No part of this interview may be copied or reproduced
without written permission from Mairéid Sullivan
copyright © 2001, Mairéid Sullivan
the end of our adventure in Ireland, in October 2000, where we had spent
time filming interviews with my favorite Irish women musicians, at their
homes all around the country, for a documentary based on my book, Celtic
Women in Music (1999), Ben and I took time out for another separate adventure.
We drove about an hour north of Dublin, to Sherries, Co. Meath, and the
home of Irish novelist and historian Morgan Llywelyn.
Morgan was born in the United States, of Irish and Welsh parentage. She
has been living in Ireland for the past decade or so. She told us about
her love of horses--how she came to be short-listed for the American Olympic
equestrian team. She described the devastation she experienced when she
narrowly lost her chance to participate in the Olympic Games, coming in
fifth in the final tryouts for four places. She knew her beloved horse
could not wait for another four years. She described how her mother quickly
came to her rescue, helping her avoid shattering depression by redirecting
her interests to the job of researching her family history. To make a
long story short, when she discovered the Llywelyn connection with Wales
and the Battle of Hastings, she wanted to tell the whole family. Both
her mother and her husband suggested she write it all down.
She was soon encouraged to present her manuscript, unsolicited, to a publisher
who happened to walk by the desk, piled with submissions, saw her name
and wondered if this was the same Morgan Llywelyn of equestrian fame.
The publisher immediately read the manuscript for The Winds of Hastings,
Morgan's first book, published in 1978. She was enthralled by the dramatic
realism in the stories of men and horses caught-up in fierce battle, woven
through with the seductions of lords and ladies, kings and queens, tales
of romance and political intrigue from a major turning point in English
and Welsh history. This is the story that led her to write many books
(40 million sold) illuminating Celtic history, from ancient times to the
present. She told me that she wrote her second book, "Lion of Ireland"-
the story of Brian Boru, published in 1980, for the Irish side of her
The study of Celtic history is enormously broad, and Morgan is such a
rare creature in the way she touches upon all of it! I don't know anyone
else who has such a well-grounded comprehension of the breadth of the
Celtic world, and especially modern Irish history. Like Gore Vidal in
America, Morgan Llywelyn has imaginatively brought Irish history to life,
from its ancient roots right up to the twentieth century, by cross-referencing
intuitive insights and factual information. What a storyteller! It was
a great privilege to see her express her irrepressible energy and genius,
right before my very eyes, and it is personally encouraging to have experienced
her great warmth and generosity of spirit!
Here follows Part One of our conversation.
Mairéid Sullivan: Lets talk about your love of horses,
Morgan Llywelyn: Ive always been horse-crazy. I was the only
one in my immediate family who was. Im sure its genetic. I
had ancestors who were horse-crazy. But I was a great disappointment to
my parents. My mother had no interest in horses. My grandparents had no
interest in horses. My mothers mother had ridden in her youth. She
had fox hunted and done all those Anglo things. But nobody in the family
really cared about all of that. From the earliest memory of mine, I was
mad about them: a picture of a horse; the shape of a horse's back. The
smell of horses, I thought was wonderful. It was always my preoccupation.
I was going to grow up and raise horses. And when I was eight or nine,
we went for a Sunday drive in the country. We were living in Texas at
the time--with my grandfather. We drove passed a polo field and I went
mad, absolutely mad. And so my mother stopped the car and let me go up
and look at the horses and talk to them, and first thing you know, I was
over the fence and talking to the manager of the polo field, a wonderful
Mexican man named Louis Ramos. I dont know if he is still alive
or not. But he told me about the horses and he took me around to see the
stalls, and watch a practice match. Next thing I knew, on the weekends
I was getting on the bus and going out to the polo field. My mother was
thoroughly convinced that a dose of this would cure me. Well, they let
me muck-out the stalls and in return they let me ride on some of the older
polo ponies, which is how I learned to ride.
Mairéid: How old were you then?
Morgan: By this time I was about eleven. Then I started skipping
school and going out there during the week. Another person was keeping
jumpers out there and she let me ride her jumper. The horse cantered down
to the fence and stopped and I went on and jumped the fence and broke
my nose. Louis rang my mother, saying I was sitting there on a hay-bail,
blood streaming down my face. My mother was still absolutely convinced
this would cure me. And it didnt. I just kept on. I never got over
my love of horses. As you see around me still, I have horses everywhere.
(Referring to her collection of miniatures.)
Mairéid: When they finally took you seriously, what happened?
Morgan: I dont know if they ever took me seriously. I took
it seriously. I saved my lunch money and saved it all up until I could
buy a horse from a rent stable nearby.
Mairéid: Did they know about this?
Morgan: No. Until I showed up with the horse. I had paid $75 for
an old horse, and I brought him home to put in our back yard, as they
call it in America, where he ate all my mothers roses, which did
not make him popular. But I eventually traded him in on a black mare,
Briar Rose, who I trained to jump. When I was fourteen she jumped seven
feet with me. A spectacular jumper--a natural born jumper.
