What It’s Like To Finish A Trilogy

Matt Griffin, author of The Ayla Trilogy, chats about his experience of writing a trilogy: the inspiration, the method and his three central thoughts!

Ayla’s adventure was always envisioned as a trilogy. The sacrosanct Three Acts; beginning, middle and end; the ‘monomyth’ of the hero’s journey. Three books in which to take a character from normality to abnormality and back again, nicely tied off at the end, with everything as it should be.

But I wanted to put my own stamp on that, the same way I wanted to filter the mysticism of ancient Ireland through my own (somewhat macabre) imagination. So my first thought was:

I’m going to start with my hero already in trouble.

So on the very first page of the first book, Ayla (our hero) is trapped underground, far from home (very, very far – not in terms of distance, but in terms of time) and she has no idea how she got there. She will have to work it out herself, and while she does that, the reader does too. You will learn about the how and why just as she does, and her three best friends do too. Which brings me to my second thought:

 I want this whole thing to be about loyalty. 

The bonds of loyalty between a person and their friends and family is something I consider myself well-versed in, being blessed as I am with abundance of both. And so I wanted to see what happens to the bonds between friends when those friends are placed in lethal levels of danger, in an environment that has no relation to what they think of as reality. And what happens to the bonds of family when you realise that they are not who they say they are. Or worse, they are behaving unlike themselves – in a very unsettling way. With these ties tested under severe stress, the characters learn about themselves, and surprise themselves (and hopefully the reader) with what they are capable of. When the world you know is swiped from under your feet, and you are faced with an 80-foot ogre who wants to eat you, you’ll be amazed at how quickly your true nature comes to the surface.

My final thought was:

I do not want to tie this off neatly at the end.

Ok, the whole thing was not just based on three thoughts. There was a lot more I wanted to explore thematically – like what happens when fantasy meets reality head-on, and is ‘magic’ necessarily super- or preternatural (maybe our mundane reality is magic. I certainly like to think so). But sticking to the tidy three-acts trope, my last major consideration was that everything would not go back to normal at the end of the adventure. No story ends with everything as it was at the start –  – characters have to undergo change. Ending a story with a ‘their-lives-will-never-be-the-same-again’ sunset is hardly a first – I’m not claiming otherwise. But it was important to me that when you finish this trilogy you, the reader, might find yourself imagining what happens next, and wonder: do they all really live happily ever after? I don’t want to spoil anything, but suffice to say the characters are equipped for more adventure.

And so that brings me to the question I was meant to address at the start: what is it like to finish it?

Before I wrote books, I admit I used to cringe slightly at authors who referred to their characters as if they were real people. How misguided I was. When you start to create these characters, they are just that: characters. They have names, some personality traits, a bit of family background. And then you throw these barely-known characters into the wringer of high adventure and they become people. You actually get to know them as you write. That may sound slightly cheesy, but it’s true. And I bet if you read a story where the writer didn’t believe his characters were real people, you didn’t like it. If the writer doesn’t believe them, why would they expect anyone else to? As the story unfolds while you write, the cast of your story reacts just as they should because you believe in them. And, I don’t mind telling you, you love them. And I don’t mind telling you more: as I wrote the last lines of The Ayla Trilogy, I had tears rolling down my cheeks because I knew I was saying goodbye to them forever. Finishing their story was both happy (the sense of achievement) and sad (the sense of loss). Bittersweet, like releasing a bird you nurtured back to health over weeks and months with a blubbering cry of: ‘Fly! Be free!’; missing it terribly, but knowing you are doing the right thing.

Of course, the hope is that they are strong enough to live on in the imagination of the reader. And in that sense, they can go on indefinitely. That is a warming thought.

Now, it’s on to the next adventure, and new characters to write and love and let fly. But I will certainly never forget Ayla, Benvy, Sean and Finny. And I hope that if you (or a young reader belonging to you) loved them too, they’ll linger a while in that vast expansive imagination of yours.

Matt Griffin, May 2017

The Ayla Trilogy is available here and in all good bookshops!


The Deer’s Cry by Eithne Massey

This month sees the publication of  Irish Legends: Newgrange, Tara & the Boyne Valley by acclaimed author Eithne Massey. To celebrate the launch of this beautiful hardback for children, Eithne has retold the ‘The Deer’s Cry’ – a bite-sized Boyne Valley legend – just for the O’Brien Press Blog!

The Deer’s Cry

St Patrick was a holy man. He brought Christianity to Ireland. There are many stories about him.

But did you know the story of why his most famous prayer is called ‘The Deer’s Cry’?

It happened like this.

When Patrick first came to Ireland, he landed at the mouth of the Boyne and made his way towards Tara. He wanted to see the high king, Laoghaire. He was going to ask permission to tell everyone in Ireland about the new religion. But King Laoghaire’s druids were angry. They didn’t want any other religions in their country.

‘Send an ambush to kill this trouble-maker!’ said the chief druid. ‘He must be stopped before he reaches the king. No one can harm him once he is inside Tara. We are not allowed to harm a visitor. We must hunt him down before he gets here, while he travels through the great forest.’

