Cora Harrison

Cora Harrison

Mullaghmore mountain on the Burren, County Clare, Ireland

Writ in Stone, the fourth Burren mystery

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The Burren Mysteries

With her superb attention to detail, Cora Harrison brings medieval Ireland into vivid life, being equally skilful at portraying the good, the bad, and the ugly.

Mara is up there with the great fictional detectives.   - Historical Novel Society, Editors' Choice Titles for August 2009

Ellis Peters and Peter Tremayne fans who have yet to discover Harrison will be overjoyed. - Publishers Weekly starred review

Outstanding both for its attention to detail and historical correctness. Historical mystery fans won’t want to miss this one. - Library journal


Cora Harrison's ninth Burren mystery, Chain of Evidence

Chapter One





Cáin Lánamna

(The Law of Marriage)


There are nine forms of union:

1. The union of joint property where both partners contribute to the wealth of the couple.

2. The union of a woman on a man’s property.

3. The union of a man on a woman’s property.

4. The union of a man visiting with the approval of her kin.

5. The union of a man and a willing woman without the approval of her kin.

6. The union of a man and an abducted woman.

7. The union of a man and a secretly visited woman.

8. The union that follows rape.

9. The union of two insane people.


It had been an early spring in the west of Ireland.

In the kingdom of the Burren, mild south-westerly winds from the nearby Atlantic Ocean had put a temporary end to winter frosts by the middle of January. By the second day of February the sunken lanes in its valleys had been filled with pale yellow primroses and dark purple violets. Soon afterwards the willow had begun to quicken and burst forth into fluffy buds, the pink haze of the tiny herb robert spread over the ditches and the grass of the fields was sprinkled with cowslips. An early spring, said the optimists who began making plans for moving their cows to summer pasture.

But by the thirty-first day of March, just as soon as the bare thorny twigs of hedgerows had become covered with white blossoms, the traditional saying ‘the little winter of the blackthorn’ had come true and the air turned icy. Winds from the north-east scoured the land. Showers of hail and of heavy, icy rain drowned the dry fields and puddles sprang up even on the limestone lands of the Burren. The cattle, over-wintering on the clumps of sweet grass that grew between the heat-retaining limestone rocks of the High Burren, grouped together in the shelter of stone walls and turned their backs on the arctic winds. Farmers slept little on these freezing nights, but continually checked on in-calf cows, trying to bring those near their time into the shelter of the stone barns or cabins close to their houses. Even as April neared to an end, the winds and the rain still continued and the grass made poor growth. The riches of the kingdom lay in its cattle and this late spring was a worry to the farmers. By now the cows should have been taken down from the high limestone plateaux and the mountain sides to feed on the lush grasses of the valleys, but it seemed as though winter still had a grip on the land.

A fit evening to mourn the dead, thought Mara, as she rode her horse up the Carron Mountain towards the MacNamara tower house. The tánaiste (heir) of the clan, an unmarried man in his late sixties, had died and Garrett MacNamara, taoiseach (chieftain) of the MacNamaras was holding the funeral ceremonies at the castle.

As Brehon of the Burren, in charge of law and order, Mara felt obliged to attend every wake – those particularly Celtic occasions when the dead are mourned by a night of singing, dancing and storytelling; and by the consumption of large amounts of food and drink. It was, she knew, a time when the bonds between relatives and neighbours were renewed and she recognised the importance of honouring the life of the newly deceased. However, personally, on this particular evening, she grudged the time. This was a very busy season of the year for her. Tomorrow would be the eve of the festival of Bealtaine, and was traditionally judgement day in the kingdom. She had planned to spend this evening writing up her notes and preparing for the various law cases which would be brought before her on that occasion. Two of her scholars were due to sit their final examination in a month’s time and she needed to make sure that they were well-prepared for this.

Nevertheless, it was impossible to evade these ceremonies, so after supper she set out reluctantly. Her assistant teacher, Fachtnan, rode beside her and her scholars followed. The two eighteen-year-olds, Moylan and Aidan, who would be taking their final examinations this summer; seventeen-year-old Fiona from Scotland; fifteen year-old Hugh, whose father was a wealthy silver merchant on the Burren; and fourteen-year-old Shane, son of the Brehon to O’Neill from Ulster, were all in good spirits. These wakes were always entertaining for the young and they looked forward eagerly to the feast that would be provided there.

