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Irish Imbas: Celtic Mythology Collection 2017

 

The Celtic Mythology Collection 2017

 

IrishImbas Books

 

Copyright © 2017 by Brian O’Sullivan

All rights reserved. No part of this book may be used or reproduced electronically or in print without written permission, except in the case of brief quotation.

Copyright of the individual stories or work in this book remains with the authors.

This is a work of fiction. Names, characters and incidents are products of the author’s imagination or are used fictitiously and are not to be construed as real. Any resemblance to actual events, organizations or persons, living of dead, is entirely coincidental.

ISBN: 978-0-9941468-4-7

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ACKNOWLEDGEMENTS

Special thanks to Marie Elder, Finbarr Murray and Kieran Nolan.

Cover design (The Salmon Knowledge) by Brian Mahy

Table of Contents

Celtic Mythology

In the Hour of Greatest Need

Mythological Context: Macha and Emain Macha

The Black Hen

Mythological Context: Changelings

The Good Man

Mythological Context: An Dagda

The Drunken Joe Malshy

Mythological Context: Crows

Revival

Mythological Context: Wolves, Fenian Warriors and Land Goddesses

Seasick

Mythological Context: The Selkie

The Authors

The Celtic Mythology Short-Story Competition

Other Books from Irish Imbas Books

[] Celtic Mythology:

What we refer to as ‘mythology’ today was actually a framework of ideas and beliefs used by our ancestors to understand the world around them. In the absence of modern-day science and technology, these people used an approach based predominantly on observation and deduction over an extended period to make sense of the things they saw in their lives and environment but could not explain. Instead of developing theories or hypotheses to articulate those explanations as we would today, they developed narratives or stories that used those observations and deductions and presented it in a way that people could understand. This is why so much mythology is connected to the larger questions of creation such as ‘Where did we come from?’ ‘Where did the moon and stars come from?’ or explanations for uncommon natural phenomena such as giant waves, earthquakes, rainbows, mists and so on. These stories, and others that helped to guide how people should treat each other, formed the basis of the Celts’ cultural belief system.

Since the erosion of what are generally referred to as the Celtic nations, those cultural beliefs have often been seen as something to be looked down on and many of the important cultural narratives have been classified as fantasies or relegated to the status of children’s tales. As a result, despite the affection that people of Celtic heritage feel for such stories, very few actually understand them today. That lack of knowledge – the result of a great disconnect from one’s cultural heritage – means that, in contemporary times, we’ve come to believe in skin-deep, almost cartoon-like caricatures of our own cultural origins.

Given the amount of time that’s passed, it’s hard to fully comprehend how much has been lost, even if it’s easy to understand how it has been lost. Over the course of history, the Celtic nations were invaded and colonised by Roman, Anglo Saxon, Norman and English nations etc.). The impacts of war and domination by a foreign culture caused huge destruction of Celtic society and completely eroded the social mechanisms normally used to transfer cultural knowledge from one generation to the next. Thus the druids, the poets, the Gaelic-based educational system and the Celtic languages have fallen from favour. The scorn for Celtic culture displayed by administrative and governance systems established by the colonising cultures, combined with the increasing influence of the Christian church – an entity with a strong interest in suppressing native (and competing) belief systems – meant that the Celtic belief systems never stood a chance.

Over time, the people of the Celtic countries began to lose their stories and their language and consequently, their connection to their own history and culture. By the late 18th century, a significant proportion of cultural knowledge had already been lost. Other elements, meanwhile, were being misinterpreted and romanticised by amateur “folklorists”, generally privileged writers descended from the ruling classes who had limited interaction with the native populations whose culture they were mining. No-one seemed to notice the irony that exclusion from the established educational system meant few of the native population had the skills or opportunity to conserve their own cultural knowledge by transferring it into written form.

Fortunately, some scraps of the ancient Celtic belief systems managed to survive through the work of passionate historians and scholars who recorded and saved what knowledge they could, often at great risk to their own lives. A certain, limited, transfer of cultural narratives also continued through the ragged remnants of the last remaining poets and bards before they too died out. As a result of the efforts of these early scholars and the dedicated analysis of the information they managed to save, talented academics have managed to piece together much of that ancient knowledge over the last hundred and fifty years or so. Unfortunately, little of that work has seeped beyond the realms of academia and back out to a wider audience. In the age of the internet, where anyone can publish unsubstantiated opinions and articles that receive no peer review, cultural misinterpretation and misinformation on Celtic cultures continues to flourish.

This collection of stories by contemporary authors is our attempt to haul Celtic stories and beliefs back out of the shadows. Love stories, dramas or mysteries, these fascinating tales and their associated contextual explanations mark what we would like to believe is a new wave of more authentic Celtic writing. It is, we hope, a small but important first step in countering centuries of misinformation and allowing a better understanding of Celtic culture today.

Brian O’Sullivan (Wellington, 2017)

In the Hour of Greatest Need

Will O’Siorain

This was a lonely place during the autumn months. Living high in the mountains of Ulster meant the snows would always come early for Macha and her family. As she stared out at the rising spires of grey mountain rock that surrounded her home, she pulled tight on her woollen cloak in dwindling hope it would shield her from the frosty winds that swept through the valleys. It would be a lonelier place now that her husband Crunniuc mac Agnomain was leaving for a fair in Ulster. Held outside the impressive fort of the Red Branch Hall, Macha knew the fair was an event her husband had been looking forward to since before the summer months. ‘I won’t be gone long my love. Soon my sons will return from their hunt and you will have company and hot meat to eat.’ A comforting hand rested on her shoulder.

Macha turned to her beloved partner and looked into his tired old eyes. This stark land aged him greatly. She could see it in his skin and in his eyes, even in the way he walked for he was now slow and crooked. Soon he would need a staff, if his pride allowed it. She touched his face gently with her cold hand only to find his skin far colder. It was a face that carried more years than her own. Macha still looked as youthful as his own sons while Crunniuc aged every day. Macha’s ancient blood kept her young but at a price.

‘How is my child today?’ he asked her as he gently ran his hand over the bump in her stomach. ‘You have swollen well. It won’t be much longer until another member of the family is here to keep us company.’

Macha smiled at her husband. He was such a kind man. A fool at times but kind and loving. That was all that was important to her. Macha just wished she knew how much longer he had in this life for this was a question that haunted Macha every minute of her life. Once Crunniuc was gone, she’d be alone to look after all his sons and his new born child. She prayed to her ancestors to keep him alive to see this one grow old but the ancestors had been quiet of late. Their whispers barely reached her ears so high up in these frozen mountains.

You must go there. To the landlord Crunniuc mac Agnomain. Run his household, look after his children and soon one day your destiny will be the start of a string of events which shall give rise to Ireland’s greatest son.

Those words still echoed within the back of her mind. Macha’s hands cupped the child still inside her and she could feel the beating of life. ‘Go Crunniuc and enjoy the market and the fair.’ She looked her husband up and down to see he had chosen his finest clothes for his trip. The sight of him smiling proudly at her set off a sudden spark in her memory. Crunniuc turned away from her to begin his journey but she called after him in haste. ‘Crunniuc!’

He turned to her still smiling.

‘It would be in your best interest not to become boastful or careless in anything you say whilst at this fair. It is well known that the pride of Irish men is a great and powerful thing but it is also their greatest weakness. Please my love, be careful.’

The proud man however only nodded to her and said. ‘That isn’t likely.’

The week had been a lonesome one but that was a part of Macha’s life she had steadily become accustomed to. Yet she still longed for a companion. Just someone to talk to. Macha’s sons were not her own for there was a woman in Crunniuc’s life before her. Her cairn still stood outside their home. For her family it acted as a mark of remembrance, a place to go and grieve for a mother so dearly loved. For Macha however, it only acted as a sign. A sign of what was to come for her beloved husband and his sons. Macha would live for much longer than the others who lived in this household, that was her blessing and her curse. ‘You will be all I will have left when they are gone.’ Macha said, looking down at her stomach.

The cold had become unbearable for the pregnant woman and so she decided to clean out the heating pool. First Macha started up a blazing fire and left a number of stones within it and around it before she went to clean out the pool. At first it only made her feel worse to dip into the cold waters of the timber lined trough but in the end it would be worth it. Carefully she leaned over her hump and with bare hands she scooped up the used and cracked stones from the pool’s last use. The blazing fire’s crackling and the sound of the water as she moved through the trough were all that could be heard as the night slowly swallowed the world. When finally the pool had been cleared out of old stones she then needed to refresh the water. At the end of the pool was a sod of moss and grass which blocked a small slipway allowing the water to escape the pool. Thankfully the trough was built around a natural mountain spring so once the water started to flow out of the pool it would also slowly fill up again. This ensured the water level was always the same but the water could be recycled. Once the water was crystal clear and clean, she placed the sod back over the threshold and the water stopped flowing.

By the time Macha had moved all the heated stones from the fire into the pool, the small of her back was aching with the evening’s work. Steam rose from the water’s surface and she could feel the heat tickle and kiss her face. Already she could tell she would enjoy this. Macha stripped the clothes from her body and for a brief moment allowed the hands of winter to slip over her skin and claw at her back. She shivered. ‘By the Ancients, that is cold,’ she whispered as she slowly dipped her numb body into the hot pool.

It was a feeling of pleasure Macha would struggle to describe even with her profound gift of poetry and storytelling. It stole her. No longer was she high in the cold isolated homestead of her husband but further south, maybe near Tara or further south still where the weather was more pleasant. Even the life force growing inside her seemed to kick and dance at the feeling of warmth. Macha let her body slip deeper into the water so that it came right up to her chin. Her bright fair hair turned to a dark caramel as it spread out in the pool like the branches of a tree. She took in a deep breath and inhaled the steam up her nostrils and cleared her head. For a moment in this bliss she stopped worrying and let the pains of the future melt away. Even the anger and rage that resonated deep within her seemed far away now and she breathed slowly and rested.

When Macha opened her eyes there was a blanket of darkness hanging above her. Millions upon millions of stars blinked at her from far above. They lit up the dark world and cast a light that no fire could ever recreate. It was a cold light, a distant light but a soothing one. ‘Finally you are awake,’ said a voice from the darkness.

Macha turned fast to the shadows which lingered in a nearby forest. Smoke drifted into the night from her dying fire as the last embers flickered like the stars above. Dying slowly. ‘Who is there?’ Macha called out. She would not show fear. There was no man on the island of Ireland that could harm her and yet her hands trembled. ‘Step into the light.’

A man came to stand in the dying light of her fire. A tall man dressed in a red cloak with golden embroidery. A Man of Ulster. ‘You are Macha, the wife of Crunniuc mac Agnomain?’

Suddenly her worries returned, her fool of a husband must have landed himself in trouble. ‘I am!’ she said.

‘You have been summoned by an Rí Uladh. You must come with me now.’ The man turned his side only slightly and placed his hand on his hip, pushing back his cloak and revealing the short sword at his belt. Macha let her lip curl into a snarl. He was threatening her. If an Rí Uladh, the King of Ulster, was summoning her then it meant only trouble.

‘It would be a heavy burden for me to go. I am full with child.’

The messenger looked down to her stomach hidden by the water. ‘It will be a greater burden for your child if you do not come. Your husband has been taken by an Rí and only your presence will free him.’

This news was like a shot to the chest and Macha’s breathing started to quicken. She was told to protect them. To guard Crunniuc, his house and his sons. She sighed and then nodded to the messenger.

‘I will allow you to dress in private,’ he said and his cloak once again covered the pommel of his sword.

‘There is no need!’ Macha snapped and she stood from the pool. Steam rose from her pale skin as the cold air tried to wrap its fingers around her. Water dripped from her blonde hair and ran off her breasts and trickled from her fingers. ‘I do not fear the eyes of men.’

The messenger was clearly startled by this and they looked at each other for a time before he nodded.

The sun breathed new life into the morning that Macha was delivered to the feet of the King of Ulster and yet she longed for the cold light of the stars and her bathing pool. The king sat at his seat in the Great Hall of his enclosed fort and Macha only had to look above her to see the red branch that so famously held up the hall. Her husband Crunniuc was tied at the wrists and ankles with a thick rope and held up by two of the Ulster King’s men. Macha looked at him and he returned her gaze. He was sad and he had aged even more since she last saw him. It made her angry. ‘What is the meaning of this, Rí Uladh?’ Macha demanded. The King of Ulster was a big man. He had a long brown beard tied up in places by silver cuffs and his belly was full with rich wine and meats. That however was not what stood out the most to Macha. Instead what she saw was the weakness of Ireland, an arrogant man, who looked down on women. A man who saw himself above men and even kings. It was in his eyes. A man’s soul can always be seen if you look closely at his eyes. ‘Your husband claims that you are the greatest woman to ever step foot in Ulster. He claims that there is nothing you can not accomplish.’

Macha let a small smile slip. It was true, Crunniuc was a fool and he was proud but the truth was that he was a fool for her and proud of her. She looked to her husband and he only smiled as if even after all this he still believed what he originally said.

‘He even claims that you are faster than my own chariot and my strongest, fastest horses.’ The King of Ulster laughed and so did his court. ‘I will see the truth in this! You will race me and my chariot.’

There was a wicked grin on the King’s face and Macha felt a lump grow in her throat. ‘And if I don’t?’

The King pointed to Crunniuc. ‘I will kill him. I will kill all his sons. I will seize all of his lands and I will take you!’

Macha felt the anger burning inside her. ‘I will race your chariots but not until my child has been born and I am free of his weight.’ Even as she said these words she knew this horrid man would not provide her with that single mercy.

The king laughed again and shook his head. ‘Listen girl! You will race here and now. You either race with the weight of your child or I will pluck him from your womb and you will race with his blood on you but free of his weight. Your choice.’

Even with her anger burning Macha still felt like crying. She felt like curling up in a ball and never speaking to another human again. Too many of them were cruel. Crunniuc however was not cruel. Nor were his sons and she had to protect them. Macha looked up at the king in his seat and snarled as a wolf would at a chicken safe behind a fence. A darkness suddenly filled the room as if the flames from the torches and the burning hearth lost a little bit of life. ‘I will run this race and I will win it and when I do your own fort shall be named after me and my unborn child!’ The King of Ulster stood from his throne. ‘I doubt that!’

