Monday, August 07, 2023

Author’s notes: Britannia and Beyond - Hibernia

If you’re reading this, that probably means you’ve purchased a copy of the latest Cthulhu Invictus sourcebook from Golden Goblin Press: Britannia and Beyond, a Call of Cthulhu guide to Britannia, Caledonia and Hibernia in the Roman era. Thanks for your support of the book, and your interest in the subject. 

Here, I’ve detailed some of the thinking that went into writing my chapter, which is focused on Iron-Age Ireland during the Antonine period, as well as describing and detailing some of the many sources which informed my work.

Before proceeding, I should acknowledge that I am neither an academic nor Irish (my great-great-grandmother Ellen Brady was born in Country Clare, emigrating to Australia after losing her family in An Gorta Mór, but that definitely doesn’t make me Irish-Australian – I’m Australian through and through, for better or worse).

In writing about Ireland in the Roman era for Britannia and Beyond, I drew instead on a great love for Irish music, history, mythology and culture, fostered by three visits to Ireland to date (including two extended visits in 2019 and 2022) as well as several decades’ experience of writing and running tabletop roleplaying games.

Irish scholars will doubtless be horrified at some of the elisions I have made in writing this chapter, for which I can only apologise. Some Irish readers may also have cause for complaint; all I can offer are my apologies if I’ve got anything seriously wrong. Feedback and constructive criticism are also welcome.

My primary purpose in writing the Hibernia chapter was to be as historically accurate as possible (albeit reflecting the fact that I’m a professional writer, not a trained historian) while also providing a vivid, vibrant and hopefully inspiring setting for Cthulhu Invictus games set in Ireland. This is, after all, intended primarily an aid to collective storytelling rather than a history book – in which case I can only hope experts in Irish prehistory and mythology, as well as any Irish readers generally, will forgive any mistakes or distortions.

History vs Pseudohistory

One of the earliest decisions I made in writing my chapter was to ignore the patchwork pseudo-historical sources that allegedly detail Irish history from the creation of the world through to the medieval period.

While they’re undoubtedly entertaining, the ‘histories’ detailed in Lebor GabálaÉrenn (‘The Book of Invasions), Annála na gCeithre Máistrí (‘Annals of the Four Masters’) and related sources are largely works of fiction – though some would argue that they may nonetheless contain the occasional grain of truth. 

Even Táin Bó Cuailnge (‘The Cattle Raid of Cooley’), which was once claimed to be “a window on the Iron Age” (to quote K. H. Jackson’s The Oldest Irish Tradition, 1964) is now generally believed to be heavily embellished, with countless classical allusions and references grafted onto its early oral core. This was known to be the case even in the Medieval period, with one of the transcribers of the Book of Leinster circa 1160 AD (which contains the most complete version known of the Táin) calling the events he had studiously copied “poetic figments”.

To quote J.P. Mallory’s In Search of the Irish Dreamtime: Archaeology & Early Irish Literature (Thames & Hudson, 2016) regarding the Táin:

“If we return to the subject of historicity, we should realise by now that while we might argue that mediaeval scribes may have believed that they were recording history, it is probably fairer to say that at very best, they imagined they were writing stories ‘based on actual events’. When they reached either within their memory or on the shelves of their scriptorium for a choice simile from classical literature, or wanted to gild their descriptions of their Secondary World with material drawn from the Bible, Latin literature, or what Brother Brendan had seen in one of the palaces of the Merovignians, they knew full well that they were not writing out eyewitness accounts of past events. After all, in their translations of Latin literature they did not hesitate to occasionally Hibernicize their descriptions of weapons, clothes and burial.


“In the end the early mediaeval Irish literati created a Secondary World that they passed off as the Irish Iron Age. That they did a superb job is evident in the centuries of scholars who have argued whether this imagined world was a real document from Ireland's prehistoric past.” 

Consequently, the Hibernian chapter of Britannia and Beyond focuses to the best of my ability on historical fact as it is known (with a caveat: much of the prehistory of ancient Ireland remains frustratingly illusive) rather than dwelling on the stories of Ireland’s settlement by Noah’s granddaughter Cessair and subsequent invaders the Muintir Partholóin, Nemedians, Fir Bolg and Milesians.

Where such elements are included, e.g. as references to the Tuatha dé Danann and their monstrous rivals the Fomóire, they have been given an appropriately Lovecraftian twist.

Some fragments of Iron Age Ireland doubtless remain in the Irish epics, and certainly they can provide considerable inspiration for the individual Keeper, but overall, I chose to minimalise my reliance on such texts as much as possible.

That said, certain aspects of this imagined Irish Iron Age are simply too good to ignore. Which is why, despite the evidence for chariots in the period being “meagre at best,” (Mallory’s In Search of the Irish Dreamtime again, Chapter Eight) I simply couldn’t resist including rules for chariot combat in my chapter, even if the description of Cú Chulainn’s “scythed chariot” in the Táin “certainly appears to be a borrowed literary device onto which has been heaped a mountain of fantastic description” (Mallory, ibid).

