Texting the Underworld
A fantasy for ages 10 and older
Penguin/Dial Books for Young Readers
In stores August 2013
Conor O’Neill always thought spiders—and his little sister, Glennie—were the worst kind of monsters life had in store. That was before an inexperienced young banshee named Ashling showed up in his bedroom.
The arrival of a banshee, as Conor soon learns, means only one thing: Someone in his family is going to die. Not only will Ashling not tell him who it is, it turns out that she’s so fascinated by the world above that she insists on going to middle school with him.
The more Ashling gets involved in his life, the harder it becomes to keep her identity a secret from his friends and teachers—and the more Conor worries about his family. If he wants to keep them safe, he’s going to have to do the scariest thing he’s ever done: Pay a visit to the underworld.
If only there were an app for that.
Trivial Pursuit: Celtic Edition
By Ellen Booraem
A reconstructed crannog at the National Museum of Ireland. The photo is from a blog post by archaeologist John Bedell, which also shows a real crannog being unearthed by archaeologists. http://benedante.blogspot.com/2012/11/drumclay-crannog.html
Conor ends up trying to prevent the death, but in the meantime he goes to school as usual, leaving Ashling to twiddle her thumbs in his room. She discovers a set of old Trivial Pursuit cards in the closet, and finds out about the modern world from them. (For example, she learns that Vidal Sassoon was the official hairdresser of the 1984 Olympics.)
After two days of this, she’s bored to death (so to speak) and sets off for Conor’s school, where she tries to pass herself off as his cousin. She figures her Trivial Pursuit knowledge will help her fit in. It doesn’t.
For this post, I figured I’d switch things around and offer some trivia about Ashling’s life in fifth-century Ireland. She lived in the northern province of Uladh, called Ulster in English, before she was killed by cattle raiders and sent to the Underworld to serve the Lady who rules there.
Question: What was a crannog?
Answer: In Ireland and Scotland, a man-made island home-site in the middle of a lake or bog.
Details: Ancient Irish tribes tended to jostle for territory, and quite often raided each other for cattle and slaves. A family who wanted to be especially safe sited its home and outbuildings on a crannog. The house would be round, made of mud daubed on a woven wood frame, with a thatched roof. The whole family most likely would live in that one house, including slaves and foster children. (It was common to send a child to be brought up by another family, a custom that strengthened ties within the community and helped young people learn a trade.)
I think Ashling lived on a crannog—not that it did her much good in the end. She met her death as her family drove their cattle home from a festival in Armagh, the king’s seat for the Ui Neill, her people. Dal Fiatach raiders killed Ashling and her brother, took the cattle, and enslaved the rest of the family.
Question: When was a fifth-century Irish girl old enough to get married?
Answer: When she was 14.
Details: According to the law of the land (called Brehon Law), a girl could chose her own husband, but as a practical matter her father probably called the shots, as he did for her brother. If she’d lived long enough to be a bride, Ashling would have kept her own property after marriage. She could divorce her husband pretty much at will (the long list of legal justifications included lying and getting too fat!), and in that case would emerge from the marriage with her wealth intact. Anything the couple acquired together (cattle, for example) was divided according to the amount of work each did in the household. (Wouldn’t you love to hear that argument?)
In general, women had a lot of rights and privileges. There’s evidence that they served in society’s most powerful positions: as druids, poets (an important position), brehons (legal judges), and even warriors. Ashling’s mother taught her to fight with a sword; she also was exceptionally good at tending cattle, a family’s primary measure of wealth.
Question: What was Brehon Law?
Answer: The legal system that governed the Irish until the laws of the conquering British finally took over in the 1600s.
Details: Brehon Law was very, very cool. It wasn’t written down until the seventh century—before then, the brehons were responsible for remembering it all. The criminal law was based on compensation: If you did something bad, you either paid a fine or reimbursed the person you’d harmed. Settlements were agreed between the parties with the brehon’s guidance. The laws applied to everybody, from laborer to king.
Question: What was a leine?
Answer: A tunic made of linen.
Details: No clothing survives from the fifth century, but based on stories and stone carvings it seems both men and women wore the leine (pronounced lay-in-ah). Ashling’s would have been ankle-length (the men’s shorter), although she might have worn a belt and hiked it up short if she was doing chores or tending her cattle. The leine was made of linen, usually white or unbleached (linen doesn’t take dye very well), with or without sleeves. It might have been embroidered around the neck, hem, or cuffs. The Irish indulged their love for color in the brat, a wool cloak worn over the leine, fastened with a brooch at the neck or shoulder and possibly with a decorative border.
Question: What is the Cattle Raid of Cooley?
Answer: An epic oral tale about a first-century queen who goes to war over a white bull.
Details: My favorite glimpse of ancient Irish womanhood is Queen Medb (pronounced “Maeve,” as far as I can tell) of Connaught. In bed one night, she and her consort, Ailill, get into an argument about which of them is richer. They wake everybody up and start trotting out all their possessions to compare. Discovering that Ailill is richer by one exceptional white bull, Medb sends to Ulster to borrow their exceptional brown bull. Upon Ulster’s refusal, she goes to war.
She eventually loses, although there’s some suspicion that the ending might have been manipulated by the Christian monks who transcribed the tale. Monks didn’t always approve of uppity women.
They certainly wouldn’t have approved of Ashling.
Thanks for hosting me on The Mod Podge Bookshelf, Gabrielle!
Ellen Booraem’s TEXTING THE UNDERWORLD, a middle-grade fantasy about a scaredy-cat South Boston boy and a determined young banshee, hits bookstores in August (Penguin/Dial Books for Young Readers). Her earlier middle-grade fantasies are SMALL PERSONS WITH WINGS (Penguin/DBYR, 2011) and THE UNNAMEABLES (Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 2008). A former weekly newspaper editor and reporter, she lives in coastal Maine with an artist and a cat, one of whom is a practicing curmudgeon. She's online at ellenbooraem.com, and also blogs at enchantedinkpot.com and scene13ers.wordpress.com.