A massive crowd had gathered outside of the timber fort and enclosure. Macha was pushed to the starting line and found that the king’s chariot and horses had already been called for. The track was long, so long that Macha could not see the finishing line. People gathered along the barriers of the race track and screamed and cheered. Some even threw rotten fruit at her. Already Macha hated them. She turned to the four horses of the King of Ulster. They were powerful beasts. Not the size of regular horses like the ones that worked Crunniuc’s fields but far greater. Their hooves were thick monstrous lumps of metal and bone and their legs were as hard as the finest iron with rippled muscle. She could feel the muscles in her legs turn to water when she stared up at them for they had to stand at least twice her height. She looked over her shoulder to see the king being helped into his chariot. He was a great big lump of a man and Macha was glad for her weight and child once she saw the girth of his belt. Once he was seated in his chariot and the reigns were gripped by his fat fingers he glared down at her. ‘You can still back out,’ he said, licking his lips. ‘Forfeiting won’t cost you … much.’

Macha only shook her head. ‘You are making a mistake Rí Uladh. I only hope you live to see it.’

As Macha readied herself for the race she could feel her whole body trembling. She bent down slowly onto one knee and could feel her child kick. As she placed her hands on the cold soft grass she could feel that spasm inside her. For a second she hoped it would simply pass like they always did but to her dismay it was at this moment that the pangs gripped her. Her waters leaked down the insides of her legs and her eyes widened in sudden realisation. A convulsion of spasms pulled at her insides and she groaned, falling to both knees. It was happening now. She was about to give birth. A man walked out in front of her and raised his hands into the air. ‘Please,’ she cried, with her hand outstretched. ‘Help me!’ But the man ignored her and he called for their marks.

‘On my call!’ he said.

Macha looked all around her but nobody seemed to care that she was in agony. ‘Please help me!’ she whispered, and hoped with all of her heart that they would come to her aid. Her ancestors. The Tuatha dé Danann: the first occupants of the Island of Ireland before men arrived with their boats and their stone weapons. Suddenly a voice came to her. A gentle whisper in her ear.

Macha. Stand and give fight. If you call this the hour of your greatest need then we shall rise with you.

‘I do,’ Macha cried. ‘This is the hour of my greatest need!’

Then stand.

Macha stood and suddenly all of her pangs melted away. The pain vanished from her body. The weight of her child became a strength. She felt lighter than she had ever felt before. The muscles in her body bulged and grew. Now she could see the finishing line, it wasn’t far away. Macha looked up to her opponent. He sat staring ahead. His hair blew furiously in the wind, raging against him, just as her blonde locks pulled her forward. The wind blew wildly with her. Under her feet the ground became spongy and soft, easy on her bare soles, whereas she could see the surface before the chariot turned to slush and mud. Yet none noticed but her. High above in the sky a massive black rain cloud began to gather, swept in from nowhere.

‘Go!’

Macha burst from the line with fury and pressed forward with rage in her heart. She could hear the gasps of the crowd as she sped in front of the horses. Her legs moved with unnatural energy and her arms worked hard alongside her. Her knees came up high and her strides were twice the strides of the average man. She listened to the grunting of the horses behind her as they panted with the sudden need for acceleration. Macha did not breathe. She didn’t feel the need to. She only ran. Off to her side, the spectators whizzed past in a blur of colour and the King growled from behind, bellowing at his horses as she pulled out in front. Suddenly rain started to pour down from the sky. It lashed on the King of Ulster and on the Men of Ulster but not a single drop of it landed on Macha. She was free of the rain’s weight and burden. Half way through the race and not even a bead of sweat had dropped from her brow and she did not feel any coming either. She was not tired. She was not gasping for breath but rather she was getting stronger. Macha felt as if she could run and never stop running. She didn’t want to stop. She wanted to run and run until she had made it all the way to Tir ná Og. On either side of her she could see the faces of white ghostly children. They ran with her. Protecting her. These were the ancients, the Tuatha de Danann. One of them turned to face her and she smiled at Macha.

Nearly there now. Keep going.

Macha’s heart soared as she ran. Soon it would all be over and she would free her husband and together they could leave to raise their new child. That was what she thought of. That image of love, warmth and family was what kept Macha going. The finishing line loomed up ahead. Macha didn’t even bother to look over her shoulder to see if she had beaten the king or not. She simply stretched out her body with everything she had and passed over the finishing line … as the victor.

Macha crashed to the ground the second she crossed over the threshold and all her strength vanished as quickly as it had come and all of her pain engulfed her. The rain lashed down and drenched her in its icy beads. Macha gripped her stomach as she rolled onto her back and screamed. The pangs tore savagely at her and scraped at her insides. ‘Please stop,’ she cried. Faces started to hover over her. Faces of the Men of Ulster. The spectators. ‘Help me!’ Macha gasped as she looked up at the shocked faces. ‘A mother bore each of you!’ She pleaded, tears streaming from her red, sore eyes. ‘Help me. Help my child!’ The Men of Ulster made way for the king as he came to her side and gazed down at her as she struggled with her birthing on the cold, wet grass of Ulster. They looked into each other’s eyes and she begged for him to show her mercy. The King smiled. That cruel wicked smile that seemed to be plastered to his face more often than not and he turned away from her. Macha watched as one by one the Men of Ulster turned away from her also. Anger overtook the pain in her body. It was so great and she spoke these words in the hour of her greatest need.

All of you, Men of Ulster, shall suffer from the same pain you have left me to die with. For five days and four nights all Men of Ulster shall be ruined with these birthing pangs but only in the hour of Ulster’s greatest need. The same fate you have left for me!

Macha screamed again as the last pangs ravaged her body and she gave birth to twins: a boy and a girl.

Macha wept as she took both children into her arms although she was so weak now that she could barely hold them. So much strength had abandoned her that she could barely hold her head up to look at her new born babies. From out of the shadows of the great enclosure a boy gingerly made his way to her. Macha looked up at him and tried to hand him the children. The boy took both of them into his arms and looked down at their dying mother. Macha could barely speak now as the world started to turn dark around her.

‘Who are you?’ the boy asked. ‘What is your name?’

Macha closed her eyes. Two tears slipped from under her eye lids and ran down her rosy cheeks. ‘I am Macha, daughter of Sainrith mac Imbaith and they are my twins.’

The new mother gazed into the boy’s eyes and she did not feel embarrassed for crying as she could see the sympathy in his innocent eyes. Macha’s head rolled onto her shoulder and her body slumped as death took her.

From that day on the massive fort and enclosure in Ulster was known as Emain Macha: Macha’s Twins. The remains of that ancient fort still stand even to this day, in Ulster, the northern province of Ireland.

[] Mythological Context: Macha and Emain Macha

In the Ulster Cycle, the character Macha is portrayed as an Otherworld woman whose experiences lead to the naming of the Ulaidh’s (a tribal confederation based in modern day Northern Ireland) sacred site of ritual significance: Eamhain Mhaca. Nowadays, the naming of that site (located about two miles west of modern-day Armagh) – is actually believed to be derived from the old word ‘macha’ which meant a ‘designated section of ground’.

Originally the flattened tumulus at the site was known as Eamhain – a word that had generically come to mean a sacred tumulus – and the flat land surrounding the tumulus was called Macha. When referring to that specific tumulus, the people would have called it Eamhain Macha and the leader of the Ulaidh (Rí Uladh) was occasionally referred to as the Rí of Macha (“Rí” is a chief/leader).

With the passage of time however, the original derivation of the name became lost and a number of stories were developed to try and explain where it had come from, some of these involving a mythical female personage called Macha. In one of the earliest versions of the story, Macha is actually called the Mór-Ríoghain (the Morrigan) and it’s very clear that the character was very much based on that land goddess and the name ‘Macha’ applied at a later date. In that particular narrative, she arrives at the house of the widowed Crunnchu and settles with him, eventually marrying him and bringing him much luck and bounty in the process. Then, of course, the events in the story take place. Crunnchu is careless with his boasts and in a rare negative portrayal of Conchobhar mac Neasa – the Rí Uladh – Macha is forced to race his chariot horses while heavily pregnant.

The twins (Emon) that Macha gives birth to after the race appear to be a kind of creative ‘add-on’ by later writers as part of their attempts to explain the name of the site, reinterpreting it as Emon Macha – the Twins of Macha – instead of Eamhain Mhacha.

The curse that Macha places on the men of Ulster before she dies (that in their time of greatest need they’d have to suffer the same pains she’d endured) was a severe form of sympathetic birth pangs called ces noidhen – difficulty of child bearing. Over time, this changed to ces noindhen which was interpreted as meaning that the disability lasted for nine days. This curse plays a vital dramatic element in the famous narrative An Táin Bó Cúailnge (The Cattle Raid of Cooley’) where an army from Connacht invade the northern territories, aware that the men of Ulster will be unable to defend their territory for a period of nine days.

Brian O’Sullivan

[] The Black Hen

Diana Powell

We were living, then, in an old railway-carriage, cut off forever by the random stroke of Dr. Beeching’s pen. The track ran on top of an embankment, along the edge of the village, separated from it by the main road out. Over time, the earth had worked hard to cover the wound gouged out by man. Knee-high knotgrass and bindweed had twisted through the rails, fingers of lichen crawled over the carriage, camouflaging it like the bark of a plane tree, or the uniforms of soldiers roaming the neighbouring hills. Saplings planted when the line was new had thickened to jungle. I sometimes wondered if anyone knew we were there, apart from the farmer. He was the one who’d told me about Dr. Beeching, on the spring day he helped us move in. He was the one who’d said we could stay, rent-free, it being no good for nothing else.

Later, I asked myself if we should be living there, if it was even his to give. Did he really own the land or would a Fat Controller from the railways appear one day to drive us away, shaking his chubby fist and waving his bowler hat?

But then, when I thought about it too much, I wondered if we should be living anywhere at all …

 

My mother chose this place because of the people. She said they saw your heart and not just your new clothes. She told me there was a town, just down the road, with a king of its own, who ruled over a million books. An old lady wrapped in purple feathers walked down the High Street pulling a spotted pig on a lead. And, it was said, a woman lived there who’d shape-shifted from a man, and nobody minded her a bit. I didn’t know if any of these stories were true, but I knew that the people in the Mace were always polite when we collected the child-benefit or a few groceries. They always smiled, and talked about the weather, and it never seemed to bother them that my mother’s hand shook as she signed the page or that she sometimes forgot why we’d gone in there in the first place. Sometimes, she held up the queue while she struggled with her mind and her tears, until I led her, crying, away.

Outside, the Old Women in the Square looked us up and down, and lifted their hands to their mouths. And, at school, the others laughed at my patchwork clothes and odd shoes, and called me ‘gypo’, ‘Raggedy-Ann’ or ‘loon-child’. But that was the same as Old Women and school-children every place we’d stayed. It’s something they do. It’s nothing to do with where you are.

Yet, for me, it was where we were, the land itself, that made me uneasy, that made me less certain. Our latest home was at the edge of an ancient landscape with myths imprinted on the earth and stories whispered in the air above. Hills rose out of the village, behind the embankment. When I looked through the frame of the carriage windows, the sky was almost entirely coloured in by their dark slopes. They were called the Black Mountains, and there were gloom-laden tales about them … tales of giants and their wives, who used the bluffs as chairs to rest in, awaiting unsuspecting humans to waylay and kill. Wraiths were said to mingle with the wind on the peaks, and freeze unwary travellers with their icy breath. Even worse were the evil fairies hiding amongst the heather, gorse and secret caves, skulking down at night to steal the boy-children and taking them away forever, never to be seen again. These were lost-boy and changeling tales I didn’t want to hear, that my mother must never hear.

And it wasn’t only the mountains that scritched and niggled against my ease. The stream that passed in front of the railway ran on into the biggest lake in the land. The Magic Water, some called it, believing that a fairy-realm lay beneath its waves. But others told a different tale, how, long ago, the water had swallowed a whole town, and on an empty night, if you listened hard enough, you could still hear the clanging of bells and the cries of the drowned in the depths beneath. Those waters had the power of changing colour. Sometimes, they were grey, sometimes green: sometimes even red: and it was our stream, so small and innocent, that fed the lake the iron-blood that gave its gory shade.

All these colours around us, colours in the wrong places, black, red, green, where they didn’t belong, like the patches my mother put together in my dresses. All these stories, mingling and clashing, confusing and disturbing. What might they do to a mind already confused and disturbed?

Still, my mother knew nothing of these things, and for a time at least she was happy enough. By then, I’d come to realise that ‘happy enough’ was the best it could ever be, whichever place we lived in. She scrubbed out the carriage and painted every surface a harlequin medley, made up from sample paint pots from the Mace’s cut-price, discontinued paint line. She made curtains and covers out of her patches, spilling pell-mell from wicker baskets stacked beneath the windows. There were days, bright outside, when I could twirl around in the middle of the floor, and pretend I was lost on the inside of a giant kaleidoscope. And I’d spin and spin, until I grew giddy and fell. I’d hear a strange gurgle in my throat, and feel a crinkle round my eyes, and realise I was laughing – something I’d almost forgotten how to do, something I had thought I’d never do again.

The farmer gave us a goat and we tethered her on the strip of grass between the embankment and the stream. Mrs. Evans gave us some chickens – fancy varieties she bred as a hobby. These were creatures I had little experience of and I was entranced by their exotic names – Blue Silkies; Salmon Faverolles; Buff Orpingtons. The Partridge Cochin. Names which reflected their rainbow plumage and brought even more incongruous colour into our lives. I was surprised, too, by their friendliness, as if they’d no idea of our intention to steal their future generations, and, worse, kill and cook them… perhaps. There was one in particular, a plain black hen who didn’t know she was so much less beautiful than the others, with their myriad colours. She took to following me around, even up the steps and into the carriage. She was my favourite. I think it was the plainness of her dress I liked her for. She became the closest to a pet I’d ever had. I called her Lucie, the first animal I’d ever dared to name.

Later that spring, we planted some vegetables and flowers on our little strip of land, cleared for us by the Evans’ boys sent over by their Dad. I still had vague worries about my mother discovering the stories, and fat controllers reclaiming the carriage but I began to think perhaps, this time, I could look into a future here.

One early summer’s evening, I climbed back into the carriage, Lucie still clucking behind me, and found my mother sitting adrift in a sea of patchwork pieces: chintzes, stripes and polka-dots. Her arms lapped frantically through checks, plains and florals, as though she was trying to surface from their depths. For a moment, I dared hope she’d simply lost a particular pattern and, frustrated by her search, had over-reacted, as she sometimes did.

But she turned, and looked at me strangely, as though she didn’t recognise me – worse, as though she didn’t like the person she saw.

‘I should have had him baptized,’ she said.

And I guessed at once she’d heard the stories, whispered perhaps by the Old Women gathered in their coven outside the Mace. Or shouted by the Taffy Man then touring the towns with Danter’s Fairground Shows. Standing in the corner of the car-parks, in his festooned booth, blaring out the legends of the land from long ago to anyone who’d listen, and pay their fifty pence. Telling of the mountains and the lakes and the rivers. Of the fairies and the wraiths and the giants. Telling most of all, perhaps, of the stolen babies, the lost boys, the missing sons, those taken away from their mothers because they hadn’t been given names.

