series. Originally, we had planned three books in total but that’s now likely to expand to four.
We’re hoping to release this book in the first quarter of 2020. The current cover is undergoing revision so this is a standby cover until its completed.
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:
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).
Within the Fenian Cycle, the character of Cumhal (Fionn mac Cumhaill’s father) is sometimes referred to with the interesting patronymic “mac Trénmóir” (or “mac Tréanmór” or in modern Irish) which, literally, means ‘Strong-Big’. This unlikely name is believed to originate from genealogists of the seventh century Leinster families who were keen to link the famous hero to their own ruling dynasties – even if they had to bend the truth to do so.
Apart from those original references, there’s no other mention of Tréanmór within the various historical narratives (which, given its invention, is hardly a surprise). That said, there is a hill called Comaghy Hill in County Monaghan which holds a large grave that’s fancifully claimed to be the spot where he was buried.
This lack of definition around a character who should play an important role in the Cycle (he is Fionn/Demne’s grandfather, after all) provides a lot of room for creative licence and I’ve taken full advantage of that, of course. Over the last twelve months I’ve had a lot of fun creating the character to fit in with the ongoing Fionn mac Cumhaill Series. As a result, for the next book in the series (The Adversary) Tréanmór plays a much larger role than in any other version of the Fenian Cycle in recent times (truth be told, I’ve yet to come across any literary use of the character in the last 100 years!).
Developing the Character of Tréanmór
When developing the character of Tréanmór I was keen to incorporate the world of 2nd century Ireland and link him to some of the issues associated with the tribal society that existed at the time (and which – amazingly – very little literature on Fionn mac Cumhaill refers to). In The Adversary therefore, Tréanmór holds the title of rí – chieftain – of Clann Baoiscne.
Back in the second century, a person’s tribe would not only have played a dominant part in that individual’s personal identity but in his/her entire social interaction as well. Dominant, shrewd, politically astute and completely ruthless, in this particular story, Tréanmór’s driving motivation is the expansion of the Clann Baoiscne tribal powerbase, an objective that’s often attained at the expense of friends and family members. For that reason, although he’s her father, Bodhmhall knows she cannot completely trust him and this becomes clear from the very first reference to him (when Demne – or Fionn – asks about the fortress of Dún Baoiscne:
‘Will we see my grandfather there?’ ‘Tréanmór? Yes. As rí of Clann Baoiscne, he rules the stronghold.’ ‘Is he nice?’ Bodhmhall blinked, taken aback by the simplicity of the question, the naive reduction of people to those who were ‘nice’ or ‘not nice’. ‘In some ways he is … nice. In other ways, he is not.’ The boy frowned at her. ‘Well,’ he persisted. ‘Do you think he’s nice?’ ‘No,’ she admitted. She shook her head. ‘No, I don’t.’
And then of course there’s the little issue of the reason Bodhmhall was expelled from the fortress of Dún Baoiscne in the first place.
In this book, the character of Tréanmór tends to dominate many of the scenes, some of which involve dramatic verbal duelling between himself and Bodhmhall, who also has to contend with his ‘Whispers’ and his ‘Cúig Cairdre’ – his ‘Five Friends’. This has been a lot of fun to write.
This kind of creative licence is one of the things I most enjoy about writing with Irish mythology and lore. The original Fenian Cycle is strong enough and linear enough to provide the basis of the story but it’s also broad enough to allow immense creativity, even when the story needs to align with the historical realities of the period. It really doesn’t get better than that!
The Adversary is expected to be available at the end of February 2017.
Bored? In need of scintillating cultural stimulation?
Then consider our monthly newsletter (below). More in-depth articles on Irish culture (contemporary or historical), mythology/ folklore, occasionally news on new books, writing or other things that amuse us.
In May 2014, I was champing at the bit to start a new creative writing project. Feeling somewhat tired and shagged out from publishing Beara Dark Legends (that particular epic took about two years out of my life) however, I was keen to try something different, but different in a way that let me use some of the material I’d collected during my research on Beara. The Fenian Cycle is made up of thousands of narratives collected over hundreds of years from many different Celtic countries. In a creative sense, there are several lifetimes’ worth of material to draw from and despite all the research I’d put into Beara Dark Legends, I felt that I’d barely scratched the surface.
Initially, I wasn’t sure what aspect of the Fenian Cycle I’d write about but it seemed logical to do a more action-based narrative. The prospect of a simple, linear plot line appealed and I’d been mulling over a fresh – more Irish approach – to what many people think of as ‘Irish mythology’ for years.
The startling truth is that very few contemporary Irish authors actually write Irish historical fiction or Irish historical fantasy for adults. Despite the huge amount of native mythological material available, fewer still revamp or produce contemporary versions of Fenian Cycle stories (although some use elements of it to spring of into their own particular stories).
It’s always struck me as bizarre that although Fionn has probably been the key figure in Irish literature since the sixth century, the Fenian Cycle-related literature that exists on the adult reading market today consists predominantly of:
the republished ‘dry as bones’ sanitized stuff from the Celtic Twilight period (late 1800s to the early 1900s); or
modern interpretations of Irish mythology from non-Irish authors.
In terms of reading entertainment, there’s nothing wrong with the above although my research to date suggests that the Irish reader (generally) finds the former a bit childish and patronising and the latter overly romanticised. Although there’ll always be exceptions, neither appear to reflect the aspirations or yearnings of contemporary Irish culture and hold little resonance for Irish people. It seems a bit ironic but most are published to target the international market as opposed to the market from which the material actually originates.
It’s interesting that this trend also appears to be reflected in the mainstream Irish publishing market. Few Irish publishing houses actually publish Irish historical fantasy for adults (to be honest, I don’t actually know of any – but I’m happy to be corrected). It’s unclear whether this is an effective reflection of market taste or simply a case of literary snobbery. No-one’s ever looked close enough to tell so it could be either, neither or both.
The challenge then (as least, as far as I saw it) was to write something that was true to the established mythology but which Irish people wouldn’t snort at in derision, something that downplayed the fantasy elements of the Cycle and focussed on a grittier, more realistic and more culturally authentic narrative.
I recently came across this cartoon which quietly tickled my fantasy. In itself, the caricature is quite amusing but the cartoon also effectively captures the immense societal change in in Ireland from pre-history (as in ‘before records were kept’) to the early medieval period. The Cúchulainn and Fionn mac Cumhaill tales all predate the introduction of literature in Ireland and most had probably been circulating in oral recitation for centuries beforehand.
Literature (reading and writing) came to the island with the Church sometime in the fifth century (supposedly with missionaries like Saint Patrick) and helps to clarify how and why religion spread so rapidly. The skills of reading and writing conferred huge advantages to those who learned them, not in terms of improved management or societal standing but also in terms of intellectual interest, etc.). Sadly however, those who controlled the pen also controlled the recording of history and thus the record of many of the existing cultural belief systems were belittled and eventually transformed into children’s stories. Literature was the beginning of the end for early Irish/Celtic belief cultural beliefs and their view of the world in which they lived.
PS: The cartoon is by the talented Scott Maynard of Happletea.com and can be found here