Macmillan Childrens Publishing Group

The Sting of Justice

A Mystery of Medieval Ireland

Mysteries of Medieval Ireland (Volume 3)

Cora Harrison

Minotaur Books


The Sting of Justice

Notes and Fragments of Early Irish Law, or Brehon Law, transcribed by Domhnall O'Davoren and his lam-scholars, in the mid-sixteenth century, at Cabermacnaghten law school in the Barony of Burren, west of Ireland.

This account comes from the notes written in the autumn of 1509, by Dombnall's grandmother, Mara O'Dtvoren, Brehon of the Burren, in the reign of King Turlough Donn O'Brien. They deal with the case of a secret and unlawful killing at the time of the festival of Samhain in 1509.

The YEAR OF 1509 had brought a golden autumn to the west of Ireland. In the kingdom of the Burren the sun shone almost every day. The farmers, bóaires andócaires, took a second, and then a third crop of hay from the rich grasslands of the valleys on the Burren. The limestone mountains of Cappanabhaile and of Mullaghmore sparkled silver in the warm light, storing up the heat for the winter months, and the cows grew fat on lowland grass that was moistened by nightly mists and warmed by daily sunlight.
Sunrise had come to the Burren at half an hour after seven on the morning of 31 October, the feast of Samhain. First the rounded terraces of Mullaghmore showed blue against the pale gold of the sky. Then the low sun of an autumn dawn dyed the polished pavements with a saffron glow. The aromatic purple-grey smoke of peat fires rose lazily into the air and the cattle came swaying across the stony fields on their way to the milking cabins, their plaintive lowing forming a soft musical background to the early morning scene.
Mara, Brehon of the Burren and ollamh, professor, of the law school, stood in her garden and looked over towards the ancient enclosure of Cahermacnaghten. Her six law scholars were noisily awake to the world, energetically pumping water from the well, banging the door of the scholars' house, joking with Brigid in the kitchen house, carrying a basket of sods of turf into the schoolhouse, shouting, jostling each other, the young voices drowning the lonely chack, chack of the plump fieldfares overhead. Cumhal, Brigid's husband and Mara's farm manager, was chopping logs outside the house where he and Brigid lived and one of the farm workers was walking the cows into the milking parlour.
It was time for lessons, but Mara lingered for a fewprecious moments in her garden, gazing with deep pleasure at the magenta cranesbill, the soft-blue harebells and the mauve pincushion flowers, each colour framed by a diamond shape of limestone strips and all still blooming as if it were late summer. It had been such a beautiful autumn with almost no frosts and even now, though the leaves had mostly fallen from the trees, the sunlight brought an aromatic scent from the sharp green needles of the two rosemary bushes that grew beside her gate. With a sigh she shook herself and started to walk towards the law school. Her life was a busy one and today promised to be even busier than usual. As Brehon of the Burren she was not only responsible for law and order in that stony kingdom but also had the added responsibility of her teaching duties at the law school.
'Brigid, I don't think that I will take the boys with me to Father David's burial service,' she said, putting her head in through the door of the kitchen house. 'They'll have to go to Mass tomorrow as it's the Feast of All Saints and then again on Sunday. I think three times a week is too much. Fachtnan can supervise them for an hour or two and then they can have a game of hurley and an early dinner if I'm delayed for any reason.'
Brigid, a small sandy-haired woman, was flying around the kitchen, clearing away the porridge bowls, and wiping spills of honey from the large wooden table. She smiled now, looking at the tall, slim figure with a world of affection in her light green eyes. Mara's mother had died when she was young and Brigid, housekeeper to Mara's father, Semus O'Davoren, Brehon of the Burren, had been more than a mother to her.
'That's probably a good idea, Brehon,' Brigid nodded approval. 'Fachtnan is a great boy, he's very good with the younger ones and Cumhal will be chopping wood in the yard for the next few hours so if Moylan or Aidan give any trouble he'll pop in and sort them out. I'll get Sean to saddle your mare now and you can be on the way. Mass is at eight o'clock, isn't it?'
'What would I do without you and Cumhal?' Mara smiled back over her shoulder as she went out. It was amazing how Brigid always managed to do so many jobs at the same moment, vigorously swilling out the porridge pot, casting a quick appraising glance over Mara and nodding approval of the fur-lined mantle, the dark hair neatly braided over her head, the green gown over the snowy white léine; while shouting orders about the mare to Sean, checking the time by the candle clock on the shelf, throwing a few extra sods of turf on the kitchen fire and then rapping loudly on the open shutter at the window as a signal to the scholars that morning school was going to start.
They were all sitting very upright in their desks when she went into the schoolhouse. Ten-year-old Shane and twelve-year-old Hugh were on the front bench; behind them were the two fourteen-year-olds, Aidan and Moylan, and the two older ones were at the back. Enda was sixteen and Fachtnan, who also acted as her assistant, was eighteen; both were due to take their final examinations next summer.
'Samhain tonight, boys,' said Mara. 'You'll have to work hard for Fachtnan if you want to have time to get ready for your party and for the festival afterwards.'
'Will we have the afternoon off, Brehon?' asked Moylan eagerly.
'Sometimes we even have nearly the whole day off,' said Aidan eyeing her hopefully.
'I can't remember that,' said Mara drily. 'However, I will have to attend the burial of Father David from Rathborney now, so I suppose if everyone works very well for Fachtnan this morning, I might think of cancelling lessons for this afternoon.'

