Friday, October 30, 2015

Halloween part two: Witches and the Scots-Irish

In my last post I promised to revisit two topics that I didn’t get time to cover: Witches and the practice of carving vegetables to look like severed human heads.


The figure of the witch with her pointy hat, broomstick and cauldron have become synonymous with Halloween. I had been musing that on the face of it, why Halloween had survived (was even popular) among the largely Presbyterian Scots (and their Scots-Irish progeny in Ireland and the USA) appears a bit of a mystery. Suggestion 1 involved the fact that going back centuries to time immemorial, the festival celebrated at this time of year was important to the people of Ireland and Scotland. I believe witches are a second factor.

King James VI of Scotland was famously obsessed with witches. On his way back from his wedding in Denmark he was told that a storm that delayed them was an attempt to kill him by witches. Taking it very personally, James set out on a one-king crusade to eradicate witches. Evil Queens, supernatural women and women who deal in secret magic were a feature of Irish and Scandinavian folklore from time immemorial but the Scots and subsequently the Scots Irish seem to really have taken witches to heart.
Illustration of witches in North Berwick

Scotland already shared King James obsession as witch hunts were breaking out all over the place. With James at the helm though, wholesale persecution and murder of unpopular or slightly odd women who failed to fit into society really took off. With the death of Queen Elizabeth I, James the IV of Scotland became James I of England and he took his obsession with witches south with him, notably inspiring William Shakespeare to include the witches in his “Scottish Play”. James also instigated the Plantation of Ulster, a replay of his failed policy to replace the Gaelic-speaking Catholic Highlanders with Protestant lowland Scots, this time played out with more success in Ireland.
Despite James’ later scepticism of the veracity of witches, the Scots took their fear of magical crones with them and soon witches were starting to crop up under Ulster beds as well. The mania carried on for a century. During this time a minister from Magherafelt, County Londonderry, who revelled in the wonderful name of Increase Mather decided to take on board St. John D. Seymour’s advice that “Irishmen succeed best out of Ireland” and took himself off to the New World. Increase did well in the Commonwealth of  Massachusetts, becoming President of Harvard College. He and his son (who he decided to name Cotton for some reason) were both thought and religious leaders in the New World. Though they later tried to distance themselves from it, their involvement and influence is undeniable in the mania that resulted in the execution of 20 people -mostly women- for witchcraft in Salem between 1692 and 1693. Cotton Mather wrote his book "Wonders of the invisible world" during the trials and the illustration below is from the 1693 edition, showing that the stereotype image of the witch had pretty pretty much solidified by then:

The Salem witch trials, like the demise of Mathew Hopkins in England, were eventually ended by an outbreak of common sense and brave stances by several men of strong principle. Back in Ireland, the Scots-Irish were otherwise engaged in the 1690s so it took a couple of decades before the judicial punishment of witchcraft fell out of fashion. The last trials happened in Carrickfergus in 1710-11, in what became known as the case of the Islandmagee witches.
The incident started with some genuinely weird and quite spooky occurrences but these eventually deteriorated into the usual pattern of a hysterical teenage girl delighted to find herself the centre of attention directing clearly fabricated accusations of witchcraft at a set of older women who didn’t quite fit the image of a good citizen.
Seven women from Carrickfergus and Islandmagee went on trial - Janet Mean, Jane Latimer,,  Margaret Mitchell,  Catherine M'Calmont,  Janet Liston, Elizabeth Sellar, and Janet Carson. 
The reason they were singled out seem to be that they were social misfits, not good at attending church or just that they liked a drink. Some appear to have simply frightened their accuser, Miss Mary Dunbar, with their ugly appearances. 
An eighth “witch”, Jane Millar of Irish Quarter, Carrickfergus, also fell under suspicion but was never arrested. Why she managed to get away is now unknown. My mother was born a Millar from Irish Quarter, Carrrickfergus and I often wonder if there was a connection.
Perhaps as a  signal of the changing times, the witches were not executed, but jailed for a year instead, as well as spending some time being pilloried in the town square. Interestingly, the “Witchfinder General” involved in the case was an  Edward Clements.  Like the Mathers, the Clements family later sailed West and did well in the New World. Within a couple of generations one of them, Samuel Clements was making a name for himself as a writer under the nom-de-plume of “Mark Twain”.
Thankfully the Islandmagee trials marked the end of the witch trials in Ireland. It would be great to say that it marked the end of the madness associated with it and a new age of rationalism dawned. However, earlier this year (2015)  a proposal was put forward to erect a memorial to the unjustly accused women and a councillor in Larne objected on the grounds that the women were justly convicted and an memorial might become a shrine to the Devil. 
So there you have it - the witch and how she has inspired fear, suspicion and paranoia in the normally stoic Scots-Irish psyche for generations.
I didn’t get time to write about the severed heads. That will have to be another post I’m afraid. 

In the meantime, if you want a chilling read for Halloween, my new novel set in Victorian Belfast, “The Undead” is available now on Kindle. 

Wednesday, October 28, 2015

Halloween, part one: Pagan origins

“Hallowe’en is coming and the goose is getting fat…”
So goes the song that we used to sing as children when we went “round the doors” on Halloween night. It’s safe to say the old festival has had a bit of a resurrection in recent years. The traditions of trick or treat and carving pumpkins would give you the idea that Halloween is a North American custom, however if anything its origins and survival lie in Ireland and Scotland, and it was the Scots Irish who took it to America a few hundred years ago. After a childhood of blistered hands from trying to scoop out raw turnips, I have to say that those ancestors must have been delighted to come across the more easily carved pumpkin in the New World from which they could make their surrogate severed heads (more on that later) to replace the more resistant turnip.
A turnip lantern

Perhaps mysterious is why were the Scots and Scots-Irish -almost all staunch Presbyterians- so keen on celebrating this old Celtic festival? Paganism in general and all things Gaelic in particular usually have the same effect on the Scots-Irish that garlic has to vampires. The answer is probably a mixture of a couple of things. The first reason is that they simply always celebrated it, and tradition is a very hard thing to kill.
It could be argued that Samhain had particularly significance in the North of Ireland from time immemorial. Samhain, the pre-christian name for the festival was one of the old quarter-days of the year celebrated by the ancient people of Ireland. A word very close to Samhain appears on the 2nd Century AD Coligny Calendar, suggesting that Celtic cousins in Europe celebrated the festival too. There are lots of references in Early Irish Literature to great clan gatherings and festivals being held at this time of year, and the adventures of heroes and kings that take place at them seem to revolve around a lot of drinking and either the dead or evil fairies coming back from the otherworld to wreck some form of havoc. There are various hints that could well suggest human sacrifice as well, but its hard to say for certain. 
Irish pagan Gods (Lugh on the left?) from the Ulster Museum

