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The following questions and answers are the most frequently received by the Society. Of course, the best way to keep up with all possible information on the books, the characters, and the author, is to become a member of the Society. These answers are penned by the author himself, and have appeared in past issues of "The Brehon."


Could members of the religious really get married in Fidelma's time?


Of the numerous and varied questions addressed to the Society, no subject has engendered so many queries than that of clerical marriage. It seems that some readers just cannot accept that there were clerical marriages among the religious in ancient times nor that there were `mixed communities' in many early religious houses. Peter Tremayne contributed an article in a recent edition of The Brehon, and we requested him to expand that article for this website.




In most religions, both ancient and modern, there have always been ascetics who believed that celibacy somehow brought them close to the deity. They have sublimated physical love, a natural life, in a dedication to whatever deity they worshipped. Celibacy within the Western Christian movement was something that took many centuries to become a universally accepted idea, even then it was a means of causing schisms within that movement. Only from the 12th century AD did the Roman Church begin to enforce celibacy among its clerics.

The first disciples of Jesus were, for the majority, married men. Disciples such as Simon Bar-Jonah, nicknamed `The Rock' (Petrus in Latin, Cephas in Greek), the man on whom Jesus is accepted as founding his Church and regarded as the `first Pope'. Evidence shows that many of the early Christian religious leaders were married men and women and, moreover, women often took a prominent role in the services. Even many centuries later women in Gaul were officiating over the divine offices and other rituals and that called forth a rebuke from Rome. One has to remember that the Christian movement, like most human movements from the religious to the political, were constantly changing and reforming. Indeed, it was with the 3rd century that the teachings of Gnosticism began to argue that a person could not be married and `religiously perfect'.

However, The Oxford Dictionary of Popes, edited by J.N.D. Kelly, OUP, 1986, lists no less than 39 Popes as being married. Even the most conservative of Catholic scholars accept than seven Bishops of Rome were married. Moreover, some of the Pope's were succeeded in office by their sons.

Some ascetics, as in other religions, became hermits, shunning society, and removing themselves from `worldly temptation'. Such was the idea of St Anthony (born c. AD 250) who took up residence in a deserted fort in Pispir on the Nile. It was from these first Christian `monks' - Anthony and Pachomius - that inspired a former Roman soldier named Martin, born c. AD 315 in Pannonia. He became a hermit in Gaul. By AD 370 he was also a bishop and founder of an entire community. He built his monastery at Marmoutier that still shows its original Celtic name `mor munntir' = `place of the great family', for this was in Celtic Gaul. Martin became `Father of Celtic Monasticism' and his ideas spread from Marmoutier to Britain and then to Ireland.

Yet at this stage the majority of priests were married and their children often rose to office in the Church. The Pope St Damascus I (AD 366-384) was the son of the priest St Lorenzo. St Innocent I who was Pope from AD 401-417 was son of Pope Anastasius I (399-401). Popes Boniface (AD 418-422), St Felix (AD 483-492), Anastasius II (AD 496-498) and St Agapitus I (AD 535-536) were all sons of priests while St Silverus (AD 536-537) and John XI were sons of previous Popes and at least three more Popes were also sons of priests.

Ireland was not unique within the wider Christian Church in having married clergy and mixed religious communities were found not confined to Ireland but through Western Christendom.

Yet the ascetic group, advocating celibacy, grew stronger as a political force within the Christian movement. In AD 308 the Council of Elvira in Spain issued a decree that a priest who slept with his wife on the night before Mass could not perform it. In AD 325 the Council at Niceae argued that, after ordination, priests should not marry.

One fascinating point is that the Council of Laodicea in AD 352, ordered that women should not be ordained, showing that at this time women were still being ordained as priests. Early Irish references show that St Brigid of Kildare, (died c. AD 525) herself was ordained as a bishop. She founded her conhospitae, or mixed, house with Bishop Conláed. St Hilary in Northumbria is also referred to as being ordained bishop. In AD 494 Pope Gelasius I (492-496) decreed that woman could no longer be ordained as priests. It is fascinating, therefore, we find Bishop Pelagio, in the 12th century, complaining that women were still being ordained in the Western Church and hearing confessions. K.J. Torjesen's book When Women Were Priests, Harper, San Francisco, 1993, discusses the implications of this.

In AD 385, Pope Siricius (AD 384-399), supporting the ascetic lobby, abandoned his wife and children, and ordered that priests should no longer sleep with their wives but he did not go so far as prohibiting marriage.

Clerics marrying remained an unchanging factor of religious life through the 6th century. In AD 567 the 2nd Council at Tours decided to recommend that any cleric found in bed with their wives should be forbidden to perform church rituals and reduced to a lay state. However in AD 580 Pope Pelagius II (AD 579-590) was not so much bothered with married clergy but with inheritance to their offspring. He ordered that they should not bequeath property acquired in their office as a member of the church to their sons or other heirs. The Roman Church was becoming conscious of the value of property and wanted what had been acquired to remain within the church.

Throughout the 7th century there is much documentary evidence showing that in Frankia and Gaul the majority of clerics, priests, abbots and bishops, were married. In the following century, St Boniface of Crediton (c. AD 675-755), comments that almost no bishop or priest in Germany followed the idea of celibacy. Indeed, well into the 9th century, it was reported at the Council of Aix-la-Chapelle that the inhabitants of monasteries and convents were living together and that where the bishops and abbots were trying to enforce celibacy there were a number of abortions and infanticide taking place to cover up these relationships.

St Ulric of Augsburg (890-973) argued that the Holy Scriptures and logic demanded that the only way to purify the Western Church from the worst excesses of celibacy was to allow the clerics to marry. He points out `When celibacy is imposed, priests will commit sins far worse than fornication.' His letter on this matter was later claimed to be a forgery by the pro-celibacy lobby. Ulric's stand is discussed in Married Priests and the Reforming Papacy: The Eleventh century Debates, A.L. Barstow, Edward Mellin Press, Leviston, New York, 1982.

Pope Benedict IX was elected when he was fifteen years old in 1032 because he was connected with the powerful Counts of Tusculum. He resigned the Papacy in order to marry. Gregory VI took over but Gregory was banished after a few months. Re-elected in 1045, the married Benedict was deposed by Clement II who died shortly after and Benedict was again re-elected for a third time before finally being deposed in 1048.

Peter Damian (AD 1007-72) a high-ranking ecclesiastic and theologian who became the leading advisor to the Popes and drew them firmly into the celibacy camp. Peter Damian called the wives of clerics `harlots, prostitutes, unclean spirits, demigoddesses, sirens, witches' among other vicious rhetoric. He found an enthusiastic pupil in Hildebrand di Bonizio Aldobrandeschi of Sovana.

When Hildebrand was elected as Pope Gregory VII (AD 1073-1085), he declared, in 1074, that `priests must first escape the clutches of their wives', and then take a pledge of celibacy. But it was Pope Urban II in 1095 who decided to ordered that the wives of priests be rounded up and sold into slavery. Riots took place in Germany, Italy and France as priests rejected this order. Pope Calixtus II (AD 1119-1124) in 1123 at the Lateran Council decreed that all clerical marries were invalid, a decree later confirmed by Pope Innocent II (1130-1143).

But, by the 15th century, it was reported that 50 per cent of Catholic priests were still married but, of course, this figure actually shows that the long transition from marriage to celibacy had finally begun to take effect.  

The Popes themselves were hardly obeying their own rules. We know that Popes such as Innocent VIII (AD 1484-1492), Alexander VI (1492-1503), Julius II (1503-1513), Paul III (1534-1549), Pius IV (1559-1565) and Gregory XIII (1572-1585), each had many illegitimate children. Of these, one of the most notorious was Alexander VI (1492-1503), a Borgia Pope, who had seven illegitimate children when he was a cardinal and, as Pontiff had an affair with Giulia Farnese, a 19 year old married girl.

Ireland was really no different from the rest of the Western Church in the respect of attitudes to celibacy. Indeed, the decisions in the documentary recounting `The First Synod of Patrick' simply takes married clerics for granted and says that `any cleric from ostiary to priest 'whose wife walks about with her head uncovered shall be despised by the laity and separated from the Church.' Dr Patrick Power, in Sex and Marriage in Ancient Ireland, Mercier Press, 1976, points to the fact that a later Brehon Law actually grades ecclesiastical marriages indicating that married bishops and priests were allotted only two-thirds of the honour price of an unmarried bishop or priest. In spite of attempts to `sanitise' things by those who want to present celibacy as a strict rule of the Faith from early times, the evidence to the contrary is absolutely clear. Attempts to reduce bishops and abbots in Ireland to `semi-religious officials holding hereditary office, sort of like managers for the community' shows no understanding at all of early Irish society.

Some argue that the Irish term for `monk' and `nun' were used strictly in the same way as used in the late medieval Roman Church way, implying that any union between them was forbidden. Of course, the Latin monachus is taken from the Greek word for `solitary'. It is interesting that, in Latin myth, a name for Hercules (Heracles) was Monoecus - he that dwells alone. When one is talking about an entire community of `monks' it is obvious that word meanings change, so the argument that if someone was a `monk' it must mean they dwelt alone becomes fallacious. However, one argument as been that a `religious monk' meant a celibate person and where reference is made to monks that were married a fall-back defence is that they were not `religious monks'. It is true, of course, that manach occurs as an Irish legal term as a `tenant of church lands', of which there were two different classes - sóirmanaigh and doirmanaigh. Indeed, deriving from another etymology, the term manach is giving to one who performs feats of skill such as bareback riders who appear at fairs. But anyone dealing with the textual evidence is easily able to different from context who is being spoken of.

The term `nun' derives from the Latin nonnus and nonna originally applied as terms of respect for elderly people. For example, most Italian speakers will easily recognise the modern terms nonno and nanna (grandfather and grandmother respectively). The same idea occurs in Old and Middle Irish when the word caillech was used for a nun. An abbess was a cenn caillech. But the word also applied to an elderly woman or a matron and the same word, in the sagas, applied to a hag, witch or crone. It also became the word for a `veil' obviously from its religious connection.

Those who tend to rely on trying to claim that the words `monk' and `nun' have meant celibate religious since the start of the Christian movement would do better to reflect on the linguistic ideas and changes over the centuries.

One important thing to remember is that Irish society in Fidelma's period was in a state of flux, of tremendous stresses and changes. Nothing was written in stone and there was a great deal of fluidity in ideas relating to church and social matters.

Whereas the conhospitae, mixed houses in which religious of both sexes lived and raised their children in the services of the Faith, existed at the same time that the ascetic religious were founding solitary hermitages or single sex communities, to pursue their path to the deity. Abbey communities were changing, some often rejecting the civil (Brehon) laws of Ireland and accepting the harsh, physical punishment orientated, Penetentials. But it was all a very slow process. For example, Dr Patrick Power, in Sex and Marriage in Ancient Ireland, points out that a Céili Dí `Penetenial' does not order excommunication and expulsion for any monk or nun who has a sexual relationship but only prescribes a penance.