The dawn sun, low in a pale yellow sky, was almost blinding as she walked her mare sedately down the steeply spiralling path leading to Rathborney valley. The air was very clear and she could see people converging on the church from all directions, some walking, some riding, all determined to pay their last respects to a popular and devout old man.
There were figures also on the path that led from Newtown Castle, home of a prosperous silversmith and mine owner. Mara narrowed her eyes and leaned forward. Yes, it was Sorley Skerrett, the silversmith himself and Rory the bard was beside him. Mara could hear a loud laugh; the pair seemed to be best of friends. Mara lingered. After what she had learned of him last night, she had no inclination to meet Sorley again. He would probably go in by the nearby gate and would be in the church before she arrived there herself.
The bell had not yet tolled by the time that Mara reached the bottom of the hill. To her annoyance Sorley was still at the gate, engaged in earnest conversation with Bishop Mauritius O'Brien, who, no doubt, had come to honour the dead priest. Mara watched with amusement as Sorley produced a beautiful communion cup from a leathersatchel. So that was why he was here - not to pay his respects to the dead, but to sell to the living. They were talking earnestly and Mara did not wish to meet either so she continued up the lane towards Gleninagh mountain, and entered the churchyard by the gate near to the old church ruins. There was a cart, with a young man holding the reins of the patient donkey, a little way up the lane and as Mara tied her horse to a nearby tree, a sturdily built man, wearing a beekeeper's veil and heavy leather gloves, came out carrying a straw skep or hive and placed it on the cart. Several bees were buzzing angrily around his head, and around the head of the young man, but both ignored them. Mara went quickly through the gate and turned to go up to the west door of the new church.
'Giolla is taking his bees up to the mountain for a last feed of heather before the winter sets in,' said a familiar voice behind Mara.
'Toin, how good to see you.' Mara turned and then hesitated. The customary thing would be to follow this by saying: 'you're looking well', but no one could say that of the figure sitting on a wooden bench beside the path; his hand was pressed to his side and his eyes were black with pain. She had heard that Toin the briuga, or hospitaller, was unwell, but she had not expected to see this level of deterioration in a man whom she had last seen hosting a cheerful crowd of merchants from Galway.
'You're not well, Toin,' she said, going over to him. She was fond of Toin; they shared a love of gardening and in the early days of her garden he had given her many plants, but in her busy life she had not seen him for several months.He looks a dying man, thought Mara, eyeing with concern the briuga's grey face.
'It's good to see you, Brehon, come and sit by me for a minute.' His voice was still extraordinarily rich and full - a beautiful voice, Mara always thought - but his head was like a skull, the skin dry and bloodless and the brown eyes sunk deeply into their sockets. As always, he was richly dressed; but the clothes fluttered on his emaciated form like those on a scarecrow in a windswept field.
'Can I do anything for you, assist you home perhaps?' He had been a neighbour and a close friend of Father David, but he certainly didn't look well enough to stay for the burial service and the funeral. Her words had hardly been spoken when she heard another voice.
'Could you use a strong arm, Toin? I'm all finished here now; my son will take that lot up to the hills to feed from the heather and I'll just leave these last few skeps down here in the shelter of the wall. There aren't many bees in these ones and they will be best in the warmth.' The beekeeper Giolla approached, pulling off his hat with the veil still attached and placing his heavy gauntlets inside of it before he bowed courteously to Mara.
'This is my friend, Giolla. He gives me a pot of honey every year,' said Toin with a wry smile. He was obviously very ill, but the habit of courtesy was still there.
'Your guests must enjoy that.' Mara smiled at the old man, but she feared that the hospitaller would not entertain many more guests in this life.
'I give a pot to those of my neighbours who have gardens and a swarm if they have a farm,' said Giolla sittingdown on the other side of the old man and looking at him with concern.
'Ah, recompense for bee trespass!' said Mara. 'My scholars always find this very amusing when they learn the laws about it. They make up jokes about spotting Eoin MacNamara's bees in my garden and then serving a writ upon him. It always seems to amuse them and it's one thing that they never forget from their studies. Does everyone welcome the swarm? I'm not a lover of honey so wouldn't care for it myself.'
'I don't force it on anyone.' For some reason Giolla's open, pleasant face had grown dark with anger.
'Giolla is upset because when he presented a swarm to our neighbour over there a few weeks ago,' explained Toin with a nod towards the figure of Sorley still earnestly talking to the bishop, 'well, the man picked up a shovel and thrust the skep into the fire in the courtyard.'
'What!' Mara was appalled.
'And every one of the bees was burned to death,' said Giolla bitterly.
'But why did he do that?'
Giolla shrugged his shoulders. 'Well, I brought them along to him as he owns three farms. And he started screaming at me to take them away. He had a big party of men there. They'd all been out hunting and they were putting the hares on trestle tables in the courtyard when I arrived. Most of them were pretty drunk; they were swallowing down flagons of hot mead. They all started to laugh at him and he got furiously angry. He screamed at them that bee stings were dangerous for him. I put the straw skepon the table and he pushed it into the fire. Anyway, let's forget him. Can I do anything for you, Toin?'
'No, no, my servant has gone for my medicine. You should go, both of you. There's the first stroke of the bell. The church will be full today.'
'I'll just check on those last few skeps and make sure that the bees are settling down,' said Giolla bowing a farewell to Mara as she hastened towards the church.

