The World of Seare: Ancient Ireland

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While Oath of the Brotherhood is 100% fiction, I enjoyed using a backdrop of the real culture of Ancient Ireland from about the 3rd century to the 7th century for my fictional Seare. We tend to believe that the peoples and cultures outside Rome at that time were barbarians (partially thanks to the fact that most of our records come through the Romans…) but in truth, Ireland was an advanced civilization with customs and habits that are much more consistent with our understanding today.

  1. The ancient Irish loved bathing. – While people on the continent either didn’t have access to or were suspicious of daily baths, the Irish were extremely fastidious with their personal hygiene. Bathing was quite usual among the upper classes, and stories from the era reflect that guests were often offered the use of a bath when coming to a keep or monastery. There is also plenty of evidence that the upper class warriors would bathe while on the march or encamped during war, which suggests that cleanliness was of the utmost importance.
  2. The ancient Irish were obsessed with their hair. – It wasn’t just cleanliness that was important (though we’re told in many manuscripts that clean hair should be combed smooth after the daily bath), but fashion as well. Both men and women wore their hair long and in elaborate coils, which must have been done with some sort of primitive curling iron and suggests the interest of professional hairdressers. Men are also spoken of having their hair done in “hooks and plaits and swordlets.” The illuminations in the Book of Kells backs up this standard of fashion, as every figure within it, including the angels, has his or her hair elaborately dressed.
  3. The ancient Irish wore kilts. – We associate the kilt with the Scots after the 17th century, but drawings, carvings, and illuminated manuscripts well before the 11th century demonstrated that the garment was worn in Ireland as well. Likewise, the tartan pattern may have had its origins in Ireland, though traditionally the pattern is tied to a county or province and not a single clan. While this clearly would have been historically correct, the kilt is so strongly associated with Scotland that I decided not to incorporate into the world of Seare. Instead, men wear knee-length tunics, over which is worn a close-fitting jacket or vest and leg-coverings/trews/trousers, which is also consistent with Celtic tribes in the first millennium.
  4. The ancient Irish (almost) worshipped weapons. – Weapons in pagan Ireland were so important that they were sometimes treated as though they were sentient or outright worshipped. This gave rise to the practice of swearing oaths of them, a practice that I borrowed with the Fíréin and their oath-binding ceremony. Of course, the oath-binding sword was a little more special than the standard blade…and if the ancient Irish had’ve come across that in the course of actual history, it would be understandable that they’d think it had a mind of its own!
  5. The ancient Irish didn’t necessarily raise their own children. – There was a centuries-long tradition of fosterage, not just within the very wealthy, but in lower classes as well, where children would be sent to live with another family within the clan. They might be sent away as young as a year old and brought back at marriageable age (seventeen for boys, fourteen for girls). In the meantime, the children would be raised as a member of the foster family and be educated according to their station; sometimes this was done for love, others for payment. Regardless, the ties between foster-child and foster-parents were often stronger than those with their birth parents and considered sacred. While I’ve nowhere seen it spelled out why this is a principal feature of Irish culture, it seems reasonable that it was done to strengthen ties within a clan and outside individual bloodlines. Children could also be sent to literary or ecclesiastical fosterages, where they would be educated as scribes or priests. A number of early Irish saints were fostered in this manner, and it seems a reasonable way to educate acolytes for specialized service. As Oath of the Brotherhood begins, it’s differences on what constitutes an appropriate education that gets Conor in hot water and has him sent to a neighboring king as a hostage for their peace treaty.

While many of the other details of Seare were changed or completely invented, Ireland’s rich history and surprisingly advanced culture was the perfect canvas upon which to build a new fantasy civilization.

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  1. Lavay Byrd says:

    Oh, my gosh! I had no idea ancient Ireland was quite advanced! Their obsessiveness with bathing and long hair made me laugh a little, but their use of longhair and kilts made me wonder how similar they seem with the Scots (in some ways then most).

    I’m so glad you pointed out how fosterage is a great norm among the Irish clans, which definitely explains Conor Mac Nir’s situation!

    I do have several questions. The first is the names and the clans themselves. Are clans another word for a tribe or are they more of a “family” group? I see the term being used interchangeably a lot. Just curious.

    My second question is their use of names. For example, Conor Mac Nir. I know “mac” is the Irish term for “son of”, but his father King Galbraith. Is Nir their ancestor?

    My last question is a little long, so forgive me! In my own research of the celtic culture (for an underwater fantasy WIP), I notice that Scottish and Irish are placed under the umbrella of Celtic alongside the Welsh. Were they all part of one major group (the Celts) until they branched off into other cultures over the years?

    • Carla says:

      Great questions! I always like writing in ancient Britain because I can be realistic with the bathing and such… I always cringe at the idea of writing romantic scenes when I know everyone stinks. lol

      In terms of the ancient structure of Celtic people, tribes were the largest unit of relationship whereas clans were the descendants of a particular ancestor. Sometimes when a clan would get too big, it would branch off and they’d take the name of THAT ancestor… such as Nir. In Oath of the Brotherhood, you can think of the country as being the tribe (because each of the countries were named after four sons of the High King) and the clans with their “mac” names are branches within the tribe. When you read the book, this is why there are major and minor royal lines–the clans can trace their bloodlines to a common royal ancestor before a branching, but one clan has held the leadership since that time.