Concerning continuity

My next hurdle was to ascertain whether or not I should stick faithfully to what was previously written about Ireland for Call of Cthulhu to date. While writing the earliest drafts of the Hibernia chapter in early 2021, I managed to obtain a second-hand copy of Colin Dunlop’s excellent Miskatonic University monograph Mysteries of Ireland (Chaosium, 2012) and also a copy of Chaosium’s Strange Aeons II (2010), containing Eckhard Huelshoff’s Irish-set scenario ‘To Hell or Connaught’.

As a guide to Ireland in the 1920s Mysteries of Ireland is excellent, though I disagreed with Dunlop’s decision to identity the monstrous, misshapen Fomorians with H.P. Lovecraft’s Deep Ones. Dunlop’s identification is presumably inspired by Peter Tremayne’s chilling short story ‘Daoine Domhain’ in Aisling and other Irish Tales of Terror (Brandon, 1992), but from a linguistic perspective, there are a few key reasons why such an identification feels wrong to me.

Firstly, the Fomorians or Fomori (Old Irish: Fomóire) were previously identified with the ocean only because of a linguistic error.

As noted by Dáithí O hOgáin in The Lore of Ireland: An Encyclopaedia of Myth, Legend and Romance (The Boydell Press, 2006):


“Their designation (earlier, Fomoiri) meant ‘underworld phantoms’, but from a confusion of the archaic word mor or mór (phantom) with muir (sea) they came to be known as sea pirates.”

(This reference to sea pirates did make me briefly consider creating a dying tribe of degenerate Neanderthals or similar early humans eking out a living on an island or islands off Hibernia’s west coast, who periodically raid the mainland in search of food or mates to replenish their bloodstock and which are called Fomorians by those they raid, but I quickly abandoned the idea – primarily because I was already well over my word count. If the idea appeals to the Keeper, they are welcome to reinstate it.)

Similarly, Patricia Monaghan in The Encyclopedia of Celtic Mythology and Folklore (Facts on File, 2003) notes:  


“Earlier interpretations of them [the Fomorians] as sea monsters or pirates have been discounted as based on false etymology, for the mor in their names is not the word for ‘sea’ but for ‘phantom’. More commonly they are now interpreted as the remnant ghosts of ancient divinities whose people, subjugated in early invasions, remained in Ireland and intermingled (and intermarried) with the invaders.”

This notion of the Formori being “the remnant ghosts of ancient divinities” and “underworld phantoms,” coupled with French linguist and literary scholar’s Marie-Louise Sjoested linking the Fomorians to “the powers of chaos, ever latent and hostile to cosmic order,” in Gods and Heroes of the Celts (Methuen, 1949) led me to identify the Fomóire with Lovecraft’s chthonic Great Old Ones, monstrous beings out of time whose memories linger on as horror-haunted myth even in the Antoine Period.

The Fomorians, as depicted by John Duncan (1912).

I also chose to ignore the events and characters of Huelshoff’s ‘To Hell or Connaught’ scenario in Strange Eons II, though for more personal reasons, given that the scenario casts the players of members of Cromwell’s invading New Model Army of 1649.

When the scenario begins, the investigators are relaxing after ‘conquering’ Drogheda, with Huelshoff completely glossing over the massacre of thousands of men, women and children by Cromwell’s troops after the town’s walls were breached. Frankly, I find the whole scenario a trifle offensive – if nothing else, it suggests the author has at best a shallow knowledge of Irish history, at worst a belief that Cromwell’s invasion was somehow a ‘civilising force’ rather than a repugnant act of colonialism.

Huelshoff’s decision to focus on a shape-shifting Serpent Man (a former enemy of St Patrick) as the scenario’s primary protagonist also rankled, given I wished to downplay the prominence of Serpent Men in my chapter where possible.

The Serpent Men have already been described as playing a prominent role in nearby Caledonia in Stuart Boon’s excellent Shadows Over Scotland (Cubicle 7, 2011) so it felt repetitive to award them so similar a role in Ireland in the Roman period. Nor did I wish to suggest St Patrick’s ‘driving the snakes out of Ireland’ was in any way a metaphor for a battle against the Serpent Men, given the regrettable destruction of the pagan way of life that followed Patrick’s eventual return to Ireland circa 433 AD. And speaking of St Patrick…

Where is Crom Cruach?

The dark god Crom Cruach (Old Irish: Cromm Crúaich) was allegedly a pagan god of ancient Ireland propitiated by blood sacrifice, and whose idol (located on Magh Slécht aka ‘The Plain of Prostrations’ in County Cavan) was said to be cast down by Patrick himself.

In the guise of a monstrous deity, Crom Cruach also appears in the comic book series Sláine (1983 – 2019) and the acclaimed Cartoon Saloon animation, The Secret of Kells (2009), among other more recent sources.

Crom Cruah in Cartoon Saloon's The Secret of Kells

However, historical evidence for the existence of Crom Cruach is thin. St Patrick himself makes no mention of this deity and its demon-haunted idol in his 5th century Confessio – an unusual oversight, one would think. Nor are the deity and Patrick’s battle with it mentioned in two important 7th century biographies about Saint Patrick. In fact the existence of the idol and Patrick’s battle with its attendant demon do not appear until considerably later in the mediaeval period.

