Do Fantasy Writers Think Irish is Discount Elvish?

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 draw 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 by itself, but they are usually removed from all context and multiple cultures are used as inter-changeable for each other, which shows a disinterest in the source material. At some point it become lazy narrative carrion.

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 (but it is also 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 (pronounced: 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 in the language, 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 in particular cultures subject to lazy stereotypes in 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)

Is féidir an alt seo a léamh as Gaeilge anseo.

53 Thoughts

  1. This is such an engaging piece – and it’s not just because I am Irish either!
    I have always been fascinated by Irish “old wives tales” since I was very little and as I am not very into the fantasy sphere I have never picked up on this. This blog has definitely educated me on this topic. Thank you for posting this, I found it highly interesting.

  2. I am so happy I came across your blog. In a beautiful moment of synchronicity, I wrote two days ago on this very subject. Though from the outside looking in (‘The Leprechaun On The Cereal Box’). I love that you blog in Irish/English. I do French/English, and can I just say, that last image made me flinch. I am at war with the italics!

  3. Excellent piece. Bell-tane also comes in for mangling all over the place. A similar piece could be written about Irish archaeology! Go raibh maith agat.

  4. These are some good basic guidelines for any author who wishes not to be appropriative of a living culture or language, which should be all authors, everywhere.

    I would add the six books of the Chronicles of Nicholas Flamel series by Michael Scott to your list. It’s just such an utter mishmash of world mythology, with Yggdrasil named the source of Hekate’s power and having the Morrigan and Bastet be sisters. His depiction of Aengus mac Og as evil and ugly is downright blasphemy. This series is the worst.

    1. Haha I haven’t read them. I was going for something that could be more broadly applicable, I’m just not qualified to speak on other languages.

    2. Given Scott’s a Dubliner, and a folktale collector besides, I don’t think we can lay any mangling of Irish mythology he commits at the feet of ignorance.
      Other mythologies, now…

  5. hey Orla, thank you for this post – I found it highly informative and interesting. I guess writers often just borrow and don’t even contemplate what they are doing?
    what is your stance on retellings of fairytales and myths? Those stories often seek to twist the original narrative on purpose.

  6. I thought Cecelia Dart Thorton did a good job of writing immersive fantasy books steeped in Irish and Scottish Mythology.

  7. I’ve been somewhat guilty of it myself, having used hags, kelpies and banshees as opponents in a videogame (called The Fairy’s Throne). In my defense, they’re not evil, the player is invading their home and they’re not going to let intruders pass without a fight. Which is never to the death in this case. And for the most part I made up original fantasy creatures in the same vein. Probably should be more careful in the future anyway. Thanks for enlightening me!

  8. Thank you for this post. I stopped reading fantasy thirty years ago because of this stuff. Frankly, I feel the better for it, and have had so much more time to study mythology and folklore as a result.

  9. Just listened to you on the Motherfoclóir, and I really enjoyed both your presentation and the information. I had often considered the racism inherent in Fantasy and Science Fiction (I feel like the WoW Trolls are especially troublesome, closely followed by the Orcs), and wouldn’t have described that as colonialism, but I completely see it. Thanks for the insight!

  10. Reasons for the modern fantasy not to borrow freely from whatever real cultures the authors choose: none.
    Reasons for the modern fantasy not to use whatever languages as “magical”, whether based on real-life ones or not: none.
    Reasons for a particular language being used as a shorthand for fairy speech in the modern fantasy being worse than that language not being used in popular culture at all: none.

      1. Well, apparently the media with more or less broken Irish used as a substitute for elven or fairish find their consumer, so what’s the problem? Would you have preferred obscurity for Irish?

      2. I don’t know if you noticed, but there’s a whole blog explaining the answer to your question after the first sentence.

      3. On the contrary. The blog post burns down to “oy-vey they’re using Irish as a substitute for elvish, and broken Irish at that!” No reasoning is given, neither to why this is a bad thing, nor why not using Irish in popular media at all would’ve been a preferable alternative.
        You’re explaining how to avoid that problem, but you’re not explaining why exactly it is a problem to begin with.