The tales were written down by medieval Christian monks and could be biased against Paganism. The idea that our ancestors practised human sacrifice is also a slightly controversial idea to some. There are modern neo-pagans who will state that there is no evidence that ancient pagans sacrificed humans. I would argue that there is actually lots. Bog bodies for example exhibit such a degree of overkill that it points to some form of ritual, the only alternative being that for centuries psychopathic killers across northern Europe dispatched their victims using remarkably similar methods. Classical writers like Julius Caesar (again admittedly biased against the non-Roman Celts) all attest that the Druids sacrificed people to their Gods. However its not just neo-pagans who object to this idea. There are plenty of others who seem to find the idea that Irish people would kill other Irish people for religious reasons completely beyond the pale. Personally, while its not definitive, I think the evidence points to the fact that it happened, and that this time of year was particularly associated with it.

One place where Samhain and human sacrifice are explicitly linked is in the worship of the God Crom Cruach. If anyone has heard of Crom these days, the chances are it is as the God worshiped by Conan the Barbarian, either in Robert E Howard’s sword and sandal epics, or in the 1980s movie starring Arnold Schwarzenegger. Who could forget such classic cinematic moments this?

But he was in fact a deity worshipped in ancient Ireland. He is, however, a bit of a puzzle. He doesn’t appear in the cannon of Early Irish Literature but in the tales of Saint Patrick, it’s Crom and his ministers who seem to be the main Pagan opposition to the Saint’s mission. The Dindsenchas  that tell the lore of the land and the Annals of the Four Masters both talk of a festival at that this time of year which honoured Crom at a gathering in Magh Slécht, which is in modern county Cavan. 
Worship of Crom in ancient Ireland appears to be associated with a sacred bull, standing stones - an ancient name for a ring of standing stones was a “cromlech”- and, as readers of my novel “The Spear of Crom” will know, human sacrifice. The sources say that at Samhain,  first born children were sacrificed to Crom. If true, the terror and horror instilled by what went on that night still echo in the modern Halloween. 
I think it’s interesting that the Annals of the Four Masters chose to include Crom when other annals don’t. They were compiled in a Friary on the edge of Donegal. Magh Slecht, the centre of Crom worship, and where his standing stone may still lie, is in County Cavan, suggesting that Samhain and Crom were of significance to the ancient people of Ulster. I’ve already written about how a portion of those people later on ended up founding a kingdom across the Irish sea so it should be no surprise that the other place where you find references to Crom is in the Highlands of Scotland. There is a Scottish Gaelic saying recorded in Lochaber that mentions “Domhnaich Crom Dubh” -Black Crom  Sunday.
So my thesis is that the festival of Samhain, held at this time of the year, was special for the people of Ireland and Ulster in particular. A portion of those folk migrated to what is now Scotland at the beginning of what some call “the Dark Ages” and they took with them the festival and all its associated trappings of death and fear. Time past and Samhain became Halloween, but the festival’s popularity in Scotland carried on. Some of those Scottish folk then migrated (or rather were “planted”) back in Ulster in the 1600s and they brought the tradition back with them, probably finding that the Irish were still celebrating in a similar fashion. A few years later some of those folk -now referred to as “Scots-Irish” - migrated to America and took the festival with them there, where it’s safe to say it was a huge success.
  I said I believed there were two reasons for the popularity of Halloween with the Scots Irish. The second reason is to do with witches, however that (and the explanation about the severed heads) will have to wait for another post which I’ll put up over the next day or so.  
In the meantime, if you want a chilling read for Halloween, my new novel set in Victorian Belfast, “The Undead” is available now on Kindle.

Or you can read about Fergus MacAmergin’s battles with the Druids of Crom in my novel “The Spear of Crom”, available on Kindle and in paperback

Sunday, October 18, 2015

The Undead

After much deliberation, I've decided to re-name the book I've been calling "The Frankenstein Testament" to "The Undead". I was never that happy with the other one and I felt it might have put a lot of people off. The Undead is closer to what the book is about. "The Undead" was the original title of Dracula by Bram Stoker (who also toyed with "The Great Undead") and I wanted to evoke that (without for a moment comparing myself to him. With the addition of the title I now pay homage to the three great influences who have given me great pleasure and been an inspiration for this book. The title now nods to Stoker, The key plot driven springs from Mary Shelley's Frankenstein and the detective character who investigates the mystery is named Joseph Sheridan, in honour of Joseph Sheridan leFanu, whose supernatural works influenced so many writers, among them Bram Stoker and Stephen King.
So hopefully it will be out for Halloween. Watch this space for a suitably chilling read.

Sunday, September 27, 2015

The Castle of Alys de Logan

Some readers of my medieval Irish novels Lions of the Grail and The Waste Land have asked me where is Corainne castle, the home of Alys de Logan? The other castles and forts mentioned in the books are obvious and can still be visited today but Corainne is a bit more obscure. Given that the other locations in the books are real places and the events of the war are historically accurate, is it a real place too?

Firstly, it's probably important to point out that while Savage and Logan are authentic Hiberno-Norman names that belonged to medieval barons of Ulster, Richard and Alys themselves are fictional characters. The site of Alys’s castle can be revealed though.
In Lions of the Grail, the Hospitaller tells Edward Bruce that “Vikingsford lough is De Logan land, watched over by the castle at Corainne point.”
“Vikingsford”, also known in some Medieval sources as “Wulfrich’s Ford”, is now Larne lough, just North of Carrickfergus in County Antrim and still the port where the ferry from Scotland arrives in Ireland, pretty much following the sea road that Edward Bruce and his army took in 1315. Corainne is an older form of the modern Curran Point, where the ruins of a castle now named “Olderfleet” still stand.
Olderfleet castle ruins

It’s important to note that, as pointed out in an earlier post about motte and bailey castles in Ulster, that when we say “castle”, in terms of medieval Ireland, most of these buildings were not the moated, curtain-walled, multi-turreted fortress with portcullis and drawbridge that springs to mind when we think of the word castle. The castle of the de Logan’s at Corainne was an early form of the Irish tower house. This was a much more modest affair, suited to the more low level defensive needs of the time.
Illustrator JG O'Donoghue recently posted an excellent painting and description of a medieval Irish tower house which you can read it here -

The tower house in the painting is probably slightly bigger than what Alys's would have been like, and she had a wooden palisade rather than a stone wall, but it really gives a great impression of the castle would have looked like when Alys and Galiene were living there, dependent on the loyalty of the few remaining family servants, trying to make ends meet and scratching a living form the potions they made from herbs grown in the garden.
The other question I get asked is where was Richard Savage's castle. That will be for another post.

