Friday, September 30, 2016

Dalriada and the Scots

410AD is largely regarded as the date for the end of Roman Rule in Britain. Throughout the final years of disintegrating Roman administration, letters were sent complaining of raids into the north of the Province of Britannia by a tribe called the Scoti, or Scots. These raiders were not from Scotland, however, which did not yet exist as a united realm under that name. They lived in the north east of Ireland.
These Scots seem to have acted like ancient vikings – arriving in ships, attacking nearby settlements and towns and leaving with their ships laden with plunder and captives bound for a life in slavery in Ireland. One of the more famous of these stolen people was the son of a Roman Decurion now known as Saint Patrick. According to legend, the young Patrick during his enslavement worked as a shepherd on the slopes of Slemish in what is now County Antrim, an area that falls within the borders of an ancient kingdom called Dal Riada.
Like the later vikings, the Scoti at some point seem to have stopped leaving the scenes of their crimes and began to settle down. The Annals of Tigernach, have an entry for the year 501 AD/CE that states “Feargus Mor mac Earca cum gente Dal Riada partem Britaniae tenuit, et ibi mortuus est” – Fergus Mor (“Big Fergus”) MacErc with the people of Dal Riada took part of Britain and he died there. Another legend says he died at Carrickfergus in County Antrim but regardless of that it signals the start of a kingdom that spanned the north east of Ireland and the west coast of Scotland. A dynasty of Kings ruled both sides of the Irish sea for the next hundred and fifty years. There appears to be some debate among modern scholers about which side of the Irish sea Dal Riada actually originated on, but by the end of the seventh Century the Gaelic language and to an extent culture existed both in north east Ireland and western scotland and the isles.

The kingdom was divided among several clans or kindreds: Cenél nGabráin (kindred of Gabrán) based in Kintyre, the Cenél Loairn (kindred of Loarn) in north and mid-Argyll and the Cenél nÓengusa (kindred of Óengus) based on Islay. In Ireland the centre of power was at Dunseverick on the north coast of County Antrim. The picture below was taken not far from there and illustrates how close the two countries are at that place. In a time when the fastest way to get about was by water, standing on the north Antrim coast, the mull of Kintyre was closer and easier to get to than Belfast.

In Alba, as they called the island of Britain at the time, as they expanded their influence, the Dalriadans came into conflict in the north west with the Kingdom of the Picts. To the south west they fought the Old Britons of Alt Clut and the English, who were expanding north themselves. In 603 they clashed with King Æthelfrith of Bernicia. The Dal Riadan army was led by their King, Áedán mac Gabráin, who Bede refers to as “King of the Irish in Britain”. Despite having fewer men, the English won the day and effectively ended Dal Riadan expansion to the south. On the face of it this could be seen as a clash between English and Irish, but as usual though (like for example the battles of Brunanburgh or Clontarf) the picture is murky when you start to poke into it. The Anglo-Saxon chronicle mentions, for example, that Herring, Æthelfrith’s cousin and a Bernician prince, led part of the Dal Riadan army against the English.
Áedán is said to have had a son called Artúir, and some bloke called Dave Pilling :-) wrote about him as one of the potential candidates for the “historical” King Arthur (…/real-arthurs.… ). This isn’t the only tentative Arthurian connection to Dal Riada, there is another I’ll mention later. If you are still reading by then.

Another significant defeat for Dal Riada followed in the next generation, this time in Ireland. In 637 AD one of the bloodiest battles in Irish history occurred at Magh Rath (modern day Moira in County Armagh, and the village I live in). 
Congal Cláen, King of Ulaidh (Ulster), 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. Before long he was at war with his successor (and foster father and owner of the bees that blinded him), Domnall mac Áedo of the Clan Connell who had taken his place as High King. Congal called on his allies to support him and among those who came was an army from Dal Riada. The politics of North Britain were such at the time that the Dal Riadan prince brought with him allies from neighbouring kingdoms too so along with him came some British princes from the Brythonic tribes of the Old North (in Welsh, Hen Ogledd, possibly the Gododinn or Ystrad Clud ). 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, possibly again exiled princes from Bernicia.

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. Accounts of the battle of Moira mention kings among the Ulster army who are pagans, including one from Dal Riada. 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 flees across the sea to Alba (modern Scotland), spending the rest of his days living in the woods thinking he is a bird until he eventually suffers a threefold death. Modern readers would call this PTSD, but Arthurian and Welsh scholars will see direct parallels with the story of Merlin/Myrddin Wyllt and the Battle of Arfderydd.
The Ulster side lost and this date effectively marks the end of the Irish part of the Dal Riada story, though connections continued. The Kingdom in north Britain persisted though. By 843 it was ruled by Cináed mac Ailpín (Kenneth MacAlpin) who finally united (whether by violence or diplomacy this is needless to say debated) Dal Riada and the Kingdom of the Picts and became Kenneth I of Alba, a moment that could be argued as the birth of the modern concept of Scotland as a political entity.
There is lots more to this tale so I'll probably post again sometime

Wednesday, February 03, 2016

Echoes of the past

“What we do now, echoes in eternity”
These are the words of Marcus Aurelius, the philosopher Emperor of Rome, which Ridley Scott emphasised by having Russel Crowe’s character quote it in his film “Gladiator”. 

