Tag: academia

Mentor, Master, and Medievalist

A few wee disconnected bits of news for you today, because a lot’s been happening lately. I’ve mentioned most of this on Twitter already, but it can be hard to keep track of that kind of thing, so here it is, in convenient blog post format. (I miss the internet of the 2010s, when everything was in convenient blog post format…)

The first is that I’m mentoring with Rogue Mentor! I’ve wanted to mentor for a while — I credit my experiences as a mentee in Author Mentor Match with having taken The Butterfly Assassin from “okay” to “publishable”, and I’ve been wanting to give back to the writing community. Rogue Mentor is a chilled out, low-key programme with no time limits or high-pressure showcases, and I’m really looking forward to getting to work with an author to take their book to the next level.

I’m looking for someone who has reached the point where they don’t think they can take their book any further on their own, and they just need another perspective / pair of eyes to make it click so that it’s ready for querying. I’ll be there for my mentee through as much of that process as they want me to be, and honestly, I see this as a chance to make a new writing friend, too, Mentorship can create a sense of hierarchy, but we’re all just people, some of us slightly further ahead in our writing journeys.

So, if you have a book that you know isn’t quite ready but you don’t know how to get it there by yourself, maybe consider submitting to me, and we can figure it out together. Even if you’ve never considered a mentorship programme before, why not think about it? Sometimes all you need is somebody to ask the right questions, so that you have to come up with the answers. Everyone needs a “But why?” reader, and when it comes to character motivations and worldbuilding, I like to think I’m pretty good at that. Plus, it’s invaluable to have someone who has been through the querying / submission process before you, to help you gauge what’s “normal” and keep calm during the process, so if that’s a direction you’re interested in, you might benefit from submitting.

My MSWL is here, but I wouldn’t say it’s an exhaustive list of the only types of books I’m interested in. If I haven’t mentioned something, and it’s not on my anti-MSWL either, that doesn’t necessarily mean I’m not interested in it. Just means I don’t know, yet, that I’m interested in it. Checking out my last blog post, where I shared my recent reading habits and preferences, might help give you an idea how likely I am to enjoy something. If I don’t seem like a great fit, do try one of the other Rogue Mentors! There are people looking for all sorts of genres and books, and they might be someone who’ll love yours.

You can submit to me during the April 22-25 submission window, and we’ll start working together in early June. (Mentee announcements are 26th May, which is my publication day, so I’ll probably be slightly busy that first week.)

Please do consider submitting! I’d be particularly excited to have a UK/Ireland-based mentee, but I’m open to anyone who has a book that I might click with.


The second piece of news is that at the end of May, I will be at the International Literature Festival in Dublin for my first panel as a newly-hatched baby author! Timed perfectly for two days after The Butterfly Assassin comes out, it’ll be a brand new experience for me, and I’m… slightly terrified.

I’ll be on a panel with Maura McHugh, who writes comics with folkloric/mythological influences. We’ll be talking about dark stories, monstrosity (of both the human and the beastie variety; The Butterfly Assassin has no actual monsters, but it certainly has monstrous humans), and all manner of things like that; I’ll probably end up talking about medieval Irish lit, too, so it promises to be an entertaining one.

Full details of the event are here. It’s on the 28th May, which is a Saturday. If you’re in Dublin, or close enough to get there, it would be wonderful to see you there! I’ll also be visiting some bookshops on the Sunday, so that’s definitely the weekend to catch me if you’re Ireland-based.


Speaking of Ireland, I was in Cork last week for my MA graduation ceremony, and I’m now officially a Master of Early and Medieval Irish. It was lovely to be back there; I took the opportunity to go to a friend’s talk about medieval Irish literature, as well as to see some parts of the area I never got the chance to see as a student. It was strange being back in the city now that everything has opened up so much, because there were Covid restrictions throughout my time living there. The spectre of Covid still lingers — my supervisor couldn’t be at graduation due to testing positive — but all in all, it was a very different Cork from the quiet, closed-up city I mainly experienced.

A selfie of me wearing a black mortarboard and a black graduation grown with a blue and green hood over an orange jumper and a white shirt. I am a white person with a buzz cut and orange-tinted glasses. I'm smiling at the camera. In the background are shelves of antique books in grill-fronted cupboards.

Many people wanted to know what’s next for me, and whether I’m going to do a PhD. As I’ve said before, I only want to do a PhD if I have a thesis topic in mind that excites me — not just for the sake of it. Since I don’t yet, I’m taking a little break from academia. But, I’m working on adapting some of my MA work into articles and papers, and there are a few research projects I’d like to explore as an independent scholar, so that doesn’t mean it’s going to be all quiet from me on the medievalist front. First steps will be to figure out how to become a Reader at the British Library, so that I can actually access materials… friends with library benefits are all very well, but a nerd cannot work from scanned PDFs alone.

As that suggests, I’m going to be staying in London for at least the next year, and probably longer. I’m about to move house again, for the third time in six months, and this time, I’m hoping to be there for a good while. Maybe not long enough to make it worth shifting all of my books over… but long enough to bring more than a shelf’s worth. I hope. It’ll be a new corner of London for me, and I’m looking forward to exploring, and trying to put down some roots and be part of a community.

So that’s what’s coming up for me: a house move, a gradual process of getting my life in order in a new location, and a slow ramp up in book events as publication (now only six weeks away!) draws ever closer. And, hopefully, amidst all that: a mentee, and the chance to be part of the writing community from a new direction, too. Join me! It’s going to be an interesting few months.


With only six weeks to go until The Butterfly Assassin is released, now is a great time to pre-order. We have a subtly-altered cover (check out the Books page for that) and I’m excited to see the finished copies which will also have a very funky spine… 👀

Fear or Love?

A couple of days ago, I watched tick, tick…BOOM! For those unfamiliar with the film, it’s an adaptation of the stage musical of the same name by Jonathan Larson, a semi-autobiographical story about an aspiring composer called Jon. About to hit his thirtieth birthday, Jon is panicking that he’s achieved nothing (“Sondheim had his first musical produced when he was twenty-seven!”), and worried that he’s spent eight years working on a musical that will never see the light of day. He’s haunted by the ever-present sense that time is running out, a ticking clock in the background. Around him, the AIDS crisis intensifies the sense that life is fleeting and that every moment has to count.

Jonathan Larson eventually wrote Rent, which proved to be a major success, winning awards and running on Broadway for years. But he never saw it happen: he died suddenly and unexpectedly the night before it opened. In the end, he was right that the clock was ticking and time was short, though he couldn’t have known how true it would be for him.

I thought it was an excellent film: unapologetic about being a musical, while still making the songs make sense in the real-world context. Some musicals go too far with explaining why people are singing, while others don’t bother at all, accepting it as a conceit of the genre; this one walks a middle ground. The music makes sense because we’re in Larson’s head, seeing the world his way, and he makes everything into music. It’s a film by and for people who love musicals, and it isn’t trying to be anything it’s not; I appreciated that.

I also thought Andrew Garfield was great as Larson — incredibly convincing. I’ve only ever seen him as Spiderman, and had no idea he could sing, but it definitely feels like a role he earns. I don’t think it’s the kind of film where you have to have seen Rent to enjoy it (or, if you have seen it, you don’t have to like it), but there are definitely added layers if you have: little details that echo the lyrics or dialogue.

So: it’s a good film. But it also felt incredibly targeted towards all my own fears and insecurities. I, too, am haunted by that ticking clock, that sense that time is passing around me and I’m stuck in a loop, never progressing, waiting to actually start living the life I’ve been working towards for years. By the time The Butterfly Assassin is released, it will have been eight years since I started working on it — the same length of time Jon spent on his musical — and while this one will see the light, there are more than a dozen other novels that won’t. And I’m haunted by the constant threat of loss, though my own anxiety about the mortality of loved ones is far less justified than that of somebody living through the AIDS crisis and going to funerals every other week; it’s very much just how my personal species of brainweasels manifests.

It was probably inevitable, then, that a few hours after watching the film, I got caught in an anxiety spiral about the future. What am I going to do? What am I going to do? Why aren’t I already doing it? I made the mistake of accidentally reading a friend’s post about the things they were learning in their current postgrad programme and was struck by the irrational sense of being left behind, the kind of instinct that has me second-guessing my decision not to apply for a PhD straight away. I’ve missed my chance for this year, I found myself thinking, and if I apply next year I won’t start until the year after that and they’ll all be so far ahead of me and I’m wasting time I’m wasting time I’m wasting time — all for a path I haven’t actually decided I’m going to go down.

I thought: I’ve got to start working on my Irish again. I thought: I have to write another book. I thought: I have to do something, why aren’t I doing anything, what am I waiting for? I could hear it myself: tick tick tick tick. Time trickling away, counting down to the inevitable explosion — implosion — destruction. No matter how much I tried to tell myself that I’m already on my way to making progress, it didn’t shake the crushing sense of urgency.

And then I remembered the question somebody asks Jon in tick, tick…BOOM!: fear or love?

Why stay? Why keep working towards a distant dream — because you love it, or because you’re too afraid to let go of something you formed your personality around? Are you being led forward by your passion and enthusiasm or are you being chased by your anxiety? What’s the real driving force here: is it fear, or is it love?

I decided not to apply for a PhD yet because I knew doing so would be driven by impostor syndrome instead of passion, and I was right about that. But it seems I’m going to have to keep reminding myself of that, because it’s too easy to let the fear talk me into urgency, to point me towards the ticking clock instead of the world of other possibilities. If I go back to academia, I want it to be because of love for my subject — not fear that I’m being left behind, that I’m not good enough, that I’m somehow inferior to the friends who have done / are doing PhDs already.

(That fear haunts me. Do I really believe that, deep down? Because sometimes it feels like I do — and does that mean I think I’m better than those who haven’t done an MA? My instinct is to say, “No, of course I don’t,” but is that because I know I shouldn’t feel that way? What unexamined elitism am I in denial about, that drives my own inferiority complex? Or is this another of those, “No, of course you’re fine, it’s only me I’m holding to impossible standards” situations?)

Fear or love? Once I asked myself this question about my PhD panic, I realised it was the kind of question I needed to be applying to the rest of my life. I’ve talked before about my impostor syndrome and frustration with a lack of progress in learning Irish, but were my language-learning efforts really being motivated by love of the language? Or was it fear, once again, of not being good enough, and of being an outsider?

The answer was obvious. Fear. Every time, it was fear. My anxiety about learning always increases whenever I see somebody else in my field criticised for their lack of modern Irish, or when somebody expects me to know more than I do, or when my lack of fluency is treated with surprise rather than understanding. And while that anxiety would temporarily motivate an increased effort at changing the situation, it never lasted. I’d have a week of working and then it would fizzle out, my hyper-awareness of all the ways I was failing to meet my goals outweighing any pride I might feel in the progress I was making.

