It’s that time of the year again, when for a￼ brief day the far flung countries of the world bend over backwards to stake out their connections to a miniscule island in the North Atlantic ocean. As crass, cynical and cringe-inducing as some of these displays of affection are I take no small amount of bemusement in their sheer volume, not to mention a not insignificant level of appreciation and dare I say pride in the heartfelt sincerity of a great many of them. It’s a testament to the far-reaching influence of Ireland’s people & culture that our national holiday is celebrated so raucously the world over (even if it can be all too often diminished to an easy excuse to get drunk before lunchtime). For a country that’s historically never been a heavyweight in conquest or commerce the Irish sure have made their way to the most unlikely of places. So it naturally follows that I’d get curious about those instances where my interests converge, those strange recesses where Irish culture and folklore have nestled themselves in their trademark manner into the realm of anime.
A big part of anime’s allure is the very nature of its place of origin. Japan has always possessed a hypnotic mystique to Western audiences that stretches back centuries and persists to this day. However fanciful the manner, anime nonetheless provided a window through which those audiences could learn about a nation whose culture, experiences & viewpoints were so vastly different from their own. It stands to reason that that fascination would be reciprocated as Japanese creators looked beyond their native shores for inspiration, offering unique interpretations of stories and imagery Westerners have seen countless times. From the Greek pantheon battling it out as armoured pretty boys in Saint Seiya to Norse deities shacking up with a mortal in Ah! My Goddess, from a French literary hero remoulded as a Japanese icon in Lupin The Third to the innumerable brash & blonde American exchange students, it seems all the big hitters have gotten multiple wonderfully singular shout-outs. I wasn’t much surprised to see Irish culture get comparatively short shrift, even though close neighbour Britain had regular visits via anime penchants via Arthurian myth and Victorian elegance, though if one looked carefully enough there were small pockets of enthusiasm which would only increase in potency over the years.
To begin with references to Ireland were limited in scope to the odd geographic location. White Base had a brief stopover in Belfast during its journey in Mobile Suit Gundam, and you can even see Dublin targeted for destruction by the Sphere Of Vogler in Giant Robo. These surface level acknowledgements would persist in the form of a handy resource for exotic nomenclature; the submarine Tuatha De Danann from Full Metal Panic, named after the mythical first race of people to inhabit Ireland, is an esoteric example. More clumsy is visual novel adaptation Clannad, intending to take its title from the Irish word for family (clann, pronounced similar to “clown”) and instead coming off more as a nod to the folk music supergroup.
Representation would occasionally become a bit more ambitious by featuring characters who actually hailed from the island, with depictions varying wildly. There’s Leigharch, the drug-crazed getaway driver in Black Lagoon, whose name at a guess is either a running-together of lean ar aghiadh (“let’s continue” or “let’s go”) or a misspelling of leirgeach (“ridiculous), either of which are pretty apt for this lunatic who embodies the Irish reputation for partying hard. Nabari No Ou boasts Tobari Durandal Kumohira, the school teacher/ninja who as a lad was dragged to Japan all the way from County Waterford by his eccentric grandad to be forcibly trained in the ways of the shinobi. His birthday even falls on March 17th in case you didn’t get the point! Mobile Suit Gundam would rep Ireland again in Gundam 00 with Lockon Stratos (and his brother!), the laconic sniper with Ulster roots in the suitably emerald green mech. As the first installment in the franchise to be set in our own timeline this led to the memorable revelation that the Real IRA were still making trouble in the 24th century, only ceasing hostilities under threat of getting their asses kicked by giant robots from space.
These are only scattered fragments though. Anime with a bit more of an Irish flavour throughout are a little rarer but the frequency of their appearance has increased gradually over time. The Fate Stay/Night visual novel and its multiple anime adaptations is a notable standard bearer. The secret sorcerer war calls upon heroic spirits from history and legend divided up according to speciality, running the gamut from King Arthur to Alexander The Great. The Lancer class servant has traditionally featured mainstays from Irish myth, beginning with Cu Chulainn and his lethal spear Gae Bolg. This was carried on with the appearance of Diarmuid Ui Duibhne, knight of the Fianna in prequel series Fate/Zero and some cameos by Fionn MacCumhaill before reaching fever pitch recently with Cu Chulainn’s trainer Scathach serving as the sort of de-facto mascot for the Fate Grand Order mobile game. Glad as I am to see Irish legend repped so lovingly it has led to more than a fair share of mangled pronunciations in my experience. Koo Choo Lane lads? For real?
