There's an intriguing little history behind my Mom. Back when WWII had started in Europe and before the US entered the War, Mom met an Irish sailor. He was, of course, fighting for the UK and his ship docked at the tiny port in her small Florida town for a brief respite. Somehow they met at a cookout and became pen-pals. They wrote one another for over a year, and Mom even admitted once that there was definitely a spark of romance there. However, after a year and a half of fond letters sent back and forth between them, a sad one arrived.
Mom's Irish sailor was lost at sea during an attack by a German submarine. He was never found.
That tragic letter was sent by the sailor's sister. Her name was Joyce, and she and my Mom began a pen-pal friendship that lasted for decades until they finally met. Joyce visited us four or five times as I was growing up, and I became acquainted with her, too. It was a pleasant ending to what had started as such a tragedy.
So, I've always had a "thing" for the Irish. I've always loved their music a little more, listened to their accents with joy, sampled their food with pleasure, and read their stories with gusto. I've never visited Ireland, though it's on my bucket-list, and now I'm so pleased that this week's guest on the Journal is from Ireland. And what perfect timing with St. Patrick's Day being this week!
Paul Duffy has an interesting story to tell, of an Irishman in the 11th century whose freedom is shattered during the Norman conquest. Paul Duffy's incredible story-telling prose is simply breathtaking and really made this writer's eyes widen once I'd read his excerpt. In historical fiction, it's so vital to take the reader straight into the world you're creating. Duffy has achieved that.
I invite you to enter ancient Ireland as it's suddenly been dominated by the Norman invasion and relish Duffy's knack for capturing a culture where storytelling was of inestimable worth.
To the Victors
An Excerpt from Run with the Hare, Hunt with the Hounds
By: Paul Duffy
That evening we rode across the Tiarna’s lands, driving the spoil of cattle in great procession. At the head, the Tiarna and his men clung to their mounts, falling drunk and gesturing like returning Caesars while the people of the farmsteads came out to applaud and hail and sing, their joy. The praise amplified as the Tiarna bestowed each household with a plundered beast. I came at the rear, walking behind, forgotten trying to keep sight of Ness where she walked with Mór and the other women around her. Trying to gauge her welcome.
The cattle were tired now, plodding and offering little resistance as we striped their flanks with long rods of hazel. At Lasair’s well, we turned uphill along the ditch and my heart sank, seeing that we were bound for the monastery. Riders spurred on ahead to give the Abbot warning. The fields were quiet as we approached, the Tiarna driving his cattle across the sown winter fields, the passage of hooves and feet churning the dark soil, crushing the rills, picking out and turning up the bright seed.
The old Abbot was at the gate, his welcome as thin as the smile on his face. Milesius fumed in the background as the Tiarna rode up to the gate and I held back, for fear of the venom in my mentor’s eye. I could not hear the words though I could read well enough the movements of the men. The Tiarna in his cups, loquacious and overbearing with his generosity. The Abbot thanking him as seven heads of cattle were corralled aside and taken in hand by a group of lay brothers appearing from the shadow of the gateway.
A bounty worth bearing. Worth the loss of saved grain. Worth the wasted hours of broadcasting seed into the receiving earth, broken and turned by the sweat of the men. I knew exactly what Milesius would say – that it was a thing to shame the saints, to see plunder taken in violence valued more than the honest labour of a man’s back.
We turned towards home and the fierceness of the low sun blinded us from above the woods, adding a final touch of the unreal to the day. Following the long wakeful hours of the táin, tiredness threatened to overwhelm me on that last push across the outer meadows, shapes suggesting themselves in the corners of my vision.
Word had been sent ahead to the Tiarna’s house and billows of smoke and steam rose into the massive arch of the evening sky. The entire farmstead was arrayed there, waiting dutifully, crying out and singing victory.
When we arrived at the compound, we could see that a huge feast had been prepared and a steam laden with the smell of broth and meat and bread escaped through the doorway. The Tiarna entered first and Tuar ushered all inside. The house was scarcely able to accommodate us all and yet the women and the servants poured in, pushing through the crowd trying to carry in food and ale. A large table had been set out and the Tiarna’s benches arrayed around the edges of the house draped with furs and linens. Feasting began immediately with the Tiarna and the warriors still in their quilted coats. Regardless of the boisterous mood and the drunken state of many of the men, etiquette was observed without deviation as to who sits at the Tiarna’s right hand, who to his left, who beyond that and who can eat a morsel before who and drink from which vessel. A fire burned high in the hearth and there were those standing who were singed by its flame. The merriment and celebration was widespread as the tales of the táin were recounted through mouths full of meat. I stood by the door, ravenous and waiting for something to pass my way.