The attendance at the wake promised to be huge; the steep hill, leading up to the castle at Carron, was lined with people drawing aside to allow the Brehon to pass and calling out greetings in a cheerful manner. There seemed to be little sorrow at this death of a man who was no longer even middle-aged and who had been in poor health for the majority of the time during his office of tánaiste. The general talk seemed to be more about the unseasonable weather; and the lowing of cows cooped up in the huge barn on the hill above the castle called forth a general discussion on the perils of calving in low temperatures. New life, rather than death, was the topic of conversation for the people of the Burren on this evening. And that was how it should be, thought Mara. Look ahead, not back, had always been her motto for life. She found that she could hardly recollect the features of the dead man and sighed to think how in a few minutes’ time she would have to gaze respectfully down at the dead face inside the open coffin and say a few dignified and meaningful words about his life and time in the Burren. And later on in the evening she would hear, with a suppressed smile, her words passed from person to person as if they were gospel truth.

What on earth had possessed Garrett, four years ago, to impose upon his clan such an elderly and obviously unfit heir? The thought was in Mara’s mind as she greeted the taoiseach and his wife and then shepherded her scholars over to say a quick prayer for the repose of the soul of the deceased. Garrett himself was a man in his middle thirties who had inherited the position from his father a few years ago. At the time people had said that the newly married man had wanted to keep the position warm for his own son and to avoid electing his younger brother, Jarlath, but few had cared to oppose the strong-expressed views of their new leader.

But now? Who would be the new tánaiste?

Just as Mara crossed herself piously and murmured a prayer her eye was caught by a tanned young man accepting a drink from a servant. Surely that was Jarlath, himself, back from his sea voyages. Jarlath MacNamara was a successful merchant with his own ship and little of him had been seen on the Burren for the last ten years or so. He had arrived opportunely, thought Mara. The slim youth that she remembered had turned into a tall, broad-shouldered man with an air about him of command and authority. The clan would be impressed by him. Unobtrusively she dodged a few neighbours looking for a gossip with her and made her way across the room.

‘Can it be you, Jarlath? Well, you have changed,’ she said with her best smile and he bowed gracefully over her out-stretched hand.

‘But not you, Brehon,’ he said with a flash of white teeth in his tanned face. ‘I swear that you haven’t aged a day since I saw you last. You still have your law school, do you? I heard that you have married since I saw you last.’ His eyes went to Fiona, and their shade of pale blue darkened in appreciation of the pretty Scots girl with her primrose-fair curls and shapely figure. ‘And I hear that you have a girl scholar, now,’ he said. ‘You must introduce me.’

‘Your brother must have been pleased to see you back home again after all those years,’ said Mara, ignoring this. If he wanted to flirt with Fiona, later in the evening would be the time for this. For now she would get to know him again. This time the clan would be reluctant to allow Garrett to ride rough-shod over them and to impose his choice of tánaiste. Garrett’s father had been an immensely popular man and the clan had been happy to elect his son as taoiseach, but it had not proved to be a success – nor had Garrett’s choice of an elderly man in very poor health for his heir been a good one. The MacNamara clan would be cautious this time, and no doubt many of them would be finding an excuse to ask her opinion about young Jarlath. She would take this opportunity to get to know the young man and assess his quality. There was no doubt that Garrett was not a well-loved taoiseach. A popular young tánaiste who could deputise for him, a man who knew how to talk, and how to listen to his people could help to alleviate some of the trivial disputes and complaints which seemed to arise continuously from the MacNamara clan and which took time and attention from her at every judgement day, during the intervening years and months since Garrett’s election.

‘So will you be staying at home for a while now, Jarlath?’ she asked in a tone of innocent curiosity.

He shrugged and grinned. ‘Yes, I’m home for a while, perhaps for good. Burned my boat, as they say. At least I sold it to the O’Donnell. Not a great boat, but he seemed happy with it. He was visiting the king of Scotland and we met at Mull of Kintyre. He was good enough to offer me a free passage down to the Burren as he had promised to drop off an Englishman, Stephen Gardiner, who wishes to study the ways and customs of Ireland, down here. And two others, also . . .’ His voice tailed away and his eyes went to his brother. There was a twinkle in them which intrigued her, though part of her mind was pre-occupied in wondering what part O’Donnell and this Stephen Gardiner were playing in visiting James IV of Scotland when the Scottish king was rumoured to have signed a treaty with Louis of France against Henry VIII of England, master to both of these men.

‘You’ll be staying with Garrett, will you?’ she asked. It would not be ideal so she was not surprised when he shook his head.