Referencing the growing influence of ‘the pseudohistorical movement’ that spawned the likes of Lebor Gabála Érenn (‘The Book of Invasions’), Mark Williams’ Ireland’s Immortals: A History of the Gods of Irish Myth (Princeton University Press, 2016) notes:

“In the ninth-century Tripartite Life of Patrick, the saint casts down a great idol of the pagan Irish, known as Cenn Crúach (‘Bloody Head); the demon who inhabit the image properly appears, but Patrick curses him and casts him into Hell. There is no evidence that Cenn Crúach was once a genuine Irish deity. He is never numbered amongst the Túatha Dé, who (as seen) are never depicted as the recipients of human worship; this, in contrast, is Cenn Crúach’s main function.”

Williams continues:

“In the dindshenchas [early Irish texts recounting the origins of place-names and traditions concerning events and characters associated with the places in question] the idol, under the variant name Crom Crúach (‘Bloody Crookback’) is said … to have been propitiated with the sacrifice of first-born children in exchange for good yields of milk and grain. This sinister figure is plainly inspired by Biblical images of bloodthirsty pagan deities like Moloch, just as depictions of druids in early Irish saints’ lives owe more to the Biblical priests of Ba’al, opponents of the prophet Elijah, than to native tradition.”

Consequently, I have chosen to ignore the existence of Crom Cruach and its cult in my interpretation of prehistoric Ireland. Keepers wishing to include the existence of such a cult, and whichever Lovecraftian deity might be behind it, are of course welcome to reinstate it as required.


One of the greatest challenges in writing about prehistoric Ireland is that there’s so little documented history to draw from. Unlike continental Europe and the UK, where the historical record begins with the Roman invasion, Irish prehistory extends from the Palaeolithic, or Old Stone Age, all the way through to the coming of Christianity circa 400 AD. Consequently, without written records to draw upon, a certain degree of imagination is required when writing about the Irish peoples circa 145 AD.

For this reason, I’ve extrapolated from a number of later sources in order to describe the fundamentals of Irish society in the Roman period; anachronisms abound in my chapter as a result.

My reference to Brehon law is a prominent example. The earliest examples of codified Brehon law date from the 7th and 8th centuries AD, far later than the historical period in which Britannica and Beyond is set – but frankly, without wholesale invention of an imagined Irish society of the day, I felt I had little choice.

Creatively and historically, this decision also felt justified given there are suggestions that Brehon law may provide “a somewhat blurred window on the pre-Christian legal system” of Ireland, to quote David D. Friedman (Legal Systems VeryDifferent From Ours, independently published, 2019).

For similar reasons I’ve included basic descriptions of early Irish family and tribal structures (such as the fine and túath) which date from the same period as Brehon Law; I also referenced the existence of five Irish provinces rather than the modern four (referencing politician/historian Eoin MacNeill’s claim that Éire’s division into five provinces is “the oldest certain fact in the political history of Ireland”) despite the anachronistic nature of such details. I can only hope that my decision to do so is not too jarring for any Irish readers or experts in Irish history who peruse Britannica and Beyond.

The Irish language

The use of contemporary Irish language in the chapter is something I definitely wish I could have addressed had I more time and greater access to Ancient Irish-speaking academics during my research and writing.

The Irish language has gone through several phases to end up with the language we hear today. Its antecedents are Ancient or Primitive Irish (circa 5th century AD), Old Irish (6th century), Middle Irish (10th century) and Classical Modern Irish (1200-1600 AD) which eventually evolved into the Modern Irish spoken today. But what language was spoken in Hibernia circa 145 AD?

The clumsy phrase “Proto-Irish” may have to suffice to describe the Goidelic language of this period. Given this language was at an early stage of development, having only split from the Proto-Celtic language relatively recently in game terms (circa 900 BC) I’ve also theorised that Goidelic speakers of Proto-Irish may be able to communicate with the Brythonic speakers of southern Britannia (i.e. Roman-era Wales, Cornwall and England) provided they can roll an extreme Language (Own) success, but that even then certain nuances of the conversation would be lost. Linguistic experts will doubtless be rolling their eyes at this point – sorry!

The bottom line is that I’ve gone with contemporary Irish language as a rule, when Irish words were required, given that I didn’t have access to a student of Ancient Irish until late 2022, well after I’d submitted the third draft of my chapter to the Golden Goblin powers-that-be.

What else was left out?

The short answer to this question is: “so much”. My original brief for the Hibernia chapter requested a 5,000 chapter. The first draft I submitted was 7,956 words (not including NPC statistics). After considerable cutting and rewriting, the final draft I submitted to editors Jeffrey Moeller, Lisa Padol and Matthew Pook was still over 7,300 words. My apologies to publisher Oscar Rios and the editorial triumvirate for my verbosity, and my thanks for their forbearance!

One element I excised between the first and final drafts was intended to contrast the negative stereotypes of Hibernia referenced in the Classical world (with which more literate Invictus investigators may well be familiar) with more contemporary findings discovered thanks to the science of archaeogenetics.