Wednesday, August 05, 2015

Richard Savage rides again

A new adventure of Sir Richard Savage is available, called “The Savage Forest”. The story takes place ten years before the events of “Lions of the Grail”.
England, 1305 AD. The Holy Land is lost and the Knights Templar need to find a new purpose. Sir Richard Savage, a young knight of the Order freshly repatriated from the East, is tasked with guarding a convoy of holy treasure through Sherwood Forest, the haunt of the most notorious outlaw in England. As an ambush unfolds, Savage learns that the treasure is more than he bargained for and he is forced to make a choice in a fight that challenges his core beliefs.
The tale is a novella (about 23000 words or 73 pages) so makes a short but exciting read.

“The Savage Forest” is now available on Kindle:

Friday, July 24, 2015

New novel - The Frankenstein Testament

I'm very pleased to say that my latest novel, "The Frankenstein Testament" is now available on Kindle and paperback. This one has been ten years in the making this one and it's a bit of a departure from my usual milieu of medieval and ancient historical fiction. While being set in a real historical setting (Victorian Ireland), this one strays into the territory of my other favourite genre - the Gothic novel.
The Frankenstein Testament was born from my love of the works of those greats of speculative fiction, Bram Stoker, Mary Shelley and in particular J S LeFanu and I hope it fits somewhere into that tradition. So if you fancy a trip into the fantastic and the horrible, give The Frankenstein Testament a go. As Iron Maiden once sang, "Let me tell you a story to chill the bones..."

Here is the "blurb":

Ireland, 1839. Belfast is a city that is blossoming but already beginning to rot. Amid its crowded streets, linen mills and factories the body snatchers are on the loose and a homicidal maniac is on a killing spree. Witnesses claim that the murderer is an executed criminal who should be dead and buried. 
Captain Joseph Sheridan, a consulting detective from Dublin who specialises in investigating the supernatural, travels north to probe the mystery. Joining forces with Abraham Harpur, a Belfast policeman and Emily Brunty, a school mistress who wants to be a journalist, they find themselves on the trail of a grief-deranged doctor obsessed with resurrecting the dead.

Wednesday, July 22, 2015

Now available in paperback - The Waste Land

I'm very pleased to say that my novel "The Waste Land", the sequel to Lions of the Grail, is now available in paperback format. Right now you can get a copy here:
and it will soon be available on Amazon, Barne & Noble etc.

The Waste Land is the second book chronicling the adventures of the knight, Richard Savage and his struggles during the Scottish invasion of Ireland in 1315-18.

1316 AD. Richard Savage thought he had left the war in Ireland behind but Edward Bruce will not let him just walk away. He wants the Grail Savage stole from him back. To force Savage to return it he takes what is dear to him - his daughter Galiene.
Savage must return to Ireland, but the seas are ruled by a ruthless pirate. Ireland is now a land devastated by war and decimated by famine. Carrickfergus castle stands besieged by the Scottish army, the garrison on its knees, and Scottish invaders ravage the countryside. Savage and Alys re-unite with old comrades on a desperate raid to save their daughter and turn the tide of war

Tuesday, July 07, 2015

Medieval Pirates - the tale of Tavish Dhu

Last Saturday, Portrush in Northern Ireland held a highly enjoyable pirate festival in honour of Tavish Dhu, a Scottish pirate who once haunted the coast. The theme of this year’s festival was “700 years dead” as 2015 marks the seventh century since the outbreak of the war that resulted in Tavish coming to a sticky end. Those who have read my book “The Waste Land” will recognise Tavish as the Pirate who captures Alys and who MacHuylin just manages to escape from.
my children and the modern "Tavish Dhu"

The festival was a great day out for the whole family, with a parade, ghosts a battle and twin pirate ships that sailed around the town. Understandably, the sabres, flintlocks, tri-cornered hats and frock coats on display along with bottles of rum and much “Yo Ho Ho”-ing owed more to the 17th Century golden age of piracy than Tavish’s medieval timeframe - and the amount of eyeliner being used owed a lot to Johnny Depp’s Captain Jack Sparrow- but its safe to say that is what people think of when they hear the word ‘pirate’ rather than what an American literary agent once described to me as “an obscure Irish war 700 years ago that involved no one that anyone has heard of.”
Pirates have been around since the dawn of shipping. Piracy is probably the second oldest profession in the world. Julius Caesar was held hostage by pirates in 75 BC (in true Caesar style he later had them all crucified). There’s some academic opinion that one of the words the Romans used for the Irish -Scotti - actually means pirate, because they mainly knew them through their raiding activities on the British coast. Before they started settling down in the 5th Century AD and making their residence more permanent, the Anglo-Saxons were regarded as pirates by the Britons. The word “viking” can been seen as synonymous with pirate in many ways.
With the middle ages, we start to see some of the first truly memorable pirates, and Tavish Dhu takes a modest place among them. Probably the most famous was Eustace the Monk. This colourful character deserves a whole post all to himself. At one time a Benedictine monk, reputedly a black magician, Eustace terrorised the English channel between 1202 and 1217 AD. Eustace also embodied another tradition among pirates that is seldom discussed. One of the appeals of pirates that makes us see them as romantic heroes rather than the brutal thieves they really were, is the perception of them being individuals who stand outside of society, a thorn in the side of oppressive governments in less free times. In reality, many famous pirates were in the employ of governments and given the task of harassing enemy shipping in a deniable way employing tactics that might bring shame or legal repercussions. One man’s naval hero is another man’s pirate: Ask the Spanish what they think of Sir Francis Drake if you want a good example. The role of the privateer -a ship captain who takes a commission from the crown or a government to attack enemy ships (and split the resulting loot with said powers that be) in a private capacity- is one that was played by many famous names in pirate history: Captain Kid, Captain Henry Morgan, Francis Drake, John Hawkins, (Sir) Walter Raleigh all took “letters of marque” as privateers. Eustace was employed by the English crown to attack French ships in the English channel, which he did with great success from his base in Castle Cornet in Guernsey for many years. In 1212, as England descended into the chaos of civil war, he decided to switch sides and took commission from the French, at one point ferrying the French Prince and his men across the channel for a briefly successful invasion of Southern England. The English responded and clashed with Eustace’s fleet at the battle of Dover in August 1217. The English, led by Hubert de Burgh (another scion of the de Burgh family who Tavish would clash with a century later). Eustace and the French had the upper hand and looked like they were about to win when the English chose the nuclear (or rather the chemical) option and released lime powder into the wind, blinding the downwind French sailors. Eustace was captured and this man who had once negotiated with Kings offered huge rewards in ransom for his life. Unfortunately for him his past deeds caught up with him and the English sailors hated him so much all they offered him was the choice of his execution site.
Eustace comes to a sticky end

