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New book takes a magical journey into the Slieve Aughty mountains

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Deep in the Slieve Aughty mountains, on the border between Clare and Galway, lies a stand of ancient trees. In the very centre of that forgotten wood, in a spot not seen by human eyes for generations, sits a large, stone well. And in that well, lives an all-powerful witch.
The deep woods of the Slieve Aughty mountains has become the inspiration for the debut book for South Galway author, Méabh McDonnell. Written during the Covid 19 pandemic, ‘Into the Witchwood’ tells the story of a young girl called Rowan, who was always warned not to enter the woods.
“During that first lockdown, we were stuck at home in Kylebrack and basically doing nothing for days and days. So we started walking in the woods every day, to try and get out of the house,” said Méabh.
“I started doing that thing that you do when you stare at something for too long and you start to see patterns. I started to see patterns between the trees and the leaves and, after a while, I started to see faces in the trees. I actually saw faces in the bark, and that is where the book came from.
“I saw faces in the bark and wondered, what could that be, and a witch came into my mind. What if there was a witch in the woods down the road? That sparked off all sorts of ideas and memories, stories from years gone by, memories of playing games about witches in wells when I was a kid and stories about magic in woodlands and the magic associated with the trees.
“It was only when I finished the book that I realised that I had written a book about a girl who was trapped in a woods for a very long time, which kind of mirrors how I felt during lockdown, which was me being trapped in a woods for a very long time.
“I had tried to write other long form stories before this but they never felt like they were quite the right story. But I remember walking home the day that this story came into my head, I was so excited by it. It felt like it was my story.
“In a way, it felt like the story was always there, but I just had to go back to the place which was so familiar to me from my childhood to find it. I had to go back there and immerse myself in that place for the story to really emerge.”
‘Into the Witchwood’ takes inspiration from a number of sources including European fairytales, nature imagery and stories of the Celts and Irish mythology.
“It feels like you can hardly throw a rock in Ireland and not hit a place that has a story to it. It could be a field or anything, everything seems to have some sort of folklore attached to it. I have always been interested in that, both as a child and an adult,” said Méabh.
“So it came together for me when I started taking traditional European fairytales and looking at how those stories worked, and applying them to Irish folklore.
“That is always something that I have been fascinated by, and something that I was really trying to do with the book, to create my own version of those fairytales that I was so obsessed with as a kid.”
True to the traditional of the great European fairytales, ‘Into the Witchwood’ is an adventure story with a formidable villain, and its heroine Rowan will need to use every skill she possesses if she is going to survive her time in the forest.
“The book tells the story of Rowan, whose mother has been missing for the past six months. Since that point, everything has gone wrong in her life, her grandmother won’t talk to her, she keeps fighting with her sister, her dad is being really strict with her,” said Méabh.
“She is convinced that her mother is still alive, but trapped inside the magical woods that is down the road from her home. She is convinced about this because of all the stories that her mother and grandmother have told to her while she was growing up. She decides that she is going to rescue her mother, because that is the only way that she will be able to get her life back to normal. So she decides to rescue the from the witch, with no help at all.
“But what she doesn’t count on is that her younger sister and her next door neighbour will follow her into the woods.
“When that happens, all three of them are stuck inside the witchwood. The witchwood is a magical woods which is filled with dangerous things which are all controlled by the witch, who lives in the centre of the woods in a well. Once you step foot inside her woods, you are not getting out.”
Méabh is also the young persons book expert at Charlie Byrne’s book shop in Galway. This experience has made her keenly aware of the intelligence of young readers, and the importance of writing fiction that doesn’t talk down to the young people.
“Kids are often smarter than they are given credit for. When I was writing it, I wasn’t really focused on writing for the right age-group for kids, but more so I was trying to put myself in the mindset of a 13 year old who was in this sort of trouble,” said Méabh.
“It was much more about me trying to think like myself when I was 13, and other 13 year old kids, rather than trying to find the right voice for it.
“It was almost like trying to time-travel my brain back to that era, and tell the story in that way. It wasn’t me, the adult, trying to tell the story for kids, I was very much trying to tell it from the perspective of myself when I was a kid.”

Published by O’Brien Press, ‘Into the Witchwood’ is available for preorder from the Ennis Book Shop, Charlie Byrnes and all good bookshops. Méabh McDonnell will attend a book launch at the Ennis Book Shop on April 8 at 10am

Andrew Hamilton

Andrew Hamilton is a journalist, writer and podcaster based in the west of Ireland.

About Andrew Hamilton

Andrew Hamilton is a journalist, writer and podcaster based in the west of Ireland.

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