I’ve been struck by how true this is many times before, mostly when some archaeologists discover the impression of a single moment in time, a throwaway, everyday act by an individual in the distant past who probably never thought about it again, that somehow left an imprint that we can still see centuries later. A great example was the woman who used her face cream in a temple in Roman London close to 2000 year ago and the gesture was preserved (along with her fingerprints) in the tin which was  discovered back in 2003.

Last night I learnt another one. I was invited to speak at Ballyclare Library. The topic was Medieval Antrim and the Scottish Invasion of 1315 AD, the historical events behind my novels  Lions of the Grail and The Waste Land, and a topic I've blogged about here before. I was delighted with the crowd that turned up and thank everyone for listening. After relating how Edward Bruce (brother of Robert) and his army had passed by Ballyclare both on their way to burn the manor and motte at Doagh and on the way to the battle of Connor, one local man fixed me with a inquisitive glare and said “Have you not heard of Bruce Lee?” - well that’s what I heard anyway.

As a fan of “Enter the Dragon” I replied that of course I had. I was highly confused then when he followed up with “Sure that’s where he camped.”
“Who?” I asked, prompting a look that suggested he thought I was simple minded. 
“Edward Bruce. He camped out in the field there on the way to Doagh.” He explained.
Further discussion revealed that it was not Bruce Lee he was talking about but Bruslee, a hamlet a few miles up the road from where we were standing, and the location of one of the council recycling centres. The “Brus” referring to Edward Bruce, and “lee” being the medieval term for meadow or field (aka a “lea”). It’s impressive to think that seven hundred years ago Edward Bruce and his army perhaps spent one night encamped there seven hundred years ago and the event has been preserved in the name of the place ever since. Its also very interesting that the spelling of “Brus” matches the medieval spelling of the Bruce name - for example the epic biographical poem about King Robert Bruce written in 1373 by John Barbour is titled “The Brus”. 
The other interesting thing is that the English (or perhaps Scots) name has survived since medieval times, including the couple of centuries after the dissolution of the Anglo-Norman Earldom of Ulster when the land was largely reclaimed by the Gaelic speaking Irish.
Whatever the reasons, I wonder what a man as proud as Edward Bruce would have made of one of the very few memorials to him in Ulster now being the name of a recycling centre?  

Monday, December 21, 2015

The Giant's Ring

At this time a couple of years ago I wrote a post about Newgrange, the impressive neolithic passage tomb on the Boyne river where the rays of the rising mid-winter sun casts a beam down the entrance tunnel.  
Today I visited a similar Stone Age monument somewhat closer to home but in many ways more impressive. The Giant’s Ring is a henge  monument, a vast circular earthwork just outside Belfast. It has a dolmen (an ancient grave) just off centre. Dated to 4715 years ago, it was built before the Egyptian pyramids. Like the pyramids, it’s huge in scale. The ring is made of dikes 12 feet high and 50 feet wide. The ring encloses a space of 6.9 acres and is 600 feet in diameter.

Other barrows with ancient bones in them surround it. But like other neolithic sites, the place is shrouded in mystery. For example, why is the dolmen off-centre? 

The vast ring is almost perfect, so it can’t just be sloppy measurements. Also what was this place for? Conjecture is that it was part of a major European cult of the dead that venerated holy ancestors. The tombs, cremations and inhumations that have been excavated in the area suggest there was something like that going on. Perhaps like, the pyramids, this was a vast monument to departed members of an important dynasty. We will never know. Shelley’s poem “Ozymandias”,  springs to mind. 

It’s sobering to think that the trees which grow around the site are generations older than me, but even their lifetimes are mere specks compared to how long the Giants Ring has stood here. This site is akin to a medieval cathedral in terms of the effort and organisation it must have taken to build it. Perhaps even more so when you think that the place was constructed by people with no metal tools. Like at Stonehenge, the Ring of Brodgar, Callanish or any of the other huge megalithic sites, the sheer scale of the transformation imposed on the landscape by these people some folk still see as “primitive” is humbling.

Most who know me will not see me as a superstitious person, but when I walked round the ring today I did not go widdershins. Instead I went clockwise, with the sun, like the earth making its annual circuit. The druids were supposed to be able to see portents in the flights of birds and I was slightly disconcerted by the single magpie that hopped around the dolmen  for most of my circuit. When I got three quarters of the way round, it was joined by another one and I have to admit I felt a bit happier.       
The Giant’s Ring  - a fascinating place well worth a visit.

Tuesday, December 15, 2015

Win a paperback copy of my new book, The Undead

I'm running a Goodreads Giveaway competition for the chance to win two paperback copies of my new book, The Undead.   There are only three days left to enter (competition ends 18th) so if you want to have a go, you can enter by clicking here.

