Language barrier? Don’t the Irish speak English?

International travel can be a challenge, especially if you don’t speak the local language or do so minimally. One of the advantages to traveling to Ireland is that they speak English, right? Yes and no. My recent visit to Ireland revealed a range of word play that gave new depth to the language I use every day.

Road signs in Ireland provide directions and a lesson in Irish.

Road signs in Ireland provide directions and a lesson in Irish.

Road signs are the first indication you’ve entered another world. The signs were easy enough to understand, but the words describing what a sign means the driver to do might be different. We say “Yield;” the Irish say “Make way.” “Entrance” becomes “Way In.” “Exit” becomes “Way Out.” Spotting these was a delight. All Irish road signs also come with a lesson in Gaelic. Just don’t ask me to pronounce it.

Then, there’s the accent. Early in presentations, each guide asked, “Can you understand me?” Most were easy. However, one man – a farmer who also served as tour guide in the other-worldly, sandstone landscape of The Burren – was more of a challenge.

Can you imagine farming on this landscape? Our tour guide raises cattle on The Burren.

Can you imagine farming on this landscape? Our tour guide (in the CIA cap) raises cattle on The Burren.

Shane Connolly spoke so rapidly and with such a strong dialect that I’m sure I caught little more than half of what he said. Yet he was one of my favorite guides. A wealth of knowledge on history, geology, botany, and agriculture, Shane caught us off guard, surprising and delighting as he sprinkled American history and political and cultural references throughout his talk. The consensus of our group was that Shane knew more about American history and culture than many of us. And we got his message, even through the accent.

Undertakers, Plantations, and Craic

However, the real mind-bending challenge was how words that mean something to me as an American mean something entirely different to the Irish. Two of those words are “undertaker” and “plantation,” which came into play as guides related the centuries-long English/Irish, Catholic/Protestant conflict.

For many years, the English government and Church of England, were intent on removing Catholics from any power. During the “Plantation period,” Catholics were removed from the land they owned and farmed and Protestants were “planted” on that same land as the new owners. These new owners “undertook” to farm the land they’d been given and in so doing became “undertakers.”

The injustices described came uncomfortably close to America’s own treatment of Native Americans and Blacks. My head swam each time the words plantation and undertaker were spoken as I worked to re-direct my brain away from the American South and death.

On a lighter note was the word “Craic,” pronounced “Crack.” In Gaelic, craic means fun or a good time. So our guide might say, “That was craic,” or “Ye’ll have great craic.” We found the use of “ye” instead of “you” charming, while this word craic always caused laughter since seekers of American crack are looking for a whole different kind of fun.

"Welcome"

“Welcome”

All this play with language caused me as a writer, to think about the authors who write about countries other than their own. Getting a story factually right is challenging under any circumstances. To add in the possibility that words do not mean the same thing at all adds a whole new level of difficulty.

We did encounter one sign that was always, only, in Irish. That was Fáilte. Fáilte means “Welcome.” Even without the translation, we all knew that word because we felt it so clearly from every person we met. No language barrier there.

Have you traveled to another country and encountered words and phrases that caused you to think about language differently? What was your experience?

Murals fuel & memorialize Irish conflict

Murals as a form of political, social, and cultural expression rose in importance during “The Troubles” – a 30-year conflict that began in 1968 and divided Northern Ireland. Though The Troubles more or less ended with the Belfast “Good Friday” agreement of 1998, murals continue to be a powerful method of communication. Often called the Belfast Murals, these graphic messages are also prominent in Derry where conflict was also heated.

Here are a few I saw on my recent visit to Northern Ireland.

A Protestant, King William of Orange and his victory at the Battle of the Boyne are still celebrated by Irish Protestants.

Protestant, King William of Orange and his victory at the Battle of the Boyne are still celebrated by Irish Protestants.

The republican prisoners commemorated in this mural sought prisoner of war status. Rather than wear prison garb, they opted for blankets; their action became known as "the blanket protest." The prisoners also initiated a hunger strike. Some died before the protest ended.

