Tag: academia

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.