Sometimes I wonder how we got to this place.
Narratives and concepts from Irish mythology – or any other mythology for that matter – are often used by the advertising industry. One of the reasons for this is that mythology offers commonly recognised cultural narratives and culturla constructs which can be easily adapted to the advertising industry’s use of simplified visual concepts, stereotypes and targeted soundbites.
I recently came across some images for a Guiness campaign linked to the Guinness-sponsored All-Ireland Hurling Championship (developed in 2005 by Yoke Productions) which uses the mythological narrative of Cú Chulainn as the basis for a campaign entitled ‘Stuff of Legends’. That was actually a very clever idea. The well-known Cú Chulainn narrative already has an established link to the ancient sport of hurling but by linking it to the product (Guinness) through the use of the word ‘Stuff’ (this has an association to Guiness through ‘Aah, great stuff!’ etc.) and sponsorship of the Hurling Championship, a whole web of clever patriotic associations were made between Irish culture.
Fortunately, this being a home-grown Irish production, the narrative didn’t veer too far into the ‘fantasy’ trap (although it did of course utilise the more fantastical story elements of the Ulster Cycle stories). Looking at the imagry produced for the advertisments, you’d have to say the advertisers did an excellent job. The ‘look’ and the ‘theme’ are quintisentially Irish, the adds are visually attractive and, overall, it works very well.
They did however – from a mythologyical perspective – cock up one of the three campaign images. Can you tell which one it is? Image A, Image B or Image C?
The answer, of course, is Image B. Cú Chulainn has no association with the Giants Causeway in the image. This was actually a Fionn mac Cumhaill story.
Although, eh … I don’t think Fionn had a hurley!
This is an interview I had with Finbarr Murray of Capital Irish – the Irish Access Radio channel in Wellington – back in 2016. I actually spent a few years as one of the presenters on this show but had to give it up a year before the interview due to competing time commitments.
In this particular episode, I discuss the context behind Irish – and other – mythology, how it developed over time and how that’s influenced the way I publish my own materila through Irish Imbas Books.
You can listen to (or download) the episode below.
Two years have passed since I published the most recent book in the Celtic Mythology Collection Series. I had hoped to run another -slightly amended – competition this year but events, unfortunately, conspired to prevent it.
The original purpose of this series was to try and educate people about Irish mythology and to establish some fundamental opposition to all the misinformation published out there on the internet that purports to be authentic. Since I started publishing these books however, I’ve also found other – more effective – ways to do this kind of work and, with the slow/careful release of lockdown in Wellington, hope to be able to release some of these in the forthcoming months.
Meanwhile, the first book in the series is still out there for free. The last two remain at the very minor price of 99c/99p each.
You can find the link to all three books here.
I was amused the other day to find a Russian-based pirate site offering free downloads of one of my books – “Liath Luachra: The Seeking” – the only copy of which, sits on my desktop, awaiting the last few chapters to be written.
Obviously, this was one of the many false ‘pirate’ sites that are actually scams intending to obtain a person’s credit card details.
That said, I was actually tempted to download a copy to see how it ended!
Wherever there are human beings in large numbers, you’ll find microbes and epidemics and although Ireland wasn’t vastly populated in the Pre-Christian era, its people were still familiar with the concept of disease and its spread. Centuries later, medieval writers tended to use the word ‘plague’ when describing early epidemics but, in fact, the term ‘plague’ is very much associated with infectious diseases caused by a specific bacterium (Yersinis pestis).
In ancient Ireland, the individual most often associated with epidemics is Parthalán, a character invented as part of medieval Irish Christian pseudo-history (the term used for false “history” made up by the early Christian church to justify and further their aspirations for power and influence). Parthalán is believed to be an Irish-branded version of Bartholomaeus (better known as Bartholomew in the bible).