Another pirate from this time worthy of special mention is Jean de Clisson, also known as the Lioness of Brittany. In the 1340s, following the execution of her husband, Jean took it on herself to wage a personal war of revenge against the French crown. Following several massacres and a bloody onslaught on land, the fighting finally went against her and she fled to England. With the help of Edward III of England, Jean equipped three warships and set off the continue her personal vendetta, this time at sea. Displaying a chilling dramatic flair also shown by later pirates like William Teach or the man who thought it would be a good idea to put an air raid siren in the nose of a Stuka dive bomber, Jean had her ships painted black and the sails dyed red. The “Black Fleet” as it became known, then patrolled the English Channel hunting down French ships. Their tactic was to kill the entire crew except for one or two witnesses who were ordered to take the news to the French King.
Unlike most other pirates, after 13 years of piracy, Jean eventually retired, settled down and died in bed.
Which bring us to Tavish. Tavish appears in several guises in the chronicles about the war of Edward Bruce in Ireland (1315 -1318 AD). If you want to know more about this particularly brutal war see my previous post here:
In 1314, Robert Bruce famously defeated proud Edward’s army at the battle of Bannockburn, sending the English out of Scotland and creating the fledgling state that would become modern Scotland. He had an immediate problem however, in that the English had a fleet of ships, and so could continue to harass him by sea, if not by land. Scotland did not have a readily available navy. Worse than that, the Kings of the Western Isles and their cousins in Ireland who did command fleets of galleys were actively opposed to him. King Robert turned to the tactic of employing a privateer, and Tavish took the commission. How he got his ships is now unknown, but he soon put them in the employ of the Scots. Similarly his origins are obscure. One annal calls him “Thomas of Down (an Dunn)” and a history book from the last century thought this meant he was from Downpatrick. Another chronicle calls him Thomas Dunn, though these are undoubtedly mistranslations by English speaking writers of the Gaelic word “Dubh” - Black. The etymology and connection becomes clearer with his first name, Tavish being the Scottish version of the name “Thomas”. Tavish Dubh -”Black Tom”- is an excellent nom de guerre for a pirate, every bit as chilling as Blackbeard.
His main activity was piracy in the Irish sea, directed at English ships. His fleet also acted as a a de-facto navy for the Scots, ferrying Edward Bruce’s invasion force from Ayr to Larne in Ireland in May of 1315. He enters the Irish annals when he is mentioned as taking four ships of the Earl of Ulster just off Portrush in County. The ships were were laden with supplies to help the English war effort including food which was a precious commodity in what was a time of not just war but also famine. Portrush now claims Tavish as their own, running their pirate festival in his honour. There are several local legends around him. Dhuvarren, the site of the railway station and a caravan park, are supposedly named after him. A book from the 19th Century, entitled “Sketches of County Antrim” relates this about the Skerries, the set of islands just off the East Strand in Portrush:
“The islet furthest east is called Island Dubh. It is probable that it is named after Tavish Dubh, a pirate, who once frequented the Skerries.”
-(thanks to my good friend Jean Clayton for bringing this to my attention)
Skerries off Portrush
That he knew the area is undoubted. John Barbour wrote an account of Edward Bruce’s Irish invasion within living memory of it happening. Edward’s army got into difficulty at Coleraine and Tavish sailed up the mouth of the Bann river to rescue him, ferrying Edward’s soldiers across the river and out of the clutches of the army of the Earl of Ulster.
English chroniclers describe Tavish as "a perpetrator of depredations on the sea" and "a cruel pirate", which is understandable as they were on the wrong end of his activities, however he must not have been a very nice person as John Barbour, writing from the Scottish point of view also calls Tavish a “Scumer of the Se” - scum of the sea.
Tavish then extended his activities. He raided Holyhead in Anglesey with four galleys and captured a laden cargo ship, the "James" of Caernarvon, it is said after receiving intelligence from a local "rhingyl" (official) who may have sent out a boat to advise him of the opportunity. The Welsh then rose in revolt and Edward II was forced to return to Wales the troops he had recruited to send against Scotland. Now taking the threat of Tavish and the Scots in Ireland seriously, Edward recalled the Cinque Ports fleet as well. When the King of France protested this withdrawal of support against the Flemings, Edward II claimed all his ships were needed for the defence of Ireland.
Edward II had had enough. He ordered a Geoffrey de Modiworthe to construct a special ship and go after Tavish. This was a 140 man galley, very large for those days in the Irish Sea, and probably the fastest vessel in those waters. Even with that, though, they could not catch the pirate and it took an Irish noblemen, John D’Athy, to take to the seas and finally end Tavish’s reign of terror. In July of 1317, John and his ships intercepted Tavish and his fleet at sea. A sea battle ensued in which 40 of the privateers are said to have been killed and Tavish captured.
Sketches of County Antrim says about the Skerries at Portrush that Tavish “died in his ship here, and was buried on the island, but the place of his grave is unknown”. Whether or not that was true I don’t know. D’Athy cut his head off and sent it to Dublin and that was the end of the pirate’s adventures. The loss of the ships spelt doom for Edward Bruce’s invasion of Ireland. However for his brother Robert, Tavish was only ever a tactical stopgap. By that time he was already building his own navy,having instigated a ship building program on the Clyde, a tradition that would continue for most of the next 700 years.
Perhaps Tavish’s last stand was at the Skerries. Perhaps his treasure is still buried there too. It would make a great story if it was.