The Céili Dí (Servants of God) monastic order, founded in Tallaght by St Mael Ríain (d. 792) certainly approved of celibacy and in the Martyrology of Oengus they believed that a priest could not baptise anyone if they had sexual intercourse. `baptism comes not from him, after visiting his nun (nonna).' Professor Edward C. Sellner (The Celtic Soul Friend, Ave Maria Press Inc., Notre Dame, Indiana. 2002) actually picked up on the fact that in later years the Céile Dí, which movement had lasted into the 14th century in parts of Gaelic Scotland, were often married. `This movement consisted of both lay people and ordained, many of whom were married, who wanted to recover the lost traditions of their spiritual ancestors, and thus bring new life into their own churches and monasteries.'

In fact, the marriages among the Céili Dí had been remarked back in the late 15th, early 16th century by Canon Alexander Myln (1474-1548) of Dunkeld who wrote his Dunkeldensis Ecclesiae Episcoporum, c. 1516. His text has been edited by T. Thomson for the Bannatyne Club 1823-31.

Myln wrote: `In this monastery (Dunkeld) Constantine, king of the Picts, placed religious men, commonly called Kelldedei, otherwise Colidei, that is, God-worshippers, who, however, after the Eastern Church, had wives (from whom they lived apart when taking the sacred offices) as afterwards grew to be the custom in the church of the blessed Regulus, now called St. Andrews.'

When Dr William Reeves published his The Culdees of the British Isles as they appeared in history, Dublin, 1864, he, too, remarked on the marriage of the Céli Dí quoting from Myln and pointing to such married abbots as Crinan (sometimes Cronan) the Abbot of Dunkeld who married Bethoc, daughter of Maol Callum II (1008-1034) of Scotland, whose son was Duncan I (1034-1040). Duncan, after a disastrous reign, was overthrown by MacBeth, son of Maol Callum II's second daughter Doada. He reigned from 1040-1057 having married Gruoch, grand-daughter of Coinneach III (997-1005).

A century before this period, in Ireland, some Kings like Cormac mac Cuileannáin (836-908) were not simply Kings but, in Cormac's case was Bishop of Cashel as well as King of Cashel. He married Gormflaith, daughter of the High King, Flann Sionna mac Maelsechnaill (879-916). Indeed, he was not the first King at Cashel to fulfil a religious role. Fergus Scandal mac Crimthain Airthir Chliach (d. AD 583) was also abbot of Imleach (Emly). Cenn Fáelad gua Mugthigirn (d. 872) not only became King at Cashel but also was another abbot of Imleach, as, indeed, his uncle, Rechtabra (d. 819) had been. Cenn Fíelad's son Eoghan, was not elected to the kingship but succeeded his father as abbot of Imleach. However, Olchobar mac Cináeda (d. 851) succeeded as both King as well as abbot. Certainly, in the annals we find references to the sons of abbots of Imleach, such as Mescell son of Abbot Cumasach. While Emly was important for the Munster ruling house of the Eóghanacht, it is interesting that when the Dál gCais (the Uí Fidgente of the Fidelma stories) had a king on the throne of Cashel in 786 in the person of Olchobar mac Flainn (d. 796/7) he was also abbot of Inis Carthaigh (Scattery Island).

As surnames began to emerge in 11th and 12th century Ireland, we find that Mac an Mhanaigh (MacEvanny) was `son of the monk'; that Mac an tSagairt (MacEntaggart) was `son of the priest' (the same name as McTaggart in Scotland); that Mac Giolla Easpuig (MacGillespie) was `son of the bishop' and Mac Giolla Iosa (MacAleese) was `the son of the devotee of Jesus' - applied to the son of a religious leader. The rights and education of children of clerical marriages, as given in Brehon Law, has been studied in papers printed in Studies in Early Irish Law, published by the Royal Irish Academy, Dublin, 1936. These include August Knock's `Die Ehescheidung im Alten Irischen Recht', and Kathleen Mulchrone's `The Rights and Duties of Women with Regard to the Education of their Children'.

While King Bishops or King Abbots might be explained as powerful men combining the secular and the religious functions, if anyone really thought that the abbots and bishops in Ireland were only `semi-religious' figures then they should spend a few hours with the Irish Annals, Chronicles and other texts.

The law text the Córus Béscnai, `the regulation of proper behaviour' dealing with the mutual obligations of clergy and laity, can be traced from at least the 8th century. It becomes the third section of the Senchus Mór. It is quoted in both the Ancient Laws of Ireland (volume III) and in the Corpus Iuiris Hibernici, ed. by D.A. Binchy, Dublin, 1978. It states that the monks (manaigh) were of the fine erluma, of the kin of the founder of the monastery. Professor Thomas Charles-Edwards, an expert on the laws, has no problem with this and sees this as a single kin-related tuath or tribe (clan). One writer has actually argued that this terminology should not be taken literally. That it was symbolic and the kingship was not blood related and that legal writers were employing familiar social and economic ideas of the times to explain things.

Yet it is perfectly clear that in many monasteries in Ireland, those habitants were families that were bound by blood. As Professor Lisa M. Bitel, in spite of her later arguments, confessed in Isle of the Saints: Monastic Settlement and Christian Community in Early Ireland, (Cornell University Press, 1990): `Abbots and officers openly supported wives, sons and other kin. They sent their relatives to become officers in nearby monasteries, or they kept sons, brothers, and nephews within their own communities to succeed to offices there. Successive generations of the Maicc Cuinn na mBocht, for example, controlled major monastic offices at Cluan Moccu Nois (Clonmacnoise) for about three centuries. Another family, the Uí Sinaich, battled for and won control of Ard Macha, remaining in power for generations. There is no reason to assume that other monks ignored the example of their abbots and officers.'

Indeed, as she points out, echoing Kathleen Hughes in her Church In Early Irish Society, that there was no reason to assume that the brethren in these abbeys remained celibate ignoring the example of their abbots, the officers of the religious houses and, indeed, the bishops and priests. The family within the monastic communities allowed knowledge as well as property to pass on to sons and other family members. T. O'Donoghue, examining a 10th century poems, `Advice to a Prince' (Eriu 9 (1921) pp 43-54, shows that the writer of this poem argues that abbots could most efficiently be succeeded by their sons.

Indeed, this was happening in many religious houses throughout Ireland. The Irish Annals and Chronicles are replete in their references to the children of Abbots (abbas). In the Annals of Ulster just for the year AD 793 we find recorded not only Dubh Da Leithi, the son of Sinaich, the Abbot of Armagh, but of Cinaed, son of Cumascach, the abbot of Demag, Flaithgel, son of Taichlech, abbot of Druim Rótha and so on. Sons of abbots certainly reached high rank in the Irish Church. For example, Bishop Flann, who died in AD 812, was the son of Cellach, abbot of Finnglas.

And even if one doesn't want to take Irish sources as evidence, let us take an example from the writing of St Bernard of Clairvaux (c.1090-1153) who knew St Malachy (Mael Maedoc ua Morgair- AD1094-1190) of Armagh. Now surely few intelligent people can claim that Armagh and its archbishopric was a `lay' or `semi-religious' house and its archbishop was a `lay manager'? By the time Bernard was writing, the Irish High Kings and, indeed, the Bishop of Rome had accepted Armagh, as the primacy, or chief ecclesiastical centre in Ireland. This was mainly due to the political intervention of the High King, Brían mac Cennátig (d. 1014) perhaps better known as Brían Bórumha. According to the Annals of Ulster, in 1005, Brían acknowledged Armagh as the primatial jurisdiction of Ireland for the first time.

Yet Bernard points out that even `this primatial Holy See' was `held in hereditary succession for they (the Irish) suffered none to be bishops but those who were of their own tribe and family'. He mentions that the abbots and bishops of Armagh were married and fifteen bishops had succeeded by hereditary right at Armagh prior to the election of Archbishop Celsus. In fact it was not until 1101 at a Council at Cashel, convened by the High King Muirechertach Ua Bríain (d. 1119), who was not only High King but King of Munster (Muman), that the first serious moves were made to enforced clerical celibacy in Ireland. It was at this Council that Muirchertach handed over the historical royal lands of Cashel to the church `without any claim of layman or cleric upon it, but to the religious of Ireland in general'. It was, for Ireland, a point where church and state began a separation and, indeed, the pro-celibacy lobby began to have its most significant impact.

Without the Irish more liberal attitude to sexual relations during this period, it would have been a grim society. One of the important studies here remains The Serpent and the Goddess: Women, Religion and Power in Celtic Ireland by Dr Mary Condren (1989). Dr Condren has taught at the Harvard Divinity School. Her study was of ground-breaking significance.

What many later scholars who attempt to square the circle, arguing for the tradition of celibacy, try to claim is these married religious were not ordained but were laymen. Such a claim was made for St Celsus, otherwise Cellach Mac Aodh (1079-1129) who inherited the bishopric of Armagh in 1105. Now if St Celsus was a laymen, we have a problem. How was he then able to ordained St Malachy (Maelmadoc ua Morgair) as a priest, commission him to reform the church, and then, as he lay dying, appoint him his successor as Archbishop of Armagh?

The short answer to those who attempt to deny that there was clerical marriage in Ireland and deny the existence of many mixed communities, raising their children in the service of the New Faith, is that they can only put forward their argument by distorting or ignoring the evidence.


Perhaps we should reiterate, as most of our readers should known, that Peter, in his other role as the well known historian Peter Berresford Ellis, took his degrees in Celtic Studies and is a Fellow of the Royal Historical Society and a Fellow of the Royal Society of Antiquaries of Ireland. His non-fiction works are highly regarded. - Editor



Why are the measurements in the stories given in the metric form - is this not an anachronism?




I might have had an easier life if I had chosen to use Imperial measurements in the Sister Fidelma mysteries. If I had made something measure so many inches, or feet, or distances in so many miles, I might not have had the occasional strident protest that the metric measurements I use are anachronistic to the 7th century.

The amusing point is that those who gleefully point this out think that I ought to be using Imperial measurements. But Imperial measurements are even more anachronistic to 7th century Ireland.

I am well aware that the metric system was first adopted as standard in France in 1799.

Imperial measurements became standard in the United Kingdom in 1838. They arose from an old English system. Let's take some basic measurements. The Old English ynce (inch) seems to derive from the Latin uncia, a twelfth part of a foot measurement. The Old English fot (foot) is the measurement of an average human foot. The yard (Old English gard) means a branch or twig used as measuring rod from the mid 15th century, usually indicating a pace. And the Old English míl (mile) is from the Roman measure mille meaning one thousand paces. Initially the English mile was 1,618 yards but then standardised into 1,760 yards.

