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Authors: Cora Harrison

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Condemned to Death

BOOK: Condemned to Death
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The Burren Mysteries by Cora Harrison













available from Severn House

A Burren Mystery
Cora Harrison

This ebook is copyright material and must not be copied, reproduced, transferred, distributed, leased, licensed or publicly performed or used in any way except as specifically permitted in writing by the publishers, as allowed under the terms and conditions under which it was purchased or as strictly permitted by applicable copyright law. Any unauthorised distribution or use of this text may be a direct infringement of the author’s and publisher’s rights and those responsible may be liable in law accordingly.

This first world edition published 2014

in Great Britain and 2015 in the USA by


19 Cedar Road, Sutton, Surrey, England, SM2 5DA.

Trade paperback edition first published

in Great Britain and the USA 2015 by


eBook edition first published in 2015 by Severn House Digital

an imprint of Severn House Publishers Limited

Copyright © 2014 by Cora Harrison

The right of Cora Harrison to be identified as the author of this work has been asserted in accordance with the Copyright, Designs & Patents Act 1988.

British Library Cataloguing in Publication Data

Harrison, Cora author.

Condemned to death. – (Burren mystery)

1. Mara, Brehon of the Burren (Fictitious character)–

Fiction. 2. Murder–Investigation–Fiction. 3. Women

judges–Ireland–Burren–Fiction. 4. Burren (Ireland)–

History–16th century–Fiction. 5. Detective and mystery


I. Title II. Series


ISBN-13: 978-0-7278-8442-8 (cased)

ISBN-13: 978-1-84751-549-0 (trade paper)

ISBN-13: 978-1-78010-595-6 (e-book)

Except where actual historical events and characters are being described for the storyline of this novel, all situations in this publication are fictitious and any resemblance to living persons is purely coincidental.

This ebook produced by

Palimpsest Book Production Limited, Falkirk,

Stirlingshire, Scotland.

For my daughter Ruth – always the first to read my books – and always ready to accompany me on explorations of remote places on the Burren and to lend a listening ear.


Many thanks to family and friends who continue to encourage me during the writing of these books; to my agent Peter Buckman who always reads them with promptitude and appreciation, seasoned with some wholesome criticism; to my editor Anna Telfer who delights me with praise and who spots any weaknesses; to the team at Severn House who turn my typescript into such a wonderfully attractive product; and to the professionals in the field of Brehon law who do all the hard work of translating from medieval Irish and thereby facilitate my weaving of stories about the O’Davorens of Cahermacnaghten.

Bretha Crólige
(Judgements of Bloodlettings)

(kin-slaying) is the most serious crime that can be committed under Brehon or Gaelic law. No fine can be paid, nor no recompense made by someone who has killed a member of his immediate family. The murderer is banished from the kingdom by being placed in a boat with no oars and sent to drift out to sea.

he body of the man in the boat with no oars had been washed up onto the orange sands of the beach of Fanore. Mara, Brehon of the Burren, with her seven law scholars flanking her, stood very still for a moment, looking down into the sightless eyes. The sands and the dunes behind them were crowded with fishermen and their families; with boats; with small canvas-covered shelters; with fires smoking beneath the long lines of herring and mackerel suspended from straight twigs resting on v-shaped upright ones; but everyone, including the small children, was very silent. Death by drowning was well known to this fishing community, but there was something strange about this death and it chilled even the experienced Mara to the bone.

Mara had been Brehon – judge and investigating magistrate – of the one-hundred-square-mile Kingdom of the Burren for over twenty-five years. She had imposed penalties for many crimes, including that of murder, but she had never had to impose a penalty for the ultimate sin in Gaelic Ireland – that of the murder of a close family relation. Brehon law refused to shed blood and ordinary deeds of murder were punished by a heavy fine and full declaration of guilt and repentance in front of the people of the kingdom. And since blood cannot be shed by the judicial process, then the punishment for
(kin-slaying) was left to God. The murderer was put in a boat with no oars, the boat was pushed out to sea and the man was abandoned to the ocean and the winds. It was one of the first laws that any young legal scholar learned at the commencement of their schooling.

The dead man was unknown to her, unknown to all, it appeared. Not a young man, a man in his fifties, she judged; though the hair was plentiful, the face was lined. Clothed in white linen, he lay there, judged by God and condemned to death. What had he done to merit this death and where had he come from to end up on this remote shore – these were the questions in Mara’s mind, but as she gazed down at him, doubt crept in.

Was all as it seemed?

Mara turned and looked around. The body in the boat had landed in a small inlet on the southern extremity of Fanore Bay, right into a little sandy cove, well away from the main beach. The storm winds had died down, but there was still a strong breeze from the south-west and it was easy to see how the boat had been washed in by the tide. The position was right; it was the boat itself that puzzled her. Where had it come from? And what was the history of the man who lay there, quietly dead, half covered with seaweed, dressed only in linen, the skin of his face whitened by the salt spray, the tongue protruding, looking for water, the bleak sentence of death to be read in the position of the body lying within a boat with neither oars nor sail; a boat set adrift to be at the mercy of wind and waves. Mara looked out at the Atlantic Ocean, and then back at the grey stone of the mountains that towered above the beach. She could not have foreseen that this would occur within the few short days since she had last visited Fanore.

