You don’t need to be familiar with the mystical history of Ireland to enjoy S.C. McGrath’s fairytale novel To the Waters and the Wild (Seanachie Press). You don’t need a glossary for the Gaelic place-names or curiously spelled nouns, although there is one on McGrath’s website. You only need the willingness to immerse yourself in the wondrous world of Ireland in the first century AD, when people believed in fierce gods and warriors, battles to the death, other-worldly love, and beautiful priestesses who wrap themselves in magical cloaks.
Enmeshed in their own tribal skirmishes and jealousies, the people of Eire (the Gaelic name for Ireland) are busy dealing with their own lives: the men honing their equestrian skills and practicing swordsmanship, the women keeping the home fires burning and their men fed and strong for battle. For guidance – and emotional and spiritual sustenance – they turn to the Dadga priestesses whom they simultaneously fear, love, and desperately need.
The book begins with a mysterious dream, and when the dreamer wakes up, we meet Keelin, a young girl who is as stubborn as she is gifted. She’s a child when we meet her, but as the story unfolds, she grows up juggling her job as a tribal healer with her unwelcome role as priestess-in-training.
She’d rather be a warrior, and she chafes at her responsibilities and her studies which keep her so duty-bound. She’s impatient when her skirts catch at her ankles, wishing she were allowed to wear trousers; bitterly disappointed when reminded that she cannot travel to distant lands because she is a woman. “You would not be allowed to travel freely,” reminds Nuala, her priestess mentor. “A woman is no better than the property of her father, and then of her husband when she marries… You’re better off here in Eire where your gifts are valued, as a Priestess of The Dagda.”
So Keelin grows up sparring with her handsome childhood friend Brian, reluctantly doing as she’s told by her priestess instructors, and riding through neighboring forests and hills on her beloved and spirited horse Rua.
However, when Keelin’s uncle Deaglan returns from his time spying on the military in Eoraip (Europe), she learns that to the east, across the unruly Irish Sea, the soldiers of the Roman Empire are eying Eire as their next conquest. The tribal fracases must cease; in order to face the upcoming battle with the invaders, they must unite.
As Keelin’s family, friends, and tribal leaders work to unite and prepare the island’s young men for the battle to save them from pillage, rape and slavery, life on the periphery goes on. Keelin learns how to use her Dagda gifts, a priestess falls in love, men fight, and horses gallop – all while the danger across the sea is monitored by spies and the mind-altering skills of the priestesses.
It’s a fanciful world where golden-embroidered silks are enriched with magical powers, people can teleport through another dimension, and love is a power that glows. But the story is all the more readable knowing that it is rooted in history – from the danger of the Roman invasion to the belief in the spiritual world of the Dagda.
A quick read of the poem quoted by McGrath on the opening page of her book is intriguing and one wonders why McGrath didn’t include just one more line. “Come away, O human child!” Yeats intones. “To the waters and the wild…” An invitation to us humans to join the world of fairies and warriors, the world of McGrath’s book.
To the Waters and the Wild is now available.
About S.C. McGrath
S.C. grew up at the western end of Malibu when it was considered undesirably remote. There was a small country market with a hitching rail, unfenced fields of barley, only a scattering of houses, and peacefully empty beaches. It was a perfect place for a shy, rather solitary girl like her. When she was not reading, she was riding her old mare, Rocket, through the hills and on the beach, weaving stories and daydreaming.
In her early thirties she visited Ireland and immediately felt at home. Of mostly Celtic ancestry, she could see my brothers, sisters, and cousins in the faces of the Irish people. It was uncanny. The small island, with its rich history, green fields, and beautiful poetry, captured her imagination and heart and has never let go. S.C.’s degree in history from UCLA served her well as she pored over books on ancient Ireland, enjoying her own flights of fancy as I read.
S.C.’s family and career consumed most of her waking hours for many years but she never stopped dreaming. When her daughter was young, she loved S.C.’s stories of magical, shape shifting creatures and mysterious castles. When S.C. retired she bought Flanagan, a thoroughly likable big horse, and started riding in the hills again. During those rides, Keelin’s story began to unfold and she created the world of ancient Ireland, loosely anchored in history and filled with fantasy, excitement, and danger. It is a world into which she loves to escape.