This quote from the ancient Greek geographer and historian Stabo, from his Geographica (first published circa 7 BC) nicely illustrates that intention:

“Concerning this island I have nothing certain to tell, except that its inhabitants are more savage than the Britons, since they are man-eaters as well as heavy eaters,​ and since, further, they count it an honourable thing, when their fathers die, to devour them, and openly to have intercourse, not only with the other women, but also with their mothers and sisters; but I am saying this only with the understanding that I have no trustworthy witnesses for it…”

Hibernia has long been the subject of wild speculation in the Roman world, although surprisingly, Strabo’s apparent calumnies have recently been shown to have some basis in fact.

DNA testing of skeletal remains from the Newgrange passage tomb (the results of which were published in Nature in June 2020) revealed that at least one member of the Neolithic elite entombed circa 3,200 BCE was the result of first-degree incest. Distant relatives of the same man were also entombed in the Neolithic cemeteries of Carrowmore and Carrowkeel on the far side of the country, suggesting the existence of a ruling dynasty whose members ruled Ireland for at least 500 years – and also recalling the ritual incest practiced by Egyptian royal families circa 1,550 BCE to 1,292 BCE

UNESCO World Heritage site Newgrange. Photograph: Photo: Ezra Nahmad. 

By the Antonine period, salacious stories such as those told by Strabo are still widely shared by Roman historians and geographers throughout the Empire, although the Hibernians of the day led vastly different lives to those of their Neolithic forebears.

Strabo’s quote was one of several I had to drop from the Hibernia chapter in order to reduce the word count and focus on more immediate aspects of Roman-era Irish life. For example, there were several references I found to homosexuality being practiced among the Celts without any hint of the shame associated with the practice in the Roman Empire, whose citizens viewed “any form of [sexual] passivity as unmanly and fundamentally incompatible with the conquering warrior ethos required by the expansionist Roman state”. (In other words, the Romans thought that being the top in a male-male relationship was fine but being a bottom was shameful.)

These quotes include:


“It is well known that all the Celts are fond of disputes and that homosexuality is not considered shameful amongst them.”

-          Strabo, Geographica


“…the Celts and such other races as have openly held in honour passionate friendship between males…”

-          Aristotle, Politics II


“Although their wives are comely, they have very little to do with them, but rage with lust, in outlandish fashion, for the embraces of males. It is their practice to sleep upon the ground on the skins of wild beasts and to tumble with a catamite on each side. And the most astonishing thing of all is that they feel no concern for their proper dignity, but prostitute to others without a qualm the flower of their bodies; nor do they consider this a disgraceful thing to do, but rather when anyone of them is thus approached and refuses the favour offered him, this they consider an act of dishonour.” 

-          Diodorus Siculus, Library of History

These quotes inspired the creation of one of my NPCs, the Hibernian prince Cunovali of the Ebdani, who despite having a bit of a thing for Roman men is also likely to fly into a rage if his sexual advances are rebuffed by one of the investigators.

Prehistory vs myth

One short section that was cut by the editors due to my exceeding the word count referred to the earliest known human occupation of Ireland.

Previously, the settlement of Ireland was believed to have begun in the Mesolithic (Middle Stone Age) circa 7,000 BC. However, more recent discoveries have pushed that date back considerably. 

In 2016, evidence of a bear bone showing evidence of knife cuts suggested humans have inhabited Ireland as early as 12,500 years ago (circa 10,477 BC). 

More recently, the examination of reindeer bones that also exhibited signs of butchery pushed that date back still further to 33,000 years ago (circa 30,980 BC) during the Palaeolithic, or Old Stone Age.

I can see why these details were cut – this deep history is not really relevant to the Antonine period – but I felt it was worth referencing enough to mention it here.

Another lovely quote I’d originally included in the section regarding Irish bog bodies also had to be excised from the Hibernia chapter:


“Some bogs are quite shallow and pale submerged corpses might sometimes have remained clearly visible, their places of interment perhaps regarded as a source of both reverence and fear for the for the living. Over time, the Sphagnum acted on the bog bodies … causing them to take on eerie, inhuman qualities: turning the skin to deep brown leather and dyeing the hair red, as if the spirits of the Otherworld were claiming the dead for their own.”

-          Miranda Aldhouse-Green, Bog Bodies Uncovered (Thames & Hudson, 2015)

Aldhouse-Green’s book on bog bodies is highly recommended as background for any Keeper setting Call of Cthulhu games in northern Europe during the Iron Age; a wonderful addition to a literature that also includes Danish archaeologist P.V. Glob’s foundational text on the subject, The Bog People: Iron-Age Man Preserved (Faber & Faber, 1969, originally published by Gyldendal, 1965) which admittedly is now somewhat out of date, and the somewhat speculative The Life and Death of a Druid Prince by Anne Ross and Don Robins (Touchstone, 1991), which is focused on the discovery of Lindow Man in England in 1984.

On the subject of the Irish Otherworld, sadly by the time I’d detailed Ireland’s history, society, martial culture, geography and other Hibernian elements for my chapter, I didn’t have room for an extended section on Irish beliefs regarding ghosts, the supernatural and the aes sídhe (the faeries). However, given that the subject has been widely explored in numerous books to date, and is also detailed in Chapter 10 of Britannia and Beyond, as well as in the excellent Cthulhu Britannica: Folklore (Stuart Boon and James Desborough, Cubicle 7, 2012) I hope that this deficiency can be forgiven.