Morgan: Once. Once at seven feet is enough, at the Forth Worth
Stock Show. At that time it was a record for an woman in America. About
six months later a female member of the Olympic team jumped seven feet
six. I think the worlds record for a man is eight feet three--a
horse in Chili.
Mairéid: My father trained jumpers.
Morgan: Did he? How extraordinary! I loved jumping. Loved it! After
I married, I was doing some catch riding, when our son was six months
old and we were living in Colorado. My husband was a pilot.
Mairéid: What is catch riding?
Morgan: It means for fifty dollars, youll ride someone elses
horse in a show. I turned one over on myself, when we were jumping on
a timed outside course, and we were jumping over the hunter course. It
was a green jumper, the first year for him, and I didnt know him
at all, but I thought I was a fabulous rider. I tried to bend him around
my leg, because when you are jumping against the clock, you are turning
mid air if you can, to make up time between the fences. I tried to bend
this horse around my leg to get to the next fence in a more auspicious
angle and instead of bending, he rolled over. With me underneath him on
the stone wall. I broke a considerable number of bones.
Mairéid: At what age was this?
Morgan: I was probably twenty, because it was the summer. I broke
thirty-six bones. I fractured my pelvis, broke both legs. A big mess.
I finally got out of the body cast and my husband began to make noises
saying, "You cant jump any more horses." I wound up riding dressage,
which I loved. It turned out I liked dressage more than jumping. I like
the pickiness, the precision, the finesse, the patience, the reiteration.
A writer would understand when I said the rewriting. I love
that. It suited my temperament right down to the ground. So, then I showed
dressage for a number of years. I finally acquired Attacus, who was my
big gray horse. Oh, he was wonderful! I got him as a six-year old and
had him all his life, for thirteen years. He got me as far as being short-listed
for the United States Olympic team in 1976.
Mairéid: Olympic training is a very difficult discipline.
How was that for you?
Morgan: That was pre-drugs and I think the drugs issue never influenced
the Equestrian sports anyway. Because youd have to give them to
the horse, and you just cant give drugs to horses. It was very demanding.
Showing horses by itself is a terrific discipline for someone who becomes
a writer later, because a horse has to exercise every day. You have to
do it whether you want to or not. You dont give yourself a day off.
You cant. Whether headaches, stomach aches, no matter what is going
on in your life, the horse has to have his share. So that is very good
for a writer.
Mairéid: Horses generally love their relationship with people
and like to participate with people.
Morgan: Horses are very generous. A mentally healthy horse is a
very generous animal. And they do try to please you. They try to help.
They try to participate. They can be enormously affectionate. Dressage
is a telepathic art. Its like dancing with a good dancer. It may
take eight years to get a horse to its peak. It is a marriage. It
is you and the horse. There is no catch riding in dressage. You have to
be on that horse, with that horse every day. And its like dancing
in that all of the nerves of your body plug into his nerve endings. I
weigh a hundred and eight to ten pounds and I am sitting on a thousand
to twelve hundred pounds of horse. And all twelve hundred pounds are my
twelve hundred pounds of muscle. Right into my fingers, my seat bones.
It is a fabulous, totally addictive feeling, when its good. When
its bad, its really bad.
Nothing can embarrass you publicly like a horse. Horses will do unpredictable
things. They can take a dislike to something very suddenly. A horse at
that level of competition is very high-strung. A dressage horse and rider
are judged as a unit--on how you look as a picture. So you have to have
as much grace and poise as possible. You have to sit up there looking
as if you are doing nothing and the horse is doing all of it. A really
good horse will give you that appearance. But the horse and rider both
are very up, very keen, and the trick is for both of you to look like
you are out there playing and having a wonderful time. It requires enormous
concentration, especially to forget the hundred thousand people who are
watching every move.
One of the great advantages in riding, and perhaps more in dressage than
in other forms of riding, is learning all of this communication with a
non-human mind. This is a super training ground for a writer. Because
you have to develop whole levels of empathy. Its not even like being
close to a dog or a cat, which have different minds--more sophisticated
and cunning in many ways--but your safety depends on your communication
with this non-human mind. On a really good day, not only do you know what
the horse is thinking but the horse also knows what you are thinking.
And you feel this electric current moving back and forth between you.
Its quite magical.
Mairéid: Lets talk about what happened to take you
from riding to writing.
Morgan: Well, I didnt make the Olympic team. I missed it
by five-tenths of a percentage point at the final trial. So I was the
fifth best dressage rider. To say I was disappointed would be a severe
understatement. I was dreadful. I kicked the door. I swore. I was in a
really bad frame of mind. My husband couldnt think of anything to
help me. Neither could our son. My mother, to distract me, got me involved.
Shed always been our family chronicler. She was very involved in
family history and genealogy. On her side of the family, through her fathers
mother, they went back to Llywelyn the Great. The last, and I always say
this with my tongue in my cheek, the last legitimate Prince of Wales.
