The Lure of Celtic Lore

JUILENE OSBORNE-MCKNIGHT talks to Ilysa Magnus about storytelling in oral and written tradition and her transformation from college instructor to respected novelist

As a doctoral student in the 1970s, I enrolled in every Irish and Celtic literature course New York University offered. And then I discovered Lady Gregory’s translation of the Red Branch Cycle, a/k/a the Ulster Cycle – and I was hooked for good! Being the purist I was, I wanted to read the Red Branch stories in the original Gaelic – how else to savor and appreciate the fine nuances of these Celtic stories? (The recent translations of the Ulster Cycle by Randy Lee Eickhoff have led me to the inevitable conclusion that Lady Gregory was probably one of the most vigilant censors of all time. The early Celtic storytellers were uninhibited, to say the least.)

To my utter chagrin, I learned from my graduate advisor that reading the Red Branch Cycle in “old” Gaelic was tantamount to wanting to walk on the moon without an oxygen tank. He told me that there were but a small handful of people in the United States who knew how to read those glorious tales in the original. Being young and naïve, I caved — I, clearly, wasn’t cut out to be one of these folks anytime in the foreseeable future. That didn’t appease me though. I continued to read stories steeped in Celtic lore and legend – and frankly, I never stopped.

When I received the Winter 2000 catalog from Tor/Forge, I happily noted that a new historical novel about St. Patrick was about to be published. The author: Juilene Osborne-McKnight, a “seanchai” or traditional storyteller and member of the National Storytelling Association, teaches at DeSales University in Center Valley, Pennsylvania and has been teaching drama, literature, creative writing and storytelling for over twenty five years.

From the minute I opened I Am Of Irelaunde: A Novel of Patrick and Osian (Forge, 2000, reviewed in Historical Novels Review, Issue 12), I knew this reading experience was going to be special. The story of the former slave, Patrick, and his seminal role in Celtic history and legend is told both in his own words and those of a dead warrior, Osian. So beautiful, lilting and melodic are those words that the reader is instantly held captive — it’s almost like having Juilene in the room, reading to you. Also, rather than drawing a caricature of a universally recognizable, saintly Patrick, Juilene dares to focus on his humanity and human-ness – his foibles, his failings, his loss of faith. It is a marvel of storytelling and a stunning debut.

In quick succession, since the publication of Patrick’s story, Juilene has published two other historical novels: Daughter of Ireland (Forge, 2002, reviewed in Historical Novels Review, Issue 19) and Bright Sword of Ireland (Forge, 2004, reviewed in Historical Novels Review, Issue 29). As in her Patrick novel, Juilene chose one seminal figure around whom each novel revolves: in Daughter of Ireland, Aislinn, a Druid priestess living during the time of Cormac Mac Art and in Bright Sword of Ireland, Finnabair, the daughter of the seductive warrior queen, Medb, who battles Cuchulainn in the ultimate showdown between Connacht and Ulster over the ownership of the brown bull. In each of those stories, Juilene captures the very stuff of Celtic lore – loss, victory, honor, pride, love – and has transformed to written words the oral stories carried on by generations of Celtic storytellers.

Juilene will be one of the participating speakers at the Historical Novel Society conference in Salt Lake City, Utah in April, 2005 and will be offering her views on the topic “History to Legend, Legend to Myth.”

Juilene’s website, which contains additional biographical and historical information, is www.jmcknight.com.

You come from a family of lawyers. What twist of fate led you into storytelling as a vocation?

What an interesting question. The practice of law, especially litigation, really is the art of storytelling. A good litigator tells his client’s story, performs it, illustrates it with precedent law, with the Bible, with Shakespeare. More than that, however, ancient Ireland was mad about the law. There were thousands of laws, for things as minute as bee-keeping or repayment for breaking the fingernail of a harper. Of course there had to be lawyers to interpret all of this; at one time period during the reign of King Conchobar Mac Nessa, it is estimated that there were more than a thousand lawyers in Ireland. Believe it or not, the time period is circa 30 B.C.E. – 30 C.E. So when immigrants came to America, they often went into the legal professions – law, politics, jurisprudence, police work, FBI, DEA, ATF, etc. So to be a storyteller is just to take that familial obsession one step further into myth and history.