The more I thought about it, and the more things I applied this question to, the more I realised how many of the things making me unhappy were because I’d allowed fear to motivate me, not love. Even silly things, like bookstagram — when I started posting elaborate book photos, it was because I loved books, but over time it became fear of losing my engagement, fear of being inadequate, fear of disappointing complete strangers on the internet. The effort began to outweigh the enjoyment, and I was constantly burned out. I started seeing books as props instead of stories, and where once I’d taken pride in creative photos and setups, I fixated instead on my dwindling likes, trying to figure out what the Instagram algorithm wanted of me, trying to work out what others were doing that I wasn’t.

And so I quit, a couple of years ago, and I don’t regret it at all, but there are other forms of social media where fear (especially fear of missing out) has kept me active on platforms that are otherwise making me miserable. It’s just been less obvious, so I haven’t noticed. Am I there because I love the communities I’m in and the connections I’m forming, or because I’m afraid to leave? Am I there in search of joy, or is it an anxious default setting, a pattern I don’t know how to break out of?

As I contemplate whether or not I have a future in academia, I’m being forced to realise that, all my life, learning has been driven by fear. And while allowing fear of doing badly in an exam to motivate me has historically resulted in good exam results, it hasn’t actually resulted in effective learning: I’m a master of learning exactly what I need to know for the time it takes me to sit the exam and then immediately forgetting it afterwards.

I was never fluent in French because I was learning in order to pass exams, get into university, and otherwise prove my academic worth according to arbitrary standards. And I’ll never be fluent in Irish unless I stop letting fear of inadequacy be my primary motivation.

If I did a PhD now it wouldn’t be because I actually want to. It’s because I’m afraid of not doing it. Afraid of what it means for my identity as a medievalist and an academic if I let my MA be the end of my formal studies. Afraid of feeling inadequate around my more academic friends. I can’t let that happen. Those brainweasels can’t be allowed to win. Because three years of fear-driven study will only result in misery. The reason I was happier during my MA than during my BA was because I was there for love of the subject, and I don’t want to ruin that by slipping straight back into the same patterns.

And while I do intend to intensify my efforts at learning modern Irish, I don’t want it to be because I’m afraid of never being good enough to belong in my field. I’m tired of the ticking clock. I’m tired of fear looking over my shoulder, whispering to me to run faster and faster and faster just to keep up.

I don’t know how to put the love back into language-learning, but I want to try. Maybe it’ll mean, each day, identifying which new word I liked best, and focusing on those small moments of delight. Maybe it’ll mean making a game of it, or finding new ways to apply what I learn to my hobbies. I don’t expect every second of the process to be fun, but I want to learn to love the process and recognise my progress, instead of being haunted by everything I don’t know. I want to stop constantly comparing myself to others, and start finding the joy in my own journey.

I want to apply this to other areas of life, beyond languages. I want to ask myself honestly: fear or love? And if it’s fear, can I stop? Can I put it aside? Or can I reframe it and come at it from a different angle?

I want to love more and fear less. I think, if I stop allowing fear of my own inadequacy to motivate me, it’ll be easier to look outwards. Easier to celebrate others’ success, because I’ll no longer be so afraid of being left behind. Easier to recognise when a closed door is inviting me to take another route instead of locking me in a cupboard. I want to go forwards with curiosity and hope and excitement, rather than because I’m desperately trying to outrun the negative emotions creeping up behind me.

I’m not gonna say that anxiety attack the other night was a good thing (it kept me up until 4am, that’s never great), but I do think I learned something from thinking about life in those terms. I sat there at two in the morning, writing out quotes and thoughts and questions in insular minuscule — I’ve found calligraphy a surprisingly good method for calming down, because it requires such steady, deliberate movements that you can’t rush — and by the time I stopped, I’d gone from spiralling about how to use the next few months “productively”, academically speaking, to realising I couldn’t let myself be chased down that path.

I guess I’m sharing this for three reasons. The first is that I think it’s always comforting, if you’re the kind of person who suffers from impostor syndrome and a sense of inadequacy, to know that you’re not alone. I can give off a totally unfounded sense of confidence in person simply because I’m talkative, but I’m actually a doubt-ridden gremlin, and I feel that’s always worth pointing out, because it might reassure somebody. The second is that people are often asking me about my plans for the future, and while I’ve already talked about my academic intentions, I still feel it’s worth reiterating that I currently have no idea whether or not I’m going to do a PhD and I am deliberately trying not to treat it as an expectation, because that’s how I get trapped in the hamster wheel of academic progress/obligation.

And the third reason is that I think a lot of us, actually, are driven by fear rather than love — especially in an increasingly hostile online world, and especially those of us with anxious creative brains. These days I spend a lot of time chatting to other debut authors, and I think those fearful brainweasels gain power from pre-publication stress. I should be doing this, I should be doing that, I’m running out of time, I’m behind, I’m going to fail. Not to mention all my academic friends trying to decide how much of themselves to give to their institutions, how much to sacrifice, what they’re willing to do. So I’m asking myself this question in public because I suspect there are others of youse who also need to be asking that question, and making choices about what to do about the answer.

Fear might be my default setting, but I’m picking love, and I’m going to keep picking it until eventually it sticks. And I don’t know what it’s going to look like or how I’m going to do it necessarily, but that’s part of the process.

I want to learn to love the process, and forget the ticking clock.


If you want to do your bit to combat my fear of failure, pre-ordering The Butterfly Assassin or buying me a coffee will do wonders for my ego.

Masterly Reflections

I handed in my thesis this week which means, for those keeping track at home, that I’ve now finished my MA.

It’s an odd feeling: anticlimactic, for one. During undergrad, we all finished at the same time — after a brief, intense period of exams there was May Week, and then results came out, and then we graduated, which saw us all off the premises with appropriate pomp and grandeur. There was a finality to it, and plenty of opportunities to say goodbye to everyone.

By contrast, the small handful of us on this course are all finishing at slightly different times, with the majority handing in from a distance, having already left Cork. They’re long gone, scattered to the four winds; those of us who remain attend seminars as quasi-students, no longer required to be there but remaining out of habit, and one by one we complete our theses and disappear. Thanks to Covid, I know almost nobody outside of this particular course, so the list of people to say goodbye to is short, but it still feels odd, this strange winding down of things.

I’m not the partying type, nor did I have the money to go to half a dozen May Balls in undergrad to blow off steam post-finals (I went to the Ulidia-Finn conference on Skye instead, because I’m a nerd, and then a single June Event). But there was something about that week of social events and frivolities to celebrate the end of the year that made all the hard work I’d done feel more real — that made it clear that yes, it really was over. Now, without that marker, I’m half convinced somebody’s going to pop out of the woodwork to tell me that I’ve missed something, that I haven’t finished after all.

I hoped that taking photos around campus would make it feel more real, but honestly, it hasn’t. Although maybe this process would be even weirder if I hadn’t.

UCC has been a very different experience from Cambridge. At times, it’s hard to know how much that’s because the two universities are so very different, how much it’s the difference between undergrad and postgrad, and how much it’s simply that I’m older and in a very different headspace. I’ll be honest: I was miserable most of the way through undergrad. By contrast, postgrad me has only very occasionally cried over work, even if I’ve cried over other things. That’s an improvement, right?

I took two years out after finishing undergrad, convinced I was leaving academia. That evidently didn’t turn out to be the case, but those two years were important in teaching me that there was a life outside studying. It gave me a useful sense of perspective, which I think has helped when I felt overwhelmed, although I also think I’ve simply been a lot less overwhelmed. An MA might be more challenging than a BA in some regards, but the Cambridge workload and course structure was… pretty nightmarish, to be honest. The first time I realised I was only expected to write a couple of essays a semester here, it blew my mind. Sure, so the essays counted and they actually had to be good — my undergrad supervision essays certainly weren’t — but there were so few of them! And they were on topics I was actually studying!

The year has had other challenges. We bounced from one set of Covid restrictions to another, and all the while I’m living alone, lacking opportunities to socialise. Living alone was a new experience in itself, since I’ve always had housemates or family around me before this. For the most part, I’ve enjoyed it, though it’s encouraged many of my bad habits; I’ve been to bed at 5am more times than is wise for anyone, and my flat’s a mess, with no particular reason to deal with my clutter resulting in me simply… not dealing with it. But I’ve been lonely, at times, and the run-up to last Christmas was particularly bad, as I anticipated a day spent alone, a long way from family.

I’ve missed dance. My flat is tiny, and the studios were shut for the most of the year. (They’re open now, so inevitably I have an injury that limits my ability to walk, let alone dance. Thanks, body.) I’ve missed feeling in control of my body, having a chance to de-stress that doesn’t involve looking at a screen, and the social element that came from regular dance classes. I’ve struggled with increased injuries and pain because my muscles are deconditioned, and that’s been pretty miserable. So the lockdowns have definitely proven a major challenge in that regard, even if I have appreciated the total lack of food-based socialising. (It’s been a great year and a half of not getting poisoned in order to feel included in a group!)

And of course, getting a book deal was a dream come true, but one that complicated matters: balancing academic deadlines with edits meant I never really got a break. My thesis was originally due in September, extended to December because of disruption caused by Covid. It wasn’t the pandemic that meant I needed it, though: it was The Butterfly Assassin. I don’t think there’s any way I could have got my thesis and my edits done on time according to the original deadline without completely giving up on sleeping, which would have been bad. I have fatigue and chronic pain, so I spend a lot more time horizontal than most people do; juggling an MA and a debut novel with such limited hours of function each day is… maybe not ideal.

I still managed to write 115k of the sequel in the last two weeks before thesis hand-in, though, because sometimes when I’m stressed it manifests as words. Just as I suddenly translated a lot more early modern Irish when I was stressed about publishing — playing the two causes of stress off against each other proved a pretty effective way of keeping each in check, and I would highly recommend academic deadlines as a way to stop checking your emails while waiting on publishing news.

(And I’m lucky that my supervisor was not only patient with my deadline-juggling, but invested in my book and the publishing journey: during most of our meetings he would ask how it was going, and where we were at in the process, and what was coming next. At times, these were a cathartic opportunity to vent about the inscrutability of publishing and the powerlessness one can feel as a debut author; at other times, it was a chance to celebrate progress. Mostly the former, though, not gonna lie.)