According to the very untrustworthy 11th century Christian pseudo-history manuscript Lebor Gabála Érenn (The Book of Invasions of Ireland), Partholón and his people arrived on the uninhabited island of Ireland three hundred years or so after the flood involving Noah’s Ark. Settling in the one unforested section of the country – Sean Mhagh nEalta – near Dublin, they lived there for thirty years, by which time the population grew to 9000 (nicely rounded to ‘five thousand men and four thousand women’, by the early authors).
Sadly, according to Lebor Gabála Érenn, they all succumbed to plague over the course of a single week at modern-day Tallaght. Interestingly, the name Tallaght is believed to be derived from tamlacht (which means “a grave, set apart”) and the location has a large cemetery dating back to the bronze age.
One variant of the tale (in the Annála na gCeithre Máistrí) has the seer, Tuan, as the single survivor.
The Christian church in Ireland (and elsewhere) often used epidemics – or the threat of epidemics – as a mechanism to draw new religious recruits into their folds. Epidemics were proactively described in metaphorical terms such as ‘beasts’ or ‘punishments’, with the underlying implication they were sent by destructive forces against which only God – their God – could protect them. Two of the most famous early Irish epidemics (said to have occurred in the six or seventh century) were the Crom Chonaill and the Buidhe Chonaill, the name ‘Chonaill’ suggesting they spread south from Tír Chonaill in the north of Ireland (in ancient Ireland, the idea that evil spread from the north was a relatively common motif). Needless to say, many of the Christian manuscripts on the lives of the Saints from that period have them banishing yellow fever without any problems.
Although you have to take all the early literary and “historical” accounts of Irish epidemics with a large grain of salt, the one common pattern that shines through is how people or entities seeking power or influence will often use such events to forward their own interests. That’s probably something we shouldn’t forget.
Stay safe and well and sending you our warm regards for the difficult days ahead.
The title in the image above – Camhaoir Fuilsmeartha – is the Irish title for a project I currently have on the back burner. The English title – Dark Dawn – is one you may have come across elsewhere (it’s a bilingual Irish/English project).
As with all languages, translation often doesn’t work the way you’d expect and Irish is no exception. As a literal translation, ‘Dark Dawn’ just doesn’t work particularly well in Irish. That’s probably because it doesn’t have the same cultural connotation in English (at least, not in my head). Rather than resorting to béarlachas (the word we use where an Irish language or cultural concept is forced into an English structural form or word pattern), I’ve therefore used a different translation instead.
Literally, ‘Camhaoir Fuilsmeartha’ means ‘Bloodspattered Dawn’. The meaning is slightly different from the English title but, more importantly, the connotation is correct, from a cultural perspective it’s far more apt and it still captures the theme of the story (a dark, action-adventure tale set in the Fenian Cycle).
Because I work in Irish mythology, a lot of my books tend to end up in the ‘Fantasy’ genre where I see a lot of writers (particularly, the Celtic Fantasy genre authors) use Irish terms to try and give their books a bit of (cough!) ‘cultural integrity’. The main problem I come across is where such authors use Google Translate for various terms in their books and the results are often disastrously hilarious. At it’s best, this tool is really a kind of ‘béarlachas machine’: with Irish, it translates everything literally and therefore gets at least 80% of it’s translations technically correct but culturally and socially wrong.
At its worst, you could say that Google Translate is like a global colonisation tool where any foreign concept from a different language/culture is sanitized to a ‘nice’, English-comprehensible equivalent.
Even where the original concept is left behind and rendered meaningless.
Note: This project was originally due for release in January 2020. Unfortunately, workloads have now delayed it’s publication until March/April 2020.
An action/adventure story based in first century Ireland (and linked to the famous Fenian Cycle), Liath Luachra: The Grey One was first published by Irish Imbas Books in December 2015.
Late last year, I received an email expressing an interest in adapting my book Liath Luachra: The Grey One for the screen. The source of that email was Graisland Entertainment, an entertainment partnership between Michael Grais and Carlos Barbosa who (in association with Zero Gravity Management) focus on producing original features films and television production.