‘Not for long, not here, not in this castle,’ he said. ‘Things are none too pleasant here at the moment. I didn’t get much of a welcome when I arrived. But perhaps I will build myself a new house on one of the farms that belong to me, that were left to me when my father – may God have mercy on him – died. Anyway, I am home for the moment, not sure what I’m going to do next – in any case, I need to replace my ship; get a few repairs done to the fleet – it will take a while and I don’t want to impose too long on Garrett.’ His smile broadened. ‘Things are a bit tense here. You see two of the three visitors I brought with me have caused a bit of an upset. Let me introduce you to them.’

Without saying any more, he took her arm and steered her across the room and towards the window that overlooked the valley. There were two people sitting on the window seat, almost hidden by the splendid curtains of woven brocade. One was a tall, strongly made woman, probably in her middle thirties, and the other was a thin boy of about fifteen. They were talking – or at least the woman was talking, whispering the words in the boy’s ear, while he sat, head averted, sulkily gazing at the ground. From time to time she patted his hand as though he were a toddler, not an adolescent. He didn’t look strong, Mara thought. He was very bony and his shoulders were bent over a hollow chest.

But then he looked up and at the sight of his face, Mara stopped abruptly. Not a good-looking boy, though adolescent boys of that age seldom were. But this boy with his fleshy, protruding nose and his heavily swelling lower lip jutting out from the receding chin bore a strong resemblance to someone else in the room. Mara’s eyes turned towards the taoiseach, Garrett MacNamara, still greeting the visitors and accepting their condolences on the death of the tánaiste. The boy was the image of him.

‘This is my brother’s son, Peadar, and his mother Rhona,’ said Jarlath with the air of someone enjoying the shock that he was causing. ‘They are from Scotland; come and meet them,’ he added and then introduced Mara to the woman, Rhona, whose eyes sparkled with interest as she heard Mara’s office.

‘We have a Brehon in the mountain area that I come from,’ she said. ‘I clean his house, help to milk his cattle and he gives me food and information. He it was who told me of my rights and what my son could expect.’ She laughed suddenly, ‘But I have never heard of a female Brehon. It’s good to see a woman doing a job like that. Mostly it’s the men telling us what to do and we knowing the right way to go before they even open their lips. That’s what we say in Scotland, anyway,’ she added.

‘Well, then, if you come from Scotland, you must meet my scholar, Fiona,’ said Mara, smiling. ‘She, also, comes from that country and I think she gets homesick sometimes for it.’

‘Come on, young Peadar, I’ll introduce you to the beautiful girl scholar from your native land and we’ll leave your mother to chat to the Brehon.’ Jarlath took command in a lordly way, signalling to a maidservant to bring refreshments to Mara and taking his nephew by the arm and steering him across towards the group of scholars.

‘You are surprised to see my Peadar!’ Rhona eyed Mara appraisingly. Her Scottish accent was stronger than Fiona’s but the Gaelic was near enough to the Irish form to make her quite comprehensible.

‘Very,’ said Mara frankly. ‘I did not know that Garrett had a son.’ She looked across at Garrett and his wife Slaney. Slaney had come from the English city of Galway, twenty miles away– not from the MacNamara clan or from any of the other three clans on the Burren. They had married quite soon after Garrett had succeeded to the office of taoiseach, but over four years had now passed and there was no sign of a child. Slaney, thought Mara, looked white and ill. She had never liked the woman much, finding her arrogant and intolerant, and uninterested in the customs and laws of her husband’s clan, but now she felt sorry for her. This must be a terrible blow to her.

‘Garrett has acknowledged Peadar as a son.’ Rhona broke into her thoughts. ‘And,’ she added, watching Mara’s face, ‘he has invited me into the household as his second wife. There is talk of a divorce from his chief wife, but I don’t know whether he’s serious about that or not.’ She shrugged her wide shoulders with an air of indifference.

I wonder what Slaney had to say about that? Mara suppressed the question and tried to smile in a natural fashion. ‘You met in Scotland, did you?’ she asked politely.

Rhona shook her head. ‘On board ship we met; out in Spain. I was the ship’s captain’s wife. My husband’s dead now.’ Her voice was harsh and indifferent when she mentioned her husband’s death, but Mara offered a conventional expression of sympathy. Her mind was whirring. Why had she not heard of this before now?

‘When did you arrive, you and your son, Rhona?’ she asked.

