It’s the week of St. Patrick’s Day, which means it’s time for an Irish-themed post! I’m part Irish and feel a strong connection to that heritage. So every March, I’ll be covering a topic related to Irish mythology, history, or media—or even all three. Erin go bragh!
Follow a thread of story and you never know where you’ll end up. About a year ago, I stumbled on an unusual manga about two characters who blur the black-and-white rules of their world. Siúil a Rún: The Girl from the Other Side is now one of my favorite graphic series, and volume 8 is scheduled for release today, St. Patrick’s Day! What’s Irish Gaelic doing in a manga title? Well, when I went searching for the answer to that question, it led me back to an Irish folk song. On the surface, they’re very different works, but both reflect on the divisions of human conflict versus the bonds that bring us together. This time, I’ll take the proper path, from “Siúil a Rún”, a song of love and war, to a manga that blends European and Japanese mythological influences.
A Song of History, and a History of a Song
What kind of song is “Siúil a Rún”? It’s a bit complicated. The song’s narrator is a woman supporting her beloved’s decision to fight in a war even as she acknowledges the harsh consequences for them both, so war is an important theme. The sorrowful tone plus the female narrator also suggest it could be classified as a “lament.” Expressions of sorrow through song and cries traditionally fell under the responsibility of women in Ireland.1 Some sources call it a love song. I think it’s all these things together.
It’s also a bilingual tune, sung in both English and Irish Gaelic. Rather than reprint the entire song and its lyrics, I’ll share a video below with Clannad’s version of the song and English translations of the Gaelic sections. I’ve only done a few Gaelic lessons, so I don’t feel qualified to critic the translations. Still, I wonder about the “elope with me” in this video, especially compared with this translation and analysis from Portiabridget of Portable Pieces of Thought, which uses “and away we’ll flee.”2 Comparing the two is a good way to get a sense of nuances. For instance, I’ve seen the title phrase translated as both “Come, my love,” and “Go, my love.” However, “siúil” (pronounced “shuul”) is simply a command to “walk” while “a Rún” (“aroon”) is a term of affection. Both translations imply the lovers leaving together, but it’s hard to be sure who is leading and who is following.
“Siúil a Rún” is considered a folk song, but it’s a young one that focuses on history rather than deeds of mythic heroes. It is specifically thought to reference “the Flight of the Wild Geese,” which followed the Glorious Revolution.3 Sparked in 1688 England, the conflict centered on a succession and religious dispute between supporters of Catholic James Stuart II and Protestant William of Orange. James raised troops for his cause, known as Jacobites, in Ireland. When the forces of William won, James fled to France and his supporters were sent after him through a treaty in 1691. The song does contain the phrase, “my love has gone to France,” which is the most direct link I can see with this historical incident.
Some lyrics make it harder to place the history described. Portiabridget wonders if the line “I wish I were on yonder hill” might be connected to a May 1798 battle on the Hill of Tara, and suggests the Irish Volunteers for the reason the singer says, “I’ll dye my petticoats, I’ll dye them red.”4 The thing is, the Irish Volunteers were a militia group formed in 1778 to protect Britain while English troops fought the colonies intent on becoming the United States.5 I don’t see anything about going to France in their history. However, it turns out Jacobites wore red uniforms during later conflicts to show their allegiance to the Stuart line.6 This fits with the rest of the song and it adds an interesting hint that the narrator is engaged with the cause itself rather than only what happens to her lover because of it.
Whatever events “Siúil a Rún” describes, it was probably written after they were already history. The style of mixed Irish Gaelic and English lyrics, called “macaronic,” is considered typical of the 1800s.7 Many of the most well-known Irish folk songs sprang up after a period of musical and cultural suppression during English rule. Irish music was seen as inherently rebellious and dangerous, so around 1609 Elizabeth I gave the order to “Hang all harpers where found and burn the instruments.”8 The harper tradition carried back to the bards of Celtic times who, in a culture of largely oral transmission, were essentially the keepers of knowledge and culture.9 A strike against them was, effectively, a strike against Irish culture. Yet even with restrictive laws in place, music with Irish Gaelic lyrics revived and even thrived during the 17th and 18th centuries, partly because by then the laws weren’t as strictly enforced.10 Soon they spread to English and North American audiences,11 and they remain popular today.
