Imbolc in Literature – the Stirring of New Life, but Pregnant with Meaning

Blessed Imbolc!

The ancient Gaelic celebration of Imbolc, or its Christian equivalent Candlemas, is observed today (the date moves around, but it’s usually on the 1st or 2nd February), halfway between the winter solstice and the spring equinox.  Imbolc heralds the start of Spring, and for (Irish) Christians it marks the feast day of St Brigid. Imbolc was probably a pagan fertility festival co-opted by early Christians; indeed St Brigid herself is in all likelihood a Christianisation of a pagan goddess.

Although Imbolc seems to have been more visible in the media in recent years, Candlemas, its Christian counterpart is now mostly one of those Christian festivals that have been largely forgotten in secular Britain, along with Lammas, Whitsun, Lady Day and Michaelmas. Peter Hitchens might blame Dickens for this, inflating Christmas as he did until it filled our minds as the definitive Christian feast day, but Imbolc, probably due to its Irish association with St Brigid and wider observance in Ireland and Scotland, lives on in its Pagan-Christian half-life still.

Candlemas is the Christian Holy day that also falls on the 2nd February, 40 days after Christmas; the day commemorates the ritual purification of Mary after the birth of Jesus. The name derives from the candles that the congregation brings to be blessed before Mass; there is often also a procession with lighted candles. Candlemas has largely been forgotten by the non-churchgoing public in the UK, and has been largely replaced in the US by the very secular Groundhog Day  which predicts the advent of spring not by a calculation between equinoxes or saints day, but by the actions of a no-doubt grumpy groundhog either seeing or not seeing a shadow on the ground. There is a faint echo here of the Christian lore that clear weather on Candlemas predicts a shorter winter.

So what of Imbolc/Candlemas in literature? When I realised that these were essentially the same tradition, I cast my mind back, as there seemed to be a negative connotation with Candlemas in my mind. Granted I was only able to recall a few instances from my reading, but all share a certain tension or risk, and all seem to hark back to a more primitive age and its fears and sorrows.

In Thomas Hardy’s Tess of The D’Urbervilles, the beautiful (and doomed) Tess ends up, after her seduction and short-lived marriage-come-desertion, at the dreary and wintry Flintcombe Ash farm. She has contracted to work there for the surly and mean-spirited Farmer Groby until Lady Day, but she presents herself at a hiring fair, held at Candlemas, in readiness for the next Lady Day.

Lady Day was one of the four quarter days in the calendar, each with its own Christian holiday, when farm rents, employment contracts for servants and agricultural workers, and other such formal matters were often settled upon in a time when clocks and calendars were scarce.

Tess’s time at Flintcombe Ash is a hard and unhappy time for her, marked by surly use by Farmer Groby, and her renewed pursuit by Alec D’urberville. It contrasts sharply with her earlier employment the previous summer at Talbothays, a lush cattle farm where she also met and was wooed by Angel Clare.  Although still a very young woman, the luxuriant springtime and summer of Tess’s sexuality seem shriveled to nothing but a bitter memory by the time she is at Flintcombe Ash, and the season matches this change in her life. The devilish Alec returns to stalk her at Candlemas and again in early spring, while Tess is working the heavy threshing machine. No more dreamy days milking cows in lush verdant meadows dripping with teaming life for Tess. The changes in her circumstances dating from that Candlemas and Lady Day lead directly to her end, although this is true throughout her tale. Tess’s symbolic capture on a pagan altar indicates that we should pay attention to the key dates in Tess’s calendar, and what they mean to her. The pregnant potential of Imbolc/Candlemas is no blessing to poor Tess.

Candlemas also features prominently as a date in the birth, life, and death of a less sympathetic character in literature – that half-man, half-outer being, Wilbur Whateley, the monstrous villain of HP Lovecraft’s The Dunwich Horror. The story opens with a quote from Charles Lamb’s “Witches and Other Night-Fears”, which is appropriate, as Wilbur’s tale is one of wizardry and terrors in the night.