‘Just recently,’ the woman replied. ‘We came on the same ship that Jarlath travelled on – from the north of Ireland. We had crossed over from Scotland a week ago with Jarlath when we heard that he was making the journey. Jarlath had already arranged to sell his ship to O’Donnell and in return to be allowed to journey down to the Burren on one of O’Donnell’s boats.’

‘So you came with Jarlath?’ asked Mara, her mind grappling with the problem of Garrett taking a second wife. It was quite a common occurrence in Gaelic society, especially among the wealthy who could afford the expense, but Slaney had never been part of that society and she would find this even harder to accept than most wives would do.

‘That’s right,’ said Rhona. ‘O’Donnell was sending someone down here, and there was plenty of room for three more. Look, there’s the man, over there. Jarlath invited him to come to stay with his brother. He’s called Stephen Gardiner, that Englishman over there, the one that has gone over to talk to Slaney.’ She pointed across the room to where Slaney, rigid and pale-faced, was endeavouring to smile upon the stranger.

Definitely English, thought Mara. This Stephen wore a small pointed beard, instead of Irish moustaches, and he was dressed in tight-fitting brightly-coloured hose, and an elaborate, bulky tunic, with a short cloak swinging from his shoulders. Middle to late twenties, thought Mara, about the same age as Jarlath, his travelling companion, who must now be at least twenty-five; she dismissed him from her mind and turned back to the woman beside her.

‘If you only arrived a little while ago,’ she said, ‘this explains why I have not heard of the matter. If Gareth has the intention to declare you formally as his wife of the second degree, then this should be done as soon as possible – preferably tomorrow – at the judgement day at Poulnabrone.’ She hesitated a moment, her eyes going to Garrett – was the man really going to impose a second wife into the household? Slaney would find that a barbarous custom. Or did he intend to get a divorce from Slaney? And on what grounds? Infertility, perhaps; that was certainly grounds for divorce for either party in a marriage. It was obvious, now, that Garrett had fathered at least one child, so the fault must lie with Slaney. Still she would hear when he had made up his mind. She wouldn’t disturb him now in the midst of this mourning for his cousin, the tánaiste, she decided. However, the legal status of this son and new wife would have to be ratified and the sooner the better.

‘I think you should remind him of his obligations to put this on a legal footing, so do make sure, Rhona, that he, you and your son are at Poulnabrone for the judgement ceremonies tomorrow. He needs to declare in public to the people that Peadar is a true son of his and that you are his wife.’

When Rhona said nothing in reply to this, Mara wondered whether she should ask the question in her mind; decided that it was none of her business, but still could not resist it.

‘Is Slaney staying on at the castle?’ she asked.

Rhona hunched an indifferent shoulder. ‘You’ll have to ask her that, Brehon.’ Her smile broadened. ‘Jarlath tells me that she comes from a family of wealthy merchants and I’m just the daughter of a poor cattle dealer in the mountains of Scotland. I know more about cows than I do about golden sovereigns. She doesn’t even speak to me.’

Not surprising, thought Mara. She liked Rhona, she decided. She was no beauty with her broad, weather-beaten brown face, and her slightly rusty-blond hair but she had a straight-forward, honest look in her grey eyes. Her position in the household would not be an easy one. The position of a wife of the second degree seldom was. And then there was Garrett himself. Mara wondered whether an independent-looking woman like Rhona would be able to stand Garrett too long – not to mention his unpleasant wife, Slaney. Still mother-love was a potent force and no doubt Rhona was doing this for Peadar’s sake and might only stay for long enough to make sure that he got his dues.

However, Mara had many people to greet so with a nod and smile at the Scottish woman she moved on to speak to other mourners. The MacNamara clan had turned out in big numbers for this wake – perhaps the rumour about the newcomers had spread and all had been curious to see the newly discovered son and the wife of second degree. Many of them were unknown to her as they came from the bordering kingdom of Thomond, rather than from the Burren. The MacNamara clan had moved east, though their taoiseach’s place of residence remained here, high on the rocky cliff that overlooked the fertile valley at Carron. But whether they came from Burren or Thomond, all seemed eager to find out how the wife of Garrett was taking the arrival of these two from Scotland.

Mara began to feel rather sorry for Slaney, who was pretending to make indifferent conversation with this Stephen Gardiner from London. Slaney had ridden high and had ridden rough-shod over her husband and his clan since their marriage four years ago and now she had to share the position of wife with this stranger from Scotland. She had, poor woman, proved barren and another’s son would inherit what should have been given to her offspring. Would Slaney wait for Garrett to divorce her? Or would she, now before there were any scandals aired, go straight back to her people in Galway? She would get plenty of sympathy there; the right of a man to take a second wife would certainly be declared to be a pagan custom in that anglicised city which regulated its conduct by English laws and English customs.