And my mother was very proud of that, and she had the family genealogy
back through the Llywelyns, as far as 642 AD. Llywelyn on one side
and Mooney on the other. Her middle name was Llywelyn. And I had been
Christened with that as my middle name also. So, she wanted to get me
involved in anything that would keep me from being desperately disappointed.
The Olympics is every four years and my horse was fourteen then. By the
next Olympics he would be eighteen, so this was his last shot at it. And
he had given his all. I just hadnt been quite good enough. I knew
that. Everybody was saying its the horses fault, but it wasnt
the horse. I wasnt quite good enough, even though I had spent my
whole life trying to make the Olympic team.
Mairéid: That must have been a real tragedy for you, and
a huge challenge learning to cope with the shock. It is interesting, when
one is comprehensively undergoing a tragic experience, to see how one
gets out of it. What were the actual circumstances for you?
Morgan: Well, my mother insisted that I help her do the research.
At that time she and my father were living in an apartment very near ours.
We were living in Maryland. My husband was a pilot for Baltimore Airways.
My mother would have me come over every afternoon. She made iced coffee
for us and talked about all of her research on family genealogy, because
she was trying to trace down all the other lines too. I know now it was
a very conscious thing on her part, to distract me. I guess I recognized
it subconsciously then too, and just refocused all of that intense passion
onto helping her with that, because it kept me from thinking about my
Mairéid: You knew deep down that you were going to sink
deeper into a depression or you were going to survive by refocusing you
Morgan: Yes. This was something to grab onto. And I did. With a
vengeance. Id always been a voracious reader. I started reading
her collection of the nonfiction and the histories. The one that she was
really interested in at the time was Frank Stentons Anglo Saxon
England, which had a good deal of information on our Llywelyn ancestors.
I got to reading that and I came across this story that absolutely fascinated
me. I kept going back on the afternoon and when my husband came in from
flying, Id say, Charlie, I want to tell you this. And
Id start telling him this story I had uncovered and the more I talked
about it the more excited I got. And Charley kept saying, Thats
a book. You ought to write that down. And mind you, I had left school
at sixteen to show horses. I had no education. I said, I cant
possibly write a book. I read them like mad, but I cant possibly
write a book. Theres just no way. And I kept on boring him
blue in the evenings. I was talking about all of this, Hastings, and the
Normans, and the Danes, and Harold, all this marvelous stuff. And he kept
telling me to write it down. So, finally, I began to write it down.
And it did make a book. And as I wrote, I found the same kinds of opportunities
for detail and polish and for passion and for energy that had been focused
on the riding. I got really seriously into enjoying the writing. I got
about two hundred pages of it done and I would read it to my mother and
I would read it to Charlie and they both started urging me to try to sell
I had not a clue. I think there is no substitute for ignorance. Ignorance
is the best asset you can have. I had a huge library even then, nothing
compared to what I have here today. I went and I looked at the books in
my library. This had turned out to be a kind of historical romance, not
a kind of bodice ripper, but it revolved around the love of
Aldyth for one of my ancestors, Griffith Ap Llywelyn, who was killed by
Harold, and Aldyth (or Edith) subsequently married Harold and was an eye
witness to the battle of Hastings. Aldyth was an eyewitness to his death.
My ancestor had been her first husband, whom Harold had killed.
Actually, what had happened, what excited me and made me write the book,
was Harold had also had a Mistress named Edith Swanneck. She, too, was
at the Battle of Hastings, where Harold was killed by William. She, too,
had been a witness. After Harold was dead, William the Conqueror, who
in those days was known as William the Bastard, had people searching the
battlefield, trying to find Harolds body. Because Harold was the
king of England, and William had now made himself King of England, he
wanted to get that body out of sight at once. They had stripped all of
the dead and left them naked and mutilated on the battlefield.
It was October and it was hot. I could see it--more, I could smell it.
They could not identify the dead king. Finally, and this is true, by torch
light, William sent out monks together with not the kings wife but his
mistress, to identify the body, the chronicler tells us, by signs that
only she knew. Edith Swanneck identified Harolds body on the battlefield.
And when his men gathered it up and took it away, it was never discovered,
as it was buried in a hidden place. Harolds widow, Aldyth, then
took their young sons, who were the linear heirs to the throne of England,
and disappeared from the pages of history. This was a fascinating story.
I could see these two women, above the battlefield, and the scene by torch
So, I had written down as far as the battle itself and discovered in doing
that, now that I was studying the battle, I really loved the military
campaign. I loved military history. I loved how all of this worked. And
I sent off what I had, which is the first two hundred pages, to the publisher
I respected most for literary merit in historical novels, at that time,
and it was Houghton Mifflin in Boston. I thought, well, Ill please
Charley, Ill post it off. I didnt know you needed an agent.
