‘Merging Irish myths and Irish history gave my story its soul’

Author Shauna Lawless believes Irish gods deserve their place alongside Greeks and Norse as inspiration for historical fiction

When I was young, I would read my grandmother’s stories.

We had a whole file of them. They were beautiful tales full of Irish folklore and magic.

My grandmother believed in the ‘little people’ and many of her stories were about them and the tricks they played. She had grown up in the countryside, close to Downpatrick in Co Down, though lived most of her life in Belfast. However, it was the countryside of her youth and old folk tales that had clearly inspired her.

I lived in England until I was nine, then my family moved back to Ireland. Here, these magical stories were no longer confined to a file in my bedroom. They were everywhere. Books at school, murals, music, conversation. Cú Chulainn and Fionn McCool. Giants and fairies.


This was the early nineties. As I grew, I absorbed it all. Then one day, I passed a bookshop. Inside the front window was a copy of a rather chunky book by Lady Gregory. Of Gods and Fighting Men, it was called. I flipped to the back cover and read a blurb about the Tuatha Dé Danann and was instantly intrigued. I knew of them, they were mentioned in my granny’s stories, only here they were not part of a childish tale, rather something more significant.

And thus began my love affair with Irish mythology and a voyage of discovery into a history of Ireland that was much older that anything I had yet read. Suddenly the magic of ancient Ireland felt more understandable than giants throwing stones across a causeway. In its stead, I discovered tales of courage and war. Even though gods were involved, it was more human, and the most fascinating story to me was The Second Battle of Moytura, a retelling of a war between the Tuatha Dé Danann and the Fomorians.

For those who do not know this story, it is about a tribe called the Tuatha Dé Danann, who were friends with the Fir Bolg (the Irish people of the time). Each of them had a magical power. Some were great warriors. Others were healers and could regrow whole limbs. Others were witches. Some were cupbearers who could drain rivers dry so their enemies would suffer.

The Fomorians, in contrast, enslaved the Fir Bolg. They were greedy and inhospitable. The leader of the Fomorians was King Balor of the Evil Eye, whose magical eye had seven eyelids, and when all his eyelids opened, he unleashed his fire on those who did not obey him.

The Tuatha Dé Danann won the day, though years later they were eventually defeated by the sons of Miled and tricked into living in the underworld or ‘otherworld’ of Ireland.

As I moved through the other cycles of Irish mythology, predominantly the Ulster and Fenian Cycles, I was again fascinated by how often members of the Tuatha Dé Danann left the otherworld to interact with ‘mortal’ characters. The legends I read said that Cú Chulainn was the son of Lugh and that Fionn MacCumhaill was the great grandson of Nuada of the Tuatha Dé Danann. It seemed to me that the magical abilities of the Tuatha Dé Danann had not entirely disappeared.

Aside from literature, I was also fascinated with Irish history and politics. I suppose growing up during the Troubles you couldn’t help but be interested. It affected our lives. The violence and fighting at times felt like it would never end, though fortunately the Good Friday Agreement heralded a new era of peace.

However, as I travelled back through the decades and centuries, I discovered more wars. Many of them. I suppose, this is where I stumbled onto histories seldom read amongst my peer group. Old documents discussing the Brehon Laws. Viking accounts of wars between the Irish and the Viking kings of Dublin. The Annals of Ulster. Larger textbooks helped fill in the picture. It was here I noticed that many of the cultural aspects of early mediaeval Ireland were linked to Irish myth, from how criminals were punished to how kings were chosen. Mythology and history are inextricably linked.

It felt very different from the history I studied in school. The Brian Boru I remembered was depicted as a praying saint, whereas historical records reveal a ferocious warrior. The Battle of Clontarf was depicted as a fight between the Christian Irish and the pagan Vikings. This isn’t true either.

And so – we come to my story. The Children of Gods and Fighting Men.

Why did I combine Irish historical fiction and Irish mythology? It was suggested, early on, that it might be best to make the story a work of historical fiction. I tried that, but the story felt like it could have happened in any other European country. I also was asked to take my story and set it in an entirely fictional world, but that felt dishonest. Irish mythology is ancient, one of the oldest in the world, yet it is not spoken of with the same reverence as Greek or Norse. No one would ever steer you away from a Greek mythology inspired story, so it didn’t feel right to steer away from Irish mythology because it wasn’t ‘in’. And once the characters were there, I couldn’t take their Irishness away.

In the end, it was the merging of the Irish myths and Irish history that gave the story its soul. History and myth linked once again. The Ireland I have created features all the characters you will recognise from your textbooks but walking alongside them are descendants of the Tuatha Dé Danann and Fomorians. Their magic is hidden from the mortals they interact with, but always bubbling underneath the surface.

To conclude, this is not a reimagining of what is already written, rather a new ending. This is a much later period than that of Fionn MacCumhaill and Oisín. The magic in Ireland is fading, but it has not gone.

Not yet.

The Children of Gods and Fighting Men is published by Head of Zeus on September 1st