I don’t know what I’m doing next. For some people, the absence of firm commitments would feel liberating. For me, it feels slightly like stepping off the edge of a cliff. I have nothing pinned down at all for the next couple of months, and it’s going to be a strange experience, to be without constant deadlines hanging over my head. There are a couple of opportunities I’m pursuing, but it’s entirely possible (in fact, it’s likely) that neither of them will work out, so I can’t plan for the future. The Butterfly Assassin comes out in May; that’s more or less the only thing I know about next year.

I know that some of my supervisors are hoping I’ll do a PhD, or at least, they think I’m more than capable of one and it would be a shame if I didn’t. A few years ago, I’d have scoffed at the idea; now, I’ve considered it enough to have researched some of my options, looking at where I might go and what I might do. I enjoy research, even if I complain endlessly about the process of academic writing (fiction feels so easy by comparison), and I can’t see myself being done with medieval Irish lit any time soon… or perhaps early modern Irish lit, my most recent research having very much taken the “periodisation is fake” approach to my official degree title (Early and Medieval Irish) and wandered a long way into the seventeenth century and beyond.

But funding deadlines for a 2022 start are imminent, and without a proposal in mind, I won’t be rushing in an application. Despite the sense of vague inevitability about it — I seem to be the kind of person that academia just happens to — I’m not committing to anything at this point. In truth, I’ve got no plans to stay in academia long-term for work; I’m not interested in the constant grind of short-term highly competitive jobs that would have me ricocheting all over the country/world, never able to settle down for more than a year, and these seem par for the course for early career researchers. That means it’s not worth doing a PhD just for the sake of it, because I don’t “need” it. But if I find I have a topic in mind, then that’ll change things.

I came back to do an MA because I had a thesis topic and wanted the support and resources to research it. Since I firmly intend to continue my medievalist shenanigans informally the way I did post-undergrad, it’s plausible I’ll stumble on something that would make a viable PhD thesis. And that’ll change things. In the meantime, I’m keeping my mind and options open, and looking at other ways I might utilise my research skills and experience.

Is there a job that involves teaching geese about medieval Irish literature? If so, consider this my application.

And as for my MA thesis topic? Well, I think I did what I set out to do. I wanted to write about Láeg mac Riangabra, Cú Chulainn’s charioteer, because he’s interesting and has been neglected in academic discussions before now. I came in with a pretty clear idea of the texts I wanted to look at and the directions I planned to go in, and many of these proved to be correct; there were no dramatic revelations that completely changed my angle. At the same time, there were new facets I hadn’t considered and texts I wasn’t familiar with. My conclusions now are not the same as they would have been a year ago, because I learned more: this is good, and expected. But they aren’t wildly different either: I arrived pretty firmly on the path, probably by virtue of having two years to play with my ideas before I started.

My goal was to come out the other end of this degree knowing more about Láeg: I do. I also know more about palaeography, a skill I regretted not developing in undergrad, and believe it or not, I’d hazard my medieval Irish grammar has got better too — though my spelling has got worse, as a result of spending too much time in the orthographic hellscape of the early modern period. My modern Irish hasn’t improved as much after a year in Ireland as I’d hoped, but lockdown can be blamed for that: I find language-learning over Zoom intensely difficult, and opportunities to speak to people IRL have been few. It’s something I plan to work on over the next year, though whether this is more self-teaching or whether I’m able to find classes will very much depend on where I end up living past the next few months.

What I’ve most valued about my time at UCC hasn’t been the subject matter, though. I’ve enjoyed being part of an academic community. My supervisors and lecturers have been encouraging and enthusiastic. Specialising in the thing I was best at during undergrad (medieval Irish lit) has given me the chance to gain confidence as a scholar. Good things have come in twos: I’ve given two undergrad lectures, presented at two conferences, had two papers pass peer review and be accepted for publication. And while it would be easy to dismiss my higher grades as a discrepancy between Cambridge and UCC’s standards — something I’ve been tempted to do on numerous occasions, because I love to put myself down — I think that’s doing myself a disservice. I know I’m a better scholar than I was during undergrad. I know more, I care more, and being less overwhelmed gave me the time to focus on the things that matter.

I don’t know what my final grade will be, or even when I’m due to receive it. I don’t know when graduation is, and therefore at what point I officially become a Master. But I know this: I’m coming out of my MA more confident in my knowledge and skills, and with a totally different attitude towards academia than the one I left undergrad with. I may be burned out from months of back-to-back publishing and academic deadlines, but I’m not an exhausted husk determined never to return. I have plans to mine my thesis and coursework for articles; I’ve spent time in the library this week scanning texts I want to translate and work with in my own time; and I’m looking forward to having the time and space to make videos again.

Whatever else happens, it’s clear Celtic Studies isn’t free of me yet.

But oooh, boy, I’m sure going to miss academic library access.

Checking references, library goblin style.

You can support me in accumulating my own personal academic library by buying me a coffee. Alternatively, if you want to support me in having a less void-like future that involves an actual career, now is a great time to pre-order The Butterfly Assassin.

Retelling The Details

I like writing retellings. I joke that it’s because the plot is already done for me: I’m very much not an outliner, because I’m unable to see my way to the end until I’ve got there, but a retelling offers me a ready-made framework and an end already in sight. That is, if I actually stick to the original plot. Some of my ‘retellings’ over the past few years have been looser, ‘inspired by’ their source material more than directly retelling it: Bard, for example, or the chaotic gay orchestra novel that I have yet to finish (or title).

That isn’t to say I only write retellings (The Butterfly Assassin isn’t one, by any stretch of the imagination), but they’ve certainly dominated my output over the past few years, with The Wolf and His King (a retelling of ‘Bisclavret’) being my main focus recently. In that one, I kept most of the original story intact, extrapolating backstory and secondary characters but leaving the plot framework in place. I can tell you something, it made writing a synopsis a lot easier.

There are many different ways of approaching retellings, and the term gets used to describe everything from a direct reworking to something that only borrows a few names or plot points or vibes. All of these are totally valid approaches (although going into a book expecting it to be one kind and getting the other can be a major disappointment), and have their own challenges. I’ve had fun with both, but recently I’ve been thinking about the challenges specific to retellings that stick close to their originals.

There’s a lot to consider. How do you find the balance between something that feels accurate and authentic, and something that works well as a modern novel? The further removed your source material is from that format, the more challenges at play — a novel’s story structure, pacing, and sensibilities can be very different from a medieval prose tale, an ancient epic poem, or a Greek tragedy. How do you write characters that reflect the values and ideals of the society who created them, while also being sympathetic and interesting to modern readers with modern expectations of what a protagonist will be like?

And the closer you stick to the original story, the more the divergences stand out. Why include X, and omit Y? Will your readers notice? Will they know the story as well as you do, and wonder why you chose to privilege one version over another? How do you decide which details matter, and which can be abandoned for the sake of making good art?

To some people, the answer to this is simple: do what you want, and anyone who doesn’t like it can deal with it, because that’s their problem, not yours. And it’s true. Your retelling is your retelling. If a detail is incompatible with the story you’re trying to tell, maybe it’s best simply to let go of it, and sometimes, changing the details is crucial to the retelling. This is a story where A chooses B, not C; this is a story where D has the power, not E; this is a story where F survives. Art over accuracy.

But there’s a flip side to that: if the details don’t fit the story, is the story right? Is this the material you should retell to weave this particularly story? Would another character, another fairytale, another text provide a better basis? Fundamental changes to the mood and vibe of the story should be done with intent and thought: details should be changed because changing them does something, makes the story what it is, not because they fell by the wayside along the way. Intent and thought over carelessness.

And figuring out which details are important to shaping the story and which are merely incidental can be harder than it sounds.

Recently, I’ve been rereading parts of To Run With The Hound. For those unfamiliar with this novel of mine, it’s a retelling of Táin Bó Cúailnge, focusing on the bond between Cú Chulainn and Fer Diad from their training together through to their encounter on the battlefield. I wrote the first draft in late 2018, and have been waiting to have the time and brainpower to edit it ever since.

There are many things I intend to change when I redraft the book; I’ve been keeping note of them for years. Some of these changes are about the writing — ways to try and fix the pacing, the prose, the characterisation. Some of them are more academic: Add more Naoise to part I, says one of my notes, and remember that the sons of Uisliu are known for their singing voices. The more I learn about the Ulster Cycle, the more attention I pay to the secondary characters, the ones who were just names to me when I wrote the first draft.

What really struck me, rereading, was that I disagree with my past self’s interpretations of the source material.

This is, perhaps, a risk you take when adapting a text you’re also working with on an academic level. My relationship to the Táin will never be a purely narrative relationship: it’s one fundamentally informed by my academic work. Everything from how I arrange the chronology of the different remscéla (fore-tales) to which recension I choose to follow when details diverge is an interpretation that relies on my academic understanding of the text. The relationships I portray between characters are coloured by the other texts they appear in, and how those stories join up.

It’s a funny thing. At the time that I drafted TRWTH, I knew the Táin incredibly well. Only a few months out of undergrad, I’d been working closely with the text in order to write my dissertation. I’d read it dozens of times in close succession, and knew the plot back to front.

I know it better now, and so I would write this book differently.

See, in most cases it’s not that 2018!me had a completely unrecognisable reading of the major characters. My reading of Cú Chulainn — and of Fer Diad — was informed by my dissertation, a piece of work I’ve continued to develop, turning part of it into an article. I have a deeper understanding now than I did then, but it’s built on the same foundations.

There are characters I would write very differently, with Láeg being the most prominent of those. I knew almost nothing about him when I began writing TRWTH, and it shows; he has very little in the way of a distinct personality. It was writing that book that made me realise he was interesting in the first place, and so my narrative approaches informed my academic research, and sent me down a rabbithole that led to my MA thesis focusing on Láeg.

Mostly, though, it’s the details. It’s the things I didn’t think were important. It’s the scenes I skimmed over, versus the ones I allowed the story to dwell on; it’s the little changes, where a piece of advice is spoken by one character instead of another, or somebody else takes a watchman role and describes a battle. It’s everything that the casual reader, the one who hasn’t spent the last four years immersed in the Ulster Cycle, probably won’t even notice.

Nobody reviewing a retelling of this sort would be likely to say, “Well, I liked it, except that the author made Lugaid the observer in this instance of the watchman motif, and that just doesn’t fit, because he isn’t otherwise fulfilling an interpretative or mediating function.” Nobody would say, “Yeah, the author clearly knows the text really well, but they seemed to misinterpret the significance of this character’s skill at board games.” Because nobody cares.

But I care.

