My Lady Judge

A Mystery of Medieval Ireland

Mysteries of Medieval Ireland (Volume 1)

Cora Harrison

St. Martin's Griffin

My Lady Judge
ONE
BRITISH LIBRARY MS VELLUM LEAVES: EGERTON 88
Notes and fragments of early Irish law, or Brehon law, transcribed by law scholars, in the mid-sixteenth century, at Cahermacnaghten law school in the barony of Burren, west of Ireland.
One older document, dating from the beginning of the sixteenth century, consists of judgement texts and case notes from the time when Burren was a kingdom under the rule of King Turlough Donn O'Brien. These notes are signed by Mara, a female judge, or Brehon, from this era.
 
 
EARLY Summer in the Burren has a glory about it: in the valleys a glory of soft greens, creamy hawthorn blossom and purple foxgloves; on the sparkling limestone of the uplands tiny jewel-like flowers of purple, yellow and blue sprinkled in the grykes between the flat, shining slabs of stone. Orange tip butterflies swoop among the cuckoo flowers, vibrant blue-green dragonflieshaunt the crystal waters of the spring wells and larks soar high above the contented cattle.
The sky, on that morning of the eve of Bealtaine, 1509, was a clear bright blue with wisps of bog-cotton clouds drifting slowly across. There had been rain during the night, but the heat of the sun was already strong enough to draw a fine mist from the clints that paved the fields, turning the limestone from blue-black to silver-grey and warming the massive stone walls that enclosed the scholars' house, the farm manager's house, the guest house, the schoolhouse and the kitchen house of the law school of Cahermacnaghten. No one was awake there - no sound of scholars' voices, no clatter of breakfast pans, no clank of the water pump. All was silent except for the excited high vit, vit, veet call of the swallows and the distant lowing of cows, knee-deep in the golden dust of the buttercups.
A hundred yards away from the law school was the Brehon's house, a substantial two-storey building of well-cut stone with a wispy plume of aromatic peat smoke drifting from the central chimney. Around the house was a garden of about one acre. From the front door to the gate ran a path of stone flags lined with pots of lilies. A small woodland of hazel trees to the west protected the plants against the strong salt-laden winds from the Atlantic. To the north was a hedge of gleaming dark green holly, tall white flowers growing in its shelter. To the east and the south were low hedges of perfumed lavender and in the centre a gently curving bed crammed with tiny blue gentians twisted and coiled through the garden.
In the garden Mara, Brehon of the Burren, was kneeling on the path pulling out weeds from among her gentians. She was a tall woman, still slim despite her thirty-six years of hearty eating, and her raven-black hair, plaited and coiled at the back of her neck, showed no signs of grey. She wore the traditional linen léine, a creamy-white tunic which suited her dark hair and herolive skin. Over it she wore a green fitted gown, laced up at the front, its flowing sleeves caught in tightly at the wrist.
Mara was an immensely busy woman with responsibility for the law school as well as for maintaining law and order in the stony kingdom of the Burren, so these few moments that she spent every day in her garden in the early morning, or late evening, were very important to her. However, she was also a very sociable person who enjoyed a chat with her neighbours so when footsteps sounded on the stone road that ran between Cahermacnaghten and Baur North, she looked across the wall.
'You're out early, Brehon.' The voice was familiar and with a smile of pleasure Mara stood up, abandoning her weeding.
'It's a beautiful morning, Diarmuid,' she said.
'Yes, it's a beautiful morning, God bless it. The grass is beginning to grow fast now with the strength of the sun. It'll soon be haymaking time.'
'Would you like a cup of ale?'
'No, no,' Diarmuid said, shaking his head.
Mara said no more, just waited. Diarmuid O'Connor would not be walking along the road past Cahermacnaghten so soon after dawn just to discuss the weather with her. Something else was troubling him.
'I was hoping I might see you,' he said eventually, avoiding her eyes.
She surveyed him carefully. He was about her own age, a man of medium height and red-blond hair, his skin covered with freckles from daily exposure to the clear skies and the fierce winds of the Atlantic. She had known him since they were both children; she knew him to be trustworthy, a good neighbour, loyal to his clan, to his neighbours and a self-sufficient man. He lived alone on a farm in Baur North, about a mile from Cahermacnaghten.
