The Celtic Spirit of YA (feat. some roasts)
On Twitter in recent weeks, there have been some interesting conversations about Irishness, Celticism, and tradition. I’ve been sort of quiet on the subject, mostly because I was figuring out the best way to address the issues I was seeing.
And then I read this post from NaturallyOrla called 'Do Fantasy Writers Think Irish is Discount Elvish?’
It made me think, is it true? Do they really think of Irish as… a fantasy language? A fantasy culture?
The answer is yes.
If you read my last blog post where I talked about Irish literature, you’ll probably be able to tell that I’m pretty passionate about it. So when I read that post, I knew I really wanted to discuss the use of Celtic and Irish imagery in books.
THE IRISH LANGUAGE
The main crux of Orla’s argument was that the Irish language is often used as a ‘mystical’ language that doesn’t really exist. It’s a stand-in for the more traditional Latin or Greek or even Old English, giving books (and TV) a magical, wistful air.
Treating Irish like this disregards the fact that it’s a living language still in use today by many, many people! It also ignores the difficult history of our language. I mentioned the play ‘Cathleen Ni Houlihan’ in my last blog post as part of what launched a Gaelic Revival in Ireland. That period was the point in Ireland’s history—the early 20th century, when the country was still colonised by England—when people began a public movement to reclaim the culture that was forcibly stamped out for a long time.
Irish has come a long way since people gathered in their localities to study the language together, under threat of punishment by English laws. So when writers use Irish as if it’s a dead language they can twist for their own means, it’s a pretty poor statement.
So, in conclusion: —Irish isn’t your fun fantasy language you can throw in to make it exciting, make your own language, this one is ours babes and we still USE IT.
WHAT’S IN A NAME
I want to mention one small thing that always causes a bit of an online pile-on, probably a couple times a year. It’s the use of the term ‘Gaelic’. Irish people… don’t like that term, usually. When we’re talking about the Irish language/culture, we say ‘Irish’. And if we’re talking about it in Irish, or specifically about the Irish language with other Irish speakers, we might say Gaeilge. But not Gaelic. Gaelic refers to a collection of languages that have similar roots, not the language of Ireland.
WHAT’S A CELT ANYWAY?
I won’t lie: if I see ‘Celtic’ in a book description, I run the other way. Because, more often that not, books that involve Celticism don’t seem to distinguish between Celtic cultures whatsoever. They’ll mix Scottish and Irish myths into a happy little soup; they’ll throw a bit of Welsh in there for spice and then they’ll mix English legends in. Just… for fun? As if the whole of Britain and Ireland share some kind of weird singular culture that a) disregards the fact that England isn’t Celtic and b) ignores that Scotland, Wales and Ireland are… different countries?
The key to using elements from any Celtic tradition in your work is to do your research. Celtic countries/regions often have difficult and complex ties with empire and oppression, and to mistreat those elements can often be crude, if not downright offensive.
Conflating the traditions of Celtic regions disregards the fact that ‘Celtic’ is a new concept. It was coined in the 18th century by Edward Lhuyd! You can’t just mix Celtic traditions as if Celtic means one thing when honestly it’s a term that isn’t even used that often. It’s accepted as a Broad Term that refers to many cultures with some shared points but it doesn’t point to anything specific!
Research doesn’t mean glancing at the definition of whatever spicy figure from Irish mythology you want to throw into your novel. It means checking historical backgrounds, etymology, and reading a wide variety of source material when it’s available. If it’s not, read secondary work.
TÚS MAITH LEATH NA HOIBRE (A GOOD START IS HALF THE WORK) There’s one example of poor research that stands out to me and which made the rounds on Irish Twitter a while back. It’s the infamous spellbook from an episode of Buffy the Vampire Slayer, which is supposed to be some kind of magic or something.
It’s about a bus lane in Dublin.
I’m not kidding. Here it is:
This isn’t only poor research. It’s completely disregarding the fact that Irish is a living language. They could have paid a Gaeilgóir (Irish speaker) to translate something for them. They could have respectfully used Irish and given it value, but they chose not to.
There’s also that episode of Supernatural where they pronounce the Irish word ‘samhain’ (sow-in in Connemara dialect) as Sam-hayne. Like, you can Google that guys. It’s not that hard.
LET’S TALK: THE RAVEN CYCLE BY MAGGIE STIEFVATER
Then there’s the most famous YA example of ‘Celtic’ legends: Maggie Stiefvater’s The Raven Cycle. Now, I don’t want to slam Stiefvater at all—I love the series a lot and it was one of my major inspirations to start writing!