‘They’re just fairy-tales,’ I told her. ‘Folklore, witch’s gossip, nonsense from another time when people didn’t know any better and had nothing else to do.’

‘Besides … What happened, how things are with us … That’s different. There aren’t any fairies – you know that – and there’s no changeling-child here. Is there?’

She frowned at me in that odd way again. A way that frightened me.

I started to back out of the carriage, picking Lucie up and holding her close.

‘I was never baptized, either,’ I called back to her.

‘No. But they don’t take girls. And you’re a girl. Aren’t you?’

And then I knew I’d have to watch her closely lest she become lost in the story’s tangled web. It had happened before, in different places, at different times, with different tales. I didn’t want it to happen again. I’d begun to feel more than ‘happy enough’ in this place.

For a while, all was well, as though, for once, the past had let her go. School finished for the summer. The sun shone, stippling the mountains with pink, lavender and gold, so that they weren’t Black at all. The hedgerows filled with ragged-robin and ox-eyes, menig-mair and dog-rose. Our crops were good, our hens laid well. Once or twice, some children from the village found me out and stayed to play, no longer calling me names. Then, as the season drew to a close, the farmer took in more men to help with the harvest. The missus’ll have a job feeding all those hungry mouths. Bottomless barrels they are he told my mother. And my heart sank.

Sure enough, when I went in for my tea that night, I found her standing at our little stove, surrounded by broken egg shells, yolk dripped everywhere. Still, she’d managed to split one of the eggs successfully and was stirring its contents with her little finger.

‘What are you doing?’ I asked, though the answer was clear to me.

‘Mixing some patties for the reapers.’

I knew what I should say, what she wanted to hear. She wanted the changeling’s answer, the rhyme that pulled the magic cloth away, revealing me for what I really was – or what she, at least, thought me to be. I didn’t want to say it, and yet I couldn’t bring myself to break the spell, fearing what calamity might follow.

Acorn before oak is true,

An egg before a hen,

But n’er shall one egg-shell’s stew

Feed all the harvest men!’

She smiled triumphantly, then looked at me with distaste. I fled from the carriage, grabbing Lucie as I ran, and went hungry that night.

Colour seeped from our existence. The weather changed to autumnal gloom. The mountains, reflecting the dense clouds above at last took on the colour of their name. My mother returned the goat and hens to Mrs. Evans. I sent Lucie with them, thinking it would be safer that way. Our lettuce died in its bed, finished by neglect and rain. The beans grew black on their poles. I donned the maroon uniform of the high school I must now attend, surprised to find I missed my clothes of many colours, consigned with the patches, to black plastic rubbish sacks. And I came in from school one day to find my mother had re-painted the inside of the carriage in the last of the discontinued paints – battleship grey.

My mother watched me, and I watched her. The air grew thick about us as we waited.

This is what you have to do to get a stolen boy back from the Old Tylwyth.’

It’s what any wise man will tell you, a ‘dyn hysbys’, a ‘gwr cyfarwydd’: the Taffy Man in his fairground booth. Or witches gathered outside a corner shop. You can find such arcane rites in any learned book from the library or school – which is where I’d come across them long ago, when my mother had begun to make her spells, the first time she became ill. The ways change with the telling, following the place you’re in – north, south, east, west; this valley or the next. Or in keeping with the time – present, past, no time at all. It’ll also be the nature of the Keeper that decides the who, the what, the when. Yet whenever/wherever/whatever, you’ll find all such lore begins with this:

First, make sure they’ve got him.’

And so, one rare clear night, my mother crept out of the carriage at the witching hour, and made her way to the top of the mountains. This is what I’d been waiting for. I knew where she was going, what she was going to see – knew she’d see just what she wanted, just as she always did.

I followed her up to Pen-y-droed where the four ways met, crouching out of sight in the shadows of the hedgerow. There, I saw shredded shapes dance down the track, caused by the wind ripping clouds across the moon. But my mother heard the plangent strains of fairy music, saw a black goblin troupe approach. And then, from among them, lit up by a sudden moonbeam, my brother, her lost boy, appeared and looked towards her. Hard though it was, my mother stayed hidden

because you must never reveal yourself, no matter what you may see.

When all was quiet again, she went back down the mountain, whilst I crept behind, until I slipped past to return to my cold and lonely bed.

Then once you have made sure that the fairies have got your child, this is what you have to do to get him back.

This is what you have to do…’

For some, the recitation of the changeling’s rhyme is all you need; for others, it’s a cross cut into salt on a white-hot shovel.

But here, in these mountains, out of some strange, twisted fealty to their colour and name, this is what you do –

You take a black hen – it has to be completely black, not even one white feather. Then you kill it, and place it before a log fire, stopping up all the entrances to your dwelling except one. Then, when all the feathers have fallen off the black hen, you look to where the crimbil is.

This is what the Taffy Man told us when he came to our school at the end of the Easter term. This is what my mother heard, when she stood in the car-park, listening to him, having paid her fifty pence, when I thought she’d passed him by and gone to the hoop-la stall instead.

Then, if you do all this, the changeling …

-– the child you don’t want, the child who’s the wrong sex and not as beautiful as he was, the child who’s sullen and shifty and can never take the place of the boy you loved –

… will disappear, and in its place, your son will be returned.

This was the ending of the story, but it didn’t say when it would happen. I watched and waited again, holding my breath, like mist above the lake, and the clouds on the heights gathering the rain. Then, one day, calling at the farm to see Lucie, I was told by Mrs Evans ‘your Mam’s been here to fetch her back’. And I knew the time had come.

I ran down the lane, fearing I’d be too late, yet remembering, too, that I had to be there, I was part of the story.

Inside the carriage, my mother had built a log pyre in the middle of the floor. She’d ripped open the old bin-bags, and used her patches to stop up all the gaps in the windows, and the little pipe we used as a chimney flue. A box of matches lay open and scattered on the table. She was standing, looking down at them, holding Lucie. But… she hadn’t killed her. Instead, she was stroking her feathers, and crooning

‘I’m sorry, I’m sorry.’ Then she turned and smiled, and said the same words to me. For she’d recognised me for what I was. Her daughter, her only child. No crimbil at all.

That’s how I learned spells could be broken, and ‘what happened next’ could be changed. And ‘they lived happy enough ever after’ can be all the ending you need. Maybe.

[] Mythological Context: Changelings

The belief in abduction of humans by otherworld beings appears to have been quite prevalent in ancient Ireland with numerous references to young men and women being enticed away (sometime willingly, sometimes less so) in the remaining literature. For the former, such tales generally involved a situation where a human took an Otherworld lover (such as Niamh taking Oisín to Tír Na nÓg). For the latter, they usually entailed a hero warrior travelling to rescue a romantic love interest or some other dependent. Given the breadth and substance of these tales, it’s also believed they were an extension of the beliefs prevalent throughout the society of the time, such ‘departures’ helping to make sense of unexplained deaths, disappearances and the unexpected deterioration of individuals that would have been so prevalent in those early communities.

With the coming of the written word (and Christianity) the Irish monks, when putting these Otherworld tales to paper (or vellum), initially treated them with respect for they formed fundamental elements of the belief system in the society where those authors were born and raised. As the Christian church grew in strength and influence however, the existence of two parallel belief systems became increasingly hard to maintain, particularly where they came into conflict. That situation was exacerbated by increasing pressure from the more established Church on the Continent. Far less accepting of native spiritual entities living alongside the officially sanctioned ones, the Continental section of the Christian Church would have been very keen to eradicate them.

The attitude to the Otherworld and its inhabitants underwent a lot of change over the following centuries, with increased condemnation and undermining of the native beliefs. One technique utilised by the Church in this regard was the use of biblical references to suggest that Na Sidhe (the Otherworld inhabitants) were actually fallen angels who’d been driven out of Heaven and were hence associated with the Devil. As a result, Na Sidhe were increasingly portrayed in a negative light, often depicted as malevolent and cruel or proactively seeking to injure human beings and replace them so that they could take their place in heaven. References in some 15th century manuscripts suggest that this attitude was firmly entrenched in Church teachings before the end of the Middle Ages.

Although the stories of abduction by Na Sidhe were already associated with unexplained deaths or disappearances, they became increasingly linked with the idea of ‘replacement’ and anyone who behaved unusually or outside the norms was often thought to have been replaced by a ‘changeling’ (a member of Na Sidhe in the individual’s form). Although for the most part people balanced such beliefs with the reality of day-to-day existence, there were occasional cases that resulted in a more grisly outcome. The most famous incident involving a belief in changelings was probably the infamous burning of Bridget Cleary by her husband in 1895. This incident received extensive coverage and had a huge influence in its day although more recent investigations suggest the burning was a murder associated with larger domestic conflict. To this day, individuals who display signs of erratic behaviour outside the norm are often described as being “away with the fairies”.

Given the large child and infant mortality in agricultural communities, it was a logical consequence that changelings would also be associated with the abduction of children and there are many folktales and stories about the creatures replacing young infants and acting in a contrary manner (although some were the ‘bogeyman-type’ tales used to keep children in line). Boys, in particular, were believed to be subject to abduction by Na Sidhe not only because they were seen as a source of better labour for their Otherworld masters but also because of the age old, traditional idea that the male contributed more of his natural essence to the production of offspring, hence providing better ‘replacement’ value to Na Sidhe. In many Celtic countries, this led to the practice of dressing infant boys in female clothing to confound the predatory changelings.

The theme of the ‘replaced infant’ is one found very often throughout medieval literature. Needless to say, the Church also encouraged the belief that those children who were baptised could not be taken by the Otherworld kidnappers.

Brian O’Sullivan

The Good Man

Damien Mckeating

There was a dead body by his back door.

It was not the first time but that didn’t make it any easier to see.

Da looked at the dead man, all crumpled in on himself, beard rimed with frost, body covered in dirty and tattered clothes. His name was, or had been, or still was, Finn. He’d come into the kitchen almost daily and never gone away hungry. Da had liked him.

There was an old coal shed behind the kitchen that Da had converted to a store room for a few tools and pieces. He dragged the body inside and lay it across some boxes so it was off the floor. The shed was secure: safe from rats and prying eyes.

Da stood outside the shed, put his hands on his wide hips and frowned. In truth, he did not know what he was doing. Finn couldn’t stay in the shed, dead or not.

It started to snow and Da went inside before it could turn his wild beard any whiter.

His kitchen was simple but warm and welcoming. He opened every day, fed the homeless, the hungry, the lost and anyone else who came inside. In the middle of the kitchen was a huge pot that Da had owned for longer than he cared to remember. With it he fed all who came to him.

The day passed darkly. The thought of Finn in the shed weighed on Da’s mind. People commented on his thoughtfulness and he made a joke out of it and played to his image of the big, jolly man.

‘Weight of the world on your shoulders,’ said Matthew. He treated Da to one of his smiles. It amounted to little more than a twitch of his face, as if he was afraid people would misinterpret what he meant.

Da patted his big belly. ‘Not the weight of the world that bothers me.’

‘It’s all paid for,’ Matt said.

‘Be a hell of a debt,’ Da patted his gut again. ‘You doing okay?’ Matthew was a young man. From what Da knew of him the lad had been in the army. Now he was on the streets, suffering from all kinds of nervous tics and with three fingers missing on his left hand.

Matthew shrugged, another quick and twitchy motion. ‘Not so bad. Have you seen Finn this morning?’

‘He didn’t come in today,’ Da said, technically telling the truth.

‘Tell him thanks, if you see him,’ he said.

‘What for?’

‘He gave up his space at the shelter last night to let me in. I… Well… Not many as would do that is all.’

‘No,’ Da replied. ‘Not many.’ If he’d stayed later last night he might have seen Finn, might have averted what had happened.

He missed what Matthew said next. Da looked across the kitchen, past the tables, and out onto the street. There were three crows in the road. In a moment free of traffic they had descended and were ripping into something that lay on the tarmac. Da caught a glimpse of bloodied white feathers.

‘I’ll be damned,’ he said in a whisper.

‘What’s that?’ Matthew fumbled with his bowl and spoon.

‘Nothing,’ Da shook his head. ‘Just thinking of a woman I used to know.’

‘Aye, that’s why you look so moody,’ Matthew took his food away to a table.

Da looked for the crows again but the traffic had returned and they’d retreated out of sight. A strong smell of brine brought his attention back into the kitchen. There was a man in front of him waiting to be served. Da had entertained and welcomed all comers but this man set his teeth on edge.

He was ugly. His teeth were yellow and crooked, his dark hair thin and plastered to a pallid scalp. None of his clothes were right: the red trousers were too short; the patched woollen jumper too big; the fingers too long in his gloves.

But it was the smell that struck Da the most.

‘Just off the boat?’ he asked. For a moment he was about to add ‘friend’ to his question but couldn’t bring himself to.

The man looked at him with mismatched eyes, one blue and one green, both pale like watercolours. ‘I know who you are,’ he said.

‘I’m Da,’ said Da, forcing out a smile.

‘Soup,’ the man said, placing down a bowl that showed remnants of a previous sitting.

‘Didn’t serve you before,’ Da observed.

The man nudged his chin towards one of the volunteers. ‘Is there a limit?’

‘No limit. No man goes away from here hungry.’

‘I’m not full yet.’

‘I doubt you ever will be,’ Da said but he served the man anyway. He watched him walk back to his seat and until he left an hour later Da could feel the man’s eyes following him.

It was with relief that he closed the kitchen that evening. Da bundled himself into his coat and picked up his walking stick: a stout length of wood, as gnarled and bumped as the man that carried it.

Before he left he took a moment to check in the shed. Finn lay just where Da had left him, which was to be expected. Da looked at the body and then at the walking stick in his hands.

He still did not know what he was doing. He should have called the police. He had before, when the poor wretches had wound up dead in his doorway.

They came to him for the warmth, he thought, trying to get back to the last friendly place they’d been.

He walked to a bar called The Three Sisters, only a short distance from the kitchen. Despite how close it was and how much he liked the place he rarely went there. The weight of its memories was too heavy.

The bar was warm and homely. It was filled with the relaxed hum of conversation. Drinkers sat huddled in groups at the tables, staving off the thought of last orders and a walk home through the snow.

Da sat at the bar and ordered a pint. He took his first swallow as a woman entered from a back room. She stood across the bar from him, one arm resting on the pump. She was tall and her hair black with one streak of grey at her forehead. It was difficult to tell how old she was. Da knew, but only because he was as old as she was.

‘Morgan,’ he greeted her with a smile. His first genuine smile of the day, he thought.

