The ‘Official’ Story of the Long Woman’s Grave

When I get back home, I usually do at least three or four folklore or mythological site visits to test out various bits of research I’m working on. The Long Woman’s Grave near Carlingfor Lough is a bit of a feint but it’s hilarious marketing would put many other, far more authentic sites to shame.

This is the ‘official’ story of the Long Woman’s Grave (which is situated up in the mountains overlooking Carlingford Lough).

Lorcan O Hanlon was the youngest son of the “Cean” or Chieftain of Omeath. His father, upon his deathbed, ordered that his lands be divided between his two sons, Conn óg and Lorcan.

However, Conn óg tricked his brother Lorcan by bringing him up to the Lug or Hollow in the mountains at Aenagh, telling him that he would give him the land “as far as he could see”. The mist and the bleakness of the hollow was Lorcan’s only legacy (as the walls of the hollow blocked any sight of the surrounding land).

However, Lorcan owned a ship and began trading in the East, making his fortune and becoming prosperous. On one of his voyages to Cadiz, he bravely saved the lives of a Spanish nobleman and his daughter. Lorcan was enchanted by Cauthleen, a Spanish descendant of the great O’Donnells of Ulster and he fell in love with her. The pair made a handsome couple as she was 7ft tall, only three inches smaller than Lorcan.

Cauthleen was already engaged to be married but was wooed by Lorcan’s professions of love and the promises of the the good life they would have back in Omeath. The pair eloped. When the couple arrived in Carlingford Lough the locals were enchanted by this tall beauty adorned with jewels.

The couple set along the mountain path until they came to the Lug or Hollow in the rocks. Lorcan bade his bride to stand in the centre and look around as far as she could see as he “Was Lord of all she could survey”. Cauthleen looked around, so great was her disappointment at the realisation of what she’d left behind in Spain, she fell to the ground and died.

Lorcan was horrified that his duplicity had caused his wife to die and flung himself into the murky waters of the marsh at the crossroads. His body was never recovered. The locals found the long woman’s body and dug a grave for Cauthleen in the “Lug Bhan Fada” (Long Woman’s Hollow) where she lay. Each person laid a stone on the grave to raise her burial cairn and here she sleeps today in the hollow of her disappointment and unfilled promises.

 

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Needless to say, the story is complete tosh used for the more gullible tourists (but, holy hell, there’s quite a few who actually believe it!). Last time I was there (last year) there were two minibus loads of tourists hanging around, taking pictures. For the cheap investment of a story and a few hastily arranged rocks, the site has proven a remarkably effective (and hilarious) income stream for the locals.

 

The marketing campaign for ‘The Long Woman’s Grave’ hit another notch in 2016 when … Well, just read it yourself. This is from the ‘Irish Independent newspaper:

October 29 2016 12:00 AM Irish Independent

As proposals go it was daring, divisive, and imaginative. Self-proclaimed Leprechaun Whisperer Kevin Woods, whose leprechaun cavern is listed on TripAdvisor as the second most popular thing to do in Carlingford, announced that he was going to exhume the remains of the Spanish princess who is buried at the Long Women’s Grave and re-inter her a grave over looking Carlingford Lough.

He told the willing national media that the Spanish Nobel woman had dropped dead on the spot after being deceived by Lorcan O’Hanlon from Omeath who had wooed her with his boast that he owned all the land the eye could see. When she saw his kingdom at a hallow near the Windy Gap she was so shocked that she dropped dead and later buried on the spot by locals.

‘It was a horrible thing to do and it needs to be put right. No one deserves an end like that” said Kevin. “I intend to write to the Spanish Minster of Foreign Minister Affairs José Manuel García-Margallo of the People’s Party (PP).to secure support and to Charlie Flanagan own Foreign Minister.’

Local Cooley Tourism Officer Frances Taylor an employee of The Omeath Development Company, entered the fray commenting: ‘I believe Kevin’s heart is in the right place but the people of Omeath will fight tooth and nail to keep her where she is.’

The Omeath Development Association responded, organising a protest march at the Long Women’s Grave on Friday night, which according to Frances was attended by ‘around 180-200 protesters including five of the land owners and locals that work in the Midlands and Dublin travelled to be present.’

The story of the Long Woman was recounted and it was suggested that an annual wake be held at the grave in her honour. The possibility of increasing security at the site was also discussed. Comments on the Association’s Facebook page, however, show that people were unsure whether Kevin’s proposal was a serious threat to remove part of their heritage or a publicity stunt.

Suspicions that it was the latter were fuelled by his announcement: ‘In view of the magnificent turnout by the people of Omeath to protect the Long Woman I have decided to end my efforts to have her moved and will concentrate instead on moving the magic hill at Jenkinstown to Carlingford.’

The truth may never be known but it certainly got people talking.

If you’re ever thinking of starting a business in some out of the way location, ‘The Long Woman’s Grave’ is certainly a good working model!

Using Irish Mythological Names for Storms

Although most people are familiar with the names of Irish military heroes as a result of commercial books and movies, there are a lot of names in Irish mythology that people aren’t so familiar with and this article from the Irish Times lists a few.

Many of the names here are problematic in that commentators often don’t know how to refer to them and, hence, the decision by academics in the past (and subsequently in this article) to refer to them as ‘Gods’.

The problem with mythology is that it generally involves a dominant culture summarising the belief systems of a repressed culture. Most early Irish mythology (and that of other countries) tended to be described and summarised by English writers/academics (the dominant culture controlling the money and the education in Ireland for several hundred years). Because the early English academics never really understood the full cultural significance of what they were talking about, they occasionally made the mistake of attributing deity status to names they came across which involved characters who had powers associated with them. The word for this process is ‘anthropomorphism’ and the pattern is well recognised today among modern academics (although someone clearly needs to let staff at the Irish Times, in on the secret).

To be fair, though, a lot of this stuff isn’t common knowledge and the Met Éireann idea of naming storms with these names makes far more sense than they probably realise.

The Irish Times article can be found here but it reads as follows:

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Holy God! How many of Ireland’s deities can you name?
Éanna Ó Caollaí

Met Éireann asked the public this week to submit suggestions for names for next season’s storms. The last such call-out resulted in thousands of entries, among them were personal names and the names of mythological figures from the Roman and Greek classics.

Of course, fans of TV shows such as Vikings and the Marvel superheroes films will be familiar with the likes of Thor, Odin and Loki. And as many classical deities relate to aspects of the weather it should be no surprise that such characters would feature in the list.

While the better known gods and warriors may have struck gold with Hollywood and their TV director cousins in recent years, the myths and stories associated with Ireland’s rich oral tradition have largely been ignored on the silver screen.

As with Greek and Roman gods such as Aphrodite, Mars, Zeus, Apollo and Ares, Ireland’s gods were immortal, supernatural beings who also had control over many aspects of life on earth.

Many readers will be familiar with Fionn Mac Cumhaill, Oisín, na Fianna, Tóraíocht Dhiarmada agus Ghráinne (The Pursuit of Diarmuid and Gráinne) and other tales from the Fiannaíocht or Fenian Cycle. In the main, these are stories of heroes and their exploits. Of course some have supernatural abilities but few are considered to be deities.

Many of Ireland’s immortal beings exhibit positive and negative human qualities such as strength, weakness, beauty, jealousy, greed and anger. Some have shape-shifting capabilities while others are associated with nature and natural phenomena such as the wind, the sea, seasons and the earth.

According to the 11th century book Lebor Gabála Érenn (the book of the taking of Ireland), Ireland was settled six times. The settlers were the people of Cessair, the people of Partholón, the people of Nemed, the Fir Bolg, the Tuatha Dé Danann, and the Milesians.

The majority of Ireland’s gods and supernatural figures seem to originate with three of those races – the Fomorians, the Fir Bolg and the Tuatha Dé Danann (people of the goddess Danú).

The Fomorians were generally hideous characters and displayed characteristics more associated with death and destruction. The Tuatha Dé Danann on the other hand had a far more positive image.

The Fir Bolg were descendants of Muintir Nemhidh (people of Nemed), the third race to occupy Ireland. Muintir Nemhidh abandoned the country but the Fir Bolg returned before they in turn were overthrown by the Tuatha Dé Danann.

While the Fomorians and the Tuatha Dé Danann were essentially enemies, they had a complicated relationship and some intermarriage did take place resulting in some interesting intra-familial tensions at times.

So, how many of Ireland’s Gods are you familiar with?

The following is a brief selection of some gods and other prominent figures from Ireland’s mythological past. Who knows, some might be a good fit for the Met Éireann list.

Balor (Balór)
Who better to start with than Balor, a member of the Fomhóraigh (or Fomorians). Fomorian gods often represent the destructive power of nature and are sometimes depicted with the body of a human and the head of a goat. A striking figure, Balor was himself a formidable character.

Sometimes referred to as Balór Bailc-Bhéimneach (Balor of the mighty blows) or Balor Birugderc (Balor of the piercing eye, aka Balor of the Evil Eye), this Fomorian king was the son of Buarainech, husband of Cethlenn, and grandson of Neit. He had an evil eye in the centre of his forehead which, when opened, wrought destruction all around. He was based on the Fomronian stronghold of Tory Island off the coast of Co Donegal and was the bane of all in Ireland. Balor was killed by his grandson Lugh Lámhfhada at Cath Dédenach Maige Tuired (the last battle of Magh Tuiread) when the Tuatha dé Danann broke free of Fomorian rule. According to one legend, when he fell face down on the ground, his eye burned a hole deep into the ground . This hole filled with water to become a lake and is known to this day as Loch na Súil (lake of the eye) in Co Sligo.

The Morrigan (Morrigú or Mór-Ríoghain)
Associated with war but also said to have protective qualities, the Morrígan is a war goddess of the Tuatha Dé Danann with a shape-shifting ability who often takes the form of a crow.

She has the power to change the course of a battle by instilling fear and confusion into opponents and bravery in her warriors. As is often the case with many Celtic gods, the Morrigan is often referred to as a triadic deity where three individuals (Badb, Macha and Nemain) are worshipped as one. Other characters sometimes associated with the Morrigan include Eriu, Banba and Fódla. Most famously perhaps, the Morrigan feature in the death of Cú Chulainn during the Battle of Muirthemne. Oliver Shepard’s sculpture of the death of Cú Chulainn featuring a crow standing on his shoulder can be seen in the GPO.

Eithniu (Eithne)
The only daughter of Balor and mother of Lugh, Eithniu was locked into a tower by her father after he heard a prophecy foretelling his death at the hands of her son.

She was freed from the tower by a member of the Tuatha Dé Danann and subsequently gave birth to three sons who Balor then attempted to drown. One, named Lugh, survived and was raised by Manannán (the sea god). Lugh later became king of the Tuatha Dé Danann and ultimately killed Balor in battle.

