Thursday, April 28

Medieval Irish Wisdom in the Ninth Century Triads.

Anyone who loves history will tell you that one of the most enjoyable things to do is to visit actual historical sites. An added bonus of writing historical fiction is that one can do quite a lot of this in the name of research. One of my more recent trips was to the wonderful Dunmore Cave in Co. Kilkenny in Ireland.

Dunmore Cave, Co. Kilkenny
© E.M. Powell

Dunmore Cave has been used for refuge and storage for hundreds of years. A Viking massacre here is recorded in the Annals of the Four Masters, a 17th century compilation of earlier Irish chronicles. In 928 Godfrey and the Vikings of Dublin reputedly slaughtered more than 1,000 people here. Archaeological investigations have found the remains of hundreds of people, with many being those of women and children.  10th century coins, beads, and pins have also been found.

I was particularly pleased to see an information board announcing it as ‘One of the Three Darkest Places in Ireland’. No, this wasn’t just a cheap marketing ploy by the Irish Office of Public Works. It's a reference to the mention of Dunmore Cave in the Irish Triads. Triads, the arrangement of ideas or sayings in groups of three, are common in ancient Irish and Welsh writing. They are a type of wisdom literature, serving to instruct, enlighten and at times entertain the reader/listener with truths about life.

St. Luke- 9th C Irish MS
Public Domain

Trecheng Breth Féne or The Triads of Ireland is a collection composed about the ninth century AD by an anonymous author who was most likely a cleric. One might think that the Irish Triad wisdom of over 1,100 years ago would be remote and/or inaccessible. It’s quite the opposite. So much of what this unknown writer has left us could have the ink still wet on the paper. I thought I’d share my personal favourites.

Some of the triads are simply a geographical reference, such as to Dunmore Cave above. We have ‘The three mountain-passes of Ireland: Baltinglass, the Pass of Limerick, the Pass of Dublin’ and ‘The three uneven places of Ireland: Breffny, the Burren, Beare.’ Anyone who has visited the Burren and had a walking boot wedged in a limestone crack would never disagree with this assessment.

Early Medieval Grave Slab, Durrow, Co. Offaly
© E.M. Powell

Moving on from geography, the writer relates some moral musings:
‘Three rejoicings followed by sorrow: a wooer's, a thief's, a tale-bearer's.’
‘Three things which justice demands: judgment, measure, conscience.’
‘Three things which judgment demands: wisdom, penetration, knowledge.’
Wise indeed, yet quite theoretical. Happily, he gets more specific:
‘Three laughing-stocks of the world: an angry man, a jealous man, a niggard.’ 
Yes, indeed, but closely followed by:
‘Three ruins of a tribe: a lying chief, a false judge, a lustful priest.’ 
‘Three ranks that ruin tribes in their falsehood: the falsehood of a king, of a historian, of a judge.’

Early Medieval Grave Slab, Durrow, Co. Offaly
© E.M. Powell

One has to wonder at this point if the scribe has somehow found a wormhole where he is viewing the 21st century. Leaving his very pertinent observations on human nature, we come to the cleric’s Triads that relate to the natural world. These for me have great lyrical beauty.
‘Three slender things that best support the world: the slender stream of milk from the cow's dug into the pail, the slender blade of green corn upon the ground, the slender thread over the hand of a skilled woman.’
‘Three live ones that put away dead things: a deer shedding its horn, a wood shedding its leaves, cattle shedding their coat.’
‘Three cold things that seethe: a well, the sea, new ale.’
‘Three sounds of increase: the lowing of a cow in milk, the din of a smithy, the swish of a plough.’
‘Three dead things that give evidence on live things: a pair of scales, a bushel, a measuring-rod.’
‘Three renovators of the world: the womb of woman, a cow's udder, a smith's moulding-block.’
Beautiful, of course, but this unknown writer didn’t simply excel at pastoral imagery. He also has a number of observations of human nature that are on the nail and often hilarious.
‘Three rude ones of the world: a youngster mocking an old man, a healthy person mocking an invalid, a wise man mocking a fool.’
‘Three ungentlemanly things: interrupting stories, a mischievous game, jesting so as to raise a blush.’
‘Three ungentlemanly boasts: I am on your track, I have trampled on you, I have wet you with my dress.’ (Note: on this one, I have no idea. I included it because I love it.)
‘Three deaths that are better than life: the death of a salmon, the death of a fat pig, the death of a robber.’
‘Three silences that are better than speech: silence during instruction, silence during music, silence during preaching.’
‘Three speeches that are better than silence: inciting a king to battle, spreading knowledge, praise after reward.’
‘Three things that constitute a buffoon: blowing out his cheek, blowing out his satchel, blowing out his belly.’
‘Three wealths in barren places: a well in a mountain, fire out of a stone, wealth in the possession of a hard man.’
‘Three oaths that do not require fulfilment: the oath of a woman in birth-pangs, the oath of a dead man, the oath of a landless man.’
‘Three worst smiles: the smile of a wave, the smile of a lewd woman, the grin of a dog ready to leap.’