‘Not too happy,’ said Maol MacNamara, Garrett’s steward, breaking into Mara’s thoughts. He gave a nod towards Slaney. His face wore a malicious smile.

‘A death is always a sad occasion,’ said Mara coolly, deliberately misunderstanding him. She had no very high opinion of Maol. A steward should be loyal to his master. Maol was a poor manager, a gossip and a spreader of information. He was honest enough, she reckoned; at least she had not heard any rumours to the contrary, but that might not be any credit to him. Garrett, with his obsession about money, would be a difficult man to cheat and Maol would not have the brains to deceive him.

‘What do you think about this terrible weather, Maol?’ she said briskly. The weather was usually a safe source for conversation in this land of farming, but it didn’t seem to work well this time. Maol’s face darkened.

‘Nothing I can do about the weather, Brehon,’ he said with the air of one who was glad to air a grievance. ‘It wasn’t my fault that the spring sowing of the oats failed.’ He cast a furious look across the room at his taoiseach. ‘How could I know that the weather would take a turn for the worse? If I sowed too late then I would be found to be in the wrong, too.’

‘As the good book says: “He that observeth the wind shall not sow; and he that regardeth the clouds shall not reap,’” said Mara with a bland smile. She had often found that a store of quotes from the Bible had been of great use in situations like this; a respectful pause usually ensued and the subject could be changed.

Maol, however, did not avail himself of this opportunity.

‘I feel that I have been very badly treated, Brehon,’ he pronounced ponderously.

Mara sighed inwardly, but after all her years as Brehon of the Burren, she was well used to the way that people brought up the trickiest of law problems on these social occasions. She hastily banished from her memory the scorn expressed by her own farm manager at Maol’s poor judgement and of how Cumhal had laughed when he saw the MacNamara fields sown with oat seed on a blustery day of freezing north-easterly winds.

‘You feel that your taoiseach has not been fair to you,’ she remarked mildly, observing that Maol’s face had darkened to an almost purple shade.

‘He has threatened to dismiss me,’ said Maol bluntly. She noticed that his right hand had doubled itself into a fist, clenching so tightly that, when he undid it and held the hand dramatically out to her, she could see nail marks on his palms.

‘I ask you, Brehon,’ he said, his voice breaking with emotion, ‘what am I going to do if he carries out his threat? I will be disgraced entirely. He’ll do it, too. He’s a hard master. He dismissed his cowman, Brennan, just because the dun cow miscarried of a heifer calf – so he said.’

Mara thought about it; Brennan would probably go back to stay with his brother over the border with Thomond, but for this man to lose the job of a steward was a more serious matter. Maol had been a small farmer at the foot of the Oughtmama hills to the north of the kingdom of the Burren and he had given that farm up when he had been appointed. Most had been surprised when Garrett had chosen him as steward; openly hinting that Maol had gained his position, less by ability, than by his shameless flattery of the newly-appointed taoiseach.

‘Come and see me at Cahermacnaghten,’ she said with an inward sigh, but a firm resolution not to be pushed into giving an opinion before she was in position of all the facts. ‘We’ll talk it all over then and you can tell me what you feel and what has been said. After that I will see your taoiseach and hear his side of the story.’

Maol grunted, not too pleased at this response and Mara sought to divert his attention before he could persist.

‘How well Jarlath is looking,’ she remarked, glancing across at the tall, well-tanned figure of Garrett’s very much younger brother. ‘It must be almost ten years since I have seen him. The life of a merchant has certainly suited him.’

Maol’s face lit up with enthusiasm. ‘A man who is interested in the land and in the people of the clan,’ he agreed.

‘You’ve met him, then?’ asked Mara.

‘I have, indeed,’ said Maol. ‘He has made a point of visiting all of his clansmen. The image of his father, he is. That’s what we all say. It’s like having the old man back again.’ His face darkened. ‘I could count on the fingers of one hand the number of times that himself has been inside my cottage.’

It was as she had thought; Garrett had not endeared himself to his clansmen since he had taken up his position in 1509. Four years should have been enough for the man to establish himself, but instead these years had only served to erase the memory of his popular father and create a desire for something new in the minds of the MacNamara clan.