Other references

Ptolemy of Alexandria’s map of Ireland (circa 140 AD) obviously provided me with the Romanised names for many of the tribes, settlements and geographic features of Iron Age Ireland.

Additional scholarship by R. Darcy & William Flynn (‘Ptolemy's map of Ireland: a modern decoding’, Irish Geography, Volume 41, issue 1, 2008) gave further insights into a more accurate identification of locations and landmarks than was possible in Ptolemy’s day.

Similarly, the essay ‘Ptolemy’s tribes of Ireland (revised)’ by Martin Counihan (2019) helped colour the descriptions of Ireland’s warring tribes, such as the “notoriously warlike” Darini (which draws on Counihan’s suggestion of an etymological link between their tribal name and “a corresponding Gaulish word meaning ‘agitated’, or ‘ardent’, or ‘violent’”), the “boastful Velabri” (“Velabri meant something like “the very boastful people” in a culture where boastfulness and arrogance were regarded as noble virtues”) and the “famed horsemen the Ebdani”.

Here, however, I took inspiration from Counihan while rejecting one of his suggestions, which was that the people known as the ‘Ebdani’ should actually be called the ‘Epdani’ (“Ep is simply the Gaulish or Brittonic pronunciation of the Irish word ech, ‘horse’, so Ptolemy was referring to the ‘cavaliers’”). There is no letter P in ancient Irish, so calling the Ebdani the Epdani seemed problematic – thus I maintained Counihan’s suggestion of this tribe being great horsemen but stuck with Ptolemy’s original spelling.

Concerning the Celts

One of the most challenging aspects of researching and writing this chapter was what to do about the conundrum of the Celts.

The claim that the disparate peoples of Ireland, Wales and Scotland (as well as the Isle of Man, Brittany and Cornwall) are connected by their shared Celtic language and heritage was first proposed in the 16th century.

In The Origins of the Irish, Chapter Nine (Thames & Hudson, 2013), J. P. Mallory writes: “…until the time of George Buchannan [Scottish poet & scholar, 1506 to 1582], no-one in Ireland ever imagined that they shared any particular kinship with their British neighbours…”

Buchanan was the author of “a glorious polemic” which scorned the “psuedohistories hitherto accepted as genuine,” according to Jean Manco’s Blood of the Celts (Thames & Hudson, 2015).


“Using Classical sources which recorded the Late Iron Age expansion of the Gauls, he reasoned that they also spread into Britain. He not only recognized that place-names incorporating -brig and -dunum were Celtic in origin, but argued for them being spread from Gaul.” (Blood of the Celts, Chapter 10).

So certainly there’s evidence for Celtic peoples in Britain. But what about Ireland? 

While the concept of a ‘Celtic peoples’ has become deeply rooted in the popular imagination, there is no archaeological evidence for either an invasion of Ireland by the European Celts nor a mass migration of the Celts into Ireland.

Cú Chulainn Rising His Chariot into Battle, J.C. Lyendecker (1911).

Instead, what the DNA record shows is that the most recent influx of people into Ireland occurred during the Bronze Age with the arrival of the Bell-Beaker People circa 3,000 to 2,500 BC. It was this wave of early farmers (whose origins lay in the steppes north of the Black Sea) who supplanted the older Neolithic culture and from who, according to paleogenetic research, some 88% of contemporary Irish DNA derives.

So from where does the Celtic influence in Irish culture derive? Modern research suggests that the existing Irish aristocracy of the Iron Age (the descendants of the Bell-Beaker people) began to adopt the international La Tène design style they knew from trade, with language and other cultural signifiers following – and then slowly the rest of the country adopted the same culture. Or as the archaeologist Simon Jones once put it, “Celtic art … is not a marker of ethnic identity but of status, wealth, and power”.

It’s also been proposed that small groups of Celts – a small aristocratic warrior class wielding superior, Iron Age weapons – did establish themselves in some parts of the country, dominating, leading and eventually interbreeding with the existing Bronze Age inhabitants, but never in numbers large enough to leave an archaeological record.

Regardless of which hypothesis is true, it’s also worth noting that “the Irish La Tène [culture] was restricted to the northern two-thirds of the island while Munster was engaged in an Iron Age that did not privilege the La Tène art style,” (Mallory, The Origins of the Irish, Chapter Six) suggesting that perhaps small populations of the older, Neolithic peoples of Ireland lingered longer in Ireland’s south-west.

All this considered, why do I also describe the Hibernians of the Antonine period as Celtic and use a number of Celtic cultural signifiers and traditions (e.g. clothing, religion and sexuality) in reference to the culture of the day?

The simple answer is that it’s just easier that way. Think of it as a kind of linguistic shorthand, even if it’s not entirely factual. All of which is why I wrote in the Hibernia chapter that circa 500 BC, the Celts arrived in Ireland and “settled the land almost by osmosis, via a cultural infusion of new language and artforms rather than an active invasion”.