The republican prisoners commemorated in this mural sought prisoner of war status. Rather than wear prison garb, they opted for blankets; their action became known as “the blanket protest.” The prisoners also initiated a hunger strike, with some dying before the protest ended.

This mural commemorates a a young girl killed during The Troubles. The girl's father continues to visit the mural regularly.

A young girl was one of the thousands of civilians killed during The Troubles. The girl’s father  visits the mural regularly.

Some believe the British Army must be held accountable for the deaths they caused during The Troubles.

The campaign continues to hold the British Army accountable for the predominately Catholic deaths they perpetrated during The Troubles.

The fight for a united Ireland continues.

Arguing for a united Ireland.

Murals take on new causes as well as old.

Artists take on new causes as well as old.

An artist works on a new mural.

New murals are created, as artists take up current events and new causes.

The history of Northern Ireland is complicated. Loyalists – Unionists – Republicans – Nationalists – Catholics – Protestants. Even with repeated explanations by our guides, I am confident I don’t have it all straight.

What these murals did for me was convey the tremendous emotion surrounding all of the issues. More than words, these murals told me the issues remain, even though, thankfully, people aren’t still killing each other.

On Memorial Day, we remember those who fought and died for our country. With these visual reminders, every day is Memorial Day in Northern Ireland.

Readers: Have you seen murals used in a similar way in other parts of the world? If you have, please share.

How important is “place” in writing?

My recent trip to Ireland has me thinking again about the importance of place to a writer. Ireland has a rich written history, including literary greats James Joyce, Oscar Wilde, and W.B. Yates. Those names were prominent as we toured the Emerald Isle landscape that inspired their writing.

The distinctive tabletop mountain, Benbulbin, inspired Yates' poetry.

The distinctive tabletop mountain, Benbulbin, inspired Yates’ poetry.

At the 2,000-year-old Drumcliff Church, we visited W.B. Yates’ grave and then, as we drove through the countryside where Yates lived and wrote, we were treated by our guide Eilo to recitations of Yates’ verses.

After choosing subjects for his verse from a number of other countries, Yeats said:

“I convinced myself … that I should never go for the scenery of a poem to any country but my own, and I think that I shall hold to that conviction to the end.”

In view of Benbulbin – Yates’ favorite mountain – I listened to the rush of a waterfall, gazed at sheep pastured in fields ringed with ivy-covered rock walls, and knew exactly why Yates came to the conclusion to center his writing on this place.

Woven into Irish place are centuries of conflict – British vs Irish, Protestant vs Catholic – aspects of Irish place that continue to influence Irish writers today. 

Author David Lawlor and I enjoyed an all-too-brief writer chat.

Author David Lawlor and I enjoyed an all-too-brief writer chat.

A treat during the tour was having lunch with historical fiction writer David Lawlor. We met via social media and I’ve become a big fan of his writing.

In 1921, at just age 20, Lawlor’s grandfather joined scores of IRA men in an attack on the Dublin Custom House. Lawlor’s grandfather survived; others did not.

Each day, Lawlor walks to work past the Custom House, a symbol of British rule in Ireland. The social and political history Lawlor traverses daily inspired his series of novels set in the years surrounding the Irish War for Independence.

Everywhere I travel, I am inspired. In fact, inspiration is one of the reasons I hit the road. But, as I left the emerald landscape of Ireland and returned to the green fields of Iowa, I was affirmed in my own decision to write stories based in Iowa, past and present. I also know that if I ever need more inspiration, it will be waiting for me in the homeland of Yates and Lawlor.

To read more about Lawlor’s grandfather and other ‘bit players of history’ visit Lawlor’s blog History With A Twist.

If you enjoy historical adventure stories, you’ll enjoy Lawlor’s book “Tan” and the subsequent books in the series.

How important is staying plugged in?

“Is it plugged in?” That was the first question tech support always asked back when computers were new and I called to find out why the alien on my desk wouldn’t work.

