how the old stories inspire today’s irish writers with modern seanchai alan walsh
Updated: Sep 3, 2020
The Book of Conquests by Jim Fitzpatrick
I had picture books of illustrations by Jim Fitzpatrick, when I was growing up. This was probably my first exposure to Irish myth, that and the obligatory Children of Lir they teach you in school. I used to like to copy out Jim Fitzpatrick’s pictures, owing to how much I liked their style, how they depicted a strange, ethereal world, like something from an old metal album cover, only more refined. So it was really that, as a boy, and then years of not really caring much for the old stories in way or another until I moved to London.
I had lived abroad before, in Italy, and had gotten along very well trying my hand at reading Italian authors, but for some reason, while living in London, I went and sought out books of old Irish stories. Not just Irish, either, but volumes of old Celtic tales, from Wales and Scotland, from France and other parts of mainland Europe laying claim to that heritage. Then further afield, taking in mythology from Scandinavia and Russia, from Africa and the Middle East and on and on. It ran a little like languages, each border two cultures met, the mythologies cross-pollinated easily.
Sour by Alan Walsh
London is very much a drinking culture. It’s not uncommon to take a pint with your colleagues at lunch and pick it up again after work on a Tuesday. I happened to be working in IT, which meant I was in an office with a wide range of nationalities, all of whom were curious sorts by nature. When they found out I was reading mythology they asked me to recite something.
Well, the only one that came to mind consistently, was Deirdre of the Sorrows. I’m still not sure why. I think maybe it’s because of how it ends. The same way Romeo and Juliet endures because of the horrific ending, this story lingers because it almost couldn’t have ended more horribly. It was all but guaranteed a reaction from a listening group. I still find that when I tell the story now, even here at home. Maybe that’s when I started wondering about Sour.
I had been writing a story about a murder in a small, dreary rural town in Ireland. It was kind of a procedural really. The lead character was a detective, he introduced the reader to one weird character after another as he pursued his line of questioning. The idea was the reader would uncover how the town was a kind of microcosm of the nation as they read along. But it lacked a hook until it dawned on me the crime I had in mind wasn’t a hundred miles away from the old story of Deirdre and the Sons of Uislu, and right then I set about working out how I might be able to use the old tale. It felt strange, on one level, re-purposing an old, almost sacred cultural element to fit my own needs, but I think that’s where the fun came in and that what provoked me into pushing the boundaries of taste with some of the more famous of Ireland’s heroes.
Fionn Mac Cumhaill as an unemployed wide-boy, downing cans of cider and passing his days playing X-Box on the ghost estate he lives in with his mates was a lot of fun to imagine. The kind of young men you see roaming streets in groups of about six in the small hours of the morning, with their dogs. This was the Fianna, there being no reason you can’t find old fashioned courage and heroism in characters as modern as this.
Cuchullain was re-imagined as a battle-scarred old traveller, bossed by his wife, passing his time watching afternoon television, but still managing to strike fear into the souls of the characters who come to ask for his help, along with everyone else in the town. Casting Ireland’s great epic hero as a traveller was interesting to me, owing to how that culture is so entwined with what we think of as Irish going back as far as the sixteenth century.
That the story is told by a Puca opened up a wide range of opportunities, as the mischievous supernatural being is most probably the very definition of the unreliable narrator. I was pleased mostly with how much potential the character gave me to bring in nature and give it character, how trees were angry about deforestation, how a cloud can be a hate-filled bastard, that mountains choose to look different based on how you look at them. I hoped people might be prepared to accept those kind of absurd digressions from a nebulous trickster.
Deirdre herself was the easiest to write, I think. In the original story, she kills herself at the end. Many people read that as an act of despair, but it always felt to me more like an act of defiance. When she was told she’d be shared between the two men she hated most, she showed them she was still in control of herself, if only in this last, awful way.
That idea really informed how she was written, an outright rebel from the first time we meet her. Not just an ordinary one either, a provocative, showy, angry rebel. Someone who has ostracised herself from the whole town. Only later do we learn she hasn’t just been rebelling against her father, but rather the whole town itself too, which she sees as complicit. Writing as the Puca gave me license to paint these characters with broad strokes, making them much larger than life, along with all the incidental characters, like the Morrigan, an old lady in a bowler hat doing an Open University course in fine art and also the smoking, grouchy crow that follows Deirdre wherever she goes.
Writing a book is a strange experience as it relates to a particular timespan in your life as much as anything else. I guess it’s much the same as reading one now I think of it. This one, for me, will always be the book I wrote between London and Dublin, between when I had the life of a tearaway to when I met my wife and we had a little boy together. I’ll always look back on the book with this in mind. I still read Irish mythology very regularly, and enjoy seeing it being re-purposed and re-imagined as much as and even more than I have, as this is definitely the only way to keep the old tales alive.
I’m a writer, designer and recently a father too, who returned to Dublin a couple of years ago after living abroad in Bologna, Florence and London, doing all kinds of jobs from teacher to delivery-man to commis-chef.
Sour is my first novel, published by Pillar and available in all the very best places.
I tweet pretty often @Alan_Walsh_77
Find me on my blog here: http://alanwalshblog.blogspot.ie
There’s a whole website about the book at: http://sourthenovel.weebly.com