Candlemas is the birthday of both Wilbur Whately and his unseen twin brother, although Lovecraft tells us that the locals of Dunwich “curiously observe (Candlemas) under another name.” Wilbur is a figure of potentially cosmic terror, and Lovecraft notes the significance of his Candlemas birth – “Born on Candlemas—nine months after May-Eve of 1912″.  May Eve is known is some parts of Europe, particularly Germany, as Walpurgisnacht, or Walpurgis Night, a feast day which in Germanic folklore is believed to be the night that witches and the dead are abroad, and all evil things revel.

In Bram Stoker’s story Dracula’s Guest,  the unnamed English protagonist (probably Dracula’s Jonathan Harker) is travelling to Transylvania on Walpurgisnacht and undergoes several supernatural ordeals during his journey.

Thus, a child conceived on Walpurgis Night, such as Wilbur Whately and his blasphemous twin, would be born on or about Imbolc/Candlemas. Hardly an auspicious start to life in shadow whispered Dunwich!

One last reference to Imbolc/Candlemas I can think of from pop culture is that of the 1993 film Groundhog Day, starring Bill Murray and Andie MacDowell. Murray plays an arrogant TV weatherman who, during an assignment covering the annual Groundhog Day, finds himself hexed, caught in a time loop, and doomed to repeat the same day over and over until, after being driven to commit suicide several times, he re-examines his life and is able to break the spell via his love of a good woman. The theme of the (disordered) passage of time in the film ties in with the theme of spiritual and actual rebirth that marks Imbolc, although it is tinged with a warning that if we do not embrace the opportunities for new growth, we will be denied a rebirth of any kind.

I was initially surprised how dark the references are in literature to Imbolc/Candlemas, but upon reflection, there’s no disconnect. Birth and rebirth are perilous journeys, fraught with danger, and not everyone makes it out alive, or unscathed. We may be changed irrevocably when we are reborn, possibly not for the better.

Perhaps the Irish tradition of weaving a Brigid’s cross from rushes and hanging it on the kitchen wall to protect against evil and fire, a custom which continues in some Irish households to this day, harks back to a time when the heralding of new life and the coming spring were not just the idyllic respite from the darkness of winter that we envision today.

495px-Saint_Brigid's_cross
St Brigid’s Cross made from rushes. Author: Culnacreann               (Own work), Creative Commons Attribution (Wikipedia)

The Hand of Kane (revisited)

20160503_062126 (2).jpg
Port of Belfast with Cave Hill in the distance

I re-read my 2017 posts last night and really enjoyed this short mystery story that I wrote for Goodread’s #MysteryWeek in May; the idea is to write a short mystery story in no more than five sentences.

Okay, so I pushed the five-sentence rule to the absolute limits of credulity-twelve hundred words! – so I’ve edited the story to more reasonable sentence lengths while minimising any changes to the structure or flow of the story.

It’s a short revenge story set in the land of my childhood; our last home in Northern Ireland overlooked the outer dock and the shores of Belfast Lough.

***

THE HAND OF KANE

Barbs of rain flayed the granite skin from Napoleon’s Nose and lashed down Cave Hill towards the steel-grey lough and the harbour ring road. The forensic team was clearing out, and the peelers were ducking beneath the tape that surrounded the burnt-out Vauxhall Vectra.

“Here’s what we have so far, from the VRN and ID in the vehicle…”

The young RUC officer’s eyes were pasted to his notebook, not wanting to see again the pathetic contents being zipped into the body bag. One glimpse of the dead man’s right hand had been enough, sloughed off skin, the muscle roasted and shrunk to reveal bones. The rest of his body was cherry red, untouched by fire and intact, apart from a crushing bruise over the right temple.

“James Kane, 54 years old, North Belfast, a cashier at the petrol station convenience store up the street, going by the lanyard around his neck.” He waved his hand along the road that loped around this outcrop from the shore, this dreary hinterland of distribution centres and the outer harbour ferry terminal.

“Thon’s Jimmy Kane – your man did a twenty stretch for shooting those wee Quinn lads, Catholic brothers they were, in the 70s, yonder down the road on the Jennymount estate,” his older companion and superior, Swanson, replied.