Lugh
Son of Eithniu, he is also known as Lugh Lámhfhada (Lugh of the long arm) and Samildánach (master of many crafts). One of the foremost figures in Irish mythology, Lugh is member of the Tuatha Dé Danann and is known as a warrior, a king and master craftsman. He is said to have invented Fidchell (which is where the Irish word for chess – ficheall – originates). He carries the fiery Sleá Luin Lugh, one of the Four Treasures of the Tuatha Dé Danann (brought from the four great cities of Murias, Falias, Gorias and Findias) and he is accompanied in battle by his hound, Fáil Inis, which besides being invincible in battle also has the power to turn the water it touches into wine.

Lugh is reputed to be the divine father of Cú Chulainn and the maternal grandson of Balor whom he beheads in Cath Dédenach Maige Tuired (the last battle of Magh Tuiread) when the Tuatha dé Danann broke free of Fomorian rule. The festival of Lughnasa, marking the beginning of the harvest, bears his name.

Danú
Sometimes referred to as Ana, Anu or Annad, Danú was the divine mother of the Tuatha Dé Danann, of the Gods and of the earth. The Tuatha Dé Danann take their name directly from her. Danú is considered to be the mother goddess of Ireland and is the personification of nature, fertility, wisdom and strength.

Dagda (An Dágdha)
The Dagda was considered to be a father figure and creator of life. Also known as Ruad Rofhessa (Red/Mighty One of Great Knowledge) and Eochaid Ollathair (horseman, great father). Son to king of the Fomorians, Elatha, he was brother to Ogma and Lir.

One of the kings of the Tuatha Dé Danann, the Dagda had control over life and death and carried the lorg mór, a long staff with magical qualities which could kill but could also be used to restore life. While he was a formidable warrior, he was also considered to be a protector. He carried a bottomless cauldron, known as the “coire ansic”, which never ran empty.

He also had a harp – another one of the Four Treasures of the Tuatha Dé Danann – which was known as the “Daur da Bláo” (the Oak of Two Blossoms). It was also sometimes referred to as the “Coir Cethar Chuir”, the Four Angled Music, and with it, he could control the seasons and any man’s emotions. The Dagda was an important deity as he played an important role in the invasions of Ireland which are portrayed in the 11th century book Lebor Gabála Érenn (the book of the taking of Ireland).

Ogma (Oghma)
Another member of the Tuatha Dé Danann, Ogma is reputed to be the inventor of Ogham, the early Irish alphabet used on stone monuments that can still be seen around Ireland.

He is sometimes referred to as the god of eloquence and learning. But as with most other gods and heroes of his ilk, Ogma was also a fearsome warrior. He was made champion of Nuada and then fought as Lugh’s champion in Cath Maige Tuired (the first Battle of Magh Tuiread) when the Tuatha Dé Danann won Ireland from the Fir Bolg.

Brigid (Bríg)
Associated with the spring season, fertility and healing, Brigid is the daughter of Dagda. As a triple deity she had three main attributes: poetry, healing and smithcraft. As with many Christian festivals and saint days in Ireland pre-Christian traditions were adopted or co-opted to proselytise the population. The feast day of Saint Brigid (Lá Fhéile Bríde) falls on February 1st, the same day as Imbolc, the pre-Christian feast day celebrating the beginning of spring which was associated with the goddess.

Ériu
Ériu was the daughter of Delbáeth and Ernmas of the Tuatha Dé Danann and along with her two sisters Banba and Fódla (whose names were often used as poetic names for Ireland) is often represented as the goddess of Ireland and from whom the name Éire is derived.

She was purportedly married to Mac Gréine (Céthur and grandson of Dagda). She is also said to have been the lover of the Fomorian prince Elatha and was also associated with Lugh.

Fódla
Fódla was also the daughter of Delbáeth and Ernmas of the Tuatha Dé Danann. Along with her sisters Banba and Ériu, she was one of the tutelary goddesses of Ireland. When the Milesians invaded Ireland from Galecia, legend has it that she and her sisters demanded that their name should be given to the country.

While Fódla and Banba sometimes feature as literary figures representing Ireland in Irish poetry and literatire, Éiriú won this particular contest. In Tochomlad mac Miledh a hEspain i nErind (The Progress of the Sons of Mil from Spain to Ireland) Fódla is married to Mac Cécht and is the reigning queen of Ireland in the years that he also rules as king.

Medb (Meadhbh or Médhbh)
Medb was the Queen of Connacht. She ruled from Cruachan, the traditional capital of Connacht and one of the six royal sites of Ireland.

She is best known for her role in Ireland’s epic tale The Táin Bó Cuailgne (Cattle Raid of Cooley). She is said to be buried in Miosgán Médhbh, one of Ireland’s largest cairns, on the summit of Knocknarea in Co Sligo and is said to have been buried standing up, facing her enemies in Ulster.

Lir
Lir was associated with the sea. According to legend, he married Aoife after his first wife died. She didn’t get on with his children, Fionnula, Aodh, Conn and Fiachra and soon grew jealous of them. She took the children to Lough Derravaragh in Co Westmeath for a swim one day and cast a spell (geasa) on them. They were transformed into four swans and were condemned to their fate for 900 years.

When Lir discoverd what Aoife ha done he banished her and spent the rest of his days talking to his children from the side of the lake. Many will be familiar with the Clann Lir statue in Dublin’s Garden of Remembrance. The statue, by sculptor Oisin Kelly. represents the rebirth of the nation.

Nuada (Nuadu)
Also known as Nuada Airgetlám (silver arm) Nuada was the first king of the Tuatha Dé Danann and is said to be the great grandfather of Fionn Mac Cumhaill. Nuada carried the Claidheamh Soluis (sword of light), another of the Tuadtha Dé Danann’s Four Treasures.

Nuada lost his arm during the First Battle of Moytura ina battle with Streng, a champion of the Fir Bolg (who preceded the Tuatha de Danann in Ireland). Their king, Eochaid Mac Erc, was killed in the battle and the Tuatha dé Danann won the war. According to Tuatha Dé Danann custom, the king had to be physically perfect to hold his position and, despite his popularity wth his subjects, the loss of a limb prevented Nuada from continuing as king and he had to step down. His arm was later replaced with a silver arm by Dian Cecht, the Tuatha Dé Danann’s healer.

An Cailleach Bhéara
A counterpart to Brigid, An Cailleach Bhéara is referenced in Gaelic mythology across Ireland, Scotland and the Isle of Man. The word cailleach translates as hag or veiled one and she was generally considered to be a weather deity associated mostly with the winter months.

According to Leabhar Mór Leacain (The Book of Lecan c.1400 ad) she was worshipped as a goddess of the Corcu Duibne people of Kerry. She is also associated with several passage tombs in Ireland, along with topographical features such as Ceann Caillí (Hags Head, Cliffs of Moher) and Sliabh na Caillí (the highest point in Co Meath) and other locations throughout Ireland and Scotland. She is credited in Scotland as having created mountains and carries a hammer to help her shape the hills. Ruling during the dark half of the year, an Cailleach Bhéara comes to life in Samhain (Nov 1st) and is active until Bealtaine (May 1st). She features in Mise Éire, the poem by the revolutionary leader of the Easter Rising Patrick Pearse. The song was performed by Sibéal Ní Chasaide during the centenary celebrations in 2016.

The Amazing Tale of Bailé, the Sweet-Spoken Son of Buan.

Most major topographical features in Ireland have a number of stories and folkloric tales associated with them, often in an attempt to explain the derivation of the placename. To be honest, much of the time, you really have to treat such stories with a serious dose of salts as many of them have been heavily romanticised or ‘fanticized’ , however there’s still some entertainment value to be eked out of them.

One of the more intriguing stories I’ve always enjoyed is that linked to the hill of Dún Ailinne (or ‘Knockaulin’ for the Gaelically challenged). This hilltop in Kildare actually has a number of different stories associated with it but the most interesting is certainly the story of Bailé Binnbérlach mac Búain (Bailé, the Sweet-Spoken son of Buan).

The story goes a bit like this.

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Buan’s only son Bailé was loved and admired by everyone (both men and women) who ever heard him (or heard of him), predominantly because of the astounding stories he told. Bailé was particularly loved, however, by Aillinn, daughter of Lughaidh. This woman who had never met him had heard all his tales and through them had developed a deep affection unlike any she’d ever felt before.

Through shared messages, Bailé and Aillinn planned a tryst at Ros na Righ in Lann Maolduibh, on the south brink of the Bóinn (the Boyne) in Bregia. To reach this place, Bailé travelled from Ulster, leaving from Emain Macha and travelling south over Sliabh Fuaid and Muirtheimhne until he arrived at the long beach now known as Traigh Bailé (The Beach of Bailé – Dundalk).

Here, Bailé and his party unyoked their chariots, released their horses out to graze, and turned their thoughts to celebration. After amusing themselves for a time, they noticed a fearsome and spectral figure approaching swiftly from the south. The ferocious manner in which the figure closed on them, speeding over the landscape, was terrifying to behold for its swiftness was similar to that of a hawk darting down a cliff or to the west wind rising up off the green sea.

Regarding this odd figure, Bailé spoke to his men ‘Let us meet with him and ask his news,’ he said. ‘To ask where he’s going, where he comes from, and to discover the cause of his great haste.’

When he reached the party of travellers, the stranger’s address proved as abrupt as his arrival. ‘To Tuagh Inbher (the Mouth of the River Bann) I return,’ he announced brusquely. ‘To the north, now, from Sliabh Suidhe Laighen (now called “Mount Leinster”); and I have no news but that concerning the daughter of Lughaidh. In love with Bailé Mac Buain, she was on her way to meet him until the youths of Leinster overtook and killed her, just as foretold by druids and prophets. It has always been ordained that the love of Bailé and Ailenn was so great and so intense they’d never meet in person. Instead, after their deaths they’ll meet and not part for ever after. This is my news.’

Bailé’s party stared at the stranger in shock and before anyone could react, he’d darted away from them again, moving like a blast of wind over the green sea until he was gone from sight.

Struck by the news, Bailé collapsed on the spot and despite all attempts to resuscitate him, he could not be saved and lay dead and lifeless on the beach. Grieving, his friends set a tomb at the spot where he fell and raised a large tombstone beside it. A great caoining (keening) began and his wake was held by the men of Ulster, lamenting the loss of Bailé Binnbérlach mac Búain.

Some years later, when his friends passed through that area and visited the gravesite, they found a yew tree had grown up through his grave, and the form and shape of Bailé’s head was visible at its top.

Meanwhile, as for the furtive stranger who’d shared his news with Bailé, he continued travelling south to the grianán (sunny place) where the maiden Aillinn was known to sit chatting with her friends. Noting the arrival of the mysterious figure, she approached and asked him. ‘Where do you come from, Stranger?’

‘From the northern half of Erinn, from Tuagh Inbher, and I travel through this place on my way to Sliabh Suidhe Laighen.

‘And have you any news?’ asked Aileen.

