A popular cousin of the “terrible English accent by an American actor in a fantasy movie” is the “this elvish thing is kinda Irish but only whatever I remember about Ireland from that one Wiccan girl I dated in college”. Why does how Irish language and mythology is used in Western Fantasy matter?
It is common to drawn on folklore for fantasy writing. Irish mythological characters and monsters have become staples of western fantasy in many ways. Mainstream concepts of “fairies” are often some mash-up between English, Irish and Scottish folklore traditions, all of which are different. The fairy courts, Titania and Oberon, Pixies and Brownies, Seelie and Unseelie are all part of English and Scottish traditions. The Morrigan, Ring Forts, the Sidhe, Leprechauns and Banshees all come from the Irish.
We do share a few points. Giant black dogs as ill-omens, the idea that the ancients were giants or at least bigger and stronger than the present generation, and the idea of fae folk hiding in stone circles or hill mounds. If a lot of this sounds familiar, it is probably because these tropes form the backbone of half of modern fantasy. This is not a problem alone, but they are usually removed from all context and multiple cultures are used as inter-changeable for each other.
Even when Irish mythological characters are used in their right, they are portrayed as either demonic or highly sexualised. The sexualisation of female figures taken from Irish mythology is a continuous trope. Versions of the Morrigan and Maebh are usually seen to be evil seductresses. Many examples of the Morrigan in particular are hyper-sexualised in their violence, with undercurrents of sadomasochism. Kevin Hearne’s Iron Druid Chronicles contain a version of the Morrigan particularly guilty of this, but not alone.
This is not exclusive to fiction. Dungeons & Dragons, an iconic fantasy gaming product, takes a range of Irish mythological creatures and then makes them nearly all evil aligned. Not all hags have their origin in Irish and Scottish folklore, but the Bheur Hag definitely references the Hag of Beara and is also evil. There’s something uncomfortable about an important Irish mythological figure being reskinned as an evil creature that specifically tries to starve people to death.
Some Irish festivals are used in both fantasy world-building and new thought. Poor Samhain (sow-in) is butchered more than most Irish words. If you think this means Halloween I’m sorry to disappoint, it’s actually the word for November. Oíche Shamhna is Halloween meaning November’s Eve. Here’s popular TV series Supernatural saying that Samhain (Sam-Hayne) is the name a literal Christian demon.
It is common for colonised cultures to be portrayed as demonic and hyper-sexual. This is used to present the culture of the colonised people as savage and in need of the civilising influence of imperialism. Similarly, when all the different cultures of the “British Isles” (a gross imperialist term that most Irish people never use) are just thrown together in a big mess it is reinforcing colonial erasure.
Another way colonialism disrupts cultures is through the destruction and devaluing of their languages. The Irish language could not be used on birth certificates or any official documents under British rule despite it being the primary language spoken by the majority of the country until the 19th century. Other colonialised populations, in the Americas or Australia, had similar experiences of imperialism. In some countries their native languages were banned outright. I make this point to explain that this is more than bad writing.
Coming back to Dungeons & Dragons, the language of Sylvan, the Fey language of D&D, is strongly based off Irish, though with an English alphabet which Irish does not use. Here’s some flavour text for a Darkling, a fey monster, which uses the correct word for dark/black Dubh (dove) but uses the word Catha, meaning battle-ready or warlike, for crow. The author likely made this mistake because of the Irish goddess Badb Catha, the war crow, but Badb is the old Irish word for crow not Catha. Showing that author did not check the words separate from each other. A small mistake that might seem petty to point out. But it’s so small it would have taken 30 seconds to type into Google or a dictionary. There are plenty of native speakers online to ask.
Kevin Hearne’s Iron Druid Chronicles named the protagonist’s assistant Granuaile (grawn-ya-wail). Granuaile was a historical Irish leader. However this is not a real name. Gráinne is a name. Granuaile is an Anglicisation of her nickname, Gráinne Mhaol, meaning Bald Gráinne. Allegedly she was called this because she cut her hair short as a child in order to work on her father’s ships. No one names a child Granuaile. We see the same problem with films or TV shows throwing in random Irish dialogue. For example in Hellboy 2, the elves speak a rough version of Irish. I did not even notice this while watching the film, despite being fluent, because nearly every word is pronounced wrong.
Warhammer 40k, a longstanding game universe, uses Irish almost unchanged as it’s space-mystic Eldar language. While the Irish there is more accurate, this isn’t much better. Why are these aliens in an entirely fictional setting speaking Irish, a real language?
Ultimately the issue is not the inclusion of Irish or Irish folklore in fantasy, the problem is treating Irish and Irish culture like it only exists as a reusable fantasy product.
In response to questions on Twitter about how a project might avoid doing these types of things I would suggest asking three questions:
1.) Is this meant to be our earth or nearly our earth? If so Irish exists and must exist in relation to this “magic language”
2.) If this is not our earth, does the culture you are giving this language to have any other relationships with Irish? (Also ask this for any use of real culture/language in your fantasy)
3.) Are you making meaningful references to the mythology / culture or using it as a lazy shorthand for something fae/magical/elven? (this is obnoxious but also bad writing)