I haven’t done an audio recording of Raiding Cooley for a while – and it would feel a bit too strange to do a video recording of me reading, so I think I’ll give that a miss for now.
Anyway, trying to decide what to read – whether to begin at the beginning or just pick a point at random, like I’ve done before.
OK, the very, very, very beginning.
The Prologue outlines the reasons why the Triple Goddess of War cursed the warriors of the Ulaidh Kingdom in Celtic Ireland, thereby setting the scene for the future consequences of the curse, and, incidentally, the beginning of the story proper, about 450 years later. Imperial Rome is still occupied with subduing the Celts in Gaul and Teutonics in northern Rhineland in 57 BCE but Caesar is already planning the first invasion of Britain. Ireland, while sharing extensive linguistic, cultural and extensive trade links with both Britain and Europe, remains a land of mystery, remote from Roman rule.
Transport options were fairly limited in Iron Age Ireland. There were no paved roads although at its simplest, trackways of single planks laid end to end across boggy surfaces would have been used by single pedestrians. A more stable surface would consist of tightly packed bundles of hazel or birch twigs laid in thick layers across boggy and marshy land. More elaborate were “hurdle” trackways which consisted of woven panels of brushwood placed end to end, over which logs and crude planks were laid sideways.
Excavation in a peat bog in 1994 uncovered the Corlea trackway, the largest trackway of its kind to be uncovered in Europe, extending as it did for more than a kilometre in a NW – SE direction before turning to a SW direction for a further kilometre.
Near the village of Keenagh in County Longford, Ireland, the trackway dates from approx. 148 BCE and consists of packed hazel, birch and oak planks placed lengthways. The upper surface of the
trackway was up to four metres in width with planks laid side by side on top of parallel beams and must have been used for wheeled transport.
Hundreds of oak trees would have been felled, trimmed and then labouriously split by pounding in wooden wedges along the natural grain of the wood until the trunk split into two halves, each half being then further split into crude planks. Such a major construction project of the time would have involved hundreds of people and, unlike other bog trackways or “toghers” catering to the needs of local farmers moving animals and goods across country, may have been part of a larger communication
Overland journeys were made on foot or on horseback or in heavy 4-wheeled wagons, pulled by oxen.
Despite my inclusion of chariots in my novel, Raiding Cúailnge, no archeological evidence has been found to support the use of chariots inIron Age, Celtic ireland although chariot use was widespread among European Celts.
Light, fast two-wheeled chariots were often decorated with bronze and enamel fittings and were pulled by two horses yoked together and controlled by up to five terret rings through which the reins passed, setting the angle at which the charioteer could pull on the reins.
Chariots were usually open, front and back, with double hooped sides of woven wicker, joined to a flat, springy base of interwoven rawhide strips. The base, upon which the warrior would stand, was suspended within the frame of the body, thus providing a very rough form of suspension, similar to the stage coaches used so much later in the Wild West of the USA.
Wheels had twelve wooden spokes on a fixed axel. The outer part of the wheel was the rim and the wheel itself was fashioned either by using an ash sapling which was bent and shaped until it required the requisite shape or made with six felloes. A felloe was an arc cut from a board of timber with each one abutting its neighbour. Iron was forged into a hoop and put on the wheel while still hot and as it cooled, it contracted and tied all components of the wheel together.
Coracles, small circular boats, designed for rivers and lakes, were made of cow leather stretched over a latticed wooden frame and were powered and steered by a single oarsman standing erect leaving room for one or two people only. Larger, sea-going boats had removable oars and a mast for the sail.
It is easy to assume that groups of people – tribes, clans and so on – were isolated in the Iron Age. In fact, the opposite was true – trade routes were well established connecting Ireland, Britain and continental Europe. Rome was the only game in town, spreading across North Africa, Mauretania, Cyrenaica, Arabia, Mesopotamia, Parthia, Scythia, Sarmatia, Germania, Gaul and Hispania. There was no Internet, not even a Telex or a news agency but there was the empire and its administrators, its quantity surveyors and its salesmen, purveying its values and influencing its colonies and satellites.
There was a common understanding – and appreciation – of the value of things. “Why do you, with all these grand possessions, still covet our poor huts?” was an apparent lament of the oul’ Brits when Caesar arrived in 55 BCE or something like that. I take that to mean that the Brits had some understanding of what the empire stood for and had prominent citizens and traders visiting huge cites which dwarfed their own, possibly, more humble dwellings. Big fish in small ponds suddenly made aware – but so far ignored – that there were bigger fish in larger ponds.