‘I have no real news worth relating,’ the strange man answered. ‘Although I have seen the men of Ulster holding funeral rites at Traigh Bhailé. There they were erecting a tombstone with the name Bailé mac Búain, heir to the Ulster chieftainship, who died while travelling to meet the woman to whom he’d dedicated his love. Unfortunately, their love was so powerful it was not destined for them to meet while alive.’

Having imparted his terrible news, the figure rushed from the grianán.

Traumatised by this revelation, Aillinn fell dead and, as was the case with Bailé, a tomb and tombstone were raised at the site where she fell. Some years later, an apple-tree grew through her grave and local people would claim her features were visible at its top.

Seven years after Bailé’s death, the filidh (poets) of Ulster cut down the yew which had grown through his grave and used its wood to manufacture a poet’s tablet (Taball Filidh). On this, they wrote of all the most famous visions and weddings and courtships of the Ulster people.

In Leinster too, the filidh chopped down the apple-tree from Aillinn’s grave and, in the same way, the great courtships of Leinster were recorded on it.

Many years later, during the festival of Samhain, the great chieftain Art mac Conn, the poets and the craftsmen of every art came to the feast and they brought their Taball Filidh with them. Seeing the two beautifully ornate wooden tablets, Art asked to examine them and held them in his hands, face to face, appreciating their beauty and workmanship. Suddenly, one of the tablets sprang upon the other, and they became united as fast as woodbine around a twig, and it was impossible to separate them forever more.

The Portrayal of Irish Mythology and Prehistory in Graphic Storytelling

Irish people used to be in the unique, if somewhat unenviable, position of having our cultural mythology and history (in particular, our prehistory) regularly misrepresented in narratives by overseas entertainment interests. Fortunately, the recent shift to plundering Scandinavian culture means that, in that respect at least, we now have some company.

It’s an interesting phenomenon but whatever story-telling entertainment medium you look at (literary, film, television, etc.), you’ll inevitably find Irish (Oirish) prehistory portrayed in there somewhere, usually inaccurately and out of context, despite the creators’ best intentions. One story-telling sector where Irish mythology/prehistory hasn’t been so poorly represented, however, is the graphic storytelling industry (comics/graphic novels/animation).

As an industry, commercially produced graphic narratives are a relatively recent innovation, commencing as an art form with comics sometime in the late 1950s. Initially sneered at as an amusement for children (which, admittedly, they did target), nowadays graphic narratives are very much an adult-targeted, multi-billion-dollar industry. Stories told in a complex melding of visual and narrative forms, when done correctly, they have the emotional punch and intellectual grunt to equal any other form of storytelling.

Historically, most of the English-speaking graphic narrative market has always been dominated by American companies, in particular the two publishing behemoths; Marvel and D.C. As a result, between the fifties and the nineties, when Irish culture or Irish stories were portrayed in this format, it was often as a means to add colour or exoticism to existing American storylines (i.e. Irish culture was incorporated into other countries’ stories as opposed to having Irish stories being produced by Irish creators).  This occasionally led to some amusing unintentional cultural gaffes such as:

  • The Gay Ghost (seriously!) – a fictional Irish superhero from DC (this involves a dead Irishman whose spirit form remains in his castle until 1941 when he ends up fighting Nazis while saving his ex (and no, I’m not making this up),
  • Banshee – An X-Man from Marvel, he has a power called a “sonic scream” (if you haven’t worked out why this is screamingly wrong, here’s a hint: “bean sí”)
  • Jack O’Lantern – An Irish fairy (FFS!) provides a man with a magic lantern that holds a whole range of different powers (Clearly, Jack is related to the O’Lanterns of West Donegal!)

The graphic storytelling industry has changed dramatically over the last twenty years or so, mainly as a result of new technology that allows artist/writers to distribute their work far more widely and through a broader range of media. In the past, graphic stories could only be distributed through printed paper in the form of comic strips, comic books or individual graphic novels (and, much more rarely, in animation). Nowadays, creators can distribute their stories through a wider range of receivers outside of paper (computers/e-readers/ipads etc. but also through their own websites and internet services such as Youtube, etc.).

Graphic Novels in Ireland

Ireland has its own share of graphic story creators of course but the native industry is very small by international standards. In the past, most of the graphic stories in Ireland were produced by individuals who laboriously published, printed and distributed their own work or who somehow managed to achieve that holy grail of achievement, publication by a national publisher. Other Irish creators, taking a different path, ended up working for overseas companies as illustrators or writers.

So what kind of Irish mythology/prehistory content does the graphic story-telling industry produce?

Mythology is a prehistoric framework of cultural beliefs that often contains elements of what most contemporary audiences would think of as ‘fantasy’ or ‘make believe’. This is the reason so many people mistakenly believe that mythology and fantasy are the same thing. Graphic creators, meanwhile, driven by ambition and ability to push the boundaries, often end up creating spectacular visual works of exotic grandeur and dramatic interpretation that work very well in the fantasy genre.

This draw towards fantasy means that it’s almost a natural progression for an artist of Irish background (or for those with an interest in Irish mythology) to portray those stories in graphic style.

This is also the reason, so many graphic creators have tended to focus on tales from An Lebor Gabála Érenn and, in particular tales from the Ulster Cycle (that body of Irish mythological stories with the most fantastical elements). Generally speaking, it’s only native Irish creators who delve beyond these more well-known and well-hashed tales.

The Most Successful Representations of Irish Mythology/Prehistory

The following are probably the most famous (and most successful) representations of Irish mythology/prehistory that I’m aware of to date. No doubt, there are several that I’ve missed so feel free to correct me at info@irishimbas.com with any omissions.

Nuada of the Silver Arm (1974-1975)

Irish artist, Jim Fitzpatrick, first came to major public attention with his series Nuada of the Silver Arm, which was published in the Sunday Independent from 1974 to 1975 and featured his trademark intricate scrollwork/knotwork and fantasy-style influences. The series concerns the adventures of a character called Nuada (a Conan the Barbarian styled version of Nuada Airgetlám (Nuada Airgetlám was actually the mythological leader of the Tuatha de Danann, a character that Guillermo del Toro subsequently turned into an elf [WTF!!!?] in the film Hell Boy II). During Nuada of the Silver Arm’s run, many people complained about the strip’s fantasy style violence and scantily-clad women (this was 1970’s Ireland, remember) and it was eventually cancelled.

Fitzpatrick's Nuada of the Silver Arm

Fitzpatrick’s Nuada of the Silver Arm

The Book of Conquest (1978)

Undaunted, Fitzpatrick subsequently went on to publish The Book of Conquest in 1978. This wasn’t a typical graphic novel for the time but its dramatic illustrations and glorious use of colour meant it was a major inspiration for any subsequent graphic representation of prehistoric Ireland from that point forward.

Sláine (1983 – onwards)

Created by British writer Pat Mills, Sláine was one of the titles published in the ground-breaking British comic, 2000 AD. This series (running in different forms from the eighties up to a few years ago) concerns the adventures of an Irish warrior called Sláine mac Roth. Like Fitzpatrick’s Nuadu, this series is very much a mish-mash of Conan the Barbarian-style fantasy and the more fantastical elements of An Lebor Gabála Érenn. A kind of prehistory anti-hero, Sláine is directly modelled on the mythological hero Cú Chulainn in that he has a spear called An Gae Bolga and the unfortunate habit of breaking into An ríastrad (a berserker-like combat frenzy) during battle. Sláine is probably one of the longest enduring graphic representations of Irish mythology/prehistory and although the core story remains consistent, the visual representation varies dramatically depending on the artist used.

Cló Mhaigh Eo Comics (1999 to present)

Colmán Ó Raghallaigh, an award-winning Irish author was the first person to produce and publish a graphic novel in Ireland (through his own publishing house, Cló Mhaigh Eo).  An Sclábhaí/ The Slave – told the story of a young St. Patrick and won several awards but Ó Raghallaigh subsequently followed that up with a number of other gorgeous graphic novel adaptations of Irish mythology (in Irish) that included:

  • An Tóraíocht/ The Pursuit(2002) – An adaptation of Tóraíocht Dhiarmada agus Ghráinne Fionn mac Cumhaill chases his intended bride Gráinne, who’s eloped with the warrior Diarmaid ua Duibhne.
  • An Táin (2006) – An adaptation of the 10th century epic Táin Bó Cúailnge/The Cattle Raid of Cooley.
  • Deirdre agus Mic Uisnigh/ Deirdre and the sons of Uisnech (2009) – An adaptation of the famous tragedy involving Deirdre and Naoise. It’s a prequel to An Táin Bó Cúailnge.

The Táin Bó Cúailnge, unsurprisingly, also turns up in a number of other innovative graphic stories, all offering very different renditions of the epic tale.

The Cattle Raid of Cooley (2008-2015)

Belfast illustrator Paddy Brown serialised his epic webcomic The Cattle Raid of Cooley on his own website from 2008 to 2015 (winning Best Irish Webcomic in 2011) and it really is an exceptional feat. Brown’s version of the story is realistic, extremely well researched and avoids all the fantasy clichés by focussing on the characters and their motivations, effectively capturing the violent reality of inter-tribal warfare and feuds.

About a Bull (2011-2012)

M.K. Reed’s webcomic About a Bull took a much more ‘cartoon’ approach to An Táin, through the use of more simplistic drawings, bright watercolors and humour. Although she tells the same story that many others have done before her, she does so from the perspective of Meabh Leathdearg (usually portrayed as the villainess of the piece). Her version cleverly incorporates the remscéla (the side stories or set-up stories to the core narrative) through the use of guest artists who offer a very different visual interpretation. Stylistically, this creates a somewhat inconsistent approach to the story that could be considered jarring, however, in the context, it’s effective. Sadly, the online story stopped in 2012 and doesn’t seem to have continued since.

The Legend of Cú Chulainn (2013)

Cork artist Will Sliney’s The Legend of Cú Chulainn was a graphic novel published by The O’Brien Press in 2013 and it remained high in the Irish Times bestseller list for a time. For his adaptation, Sliney used a very “heroic-fantasy” style and also changed a few core elements of the story such as the character of Meadhbh Leathdearg. Sliney’s illustrations display the influence of working for American comics but there’s no denying his storytelling talent.

 

The League of Volunteers (2011 -)

This one scrapes in as there’s limited representation of Irish mythology and prehistory and most of the story is set in 20th century Dublin. Nevertheless, it deserves inclusion. Written by Rob Curley and drawn by Barry Keegan, The League Of Volunteers is set during the Irish Emergency (the period just after Ireland became a Republic) and concerns a group of contemporary and mythological Irish heroes assembled by De Valera to protect the country against the threat of Nazi enemies (and a demon called Bocanach). The Volunteers include ‘The Glimmerman’ (an anti-Nazi street fighter), a human/demon called Blood Rose, Fionn mac Cumhaill, Lúgh Lamhfada from the Tuatha Dé Danann etc. etc.

