Glendalough, where King Cormac pleaded with Sister Deirdre to marry him
The man who has come down to us through Irish history and legend as St. Patrick, the holy Christian bishop and teacher, lived in Ireland during the later part of the 5th century. It was a place of warring tyrant kings and their slaves; solitary groups of monks and nuns; wandering druid bards; and fearsome, terrorist pirates beholden to neither God nor man. I have found two engaging mystery novels that do a marvelous job of pulling the reader back into those misty times: St. Brigid’s Bones by Philip Freeman, and The Leper’s Bell by Peter Tremayne. Both have strong female protagonists and vivid historical settings in Ancient Ireland.
St. Brigid’s Bones was just published last fall. It features Sister Deirdre, who was born into a family of famed druid bards, but left that life behind after the death of her little son, to become a nun in a monastery founded by a holy woman, Brigid, in Kildare in the late 5th century. St. Brigid was a real person, St. Patrick’s contemporary, and was revered during her lifetime for many wondrous miracles. In the story, her bones are kept in the monastery where the fictional Sister Deidre lives. Pilgrims come on St. Brigid’s feast day, February 1st, to seek the saint’s intercession with God for cures and favors. They bring offerings for the religious community, and these extra provisions enable the nuns and their brother monks to survive.
When Brigid’s bones are stolen, Sister Deirdre is assigned to find them–and quickly, for February 1st is fast approaching and food supplies are dwindling. Her adventures roaming about the island, visiting contentious kings, the selfish Bishop of Armagh, and best of all, the murderous pirate Lorcan, are by turns romantic, haranguing, and in the last case, hair-raising. In the end, the bones turn out to be in an expected place, and all is well, at least for the time being. Philip Freeman, a fine storyteller, is apparently working on a second book about the inimitable Sister Deirdre.
The Rock of Cashel, where Sister Fidelma’s brother is King
The Leper’s Bell, by Peter Tremayne, was published in 2006 and is 14th in a series of 24 mystery novels about Sister Fidelma of Cashel. This story takes place about 150 years after St. Brigid’s Bones. Sister Fidelma is the sister of the King of Cashel, and so, like Sister Deirdre the former druid, she is educated and held in high esteem. Fidelma is an advocate of the Breton courts–a lawyer of her day–and is married to one of the Brothers, who is a monk. I was surprised to read that monks and nuns married in 7th century Ireland, but an Irish friend has assured me that, indeed, this was not an uncommon practice at the time.
Sister Fidelma’s baby son is kidnapped after the gruesome murder of his nurse, and the anguished search that she and her husband undertake to find him is the heart of this story. The title comes from the occasional sighting in the area of a mysterious stranger in monk-like robes, ringing a leper’s bell. This was how lepers of the time signaled the community that they were diseased, so they knew to keep their distance. Is the baby eventually found? Well, I won’t spoil the ending for you.
Both of these Irish women are well-developed, interesting characters, and I loved reading what history and legend have to say about life during this harsh and unforgiving time in Irish history. The lawless cruelty and power of bandits and pirates was especially sad. These men were the outcasts and sociopaths of their day. Both of these books encourage readers to consider the human condition–how men and women, no matter their time, place, or station, strive to discover the path they feel compelled to follow, and then find others of like mind and heart to create working communities, no matter how dysfunctional they may appear to outside eyes. Happy Reading, and Happy St. Patrick’s Day!