'What's wrong?' she asked.
He fidgeted uneasily. She suspected that he would have preferred to go on talking about the weather.
'Well, you know there has been a bit of trouble between our kin-group and the MacNamaras?' he asked after a while.
'Yes,' she said encouragingly.
'Well, my brown cow was missing this morning,' he went on. 'I went to look at her first thing. I thought she might have dropped a calf last night, but she wasn't there.'
'Was she out in the field overnight, then?' asked Mara.
Diarmuid shook his head. 'No,' he said. 'I put her in the little cabin just next to the house last night. I knew I'd hear her there if she was distressed. It's just beside my window. She was shut in securely. There's a latch on the door and there's a bolt on the gate to the yard. This morning I found the door was wide open, and the cow was gone. She was stolen; there's no doubt about it. And I can guess who stole her.'
Mara frowned. This was bad news. At best, an uneasy peace existed between the O'Connors and the MacNamaras. Absent-mindedly she dusted the earth from her fingers.
'Walk down to the schoolhouse with me, Diarmuid,' she said. Smoke was beginning to drift up from the kitchen house within the law school enclosure and they could hear a few raucous boyish shouts from the scholars' house. The corners of her mouth relaxed; she always enjoyed her scholars; their high spirits and their energy kept her young.
'I've disturbed your peace,' said Diarmuid with his usual courtesy.
'No, no,' she said as she replaced her small fork in the willow basket beside her and walked towards the gate. Then she frowned again. The shouts were silenced by a scolding, slightly high-pitched, masculine voice. Colman was so stupid, she thought vehemently. Why couldn't he leave them alone? He would have more authority with the boys if he allowed them to indulge ina few high spirits when it didn't matter. Why did I ever take him on as junior master? she asked herself for the hundredth time.
'I'll send my assistant Colman to take notes,' she said quickly. 'We'll go and get him now and you can tell him everything. I'll hear the case at today's judgement day.'
This will be something for Colman to do this morning, she thought with relief as she walked down the road at Diarmuid's side. Once the young man had finished his studies and graduated from Cahermacnaghten she should have let him go off as a wandering aigne, or advocate lawyer. He was clever; he would have made his way. He would have earned far more than she gave him. It had been weak of her to agree to his suggestion that he do a year's teaching at the law school to broaden his experience before he left. She had been worried about him; that was why she thought another year under her influence would be good for him. Now it seemed that she was forever inventing ways to get him away from the boys for a while, and relieved whenever he absented himself to go to Galway.
'You'll come in and have a cup of ale while you're waiting for him, won't you?' she asked Diarmuid when they reached the law school.
'Just a doiche an dorus, then.' He followed her through the great iron gate of the law school and into the enclosure. The six law scholars were dashing out of the scholars' house and calling out greetings to her with broad smiles on their faces. They all looked unusually neat and tidy, she noticed, faces shining from soap and water, damp hair showing the ridges of the combs that had been ploughed through the tangles, leather boots shining with polish. The night before Brigid would have put out the clean léinte, tunics of bleached linen, for them. Today was an important day for the law school of Cahermacnaghten. Today was one of the four big judgement days on the Burren, the eve of Bealtaine.
Mara eyed them affectionately. From eighteen-year-oldFachtnan to ten-year-old Shane they were like a family to her, closer in some ways than her two grandchildren in Galway. She noticed with concern that twelve-year-old Hugh looked a little tearful. There was a red mark across one of his cheeks and at that sight her lips tightened in exasperation. She had told Colman again and again that there was no need for him to hit those boys; they were all so motivated to learn and to succeed at the difficult profession of lawyer that a withdrawal of privileges was the only punishment ever necessary. Hugh's mother had died a few months earlier of the sweating sickness, picked up on a visit to the city of Galway, and Hugh had been nervous and anxious ever since. Colman should know that. She would speak to him later, she decided, but she would say nothing in front of the scholars. She could not undermine his authority.