“Surprised he’s lasted this long outside – could be a Republican revenge hit. Come on Corr, we’ve had another call, possible suicide down at the city port – still feel like a bite to eat?”

The port of Belfast authority staff had taped a cordon on the dockside, where the body lay close to the ferry that was looming, waiting to return across the North channel to Cairnryan.

“We didn’t see him here for a wee while down there, at the bottom of the rock wall”, explained a harassed port authority supervisor, wiping his forehead, sweaty despite the biting breeze scuttering over the water. The body lay, half in the grey water, snagged on the gabion walls that augmented the natural quayside – male, medium height, rail thin, age maybe mid-sixties.

The trajectory was clear to all who saw his broken body; he’d leaped from the ferry, but not the one currently docked; had they really not noticed him here for four hours, Swanson wondered, dragging his fat, inexorable finger down the printed ferry timetable he was handed by the port supervisor. The previous ferry had docked just before seven this morning.

There was some connection between these two deaths, he mulled, and when Corr called Swanson’s attention to the pair of well-worn leather gloves that lay on the ground just above the body, he knew there was more to this than the suicide of two auld fellas; he had a hunch that probed his hardened but not sclerotic sensibilities, and chilled him more than the wet salt wind that dove deep into the fissures of his craggy features.

Pathology was pending, but the reports would confirm what Swanson knew; Jimmy Kane was knocked out by a mighty blow to the head and left in his still-running car with a hose from the exhaust. He suffered third-degree burns to his right hand, probably inflicted from the half-full canister of petrol by the car.

But it was the body by the ferry that held the key to the double deaths, and it told a tale as old as mankind; 64-year-old Harry Doran, born Harold Kane, elder brother to the deceased in the car, was an exile from Norn Iron for forty years.

The appointment card in his pocket for colorectal cancer treatment suggested he would soon be a permanent exile if he hadn’t taken his own way out, and the door to door plods working the neighbourhood of Jimmy’s home had convinced Swanson there was no need to pull in anyone else, Catholic or otherwise.

Jimmy Kane never moved from his birthplace, reveling in his notoriety, even taking a job close to the home of his victim’s long-suffering parents, but Harry left the province after his brother’s conviction, returning only now when he had his own death sentence –

“But Sarge”, blurted Corr, following this line of reasoning only so far, “I can see he might have wanted to off his brother, family disgrace and all that, although that doesn’t happen too often around here, but this hand and glove business; is it something to do with the flegs?”*

“You’re on the right road”, interrupted Swanson. “My theory is that Harry burned his brother’s hand to show it was a revenge killing, the Red Hand of Ulster and all that; but as to the gloves, take a gander at the items found on Doran’s body.”

He handed a printed sheet to Corr, who scanned the list, none the wiser:

  • Appointment card for Oncology Department, Royal Marsden Hospital
  • Order of service card for funeral of Mrs. Roberta Doran, dated one week previously
  • Leather wallet, same brand as the gloves found on deceased, containing cash and a one-way ferry ticket to Belfast
  • A pocket bible, Old and New Testament
  • Three news articles cut from the Belfast Telegraph, various dates; the oldest one covering the 1974 retaliation murder of brothers Matthew and Mark Quinn, a later story about tension in the community after Jimmy Kane was employed close to his victim’s family, and an article on the history and myths surrounding the symbol of the Red Hand of Ulster.

Shakily underlined in felt tip pen on the third sheet of paper, worn smooth from being handled and folded many times, was the following passage:

Some myths tell of a time when Ulster was without a king so a boat race was held; the one whose hand first touched the shore of Ulster would win the crown. One contestant, seeing that he was losing the race, cut off his hand and threw it to shore, thus winning the race.


* Author’s note – “flegs” is how the people of Belfast pronounce the word ‘flag’, but is also used in discussions to encapsulate the opposing loyalist and republican viewpoints of the topic of flags, and when and where they are erected in Northern Ireland, a hotly debated topic that has erupted into violence in the past.

Link to the story on Goodreads

Guess Who’s Back…News Roundup

It’s been a few months since I’ve posted, even though in the interim I’ve had a couple of flash fiction stories published; my non-writing life got in the way, and family comes first.