Now this Imperial system developed from a base 12 counting system which seems to have entered Europe through the Romans and coming from the Sumerian, Assyrian and Babylonian. Base 12 counting systems were not Indo-European.

The Indo-European systems as made on a base 10 counting system. Pythagorean thinkers believed 10 to be 'the first born of the numbers, the mother of all, the one that never wavers, and gives the key to all things.' The possible explanation was that the hands were the earliest calculating machine and most Indo European languages have names for numerals that are derived from the names of the first 10 numbers.

Interestingly, while Irish, as an Indo European language, follows this decimal system, it bears remains of pre Indo-European vigesimal reckoning - that is, a base 20 counting system. The following terms occur: 20 = fiche (twenty), 30 = deich ar fiche (ten and twenty), 40 = da fiche (two twenty) and 50 deich ar da fiche (ten and two twenty).

Obviously, the English Imperial system was not used in 7th century Ireland and neither, admittedly, was the metric system.

Let us consider what measurements were used. Like most ancient peoples, the Irish fixed the standards of length measurements (called tomus) mostly, but not exclusively, on parts of the human body. One of the first tables of these measurements is contained in the Book of Aicill, one of the two great Brehon Law books written in the 5th century AD.

The smallest measurement used in ancient Ireland was the length of an average sized grain of wheat - that is gráinne.

Three gráinne produced the measurement one ordlach. A quicker way to indicate this measurement, than placing three grains together, was usually the length of the top joint of a thumb.

Four ordlach produced one bas, usually a palm width measured across the root of the fingers.

There were variations such as the dorn, a fist, but even this was broken down into two measurements. The mail-dorn, 'bare fist' which was a fist with the thumb closed in, and the airtem, a fist with the thumb extended.

Going back to the bas measurement, three bas produced one troighid, which is roughly the measurement of an average foot.

Two and a half troighid produced a céim and two céim produced a deis-céim or full pace of a person. Two déis-céim produced a fertach while twelve fertach measured a forrach. To make the equivalent of the English mile one would have to estimate some 36.66666 & etc forrach.

The greatest distance recorded in early Irish texts was a toin. A toin was reserved for Irish astronomical observations because it is glossed as being the word for a measurement equivalent to 5000 Greek stadia. Now a stadia is a distance of 185 to 192 metres (607-630 feet in Imperial measurement). It is from where the word 'stadium' derives. So a toin would be the equivalent of between 9250 kilometres and 9600 kilometres. It is mentioned, among other works, in the Leabhar Mór Mhic Fhir Bhisigh Leccain (The Great Book of Leccan), now in Trinity College, Dublin.

Great distances in the early period were usually indicated as asdar or aister, which appears to derive from the Celtic root 'to go'. Vast distances simply became cen thomhus - immeasurable.

So, if I did not wish to be anachronistic, perhaps I should I have started using these ancient measures - with lengthy footnoted explanations.

The obvious answer was that I should render the terms into modern European measurements. And what are modern standard European measurements?

I am well aware that the United States seems to have maintained an affinity to the old Imperial measures.

However, in 1965 the United Kingdom and Ireland officially moved to the metric system and fell in line with the rest of Europe - in fact, Ireland more rapidly than the UK with road distances in kilometres. Many young people, receiving their education after the 1970s in the UK and Ireland, have difficulty now understanding the old Imperial system. Everyone from 40 years old and under is at home with the metric system.

As an interpreter of 7th century Ireland, I chose to interpret the ancient Irish measurements into the modern standard system. It is as simple as that. Prior to 1965, as I was writing the books in English, I might well be giving Imperial measurements and leaving it to translators of my work into other European languages to translate into their metric system.

I have, incidentally, given the US publishers a choice of translating the European metric system into the Imperial system that is still used there but they seem to believe that most Americans are able to use metric measures as well as Imperial ones. Canada seems to have no problem about the metric system.

The logical conclusion of those trying to claim metric measurements as anachronistic in these books, is the argument that I should also be writing the stories in Old Irish, the Irish for the period, and not English. The other conclusion is that they are indulging in an unconscious cultural imperialism in placing the later English system, now replaced by the modern metric system, back in 7th century Ireland.



I am reading Whispers of the Dead and in two places so far a reference has been made to "ten minutes" - was this on a sundial or a water clock?


"WAIT AN OSTINT!" (Ostint = 1 minute, 36 seconds)  

While we realise that Patricia is being humorous, her question raises a point which, although not a frequently asked question - it is in fact the first time the subject has arisen - we felt should have a response on our FAQ page (Ed.)

Modern mystery writers can use time very precisely in their stories. Writing such tales set in 7th century Ireland, one has to be more general. However, like metric measurements explained above, one can use internationally accepted standards of time to give general approximations. In modern English, the term "ten minutes'"(as in "I'll be ready in ten minutes") is not a precise measurement of time but indicates "in a short while." The term deich nómíad - shin (ten minutes ago) is used in Irish but also not as a precise measurement, just as the Irish use forms such as - gceann tamaill bhig, bomaite ina dhiadh sin & nóimíad ina dhiadh to indicate in a little while. But it is my colloquial English use of time that Patricia has picked up on.

While her question is meant as humorous, it does raise a good point. In the works of several ancient writers, technical chronology is touched on. The ancient Irish also had their time divisions with minute denominations. The following measures are from the Old Irish text Cath Maige Tuired (Battle of Moytura) with the equivalents in what is considered modern timing.


1 atam = a quarter of a second

1 ostent/ostint  (376 atam) = 1 mins 36 seconds

1 bratha (564 atam) = 2 mins 24 seconds

1 pars (940 atam) = 4 mins

1 minuit (1410 atam) = 6 mins

1 pongc (3525 atam) = 15 mins

1 uair (14,100 atam) = 60 mins

1 cadar (quarter of a day) = 6 hours


While the Irish give their lowest time measure as an atam (cognate with the Latin atomus), in the 8th century the Venerable Bede of Northumbria gave an even smaller measurement for the Anglo-Saxons that was eight times less, being one thirtieth of a second. Such minute measurements are also given in Latin in texts by Isidore of Seville (7th century) and by Rhabanus Maurus, Bishop of Mainz (9th century).  Even the ancient Greeks experimented with measurements of time by means of a clepsydra (water clock) reckoning that 0.75 litres of water, emptying from a bowl in the clepsydra, gave them a measurement of 1 minute. Scholars generally accept that these small measurements were expressions of ideals and not meant as strictly accurate measurements.

The oldest surviving complete version of the text of Cath Maige Tuired is an 11th century version. Professor Brían Ó Cuív produced an excellent text and commentary published in Dublin in 1945. A more accessible bilingual text was produced by Dr Elizabeth Gray for the Irish Text Society in 1982. Also, for comparison, a text was published in the Irish Archaeological Miscellany, Vol. I, published by the Irish Archaeological Society, 1848.

For discussions on the "time measurements" see Dr P.W. Joyce's A Social History of Ancient Ireland (London, 1903), vol. 2, page 387. There is also a discussion by Whitley Stokes in The Tripartite Life of Patrick, 2 vols, London, 1887. In addition, Dr Stokes and John Strachan edited Thesaurus Paleohibernicus, 1901, 1903 and Supplement by Stokes, 1910, which also contains useful information.

However, in writing the Sister Fidelma Mysteries, I am aware that one cannot be precise with time, so I try to avoid using these measurements. While the ancient Irish had water-clocks and sundials, time, in specific terms, cannot enter into the stories in the way it could it modern stories even though, theoretically, with the atam as regarded as a quarter of a second, one might be given an indulgence.



I really love the Sister Fidelma series and am impressed by the author's scholarship, but I have one question that calls that scholarship into question and you may have had others write about it also since it is so obvious. In a couple of his books he has Sister Fidelma quote chapter and verse of a Bible passage for Eadulf. I am a pastor and retired seminary professor and I have never read anywhere that "chapter and verses" were available until about 1000 years after Fidelma! Does Peter know something that I don't know? I hate to see his reputation tarnished! - Rev. Robert Ove, New Mexico, USA.


Editor's note - Many thanks for your concern about Peter Tremayne's reputation. You have come up with a very good question but one that Peter has dealt with some years ago in a talk to some Sister Fidelma enthusiasts in Ireland. We have his permission to repeat what he then said:


A scholar who writes fiction on historical matters sometimes meets an immovable object in the person of his editor, who insists that his scholarship must taken second place to his readers' understanding. I believe in making things as easy as possible for readers but certainly not writing down to them. But I admit to having some irritating problems during the early years of writing Fidelma stories and these occasional rear their heads from time to time when readers think they have spotted errors or anachronisms.

Most famously has been my choice of using metric measurements as the closest and most understandable form of interpreting ancient Irish measurements in modern terms. The editor tried to argue for the use of the even more anachronistic English Imperial measurements. Thankfully, I won this argument on the basis that the UK had officially adopted the metric system during the latter half of the 20th century. It is still amazing how many English readers race to inform me that I should be using Imperial measures!

The matter that I did not win in the early days of producing the books is identifying quotations from the Bible. The history of how the Bible was put together should be well known. The Councils and arguments about which books should be included and which left out is fascinating in itself.

I usually work with Jerome's 4th century Vulgate Latin, which version would be known and used in Fidelma's time. It was only in AD 325, just before this, that the New Testament was even divided into paragraphs, let alone chapter and verses.

All well and good for the scholar. But the early editor pointed out that I was not writing an academic book and that modern readers should have quotations identified for them in the modern way. That meant they wanted to use the modern chapter and verse reference, based on the King James version!

I tried to point out that the first English Bible to use chapter and verse division was the 1560 Geneva Bible. They were unmoved.

In vain, I pointed out that it was Cardinal Hugo de Sancto Caro, creating a concordance to the Vulgate, who created the basis of modern divisions about 1244 but Archbishop Langton of Canterbury had also made divisions which Wycliffe accepted for his English version of 1382 and which divisions we now use. As for the sub-divisions in verses, the Italian Dominican Santi Pagnini put the Latin New Testament into verses at the end of the 15th century.

Later William Whittington divided the English into versions - that was 1557.

On this matter the editor would not be moved and I, a humble scribe, succumbed. The editor eventually moved on and I reverted to stopping the anachronistic process, when quoting the Vulgate within the story. There were, of course very few times that this "chapter and verse" quotation system happened. Thankfully, although the Fidelma stories have sold in millions in several languages, only one reader has written in querying this over the entire period.

However, one piece of anachronism which is entirely down to me - mea maxima culpa! - is the fact that in Shroud for the Archbishop I mention fuschias in Ireland in Fidelma's time. Ooops! What was I thinking? Fuschias, so dominant on the Irish landscape for hundreds of years, did not enter Ireland until the 12th century. Yet no reader has picked that one up.



Can you provide more information on the unarmed combat that Sister Fidelma uses?