What about Celtic lore was attractive to you?

I came to Celtic lore by a unique serendipitous occurrence. I was in my early twenties and was teaching Arthurian mythology in my high school Brit Lit class. I came across a throwaway line in a research book which said that of course the Arthurian code of behavior of the Knights of the Round Table was based upon the Fenian code of Ireland in the third century. From that point on, it was Alice down the rabbit hole.

What keeps you connected to Celtic lore after years of storytelling and novel writing?

I sometimes think that now I am so steeped in the ancient Celts and the way they thought and perceived that I am oftentimes seeing the modern world through their ancient lens and not the other way around. The stories are magical, archetypal. There is such an obvious awareness of the sacredness of all things, that every blade of grass and every bird’s wing is imbued with and held inside the Spirit, that the line between the “real” world and the “superreal” world is very thin indeed. It seems to me now, after so many years of storytelling, that all cultures in all times tell the same central stories – we dress them in different clothing surely, but underneath are the preoccupying themes of being human.

Is there any other oral tradition that interests you? If so, what culture and why?

I actually grew up on Native American stories; both my mother and my father were steeped in tribal belief and lore, particularly Haudenosaunee (Iroquois) and Anishnabe (Ojibwe) stories, though my mother knew stories from dozens of nations. When I came to Celtic lore in my twenties it was like coming home. In the Celtic stories I experienced recognition. The themes and structures, the preoccupation with the sacred and with honor, the respect for women and children, were the same themes and structures of the Native stories my mother had told me growing up. Her name is on the honor wall at the National Museum of the American Indian where I am a charter member, because without those stories I could not have written. I think without those First Nations stories I could not have lived or breathed.

How did you start as a storyteller? When did you tell your first story?

I began my teaching career as a middle school teacher. As anyone out there who has ever taught middle school will tell you, it is a daily hormone roller coaster and the teacher had better hang on for the ride! One day my eighth graders were experiencing lift-off, and I began to teach a Shakespeare lesson, but I did it as a story in full voice and gesture. The students closest to me grew quiet. They leaned forward. The quiet spread. Their bodies grew still. I watched as their eyes fixed on me, as their jaws actually opened in rapt attention. Oh miracle of miracles! I became a professional storyteller, joined the then-fledgling National Storytelling Association in its very beginning, joined local groups, practiced techniques. To this day I consider it the strongest tool in my teaching arsenal and practice it regularly in my college classroom. (As an aside, in the Celtic tradition we call a storyteller a seanchai, pronounced shawn – a – key and in ancient Ireland the “bardic” position was second in power to the position of the High King). Middle schoolers show us why that was true.

I’m aware that keeping oral tradition alive is important to you. What motivated you to make the transition into the written word? Was it difficult to make the transition? Why?

I was actually writing poetry (lots of it and lots of it bad) before I ever became a storyteller. I also worked as a newspaper and magazine reporter and columnist. Once I began practicing storytelling, I realized that oral storytelling had the rhythm and cadence and repetition of formal poetry and that a way to capture “poetic” story might be to try to capture at least some of the oral tradition in print. Also, my beloved friend Eileen Charbonneau, historical writer extraordinaire, herself of Irish, Shoshone and Huron ancestry, encouraged me to write.

I’m also aware that you teach storytelling on the university level. How do you TEACH storytelling?