‘Come and see me next Monday,’ she said firmly and moved away before he could reply. Monday would give a cooling-off period of five days and would give her time to think and to make a few discreet enquiries. She crossed the room and joined Jarlath and his cousin, the newly arrived Peadar from Scotland.

‘Tell me what you have been doing since I saw you last, Jarlath,’ she invited the young man cordially. He certainly would be popular with the clan. Jarlath did not resemble his brother, but had the same clear, light-coloured blue eyes, well-modelled nose and curly black hair that his father had possessed and these assets were enhanced by the deeply tanned skin which had resulted from his many sea voyages.

‘How have you prospered?’ she added.

To her surprise and admiration he did not seize on this as an occasion to boast but smiled deprecatingly. ‘I’d bore you if I told you about every scrape I fell into, every piece of idiocy that I committed, every time that I was cheated,’ he said modestly, and Mara saw that the boy Peadar looked at him with surprise and a touch of disappointment. No doubt he had been expecting to hear some very different stories about daring deeds on the high seas and of near-misses and feats of valour. Her opinion of Jarlath went up. How different he was to his elder brother, she thought, glancing across the room at Garrett.

There was some sort of quarrel going on; she could see that. Garrett was surrounded by some prominent members of his clan from both kingdoms. The blacksmith, Fintan MacNamara, whose forge was on the western side of the Burren, was speaking now and even though, for Fintan, the tone of voice was lowered, a man such as Fintan, built like a bull, reared in a forge where there was incessant clamour of beaten iron, could never successfully talk quietly.

‘It’s for the clan to elect the tánaiste,’ he was saying, ‘and with all respect to you, my lord, I say that we do it here and now; the clan is present, the Brehon, herself, is present; no reason why it can’t be all signed and sealed while the night is young.’

Garrett said something, his long face flushed with anger. Mara could not hear his words but the response was instant.

‘I see no disrespect to the dead, my lord,’ bellowed Fintan. ‘Lord have mercy on him, the poor man was a good and loyal member of the clan and he’s probably wishing that we would get on with the business and appoint his successor and allow him to enjoy his eternal rest.’ Fintan cast a glance up towards the high carved ceiling of the great hall and crossed himself piously. The rest of clan followed suit, and having, thought Mara suppressing a smile, checked the wishes of the deceased, they turned angry faces back towards their taoiseach. She put down her goblet of sour Spanish wine and made her way swiftly across to the cluster around Garrett. Trouble, she found, could often be averted by her mere presence. Garrett’s lower lip was jutting out like the curved edge of a platter and his eyes were full of anger.

Many of the men gathered around him were unknown to her as most of the MacNamara land lay east of the kingdom of the Burren, in Corcomroe and Thomond, but all knew her; as the only woman Brehon in Ireland she was famous and in addition her marriage three years ago to Turlough Donn O’Brien, king of the three kingdoms of Thomond, Corcomroe and Burren, made her well known to all of his subjects. Voices ceased and men stood back as she joined the group.

‘We were discussing the subject of the election of the new tánaiste, Brehon,’ said Niall MacNamara, a neighbour of Fintan. Niall was attached to Fintan and grateful to him because he had a half brother, Balor; a huge strong man, but mentally retarded whom Fintan employed. Balor was extremely happy working at the forge; he was good with animals and proud of his enormous strength which allowed him to swing the heaviest hammer. It was no wonder, thought Mara, that Niall would support Fintan in this matter.

‘The clan favours Jarlath,’ said Niall. ‘We of the Burren have decided that is our wish. And Tomás, here –’ he indicated a dark-haired man with an air of authority, who was standing beside Garrett – ‘he’s from Thomond, Brehon; well, he favours electing Jarlath as the tánaiste as well.’ He cast a dubious glance at Garrett’s bad-tempered face, and stepped back hastily, murmuring, ‘We’re all in favour of doing it here and now, Brehon, if that suits you.’

Niall was a peaceful man and obviously did not want to anger his taoiseach, Garrett, too much. Fintan, on the other hand, was too aggressive. This Tomás looked like a man who would be cautious and sensible in what he said so Mara addressed herself to him.

‘Are all the clans represented here tonight?’ she asked.

‘All of them, Brehon,’ he said respectfully. Garrett made an inarticulate sound, but Mara ignored him. When relationships were good then a taoiseach usually picked out his heir, but by law the decision was one for the clan to make. The king had to be involved in the election of the taoiseach, but his presence and approval was not necessary for the election of a tánaiste.