TROID SCIATHAGID (Battle Through Defence)

Troid (also troit) = fight, battle, quarrel; sciath = root word for shield, defence, protection, guardian (Royal Irish Academy �Dictionary of the Irish Language: based mainly on Old and Middle Irish Materials)�


Prof Joseph Connolly (Orlando, FL), in his renewal letter, asked the following:

'I am a Fellow of the Society of Martial Arts in the UK, a professional society which operates the College of Higher Education of Martial Arts, as approved by Privy Council. I have written to Peter Tremayne through his publisher, seeking additional information on the martial art he attributes to Sister Fidelma, about which I have never been able to obtain any additional information. If you would, please ask him to elaborate on this and give a hint where a researcher might seek additional information.'


The author responds:

In Shroud for the Archbishop, Chapter 13, Sister Fidelma first resorts to an unarmed combat technique which she calls troid sciathagid or "battle through defence" and which, she explains to her companion, Brother Eadulf, that Irish missionaries learn as a means of defending themselves without having to resort to weapons.

There is no complete text, so far identified, that has explained in detail how this method of unarmed combat worked. But, from various passing references, I believe we can assume that it was a series of defensive kicks, blows and wrestling holds which are parallels to aikido or a similar method.

Ruairi Ó Flaitheartaigh (1629-1718) in his work Ogygia seu Rerum Hibernicum Chronologia stated that Comrac Mac Airt founded three colleges at Tara, one of which was for teaching military science, as well as the use of weapons, strategy and so forth, wrestling and unarmed defence, were taught. Because no ancient reference was given by Ó Flaitheartaigh, Eugene O'Curry (1796-1862) in his three volume study Lectures on the manners and customs of the Ancient Irish was inclined to dismiss this reference as he did not think there were "regular professors and a regular system" of military instruction. But O'Curry contradicts himself when he talks about the military training warriors receive as part of a general education. If they received such training it must be that there were people who were qualified to instruct them and on a regular basis.

We can also see from many other references, particularly in the Red Branch Cycle, or Ulster Cycle, of Irish Myth, there is mention of such schools where warriors were so instructed and we find that sons of chiefs and children of the "higher classes" were sent to such schools where they were placed under the instruction of a warrior. Perhaps one of the most famous of these schools was that of Scóthach, a female warrior, who teaches the military arts to Cú Chulainn in the tale Tochmarc Emire. It was from Scóthach that the famous Ulster warrior learns the torann-chless (thunder feat) by which he could leap over the heads of his enemies when surrounded using no artificial aids. Reference to such tactics is made in Aided Oenfhir Aife (or, The Tragic Death of Aifeás Only Son) showing that Cú Chulainn relies not only on weapons to defend himself but on physical agility and using his opponent's aggression to bring about their downfall.

In Cath Fionntrógha we have a reference to warriors fighting unarmed against one another. Prof. Kuno Meyer interprets this as "wrestling warriors" (1885) and in the version of the Rawlinson B487 manuscript of the 15th century the phrase tucadar trodchuir trena troid déaroili is given also implying that they were fighting with their bare hands and had no weapons.

Certainly, wrestling was given high priority on the list of arts taught to Irish children not only as a recreation game and also introduced as a pastime at the fairs but as part of warrior training. And this form of wrestling was particular to the Celts. Indeed, there are countless references to a particular form of Celtic wrestling - even before Agincourt in 1415 it was reported that the Cornish fought under a banner showing two wrestlers in a "hitch" which was looked upon as their national symbol. Geoffrey of Monmouth, Layamon, Spenser and Milton all mention the prowess of Celtic wrestlers. Francois I of France and Henry VIII in 1520 sent Cornish, Welsh and Breton wrestlers to have a match at the Field of the Cloth of Gold. A particular form of wrestling survived in Cornwall, Brittany, Wales and Cumberland so that in the 10th century annual Pan Celtic Wrestling Tournaments were normal and Pan Celtic Gatherings such as those at Lorient & etc. There are references to a similar sort of wrestling surviving in some rural parts of Ireland and some contests taking place at the Donnybrook Fair in the 19th century.

When we find references to peregrinatio pro Christo using troid sciathagid to defend themselves from bandits (a mention I think, without checking, in Essai díun catalogue de la littérature épique de l'Irlande, Paris, 1883, and talk of it being a defensive art, I think we can only interpret in way I have in the Fidelma books. Especially the references to Irish missionaries being taught to defend themselves "without inflicting violence" - a particular reference in the Mss of the former College of Irish Franciscans, Louvain (Fourth Report of the Royal Commission on Historical Manuscripts, 1874).

Of course, I admit that I have taken the few references that I have come upon and made an interpretation for the fiction of the Fidelma novels. It needs more time and more workers in the field to see if more information on this subject can be recovered. Alas, I now do not have time to undertake such a task. But one of the problems in finding dedicated workers in the field is the lack of funding and encouragement of researchers in the field of Celtic Studies.

I was shocked (and still am) when an old mentor of mine Professor Gearóid Mac Eoin, who was at Galway UC, explained to me many years ago that even in the field of Irish mythology we had only scratched the surface of research. Professor Kuno Meyer back in 1900 in his introduction to Liadain and Curithir listed 400 sagas and tales in manuscript. But he added a further 100 which had been brought to light since he had completed that list and estimated a further 50 to 100 manuscript tales were probably undiscovered in some repository. Indeed, Dr Eleanor Hull in The Cuchullin Saga in Irish Literature (1898) had made a similar estimate.

Professor Mac Eoin pointed out that our knowledge of Irish mythology was based on the translations of only about 150 manuscript tales. That meant in 1900 there were some 400 manuscripts untouched. The punch line is that in spite of this early identification of these manuscripts and the problem, these manuscripts still remain untouched in Old and Middle Irish forms because of lack of funding and academic encouragement. When I, under my own name, published this fact in my Dictionary of Irish Mythology (1987), it elicited no response from the Irish Government or Universities. Manuscripts do come to light by pure accident - such as the famous Irish calendar which Columbanus quoted in his argument to Pope Gregory and was thought to have been lost for over 1,000 years. This was found by accident in the Biblioteca Antoniana in Padua in the late 1980s. What a find! But it is all done by hit and miss methods.

I realise that this is not of much help to resolving your specific questions. I believe, from the various shadowy references I have come across by accident, that I have interpreted the term troid-sciathagid correctly and, perhaps, somewhere out in the piles of Irish mss that, shamefully, are lying untouched in various repositories, there may well be one which will explain the details of this defensive form.

In the meantime, thank you for your interested and all your support for the Sister Fidelma books which, I hope, will create an awareness among a new generation of the richness of the culture that so desperately needs more qualified workers in the field of all aspects Celtic Studies.



Where can I find out more about the Brehon Law system?




It was not until I had published a few Sister Fidelma stories and had been invited to give a talk at an 'Historical Crime Weekend' at Oxford University, that I realised that some readers had regarded the legal and social background of the stories with utter skepticism. One questioner in the Oxford audience thought that I had put a modern interpretation on ancient Irish society and that I was suffering from 'an anachronism of attitude'. Even in the last issue of The Brehon we had a letter from Val from Sydney, Australia, wondering if I was making the whole thing up.

Now, under my guise as a Celtic scholar and author of various non-fiction works in the area, I suppose I was rather surprised at this reaction. Perhaps, in the field of Celtic studies, one leads a 'sheltered life' as Brehon Law is taken for granted among the cognoscenti. Outside of this, I soon began to realise that very few people had even heard of this ancient Irish legal system that finally disappeared from the English Tudor and 17th century Conquests of Ireland. The law, the social system and Irish language was to be abolished by English Statute and Common Law.

Unfortunately, the conquerors always write the history books and the English officials who flooded into Ireland at the beginning of the 17th century, like Sir john Davies (1569-1626), appointed Attorney General of Ireland by James I of England (IV of Scotland) waxed lyrical about how 'uncivilised', 'uncouth', 'savage', etc, etc, the Irish were and that the law system was no system at all. Propaganda in support of their attempts to destroy the Irish as a nation continued until even many Irish forgot they once had an ancient and sophisticated legal system. So, perhaps, it is not surprise that a modern audience were amazed that a Sister Fidelma could appear in such stories and, at first, refuse to believe in the social background.

As I mentioned in The Brehon (January, 2003), it was thanks to Charles Graves (1812-1899) the grandfather of the literary Nobel laureate Robert Graves, then President of the Royal Irish Academy, that the United Kingdom Government established a commission to rescue all the manuscript texts then known to have existed, and, using the best scholars of the day to edit translate and publish them, These were published as The Ancient Laws of Ireland, in six large volumes, between 1865 and 1901.

Readers of the first issue of The Brehon will recall that the proper name of the ancient Irish law system is Laws of the Fénechus, or free-land tillers. Today we term it the Brehon Laws, the word meaning a judge, from the Irish breaitheamh. Tradition has it that the laws were first gathered together during the reign of the High King Ollamh Fodhla in the 8th century BC.

The first known codification of the laws took place in AD 438 when the High King Laoghaire established a nine man commission to examine, revised and set them down in the new Latin script.

While only fragmentary texts survive from the 7th and 8th century AD, the first major legal textbooks containing the law survive from the 11th century onwards. More and more of these texts have come to light since The Ancient Laws of Ireland were published (1865-1901).

My first encounter with Brehon Law was when I was a young teenager and took down a book from my father's bookshelf. It was The Brehon Laws: A Legal Handbook, by Laurence Ginnell, published by T. Fisher Unwin, London, in 1894. Ginnell was born in Westmeath in 1854 and died in the United States in 1923. He was a lawyer, called to both the Irish and English Bars but became Irish Party Member of Parliament for Westmeath between 1906 and 1918. He was the first Irish Party MP to resign from the party and successfully stand as a Sinn Féin candidate in the 1918 General Election, taking his seat I the Dáil when Ireland declared its independence.

Ginnell was one of a group of legally minded Dáil deputies who argued that when the War of Independence was over, and Ireland won its independence, the philosophical approach of the Brehon law system should be updated to a new legal system in the new state. Among those who shared his views was James Creed Meredith, a barrister and judge, appointed by the Dáil in 1919 as President of the Supreme Court, who actually gave a judgement on women's rights under Brehon law in 1920. However, Ginnell, and most of those who supported this idea, took the republican side in the subsequent Civil War (1922-23) and the idea came to nothing. The new Irish State simply accepted English Statute and Common Law as its legal system.