‘I was starting to think you were dead,’ she replied.

‘Been thinking about you.’

‘Is that why you look like someone just stole your prize cow?’

‘I saw the birds.’

‘What birds?’

‘There were three crows outside my kitchen today. Three,’ he emphasised the word. ‘Don’t tell me that doesn’t mean something.’

‘Sometimes crows are just crows. Do you think every bird fighting over the dead has something to do with me?’

‘I never said they were eating the dead,’ he countered. She smiled at him and he chuckled. ‘I knew it.’

‘Come on,’ she said. ‘Let’s talk upstairs.’

The talking did not come straight away. Morgan was a force to be reckoned with and used to taking what she wanted. Da, as it turned out, was willing to be taken. He remembered old flatteries and pandered to her like a poet besotted by the muse.

Afterwards he lay in the bed, his hands resting on his great belly, and wrestled with confusing feelings of contentment and unease. As if two serpents wriggled in his belly, one for good and one for ill.

‘When was the last time we did that?’ Da asked.

‘There was a battle the next day.’ Morgan stood by the window, looking out at the swirling snow. She was naked and pale in the half-light and Da thought her more beautiful than ever.

‘This land’s seen more than its share of battles.’

‘I always liked them.’

‘Do you remember the Romans?’

‘I liked them less.’

‘Drove us all the way west.’ He felt the unease twist inside of him. ‘I saw a dead man today,’ he said. ‘He’s in my shed.’

‘What’s he in there for?’

‘I don’t know. I just…’ he sat up and reached for his walking stick. ‘I felt old, Morgan. Older than I’ve ever felt.’

‘You’re always the oldest you’ve ever been.’

Da grunted. He sat with his elbows on his knees, his walking stick held loosely in his hands.

‘A man came into the kitchen today.’

Morgan gave him a bored look. ‘You used to talk less, or you got to the point faster.’

‘I think he was Fomorian. I saw him just after I saw the crows. What does that mean? Do you know?’

Morgan stepped away from the window and stood over him, one hand resting on his shoulder. ‘All I can tell you, Dagda, is that it all still works.’ She lay back down on the bed and stretched out next to him.

‘Nobody’s called me that for a long time.’

‘You haven’t been to see me in a long time.’

‘I never know which you I’m going to see.’

She smiled. ‘Nobody ever does. Now, are you staying or are you leaving?’

He stayed a while longer, if only to prove to himself that she was right and everything did still work.

When he left the snow had renewed its efforts to whitewash the world but Da felt warmer and happier than he had in a long time. He hummed an old song to himself, the words to which nobody alive would understand, and went back to his kitchen.

In the shed he stared at Finn’s body. He raised up his walking stick and tapped it lightly to Finn’s forehead.

Nothing happened.

Da grimaced at his own stupidity but was relieved no one was around it see it. He was old and what power he might once have had was all but gone. The good mood his time with Morgan had created evaporated, the warmth lost in the swirls of snow.

He stood in his kitchen and threw his walking stick across the room. It brought down a pile of pans and crockery, landing with a riotous crash.

‘Stupid,’ he cursed himself. ‘Always was a fool and now I’m an old fool.’

‘Hello, old fool.’ The Fomorian stood in the doorway to the kitchen, fresh snow melting from his coat. His gaze darted from Da to the giant pot in the middle of the room. He licked his lips and trembled.

‘Ordinarily we turn no one away,’ Da said, ‘but I think it’d be best if you took your leave now.’

‘I’m still hungry.’

‘You always will be. Your kind are never full.’

‘My kind.’

‘Cowards.’

The man snarled and launched himself at Da. They grabbed at each other, smashed against the worktops, bounced off the cooker, sent plates and cups smashing onto the tiles.

Da reached for a knife but his hand was dragged away. He clawed at the man’s eyes but felt teeth on his wrist. He pushed forward with his weight but he was old and his strength faded faster than it used to. Da sank to the floor, the man’s hands at his throat. He scrambled, one hand reaching out and slapping at the cold tile floor, desperate for anything he could use for a weapon.

With a cry the man reeled to the side and splayed across the floor.

Da peered up, his hands going to his bruised throat as he took wheezing gasps of air.

Finn stood over him, a dented saucepan held in two hands.

‘You alright, Da?’ he asked and helped the big man to stand.

‘Aye,’ Da croaked. He stared down at the man who had attacked him.

‘Is he dead?’ Finn asked.

‘Don’t rightly care.’

‘I woke up in your shed,’ Finn said with an apologetic smile. ‘Must have crashed there last night. Sorry.’

Da cut him off with a wave of his hand. ‘It’s nothing. Glad you didn’t freeze.’ He limped across the kitchen, feeling bruised and abused, and retrieved his walking stick. It felt good in his hands. He looked at the end he had touched to Finn’s forehead then looked over at Finn.

‘You feel okay?’

‘Bit hungry,’ Finn smiled.

‘I’ll see you right,’ Da said. ‘Go wait over at the front door. I’ll lock up and see us out.’

‘What about him?’

‘He can go out the back,’ Da said. He waited until Finn was gone. With his walking stick held out in two hands he stood over the prone man.

Was he truly a Fomorian? Da had thought them all dead or hiding back under the sea. What did it mean to see one back in the world?

What did anything ever mean?

He laughed at himself.

The one true thing he knew was that Morgan had been right: it all still worked.

Da turned his staff over so that the opposite end to the one that had touched Finn pointed down at the Fomorian’s chest.

He jabbed down.

Hard.

The man didn’t move and never would again. One end of the staff gave life and the other took it away.

He dragged the body outside and dumped it by the shed. He looked up at the sky, peering beyond the snow to where he knew the moon was hidden behind the clouds.

‘A feast for the crows, Morrigan,’ he said, relishing the sound of Morgan’s old name.

He left the body there, confident it would be gone before anyone would discover it and cause problems for him.

At the front of the kitchen Finn stood waiting on the street, his hands tucked under his armpits, his breath floating in the air.

‘Can’t feel my feet,’ he complained with a smile.

‘I’ll put you up for the night,’ Da said, returning the smile. He put his arm around Finn and led him away. ‘Have I ever told you,’ he said, ‘what a fine thing it is to be alive.’

‘No.’

‘Ah, well, I have been remiss. Let me start at the beginning … It was just before the Romans started to get ideas …’

And his voice rambled on amiably as they walked off into the night.

[] Mythological Context: An Dagda

An Daghdha is a leading character in the ancient Irish literature who appears (or is referred to) in manuscripts such as Cath Magh Turedh (The Battle of Magh Tuireadh – where he’s described as fighting the Formorians), Tochmarch Etaine, Lebor Gabala Erenn and many others.

In the surviving literature, An Daghdha is occasionally portrayed as a very powerful figure (both in terms of physical stature as well as in terms of mana) equipped with a number of magical accessories that include a magic club/staff that could cause death or raise to life, a bottomless cauldron (with a ladle “big enough for a married couple to lie together in its centre”) and a harp of oak etc. Other times, conversely, he’s portrayed as a kind of crass, oafish figure with a great distended belly and a voracious appetite, and an enormous penis that drags on the ground behind him. There are also many references to his sexual interactions with female characters such as the Mór-Ríoghain (the Morrigan), Bóinn and others.

If you look deep into the patterns behind the literature however, you can see that An Daghdha was actually a principle deity from very ancient times and served as a kind of balancing force to Danu, the ‘Mother Earth’ land goddess. An Daghdha was essentially a representation of the sky (the heavens) and in particular the sun with its associated life-giving properties. This is evident not only through the substantial solar imagery associated with the figure but through the many other names he’s known by: Aedh Álainn (Beautiful Fire), Rúadh Ró-fhessa (Reddish, Too-Wise, One) and so on.

Ancient peoples understood that the relationship between the sky (sun) and the land was essential not only to keep the crops fertile and growing and the seasons turning but also to sustain human life. In an attempt to articulate that interdependency in a way that people could understand, the sun and the land were personified in stories as the ancestors Father Sky (An Daghdha) and Mother Earth (Danu) and their ‘coupling’ was a metaphor for fertility (both in terms of the land and the people) and great bounty.

Over time, with the introduction and spread of Christianity, these ancient beliefs were replaced and undermined although faint remnants of them can still be found in the literary references. The mocking references to An Daghdha’s great penis and huge appetite are all clearly linked to the fertility functions of the ancient deity while his numerous sexual encounters with women are references to his metaphoric coupling with the ancestral land goddess, most of the women he has sex with being manifestations of the land goddess.

The name An Daghdha (or An Dagda in earlier times) is believed to be derived from a very old Celtic wording ‘dago-devos’ which means ‘good god’. This of course, segues nicely with the title of Damien Mckeating’s story

Brian O’Sullivan

[] The Drunken Joe Malshy

Farren Jecky

Joe Malshy was in the horrors of drink, the real horrors. He’d spent the night tossing and turning on sweat soaked sheets, being persecuted by a series of apparitions and phantoms. Ghouls of the dream world who appear in the midnight hour to dance across the souls of tortured drunks. These demons took the form of religious icons, old cartoon characters and hateful masks who berated him mercilessly for the spiritual squalor in which he dwelled. Hearing these words, he fell screaming through the black eternity of night while the devils pranced around the bed jabbing him with their pitchforks and laughing at his misery.

At the worst of it he saw his auld pair all good and godly up in heaven, looking down at their wretched son with the big sorrowful heads on them. Seeing them he leaped from the bed like a rocket propelled by holy terror. He fell naked to the floor, the snot was running out of his nose, the tears ran down his cheeks and he threw his hands up into the air, clasped them together and roared and begged for mercy. He sang every prayer he knew and swore desperate oaths of allegiance to whatever mysterious powers govern this world. He asked for just one more day. One more day to feel the sun on his skin. One more day to see the waves crashing on the rocks, to walk the hills and to look for peace. One more day and he’d give it all up. He’d seen the light now. It all had to go, he knew it, Christ but he knew it. The booze, the fags and the shite talking.

‘Aw Jesus I’ll give the shite talking a rest,’ he cried.

He pledged that from this day forward he would be like a wise monk sitting on some lonely hill. He would feel neither hunger nor thirst and never again lust for momentary pleasures. One more day and he’d be as dry as the sands of the Sahara in summer. No more stouts, beers, whiskey, wines or ciders. No more cheap vodka or bog poteen. Not a dab, drop or toot would pass his lips. He made grand promises, the sorts of promises men make in the middle of the night and forsake in the morning. He promised to join the humbled ranks of the adult education system. He’d do a course, he’d do two courses. Lord above he’d learn how to Photoshop if he had to. In his darkest moments he even swore he’d get a job (opportunities permitting). Anything to behold one more sweet dawn on this planet.

Then with his head thumping and his spirit aching he crawled back onto the bed to wait for deliverance or annihilation. The moon fell out of the sky, the creatures of the night receded and Joe Malshy slept, cold and silent as stone.

***

He was awoken the next morning by the ugly calling of some bird. The room, bare and unlovely, was filled with the dull grey light commonly found in the pamphlets of suicide awareness campaigns. From his curtain-less window he was able to survey the fruits of his salvation. A blue sun rising on icy fields. A few shocked looking trees. Thick serpentine grooves of muck frozen in the yard. The old car with the spider webs twinkling in its vacant eyes. And the tatty little Irish flag sticking out from between two stones in the side of the shed. A souvenir from a bout of seasonal patriotism he’d suffered during a world cup campaign a few years back.

Getting dressed from a pile on the floor, he made his way stiffly down the hall to the pokey little kitchen where he made some toast he didn’t eat and some tea he didn’t drink. Instead he sat glassy eyed watching dirty clouds form on the far horizon.

Despite appearances, this neglected farm house and accompanying lands were much coveted by a variety of concerns. Distant relatives in England and other places besides secretly plotted ownership of the disputed estate. The place now had entire systems of vexed solicitors and disgruntled relations orbiting around it. For his own part Joe was too simple, or too drunk to be aware of these sinister schemes. He didn’t go in much for rumour and harboured no ill will towards his extended family. Though even he wasn’t completely ignorant of the psychic weather swirling around his homestead. Lately he’d been dreaming about a lot of eyes staring at him and sometimes in the mornings he would have the vague but unmistakable sensation that somewhere, paperwork was being filed that did not have his best interests at heart.

Flicking on the old TV he moved into the armchair and for an hour or two gave himself over thoughtlessly to the corpse chat of morning television. He was in his fifties now and there was a lot behind him: by the looks of things not much ahead. A skinny man with a comb-over, faded blue eyes and the permanent expression of someone cycling in the rain.

He turned off the telly. A dread had set into the day. He looked out the window again. The sky was grey now in every direction and as far as the eye could see. Somewhere up in that back field there was a half-starved horse, no doubt chewing ruefully on a bramble and muttering horsey swear words under its breath. His mind was made up. He was going to the pub.

***

He stepped out the front door, closed it and stuffed the keys into his pocket as he crossed the yard. He had a harried look about him, like a ghost that’s been evicted from a place it enjoyed haunting. It was cold but he couldn’t feel it. The fear was in him now, the guilt. He tried to talk himself into going back. Stay in his conscience whispered, sit down, feed that horse, fix that fence. Get healthy, get wise. But the words meant little, the body kept on going. The body had places to be, the mind could say whatever it wanted. It really didn’t matter.

A stiff breeze had matured into a strong wind by the time he reached the main road. It was as if nature itself was telling him to go back. But on he strode like some unstoppable automaton towards his sorrowful destiny.

He was about halfway into town when something happened. He heard somebody say his name. Now this in itself wasn’t unusual, what was unusual was that when he turned around there was nobody there. No friends, no pals, there wasn’t even a rambler or a Garda on a bike. There was no one, no one that is, apart from a crow sitting on a stone wall looking right at him. Joe regarded the crow and the crow regarded Joe and for a moment the pair of them stood there sizing each other up.

‘Alright Joe?’ said the crow.

‘Aye’ mumbled Joe, ‘Aye.’ He rubbed his face and felt three-day stubble on his chin. He was in rough shape alright.

‘You’re looking a bit shook,’ said the crow. ‘Like you’ve seen something rare.’

‘No, no,’ Joe protested, friendly to the last.

‘Are you sure? Look like you could do with a good long sleep if you ask me. You’re looking beleaguered. Did you ever hear that word before? Beleaguered,’ the crow repeated.

‘No,’ said Joe and shook his head. He hadn’t been very well educated and didn’t like being reminded of that by crows. ‘I have to be going.’

Joe started walking and the crow hopped down off the wall and began walking alongside him.

“Where you headed to anyways?”

‘The pub’ said Joe. ‘I’m going to the pub.’

‘Oh,’ said the crow. ‘You’re fond enough of that place. In there all the time you are.’

