Treacherous Beauty of Tory Island

Much of the action of Erin O’Quinn’s Captive Heart –now making its debut–centers on the wild, desolate island of Tory some nine miles off the northern shore of modern Donegal.

Tory island was the subject of a 2005 BBC spotlight by correspondent Kevin Connolly. He introduced it as “a rocky sliver of land stuck out in the wild Atlantic–just beyond the point where Ireland sits with County Donegal like a shoulder hunched up against the ocean winds.”

Tory is a heap of forbidding, jagged rocks on the perimeter, lashed by such turbulent currents that to this day, the island can be reached by ferry only seven months out of the year. Through the harsh winter, it is accessible only by helicopter. The high cliffs boast stretches of wild grasses and the world’s sparse remaining population of Corn Crakes, a small pheasant-like foraging bird. And the island itself–a crescent roughly three miles long and a mile wide–is torn incessantly by winds so high that flying insects do not even live there. Connolly observed that he never saw a tree there higher than a large bush–and that one was blessed by its location in a church yard!

Imagine this forbidding place, then, as the destination of a group of fifth-century travelers whose only transportation was currachs–light, wickerwork boats stretched with animal skin and buoyed by animal bladders.

Caylith’s group of intrepid men and women have made their way to Tory for a single high purpose–to rescue about a dozen women who are being held there in secret by what is supposedly a horde of Pictish slave-mongers and freebooters. The captors know well how to navigate the perilous shores of Tory, and their expertise as currach sailors is what has given them a safe haven from the retribution of the law of Éire.

I have usually tried to be historically accurate in my Dawn of Ireland series, but I depart a bit in the story of Captive Heart. The slaves seized by the raiders would have been considered legally held in these dark days just as St. Patrick began his ministry; and even for centuries after, men and women seized from foreign shores were considered by the Brehon Law to be the lowest on the rung of society.

In the novel, I have postulated that the current High King Leary has made it illegal for citizens of other countries and other formerly free people to be seized and held as slaves. It is the one piece of “fantasy” I have woven into the story, and for a good reason. I want the men and women of my novels to aspire, like all people should, to a life of freedom and happiness.

One may be astonished to learn that today, Tory Island is the haven of a group of Irish artists whose work is sought by dealers and private buyers throughout the world. Their population varies from about sixty to ninety, and they are allowed by special dispensation to elect a King of Tory every year from among their rank.

Apparently, even for a non-artist such as I, to stand high on Tory is to stand on the crest of the most beautiful interplay of sea and rock ever seen. The artists have an eternal paragon of beauty to interpret. As Connolly stated in his conclusion:

Tory is like a granite kaleidoscope where the shifting patterns of light in the seas and skies produce a curious ephemerality, as though the cliffs and beaches somehow change every time you look away.

Captive Heart, the conclusion of the Dawn of Ireland trilogy, is now available at  http://www.bookstrand.com/captive-heart


Romance with a fighting stick

The notion of weaponry and romance linked together seems at first to be an odd one. But in the universe of “The Dawn of Ireland,” weaponry was not just common–it was a necessity.

During the freewheeling days when St. Patrick first went to Ireland, ca. 432 AD, the people of Ireland or Éire (call them the Éireannach people) were largely land holders, farm workers and cattlemen. Cattle, the mainstay of the economy, were prized above all. So cattle rustling was the order of the day. In fact, the most famous piece of literature that has come down to us from ancient times is “The Cattle Raid of Cooley,” where opposing forces of great gods and warriors do battle over a bunch of cows.

There were no handy swords lying about, nor a tradition of knives. What the people had in abundance were oak trees and blackthorn bushes. And so the branches of these ubiquitous trees were used as their weapon of choice.

 The main characters in all the Dawn novels learn one weapon in particular–the shillelagh. When used as a weapon, it is now common to call such a weapon a “bata,” and the art of bata fighting is called “bataireacht.” Research suggests that the shillelagh, a rugged, knobby-sided stick cut from the blackthorn (sloe) bush, has been part of the culture since ancient times.

The blackthorn can begin as a straggly, widespread bush and grow into a gnarly, twenty-foot tree. To this day, blackthorns are used as natural hedges to keep interlopers (human and otherwise) from people’s property. The spring flowers of the blackthorn, or sloe, are a mass of pretty flowers; and by late summer, sloe berries are a favorite of birds and of gin-lovers everywhere, for the berries are the basis for gin-making throughout the world.    One of the most interesting features of the blackthorn is its dark, burnished appearance. And the makers of shillelaghs enhance that dark appearance even more by smearing them with some kind of animal fat and putting them into a chimney or otherwise exposing them to smoke. The second compelling feature of these sticks is their knobby, nubby appearance. The makers deliberately leave part of the thorns along the stick to add a bit more “bite” to their strike.