Ginnell's book was a succinct introduction, especially to a young teenager, on the early law system. I gravitated from that to Dr Patrick Weston Joyce's great work A Social History of Ancient Ireland, 2 volumes, Longmans, Green & Co, London, 1903. Joyce's work was sadly neglected when Professor Eoin MacNeill (1867-1945), an old academic enemy of Joyce, became Minister for Education in the first Irish Free State Government, and because of his role in the independence struggle his work received more attention and had greater influence than perhaps it would otherwise have done. O'Neill published Early Irish Laws and Institutions, Dublin, n.d. but circa 1927. In the introduction to this he writes:

'One naturally turns for information to the work of Dr P.W. Joyce, A Social History of Ancient Ireland, which was published in 1903. Joyce had a full acquaintance with the material upon which is work ought to depend, so far as this material had been published in his time. Much of what he writes is based on original and laborious investigation, and where he brings forward information of an unfamiliar kind he usually cites his authorities for it.'

Joyce did not, as implied by MacNeill, simply use printed sources. He knew his way around surviving primary manuscript sources. It is interesting that MacNeill, like most of his works, provides no bibliography, no source notes, but seems to make pronouncements on the basis ''trust me, I am a scholar'! I never felt comfortable with MacNeill.

One book that I came to, also when I was young, which opened my eyes about the early Irish law system was Dr Sophie Bryant's Liberty, Order and Law Under Native Irish Rule: A Study in the Book of the Ancient Laws of Ireland, Harding & more, London, 1923. This work was a major influence in developing my interest in the law system.

This led me on to the discovering of a volume Studies in Early Irish Law, published by the Royal Irish Academy, Dublin, 1936. This was a collection of academic papers by such heavyweight Celtic scholars as Rudolf Thurneysen, Nancy Power, Myles Dillon, Kathleen Mulchrone, D.A. Binchy, August Knoch and John Ryan. The studies were about the role of women in Brehon Law. Thurneysen examined the Cáin Lánamna, the law on marriage, which I have quoted in several Fidelma stories. Dillon, one of the great influences in my studies, contributed a study on 'The Relationship of Mother and Son, of Father and Daughter, and the Law of Inheritance with Regard to Women'. Daniel Binchy, another influence, studied 'The Family Membership of Women' as well as 'The Legal Capacity of Women in Regard to Contracts'. Kathleen Mulchrone wrote on 'The Rights and Duties of Women with regard to the Education of their Children' and so on.

The book would have been a treasure-trove for the feminist movement.

Dr Patrick C. Power, produced a fine little book Sex and Marriage in Ancient Ireland, Mercier Press, Cork, 1976, which I was delighted to see was reprinted in 1997. It provides an excellent introduction to this area of the laws.

To my mind, however, one of the handiest guides to the law texts, and the best yet published is Professor Fergus Kelly's A Guide to Early Irish Law, Dublin Institute for Advanced Studies, Dublin, 1988. I do not go along entirely with all Professor Kelly's interpretations and indeed we have discussed some of these points in the past.

The Dublin Institute has been doing a lot of work on the law texts. Prior to this work they had published Bechbreatha: An Old Irish Law tract on Bee-Keeping, edited by Professors Thomas Charles-Edwards and Fergus Kelly, and Uraicecht na Riar: The Poetic Grades in Early Irish Law, edited by Dr Liam Breatnach.

Professor Kelly's work contains a nine-page bibliography of books and articles of relevance to the study of early Irish law. However, a further excellent bibliography is Seandlithe na nGael: an annotated Bibliography of the Ancient Laws of Ireland compiled by Dr Liam Ronayne, in The Irish Jurist, N 17 (1982) pp 131-144. There was also a supplement to this published by Dr Neil MacLeod also in The Irish Jurist 18 (1983) pp 360-363.

Professor Thomas Charles-Edwards used his knowledge of ancient Irish law and ancient Welsh law (The Laws of Hywel Dda) to show the comparisons between the two Celtic systems and underscore the once Celtic commonality. In 1993 he published a major work of 598pp Early Irish and Welsh Kinship, Clarendon Press, Oxford. It contained an impressive 16-page bibliography of primary and secondary sources.

The point I am making is that so much is in the printed domain, I would be torn to academic shreds by the world of Celtic scholarship if I started to make up the law system as I went along.

I can reassure my readers that the only things that come from my imagination in the Sister Fidelma Mysteries are the events and the characters. I should add a caveat that even then, many of the events n the books are based on historical episodes regarded in the ancient Irish chronicles and annals. And, perhaps, even the characters themselves may have arrived in my mind from - who knows where?

In Ireland, the boundaries between what is natural and what is supernatural can be confusing. Perhaps I have picked up some vibration form the past? Is there some genetic memory of a real Fidelma lingering on? Once when my wife and I were visiting Cashel, staying in an old house on Gallows Hill, overlooking the floodlit ruins of the famous Rock - it being after midnight - we had a strange experience. Ach sin sceal eile! As my father would say. That's another story. Maybe next time '

The point I am making is that the personality and social position of Fidelma is a real that of a real person in a real world, a world that did exist in historical times. That world is not a creation of 'an anachronism of attitude'. I am not projecting my modern thoughts and attitudes into an ancient historical world where they have no relevance. As her creator, I have to obey the legal and social system of her day, just as much as she has to.


Editor's endnote: Peter Tremayne tells me that he would be happy and willing to answer any readers' questions on any area of the law system or how the laws might be applied to any given situation. If you have questions, please write in and we will do our best to publish them as he answers.



There is mention of a corn mill in Atonement of Blood, but everything I've read about corn claims that it didn't get to Europe until around 1500 AD.


This is actually one of the most frequently asked of all the questions we receive from visitors. The answer to this question highlights the fact that, to paraphrase the Irish writer George Bernard Shaw, we are two [or many] nations divided by a common language. Although, so far as we have observed, both Webster's and OED carry the same definitions.

Certainly, in the English Dictionary, "corn" does not only mean maize - and it would certainly not mean maize during the period being written about. You will find that the word "corn" was, and is, used for wheat in England, and oats in Scotland - in fact any local cereal crops, even barley anciently. The word "corn" is found in Old English (Anglo-Saxon), Old Frisian, Old Scandinavia, Old High German, Old Norse, and Gothic - usually as korn or kaurn, referring to cereal or farinaceous plants; that is, plants yielding flour or starch of a mealy nature. In Old and Middle Irish there are words such as airmnech and arbar, referring to the growing of such crops, that are translated as "corn" in English - specifically referring to cereal crops - wheat and barley being the main cereal crops farmed in Ireland as early as 4000-2000 BC.

We would like to know more about those people who Peter Tremayne has mentioned as influencing his interest in the ancient Irish law system.


Peter has written articles for some Irish publications about these individuals and as and when they are available for internet use, Peter is allowing us to post them on the website. In the first of these articles, he talks of the author of the very first book he read on Brehon Law - Lawrence Ginnell (1854-1923).


When the body of Laurence Ginnell, who died in a hotel in Washington, DC, in 1923, was brought back to be buried in his native Delvin, Co. Westmeath, Ireland, Mrs Margaret Pearse, the mother of Pádraic Pearse (executed leader of the 1916 insurrection), delivered the funeral oration. She reminded those gathered that Ginnell, the radical Member of Parliament for North Westmeath at Westminster, had been popularly known as `The Member for Ireland'.

Ginnell was an extraordinary man. He was a lawyer, called to both the Irish and English Bars, and a scholar - writer of some profound legal studies. He was elected to the Westminster House of Commons as a member of the Irish Party in 1906. But after the 1916 Insurrection, he resigned and joined Sinn Féin. He was then re-elected and took his seat in the breakaway Dáil in Dublin and held the seat until his death.

It was boasted that he had been ejected more times from the House of Commons (Westminster) than any other Member for raising controversial issues which made him a thorn in the side of the British Establishment. Even the Irish Parliamentary Party once expelled him for the offence of asking to see the party accounts and later he was bodily ejected from the Free State Dáil.

Yet today his name is unknown, his grave neglected and there is no memorial to the `Member for Ireland'.

Ginnell took his degrees in law and was called to both the Irish Bar and the English Bar, having also studied at the Middle Temple. He gave a lecture to the Irish Literary Society in London on ancient Irish law and this led to his famous book The Brehon Laws (1894).  He also wrote the controversial study The Doubtful Grant of Ireland (1899) on the illegality of the Papal grant of Ireland to the Angevin emperor, Henry II, which supported the Norman invasions.

He was fifty years old when he became involved in politics and he threw himself enthusiastically into the battle not only for self-government but for the transfer of ownership of the land from the big landlords and their estates to tenant farmers. His campaigns marked a new phase of the Land War and Ginnell was almost a lone voice in the Irish Party whose leadership was disinclined to get involved in more radical policies after the fall of Parnell.

Ginnell was active in the United Irish League and, as a prominent campaigner, he was often arrested by the police and served several short prison sentences.

He was in Dublin in 1916 and there are stories that he was no mere observer of the insurrection. On May 9, as the executions of the leaders were being used to hammer Ireland into submission, it was Ginnell, in the House of Commons, who roared `murderers!' at the Government benches.

Without Ginnell, the hundreds who were being interned in the wake of 1916, would have had no rights or legal representation. He deluged the House of Commons with questions about the internees and the imprisoned insurgents, demanding information, raising questions about the shooting of civilians by the British troops, and he insisted on visiting the internees who had been brought to England and Wales. At one point, the Government banned Ginnell from visiting jails.

At Knutsford Jail, he signed his name as `Labhras Mag Fionngaile' and was immediately fined for `breaking the law' in spite of there being no law against using the Irish version of one's name. He refused to pay, pointing out this fact, but was then jailed for not paying the fine.

In 1917, after consulting with a meeting of his constituents, he resigned from the Irish Party and his House of Commons seat. He joined Sinn Féin and became its joint treasurer. Early in 1918 he was arrested and taken to England to serve a jail sentence for purportedly `agitation' in Co. Westmeath.

In the General Election of 1918 he was again elected to his seat in North Westmeath and this time, with the unilateral declaration of independence, he took his seat in the Dáil. He was appointed Minister for Propaganda. He was arrested in May for belonging to `an illegal assembly' and imprisoned again.

His health was shattered by the years of continued harassment and imprisonment. He was in his late sixties. The English authorities released him in 1920, worried at the deterioration in his health, and the Dáil sent him to Argentina as, effectively, the ambassador of the republic.

He tried to get back to Ireland for the Treaty Debate and even telegraphed from the ship asking that he be allowed to send a proxy vote. He took the Anti-Treaty side during the Civil War, being re-elected as a republican candidate in May that year. In September, 1922, at de Valéra's personal request, he was the only republican to enter the Dáil to challenge the legality of the Free State.

He accused deputies who `illegally, at the bidding of a foreign government, did begin civil war' did illegally by decree purport to suppress the Supreme Court of the Republic - and are steadily overthrowing Dáil Éireann and substituting their own personal government.'

When his legal questions became too uncomfortable, William Cosgrave moved that Ginnell should be removed from the House. When Ginnell argued they had no right to remove an elected member of Dáil Éireann, Ginnell, aged 70 years, was forcibly dragged out of chamber.