Storytelling is a form of theatrical practice. I teach at a wonderful university (DeSales) where we have theater, dance and film as majors and we sponsor a nationally recognized Shakespeare festival. So storytelling fits well there. Storytelling is taught first as archetypes, as the work of Joseph Campbell and Carl Jung. Then it is taught as technique, as a practice art. A good storyteller will find his or her true water level, whether it be Appalachian tales or tales of growing up in Chicago or tales of being Hispanic-American and then practice those tales until they become universal tales of being human, until they provoke the awestruck recognition, the nod in the crowd that says, “This story is also my story.”

How, if at all, is your life as an oral storyteller different than your life as a novelist? How does telling a story orally differ from telling a story in writing? If there is a nexus between the oral and written word in your experience, what is it? What are the pros/cons of each genre?

This is a tough, tough question and one that I think about often. Oral storytelling has cadence and rhythm and repetition. It has theatricality – costume and gesture and voice. Written storytelling, I believe, tries to capture those same aspects of story with pacing and dialogue, with nuance and believable character motivation. The nexus for me is the stories themselves and some “metaphysical” sense that pervades them. For me, a story needs to have in it a kind of river of light, a sense that the story is crossing boundaries, that in it is some profound human truth that I need to capture. Of course, the pro of oral storytelling is that it is a communal and social activity; the American-Irish tend to be very gregarious folks. Written storytelling is a very solitary pursuit; when I have been at it for days at a time, I will often take myself to my local bookstore and write there just to be in the company of other humans. Strangely and conversely, however, I sometimes find that when I am writing, time telescopes. I begin at 9 a.m. and I look at my watch and it’s 3 p.m. I have vanished into the story. So in oral storytelling, the gift that I receive is a sense that the audience and I have been transported together; in written storytelling, it is almost an out-of-body experience that we have all heard writers describe. Both are stunning-wonderful.

Your first novel, I Am Of Irelaunde, tells the story of Patrick, the man who became the patron saint of Ireland. What compelled you to choose Patrick as your first subject?

Patrick really chose me. I read his journal and his “Letter to the Soldiers of Coroticus” and I was so captivated. He was irascible, passionate, fascinated and troubled by women, mad at God. So incredibly complex. In a wonderful example of “writer’s confluence” I happened upon a myth called the “Agallam na Seanorach” which means the “Meeting of the Old Men.” And who were the old men? Patrick, who had been sent to Ireland against his will and Osian, the storyteller of the ancient Fenians of Ireland, who had been sent back from the country of the dead to tell stories to Patrick. Why? Because God knows that stories have the power to change the human heart. As a storyteller, what else could I do but write down their interaction?

You use an interesting technique in I Am Of Irelaunde to move the action along and to teach the reader about Patrick and about Irish culture Osian, a dead warrior, returns from Tir Na Og to tell stories throughout the novel. Why did you decide on using this technique?

Patrick is Romano/Welsh/British. His voice is superior, edgy, angry, defensive, civilized. Osian is an ancient pagan Irish warrior. His voice is passionate, wild, humorous. I wanted the two voices to be visually and verbally different from each other so I alternated first and third and alternated Roman type with italics.

You were unafraid in I Am Of Irelaunde to focus on the human side of Patrick, his foibles, his vanity and his shortcomings. What motivated you to humanize Patrick so thoroughly?

In the long history of religion, it is fascinating to me to see how often God seems to choose the difficult ones to carry it on. Abraham? David? Paul of Tarsus? Simon Peter? Joan of Arc? Patrick is cut from that cloth. He is captured as a slave into Ireland and the result is that he hates the Irish. He is stubborn, recalcitrant, resistant to the call, certain of his civilization’s superiority. Yet by the end of his life he is a man in love – deep, passionate, love — with his adopted people. How does that happen?

Did you find that writing about a famous historical figure about whom we have a significant wealth of information was more or less difficult than writing about a druid priestess, Aislinn ni Sorar (Daughter of Ireland) and Finnabair, daughter of Queen Medb (Bright Sword of Ireland)? How does your technique differ, if at all?