‘And what’s it to you?’ said Joe, swinging his head round angrily.

‘Nothing, nothing. Just can’t help but notice when I’m flying around who’s going where and what not. Oh the things you see from up there, let me tell you, the world looks very different.’

‘I wouldn’t know about that,’ said Joe. It was true, he had no idea what it was like to fly. He’d never even been in a plane.

They walked on in silence for a while. ‘Do you not have a girlfriend, or a woman waiting for you at the house?’ asked the crow. ‘Will she not miss you if you’re in the pub all day?’

‘Don’t have a girlfriend,’ said Joe through gritted teeth.

‘Oh,’ said the bird. ‘Are you not lonely?’

‘Well, sometimes,’ Joe admitted. He was lonely a lot of the time in fact. But he’d mostly resigned himself to that.

‘Jesus I know if I was you I’d be crawling up the walls. It’s not a wonder you spend all day in the pub when you don’t even have someone to go home to. Could you not get one maybe? A woman I mean. They’re everywhere like.’

‘NO’ Joe cried out. He’d had it up to here with the bird now. ‘I can’t get a woman, they’re not everywhere. Look,’ he pointed into a field desperately, ‘There’s none there for instance.’

‘Well no,’ said the crow. ‘You can’t just point at random fields and expect women to be there. They’re not goats. They don’t congregate in ditches. That’s a feeble excuse if you ask me. What’s the underlying truth here, that’s what my dad used to say to me, what’s the underlying truth here? Why can you not get a woman?’

‘Well, look at me, I’m old amn’t I? My hair is grey, my arms are all skinny. I’m no oil painting.’

‘Ya smell a bit funny too,’ said the bird. ‘Like old cabbages or something.’

‘What?’ said Joe.

‘Nothing, nothing. Go on, you were telling us about your woman problems there.’

‘Well,’ said Joe, ‘There was a woman, long ago that loved me and I loved her. But that’s all finished now.’

Joe stopped dead in his tracks, frozen by that long ago memory.

The bird looked up at him.

‘Was it the drink that drove her away?’

‘Aye,’ said Joe.

‘Well you’re not dead yet Joe. There’s still time.’

‘Pah,’ snorted Joe and resumed walking. ‘What time is there? I wouldn’t even know what to say to a woman anymore.’

‘Aye,’ said the bird. ‘Plus imagine if you got her home. I’d say you have trouble getting the motor running these days if you know what I mean. That could be embarrassing.’

‘What are you insinuating?’ Joe was taken aback.

‘Nothing, nothing. It happens to the best of us, it’s nothing to be ashamed of.’

‘What do you mean ashamed? I’m not ashamed, what do I have to be ashamed of?’

‘Well it’s just the drink, y’know, it restricts blood flow, causes limp moments.’

‘Now you listen to me,’ Joe roared. ‘I don’t like the path you’re heading down. My erectile issues are none of your business. No one asked you to come down here and start harassing me. I don’t know if you’re real or a figment of my imagination but whatever you are, you can fly away off now.’

The crow swivelled its head at him.

‘No.’

‘What do you mean no? Piss off. Go on.’

‘It’s a free country.’

‘It is not a free country. This is a country for men. That blue bit up above it is for birds, right, so stay up there from now on ’cause we don’t want you down here with the bloody lip on you.’

‘Make me.’

‘Make you what?’

‘Make me piss off.’

‘Right,’ said Joe and swung his leg out in a kick. It wasn’t a very good kick and in a moment Joe was lying on his back with the bird sitting up on his chest.

‘Did you really think you could kick a bird?’ asked the crow. ‘Are you that simple? Have you ever seen that work before? Name one person in the history of the world who has successfully kicked a bird. It’s like trying to punch a fly. It just doesn’t work.’

Joe let out a roar and started flailing wildly at the bird who flew away effortlessly and landed on a sign. It was the sign for the town.

‘Go on then,’. ‘I’ll not stop you. I was only trying to offer you a bit of friendship and advice and what do I get in return? A bloody kick and a shower of insults. Go on, there’s a creamy pint waiting for you ya drunken git.’

***

Finnegas’s bar had been in the town since before Joe was born and was now in the process of turning itself into a place that young people might go to (or so the owner hoped). A pool table had been installed and a jukebox relentlessly played songs that nobody had chosen. Modern taps jutted aggressively out of the counter like great neon and steel erections. In the corner Sky Sports was displayed on a screen so monstrously big you’d be forgiven for thinking the pundits had popped in for a pint. Joe was one of the old crowd here, vanishing silently as the décor around them changed.

There was nobody in yet and Patsy the owner was nowhere to be seen. Joe took his coat off, undid the top button of his shirt and sat down on a tall stool. He took a breath. And then another. He tried to talk himself down. That’s where Patsy found him a few minutes later, the haunted Joe Malshy with his eyes as big as moons and his hands shaking gently. Which was nothing usual it must be said.

‘Alright Joe?’ said the big man.

‘Yeah yeah,’ mumbled Joe.

‘What can I get you?’

‘Double, double whiskey, double whiskey.’ Joe replied taking a wad of soggy cash from his inside pocket and placing it on the bar.

‘And a pint of Guinness.’

While the pint settled Patsy vanished out the back and Joe headed for the bathroom where he quickly upended his quarrelsome guts into the toilet bowl. He avoided the mirror entirely. When he returned he found the crow waiting for him. Sitting up on one of the stools happy as you like with the two feet sticking out front. Joe sat down beside it and with a trembling hand picked up the double whiskey.

‘Fancy seeing you here,’ said the crow.

‘Aye,’ said Joe.

‘This the regular then? It’s a bit grim isn’t it? Bit dark. I dunno how you stick it. This used to be a lovely place when I came here. Different crowd then. Before your time.’

‘You used to come here?’ said Joe.

‘Oh I did indeed, many a long night was spent in here I tell. Too many if you ask me. Aye, too many.’

‘I didn’t know they served crows,’ Joe spat.

‘Times change. People change Joe. Sometimes they change into things they don’t like. You’d know all about that surely.’

Joe closed his eyes and took the whiskey to his parched lips. He felt it pour down into all the cold dark parts of him, down through the exhausted canals of his bloodstream searching for vital plasma to intoxicate. He could hear Patsy out the back moving things around.

‘How is it?’ said the crow.

‘Fucking great,’ said Joe. He meant it.

‘Listen Joe. People change into things they don’t want. You just keep that in mind right.’

The crow said something else then but Joe couldn’t hear it. He was so enraptured by the drink that the exterior world just fell away entirely. With every sip the voice was quieter and quieter and the next time he looked at the seat the crow was gone.

***

Around one o’clock that night the place was rammed and the drink was flying in. All the old gang was there and it was great to see them. Joe was back to his old self and the golden light was in him and everyone was roaring and laughing away. They were even dancing. And through clouds of thick fag smoke he told his strange tale about the bird and the walk and the whole thing. He was a good storyteller when he got going and everyone roared and laughed when he told it. They were rolling around with laughter. It was a funny story. He wasn’t worried about it at all now actually, it was all just like a dream. Then even later when the conversations had died down and Patsy was sweeping up, and the friends were going out arm in arm to stumble the moonlit roads home. Joe sat up at the bar for one more.

‘You’re mad Joe,’ he said to himself quietly.

‘You’re mad.’

He laughed a nice soft laugh. It was a funny story and he’d told it well, he was happy about that. Sure he was drunk now, the crows could say whatever the fuck they wanted, more power to them.

[] Mythological Context: Crows

In ancient, pre-Christian times, many cultures held the belief that birds acted as a kind of intermediary for people to connect with the Otherworld (and ancestors), probably because of their ability to attain the realms that humans could see but could not reach (the Heavens).

As with mythology in other cultures – for example, the Greek God Zeus transforming into a swan – Celtic deities or other talented individuals could also shapeshift to take on the appearance of birds. In Celtic Mythology, some of the most well-known examples include Tuán mac Cairill and the great seer Fionntan, both of whom took the form of eagles; Aonghus, who took the form of a swan; and Derbforgaill, also in the form of a swan when Cú Chulainn brought her down from the skies. The remaining literature also has a number of references to the druids making divinations based on their interpretation of the flight of birds or the cries of the raven.

Because of its conspicuous and somewhat menacing appearance, crows, ravens, and even magpies are believed to have taken on some of the darker aspects of that association with the Otherworld. This darker view was no doubt exacerbated by the fact that, as predators and scavengers, the birds would have been conspicuous feeding on carrion and, after a battle, on the corpses of the dead. Originally, the presence of these dark birds would have been associated with the land goddess fulfilling the natural order or the recurring cycle of nature i.e. the land – through the land goddess – was reclaiming what had originally been produced from it.

Over time however, and with the coming of Christianity, those interpretations were diluted and changed. The later, medieval writers took a much grimmer view of those native beliefs, portraying the crows as representative of a land goddess who obtained a perverse pleasure from battle carnage and the slaughter of humankind.

The most frequently portrayed in this manner was Badhbh, a manifestation of the triplicated mother goddess, Danu. In the literature from early medieval times, Badbh is depicted as a cruel war goddess who appears in the form of a scaldcrow to announce the death of heroic warriors and other figures. Hovering around the battlefield or flying above the fighting armies, she’s also depicted as releasing terrifying shrieks, taking a kind of demonic pleasure from the enormous loss of life.

It’s because of this portrayal that we find one of Celtic mythology’s most striking images in the medieval account of the death of Cú Chulainn. In that story, although he is dying, the fierce warrior straps himself to a standing stone so that he can remain upright to combat his enemies. Fearful of his great fighting skill, the opposing warriors refrain from approaching him until a carrion crow descends to perch on the stone above his head, a clear signal that the great hero has died.

Traces of these negative aspects of crows and other dark birds continued in local folklore and literature up to relatively recent times and ravens and hooded crows were often seen as a bad omen or a sign of potential misfortune. When a number of birds (a ‘murder’ of crows) were observed hovering or squawking near a house, it was often seen as a dark portent that prophesied the death of a member of the household. When a solitary crow was observed acting unusually in a field (as with the drunken Joe Malshy), there was also a folk belief that the bird represented an aspect of an Otherworld figure or a grievous sinner who hadn’t been able to ‘move on’ after his death.

Vestiges of the prophetic association with certain birds such as crows remain in contemporary society through the use of children’s rhymes such as “One for sorrow, two for joy …” used in some places for crows as well as for magpies. Crows and ravens, meanwhile, continue to be used liberally in film, books and other media as symbols or metaphors for the occult.

Some things never change.

Brian O’Sullivan

[] Revival

Méabh de Brún

After they murdered her, the third daughter of Airetach heard the heroes talking. They thought the sisters would turn into monsters upon death. Instead, their limp bodies had human arms and legs and blood-smeared skin, all tangled together and impaled on one long spear.

Disappointed, the heroes elected to leave the bodies behind. There was great sport to be had bringing home steaming carcasses of great and fearsome wolves. Bringing back three dead women with black and staring eyes had less of victory about it.

So they left, walking back over the plain, away from the edge of the forest. Cascorach plucked his harp and sang high and sweet. Caoilte roared with laughter to the night sky at the filthy words of the song. When they were good and gone, all was silent save for the wind in the trees and the low cracking of embers as their fire went out.

Limbs cold and heart numb, the third daughter of Airetach pressed her palms against the corpses of her sisters. Feeling the pull of it inside her, she pushed herself off the point of the spear. Stiff and sore she clambered to her feet.

Her hand pressed against the new red mouth in her side, still-hot blood pumping over her fingers. She would never rouse her sisters, she knew that.

Something had to be done. She knew that too.

The old woman sits on the other side of nowhere. The words came to her like a secret that couldn’t be recalled until required.

The third daughter of Airetach recited those words as she started to walk through the night. They thrummed through her head as she made away from the forest, towards the mist shrouded bog. She muttered them as she stumbled along, limping and bloody. Her bare feet sank into the giving ground, dirty beer-water rising up around her ankles with each step. On and on the wolf woman walked, putting one foot in front of the other.

Her hand pressed to her bloody side hard, as though she were holding herself together. Something in her knew there were other things that could fall apart if she let her thoughts stray, so she gripped tight and focused on the words.

The early morning mist cleared, dissipated by the climbing Samhain sun. It unveiled the desolation of the bogland as if lifting a curtain. The only break in the horizon was the uneven landscape swooping and cutting into the sky. There was no shade or place to rest here. No one ever came out this far into the bog, not even on turfing days.

The old woman sits on the other side of nowhere.

Even the Otherworld was a destination. It might only be accessible through secret caves and between Dolmens, or in the burial mounds at Brú na Bóinne and Cnoc Meadha, but at the end of the day that’s what it was. Another world.

There were no gates to nowhere. No doorways. You could only find it by walking and walking until you made sure you had left somewhere behind.

The blood from the maw gored in her side pumped out between her fingers with a sluggish pulse. It was an irritation that wouldn’t last long. She kept her eyes on the ground before her, and repeated the mantra in her mind. In that way she knew the flow of blood only as an intermittent source of warmth for her frozen fingers.

Each step sank down into the buttery, rich earth of the bog, squeezing up dirty water through the springy peat. Now and again she glanced ahead, but it was a cursory act. No more than a desperate flick of the eyes, ingrained after years of survival.

The horizon of the bogland was uneven and dark, so the figure seemed like a hill in the distance at first. As the third daughter of Airetach walked closer, it shifted and changed like a silhouette at twilight. Perhaps it was some trick of the light, or perhaps she was wearier than she thought, but suddenly she was standing before a seanbhean, an old woman wrapped in a thick brown shawl.

The old woman sat on a large rock flat rock and looked content. Before her was a pot on a fire pit. The pot was old and black, with deep dents around its curved fat sides. The water inside it was bubbling hot.

There was a rough basket by her feet. It was woven from thick bits of twisted straw. Inside were some small potatoes, thin carrots and a lump wrapped in old stained cloth.

The old woman didn’t look up. She tended her fire, tossing dry twigs into the flames. Where she had found dry kindling in the bog was anybody’s guess. As the third daughter of Airetach walked towards her, she reached into the basket at her feet and pulled out the lump.

‘Mutton,’ the old woman said with satisfaction, weighing it in her hand. “You wouldn’t know this, what with you and your kin running around the country getting your meat fresh off the bone, but mutton is best for stews.’ She unwrapped the bundle, revealing the shining flesh of raw meat. She tipped it into the boiling water of the pot with only the smallest of sloshes over the side. ‘It’s the fat. You can’t be cooking any kind of stew without a daycent bit of fat on it.’

‘Is tusa an Chailleach,’ the wolf woman said, her fingers tightening on the wound in her side.