Saturday, July 04, 2015

Pirates off Portrush

If you have read "The Waste Land", the sequel to Lions of the Grail, then you will know the pirate Tavish Dhu. There is a whole festival about him today in Portrush, which was near a former liar of his. It looks like it will be a great day for all the family.
Details here:

Thursday, June 11, 2015

New Novel - the Frankenstein Testament

I have finished a new novel finished. This one is a bit of a departure from my normal world of medieval/ancient historical fiction as its a Gothic horror story set in Victorian Belfast. 
If anyone is interested in taking a peek at the opening chapters, it's currently entered into this months "Fated Paradox" competition on Inkitt. 

I'm really interested to hear what people think, good or bad. If you like it, please feel free to vote for it in the competition smile emoticon

The link is here:

Friday, May 29, 2015

Edward Bruce Festival

Tomorrow is the Edward Bruce festival at Carrickfergus, marking 700 years since Bruce's invasion of Ireland. I'll be in the Castle selling print copies of "Lions of the Grail" and "The Waste Land" so if you are there come along and say hello.

Friday, May 15, 2015

On the 700th anniversary of the Scottish Invasion of Ireland

It’s become a trope that Ireland is currently into a “decade of anniversaries”. From Clontarf to the Somme to the Easter Rising, there will be many events to stir up old hatreds, giving us more excuses to pick at old scabs and point accusing fingers at each other. One anniversary that seems to be slipping by relatively unmarked is Edward Bruce’s ill-fated invasion of Ireland, which this May sees the 700th anniversary of.

Perhaps it’s because the whole episode is so messy that we don’t seem to want to remember it. It’s not as black and white as we like things to be. People we would expect to fight for one side appear to have fought for the other. “The English” seems to have typically Irish names. The Scots should have been liberators but seemed to act more like conquerors. The Irish seem to be fighting on both sides. Its all so inconvenient from our modern points of view. There’s nothing in the story we could use to batter the other side with and when we try to shoe-horn it into modern perspectives the realities keep popping out like bunions to disturb our certainties about the past.

On the other hand, it’s a fantastic tale, full of daring exploits, heroism and brutality, chivalry and it even involves a pirate. It was these elements that drew me to the conflict and why I wanted to set my medieval series of novels (Lions of the Grail and the Waste Land) during it. 
The Waste Land

As we all know from the movie Braveheart, in 1314 Mel Gibson kicked the English out of Scotland and invented freedom. Sorry I’m getting flippant. In June of 1314, after years of bitter guerrilla war, Robert Bruce won a decisive victory against the English army under Edward II at Bannockburn. What Mel forgot to tell us was the first thing the Scots did on freeing themselves was to invade Ireland. In May of 1315 they landed at Larne in County Antrim, which in those days was called “Wulfrich’s Ford” - an echo of the viking heritage of the place. As an invasion point it makes sense. The sea crossing is so narrow the other island is clearly visible to the naked eye from either shore. Larne forms a natural harbour that until recently was the main port that the ferry to and from Scotland sailed from. The army was probably carried across the sea in birlinns, a form of highland galley not unlike a viking longship. The invasion force was supposedly six thousand strong, organised into two “battles” (a medieval military formation) and consisted of hardy spearmen, veterans of Bannonckburn. It was led by Robert Bruce’s brother Edward, the Earl of Carrick. 

Their landing unleashed three years of conflict and devastation across Ireland that left it in ruins for generations. One Gaelic chronicle recounts:

“For in this Bruce's time, for three years and a half, falsehood and famine and homicide filled the country, and undoubtedly men ate each other in Ireland”

Their first target was Carrickfergus, a key strategic castle for the Norman Earldom of Ulster. Awkwardly, the owner of the castle, Richard de Burgh, Earl of Ulster, was Robert Bruce’s father in law. I think facts like this highlight the nature of warfare in medieval times. What we see as titanic struggles between nations at the top level of society was really more akin to deadly family feuds. Much of the nobility of England, Scotland and Ireland were direct descendants of the knights who accompanied William the Conqueror across the English Channel in 1066. Nearly all of them spoke Norman French as their first language. The western edges of the British Isles aside, they were also starting to merge with the remaining Gaelic and Welsh aristocracy and the process by which fils Geralds would become FitzGeralds, De Burghs become Burkes, Le Powers become Powers and de Brus become Bruce was already underway. 
A 14th Century (possibly Gallowglass) helmet, Ulster Museum

It started out well for Edward Bruce. He annihilated the army of Ulster at the battle of Connor (now Kells in Antrim). John Barbour, the biographer of Robert Bruce, recorded the event within living memory of it happening. He paints a vivid and gruesome picture of the battle with the clash of arms, the shouts of men and the screaming of stabbed horses:

“The lords of that country [Ulster], Mandeville, Bysset, and Logan, assembled their men. De Savage also was there. Their whole gathering was well nigh twenty thousand men..Their enemies drew near to battle, and they met them without flinching. Then was to be seen a great melee. Earl Thomas and his host drove so doughtily at their foes, that in a short time a hundred were to be seen lying all bloody. The Irish horses, when they were stabbed, reared and flung, and made great room, and threw their riders. Sir Edward's company then stoutly joined the battle, and all their enemies were driven back. If a man happened to fall in that fight, it was a perilous chance if he rose again. The Scots bore themselves so boldly and well in the encounter that their foes were overwhelmed, and altogether took flight. In that battle were taken or slain the whole flower of Ulster.”

(modern English translation)

The Scots then besieged Carrickfergus castle. However, in a seemginly unbelievable lack of strategic planning, Edward Bruce had not brought any siege engines with him so all he could do was blockade the fortress and wait for starvation to force the garrison into surrender. 

Somewhat prematurely, Edward now had himself declared King of Ireland. Domnal Ui Neill (O’Neill), King of Tyrone, Bruce’s main ally throughout the invasion submitted to Edward as King along with twelve other northern Gaelic Kings. A Gaelic chronicle relates how Bruce "took the hostages and lordship of the whole province of Ulster without opposition and they consented to him being proclaimed King of Ireland and all the Gaels of Ireland.” The fact that they had to submit “hostages” is interesting and perhaps a hint at what was to come. 