Initial- 9th C Irish MS
Public Domain

The last of the Triads I have included have a particular appeal. They reflect the contemporary world that the writer lived in, such as this one about Irish appearance.
‘Three lawful handbreadths: a handbreadth between shoes and hose, a handbreadth between ear and hair, a handbreadth between the fringe of the tunic and the knee.’
The world of work is here, too.
‘Three things that constitute a comb-maker: racing a hound in contending for a bone; straightening a ram's horn by his breath, without fire; chanting upon a dunghill so that all antlers and bones and horns that are below come to the top.’
‘Three things that constitute a carpenter: joining together without calculating, without warping; agility with the compass; a well-measured stroke.’
‘Three things that constitute a physician: a complete cure, leaving no blemish behind, a painless examination.’
‘Three things that constitute a harper: a tune to make you cry, a tune to make you laugh, a tune to put you to sleep.’ 

Durrow High Cross, Co. Offaly c850 A.D.
© E.M. Powell

And as it’s Ireland, we have views on hospitality. First, things the writer isn’t happy with:
‘Three unfortunate things for a man: a scant drink of water, thirst in an ale-house, a narrow seat upon a field.’
‘The three worst welcomes: a handicraft in the same house with the inmates, scalding water upon the feet, salt food without a drink.’
‘Three preparations of a bad man's house: strife before you, complaining to you, his hound taking hold of you.’
‘Three sorrowful ones of an alehouse: the man who gives the feast, the man to whom it is given, the man who drinks without being satiated.’
Counterbalanced with what he approves of:
‘Three preparations of a good man's house: ale, a bath, a large fire.’
‘Three entertainers of a gathering: a jester, a juggler, a lap-dog.’
‘Three accomplishments of Ireland: a witty stave, a tune on the harp, shaving a face.’
‘Three fewnesses that are better than plenty: a fewness of fine words, a fewness of cows in grass, a fewness of friends around good ale.’

John- 9th C Irish MS
Public Domain

But I think he must be back at that wormhole, looking over my shoulder. For, lastly, we have:
‘Three glories of speech: steadiness, wisdom, brevity.’
I’ll accept that 1,100 year old advice: brevity it is. Slán!

Images are either © E.M. Powell or are in the Public Domain and are part of the British Library's Catalogue of Illuminated Manuscripts. 

Kelly, Prof. Fergus, SIR JOHN RHYS MEMORIAL LECTURE: Thinking in threes: the triad in early Irish literature: (2003)
Lindahl, C., McNamara, J & Lindow, J. (eds.): Medieval Folklore, Oxford University Press (2002)
Meyer, Kuno, The Triads of Ireland, Royal Irish Academy, Dublin, Hodges Figgis & Co. Ltd.: (1906.)
Yocum, Christopher: Wisdom Literature in Early Ireland. STUDIA CELTICA, XLVI (2012), 39–58
I wrote this post or an edited version of it for the English Historical Fiction Authors blog in March 2016. 

Tuesday, April 5

How I Wrote My Novel of Medieval Ireland, The Lord of Ireland.

Yes, it's April 5 2016. Not a red-letter day on the calendar for most, but for me, a very special day indeed. For today is the day that Book #3 in my Fifth Knight  medieval thriller series, The Lord of Ireland, is out. Yes, Sir Benedict Palmer is back- and this time he's off to Ireland!