With a retelling like this, one where a significant portion of the book hews very closely to its source material (Part I of the book is largely my own invention, informed by Tochmarc Emire and Oileamhain Con Culainn, but Part II and Part III follow the Táin almost beat for beat), it’s the details that matter, the details that make it my retelling and not somebody else’s. Hell, it’s the details that make it a retelling and not a translation. And currently it’s a retelling that reflects my 2018 self’s interpretation, but it doesn’t reflect my interpretations as of 2021.

Now, as well as being a better academic than I was in 2018, I’m also a better writer, and I know that there’s a point at which faithfulness becomes limiting. The story needs to breathe and change, because no matter how much I want to evoke the moods and images of the medieval text, my audience is not a medieval audience, and wants different things from a story. This inevitably means letting go of some details, diminishing some moments in order to give more weight to others, reshaping scenes to fit the greater whole. But a crucial part of doing that is deciding which details have to be kept — and my past self and I disagree on that.

Every time I work on the Táin, I learn something new about it. In writing my undergraduate dissertation, I learned how to approach the different recensions, and how each paints a slightly different image of gender and sexuality within the text; I learned how the story interacted with legal concepts of marriage and adulthood and fosterage. In writing TRWTH, I developed an understanding of the story as narrative, and the complex chronology of the remscéla that defied any attempt to put them in order; I began to notice which details the Táin never gives us, and which characters were worth examining more closely.

In the independent research I did between undergrad and my MA, I developed on all of those understandings, and over the course of my MA I’ve learned a great deal more, albeit mostly focused on Láeg: about the interactions between the Táin and other texts, particularly late (early modern) Ulster Cycle tales, and about the fact that there’s never only one explanation for anything. And the details that my past self thought didn’t matter — who wins at fidchell between Cú Chulainn and Láeg; who tells Cú Chulainn about the warriors approaching his camp — now matter to me, because many of them play a pivotal part in my academic interpretations of Láeg.

This could go on forever. Perhaps I’ll find another character to examine at length, or a new obscure late tale to fixate on that will reshape my understanding of everything that went before it, or some other angle of approach that will bring me back to the Táin with fresh eyes to seek out new readings. No doubt if this book is ever published, there’ll come a point, a few years down the line, when I cease to agree with my interpretations and wish I’d done this or that differently.

What I have to decide — what anyone writing a retelling like this has to decide — is which of those details are important not to the source material, but to the story I’m telling. I need to acknowledge that by omitting something on which I hung an academic argument, I’m not deciding that that detail or that argument isn’t important, only that it doesn’t contribute to the book I’m trying to write at this time. And this book can’t be every story at once, can’t be every interpretation at once, can’t be every reading at once. I have to choose.

I can write a Cú Chulainn who was nursed by Láeg’s mother and raised alongside his charioteer, or I can write a Cú Chulainn who was raised by his parents until he went to Emain Macha when he was five, or I can write a Cú Chulainn whose closest bond of fosterage is to Conall because his mother was Cú Chulainn’s nurse, but I can’t write all of them. I can have a Láeg with Connacht connections, a Láeg with Otherworld connections, or a Láeg who is both human and Ulaid, but I can’t have all of those Láegs at once. I can give Fer Diad’s charioteer a name of my own invention to compensate for his namelessness in the early manuscripts, or I can make him Idh mac Riangabra, Láeg’s brother, as he is in the fifteenth-century Stowe manuscript, but I can’t do both.

(It’s a shame, almost, that there’s little room in ‘original’ fiction to write four different, unrelated books about the same character, which contradict and conflict with each other. Fanfic writers have the right of it, where the same writer may offer multiple readings of a character, and nobody expects them to bring the same version to the table every time. I could write a retelling of Oidheadh Con Culainn and focus on entirely different character details than the ones that are important in Táin Bó Cúailnge, but I would struggle to sell both without the world assuming one was a sequel to the other and being perplexed by the perceived inconsistency.)

Academia is about possibilities, readings, offering interpretations. Retellings are about making choices: which interpretation will we go for? Which possibility will we draw to the front? In a good retelling, there are still multiple readings open to the audience, but they may be completely different readings from those the audience would take from the source material, because the characterisation that’s been offered has already been shaped and interpreted. And that, inevitably, means letting go of some of the possibilities that the source material left open.

When I go back to TRWTH, the changes I make will be informed by my greater academic understanding of the medieval texts. Láeg might actually have a personality, for a start, and this time I’ll remember that the sons of Uisliu are singers, able to charm with their voices. And the details I include might shift in response to those changes, placing the focus on different scenes and different moments.

But ultimately, what I have to decide is not which interpretation I think has the strongest manuscript support, but which interpretation makes the best story. Which reading will pave the way to telling the story I want to tell; which possibility I should lean into, to get the strongest emotional response from my readers. It’ll be a novel shaped and directed by my academic research, but it won’t — can’t — shouldn’t be my academic research in novel form.

In a retelling, an author makes choices. We untangle contradictions, close off alternative readings, privilege one interpretation over another, sideline one character for another’s sake, and in doing so, we let go of details. Even the ones we care about.

Accuracy matters, in a retelling like this. But art, it turns out, matters more.


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Why I Have (Not) Made Words This Week

I send a lot of emails, and all of my emails are extremely long. I get this from my mum. I vividly remember my form tutor at school telling me he found her emails intimidatingly long (she also worked in the school; she wasn’t emailing him about me) and I sympathise. I like to try and anticipate all the questions and clarifications the other person might need, and provide as few opportunities for misinterpretation as possible. Also, I have a lot to say. I mean, you’ve read my blog posts, right? Anything under two thousand words is a rarity.

However, I’ve concluded that a lot of my emails can be boiled down to three basic types.

  1. I know I was supposed to make words, but I have not made words, because {explanation}.
  2. I know I was only expected to make a few words, but I made Many Words, I’m sorry, enjoy.
  3. I made many words but they were the wrong words, so that doesn’t really help you, sorry.

Mostly, I alternate between type 1 and 2. One week, my emails to my supervisor will say, “So, I know I hadn’t actually told you I’d started writing, but here’s fourteen thousand words that you weren’t expecting. When did you want to have a meeting?” The next week, I’ll be saying, “Unfortunately, I have made no progress whatsoever. Should we postpone?”

Frequently, the in type 1 actually turns it into a type 3: “I have made no thesis progress but I did write 8.5k in planning notes for a novel.” “I need some extra time for these edits because I had to write an academic article.” “I know I was supposed to be translating this quatrain, but have you seen my blog this week? I made so many words.”

Sometimes there’s another explanation, usually along the lines of “unfortunately, Pain” or “I was being a depression slug and therefore nothing has happened at all in any direction”. However, these can be tricky to word. What’s an appropriate amount of disclosure? Is it enough to say I didn’t get something done “because of my health” or do I need to be more specific than that? Perhaps it’ll have more effect if I describe the exact way that the tendons in the back of my hands feel during a flare (“like cheese wire, slicing the skin from the inside every time I move my fingers”), or what kind of a migraine this one was (“there is a demon sitting in my eye socket, chewing on the back of my eyeball”).

To help myself navigate this delicate balance between necessary disclosure and inappropriate oversharing, I decided to compile some excuses for why I haven’t made words, or have made the wrong words, or have made more words than I was expected to.

Bonus points if you can figure out which of these are excuses I have actually truthfully made.

  • Unfortunately, I was possessed.
  • I fell asleep on a hill and ended up in the Otherworld, which would have been fine, except I forgot to bring earplugs and I didn’t manage to get out of there before their band sent me to sleep. Best nap I’ve had in ages, though.
  • I had to go to war to defend the honour of a semicolon. I lost, but I did manage to save three commas during the fighting.
  • The demon to whom I accidentally sold my soul while trying to source a copy of that one out-of-print academic book told me they would give it back, but only if I wrote them an exclusive 10,000 word fanfic about their obscure medieval Irish OTP before midnight. I spent the first three hours trying to figure out which Cormac they were actually talking about, and by the time I finished the story my eyeballs were melting. On the plus side, I now know far too much about this one obscure character who shows up, like, three times.
  • I had only intended to write the 2k you asked for but I entered a fugue state and by the time I came out of it there were eight thousand words in the document. I don’t know how they got there but I’m afraid to delete them in case I anger some kind of supernatural beastie.
  • The muse… the muse has abandoned me… I have been cruelly repudiated…
  • I was baking. Would you like some cake? No, I’m not trying to distract you, it’s a genuine offer. Well, if it also serves to distract you, that’s a bonus, but — of course that’s not my intention, how dare you suggest such a thing.
  • Studying palaeography gave me too many feelings about this one secondary character, and so I rewrote the entire novel to make the manuscript production scenes more accurate. I realise I was supposed to be transcribing a text, but I’m happy to send you the sexy scribe scenes if it would help demonstrate my knowledge.
  • I was distracted by my quest to resurrect Robert Graves for the sole purpose of fighting him in a Tesco car park.
  • I was distracted by my quest to resurrect Iolo Morgannwg for the sole purpose of fighting him in a Tesco car park.
  • I was distracted by the possibility of killing two birds with one stone and resurrecting Robert Graves and Iolo Morgannwg so that they can fight each other in a Tesco car park. Unfortunately, all the books on necromancy are held in Special Collections and due to the pandemic, their hours have been very limited, so I haven’t yet managed to book a slot.
  • Somebody was being wrong on the internet, and, well,
  • I accidentally looked at my novel for five minutes too long and decided I hated all of my prose. So I rewrote it. Here’s a surprise redraft.
  • Óengus visited me in a dream and told me many great secrets. Unfortunately, I never remember my dreams, and so I have absolutely no idea what they were. I’ve spent three days trying to nap long enough to prompt a repeat performance, in case more of it sticks this time.
  • I had a disagreement with a crow, and I might be cursed.
  • I had a disagreement with a swan, and I might be cursed, but I definitely have a broken arm.
  • I had a dream about a book that was utterly crucial to my thesis and now I don’t think I’ll eat or sleep until I’ve searched the earth to find it. I can describe it to you — do you know anyone who might be able to find it?
  • In order to properly edit the science scene, I had to teach myself several years’ worth of chemistry and then design a complex, brutal poison. As I have not taken any science subjects since I was sixteen, there was a learning curve. Also, I think I’m on a watchlist now.
  • I’m sorry I haven’t answered your emails for the last four months. I was busy single-handedly defending the province in a series of elaborate single combats.
  • In a follow-up to my last email, I would like to clarify that it was not entirely single-handed, as my best friend and designated driver was also present. However, I would like to emphasise that neither of us had a phone charger and therefore responding to your emails was still entirely impossible.
  • I believed that the most effective way to write a synopsis was to travel to a point in the future at which I will have already written the book, read the book, and then come back and summarise it. Unfortunately, even after I had solved the small hurdle of building a time machine, this caused a recursive loop of plot holes. Eventually I had to travel into the past before I had this great idea and destroy my own time machine, but of course this trapped me there. I’ve been waiting three weeks to reach Tuesday.
  • Wait, it’s Monday? Damn. Didn’t wait long enough.
  • I was bitten by a radioactive pancake and needed to take a week to adjust to my new superpowers. They have not so far encompassed the ability to consume either gluten or milk, so I can only assume this is punishment for my hubris in trying to make pancakes in the first place.
  • I am very small and I have no money, so you can imagine the kind of stress that I am under.
  • I did translate the quatrain you assigned me for the seminar, but it turned out to be a summoning spell for an extremely grumpy creature (who insisted “demon” was an offensive term), and he, uh, maybe ate my notes so that nobody else could use the spell.
  • After retranslating the quatrain, I have concluded that it only became a summoning spell because I misidentified a word as dative when it should have been accusative. In my defence, it’s a Middle Irish text and the two are virtually indistinguishable at this stage.
  • I was abducted by aliens to compete in a Scrabble tournament to determine the fate of the world. However, they couldn’t agree on an orthographic standard and spent four days arguing about spelling. They did not take kindly to my input, nor to the accusation that orthographic standards are frequently classist and also colonialist. Also, I’ve never played Scrabble before, but they thought I was lying and refused to explain the rules. So I might have doomed us all. Sorry.
  • I tried to make sourdough, but gluten free bread is like… the worst. It didn’t end well.
  • My landlord knocked a hole in my kitchen and I had to excavate my computer from underneath the dust before I could even send you this message.
  • I fell asleep on the bus and wound up in Tralee.
  • I fell asleep on the bus and wound up in Galway.
  • I fell asleep on the bus and wound up in a síd apparently only accessible via a portal in a Bus Éireann station. The only way to leave is by bus, and, well, they’re Bus Éireann, so it was three hours late.
  • Due to overwhelming terror of mortality and the fear of not writing all the things I want to write, I have not slept in three weeks in an attempt to get words on the page. Here are 350,000 words of assorted novels. I couldn’t tell you for the life of me what order they’re supposed to go in.
  • I received a letter from a desert island castaway who could only be rescued on a raft made entirely of essays about queer theory in Celtic Studies. Since there aren’t enough of those to make a raft, I had to write some. I think we’re nearly buoyant but one big wave could end that.
  • Somebody recalled the exact library book I needed for this thesis chapter so unfortunately, I had to hunt them down and kill them.
  • Did I mention that I was possessed?

