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by Peter Tremayne


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The Sister Fidelma mysteries are set mainly in Ireland during the mid-seventh century AD.

Sister Fidelma is not simply a religieuse, a former member of the community of St Brigid of Kildare. She is also a qualified dalaigh, or advocate of the ancient law courts of Ireland.

Ireland, in the seventh century AD, consisted of five main provincial kingdoms; indeed, the modern Irish word for a province is still cuige, literally "a fifth". Four provincial kings - of Ulaidh (Ulster), of Connacht, of Muman (Munster) and of Laigin (Leinster) - gave their qualified allegiance to the Ard Ri or High King, who ruled from Tara, in the "royal" fifth province of Midhe (Meath), which means the "middle province". Even among the provincial kingdoms, there was a decentralisation of power to petty-kingdoms and clan territories.

The law of primogeniture, the inheritance by the eldest son or daughter, was an alien concept in Ireland. Kingship, from the lowliest clan chieftain to the High King, was only partially hereditary and mainly electoral. Each ruler had to prove himself or herself worthy of office and was elected by the derbhfine of their family - a minimum of three generations from a common ancestor gathered in conclave. If a ruler did not pursue the commonwealth of the people, they were impeached and removed from office. Therefore the monarchical system of ancient Ireland had more in common with a modern-day republic than with the feudal monarchies which had developed elsewhere in medieval Europe.

Ireland, in the seventh century AD, was governed by a system of sophisticated laws called the Laws of the Fenechus, or land-tillers, which became more popularly known as the Brehon Laws, deriving from the word breitheamh - a judge. Tradition has it that these laws were first gathered in 714 BC by the order of the High King, Ollamh Fodhla. But it was in AD 438 that the High King, Laoghaire, appointed a commission of nine learned people to study, revise, and commit the laws to the new writing in Latin characters. One of those serving on the commission was Patrick, eventually to become patron saint of Ireland. After three years, the commission produced a written text of the laws which is the first known codification.

The first complete surviving text of the ancient laws of Ireland is preserved in an eleventh century manuscript book. It was not until the seventeenth century that the English colonial administration in Ireland finally suppressed the use of the Brehon law system, following the devastating conquests that lasted from 1541 to 1691. To even possess a copy of the law books was punishable, often by death or transportation even towards the end of the eighteenth century.

It was at the insistence of Charles Graves (1812-1899), grandfather of Robert Graves (1895-1985), that the British Government set up a Royal Commission in 1865 to rescue the law texts, translate and edit them. Charles Graves, from an Anglo-Irish family was Bishop of Limerick, President of the Royal Irish Academy and an expert on Ogham writing. He was also a professor at Trinity College, Dublin. Thanks to Graves, six volumes Ancient Laws of Ireland were published between 1865-1901.

The law system was not static, and every three years at the Feis Temhrach (Festival of Tara) the lawyers and administrators gathered to considered and revise the laws in the light of changing society and its needs.

Under these laws, women occupied a unique place. The Irish laws gave more rights and protection to women than any other western law code at that time or until recent times. Women could, and did, aspire to all offices and professions as co-equal with men. They could be political leaders, command their people in battle as warriors, be physicians, local magistrates, poets, artisans, lawyers and judges. We know the names of many female judges of Fidelma's period - Brig Briugaid, Aine Ingine Iugaire and Dari among others. Dari, for example, was not only a judge but the author of a noted law text written in the sixth century AD. Women were protected by law against sexual harassment; against discrimination; against rape; they had the right of divorce on equal terms from their husbands, with equitable separation laws, and could demand part of their husband's property in a divorce settlement; they had the right of inheritance of personal property and land and the right of sickness benefits when ill or hospitalised. Ancient Ireland has Europe's oldest recorded system of hospitals. Seen from today's perspective, the Brehon Laws provided for what might be considered a society approaching an almost feminist paradise.

This background, and its strong contrast with Ireland's European neighbours, should be understood in order to appreciate Fidelma's role in these stories. Fidelma was born at Cashel, capital of the kingdom of Muman (Munster) in south-west Ireland, in AD 636. She was the youngest daughter of Failbe Fland, the King, who died the year after her birth. Fidelma was raised under the guidance of a distant cousin, Abbot Laisran of Durrow. When she reached the "Age of Choice", considered the time of maturity for woman (fourteen years), she went to study at the bardic school of the Brehon Morann of Tara as did many other young Irish girls in search of higher education. Eight years of study resulted in Fidelma obtaining the degree of anruth, only one degree below the highest offered at either bardic or ecclesiastical universities in ancient Ireland.

The highest degree was ollamh, which is still the modern Irish word for a professor. Fidelma's studies were in law, both in the criminal code of the Senchus Mor and the civil code of the Lebor Acaill. Thereby, she became a dalaigh or advocate of the courts.

Her main role could be compared to a modern Scottish sheriff substitute whose job is to gather and assess the evidence, independent of the police, to see if there is a case to be answered. The modern French juge d'instruction holds a similar role. However, sometimes Fidelma is faced with the task of prosecuting in the courts or defending, even rendering judgments in minor cases when a Brehon was not available.