And here's what it's about:

England, 1185. John is a prince without prospect of a crown. As the youngest son of Henry II, he has long borne the hated nickname ‘Lackland’. When warring tribes and an ambitious Anglo-Norman lord threaten Henry’s reign in Ireland, John believes his time has finally come. Henry is dispatching him there with a mighty force to impose order. 
Yet it is a thwarted young man who arrives on the troubled isle. John has not been granted its kingship—he is merely the Lord of Ireland, destined never to escape his father’s shadow. Unknown to John, Henry has also sent his right-hand man, Sir Benedict Palmer, to root out the traitors he fears are working to steal the land from him. 
But Palmer is horrified when John disregards Henry’s orders and embarks on a campaign of bloodshed that could destroy the kingdom. Now Palmer has to battle the increasingly powerful Lord of Ireland. Power, in John’s hands, is a murderous force—and he is only just beginning to wield it.
Now, some people compare the writing and publishing of a novel to being pregnant. They often refer to the interminable time-scales, the waiting, the expectation, the preparation. I'd second (some of that), along with weight gain, mood swings and the desire for strange food.

With regard to time scales, writing a novel takes many, many months, and with a historical novel even more so. When people ask 'Do you do a lot of research for your novel?', my answer is best summed up with this photo:

Research? Erm...
And for The Lord of Ireland, I did a lot of research on the ground, too. John's failed campaign in Ireland actually took place. Thanks to Henry II's royal clerk, Gerald of Wales, we know some of what happened and where John went. Most (in)famously, John landed at Waterford and proceeded to pull the beards of the Irish chieftains who came to greet him. Retracing John's footsteps brought a whole new level to my research. I told International Thriller Writers all about it recently- you can find my Guided Tour here.

Reginald's Tower, Co Waterford:
witness to beard-pulling.
But whatever research one does, however carefully crafted a plot, all is for nothing unless you have fully fleshed characters. Palmer and Theodosia are here again, which I'm sure/hoping will please readers. I hope they'll like the new ones too, for they were hugely enjoyable to write.

Many are real historical figures. Royal clerk Gerald, who travelled to Ireland with John, provided me with his own outrageous historical views on the Irish and I might (just might) have gotten my own back on him a few times. I've written about Gerald's questionable views on the Irish in a previous post on Medieval Ireland. He was also a great chronicler and I talk more about that in this post.

What Irish Women Get Up To- according to Gerald of Wales.
And no, they don't/didn't. 
Hugh de Lacy, Henry II's first Lord of Meath and a big threat to the King, is a major character. We have Gerald to thank for a physical description:
'What Hugh’s complexion and features were like, he was dark, with dark, sunken eyes and flattened nostrils. His face was grossly disfigured down the right side as far as his chin by a burn, the result of an accident. His neck was short, his body hairy and sinewy. He was a short man. His build- misshapen.'
Gerald goes on to tell us what a great fighter de Lacy is but that he's not to be trusted as he has taken a daughter of the Irish High-King, Rory O'Connor, as his second wife. Gold to a novelist, yes?

Interior of  Hugh de Lacy's Trim Castle, Co. Meath
De Lacy had a remarkable life and I've talked more about it in this post.

I had fun with my fictional characters, too. But the path doesn't always run smoothly with naming them. In despair one day, I sent this e-mail to another Irish writer, the wonderful and wise Kevin McMahon:
'My character is native Irish, a huge, battle-axe wielding warrior and a great fighter and I want to give him a single Irish that describes him. I also need to avoid the following letters that would start his name, as it can look clumsy on the page when people have the same one. So, to avoid: B, C, D, E, J (I know that’s out anyway in the Irish alphabet, along with K, Q, V, W, X, Y, Z, if memory serves me correctly), G, H, L, N, O, P, R (but might get away with this one), T.'
Despite my ridiculous parameters, Kevin came back with Uinseann, which means 'victor'. How wonderful and wise is that?

The native Irish, as depicted by Gerald of Wales.
Granted, Uinseann does actually do some of this.
And there is one character that without whom the book wouldn't exist, the Lord of Ireland himself. John, the future Bad King John. What can I say, except that I think I actually enjoy writing my villains more than my heroes. John's campaign started badly and went downhill from there. Gerald had expected the worst. He describe's John's decision to 'bypass the venerable church of St. David's' as he travelled to Ireland as a 'sinister omen for his expedition.' 

King John as depicted in Waterford's Great Charter roll c1372.
Sinister, indeed, but a gift for me. Sir Benedict Palmer awaits you in medieval Ireland. 

The images from Gerald of Wales are in the the Public Domain and are part of the British Library's Catalogue of Illuminated Manuscripts. All other images are © E.M. Powell.
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