Knowing this development helps to place “Siúil a Rún” in the larger timeline. The song contains actually intelligible Gaelic rather than nonsense probably derived from Gaelic, as in songs like “Whiskey in the Jar.” At least, I assume that’s where “Whack fall the daddy-o” came from.12 “Whiskey in the Jar” was written in the 17th century, close to the revival but also still close to times when the restrictions were tighter. “Siúil a Rún” was likely written in the 19th century, after the genre of Irish folk song was more established and artists may have felt more confident singing in Gaelic. So “Siúil a Rún” is likely a song reflecting on the past in modes of expression that would have been dangerous in that past.
A Few Side Paths
There isn’t a straight line between the original folk song and the manga that uses its name, but the song has shown up in some interesting places. It briefly appears in Lord of the Dance, a musical created by Irish American dancer Michael Flatley. It’s among the tamer numbers in this wild mix of Irish mythology and space invaders. On a completely different note, the 2019 Australian film The Nightingale also uses the song. The trailer of this historical film—multilingual itself with lines in English, Gaelic, and Palawi Kani—promises a grim tale of revenge with “Siúil a Rún” sung over the graphic scenes. There are also numerous recordings of “Siúil a Rún.” Celtic Woman is one of the prominent groups who have sung it besides Clannad. A number of Japanese artists have recorded it as well, including Masaki Toriyama, singing a Japanese translation, and Kokia singing the original English and Irish Gaelic version. Perhaps this is how it traveled to Japan to make its mark in manga!
A Manga Full of Myth
However it happened, “Siúil a Rún” also became the subtitle of Nagabe’s unusual manga series, The Girl from the Other Side. The Japanese title, Totsukuni no Shojo (とつくにの少女), roughly translates to “the foreign girl” or possibly “the girl from the other country.” The artwork looks very different from the typical manga style. But though it calls itself “a tranquil fairy tale,”13 it’s pretty dark. To give you an idea of the style and tone, I’ll share this trailer for the upcoming anime based on the manga. Please note, in the manga the curse doesn’t work this fast or on anything “soulless” like single feathers,14 but it’s likely a quick way to portray the idea of the curse visually.
Nagabe creates a world harshly divided into the Inside and the Outside. Insiders resemble Medieval or Victorian European humans who live in walled-off cities. They fear the curse Outsiders transmit through touch, believing it originated when the God of Light punished the God of Darkness.15 Outsiders who call themselves Black Children look like black chimerical animals with no visible eyes. They claim the Insiders started the curse by stealing souls from a being they worship as “Mother.”16 Outsiders who were once human appear more humanoid with light eyes. Though they lose their memories as the curse progresses, transformed Insiders retain their original personalities and beliefs with only their bodies changed.
Caught between these sides are Shiva and Sensei. An exuberant little girl, Shiva may not seem much like the Hindu god of destruction and creation, medicine and poison whose name she shares,17 though she is shown as being an immune carrier of the curse. Sensei is an Outsider who cares for Shiva. His name is translated as “Teacher” in the English version, but I prefer the Japanese word that can mean both “teacher” and “doctor” since early on Shiva comments, “You’re a doctor…That’s why you’re called ‘teacher.’”18 Sensei does treat Shiva’s injuries and illnesses, always careful not to touch her. Unlike the lovers in the Irish song, their relationship is entirely a parent-child bond. Sensei will do almost anything to keep Shiva safe, both physically and from the harsh truths that keep him worrying late into the night.