Anyway, inevitably, people traveled, spreading news, ideas and culture and bringing with them desirable trade items – spices, scents, slaves, ivory from North Africa used for armor (see the account of Ferdia’s armor in The Táin) while the far flung western isle had, at least, both wolf hounds and gold.
Extensive trade was long established with Gaulish Europe along settled sea routes while movement between the east coast of Ireland and what is now Scotland, Wales and England was common. Contact was probably less frequent with Greece, Scythia, Parthia, but shared knowledge – pottery, smelting – could never be unlearned while commodities like copper, tin, enamel, tortoiseshell, Tyrian purple dye from Murex glands, Falernian wine and slaves were common – but expensive – items.
Celtic Iron Age homes were generally timber framed round houses with conical thatch roofs. Doorways were low and protected by a porch to keep out wind and rain Spaces between the timber posts making up the walls were filled with woven branches of willow and plastered with straw, clay, mud and animal dung on the outside to form a waterproof shield (wattle and daub) and then whitewashed with lime on the inside if you wanted to be fancy. Roof timbers were covered with a thatch made from reed or straw. Grain was kept in underground pits or storerooms and domestic animals often shared the same space as their owners. While most houses were round, the great halls at Eamhain Macha or Cruachain were rectangular.
Noble women often had exclusive use of a Grianán (a sunny bower) but furniture was limited to rough boards or trestle tables and stools or benches. Beds usually comprised of mattresses made of straw covered with animal skins and nearly all residences were surrounded by strong defensive walls.
Lake villages were built on artificial islands – crannogs – linked to the land by narrow wooden bridges.
Settlements were called Ráth or Lios and situated at or near the mouths of rivers. Something a bit more substantial or a noble residence was called a Dún. These, usually, hilltop forts were made by heaping up huge banks of earth around the summit of a hill and then topping these ramparts with wooden walls made by rows of sharp stakes driven into the steep earth banks.
Photo from http://www.technologytom.com/html/ancient_britons.html
Every habitation, whether it was a hut, hall, shed, lean-to or bothy, was dark and smoky inside.
To avoid the trouble of relighting it and for light and cooking, wood or peat fires were kept burning continually. A cauldron could be suspended from the roof beams above the central hearth.
No smoke hole or chimney overhead meant that the fish and meat hung among the roof beams were preserved by the chemicals in the smoke, giving the food a rich, tangy taste. Some smoke would eventually dissipate and seep through the thatch.
Early clay oil lamps were imported from Gaul, usually with no handle and the wicks made from pith of rushes.
Among the “barbarian” tribes of the colder climates of the North, beyond the reach of the legions, candles were made of tallow and animal fat due the scarcity of olive oil.
The tallow was rendered down in the cauldron over the hearth and then poured into shaped bronze moulds.
With the decline of the Roman Empire and the consequent disruptions to trade, luxuries like olive oil became scarce and tallow candles became increasingly widespread.
An Tána – or in English, the Táin – is the Old Irish word for a raid or a foray, usually involving attacking a neighbour and carrying off slaves and cattle and whatever else was available, although most wealth in those days involved cattle. The most famous examples are the Táin Bó Fraoch or the Cattle Raid of Fraoch and the Táin Bó Cúailnge, or the Cattle Raid of Cooley (an area in the north east of Ireland).
The latter is the central tale in the manuscripts dealing with what is known as the Ulster Cycle comprising almost eighty tales of heroes. Unfortunately, most of early Irish literature has been lost. Originally, tales were passed down in a strictly oral tradition until the advent of Christianity in the mid fifth century. The mythological and heroic tales were then recorded by scribes in the early monasteries and centres of Christian learning and it is not surprising that they overlaid the pagan tales with Christian overtones. The manuscripts that survive show clear linguistic signs of having been copied from earlier manuscripts, now lost, having been destroyed between the eight and eleventh centuries during the incessant Viking raids of that period. Much of what was saved was then, in turn, destroyed during the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries by the organised policy of the English Penal Laws in a deliberate attempt to destroy Irish culture.
The oldest of the surviving manuscripts is the Book of the Dun Cow, or Leabhar na hUidre, an 11th century manuscript written in the monastery at Clonmacnoise, now preserved in the Royal Irish Academy in Dublin. Unfortunately, the MS contains a rather jumbled version of the Táin Bó Cúailnge, which is augumented by another jumbled account in The Yellow Book of Lecan, a 14th century manuscript now held at Trinity College Dublin.