Dutifully, I’d untangle my feet from the writhing morass of cords under my desk and track the computer from the wall outlet to the back of the computer. With embarrassing frequency, the connection was loose. Plugged in securely, the computer returned to life.

Ireland - Plugging into a new source of energy.

Ireland – Plugging into a new source of energy.

Eventually I caught on to that game and checked the connections before I called tech support. When I smugly assured those helpful wizards that my computer was indeed plugged in, they had this head-slapping advice:

“Then unplug it, wait 30 seconds, and plug it back in.”

Following their advice, the computer almost always blinked rapidly and woke to do my bidding. My word. If life were always so simple. Anne Lamott suggests that it may be. She says:

“Almost everything will work again if you unplug it for a few minutes .. including you.”

For much of the past many months, I’ve worked diligently to write the first draft of my novel. For most of this time, I’ve been securely plugged in, writing most days and thinking about the characters and story when I wasn’t writing. I have made great progress, though with increasing frequency, my energy lags.

I know it is time to unplug and re-boot. To that end, my sister and I embark this month for a trip to Ireland. We have no Irish ancestry that we know of, but we are both drawn to the green of the Emerald Isle, to the coastal landscapes, to the people and the pubs. The sense of place is important to my writing, and I am fascinated to see the place that has spawned so many great writers and enduring stories.

During most of May, I will be unplugged, literally and figuratively. No computer. Limited wi-fi access. Any writing I do will be old school, using the notebook and pencil in my pocket.

When we return, I expect to plug in, blink rapidly, and spring back to this life, fully charged with the energy and perspectives travel invariably offers.

I look forward to sharing thoughts on my journey – when I return and plug in again. In the meantime, I wish you moments of unplugged luxury, too.

History wrapped in a gripping story – Author David Lawlor

THE GOLDEN GRAVE - David LawlorI’m pleased to welcome Irish author David Lawlor to my blog today. For anyone with an interest in historical fiction, WWI, and action/adventure stories, this will be a treat.  Lawlor’s just-released novel THE GOLDEN GRAVE continues the story of Liam Mannion, an Irishman who fought valiantly in WWI but now is trying to outrun his past. Mannion finds himself back in France with his war buddies reviving the horrors of trench warfare as they pursue a treasure buried during the war.

Though THE GOLDEN GRAVE can be read as a stand-alone story, you’ll be missing a bet if you don’t go back and pick up TAN, too.

Welcome, David!
Thanks, Carol

What’s the most interesting thing to you about writing historical fiction?
I’m intrigued by those times when people were really tested and wonder how I would have fared. Questions like that inspire my writing and my delving into the past. With my first book, TAN, I delved into the world of the frontline soldier and also into the textile industry of Manchester. These things intrigued me.

What kinds of research did you do to ground yourself in the WWI era?
Some of the technical research was tedious. I nearly went mad trying to understand and describe the workings of a textile mill, but I felt it was worth it to give a sense of what my main character, Liam, was going through.

With TAN’s sequel, THE GOLDEN GRAVE, I found the research easier. I had already got a feel for the times – the clothes, the songs, etc., in the first book. I studied photographs and more accounts of trench life. I also researched tunneling techniques and bunker making.

One thing that drove me nuts was trying to figure out how long it would take to pump a water-filled bunker clear using 1920s equipment. Eventually, I contacted the Imperial War Museum and they gave me an approximate answer. It was little questions like those that held me up, not the bigger ones like how the battlefield looked. The other useful tool I had was a documentary about a WWI bunker. It was this documentary that inspired the story.

The research you did really made the time, place and experiences in your books incredibly real. In TAN, you wrote about the burning of Balbriggan, an historical fact. Where does fact end and fiction begin with your writing?
This historic event is the skeleton upon which I interweave my story. For TAN, I studied photos of Balbriggan and walked its streets, talking to locals. One of their anecdotes about the Tans actually made it into the book. The rest of TAN was fairly loose. Sometimes you can get too caught up in the historic detail to the detriment of the story.