'Colman,' she said coldly, 'will you take your breakfast quickly and go with Diarmuid. He has had a cow stolen. Make notes of the case and bring them back to me as quickly as possible so that I may study them before we go to Poulnabrone at noon. Hugh,' she added gently with a smile, 'will you bring our visitor a cup of ale and one of Brigid's oatcakes?'
'Just a doiche an dorus,' repeated Diarmuid, standing carefully by the heavy wooden door of the kitchen house to prove that, quite literally, this was just to be a drink at the doorway. He tossed down the cup of ale that Hugh brought to him and disposed of the oatcake in two rapid bites. Colman grabbed a couple of oatcakes for himself then went rapidly out of the kitchen house and crossed the stone-flagged enclosure.
Mara followed him into the schoolhouse. She found him packing some leaves of vellum, a quill and an inkhorn into his leather satchel.
'Take careful notes, Colman,' she said. 'Do a drawing of the house and the cabin where the cow was and the position of the gate. Look for any footmarks.' She walked towards the door andthen added over her shoulder, 'Come on, Colman, Diarmuid is waiting for you at the gate.'
He fidgeted a little, obviously wasting time, filling the horn with fresh ink from the flask, rejecting the first quill and then selecting one more to his liking, leafing through some of the scrolls of judgement texts from the shelves. 'Would you ask him to go ahead, Brehon?' he said with his usual smooth politeness, but with a slight trace of panic in his light-toned voice. The tightened lips of his narrow mouth distorted his pale, small-featured face. Mara looked at him in surprise and then his cheeks flushed with blotches of red.
'That will give him time to lock up his dog,' he said, nervously running his fingers through his yellow hair.
Mara concealed a smile. So that was it! Of course, she had forgotten about the dog. Diarmuid's dog was famous for its ferocity and Colman, a sly, undersized, nervous child, had always been terrified of dogs; he had even been frightened of her big wolfhound, the mother of her present dog, Bran. He had been a strange child: a very hard worker, obsessional about making lists of tasks to be done, studying continually and shunning the play activities of the other lads. Even when he was older, he never petted or played with Bran, the gentlest wolfhound on the Burren, in the way that the other scholars did. She looked out at Diarmuid, still waiting patiently at the gate, and swiftly made up her mind. Colman would not do justice to this case if he were worried about Diarmuid's dog. He would just accept Diarmuid's explanation that the missing cow had been taken by a member of the rival clan and then get back to the law school as soon as possible.
'I'll come with you,' she said aloud. 'I think I should look into this case myself. You can take the notes.'
He bowed stiffly, looking angry and humiliated, but she ignored him and glanced across the cobbled yard of the enclosure. 'Fachtnan,' she called and the dark-haired boy ran out of thekitchen and across the enclosure, still stuffing an oatcake into his mouth. She looked at him with affection. He was the exact opposite to Colman, she thought: tall, broad-shouldered, kind, open and honest, with a thatch of rough, dark hair and a pair of gentle brown eyes. He had always been a great favourite of hers.
'Yes, Brehon,' he said indistinctly.
'Fachtnan, you organize a chess tournament for the lads,' said Mara. 'Tell them that there will be a prize for the winner - some silver to spend at the fair this evening.' I'll have to make sure that Hugh gets a prize, she thought, and little Shane also. These two had been with her since they were five years old and they had a special place in her heart. She would probably end up giving prizes to everyone, she thought wryly, but it would be worth it to keep them clean and tidy until noon.
Mara joined the farmer. 'I'll walk down with you, Diarmuid, I may as well take a walk. I'll be sitting for most of the afternoon and perhaps the early evening. There are quite a few cases already for judgement day and we may have yours to add to them also.'
He smiled with pleasure and she smiled back. She was fond of Diarmuid and at times she suspected that he was more than fond of her.
At that moment a huge white wolfhound came lolloping across the road to join them. 'No, go back, Bran. Stay at home, good dog.' Bran's tail drooped; he was a very sensitive and devoted dog, but he obediently turned back and went towards the kitchen house.