And finally,

  • Trying to write an MA thesis at the exact same time as editing your debut novel and planning its sequel is actually really hard, and I can only make academic words by neglecting fiction words or vice versa. In order to handle the guilt about the things I’m not doing, I decided to do neither of these things, and instead write an increasingly silly blog post, so that I can feel equally guilty about all of them.

In conclusion, I have made some words, but they were the wrong words. I’m sorry.

If anyone sees Óengus, tell him to email me next time.


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Legendary Linguist or Mortified Monoglot?

As Duolingo introduces a new level, “Legendary”, above the usual five — one that will turn my golden Irish skill-crowns a silvery blue-purple — I find myself wondering how much my Irish has actually improved in the months years since I started the course.

My 937-day Duolingo streak has not been solely dedicated to Irish: there was also a brief flirtation with Gaelic and Latin, and more recently, a sustained affair with Esperanto. But the Irish course remains the only one where I’ve completed all skills up to level five, and am now in a position to try and prove myself a Legend.

Racing through the no-hint ‘challenges’ required to gain Legendary status for the early skills, I can’t help but think it’s testing me more on my knowledge of Duolingo than my knowledge of Irish. Laziness has meant that, ever since I completed the Irish course, I’ve found myself “practising” skills I already knew back to front whenever my weekly XP dropped too low and I was on the verge of beeing yeeted out of the Diamond League. As a result, I have the sentences basically memorised, at least up to the first checkpoint and some way beyond it, and no longer need to really think about what the words actually mean, or how the grammar is constructed.

There’s certainly a value to the no-hint challenge; I probably overuse hints, not trusting my own memory or spelling even when I’m right, and the structure of these new Legendary lessons means they are harder than the ordinary lessons of the lower levels. But I breeze through them. One done, three done, five done, more. I’m a legend, apparently. I’ve gone from twentieth in my leaderboard to first in a day. I’m proving my linguistic skills with every correct answer.

And yet, when I go to the online Irish conversation evening I attend most weeks, my contribution is always the same. Dia duit. Tá tuirse orm, agus tú féin? Tá sé ag cur báisti i gCorcaigh. And then I lapse into silence, struggling to follow the thread of the conversation, let alone contribute to it. When I do try and speak, my clumsy sentences are peppered with English words and apologies.

My journey with Irish began four years ago, or seven years ago, or longer, depending on where you count from, and it hasn’t been limited to Duolingo — the Irish course in particular offers a woefully incomplete education in the principles of the language — but the app still symbolises the paradox of my failure to learn the language despite going through the motions. No longer a beginner, out of my depth in intermediate classes, and miles from the academic Irish I need to read the articles relevant to my field of study, I exist in a perpetual state of monolingual frustration, wondering how on earth it is people actually attain fluency in any language other than their mother tongue, since I seem completely incapable of it.

Four years ago: I spent the week at Oideas Gael in Co. Donegal, for their annual Language & Culture Summer School. Mornings were spent in the level one Irish class with the other beginners, acquiring an Ulster tinge to my Irish that has never entirely faded. Afternoons were spent set-dancing, the Irish instructions more or less incomprehensible to me and my partner, a classmate from level one. Some of them we figured out through logic and process of elimination (“the door says slí amach, so amach must mean ‘out’!”); others we replaced with our own terms (“swap the women!”), having given up on parsing the language being called out as we frantically copied the others in our set.

I left Donegal exhausted and headache-ridden, but with slightly more Irish than I had when I arrived. I intended to go back — last year, this year — but Covid and practicalities have so far interfered with those plans.

The most important vocab: “I would like a cup of tea, please. Thank you.”

Before that, seven years ago: an optimistic fresher with big ideas about how well I’d cope with the workload at Cambridge, I signed up for the extracurricular modern Irish classes being held in the department. I made it most of the way through the term, overwhelmed and exhausted and completely incapable of remembering anything I learned, before I acknowledged that it was never going to happen and dropped out.

Before that… what came before that? Teenage me discovering an early precursor of Duolingo, a website that promised to teach me Irish through flashcards. I learned dia duit and the names of some animals and little else; the one that stuck was féileacán, butterfly. I’m not sure why that word, more than or madra. It charmed me, I think, and in that moment I began to understand Irish as a living language, one that real people spoke, which wasn’t limited to fantasy novels and Clannad.

Before that: not much. The Clannad CD my uncle bought me. Learning Siúil a Rún by ear, with no idea what the words actually meant, the taste of the sounds in my mouth little more than nonsense syllables endlessly repeated.

Where did my Irish journey begin? Somewhere between the ages of 10 and 20. And then it went in circles, endlessly, never breaking out of the loop.

I’m being unfair to myself, of course. I know that I’ve improved from where I was seven years ago, or even where I was four years ago. But how much? Enough to justify the hours spent on Futurelearn, Duolingo, in online classes at UCC and Oideas Gael? Enough to make me believe I’ll ever be anything other than a monolingual Anglophone? Enough to read the articles my supervisor recommends without recourse to Google Translate, a dictionary, and several hours of crying? Enough to stop feeling like an outsider in my field, an impostor, incapable of catching up to those who grew up in Ireland and took Irish at school and never had to go through this painful, painstaking process as an adult?

There’s something intensely alienating about being an English person in Celtic Studies — about being any non-Irish person — and not having Irish, and not knowing how to get it, either.

I have five years of studying Old Irish under my belt, and two more years of independent research on the literature. And yet Modern Irish has never been part of my training, and now, as I move into looking more at early modern material, I feel keenly the lack of it. My inability to read scholarship written in Irish feels disrespectful, but I’ve yet to find out how on earth I’m meant to learn academic Irish. Classes for adults and international students focus on conversation, and the rhythms of dialogue are miles from the complicated passive constructions of academic articles. I have been taught how to give directions, but not what to do when a writer insists on putting their sub-clauses first. I’ve learned how to describe the furniture in my bedroom (when will I ever need this?!), but not the technical vocabulary for the collection of folklore and oral storytelling.

There’s a wall, and I’ve hit it: the endless purgatory of the advanced beginner, the lower intermediate learner, the medievalist with a solid understanding of the grammar who can’t string a sentence together. Classes where the genitive is considered too complicated go over my head in terms of finding the words to make myself understood, and I want to say, Old Irish has four and a half cases, I’m not afraid of the tuiseal ginideach, just teach me how to speak. I can read more than I can understand but my memory fails me when I come to write. My anxiety fills me with distrust in my own ability to remember a word and its usage, and so every sentence I speak is prefaced by apologies and followed by a hasty translation into English, in case I wasn’t understood.

I’m perpetually aware of my outsider status. English in Ireland. English and studying medieval Irish literature. English and explaining the Táin to Irish people, feeling like I’m sasanachsplaining, feeling like one of these days, somebody’s going to tell me I have no right to think I understand Cú Chulainn better than they do, when for four years my research has revolved around him. Self-conscious about my pronunciation at conferences and in videos, second-guessing every name. Unable to explain to supervisors and faculty exactly how bad my Modern Irish is, because they assume I’m being self-deprecating, used to Irish students who, despite their protests and claims that “the way it’s taught” means they’ve learned nothing, still have twelve years of study under their belt. Frustrated at how few resources there seem to be to reach the level I need, because the answer feels like I just asked for directions from an unhelpful uncle: “Well, if I wanted to get there, I wouldn’t have started here…”

Tá Gaeilge agam remains a lie, despite all my promises to myself and despite all my efforts otherwise. But my Duolingo account shows an Irish tree glowing gold and now, partially, a silvery blue-purple that tells me I’m a legend.

Yeah, right. A legend about an anxious Sasanach, verbose in English and silent in Irish, passionate about the Ulster Cycle and afraid to pronounce the Irish name of it. Rúraíocht. Google Translate struggles with that one. Rory? it offers hopefully, and I can’t even mock it, because it handles the sentences in this article I’m reading a lot better than I do, untangles the knots of their construction so that all that’s left for me is to repair the torn threads where a technical term slipped through its net.

What do you buy an Ulster Cycle nerd for Christmas? A framed print of a Cú Chulainn illustration and multiple versions of the Táin.