Having read the book, Michael Grais was convinced of its potential as a television series, preferring that medium over a feature film as it allowed more time to develop characters and storylines that could delve deeper into the “Fenian” Cycle.
After several weeks of in-depth discussions and negotiations, I signed the option papers.
That was in April 2019. Since then, I’ve kept pretty tight-lipped about the development as:
- I didn’t want people to assume a screen adaptation was certain – my (very rough) estimate is that out of every book optioned, less than one in a hundred proceed to the next step (and there are a lot of next steps); and
- I was too busy enjoying the adaptation process
To be honest, I’ve been extremely fortunate. Liath Luachra: The Grey One has been adapted for the screen (i.e. part of the novel was rewritten as a television pilot screenplay) by Michael, who’s an incredibly accomplished screenwriter, creating the story for “Poltergeist” (probably one of the most successful horror movies of all time), “Great Balls of Fire”, “Cool World” and many more. The real clincher for me however, was one of his first screenplays: “Death Hunt” a film I’ve had in my collection for years.
I’ve also been very fortunate in that Michael was generous enough, not only to share various drafts of his screenplay, but to allow me to input via comments and suggestions. This effectively meant, I was not only party to seeing the process of how a book was adapted but learning by watching one of the best screenwriters in the business at work. There’s a real fire to Michael Grais I admire. A consummate artist, he’s attained (and maintained) a level of creative intensity and professional output most people could only aspire to.
Everyone knows that writing for the screen is very different to writing for a book. All the same, until you actually do it yourself (or see the process in action), you can’t really understand how different it is. When you’re writing a book, you’re essentially creating a wholly immersive experience for the reader; a richly detailed world, in-depth characters, narration and dialogue that pulls the reader deep into the story.
When writing a screenplay, the approach seems quite different in that the story is predominantly pared back to plot and dialogue. Most of the other (visual etc.) immersion components are interpreted and developed by other members of the movie/television production team. For me that was probably the most critical learning.
At heart, the novel Liath Luachra: The Grey One is about a defiant and resilient young woman struggling to survive in the brutal, male-dominated world of first century Ireland. In terms of tone and style, the story is very much ‘dark adventure’ and since its publication in 2015, several people have described it to me as “An ancient Irish Girl with the Dragon Tattoo”. Historically, culturally and linguistically, the book is as accurate as I could make it. It introduces a number of ancient Gaelic cultural concepts that many people aren’t aware of and it aligns accurately with the existing Fenian Cycle and other Irish mythology.
At present, Graisland Entertainment are pitching the proposed television series to key players in the television industry. A screen version of that same story, by necessity, would have to undergo some changes given that its being transmitted through a different format. Nevertheless, I’m confident that Liath Luachra’s story is in capable hands and I look forward to seeing the final product if, and when, it happens.
Born in county Cork, Ireland, Brian O’Sullivan is an author, mythologist and cultural commentator. Currently based in Wellington, New Zealand, Brian is director of Irish Imbas, a company specialising in the research/analysis of ancient Irish cultural knowledge and belief patterns (‘Irish mythology). Irish Imbas Books, translates the more workable pieces into narratives and learning material for a contemporary audience.
Since 2012, Irish Imbas Books has been publishing fiction and non-fiction that incorporate strong elements of Irish culture, language, history and mythology. These include the ‘Irish Woman Warrior Series’, the ‘Fionn mac Cumhaill Series’ and several others.
Michael Grais (Graisland Entertainment)
From his association with Steven Spielberg, Grais co-wrote the mega-hit POLTERGEIST and co- wrote and produced the sequel, POLTERGEIST II. Grais also executive produced the film GREAT BALLS OF FIRE (starring Dennis Quaid, Alec Baldwin and Winona Ryder) and co-wrote, produced, and financed the hugely successful MARKED FOR DEATH for 20th Century Fox. Other box office hits written or produced by Grais include Steven King’s SLEEPWALKERS, COOL WORLD (starring Brad Pitt, Kim Basinger, and Gabriel Byrne) and WHO KILLED ATLANTA’S CHILDREN, the highest rated movie of 2000 for Showtime.