It was three days ago that Mara came to the seashore on the north-west side of the Kingdom of the Burren. She went there on midsummer’s eve with her seven scholars, who were going to take part in a great fishing expedition. They set off early that morning, riding the eight miles from Cahermacnaghten on a path that wound between the mountains and then descended from Ballyiny to sea level. It had been a long time since Mara had travelled this steep narrow roadway and oblivious of the excited chatter around her she was absorbed in the beauty of the flowers. The hills rose high on either side of them, not gentle mounds covered with grass or heather, but vast chunks of exposed rock where the rain had carved the limestone boulders into thick bare slabs and terraces of stone and where each crevice and crack was filled with tiny plants. As Mara rode along behind her noisy scholars, her eyes were on the dark green ferns and on the flowers, noting where the intense pale sky-blue of the harebells contrasted so beautifully with the bright pinkish-purple of the daisy-shaped cranesbill blooms. The tiny rock gardens of wall rue and starry blossoms in white and purple absorbed her so much, even when they emerged from the mountains, that it took a startled exclamation from one of her scholars to make her turn her towards the sea.

It had been raining heavily during the Sunday night and there had been claps of thunder from time to time, so they had all been relieved when the morning showed fine and sunny. But the sea that stretched between them and the Aran Islands was tumultuous, boiling over with white-capped waves, and the sky was full of seabirds, squawking with noisy elation. For a moment Mara enjoyed the sight, the contrast between the deep blue of the sea, the foam on the immense breakers that rolled, one by one, into the shore, the long level shining black slabs that stretched out to meet the water, the scarlet legs of a large flock of oystercatchers overhead, their call like the drumming of the waves themselves, and the plumes of water smoke rising high above the coastal fields, but then the dismayed words of sixteen-year-old Domhnall, her eldest scholar, penetrated her brain.

‘The boats will never put out in a sea like that,’ was what he said.

‘Of course they will,’ contradicted Cormac, Mara’s eleven-year-old son.

‘Of course they will,’ loudly asserted the MacMahon twins, Cael and Cian, but no one else said anything, just looked out to sea. Art, Cormac’s foster-brother, almost his twin as they had been babies together, usually agreed with him, but Art was the son of a fisherman and knew more about the sea than any of the others. Fifteen-year-old Slevin took his opinions from his great friend, Domhnall, and fourteen-year-old Finbar was so depressed about his examination results that he had not opened his mouth for the whole morning.

‘We’ll see,’ said Mara as they turned their horses off the road and went down the sandy path towards the beach, Mara carefully picking her way in and out of the clumps of wiry-stemmed sea-pinks, and the scholars riding at top speed towards a tall figure that had just climbed up the thick wedges of rock and was coming to meet them.

‘Fernandez, Fernandez,’ screamed Cormac. ‘We’ll be able to go out in the boats today, won’t we?’

Even from a distance Mara could see Fernandez shake his head and she relaxed. She had been feeling tense. During the last few weeks, long before the sight of those turbulent seas, she had been a little worried about the eleven- and twelve-year-old children going out in the boats, though she knew that Setanta, Art’s father, and Cormac’s foster-father, would take good care of them. Fernandez, she thought, was a young man who enjoyed taking risks, but even he had decided against the expedition today and that gave her confidence in him.

‘We’ll have to give it a couple of days to settle down,’ he said and then held up his hands in mock-surrender as he was assailed with complaints.

‘Peace, peace!’ he exclaimed. ‘We’ll go as soon as possible. But the midsummer’s eve party on the beach will go ahead, unless it rains again. And if it does, then we’ll all eat at the castle, and if it’s too windy for the tents, then you lot can sleep in the castle until the weather settles down a bit. In fact, that will probably be the best thing for all of you. Come and sleep in the castle and help to guard me against invaders from the sea. After all, you wouldn’t be much good to me if you were down in the sand dunes, would you?’ He looked with understanding at the disappointed faces.

‘Yes, yes, I know,’ he said. ‘You want to sleep out of doors, but you know that wind will blow canvas tents away if it keeps on gusting like this. Still, it might die down by evening, and if it doesn’t,’ his eyes met Mara’s with a twinkle of reassurance, ‘if it doesn’t you will be snug and warm in my castle at Cathair Róis – there’ll be no beds, I’m afraid, just mattresses in front of the fire. How about that? But you won’t go hungry, any of you. Etain has promised a great feast to celebrate midsummer’s eve. Everyone is helping. Everyone is bringing food and stuff to drink. What about you, Brehon, would you like to come also? We can provide only one extra bed, I’m afraid, but that one bed shall be for you.’

