In this provocatively titled novel, Niall Griffiths explores themes, characters and locations introduced in his first novel Grits 2000. His characters inhabit the underbelly of Millennial culture, living on benefits, their lives defined by alcohol, drugs, and casual violence. Into this mix, Griffiths introduces Ianto. Unlike his characters who originate from industrial south Wales or northern England, Ianto is indigenous to the rural, wild hinterland of Aberystwyth. Ianto was born and brought up in the remote mountains by his Mamcu (Grandmother). From an early age, Ianto displays a strong affiliation to the brutal beauty of the area and its non-human species, and - just as strongly - against any people or practice that threaten them. This loyalty and connection is intensified through a number of violent childhood experiences, and becomes unleashed when his family home is repossessed by bailiffs.
the key issue [of the novel is] the way in which modern life, industrialism, modern day capitalism and the politics that drives that … changes landscapes, and changes people's connection to them [and the consequences that the disruption] of this marrow deep connection that humans might have Griffiths, in interview.
Sheepshagger is a novel about colonisation, dispossession, and identity; it is about how places – in particular wild places - can come to define us. It is about how these geographical connections can build a political outlook that may be inchoate and difficult to define, particularly in the mindset of 'a near mute… savant' like Ianto after Jordan, 2001, no page, but nevertheless serve as a reminder of the power and importance of landscape to the identity and culture of a local and national people.
Sheepshagger is set in Aberystwyth and its hinterland. Niall Griffiths himself is not originally from this region, or from Wales itself, but it is fair to note that he has become of it. He has lived in the area most of his adult life, and through exploring its 'pubs and offices and squats and ginnels' 2008: 11 has come to know both its drifting classes and their wilder hinterlands. As he writes with respect to Aberystwyth:
"The town isn't in my blood - I wasn't born here, and the Cymric stuff in my veins has bled out from north Wales, not mid - but it's on my skin…. [and] when I'm inland, in whatever country, I'm aware of a gnawing sense of loss. There's a solidity to those places, of a quantity and of a kind I don't want; nothing there acts like water does, unpredictable and untameable. I could never feel at home, never feel found, in a place that's never known the battering of waves 2008: 11 / 30.
And as he recounts in conversation:
"…If I'm abroad …I think of these hills, when I get to Shrewsbury on the train and the ground kind of starts to rise I feel my own soul kind of settle and just kind of relax into itself you know? [I've] become very much rooted in this area, I have a kind of… spiritual Hiraeth here… Griffiths, in interview.
Through involvement in the area, Griffiths has developed what might be described as a Celtic connection to the land and water around him.
"In his great book The Sea Kingdoms, Alistair Moffat writes: 'To say that the Celts of Britain have a close affinity with the land and the sea is to underplay a near-umbilical connection. The huge skies of the Atlantic shore, the rose and gold of sunsets dying in the west, the bleakness of land and the majesty of land and sea together pierce the hearts of those who are born there. Even if they leave, the west never leaves them Griffiths, 2008: 29.
Sheepshagger, like all … racists terms …narrows down an entire lifestyle to one term of abuse. … I was using [it] as [a] reductive term, and hopefully exploding it Griffiths, in interview.
In Sheepshagger, Griffiths fictionalises one outcome of such 'near umbilical' Celtic connection. As its title suggests, the book is provocative and often alarming. It does not fulfil Llewellyn's 'How Green is my Valley' beatific idyll 1939, but recounts a reality that is beautifully brutal. In an interview with 'Americymru', Griffiths explains the political importance of acknowledging that there is more than a 'green and pleasant' version of Wales intrinsic to his landscape:
It's partly a reaction against the Enlightenment idea of Celtic peoples living lives of natural harmony and warmth; you know, 'let's not worry about these funny little people with their dancing and furry hats, they're all happy, they all link arms and sing going home from the mines to the hearth and a bowl of mam's cawl'. It's reductionist and self-serving and smug and undignified. Made by minds which can't see phthisis and poverty and self- and substance-abuse and loneliness and working twelve hours a day wresting spuds from rock only to be told on a Sunday that you'll be damned eternally for laziness. I chose the name Ianto [for the protagonist in Sheepshagger] partly as a nod towards the main returning character in Richard Llewellyn's How Green Was My Valley (well, less a nod and more of an abbreviated headbutt, really), which is symptomatic of this kind of Uncle Tom-ist nonsense. Stereotypes reduce, don't they? That's their job, to shrink in order to make certain people feel comfortable. They belong to prejudice, which is received hatred, and therefore a cliché of the most shrivelling kind. So, in Sheepshagger especially, I wanted to portray Wales as I know it; as an impossibly rich and wondrous and magical place which will fiercely fight back against any attenuation in Shaw, 2009:no page.
With themes echoing Faulkner, a writing style resonant of Ron Berry, and characters' complementing Irvine Welsh, Griffiths' has fashioned an intentionally dramatic novel with a strong political and social undertow. In Sheepshagger, Griffiths introduces the reader to Ianto in a split-time narrative. Firstly through a history of Ianto's upbringing; secondly with Ianto's contemporaries reflecting on their experiences with him; and thirdly, witnessing key incidents in Ianto's adult life. All elements of these timeframes occur in two broad locations: firstly, the town of Aberystwyth, and secondly, its wild hinterland. These locations frame the following Sheepshagger plotlines: