Monthly Archives: June 2013

Celtic Connections — Irish legend, Bull, and a little inspiration

Here’s the second of my Celtic Connections — John Brady, another of my fabulous critique partners. John writes science fiction and urban fantasy, and lives in the Republic of Ireland.

I’ve been there (it rained).

Irish legend, Bull, and a little inspiration

Stereotypes, eh? You’ve all seen him – the loveable Irish rogue with a twinkle in his eye. He’s charming and witty, has smouldering good looks and appears allergic to razors, yet he can never be relied upon to commit to a relationship, show up at his nephew’s baptism or change a toxic, smelly infant. I blame Sean Connery’s Darby O’Gill turn and, latterly, Colin Farrell.

Even Irish mythology has suffered from this process, often reduced to stage leprachauns – notoriously cantankerous, selfish characters who didn’t even offer their crocks of gold to bail out banks or continental oligarchs. Ocasionally you’ll find a fairy or banshee, but even these are recent additions.

Irish mythology goes back further, recorded legends dating to about the time of Christ. Tales of death, love, jealousy, death, magic, betrayal and more death abound, all served with local flavours which can alter the stories, the settings, or even the species of the protagonists.

Queen Maeve’s burial cairn on Knocknarea mountain, Strandhill, Sligo

The Tain Bó Cuailnge, for instance, is the Bhagavad Gita of Irish mythology. This epic pulls togetherdifferent stories to make a whole and comes in many versions – as myths tend to do – but all have a common core: the heroic defence of Ulster by a seventeen-year-old Cuchulainn; the invading hordes of Connacht, led by the avaricious Queen Maeve; and death. Lots and lots of death, from the warrior youths of Ulster, to Cuchalainn, to the himself, the brown bull Maeve launched an invasion to claim so she would have a bull to rival her husband’s.

Cuchalainn has an almost unique place in modern history – along with country music, he is loved by both traditions in Northern Ireland. He adorns murals in Nationalist and Unionist areas because of the archetypal heroism he embodies: a hero who defeated numerically superior foes, who reluctantly fought and killed his best friend, and who finally fell on the field of battle, only beaten by nasty magical weapons.

The Book of Leinster

It’s the sort of story which could inspire anyone, just like the legends of Fionn MacCumhaill (or Finn McCool if extraneous consonants aren’t your thing) and his descendants. The leader of the Fianna, a band of warriors, he fought fire-breathing fairies and warrior rivals. His grandson, Oisín, was one of the few mortals to visit Tír na nÓg, the land of the young, and returned three hundred years later (it didn’t end well). These are some of the legends found in ancient manuscripts such as the twelfth century Book of Leinster.

But mythology doesn’t need to be epic. It can be local and intimate too, passed down through generations in the oral tradition. I grew up near the “Split Rock,” a ten foot high ball of gneiss rock, bisected by a cleft wide enough to walk through. Was this the product of retreating glaciers and millennia of weathering? No – it was the result of an angry giant’s wrath, annoyed after he lost a rock throwing contest with the ubiquitous Fionn MacCumhaill. Fionn’s rock – unsplit – lies a couple of miles away on a rocky shore, which is proof that inspiration can be found anywhere.

Walk through it three times and it will trap you, the legend says

Just like my ancestors, you can grow your own legends from an isolated farmhouse, a shadowed grove, a pedestrian who catches your eye, or even a simple rock – look at it with an open mind, and ask:




And the possibilities will flow.

Death! (YA thoughts)

Generally, my favourite books are those where the characters have hope. I detest tragedies; I hated Cover of Thirteen Reasons Whyeverything I read by Thomas Hardy (if only they’d stop forcing people to read The Mayor of Casterbridge at school — actually, they may have done. Macbeth, too).  I don’t like books where important characters are killed (so, yes, I struggle with “grimdark” or whatever the term is for books where people are being murdered all over the place). I need to feel there’s a chance of things ending well.

I know that makes me a wuss but I have just about come to terms with it and I tend to stick to stories where I’m reasonably sure I’m not going to be deeply traumatised by the characters’ fates.