The real reason I don’t speak at Irish classes and conversation evenings is because I’m ashamed. Ashamed of my outsider’s tongue, ashamed of my failures to learn, ashamed that I seem to have no facility for languages at all. My sensory processing issues and poor memory team up to leave me bewildered and speechless whenever I’m put on the spot, unable to comprehend a word that’s said to me or, if I manage that, find the words to respond. For somebody who can make English dance to their tune and has been known to talk for six hours straight, this wordlessness is humiliating.

It will be good for your Irish, says my supervisor, when I tell him how hard I find reading articles in Irish. Wait, you can read Old Irish but Modern Irish is a struggle? ask incredulous internet friends, not realising that when it comes to Old Irish, nobody is trying to take my dictionary away from me, and nobody is asking me to shape my own thoughts into the language. Only to unravel others’, and that’s easier, because try as I might, my thoughts seem unshakeably English in their nature, and resist the process of dismantling required to remake them into something that makes sense in Irish.

I’m not monolingual by choice. But I seem incapable of being anything else.

And so I go back to Duolingo. Maybe this time, by the time I’ve got through the course, I’ll dare say more than I’m tired and it’s raining in Cork. Maybe I’ll start to trust my tongue not to fail me and my memory to give me the right words. Maybe I’ll stop freezing whenever anyone addresses me directly in conversation.

Maybe, but probably not.

Legendary, indeed.


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Introducing: The Blog Bodies

One of the things I’ve been struggling with about blogging, and the reason that it’s been so quiet around here lately, is the sense that I have nothing to say which hasn’t already been said by somebody else, probably more eloquently. I’m sure this kind of self-awareness is good for you, in small doses — it’s an important part of growing up to realise we’re really not that special, and that probably, nobody wants to hear the most mundane details of our lives — but in large doses it can be paralysing.

It’s also strange, because every time I try and tell somebody about this fear, that there’s nothing unique or interesting about me and therefore nobody will be interested in anything I have to say, they laugh and point out that I’m a complete weirdo. I’m doing an MA in Early and Medieval Irish. My closest friends are a bunch of huge nerds who live and breathe obscure medieval nonsense. I’ve had a number of unusual hobbies, I write novels, and on top of that I’m queer, trans, and disabled — which has to be good for something, right?

And, well, I’m not sure I live a particularly interesting life (particularly at the moment, when I do literally nothing, because there’s a pandemic), but it’s true that my interests are fairly niche, and that I know more about medieval Irish literature than your average person. And while I’m not about to start posting large chunks of my research on the internet, for a number of very good reasons, that’s something I can talk about where I do have something to say and a unique perspective.

I think I get caught up sometimes in the idea of being marketable, having a brand, trying to keep things tidy online. I write YA thrillers about assassins, so I can’t let my online spaces get too academic, because that doesn’t fit, etc. But by trying to keep all the parts of me distinct, I just end up silencing the biggest parts of who I am. I’m not here to market myself. I’m here to share thoughts and ideas and information that I think is cool. I’m here to be myself, and if me being myself is interesting to you, then I hope you’ll stick around to watch me do it. I’m pretty sure that’s more what you want from a blog you follow than me attempting to Have A Consistent Brand, after all.

And if I’m going to blog about the things I’m thinking about and the things that interest me…? That’s going to be medieval literature.

And yes, I know, you’re thinking, “Okay, how is this at all different from what you’re already doing?” Because it’s true. I already sometimes blog about academic topics, like my post about why we need queer theory in Celtic Studies, or the one that’s a thinly veiled excuse for me to throw my emotions about Láeg mac Riangabra and Horatio at you.

The difference is that I want to talk about being a medievalist, not just about the material itself. I want to talk about how I ended up studying weird stuff that I have to explain every time I tell someone my degree title, and some of the challenges that entails, which might not occur to people who’ve never encountered it. It’s the kind of thing I’ve shied away from talking about too much on here, and I’m not entirely sure why. Because it feels like an interview? Because there’s something self-centred in assuming anyone would be interested in why I picked my degree subject? Except that people are interested; it’s usually the first thing they ask when they hear what I’m studying. So why not talk about it? Why not lean into the one thing that’s genuinely unusual about me?

I also want to start talking more about my reactions to medieval-inspired media — retellings and adaptations, for example — from the point of view of a medievalist. Although I drifted away from doing general book reviews a while ago, I’d like to start seeking out some medieval retellings to review and discuss. I’ve got a couple on my list to start with, but I’m taking suggestions for more, especially new releases. I don’t want to do this from a nit-picky “here’s what they got wrong” perspective, though; it’s easy to drift into that, but rarely much fun for those on the outside. I want it to be a more positive, “here’s where this comes from!” kind of approach.

But the biggest difference is that I don’t want this to be only my perspectives on things. Like I said: my closest friends are big nerds. They have stuff to say, and are willing to say it, and I’d love to share this space with them. So while this will remain my personal blog, where I post my extended thoughts about my experiences and interests, I’m also going to be varying things a little bit more. Bringing in some guest posters, some discussion posts and collaborations, that kind of thing.

I realise this is the kind of thing that people start podcasts about. Discussion about medieval-inspired media from the point of view of medievalists? There are probably a bunch of podcasts on that exact topic. There are even probably a bunch about how people ended up in their niche area of study. However, I am allergic to podcasts, which is to say that my ears and my brain are not friends and I would always 100% choose to read a transcript instead, so we won’t be doing that.

Nope, we’re doing this the old fashioned way. On the blog. Like it’s 2010 again. It’s like if a podcast had a transcript but then there was also no audio and you could read it on your phone while listening to music or something. Feels like a radical innovation these days, but I think there’s room in the internet ecosystem for the old way of doing things.

And we — me and the Blog Bodies, as the team is currently nicknamed* — hope you’ll join us. (And yes. We probably will end up talking about The Green Knight, when the long-awaited summer of Dev Patel finally arrives.)

But don’t worry, the ‘usual’ posts (if such a term can be applied when I write them once in a blue moon) will still be here too. Hopefully I’ll have some writing news to share with youse before long, and I still maintain hope that I’ll get back to dance eventually and will have things to say about that too. This is an addition to the blog roster, not a replacement.

It should be fun. We’ll see how it goes. And don’t forget to drop some medieval retelling/adaptation recs in the comments if there’s anything you think I’d enjoy.


*This is of course a reference to bog bodies, aka bodies preserved in peat bogs, chosen because I think all of us secretly dream of becoming a bog body one day. As a friend put it: “It’s time. Peat me up, boys.”

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One Semester, Mastered

This week marked the end of my first semester at UCC studying the MA in Early and Medieval Irish. On the one hand, it feels bizarre that I’ve already been living here in Cork for more than three months. On the other hand, the semester occasionally felt endless, and by the end of it I was very ready for a break…

Of course, inevitably I don’t now have a month to do absolutely nothing — I’ve two assignments due on the eighth of January, an article deadline of the eighteenth, translation to do for my thesis, and a number of personal projects I want to get done. But there’s still a certain freedom that comes from no longer having classes, and knowing that I made it this far, including surviving three in-class tests (one of which is continuing to haunt me with the knowledge of mistakes I probably made).

Returning to academia after two years has been an odd experience — no stranger than I imagined, but still, there’s been a lot of flailing around as I try and figure out what the expectations are and how to meet them. Part of this is that UCC is a wildly different institution to Cambridge, and so how I’d approach things at Cambridge doesn’t necessarily carry over to how they’re done here. (Going from an 8-week term to a 12-week one was rough in itself!) And of course, there’s the fact that I’ve moved to a new country and am living alone during a pandemic that’s seriously curtailing the amount of in-person socialising that’s happening.

But I was expecting that, and honestly, I’ve been lucky — the tiny class sizes on my course have meant we’ve been able to continue with face-to-face teaching for the majority of modules. Without that, I think I’d have struggled a lot more. It’s given me a chance to meet most of my fellow MA students and get to know them on a level that would have been a lot more difficult via online classes, but also, at the most basic level, it’s given me a reason to leave the house and an opportunity to speak to other humans, which I might not otherwise have had.

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Even if some of the rooms on campus are so cold I started bringing a blanket to class.

Still, it’s been a strange semester. At times it felt weirdly easy — without the weekly essays that haunted my undergraduate years, the workload felt a lot more manageable, and without in-person societies, I had a lot more time to myself. That’s probably why I wrote two novels this semester, a first draft of one and a second draft of another, although I’ll admit that was also a desperate attempt to keep reality — and therefore anxiety — at bay. As we accelerated towards the end of term, though, my decision to spend November and early December writing frantically caught up with me, with three assessments and two assignments looming. Turns out that’s the disadvantage (?) of not being constantly stressed throughout the semester: it takes you by surprise when it does come.

I still think I benefited from not feeling like I was constantly drowning, though. Don’t get me wrong: I learned a huge amount in Cambridge, and there are some advantages to the supervision system. But with my health, the non-stop pace of it and the impossibility of taking a few days off here and there to recover always ended up screwing me over.

There are also some things that the Cambridge system didn’t prepare me for, on a more subject-specific level. Yes, we translated a lot of texts in language classes, so to have gone from covering five different texts in the course of a year to spending all semester on two pages of one story felt like a shock. But when it comes to doing things in depth, and specifically, doing grammar in depth… oof.

See, I never really got the hang of Old Irish grammar. The textbooks seemed to be written with the assumption that we’d have done Latin or some other language with a case system; that we’d understand what a preterite was and what a predicate was and why they weren’t the same thing; that we’d know why it mattered for a word to be an o-stem or a u-stem, etc etc. It never clicked. It wasn’t until last year that I found out what those stems even mean and why it was relevant (while studying Modern Irish, and encountering declensions).

But that was okay, because the way our course was structured meant that language and literature exams were combined, and my literature essays were usually good enough to make up for the fact that I don’t really understand verbs and have never memorised a paradigm in my life.

Pain and suffering, in the form of revision for my Old Irish exam.

And even if I had understood it, or learned it in enough depth… well, that’s the kind of thing we’d have done in first year. Which was now six years ago. Not to mention the fact that my mental and physical health were such a disaster — undiagnosed autoimmune conditions will do that to you — that most of 2015 is a blank in my memory, so frankly, if I ever got the hang of the subjunctive, I’d have lost it a long time ago. That’s a fun thing to realise — that you literally have to relearn things from the ground up because it’s not just ordinary forgetfulness that’s done for them, but the result of ongoing brain fog and the effect that has on your brain. Plus, you know, I couldn’t actually read during undergrad: me and my orange glasses are trying to make up for lost time now that I’ve been given the gift of reading slowly.

