Most historical fiction writers have a few specific reasons why they have jumped into the research and study that produces their stories. Settings, too can often be motivators all by themselves. A clearly defined sense of place is something I really strive for in my own work, but readers may wonder why I chose a remote section of County Mayo coastline in Western Ireland for the settings of my first two novels.
Of course, there are few places in the world so beautiful, yet so jarringly stark and deeply marked by human habitation as Ireland. Her rugged vistas stretch towards limitless places where sea, stone and sky connect in an almost mystical interplay… but that’s not really why I chose to set my tales there. The reason comes from an unlikely place.
While I do carry Pan-Celtic blood on both sides – my maternal grandmother’s people were from County Cavan, and my father’s were Scots/Saxon that had come to America in the 1700s – the decision really began while answering another customer’s questions from behind the counter of our retail gallery.
Our family began a business trading in authentic, American Indian handmade art and fine crafts in 1985. Both mine and my wife’s family encouraged a deep interest in the beautiful, indigenous work of the Americas. We saw that NY Metro was a place that scarcely had been exposed to the full range of it, especially Southwestern jewelry and fine arts, so we began regular trading trips west, spending time on reservation lands, or on Pueblo Nations gathering our inventory from the artists themselves.
At first, we were as naïve about it all as you can imagine, but we learned very early, to mostly keep our mouths closed and our ears open. That brought us closer both to the arts and to their makers. Nobody is less welcome in an American Indian community than a new-age anthropologist with a clipboard and tape recorder (substitute Native American if you prefer, although all of the people we got to know over the years refer to themselves as “Indians”, after their own Nations’ names). Taking the cue, we began viewing these talented folks as people like us from a different culture and language. Essentially the same, with a few, important variations requiring some adjustments in approach.
When we opened a retail gallery in 1989, we began to realize that our reality-based view of our merchandise and the artists that created it was in sharp conflict with the prevailing beliefs of many of our customers. Not a minority of them thought that American Indians were either a noble race of spiritual guides, or somehow, all connected to some gigantic truths that the white races couldn’t even see. Some had been convinced that if they could only re-kindle that tiny spark of genetic linkage to some remotely distant ancestor of American Indian blood, that they could strengthen out their lives, improve their lot, or cure the common cold. Seriously.
We became accustomed to odd changes in physical attitudes as they posed us questions, rolling their eyes upwards, quivering eyelids awaiting some words of wisdom from the ancients. They would often ask for specific “knowledge” of ritual or religious teachings among whichever “Tribe duJour” was their focus. I would answer, to the best of my knowledge, adding, that really, unless a person is raised within a particular religious context, from childhood, adopting those beliefs later, piecemeal, is usually not as effective. It often made no difference to the questioner, and I realized that our merchandise really represented much more than objects of physical beauty, but somehow, a pathway towards understanding and enlightenment, for many of our customers.
Because of their sincerity, I extended respect, despite the warning bells that would go off. There have always been a lot of charlatans seeking disciples, and American Indian Mysticism provides many of them, in almost every community. I really hated being connected in any way to these wholesale spiritual marketing hacks.
Very carefully, I began inserting a bit of advice into my answers to those who came looking for “truth” in my showcases. If asked, I would usually suggest they “…find out as much as possible about where your own people are from, what their ancestors believed, what led them to where they are today.” If there was any magic or any power left in the world, from an earlier time, I always tried to suggest that folks who were active “seekers” try to remain open to it within their own history, their own bloodlines. If they rejected prevailing religious teachings of the churches or synagogues, I assured them that in their past, were the teachings of ancestors who lived lives closely connected, in harmony with the earth, much as American Indian philosophy and religious teachings evolved. Or, as Frank McCourt quipped, much later, “We were all once perfectly good heathens.”
Most would scoff it off, that any of their ancestors could have had those same feelings or understanding, but a few got the idea right away. In those discussions, I began to feel the stories that connected me with my own family history and ancestry could teach a lesson to those folks, overwhelmed in the modern life, about where to turn for something more honest, or true.
Since childhood, through a few great teachers in the public school system, I had learned to love historic detail. I was particularly interested in the long wanderings of the Celtic races and their egalitarian philosophies, now mostly reconstructed from snippets or re-imagined in the work of writers like Yeats or Pyle. I was also really taken with the work of J.R.R. Tolkien as a young teenager and discovered other writers who utilized real historic, cultural material as a starting point for their own stories. This interest carried right through college. As my adult life progressed, I began mentally compiling stories from different cultures, but paying special attention to those cultures that survived being conquered or occupied by other peoples. The survival of language, religious belief and tradition despite the odds appealed to my sense of romance as well as my sense of mystery. Why had some survived when others faltered?
One day in the mid-1990s, while sitting behind my counter in our gallery, I began to jot down stories in the margins of whatever piece of paper was handy – little bits of ideas, names, places. They all circled back to a vague idea that the knowledge of our ancient ancestors – learned over thousands, even millions of years – still existed inside us all. What we needed was a sudden, lucky connection with it. A moment when the truth of the past was laid bare in the lives of modern people, where it was least expected. I began to spend a great deal of time in researching ancient Irish tradition and culture, and from those seeds grew what became The Red Gate.
I wanted to tell a story both fantastic and mundane; a tale from familiar daily life containing glimpses of the miraculous. I needed to cultivate a sense of place. Poring over images and stories set throughout Ireland led me to the rugged Mayo coast. As remote as one can get anywhere people have lived for thousands of years. Where secrets seemingly still lived on in plain sight. I absorbed everything around me, until my dreams began to take me there almost every night. I studied modern Gaelic and learned the pronunciations the best I could. I listened, almost every day, to hours of traditional Irish music, and learned to play it as much as possible. I’m a better guitarist than I am a penny whistler unfortunately, as the plaintive tones of whistle music, such as those performed by the great Joannie Madden, carried me across the ocean until I began to have waking dreams of flying over the cliffs where Mayo meets the Atlantic. Those later became my first chapters. I found that I had a taste for fine Irish whiskey as well as the black gold, Guinness Draft, all of which seemed to inform my writing in some strange way. The first draft of The Red Gate, some 128,000 words (before editing), flew off my fingertips in just over six weeks of part-time, but rapturous keyboard exertions.
So, it turned out that as I wrote the fictional story of Finn O’Deirg and his family, set in the time when Ireland was just emerging from beneath the thumb of colonial occupation, I was brought into understanding where some of my own came from. I was able to share in their connection to the earth through the words that emerged.
Probably the one review that has meant the most to me was recently when a reader mentioned reading The Red Gate to her aged grandmother, born in Ireland, while a terrible storm battered the house outside. The familiarity brought her a lot of comfort. Why Ireland? I suppose, in the end, because it brought me a lot of comfort, too.