But, uhh… there are some issues.
So Glendower is anglicised, for one. I kind of get that. Readability, American audience, etc. The Welsh is Glyndŵr (to my knowledge—correct me if I’m wrong!) which I guess could be confusing. I feel like you’d get used to it after four books, but whatever (maybe I’ll rant another time about how fundamentally useless the push for ‘familiarity’ in literature is). Then we’ve got Gansey, whose name is a twisted version of the Irish geansaí, meaning jumper. Okay, it’s a cute little reference, Maggie Stiefvater is a fan of Irish stuff, we know that. She plays Irish music and stuff, right? I mean, she calls the uilleann pipes ‘Irish pipes’, which is a term I never heard used before her. Because that’s not what they’re called. But okay.
RavensLynch on Tumblr did a great post about some weird Irish stuff in Call Down the Hawk which relates to the use of the term ‘Fenian’, which is… interesting.
And then there’s the audiobook.
So, the audiobooks are available for free on Spotify, if you use that service. And they’re good! I’m not mad at them. But there’s one thing—one seemingly tiny thing but actually a massive Buffy-esque fuck-up lazy act—that irritated the life out of me.
Not Niall like ‘Nile’, which is how it’s said because it’s an Irish name that comes from the Irish language (no, our names are not hard to pronounce, they’re just not English).
He says Neil.
It’s really not that hard! It’s not! It’s a basic bitch Irish name and it’s super easy to find the pronunciation! I don’t know how they messed this up, but they did. If you want to listen for yourself, you can find an example over on Spotify: The Dream Thieves, Chapter 1, at the 03:00 mark.
Honestly, a lot of stuff about the Lynch family in The Raven Cycle makes me… uncomfy. Ronan’s alcohol problems, for one. Irish characters are stereotyped enough as loving alcohol, and writing an Irish character with an alcohol-laced background is certainly a choice—just not a very good one.
It’s not that it’s offensive—it’s that, to anyone who is actually Irish, it’s awkward. And wrong.
There’s a lot of pretty yikes fandom stuff about Ronan too, which just boils down to paddywhackery. It’s stage Irish, it’s bad, it’s problematic, and it comes from an imperialist narrative used as propaganda to dehumanise Irish people. Neat!
PADDYWHACKERY In general in the writing community, I’ve seen a lot of weird treatment of Irishness. I’m talking Irishness in particular because a) that’s what I can speak on and b) I think this is partly particular to Ireland?
There’s a sense that anyone who knows an Irish person can tell a story about Ireland. Or anyone whose great-great-great grandparents came from Ireland, despite them growing up in an entirely American context (yes, this is an Irish-American callout post, I’m sorry). There’s this idea that having some vague amount of Irishness in your background means you can write about ‘the Emerald Isle’ like a native (you can’t lmao, also don’t call it that).
Being interested in Irish culture is great. If Ireland is a part of your background, wonderful! But to speak on Irish matters without ever having stepped foot in the country smells of ignorance. We are not leprechauns, nor are we faeries.
Using Irish culture in a way that isn’t appropriate doesn’t fly because we are a post-colonial nation. By using Irishness in a stage way, by perpetuating the Paddy Irish caricature, by throwing our heritage in with other countries negates the 800 years of imperialism that nigh-on wrecked the country.
Being 1/18th Irish American doesn’t give you the right to tell our stories—especially if they deal with touchy, painful subjects like The Famine or The Troubles. Just… don’t. Don’t touch them with a ten-foot pole. They’re not for you.
If you’re interested in learning more about Irish people today, I’ve got two recommendations for you.
The first is Úna-Minh Kavanagh, who is a wonderful writer and whose first book, Anseo, discusses growing up in Ireland and learning a love for the language at an early age. I sobbed reading this book because Úna-Minh’s relationship with her Irish-speaking grandfather was so sweet. The book is also interspersed with cute and useful Irish phrases and even pronunciation guides!
The second is a podcast by Blindboy Boatclub found over at The Blindboy Podcast (an extremely funny and comforting show but probably not safe for your office). He has a couple of episodes specifically about Irish history. Usually I’d say go back to the start of the podcast, but if you want a good intro, there’s an episode where he interviews director Spike Lee and they talk New York, hip hop, and Irish Americans. It’s called ‘A Spike Lee Joint full of boldy’ and it’s well worth a listen.
If you made it this far, thank you for reading.
Goodbye and good luck, Yves ☾