Cora Harrison
Cora Harrison

Cora Harrison

Mullaghmore mountain on the Burren, County Clare, Ireland

My Lady Judge, paperback edition

Michaelmas Tribute

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The Burren mysteries


Reviews of Cora Harrison's Michaelmas Tribute, (the second Burren mystery)

Published by Pan Macmillan May 2008





From Monsters and

Book Review: Michaelmas Tribute by Cora Harrison
By Angela Youngman
Nov 14, 2008

Sixteenth century Ireland. The independent kingdoms are constantly threatened by the presence of the English domains. Two very different cultures are in existence.

Brehon Mara is both judge and lawgiver within the kingdom of the Burren. At the Michaelmas Fair, her skills are tested to the utmost. The new lord of the MacNamara clan has raised the tribute and his greedy steward Ragnall MacNamara is not making himself popular. When his body is found in the churchyard Mara has to investigate.

Ascertaining the cause of the murder proves just as hard as finding the perpetrator - greed, revenge, old scores and hatreds all play their part. Underlying it all is the clash between two cultures.

A fascinating mix of good storytelling with informative historical background. Mara is a believable character; she really becomes alive as you read the book. Her own internal conflicts and problems add an extra flavour to the story.

This is the second in what is set to be a brilliant new series of history mysteries. If future volumes live up to the reputation set in this one - then we are in for a real feast.

© Copyright


Irish American News

"Don’t Worry About Anything… I Will See That Justice is Done."

Mara is back. The year is 1509 and the place is Ireland’s Burren. Mara is in her late 30’s, tall, with dark hair, smart and good-looking.

The king appointed her to maintain peace and to provide impartial justice in one of his kingdoms. She is Brehon over the whole area of the Burren.

In Gaelic Ireland the Brehon, or judge, was a position of prestige, respect and power. The Brehon dispensed humane justice, was the visible representative of justice in the area, and advised the king on legal matters.

A Secret and Unlawful Killing is the second mystery novel Cora Harrison has written about the Ireland of the early 1500s with Brehon Mara as the main character.

A Secret and Unlawful Killing (USA)The Burren area is about thirty miles from Galway city. (I have travelled in this impressive area.)

Right, the USA title and cover for the second Burren mystery

Most of the land is covered by limestone bedrock. Life is difficult but the stony geography is beautiful, Rare, colorful plants and animals live there in the cracks and fissures of the bedrock.

For the people who live there, their word is not only their bond but their worth. They are hardy, tough, self-reliant and quick to help each other.

There have been two murders and Mara must solve them. The murders are not only shocking, but affronts to the law and to the king’s authority.

Mara is tolerant and kind with people, but she is also relentless in pursuit of the killer or killers. She is so implacable, in fact, that the book reads like a "police procedural."

As she thinks about possible solutions to the murders, she sees some spider webs that were damaged as birds fed on bushes where the webs were located. She observes: "… already some of them were repairing the damage. She watched them for a moment, admiring how unerringly the gossamer threads from their bodies formed the complicated wheel-like pattern, all leading to where the juicy fly could be trapped in the centre. This was what she had to do now: see the pattern and, trace back the filaments that could attach the murderer to the murdered."

Being Brehon was delicate and difficult position to occupy in Irish society. The Brehon had to be not only completely knowledgeable of the law, but must be able to understand people, and be observant of human strengths and foibles.

As Brehon, Mara needed all of those qualities because Irish judges had to gather the information to bring to court: almost like a district attorney today.

Like most mystery novels, the facts, or clues, are presented so the reader can solve the mystery. I couldn’t solve it. At the end of the book, I was astonished. A Secret and Unlawful Killing is a gripping mystery that also shows life in Gaelic Ireland. It describes the Irish legal system that worked for hundreds of years. It was humane and fair, unlike the legal system introduced by the English. The English system was often harsh, arbitrary and easily swayed by money. There were no jails, dungeons or soldiers needed to enforce Irish law!

You’ll enjoy this mystery and learn much about our Irish heritage.

These are some quotes you may enjoy.

• "Justice was [the Brehon’s] affair; let the king order his political power base as he wished… she might have been appointed by the king; but she was appointed to administer the kingdom according to the laws that had been laid down over hundreds of years…"

• "For over fifteen hundred years they and their ancestors had lived by this system of justice that relied on the good will and the cooperation of the clans to keep the peace within its community."

• A merchant, who cheats his customers, is brought before Mara. She thinks that if this occurred where English law existed, the innocent wife of the merchant "would be arrested and thrown into prison and brought before a court…" Imagine, she thinks, throwing a poor unfortunate woman into prison and probably torturing her, just because of some [missing coins].

• Mara "had long practised the art of thinking only of what she could remedy."

• "… the rain was over now… The day would be fine tomorrow. That was the way it went on this western seaboard, one day wet, one day fine: the weather and sky and the landscape continually changing and shifting between light and dark. She sometimes thought that it made for a quick-witted, alert and flexible people, used to taking each day as it came, without bothering themselves by too much fruitless planning."

A Secret and Unlawful Killing by Cora Harrison. St. Martin’s Minotaur, New York, 2008. 326 pages; $24.95.

Publishers weekly: "The International News Magazine of Book Publishing and Bookselling"

In Harrison's captivating second mystery set in the 16th-century kingdom of the Burren in western Ireland (after 2007's My Lady Judge), the murder of an arrogant steward, Ragnall MacNamara, leaves a wide field of suspects, as does the suspicious death of another surly citizen.