So, why “Siúil a Rún”? It’s never clearly stated, though it’s used in both the English and the Japanese version. One possibility is that the Outsiders are inspired by Celtic tales of fairies and other spirits that can steal children away.19 The realm of these beings, An Saol Eile, is even translated as the Otherworld in English.20 However, while fairies like the Sidhe (pronounced “shee”) were said to steal people and take them to their world, the common warning to avoid eating the food there is meaningless in the Outside.21 Outsiders don’t eat, just as they have no sense of touch or need for sleep. Sensei cooks for Shiva all the time, so the curse isn’t transmissible through food, only direct touch. Similarly, while fairy folk are often described as virtually immortal, Outsiders take this to a new extreme as even if one’s “head is chopped off,” they cannot die,22 though they might find it “annoying.”23 The only other place I’ve seen reference to fairies with that kind of immortality is L. Frank Baum’s Oz series, such as in Tik-Tok of Oz where two soldiers comment that even if something eats them, the pieces will still be alive.24 Oz, however, is a wild and crazy American fiction, not a reliable reflection of Celtic fairy tales.
The way the curse spreads hints at another inspiration, this time from Japanese mythology. In an interview, Nagabe claims he mainly wanted to explore a relationship without touch.25 Yet the hostile revulsion Insiders show Outsiders also emulates the Japanese concept of “kegure” or “pollution.” Resulting from certain substances, events, or acts, kegure spreads like a disease through contact or even association, an invasion of social spaces and classes considered “inside” by the tainted “outside.”26 Kegure was historically tied to certain occupations or illnesses, and mythologically with beings like yokai. The term “yokai” covers too much variety to generalize easily, but certain yokai traits fit with Nagabe’s Outsiders. Some were former humans transformed by a curse, though usually not touch-based. Warriors who cut off Oni King Shuten dōji’s head discovered he could still bite,27 similar to a transformed Insider solider who uses his severed arm to trap Sensei.28 And other manga have shown yokai polluting others through touch.
I haven’t seen any evidence that Japanese sources directly compare the Outsiders to yokai, though there are so many ways to hint at the concept it’s hard to tell. If a yokai-like term is used, it might explain English descriptions calling Sensei a “demonic guardian” when the word doesn’t really fit his character. “Yokai” and its synonyms are often mistranslated as “demon,” but while they may be considered tainted and other, they are more ambiguous in nature, just like the Outsiders.
Of course, calling Outsiders “demonic” may simply buy into the internal mythology of the God of Light versus the God of Darkness. The problem with accepting either of the internal mythologies as absolute truth, however, is that both are used to justify attempts to steal Shiva’s soul. The Black Children want to bring Shiva’s “pure soul” to their Mother,29 though after Sensei’s defense they seem content to stay close with no violence except against Insiders who try to take her. The Insider priest, meanwhile, claims to receive a heavenly command to take Shiva’s “soul from her vessel” for Insider use to stop the curse.30 Outsiders and Insiders are shown waging a war, with Insiders often the more violent as they burn whole towns to stop the spread of the curse, even if they purposely infected them as an experiment. Like Shiva, Sensei doesn’t quite belong to either side. First to the Black Children,31 and then to transformed Insider soldiers pursuing them, he declares Shiva’s “soul belongs only to her.”32 The story is still going, but so far, they’re still running. Perhaps this is the real reason “Siúil a Rún” fits this story: that theme of two people trying to preserve their love amid a war set on tearing them apart.
Whew, there’s a lot to unpack there! I hope I kept the history lesson to the interesting parts. So, what are your thoughts? Are you familiar with one or both of these “Siúil a Rún” iterations? What do you think led to an Irish war lament lending its title to a fairy tale manga?
- Williams, Sean, Focus: Irish Traditional Music (New York and London: Routledge, 2010), 56, https://books.google.com/books/about/Focus_Irish_Traditional_Music.html?id=s5aOAwAAQBAJ (accessed Mar. 4, 2020).
- Portiabridget, “Siúil, Siúil, Siúil a Rún – A Bit of Irish History in a Folk Song,” Portable Pieces of Thoughts, posted Mar. 17, 2018, accessed Mar. 1, 2020, https://portiabridget.wordpress.com/2018/03/17/siuilsiuilsiuil-a-run-a-bit-of-irish-history-in-a-folk-song/.