      As far as the origin of Celtic culture, I’m sure you know from your research that it’s super complicated and even historians and geneticists don’t agree on the origin of the Celts, and they like to assign the same names to different people groups, complicated by the fact that the Romans used the words Celt and Gaul interchangeably. But we do know there were two separate populations at work here: the native Britains and the tribes that migrated west from the steppes of Southeast Europe and intermingled. We also know that everyone in the Isles and the Celts in Western Europe spoke a Bretonic/Brythonic language that then split into several dialects which over time became distinct as Irish-Gaelic, Scottish-Gaelic, Welsh, Cornish, Manx, etc. For the purposes of this book, I used a “common tongue” between Seare and Aron (both “Celtic” nations) which would be equivalent to the original proto-Celtic language, but I chose to use middle/modern Irish language and naming convention because it was more recognizable. In reality, the languages had split and become almost unrecognizable to each other by that point (you can see this in how little modern Welsh resembles Irish or Scots-Gaelic.) But I’d rather be a writer than a linguistics expert, so I cherry-picked for the purposes of a fantasy novel. 🙂

      Hope that helps. You could study for years and not completely unravel the history and ancestry of that part of the world! It’s fascinating, but oh so complicated!

      • Lavay Byrd says:

        Ha ha! Thank you for telling me about “Celtic” history being so complicated! I feel so much better!

        But your explanation of the clans definitely clears it up… and offered a sneak peek into “Oath of the Brotherhood” at the same time!!! 😀

        • Carla says:

          Glad I could help! It makes my head hurt. Luckily, I write fantasy and not historical fiction, so I can just pick and choose what I want to use without worrying about being 100% accurate.

  2. Lila Diller says:

    Irish history is fascinating! My dad’s family came from a famous clad in Scotland, but I’ve always been interested in all Celtic history. I never knew these things!

  3. Madisyn Zeller says:

    I love this! Regarding Point Four, I remember reading somewhere that Vikings/Norsemen (I think) held such esteem for weapons that, as a wedding custom, a groom had to break into a male ancestor’s grave, grab the ancestor’s sword, and take it to the bride. Obviously not Irish, but similar. Factoids like the ones you listed are so interesting!

    • Carla says:

      That’s very interesting! The Celts/early Britons had similar customs, where the grooms were expected to conduct cattle raids on a neighboring clan to prove their daring to their bethrothed. (Cattle raiding has a long and illustrious history in the British Isles, which most people probably know from reading Outlander. :))

  4. Megan says:

    Thats fascinating! People back then weren’t nearly as backwards as some people think they were.

    • Carla says:

      Nope. Funny how we tend to dismiss different as backwards… the Romans certainly did, which heavily influences the way we see the Dark Ages. (Which were not dark because they knew nothing…simply because all the burning and pillaging left us with very few records of the time. Had it not been for the Irish monks, we’d have lost an even bigger chunk of western history and literature.)

  5. Patrice Doten says:

    I’ve always been fascinated by ancient Ireland, and have read lots of books set in that place/era. I knew about the Irish cleanliness because of a legendary exchange between Queen Elizabeth of England and Gráinne Ní Mháille (Grace O’Malley), the pirate queen, in which Gráinne insinuated the British were dirty. I don’t know for sure if it actually happened, but it always stuck with me. And I also knew of the near-worshipful reverence of weapons. But I didn’t realize the practice of fostering was a widespread cultural thing, and I had no idea about the kilts. I’m even more intrigued to read your book now, knowing how much you researched!

    • Carla says:

      Always fun to learn new facts… I hadn’t read that Grace O’Malley had that exchange with Elizabeth, but knowing there was no love lost between the Irish and British, I am not surprised, especially given that was the early Renaissance which was not known for its hygiene! I hope you enjoy the book when you read it!

  6. Anya May says:

    I had no idea that the ancient culture was so complex. But I love it! I am especially intrigued by the fostering process. It makes more sense to me as a way to train in a certain trade or profession, but that it was so widely used is surprising.

    I have a silly question as well… how do you pronounce Fíréin? I feel like I can get pulled out of the story sometimes if I’m having issues pronouncing something, and want to be sure I can get deeply involved into this book without having this problem. 🙂

    • Carla says:

      It is fear-AYN. At least in modern Gaelic, whose pronunciation I’ve used, the fada (accent) over the “i” is pronounced like “feet” and the accented “e” is pronounced like “fire”. In Gaelic, having another “i” after a vowel doesn’t change the pronunciation of the leading vowel. Incidentially “Aine” is pronounced “Anya.” That should be easy to remember. 🙂

      But I wrote the book and I still mispronounce names in my head while reading it…

  7. Anya May says:

    Thank you so much for that! So helpful. And funny about my name too… 🙂 Thank you!

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