An accomplished showrunner in episodic television, Grais oversaw production on 22 episodes of the syndicated series, THE IMMORTAL, produced and directed THE PROMISE LAND (in association with University of New Mexico) as an Internet series for STRIKETV.
Mr. Grais’ films have garnered over half a billion dollars in box office receipts.
IMDB – Michael Grais
Carlos Barbosa (Graisland Entertainment)
Born in Bogota, Colombia and trained as an architect with a Masters degree from Tulane University, Carlos was recruited by architect Charles Moore’s Los Angeles firm of MRY which brought him to Los Angeles where the world of designing for the silver screen became a real possibility and an alternative career.
Ultraviolet, a Roger Corman film project, was Carlos’ first credit as a Production Designer and his hands-on education into film making. Today Carlos’ credits as a production designer include GODLESS, MAGIC CITY, season eight and the pilot of 24 (for which he was nominated for an Emmy), the pilot for TERRA NOVA, LOST, CSI-MIAMI, STUDIO 60, COACH CARTER, THE INVISIBLE, HURRICANE SEASON and many more.
In addition to filmmaking Carlos continues to practice as an architect and has completed projects around the world.
IMDB – Carlos Barbosa
If you have further queries or would like to arrange an interview, Brian O’Sullivan can be contacted at email@example.com
Stories based on Irish mythology and culture have been bowdlerised quite a lot over the last two hundred years or so, often to the point where, now, many people struggle to differentiate genuine Irish history and mythology with commercially-produced “Celtic” fantasy. That’s something that, as an Irish fiction writer (non-fiction, on occasion), I’m regularly confronted with. It’s also why I’m so pedantic in telling stories that are as historically and culturally authentic as I can make them.
Telling stories based on authentic elements of Irish mythology can be something of an effort, however. Not only do you have to get the history right, you also have to introduce ancient Gaelic concepts into the story in a way that a contemporary audience can (a) understand them and (b) enjoy them. That takes research (a lot), it takes language skills (Irish) and of course, the ability to put a story together in a way that allows those elements to shine.
Creating those kinds of Irish mythological stories was a bit exhausting over 2019, fortunately for all the right reasons. The key reason was the recent sale of the screen option (and the subsequent adaptation) for Liath Luachra: The Grey One which took up a major proportion of my year.
There’s still a long path to travel before any decision is made on whether this appears on a screen near you, of course. There will be a post about it all at some stage in the future but, until then, here’s a little teaser (ironically, made before we had interest from Hollywood).
But, screenwork aside, here’s a little update on the other projects currently taking place.
Fionn: Stranger at Mullán Bán
Book number four in the popular series (the Fionn mac Cumhaill Series) concerns the growing pains of the young Fionn (Demne) who’s struggling to solve the mystery of his father’s death, supported as always by this three guardians; his aunt – the bandraoi Bodhmhall, the woman warrior Liath Luachra and the eccentric womaniser Fiacail mac Codhna. This story is maturing quietly in our office drawer like a potentially fruitful wine. There are six books in total planned for this series. We had intended to release this volume in December 2019 but, for reasons explained above, this is now delayed until the first half of 2020.
Liath Luachra: The Seeking.
This will be the third in the Irish Woman Warrior Series and follows on directly from book two (Liath Luachra: The Swallowed) with the woman warrior Liath Luachra returned to help a comrade rescue his sister from a mysterious group of raiders. Needless to say, this turns out to be far more complicated than expected.
This book returns to many of the themes and characters in Book 1 but also commences the overlap between this series and the Fionn mac Cumhaill Series. Originally, we had planned three books in total but that’s now likely to expand to four.
We’re hoping to release this book in the first quarter of 2020. The current cover is undergoing revision so this is a standby cover until its completed.