With Patrick we have an existing tone that helps us to understand personality while we don’t have those with Aislinn and Finnabair. However, I think the most important thing to do with historical characters is to try to write them as they were. One of my students just asked me if Medb really was as sexually “active” as my book portrays her and the answer is yes. Irish women of that time were extremely powerful and very much unafraid of their sexuality. It’s probably the most difficult imperative for the historical writer – to not create anachronistic dialogue, clothing, dwellings, behaviors, attitudes. After all, we are writers of modern sensibility writing about little known ancient cultures, but we have to try to be true to them and to their times.

Did you have any difficulty telling the story of Patrick and Osian because the story was told from a male perspective? Did you relate more easily to Aislinn and Finnabair? Why? Why not?

Aislinn and Finnabair are both younger than I am, so I had to write from a position of youthful inexperience, naivete, hope and disappointment, but certainly we have all been there. Finnabair was a difficult character because she has been shaped in opposition to a mother who is a stunning power figure. In many ways, I admire her mother Medb, but Finnabair’s story is the story of a pawn in a power game who must find a way to escape that position. I had to imagine that position fully; what would it be like to grow up powerless and disenfranchised? I didn’t; my parents and my Aunt Vivvy (Niniane of the tale) tended to believe that I could hang the moon. So I shared my Vivvy (Niniane) with Finnabair; one person who believes in us is a powerful force. For Aislinn, I have lived in a number of locations, so it was easy to imagine the position of outsider or newcomer. I also had a great affinity for her metaphysics, her perception of things magical in the world. Too, her love of her child is a mirror of mine. I suppose, however, that Patrick and Osian are really two sides of me; both of their voices are very close to mine. I could strongly identify with them both and I thoroughly enjoyed the male perspective.

In humanizing Patrick, you made him more approachable and less saintly. What was your goal in approaching Aislinn? Finnabair?

Aislinn’s archetype is the grail quest; she is searching for the cup of answers. So, of course, are all of us. Finnabair really was the pawn of Medb. In our culture, the closest parallel to Finnabair would be the child who is actually the vicarious vessel; the actor child of a stage parent, the sports child of an “armchair coach,” the child who “must” go to med school. I see a number of students like Finnabair so she is very recognizable to me.

You combine historical fact with fantasy and supernatural elements in all three of your novels. How do you decide where to diverge from historical fact and move into the fantastical? In your experience, how do the two elements of history and fantasy play off of each other in Celtic storytelling?

Irish poet Nuala Ni Dhomhnaill says “Even the dogs in West Kerry know that the Otherworld exists and that to be in and out of it constantly is the most natural thing in the world.” In the Celtic world, the fantastical is just behind a little “smokescreen,” if you will. The “real” world and the “superreal” world intersect constantly. Western culture tends to think life/death, natural/supernatural, reality/unreality. The Celtic world tends to just think different forms and states of life. So you don’t so much move among them in Celtic story as simply recognize their presence.

After your first book on Patrick, what process did you use to decide that your next book would be about Aislinn? Did you already have her in mind when you were working on Patrick’s story?

In the way of so many writers, I actually wrote Aislinn first and Patrick second, but they were published in reverse order.

Why did you place her at the time and place you did: in and around the court of Cormac Mac Art? Why a druid priestess?

She really was an actual character of that time and place though we do not know her name. The histories tell us that “a woman of the tribe of the Deisi” was kidnapped by the son of Cormac Mac Art and brought to the high hill of Tara. Many women trained to be druids during this time period in Ireland, as well as physicians, warriors, etc. Many, if not most, levels of society were open to women in this period in Irish history.

In Bright Sword of Ireland, you focus on Finnabair as the protagonist when she is actually a very secondary character in Celtic lore. Why? What moved you about her story sufficient to plot a story around her?