The bottom line is: the Iron Age Irish arguably aren’t actually Celtic at all – they’ve just adopted various Celtic cultural signifiers including art and language – the latter possibly being a lingua franca that seems to have been spoken up and down Europe’s Atlantic coast and remnants of which survive in Ireland, Scotland and Wales to this day.

Apologies to any readers whose Celtic dreams I’ve just shattered – and happy roleplaying in Hibernia.

Saturday, November 05, 2022

A night at The Rusty Mackerel, Teelin, Ireland

I wrote this piece in early 2020 on spec for the editor of the travel section of a nameless newspaper, having visited Ireland for the second time the previous year. Of course, shortly after I submitted it, COVID hit, and the editor said she could no longer publish it despite her liking for the piece. So, here it is on my blog - my first blog post since 2017!


Low clouds are rolling down the mountainside towards Teelin Harbour, where the River Glen meets the choppy waters of Donegal Bay. Outside, a chill wind is blowing but in the front bar of the Rusty Mackerel in County Donegal, the Guinness and the craic are flowing and it feels like the most welcoming pub in the world.

Located in remote north-west Ireland, Teelin scarcely seems to qualify as a village. There’s no church that I can see, not even a shop; just the pub, an Irish language college, and a cluster of houses scattered along the road leading to the harbour. Wild fuchsias bloom along the road’s edge; in the green fields beyond, black-faced sheep graze quietly. On a nearby hillside overlooking Teelin Pier, the tumbled ruins of a coast guard station, burned down by the anti-treaty IRA during the civil war of 1923, stand watch over the steel-blue sea.

I’ve come to Teelin on a whim. With just a few days left in Ireland I’ve decided that a visit to the Gaeltacht – one of the Irish-speaking regions of the country – is essential. There are just two small problems. Donegal’s Gaeltacht stretches along the rugged western coast, at least 50 kilometres from Donegal Town but I can’t drive – and I only have a 24-hour window in which the trip can happen.

Arriving in Donegal Town at 10am means I’ve already missed the Bus Éireann service to Glencolumbkille. I’m slowly realising I might have to skip the Gaeltacht altogether when – thanks to the local tourist bureau – I learn about a small community bus service running westwards three times a day. It doesn’t run as far as Glencolumbkille, but perhaps I’d like to visit Teelin instead?

Two hours later I’m on a minibus bound for Carrick, a village approximately an hour away. From there I hitchhike for the first time in decades, since taxis are temporarily unavailable (Carrick’s taxi drivers double as the local bus drivers and are tied up with the school run). A mother and her adult daughter pick me up and drive me down the road to Teelin. Ten minutes after that I’m sitting at the bar of the Rusty Mackerel with a pint of cider in hand.

Above a turf fire hangs a glass case containing a stuffed salmon while the stone walls are adorned with old photographs and even older Guinness ads in Irish and English. Here hangs a collection of mugs and jugs; there stands a model sailing ship. High wooden chairs line the timber bar, behind which sit bottles of Silkie Irish Whiskey and An Dúlamán Maritime Gin, both distilled less than a mile away. By the end of the night I’ll have sampled them both.

After checking into my room (a cabin recently constructed behind the pub) and strolling down to the harbour to take in the view across Donegal Bay – where the distant, glacier-sculpted slopes of County Sligo’s Dartry Mountains are faintly visible through the soft rain – I return to the Rusty Mackerel and fall into an easy conversation with a couple of locals.

John, a 30-something farmer and his sparkie mate Francis seem gobsmacked to learn that I’ve come all this way just to soak up the atmosphere of an Irish-speaking village for the night. “If you were looking for the authentic Ireland, you’ve found it,” John tells me, after shouting me a pint.

Soon, a guitarist and a fiddle player sit down at a nearby table. Quietly, without fuss, they begin to play. The Rusty Mackerel’s patrons are drawn towards them.

While some are content to sit and listen, others add their own voices to the chorus. Beside me, a lad in his early 20s takes advantage of a lull in the music to stand and recite a poem from memory. In another break in proceedings an older woman seated at the bar starts to sing – hesitantly at first – until the musicians pick up the tune and accompany her.

I’ve been travelling around Ireland for over three weeks now, taking in performances at the Dublin Fringe and live music in Cork and Galway, but for the first time I feel like I’ve gained a glimpse of the Ireland that existed before radio and television – when the pub was the heart of the community and communal singing was part of everyday life. There’s a palpable sense of camaraderie in the Rusty Mackerel this evening, a sense of timelessness, of magic even – though perhaps that’s the seaweed-infused gin talking.

By the end of the night, everyone is singing together – even me, on the rare occasion that I know the chorus of a traditional song like ‘Whiskey in the Jar’. The next morning’s hangover, as I hitchhike back to Carrick to catch the community bus to Donegal, lingers for hours, but my memories of the Rusty Mackerel will endure for years to come

Sunday, May 14, 2017

Being Human

I've just discovered that the pilot episode of UK series Being Human is online again, after having been taken down for a while. I first wrote about it back in the dim dark past of 2008, when I said it should appeal to 'anyone who's A) ever lived in a share household, B) wants to know what out gay actor Russell Tovey (Rudge in the film of The History Boys, and Midshipman Frame in Doctor Who: Voyage of the Damned) is up to, career-wise, and C) like myself enjoys sinking their teeth into genre shows with a supernatural bent.'

