St. Patrick's Day is upon us, which means shamrocks, green beer and -- these days beginning to seem just as traditional -- another foray into Irish history by author Morgan Llywelyn.
Llywelyn's "Lion of Ireland," the fictional biography of Irish hero Brian Boru, attracted the attention of President Reagan in 1980, which subsequently put both Boru -- claimed to be a Reagan ancestor -- and Llywelyn on the literary map. "Lion" sold about 1 million copies in hardcover and paperback and is still under film option, although there has been little action on that front lately, the author says.
Her new book, the fourth on Irish heroics, is "Grania, She-King of the Irish Seas," about a lusty, swashbuckling woman pirate, a contemporary and sometime pal of England's Queen Elizabeth I, and, says Llywelyn, "so well known and passionate that there is hardly an Irish family that does not claim that one or another of its forebears had an affair with her." "Grania slept here" rings as loud in Ireland as does the same cry about George Washington here, albeit with wholly different connotations.
Llywelyn bridles at the suggestion that her books, although definitely historical and often romantic, are "historical romances."
"It's a funny thing," she says. "If a man writes historic fiction and has sex scenes in it, that's an accepted fact, but any woman who puts sex into historic fiction immediately acquires the title of historical romance.
"Why is that?" she demands, quite rhetorically.
Morgan Llywelyn grew up in Texas after her parents divorced. She believes that her passion for history stems from nightly doses of Gabriel Heatter, who was to radio what Walter Cronkite was later to become to television, at the knee of a news-obsessed grandfather -- before she was 3.
Llywelyn's grandfather also turned her into an omnivorous reader at the age of 4 when he showed her the locked glass doors on the bookcases in his library, told her that "books were only for grown-ups, not for children," then conspicuously "hid" the key in a bottom drawer easily reached by a small child.
But, says Llywelyn, "Nobody could tell where my horse craziness came from. Nobody else in the family had anything like it."
In fact, it wasn't until Llywelyn failed to make the U.S. Olympic equestrian team by a single point that she abandoned the dreams and ambitions of, by then, more than 30 years and began to write.
That was when Sally Morgan Llywelyn Winter dropped the names at both ends and started weaving 2,500 years or so of Irish history into a series of phantasmagorical tapestries of action, adventure, love, tragedy, magic, politics, history, poetry -- and just a soupc,on of moral imperative for good measure.
There was, for example, "Bard," the epic history of the legendary Irish poet Amergin and his druidic compulsion to lead his people from what is now northern Portugal to Ierne -- a k a the Emerald Isle. Then there was "The Horse Goddess," the cross-European odyssey of a prehistoric Irish heroine at the dawn of the Celtic people. Indeed, Llywelyn does for the Celts (pronounced with a hard "c," by the way) what Jean Auel does for Cro-Magnon man.
Now, after some 19 trips to Ireland, after having become familiar with centuries of Irish poetry, from Amergin to Yeats, as well as with millennia of history and legend, Llywelyn has no intention of abandoning Ireland. She has not nearly mined all it contains, she says happily, and it remains her source of inspiration, of financial success beyond her wildest notions -- her "Grania" advance reportedly surpassed $750,000 -- and, perhaps most of all, of a ready metaphor for the 20th century -- for good or ill.
Llywelyn, 49 but looking at least a decade younger, has great, soft, dark eyes, framed with carefully drawn eyebrows that emphasize an elfin quality. She is quick, smart, articulate.
She wears her long hair loose, held back from the widow's peak that shapes her face into a heart. Sometimes she tosses it like a mane. Sometimes she curls her small frame in a chair, and there is a definite catlike quality to her. And then, as she moves about the room, she seems rather avian. For an instant, Shapechanger in "The Horse Goddess" comes to mind.
About five years ago, Llywelyn, her husband and business manager Charlie Winters, their son, her parents -- long divorced, but "living in sin" -- her husband's parents, his brother, his grandmother, her horse, dogs, cats (13) and birds (2) all moved into a 200-year-old, 17-room New Hampshire farmhouse.
"It was wonderful," she says, then pauses. "For four years."
Then within a year, while she was working on "Grania," both her parents died of heart ailments, and her husband of cancer.