The storytelling became increasingly loud as Erc proved to have the strongest voice which carried over all and commanded attention. He was recounting how we gathered the cattle and I heard my name spoken. Suddenly the lord cried out ‘Where is my Virgil of the North? Where is that purple Saxon?’ and it was clear from his voice that he was very inebriated.
Donchad and even Conn cheered in an irresistible upsurge of mirth. They gripped me and propelled me forward along the benches and among the blur I caught sight of Father’s face in the crowd as he laboured to keep the tapers lit and the firewood in and the ale flowing. His expression a pale gulf within the feverous celebration. A kind of sad pride hung on his face. It seared me, this look and I can see it still through the veil of years, haunting me with its foreknowledge. He saw the danger that I could not, the danger in the novelty of a lord’s regard.
I was passed up by the fire, crowded hounds nipping in the chaos and the blaze of the fire illuminating a red press of faces.
‘A verse from you boy! A verse!’
And the hall erupted in the unquenchable turmoil of the drunkard and they chanted loudly.
‘A verse, a verse’ and nothing would do, as I stood there terrified, sickened. Ness sitting by the door with Erc, his lecherous face bent to her ear.
And I began to shout out in Latin the first words that came to mind. A thick hand from the fireside cuffed me roughly and a cry went up.
‘Speak words we can understand you cur, none of your Sasanach drawl here,’ and the laughter and turmoil rose beyond what I had ever heard, overtaking my senses and in the heat and shame my face boiled red.
‘Dawn,’ I shouted with as much force as I had and the crowd was quelled into a quieter kind of tumult,
‘Over Ua Ragalig’s country,
Herself knew not,
Of the warriors dark within her wood,
Untouched by her light
Like Trojans in their horses’
Cheers went up with claps and hearty derision. I pressed on, grabbing words from the air, from I knew not where.
‘Until they sprang into battle
And slew all who stood
Between them and glory
Back over foreign hills driving
Spoil and fame before them
‘Enough, enough!’ shouted the Tiarna with tears in his eyes as he laughed and coughed and drank and laughed more at my butchery of the metrical precision of their poetry.
Tuar baulked at the sacrilege, the mockery of his craft. His lips pursed and he raised a warning hand as if he would cast a curse. And, unchained, I could not hold back. Standing high on the bench, emboldened and drenched and permeated with everything that had happened. I shouted with the fullness of my throat, from the bag of my belly, pointing,
The poet’s look was black
As I, the lowest boy
Profaned his age-old cant.
In the uproar a bench tilted over and laughter split the roof beams and dimmed the fire and filled the dark and even the ollamh himself smiled in that brief moment where the fool was king and I was almost transported on it. Carried away. To a place where I was not the meanest, the least, the unfree. To a place where I was someone of worth, someone of note. No longer the least speckle on the meanest egg in the smallest wren’s nest on the measliest branch of the most beggarly tree. Until I saw her again, by the door, her eyes dark. Her mouth silent. Her body hard.
All About the Book
On a remote Gaelic farmstead in medieval Ireland, word reaches Alberic of conquering Norman knights arriving from England. Oppressed by the social order that enslaved his Norman father, he yearns for the reckoning he believes the invaders will bring—but his world is about to burn. Captured by the Norman knight Hugo de Lacy and installed at Dublin Castle as a translator, Alberic’s confused loyalties are tested at every turn. When de Lacy marches inland, Alberic is set on a collision course with his former masters amidst rumours of a great Gaelic army rising in the west. Can Alberic navigate safely through revenge, lust and betrayal to find his place amidst the birth of a kingdom in a land of war?
All About Paul Duffy
Paul Duffy, author of Run with the Hare, Hunt with the Hound (2022), is one of Ireland’s leading field archaeologists and has directed numerous landmark excavations in Dublin as well as leading projects in Australia, France and the United Kingdom.
He has published and lectured widely on this work, and his books include From Carrickfergus to Carcassonne—the Epic Deeds of Hugh de Lacy during the Cathar Crusade (2018) and Ireland and the Crusades (2021). He has given many talks and interviews on national and international television and radio (RTÉ, BBC, NPR, EuroNews).
Paul has also published several works of short fiction (Irish Times, Causeway/Cathsair, Outburst, Birkbeck Writer’s Hub) and in 2015 won the Over the Edge New Writer of the Year Award. He has been shortlisted for numerous Irish and international writing prizes and was awarded a writing bursary in 2017–2018 by Words Ireland.
Connect with Paul
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