The learned Mara, the sole woman Brehon (or judge) in Ireland, is responsible for all crimes on the Burren as well as for deciding such delicate questions as inheritances and even, in certain circumstances, approval of a marriage proposal.

Harrison depicts the intricacies of Irish law so clearly and marries them to her plot so adroitly that despite their unfamiliarity they are easily understood. Engaging characters from the honorable King Turlough Donn O'Brien to Mara's eager law students add to the pleasure.

Mara's quest to solve the murders and “to restore peace to the people of the Burren” makes for compelling reading.


Two linked murders pose a pretty problem for the Brehon of the kingdom of Burren, in 16th-century western Ireland.

Mara, a Brehon judge who runs a school of law, is the beloved of King Tur-lough Donn, whose marriage proposal she has yet to answer. When Ragnall, the clan MacNamara's Steward, is found murdered in a churchyard, it's Mara's duty to discover who killed him and claim the murder price. Ragnall had recently col-lected a greatly increased and unpopular Michaelmas tribute for his lord, Garrett MacNamara, a man feverishly seeking more money to support the spending habits of his new wife.

After Aengus the miller follows Ragnall into eternity, there is no dearth of suspects for both crimes, including the highborn Donal O'Brien, who's in love with Ragnall's daughter, and Aengus's bastard sons. Care-fully questioning the many witnesses, Mara winkles out bits of information. As the King presses her to marry him, he must deal with the grave illness of his older son and the problem of his younger, who's become so closely involved with the English that the clans will not accept him as a future leader.

Mara makes several momentous and unpleasant discoveries on her road to a just verdict.

Mara's second (My Lady Judge, 2007, etc.) features well-drawn characters, a tantalizing mystery and an intriguing look at the surprisingly complex and lib-eral laws of 1509 Ireland.

Cora Harrison's Michaelmas Tribute has been chosen as one of the Historical Novel Society's 'Editors' Choice' novels exemplifying "the best in historical fiction":

Historical Novels Society

"For each quarterly issue of the Historical Novels Review, the editors will select a small number of titles they feel exemplify the best in historical fiction.

"These novels, which come highly recommended from our reviewers, have been designated as Editors' Choice titles."


Cora Harrison, Macmillan, 2008, £16.99, hb, 326pp, 9781405092258 / Minotaur, Sept. 2008, $24.95, hb, 336pp, 9780312372682

The Brehon Judge, Mara, returns in this second historical murder mystery set in the Burren in north-west Ireland.

It is 1509 and people are gathering for the Michaelmas Fair, but an angry undercurrent is marring the celebrations. Ragnall MacNamara, the unpopular steward of the MacNamara clan, is found murdered and Mara is called upon to investigate. Another death soon follows to complicate the picture.

Mara needs all her professional wits about her – especially since an unexpected marriage proposal is distracting her thoughts – to get to the bottom of this knotty case. And, when she finally pinpoints the awful truth, it seems that she must inevitably hurt the person she loves the most.

Once again, Cora Harrison brings 16th century Ireland beautifully to life and her Brehon detective, Mara, is a fantastic protagonist – an absolute one-off and yet refreshingly real. Her dignity and intelligence are beacons that guide the reader through a murky story of greed and vengeance. -- Sara Wilson

Genre Go Round Reviews


In 1509 everyone in the Burren region of Ireland looks forward to the Michaelmas Fair until Steward Ragnall MacNamara raises the annual tribute. Even before his avaricious spin, the pompous nasty Stewart was an unpopular individual with many wanting him dead. Someone however decides to do the deed beating MacNamara to death in a churchyard.

The only LADY JUDGE in Ireland, Brehon Mara leads the investigation into the homicide and the murder of another unlikable chap, Ragnall’s enemy Aengus the miller. However, as she expected, seemingly everyone residing in the Burren had a motive to kill the odious Steward and disliked the Miller. The case seems to be going nowhere, but the Brehon continues her inquiries, knowing the people need resolution.

The key to this excellent sixteenth century legal investigative thriller is the insight into Irish law during that era. The cast is strong with key players developed enough to enhance the exciting plot. Especially fully developed is the heroine whose intelligence and courage enables her to break through the gender barrier; in fact men somewhat fear her. However, the tidbits cleverly interwoven into the Brehon’s inquiries so that they may seem odd today make for a fine refreshing historical tale.

Harriet Klausner

New Mystery Magazine, July 2008: November 1509 brings the Michaelmas Fair to the kingdom of Burren. It is also time for the citizens to pay tribute, in coin or goods, to their clan lords. When the steward of clan MacNamara, who collects tributes for his lord, is found murdered, Mara, the Brehon responsible for enacting the laws of Burren, calls for the murderer to come forth. When no one does, it is up to her to uncover the killer.

I am fascinated by this series and the idea of Brehon law, which existed in west Ireland until it was displaced by English Law. This is not only a very good mystery, but a look at a different legal system and a time when woman played a significant and valued role.

Mara is wonderfully depicted as a strong, responsible woman, who does make mistakes and is torn by her love life as it is weighed off against the proposal of the King. The secondary characters, the boys in her school and her servants, give dimension to Mara and to the story. Bridget, the cook and housekeeper, is particularly delightful.

The historical and geographic setting is so well written, you feel a part of the time. I am delighted to have found this series and look forward to the next book.


Reviews of Cora Harrison's 'My Lady Judge'

Reviews of Cora Harrison's children's books