In October, 1922, he became a member of the republican `Council of State' formed by de Valéra and was shortly afterwards sent to the USA to help co-ordinate assistance for the republican cause there. He had been very distressed at the developments in the Civil War, not the least by the execution of his friend Erskine Childers, executed on November 27 while an appeal against his sentence was pending before the High Court. Ginnell's last book was The Seventh Year of the Republic: A Defence of Erskine Childers (1923).

He died in a Washington hotel on April 17, 1923, and his body was brought back to his native Delvin, Co. Westmeath, where there were great scenes of national mourning.

Had Ginnell contributed nothing more than his book The Brehon Law, a brief introductory study to the ancient Irish law system, a system that was finally suppressed during the 17th century, he would have been deserving of some recognition. But he achieved far more.

It is sad for this writer that Dublin newspapers not so long ago ran an advertisement seeking information about Laurence Ginnell to help the Irish Civil Service with their archives about former members of Dáil Éireann.



Can Peter Tremayne give more details about Dr Sophie Bryant who he says had a great influence on his work and understanding of Brehon Law from a Feminist perspective?


Peter has allowed us to put this article on our site although an edited version of it is not to be published in an Irish newspaper until the end of July, 2005.


The first woman in the United Kingdom ever to obtain both a Bachelor of Science degree and a Doctor of Science degree was Sophie Willock Bryant (1850-1922) from Sandymount, Dublin. She went on to gain another doctorate, that of Doctor of Literature. She was a brilliant scholar who, in 1898, was the first women ever to be elected by the Convocation of London University to the University Senate.

She was one of the key influences in my own reading and interpretation of ancient Ireland and two of her books still have prominent places on my bookshelves today. Her main influence on me was her classic study Liberty, Order and Law Under Native Irish Rule (1923), published a year after her tragic death when she was overwhelmed in an avalanche while mountaineering on Mont Blanc, in France, at the age of 72!

She was a well-known Alpine climber.

A granite cross still marks her grave in Chamonix-Mont Blanc.

Sophie, she preferred that form than the more formal Sophia, made a ground breaking analysis of the ancient Irish (Brehon) law system from a feminist viewpoint. She was, of course, a campaigner for women's rights and suffrage.  She was president of the Hampstead Suffrage Society and one of the leaders of the 1908 march of the National Union of Suffrage Societies.  

She was also an active campaigner for Irish self-government, helping to form a support group in England and lecturing on self-government platforms both in Ireland and England.

Sophie was the daughter of Professor W. A. Willock, a Fellow of Trinity College, Dublin, who had played an important role in the Commission for National Education in Ireland. He privately educated his daughter with the aid of a governess until, aged thirteen, the family moved to London when her father was appointed to the chair of Geometry at London University. Sophie, aged only sixteen, entered Bedford College in 1866, won a science scholarship the same year and took the Cambridge Examination for Girls' matriculation the next year.

Aged nineteen, in 1869, she married Dr W. Hicks Bryant, but found herself a widow one year later when her husband died from cirrhosis. She never married again. She obtained a teaching post in a girls' school in Highgate, north London.

Teaching German and mathematics, Sophie joined the staff of the North London Collegiate School in Camden in 1875. By 1884 she had secured her first doctorate in moral science. By 1895 she was headmistress of the NLCS and one of three women members of the Royal Commission on Secondary Education.

She was a member of the Education Committee of the then London County Council and served on many committees and councils all the way to government level at the then Board of Education.

She became chair of the Teachers' Training College Council, President of the Association of Head Mistresses ad helped with the transfer of Goldsmith's College to London University status.

She was dynamic and active as a `hands on' educationalist. She did not retire as headmistress of the NCLS until 1918, at the age of sixty-eight.

It is amazing that she also found time to study and write. Her degrees in moral science would be the equivalent of degrees in philosophy and psychology today.  She wrote many books and countless articles on moral and religious education and also philosophy in general. These included works like Short Studies in Character (1894) and Moral and Religious Education (1920).  She even found time to co-author works on Euclid's Elements of Geometry.

Sophie had also studied Old and Middle Irish and had not neglected an interest in the country of her birth and childhood.  Indeed, she was a member of the Irish Literary Society, founded in 1891, of which the Nobel Laureate W.B. Yeats became President. She was also a member of the Irish Text Society and the Gaelic League.

She published a volume Celtic Ireland (1889) and then a ground-breaking volume The Genius of the Gael: A study in Celtic psychology and its manifestations (1913). Coming as the Third Reading of the Home Rule for Ireland Bill was passing through the House of Commons, the book was not only an analysis of attitudes in Ireland but also an enthusiastic endorsement of those who sort to re-Gaelicise Ireland.

Sophie's anti-Partition views were clear when she contributed the foreword to W.A. McKnight's book Ireland and the Ulster Legend: or, the Truth about Ulster (1921).

However, it was Sophie's study on the Brehon laws of ancient Ireland that had the most lasting impact of her books. It was also her magnum opus.

She wrote it as the new Irish state was coming into being.

`It has also been written throughout in the hope that it might prove to be of interest - perhaps even of service - to my countrymen and countrywomen in the work of social reorganisation which lies before them, and to which so many of them have already put their hand.'

It seems that Sophie shared the ideas put forward by many who had studied the ancient Irish laws and thought that, on independence, Ireland should not merely adopt English law, which had been forced on the country during the conquests of the 16th and 17th Centuries, but turned to the spirit of the native law system and update it for modern usage.

Such a person was the barrister, Laurence Ginnell (1854-1923), a long time Irish National Party Member of Parliament who had changed his attitudes after the 1916 uprising to be elected as one of the earliest Sinn Féin MPs, being re-elected in 1918 General Election for Westmeath. He served initially as the first Dáil's Director of Publicity before being imprisoned by the British for belonging to `an illegal assembly'.  Ginnell had written several works among the best known of which was The Brehon Laws: A Legal Handbook (1894). [Ginnel's life is dealth with in the above answer to a question. Ed.]

Another legal mind supported the idea was James Creed Meredith, a barrister entrusted by the Irish Government of 1919-21 with drafting a Constitution for the new republic and the rules of the law courts. He was appointed by the first Dáil as President of the Supreme Court having charge over what the English called the `Sinn Féin courts'. In 1920 Meredith, hearing a case on women's rights, pronounced English law retrograde and applied Brehon law to give judgement in favour of an unmarried mother for medical expenses.

In 1922 Sophie had written: `In the work of regeneration for the future that lies before the Irish people, a more widely diffused and accurate knowledge of the old Irish customs should be of great value, as an inspiring motive force, in recreating gradually, under native rule - by the national organisation of the modern composite Irish race - the old delight in the sanctity of contracts and equitable law which is expressed in the pages of the Senchus Mor and the other Irish law tracts.'

Sadly, however, with the emergence of the Free State, the idea of updating the progressive principles of the native Irish law system was dropped and English Statute and Common Law were accepted by the newly emerging state.

One tribute I can offer and that is without Sophie Bryant, her work on Brehon Law and women's place within it, my alter ego, Peter Tremayne, might never have created the 7th century Irish sleuth and lawyer, Sister Fidelma, who seems to have found such a remarkable resonance across the world among readers in the ten languages into which she is translated.

It is sad that Sophie's contribution and achievements do not appear to be more widely acknowledged in her native land. However, the archives of the North London Collegiate School, where there is a `Bryant Wing', have kept her papers, among them a Willock family album, relating to her Irish family.



Did Sister Fidelma's world really exist?




When the Sister Fidelma stories first began to appear some reviewers expressed their surprise, if not disbelief, that any woman in Fidelma's time could have such rights and exercises uch authority. They could not bring themselves to accept that 7th century Irish women could have such roles nor exercise priestly functions and even be ordained bishops in the Celtic Church.

In 1996 Peter Tremayne was invited to talk about his books at St Hilda's College, Oxford, at a "Crime and Mystery Weekend." On the day before he was due to give his talk, a lady in the audience had criticised many modern historical "whodunits" for having an "anachronism of attitude," saying the authors were not dealing with things as they were in the times about which they were writing but placing modern attitudes in their characters. She invoked Tremayne's Sister Fidelma stories as an example saying, Fidelma's world could not have existed.

The next day, Peter tore up his original lecture and began to talk about the role of women in 7th century Ireland.

What the critic in the audience had ignored was that fact that Peter, under his own name, is one of the foremost authorities on Celtic history and culture, who has published many books and studies in this field and lectured widely.

Such criticism, however, caused the publishers to ask Peter Tremayne to add an "Historical Note" to the books to help people realise the background.

In this issue of The Brehon we publish letters from two Fidelma enthusiasts who are still not sure of the historical background - Father Timothy Cremeens says that he "does not think women were ordained presbyters and bishops in the Celtic Church. I really do not think the historical evidence supports it. If so, I would like to see clear references."

Val from Sydney wonders "did Peter Tremayne make this up or did Brehon law actually see women as being individual, valued members of society?"

We asked Peter to respond.

"I can fully understand why people are amazed when they come across Brehon law and look at the rights accorded to women in 7th century Ireland. We are, after all, the product of many centuries of propaganda against the ancient Irish and their society and this has had an effect on our concepts - and, of course, our concepts not just of the Irish, but the Celts in general. So I don't blame people for asking the questions. I am only irritated with some reviewers attempt to disguise their ignorance in glib and derisory sneers, implying that I am guilty of some fabrication, such as a recent reviewer in Kirkus Reviews. Fortunately - over the years - they can be counted on the fingers of one hand and most reviewers are more professional.

"To respond to Val of Sydney: no, I do not make anything up when related to Brehon law. It would be more than my reputation as a scholar is worth, even when writing fiction, to start changing the concepts of Brehon law. There are many academic works, translations and studies on the ancient Irish law system to which people can go to check me out. Don't forget, the Brehon laws survive in writing. We have many fragmentary texts from early Christian times and our earliest most complete text of the laws survive in the Lebar na h Uidri which was compiled at Clonmacnoise c. AD 1100. The chief scribe on this work was Mael Muire Mac Ceileachair who died in AD 1106.

"The grandfather of the literary Nobel laureate, Robert Graves, was Charles Graves (1812-1899) who was President of the Royal Irish Acad- emy and an expert on Ogham and on Brehon law. It was Charles Graves who finally persuaded the British Government to establish a commission to rescue all the manuscript texts then known to exist and edit, translate and publish them. The Ancient Laws of Ireland were published in six large volumes between 1865 and 1901.

"Other manuscript law texts have come to light since then.

"Among the books I especially recommend to students are A Guide to Early Irish Law by Professor Fergus Kelly, Dublin Institute of Advanced Studies, 1988; Liberty Order and Law Under Native Irish Rule, Dr Sophie Bryant, Harding & Moore, London, 1923; Studies in Early Irish Law, various scholars, Royal Irish Academy, Dublin, 1936 - this volume particularly deals with women's rights. There are many others. I mentioned in a recent talk to the Irish Literary Society, Laurence Ginnell's The Brehon Laws: A Legal Handbook. T. Fisher Unwin, London, 1894, which awoke my interested in the subject when I was a boy, it being on my father's bookshelves.