This series is very much based on the American comic staple of superhero team ups (where a team of superheroes join forces to confront some great challenge) along the lines of The Avengers or Alan Moore’s ‘League of Extraordinary Gentlemen’, but then twists that model and adapts it to an Irish setting. In that regard, you’ve really got to admire its sheer ballsiness and ambition.

Finn & Fish (2010 – 2014)

Irish artist/writer Leann Hamilton is one of the few people in the Irish graphic storytelling industry (with the possible exception of Ó Raghallaigh and Curley) to venture into mythological ground outside the well-trampled stories of the An Lebor Gabála Érenn and The Ulster Cycle (in this case, delving into the Fenian stories instead). Initially self-published by Hamilton in 2010, Finn and Fish is a contemporary and more humorous retelling of the old Salmon of Knowledge tale. It won several awards in 2013 and 2014.

The Secret of Kells (2009) and Song of the Sea (2014)

The Cartoon Saloon is an Irish animation film and television studio based in Kilkenny which has been producing short films, cartoon series and other services since it was first set up by Paul Young, Tomm Moore and Nora Twomey in 1999. It’s probably best known however, for the beautifully animated feature films, the Secret of Kells and Song of the Sea, both of which incorporate strong elements of Irish mythology and history with innovative design and storytelling.

Cú/Hound (2014 – 2019)

Cú/Hound – Protector/Liberator /Defender are a trilogy of graphic novels created and drawn by Paul Bolger and co-written by Barry Devlin. One could yawn and say this is just another adaptation of the Ulster Cycle/Cú Chulainn, but what sets Cú apart from its predecessors is the sheer scale of ambition in terms of the artistry and the fact that it’s development was funded directly (through Kickstarter). Cú/Hound – Protector, the first in the series focuses on Cú Chulainn’s childhood and his travels to Skye to train with the woman warrior, Scatach. All three novels are beautifully illustrated in black and white but make dramatic use of red on occasion. Cú is also an excellent example of how much graphic storytelling has changed over the years in that the writers are also attempting to crowdfund for a movie version of the original graphic novels.

Conclusion:

Given the above examples, it does seems as though Irish mythological and prehistory stories are more effectively represented in the graphic storytelling sector and it’s easy to see why. Mythological stories lend themselves extremely well to transmission through graphic media.

In addition, with recent technology, innovative Irish graphic creators are obtaining greater independent access to markets through their own webcomics, website sales or crowd funding. By consequence, this has also led to far more Irish creators producing their own adaptations of Irish mythological stories, thereby avoiding the fantasy excesses that occasionally result when such stories are told by people who aren’t genuinely familiar with Irish culture.

Either way, it continues to be an innovative and exciting sector to watch.

Note: If there are any Irish graphic creators of Irish mythology and prehistory-related stories out there who’d like some reviews/exposure through Irish Imbas please feel free to email us at info@irishimbas.com. We’d be happy to help where we can.

 

Ireland’s Most Incompetent Warrior

I’ve got to admit, I’ve always kinda liked Lóegaire Búadach (Lóegaire the Victorious).

Ulster Cycle hero, contemporary of Cú Chulainn, husband to Fedelm Niochride and warrior in Conchobhar mac Nessa’s court, Lóegaire’s main function seems to have been as a comedic extra on the periphery of the principal action. In that respect, Lóegaire Búadach often filled the role of inept everyman, the hapless loser we all have a soft spot for.

Lóegaire first appears in Fled Bricrenn (Bricriú’s Feast) where he’s generally represented as a somewhat inept third contender for the Champion’s Portion (a prize that he and the two other Ulster warrior heroes, Cú Chulainn and Conall Cernach, are competing for). In every competition the three partake in, Lóegaire inevitably comes off worse.

When the three heroes meet an ogre on their way to Cú Roí’s dwelling, Lóegaire is forced to flee without his weapons, horses, chariot and charioteer. Later when the heroes stand guard at Cú Roí’s dwelling, another ogre casts him into a pile of cowshit. When they’re sent to fight the Amazon’s of the Glen, the Amazons strip him of his clothes and weapons and, humiliated, let him leave.

Lóegaire’s most embarrassing story, of course, is the story of how he died.

When King Conchobhar mac Nessa discoverd that his wife was being unfaithful with the poet Aed, he immediately ordered the latter to be put to death. Because of his status as a poet however, Aed was offered the opportunity to choose the manner of his death and, having a secret spell to dry up water, he slyly opted for ‘Death by Drowning’.

Despite several attempts to submerge him in local rivers and springs (that all mysteriously dried up), Conchobhar’s men eventually dragged the poet to Loch Lai (extremely close to Lóegaire’s residence). Here, with Aed’s spell now waning, they were finally able to get him into the water.

Hearing the poet’s yells for help, Lóegaire jumped up for his sword, outraged that anyone would treat a poet in such a manner and determined to save him. So outraged was Lóegaire, that he forget to duck when hurtling out through the door of his dwelling and subsequently managed to have the top half of his head sheared off by the low lintel.

With his clothes coated in gore and half his head missing, Lóegaire demonstrated that, in fact, his brain was superfluous to his fighting ability. In the ensuing battle, he killed thirty of Conchobhar’s men before he finally dropped dead.

And of course, Aed slipped away unharmed.

 

Note: This was originally published on 28 Sep 2016

Irish Mythology Conversations for Six Year Olds

There’s quite an amusing story in the Guardian Newspaper site about an ‘ancient’ Scottish stone circle that actually turned out to be built in the 1990s (you can find it here: Stone Circle Story). It’s also a good example of how disconnected people from the “Celtic” countries can be from their own cultural heritage (and I use the term ‘Celtic’ with caution).

Most people in modern-day Ireland, Wales and Scotland tend to have a cultural understanding that’s still tainted by centuries of ‘colonial overlay’. Much of that understanding is garnered from what we were taught at school and what we see in the commercial entertainment sphere (films books, games etc.).

Unfortunately, we now know that much of what we learned in school wasn’t correct. In addition, given that most of the commercial entertainment sector output rarely has any kind of cultural integrity, that leaves us at a serious disadvantage in terms of authentic learning about our own culture.

Two years ago when I was back home, I was asked for an interview around the “scandal” of Danny Healy-Rae, an independent TD (Irish member of parliament) for County Kerry who suggested that “there was something in these places you shouldn’t touch” when speaking about a road that passed through an area rich in fairy-related folklore and which was constantly requiring repair.

The Irish press at the time were useless, most of their reports going for the cheap jab story along the lines of “Politician believes in Fairies” rather than looking at the fundamental belief systems underpinning the issue. What was particularly striking was the fact that the Irish newspapers and television news programmes were still referring to ‘fairy forts’ instead of ‘ráth’, as though the entire findings and learning of the past century had completely passed them by.

Most Irish newspapers are still comically inept when it comes to reporting on Irish mythology and cultural belief systems. Others, like the American Irish press, have veered so far into the commercial “Celtic Fantasy” interpretations that they have very little residual connection to Irish culture at all.

One thing is clear, however. As a society, we need a fundamental and commonly understood terminology to genuinely discuss those elements of our own cultural heritage. We also need a certain amount of cultural maturity to achieve that. Until then, any conversation we have around Irish culture/mythology is pretty much like trying to explain nuclear physics to a six-year old.

The King With Horse’s Ears

This is a picture of Labhraidh Loingseach, the mythological king/ancestor of the Leinster people (the Laighin) who’s probably most known in Ireland as the “King with Horses Ears”. The Irish version of the story (written in the 10th century) goes like this:

“Labhraidh Loingseach was said to have had horse’s ears. He kept this secret by growing his hair long and having it cut once a year and then putting the barber to death.
One day when a widow’s only son was chosen for the unpopular job of cutting the king’s hair, the widow begged the king not to kill him. Moved Labhraidh Loingseach agreed on the condition that the barber never tell a living person of his secret.

The burden of the secret weighed so heavily on the widow’s son that after a time he took ill. On the advice of a druid, he released himself of the secret by passing it onto to the first tree (a willow) he came to. Divested of the burden, he soon became well again.

Sometime later, Labhraidh Loingseach’s harpist broke his instrument and made a new harp out of the very willow the widow’s son had passed the secret to. One night, during a great feast at Labhraidh Loingseach’s hall, he started to play and suddenly the harp sang:

Dá chluais chapaill ar Labhraidh Loingseach
Two horse’s ears on Labhraidh Loingseach!

This version of the story is actually a mish-mash of an earlier story associated with the Welsh King March ap Meirchion. In the Welsh version of the story, March ap Meirchion also has a barber who divests himself of the terrible secret by telling it to a hole in the ground and subsequently covering it up. On that piece of ground, a crop of reeds appears and one of March ap Meirchion pipers, seeing the reeds used them to make a new pipe … leading to similar consequences.

Both of these versions however, are variations of another even older story based on the legendary Greek King Midas whose ears were transformed to those of a donkey by the God Apollo. Like Labhraidh Loingseach and March ap Meirchion, Midas hid his deformity but his secret was also revealed by his barber who dug a hole in the meadow and whispered the story into it to get rid of the secret and then covered the hole up again. A bed of reeds was later seen to spring up out of the meadow and when the wind blew them, they were heard to whisper ‘King Midas has an ass’ ears’.

Current thinking is that the original reference to the King with Donkey’s Ears (subsequently amended to “horse’s ears”) goes all the way back to King Tarkasnawa, a king of the Hittite vassal state Mira in the west of present-day Turkey (the Hittites were an Anatolian people who established an empire at Hattusa in north-central Anatolia around 1600 BC.). If that’s true, then variations of this story have possibly been doing the rounds for thousands of years.

The concept of the galar rúnach (an Irish concept of illness caused by the burden of a terrible secret) was a much later development, but it’s what first attracted me to rewriting a contemporary version of the story in the first place.

By the way, the picture above was actually something “thrown together” by Bryan Mahy (the artist who designed the cover for my Celtic Mythology Collection 2018). That cover featured Labhraidh Loingseach and Bryan, amused by the story, started a doodle, the result of which you can see here.

To be honest, I’ve always been something of a frustrated visual artist. I’ve always wanted to draw or sketch, but I simply lack the skill to do so. As a result, I’m quite jealous of someone with the talent to effortlessly throw something like this together. If you’re interested, you can find more of Bryan’s work here: Bryan Mahy

The Strange Truth behind the Irish Mythological Cycles

Irish Mythological Cycles

In the mid-eighteenth century, an English detective working in Dublin was assigned to investigate the disappearance of a missing Irishman. On travelling to the up-market suburb where this individual had lived in a tiny hovel amongst the splendid Georgian architecture, the detective questioned the various individuals that lived nearby.

What the detective found surprised him. Although most of the man’s neighbours knew him to see, none knew much about him beyond a friendly wave or a shared “good morning” when they ran into each other. “He kept to himself”, was the phrase the detective heard repeatedly over the course of the morning and it was only when he started talking to the next-door neighbour that he finally learned something more.