‘And you are all agreed?’ she asked looking around at the cluster of MacNamara clan members. Several, who had been standing in other parts of the room, sidled across to join them. There was a murmur of assent as Mara looked from one face to the other.

‘Well, in that case, perhaps you will let me have the name of your choice,’ she said. ‘If you are all of the one mind, the ceremony can be held tonight if you wish. The king is not present, but I can act on his behalf.’

‘We would like Jarlath, the brother of the taoiseach, to be the new tánaiste,’ Tomás raised his voice slightly and spoke firmly. He looked straight ahead.

Garrett lifted a peremptory finger and beckoned the young lad, Peadar, his newly-discovered son. Peadar came over, but his mother, Rhona, remained where she was, watching the scene with an amused smile.

‘This is my choice for tánaiste,’ he said, slipping an arm around the boy’s shoulders. ‘My son, Peadar, bred of my bone and acknowledged by me.’

There was a dead silence. All of the MacNamara clan exchanged glances with each other, but none looked at Garrett, or at his newly discovered son. Jarlath strolled over and stood beside the two, his eyebrows slightly raised. The contrast between his tall, broad-shouldered figure and the slight, underdeveloped adolescent boy at his side was enough to start a murmur among the clan. The rest of the neighbours from the Burren watched with interest. Even those praying beside the coffin returned their rosary beads to their pouches and went to stand by the fireplace and to watch the drama that had unexpectedly unfolded.

‘Perhaps, Brehon, we could vote on the choice before us,’ suggested the man named Tomás and there was an eager murmur of agreement from the clan.

‘Those in favour of electing Jarlath MacNamara as tánaiste please raise your right hand,’ said Mara, looking around at the faces.

Every hand was raised except that of Garrett and of his son.

‘For Peadar?’ queried Mara.

Only Garrett’s hand went up. Peadar looked unsure and then embarrassed. Rhona strolled away and stood looking out through the window. Slaney glanced away from Stephen Gardiner, surveyed the crowd with a look of disdain and then turned back to him again.

‘I refuse to allow this matter to go forward,’ stated Garrett. He thrust his lower lip forward and glared belligerently at his clan members.

Mara touched Garrett on the arm and withdrew towards one of the window seats, leaving him to follow her.

‘You don’t feel that Jarlath will make a good tánaiste, is that correct, taoiseach?’ she asked. She made sure that her low-spoken words could not be overheard by the clan and that her voice was calm and sounded neutral. She could not afford to take sides against one of the chieftains in the kingdom where she was responsible for maintaining law and order. Fights and even battles could flare up at a moment’s notice among these martial clans. Or worse, outsiders might be embroiled in the quarrel and could bring war into the peaceful kingdom of the Burren.

‘What’s the problem, Garrett?’ she asked briskly, seating herself on the broad window seat and signalling him to sit beside her. At least his appalling wife, Slaney, hadn’t moved away from her seat by the fire to follow them. She was too engaged in her conversation with Stephen Gardiner. Garrett did not even glance in her direction. Up to now, thought Mara, Garrett had always appeared to be completely under the thumb of his Galway-born, English-speaking wife. How on earth had he found the courage to introduce a new wife and a fifteen-year-old son into the household?

‘What have you against the appointment of Jarlath as your tánaiste?’ she asked when he said nothing.

‘No objection,’ he mumbled. ‘It’s just that I hoped, in fact I was sure, that my son, Peadar, would be elected to the position. It seemed like providence when he arrived in the very hour when I first heard of the tánaiste’s death,’ he explained.

Mara stared at him. Was the man mad? Sure? How could he possibly have been sure?

‘What, a fifteen-year-old boy who has just arrived into the country – totally unknown to your clan! That would never be approved of, Garrett. I wonder that you should have thought that.’ Mara decided that she would not waste any more time. The clan were uneasy and rebellious. Her instincts told her that there could be trouble. The MacNamara clan were never part of the Burren in the way as the O’Brien, the O’Lochlainn or even the O’Connor clan with its roots in west Corcomroe.

‘Well, he is my son and I have accepted him,’ he argued.

‘And rightly so,’ said Mara soothingly with an eye on his high colour. The man looked about to explode. ‘He does seem to bear the family face and I presume you are happy with the date of birth and with Rhona’s testimony.’

He nodded vigorously. ‘She’s a good woman, Rhona. I should have married her instead of . . .’