You’ve struck the right balance between historical accuracy and characters with a good story, David. How do you go about creating your characters? Are they based on people you know? Is Liam autobiographical?
I suppose I would like to think there is some of me in Liam. The femme fatale, Sabine, was based on a woman I know, (the less said about that the better 😉 ) Ben Sweetman came easily – he’s a gentle giant, like the Death Row character in The Green Mile.

I’m impressed with your portrayal of female characters. What informed how you write about women – in general – and with regard to the war?
I approach female characters the same way as male ones. I wonder how I’d react in their situations. Sabine had to be clever and manipulative to survive and successfully run a bar catering to aggressive, battle-scarred soldiers, so I tried to show that side of her. Equally, I felt Kate, from TAN, was bound to be smart and feisty, given that her father was a successful businessman and she was living through the whole suffragette movement. Women had played an important part during the 1916 Easter Rising. I felt it was natural that their role would have impacted on Kate.

The women are right in the action, that’s for sure. Pacing is a strength in your writing. The story grabs readers and doesn’t let go. What advice do you have for writers (like me) who’d like to improve pacing?
I don’t think I can give much advice to anyone, but I try to see the story as you would a film. I leave little cliff-hangers at the end of sections and I like to flip between scenes quite quickly. I think that can be used to inject pace or to slow things down when events get too frenetic.

When you have a story idea, how do you go about building the story?
I build a clear plot before writing but leave enough room for the characters to take me on tangents. In a new book I’m working on I have one character whose basic role is clear but who I know will be intriguing; how exactly that will be revealed, I’m unsure.

David LawlorI’ll be waiting, David. I’m a fan! I could go on asking questions, but we both need to get back to writing. Thanks for joining us today.

If you’d like more info about David’s take on history, he celebrates the bit players of history on his blog: History With A Twist http://historywithatwist.wordpress.com/

And here are more ways to find him and his books.
Tan (US site) http://goo.gl/HMUKS
Tan (UK site) http://goo.gl/nK1li
The Golden Grave (US site) http://goo.gl/MwZtJ
The Golden Grave (UK site) http://goo.gl/XcMuv

Twitter: @LawlorDavid

On Goodreads:
The Golden Grave http://goo.gl/89pJZ
Tan http://goo.gl/2fb87

TAN – A story of exile, betrayal and revenge – Book Review

TAN David LawlorTAN by David Lawlor is a gripping novel that tells the story of Irishman Liam Mannion, beginning before World War I and continuing into the Irish War of Independence. Framed for a crime he didn’t commit, Liam is exiled to England and endures five years of trench warfare in France before making his way back to his homeland as a member of the infamous Black and Tans, a group that served as a brutal strong arm force for the English crown. Stationed in his hometown of Balbriggan, Liam is forced to confront his own divided loyalties, as well as those of his own family, and face the brute who framed him.

Before reading this novel, I knew little about the Irish War of Independence. In fact, I’m a little embarrassed to admit that I hadn’t heard the term “Black and Tan” until I picked up this book and then, coincidentally, they were mentioned in the current season of Downton Abbey. But this is why I love historical fiction. In the hands of a skilled author like Lawlor, I’m transported to another place and time to learn about events that mattered a great deal.

Lawlor is a fantastic storyteller. He created characters I cared about, crafting even minor players in ways that made them memorable and real. I was pleased to find that the women in the story were written with intelligence and courage, substance and compassion. Lawlor builds the action in scene after scene in a way that makes the book hard to put down. Fortunately the frequent battle scenes that create an abundance of tension and anxiety are balanced with moments of humor.

The author’s sympathies are clearly with the Irish, but the story fairly points out that both sides in a war are capable of brutality, both sides have legitimate points of view. Because Liam’s own brother sides with the British, readers face the complicated reality of families torn apart by war. No one gets off easily in this one.

Many characters speak in Irish vernacular, which took me a while to settle into, but which ensured I was immersed in Ireland. The dialect didn’t get in the way of enjoying the story, since it could all be understood in context.

TAN made me want to know more about the Irish War of Independence. Lawlor has me eager to read his next book.