      4. Mate, if you don’t get why using a real language badly as a half-hearted stand in for something ~magicky~ is hack writing I can’t help you. Especially I explicitly say there are ways to use Irish that isn’t hack writing.

      5. Ah, so “it’s bad because it’s bad”. Cool. No matter that real languages have been used for magic since its inception (the Middle Ages used Latin, and the Romans used Coptic, Greek or the languages of the Fertile Crescent). It’s bad just because you don’t like it, and you don’t like it because it rubs you the wrong way.

      6. Hey if you enjoy magic spells that say stuff like “it’s likely to rain” in a language at 80,000+ were raised speaking you do you

      7. You might be surprised to learn that a magic spell or elven speech are supposed to sound cool, not be grammatically correct in some language that some 80k were raised speaking. As long as that works, it’s all good, and the only possible side effect is more people being interested and learning that language.

  11. While Samhain does mean “November” in modern Irish, that meaning evolves from the original Old Irish term (Samain) for All Saints’/Hallows Day. “Aidche Samna” in Old Irish thus meant “All Hallow’s Eve” or… “Hallowe’en”.

    1. This is not true. All Saints day is a Christian holiday. The word Samhain referring to the beginning of winter predates Christianity

  12. Thàinig mi an seo o :

    far an do dh’fhàg mi iomradh eile.

    Gu dearbh, tha mise air a bhith ann a sin cuideachd, truly I share your cringe!

    Now the salmon is indeed ‘wise’, or at least skilful, since she finds her way back from the wide ocean to her natal burn to spawn. All done by smell, or so I’m told. She picks up a hint of the odour from far out, and heads up the scent gradient until she homes in on that particular unique watercourse she knows as home.

    The thing is, for every artform, every genre, there exists all manner of output; the good, the mediocre and the downright ugly. For every master craftsperson there are beginners and others who just plod along doing their best, or alas sometimes their worst 😦 And even the best have their bad days!

    So when we encounter an unfamiliar style of art, music, handicraft or whatever, there’s a good chance that the examples we first meet won’t necessarily be of the highest standard. They may even be seriously flawed. Still, if the overall system interests and inspires us, we’ll imitate the salmon and seek out ever better examples, be drawn little by little up the quality gradient until we reach good and even truly outstanding works. Assuming of course we possess some inborn sense of quality, as I’d hope most of us do. (OK, call me an optimist!)

    My hope would be that this applies, at least for some people, in the case of our languages. Maybe that first encounter, even with some cringeworthy bastardised three-times-removed conlanging concoction will be enough to spark an interest that leads on by degrees to the genuine article. Remember many folk don’t even know that an Irish Language exists in its own right, confusing it with Irish-English. Or if they’ve heard of it, but nevertheless don’t appreciate that it’s still spoken at least a little, as a perfectly normal everyday tongue, albeit with a rich and complex history and culture behind it. We can at least hope! 🙂

    ‘Si oidhche dhorcha a nis anns a’ Chòirn far a bheil mise a’ sgrìobhadh, agus an t-uisge ann gu tromm a-muigh. Oidhche mhath dhuibh uile! 🙂

  13. Hi Orla, you’re right that the word “Samain” would have long predated Christianity, since it derives from “sam” – summer in Old Irish — and the antiquity of “sam” itself is attested to by its Indo-European roots. It’s certainly not improbable either that there was a pre-Christian celebration associated with the dead that occurred at that time, though unfortunately this is impossible to absolutely confirm – all our written records from Ireland post-date the arrival of Christianity. Looking over my post, I realize that my comment made it sound like I was claiming “Samain” as an entirely Christian religious term; sorry, that was not my intent — I was more trying to make the point that “November” is not the original meaning of Samain (though the time of year we now call November 1st was) and that people who use “Oíche Samhain” as synonymous with Hallowe’en are not actually using it incorrectly, even if everything else they’re doing with Irish culture is wildly incorrect (“Sam Hayne” made me laugh). There are a couples of examples too in Old Irish saga texts, particularly the Ulster Cycle texts, where the “eve of” part is dropped and the festival is referred to simply as “Samain” itself.