And the way UCC approaches Quin’s Old Irish Workbook is to nail those grammatical concepts in a lot more depth — and while it’s useful and important and will probably solidify my skills a lot, I’ve sometimes felt I’m scrambling to catch up. Because while I can just about keep on top of the new concepts we’re encountering, anything that was in the first half of the textbook (here covered in beginner’s Old Irish, and in Cambridge, covered more rapidly in the first term of first year) is still, largely, a mystery to me. Thus when the textbook triumphantly proclaims that the long-e future uses the subjunctive endings and so we don’t have to learn new endings, I can only stare at it dismally and wonder if there’s some kind of magic spell I can do that will transform me into the kind of person capable of memorising paradigms.

And I’m trying. In particular, I’m trying not to say that I can’t do grammar. Just that I haven’t yet found a method of learning it that actually works for me. Which, okay, you’d think after six years that if there was one I would have figured it out, but I’m attempting positivity here, go with it.

So yes, I have probably spent a fair amount of this semester staring in despair at my too-pristine copy of Strachan’s Paradigms and sensing that probably, after this many years, it should look somewhat tattier (don’t worry, I’ve managed to mess up the cover a fair bit by now). It’s probably had more use in the past month than it did in the entire four years of my undergrad studies, because it turns out, when you don’t race through the material at a breakneck pace in order to cover as much as possible as quickly as possible… you actually have to learn it properly.

Funny, that.

But, for all it’s shown up what I don’t know, my first semester here has also given me the opportunity to use what I do know — I gave two lectures for an undergrad module about gender in medieval Irish texts, introducing them to gender and queer theory and talking about Cú Chulainn’s unconventional masculinity in the Táin, which is the kind of thing I can talk about until the cows come home. I’m miles ahead with my thesis — and only my thesis, but it’s still a win — as a result of having spent about a year and a half thinking about it before I even got here, and my supervisor keeps warning me that if I’m not careful it’ll turn into a PhD thesis in terms of length/scope, which… yeah. Is anyone surprised?

Plus I’ve had the chance to tackle palaeography, which was completely new to me and which I regretted not having taken it in undergrad. My experiences of rare books as a librarian were handy, but for the most part it was all new info, and in the space of one semester, insular minuscule has gone from an impenetrable code to something I can pretty much read (slowly) (with help from lists of abbreviations). There’s something very satisfying about sharing my screen with my parents on Zoom so I can show them the manuscript I’m working with and explaining the letters to them, like I’ve cracked some kind of cipher.

A glimpse of RIA D.IV.2, the focus of my palaeography assignment

And I guess, most importantly, I’ve survived. Living completely alone (no housemates) for the first time, in a city I’d barely visited, in another country, during a pandemic, when my mental health was rocky to start with — it’s a lot. And there’ve been some darker moments. But for the most part, I’ve been doing a hell of a lot better here than I was earlier this summer when I retreated to my bed in Cambridge and spent weeks as a depression slug. Having a focus has helped. Making new friends has helped. Learning new things has helped. Teaching others has helped.

I miss dance (my tiny one-bed isn’t vastly suited to it). I miss seeing my family and friends back in England. I’m not going home for Christmas because it doesn’t feel safe, and that’s going to be pretty tough, too. But it’s been a much better semester than I feared, and a much more normal one, too, for which I’m very grateful.

So here’s to surviving, and to a few more days of procrastination before I actually sit down and do those assignments — because if one thing hasn’t changed, it’s my approach to deadlines.

The Case for Queer Theory in Celtic Studies

Most of you have heard enough about my research interests to last a lifetime, but for those who may have stumbled on my blog for the first time, one of my primary areas of academic interest is queer readings of medieval Irish literature. In particular, I look at the Ulster Cycle, and I’m fascinated by the character of Cú Chulainn and the various ways in which he performs heroic masculinity, or fails to do so.

This makes me fairly popular in some circles – particularly on Tumblr, where I regularly have people asking when and where they can read my research – but this positivity isn’t universal, and although explicit hostility towards the subject is rare, I still feel the need to defend the legitimacy of this area of study. I’m apologetic about it, careful to couch everything in the most ambiguous of terms and to keep terminology specific to queer theory to an absolute minimum. I was even told not to use the word ‘queer’ in my undergraduate dissertation title – instead, it was about ‘ambiguities of gender and sexuality’.

It’s not just queer theory. Celtic Studies isn’t exactly known for its cutting-edge literary theory in general. Kind of the opposite. There are a bunch of reasons for that, not least because our ratio of scholars to texts compared to, say, Old English literature is completely absurd. This has its drawbacks – it can be hard to know which journals will be willing to publish anything too new-fangled and theory-heavy, for example. Still, queer theory is what I do, so it’s what I know the most about — and I’ve often found myself turning to other disciplines for comparative material I can pillage and bring back with me, because there isn’t nearly enough of it within our own field.

Sometimes, I read queer approaches to Arthurian literature or similar and marvel at the complexity, and how deep it’s able to go, because it feels like I can only skate over the surface, tentatively suggesting that maybe we should allow for the possibility of atypical constructions of gender within a text. Like I’m stuck at 101 level and other medieval disciplines are at 401 and I don’t dare to advance any further until I’ve proved I’m allowed to be here in the first place.[1]

Of course, it’s not wholly negative. It creates a space for younger scholars to take new approaches, knowing that it hasn’t all been said before, and it would be wrong to suggest that nobody in the field is using theoretical approaches. There are a number of scholars who work from a more theory-heavy angle, and queer theory isn’t unheard of – Sarah Sheehan’s 2005 article, ‘Fer Diad de-flowered: homoerotics and masculinity in Comrac Fir Diad’, explores queer readings of the relationship between Cú Chulainn and Fer Diad and is hardly recent, even by medievalist standards. I might be the first within academic circles[2] to argue for a transmasculine reading of Cú Chulainn, but I’m not entirely breaking new ground here, and it would be arrogant to suggest that I am.

Still, the theoretical approach is a minority one. In my experience, it’s entirely possible to study medieval Irish literature without ever being exposed to concepts of literary theory. We explore a lot of angles – but they’re linguistic, historical, mythological angles. Not theoretical frameworks.

I wonder if this is different for those studying Celtic material within an English or Comparative Literature department – and I’m willing to acknowledge, too, that it may also have been a Cambridge quirk, and not universal. But for me, when I brought ideas of narrative foils and literary doubles into my undergrad essays, I was drawing on concepts I learned in A-Level English Literature, and I never moved on from that until I decided of my own accord to go down a queer theory rabbithole. Now, as I embark on postgrad studies, I’m trying to fill some of the huge gaps in my understanding of theory, but that’s because it interests me – because at heart I’m interested in this material as literature (not necessarily mythology, history, or interesting expressions of language). Nobody else is going to make me do it, because it’s not seen as particularly necessary.

I suspect it’s the absence of these broader theoretical approaches in the field that means the possibility of queer readings can often be dismissed out of hand. The most recent and relevant example of this that comes to mind is Tom O’Donnell’s book Fosterage in Medieval Ireland, where he discusses the relationship between Cú Chulainn and Fer Diad and claims that it has been ‘misconstrued as homosexual’ due to a lack of understanding of the emotional richness of fosterage on the part of modern readers.[3]

I’m perfectly willing to accept that their relationship can be read as a normative relationship between foster brothers, and I appreciate that O’Donnell’s purpose in this chapter is to emphasise the bonds of affection within medieval Irish fosterage. However, I don’t accept that this rules out the possibility of a queer reading, and I think implying that a queer reading negates or contradicts a normative interpretation shows a fundamental misunderstanding of what a queer reading is.

Queer theory draws on a post-structuralist approach, which tells us that we can have multiple, even contradictory readings of texts, because there is no single true reading. These readings can exist simultaneously. In our case, we’re working with anonymous material that may have developed over hundreds of years through the oral tradition before reaching anything like its surviving form, so we can make no claims about authorial intent – of course we can’t. But we can look for different ways that we, as modern readers, can interpret and understand material, and no eleventh-century monk is going to take to Twitter to tell us that we’ve misread his intentions. Death of the author has never been so literal.

There’s this pervasive idea that a queer reading is in some way anachronistic, but a queer reading is not an attempt to impose modern identities on premodern characters. For a start, queer identities and behaviours have always existed; both gender and sexuality are culturally defined and therefore change over time. Relationships and expressions of identity that are normative now might be viewed as subversive or queer at various points in history, and vice versa – behaviours we might identify as ‘queer’ may have been normative within specific social structures (see, for example, Ancient Greek pederasty).

We’re in danger of assuming our modern understanding of normativity is the one that applies to these texts, but even in the rigid, hierarchical, Christian world of medieval Ireland, our modern western idea of the gender binary fails to fully encompass the concepts expressed in the texts and the laws.[4] And since ‘heterosexual’ is as much a modern concept as ‘homosexual’ why do we think it’s somehow neutral or historically accurate to position this as the norm?

What a queer reading does is disrupt the assumptions on which our conventional understandings of a text are based. How many more possibilities are opened up when we stop assuming that everybody in a text is heterosexual and cisgender? How much more carefully do we look at characters, power structures, conflicts and oppositions, if we stop making assumptions about gender and sexuality? A queer reading reminds us that there are always other ways of understanding relationships. It reminds us to examine how gender is constructed uniquely within a specific narrative, and to explore how this affects our understandings of other power dynamics.

In other words, a queer reading is a way of thinking outside the box when we analyse a text, creating alternative understandings that may contradict, inform, or problematise the mainstream interpretations.

Cú Chulainn and Fer Diad’s relationship is a great illustration of this multiplicity of possible interpretations, because I’d argue that the fosterage argument and the queer reading are in no way contradictory. Firstly, because a relationship that was normative to a contemporary audience may still hold queer resonances for modern readers. Secondly, because even within its historical context, a structure doesn’t have to be inherently queer in all its iterations to create space for queer identities and behaviours to exist. It would be absurd to suggest that historically, all brothers-in-arms were ‘kinda gay for each other, actually’ – but that doesn’t mean there weren’t those who found this brotherhood a space in which they could express themselves within a normative structure that rendered it acceptable.

We see elsewhere how institutions formed around homosocial bonds can facilitate queerness. In the medieval church, we find the rite of spiritual brotherhood (or ‘adelphopoiesis’ – brother-making), intended as a spiritual bond between two men and invoking aspects of marriage rites. This rite wasn’t intended as a romantic or sexual one, and historians have often argued with attempts to compare it to modern queer relationships. But in the 13th century, Athanasius I condemned it because it “brings about coitus and depravity.”[5] This structure, then, was creating a space for queer behaviours. The institution was not itself inherently queer, but for those looking for ways to express their unswerving commitment to their close companion and repudiate the possibility of heterosexual marriage… well, it clearly looked appealing.