"So there is no need to wonder whether the society about which I write and in which Fidelma lives is made up or not. Go to source. Check it out for yourselves. Nothing in the Fidelma books is made up, apart from the characters and the stories.

"Turning to Father Cremeens' observation. He is not alone in being dubious that women could exercise priestly functions or even be bishops. One cannot blame him and even some scholars, like Dom Louis Gougard, whose Christianity in Cehic Lands (1932) is a seminal study, find themselves uneasy in dealing with the evidence. Dom Louis, who was a Benedictine monk as well as a scholar and admittedly had an axe to grind for Rome, tends to claim that the Celtic women carrying priestly func- tions were an aberration and seeks to dismiss the idea as not being generally applied. However, the evidence is there as I pointed out in my study Celtic Women: Women in Celtic Study and Literature especially in chapter six on 'Women in the Celtic Church.'

"Once again, I merely present the evidence and it would be more than my reputation is worthy if I could not substantiate my statements without references. The 71h century composition 'Hymn to Brigid' tells us that Mel, bishop of Ardagh and Patrick's nephew ordained Brigid as a bishop. Hilda of Whitby and Beverley of York, both abbesses were brought up in the Celtic traditions, were also noted as being bishops. And we have the letter of protest written by Roman clerics to their Celtic brethren demanding that Celts stop allowing women to perform the divine sacrifice of the Mass. There are six pages of bibliography in Celtic Women, which will help the serious scholar so I won't bother to repeat them here.

"Fidelma's world was a reality. It is a pity that it was destroyed. I can only echo a review of a Fidelma book written by the award winning Irish novelist and scriptwriter Ronan Bennett: 'I put down The Spider's web with a sense of satisfaction at a good story well told but also speculating at what modem life might have been like had that civilisation survived.'"



What was the Yellow Plague that is frequently mentioned in the stories?




The Yellow Plague which wiped out one third of the population of Ireland during AD 664-668 is thought to have been a recurrence of the Plague of Justinian which had its origins at Pelusium in Egypt in AD 542. By means of merchant ships it was spread to Constantinople where, in that year, it wiped out 10,000 people in one day.  It had reached Gaul by AD 546 where Gregory of Tours (c. AD 538-594) says that its symptoms compared to lues inguinaria, seeming to identify it as a bubonic plague. By AD 547 it had reached the island of Britain where the Annales Cambriae (Welsh annals, the earliest copy surviving from the 10th century) record the death from it of Maelgwyn Hir (the Tall), King of Gwynedd. He was one of the most powerful rulers of 6th century Britain who some regarded as the original Arthur being rebuked by Gildas in his De Excidio et Conquestu Britanniae (written c. AD 560) and referred to as `dragon of the island' (Pendragon?).

In AD 561-556 the plague is now recorded in Ireland and named in the Irish Annals and Chronicles as the Buidhe Conaill  - the Yellow Conaill. We will deal with the meaning of this name in a moment.

In AD 664 the Yellow Plague was devastating Europe once again and estimates of its destruction seem to agree that a third of the population has died from it.  The Venerable Bede points out that many prominent people in the Anglo-Saxon kingdoms, such as King Eorcenberht of Kent (AD 640-664) and Bishop Tuda, have succumbed to it and it has swept as far north as Lastingham, in Northumbria.

Bede writes: `This pestilence did no less harm in the island of Ireland. Many of the nobility and of the lower ranks of the English nation were there at that time, who, in the days of the Bishops Finan and Colman, forsaking their native land, retired thither, either for the sake of divine studies, or of a more continent life; and some of them presently devoted themselves to a monastic life; other chose rather to apply themselves to study, going about from one master's cell to another. The Irish willingly received them all, and took care to supply them with food, as also to furnish them with books to read, and their teaching, all gratis.'

This passage also underlines the Irish records that many of the Anglo-Saxon kings, princes and nobility went to Ireland to receive their education at this time and were welcomed by the Irish as Eadulf is an illustration in the stories.

The Irish records also name of numerous kings, princes, abbots and bishops from all over the country and recounts the flight of Bishop Colman and his followers from Cork to Inis Bó Finne (Inishboffin) one of the western islands, to escape its ravages. Even the joint High Kings of Ireland, Diarmuid and Blathmac mac Aedha Slaine, were not immune from the mortalitas magna and well-known churchmen such as St. Aileran of the Wisdom and St. Féchine of Fore also perished. In one short period four abbots of Bangor -  Berach, Cumine, Colm and Mac Aedha - died one after the other.   

The Fáilire Oengus (c. AD 800-850) record that St Ultan, bishop of Ardbraccan in Co Meath, survived the Yellow Plague and established orphanages for the children of those who had perished. To feed the babies he took cows horns, hollowed out with an opening at the smaller end, through which the babies would suckle.

What, then, was the Yellow Plague which caused such a devastation?

The Irish generally record the Yellow Plague as Buidhe Conaill and a few times as chron conaill. It is often glossed as the plaga magna or the mortalitis magna, In other countries the Latin name pestis flava (yellow plague) also occurs. The Irish word buidhe means yellow and, according to the Royal Irish Academy's  Dictionary of the Irish Language based mainly on Old and Middle Irish Materials (Compact Edition, Dublin, 1983), the Buidhe Conaill is a relapsing fever with accompanying jaundice. It has been pointed out that while the word Conaill is often given with a capital `C', in the early texts it was given with a small `c' and was thus the genitive of condall, meaning `aftermath'.  There has arisen therefore a confusion among some scholars that the name of the plague was called the `Yellow (Plague) of Conaill' for there is an old Irish name Conall (`strong as a wolf') but, as we now see, it means `yellow aftermath'.  The other term chron conaill means `dark yellow aftermath'.

An interesting study on this is Sir W.P. MacArthur's paper `The Identification of Some Pestilences recorded in the Irish Annals' Irish Historical Studies, Dublin University Press, vol. vi. (1948-49),  pp 169-188.      

The Irish for jaundice at this time was galar buidhe.

The Oxford English Dictionary has long defined the Yellow Plague as `jaundice', agreed to by most medical historians who believe it to be either a virulent form of jaundice or jaundice as a complication arising after a form of the bubonic plague, which was a condition from inflamed swelling of glandular parts of the body - the lymph nodes or buboes.  There would seem no contradiction in either definition.



What exactly is Ogham, which is mentioned in the Fidelma books, and can you explain a little more about it?


Many scholars write this as ogam, which is the original form of the word with a dot over the `g' which softens it. Later, the Irish adopted the letter `h' and inserted that after the `g' to indicate the softening process - hence ogham.

The bulk of ogham inscriptions survive on stone memorials from the 5th and 6th Centuries AD. This form of early writing was named after Ogma, the Irish god of eloquence and literacy.

The letters of the alphabet are represented by varying numbers of strokes and notches. There are 369 known extant inscriptions and of these 121 are in Co. Kerry, where the highest density occurs, with 81 in Co Cork and 47 in Co. Waterford.  This leads the scholar Dr Martín Ó Murchá to argue that this form of writing had its origins in the kingdom of Muman (Munster), Sister Fidelma's own country. A few ogham inscriptions are found in other parts of Ireland and then, as the Irish travelled, they occur in South Wales, where the Irish established the kingdom of Dyfed, founded by the Déisi of Munster (there 15 inscribes stones in Pembroke), then in Cornwall, Isle of Man and Scotland.

The old Irish records that ogham was also used on wooden wands (wands of the poets) and carved on bones. However, it is only the stone memorials that appear to have survived to date. The early recorded texts of myths and stories show that ogham was considered a natural form of writing. For example, in the Táin Bó Cuailgne we find Cóchullain carves a warning in ogham and sends it to Ailill and Medb, in the Immran Brain or Voyage of Bran, Bran writes down fifty or sixty quatrains of poetry in ogham. We hear of great libraries of ogham texts in such stories as Baile Mac Buain. In the 3rd/4th century Cosmographia Aethici Istrii - Cosmography of the World by Aethicus of Istria quoted in the later work of Orosius Paulus circa AD 416 - Aethicus says he sailed to Ireland where he remained some time examining their books which he described as ideomochos, implying they were unusual and native to the country.  

We owe our knowledge of how to transcribe ogham thanks to a key given in the Book of Ballymote, compiled in Sligo in 1390 by Magnus É Duibhgeínnáin which copies a text that is dated to the 11th century.  The book also contains bardic tracts on poetic metre and grammar and an Irish translation of the Aenid. It seems, according to the manuscripts, some letters were added later to the original ogham found on inscriptions, and these introduced symbols for complicated sound values - ea, oi, ui oi, ae and were called forfeda (from forfid - additional letters). These represented the défogur or double-vowel sounds. More fancifully forfeda were given non Irish values such as  K, TH, P, PH and X.

The main letters had the equivalents of A, O, U, E, I;  H, D, T, C, Q; B, L, F, S, N;  and M, G, NG, Z, R.  

There have been several studies of ogham and the surviving inscription. However, the best remains A Guide to Ogam, by Damian McManus, An Sagart, Maynooth, 1991. (one of the Maynooth Monographs No 4).



When was the last judgment given under Brehon Law, the ancient native law system of Ireland?  




You might be surprised to know that it was in 1920. And who gave it?  Mr Justice James Creed Meredith, then President of the Irish Supreme Court.

Hearing a case regarding women's rights, Mr Justice Meredith told his court that English Law was retrograde in respect of the rights of women and he reverted to the Law of the Fénechus which are more popularly known as Brehon Law, deriving its name from the Irish word breitheamh, a judge.

It is one of those curiosities that the name of James Creed Meredith has been almost deleted from Irish history. He is given only a few intriguing references in The Irish Republic 1916-1923 by Dorothy Macardle (1937) and a few passing references in more obscure works such as Memoirs of Senator James G. Douglas: Concerned Citizen (1998) and so on.

Yet this was the Quaker lawyer appointed by the First Dáil (1919-21) as its Supreme Court Judge and who was nominated by Eamon de Valéra to chair a committee to draw up the rules of the new courts and provide a constitution for the Irish Republic during the turbulent War of Independence.

Why has he been airbrushed out of history?

James Creed Meredith was born in Dublin in 1875. He came from a family of barristers and lawyers. It was inevitable that he would also study law, graduating from UCD and in 1901 becoming a King's Counsel. This was the equivalent of the modern QC or Queen's Counsel. But Meredith also picked up a master's degree as well as becoming a Doctor of Literature.

He translated Immanuel Kant's The Critique of Judgement, published by Clarendon Press, Oxford, which has since become the standard English translation, new editions of which are still published nearly a hundred years later.  