It's a gothic supernatural tale set in Victorian Belfast:

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, together they seek the truth behind who is resurrecting the murderous dead.

Tuesday, December 01, 2015

You better watch out, you better not cry…or you’ll be dragged off to Hell

Yule Visitors

Christmas is coming. You’ve probably noticed. Decorations are going up, trees are being lit and children are starting to await with accelerating excitement the arrival of a certain, “jolly elf” in a red suit on the night of December 24. As everyone knows, good children will be rewarded by Santa Claus with toys, because after all he knows who is naughty and who is nice.

But what about those naughty kids? When I was a child their reward was a lump of coal. I never met anyone who was actually bad enough to end up with that and I wonder what Santa’s policy is today in our more inclusive, politically correct society, where the concept that “differently behaved” kids should reap punishment for their actions would perhaps be frowned upon. Compared to some of our continental cousins, however, the idea of Santa delivering a lump of coal as reward for naughtiness seems like wishy-washy liberalism.
In the northern, more Germanic parts of Europe, Santa Claus is not the only Yule visitor to make house calls. In most of Europe, presents are delivered by Saint Nicholas, usually around the start of December on his Saint’s Day (December 6). In a lot of places, he is accompanied by a “dark” character who does the the enforcement of the nice/naughty list. When I say, “dark” this can range from someone dressed in black to guys in (now rather tasteless) black-face make-up to “dark” in the sense of “utterly terrifying”. 
In the Low Countries (Belgium, Luxembourg and the Netherlands) Santa Claus is accompanied by Zwarte Piet (in English “Black Peter”). He still appears in Christmas parades in Amsterdam and Belgium, portrayed by a white actor in the sort of black-face make-up that was even regarded as offencive in the 1970s. Apart from that facet, Zwarte Piet is reasonably benign and his job is to entertain the kids.

Saint Nick is accompanied in Germany by another dark companion and with him things start to get a bit more serious. This character is called Knecht Ruprecht (Farmhand Rupert). He has a long beard that covers his face, wears a black robe and tends to be a bit dishevelled. He carries a bag of ashes and tests children on their ability to pray. If they can, he rewards them with apples, nuts or gingerbread. If they can’t, he beats them with his bag of ashes. Ruprecht is a nickname for the devil in Germany which might be a clue to his origins. The beating thing is a bit of a trend with these creatures. In Southern Germany the figure of Belsnickel comes at this time of the year. He wears dark fur and rags, a mask and carries a switch with which to beat the naughty kids. This character has managed to cross the Atlantic and appears among the Pennsylvania Dutch communities. He even turned up in the American version of “The Office”.

All these creatures are positively cuddly though when compared to Krampus. 
Krampus, not Lordi

Krampus comes howling from the darkness of an Austrian Alpine nightmare. In the shape of a man but covered in black fur, curling horns sprouting from his head and with a lolling red tongue that would make Gene Simmons feel inadequate, Krampus arrives on the night of December 5th- Krampusnacht
Gene Simmons, not Krampus

He comes for the naughty children in the Alpine regions of Austria, Southern Bavaria, parts of the former Yugoslavia and Hungary and he doesn’t mess about with bits of coal either. Even beatings pale in comparison. Krampus bears a basket on his back and shoves the naughty children in it for transportation straight to Hell. As if the very idea of this horned demon was not terrifying enough, Austrians like to remind their children he is coming by exchanging krampuskarten (Krampus cards) at this time of year the way others send Christmas cards.
Grretings from Krampus!
If you feel your children could work on their behaviour and want to participate in this grand European tradition you can even get your own on Amazon.  
Even the Austrian Nazis banned Krampus “celebrations” in the 1930s, but like a lot of things they didn’t like, it only made him more popular. It seems that today Krampus is actually more popular than ever and not just in Europe. Krampusnachts and Krampuslaucht (which seems to be an alcohol-fuelled 5K in fancy dress) are cropping up in the USA as well. There will even be a horror/comedy film about him released this year (appropriately on December 4).
It would be easy-and tempting-to say that this says a lot about the German psyche. The  terror of misbehaving that is drummed into small children somehow translates into the fact that subsequent adults make sure all their trains run on time, but the only thing we really could say is that these traditions must be very old. The common theme that can be discerned is that a supernatural visitor arrives at this time of year who is dark furred or dark skinned, dishevelled, his face hidden by a mask and he punishes bad behaviour, usually by beating or sometimes worse. A variation of this figure is found right across the German-influenced parts of Europe from Holland to Slovenia, which shows the tradition must go way back in time to long before all these countries grew into separate nations. It’s tempting to speculate that this particular demon has haunted the world since the Romans peered nervously into the undergrowth of the Teutoburg Forest but we will just never know. 
However, next time you see children crying when they meet Santa Claus , just think what they would be like if they met Krampus.

If you are in the mood for some Christmas chills, my new gothic horror novel, The Undead is now available in Kindle and Paperback

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.