CRÍTH GABLACH (RANKS IN SOCIETY)
Each kingdom in the land must have its Brehon, or judge. The Brehon has an honour price, lóg n-enech [literally the price of his or her face] of sixteen séts. The Brehon has the power to judge all cases of law-breaking within the kingdom, to allocate fines and to keep the peace.
AS SOON AS DAWN broke on the morning of Michaelmas, the mist rose over the stony land of the kingdom of the Burren. It clung to the sinuous curves of the swirling limestone terraces on the mountains and filled the valleys with its thick, soft, insubstantial presence; it swathed the crenellated tops of the tower houses and wrapped the small oblong cottages in its feather-light folds; it encircled the walls of the great fortified dwelling places:cathair, lios or rath, and rested softly over the stone-paved fields.
Mara, Brehon, or judge, in the kingdom of the Burren, a tall, slim, dark-haired woman, wearing the traditional léine, a creamy-white linen tunic, under her green gown, stood at the gate of the law school of Cahermacnaghten and for the fortieth time that morning peered hopefully through the heavy mist. She was expecting her six scholars back from their holiday and not a single boy had arrived yet.
'You might as well stay warm inside, Brehon,' said Brigid, her housekeeper, coming out from the kitchen house inside the law school enclosure. 'The chances are that none of them will come today,' she continued, brushing the drops of mist from her pale sandy-red hair. 'The fog is bad enough here. It will be worse on the hills and the mountains. There's even some frost about: Cumhal said that the grass was white on the north field when he and Sean were doing the milking.'
'I suppose you're right, Brigid,' Mara replied. Normally she could see for miles across the flat tableland of the upper Burren but today she could barely make out objects only fifty yards ahead of her. The small sunken lanes that ran between the fields were blotted out and their red-berried hedges had become part of the grey landscape. There was no sound. Even the swallows, which only yesterday had been chattering busily on the rooftrees of barns and houses, had now fallen silent.
'Why don't you come inside?' urged Brigid. 'They won't come today. Cumhal brought a load of turf in and there is a good fire in the schoolhouse if you want to work there. It's freezing weather.'
Brigid and Cumhal had been the servants of Mara's fatherwhen he had been Brehon of the Burren and now served the daughter with the same respect, commitment and fidelity as they had shown to the father. Nevertheless, Mara usually found herself obeying Brigid as if she were still four years old, so she turned obediently to go indoors. Then she stopped. Her quick ears had heard a creaking sound. She started to walk down the road, and Brigid trotted rapidly after her.
'It's just a cart,' said Brigid after a moment.
'It's Ragnall MacNamara, the MacNamara steward,' said Mara.
'Out collecting the Michaelmas tribute for the MacNamara, I suppose,' Brigid muttered sourly. 'There was a lot of talk about that last night at the Michaelmas Eve céilí. The word was that the MacNamara is not content with the tribute that his clan usually give; he's telling them what he wants from them. Giving them orders, no less!'
'Really!' Mara said no more because Ragnall, mounted on his white horse, was now quite near, but she was astonished. The annual tribute to the taoiseach, hallowed and shaped by custom and tradition, was normally conducted with grace and courtesy on both sides. The clansmen gave what they could afford from their year's produce and the taoiseach thanked them and promised his favour and protection in return.
She saluted Ragnall with the usual blessing. He muttered, 'and St Patrick,' without looking at her. Obviously he still resented the fine she had imposed upon him at the last judgement day for hitting Aengus, the miller, with a heavy stick.
'I was wondering if you had seen any of my scholars,Ragnall,' Mara asked him calmly. 'I'm expecting them today, but none has arrived yet. Are the roads very bad over towards the east of the Burren?'
'Bad enough,' he grunted, without replying to her query.
'But you've managed to get around,' she persisted. 'You came over the Clerics' Pass?' Her eye went to the heavily laden cart. She counted seven bags of wheat flour there, each with the milling date, 25 September, and over-stamped with the MacNamara insignia of a prancing lion. This meant that Ragnall had managed to get up the slopes of Oughtmama to take the annual tribute from Aengus. It would have been a pleasure to him, she thought, to watch the miller load the bags of unbleached linen with his precious flour. Wheat grew in only a few favoured spots here in the cool, moisture-laden, stony environment and wheat flour was highly valued.