Here it is again for your viewing pleasure:

Sunday, July 31, 2016

Sunday, August 17, 2014

The streets of old Fitzroy

I've lived in Fitzroy for 14 years, and long before I moved here spent some formative moment in its pubs and terrace houses. I have an unpublished novel that set's in Fitzroy in the 1940s (originally it was set in the 1950s but I've realised it was the wrong period). I love this suburb, even as it changes before my eyes, which is why I love articles and photographs and stories of its past.

 This kind of housing once dominated inner-city suburbs like Fitzroy, Collingwood and Rich

From the Herald-Sun, here's a series of images of the old inner city slums that once characterised much of Fitzroy.

And from The Age just yesterday, here's an article about a photographer who was documenting the vanishing post-war Fitzroy culture in 1973-74.

Happy reading. And maybe allow Dan Sultan to provide you with a soundtrack?

Saturday, April 05, 2014

Reviews: Melbourne International Comedy Festival 2014

Poor, much ignored blog: the least I could do is update you with a list of all my Age reviews from this year's Melbourne International Comedy Festival, so that they're all easily accessible in the one place. Here you go:

The Tim Vine Chat Show
A dad joke generator turned up to 11, the prop-swinging, pun-slinging UK comedian Tim Vine takes the Parkinson route in this entertaining but unchallenging show, in which interviews with audience members become the inspiration for more quick-witted quips drawn from his encyclopaedic memory.

Adrienne Truscott's Asking for It: A One-Lady Rape About Comedy Starring Her Pussy and Little Else!
Fallacies about consent and startling lessons concerning the birds and the bees – or more specifically, ducks and gerbils – are provocatively and intelligently explored in this debut stand-up show from US cabaret artist and acrobat Adrienne Truscott.

Geraldine Quinn's MDMA: Modern Day Maiden Aunt
Comedian and cabaret artist Geraldine Quinn is unmarried, approaching 40, and fond of a drink. Instead of children she has 19 nieces and nephews, whom she adores, despite their tendency to over-share on social media. In the beautifully pitched Modern Day Maiden Aunt, a bittersweet blend of self-deprecation, family dysfunction and sardonic wit set to music, Quinn does some over-sharing of her own, to hilarious effect.
Read full review here.

Laura Davis - Pillow of Strength
A significant gulf sometimes separates ‘love’ from ‘like’, a distance which Laura Davis attempts to bridge in her latest stand-up show. Originally from Perth, where she won the Best WA Comedy award at Fringeworld last year, Davis is now based in Melbourne; thankfully her material steers clear of banal comparisons between the two cities in favour of exploring wounds both physical and psychological.

Damien Power - Keit
From a gun-happy father-in-law and his own dad's peculiar anger management issues, to a relationship with a "crazy" Estonian woman which culminates in his son's birth, Queenslander Damien Power's new show has a distinctly domestic focus.
Read full review here.

Stella Young - Tales from the Crip
Journalist and disability activist Stella Young opens her show with a clever inversion of existing power structures in order to give ‘normal’ audience members a taste of what it’s like to be constantly belittled.
Read full review here.

Felicity Ward - The Iceberg
As well as being one of our best comedians, Ward is also a proficient actor, a skill she makes memorable use of in The Iceberg. This tightly written show is aptly named: what we see is an engaging performance; the hard work beneath the surface, the carefully connected structure of routines and callbacks, is cleverly concealed.
Ben Pobjie - Trigger Warning
Few comedy shows begin with a recorded voiceover warning about being ''gently stroked by the fingers of a fat man'', but Ben Pobjie isn't your typical comedian.
Suns of Fred - Excited!
Clive Palmer’s weight; Ian Thorpe’s sexuality – the targets of Suns of Fred’s jokes are neither original nor inspired. This slick but soulless musical act have well synchronised moves, melodious voices, confidence and chemistry; all that’s lacking is material to match the quality of their performance skills.

Sunday, November 03, 2013

Doing the Beats: Kerouac, sexuality and On the Road

The long-awaited film adaptation of Jack Kerouac’s ground-breaking novel presents the perfect opportunity to re-examine the lives of the Beat Generation, writes Richard Watts.

It’s not hyperbole to say that the Beat Generation – a small coterie of writers who met up in New York City in the spring of 1944 – changed the world.

Without their individual quests for personal freedoms – a quest for sex and drugs before there was rock and roll; a quest which spawned the western world’s first counter-culture, the beatniks – the hippy movement of the Sixties would never have happened, and punk would have been a quiet snarl rather than a global reaction.

Of all the Beat Generation writers, Jack Kerouac, author of the autobiographical beatnik bible, On the Road, is unequivocally the most famous. Born in Lowell, Massachusetts in 1922, to working class French-Canadian parents, Kerouac aspired to be a writer from a young age, though he was also a keen football player. Indeed, it was a football scholarship to Columbia University which initially drew him to New York, where he first met the young poet and visionary Allen Ginsberg, heroin addict and aspiring author William S. Burroughs, and most importantly, the charismatic, sexually rapacious car thief Neal Cassady, who would become his muse.