This is a bit of a trial project I’m currently working on and involves the story of a dying warrior attempting to protect a settlement. The settlement in question is Ráth Bládhma.
Expect to see an announcement on this sometime in the first quarter of 2020.
Despite all the excitement over 2019, we have actually released a few items, mainly the following short stories. Note, however, that these are currently only available through the Irish Imbas website:
While hunting with two children in the depths of the Great Wild, the woman warrior Liath Luachra becomes involved in a pursuit she’d rather have no part of.
After completing her ‘tasking’ in the Lonely Lands, the woman warrior Liath Luachra retreats to spend another winter alone in the bleak Luachair valley.
It’s by no means certain she’ll make it through to Spring.
In ancient Ireland, a mother seeks a boon of an old lover, now the most ferocious and feared chieftain in the land.
Probably one of the most well-known stories from the ancient early Irish literature, the fascinating tale of Labhraidh Loingseach (Labhraidh is pronounced ‘Lowry’ in English), has never been accurately portrayed for a contemporary audience.
This, then, is the story of the mythical Irish chieftain, the founding ancestor of Na Laighin (a major tribe in Ireland’s south-east for which the province of Leinster is named) and the man to which a very strange attribute is associated.
After a year’s hard slog, I’m certainly ready for a break. In the meantime, all our books can be obtained through THE IRISH IMBAS BOOK SHOP of course. Updates on the latest releases will be made available through our newsletter Vóg (last one for 2019 will be end of November).
It’s a little sad, and somewhat indicative of the lingering impacts of colonisation, when you see one of your national newspapers get so much wrong with respect to ancient Irish belief systems (mythology). You can certainly respect a newspaper’s desire to produce relevant articles for an upcoming event of national relevance (Samhain) but it would really have been nice if they’d done even some basic research on the subject beyond Wikipedia (the equivalent to getting your mythology information from a telephone book).
The ‘Dullahan’ and the ‘cóiste bodhar’ referred to in the Irish Times article (here) are both references from W.B. Yeats’ “Fairy and Folk Tales of the Irish Peasantry”, a book which has been discredited by every credible university or Celtic Studies course out there (but remains beloved by fantasy aficionados).
To his credit, W.B. Yeats was an excellent poet but when it comes to mythology, he tends to be completely unreliable. A product of the Protestant Aristocracy (not a religious term but the official term for the privileged and powerful Anglo forces who dominated Ireland’s social and economic existence from the late 17th and 20th century), Yeats disliked the Irish language, referred to rural Irish people as “The Peasantry” and plundered elements of their ancient belief systems to support his own ‘spiritual’ work as a Theosophist. This is something we continue to see in much of the ‘Celtic Paganism’ and ‘Celtic Spiritualism’ products out there today.
It’s important to respect the achievements of people like Stoker, Thomas Johnston Westropp, Yeats and others. At the same time, it’s also important to recognise and acknowledge when they got things wrong. Promoting their mistakes, diminishes the cultural belief systems of our ancestors. Sadly, it also continues to pull us further and further away from our true cultural heritage.
The original stories from the Fenian Cycle (the stories of Fionn mac Cumhaill and the warrior band mistakenly called Na Fianna) are believed to have first originated in Leinster (that’s on the eastern side of Ireland if you’re unfamiliar with it) which is why so many of the Fionn mac Cumhaill stories take place in that region. Over the subsequent centuries however, as the character’s popularity increased, professional storytellers from other parts of the country also started to adapt the tales for their local audiences and often incorporated nearby topographical features that these audiences would be familiar with. That’s why, today, you’ll struggle to find anywhere in Ireland that doesn’t have at least some kind of reference to Fionn or the Fianna.