Bruce’s army then pushed south, only to be ambushed outside Newry by the forces of two of those Gaelic kings who had supposedly sworn fealty to him. He defeated them, burned the de Verdun’s fortress at Castle Roche then fell upon the town of Dundalk. When they took the town, they also took several merchant ships which had arrived with a consignment of wine. Soldiers and alcohol is usually an inflammable mix and an orgy of destruction followed. They burned the town to the ground and slaughtered all the inhabitants, both Anglo-Irish and Gaelic alike. Barbour recounts how the streets were slick with the blood of the slain. This indiscriminate drunken massacre set the tone for the rest of the war and perhaps explains the reluctance of the Irish from then on to fully commit to supporting the Scottish army.

War raged up and down the island for the next three years. Even by medieval standards, the Scots behaved appallingly. They burned towns, friaries and farms, pursuing what seems to have been a scorched earth policy. The bitterness left by the indiscriminate nature of their aggression is clear in both Anglo Norman and Gaelic chronicles. Their reasoning for this strategy seems unfathomable, as it seems obvious that there should have been a lot of people in Ireland who should have welcomed them as liberators from the yoke of the English Crown, certainly enough to make victory certain. Yet the actions of the Scottish army clearly alienated them from that source of support. The Kingdon of Tyr Chonnail (modern Donegal) remained steadfastly aloof, refusing to take either side. Other Irish kings actively fought against the Scots.

Equally unclear are the motives for the invasion in the first place. On the face of it, there was much talk of a pan-Gaelic alliance and hands across the Irish sea to free cousins from oppression. “Greater and Lesser Scotia”(Scotland and Ireland) would be united under one king (Edward Bruce) and then join forces with the Welsh against the common English enemy. 

On the other hand, Robert Bruce was probably also quietly happy to have his ambitious brother out of the way and fully occupied in Ireland rather than a potential rival in his own newly won Kingdom. Edward Bruce’s own ambitions seem clear: almost as soon as he arrived in Ireland he had himself declared King. A year later he asked the Welsh Kings if they wanted him to become  Prince of Wales as well (they turned him down). Ireland had also been providing a supply of grain and warriors to the English Crown in its wars in Scotland. Despite what Mel Gibson wants us to think, while the MacCarthy’s sent a contingent of troops to fought for Bruce at Bannockburn, the majority of the Irish who took part in the Scottish Wars of Independence fought with distinction for the other side, something Bruce probably wanted to put a stop to.  

Like all wars, this long forgotten one had many acts of bravery and desperation. For most of the three years of war Edward’s army seemed unbeatable in open battle though he never seemed to be able to win complete victory. Sir Thomas de Mandeville launched a desperate seaboarne assault to try to break the siege of Carrickfergus castle. On the Scottish side Sir Neil Flemming, his small force completely outnumbered stayed in the town to fight the raiders until the rest of the Scottish army was mustered.Both men lost their lives in the street fighting. The O’Dempsey clan, supposed allies, lead Bruce’s army southward into a carefully laid ambush. They diverted a river into the Scottish camp and attacked them, drowning or killing two hundred men. The clans of the Glens of Antrim killed four hundred of the Scottish army in hit and run attacks. When faced with the approach of the Scottish army, the citizens of Dublin destroyed half their own city, tearing down all the buildings north of the river to leave no cover for the advancing enemy and using the recovered stones to shore up the city walls. The savagery of the conflict is perhaps best personified by an incident that happened in Carrickfergus in June of 1316. A year after the war began, the castle was still under siege. The starving garrison said they wanted to surrender and a Scottish delegation went to the castle gate to receive their capitulation. Instead of surrendering, the garrison rushed out, seized nine of the Scots and pulled them inside the castle. They later ate them.

Incredibly, all this happened during the one of the worst famine in European history. Sudden climate change in 1315 caused widespread crop failures across the continent and continual rain caused stored fodder to rot. The price of grain rose rapidly and people began to die in great numbers. Weakened by hunger, disease took a further toll on the population and combined with the ongoing war it must have seemed like the Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse had come. An English poem from 1321, “on the Evil Times of Edward II”, said: 
“Whii werre and wrake in londe and manslauht is i-come,
Whii hunger and derthe on eorthe the pore hath undernome,
Whii bestes ben thus storve, whii corn hath ben so dere,

“Why war, destruction and murder has come to the land,
Why hunger and famine have seized the poor,
Why animals starve, why corn is so dear,

Danse Macabre

Forced to live off the land and feed his army by taking what little food there was from the indigenous population, this must have deepened the unpopularity of Edward Bruce’s army and led even more to the perception of them as an occupying force that one of liberation.

A BBC article on the war recently described Bruce’s Irish adventure as “Medieval Scotland’s Vietnam” and the analogy is probably a good one. Personally I believe a lot of blame lies on the shoulders of Edward Bruce himself. Although one chronicler described him as “brave as a leopard” (ironically the same animal that in his day was used as the nickname for another Edward, Edward I of England, the infamous “Longshanks”, Hammer of the Scots) from what can be discerned from the chronicles, Edward seems to have lacked all the qualities that made his brother Robert great. Vengeful, seemingly pitiless, impetuous and headstrong, these traits seems to have governed Edward’s personality. Although a successful commander of one of the battalions at Bannockburn, as a general he was was failure. Robert had to cross the Irish Sea not once but twice to bail him out of trouble. In the end, in 1317, when the famine eased he pushed for Dublin again. His brother was due to arrive again with much need re-enforcements but the Annals of Clonmacnoise record that Edward was “anxious to obtain the victory for himself”. The army of the Lordship of Ireland were waiting for him at Faughart in Louth, not far from Dundalk, the scene of his earlier crimes. Edward and the Scots charged headlong at the enemy. Tellingly, his Irish allies decided not to join him and instead stood back to watch what happened. The Scottish army was destroyed, several Scottish clan chiefs died and Edward Bruce himself was killed and dismembered, his body parts being sent to the four corners of the island for display. His former Irish allies quietly left.

The final word should probably go to the Gaelic chronicler who recorded the battle of Faughart.
“Edward de Brus, the destroyer of Ireland in general, both Galls and Gaels, was killed .... And there was not done from the beginning of the world a deed that was better for the Men of Ireland than that deed”

In a way, if the intent was to oust the English from Ireland, Bruce’s invasion partly succeeded. Within a generation the Norman Earldom of Ulster, weakened by war, famine then the Black Death, dissolved into terminal internecine struggle and collapse.