He grunted again, but still said nothing. He clapped his heels to the sides of his white saddle horse and jerked his head at Niall MacNamara, who was driving the cart, and continued on down the road without a backward glance.
'Did you ever see such a man as that!' exclaimed Brigid, her green eyes flashing with anger at the discourtesy. 'You mark my words, Brehon, one of these days that man will get what's coming to him.'
By mid-afternoon the mist had begun to lift. Suddenly colour, shape and sounds came back to the landscape. The wet flagstones that paved the fields shone with a gleam of silver in the autumn sun, the magenta-coloured cranesbill glowed, beads of moisture dropped from the delicate, droopingheads of the pale blue harebells and the swallows gathered in large chattering flocks.
Twelve-year-old Hugh, the son of a prosperous silversmith in the Burren, had arrived at the law school around midday, but there was still no sign of the other scholars. Now Hugh was getting restive and uneasy in the company of three adults without the other boys. Mara found him moodily kicking a stone on the road outside her house and cast around for something to make the day seem less long for him.
'Shall we go to the market at Noughaval?' she asked. 'That might be fun. We'll take Bran as well. Bran,' she called, and a magnificent white wolfhound bounded out of the stables, tail wagging vigorously. 'Run in and get his lead, Hugh. We'll walk in case the mist comes down again at sunset.'
Noughaval was a short walk to the south of Cahermacnaghten. It was a small settlement of a few houses, a church and a fine market cross at the edge of the square. The market square was crowded today. It seemed as if every trader in the three kingdoms of Burren, Corcomroe and Thomond had set up stall. Their wares were varied: the usual butter and cheese; fish fresh from the nearby Atlantic waters; leather stalls selling belts and satchels; wool stalls with lengths of rough fustian, honey cakes and hot pies for the hungry; and more-exotic stalls selling silks and laces brought in from foreign countries. In one corner of the square, near to the entrance gate, the O'Lochlainn steward, a big genial man, was collecting the annual Michaelmas tribute from the many O'Lochlainn tenants. He was mounted on a tall box so that none couldmiss him and beside him, outside the market wall, was a cart piled high with sheepskins and firkins of butter and rolled hides of fine calf skin or goat skin.
'God bless the work, Liam,' called Mara and he grinned in answer as he stowed away some silver in his leather pouch before turning to greet her.
'You are well, Brehon?' he enquired. 'The taoiseach is over there talking to the O'Brien. He'll be glad to see you. He was saying last night that he was going to consult you about some point of law.'
Mara groaned inwardly. Ardal O'Lochlainn always did want to talk about some point of law. 'Here's some silver for you, Hugh,' she said. 'You go and enjoy yourself while I talk to the taoiseach. Bran, go with Hugh,' she added with a quick pat on Bran's narrow hairy head, and Hugh and Bran galloped off through the crowds towards the honey cake stall.
'You are collecting the tribute here at the fair?' she asked Liam.
Liam shrugged. 'It's the easiest way. Let them come to me.'
'I met Ragnall MacNamara out on the road this morning,' Mara told him. 'He must have been out since dawn, his cart was already piled.'
'Well, the MacNamaras don't have too many families here on the Burren,' Liam said dismissively. 'If I were to do that I would be on the road for weeks, going from farm to farm. Besides, the O'Lochlainn likes it best this way: he wouldn't want it to seem as if he were asking for anything; the tribute is for the clan to give.'
Mara nodded. The O'Lochlainn clan had been kingsof the Burren in former days and the unconscious dignity of royalty had descended to the present chieftain, Ardal O'Lochlainn.
'Anyway,' continued Liam with an amused look, 'it's just as well that Ragnall is not here today. It gives his daughter, Maeve, a bit of time for courting. There's going to be trouble about these two,' he whispered, pointing to a young couple in the churchyard. 'The O'Briens and the MacNamaras don't get on too well. Ragnall MacNamara will never agree to a marriage between his daughter and the son of Teige O'Brien.'
