Ancient Celtic myths tell of vengeful thieves, backstabbing comrades, inebriated thugs, and wicked women. This collection brings characters inspired by these dubious role models into (mostly) today’s Ireland. Their mobile phoning and pill-popping counterparts rely on criminal pursuits – and the pursuit of criminals. The beer, the wanton women, and the chemicals may be more exotic in the retellings, but the (mostly) grim tales of haunting, revenge, and payback capture the raw scenes of the original tales, full of passion, release, death, and vendettas.
Editors Gerard Brennan and Mike Stone arrange 17 entries. Stuart Neville opens the anthology with a lively take on his Armagh hometown’s Queen Macha. Her erstwhile latest paramour, as he approaches her modern incarnation, reflects: “Back then he’d have done anything for a taste of the Queen, but as she took the last of him, his fingers tangled in her dyed crimson hair, he noticed the blood congealing on her knuckles.” Sam Millar spins his shamus Karl Kane’s saga wittily. “If I’d been any more sociable, I’d have needed a condom.” Kane and colleagues investigate, of all places in Belfast, a Jewish abattoir. As with many authors here, Millar ingeniously arranges venerable symbols into surprising patterns.
T.A. Moore’s “Red Milk” in its mayhem reminds me of a savage screenplay. A wake may seem too familiar, but this scene gains sharpness: “They sat around a table in their black shabby plumage, drinking sweet tea and saying the faults of the dead like a rosary. Go in there, and they wouldn’t be backward about coming forward with the sins of the living either.” Later, one sinner warns another: “I will beat you ‘til both sides of your face match.” Moore renders her snarling, shouting characters vividly. As with other stories, hers takes place among stables and beasts. The ancient tales shared these scenes, but not as chronicles of the cooking of chemicals or the distribution of drugs.
Tony Bailie serves up druidry and reincarnation as revenge. Maxim Jakubowski follows the triple goddess the Morrigan through lowlife Dublin. Arlene Hunt regales us with horse trading. Ken Bruen in his characteristically staccato style conjures up the banshee. Three authors in their introductory notes credit the ‘70s electric folk-rock band Horslips for inspiration. I recommend their albums The Táin and The Book of Invasions as a soundtrack to amplify these tales. These renditions of passions and betrayals of ancient Ireland filtered through traditional and rock music share the bloody, loud, and ornery nature of characters in these pages.
As the collection continues, stories start to echo one another. For instance, the tragic lovers Diarmuid and Gráinne earn a similarly sad version from Adrian McKinty.Then, Garbhan Downey revamps their tale into a lusty, silly send-up. Warrior clans evolve into Derry’s football rivals. Teams stock their ranks with immigrants from Chechnya, Russia, and Brazil. This comments cleverly on today’s cosmopolitan Irish society.
Two roughly paired stories at the center of this collection evoke poignantly another cultural transition. They are the only two stories not taking place in contemporary Ireland. John McAllister sketches how a rough justice emerged as Christianity loomed over 5th century pagan Ireland. Una McCormack shifts a few years back in this same setting. She imagines a confrontation between Celtic and Roman methods to correct injustice, through the arrival of the boy who will become Patrick. Both stories capture the uneasy atmosphere of an island filled with clans – loyal to pagan gods and brutal customs – who must soon face the coming of Christianity.
Neville Thompson’s “The Children of Gear” sets the story of The Children of Lír among the addicts and dealers plaguing today’s Dublin. This sparely told tale haunted me as much as the original, with its abandoned children, cruel stepmother, and trapped father. Dave Hutchinson, like Millar, puts an attenuated Jewish connection into his story; his opens as a reality show features “the last surviving and very aged member of U2.” One old woman has faint blue tattoos like many from the past (and our present) generations; another upright gent conceals in his trousers his risque piercing, a Prince Albert. Hutchinson directs us to look backward from the prospect of the near future. Today’s daring poses will turn frail and awkward soon enough.
In the closing story, “The Life Business”, the fantasy master who writes as John Grant draws upon his “real name” and real-life teenage stint as a British cadet. He integrates disturbing and emotional reveries into his shape-shifting characters. His story rattled me the most. Grant eerily channels otherworldly senses into a psychological study of identity.
I’d caution that if you lack familiarity with these Irish myths, some stories may elude your full grasp. All contributors give introductions, yet some gloss over their original inspirations. The stories fall into three sections paralleling standard classifications of the Ulster cycle, folk figures, and Fianna warriors, but the editors could have followed through on reminding readers of the context for this archaic arrangement. A couple of stories, very compressed, moved too swiftly for me to grasp them.
All the same, for those who wish to acquaint themselves with the original stories, sample Frank Delaney’s Legends of the Celts or Mary Heaney’s Over Nine Waves. Or check out those two Horslips albums. With the combination of murder, mayhem, and madness on the page matched with what blasts from your speakers, this will transport you back to the spirit of a Celtic past, and the multicultural island’s present. This book’s full of entertaining slaughter, gory slug fests, and, being Irish, the lingering touch of inevitable longing, heartache, and loss.