- Bloy, Marjorie, “The Irish Volunteers, 1778,” A Web of English History, last modified Jan. 12, 2016, accessed Mar. 4, 2020, http://www.historyhome.co.uk/c-eight/ireland/voluntee.htm.
- McGarry, Stephen, “Enlisting for My Enemy’s Enemy,” May 1, 2014, accessed Mar. 4, 2020, https://www.irishtimes.com/culture/heritage/enlisting-for-my-enemy-s-enemy-1.1779145.
- Williams, 53.
- Williams, 49.
- Williams, 58.
- Williams, 60.
- Regina Jeffers, “‘Whiskey in the Jar,’ a Traditional Irish Ballad,” Every Woman Dreams…, posted July 17, 2017, accessed Mar. 5, 2020, https://reginajeffers.blog/2017/07/12/whiskey-in-the-jar-a-traditional-irish-ballad/.
- Nagabe, The Girl from the Other Side: Siúil a Rún vol. 1, trans. Adrienne Beck (Tokyo: MAG Garden and Seven Seas Entertainment, 2016).
- Nagabe, Other Side, vol. 1, chapter 3.
- Nagabe, Other Side, vol. 1, chapter 2.
- Nagabe, The Girl from the Other Side: Siúil a Rún vol. 2, trans. Adrienne Beck (Tokyo: MAG Garden and Seven Seas Entertainment, 2016), chapter 8.
- Doniger, Wendy, “Shiva,” Britannica, last modified Feb. 5, 2020, accessed Mar. 6, 2020, https://www.britannica.com/topic/Shiva.
- Nagabe, Other Side, vol. 1, chapter 5.
- Silverman, Rebecca, “Review: The Girl From the Other Side: Siúil, a Rún,” Anime News Network, posted Jan. 28th, 2017, accessed Feb. 6, 2020, https://www.animenewsnetwork.com/review/the-girl-from-the-other-side/siuil-a-run/gn-1/.110482.
- O’Brien, Lora, “Part 3 – The Otherworld – Who’s Who of Irish Mythology Series,” Lora O’Brien: Authentic Connection to Ireland, posted Jan. 9, 2018, accessed Mar. 4, 2020, https://loraobrien.ie/who3/.
- “The Sidhe, the Tuatha de Danaan, and the Fairies in Yeats’s Early Works,” California State University Northridge, Sep. 25, 1998, accessed Mar. 4, 2020, http://www.csun.edu/~hceng029/yeats/funaro.html.
- Nagabe, The Girl from the Other Side: Siúil a Rún vol. 4, trans. Adrienne Beck (Tokyo: MAG Garden and Seven Seas Entertainment, 2017), chapter 16.
- Nagabe, Other Side, vol. 2, chapter 7.
- L. Frank Baum, Tik-Tok of Oz (Ohio: Reilly & Britton Company, 1914), 32-33.
- Nakamura, Minako, “‘I Want to Cherish “Gentleness” with Both the Art and the Story’ – an Interview with Totsukuni no Shoujo Author Nagabe,” PixiVision, Jan. 2, 2017, accessed Feb. 6, 2020, https://www.pixivision.net/en/a/2008.
- Namihara, Emiko, “Pollution in the Folk Belief System,” Current Anthropology 28, no. 4, supplement: An Anthropological Profile of Japan, Aug. – Oct. 1987, pp. S65-S74. JSTOR (2743440), S70.
- “Shuten dōji,” Yokai.com, accessed Mar. 14, 2020, http://yokai.com/shutendouji/.
- Nagabe, The Girl from the Other Side: Siúil a Rún vol. 7, trans. Adrienne Beck (Tokyo: MAG Garden and Seven Seas Entertainment, 2019), chapter 31.
- Nagabe, Other Side, vol. 2, chapter 6.
- Nagabe, The Girl from the Other Side: Siúil a Rún vol. 5, trans. Adrienne Beck (Tokyo: MAG Garden and Seven Seas Entertainment, 2018), chapter 23.
- Nagabe, Other Side, vol. 2, chapter 8.
- Nagabe, Other Side, vol. 5, chapter 23.