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.
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 Bó 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.
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.
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.