Scrapped Princess, based on the light novel by Ichiro Sakaki, doesn’t quite fit the bill upon first glance. However its tale of a girl of unparallelled beauty who is prophesised to bring doom to the world, escaping into exile with the help of her small band of loyal protectors, bears more than a passing resemblance to the myth of Deirdre Of The Sorrows. Updated to the year 20XX with a surfeit of far future technology and space dragons it’s easy to see how this inspiration could be obscured. 2006’s Code Geass is slightly less arcane; its titular terminology for the various mental superpowers displayed in the series is derived from the Irish word geas or geis (sounds like gesh), meaning spell/enchantment, which I’ve heard unfortunately vocalised over the years as gas, geese or even gay-ass. Some outlandish theories have been proposed that the anime’s plot is a retelling of the Irish War Of Independence, Japan/Area 11 being another island nation engaging in armed insurrection against the Britannian Empire with rebel fighters Lelouche and Kallen as analogues for Micheal Collins and Countess Markevicz. Persuasive as some of the arguments are these theories seem fanciful at best to me. If you’re wanting a more deliberate anime revision of Irish history you can’t do much better than the 2002 short Comedy from Studio 4C’s Sweat Punch anthology, where a young girl seeks the aid of a mysterious forest-dwelling swordsman to fend off the invaders of her village. Only after the warrior completes his mission is it revealed that his services helped turn the tide of Ireland’s struggle for freedom in its favour, though considering the presence of British redcoats and mystical mercenaries one somehow doubts this is an altogether accurate account of events.
These all pale in comparison to the most overt depiction of Ireland in anime, that of course being the 2010 series Fractale. It concerns the inhabitants of an elaborate virtual reality system that preserves humankind in a consistent state of happiness and contentment, though naturally a dark secret lies at its core that the protagonists must bring to light. For whatever reason though this simulation of a perfect world takes the form of County Galway in the West of Ireland, its idyllic landscape dotted with dry-stone walls and whitewashed cottages with some episodes of the show even featuring locations taken directly from Galway city. The end credits theme is a rendition of the Irish ballad Down By The Salley Gardens, itself originally a poem by William Butler Yeats, to further drive the point home. I recall series director Yutaka Yamamoto, aka Yamakan, was a guest at Akumacon at NUI Galway back in 2014 who no doubt took the opportunity to partake of a little sightseeing while he was in the area. I regret missing out on the opportunity to attend and perhaps ask about Yamakan’s rationale for basing Fractale in this locale, although based on his more recent incendiary comments maybe it was for the best!
More recent anime offerings have been regularly delving into Ireland’s folklore for inspiration and I for one am all for this practice, not least for the quality content produced from it. Yoh Yoshinari’s hard grafting came to fruition last year with the premiere of the Little Witch Academia TV series (deferred as it was by Netflix hoodoo). The anime’s magic school is located somewhere, as a lot of magic schools are, somewhere in mainland Britain and much of the references follow suit. An unmistakeable Celtic influence informs a healthy portion of the visual motifs though. Documentation and sygaldry pertaining to the story’s arch-magical force Grand Triskelion is laden with the shapes, spirals and interwoven lines so closely associated with the artifacts produced by ancient Irish peoples whose artistic tradition was then kept alive by early Christian scholars. Indeed their main magical McGuffin is a powerful wand called the Claiomh Solais, an Irish phrase that translates to “sword of light”. It has a nebulous basis in myth, and could also probably refer to an Irish nationalist newspaper of the same name, which as newspaper names go you gotta admit is one of the coolest!
Still ongoing is The Ancient Magus’ Bride TV series which is profusely steeped in Celtic myth. While focus is often given to the ghosts & fairies of mainland Britain there’s more than a fair share given to Ireland’s strange creatures. From cu sidhe with canine mascot Ruth to banshees in taciturn housekeeper Silky to the fair denizens of Tir Na N’Og it’s clear that manga author Kore Yamazaki knows her onions about the folklore of the islands of North-Western Europe. I was quite impressed with a small arc concerning a leannan sidhe, a fairy woman who consorts with a mortal and grants them profound creative inspiration, paying due diligence to a vampiric nature that was outlined by, once again, WB Yeats! There’s a lengthy essay alone in the legends surrounding The Ancient Magus’ Bride and luckily Anime News Network has come through with a timely article on just that courtesy of Rebecca Silverman.
I’m dead certain that there’s a whole heap I’ve overlooked during the course of this hastily assembled article, but such is my enthusiasm for seeing the familiar stories I’ve grown up with be retold in a medium I’ve loved so much for most of my life. It prompts questions as to what has spurred this semi-recent uptick in interest in the anime & manga sphere; exhaustion with all the familiar world mythologies? A particular brand of maniac being elevated to a position of creative control? Whatever the reason I hope to see more unique explorations of my native folklore from this outside perspective. Feel free to yell at me through the usual outlets about anything I missed, and whenever this reaches you I hope you’re having/have had a wonderful St Patrick’s Day. Slainte!