“I think he was foreign.”

The next-door neighbour was a young, well-to-do Englishman. The house he lived in was a clean and modern townhouse that looked very much at odds with the missing man’s ramshackle cabin.

“I’d hear him talking to himself every now and again,’ he continued. ‘Out in the back garden.”

“And what was he saying?” asked the detective.

“I don’t know”, the young man replied. “I never actually understood a word he was saying. That’s why I think he was foreign.” His brow furrowed as he regarded the detective, a sudden concern in his eyes. ‘You don’t think he’s dead, do you?”

“That’s what I’m trying to establish”, the detective replied.

Leaving the neighbour, the detective strolled towards the missing man’s house, thoughtfully stroking his chin. The young man’s comments had been interesting, informative in a way but hardly enlightening in any form that mattered.

Fortunately, the front door of the missing man’s home was ajar when the detective tried it and after a cursory ‘hallo’ he entered. Stepping across the threshold into a gloomy inner room however, he at once felt nervous and ill at ease. As his eyes adjusted to the light, the detective stared about the dark little space with a growing sense of incredulity. Surrounding him was a bizarre array of awkward looking furniture, chairs – and what looked like a sofa, but in a shape and form the detective had never encountered before. There was also a tall lamp with no visible light switch, a hat-stand with no hooks and

Moving to examine a flat table beside the entrance to the kitchen, he found that the flat surface contained a number of carved niches and had strange holes in the side. Both the top and the legs were decorated in coiled, spiral designs that were alien to his experience but undeniably attractive.

The English detective continued his search and in each room of the house found more unusual and unfamiliar items, bits and pieces of equipment, exotic musical instruments with strings and strange moving parts, books and tattered manuscripts in a peculiar script he couldn’t read, clothing of irregular shapes and sizes and a multitude of small knick-knacks that looked like personal mementos. He was unable to tell what exactly they were used for.

Bewildered, the detective left the house and returned to his headquarters at Dublin Castle to confront his superior.

“Inspector, this is an odd case you’ve assigned me.”

“What’s so difficult?” asked the Inspector. “You have all the resources you could need, the city’s willing to pay for overtime, there are several witnesses … Why would it be difficult?”

“Because I’m missing context,” the detective answered. “No-body knows anything about the missing man.”

His superior carefully arranged a series of files on his table as he formulated his reply.  “Should I assign this case to someone more … amenable?” he asked at last.

The English detective paused, nettled but also resenting the inspector’s response. “No,” he said at last. “I have an idea that could possibly work.” He sniffed and rubbed his noise. “Give me until the end of the day”, he suggested. “By then, I should be able to present my final conclusions.”

The Inspector regarded him coldly. “Very well. But, be warned. I’ll make a point of coming around to see your results for myself.

The detective nodded stiffly and left.

Returning to the wealthy suburb and the missing man’s house, the detective methodically moved through each room, gathering up every moveable item of furniture, every stitch of clothing, every book, and unfamiliar briq-a-braq and deposited them in a large heap on the long lawn to the rear of the house. Removing his jacket, he hung it on the branch of a nearby tree and got to work.

The detective commenced by placing four different objects separately, about one metre apart. Once he’d satisfied himself with his choice, he then proceeded to add other items next to the first ones until he’d created four distinct lines.

It was early evening before the detective finally completed his chore and he was standing back to admire his work when the Inspector from Dublin Castle suddenly emerged through the rear door of the house and out onto the lawn. Advancing towards the detective, he sidled up alongside him and stared down to examine what the detective had done. Frowning, he turned his head to glance at his colleague, then studied the four lines before returning his attention to the detective again.

“I see what you’ve done,” he said. “You’ve arranged all the elements of the missing man into four separate lines.”

“Yes,” the detective confirmed.

The Inspector nodded in appreciation.

“And all in relation to colour.”

“That’s right. The first line contains all the red objects in the missing man’s house. The second line contains all the green elements. The third line contains all the yellow elements and the last line contains all those other bits and pieces that don’t seem to match the colour of the other three.”

“That’s ingenious!” The Inspector was impressed and to show his regard he designed to shake the detective’s hand. “You’ll get a commendation for this, of course. And, ….” He paused and tapped hi lower lip. “I think that in future, we’ll ensure that all similar cases use the exact same deductive technique to understand the situation.”

“Hang on!” exclaimed the neighbour, who’d been leaning unobserved over the backyard fence that separated his property from the missing mans.  “What about the missing man?”

The Inspector’s face screwed up in annoyance and he shrugged dismissively. “The fate of the missing Irishman was never really the issue,” he answered. “He’s gone and it’s the remains that we need to make sense of. Besides, if he’s foreign, his foreign-thinking ways are hardly in our best interest, are they?”

This somewhat ambiguous parable goes some way to explaining the problem with the famous “Irish Mythological Cycles” (although anyone who knows this stuff will see the parallels straight off).

Even today, despite the fact that most specialists in the “Irish/Celtic Studies” arena know that it makes absolutely no sense to try and explain ancient Irish belief systems through the mechanism of ‘The Cycles’, most non-academics (amateur “mythology” writers and online “experts”) still try to push this hoary old approach, usually due to a lack of knowledge or for reasons of commercial ease (it’s easier and cheaper to go with the most commonly known mistakes than to portray the actual truth).

Trying to explain Irish belief systems through the structure of mythological cycles is just as ridiculous and ineffective as the detective trying to explain the absence of the missing man through lines of belongings separated on the basis of colour. The problem of course is that both approaches are based on arbitrarily created frameworks. In the former, the missing man’s belonging are arranged on the basis of colour. With the mythological cycles, different bits of cultural narratives and belief systems are arranged on the basis of “similar theme” (Fenian stories – The Fenian Cycle, stories set in Ulster – The Ulster Cycle, stories to do with certain myths – The Mythological Cycle, and a mishmash of different stories that are ingloriously crammed together under the title – The Historical Cycle).

As the detective in the story points out, it’s impossible for one culture to understand another culture’s mythology/cultural constructs without that critical missing element … Context.

New Book News

It’s been a tough few months with challenging workloads on all fronts but fortunately I’ve had the chance to work with some fascinating and talented people this year. As a result, I’m hoping this year’s output is going to be one of our most substantial and best to date.

The second book to appear this year will be the next LIATH LUACHRA adventure (THE SWALLOWED) which should be out sometime in the next 3 months. This follows the experiences of the 2nd century Irish woman warrior Liath Luachra (the future guardian to Irish mythological hero Fionn mac Cumhaill) and her fian (war party) ‘The Friendly Ones’.

The draft blurb outlining the story currently reads as follows:

Ireland: Second century.

The Lonely Lands: Ireland’s shadowy centre, a desolate region of dense forest and swamp where unwary travellers are swallowed up … to disappear forever.

Caught up in a tribal conflict when their latest mission goes sour, the woman warrior Liath Luachra and war party “The Friendly Ones” find themselves coerced into a new undertaking:

* Lead a mismatched group of warriors into the Lonely Lands.

* Find ‘The Swallowed’.

But intra-tribal rivalry is never what it seems, old enemies bear fresh grudges and predators move in the dark heart of the forest …
Awaiting their moment to feed.
————————————————-

PRAISE FOR THE LIATH LUACHRA SERIES

“The thinking woman’s warrior!”

“This is an Ancient Ireland that is entrancing and savage, much like Liath Luachra herself.”

“Liath Luachra is an engaging protagonist – deliciously sensual, yet calculatingly violent when the cause demands it. Never a dull moment, difficult to put down.”

“You don’t often come across such a compelling hero(ine), written with such depth and understanding.”

“She’s intriguing – fierce and capable of killing…but loyal and gentle too at times. I love the picture painted of old Ireland and the wildness of it – and the occasional use of the Irish language adds another dimension to the story – a kind of authenticity. I’m looking forward to reading more.” (less)

Further details on our expected output this year should appear in the next edition of Vóg (our monthly newsletter). You can find a copy of last month’s edition here: Vóg

Submission Titles for the Celtic Mythology Short Story Competition

It’s always fun to look through the titles of submissions for the Celtic Mythology Short Story Competition and this year has been no exception. Since we first started the competition (back in the Dark Ages of 2015), I’ve got into a routine of running through the title list without the author names attached just to see the kind of reaction the titles trigger.

A story title can often be extremely evocative but their interpretation, of course, is usually linked to the personal experience and background or the person reading them. As a result, what I’d read into a title would be very different to what another person would.

Despite the old saying, I’ve learned that these days you actually can judge a book by its cover – at least in terms of genre (except in those cases where you have an inept publisher). That doesn’t work with a story/book title, though. The gold standard for titles is to have something that’s evocative but which also gives you an accurate expectation of what you’re about to read. That’s quite a difficult skill to master.

These are the title that took my fancy from this year’s batch and the reasons why.

  • … Loves company – I thought this was a clever play on the expression ‘Misery loves Company’  and (I’m assuming) transforms it into something else entirely.
  • A Tune and a Magic Bicycle – Juxtaposition in a title always tends to make that title stronger, particularly where you mix the esoteric with the banal. I like this one
  • Away with the Fairies – Again a possible double meaning on the old expression used for people with dementia.
  • Fionn and the Banshee – Given my own special interest in the Fenian Cycle, this was always going to catch my eye. I’m intrigued to see how the author merges two such different cultural concepts.
  • Jimmy Macpherson’s Dream – On seeing this title I immediately thought of James MacPherson – a Scottish outlaw made famous by poet Robbie Burns. I have no idea if there’s a link or not.
  • Moireach – Interesting title. The word looks Irish in structure but it’s not one (a name?) I’m familiar with. Usually I run off to research the word when confronted by something like this but of course I won’t be doing this yet as I don’t want to spoil the story.
  • The Halloween Footballers – For some reason this just tickles me. I’m not quite sure why.
  • The Three Faces of Me – Again, I’ve imposed my own interpretation on this title based on my personal experience and background and have therefore assumed this has something to do with the triad system of Celtic/Gaelic belief. It’ll be interesting to see how completely wrong or right I was.

This year we ended up with a sharp decline in submissions compared to last year (from over seventy to thirty-five in this year’s slot).  I’m quite happy with this result as it means the additional clarification on criteria and entry requirements is working. Last year, we received at least 20 submissions which had absolutely nothing to do with mythology (some ghost stories, some stories vaguely related to Ireland and so on) despite the guidelines. We also received a large number of specific fantasy stories set in Ireland from authors that also seemed to have missed what we’re trying to do. It’s a bit distressing to receive these as we know people have made the effort of paying the $7 entry fee and yet they’re so completely off the mark, they can’t progress to the shortlist. This is particularly the case when you come across stories that are actually of excellent quality!

In any case, the 2017 submissions are currently undergoing an initial review to assess how many go through to the short-list. The results will be posted by the end of the month.

