hey say history is always written by the winners, but they may have missed out a telling twist to such tales.
History is also invariably written by the men.
Which may, of course, skewered the writing ever-so-slightly, with the female of the species often reduced to a supporting role. Even when they were the driving force.
For Greystones author Ellen Ryan, this was an imbalance she noticed very early on, as Marita Conlon-McKenna’s Irish history novels sparked a hunger for exploring our country’s past. And from the start, the 12-year-old was drawn to Ireland’s unsung heroes.
Which may explain Ellen’s rather fine new book, Girls Who Slay Monsters: Daring Tales Of Ireland’s Forgotten Goddesses, which does pretty much what it says on the cover. Alongside evocative illustrations by Shona Shirley Macdonald, Ryan introduces us to a kaleidoscopic cavalcade of cunning Celtic conquerors, cool-headed killers and compassionate eco warriors. And they all just happen to be women.
With her book hitting shelves today, we caught up with the understandably proud first-time author outside Halfway Up The Stairs bookshop this afternoon, to dig a little deeper into this liberating revision of Irish folklore…
GG: You’re 12, falling in love with Irish history, and with books – was there a point early on when you knew you wanted to be a writer? The day Marita Conlon-McKenna visited your school…? ER: Certainly, meeting Conlon-McKenna, author of children’s famine tale, Under the Hawthorn Tree, was a powerful moment. Her books shaped my view of Ireland, our people, and myself. But it wasn’t the school visit that made me want to be a writer. It was the way her books made me feel when I read them. I was proud of my heritage, and as a result, I was proud of myself. Conlon-McKenna’s books felt like a call to action, to someday write something that made children feel proud of their culture, as she had done for me.
Were there other influences on you back then – or was this ambition carved out in your room? When I was in transition year, I was lucky enough to secure a two-week work experience placement in The Irish Times. I’ll never forget my first day – how thrilling it was, watching journalists frantically filing their copy for print. The atmosphere was electric. I loved being around writers, and wanted to be one of them, someday.
What was the spark for Girls Who Slay Monsters? Feminism? Mythology? Marvel? Or just a good idea for a book? I visited Rathcroghan archaeological site, and learned the land there was linked with goddesses. At school I was only taught about a few magical Irish women, often portrayed as villains, never as gods. I couldn’t understand why I hadn’t heard these stories before.
Growing up, I would have loved them. And disappointingly, today, children still aren’t taught about Irish gods in school. Instead, they know more about the likes of Greek warrior Athena, and Norse trickster Loki – the heroes of so many popular books and Marvel movies – than they do of Éire, our country’s fierce namesake, Dian Cécht, the divine healer, or Bé Chuille, the demon slayer. Irish children deserve to know the stories of Irish gods, preserved for them by their ancestors. It is their right to know these stories. This conviction was the spark that led me to write Girls Who Slay Monsters.
When it comes to ancient Irish goddesses, what’s the main source for information? You do know that, eh, some of these goddesses might not be real, right? Ha, it depends on who you ask!
To compose my stories about these authentic Irish goddesses, I drew from over thirty medieval Irish texts, plus works in folklore, Celtic studies, literary critique, and botany – too numerous to list here. But my book was never intended as a scholarly work. Instead, I reimagined elements of each story for young readers. I wanted to bring these stories to life for today’s children…
Some well-known goddesses featured in epic tales, short stories, or poems, and I would stitch their stories together. Others were more challenging. For instance, I found a small extract – barely two paragraphs – about a goddess named Bé Mannair ‘Woman of Destruction’. How could I discount a goddess with a name like that? Bé Mannair was a shapeshifter, like many Irish gods, but what made her uniquely powerful was her gender fluidity – a rare talent among gods. Further, in the extract that I found, she was said to have challenged the Fianna, Ireland’s legendary band of super-soldiers, to a running race. But why would she do this? I dug deeper. Her mother’s name was Áincel, which meant Bad Omen. So, I imagined her as someone formidable and impressive – likely a warrior. I felt Bé Mannair would want to live up to her mother’s legacy. And in challenging the Fianna, she would step into her later, extraordinary powers. That was how I pieced together a back story to the goddess, how I tried to imagine what it felt like to be her.
It felt like an honour, to place myself inside the minds of these goddesses – piecing together their origin stories and relationships with family, and themselves – the propellers of later brave or bloodthirsty deeds.
In among the many heroines in your book, there’s a giant being body-shamed, a shape-shifting eco-warrior and a gender-fluid spy. Might the hand of a modern author be involved in such descriptions? In writing this book, I wanted to contribute something to Irish culture that all Irish children could take pride in.
So, I sought to discover and reveal the authentic diversity of our gods.
But I wanted to do it in a way that was considered. This is why before each of my stories, I provide an extract from a relevant medieval source text, to ground the reader in the ancient origins of my tales – and to demonstrate that the giant was body shamed, the spy was gender-fluid, and Badb, the death prophet, did have dark brown skin. There were also Irish goddesses who weren’t born in Ireland but came from faraway lands like Scythia (modern-day Iran).
I see the Irish mythical pantheon as one that is beautifully inclusive.
Was there actually a struggle, as reported, when it came to the surname on the book…? I was asked many times if I would use my birth name Ryan – daughter of my father – or Meaney – wife of my husband. But I also come from a long line of strong women. So, I could equally give my name as Ellen, daughter of Paula the artist, who is daughter of Carmel the scholar, who is daughter of Nelly, who witnessed the founding of a nation.
Aimed at kids from nine to twelve – liberating to have a target reader, or restricting? I found it liberating. I could strip away deaths and marriages from the tales and focus on the goddesses’ daring deeds instead!
What would you hope these kids get from Girls Who Slay Monsters? Other than tips on how to win in a battle. I hope these stories will enrich their sense of cultural identity. I hope they will feel empowered, to know that they have their own pantheon of mythical gods – their own superheroes – and that these Irish heroes came in many shapes, skin shades and sizes.
Where to next? More Irish myths for children, or are there other kinds of books lurking in your mind? I have lots of ideas, but also have a lot more to say about the Irish gods!
Out today in all smart bookshops, you can grab a personalised signed copy of Girls Who Slay Monsters: Daring Tales Of Ireland’s Forgotten Goddesses from Halfway Up The Stairs. Order here, and get in touch on firstname.lastname@example.org. Also, vote for Ellen for Children’s Book Of The Year – closes Nov 10th.
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