I didnt know that publishers were hardly ever reading unsolicited
manuscripts anymore. I just wrapped up what I had in an envelope and stuck
my name on it and sent it off. Went back to living my life. Our son Sean
was getting ready to go to Johns Hopkin. I got a letter in the post from
a woman called Ruth Hapgood at Houghton Mifflin saying they were buying
my novel and where was the rest of it? I went into shock. There wasnt
any rest of it. I hadnt finished the book. But, fortunately, our
son had just moved out of his room and into the dorm at Hopkin. So I rang
Good Will and had them come and collect his furniture and I went down
to the nearest cheap shop and bought all of the bright green Turkish toweling
I could find and a lot of play-dough and a lot of little lead soldiers
and I turned the floor of his room into the battle ground. I reconstructed
the Battle of Hastings. I had the soldiers here and the soldiers there,
to understand how the whole thing worked. I finished the book, and sent
it off to Houghton Mifflin and it was an alternate-main selection for
Doubleday, the Doubleday Book Club. And I was a writer. Hadnt meant
to be. Hadnt planned to be.
Mairéid: When was this?
Morgan: Winds of Hastings was published in 78. I wrote
it in 1977. And no sooner was it published than Ruth came to me. She says,
What are you going to write next? I said, "What next?"
Oh! You have to write a second book. It has to be better than the
first one. You dont want to be a one book author, she said.
And I said, No. Do you think I need to get an agent? Certainly,
she said. So I acquired myself an agent. But my father, my very Irish
father, took umbrage at the fact that Id written a book about the
Welsh side of the family, which is only a quarter of me--less than that
really. There was a great amount of throat clearing and waving of eyebrows
at me. So, he armed me with every history book he could find with the
his ancestors in them. And my next book was Lion of Ireland, the
story of Brian Boru. That was 1980.
Mairéid: That was the first one I read. When I read the
book it all came back to me. I was told those stories at home and at school
as a child. Brian Boru always loomed heroically large for me. You did
a wonderful job with the story.
Morgan: My father had told me the story. To hear dad talk, of course,
he was at the Battle of Clontarf.
Mairéid: Both of my parents told the story as if they were
Morgan: And subsequently, at the GPO, with Pearce. It is remarkable.
Everyone in Ireland was at these great battles.
Mairéid: You picked the best Irish story.
Morgan: And Ive never looked back. So thats how I fell
into this and people ask how did I get started. And I simply say, It
wouldnt work for you.
I have a story about why the publisher bought The Winds of Hastings. As it happened, Houghton Mifflin wasnt reading unsolicited manuscripts
either. It came in over the transom, as they say, which is publisher's
vernacular for 'unsolicited' and then it goes into a thing called the
slush pile, and the secretaries, when they have time, send it back. Ruth
Hapgood, who became my editor, wandered through and saw my name on the
envelope. She told me this story later. "Let's see that," she said. And
she took it into her cubbyhole and sat down. Why did she pick it up? She
is a horse show groupie and she recognized the name. My horse was famous
and I had shown him all over the country. For that reason she thought
she'd have a look at it. And she opened it and the first page is a physical
description, together with smells of the battlefield two days after the
battle, and she said she sat down and read the whole thing. So, it's one
of those weird coincidences. I didn't do it the hard way. I didn't spend
years starving in a garret. I didn't intend to be a writer. It was a pure
Mairéid: What does it do to you when you realize that life,
in hindsight, is a series of miracles that are all interconnected somehow.
There was meaning here. There was a form that was being fulfilled. What
do you think about that?
Morgan: I actually used that in the third book, after Lion.
In trying to understand myself, and I think writers are always explaining
themselves to themselves. I knew that I was as close to being pure Celt
as one can be, mostly Irish with a little add-mixture of Welsh. I wanted
to know more about the Celtic people. And so, I went back to the earliest
anthropological classic Celt, which is Hallstatt in the 7 century BC.
And wrote there, called the Horse Goddess, the story of that moment
in time, that cusp of history, when the Celts acquired the ridden horse
and burst out of their homeland, which was Bohemia--the Rhineland, Hallstatt,
Austria, and covered Western Europe. The heroin of the Horse Goddess, is a woman I called Epona, the eponymous Horse Goddess, and I have
her acquiring the art of riding the horse from the Scythians, who were
There are two heroes, Kazhak, a Scythian warrior and prince, and Kernunnos,
who is part of ancient Celtic mythology; the priest, the Shapechanger.