‘However, that does not alter the fact that the boy is only fifteen years old and is quite unknown to the clan,’ continued Mara firmly. ‘The clan is, by courtesy, consulting you about this matter and I don’t see that you can have any complaint when they are proposing to choose your brother. And it does make sense to get through the legal business tonight when so many members of such a widespread clan as yours are present. We can deal with the declaration of Peadar to be your son and Rhona to be your wife of the second degree tomorrow, but the election of Jarlath can perfectly well take place tonight.’ She watched his frowning face for a moment and added quietly. ‘I would do it with as good grace as you can muster, Garrett. In the end, the choice will not be yours. What say you? Shall we do it now?’ She did not wait for an answer but got to her feet decisively and moved back to where the clan stood.

‘We will deal with this affair now,’ she said briskly.

The north-easterly wind was freezing when the MacNamara clan moved out of doors to inaugurate their new tánaiste. Mara was glad of her fur-lined woollen mantle and the heir-elect, Jarlath, made a great show of shivering dramatically. He was very well-liked, Mara could see, as the clan surged forward to gather under the newly-budded branches of the huge ash tree. Many clapped him on the back and joked with him about the warmth in Spain and of the beauty of the sunburnt ladies in that country. Mara gathered her mantle more closely around her as they went down the path into the small hidden place where these events took place. At least they were sheltered from the wind here, she thought, as she climbed up onto the raised platform of heavy stone slabs beside the cairn, the inauguration place of the MacNamara clan on the Burren. Jarlath took his place on one side of her and Garrett on the other. Slaney, Mara was interested to note, had hesitated for a moment, but then joined them, casting a look of loathing at Garrett. Rhona and her son Peadar remained on the ground below, slightly outside the enclosure space, standing beside the smooth-barked trunk of the giant ash tree. Curious glances were cast at them but both stared straight ahead and ignored these.

‘Let’s get this over as quickly as possible,’ muttered Jarlath and Mara frowned. This inauguration of a tánaiste was one of the prehistoric ceremonies of Gaelic Ireland and one that would be lost in the future if the young king of England, Henry VIII, had his way. Already the new taoiseach of the O’Donnell clan in northern Ireland had given up his ancient title of Ri (king) and accepted an earldom from the English king. Never again would the O’Donnell clan have an opportunity to elect the most suitable candidate to rule over them. From now on the inheritance would pass from father to son, generation after generation, even if the son were a mere infant in arms when the father died. Even when the heir was unsuitable, unpopular, or unstable, son would follow father as surely as night followed day.

I hope I never have to see such a situation here in the Burren during my lifetime, thought Mara and turned a face filled with solemnity towards the crowd. There was an instant silence, a silence that she allowed to last for a long minute before raising her well-trained voice.

‘I, Mara, Brehon of the Burren, by the power devolved on me by Turlough Donn O’Brien, King of Thomond, Corcomroe and Burren; son of Teige; son of Turlough Beg; son of Brian; son of Mahon; son of Murrtough; son of Turlough; true descendent of the derbhfine of Brian, son of Cinnéide; now inaugurate Jarlath MacNamara as the new tánaiste of the MacNamara clan here in the Kingdom of Burren.’

Jarlath knelt and placed his hands within Mara’s, as representative of the king. This was the ceremony of imbas where authority flowed from king to recipient. And the MacNamara clan broke out in thunderous applause when she released his hands, kissed him lightly on the cheek and turned to Garrett.

‘My lord,’ she said, ‘I present to you Jarlath, tánaiste of the MacNamara clan.’





Artwork from 'My Lady Judge', 'Michaelmas Tribute' and 'Sting of Justice' copyright Pan Macmillan




Photo album of the Burren

A stone age 'Dolmen' on the Burren, County Clare, IrelandBy the mid-western Atlantic seaboard is one of the most magical places in Ireland.

It is called The Burren and geologists, botanists, nature lovers, mountain climbers and cave explorers come from all over the world to see this place.

Cora Harrison's next novel: 'My Lady Judge', which will be published by Pan-Macmillan in early 2007 for an adult audience, is inspired by:

Stone paving on the Burrenthe wonderful bare limestone pavements and the tiny rare wild flowers that flourish in the cracks of those pavements;

Mullaghmore mountain on the Burrenthe spiralling terraced mountains; the remains of tombs and forts and tower houses, ruined churches,  slender round towers;

Cahermacnaghten law schooland above all by the ancient walls of Cahermacnaghten law school (pictured left) where, right up to the reign of Queen Elizabeth I, the Brehon laws were taught and were used to keep the peace in the community which had lived on the Burren for thousands of years..


Click here to see the photo album


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