Not a Cailleach, the Chailleach. An Chailleach Bhéara.

‘I’d say I am all right,’ the old woman agreed, but she seemed far more interested in her stew. She pulled her shawl tighter around her shoulders and leaned in to peer at the pot, screwing up her face. Wrinkles blossomed from the corners of her eyes and curved against her mouth. Her hair was iron grey and coarse, pulled back in a knot at the top of her spine.

The daughters of Airetach had black hair. Black as soot, black as pitch, black as night. They had been dark-haired and long-toothed, and no strangers to the dirt of the land.

Last night the sisters ran out of the Cave of Cruachan, howling with the sheer joy of being alive. Hearts thumping, muscles moving under skin, they threw themselves into the night. Frost cut through the air like a cold knife. They had tasted the stars.

Now they were dead.

The old woman finally peered up from her pot. She gave a sniff and a shuffle, bringing her shawl closer about her shoulders.

‘Well,’ the seanbhean said, squinting at the rangy, filthy woman before her. ‘Tis’ yourself.’

The third daughter of Airetach limped forward, hand still holding together the wound in her side. The blood was slowing now, pumping out in weak spurts.

‘Are you going to talk at all, or have you come here to watch me make my dinner?’

She looked at the old woman, mouth pulled with mistrust. She understood the words, but the language was not her own.

‘Go on, would you,’ the old woman said, dropping the peeled potato into the pot. It went in with a deep wet plop. ‘Níl maith an seanchas nuair atá an anachain déanta. There’s no good in storytelling when the damage is done. You’ve been here too long, the dirt has a different language now. I don’t like it, and I don’t use it myself, but it’s the best way to get you settled.’

‘I haven’t—’ The third daughter of Airetach made her mouth shape around the new, blocky words. ‘I haven’t been here that long.’

The old woman snorted, and picked up a carrot. ‘Walking the best part of the day, right into the middle of nowhere. You think all time is the same, do you?’

No. She didn’t. She knew this might happen, but she hadn’t expected to have lost so much already.

Mortals who went looking for fairies woke up to a changed world. They came home to children who had grandchildren. Their feet touched the soil and they fell into a body that was a soft whisper away from death. Everyone who went looking lost things. Even people like her. Even people who weren’t people.

‘How long have I been walking?’ she asked, her mouth dry.

‘Long enough,’ the old woman said, rummaging in her strange tatty basket. She pulled out a small dirty potato, and a silver knife from some recess in her shawl. With practiced turns of her wrists, she started to peel it. The wolf woman could see the dirt underneath her fingernails, worked into the thick grooves of skin on her knuckles. ‘You shouldn’t have come.’

‘You know why I have?’

‘Oh shur, I know well. T’would be better for you to be listening than talking, a chroí.’

‘My sisters are dead.’

‘They are,’ the old woman agreed. Into the pot went the potato.

‘Caoilte and Cascorach of the Fianna murdered them.’

‘They did,’ the old woman said, nodding. ‘Maybe for want of a better word. That was a long time ago, now.’

Something started happening in the cold hole that was her chest. Some flicker that mirrored the flames beneath the pot.

‘What are you talking about, woman?’

The Chailleach pulled a small wooden spoon from her ragged straw basket. ‘Time has passed, a stóirín. What do people do with big strong men who kill beasts?’

‘They write stories about them,’ the wolf woman replied, speaking as if she had a sharp stone in her throat.

The old woman stirred her stew. ‘That’s right,’ she agreed. ‘Caoilte did particularly well from the tales of his prowess and deeds. His name was known the breadth of the land.’

‘And me and mine?’

‘Your time ended. There hasn’t been a wolf in Ireland since the seventeenth century.’

It was hard to imagine the time passing outside whatever pocket of land they were in. There was no wind, no dew. The mist was gone and there was no bird-call. There was just miles of bogland all around.

The chill in her bones that kept thought and feelings at bay evaporated like steam in the face of furious anger. A howl grew in the back of her throat, and the third daughter of Airetach bared her teeth at the old woman in a snarl. It was impressive. She was good at it.

‘We belonged to the land more than they ever did,’ the wolf woman growled, her fingers flexing against the wound in her stomach.

The old woman shrugged, poking at the bobbing mutton with a stick. ‘Things change. People change. What was once a kindly spirit becomes a terrible ghoul. A god becomes nothing but a goblin or a sprite.’

‘We were the Mac Tíre, the sons of the land.’

‘You killed sheep,’ the Chailleach pointed out, her tone mild, her eyes fixed on her bubbling pot.

‘Sheep.’ The third daughter of Airetach all but spat the word. Her side no longer hurt, nor did it bleed. ‘Would you ask a wolf to deny its hunger? The daughters of Airetach are dead because Cascorach and Caoilte of the Fianna took it to their heads that a few sheep were worth killing over.’ She spat on the ground. ‘Laignech Fáelad was revered as the first to take the shape of a wolf. He and his children went hunting in that form and all knew it as their right. Even the Fianna howl like wolves in the night before a hunt. We are the Mac Tíre, the guardians of this land, and they would stamp us out?’

‘Now they have stamped you out, you’re not listening.’ The old woman sounded testy. Her eyes were the pale milky blue of a winter sky. ‘There are no more wolves in Ireland.’

Her pronouncement made, she turned back to her pot.

The third daughter of Airetach lifted her hand away from her side. Her palm was tacky with half dried blood, and the growl had left her throat.

‘My sisters are dead,’ she said again. There wasn’t much more to say.

She had come looking for retribution. To be told that the men who murdered her sisters became heroes down through time was another wound she had not asked for.

‘Why did you turn?’ The Chailleach’s question was mild, almost disinterested, yet it cut all the same.

The third Daughter of Airetach rolled back her lips and bared her teeth, but it felt perfunctory. She lapsed into silence, and the seanbhean let her.

‘We have always loved music,’ the wolf woman finally said, and then could say no more.

The music had been enchanting, even to them, the ones who passed through the Cave of Cruachan and knew the black and sticky nature of enchantment. Each note plucked on the shining strings of the harp had been like a flash of silver in the night air.

And oh, she could see it now, even as she ground her teeth together until she tasted blood in the back of her mouth. She could see the story unravel before her, the way it would trip off the teller’s tongue.

Caoilte mac Rónáin, the nephew of the warrior Fionn mac Cumhail, a member of the noble Fianna. Cascorach, the harper of the Tuatha Dé Danann.

The heroes.

***

They had come to the Cruachan of Connacht, had Caoilte mac Rónáin and Cascorach. There they saw a man with a long brown cloak fastened with a pin of bronze, holding a staff of white hazel. He introduced himself as Bairneach, son of Carch of Collamair of Bregia, whose people were suffering from a great oppression.

‘What oppression is that?’ Caoilte asked. Water dribbled from his coarse red beard as he swigged from the skin tied to his waist. His spear hung across his back and he stood tall as a bear.

‘Three she-wolves that come out of the Cave of Cruachan every year and destroy our sheep and our wethers. It’ll be a good friend that will rid us of them.’

‘Well, Cascorach,’ said Caoilte, clapping the smaller man on the back. ‘Do you know what are the three wolves that are robbing this man?’

‘I know well,’ said Cascorach. ‘They’re the three daughters of Airetach, and it’s easier for them to do their robbery as wolves than as women. They’ll stop for no man, but for the music of the Sidhe.’

Caoilte scratched his thick beard, looking thoughtful. Cascoradh was uncertain that anything as complex as a full train of thought had tumbled through the cavern of his handsome head, but he gave every appearance of it.

‘How would it be for you,’ Caoilte said slowly, ‘to go tomorrow to the cairn beyond, and bring your harp with you?’

Cascorach was brave, for many poets are brave. And he was cocky, for many musicians are cocky. And he was Cascorach, the bard who played for the Tuatha Dé Danann.

He looked at Caoilte, but not before throwing his eyes to the sky. ‘While you make good of the hospitality of our host, is it?’

The bigger man chuckled. ‘If it’s decent sport I’ll throw my spear into the fray, but if it is a nuisance that the bard can dispatch with I see no reason to bother.’

‘Beart de réir ár mbriathar, indeed,’ said Cascorach. The wry set of his mouth put Caoilte laughing.

Their task taken upon them, the men walked to the plain at the edge of the forest in long, loping strides. They came to a clearing, empty save for a wide cairn of sandy and grey rocks. Quick as a spit, Cascorach climbed in nimble leaps and jumps to the peak of the cairn. He balanced there, a shit-eating grin on his face as he plucked a couple of celebratory notes on his harp.

Caoilte let out a roaring laugh, clapping Bairneach on the shoulder. ‘T’will be a deaf wolf indeed that’ll pass by Cascorach when he’s in a mood to make music.’

‘And I am always in that mood!’ the bard called down from his perch.

So it passed that Cascorach stood atop the cairn with his harp in hand, playing melodies throughout the day and well into the evening. He played as the sun dipped and the shadows stretched across the ground. He played as the birdsong matched the clear high notes plucked from his strings, and he played as the birds fell silent and darkness fell.

Mists swirled around the base of the cairn and the moon came out, turning the land into slices of light and shadow. A chill wind set up, and the air became cold.

On and on Cascorach played, the calloused pads of his fingers coaxing ethereal sounds from his harp. His music could charm the Oiliphéist and set na Daoine Sidhe dancing.

Three dark shadows made their way through the woods. Their eyes were shining opals, their fur dark and sleek. The wolves moved like a chill wind, snaking their way around the trees, stepping between the moonlight.

Cascorach made no move. He kept his eyes on the beasts below, that were bigger and more powerful-looking than any wild wolf roaming Ireland. Their eyes were intelligent, their movements careful and deliberate.

Cascorach played, and the beasts stopped to listen.

The moon painted everything in white and black. The jaws of the wolves dripped liquid tar. Cascorach’s fingers hesitated on the strings and the music paused.

Suddenly the hulking beasts were yelping with what could only be delight. They gambolled and jumped through the clearing. The bard began to play again, and watched the animals leap and roll to the clear high notes of his harp.

The sun rose and turned pitch night into a thin morning of mist and shadows. Their time at an end, Cascorach watched the wolves turn towards the Cave of Cruachan.

‘If you were ever women,’ he shouted out, ‘it’d be better for you to be listening to the music as women than as wolves.’

They heard him.

The next night, the sisters went back to hear the music. Their bellies full of good meat, the taste of blood in their mouths. They laughed and stumbled and howled. They ran upright and tall through the slapping branches of the trees and the cold night air.

Cascorach was aloft on the cairn once more, plucking his harp. This time there was a fire on the ground at its base. Its light carved out the hard bones in his face.

Beside the fire stood Caoilte, a tall broad bear, his warm and vital breath sending plumes of steam up into the cloudless night. The spear he hefted was as tall as him, a thick wooden pole tipped with metal, its hairy rope looped against his arm.

The third daughter of Airetach remembers only pushing past her sister’s warm skin, wondering why they have stopped. Wondering why they are not dancing when there is only so much night left to them before they must return to the cave.

And when Caoilte saw them there side by side, and elbow by elbow, he made a cast of his spear, and it went through the three women, that they were like a skein of thread drawn together on the spear. That is the way he made an end of the strange, unknown three, and that place got the name of the Valley of the Shapes of the Wolves.

***

The air had stilled in the bog.

There was no breeze, no birdsong. There was no sound at all save for the low crackle of the fire and the plopping sound of stew in the pot.

‘We’re monsters.’

The old woman shrugged. ‘B’fhéidir. But they weren’t the ones who made you monsters. A tide was turning for you all. For the Tuatha Dé Danann, the Fomhóraigh and the Daoine Sidhe. The heroes have been forgotten, the old ways into the Otherworld lost.’

The wolf woman looked away. She turned her face to the east as though she heard a noise, but there was no noise. ‘Tell me what happened.’

The Chailleach chuckled. ‘What always happens,’ she said. ‘An nith a tháinig leis an ngaoth rachaidh sé leis an mbáisteach. Time and death. Caoilte and Oisín were the only Fianna to survive the Battle of Gabhra. They were around to pass their stories on to Saint Patrick, who brought the Christianity with him.’

‘The Britons,’ the third daughter of Airetach said slowly. ‘We’re speaking the tongue of the Britons.’

‘They didn’t help,’ the Chailleach agreed. ‘They came in their thousands and gutted the people from the land. They choked out the tongue, the writing. But religion came first. It took the old gods and turned them into fairies and bogeymen. St. Patrick went to Ossary and the last of Laignech Fáelad’s descendants gave up their second forms for his promise of eternal life. Even Lí Bán the mermaid of Loch Neagh was baptised.’

The third daughter of Airetach lifted her lip in a snarl. ‘The Fianna were known from the Ceylon to the Gardens of the Hesperides. You say some druid did this?’

‘Priest,’ the Chailleach corrected mildly. ‘Saint. It wasn’t him alone. The people of Ireland moved on. So it goes.’ She tilted her head. ‘You’re very insulted on behalf of the Fianna. I thought you came to me for a bit of aul revenge?’

‘Fionn Mac Cumhaill and his Fianna were forsaken by the people they protected.’

‘They were forgotten. Everyone was forgotten. It’s a new age, indifferent to the old stories.’

The third daughter of Airetach growled, low in her throat. ‘I am no story.’

The seanbhean cracked a gummy smile, where a lone yellowing tooth sat like a piling on the shore after the tide pulls out. ‘We’re all stories in the end.’

The stew bubbled and plopped.

‘What can I do?’

‘You could die,’ the old woman said vaguely. She caught the wolf woman’s expression. ‘I didn’t say you should die, you asked what you could do, and I gave it to you.’

The land stretched out underfoot. The land was always underfoot. The third daughter of Airetach could not remember a day she had not run barefoot across the rich earth of Ireland. Even now, mud-covered and blood-splattered, she dug her toes into the buttery black soil of the bog. She could feel her broken, dirty nails digging into her palms.

‘The land does not change,’ she muttered. ‘The land does not change and the bones always know.’

The Chailleach grunted. ‘If you say so,’ she said, still stirring the pot. The spoon hit the sides of it with thick noises that were muted by the still air.

The wolf woman took her hand down from her side. The wound was almost healed, all that remained of it was a raw looking slice in her skin. Dried blood fell from her fist as she clenched it, like the molting scales of some old and terrible beast.

‘What if I didn’t die?’ she asked. ‘What if I became something else?’

‘And what would you become?’

The third daughter of Airetach didn’t reply. Like a trick of the light at twilight, her form began to change and shift. It changed until it was larger than a wild wolf, larger still than the wild forms of the wolf people. It changed until she was a beast to end all beasts. Her eyes were flashing opals and her fangs were long and yellow and her fur was thick and pitch and black.

The third daughter of Airetach threw her head back to the sky and howled.

It was impressive. She was good at it.

‘You have become a monster,’ the old woman observed, in the tone of one who is merely pointing out an occurrence.

Yes.

‘Do you regret it?’

No. The people have forgotten we who lived among them. They have forgotten what lies in the darkness. They have forgotten that they need heroes, and they will never know peace again.

‘It is a modern age,’ The Chailleach said, the hint of a smile touching her lips. ‘There are no wolves left in Ireland.’

There is one, the third daughter of Airetach said. Tá mac tire amháin fágtha in Éireann agus táim ag teacht dóibh súid a dheanfadh dearmad. There is one wolf left in Ireland, and I am coming for those who would forget.

Then the bog was still and silent, and the Chailleach was alone.

‘The Wolf,’ she said, tasting the sound of it.

The Chailleach grunted to herself, and dipped her spoon into the thick bubbling stew. She blew on it for a moment before taking a gummy sip and smacking her lips.

It was good.

[] Mythological Context: Wolves, Fenian Warriors and Land Goddesses

Wolves were a fundamental part of the European landscape from early prehistoric times and due to the absence of any major natural predators could grow to quite large numbers when food sources allowed. Given their substantial presence and fierceness, it’s no surprise that they form part of foundational Celtic, and other, mythology.

In ancient Ireland, wolves existed in such large numbers and were considered such a menace, the people living there reared a specific breed of dog, the Irish Wolfhound, to help fight and hunt them down. Although wolves in Wales seemed to have disappeared in the early medieval period (the last reference is in 1166 A.D.) and were extinct in England by the late 1400s, their numbers rose and fell in line with the many wars and conflicts that took place over the centuries throughout Ireland and Scotland. They were actually hunted to extinction in these latter countries in the eighteenth century. In the end, it turned out that the wolves only real predator, apart from each other, was man.

Wolves turn up with relative frequency in the remaining literature and they’re often associated with specific saints or mythological heroes. Togail Bruidne Dá Derga (The Destruction of Dá Derga’s Hostel) for example, tells how the famous king Conaire held seven wolves against the walls of his house as hostages to ensure that their fellow wolves would refrain from taking “more than one bull calf from every byre”. A number of twelfth-century tales meanwhile describe how Cormac Mac Airt was stolen by a she-wolf as a baby. Raised and suckled in the cave of Uamhaigh Chormaic in a manner similar to Romulus and Remus (of Roman mythology and probably borrowed), Cormac remained with the wolves until he was seven years old and was said to understand their language.

There are a number of wolf-related shapeshifting stories that are thought to have been ‘imported’ and incorporated into local Irish lore at a later date from overseas. The ‘Cave of Cruachan’ story from the 1900 Irische Texte mit Wörterbuch (which includes sections omitted from the 12th century Acallam na Senórach – Colloquey of the Elders) later publicized in Lady Gregory’s Gods and Fighting Men, is probably the best known story from the Irish literature.

This reinterpretation of the famous ‘Cave of Cruachan’ tale not only includes the well-known ‘shapeshifting to wolf’ conceit but introduces Fenian hero Caoilte mac Rónáin, his helper Cas Corach mac Cainchinne and the Cailleach Bhéarra. Caoilte mac Rónáin, renowned for his athletic ability, is one of the few relatively well-known members of Fionn mac Cumhaill’s war band and the only member interpreted as surviving into Christian times. Cas Corach, a harpist and ollamh, is not mentioned in any Fenian narrative outside of Acallam na Senórach.

The Cailleach Bhéarra – the Hag of Beara – was a mythical and extremely long-lived woman in Irish literature. Associated predominantly with the Beara peninsula in Southern Ireland, she’s believed to have been a land goddess or another manifestation of the three-form land goddess, Danu.

Brian O’Sullivan

[] Seasick

Molly Aitken

It’s eight days Dad has been at sea, but today he comes home, because Mam is all fear in her eyes, as though she’s tangled in a fishing net.

It’s morning and I find Mam on the shore with her shoes off and water up her jeans and a face as empty as my piggybank. The sea is cold as ice cubes and makes me shivery as I splash towards her. She’s different from Home Mam, far off, out there in the white-green waves instead of here with me.

‘Come home Mammy,’ I say. ‘Baby’s crying, and I’m hungry.’

I have the jitters for I’m afraid the sea will vanish her.

I look out where she looks, across the water where five – no six – seal heads are floating, like in the bedtime story Mam used to tell me about her life before. Happy days she called them. Happy days with her brothers and sisters, when she was a child like me. The seals’ faces in the water are sad. If we stay looking too long they’ll call to her with their sea song. I pull on Mam’s arm to bring her back to me, but she won’t move.

‘Please,’ I say.

She makes a great sigh like it breaks her heart in two but then she turns away from the sea and the seals slip back under the waves and vanish.

They’ll be back for her though. She’s seen crying in the bigness of their puddle eyes and I can feel it in the loose hold of her hand. She wants to go to them.

‘You know, Colm,’ Mam says as we walk home along the shore. ‘Before I met your Daddy and had you, I was free to swim and sing and be alone. I was carefree, you know?’

‘I know,’ I say and nod to her the way she likes me to.

‘You’re a good lad,’ she says and smiles her distant smile.

Her hair is wet and shines like seaweed. I squeeze her cold fingers and she sees me proper again and gives me her smile. I’d do anything for her smile, even go to bed with no dinner.

I have two Mams. I call them ‘Home Mam’ and ‘Sea Lady’. As we walk to our white house up on the cliffs, we step over the chalk line on the beach stones, the one I drew after Baby was born. It’s gone now, washed away by the rain and the waves that take my sandcastles, but I know just where it is. I always will. I tell Mam we’re stepping over it, so she remembers. She needs to know it so she can change back into Home Mam.

Once she was always Home Mam but that was before Baby came, the night she got ill and we had to get the ferry to the mainland. It was exciting on the boat. I ran around and no one stopped me. Mam had scared in her eyes, but she was still herself. On the ride back she was different though, and stared out the window the whole way, even when I shouted at her to come and play with me. She was empty. I didn’t know then that she was not Mam but Sea Lady. Dad didn’t either. But he knows Sea Lady now, sure as I do, and we both don’t like her. She frights him too. I see it when he comes back from fishing, or ‘on the boat’ as he calls it, and then he looks all sad, as soon as Sea Lady appears. That’s why he doesn’t stay long. I’m working on how to make it so she never comes, then Dad will stay and Mam’ll be happy and make me pancakes and play and sing me a goodnight.

Sea Lady is scary. She has wicked wet hair and doesn’t love Baby. Or even me. It’s three months since Baby came, and Sea Lady still walks down to the sea most days. It’s hard to stop her. I have to throw real tantyrums – as Dad calls them – to keep her with me and Baby.

Back at the house and safe again, I stand on the washing-up stool to do the dishes. It’s my favourite place, my look out point, where I see everything through the window. We’re far from the mainland here. No escape, Mam says.

Today the sea twinkles and runs up the pebbles. Everything’s blue-green-silver from here and the seals have vanished. I’m glad.

Sploosh. I drop a fork. I’m the oldest in the family – almost seven – so I take care of the house and Baby and Mam. Dad tells me to be a good big brother while he’s off working.

So I am. Most of the time.

I change Baby’s nappy and tickle her with seagull feathers I collected from a nest. She likes that. When Dad’s home, he sits at the kitchen table and smokes a cigarette that makes clouds, sometimes he blows rings for me and Baby. Mam hates it, says it stinks, and he laughs and pulls her onto his lap and blows circles at her head that tighten around her neck like a dog’s collar. Mam gets all floppy in Dad’s lap, like Fand, my rag doll.

Sometimes, I wish Dad wasn’t away on his boat for such long times. He helps me at chores and plays with Baby. When he’s gone Baby forgets him, but I don’t think Mam ever does.

I keep washing the plates and Mam marches in the kitchen. Up and down, up and down, until I’m dizzy watching her.

I slice the bread for lunch.

Mam gasps, it’s a low moan as if she’s cut her finger. She’s froze to the lino tiles, her mouth open. Through the window, there is a man on the shore. Dad. It’s easy to see it’s him because of his black-blue beard and shoulders made of stone. I want to look like that one day and I will when I grow up.

Dad and the rest of us sit at the table and we’re all smiles and laughter – me and him anyway – playing the game of happy family. Mam’s laugh sounds like it’s full of water, like she’s crying inside, but Dad’s hairy face is smiley. He’s good at make believe, better than me and Mam.

‘Let’s go for a walk, Colm,’ he says and gives me his prickly smile. ‘Just you and me.’

Mam holds Baby – he put Baby on her lap after we’d eaten bread and sardines. Mam’s face is puffy white and her eyes are heavy and look down at the floor, instead of at me. I want her to see me. I want it bad.

‘I don’t like walking,’ I complain.

‘Course you do.’ Dad throws me on his shoulders, even though I’m too old for it, and he carries me out the backdoor. I have to duck not to lose my head.

We are all the way along the cliffs before he lets me down. The cottage is only a spec above the shore now, like a speck of sand under my fingernail. Mam and Baby are so far away.

Dad laughs and sits on the ground and points at something in the opposite direction, something I don’t see. His beard’s all wild and fierce like thorny gorse.

‘Do you think a fish will fall out your beard?’ I ask, all suspicious.

He laughs at me and pats his stone hand on my head.

‘Look at that gannet,’ he shouts. The gannet floats above giving us a beady look. I’ve seen gannets before. They’re not so special. My mind skims back to Mam like a flat stone on still water. There’s this sickly feeling in my tummy, like I burnt the porridge again.

‘How’s Mammy been?’ Dad asks. He’s mind reading me. I don’t like it.

My hands get fidgety and I look at the gannet. It floats in the air and then dives for its dinner.

‘Colm?’ He sounds angry.

‘She’s beautiful well,’ I lie. It hurts my face to tell untruths.

‘And Josie?’

‘You mean Baby?’ I don’t like to talk about Baby with Dad.

He’s hunching down to my height, hands on my shoulders pressing his fingers hard. ‘You have to call her Josie, Colm. That’s her name. It’d help your Mammy if you did.’

‘Sorry,’ I say.

Dad stares into me, mind reading again. His face is all big and scary. I want to cry.

‘Has your Mam been caring for Josie?’ His fingers dig into my shoulders. I squirm.

‘Look at me, Colm.’

I look at him. ‘Home Mam’s a good Mam,’ I say.

He lets me go. ‘You know, Colm, we have to take care of your Mam. She’s not like us. She’s … different.’

‘How different?’

He wrinkles his black eyebrows together. ‘She’s a selkie, came right out of the sea.’

‘Don’t believe you.’

He laughs. There’s a horrible empty feeling inside me, but I can’t tell him about Sea Lady. He might send her back to the ocean.

‘Selkies have fur and Mam has none.’

‘Too right, Colm, but I hid it somewhere she’d never find it.’

I’m all shivery. I never knew this. What will happen if she finds it?

‘Can we go home?’ I beg.

‘Alright.’ He grabs my hand and we walk back along the cliffs. I’m cold now. I didn’t get to put my coat on before we left. When we reach the shore, Mam is walking out to sea with Baby in her arms.

I want to shout at Dad to tell him that she always needs me with her, but he’s running and lifting the two of them. He carries Mam and Baby along the shore, ahead of me, and I can’t catch up. Dad doesn’t know the right way to do things. I want to scream and tell him but I have no breath left and I’m afraid of his beard.

Dad walks across the chalk line but Sea Lady needs to step over it herself, so she knows she’s passed it and that she’s in our world again. So she knows she’s my Mam.

At the kitchen table she sits with her knees to her chin and looks out the window. Dad’s put his jumper on her and a cup of cocoa puffs hot air on the table in front of her. It turns cold and I am sorry for not drinking it. Before bed she touches me on the head, her eyes still on the window, on the sea. I hold Baby out to her but she shuts her eyes and a bit of water drips out from behind her thick lashes.

In the night I can’t sleep. A monster crunches on the rocks and spits on the shore. The Sea King is angry with me. Baby cries so I tiptoe across the floor to get her. The storm shivers through my bones. The cottage shakes so much I can hear the plates rattle on the dresser and the stones shifting about in the walls. Anything locked up or hidden must fall out.

I leave bed before the sun wakes. Baby’s curled up safe in my blanket. The kitchen is empty, only sweety wrappers on the floor. I go outside in my bare feet. All is whiteness, all is fog over the sea. There is a small black shape by the water. Sea Lady, and behind her she’s dragging it like a coat, her seal skin. My tummy turns to stone.

‘Nooo.’

I’m running.

‘No, Mammy. No.’ But she can’t hear me, can’t see me.

She’s in the water up to her knees, up to her tummy, up to her neck. The fog swirls around her and she’s gone.

‘Come back,’ I shout and push through waves so tall they cover me and push me over. And there she is again, in the swirly mist, but she doesn’t come to me. I’m swallowed by the sea king. Home Mam is gone. My throat bursts bright pain. I kick up. I see white human skin change to a silky brown coat. She is just a dark head floating on the water. I only know her eyes, the soft eyes of a seal. She looks at me and she’s not sad.

‘Mam!’ I scream and swallow water again and again.

Hands grab me, pull me, lift me.

Dad shouts too. He drops me on the hard pebbles and crashes back through the waves, but he’ll never catch her. Seals swim faster than people. The six heads of her brothers and sisters are floating on the water. They were waiting for her.

Pink and red sunlight spills across the sea and burns away the fog. The water is the colour of blood. Dad drags himself along the rocks. His cheeks are wet. So are mine, but I try to dry them with my hand.

The sun rises, turning the waves gold like a Queen’s crown and I know then that Mammy’s escaped. She’s got away from me.

Dad weeps into his hands.

‘Come on, Daddy,’ I say. ‘Let’s take you home. It’s not far. Just across the chalk line.’

[] Mythological Context: The Selkie

Due to the close association between water and the spiritual world in ancient times, the Otherworld was often considered to be located underwater (usually in the sea but also accessible through lakes and rivers) and there are numerous old stories and folklore associated with this belief. It’s no surprise therefore, that a number of narratives subsequently came into being involving creatures who lived underwater. These were known as the maighdean marra [mermaid] and fear mara [merman] but they behaved and operated within the established constraints of ‘Na Sidhe’, that is, linked to the dead and potentially dangerous to humans.

These underwater creatures were very different to the more contemporary interpretation of what’s commonly known as the mermaid: a creature with a human torso and a fish-like tail. The latter are based on elements from Assyrian tales, the Greek sirens and other, later, influential narratives such as Hans Christian Andersen’s ‘The Little Mermaid’. Elements of these overseas stories did enter Ireland, Scotland and Wales from medieval times and are thought to have had some influence on the portrayal of the original Celtic mythological creatures.