I hope you all had a great Christmas and New Year’s, constant reader; a gift I inadvertently gave myself for 2018 was some distance on my two novels-in-progress; going back over both drafts this week, I appreciate the chance to look at my work with fresh, critical eyes. I’ve got a couple of word games on my phone, and I often get stuck on a stage – closing the game and leaving it a day invariably helps me find that impossible word and progress a level! It’s the same thing with my writing.

And although I haven’t been actively working on my drafts, I’ve been mulling over some plot and thematic issues, and reading, reading, reading! A Christmas and New Year movie-marathon also threw up some good ideas, as did a couple of crazy Youtube videos! It’s all grist to this word miller.

If you get a chance please head on over to 101fiction.com and reflexfiction.com where you’ll always find great new flash fiction; I was pleased to make their Summer 2017 long list of 50, from 320+ entries, for the latter.

I wish you all a happy, productive and creative New Year!

June Roundup: flash fiction published and revisiting the draft of my first novel: it does get better!

Felixstowe beach
Felixstowe Beach

May and June have been busy, momentous even, and I’ve struggled to find time to write and update the blog. I did, however, snatch the time for a quick trip to the seaside; we are pretty much in the centre of the landmass of England, and the coast is a long drive in every direction, but we managed to get over to Felixstowe on the East coast during that blink-and-you-missed-it heat wave we had a few weekends ago.

I’ve also had a couple of pieces of flash fiction published recently; Uncle Clifford at Fifty Word Stories and Conditional at 101 Fiction. As usual, both are inspired by real life events, although “Conditional” has a nasty whiff of wish-fulfilment!  If you have the time, please grab a moment to visit these great flash fiction sites; I’m often inspired by the quality of the stories they feature.

I’ve also taken time, now a couple of months have gone by since its publication, to revisit The Battle of Watling Street, specifically to review how it reads to me, four or five months after I completed the last edits. I’m pleased with the result; the text is nice and tight, and I haven’t found any glaring historical anachronisms! I enjoy the characters and their voices, and I might be tempted to catch up with Dedo and Cata and follow their adventures after their escape from the destruction of Boudicca’s forces.

I’m currently working on the modern-day sequel to  Street, but emboldened, I revisited my first novel-in-progress, And The Buntings Flew which is around 50% through; I’ve parked it for now so I can finish my Sci-Fi novella, but it means the most to me, and I wanted to have a read through to refresh my memory ready for me picking it up again towards the autumn.

It was a revelation – the story is still great, the characters and descriptions still grip, but I was so long-winded in writing the action and “doing” scenes; just moving characters around in their world would take pages, and it made a really tense story with high stakes drag at times.

Anecdote time; when I was first asked to take minutes in a meeting, many years ago, I captured pretty much every word uttered, and turned in a whopping ten-pager instead of the usual one or two sides of notes and actions – the writing in my draft for Buntings, particularly where characters are acting, going about their business and driving the plot, has similar style faults. My writing inexperience shines through.

I shouldn’t have been surprised – the experience of completing my first novella really helped in tightening up dialogue, action scenes and just getting characters from A to B, and the whole process has come under some scrutiny from beta readers for Watling Street, and the results are there to be read. I’m writing more tightly, and coming to the point – my words have lost their flab and have muscle, exactly the result you expect from training and lots of practice. The good news is that I can sweep through the slow sections in “Buntings” and trim them considerably with relatively little pain; the total word count will take a hit though!

Have you had a similar experience when revisiting your earlier writing, maybe an unfinished draft you’ve picked up again recently?

Successful Historical Fiction – Interview with M.K.Tod

The themes and tropes that interest, inspire or worry us are timeless”

At her historical fiction blog, A Writer of History, author and blogger M.K.Tod (Mary) recently posed a series of questions to readers, and bloggers on the subject of what constitutes successful historical fiction.