Mara's eyes followed his pointing finger. She knew young Donal O'Brien by sight; he and Fachtnan, the eldest of her law school scholars, had become great friends in the last few weeks of the Trinity term. Donal was a hot-tempered boy, inclined to drink too much and to get into fights; probably basically a nice boy, she thought indulgently, just the spoiled only son of a wealthy taoiseach. Maeve MacNamara she didn't recognize. No doubt I have seen her before, thought Mara, but she was probably one of those girls who had suddenly blossomed into beauty with the dawning of adolescence and now was unfamiliar. She was quite small, but with a pretty, well-rounded figure and a face that, with its wide kitten-like eyes, delicate pink and white complexion and small pointed chin, reminded Mara of a heartsease pansy. Donal was bending over her, holding her two tiny fragile hands in his large ones and looking at her with adoration.
'I suppose the O'Brien wouldn't think it was a good match for his only son,' she said sympathetically, but Liam shook his head.
'No, it's not that at all,' he said emphatically. 'That boygets his own way about everything; his father would agree, but Ragnall won't consent. He would have to give too many cows to settle his daughter with the son of a taoiseach. The man is so mean that he would skin a mouse to get the fat off it.'
'Was it a good evening at the céilí, yesterday, Liam?' asked Mara, changing the subject. After all, it was up to Ragnall to arrange a suitable marriage for his daughter. Liam, as she had planned, was immediately diverted.
'The craic was mighty,' he said, smiling happily at the thought of the fun and the conversation and the sallies of wit, which would have been accompanied by large amounts of ale and mead.
'Ah well,' he said, with a hasty glance in Ragnall's direction. 'There was a bit of a fight between Aengus and Ragnall, again. There's bad blood between those two. The MacNamara should sort it out before it gets any worse. They'll be killing each other if this goes on. And then, of course, that young fool Donal O'Brien had to put his oar in.'
'On Aengus's side?' asked Mara.
'No, would you believe it. And after Ragnall turning him down when he wanted to marry the daughter! I suppose that Donal thought Ragnall might get to think better of him if he spoke up for him. Anyway, he took hold of Aengus, but Aengus flattened him. Donal was pretty far gone in drink, of course. Aengus cleared off after that and the O'Brien steward persuaded young Donal to go home, but I heard that the young fool would not be told and went flying after Aengus.'
'Oh well, as long as no harm was done,' said Mara tolerantly.
'Brehon,' called Ardal O'Lochlainn, making his way through the crowd, which opened up respectfully to allow him to pass. 'You are looking well,' he added with his usual courtesy.
'I'm very well thank you, Ardal,' Mara replied. 'Liam was saying that you might want to consult me on a point of law,' she added, with her usual directness.
'It's just a matter of the MacNamara mill at Oughtmama,' he said. He sounded a little uncomfortable at having to approach the matter without the usual enquiries about health and comments on the weather. 'I just wanted to check with you. My understanding of the law is that no man can alter, without consultation, the flow of a river or stream that goes through a neighbour's land. Well, the stream that turns his millstone goes through my land on the mountain, and now Garrett MacNamara has ordered his tenant, Aengus MacNamara, the miller, to divert a few of the other streams on the top of mountain, above my land, so now my stream floods my land from time to time. Has he any right to do that?'
'He should certainly have consulted you and perhaps paid compensation if it has done any harm to your land,' Mara told him cautiously. 'The law is quite clear on that matter.' What a fuss about nothing, she thought. The stream only went through a hundred yards or so of O'Lochlainn land.
Ardal O'Lochlainn's face brightened. 'So can I bring a case against him on the next judgement day?'
'I think it would be better to talk it over with Garrett first,' said Mara hastily, having spotted a disturbance over at the market cross. A fight would break out there soon, she thought, if someone did not intervene quickly.
'And he has done the same thing on the other side, on Teige O'Brien's land,' Ardal continued, oblivious to the commotion behind him. He was a man of single mind. He reminded Mara of a dog she had once, which was so obsessed with digging holes that he would even ignore a rainstorm and stay digging rather than retreat to his cosy bed in the stables.
'I'll consult my law texts and let you know,' she promised and hurriedly made her way to the market cross.
The crowd had gathered around a trader selling linen. He was a small man with a thin face and a back that looked permanently bowed by the weight of his pack.
'What's the trouble?' she asked crisply.
The crowd immediately fell into a respectful silence and parted to allow her to go through. She took a quick glance around. A large roll of coarse unbleached linen was lying on top of an open pack on the ground and beside it a pair of iron shears. The trader picked them up hastily and stuffed them into his pack. Then he began to roll up the linen.