    Anyway, in case you’re interested in further looking into it, here’s a link to the entry for “Samain” in eDIL, the online version of the dictionary of Old Irish:

    1. I still disagree because you’re argument would only work if modern Irish wasn’t an existing and living language. Using words that exist in a language that is many people’s (including my own) first language as if they don’t mean things is irritating.

  14. While I do agree with most of your points, I did kind of think your examples specifically regarding the Morrigan and everyone’s favorite evil queen Maeve were kind of a hot take if only because Maeve really is highly sexualized in the context of Irish myth (or at least the versions of her that have survived). How many husbands does she take over the course of her myths? Doesn’t she very literally offer “her friendly thighs” as an incentive for an ally during the tain, plus had at least one side dude? Like, let’s not pretend Irish myth doesn’t also treat her as kind of a vampy sexed up politically scheming figure, for better or worse. The same could also definitely be said about the Morrigan, doesn’t she very literally take exception to cuchaillain in a few renditions because he rejects her advances? And I think she also has ritualized sex with the dagda in another myth.

    Plenty of other Irish mythological figures were also specifically noted as getting around a lot, not least cuchaillain. While I agree there’s this tendency to treat pre or non Christian cultures as way more sexed up, Irish mythology genuinely seemed to feature a lot of mythical figures having weird sex or squabbles between lovers etc. The tain literally starts as a result of a pillow talk session between maeve and her then husband.

    1. I think you’re misunderstanding my point in the distinction between sexual and sexualised. Characters having sex or sex having a prominent position is not the same as applying porn-aesthetics

  15. very interesting, coming from someone from the Irish diaspora who barely knows the roots and doesn’t know the language. I have still managed to spot fake Gailge in fantasy (and why always in italics?!) but I was wondering if you already talked about the granddaddy of cultural appropriation in fantasy, Tolkien, using languages he knew well as “inspiration”.

    1. I give Tolkien a bit of ley-way I don’t give others to be honest which is partially the filter of childhood but mostly that he was first out of the gate with a lot of this. His fantasy languages are based in real languages but they are also distinct and very complex. No could accuse Tolkien of not putting in the hours. Also he was very explicitly trying to place this as a mythic past for the real world Britain. Therefore real world languages in different forms is not insane. Now there’s still loads to criticise him for I just felt he didn’t neatly fall into this particular line of it

      1. Thank you for the reply! He definitely at least knew what he was playing with – a form of “you can break the rules if you know them”? Unlike others who just imperfectly copy the first part (start from a known language) and don’t do the second (and make it your own). You do indeed need to put in the hours, as you eloquently said.

        I have seen egregious examples using really known languages, like French (my native tongue) but mangled or making it nonsensical, just using random words that don’t belong together. I have only seen US authors do this. Canadians and European ones would know better. 🙂 This sounds like what you talk about here, using Irish gaelic copy-pasting from maybe phrase books without regards for meaning.

        If an author doesn’t want to put in the hours, just use the [universal translator] and show who does and doesn’t understand – or paraphrase, or show “The elf said something in a language I could not understand” or something that’s not blatantly appropriative…

      2. True! Ultimately one of the best questions any writer can ask themselves is “what purpose is this serving?” and that works for lots of writing. If the asking is “plugging a gap” it probably shouldn’t be in the finished draft.

  16. Can I recommend reading two books by Peter Berresford Ellis. Celtic Women, which although a bit scholarly in places gives a far better understanding of the role women played in Celtic societies than most other sources. Much of the book deals with women in Gaelic culture. The theme of sexuality & the concept of fertility goddesses are adequately covered. The other is called Druids, which strips away all the Victorian romanticism and New Age hocus pocus to uncover a complex strand of society that covered those who were the custodians of the arts, religion, medicine, law, sciences and higher education.