The questions posed by Mary were:

  • What’s your definition of successful historical fiction?
  • What attributes are most important to you when designating a novel ‘successful historical fiction’.
  • Which authors do you think create the most successful historical fiction? (please restrict yourself to a small number of authors!)
  • What makes these particular authors stand out?
  • In your opinion, what aspects prevent a novel from being designated successful historical fiction?
  • Are famous people essential to successful historical fiction?
  • Does successful historical fiction have to say something relevant to today’s conditions?
  • What role does research play in successful historical fiction?
  • In your opinion, how are these elements critical to successful historical fiction? Characters. Setting. Plot. Conflict. Dialogue. World building. Themes.
  • Do you judge historical fiction differently from contemporary fiction?

I took up the challenge, and you can read my interview here.

If historical fiction is your thing, it’s fascinating to read the other responses to Mary’s questions, from a range of historical fiction authors. Such a seemingly simple question as “How do you define historical fiction?” is so difficult to pin down; my answer boils down to, “it depends!”

Mary has promised to pull together some insights from her series of interviews, which I look forward to reading and will post a link to here.

#MysteryWeek on Goodreads – My Five Sentence Original Mystery

20160503_062126 (2).jpg
Port of Belfast with Cave Hill in the distance

It’s nearly May, and as well as hopes for warmer (or at least consistent) weather, my thoughts have turned to murder mysteries and crime; May 1st – 7th is Mystery Week on Goodreads, and I’m taking part this year!

Goodreads have organised a raft of activities for mystery writers and readers between the 1st and 7th of May; use hashtag #MysteryWeek to search for new stories on social media, including the five sentence mystery feature;  below is my offering, which you can also find listed on my Goodreads writing page; I’ve also answered an Ask the Author question on Goodreads that specifically relates to #Mystery week; links to all of these below the story!

In my five (very long) sentence story, my mind took fancy with the revenge motif, but some of the incidents in this story are based on a real life tragedy and also figure in my upcoming novel And the Buntings Flew, which constant readers will know is set in 1970’s Troubles-torn Northern Ireland.

***

THE HAND OF KANE

Barbs of rain flayed the skin from Napoleon’s Nose and lashed down Cave Hill towards the steel-grey lough and the harbour ring road, where the forensic team had finished off and the peelers were ducking beneath the tape that surrounded the burnt-out Vauxhall Vectra:

“Here’s what we have so far, from the VRN and ID in the vehicle” – the young RUC officer’s eyes were pasted to his notebook, not wanting to see again the pathetic contents being zipped into the body bag; one glimpse of the dead man’s right hand was enough, sloughed of skin, the muscle roasted and shrunk to reveal bones, while the rest of his body was cherry red, untouched by fire and intact, apart from a crushing bruise over the right temple;

“James Kane, 54 years old, North Belfast, cashier at the petrol station convenience store up the street, going by the lanyard round his neck”; he waved his arm along the road that loped around this outcrop from the shore, this dreary hinterland of distribution centres and the outer harbour ferry terminal.

“Thon’s Jimmy Kane – your man did a twenty stretch for shooting those wee Quinn lads, Catholic brothers they were, in the 70s, yonder on the Jennymount estate,” his older companion and superior, Swanson, replied; “surprised he’s lasted this long outside – could be a Republican revenge hit – come on Corr, we’ve had another call, possible suicide down at the city port – still feel like a bite to eat?”

The port authority staff had taped a cordon on the dockside, where the body lay close to the ferry that was waiting to return across the North channel to Cairnryan:

“We didn’t see him here for a wee while down there, at the bottom of the rock wall”, explained a harassed port authority supervisor, wiping his forehead, sweaty despite the biting breeze scuttering over the water – the body lay, half in the grey water, snagged on the gabion walls that augmented the natural quayside – male, medium height, rail thin, age maybe mid-sixties, the trajectory was clear to all who saw his body; he’d leapt from the ferry, but not the one currently in dock; had they really not noticed him here for four hours, since the last ferry had docked – there was some connection between these two deaths, and when Corr called Swanson’s attention to the pair of well-worn leather gloves that lay on the ground just above the body, he knew there was more to this than the suicide of two auld fellas; he had a hunch that probed his hardened but not sclerotic sensibilities, and chilled him more than the wet salt wind that dove deep into the fissures of his craggy features.