Thanks to all of you who’ve taken the time to submit.

 

PS: A note of apology is necessary for the delay in getting this post up. We’ve had a bit of a disastrous holiday period with yours truly managing to get himself baldy injured in a running accident and we’ve also suffered two separate IT malfunctions. Because of our regular back–up processes we haven’t lost any data but trying to find IT support to reboot our systems over the Christmas holidays (in New Zealand) has meant we’re about two weeks behind schedule. We should be back on track in the next few days.

Irish Mythology, Newly Discovered Werewolves and Other People’s Spin

Much of what people see as Irish folklore and Irish mythology today, is actually a confused muddle of snippets of fact, cultural misinterpretation, Chinese whispers, intentional and unintentional misinformation. Generally speaking, the latter tends to be disseminated by bloggers who aren’t Irish (but have an interest in what they call ‘Celtic’ mythology) however most people are surprised to learn that the more proactive form of cultural misinformation started way back in the 12th century with an individual known as Giraldus Cambrensis (Gerald of Wales).

Born in 1146, Gerald of Wales was the scion of a noble family (he was the son of William Fitz odo de Barry or Barri, one of Wales most powerful Anglo-Norman barons). Like his peers, Gerald had a healthy appreciation for power and for those who wielded it. Driven by ambition, he placed himself in positions associated with powerful men, ceaselessly self-promoted and worked his way up the social/political ladder until he was appointed archdeacon of Brecon in 1174 (a role he obtained by ‘dobbing in’ the previous archdeacon for having a live-in mistress).

Propelled by this success, Gerald soon managed to inveigle his way into the role of royal clerk and chaplain to King Henry II and, following the Norman invasions of Ireland (in 1169 and 1171), secured the prestigious position of accompanying the King’s son (Earl John – later, King John as of Robin Hood fame) on a tour of the conquered lands.

During this exploratory visit to Ireland, in an effort to impress his masters, Gerald commenced a propaganda piece known as the Topographia Hibernica (The Topography of Ireland). Even at the time, this document was remarkable not only for its length but the amazing depths of prejudicial description that portrayed the native Irish as depraved barbarians.

Published in 1188, Gerald’s account proved immensely popular in Great Britain with the ruling Norman classes as it’s dehumanisation of the Irish helped justify their invasion and the subsequent treatment of the natives. It’s important not to dismiss the impact of the Topographia Hibernica as many of its ‘factual’ descriptions established those stereotypes of the “wild Irish” that continued up to the early modern period (and which some would argue continue today).

Surprisingly, despite the fact that the Topographia Hibernica has been discredited for centuries, you’ll still find contemporary bloggers quoting liberally from it in an effort to justify their own particular passions or interests (usually related to fantasy beliefs or ‘Celtic Reconstructionist’ ramblings which are then linked – kicking and screaming – to Irish mythology). To be fair, reading some of Gerald’s writing is actually quite hilarious from a contemporary viewpoint but the fact that this was a propaganda document written by a non-Irish person and an official government spin-doctor for the Norman government, seems to have flown over the heads of many of the quoting bloggers. As in Geralds’ day, it seems people will still rearrange the facts to suit themselves.

Most internet content about Irish mythology tends to be created by non-Irish fantasy and ‘Celtic’ Reconstructionists – hence most of it is completely wrong.

 

One example I pulled from the Topographia Hibernica involves a fanciful ‘record’ of some Irish people being ‘part-wolf’. It reads as follows:

Of the prodigies of our times, and first of a wolf which conversed with a priest

I now proceed to relate some wonderful occurrences which have happened within our times. About three years before the arrival of Earl John in Ireland, it chanced that a priest who was journeying from Ulster to Meath, was benighted in a certain wood on the borders of Meath. While, in company with only a young lad, he was watching by a fire which he had kindled under the branches of a spreading tree, lo! A wolf came up to them and immediately addressed them to this effect.

“Rest secure, and be not afraid, for there is no reason you should fear, where no fear is.”

The travellers being struck with astonishment and alarm, the wolf added some orthodox words referring to God. The priest then implored him, and adjured him by Almighty God and faith in the Trinity, not to hurt them, but to inform them what creature it was that in the shape of a beast uttered human words. The wolf, after giving catholic replies to all questions, added at last:

“There are two of us, a man and a woman, natives of Ossory, who, through the curse of one Natalis, saint and abbot, are compelled every seven years to put off the human form, and depart from the dwellings of men. Quitting entirely the human form, we assume that of wolves. At the end of the seven years, if they chance to survive, two others being substituted in their places, they return to their country and their former shape. And now, she who is my partner in this visitation lies dangerously sick not far from hence, and, as she is at the point of death, I beseech you, inspired by divine charity, to give her the consolations of your priestly office.”

At this word, the priest followed the wolf trembling, as he led the way to a tree, at no great distance in the hollow of which he beheld a she-wolf, who under that shape was pouring forth human sighs and groans. On seeing the priest, having saluted him with human courtesy, she gave thanks to God, who in this extremity had vouchsafed to visit her with such consolation. She then received from the priest all the rites duly performed, as far as the last communion. This also she importantly demanded, earnestly supplicating him to complete his good offices by giving her the viaticum. The priest stoutly asserting that he was not provided with it, the he-wolf, who had withdrawn to a short distance, came back and pointed out a small missal-book, containing some consecrated wafers, which the priest carried on his journey, suspended from his neck, under his garment, after the fashion of the country. He then intreated him not to deny them the gift of God, and the aid destined them by Divine Providence; and, to remove all doubt, using his claw for a hand, he tore off the skin of the she-wolf, form the head down to the navel, folding it back. Thus she immediately presented the form of an old woman. The priest, seeing this, and compelled by his fear more than his reason, gave the communion; the recipient having earnestly implored it, and devoutly partaking of it. Immediately afterwards, the he-wolf rolled back the skin and fitted it to its original form.

These rites having been duly, rather than rightly, performed the he-wolf gave them his company during the whole night at their little fire, behaving more like a man than a beast. When morning came, he led them out of the wood, and, leaving the priest to pursue his journey, pointed to him the direct road for a long distance. At his departure, he also gave him many thanks for the benefit he had conferred, promising him still greater returns of gratitude if the Lord should call him back from his present exile, two parts of which he had already completed. At the close of their conversation, the priest inquired of the wolf whether the hostile race which had now landed on the island would continue there for the time to come, and be established in it. To which the wolf replied: –

“For the sins of our nation, and their enormous vices, the anger of the Lord, falling on an evil generation, hath given them into the arms of their enemies. Therefore, as long as this foreign race shall keep the commandments of the Lord, and walk in his ways, it will be secure and invincible; but if, as the downward path to illicit pleasures is easy, and nature is prone to follow vicious examples, this people shall chance, from living among us, to adopt our depraved habits, doubtless they will provoke the divine vengeance on themselves also.”

It’s quite likely that Gerald received additional brownie points from his masters for the final paragraph which essentially suggests the native Irish deserved everything they got (i.e. being invaded) as they were essentially sinful.

As you can see, Gerald of Wales had no particular qualms using fiction to portray the natives as partly inhuman (something which aligned well with the Roman Church who often likened native Irish war parties as ‘wolf bands’). This is something he also did in other sections of the document such as:

  • Of a fish which had three golden teeth
  • Of a woman who had a beard, and a hairy crest and mane on her back
  • Of an animal who was half-ox, half-man
  • Of a goat who had intercourse with a woman
  •  Yadda, yadda, yadda.

You get the idea.

I came across the above section as a result of some research I was carrying out on Irish wolves for one of my books (Liath Luachra: The Swallowed)  and, to my great amusement, discovered numerous bloggers have used this section to argue their belief that there have always been werewolves in Ireland.

On the bright side of course, we should probably thank our lucky stars they weren’t quoting Mein Kampf.

Wading in the Cultural Shallows – How Irish Mythology Became A Commodity

One night at a party I was introduced to a woman who proudly informed told me she’d named her baby daughter ‘Banshee’ in celebration of her Irish heritage. Even at the time I was pretty stunned by the announcement. For an Irish person (and I would have thought most people would have known this), this was the equivalent to naming her daughter – Death.

About two weeks later, at another party, (I had a life back then!) I was cornered by a different woman demanding a translation for the chorus from Clannad’s haunting Theme Song from Harry’s Game. The Irish lyrics for the chorus had been written on her CD sleeve as ‘Fol dol de doh fol-de de day’!) which she thought was absolutely beautiful and must mean something mythically profound.’ Needless to say, she wasn’t particularly impressed when I translated it as ‘La, la la la, la la laaah!’

These are just two examples of the cultural disconnect between Irish people and those who dabble in Irish mythology. They are however only two of the hundreds I’ve personally experienced over the last twenty years or so and I know many other Irish people who’ve had similar experiences. It’s actually a source of continual bemusement to see how bizarrely and inaccurately our culture’s been represented over that time.

In some respect, Clannad actually bear some responsibility for the situation given that their moody ‘Robin of Sherwood’ and other music (aided in equal amounts by ‘Celtic’ films such as Excalibur etc.) helped to create this situation. During the 1970s and 1980s, with the explosion of fantasy entertainment through books, comics and movies, stories based on Celtic mythology suddenly became extremely hip. Atmospheric visuals and music from musicians such as Clannad and others helped to fan the flames to the point where ‘Celtic Mythology Fantasy’ (what some call ‘Celtic Fantasy’) based entertainment is now a minor industry.

Celtic Mythology = ?
Unfortunately, the term ‘Celtic Mythology’ is a bit of a misnomer. The main problem is that the terms ‘Celtic’ or ‘Celt’ don’t actually mean anything (and therefore can mean whatever you want it to mean). Certainly back in early Europe, there were populations with similar cultural characteristics that the Romans generically referred to as Celts but even amongst those peoples there were substantial cultural differences. In a sense, using the word ‘Celt’ is a bit like using the word ‘European’. Modern-day Europe covers a defined geographical area with populations that have many similar characteristics but, again, the truth is that it’s the differences that define them. A German, for example, wouldn’t primarily identify himself/herself as a European. Neither would a French person. A Welshman wouldn’t identify himself as Irish or vice versa.

Another problem with ‘Celts’ is that the ancient culture referred to as ‘Celts’ (by other people) are pretty much gone (eradicated by the Romans or subsequently colonized out of existence) and the records of them are extremely sparse. Hence, most of the, time the closest thing (Gaelic records or Welsh records) are used instead. Because of their age, the cultural context in these records is very broadly interpreted and their modern-day expression tends to reflect the particular bias of the people interpreting them.