'Diarmuid, what is happening here?' Mara quickly picked out a neighbour of hers, a man she could trust.
'Well, Brehon,' said Diarmuid, his freckled face worried and his sandy brows drawn together with a frown. 'It seems as if a lot of people have got short measure from this man, Guaire O'Brien from the kingdom of Corcomroe.'
Corcomroe was only a mile or so from Noughaval, but the people of the Burren were intensely clannish. The O'Brien clan of the Burren were liked and respected by their neighbours, as were O'Lochlainn, O'Connor or even MacNamara, but it was a different matter with an O'Brien from Corcomroe. Traders from Corcomroe were scrutinizedcarefully and any small infringements of the laws of weights and measures pointed out instantly. However, there seemed to be more than a small infringement here. There was an immediate chorus of assent to Diarmuid's words. Women were pulling out lengths of linen from their baskets and holding them up in front of her, indignantly clamouring to be heard.
'How is this?' asked Mara. 'The measuring line is here, on the market cross. It is plain for everyone to see. There is the inch line and there is the yard line. Haven't you been using that?' she demanded sharply of the trader. He had the face of a thief, she thought. His eyes were sly and his mouth was tight.
'He pretends to use it, Brehon,' said Aine O'Heynes, 'and then at the last moment he moves the cloth. I was watching him, because when I took the cloth out to show it to my daughter, I thought it looked short-measure so I came back and watched him carefully.'
'Let me have the cloth, Aine,' said Mara, stretching out her hand.
'That was supposed to be four yards,' Aine told her. 'That was what I asked for and that was what I paid for.'
'Measure the cloth for me,' Mara firmly requested, holding it out to the man, Guaire.
He took it from her and held it stretched between his two hands as he lined it up with the stark black horizontal lines on the well-scrubbed base of the market cross. It was almost half a foot short of the four yards.
'I'll throw in an extra foot,' he said hastily.
'You won't,' said Mara severely. 'You will cut a new piece of that same linen and you will make sure that it isexactly four yards in length. Is there anyone else who needs their cloth to be remeasured?'
A crowd of women surged forward and Mara groaned inwardly. She didn't relish the thought of standing there, overseeing, for the next hour. In any case, down the road from the market square she could see a crowd of young men following a trundling cart. The air was still and slightly frosty, and the sound of angry voices carried well. She fixed a stern eye on Guaire and announced clearly: 'Anyone with any further complaint come and find me.'
Rapidly she moved to the outer wall of the market. She could see that the heavily laden cart was accompanied by a man on horseback. Mara narrowed her eyes against the low sun and then tightened her lips. Yes, it was Ragnall MacNamara, on his white horse, and behind the cart was a group of men led by a huge giant of a man, an angry man judging by the tone of his voice. Mara stopped and stood very still. Fintan MacNamara, the blacksmith, was a great bull of a man and now he was roaring his disapproval and anger. She could hear his voice clearly now rising over the gruff voices of his supporters.
'You can tell the taoiseach that I'm not paying this extra tribute. Why should we pay a tribute to the ban tighernae? It's never been done before in the MacNamara clan and if I have anything to do with it, it will never be asked for again. I'll tell the MacNamara that to his face, himself.'
So that was it. Garrett MacNamara was a man in his thirties, who had recently succeeded his father as taoiseach to the MacNamara clan. He had taken a wife in the early summer and now the tenants were expected to pay for the lady's expensive tastes. It was strange having an extra tributefor the ban tighernae, the lord's lady, but not unknown. Mara took another step forward and then continued waiting, standing in the exact centre of the laneway. She had not seen Garrett MacNamara at the fair, but no doubt he was expected there. Like the O'Lochlainn steward, Ragnall MacNamara would expect to gather some of the tribute from the members of the MacNamara clan who thronged the market and it was customary for a taoiseach to come and publicly thank his clansmen on those occasions. In the meantime it might be possible for her to avert a fight by virtue of her authority.
'Tell me what the trouble is, Fintan,' she said crisply as the cart drew near. With one hand she signalled to Ragnall to stop the cart and then turned a listening attentive face towards Fintan.