Pathology was pending, but the reports would confirm what Swanson knew; Jimmy Kane was knocked out by a mighty blow to the head and left in his still-running car with a hose from the exhaust; he had suffered third-degree burns to his right hand, probably inflicted from the half-full canister of petrol by the car, but it was the body by the ferry that told a tale as old as mankind; 64-year-old Harry Doran, born Harold Kane, elder brother to the deceased in the car, and an exile from Norn Iron for forty years; the appointment card in his pocket for colorectal cancer treatment suggested he would soon be a permanent exile if he hadn’t taken his own way out; door to door in the neighbourhood of Jimmy’s home had convinced Swanson there was no need to pull in anyone else, Catholic or otherwise; Jimmy never moved from his birthplace, revelling in his notoriety, even taking a job close to the home of his victim’s long-suffering parents, but Harry left the province after his brother’s conviction, returning only now, when he had his own death sentence –

“But Sarge”, interrupted Corr, following this line of reasoning only so far, “I can see he might have wanted to off his brother, family disgrace and all that, although that doesn’t happen too often around here, but this hand and glove business; is it something to do with the flegs…” –

“You’re on the right road”, interrupted Swanson, “my theory is that Harry burned his brother’s hand to show it was a revenge killing, the Red Hand of Ulster and all that; but as to the gloves, take a gander at the items found on Doran’s body.”

He handed a printed sheet to Corr, who scanned the list, still none the wiser:

Appointment card for Oncology Department, Royal Marsden Hospital
Order of service card for funeral of Mrs. Roberta Doran, dated one week previously
Leather wallet, same brand as the gloves, containing cash and a one-way ferry ticket to Belfast
A pocket bible
Three news articles cut from the Belfast Telegraph; the 1974 retaliation murder of brothers Matthew and Mark Quinn, a later story about tension in the community after Jimmy Kane was employed close to his victim’s family, and a historical article on the myths surrounding the symbol of the Red Hand of Ulster; shakily underlined in red felt tip was the following passage – “Some myths tell of a time when Ulster was without a king so a boat race was held; the one whose hand first touched the shore of Ulster would win the crown – one contestant, seeing that he was losing the race, cut off his hand and threw it to shore, thus winning the race.”

Twitter #MysteryWeek

Goodreads Ask The Author Mystery Week Question – Margaret McGoverne

Link to the story on Goodreads

Photo Inspiration for “The Bondage of The Soil”

“Progress is not an illusion; it happens, but it is slow and invariably disappointing.” – George Orwell

(All photos © Margaret McGoverne 2017)

So, dear reader, I’ve published my very first work of fiction  and the truth of the Orwell quote above has hit me hard. Writing the story is only the first step; I’m busy with guest posts, building up reviews, and wooing local newspapers to bestow a couple of columns on my book.

thincovertbows5It’s a bit like having children; having brought my first book baby into the world, I now have to contend with gestating and giving birth to another one while the firstborn is still a very demanding toddler!

On the plus side, I have renewed vigour for my current work in progress; I suspect this is because, after endless rereads and edits and Kindle uploads and proofing, I’m thoroughly sick of The Battle of Watling Street!

The Bondage of The Soil is the modern-day Sci-Fi sequel to The Battle of Watling Street (which was set in 1st century AD Roman Britain) , although it was the first in terms of the idea coming to me. The inspiration was a lonely detour on my way home from  work, excavations for a new motorway junction, a steep hill, lots of local Roman and Celtic history and a very old, lonely church. So as a taster, here’s some pictures and the Google street view from the road (I couldn’t get a shot of the creepy pollarded trees that edge the church as there’s nowhere to park on the country lane.)

I hope to finish the first draft by the autumn; I’m excited by this one, it’s my first full length novel, and I feel I learned lots from The Battle of Watling Street, even though it’s a less than 20K words novella.

(If you’d like to read the first two chapters of The Battle of Watling Street for free, you can subscribe to email updates, or I’d be happy to arrange a free PDF copy for a review on Amazon and/or Goodreads)