                                                                                                                                                                                                                                           The first to seize a stick of blackthorn when the immigrants landed in Éire is, of course, Caylith herself. She takes her companion Swallow to a stand of dark, prickly bushes and begins to cut thorny branches, which she trims with her knife to make sticks that the pilgrims later lash together to symbolize the Christian cross. But she keeps one about three feet long to use both as a walking stick and as a weapon.

When a band of wild clansmen show up to confront the immigrants, the men are wearing shillelaghs–probably really batas–stuck through their waist-thongs. One of those warriors is Liam, later to become Caylith’s husband. Her own armsman Gristle and Liam sit together comparing fighting techniques, and Liam naively shows the expert martial artist some bata moves.

After she has settled down in Derry, Caylith organizes four other women into a group they call the “Terrible Trousers” (the word trousers comes from the Gaelic word triús). Small and innocent looking as they are, the ladies become formidable warriors using the blackthorn stick, for Liam has taught her the techniques that she shows her friends.

The Terrible Trousers use their bata skills in two tense situations–first when they are attempting to rescue a clansman from the                     clutches of two malevolent druids (in The Wakening Fire), and next when they find out who is behind the nefarious slave-trading that had resulted in much agony for captured women (in Captive Heart).

In more amorous moments, Caylith and Liam use the bata as a synonym for the phallus, and their play-fights always end in passion.

To this day in Ireland, the shillelagh is a potent symbol. There was a time in the 19th century when it was outlawed, so misused it was by gangs. Now it abounds in Éire as–among other things– a walking stick, a beer label, and a standby in many Gaelic songs.



Metamorphosis of a villain

Sunday, May 20 on The Celtic Rose blogsite, Miriam Newman ran an interesting article from Erin O’Quinn on the nature of her villain Sweeney. What follows below is not a repeat but an extension of those comments.

The first time the reader hears about Owen Sweeney, it is a flashback, as Caylith remembers freeing her captive mother from the clutches of a dark, brooding man confined to an invalid’s cart. Not only does she free her mother, but her friends manage to capture all Sweeney’s cattle and tie the cripple into his own cart. From there he is delivered to the High King for judgment and punishment. His own family members accuse him of murdering his late wife and holding captive women for vile purposes.

In Storm Maker the reader learns that Sweeney, bound into his cart and thrown into the turbulent sea, has somehow escaped and has ordered the capture of Caylith’s beloved Liam. In  that book, Sweeney is even more vile than before, for he has hidden himself far from the haunts of men, in a tiny clay hut on the northern promontory. Here he has surrounded himself with crude lickspittles while he waits for Liam to be delivered to him for punishment, even as he was punished by Liam’s kingly father.

Caylith lies concealed in a tunnel under his hut, listening to the sounds that threaten to suffocate her with horror.

 I had come to him with the suspicion that he had enslaved my mother, and my conjecture had proved true. Before I could steal out of his locked brugh that night, I had been trapped with him, my back against the door of his murdered wife’s sleep chamber. That same feeling returned now—the realization that I was cornered by a ravening animal, and only guile and cunning would free me from his jaws.I put together the next sounds I heard into a picture of what was happening. Sweeney rolled his chair away from the table and over to his raised bed. He put his enormous arms on the sides of the bed and slowly dragged his body out of the cart and pulled his bulk onto the bed. I could even hear the way he grasped his lifeless legs and drew them onto the bed, the way they fell with a thud onto the hard, matted-down surface.The man had not bothered to wash, or take off his clothes, or even to instruct his lickspittles to change the reeds on his bed. He had sunk so low that he truly had become almost an animal. No wonder the stench of the room was so powerful. It was the fetid odor of uncleanness and of something else, almost inhuman.Not to give away the plot of Storm Maker, but Sweeney is finally delivered to Father Patrick; and in The Wakening Fire, he has once more begun to make himself heard, as Caylith hears the heart-stopping, grating sound of his cripple-cart’s wooden wheels against the wooden floor of the monk’s house where he’s being held. This time Caylith has gathered her deep fear into a controllable place where her curiosity can overcome her terror of the man.

From the time she finally allows him to speak, Caylith begins to realize that there are layers to this man she had loathed–this dark force who had captured and dishonored her mother, the one who had killed his own wife.

Here the author Erin O’Quinn admits that even she changed her mind about Sweeney. There must be compelling reasons why a highly-educated, wealthy man who had sired six children by a wife he loved–why such a man would come to be accused by his own family of unspeakable crimes.

And here is where O’Quinn steps aside and invites you to learn Sweeney’s secrets for yourself. The Wakening Fire is available at http://www.bookstrand.com/the-wakening-fire  (buy link)


A fiery beginning

The second of Erin O’Quinn’s Dawn of Ireland trilogy is about to burst into flame . . .

  Tuesday, May 15, 2012

Called The Wakening Fire, this novel takes us from the marriage bed of Caylith and Liam to the deathbed of a woman with a momentous secret . . . then beyond, to the famous Paschal Fires lit by Father Patrick within sight of the high king’s own Beltane ritual fires.