Several years ago, my family attended a friend’s ‘Celtic’ wedding which turned out to be some strange mix of Revisionist Celt, New Age, Wicca and other influences. It was a great celebration and we were having a lot of fun until the marriage ceremony proper began and the celebrants started praying to the Salmon of Knowledge. At that point, my two kids started cracking up and I was struggling to keep a straight face myself because it was immediately obvious what had happened. In their attempts to ‘Celticise’ the ritual, the celebrants had clearly gone through various ‘Celtic’ books (Gaelic books) and selectively pulled out elements that they could incorporate. Unfortunately, because they were missing the cultural context, what they eventually ended up with made absolutely no sense and the poor old salmon was elevated to some kind of symbolic messenger of the Gods. As my daughter said to me a few years later, it was like going to a church as a kid and discovering that everyone was praying to Kermit the Frog.

This is, unfortunately, a common pattern you’ll find in modern fantasy that incorporates Irish mythology. A non-Irish author/film-maker or other creative type will browse through some ‘Celtic’ source book, pluck out a few cultural elements and then rearrange them with other elements to create a narrative that’s subsequently used for commercial entertainment.

The problem however, is that mythology is CULTURALLY based. Mythology contains elements of fantasy but at its most fundamental it’s an intellectual framework used by our ancestors to make sense of the world around them. Because it’s culturally based, many of the mythological elements and associated context have been passed down through generations and incorporated into national identity and belief systems. Today of course, the use of Irish mythology has been superseded by scientific rationale but its core narratives remain intrinsically linked to Ireland’s self-identity and cultural values.

From an Irish perspective therefore, when you see your native cultural icons plucked from their normal environment, repackaged in some pseudo-Celtic bullshit and then reproduced out of context in a fantasy product, you can start to appreciate why other native groups complain about the commercial appropriation and exploitation of their cultures. For Irish people in particular, it feels as though we’ve been bombarded by mawkish, overly romanticised and culturally inaccurate interpretations of our own mythology for decades. Even today, if you really want to bug an Irish friend, show him or her a copy of ‘Darby O’Gill and The Little People (starring that famed Irish actor … Sean Connery) or perhaps a section from the execrable ‘Mystic Knights of Tir Na nÓg’ (a kind of ‘Oirish Transformers’ television series). Alternatively, you could share the ‘Disneyfied’ commercial version of Fionn mac Cumhaill created by the British National Trust Board at the Giants Causeway or read them any number of twee ‘Oirish Fairytales’. The choice is truly endless but some of them are so culturally offensive they should have been put down at birth of concept.

Over the last few decades, within all genres, we’ve seen increasing numbers of English-speaking writers explore other ‘exotic’ cultures (and their historical belief systems) as a source of creative inspiration. More recently however, we’ve also seen increasing kickback from ethnic minorities (and majorities) at the continued misrepresentation of their cultures. This has resulted in an increased use of ‘sensitivity readers’ (and whoever came up with that term needs to have their head examined!) by mainstream publishing companies although the trend hasn’t really extended to indie publishing.

This situation, I think, reflects a shift in the reading population in that readers are cottoning onto the fact that some of the ‘cultural’ stories they’re being presented with aren’t exactly authentic. It also reflects increased scrutiny and accountability on authors/publishers who misrepresent other people’s mythology/belief systems. In the fantasy genre, you may recall the recent furore associated with J.K. Rowling’s portrayal of Navajo belief systems in “History of Magic in North America’ but keep an eye out because you’ll probably be seeing a lot more of this over the years to come.

I don’t believe for a moment that it’s any author’s intention to be offensive when they use mythologies that aren’t their own. In fact, I’d suspect the vast majority of them would be dismayed if they knew their work was somehow considered offensive. Unfortunately, authors write stories based on their own experiences or what they’ve managed to learn and, frankly, sometimes you just don’t know what you don’t know. Different cultures aren’t easily transferable (although if you spend enough time living in them or studying them intensely you can certainly pick up a lot) and this makes wading in the mythological shallows that much more dangerous. This is particularly the case with Irish mythology as there’s so much misinformation already out there (many people, for example, through no fault of their own, still believe W.B. Yeats is a credible authority on Irish mythology!).

Neither do I believe that Irish people have a particular aversion to non-Irish authors writing fantasy based on Irish mythology. That said, it would probably help if those authors acknowledged it, treated it with a minimum of respect and managed to get even some of the basic cultural context correct. Unfortunately, many ‘Celtic Fantasy’ authors don’t and in some cases their idea of cultural authenticity is to chuck in some Irish names and a smattering of Gaelic – a language they neither speak nor understand and care even less about. Given all of this, it’s no surprise Irish mythological fiction has such a bad name among Irish readers and, consequently Irish writers.

And this is probably one of the saddest ironies about this situation. If you look up any ‘Irish mythology’ or ‘Irish fantasy’ list on Amazon or elsewhere you’ll struggle to find a single Irish author (although you’ll find plenty of Paddywhackery). This is because most of those authors are non-Irish authors writing a commercial kind of ‘Oirish’ mythology fiction for American/Canadian/ Australian etc. markets – not an Irish one. As a result, you now have a bizarre situation where Irish/Gaelic culture has now become a commercial commodity that the English-speaking creative world feel perfectly entitled to use as it sees fit.

Watching the recent upsurge in protest publishers and film producers, it’s no real surprise to see parallel occurrences with Irish people increasingly pouring online scorn on fantasy authors/filmmakers who couldn’t be bothered to get the basic facts right or who try to establish themselves as authorities on something they clearly don’t understand. With Irish (and Sottish and Welsh etc.) creators now finally starting to reassume control of their own mythology/cultural heritage, it’s more than likely that clashes between ‘authentic Irish’ and ‘commercial Oirish’ are only going to increase from here on in. This is a shame because, at heart, this is essentially a question around how far the argument of creative licence allows you to go in terms of using someone else’s culture for your own commercial benefit. That’s actually a tough call for anyone to make as it comes down to an individual’s personal values and judgement. Given that there’s no real consensus on this at present, for the next few years you can probably expect to keep encountering young girls called ‘Death’ obliviously wreaking cultural havoc at the far ends of the earth.

Irish Sea Monsters in Mythology

Interestingly, for an island, Ireland has a surprisingly limited number of references to sea monsters in the existing mythological literature and folklore (although there’s quite a lot relating to inland rivers). Naturally, there are tales aplenty involving seals (i.e. selkie). These are most common to the north and along the coast of current-day Scotland but, for the most part, the tales portray the creatures as relatively benign (i.e. they’re certainly not described as fearful or terrifying), probably because of their small size.

Back in the day, the native Irish population would certainly have been accustomed to seeing physically impressive animals such as the basking shark and the whale when they were at the water’s edge or travelled offshore. That’s probably why we have a relatively substantial body of Irish mythology around the míol mór (the whale). Such mythology tales are predominantly found in the immram (a name sometimes applied to Irish sea voyage stories) such as the Voyage of Maol Dúin or the Voyage of Saint Brendan the Abbot (Navigatio sancti Brendani abbatis) and can actually be quite entertaining. In the latter, for example, the sailing saint and his companions land on an island and set a fire to warm themselves. The island abruptly moves in response to the great heat of the fire and turns out to have been a slumbering giant whale.

Irish stories of sea creatures would also have been influenced in later times by the mythology of other cultures introduced as a result of invaders (e.g. the Vikings, Normans etc.), traders and Christians. The Normans for example, are believed to have brought numerous stories from Greek mythology over with them which merged over time with the local tales (e.g. Irish stories of mermaids are predominantly based on this). Again, however, even the merged tales do not usually incorporate sea monsters.

On a more local basis, the stories of sea creatures would almost certainly have been supported by the discovery of carcasses along the Irish coastline and the incorporation of such facts in to the tales of the native population. Whales certainly washed up on a relatively frequent basis and, as a kid, I was the proud owner of an immense whale rib-bone found on the beach in West-Cork and displayed it to anyone who’d let me.

This week, there was a lot of media attention around the discovery of a 5.8 metre giant squid caught in a trawling net 190km off the Kerry coast. Interestingly, the father of the that fishing vessel’s skipper also caught two giant squids off the Kerry coast back in 1995 – the last recorded sighting in Irish waters. In all of Ireland’s documented history, there have in fact been only six sightings of this creature (the first being in 1673, the next in 1875 around Inisbofin and three others in 1995).

The giant squid lives in extremely deep waters (40 or 50 feet) and only rises to shallower levels when chasing fish to feed. They also tend to live quite far offshore (obviously, as this is where the water’s deepest). For this reason, the likelihood of such creatures washing up on the Irish coastline is actually pretty slim even over a prolonged time period. Most of the squid that die probably end up sinking or being eaten. Those that do float are subject to tidal currents and given the great distances from, are likely to hit the Irish coast in very tiny numbers if at all. Even if the body of such a creature did hit the coast, there’s also a low probability it would do so along an accessible part of the shore or on an area frequented by people (the population of early Iron age Ireland, for example was very low compared to today’s populations).

All in all, this probably goes someway to explaining why there are no native Irish stories of sea creatures with distinctive beaks and the ability to release impressive dark clouds of ink.

Irish Fantasy Covers, Phallic Stones and Other Disasters

I’d have to confess that, to date, the Fionn covers have been pretty much a hit and miss affair (but mostly miss). When we first started publishing we decided to use photomanipulations (where the artist/designer plays around with existing stock photography to create a suitable cover) because of budget constraints. Unfortunately, it didn’t take us long to realize the downside of that approach – it’s actually quite hard to find photos that accurately represent Ireland in the first/second century (go figure!).

Because of the dominance of the Liath Luachra character throughout the first three books, we’d also come to the conclusion that it was important to have a young woman warrior on the cover (so it was clear the books were not entirely about Fionn). Again however, when we searched the available stock, what we mostly found were pics of young girls wielding flashy fantasy-style weapons, bizarre armor that just didn’t fit the realistic style of the books, and, of course, various elements of what looked closely like soft porn or something from one of the old Gor series (without the bondage):

SOMETHING (OR OTHER) OF GOR!

SLAVE GIRL OF GOR (she’s actually wearing clothes – they’re just very small!)

In the end, for the initial covers we settled on stock from Chirinstock (who were exceptionally generous in allowing us to use their photos).

Although the figures in their photos were very much dressed in a style used by Keira Knightly in the King Arthur movie (and there was an unrealistic amount of bare skin for an Irish winter), they were still streets ahead of anything else we could find at the time (although, in fairness, the variation in stock for fantasy covers has admittedly improved over the last year or two).

To give the covers an “ancient Irish” feel, we also provided the designer with some of our own stock, mostly standing stones, stone circles, dolmens and so on.

Of course what we didn’t realise until later was that when you mix scantily clad women with tall standing stones, what you can end up with is something … well, phallic.

Phallic Stones in Ireland

It was only last year when I was looking over the covers for the two most recent books in the series that the penny dropped.

HOLY CRAP!

Needless to say, the look went against pretty much everything the books stand for in terms of strong female characters.