The origins of the Táin are much older than the surviving manuscripts. The language of the earliest versions of the tales have been dated to the 8th century while some of the verse elements are possibly two centuries earlier. Most Celtic scholars now believe that the tales of the Ulster or Heroic cycle must have had a long oral existence before they were given a Christian overhaul bu monastic scribes.
I just want to let everyone know that my book Raiding Cúailnge will be published on Wednesday 20 April 2016 as a multi-format ebook. As many of you may know, the book is an historical / fiction novel based on Old Irish manuscripts. I hope you’ll take time to take a look at
If the old story-tellers and later scribes can be believed, beauty was an essential attribute to the Celtic way of life with analogies drawn from nature and the language was rich with similes such as “Eyes bright as flowers” or; “eyebrows dark a s a beetle’s wings”; and “teeth white like pearls” and “cheeks pink like foxgloves”.
Women seemed to have had long hair in braids while men kept their hair short – about level with the ears.
Warriors preferred to have blond hair –often bleached with crushed and burnt limestone mixed with water used to bleach and stiffen the hair! Grease was added to make their hair stand up before a battle. This mode was often favoured by warriors who had adopted the horse as their totem. The hair piled on top of the skull also served to protect the head from blows. However, extensive use of lime burnt the scalp and caused premature baldness!
Soap was made from urine and woods (Whose job was that, I wonder? But why would you bother?)
A blue dye made from woad – a plant related to flax – was used to paint and decorate the skin much like modern henna “tattoos today
Let’s get down to a bit of nitty-gritty and look at Iron Age Celtic weapons.
The weapon of choice was, of course, the sword. Heavy iron swords were used for cutting and slashing. With the advance of smelting technology, high quality, flexible blades with a sharp cutting edge were developed. Swords forged from meteorite iron were rare and considered invincible.
Swords scabbards were made of bronze, wood or leather while highly decorated swords hilts were considered a sign of the high status warrior.
In addition to the sword, the spear, a large, heavy one used for thrusting, was the primary weapon used both in hunting and in war . A smaller lighter one was used for throwing from horseback or chariot and for close quarters use. Spear blades were often serrated to lacerate the flesh on withdrawing. Note the extraordinary weapon Cú Chulainn used with such devastating effect, the Gae Bolga – a short stabbing spear, which opened up its thirty barbs when jerked back, making it impossible to withdraw it. At one point in the epic, Cú Chulainn orders his charioteer to cut the weapon free from the body as the only way of retrieving the spear.
Kill shots with the spear would be to the face, the throat and groin. Against enemies with shields, often only the top of the head and shins are exposed. Warriors would stand perpendicular to their enemy in one-on-one combat, their knees bent to lower their centre of gravity, aiming to provide a narrow target to their opponent.
Long rectangular shields, unlike the later round shields of the Viking era, were made of wood or leather with a central, external boss (a central hub) made of bronze to protect the hand on the inside.
Helmets were made of leather, soaked, salted and then covered with lacquer to harden it.
Iron mail shirts were first invented c 300BCE but were worn only by the noblest and most high status warriors.
Cloth and leather slings, bows and arrows were not considered to be a warrior’s weapons. The warrior’s goal was to engage the enemy in single combat and behead him. To kill from a distance and not to see the victims face, where was the honour in that? Nevertheless, throughout the Táin, on which I based my novel, Raiding Cúailnge, Cú Chulainn, in his single handed defence of the north from the invading army of Connacht, relies on picking off Queen Medb’s forces with skilful, long distance sling shots, using river pebbles or hard-baked balls of clay.
I wrote a recent post somewhere where I was almost gloating about having cracked this blog thingy and I wrote something just now, destined, I though, for the Book category and then I did something – probably not saved the bloody thing – and it all disappeared. I know if that happened in Word or something like that, I could probably get it back but here, I am a mere suckling in the wilderness.
Anyway, what I had written about was that this day two weeks from now, my first novel , Raiding Cúailnge, will be published. Published, is that the right term?. My novel will be available as an Ebook at all major retailers.
Does that demean, diminish or belittle the work? Does it open the floodgates to vapid twaddle if everyone has a “licence” to write? What do the gatekeepers of traditional publishers feel about the inroads being made into the preserves of the privileged few who landed a contract with a publishers? To tell you the truth, I don’t care. I couldn’t care less about it but Iam just thrilled to have my novel, my brainchild, out there, available online to God knows how many countless millions if they could only just find it!