I was fascinated by the idea of the Shapechanger. I got a marvelous book
called Shapechangers and Werewolves. It's a Central European book,
studying the whole idea of sympathetic magic and the practitioners of
sympathetic magic becoming Shapechangers as they lured the prey in for
the hunter. I like the whole idea of Kernunnos, He is apparently the villain,
as you start off, but by the end of the book he represents what we owe
to the tribe. And the whole importance of giving back what you owe to
In the Horse Goddess, I wrote quite a lengthy bit which appears
all the way through, about the pattern. Listening to the pattern inside
yourself and letting that pattern take and shape you. Partly as a result
of what was happening in my own life, I'd realized that we, each of us,
do have a pattern and that perhaps in the noise of the twentieth century,
we didn't listen to it anymore. We didn't hear it. We started off in our
own directions where we thought we could make this happen, and make that
happen, and yet the pattern, like a spider-web, is underneath us all the
Actually stop and listen to the spirit within, I am always having Epona
listening to the spirit within, then you know what to do or what not to
do. That little still small voice in there. Suddenly you go this way and
not that way and can never tell anyone why you go this way and not that--why
you take this path and not that path. But you are guided by that spirit
within. So I concluded that it must have been very much like that for
our ancestors. Much more so than it is now. They were much more spiritual,
if you will, in that they were drawn in these directions by recognition
and intuition that we tend to ignore anymore.
Mairéid: Most people tend to have a fantastic idea about
what stillness means. Stillness is so still that it seems too natural--too
easy for many people, since society demands we make an effort. When I
have reflected on a moment when I am making a choice, I've realized than
in almost all of those moments I'm looking inward and absorbing information
without discussing it. It is the act of looking and absorbing from which
I make the choice. That stillness is very difficult to articulate but
it is crystal clear and so calm.
Morgan: It has to be calm because your inner 'computer', and we
wouldn't have this idea 700 years before Christ, your inner computer is
synthesizing all of this information. Taking it in--making its balanced
judgments: what our ancestors would have called intuition. It is all the
same thing. It is all of our knowledge, all of our experiences, all of
our sensory perceptions and something else, all blending in us to feed
us back a certain amount of information that we can act upon or not.
Mairéid: I see us as being like little bubbles of reality
which we move around in, meeting other bubbles of reality and if we connect,
it is unique. But difficulty occurs when sometimes we connect with somebody
and there isn't an understanding, especially if you have to work with
them and they have an influence on the manifestation of your dream when
your dream is not necessarily perfectly formed yet, and they take it in
another direction--against you.
Morgan: I know what you are saying. That always gives me a metallic
taste in my mouth. I think it is a chemical thing. You can meet people
and you can see that almost invariably they are people who, upfront, understand
exactly--and they have your idea--and they don't have your idea. And they
are not going down your road.
Mairéid: There is a vision here. Living each day is about
letting the bubbles interact, equally.
Morgan: You are listening to the spirit within. Before you leave
I'll give you a copy of the Horse Goddess. I think you'll enjoy
it and you can let me know what you think. Because into it I put a great
deal of the philosophy that I was developing as I matured and worked my
way through things--spiritual discoveries, these sorts of things.
Mairéid: We must teach by our own experience.
Morgan: Yes, ...the whole Bardic transmission of education. We
each can show our own way and if there is something valid in that for
someone else, then they can pick it up. I think the one thing we must
not do is superimpose that on someone else. What we can say is this worked
for me. This is what I have discovered. If this works for you--wonderful.
It doesn't have to. But this worked for me. So that's what I try to do.
Sometimes things work against you. I published the Horse Goddess to huge acclaim, because it came after Lion Of Ireland and Lion had just swept everything away. President Regan invited me to the white
house, ...all these things for Lion. So when Horse Goddess came out, something went seriously wrong. Because I was looking at the
idea of the Shapechanger. This represented the beginning of the Druidic
culture, which I thought was really important, the genuine Druids, not
the people dancing around Stonehenge, but the genuine Druids. And when
it hit the bookshelves in America with a Druid in it, people who didn't
read the book said, Oh, that's fantasy, and I found myself
in the Fantasy and Science Fiction department in the bookstores. I went
in to the publisher and I said, I write mainstream historical fiction.
Why are you marketing me in Science Fiction? Druids are not Science Fiction.
Druids aren't even fiction. They were the whole intellectual class of
the Celtic people. If you call them fantasy, you might as well call the
Pope fantasy. But from that day to this I am considered a Fantasy
Stubbornly, I kept on writing what I wanted to write. After the Horse
Goddess, I had the Celts, so to speak. I showed how they came out
of their isolation, from the salt mines of Hallstatt. I was very lucky,
the Austrian government let me spend time in Hallstatt to absorb the feeling
there. They have a wonderful reconstruction.
Mairéid: How did you get them to let you do that?
Morgan: I gave them Lion of Ireland. At any rate, I had
learned, doing Lion, as I wrote most of it over here, that for
me it is very important to be on-site--to live on-site. To take my shoes
off and walk the ground, to smell the air, to try and get as far back
in time as I could, to turn off the twentieth century around me. I've
done that with every book.