I began this by saying that this anniversary is hardly being marked. There will be one place however where it will. At the end of this month (30th and 31st may), there will be an Edward Bruce Festival in Carickfergus. The festival will take place at Carrickfergus Castle, Main Street and Marine Gardens. There will be a range of medieval events and entertainment including jousting, dramatic re-enactments, street theatre, falconry, traditional storytelling, blacksmith demonstrations, archery, medieval battle workshops and family entertainment. The Knights of Royal England (the premiere jousting company in Europe, though perhaps a strange choice for a festival commemorating a war between Ireland and Scotland :-) ) will be conducting a jousting tournament on Saturday 30th May at Marine Gardens. The organisers also have kindly let me take part and I’ll be in castle keep, on Saturday 30th. Please feel free to stop by and say hello. 

Thursday, May 14, 2015

Portrush Heritage Society talk

The good folks at Portrush Heritage Society invited me to speak at their last meeting. It was a tremendous evening which I thoroughly enjoyed. It was great to meet a bunch of people who are so passionate about preserving the fragile archaeological, historical and cultural heritage of the north coast and who stand by their convictions, sometimes in the face of short term commercial interests.
As well as me, Alex Blair delivered an fascinating talk on local dialect and the influences of Gaelic, Scots and Elizabethan English on the words, idioms, pronunciation and cadences of the version of English that Ulster people speak today. Also there was the new Mayor, who turned out to be both a "Knight" and a "McQuillan" so she could not have been a more appropriate guest in light of the characters of my book Lions of the Grail.

Here are some pictures of the evening and the write up from the Coleraine Chronicle. That's me on the right of the front row

Tuesday, April 14, 2015

book review - "Holy Spy" by Rory Clements

Holy SpyHoly Spy by Rory Clements
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

This is an intriguing tale based around two plots - one by English Catholics to kill Queen Elizabeth and put her cousin Mary on the throne and the counter plot by the early English intelligence agencies to stop (or is provoke?) it. Woven into it all are historical personages, Elizabethan gangsters and a murder mystery where the main suspect is a former love of the hero. There is much to enjoy - Fans of spy novels will enjoy the complexity of the plots/counter plots and double dealing. There is corruption in high places, murder, torture and the fast paced action takes place against the backdrop of late 16th Century London in all its filth and glory.
This is the first John Shakespeare book I've read and I'm delighted to find that its part of a series so I'll look for more.

View all my reviews

Sunday, December 07, 2014

Duneight Motte and Bailey

Believe it or not, this is a castle. Well, a proto-castle. When the Normans conquered England in 1066, they threw up earth and wood forts that could be used to garrison soldiers or a place of refuge if things went wrong. They were largely the same design: a high mound -a motte-with a circular palisade on top. There was also a connected, rectangular area - the bailey- near the foot of the mound, also palisaded but for everyday living. Its reckoned that fifty men could put up a motte in a month and The bayeux tapestry shows that the Normans brought pre-fabricated components for these forts on the ships that crossed the English channel to invade in 1066. As time went by the wooden defences were replaced by stone, and the motte and bailey forts evolved into the medieval castle.

One hundred years after 1066, when they invaded Ireland, the now Anglo-Normans took the same warfare architecture with them. These pictures are of Duneight Motte and Bailey, near Lisburn in Co. Down. The mound is still steep (I slipped and fell on my mouth and nose going up it yesterday, much to the delight of my kids) and the fall on the river side is precipitous and would have presented a formidable obstacle to any attacker. The entranceway seems to be through a curving ditch that would have been guarded on both sides by wooden battlements above, channeling any potential aggressor approaching the gate into a narrow killing channel. Its pretty much exactly like the entrance to Krak des Chavaliers, except made of mud and wood, and on considerably smaller scale :-). 
Now this is a castle

Built on the site of a former fort of the Ulaidh (the tribe who gave Ulster its name), the fort guarded what was then the main road to Dublin, but is now just a sleepy little bend in a river in the countryside. Unusually for an Irish motte, Duneight has a bailey, which you can see in the pictures as the lower, long flat mound. For some reason, most Irish mottes do not have baileys so Duneight is unusual. The reason for this in unknown. In England by the late 12th century, motte and baileys had become increasingly rare, but some of the Irish mottes were still in use into the early 14th century. They never transformed into stone castles, possibly because the English Earldom of Ulster was extinguished around then.

So this was once the home of a baron of Ulster. You have to wonder what his cousins and peers in England with their baronial halls and stone castles would have made of his rather more humble dwelling.
Artist's impression of the original castle

Sunday, October 12, 2014

"True Grit" the novel, a review

True GritTrue Grit by Charles Portis
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

I gave this book 5 stars because I simply haven’t enjoyed reading a novel as much as this one in a long time. Most people will be familiar with the story from the epic John Wayne movie and those with a childhood in the 1970s  probably remember it being on TV pretty much every Christmas. However, while the film tells the same story what is missing, what can only be got from reading the book (and what is probably the unique value of this tale) is how it is told.
The plot is a quest for revenge. A “miserable scoundrel” shoots an upstanding member of the frontier Arkansas community and in a world of crooked lawyers and uncaring judges, his fourteen year old daughter takes it on herself to see that justice is done. It is she who narrates the tale and we see everything through her eyes. Headstrong, independent and single minded, Mattie Ross represents a certain character of frontier woman, the sort for whom the world is black and white and the moral ambiguities that plague many don’t get in her way. At one point late in the narrative, looking back as an old woman, she comments that many folk say her only loves are “her bank account and the Presbyterian Church” and that is about the depths of her introspection which perhaps gives a good idea of her character. Anyone coming from a Scots-Irish background will probably recognise her character straight away.
It is her single-minded, unquestioning pursuit of justice that drives the plot and leads her to team up with a Texas ranger called LeBeof and the inimitable Rooster Cogburn, a US Marshal every bit as much of a rogue as the outlaws they chase. It is natural justice, regardless of what the law thinks, that Mattie seeks and what Cogburn recognizes and responds to. An immature, at times unsympathetic character - she shoots a man in the head at one point and the reader is left with little doubt that the deed ever troubled her sleep - having the story told through her eyes reminded me of another classic of naive narration, Good Behaviour by Molly Keane.
All in all, the book is an excellent portrayal of the hard life on the frontier of the United States in the last century and the sort of personalities it took to forge that nation. Not always heroic, noble or pushed by high minded ideals, it was the Mattie Rosses and the Rooster Cogburns who probably did as much to build the West as the Lincolns.