'Yes, better not take him,' said Diarmuid, 'my dog is a bit of a fighter. A lovely dog to me, but he doesn't like the rest of the world too much. Is King Turlough Donn himself coming today for the judgement day?'
'He is, indeed,' said Mara, smiling with satisfaction. She always enjoyed a visit from Turlough Donn O'Brien, king of three kingdoms: the large kingdom of Thomond and the twosmaller kingdoms of Burren and Corcomroe. They would have supper together after the judgements were over -- Brigid, her housekeeper, had orders to cook a couple of wild duck and they would have a fine flagon of French wine to go with it.
'You won't be going up Mullaghmore tonight, then?' said Diarmuid after they had climbed a few unstable stone walls and set off striding across the stone pavements of Baur North. The heat of the sun was bringing out the sharp bittersweet smell of the ground-hugging juniper growing in the grykes between the slabs of rock that paved the fields.
'No, I won't,' said Mara, neatly jumping the gryke and then bending down to pick a few needles of juniper. She pinched them between her thumb and forefinger nail and then held the little bundle to her nose. 'I'll have to entertain the king. Colman will look after the lads for me when they are on the mountain,' she said, trying to include her assistant in the conversation. Her consciousness that she disliked Colman, and that she had always disliked him, made her make more efforts with him than she did with Fachtnan. 'Are you going yourself, Diarmuid?' she asked.
'I thought I might,' he admitted. 'It's time that I gave the old fiddle an outing. The evening promises fine.'
'Of course I knew you would be going; they wouldn't be able to do without you. I'd dance myself if I heard a tune from your fiddle,' she said with a smile. Colman, she noticed to her annoyance, was staring into the middle distance with his usual air of slightly despising the company that he was in.
'Rory the bard has made up a new song - there's a bit about your garden in it; the garden from heaven tied with a ribbon of blue, he calls it in the song - and I've been practising a tune to go with it,' said Diarmuid. 'It's a great tune, as lively as yourself. Are you sure you won't come tonight? You do every year.'
'I've promised King Turlough a good dinner, otherwise I might, just to hear your tune,' she said. 'I can hear your dog bark,'she added. 'He knows there are strangers coming. I always hear him if I go along this road.' She half-glanced at Colman to see if he had picked up the clue, but no trace of interest showed on his narrow face. No doubt he wished he were back in the schoolhouse studying Latin or the wisdom texts, she thought. He would not make a good Brehon. Probably he would be better off staying in a law school as an assistant master. Not my law school, though, she thought with exasperation. She wondered whether she could get Fergus, the Brehon in the kingdom of Corcomroe, to take him on.
 
 
Diarmuid's dog was huge: huge and ferocious. Mara surveyed him with interest, avoiding eye contact so as not to excite him too much. He lunged against the gate and his bark reverberated off the slopes of the Aillwee Hill. She turned away, but the dog still continued to deafen them with his barks. Mara nodded to herself. Yes, she was right. This was not a rival clan raid.
'Wait a minute,' said Diarmuid. 'I'll shut him up in the cabin.' He squeezed his bulky frame through the narrow gate, taking extreme care not to allow the frantic dog through, and then shut the gate carefully after him. It had a large bolt on the inside, just at the top of the gate, noticed Mara, easy enough for a man to open it from the outside, but then what man would dare to do this with such a ferocious guardian inside the gate? The dog, she noticed with interest, was not barking now but was jumping wildly around Diarmuid, licking the man's hands and wagging his tail as a puppy would. He was a beautiful dog, almost as tall as a wolfhound, black and tan in colour with an enormous ruff around his neck, pricked-up ears and a large domed head.
'Where did you get him from, Diarmuid?' she asked, speaking softly and keeping her eyes averted from the dog so as not to provoke another storm of barking.
'I got him from my cousin, Lorcan,' said Diarmuid.
Mara gave herself another congratulatory nod. Her memory had not failed her.