Inspired by Cassady’s companionship, Kerouac hammered out the first draft of his most famous book on a single, long scroll of paper between April 2 – 22, 1951; a novel he’d been working on in one form or another since at least 1948.

When it finally saw publication in 1957, On the Road had undergone significant changes from Kerouac’s free-flowing initial manuscript: some passages were rewritten or entirely excised, and his characters were renamed (Kerouac himself became Sal Paradise, Cassady became Dean Moriarty, Ginsberg became Carlo Marx, and Burroughs become Old Bull Lee). Most significantly, descriptions of sexual acts deemed obscene by 1950s standards were watered down or deleted entirely, such as an early passage describing the fledgling relationship between Ginsberg and Cassady:

‘Allen was queer in those days, experimenting with himself to the hilt, and Neal saw that, and a former boyhood hustler himself in the Denver night, and wanting dearly to learn how to write poetry like Allen, the first thing you know he was attacking Allen with a great amorous soul such as only a conman can have. I was in the same room, I heard them across the darkness and I mused and said to myself “Hmm, now something’s started, but I don’t want anything to do with it.” So I didn’t see them for two weeks during which time they cemented their relationship to mad proportions.’

Brazilian director Walter Salles’ long-awaited screen adaptation of On the Road reinstates much that was later excised from the novel.

‘I was immediately struck by the urgency and immediacy of [the original scroll],’ Salles says in the film’s production notes:

‘The first sentence already heralded a different type of narrative. The version published in 1957 began: “I met Dean not long after my wife and I split up.” The scroll begins differently, “I first met Neal not long after my father died.” The hero of the scroll has just suffered a loss that compels him to go forward. The search for a father is a vital theme in the scroll, even more so than in the version published in 1957. This is a theme that has always interested me, and it became one of the motors driving the adaptation.’

The young Neal Cassady in his 1944 mug shot.
As well as returning to the novel’s original heartbreak, Salles’ film also reinstates much of the sex that was excised from the published version of On the Road. We never see Marx/Ginsberg and Moriarty/Cassady actually fucking, but the film leaves us in no doubt that the pair were definitely lovers for a time.  

The question of Kerouac’s own relationship with Cassady is much more ambiguous, and is alluded to beautifully in Salles’ film in a number of scenes, such as an early encounter between the two where Moriarty virtually seduces Paradise while begging him to teach him how to write.

As another early member of the Beat circle, Lucien Carr said, ‘Every person who came along was someone for Kerouac to love’. Clearly Kerouac was smitten by Cassady, making him the hero of another book, Visions of Cody, as well as On the Road. But were the two men ever lovers in real life, or was their relationship simply a particularly intense friendship – what today we might call a bromance?

Certainly Kerouac was no stranger to the occasional same-sex encounter, according to Allen Ginsberg in a 1972 interview in the magazine Gay Sunshine:

‘I came out of the closet in Columbia in 1946. The first person I told about it was Kerouac, cause I was in love with him … And actually we wound up sleeping together maybe within a year, a couple of times. I blew him, I guess. He once blew me, years later. It was sort of sweet, peaceful.’

Cassady himself was frank about his sexuality, as his letter to Ginsberg dated April 10, 1947, makes plain:

‘I’m on a spree tonight, I’ll tell you exactly what I want, giving no thought to you, or any respect or consideration to your feelings …I can’t promise a damn thing, I know I’m bisexual, but prefer women, there’s a slimmer line than you think between my attitude towards love and yours, don’t be so concerned, it’ll fall into line. Beyond that – who knows? Let’s try it and see, huh?’

But for Kerouac – poor, Catholic-guilt laden Kerouac – his same-sex attraction was a matter of personal shame.

‘As a homophobic homoerotic, he denied enjoying sex with men, but continued to have it,’ Kerouac’s editor turned biographer Ellis Amburn wrote in Subterranean Kerouac: The Hidden Life of Jack Kerouac. ‘The cost of living so dishonestly was ever-increasing amounts of alcohol and drugs.’

In a short scene late in Salles’ film, Sal Paradise spies on Dean Moriarty screwing a businessman (played by Steve Buscemi) who they’ve just met on the road. It was a purely financial transaction, Moriarty explains afterwards to a sulking Paradise; a brief return to his hustling days driven entirely by economic need. Paradise doesn’t reply; clearly his sensibilities are offended by what he’s just witnessed – or is he, perhaps, jealous? 

Seen through modern eyes, Kerouac’s hero worship of Cassady seems suspiciously close to sublimated desire for the younger man; a desire that resulted in one of the most significant books of the 20th century.

We may never know if Kerouac and Cassady were ever lovers in the physical sense of the word, but the facts of their passionate friendship are undeniable.

Inspired by his love for Cassady, Kerouac created what US academic Joshua Kupetz calls ‘a new American prose form’; a literature that abandoned the traditional narrative structure of the European novel; a book which changed lives.

As a monument to Jack and Neal’s friendship, that’s one hell of a legacy.

Walter Salles’ On the Road opens nationally on Thursday 27 September. 
This article originally published on the Gay News Network on Tues 25 Sept 2012.