The twelfth century Macgnímartha Finn (The Boyhood Tales of Fionn) on which the Fionn mac Cumhaill Series is based, retains those very strong links to Leinster. Here’s a map showing some of the key locations:
- Ráth Bládhma: As a child, Fionn (or Demne, as he was originally known) was reared by two female guardians (Bodhmhall and The Grey One) in the forests of Sliabh Bládhma/ Sliabh Bloom in County Laois). This isolated spot was the most significant area of wilderness adjacent to the areas in Leinster which would have been most populated back in the Iron Age. As a result, it would have been a logical place to set the story of someone who was on the run or in hiding.
- Seiscenn Uairbhaoil: This Leinster marsh (where the warrior Fiacail mac Codhna was said to be based) is believed to be located in present day County Wicklow. It’s placement on the map is an estimate on my part.
- Almhu: This was the site where Tadg mac Nuadat was originally said to live. According to one or two references, the fortress was painted with alum (Almhu) from whence it gets its name. This was also the childhood home of Muirne Múncháem (Fionn’s mother). These days many people still use the anglicized (and meaningless) version of the name: The Hill of Allen.
- Dún Baoiscne:This is the one site in the Fionn mac Cumhaill series which is pure fabrication on my part. For the purposes of the series, I needed Clann Baoiscne to have a tribal territory based around a fortress which I arbitrarily named Dún Baoiscne (literally: the fortress of Clann Baoiscne). To be fair, if there had been a Clann Baoiscne and they had a fortress, that’s probably what it would have been called.
Many of these place names may pose a challenge for non-Irish speakers to pronounce but why not have a go and then check it against the audio guide to see how close you were.
When you’re dealing with Irish mythology, Irish history, Irish archaeology and so on, one of the more difficult concepts to get across to people is that our ancestors back in the day were just as smart as we were. In contemporary societies, there’s a general assumption that OUR society is going to continue indefinitely, without any major change. There’s also a common, generally unarticulated, belief, that we’re far smarter or more advanced because ancient societies didn’t have science or believed in a whole bunch of ‘mumbo-jumbo’ religions.
The reality, of course, is that this simply isn’t true and one obvious example of our ancestor’s abilities are the passage tomb clusters spread around Ireland at Brú na Bóinne (Newgrange), Knowth, Loughcrew etc. These passage tombs were incredibly complex edifices that not only required huge structural design, engineering and architectural ability but social organisational skills and in-depth knowledge of astronomy (not to mention the artistic design skills that can still observed to this day).
Complex edifices like the passage grave clusters required a stable and organised society to build them. In practical terms, for example, it’s estimated that the main passage grave at Brú na Bóinne could have been completed over a sixteen-year period provided there was a well-managed workforce of over four hundred people (who ceased other agricultural activities for two months of every year – probably after the seasonal sowing of crops etc.). Such a workforce, however, could only have existed if they formed part of a much larger, secure and organised society. Like many other preceding and subsequent societies, the society that built Brú na Bóinne is now long gone, of course, but the physical remains of their achievements and aspirations still impress us today.
If we look at contemporary Irish society, the only true advantage we have over our ancestors is that we’re more technologically advanced. Unfortunately, technology is not an effective measure of societal health (science and technology doesn’t make our human behaviour any better, it simply amplifies the impact of our behaviour – good or bad). The true problem for societies is that, at heart, humanity doesn’t really change. Many people within our modern-day populations are just as arrogant, just as misinformed, just as selfish, just as power hungry and just as self-destructive as the people within ancient societies and, unfortunately, it’s people’s behaviour that decides the longevity of a culture.
It’s more than likely that the people who built the passage grave complexes at Brú na Bóinne and Knowth had the same condescending opinion as us for those who’d gone before them, for that certainly seems to be a consistent human failing. Nevertheless, it’s interesting to imagine what people will make or our contemporary edifices when they excavate the ruins in another thousand years or so.
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.
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!
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:
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.
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.
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.
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.
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).
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.
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 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 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 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.
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.
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.
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.
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 firstname.lastname@example.org 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.
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.
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 email@example.com. We’d be happy to help where we can.
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
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.