Thus a type of relationship doesn’t have to be inherently or universally queer to create space for queer behaviours and readings to exist. We can simultaneously read Cú Chulainn and Fer Diad’s relationship as a societally normative bond between foster brothers, and acknowledge a queer reading, without either necessitating opposition to the other.

And yet I’m still nervous about doing so. Still afraid that expressing my interest in and enthusiasm for queer readings will mean more advanced scholars look down on me, or that I’ll be dismissed as not really understanding the historical context of material. When I stand up at a conference and say I’m talking about transmasculine readings of Cú Chulainn, as I did a couple of weeks ago, I couch it in caveats and disclaimers. Emphasise that ‘all’ I’m suggesting is an unconventionally expressed masculinity which may resonate with modern transmasculine experiences, and that this reminds us not to automatically categorise Cú Chulainn as a ‘hypermasculine’ figure simply because he’s a hyper-martial figure.

I was grateful that on this occasion the response to my paper was so positive – people responded far better to it than I feared, and I had a bunch of really interesting questions. But that doesn’t mean I wasn’t nervous, before and during it, because I had absolutely no idea how it was going to go down. And I still hesitate, when meeting someone new within the field – especially a more senior academic – to talk to much about that side of my research.

I hope one day I’ll be able to be unapologetic about it. Because it’s not anachronistic, to suggest that we as modern readers might interpret texts in ways which resonate with modern queer identities and experiences. Nor to point out the ways that gender is constructed, and how characters succeed or fail at performing that. Nor is it ahistorical to look beyond the normative explanation of relationships and explore alternative understandings.

Queer theory and queer readings belong in Celtic Studies. We make no claims to have the only truth or the only valid interpretation. We accept contradiction and alternatives and arguments which problematise our own. But we’re sticking around, because our readings have value, too.

Or at least, I am. You couldn’t be rid of me if you tried.


[1] I can’t imagine a Celtic Studies journal publishing something like Blake Gutt’s “Transgender genealogy in Tristan de Nanteuil”, for example, nor half of what I’ve read by Jeffrey Jerome Cohen.

[2] I say ‘in academic circles’ because it’s actually quite a popular reading among young people on the internet, most of whom aren’t studying the material formally.

[3] O’Donnell, Fosterage in Medieval Ireland (2020), p.95. This is in no way intended to call Tom O’Donnell out specifically – I have a lot of respect for him, and his pop culture-heavy blog posts about medieval Irish lit have been an inspiration to me in thinking about public-facing academia. But I have to admit this statement made me grumpy when I read it.

[4] When we look at material from outside the western/Christian world, we have to be even more wary about imposing colonialist ideas about binary gender – this is not, and has never been, a universal truth.

[5] See https://time.com/5896685/queer-monks-medieval-history/ for more on this.


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Making Peace With The Unfinished

So I don’t know if you’ve noticed, but I kind of suck at blogging these days.

I’m not going to apologise for that, because frankly I’ve made excuses for it enough times that you all knew what you were getting into when you subscribed anyway, but I am going to say that radio silence for five months was not actually my plan for this blog. My seemingly productive lockdown gave way to, uh, clinical depression, so that wiped out most of the summer. Then I moved house twice in a month and now I live in Ireland. Surprise!

I guess that’s my biggest piece of news — I’m now doing an MA in Early and Medieval Irish at University College Cork, which some of you may have seen on Instagram or Tumblr or other places where I post things about my life. Being back in academia has actually so far been a super positive thing for my brain, and I feel like I’m buzzing with ideas in a way I haven’t been for a while. It’s just, most of those ideas are about medieval Irish lit, or queer theory. Which kind of brings me onto the topic of why I’m actually writing this post. See, I feel like the main reason I don’t blog is because I have absolutely no idea what I’m trying to achieve with this blog. What and who is it for? Who am I trying to be?

I know I ask this question a lot. I’ve yet to find an answer. These days, it mainly takes the form of wondering whether I’m trying to present myself online as a writer or as an academic — my Twitter oscillates wildly between the two. When it comes to writing, there’s not a huge amount to blog about. “Still plugging away!” I could say, on a weekly or monthly basis. “Hoping it’ll go somewhere eventually!”

Oh, I’m always working on new things, but a lot of the time I don’t want to talk about those until I know that might exist beyond the confines of my hard-drive. In recent months, insofar I’ve been working on anything at all (I had a few fallow patches…), a lot of it’s been mainly for my own curiosity — sequels and follow-ups to other WIPs in an attempt to help develop the worldbuilding. They’re hard to talk about without knowing whether the first book will go anywhere, because who knows if they’ll ever see the light of day?

And when it comes to the academic side of things…

Well. I’m niche. I know that. Medieval Irish literature is nobody’s idea of mainstream, and even within my own field of study I’m a bit of an oddity, since I tend to be heavy on the literary theory side of things (especially queer theory and related topics), which isn’t typical in Celtic Studies. Ironically, this seems to be the aspect that makes what I do most appealing to a general audience — unlike, for example, the detailed linguistic analysis or complex manuscript editing that often seems to dominate the field in academic circles.

But it’s still niche and nerdy and a bit of an oddity, so whenever I start talking too much about my academic ideas on the internet, I get worried I’m alienating the people who followed me for writing stuff. This happens a lot on Twitter, I think — people follow me for one thing or the other, but the overlap in that Venn diagram is fairly small, and a lot of people’s eyes must glaze over when I start banging on about medieval Irish lit again. At least my writing tweets (especially the struggles of editing, and procrastination) can appeal to an academic audience.

Despite that, sometimes recently I’ve thought I wanted to use my blog to share some of my ideas as a medievalist. Like, earlier I was working on a lecture I might be giving later in the semester, because I happened to be in the right headspace to start drafting it. Trouble is, I don’t actually know for sure yet whether I’m going to be giving it, but as I remarked to a friend, it wasn’t wasted work — I could always chop it up into a couple of blog posts and share those, with minor adaptations, if I didn’t get to give the lecture.

But would I actually do that? Would I dare? Because that’s the thing — it can be nerve-wracking putting my academic ideas out into the world, and connecting them to my real name, before they’ve gone anywhere in academia. If I want to turn something into an article and seek publication for it, do I dare blog about it first? They’re radically different mediums, and the approach I’d take wouldn’t be the same, but if I’m trying to present an idea as innovative, do I risk undermining myself if I’ve already posted about it on the internet?

Probably not. But I still worry about it — and beyond that, I worry about getting things wrong, and having future supervisors judge me for it. Or peers. Or total strangers who know nothing about me beyond what I posted on my blog one time, but have opinions on that and are determined to make sure I know what those opinions are. Even though getting things wrong is pretty much unavoidable at some stage in your academic career, and being able to develop beyond your initial ideas is important, and I’m sure most academics have early work they wouldn’t stand by anymore.

(Plus, like, I don’t even know if I’m going to go further than the MA. Who am I trying to impress, at this point? I’m already here, and this may well be the end of it. But it’s hard to be sure on that. There was a time when I was almost certain I would never do a PhD, but at that point I also thought I wouldn’t do postgrad study at all, and here we are…)

The upshot of all of this is that I end up not blogging at all. Too nervous to talk about the academic stuff, not enough to say about the writing stuff, and working on reining in the whole ‘oversharing about my personal life’ thing I’ve definitely been guilty of in the past.

And look. I said I wasn’t going to apologise. “I will not sit down and write a blog post that is just excuses for why I haven’t blogged in five months,” I told myself. But I did, didn’t I? Maybe there weren’t any apologies in there, but this is essentially a laundry list of Reasons I Have Not Blogged. I wonder what proportion of posts on this blog are just explanations for my absence? I suspect it would be embarrassingly high.

What I actually wanted to say is: this is the last time I’m going to write a post like this. For a while, anyway. Because I think I’m going to start letting myself have opinions again, even though that always scares me. I’m going to let myself share some of my early, exploratory academic thoughts. Maybe I will turn bits of that lecture into blog posts, and share those.

Why the change? I think it’s because I was asked to give that lecture (which would be for second-year undergrads, if it happens). At first I was terrified and crushed by impostor syndrome at the mere concept of doing any teaching at this stage in my academic career. I immediately went to the library to borrow a bunch of books and brush up, because I was convinced I didn’t know enough. But you know, the more I read, the more I realised I did know. And that I did have opinions and that I did want to share them. That, plus the willingness of the lecturer who asked me to admit the gaps in her own knowledge and defer to my specific experience, made a huge difference to my sense of being an impostor. Because actually, I do have knowledge that not everybody has, and maybe I am ready to share some of that.

It’s funny how the more I thought about teaching, the more interested I was in coming up with new ideas, because the idea of being able to share them made it feel like they had a point, and weren’t just me playing around with thought experiments inside my own head. I’ve always thought academia wasn’t for me because teaching wasn’t for me. But now that I think of all the informal pedagogy I end up doing on Tumblr and on YouTube, I’m wondering why on earth it didn’t occur to me sooner that I might actually enjoy that kind of thing.

So yeah, part of it’s that my impostor syndrome is no longer as crushing as it was a month ago (in fact, I’ve been amazed at how much more comfortable I feel in academic circles since starting my MA than I thought I would, which I might talk about more in future). But more than that, it’s because I’m trying to learn to admit when I get things wrong, and to be comfortable with imperfection, and not to be afraid to share things before they’re finished because the truth is, nothing is ever finished, and if you always wait for something to be Final And Never To Be Altered, you won’t end up sharing anything, ever.

I want to make peace with mistakes, with early thoughts, with ideas still in development, with the process of learning. I want to be able to look back at past work and feel only pride in how far I’ve come / how much better I’ve got, rather than shame that I wasn’t already there. I want to learn how to share complicated thoughts in accessible language, and not just in academic jargon. I want to share my ideas! For the same reason I make my YouTube videos — I don’t think access to ideas about or knowledge of medieval Irish literature should be limited to the tiny handful of people who end up studying it at an advanced level in formal academia.

So if you see some more academic blog posts popping up over the next few months, that’s why. But don’t worry, I’ll still be talking about writing, too. And dance, as and when lockdown lifts enough to mean I can actually do any dance. And what I’ve learned from moving to Ireland and how I’m finding postgrad life and thoughts on any really good books I’ve read recently.

And sometimes I’ll be wrong about stuff. But that’s okay. It’s a blog, after all. About time I started using it as one.