Friday, 13 May 2011

Bending The Boyne by JS Dunn

Irish folklore is full of giants, shapechangers, fearless warriors, sultry queens and mighty battles - yet it is possible that these stories could be huge exaggerations of real events.
Historically Ireland was settled by countless waves of invaders, many of whom have left their own mark or cultural strand.
The Celts are the best known, while the Vikings, Normans, English and Scots have all added their influences to the melting pot.
However, Ireland was inhabited long before the first Celts came around 2,000 years ago. The memories of these earliest settlers have been woven into Irish mythology and folklore and they have been personified as the Tuatha de Dannan, Firbolg and Fomarians.
JS Dunn goes back to fringes of Irish oral history and uses her background as an archaeologist to create a credible narrative of what may actually have taken place 4,000 years ago.
The Starwatchers have lived in Ireland for many hundreds of years and have built huge monuments at Newgrange to help monitor the subtle shift in the positions of stars over many lifetimes.
They are close to the land, living in harmony with nature, foraging for food and hunting in the forests and rivers.
However, their lifestyle is being endangered by the Invaders, who have set up camp on the banks of the River Boyne, close to Newgrange and its sister mounds Knowth and Dowth.
They are miners searching for copper and gold and have cut down huge swathes of forest to fuel the furnaces they use to smelt their metal to make artefacts, including swords.
Meanwhile the Starwatchers are protohippies, living off the land in small close-knit communes, close to nature, communing with their ancestors and deities.
They spend much of their time observing the night sky and the almost imperceptible shifts in the orbit of the stars and the sun, recording these movements in huge monuments.
Dunn convincingly recreates the societies in which her characters live in terms of food, clothing, housing, lifestyle and religious beliefs.
While the characters are firmly fixed in their milieu, the narrative is littered with knowing nods to the future, a word or phrase that will draw a link between evens 4,000 years ago and contemporary Ireland and western Europe.
The two main characters Cian and Boann are Starwatchers but their lives become entangled with the Invaders with Cian visiting their mines in Kerry and travelling to 'Seafarer' settlements in Europe - the Basque Country, where even then the inhabitants are distinct from their European neighbours - and along the Spanish coast into Asturias and Galicia and eventually the Loire Valley in modern day France.
Boann has been schooled in Starwatcher lore but is forced into a marriage with Elcmar, the Invader's High King and into the coarse materialism of Invader society.
The names of the characters all echo those familiar to us from Irish mythology - Connor, Dagda, Lir, Maebh and Bolg - and their characteristics or aspects of their lives foreshadow the exploits of their mythical namesakes.
One of the joys of this novel is that it can be read on various levels - a straightforward historical novel, a commentary on contemporary global politics, a parable of what happens when capitalism tries to impose itself on ancient tribal values.
It also carries a strong environmental message as the Invaders plunder Ireland's natural resources to create material wealth - copper and gold which require thousands of trees to be cut down and burnt before they can be melted and cast into elaborate ornaments and weapons.
It is a sad novel as we carry the foreknowledge that ultimately the Starwatchers way of life and their values will be lost and that their human, individual lives become a mere rumour that barely exist on in the echoes of myth.
But then equally the Invaders themselves who brought about that downfall would eventually succumb to future waves of invaders and they in turn would suffer the same fate as those they had usurped.
Vists JS Dunn's website here.


Fionnchú said...

Tony, as your fiction imagines similar themes, I'm interested about your take on the contexts of ancient Ireland explored and elaborated. Do you know of other authors who are making the connections that you and Dunn are, in stories with an eco-critical and imaginatively rendered, yet accurate, perspective?

Tony Bailie said...

John It was you who pointed me towards Dunn's novel and it was interesting to see the points of intersection, although JSD was obviously coming from a very different angle. Answer to your question is no... Think Moriarty came at it from a philosophical bent and I just reread Magan's Angels and Rabies during my break in Connemara... who confronts environmental issues in the Americas. He also covered modern Irish and global environmental issues in Oddballs... did you ever read it? Interested to hear your take on it.

Fionnchú said...

Tony, it's on my next-to-read (& do a book report on) list.