Desperate to change the covers last year, we made three attempts to replace them but each time we tried we just seemed to hit a brick wall. The first cover designer we used simply didn’t work out (creative differences!) and provided something like a madwoman in a Harry Potter scarf. A second cover commission fell through. The third one we used didn’t really give the look we wanted (but fortunately was still good enough to use for a separate project we’re working on).

Frustrated with the various photomanipulation flops, we decided to seek out an illustrator for the next set of covers and I’m glad to say that’s worked out extremely well. Photostock limits you to what’s available in the various stock galleries (unless you have a very talented designer) whereas with illustrations you can actually start from a completely blank canvas – a huge bonus with mythology, historical or fantasy covers. Working with an illustrator was also particularly cool in that, at long last, we could provide some visual indication of what a ráth actually looked like (good luck finding workable ráth stockphotos!) and what Glenn Ceoch looked like. More importantly, it was also a lot of fun to help design the actual characters. With Liath Luachra for example, we were able to work out a facial style derived from a character from the “Vikings” television series as follows:

 

Given the subject matter, we still have a warrior woman on the front of at least two of the covers but now, at last , we can also add provide extra detail on some of the other key figures (Bodhmhall, Fiacail, Demne). Honestly! From a creative perspective, I’m kicking myself that we didn’t do this three or four years ago!

 

 

 

 

 

Irish Imbas: Celtic Mythology Collection 2017 is Now Available (partially) Online

We initiated the release of the second Celtic Mythology Collection yesterday and it’s a pretty impressive collection. I guess as editor, I’d be expected to say that anyway but the truth is I’m genuinely impressed, probably because of the larger range and mythological depth of the stories in this edition.

From our perspective, the primary goal of these books is to counter the copious amounts of shite nonsense out there, relating to Celtic mythology. We have hundreds of years of disinformation to counter and it really is no easy task, particularly when you’re competing against the entities out there who make money from disseminating false information (and publishers who republish ‘out of copyright’ editions of Yeats, I’m looking specifically at you).

So, first, the spiel!

This time around, there’s also quite a large diversity in terms of Celtic/Gaelic topics/concepts covered. Will O’Siorain’s (winner of the Celtic Mythology Short Story Competition) Hour of Greatest Need is a very exciting retelling of the ancient tale on how Emain Macha (Eamhain Mhacha ) got it’s name. Diana Powell meanwhile has a stirringly emotive interpretation of changelings in her story The Black Hen. Damien McKeating, who came in third place in the competition, also does a brilliantly original take on An Daghdha (An Dagda) in A Good Man.

The three competition winners are ably supported by three other new talents. Darren Fecky’s The Drunken Joe Malshy is probably the most original (and funny) take on Irish mythology I’ve read for years (if ever – this guy is a serious talent). Méabh de Brún also does a very effective and individual take on the Cave of Cruachann tale with Revival and makes it very much her own. Finally, after last years ‘flood’ of selkie stories, I swore we wouldn’t do another but Molly Aitken’s story Seasick was simply too good not to include.

Seriously, though, there is some pretty amazing writing and storytelling skill at work in this year’s release and given that this is all freely available in digital form, we’d strongly urge you to give it a try.

And then there were the practicalities!

As usual, when it comes to releasing anything with a zero price, it’s fraught with difficulty and time delays. At the moment therefore, the Celtic Mythology Collection is available for free at:

Kobo as an ePUB file

Smashwords as an ePUB and Kindle file

Within a week or two (all going well) it should also be available at
Apple Barnes & Noble (Nook)

The book is also available on Amazon for 99c (Amazon are reluctant to make anything free until they have to price-match the larger ebook stores so this should happen in the next week or two). Meanwhile, if you want to get it there and enrich our copious coffers (not) feel free to do so. I think we’ll get 35c on every sale until it reverts to ‘free’. Aaaah, the wealth and the glory!

But really!

This book is a lot of work for us and we’re exceptionally proud of the final product but, obviously, it’s not a success unless readers actually enjoy it. If you’d like to leave some feedback via a review at the ebook store or on Goodreads, we and the authors would greatly appreciate it.

The Challenge of Cultural Integrity in Writing

When I first started writing the Fionn mac Cumhaill Series over two years ago, I was keen to create a realistic, culturally authentic version of the famous Fenian Cycle that was recognisable to Irish readers but also accessible to non-Irish readers. As part of my overall goal with Irish Imbas Books however, I was also keen to use the series as a way of reintroducing lost Gaelic/Irish concepts (that is words, expressions and – more importantly – ways of thinking) that have been lost from common parlance as a result of colonization but which still have significance at a societal level.

This is why throughout the series, you’ll find a constant smattering of words like ‘fian‘, , draoi, ráth, and some others, words that by themselves mean little, but which in the context of Irish/Gaelic culture have a major resonance.

The word ‘Fianna‘ is a classic example of how much was lost. This word – the basis for the contemporary word ‘Fenian’ – is believed by most people (including many Irish people who’ve never been taught 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 ‘fian‘ (which meant ‘war party’). This means that Fionn’s fian was one of a number of such war parties and that they were 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 the story.

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 truth is that any decision you make with one can have a huge consequence with 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 demonstration of cultural accuracy – naturally – clashed bigtime 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 to those parents who’ve gone and named their kids, Finn!).

If you’ve read any of the Fionn mac Cumhaill Series books, you’ll already know I went with my heart rather than my head on this particular issue (although I did soften the challenge for readers by providing an audio pronunciation guide). In some respects that actually seems to have paid off in that readers predominantly respect what I’m trying to achieve and have demonstrated immense patience and willingness to overcome the temporary 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 even 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?

  • Zach Galifianakis
  • Michelle Pfieffer
  • Arnold Schwarzenegger
  • Nikolaj Coster-Waldau
  • Chiwetel Ejiofor

Everyone in that group of attendees (about 18) was able to pronounce at least four of those names and where they couldn’t they knew exactly what that person had achieved as part of their creative career.

Basically, culture is not a barrier to success unless you let it be.
And, seriously! If an English speaker can manage to pronounce Schwarzenegger, Fionn is never going to be a problem.

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Update on the Celtic Mythology Short Story Competition

competition-small
Less than four weeks now remain before submissions close for the Celtic Mythology Short Story Competition (closing date is 10 December 2016).

Feedback on your submissions:
After some discussion amongst ourselves, we’ve decided to offer the possibility of feedback (from the judges/editor) to those authors whose stories didn’t make the final Celtic Mythology Collection. Having gone through a number of competitions ourselves in the past, we know what it’s like to have work rejected and this is our way of giving something back to those of you who’ve made the effort of submitting.

Given that this is a last-minute decision however, we’re going to implement the process as a limited pilot (to see how it might be more effectively implemented in future competitions):
At this stage therefore, we propose to provide the feedback:
(1) as a scanned file of the hard-copy submission with hand-written notes (this will be emailed to the author)
(2) for a percentage (yet to be decided) of the total submissions that didn’t make it to the final selection.

photo-1470169048093-08ac89858749

Given that we’re still feeling our way on this we can’t guarantee your submission will receive feedback but if you’d like to be eligible for this feedback, please make a note of that in your email when you make your submission.

Obviously, any feedback provided will be based on ‘judgements’ of the various judges and is only meant to be of assistance. Because of workloads, we won’t be entering into any further correspondence once that feedback is provided.

A link to this post will be sent out to those authors who’ve already made submissions.

The Last of the Fir Bolg (Irish Mythology)

Earlier this year when visiting the Aran Islands I came across a story I’d not heard before concerning the Fir Bolg.

But first, a bit of context:

According to that very dubious source of Irish history/mythology, the Lebor Gabála Érenn (The Book of Invasions), the population of Ireland was derived from a series of numerous (well … six) consecutive colonising invasions from six different population groups. The fourth of these invading groups were known as the Fir Bolg and were said to be descendants of the third group (the Nemed) who died from disease or fled the country (commencing the long tradition of Irish emigration!)

According to the Lebor Gabála Érenn, the Fir Bolg were enslaved by the Greeks and obliged to toil by carrying bags of stone and soil, an uneasy rationale for how they got their name (one possible interpretation for “Fir Bolg” is “Men of bags” although it’s now believed actually mean “those who swell up” with battle fury). Somehow surviving 230 years of slavery, the Fir Bolg manage to depart from Greece and returned to Ireland where they divided the country up into Ireland into five separate provinces.

irish-mythology

Unfortunately, after all that effort, a mere thirty-seven years later, the fifth invading population group (the Tuath Dé Dannann) turned up and defeated the Fir Bolg in battle at Mag Tuired (Moytirra). At this point the narrative of the text varies with some versions indicating the Fir Bolg left Ireland altogether and others saying they retreated to Connacht to live in peace.

For a long time, as a result of the Lebor Gabála Érenn and other sources, many people believed that the inhabitants of the more isolated islands off the western Irish coast were the descendants of the Fir Bolg. More importantly, these people were also believed to be almost direct descendants as the population on the western islands had remained relatively untouched and unspoiled by the undue influences of civilization and progress.

From 1859 onwards, this particular belief became more important as a result of Charles Darwin’s “On The Origin of the Species”. Following its publication, there was immense interest in theories of evolution and the idea that physical characteristics such as height, hair and eye colour etc. might show a direct line of progress from ‘ape/uncivilised’ man to ‘civilised’ man. With reference to the Irish situation, Alfred Haddon (an English anthropologist and ethnographic) co-founded Dublin’s Anthropometric Laboratory in 1891, ‘with the explicit aim of understanding the racial characteristics of the Irish people’.

The people of the islands in the west of Ireland suddenly became very important because their “pure pedigree” (as descendants of the Fir Bolg) meant that they potentially held the key to the origins of the Irish race. In an increasingly nationalistic Ireland, there was keen interest from many nationalists to use these new ‘sciences’ to justify and support their own political beliefs. From the English camp meanwhile, there was also great interest in locating evidence that might explain the existence of the ‘black’ or ‘Africanoid’ Irish and the presence of such a primitive (white) race living so close to the United Kingdom (during this period, the Irish were regularly portrayed as apelike in English newspapers such as ‘Punch’ etc.)

It came as no surprise therefore, when Haddon and an Irish doctor by the name of Charles Browne arrived on the Aran Islands in 1893 and started recording the head size, cranial capacity, eye colour, skin pigmentation etc. of every islander (whom they referred to as “Aranites”) they could get their hands on. Women, of course, following the prejudices of the time, were excluded from analysis.

The study created immense interest and in the end, the results were published in 1893 in the Proceedings if the Royal Irish Academy. In terms of the Fir Bolg theory, unfortunately it all turned out to be something of a damp squib for all concerned with the report author’s summarizing it as follows:

“To what race the Aranites belong we do not pretend to say, but it is pretty evident they cannot be Firbolgs, if the latter are correctly described as small, dark-haired and swarthy.”

[Final Note: These days, the general academic consensus is that the Fir Bolg were an early Celtic group called the Bolgae (not to be confused with the Belgae) who established a settlement in Ireland.]

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