Meredith not only believed in Irish independence but he was fascinated by a new electoral system for Ireland. He was a member of the Proportional Representation Society of Ireland and in 1913 produced one of the many leaflets the Dublin based organisation published.

Along with Francis Sheehy-Skeffington, the pacifist and writer (1878-1916) and Dermod O'Brien, the painter (1865-1945) he was a member of the United Irish League. The three of them left it to form a more radical and progressive group after disagreeing with John Redmond, the leader of the Irish Party, and his compromising efforts.

Meredith also supported Sir Horace Plunkett (1854-1932) and the writer AE, George Russell (1867-1935) in campaigning to set up an Irish Convention in 1917 to find a path out of the labyrinth of the Nationalist-Unionist stalemate.

Following the Sinn Féin landslide election success in 1918, the unilateral declaration of independence, the Dáil was established as the independent parliament in Dublin in 1919.  It was then that Austin Stack, as Minister for Justice, appointed Meredith to draft a constitution and rules of the new Irish Law Courts. He was aided by Arthur Cleary BL, Cahir Davitt BL, Diarmuid Crowley BL, Hector Hughes BL, Conor Maguire and Kevin O'Shiel.

By June 29, 1920, the Dáil approved the establishment of courts of justice and equity to supersede the English colonial courts.

Meredith was appointed President of the Supreme Court, sitting in Dublin, with a minimum two other members of legal qualification and of at least twelve years legal standing. The British administration dismissed the system as `Sinn Féin courts'.

Meredith stated that the new republic's courts would administer `the law, as recognised on January 21st, 1919, until amended' except such portion thereof as was clearly motivated by religious or political animosity.'  Citations could be made to any court ruling from `the early Irish Law Codes, or any commentary upon them in so far as they may be applicable to modern conditions'.

And it was customary that when a woman was being tried, a woman judge sat on the Bench. As Dorothy Macardle says:

`In one instance, Judge Meredith, holding that English law was retrograde in the matter before the court - the appeal of an unmarried mother for medical expenses - applied the Brehon Code and gave judgement in favour of the girl. This created an interesting link with old Irish principles of justice and preserved continuity between the old Brehon Law of Ireland and the Republican courts.'

The dangerous conditions under which he operated, he was liable to be assassinated by British Intelligence groups or `Black and Tans', did not prevent his work. In 1920 he published an annotated text of The Increase of Rent and Mortgage Interest Restrictions Act, 1920, passed in the London Parliament. The modern law of rent restrictions in the private sector began during World War One when a general shortage of housing led to the passing of a similar 1915 Act.  This and other such Acts were consolidated in the 1920 Act, the purpose of which was to provide security of tenure for tenants and to prevent landlords from charging excessive rents.

With the collapse of the republic, the approval of the Anglo-Irish Treaty in January, 1922, Meredith ended his tenure as President of the Supreme Court. A new Constitutional Committee was set up with Michael Collins as chair and it is important to note that James Douglas, who took a prominent role on this committee, wrote in his memoirs: `I remember particularly that he (Collins) expressed agreement with the proposal to abolish capital punishment which was in this draft. He said we had had enough executions in Ireland, and that it would be a good thing to see the end of them.'

Sadly, in the year that followed Collins' death, those who claimed to follow his vision authorised the execution of 77 political prisoners.  Capital punishment was not finally abolished by the Irish State until 1989 although there had been no executions since 1954.

From 1923 Meredith was elected to the senate of the National University of Ireland and remained a member until his death in 1942.  He became a judge in the High Court of the Free State from 1924-1936 and then return to the Supreme Court from 1937-1942.

He was one of the presiding judges to oversee the League of Nations' plebiscite on the Saar in 1934/5. After World War I, the Versailles Treaty placed the administration of the Saar Valley in south-west Germany under a League of Nations' mandate but its rich mines were given to France to exploit. Political pressure in 1934 forced the League to hold a plebiscite, which then restored the territory to Germany.

Meredith was multi-talented and he also wrote fiction. His novel was published by Brown & Nolan, Dublin, entitled The Rainbow in the Valley (1939) and he also wrote a play - Nell Nelligan: A romance of the Irish Volunteers, 1940, the text of which was also published.

James Creed Meredith, one of the most interesting personalities in the founding of the Irish State, who does not even rate a mention in biographical dictionaries of the period, died at his home in Dublin on August 14, 1942.



Why is there a delay between the books published in the UK and their release in the U.S.?


Some US specialist stores will take orders from collectors for the UK editions. We recommend The Poisoned Pen bookstore, 4014 N. Goldwater Blvd, Suite 101, Scottsdale, AZ 8521. Tel. 480-947-2974. Fax. 480-945-1023. Or If you contact them, be sure to say that you have been recommended by the Society. Or, you can always order from, but of course be prepared to pay heft airmail fees.

The answer to the mystery of the delay in publication between the UK and USA is a simple one. The first Sister Fidelma novel was published in the UK (by Headline) in September, 1994. But it was not until January, 1996, that St Martin's Press of New York started their hardback publishing schedule and not until September, 1997, that Signet Books of New York started their paperback editions in the US. The Signet appearance was over two-and-a-half years after the start of the Headline paperback editions which started in January, 1995.

Obviously, this meant that a lot of enthusiasts in the US started to order UK editions via Canada, in whose territory Headline also publish the books.

It was not a good situation but St Martin's Press has done two simultaneous publications with Headline (Hemlock At Vespers and Whispers of the Dead). They still publish their hardback novels one year behind Headline (UK). This is because Headline kept a tough early schedule publishing two Fidelma novels in 1995 and two in 1999. We believe that the author himself was instrumental in ensuring only one novel a year has since appeared.

Signet Books, with their paperback publishing schedule, continued to lag way behind in the US, although in the last year or so, they published one book every six months in an effort to catch up. However, when Badger's Moon appears from Signet in July, this year, we have been informed that St Martin's Press, who controls the license for the Fidelma books in the USA, will take over the publication of the paperbacks themselves. They will issue the paperback of The Leper's Bell in November when they publish Master of Souls in hardcover.

This then puts the US editions one year behind the UK editions.

From the viewpoint of the Society, there is no reason why St Martin's Press could not issue two Fidelma books during one year and thus bring their publishing schedule into level pegging with Headline in the UK.



I am interested in the Early Irish Church and its differences with Rome. Can you recommend some books I can on this?


Peter Tremayne recommends the following reading list. The books are listed by their first publisher and publication date. Some have been reprinted since.

  • Allcroft, A.H. The Circle and the Cross, 2 vols, Macmillan, London, 1927.

  • Chadwick, Nora K. The Age of Saints in the Early Celtic Church, Oxford University Press, Oxford, 1961.

  • De Paor, Móire & Liam. Early Christian Ireland, Thames & Hudson, London, 1958.

  • De Paor, Liam. Saint Patrick's World, Four Courts Press,  Dublin, 1993.

  • Duke, John A. The Columban Church, Oxford University Press, Oxford, 1932.

  • Ellis, Peter Berresford. Celtic Inheritance, Frederick Muller, London, 1985.

  • Gougaud, Louis. Christianity in Celtic Lands, Sheed & Ward, London, 1932.

  • Graham, Hugh. The Early Irish Monastic Schools, Talbot Press, Dublin, 1923.

  • Healy, John. Ireland's Ancient Schools and Scholars, Sealy, Bryers and Walker, Dublin, 1890.

  • Herron, James. The Celtic Church in Ireland, Service & Paton, London, 1898,

  • Hughes, Kathleen. The Church in Early Irish Society, New Universal Library, London, 1906.

  • Lehane, Brendan. Early Celtic Christianity, Constable, London, 1968.

  • MacNaught, John C. The Celtic Church and the See of St Peter, Basil Blackwell, Oxford, 1927.

  • Ó Cróinín, Dáibhó. Early Medieval Ireland 400-1200, Longman, London, 1995.

  • Ó hAnluain, Enró. The First Altars & Early Christian Inscriptions of Ireland, Dublin, 1935.

  • Power, Patrick. Early Christian Ireland, M.H. Gill, Dublin, 1925

  • Salmon, John. The Ancient Irish Church, Gill & Son, Dublin, 1897.

  • Stokes, George, T. Ireland and the Celtic Church, Hodder & Stoughton, London, 1886.

  • Thomas, Charles. Britain and Ireland in Early Christian Times AD 400-800, BCA, London.

  • Tommasini, Anselmo. Irish Saints in Italy, Sands & Company, London, 1937.

  • Warren, F.E. The Liturgy and Ritual of the Celtic Church, Clarendon Press, Oxford, 1881.

  • Zimmer, Heinrich. The Celtic Church in Britain and Ireland (trs A. Meyer) David Nutt, London, 1902.


I am a French fan of the Sister Fidelma books. As someone with a Catholic background, I find Fidelma quite free in her movements, leaving her abbey without restrictions. What were the values of religious vows in those days; the importance of the hierarchy, especially in a religious house like an abbey. Could someone really decide to leave when they wanted? Could they choose to return to the laity without incurring any retaliation from the Church. Or is it that Fidelma is allowed this freedom because she is sister to the King?


As the author has pointed out, those who look for late medieval concepts of the Catholic Church in the rituals and liturgies and practices of the Early Irish Church (or Celtic Church as it is often called) will look in vain.

The author has described in some detail what the church practices in the answers to other questions on this page and there is a recommended reading list of books about the Early Irish Church (above).

You will find that bishops and abbots in Early Irish religious houses acted like chieftains in that they were usually elected and had to obey the commonwealth of the community, rather than imposing their will, otherwise they would be in trouble. In leaving Kildare, Fidelma was only exercising the right shared by everyone, not simply because she was the sister of the King of Muman.

In the 7th century churches in Ireland, there were generally no strict vows such as you mention covering every member of the religious. Ideas varied from area to area, monastery to monastery. "The Rule" of religious houses was not uniform. Some made up their own set of rules, others adopted Roman inspired rules (the Penitential) and many had no rules at all. These were very early days, indeed. We do find, even from Patrick's time, that some of the saints (like Brigid) took vows to serve God but this was a pact strictly between themselves and God, not through the intermediary of a terrestrial authority.

So, some monastic foundations were drawing up rules only in Fidelma's day. The cuing chróbhadh or obligations of religious life was often a matter for the individual and not imposed by any single authority. The idea of members of a religious community "retaliating" against an individual because they choose to no longer be part of that community is an alien concept to the cultural attitudes of this time. Certainly, oaths and vows - the cróbud or the moidem, prescribed in ancient Irish law - were not things to be taken lightly. There were penalties for false oaths or oaths made frivolously. But Irish lawmakers had realised that circumstances could change and no individual (abbot or bishop) could enforce the conditions of a vow if not freely given. In the case in Hemlock At Vespers which you refer to, the abbess had actually been involved in crime and therefore had technically lost her honour-price, releasing Fidelma - and any other member of her community - from any obligation or obedience to her.