'Lorcan had him for a year,' continued Diarmuid, 'but he was getting too much for him. He was great with Lorcan himself; you can see what a loving fellow he is with his own family. But he's a difficult dog and Lorcan wasn't good at fencing him in. He did a lot of damage and people were scared of him. He's half-wolf, you know. Lorcan had a big sheepdog bitch that was in season so he staked her out by Mullaghmore, there where the lake is, at the bottom of the mountain. A wolf mated with her.'
'Took a bit of a risk with his dog, didn't he?' said Mara tartly, furious at the thought of the unfortunate dog left staked out there at the mercy of the wolves. But she knew from long experience that everything she said or did was of great interest to the people of the Burren, who were proud of their woman Brehon. Her slightest word was taken up, inflated and blown all over the Burren. So, as she had done so often, she bit back the angry words and watched Diarmuid fondle the wolf-dog.
'You could say that,' agreed Diarmuid. 'You see, the puppies were all too big for the poor bitch. They all died except for this fellow, and the bitch died after she had given birth.'
'What's his name?' asked Mara.
'I call him Wolf,' replied Diarmuid. 'He looks like a wolf, though he's finer than any wolf that I have ever seen.'
'And he didn't bark last night,' stated Mara.
'No, he didn't,' said Diarmuid with surprise. 'How did you guess that?'
Mara smiled. 'I think we'll take a walk down to Lorcan's farm, Diarmuid.'
'But ... but what about the cow?' asked Diarmuid, staring at her in bewilderment. 'Don't you want to see the cabin? And what about Eoin MacNamara?'
Mara smiled sweetly at him. 'Come on, Diarmuid, you know what I'm like about dogs. I'd like to find out more about Wolf. Let's go down to Lorcan; it's not far. I'm not forgetting about your cow, I promise you that. You come, too, Colman.' There had been no need to add that, she thought. Colman would not have liked to stay there with that ferocious dog, called Wolf.
 
 
Lorcan's farm was at Cregavockoge, a lush valley below the flat, high tableland that spanned the three miles between Cahermacnaghten and the dolmen at Poulnabrone. The grass in this valley, growing thickly in the well-drained rich soil that lay above the limestone, was a deep, soft green. There were several small farms there, but Lorcan's stood out from the rest by the dark brown muddy fields and the broken-backed walls. His cottage was small, as were most of the cottages on the Burren. Lorcan's cottage, however, was not snowy-white like the other cottages, but a dingy grey with moss growing on the badly thatched roof. It looked as though he had not repaired the thatch nor limewashed his walls for years. Mara looked at it with interest. Lorcan O'Connor was obviously a poor farmer. The fields were over-grazed and thistles and ragwort had seeded themselves everywhere into ugly clumps.
Lorcan himself was in his yard. Mara moved quickly, striding out ahead of Diarmuid and Colman. She passed the bemused Lorcan with a friendly smile and went confidently through the filthy yard to the small cabin beside the house. There was a cow there. It was a handsome, well-fed large brown cow, quite unlike the small dark cattle that she had seen in the fields. The cow was obviously in calf.
'Diarmuid,' she said over her shoulder. 'What do you think of this cow?'
Looking puzzled, Diarmuid came forward. He still suspected nothing, thought Mara. He was an honest man himself and heexpected the world around him, especially one of his own kin-group, to be equally honest. The cow, however, had no doubts. She gave a robust 'moo', lumbered out of the cabin and put her head affectionately on Diarmuid's shoulder. Diarmuid patted her absent-mindedly and stared speechlessly at his cousin.
Mara looked at Lorcan. 'Can you explain what Diarmuid's cow is doing in your cabin, Lorcan?' she asked quietly.
Lorcan stared back at her but said nothing. There was a flare of panic in his widely opened eyes.
'Well,' said Diarmuid. Words seemed to have left him and it took him a few minutes before he said with dignity, 'I'm sorry that you did a thing like that, Lorcan. It wasn't very neighbourly and it wasn't very cousinly. I'll be taking the cow back to my place now and it will be a miracle if her calf is born safe after all of this.'
'I found her straying,' muttered Lorcan.
'No, you didn't,' said Diarmuid scornfully.
'And, Lorcan, I'll see you today at Poulnabrone,' said Mara firmly. 'I'll hear the case and I'll apportion a fine.'