'Well, this is the way it is, Brehon,' said Fintan in a conciliatory tone. 'I paid my tribute to the MacNamara early this month. He was telling me that he wanted a pair of new gates for his tower house at Carron. I supplied them and I fitted them. Fifteen feet high and ten feet wide, they were.'
'Yes.' Mara nodded. 'I've seen them, Fintan, and they do you credit.'
'Well, as you can imagine, Brehon,' Fintan continued in mollified tones, 'I thought that would be enough of a tribute for any reasonable man, but when I was off at Caherconnell shoeing the physician's horses, Ragnall comes along and takes those four candlesticks from my forge and tells my lad that the taoiseach requires them as my tribute for the ban tighernae.'
'Let me see the candlesticks,' said Mara. She moved closer to the cart.
The branched candlesticks were at the bottom of the cartand surrounded by firkins of butter, baskets of eggs, linen bags of goose down and a few large round cheeses. There seemed to be no doubt that the MacNamara was exacting a very big tribute from his clan this Michaelmas. The candlesticks were beautifully made; each one of them branched to hold eight candles. Fintan had probably hoped to sell them to the king, Mara surmised. They were too fine for most people on the Burren.
'And that's not the whole of the story,' went on Fintan. 'He went to Eoin's farm and took three, instead of the usual two, bags of sheep's wool and he took them while Eoin himself was up Abbey Hill. He shouted at Eoin's wife and made her give it, and she with six small children there on her own!'
Mara frowned; it sounded as if Ragnall MacNamara had been unnecessarily autocratic.
'You may take your candlesticks, Fintan, if you wish,' she said grimly. 'They should not have been taken from your forge without your permission. However, you may wish to see your taoiseach and talk over the matter with him first,' she added. Garrett MacNamara already had a reputation for bearing a grudge for a long time and Fintan, despite his brave talk, would hesitate to incur his enmity. 'Eoin,' she said, turning to face the tall young farmer, 'since your wife gave the extra bag I cannot authorize you to take it back now. The law says that she has equal rights to the property that you both work on. What you must do, and what I would advise all of you to do, is to send a request to your taoiseach to meet you and to lay down the tribute that will be expected of you in the future. If you wish, the meeting can take place today and I will be present to tell you what the law will or will not sanction. Will that content you?'
There was murmur of talk and Mara waited patiently. There was a look of sour triumph on Ragnall's face. Would his master reward him adequately for the hatred that he incurred on the Burren, she wondered, or did the man enjoy his unpopularity? It made her wonder what sort of life that kitten-like daughter of his enjoyed, cooped up with a sour and hated father in the remote house at Shesmore.
'We'll stick together,' announced Fintan. 'I'll leave the candlesticks for the moment - for the moment only,' he warned, bringing his large fist down heavily on the side of the cart. 'And you, Ragnall, tell the MacNamara that we need to meet with him and to talk to him.'
'He will be here at the market soon,' said Ragnall sourly. 'You can tell him yourselves then.'
'Well, that's ideal then,' said Mara firmly. 'I'll wait with you.'
By the time Garrett arrived, the crowd of MacNamara clansmen had grown larger and more menacing. Mara felt irritated with herself. The right thing to do would have been for her to have invited Garrett to come to the law school at Cahermacnaghten and to have talked with him privately before he met with his aggrieved clan. He was a new taoiseach, recently married, touchy about his rights and immensely ambitious. He would not take kindly to being told his duty in public.
'Here he is,' said Fintan, his deep strong voice cutting across the market place chatter.
Quickly, Mara moved across to talk to Ragnall. If she were busy chatting to the steward when Garrett arrived then her presence would seem less formal, less of a challenge to aninsecure and newly appointed taoiseach. Niall MacNamara, she noticed, was no longer beside the cart. Perhaps his duties were over for the day. Perhaps Ragnall would find someone else to take the cart to the tower house at the end of the afternoon. He had the reputation of being a skinflint and he would not want to pay Niall any money over the minimum necessary.
'How's your daughter?' she asked chattily, after a quick glance around to make certain that Maeve MacNamara was nowhere to be seen.
'She's well,' Ragnall answered, sounding bewildered.
'How old is she now?' asked Mara with one eye on the tall figure of Garrett who was now making his way through the cluster of his clansmen. She noticed that he did not greet them with the elaborate courtesy of the O'Lochlainn, or the joking friendliness of the O'Connor, but contented himself with a few curt nods.