In the Tain, Ireland’s epic, there are two mentions of Finnabair. One says that she drowned herself in a mountain river. The second says that “Finnabair stayed with CuChulainn.” CuChulainn was her mother’s sworn enemy and so that line set me to wondering. What would a girl who was a pawn of her mother do if she didn’t want to drown herself? What would be sufficient revenge? Push all her mother’s buttons, as it were. The story grew out of that single line.

Cuchulainn plays a crucial role in Bright Sword of Ireland. What about Cuchulainn attracts you?

I love CuChulainn. He is funny and smart and self-deprecating. He isn’t handsome, but he is so male. Mostly, he is a warrior who is unafraid to stand on the rock in defense of his country. For me, in that sense, he is all the brave young men and women who are scattered around the world in defense of our countries and he salutes their dedication, their humility and their fearlessness.

How much, if at all, did you depart from the standard line about Cuchulainn?

Not much. The Tain gives him to us as brave and intrepid, dangerously skilled, but funny and wise. He stands alone in defense of Ulster and he does it with all of his abilities. He was a natty, even flamboyant, dresser and he really was attractive to women, but madly, passionately in love with his Emer and particularly with her mind, her quick wit. He was short and bulky and rather unappealing by Celtic standards as the Celts at this time were very tall, large, handsome people, but CuChulainn overrides all of that with his “gifts,” which are formidable, almost “superpowers.”

Have other authors influenced you? Who? Why? What authors do you read in your spare time?

Isn’t this the killer question for writers? First Shakespeare. He is “my Will,” which is a particularly quirky “Yank” sort of claim on the boy, but oh my. Macbeth in six weeks by the tallow fat of a pub candle? Never mind the curse, still so powerful that my students won’t speak the name. And every set of lines works as a poem alone. He harnessed the lightning. After that, I am a powerfully eclectic reader and would be afraid to miss someone whose words I worship.

How do you plot out a novel? Where do you start? Once you start, how many hours a day do you spend writing?

When I am on a writing “tear,” I will write for eight hours a day, pretty much every day. I cannot do this during my teaching semesters, however, so then I have to content myself with shorter “spurts” of writing. As to plot, I tend to know the “bookends” of a story and all the rest is intuition and flow when it works or pacing around and sighing when it doesn’t. I do know writers who plot even the most minute details; one friend of my acquaintance plots with multi-colored notecards on a huge corkboard, but I am not much for detailed outlines. As a storyteller, one of the best pieces of advice I ever received came from my teacher, Abenaki writer and storyteller Joseph Bruchac. He said, “Carry the story and let it tell itself.” I try to do that in both the written and the oral forms.

How do you research your novels? What process do you use in determining the subject matter of your next novel?

I read voraciously. My early research took ten years before I ever started writing. My methodology is somewhat old-fashioned. I take thousands and thousands of notecards, each one subject specific and each one attributed with accurate citation. This probably comes from years of teaching research methodology to students. It is a slow, ponderous method, but I do find that my boxes of notecards, once completed and organized, are a compendium of sources in and of themselves and are wonderfully useful and instructive.

Have you started your next novel? What’s the subject matter? How close are you to finishing? Do you have any others planned out in your mind?

My next book is called Song Of Ireland. Myth would have it that the Celts from the Iberian peninsula of Spain migrated to Ireland somewhere around 500 B.C. While archeological evidence does not support a large-scale migration, linguistic and cultural evidence does support cultural absorption. Also, a recent dna study strongly links the Irish and Spanish “brooks” of the gene pool. So who did these Spanish Celts encounter when they arrived in Ireland? Legend says that it was the little people, in full possession of magic. The intersection must have been interesting because the little people dwell in Ireland still, as do the descendants of the Spanish Celts. I love stories about intersection, so that is my next book. It is finished in draft and currently in the revision stage. After that, I actually have about eight more planned out. The problem with being a writer and a reader is that we can’t live long enough!!!

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First published in Solander: The Magazine of the Historical Novel Society, v.8 no.2 (Nov. 2004): 26-31.

Posted by Sarah Johnson

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