After the Horse Goddess, I wanted to take the Celts a little farther,
to show how they got to Ireland. The next book was Bard, the odyssey
of the Irish, which is the story of Amhergin (pronounced Avrigan in old
Irish), at the end of the Bronze Age, 500 BC. When the Milesians arrived
in Ireland they brought the Iron Age with them. They are the descendants
of Epona and Kazhak, of the Horse Goddess, 200 years later, when
they came down over the Pyrenees, into Galicia, getting ready to go to
Ireland. That was a challenge in that I wrote it in triads. I wanted to
use the poetic Celtic triads. So, instead of having one adjective, I had
three, or three adverbs. Everything was in three. I used two of Amhergin's
own poems, which still exist. They are the oldest known poems in Western
Europe, and I wrote one for him in the book. Bard not only tells
the story of the coming of the Iron Age, but I am still dealing around
the cusp of folkloric history, and getting even closer to what they are
going to accuse me of writing ...fantasy. This is because I brought in
the Tuatha de Danann, who anthropologists speculate just might have been
a proto-Celtic people who were already here.
They were definitely Bronze Age. They may have been La Tene Celts. But
they used Bronze rather than Iron. And the Milesians came with Iron. The
Milesians, who had originally come out of Hallstatt, had introduced forged
iron to Rome. By the way, the Celts introduced the Romans to forged Iron
and to the use of soap. The Celts introduced trousers to western Europe.
The Celts brought in the cult of the trophy head, which they got from
the Scythians. So they were to blame for a lot. When the iron came it,
of course, destroyed the Bronze. I was fascinated by this cusp where one
people come in and destroy another, subjugate another, wipe out another,
because in Ireland we are preoccupied with this kind of thing. And taking
the hypothesis that the Tuatha de Danann probably were real, and then
realizing that the Milesians, who were also Celts, not only overcame them
but subsequently deified them--made them their gods and goddesses: The
magic people. They developed all kinds of superstitions about them. This
was so typical of the ancient Celts, who always glorified their enemies.
Because you've done a lot more if youve defeated someone spectacular
than if you've defeated someone who is just a bog trotter, haven't you?
A huge difference.
Mairéid: Would there have been an element of sorrow after
destroying such a beautiful people, that then led them to want to believe
they are immortally alive, but in a different realm? Since they describe
such wonderful attributes of the Tuatha de Danann, they would, quite possibly,
not want to think that they had barbarically destroyed those attributes.
Morgan: More likely they usurped all of those attributes for themselves,
as Christianity would usurp paganism when it came into Ireland. They may
have felt a degree of guilt. We are a little pre-guilt here though.
Mairéid: What about the idea that the Tuatha de Danann live
under the earth and are the spirit of the earth, the elements. Another
realm of beings who will continue to be present as long as the original
land is there. Finally, they might have, smilingly, said something like,
"Well, we did kill them, but they are still here, and even more profoundly
so. And they continue to support us."
Morgan: I'll tell you a little story, Mairéid, that goes
with that. My dear friend Sonja Shoreman, who lives in Ennis, and I do
a lot of rambling. One of our favorite places is the Burren. And one of
our favorite places there is the wonderful Oughtmama Valley. There are
some ancient churches there. There is a Holy Well, St. Coleman's Well.
They still have Pattern Day there, and walk around St. Coleman's Well.
And it is holy water for eyes. We were up there one day and, as happens
in this Catholic country of ours, people had left offerings inside the
well curb--people who had come to bathe their eyes in the water. And they
had left rosaries, and little miraculous medals. Suddenly we burst out
laughing when we saw that someone had left a yellow plastic Pope-mobile,
which I thought was a wonderful thing to find in the Holy Well. The Pope
used to travel around, after the attempted assassination, in a yellow
Pope-mobile with a big plastic bulletproof bubble, and this was a little
model of it.
While Sonja was looking at this, I think she photographed it, I looked
at something that I had seen there several times before and hadn't really
investigated. Finally, I got down on my knees. It was a stone cairn about
a meter across, a very old stone cairn, within a couple meters of the
Holy Well. There was a little aperture on one side. I got down and looked
in and I began taking out what I found in there. Bear in mind that this
is within six feet of a Holy Well, which, of course, was once pagan, but
is now a Christian Holy Well. It's a stone cairn with a little opening.
It was filled with iron. Old iron. Pieces of horseshoe, pieces of roofing
nails, broken pieces of plow. Some of them, Mairéid, still so new
they hadn't rusted. People who come up to Oughtmama to do the pattern,
to pray at this wonderful holy place, also bring cold iron and put it
in that cairn, that entrance to the other world. Because the iron keeps
the 'good people' underground. And I bet they don't even know why they
do it. But they bring up their offering and, traditionally, put it in
the stone cairn. I thought, now this is Ireland: a yellow plastic pope-mobile
and cold iron to keep the fairies away.
Mairéid: I saw that during my childhood in West Cork. It
is all there still.
Morgan: Its all there, as you would say, in the bubble. I never
forgot that. It was so extraordinary.
At any rate, the Milesians came to Ireland. And that was Bard.