In those days, most of the professionals or intellectual classes were members of the New Christian religious houses, just as, in previous centuries, all members of the professions and intellectuals had been Druids. Fidelma became a member of the religious community of Kildare founded in the late fifth century AD by St Brigid. But she decided to leave Kildare in disillusionment. The reason why may be found in the title story of the Fidelma short story collection Hemlock At Vespers.

While the seventh century AD was considered part of the European "Dark Ages", for Ireland it was a period of "Golden Enlightenment". Students from every corner of Europe flocked to Irish universities to receive their education, including the sons of many of the Anglo-Saxon kings. At the great ecclesiastical university of Durrow, at this time, it is recorded that no fewer than eighteen different nations were represented among the students. At the same time, Irish male and female missionaries were setting out to reconvert a pagan Europe to Christianity, establishing churches, monasteries, and centres of learning throughout Europe as far east as Kiev, in the Ukraine; as far north as the Faroes, and as far south as Taranto in southern Italy. Ireland became a byword for literacy and learning.

However, the Celtic Church of Ireland was in constant dispute with Rome on matters of liturgy and ritual. Rome had begun to reform itself in the fourth century, changing its dating of Easter and aspects of its liturgy. The Celtic Church and the Eastern Orthodox Churches refused to follow Rome, but the Celtic Church was gradually absorbed by Rome between the ninth and eleventh centuries while the Eastern Orthodox churches had continued to remain independent of Rome. The Celtic Church of Ireland,  during Fidelma's time, was much concerned with this conflict so that it is impossible to write of Church matters without referring to the philosophical warfare between them.

One thing that was shared by both the Celtic Church and Rome in the seventh century was that the concept of celibacy was not universal. While there were always ascetics in the Churches who sublimated physical love in a dedication to the deity, it was not until the Council of Nicea in AD 325 that clerical marriages were condemned but not banned in the Western Church. The concept of celibacy arose in Rome mainly from the customs practised by the pagan priestesses of Vesta and the priests of Diana.

By the fifth century, Rome had forbidden its clerics from the rank of abbot and bishop to sleep with their wives and, shortly after, even to marry at all. The general clergy were discouraged from marrying by Rome but not forbidden to do so. Indeed, it was not until the reforming papacy of Leo IX (AD 1049-1054) that a serious attempt was made to force the Western clergy to accept universal celibacy. In fact, Leo went so far as to order that wives of priests should be sent as slaves to the Lateran palace, then the papal centre, while Urban II, in 1189, ordered that wives of priests could be seized as slaves by members of the nobility. Many wives of the clergy were driven to suicide by these rulings. The bulk of the religious of the Celtic Church took centuries to give up their anti-celibacy attitudes and fall into line with Rome. However, in the Eastern Orthodox Church, priests below the rank of abbot and bishop have retained their right to marry until this day.

An understanding of these facts concerning the liberal attitudes towards sexual relationships in the Celtic Church is essential towards understanding the background to the Fidelma stories.

The condemnation of the "sin of the flesh" remained alien to the Celtic Church for a long time after Rome's attitude became a dogma. In Fidelma's world both sexes inhabited abbeys and monastic foundations, which were known as conhospitae, or double houses, where men and women lived raising their children in Christ's service.

Fidelma's own house of St Brigid of Kildare was one such community of both sexes during her time. When Brigid established her community of Kildare (Cill-Dara - the church of the oaks) she invited a bishop named Conlaed to join her. Her first biography, completed fifty years after her death, in AD 650 during Fidelma's lifetime, was written by a monk of Kildare named Cogitosus, who makes it clear that it continued to be a mixed community in his day.

It should also be pointed out that, demonstrating women's coequal role with men, women were priests of the Celtic Church in this period. Brigid herself was ordained a bishop by Patrick's nephew, Mel, and her case was not unique. Rome actually wrote a protest, in the sixth century, at the Celtic practice of allowing women to celebrate the divine sacrifice of Mass.

Unlike the Roman Church, the Irish Church did not have a system of "confessors" where "sins" had to be confessed to clerics who then had the authority to absolve those sins in Christ's name. Instead, people chose a "soul friend" (anam chara), out of clerics or laity, with whom they discussed matters of emotional and spiritual well-being.

In writing these stories, I have not invented one law nor presented any legal matter, or, indeed, any background detail, that cannot be substantiated by historical research into evidence or literary remains of the period.

To help readers locate in Fidelma's part of Ireland in the seventh century, where its geo-political divisions will be mainly unfamiliar, most of the books carry a sketch map. To help readers more readily identify personal names, a list of principal characters is given in each book.

I have generally refused to use anachronistic place names for obvious reasons although I have bowed to a few usages; eg Tara, rather than Teamhair; and Cashel, rather than Caiseal Muman; and Armagh in place of Ard Macha. However, I have cleaved to the name of Muman rather than the prolepsis form "Munster" formed when the Norse stadr (place) was added to the Irish name in the ninth century AD and eventually Anglicized. Similarly I have maintained Laigin rather than the Anglicized form of Leinster based on the Norse form Laighin-stadr and Ulaidh rather than Ulaidh-stadr for Ulster.

The foregoing information may merely enhance your trip into Fidelma's world but, hopefully, a deep academic understanding of ancient Ireland should in no way be a perquisite for what, after all, is primarily entertainment.