The bees were everywhere that sunny autumn, thought Mara; even here in the church a few adventurous bees had flown through the open window shutters and landed briefly on the flower-bestrewn coffin in front of the altar. From her seat at the top of the church, Mara smiled. The deceased priest, Father David, had always been fond of the little creatures. It seemed fitting that the gentle old man should have had this fleeting visit in his last hour above the ground. She glanced around the church, wondering if anyone else had noticed the bees' swift descent, but heads were bent in prayer or whispering to a neighbour and no one met her smile. Most of the people were known to her, but she caught sight of a deformed man whom she had not seen before. She turned back to the altar; the bishop had finished his last prayer, six men of the parish came forward, shouldered the coffin, and walked slowly along the side aisle towards the south door. The sacristan scurried ahead, key in hand; this door, which led to the ruins of the earlier church of Rathborney, was always kept locked except when a coffin was carried through it towards the graveyard.
Mara glanced around again. The custom was that the dead person's relatives were the first to follow the coffin, but Father David had only the people of the parish to mourn him. Probably Sorley Skerrett, silversmith and owner of the nearby Newtown Castle, the most important person in the parish, should be first, but he did not appear to be in the church. This was odd; surely he had not gone home once he had finished talking to the bishop. Bishop Mauritius O'Brien, cousin to the king, had a quick eye that would immediately notice his absence from the service. Sorley's plain-faced daughter, Una, was there in the front bench, as was his apprentice, Daire, and their guest, Ulick Burke, Lord of Clanrickard in the county of Galway, but Sorley, himself, was nowhere to be seen.
Quietly Mara got to her feet. As the king's representative, responsible for law and order in the kingdom, there was no doubt that, although only present today because of her affection for Father David, she was the person of highest status in the church. As soon as she moved, others stood up also and began to form an orderly line behind her, filling the middle aisle of the little church.
The key grated in the lock of the south door and the coffin bearers bent their heads in preparation for stepping through its low arch. The sacristan lifted the latch and then there was a pause. No one moved. Mara peered around the bulky form of the bishop. The sacristan's face was red as he put his weight behind the door and endeavoured to push it. Mara concealed a smile. No doubt, no one had thought of checking that the ancient door, part of the old ruined church, was still in working order. Perhaps it had swollen, or more likely, since the weather had been very dry, a giantstone had fallen from the old arch above it and had blocked it.
'Excuse me, Brehon, excuse me, my lord,' Daire pushed his way past both of them and put his powerful shoulder to the door. It opened, slowly and gradually, with no sound of stone grating on stone. As soon as there was a gap large enough, Daire squeezed through and stepped into the ruins. The crowd in the church shuffled impatiently, whispers grew louder, but then stopped abruptly as Daire stepped back into the church, closing the door behind him. His face was white and his pale blue eyes wide with shock. He hesitated for a moment, passing his hand through his silver-blond hair, while he looked around the congregation and then his worried gaze found Mara. Her reactions were swift; she moved forward and joined him. He said nothing, just turned and she followed him, squeezing through the door and then stopped.
Now she could see what had blocked the door. A body lay there. A heavy body, fallen on his back with his face upturned to the open sky above the ruined church. Mara took in a deep breath, looking at the man on the ground with a feeling of sick dismay. The rich velvet tunic, the opulent, fur-lined cloak were just the same as she had seen them less than half an hour ago, but the face was almost unrecognizable: awful, congested, and blue, with a swollen, purple tongue and frightful staring eyes as green and protruding as boiled gooseberries.
Sorley Skerrett, silversmith and mine owner, one of the richest men in the kingdom, was lying dead on the flagstones of the ruined church.
THE STING OF JUSTICE. Copyright @ 2009 by Cora Harrison. All rights reserved. For information, address St. Martin's Press, 175 Fifth Avenue, New York, N.Y. 10010.