And then, after Bard, we were living in New Hampshire at that time,
and my editor wanted me to write a book about an Irish woman. Im
not really comfortable writing about women. Granted, Hastings was a love
story. But that is not really what interests me, ...those relationships
only. When I have sex in my books, I am not writing romance, Im
writing sex. It is part of the human experience. Im really interested
in power and politics and war. So I said, all right, Ill write a
book about a strong Irish woman: Granuaile--power, politics and war! So
I gave them Grania in 1986. I wrote that when my husband was dying
of cancer. Five members of my family died within thirteen months. They
were all living with me. With the money from Lion, we had bought
this big farmhouse in New Hampshire, and invited our elderly relatives
to come live with us. I didnt think they would, but they did.
Mairéid: They came and they died?
Morgan: They came and they died. We had my mother and father. We
had Charlies grandmother who was ninety-two. Charlies father,
who died of brain cancer and then my husband. My son was in Pittsburgh
at this stage, finishing Law School, and so after Charlie died, I sold
up and came to Ireland.
And the next book I wrote, the next serious book I wrote... I wrote a
couple of little stories to pay my freight. The next serious book I wrote
was Druids, published in 1991, which is an investigation of the
Druidic culture. I went back and retranslated Caesar. I wanted to look
at Caesars battle for Gaul, told from the point of view of the Celts.
Because we get all this wonderful Roman propaganda about how marvelous
the Romans were. Forget that! Caesar caused one of the great genocides
of all time. He exterminated hundreds of thousands of Gauls. In some cases
just by having their hands cut off so that they bled to death. His statistics
were seriously skewed to convince the people back in Rome that he was
much more victorious than he was. Because it was all a political power
play, for himself. So, Druids is told from the point of view of
the Gauls, ...the Celts--Vercingetorix, who of course was real, and Ainver,
the chief Druid. It finally winds up in the sacred sacrificial grove of
the Carnutes, which was Vercingetorixs tribe. And where the great
grove of the Carnutes stood, the sacrificial Celtic grove, the cathedral
of Chartres stands today, which is where the book ends.
But I really wanted to find out everything I could about the real Druids.
Here is where I began to realize that Christianity had appropriated the
pagan world. Because in studying this one, I learned that the great cathedrals
all over Europe were built on pagan sites. It isnt just our Holy
Wells here that were pagan wells. Its all over the world. But it
is very interesting to read the classical scholars about the Druids, because
I had not known the extent to which things were known about them. I was
already very aware that I was being bashed for writing about Druids because
everyone knew they were fantasy and fairy tales. Caesar writes
about them. Marcus Aurelius writes about them. Suetonius wrote about them.
I quoted some of the most powerful quotes, in the beginning of Druids,
from the classical scholars, because I thought people might be interested.
Caesar, for example, accused the Celts of being barbarians because they
worshipped too many gods, and they very foolishly believed in the immortality
of the soul, which proved they were stupid. I found a lot of very interesting
material about the Druids. We know more about them than we think we do.
It was the whole intelligentsia of the Celtic world. The judges, the poets,
the genealogists, the healers, the teachers. Anyone who had gifts of the
mind, rather than gifts of the hand, could qualify to be a Druid. And,
of course, the Druidic schools, the great Bards had to study for twenty
years. Everything had to be learned by rote .
Mairéid: Its the same today, and for a few years longer.
There are countries in Europe and Australia, for instance, where education
Morgan: Absolutely. The great difference was that the Druid class
was supported by the rest of them. They gave their gifts freely in turn
for being supported. As it should be. We are trying to get back to it
a little. While I was writing Druids, the Editor-in-Chief of Morrow
got in touch with my agent, and asked if I would be interested in writing
about 'Cuchillane' (mispronounced as Cu-chill-lane) for William Morrow.
I said, Who? What? After awhile the penny dropped and I said,
"You mean CuChulain. Oh, Id love to, actually.'" That was Red
Branch, published in 1989.
Mairéid: I really enjoyed that book. You did a great job
with the character of Medb as well as CuChulain.
Morgan: Medb was fun. Medb was what was left over from Grania and Gormlaith in Pride of Lions, ... this very strong woman. As
I would subsequently do in Finn Mac Cool, I wanted to look at this
seminal figure in Irish folkloric history as having been a real person.
Because I dont think we have that much imagination. I think they
are based on a degree of reality. CuChullain could well have held the
gap of the north, because in those days all of Ulster was forest and bog
and mountain and one little narrow pass in or out. One hero fighting alone
could have held it for awhile, and if he did he would become myth. Starting
on that principle, I tried to develop the whole story of CuChulain, aligning
it with the myth, to show you how the myth wove in with real life, trying
to understand him from a psychological point of view. He was interesting
to me in that if the folk lore that supports him is true. He believed
he was the son of a god. This is right about the era of the birth of Christ.
I thought, well, how does a man deal with this. How do you deal with growing
up with the possibility that you may be half immortal. So I had to look
at that aspect.
Mairéid: His father was the Lugh. Interesting to see the
parallel with the time of Christ.
Morgan: CuChulains father was the God, Lugh, if his mother
was telling the truth. I had to be very dodgy about all this, because
we never really know. But I enjoyed this aspect of writing about Irish
history because Im writing about a time when these things were not
myth: when they were real; when people genuinely believed them. And I
had to write them so that the reader sees the people genuinely believe
it. This isnt fantasy. This isnt a fairy tale. These are the
beliefs of the time.
