Tor Books recently re-released Juilene Osborne-McKnight’s well-regarded 2006 novel, Song of Ireland, in trade paperback. I missed this book the first time around, but had heard good things and was excited when a review copy landed in my mailbox. Song of Ireland did not disappoint.
This book is hard to categorize. On one level, this is a work of historical fiction telling the story of how the Celts settled in Ireland somewhere around 700-500 BCE. The historical record of this event is pretty sparse, however, so Osborne-McKnight draws most of her inspiration from the Irish Mythological Cycle, which makes the book a modern retelling of an old legend. She takes considerable liberties with the story, though, which makes the book something of a traditional fantasy. And there are also hints of science fiction to further muddy the waters of genre-classification.
The protagonist of the story is the legendary Amergin the Bard of Celtic mythology. Amergin is the son of Mil Espain, a Galician (Spanish Celt) general who had led his clan, the Milesians, throughout the Mediterranean in search of the fabled isle of Inisfail, the Galician promised land. The Milesians are plaid-clad barbarians who have lived amongst the highly-cultured Greeks, Romans, Phoenicians and Egyptians; they are equal parts savage and sophisticated.
Given the book’s title, it is not much of a spoiler to reveal that Inisfail is Ireland. The first third of the book describes the clan’s wanderings and related hardships. During this period, Amergin grows from a strange boy to the clan’s bard, a poet and spiritual leader whose wisdom gives him authority over his more militarily-inclined older brothers.
According to Celtic mythology, the Milesians vied with the supernatural Danu (more commonly referred to as the Tuatha de Danaan) for control of the island. Osborne-McKnight tells the second part of the book from the Danu’s perspective. This part is challenging reading for a couple of reasons. For one, three mythical triads feature prominently in the source material, which makes for a lot of names and some difficulty keeping people straight. This is compounded by the inclusion of much of the mythic history of the Danu, with many more names not directly relevant to the main narrative. Someone unfamiliar with Celtic mythology will spend a lot of time flipping to the helpful glossary and dramatis personae included in the beginning.
Although the mythology underscoring the novel can be confusing, Osborne-McKnight compounds the difficulty by incorporating a narrative device in which characters are able to view historical events and even speak with long-dead ancestors. It is thus not always clear whether something is happening in the narrative past or present. By the end of the section, though, persistent readers will find that everything falls into place and becomes clear.
The third part of the novel centers on the interactions between the Milesians and the Danu. A number of these events come directly from mythology, but Osborn-McKnight puts her own spin on the source material. There is plenty of room for surprises for those well-versed in Celtic folklore. Indeed, the novel is full of feints, where a seemingly-predictable storyline or character veers off into an unexpected direction.
Juilene Osborne-McKnight knows her source material well, but never lets it get in the way of the story. Complex and unpredictable, Song of Ireland offers a satisfying blend of history, myth and solid storytelling.