    1. I’d disagree that Berresford Ellis was too scholarly as he falls into the same “pan-Celtic” romanticism that plagues a lot of British scholarship. He’s a very interesting writer with some good ideas, but I’d always take his conclusions with a grain of salt.

  17. I believe that what they are looking for in cases like that, is a language that won’t be recognized by too many people and those who do recognize it aren’t going to create too much of an outrage.

    Irish is likely seen as falling in a “sweet spot” (or sour spot) of relative availability and the fact that not to many people have a clear sense of what it sounds like. Also the assumption is that if any Irish speaker do recognize the language in those places they probably aren’t going to create that much of an outcry. With written Irish they WOULD have to not use the real alphabet but a modified one as anybody who has traveled in Ireland will know what written Irish looks like-it’s pretty distinct and the same could be said of Welsh writing.

    Because of the internet it’s harder to find a language that fits the criteria of “won’t be recognized and won’t be a scandal”. If they were to try to use Cherokee they could probably disguise it if they didn’t use Cherokee language’s unique syllabary, because anyone who has lived in or close to Cherokee country has likely seen the signage and knows what the writing looks like. Navajo uses a Latin based alphabet but it’s tone marks (it’s a tonal language) are very, very distinct. As long as any writing isn’t how Navajo or Cherokee is written or it’s only the spoken language few people would recognize it. Code word-filled Navajo after all confused the Japanese military’s best linguists and code breakers for nearly three years during WWII with the famous “Code Talkers”. The same is true of Cherokee and most Amerindian languages. However, if somebody figured out that it was an American Indian tongue, there would be Hell to Pay for that!!!

    In 1964, Frank Herbert managed to based a fictional language in the book “Dune” mostly on Serbo-Croatian. Now thanks to the internet Slavic languages are no longer on the menu. True not many people outside the Balkans learn Serbo-Croatian.However Slavic languages are very homogeneous. So anyone who has studied Russian or grown up around a Polish or Czech speakers can spot the similarity between ‘Chakobsa’ in “Dune” and the Slavic language they have some knowledge of. My friends pushed me to read Dune after two years of High School Russian, I could definitely tell “Chakobsa” in the book was based on something Slavic, but I wasn’t sure what. Does that make sense?. In the 1960’s and 1970’s that level of recognition flew under the radar. Now anyone who picks up on that can “spread the word”. Even before the internet, obscure Romance language weren’t really an option because of the much higher numbers of people who knew Spanish, French, or Italian or who had studied Latin.

    So that situation means Irish is still a relatively easy to render unrecognizable. It’s rarely studied outside of Ireland. It’s only close surviving relatives are also rare languages. Incorrect Irish, bad pronunciation, and altered spelling can also make the language harder to recognize. That makes it less likely that various translating devices that are available will be able to recognize it as Irish. If they can mangle the pronunciation of Irish in Hellboy 2 so badly, that a fluent speaker can’t recognize the language almost nobody will.

    To be clear. I don’t like what the makers of these films and games are doing. However the reason Irish is being selected for that purpose is because most people are going to spot it as a living if endangered tongue.

    1. I’m not sure not you think you’re getting at with this line of argument really? It’s not relevant to anything that I’ve said how many people outside of Ireland speak Irish (though you are wrong that it isn’t spoken outside of Ireland I suggest you look into the gaeltacht areas of eastern Canada). I’m discussing the fact that using countries/languages you deem as less important as lazy stand-ins for your own work is probably bad, and what you’ve done is argue that I shouldn’t object because some countries/languages are seen as less important.

      1. I never said you shouldn’t object to anything. I’m describing the nature of the game. Not defending it. Simply put they pick a language like Irish because they think few people will notice and most viewers won’t be able to tell it’s not an invented language like Klingon.

  18. Mar a dúirt Tom Waits, “the world is a hellish place, and bad writing is destroying the quality of our suffering.” Is maith liom fantasy agus an Ghaeilge araon. Is féidir finscéalta nua a scríobh nach ndéanann ráiméis as ár gcultúr.

    1. That’s possible I haven’t heard that, though it sounds a little like one of those things people claim after the fact, much the same issue though.

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