'She's sixteen,' said Ragnall after a long pause, in which he managed to convey that the Brehon should mind her own business.
'Sixteen?' Mara was genuinely surprised. 'Well, how time passes! I would have thought she was only about thirteen or fourteen. Is she here today?' she asked innocently.
'No, she has plenty to do at home,' said Ragnall dismissively. 'Now if you'll excuse me, Brehon ...'
Mara did not move but stood there smiling: Garrett MacNamara had arrived. He looked as if he expected trouble, she noticed, but then perhaps, with his fleshy, protruding nose and his heavily swelling lower lip jutting out from the receding chin, he always did look like a man about to start afight. He could not have failed to notice the atmosphere of tension and how his clansmen had formed themselves into a solid crowd at his back. He did not waste time greeting Mara, or his steward, but turned and faced them.
'Well?' he asked.
Fintan, the blacksmith, came to the front.
'My lord, we are finding your taxes too heavy,' he said bluntly. 'More has been taken from us in tribute than has ever been taken before.'
Garrett frowned at him and allowed a long silence to develop and to fill the space after the angry words. Several of the clan shifted uneasily and looked as if they wished they had not come along. The reliance of the clan on the leadership and protection of their taoiseach was absolute. The taoiseach was elected from the ruling kin-group and once elected had great power -- unless, of course, there was a rebellion against him.
'The tribute was too low under the rule of my father,' said Garrett eventually. 'He was a very old man and he had made no changes for a long time.'
'And what about my candlesticks?' asked Fintan angrily. 'I had already paid my dues with that pair of gates for your avenue. Ragnall came and took four candlesticks while I was out.'
'Did you do that, Ragnall?' Mara asked innocently. She moved decisively forward and every eye turned towards her. 'Well, in that case, I would say that you put yourself outside the law.'
Garrett turned enquiringly to Ragnall and the steward did not hesitate.
'The blacksmith lies, my lord,' he said. 'He had left instructions with his man to give them to me as the second half of the tribute that was owed by him.'
'What!' roared Fintan. 'I left no such instruction.'
Clever, thought Mara. The man who worked for Fintan, Balor, a distant cousin of his, was as strong as Fintan himself, physically, but mentally he was a child. He would not be able to stand up to cross-questioning. His classification was that of a druth and his evidence would not be acceptable in a court of law. However, did a druth have the authority to allow the steward to take goods from his master's storeroom? Certainly not, she decided, and intervened quickly.
'This is a case that I must hear at Poulnabrone,' she said firmly. All courts were held in the open air beside the ancient dolmen at Poulnabrone about a mile from Noughaval. 'I will hear the case at twelve noon on tomorrow, Tuesday 30 September,' she went on, raising her well-trained voice so that it carried all over the market-place. 'The case is between Fintan MacNamara, blacksmith, and Ragnall MacNamara, steward. Fintan MacNamara accuses Ragnall MacNamara of taking four valuable candlesticks from his premises without any authority.' She paused and then lowered her voice and looked enquiringly at Garrett MacNamara. 'And the case of the tribute,' she said evenly, 'do I understand you to say that this was a special, one-off tribute that was meant to compensate for some years of underpayment? Will the tribute on Michaelmas next year be the same as before unless it has been renegotiated with the clan?' She paused again, looking at him steadily. To her surprise she noticed a faint sheen of perspiration on his high sloping forehead. Eventually he nodded.
'Yes, Brehon, that is the case,' said Garrett. He pushed his way back through the crowd and mounted his horse. There was a subdued movement from the MacNamara clan that she feared might explode into a cheer, so she added rapidly: 'Go, then, all of you. Go in peace with your family and your neighbours.'
They moved obediently at her bidding, but few left the market-place. Like a flock of starlings that had been scattered by a stone but soon coalesced back into a tight throng of scintillating black, the crowd dispersed but then came together again at the market cross, resentful eyes glancing over towards the impassive figure of the steward, Ragnall, who was carefully counting the silver in the pouch that he wore on his belt.
A SECRET AND UNLAWFUL KILLING. Copyright © 2008 by Cora Harrison. All rights reserved. Printed in the United States of America. For information, address St. Martin's Press, 175 Fifth Avenue, New York, N.Y. 10010.