View all my reviews

Thursday, September 18, 2014

The battle of Moira and the origins of Scotland

As Scotland ponders its future with or without the rest of the UK, I was taking a walk around the village I live in and it occurred to me that this was the very spot where (arguably) we all first came together in the proto-guises of our current national identities. Naturally it was for a fight.

Today Moira is the sleepy Northern Irish village I live in, right on the edge of Counties Armagh and Down. It was once blown to bits by the IRA but apart from that nothing much has happened here recently. However, Moira was once the scene of considerable slaughter. The battle of Moira occurred in 637 AD. It was a bloody affair and notable enough that it was reported not just in the Irish annals but also in the Anglo-Saxon chronicle and also in a particularly fine painting by the artist Jim Fitzpatrick:

The reason for its widespread fame was not just the level of carnage but the participants. On one side there was an army from the South, led by an O’Neil who was High King of Ireland. Against them stood a coalition of forces led by a King of Ulster but comprising warriors and princes from the north of Ireland and what is now Scotland, as well as a contingent of Anglo-Saxons and even a few Welshmen (well, Britons).

This possibly comes as a surprise to some. Surely our incessant wars began 800 years ago with the arrival of the English (or rather the Normans), not 1377 years ago when we all lived in a misty poetic utopia? With that in mind we should take a further look at the combatants. 

Congal had been High King of Ireland, but an accident involving a bee sting resulted in him being blinded in one eye. No longer physically perfect, this meant he could no longer hold the High-Kingship which even in the Christian-era had sacred connotations. Like a lot of modern Ulstermen would have done, he sued the owners of the bees for compensation (the ancient law tract still survives). However he was to say the least “put out” by the affair. Before long he was at war with his successor (and foster father), Domnall mac Áedo of the Clan Connell who took his place as High King. They met in battle in 629 at the Battle of Dún Ceithirn and Congal lost. Having nowhere left to go in Ireland he fled across the sea to his cousins in Scotland.

Roman writers and Geographers placed the tribe called the Scots as living in Ireland. Similarly, Saint Patrick’s writings in the 5th and 6th centuries place the Scots in the north of Ireland. By the 7th century, however, the northern Irish kingdom of Dalriada had spread itself from its original powerbase in North Antrim across the sea to the islands and shores of western Scotland, taking their language and culture along with them. It was among these folks that Congal, still King of Ulster, took refuge and brooded on his revenge.

Eventually he came back and claimed his throne again. War inevitably followed and conflict raged across Ireland for several until Domnall once more marched north, determined to rid himself of his disgruntled rival once as for all. Hopelessly outnumbered but the advancing army form the south, Congal called on his friends and relatives overseas and an army came to his side. The politics of North Britain were such at the time that the Dal Riadan prince (also called Domnall) could call on allies from neighbouring kingdoms too so along came some British princes from the Brythonic tribes of the Old North (in Welsh, Hen Ogledd), possibly the Gododinn or Ystrad Clud ). Theses were the rump of ancient British kingdoms who had not yet succumbed to the Anglo-Saxons invading from the south. These men spoke an ancient version of the Welsh language. Amazingly, given that all these folks were fighting for the same pieces of land in what is now Scotland, a contingent of Anglo-Saxons came along too. One of this crowd brought along a cavalry cohort, which raises intriguing possible connections to a son or grandson of one of the historical figures (Artuir mac Aedan) identified as a candidate for the inspiration of the legend of King Arthur, recently outlined by David Pillings here: . As we will see, this is not the only Arthurian connection to the battle.

As always in Ireland, there seems to have been a religious element to the whole affair. Domnall's army included a Christian Saint in its ranks, Ronan Finn. Ancient accounts of the battle of Moira mention kings among the Ulster army who are pagans. The ancient poems about the battle abound with pagan celtic spirits and omens. Old Gods like Mannan MacLir and the Morrígan, the celtic battle goddess, make appearances. This is an interesting point. The battle was taking place 200 years after Saint Patrick had supposedly made Ireland Christian and 74 years after Saint Columba had founded Iona, yet supposedly parts of the north still followed the old ways. 

Readers of Irish legend, Seamus Heaney, Flann O’Brien, Joseph Heller and Neil Giaman’s “American Gods” will be familiar with the character of “Mad Sweeney” , a pagan Dalriadan King who is driven insane in the heart of battle and goes and spends the rest of his days living in the woods thinking he is a bird until he eventually suffers a threefold death. Arthurian and Welsh scholars will see direct parallels with the story of Merlin and the Battle of Arfderydd . I will no doubt return to this subject in a future post. Suffice to say, the battle where Sweeney went mad was Moira. By co-incidence there are still a few with the Sweeney surname in and around Moira and Lisburn. Whether they are related or not I can’t say.

After several days of heavy fighting Congal was killed and his army was defeated. The result was that Domnall and the O’Neils extended their influence over the north, which they ruled for the next 1000 years until the Flight of the Earls in 1607. The Dal Riadans lost their remaining Irish lands and from then on their energies were focused in north Britain in the foundation of the fledgling Kingdom that eventually became Scotland.

Moira still bears some echoes of the battle. In the 1830s a newspaper report mentioned the finding of large numbers of human and horse bones during the construction of the railway line near Killultagh. A similar account mentions another vast quantity of human bones being found near the Lime Kilns on Claire Hill. There are old townland names within the village that point to further clues: Carnalbanagh translates as “Grave (Cairn) of the Scots” - or rather “Of those from Alba”, the old name for Britain. Beside it is Aughnafosker, usually translated as “field of slaughter”. Moira itself means “Plain of the raths (ancient ringforts)” and at one time there were many of those in the area. Unfortunately most of them have been destroyed by over-zealous farmers and property developers.
A few survive, like the one in the middle of the roundabout:

Or the huge Pretty Mary's Fort, the ramparts of which are still impressive:

Aughnafosker is mostly covered by the housing development in which I live and last week work began on covering the final green field part of it beneath 70 new houses. 

Can anyone lend me a metal detector?