'I'm a very poor man, Brehon,' said Lorcan piteously. 'The young master here knows that,' he added, looking at Colman.
'That's true,' said Colman unexpectedly. Mara shot him an irritated glance, but kept a firm grip on her rising temper. She marched back out of the dung-filled yard and waited at the roadway. Diarmuid followed, leading his precious cow carefully with a handful of hay to her nose. Colman, noticed Mara, had stopped for a quick word with Lorcan before picking his way carefully out to join them. She concealed a smile as she watched him. His rather sharp nose was twitching uneasily and his narrow shoulders were contracted as if he shunned his surroundings. It was easy to see that he had never been a country boy.
'Well,' said Diarmuid heartily when they were out of Lorcan's hearing, 'I don't know how you guessed that, Brehon. You're agreat woman entirely. That was the last person that I would have thought of. My own cousin!'
'Ah, well, it was easy,' said Mara modestly. 'That's a good dog you have there, Diarmuid. Some day when I have a bit of time on my hands I'll come over and try to make friends with him. I'd say he would have been better if you had had him when he was a puppy. He needs to learn to trust people that you trust. He needs to get out and about a bit more.'
While she spoke, Mara's mind was busy with the problem of Colman. It was odd how he was only now beginning to show himself for what he was. It was as if, while he was a student, he had kept a close guard on himself and tried his best to fit in with her way of thinking. Otherwise, she would never have appointed him. Luckily it was only for a year and the year would end soon. I'm not going to have him behave like this, though, she thought with determination.
After they had parted from Diarmuid and his cow, going shoulder to shoulder down the road to Baur North, Mara said mildly, 'It was not a good idea to agree with Lorcan there, Colman. You can rely on me to apportion a just fine. Now he may think that he can twist and wheedle his way out of anything.'
'I was just following your instructions to be sympathetic and understanding to people, Brehon,' said Colman smugly.
Mara tightened her lips, but said no more. They walked in silence along the road and then turned into Cahermacnaghten.
Cumhal, Brigid's husband, was sweeping the flagged surface of the enclosure. Brigid herself was scrubbing out the kitchen and singing loudly and the schoolhouse rang with the shouts of the boys playing chess in their usual exuberant way.
'Thank you, Fachtnan,' said Mara as she entered. She could see that Fachtnan had worked out an intricate tournament on the whitewashed piece of board that she used for her lessons. Each boy was allocated points according to his age. UnfortunatelyFachtnan had managed to get some black specks from the charred stick, which he had been using to write on the board, on to his clean léine, but no doubt Brigid would manage to make the tunic presentable before the judgement session.
'You touched your castle; you must move it now,' yelled Shane.
'No, I didn't,' yelled Hugh. 'My hand just hovered; it didn't touch.'
And then, quite suddenly, Hugh caught sight of Colman emerging from behind Mara. His eyes locked on Colman's with the look of panic that comes into the eyes of a baby rabbit in a snare. What had Colman done to that boy? thought Mara. She scowled and then her lips relaxed into a slightly vindictive smile. Let Colman have a taste of his own medicine. It would do him good to know what it was like to be terrified. At least she would get rid of him for the rest of the morning. She turned to her assistant.
'Colman,' she said. 'I think we should probably have the dog at the judgement session, don't you? After all, he may be an important witness. Go back and tell Diarmuid to bring him to Poulnabrone. Wait with him. Stay at the farmyard all the morning and take note of the behaviour of the dog when strangers come near to him. Come with Diarmuid to Poulnabrone and you can give evidence, and of course you will be able to help Diarmuid to control the dog. It's an interesting case.'
This should amuse King Turlough Donn, she thought with a smile. This case may go down in the history of judgement texts. The case of the silent witness: the dog who did not bark.
MY LADY JUDGE. Copyright © 2007 by Cora Harrison. All rights reserved. No part of this book may be used or reproduced in any manner whatsoever without written permission except in the case of brief quotations embodied in critical articles or reviews. For information, address St. Martin's Press, 175 Fifth Avenue, New York, N.Y. 10010.