She moved back to Annapolis -- where the family lived before New Hampshire -- last October "to try to put my life together and start over." Her modest town house is filled with Irish bric-a-brac, mementos of her books and her trips to Ireland. Horses are everywhere -- in pictures, behind glass in display cases, in statuary. (Her own horse is stabled in nearby Davidsonville, where once her hopes for the future were tied to dressage training.)
There are dimples when she smiles, which is often. But perhaps it is the recent personal tragedies that hold that smile out of her eyes -- except when she talks about her son, John, also known as Sean, who is about to graduate from Duquesne law school in Pittsburgh, or occasionally when she talks about her characters or her menagerie.
"Grania" contains some of Llywelyn's most personal feelings, she says.
"A lot of the book became my interpretation of what this woman would have to do to survive, and because I was going through a very hard patch in my own life at the same time, I think that enlarged my understanding of how she got through her own tragedies," she says. "And although this is in no sense autobiographical, there are parts in 'Grania' where what she felt at moments of tragedy and what I felt are almost interchangeable and I'm not sure which came first: my interpreting of her character, or my own reactions that were going on at the time."
For a moment, Llywelyn is still. Then once again she is flitting from chair to chair, dispossessing a placid cat -- this one named Sinatra for the color of its eyes -- and chattering about her two caged birds, each rescued as fledglings from certain death and both remarkably aged.
The robin, inevitably named Christopher, is, in the way of birds, positively ancient at age 16. He is blind and has a remarkable tuft of snow-white feathers in his tail. He had fallen out of the nest and, conventional wisdom to the contrary, no parent came to feed him. So Llywelyn did.
The other bird is a starling, rescued at the last second from a cat ("not," she hastens, "one of ours") and so crippled he cannot stand. He is 8 years old and has a vocabulary of 32 words, not all printable, one is led to believe. Starlings, says Llywelyn, are "condemned for being trash birds, but you can get a starling that will say anything -- and mine does -- for free. They're members of the same subspecies as mynah birds and they can talk just as well. Plus they're tougher.
"The robin still sings and the starling doesn't know he's crippled," says Llywelyn. "I think they're an inspiration to me."
Llywelyn laughs off references to any suggestions that she herself may be endowed with some druidic magic, although she admits to two "powers." One, she says, "keeps traffic lights green until I get through them," and the other "stops the rain long enough for me to get from the car to the house."
But then she says carefully, "From the study of ancient history and ancient religions, I've come to some rather serious conclusions that I would like to address more seriously in more serious books. One of them is the way the early Celts and many other early cultures considered harmony of their environment as a religious concomitant of their existence.
"It was not because it was 'the in thing to do,' but they felt a total relationship between themselves and their cosmos that had to be in balance."
"That," she adds, "is something we have lost to our peril and are trying very hard to get back to, because we have done enormous damage.
"Parts of what modern people tend to think of as witchcraft were just the efforts of early man to manipulate his environment and get himself in sync, to use a modern term, so that everything worked.
"Part of it, I feel, was the fact that very early man still had abilities, senses that we have either lost altogether or have so callused and dulled we might as well have lost them; a telepathic ability to some degree, sensitivities to things we no longer have. We know they had a higher sense of smell, better developed vision. They used other parts of their selves to function within their world.
"As we become more and more isolated within our human-beingness and less a part of the whole natural world, we've lost so much of that." And then she adds: "Which may be a blessing to anyone with a dull nose who has to change a cat box."
Then, once again sobering: "Nevertheless, I'm very interested in the concept not of magic as it is modernly perceived, but as in 'Bard,' magic as an alternate reality -- the idea that beyond our current dulled five senses is a whole world of sight, sound, awareness, communication that we are not using, that we are entitled to.
"I don't want to go back where everybody fought with stone axes and clubs; I'm in favor of air conditioning in the summer and indoor plumbing. But when death can fall on you silently out of the sky from a great long distance, initiated by people you will never meet, when your own chemical companies can poison you, when the water you drink may not be safe, all of these things to me mean we have moved into a reality I'm not that fond of."
She takes a deep breath, smiles tentatively and says apologetically, "Long speech. But when the button gets pushed . . . "