Beware! The rest of this post contains spoilers for Thirteen Reasons Why, Before I Fall and Codename Verity. Not very serious spoilers since I’m talking about the beginning of the books, or even about stuff that’s printed in the blurb, but still, I’ve split the post into two pages so no one accidentally trips over information they don’t want.

Celtic Connections — Invoking Ulster

Something I’ve noticed among my writing friends (and especially the members of my writing group) is how we’ve all been drawing on where we’re from and using it to enrich our stories. So, though no character I’ve written has worn a tammy (an awful tartan hat, for those of you mercifully unaware of them) or said anything remotely resembling “Hoots, mon!” (partly because no one I have met has), there’s a Scottishness that seeps into most of the things I write.

But enough about Scottishness and me (for now), I’d like to introduce my first ever guest post ! It’s by my lovely writing friend and critique partner, Jo Zebedee (this is her fabulous website).  Jo was born and brought up in Ulster, a land with many cultural similarities to Scotland — especiallly the lowlands — and as many radical differences (including the accent!).

Take it away, Jo:

Ulster’s myths are bloody ones. Cu Chulainn, the Hound of Ulster, took the place of a guard dog and defended Ulster at the age of seventeen. He was known to have battle frenzies, and was one of the key legends of the Red Branch Cycle, one of four key Irish folklore cycles. Finn McCool fought the Scottish giant and won using guile and might. Even our flag shows the red hand, from a legend that tells of a race for the land. The losing combatant cut his hand off and threw it onto the land to claim it for himself. The Ulster I know – the North coast facing Scotland, and Belfast – has a harsh accent to go with the legacy of divisions that run as deep as the land its people share.

Belfast Lough

When I had the idea of a novel about Earth resisting an alien invasion, I decided to set it in my Ulster. This was no political undertaking, but instead a wish to show something of the people I knew. The people who, despite all the violence of my youth, maintained a sense of humour – black though it undoubtedly is – and have an ability to carry on with life when all around hell has broken loose. I wanted to capture an analogy of Ulster maintaining itself in adversity through the determination to survive and resist the alien invasion. But I also wanted, in a quiet way, to pay homage to some of those who moved our understanding past the hatred of my seventies birth, into the hope of my generation who voted for peace, and onto the next generation, who, please God, will have the capacity to carry that peace on.

The Troubles aren’t mythology. They’re not celebrating our earliest folklore. When  Michael Longley, in the Ice-cream Man recalls:

Rum and raisin, vanilla, butterscotch, walnut, peach:

You would rhyme off the flavours. That was before

They murdered the ice-cream man on the Lisburn Road [1]

he confirms the Troubles as our legacy, to be remembered.

I was born at the height of the Troubles, not at the local hospital, some fifteen miles from Belfast, as planned, but in Belfast’s Royal Victoria Hospital, right in centre of west Belfast. At this time, ambulances had been hijacked, and my mum spent time planning what to do with me if it happened to her. Whilst my childhood was spent sheltered from the main trouble spots, the Troubles were everywhere – in the news, in evacuating shops during bomb scares, in knowing, albeit at a distance, the denting sound of a bomb as it takes the air around it – and defined a part of me. None of this is mythology, yet, but in generations’ time it might be.

I want to take some of the imagery that touched on my understanding of my childhood Ulster and pay homage to it. In Joan Lingard’s series of iconic young adult books, the Belfast of the Troubles is described thusly:

Sadie and Kevin sat on the top of Cave Hill with the city spread out below them. They looked down at the great sprawl of factories, offices and houses that were gradually eating further and further into the green countryside beyond. Into the midst of the town came Belfast Lough. It was blue this evening, under a blue, nearly cloudless sky, speckled with ships and spiked by the shipyard gantries. [2]

In science fiction we strive to ask questions, to impel ourselves and our world forwards and not back. It seemed an interesting medium to use inspiration from a history that is far from myth, that is too raw to be anything other than our present to overcome, and reach into the future beyond it. I hope to show the land and people of Ulster in a way that both celebrated their strength, passion and drive, but also sought to ring the changes. I hope to do so in a way accessible to those who don’t know the province, because our people and land shouldn’t be insular, but far-reaching and generous. I look forward to seeing where that takes me.

[1] Longley, Michael, Gorse Fires.

[2] Lingard, Joan, Across the Barricades