One of the most common stories involving the maighdean mara tells of a young man who spots a beautiful woman on the sea shore. When the woman puts her magic cloak aside, the man seizes it, thus taking her under his power. Accompanying him home, the maighdean mara becomes his wife and they have a number of children. One day, one of those children discovers the magic cloak, which had been hidden by the young man, and returns it to his mother. Taking the cloak, she flees back to the sea and enters it, never to be seen again. Variations of this legend are believed to have spread to Scotland and Iceland in the late Middle Ages.

Up in the Orkney Islands and the Western Isles of Scotland, these stories appear to have developed into a more specialised lore around a seal people called Selkie (the word ‘selkie’ is thought to be an old Orcadian dialect for “grey seal”) although those tales are also found in other parts of Scotland and Ireland. Much of the more common lore with respect to selkie seems to have been sourced specifically from the works of a nineteenth century Orkney writer, Walter Traill Dennison, who wrote a number of tales based on beliefs and traditions from that area, many of them romanticised and possibly differing from the original lore through the transfer to prose. The most prominent theme to this selkie folklore relates to their shapeshifting ability: they are seals who can take on human form by removing their skin or pelt. If that skin is lost or taken, the selkie is restricted to human form until it is recovered.

Molly Aitken’s innovative linking of the old selkie conceit to this tale of post-natal depression successfully imbues the story with a resonance and a level of contemporary poignancy it might not otherwise have achieved.

Brian O’Sullivan

[] The Authors

Will O’Siorain

William O’Siorain was born in Sligo, Ireland, on the 23rd of July 1991. He went to school in Dublin at Belvedere College SJ before studying applied archaeology at Sligo I.T. Today William is a full-time archaeologist and is passionate about the heritage and history of Ireland. His greatest love is fantasy writing and reading. William is currently writing an adult fantasy trilogy called Cast into Darkness. His first book “The Island of Souls” is a fast-paced novel set in a fantasy world, heavily influenced by his background and knowledge of Irish archaeology. William is currently living in Clontarf, Dublin and is working on his world, characters and story every day. He is hoping to publish his work and start a career as a fantasy author.

Diana Powell

Diana Powell was born and brought up in Llanelli, South Wales, and studied English at Aberystwyth University. Her short stories have won a number of prizes including the 2013 Allen Raine Award, and the 2014 PENfro prize. This year she has been short-listed for the Over the Edge New Writer prize, long-listed for the Sean O’Faolain, and was a runner-up in the Cinnamon competition. Her stories have appeared in several magazines, including ‘The Lonely Crowd,’ ‘Brittle Star’, and ‘The Next Review.’

She now lives with her husband in the far west of Wales, and when she is not distracted by the beauty of the coast, or the demands of her woodland garden, she writes.

She has completed a collection of tales based on Welsh folklore, and is working on a different type of collection, and a novella.

Damien Mckeating

Damien was born and sometime after that he developed a love of fantasy and horror. A childhood spent reading and writing led him inextricably to study film and screenwriting at university. He went on to work for a time as a radio copywriter but left it all behind to work as a special needs teaching assistant. He once sold a sketch to a BBC comedy show but more recently has had stories included in the Dead Roots anthology and Firewords (Issue 5). On occasion, he can be spotted writing and performing with peculiar folk band Hornswaggle. He writes daily and is currently the oldest he has ever been.

Farren Jecky

Farren Jecky was born in Galway but grew up in Donegal and has been writing since a young age. He is the lead singer and songwriter of the punk band Rural Savage and the garage group Otto & the Dix. He was nominated for Cuirt new writer of the year 2016. He currently lives in San Francisco.

Méadh de Brún

Méabh de Brún is an International Law graduate with a Masters in writing – two qualifications which have prepared her well for spinning tall tales. She is a finalist of the Cúirt Grand Slam Poetry competition and playwright of an IDWCon production nominated for Best Con Event at the Arcade Awards. Her writing has been featured at headstuff.ie, and in The Stinging Fly. You can find her waxing lyric on twitter as @jooovinile.

Molly Aitken

Molly was born in Scotland, but has spent most of her life in Ireland. After completing an Undergraduate degree in English and Classics at Galway University she decided to pursue an MA across the sea. Since completing her MA in Creative Writing from Bath Spa, she tinkers with short stories and her current novel. Molly works as a copywriter and a freelance journalist. Ireland will always be her home, however she’s recently moved to Manchester to enjoy less rain.

Brian O’Sullivan

Brian O’Sullivan was born in county Cork, Ireland. On completing a degree at University College Cork, he went on to travel extensively. He is now based in New Zealand with his partner and family but returns to Ireland on a regular basis. He runs Irish Imbas Books from Wellington and writes weekly articles on Irish folklore and mythology, aspects of Irish culture and his own writing at his blog on the Irish Imbas Books website.

Brian writes fiction that incorporates strong elements of Irish culture, language, history and mythology. These include literary short stories (The Irish Muse collection), mystery thrillers (The Beara Trilogy) and a bestselling contemporary version of the Fionn mac Cumhaill/ Fenian legends (The Fionn mac Cumhaill Series).

The Celtic Mythology Short Story Competition

The Celtic Mythology Short Story Competition is an initiative established by Irish Imbas Books to promote the writing of contemporary Celtic culture-based stories and to encourage a more accurate understanding of the Celtic cultures and Celtic mythology.

This book, the Irish Imbas: Celtic Mythology Short Story Collection 2017 is the second output from this initiative. It is hoped to repeat the competition and the publication of appropriate stories on an annual basis.

Full details for this competition can be found at the Irish Imbas Books website irishimbasbooks.com

Prizes: include:

First Prize: $500 and story published in the next Irish Imbas Celtic Mythology Collection

Second prize: $250 and story published in the next Irish Imbas Celtic Mythology Collection

Third prize: $100 and story published in the next Irish Imbas Celtic Mythology Collection

Any kind of fiction short story can be submitted (action, romance, drama, humour etc.) however they are judged against the following criteria:

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p<>{color:#000;}. Celtic mythology forms a fundamental element of the story (i.e. the characters can be characters from Celtic mythology, the action can take place in a mythological location, mythological concepts can be used etc.)

*
p<>{color:#000;}. Any Celtic folklore or mythological reference used in the story is as authentic and as correct as possible

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p<>{color:#000;}. The story has a compelling theme, engaging characters, a credible setting and a convincing storyline.

Submissions for the next competition will be accepted from September 2017.

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Other Books from Irish Imbas Books:

See the Irish Imbas Books website and blog at irishimbasbooks.com for contact details and updates on new and upcoming titles.

Beara: Dark Legends

[The Beara Trilogy – Book 1]

Nobody knows much about reclusive historian Muiris (Mos) O’Súilleabháin except that he doesn’t share his secrets freely. Mos, however, has a “sixth sense for history, a unique talent for finding lost things”.

Reluctantly lured from seclusion, despite his own misgivings, Mos is hired to locate the final resting place of legendary Irish hero, Fionn mac Cumhaill. Confronted by a thousand–year old mystery, the distractions of a beguiling circus performer and a lethal competitor, Mos must draw on his knowledge of Gaelic lore to defy his enemies and survive his own family history in Beara.

Beara: Dark Legends is the first in a trilogy of unforgettable Irish thrillers. Propulsive, atmospheric and darkly humorous, Dark Legends introduces an Irish hero like you’ve never seen before. Nothing you thought you knew about Ireland will ever be the same again.

A sample of what the reviewers say:

A great tale with all the elements of a “Who dunnit” all woven into modern and ancient Irish history and mythology.”

Fantastic book – couldn’t put it down. A ‘MUST’ read! original Irish thriller, historical novel, mystery novel, best book I’ve read in years.”

O’Sullivan has done an amazing job of introducing a culture that many would say is dying and using it as the basis for a unique and exciting thriller. I think I‘ve learned more about Irish history and the Irish language in this one book than I have in many years of school and television, without it once feeling forced or jaded.”

A great mixture of a strong story and strong characters, dark (some very dark) themes and wonderfully evocative descriptions of the wild Irish landscape, interspersed with ancient Irish lore running throughout the book.”

Excellent story, very well thought out, many twists and turns that weren’t expected. Thoroughly enjoyed the main character Mos and his no nonsense-take no crap attitude to life, he says what most of us often probably think but are too polite to say, highly entertaining!”

O’Sullivan’s cast of international characters enliven this tale of archaeological intrigue, magic, murder and sex, set mainly in West Cork, Ireland. Dual story lines, across different time zones, reveal secrets of Irish spirituality, ancient lore and language.”

 

Fionn: Defence of Ráth Bládhma:

[The Fionn mac Cumhaill Series: Book 1]

Bestseller and Finalist from the SPFBO Competition 2016

Ireland: 192 A.D. A time of strife and treachery. Political ambition and inter-tribal conflict has set the country on edge, testing the strength of long-established alliances.

Following their victory at the battle of Cnucha, Clann Morna are hungry for power. Meanwhile, a mysterious war party roams the ‘Great Wild’ and a ruthless magician is intent on murder.

In the secluded valley of Glenn Ceoch, disgraced druidess Bodhmhall and her lover Liath Luachra have successfully avoided the bloodshed for many years. Now, the arrival of a pregnant refugee threatens the peace they have created together. The odds are overwhelming and death stalks on every side.

Based on the ancient Irish Fenian Cycle texts, the bestselling Fionn mac Cumhaill Series recounts the fascinating and pulse-pounding tale of the birth and adventures of Ireland’s greatest hero, Fionn mac Cumhaill.

A sample of what the reviewers say:

An Ireland of centuries ago, threaded through with myth and magic, but very ‘real’ for all that. Dark and at times very violent, it is balanced by affirming friendships and relationships, and a very strong female cast.”

The violence and brutality of ancient Ireland presented on a very human scale, with real characters of depth and substance.”

If you’re sick of elves, chivalrous knights and arcane quests like me, this is probably the most exciting and refreshing book you’ll read in a long time. Five stars!”

Powerful female characters are all too rare in literature. The druidess Bodhmhall, and her lover the warrior Liath Luachra will inspire current and future generations of women. O’Sullivan keeps a cracking pace in this, the first of his Fionn mac Cumhaill series.’

 

The Irish Muse and Other Stories

This intriguing collection of stories puts an original twist on foreign and familiar territory. Merging the passion and wit of Irish storytelling with the down-to-earth flavour of other international locations around the world, these stories include:

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p<>{color:#000;}. a ringmaster’s daughter who is too implausible to be true — despite all the evidence to the contrary

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p<>{color:#000;}. an ageing nightclub gigolo in one last desperate bid to best a younger rival

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p<>{color:#000;}. an Irish consultant whose uncomplicated affair with a public service colleague proves anything but

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p<>{color:#000;}. an Irish career woman in London stalked by a mysterious figure from her past

A sample of what the reviewers say:

This is a delightful book of short stories by new author Brian O’Sullivan. The stories, which are set both in Ireland and New Zealand, are a mixture of tender whimsy and sharp irony, in a collection that will delight.”

It’s fiction tinged with a bit of real life experience, set in Wellington, Ireland and France amongst other places. The stories range from chance romantic encounters in a small Irish town and haunting tales of tragic personal loss to bizarre encounters between a consultant and a career woman in Wellington and one man’s attempt to get to the bottom of his internet service woes. The finale was a thought-provoking tale that upended my perception of indigenous people’s land grievances, oddly entitled ‘Morris Dancing’ It’s said that you can’t judge a book by its cover. Au contraire, I liked the look of O’Sullivan’s book and the content proved to be good.”

This is a delightful book of short stories by new author Brian O’Sullivan. The stories, which are set both in Ireland and New Zealand, are a mixture of tender whimsy and sharp irony, in a collection that will delight. It has all the clichés of Ireland, but a modern tone that interweaves the magical and realistic in a wonderful, whimsical mix.”

Liath Luachra: The Grey One

Ireland: 188 A.D. A land of tribal affiliations, secret alliances and treacherous rivalries.

Youthful woman warrior Liath Luachra has survived two brutal years fighting with mercenary war party “The Friendly Ones” but now the winds are shifting.

Dispatched on a murderous errand where nothing is as it seems, she must survive a group of treacherous comrades, the unwanted advances of her battle leader and a personal history that might be her own.

Clanless and friendless, she can count on nothing but her wits, her fighting skills and her natural ferocity to see her through.

Woman warrior, survivor, killer and future guardian to Irish hero Fionn mac Cumhaill – this is her story.

A sample of what the reviewers say:

In the legends of Fionn mac Cumhaill, Liath Luachra is an intriguing name with minimal context but in Brian O’Sullivan’s adaptions she becomes a most fascinating and formidable character in her own right. Her backstory is a great read; brigands and bloodshed, second-guessings and double-crossings. This is an Ancient Ireland that is entrancing and savage, much like Liath Luachra herself.”

I re-immersed myself in the very believable world the author creates, and couldn’t put the book down until I had finished it. It shed so much light on the character of Liath – her grim experiences and her strength in the face of adversity. I am now going back to reread the other books, which I am sure will be all the richer for a greater understanding of Liath. You don’t often come across such a compelling hero(ine), written with such depth and understanding.”

This is a fast paced traverse through bush trails and battles with a female heroine who is commanding and fascinating.”

As always, the plotting is riveting – full of twists and turns – and the action is full on, hell for leather. If you like Games of Thrones style dramas with a strong splash of Celtic culture, this is a book you’ll enjoy!”

Once again Brian O’Sullivan has created a thrilling historical drama. Liath Luachra provides strong ties to his other books (although each also stands alone very well). I think it’s the depth of knowledge and research that adds the extra dimension that appeals to me but I really liked the fast pace, the developed relationships and the writing style.’

 


Irish Imbas: Celtic Mythology Collection 2017

This fresh collection of short stories follows on from the popular 2016 collection with a new group of contemporary authors hauling ancient Celtic stories and concepts out of the shadows and placing them firmly back into the limelight where they belong. Love, mystery and drama, these fascinating tales mark a new movement of more authentic Celtic-based writing and a better understanding of Celtic cultures. Accompanied by explanatory notes on the background cultural context, this latest collection examines the stories of Macha and the naming of Eamain Macha, the deity ‘An Dagda’, ‘Changlings’, why you should be wary with crows and many others. Na Ceiltigh, abú!

  • ISBN: 9780994146847
  • Author: Brian O'Sullivan
  • Published: 2017-03-29 00:20:19
  • Words: 24960
Irish Imbas: Celtic Mythology Collection 2017 Irish Imbas: Celtic Mythology Collection 2017