Celtic Inspiration: Using Folklore Characters in Creative Fiction
Updated: May 19, 2022
Caradonn stumbled out of the barn, the milk pail he struggled to carry nearly obscuring his two-foot-three body, his dark eyes bulging with effort. An oversized nose protruded over the pail’s lid. His two long arms wrapped around the metal container. Entangled in their red hair were bits of leaves, straw, and other debris. Two large feet with claw-like nails flopped around under the pail, and milk splashed to each side, falling on the path as he plodded his way towards the house.
Watching him through the kitchen window, Colm hissed, “He goes soon or I’ll murder him.”
Beanna laid her warm hand on his shoulders. “You can’t just tell a grogoch to go. Not without being cursed. But we’ll find a way.”
I wrote that opening for a short story called “The Grogoch Dilemma.” The idea for the story came to me after I had done some research on unusual Celtic folklore characters for a post I was writing for this blog. Grogochs are Irish house faeries similar to the better-known Scottish Brownie. But Brownies are industrious and do household chores at night while the family sleeps. In contrast, grogochs work in the daytime, in the midst of the family, getting underfoot and making nuisances of themselves. The description of these faeries so stole my heart that I wanted to write a story with a misunderstood grogoch as the main character. So, I invented Caradonn and the story just flowed from there.
And that’s what I want to share this week: how you can use a Celtic folklore character either as inspiration for a story or use it to develop a fictional character based on a folklore archetype. To demonstrate, I will use characters from my just-completed YA fantasy novel, Music of Dragons. The story is set in Cu Tailte, a land with a mix of magical races. By “races,” I mean faeries, trolls, goblins, and so forth. Below are some of the characters from the story and the Celtic folklore beings from which I drew inspiration.
It would just be wrong for a Celtic folklore-based novel not to have faeries. When you study Celtic folklore, you discover that most of the characters in it are faeries. Not all, but most. Now anyone who’s read this blog for a while knows I’m not talking about pretty butterfly beings or cute little Disney princesses with wings. Celtic faeries come in all sorts of sizes and all manner of appearance. Some of them are nasty and some are downright scary. And not all Celtic faeries have wings. In fact, most don’t.
Cu Tailte is not a “fairyland.” As I said above, its population is made up of a mix of magical races. That said, faeries are the ruling class. For as far back as anyone can remember, until sixty ages ago, Cu Tailte was governed by a Faerie Queen. Sixty ages ago, a dragon killed Queen Eithne. Her council then had a coup. Now Cu Tailte is a former monarchy. But that’s a long story for another time. The important thing is that the faeries are still the dominant race and they come in many different types, from cute little Pixies (think Tinkerbell) to the tall, graceful Si Corchra. Cu Tailtan faeries not only range in size, they also range in social class. Most are commoners. Some have climbed the social ladder and now are on the Council or are members of the gentry. Then there are the Arda Si, wingless, human-sized faeries who form the aristocracy.
My main character, a sixteen-ages-old faerie named Siobhan Bla h’Eithne, is an Arda Si. She also is the great-granddaughter of the last Faerie Queen of Cu Tailte, Eithne Fis Gaela. Siobhan is about 5’4” in human measurements. She’s slender and has long, cinnamon-colored hair and green eyes. She is clever, adventurous, impatient, and has a penchant for getting herself in trouble. Since it is against Cu Tailtan law for anyone under age 18 to learn magical skills, Siobhan only has her innate magic. These include visions, the ability to unlock locks (though she can’t lock them again), and phenomenal balance. Her fourth and favorite magical gift is the ability to create thunderstorms. She delights in it, but she has been told it’s a dark art and she’s been forbidden to use it.
The idea for my novel began with one thought: “I wonder what it would be like for a teenager to have a banshee for a mother.” That led to other musings. Would she tell her friends at school, or would she try to keep that fact a secret? Would she be mortified by it? What would her mother’s temperament be? Would the daughter have to become a banshee too? Answering those questions, and others that followed led to my starting to write a short story. I quickly realized it needed to be a novel.
Siobhan’s mother is Keira n’Gaela. She is a banshee but not the sort depicted by American television, movies, and video games. Keira is based on the banshee of Irish folklore. While banshees were feared, it was not because they were predatory, homicidal monsters who killed people with their screams or fed off people’s pain. Banshees were faerie women who adopted and looked after specific human families. When a member of the family was in danger of dying, the banshee wailed to warn the family. Usually, she was heard rather than seen but even when she appeared, it was generally to a family member rather than to the person who was about to die.
Banshees wailed in warning but also in grief. They mourned the person’s passing and they grieved with the family. Sometimes, banshees even attended the funeral. Older stories indicate that it was considered a great honor to have a banshee come to your funeral—and the more that came, the greater the honor. Into the twentieth century, the Irish considered it a source of pride to have a family banshee. The dread associated with this folklore came from her being a sign of impending death, but she was only a messenger. She did not cause the death.
My character, Keira, is a noble, compassionate, and generous woman. She takes her banshee duties seriously and cares deeply about the human family to whom she ministers. She is sweet-natured and patient, and her main concern is keeping her daughter safe. While she and Siobhan don’t always see eye to eye, the closeness of their relationship can be seen by Siobhan’s name for her—Maeda—which, in High Faerie, means “mom.”
The Sluagh Sidhe
Siobhan has to deal with several scary beings during the course of the story. Early on, she is attacked by the Sluashee, a collective of faerie ghosts. They are based on the Irish and Scottish folklore characters of the Sluagh Sidhe. These faeries of Celtic lore are vicious, terrifying, and should be avoided at all costs.
The Sluagh Sidhe are also known as the faerie host or the faerie army and are among the most feared of Celtic faeries. Gruesome in appearance, they have a skeletal human form with only bits of flesh hanging from their bones. A few strands of dark hair hang from their skulls. Pointed teeth protrude from their beak-like mouths. Their hands and feet are nothing more than bony claws. They have large, bat-like wings. When closed and held around the body, these wings resemble a cloak.
This faerie collective flies at night, looking like a murder of crows in the sky. They fly into the bedrooms of those who fail to close their windows. The Sluagh Sidhe especially seek out the weak and the dying, but sometimes confront healthy people who are out walking alone in the dark. Their goal is to suck out their victims’ souls and enslave them within the collective forever.
Pretty scary stuff, right? For my novel, I made a few changes. I changed the spelling to Sluashee. Primarily, I did this to make it easy for readers to pronounce the name in their heads. As a reader, I hate when I come across a word or a name that is so difficult to pronounce it takes me out of the story while I try to decode it.
In Music of Dragons, the Sluashee are a faerie collective who guard Ghost Sprite Grove, a barrier between the human world and Cu Tailte. They have a sworn duty to protect the grove from all intruders. As Siobhan travels through the grove on a journey to the human world, they attack her. They are, in my story, ghosts of faeries who, in life, did something so heinous the Ancients have forbidden them to ascend to the Higher Realm. They can work out their repentance by being faithful to their oath and, eventually, earn the right to move on to the Higher Realm. But some in the collective have no interest in that, so they can be particularly dangerous. Siobhan is throttled and nearly killed by one such faerie, Si Olc. I won’t tell you how she survives. You’ll have to read the novel to find out.
Next week, I will discuss a few other folklore beings I’ve used as inspiration for fictional characters. Among them are the Puca, the Cu Sith, and the Ceffyl Dwr. I also discuss a unicorn named Cay. Hope to see you then. Until then, thanks for reading!
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Slan go foil!