Mairéid: Humanity has always had a class of people who work
on analyzing the mysterious: e.g. today's physicists, etc. It is marvelous
to see that the perception we are applying in science today is parallel
to ancient perception.
Morgan: They lived in a world where their text book was nature.
Mairéid: In some traditional Irish Sean Nos songs, the anger
of nature is expressed through the singer--the anger in the song is an
expression of nature's anger.
Morgan: The Celtic Gods werent gods like the Greek and Roman
Gods. The Greeks and the Romans put up statues of themselves and made
themselves Gods. The Celts were looking at all the faces of creation,
the creator imminent in the creation. The tree, the river, the mountain--these
were all the faces of one God.
Michael OBrien, of OBrien Press, came to me one day and asked
me if I could write Brian Borus story for children. I had never
written anything for children and my immediate reaction was,
he had four wives and married some of them simultaneously, he had at least
thirty-two concubines, who got lost in the cutting room floor when I wrote
the original novel. It wasnt a childrens story. It was a complex
story about a complex man. I said. "No, I couldnt possibly." So,
because when Im challenged, Im challenged. I went home and
tried to figure out how I could. I ultimately did it. I wrote a childrens
book for OBrien Press called Brian Boru.
Mairéid: We were all told the story as children so there
had to be a way to do it.
Morgan: Oh, yes. There is, there is. I learned that you can tell
children almost anything you can tell adults, and make them understand,
if you relate it through the senses rather than through the abstract.
They speak in a more basic language. And then I did Strongbow,
in 1992, for OBrien Press, again. And told the two stories in alternate
chapters. Aoife tells one and Strongbow tells the other.
Mairéid: Have you written that story for adults at all?
Morgan: Id always wanted to write the Strongbow story for
Mairéid: It is a very important story. Just at that point
in time Ireland almost achieved unification.
Morgan: Almost. Thank you Diarmuid Mac Murchadha.
Mairéid: Hardly anyone refers to that time being a very
important turning point in Irish history.
Morgan: It was a turning point. I had been interested in writing
it for adults and I couldnt get my publisher interested in it at
the time. So when OBrien asked me to do it for children, I said,
"Oh! Yes! Oh! Sure, no problem!"
Mairéid: Do you think you captured that historic reality?
I often wonder why every historian I have read on that particular subject
is so dry.
Morgan: History should never be dry. History is about sex and violence,
it should not be dry.
Mairéid: And power.
Morgan: And power. If it is dry, they are telling it wrong. Its
as simple as that. So I did Strongbow. And then OBrien wanted
to utilize my horse experience and asked me to write a story for children.
So I wrote one called Star Dancer, published in 1993. Its
about dressage in Ireland, which is almost an non-sequitur. There isnt
much. And then I did some stories for Poolbeg Press. They were doing anthologies
and I contributed several stories to their anthologies. I wrote a book,
an environmental ghost story of sorts, called Cold Places. People
keep coming and asking me for these things. If I am at that stage of a
big novel, where Im doing the initial research, then I can write
a childrens book while Im doing the research. Once I start
the big novels I cant do anything else.
With my books for children, I present the history without the children
realizing that here is a serious book. In writing about Brian Boru or
Strongbow, Im telling them really serious and important history,
but it has to be done in an entertaining way. Cold Places is about
Mans relationship with the earth, with ancient archeological sites
and with circles and standing stones and making young Irish readers aware
that these things are still potent in our world today.
Mairéid: What aspects of the potency do you want to emphasize--that
a child can relate to?
Morgan: Using their own imaginations. Weaving them around the stones,
finding a truth for themselves in the stones. In that particular one,
because it is sort of a ghost story, rather a frightening story, the boy
actually goes back in time to the time they were built, and even before
then finds himself trapped in the ice age. It is an adventure story.
Mairéid: What are the emotions then that you think have
ML. Practically all of them: fear, ambition a sense of fun, a sense of
play, high energy, loyalty, curiosity. All of these are things that can
appeal to a child on a very basic level. And you can write about characters
who are experiencing these and describe that experience in a way that
will be analogous to something in the childs own life. They say,
"Oh I know how that felt. I know what he is feeling," and you got em.
Its as simple as that.
Mairéid: How do you decide what to write about? Youve
written so many books its almost a trite question.
Morgan: Its terrifying (peels of laughter), when I think
of how many Ive written. I think in terms of the big books. The
big, serious historical novels. Its one every two years, maybe two
and a half years. When people ask me to name books those are the ones
I think of. When I go and I look at them, I think, how in the world did
I do that? I dont know. Someone says in the pejorative, "Im
churning them out," and I dont. I just write all day every day,
seven days a week, because I love it. If you do that, it adds up to quite
a lot of books.
End Part One.
In Part Two, Morgan tells of her experiences in
researching and writing on twentieth century Irish history.