Mara shook her head. ‘No thank you, Fernandez, but if they wouldn’t be a trouble to you, I’m sure that the scholars would love to stay here at Fanore and be ready as soon as you think it’s safe to go. They’ve been looking forward to the midsummer feast.’ It was, she knew, a big event at Fanore year after year and already there was a large bonfire all set to be ignited piled under the shelter of heavy tarpaulins on the dry sand of the beach, well above the summer high-tide mark. Her scholars were beginning to cheer up. They had been worrying about having to go home, which would have been a terrible anticlimax, but now their eyes brightened as they looked away from the sea and surveyed the castle. Mara gave Fernandez a grateful smile.

‘I’ll take good care of them all,’ he assured her.

Fernandez was earning golden opinions from all of the O’Connor Clan, she thought, and now he won her good opinion also. It was perceptive of him to see how disappointed the scholars were and generous to offer to put them up, when he had the more enticing prospect of Etain to keep him company. The midsummer bonfire and the feast to follow it would be a great event for the scholars, whose everyday life was full of almost relentlessly hard study – the continual translations, writing of essays and memorization of facts. It would be fun for them to stay in Fernandez’s castle and have an exciting end-of-term celebration before returning to their homes for the summer holidays.

And of course Fernandez’s castle was a magnificent new structure. It had been built within an ancient enclosure, named Cathair Róis after the linseed with which it supplied all the linen growers of the Kingdoms of Burren and of Corcomroe. The old enclosure had consisted of the usual circular wall protecting three or four small houses within, but the new dwelling that replaced the houses stood high above that ancient wall, in fact four storeys high, overlooking the sea. Mara did not care for the castle greatly, finding that its rounded, pepper-pot shape and white-plastered exterior did not fit into the landscape as well as the traditional tall, square, grey, crenellated tower houses and small oblong stone cottages. Nevertheless, she had to admit that the new castle was furnished in great style and with an eye towards beauty as well as comfort. Fernandez had brought back from Spain some fine tables, beds, bed hangings and wall carpets and as they had been unloaded, one by one, from his ship the news had spread through the hinterland of the wealth of this new member of the O’Connor clan.

A year previously there had been great excitement when the young man, Fernandez MacFelim O’Connor, purporting to be the son of the long-lost brother of Finn, the O’Connor of Ballyganner,
(chieftain) of the O’Connor clan in the Burren, had arrived in that kingdom on a ship that came from Spain. He bore the exotic name of Fernandez, and spoke his few words of Gaelic with a strong Spanish accent, but he appeared, according to those who had known Felim O’Connor at that age, to be the living image of his father. Moreover, he bore with him a precious cloak brooch, an enamelled deer head on an oval of pure gold, and the hilt of the sword which he wore at his side incorporated a piece of deer antler, of great symbolic importance to the O’Connor clan. Both these articles were readily identified as belonging to Felim O’Connor and to his father before him. Faced with the evidence of the family likeness and the probability that Felim himself had bestowed articles of value on this boy, and thereby recognized him as a son, Mara had not hesitated to declare Fernandez as the nephew of the present
. The clan welcomed him and were happy that he proposed to take up residence in an ancient enclosure which had belonged to members of his part of the clan.

But the matter had not stopped there. The
’s only son, Tomás, the present
(heir), had an unfortunate weakness for strong drink and was a spoilt, lazy, idle young man. Fernandez, on the other hand, possessed a huge store of energy, quickly mastered the language of his father and was full of ideas to better the lot of the O’Connor clan, who were mainly fishermen. And the clan had begun to talk, in ones and twos and threes, to Mara about the possibility of replacing young Tomás with Fernandez. It was felt, said some cautiously, that Fernandez might have more interest, more involvement in the position and in the affairs of the clan.

He did seem, she thought, to be an able man and certainly one who had the interests of his people at heart. And if he had brought back plenty of Spanish gold, well he spent it recklessly. He had employed labour during the winter months to construct his new round castle, still called by the old name of the enclosure, Cathair Róis, overlooking the beach at Fanore and when that was done he had retained the men and set them to work on weaving huge nets that would stretch from boat to boat. This summer, he planned, there was to be a giant fishing expedition with all of the O’Connor boats, rather than competing with each other, working together to catch the shoals of mackerel and herring. And not only that, he had devised the plan that the boats would land their catch on the sandy beach at Fanore and the women and younger children would immediately smoke it over fires of salt-impregnated driftwood and dried seaweed. And, moreover, there would be a great feast, supplied by him, and eaten on the beach to celebrate midsummer’s eve. The excitement was intense; the seven young scholars in the law school had successfully begged to take part, and once their examinations were over had talked of little else. And now, of course, at the news of the postponement of the fishing expedition the disappointment was just as intense.

BOOK: Condemned to Death
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