It was then, as it is now, a land of grey stone.
Then, as now, the Burren, on the western seaboard of Ireland, was a place that had been stripped of almost all soil. The fields were paved with stone: broad slabs, or clints, of it; the mountains were cones of rough rock, or spiralling terraces of gleaming limestone. But among those swirling mountain terraces were tiny, stunted bushes of juniper and of holly; and in the fields, between the clints, rich, sweet grass grew, winter and summer. Then, as now, the cattle were fat and their owners were prosperous.
Everywhere the stone had been used. Thousands of years earlier the people of the Burren had built themselves vast tombs: court tombs, cairns, wedge tombs and huge dolmens, silhouetted against the sky like the tables of some giant race. They built miles of stone walls to enclose their small stony fields, and they built great fortified dwelling places:
and, later, monasteries, churches, tall, grey crenellated tower houses and small oblong stone cottages, some in the fields, and some within the encircling walls of a
Over 400 ruins of those ancient
or forts, still remain and in the year 1509, many were still occupied. On the west side of the kingdom was Cahermacnaghten whose great stone walls, ten foot wide and twenty foot high, enclosed a law school. The exquisitely written documents penned within its walls tell the story of a community, living by the ancient laws of their forebears in the stony kingdom of the Burren.
To the east of the kingdom stood the mountain of Mullaghmore. The great sheets of ice that swept across the west of Ireland almost a million years ago had gouged out terrace piled on terrace of gleaming bare limestone, and left Mullaghmore towering over the flat stone pavements in the south-eastern corner of the Burren. This high and lonely hill was, from time immemorial, an ancient place of pilgrimage. The Celts climbed it to celebrate their great festivals:
Lughnasa, Samhain, Imbolc
; and the descendants of the Celts continued to climb it on the Christian festivals of Lammas, Halloween, St Brigid’s Day and May Day.
On the eve of the first of May, in the year 1509, people from all over the Burren, young and old, climbed the mountain. The young men carried bundles of hazel rods for the bonfire and heavy leather bags filled with strong Spanish wine. The girls wore flowers in their hair and carried baskets of food. Many carried fiddles, horns or pipes and all sang on the slow climb up the stony terraces.
When the moon rose to its midnight height they lit a great bonfire and danced and sang until grey dawn came, and the singing of thousands of small birds joined the chorus of human voices. Then, young and old, they went back down the mountain and made their way home to
to the tall grey tower houses, or to the small oblong stone cottages.
But one man did not come back down that steeply spiralling path. His body lay exposed to the ravens and to the wolves on the side of that bare mountain for one whole day and two nights and no one spoke of him, or told what they had seen.
And when Mara, Brehon of the Burren, a woman appointed by King Turlough Donn O’Brien to be judge and lawgiver to that stony kingdom, came to investigate she was met with a wall of silence.
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.
ARLY 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 dragonflies
haunt the crystal waters of the spring wells and larks soar high above the contented cattle.
The sky, on that morning of the eve of
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
a creamy-white tunic which suited her dark hair and her
olive 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 in
a 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
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.
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
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
Mara eyed them affectionately. From eighteen-year-old
Fachtnan 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?’
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 and
then 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 the
kitchen 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.’