One of the things I love most about where I live, deep in the countryside of rural Ireland, is the depth of the place. There’s a way that the past ebbs into the everyday, but gently and subtly; there if you go looking for it.
There is a churchyard down the road. It’s very old but there are new and fresh burials – as recent as this year – made poignant with hearts of plastic flowers and crayoned messages to Mammy. In the midst of them is a weathered gravestone that looks like a very large cat walked across it. These ‘cat paw prints’, a modest sign points out, indicate this is the grave of St Brendan the Navigator. I love the way mothers and babies and beloved grandfathers are bedded down with the great voyager who visited what is now thought to be America and lived to write a cracking tale about the journey.
When I write, I draw on old songs, hints of folklore and touches of myth, to help build a sense of familiarity for my readers. I want them to feel as wedded into the fabric of my story as my characters are.
I use very specific locations – almost always ones I’ve visited – because I would love readers to be able to visit them too. Or, if they’ve been there, to perhaps see the place in a different way.
My favourite locations are ones that are heavy in myth, legend or folklore. To me these are Borderlands, akin to what Lord Dunsany refers to as “beyond the fields we know”.
For those who love Neil Gaiman’s stories, these places are like the village of Wall in Stardust where fairyland is just over the other side. It looks just like here. Almost exactly the same… only you know it’s not. You’ve been warned it’s different. You’ve been told not to go there.
But what if you did? Or, if not you, someone you cared about. Someone in a story…
The Brú na Boínne World Heritage Site.
Newgrange. One of the world’s oldest buildings and possibly the oldest astronomical observatory still standing. In Ireland, it’s the site of a whole run of myths and legends that every child learns in primary school. Yet if you’re not Irish, you’ve probably never heard of it….
Newgrange is a 5,000-year-old earthen monument that works as an astronomical clock: on the shortest days of the year, light from the rising sun shines straight down the passageway and illuminates the inner chamber. It is older than Stonehenge and the Pyramids of Giza.
Rare, for such a World Heritage Site, you can actually go inside it. Every tourist gets shown a simulation of the way the light shines into the mound. If you’re very lucky (there is literally a lottery), you can be one of the few privileged enough to experience the real deal: the sunlight of the winter solstice beaming in. Speaking from my own experience, it’ll be one of the highlights of your life!
What makes this place even more special, is that it’s not alone. It’s one of three massive such passage-tombs and thirty-seven other barrows all within the same area. This is the Bend of the Boyne and it’s rich with myth and magic and wildly improbably tales that happen to be true.