Patrick and his friends started their journey to Tara. They began to make their way through the great forest. It was springtime. Birds followed where Patrick walked. Foxes and rabbits peered from their burrows, and small red squirrels jumped from branch to branch, keeping him company. Patrick had the gift of bringing animals to him, and even a shy deer came and drank from his hands as he rested by a stream.

‘Why do you waste time with a creature like that, when we are on the way to see a great king?’ asked Conall, one of his followers.

‘God is in every creature,’ said Patrick mildly.

They continued on through the shadows of the wood, and suddenly Patrick stopped dead.

‘I think we might have someone waiting for us,’ he said.

‘You mean someone who means us harm?’ said Conall.

‘Are we in danger? What will we do?’ asked Benignus, the stable boy, looking around him nervously.

‘Don’t worry,’ said Patrick, and he closed his eyes and prayed.

The chief druid’s men could never understand how Patrick and his companions got past them. They lay in wait for hours, their swords drawn. The sun set. The moon rose. The moon set, and then the sun rose again. The soldiers saw nothing but the birds and beasts of the forest. A flock of doves flew into the starry sky; a herd of shy deer passed them in the moonlight.

Patrick reached Tara, and there he defeated the druids in a contest of magic. King Laoghaire allowed Patrick and his monks to travel throughout the land, spreading their good news.

And that is why, ever since then, Patrick’s prayer has been called. ‘The Deer’s Cry’.

Eithne Massey, March 2016

Irish Legends: Newgrange, Tara & the Boyne Valley is available here and in all good bookshops.

Lough Derg: Penance or Paganism?

With this summer’s three-day retreats to Lough Derg to conclude on 13 August, here’s a little extract from Old Ways, Old Secrets about the famous pilgrimage to the island on the lake which was the sacred Sanctuary of St Patrick.

Another event occurs around Lughnasa each year, although it could hardly be called a celebration. In late July and August, pilgrims throng to tiny Station Island on the remote and mysterious Lough Derg to endure three days of harsh penitential observances. These include staying awake for the first night and all the next day, fasting for twenty-four hours, circling the stony ground of the island barefoot while saying prayers, and generally experiencing discomfort at the level usually reserved for trainee commandos. Yet the pilgrims not only survive, but many come back again, year after year.

In pre-Christian times, there was a belief that here, at the edge of the known world, was an entrance to the Otherworld. Originally it would have been used by druids in their search for illumination and wisdom; they undertook severe trials such as starvation, isolation and sleep deprivation to extend their powers.

Later, it was a place where the wealthy could themselves endure the starvation/sleeplessness ordeal. By experiencing the Christian Purgatory now, they believed, they could reduce the amount of penance due after death. The earliest maps of Ireland sometimes show Lough Derg and nowhere else, indicating its renown. Martin Behaim’s world map of 1492 is one such example. There is certainly evidence of priests complaining to Rome about the charges levied at Lough Derg in medieval times. So popular did it become that several popes tried to close it down.

Early documents record a mysterious cave at Lough Derg. Guillebert de Lannoy, in his Voyages et Ambassades of 1430, made a cryptic reference to a second, by that time forbidden, cavern:

At the end of this cave, in which I was shut up for 2 or 3 hours, they say is a mouth of another cave, but St Patrick stopped it with a stone which he placed upon it, and it is still there …

The permitted cave is clearly marked (as ‘Caverna Purgatory’) in Fr Thomas Carve’s Lyra Hibernica, dating from 1666. Here visions were seen, both hideous and beautiful. Some spoke of strange vapours that put you into a trance. Today, alas, that cave (and any further passages which may once have led off it) lies buried beneath the massive dome of the church that dominates the tiny island. It is unlikely that any concealed entrance, any locked trapdoor could be found under the massive weight of limestone and marble, polished wood and wrought iron. Whatever lies hidden keeps its secrets.

St Patrick, we are told, fought some of his most demanding battles at Lough Derg, conquering a fearful serpent and imprisoning it forever in the lake. As we have seen, a saint taking on a serpent or dragon is always an attack by Christianity on pagan beliefs. Thereafter the island was given the name of St Patrick’s Purgatory. Old boatmen say the serpent comes out during storms and lashes her tail across the lake, showing she’s still there, just biding her time.

The island on Lough Derg is a strange, brooding, almost threatening place when viewed from the embarkation pier on the mainland. The church and associated buildings so completely cover the little islet that they look to be floating in the water. Casual visitors are not allowed. You go there on pilgrimage for the full three days or you don’t go at all.

And yet pilgrims praise the Lough Derg experience as one of enormous peace and happiness. ‘I loved it. It was so peaceful, and you had time to think,’ says one. ‘I went because I needed an answer to something really important, and I got it,’ says another. ‘I went with a special request and promised I’d go back if it was granted, and it was, and I did!’ says a third.

Druids seeking enlightenment, pilgrims seeking answers? Perhaps the island on Lough Derg hasn’t changed its nature very much after all. We’ve just changed the way we express our beliefs.

Extract taken from Old Ways, Old Secrets by Jo Kerrigan (published in May 2015)

About the Author:

Jo Kerrigan grew up amid the wild beauties of West Cork; after working in the UK as writer, academic and journalist, she returned home to the place she loved best. She now writes regularly for a range of publications, including The Irish Examiner and the Evening Echo as well as international magazines, and operates a very popular online weblog.