Installment One:

The romance between impetuous Caylith and her wild clansman husband has just gotten more tantalizing, as both of them begin to explore the heady world of marital sex. Liam begins to teach her what he likes in bed; and Caylith, quick to learn, casts aside some of her natural modesty to enjoy her new husband.

He raised up a bit and tugged at his breeches, and I helped him, moving them down slowly over his butt. He impatiently kicked them off and knelt over me again. Then, rising and squatting, he moved so that his groin and sac dangled over me, almost at my head. “Suck me,” he said roughly. I was both shocked and aroused, for he had never spoken so directly before. I raised my head and caught his groin in my mouth, stroking his velvet-skinned testicles. He thrust himself again and again. “Suck me,” he moaned, and I knew the beer was speaking.

I thought we would end our lovemaking that way, but he suddenly stopped and gathered me into his arms and stood up. He set me not on the bed, but on the bench, and then he straddled me, pushing himself into me, moving up and down with his strong legs. “Yes,” I breathed, for the rhythm was just right, and he was hot inside me.

“Say it,” Liam said, moving up and down.

“Love me.”

“No.” He leaned until his mouth was in my ear, and he stopped moving. “Say it.” I was angry at him again for stopping, and I tried to thrust myself against him, but he was sitting on me and I could not move. His tongue in my ear, he breathed, “Say it, Cat.”

I whispered the crude, forbidden words in his ear, and he seemed to explode, moaning and moving, and I knew then that he was as aroused by my own words as I was by his.

 Buy link:


Here’s a treat for everyone: The Celtic Rose is a luscious, well written site devoted to all things Celtic. I invite you to visit the blog and to leave a comment:


Slán, Erin

May Day! May Day! The Pagan World is on Fire!

The most important–and most dangerous–Easter in centuries took place the first week in May, AD 433. That was the date agreed on by most historians when St Patrick, then Bishop Patrick of Armagh, lit his huge conflagration on the Hill of Sláine. Only moments later, apparently, the fires of Beltane sprang into the night sky to rival Patrick’s, lit by the druids of High King Leary himself on the sacred Hill of Tara 10 miles away.

Why were the fires so important both to the pagans and to Patrick? Why would this particular date from the long ministry of Patrick be remembered 1500 years later?

To begin with, as most people know, the Festival of Beltane was one of  the two most important observances in the Celtic year. It signified a time of rebirth, the eternal renewal of life. The other–equal and opposite–was Samhain, six months later,  the symbolic end of the year, of the death of what once lived. The birth/death cycle figures as part of probably all religions, no matter where in the world, wherever signs of spring and winter give mankind alternate hope and despair.

Beltane belonged to Bel, the Sun, and figuratively the Sun of God. Patrick knew that well, and he knew all the subtleties of the religion of the pagan Gaels. . . . His own fire would be lit instead to glorify not the Sun of a god, but the Son of God.

Patrick had arrived in Ireland probably the previous year, consecrated Bishop and sent by the Pontiff himself to spread the word of Christ. Patrick apparently wasted no time at all inserting himself in the volatile politics of the day. He had been a slave some twenty years earlier and knew both Gaelic and the druidic rituals. In fact, his master had been a High Druid.

So it is probable that Patrick planned the Easter fires several months in advance of Beltane. The fires themselves were made of huge piles of detritus–chunks of peat, old cow hides and pieces of horn and hooves, human waste–all the stuff that we in this modern world call “garbage.” Anything that would burst into flame was set into huge piles, all over Ireland. There are theories that this ritual burning was a natural way of clearing  the country of possible disease.

And so Patrick must have directed the building of a huge fire a mere ten miles away from the sacred hill of High Kings, the very Tara where kings and sons of kings had ruled Ireland for countless centuries. A fire set that close would be seen, and no doubt reviled, by the King who lived so close and who forbade any fire be set at the same time as his own.

Patrick was, in a word, stubborn. He must have known that only a huge conflagration would be seen and become legend in this land of Kings and Druids. And so he planned for months. And before the fires of High King Leary could be lit, Patrick gave the signal to light  his own.

And all, er, heck broke loose.

Here is the scene, as captured by Erin O’Quinn in my second novel The Wakening Fire.

Liam turned to me. He leaned across and caught my lips inside his warm mouth, withdrawing with an effort. “Cat, me father will direct the lighting of the fire. Come outside.”

We left the hall hand in hand before the others had completed their dinner and before the king stood, the signal for everyone to leave. “Take you to see the fire of Beltane,” he said. We walked in the approaching twilight around the twin hills of Tara, opposite to where the mead hall stood on a low rise.

“I remember this spot,” I told Liam. “This is where the king pronounced his judgment. Yes, there is the Lia Fáil, the stone of destiny.”

“Tall fire to be lit…there,” said Liam, directing my gaze to the horizon where I knew stood the huge, white, earthenwork structure I had seen last September. Torin had called it Sí an Bhrú, and I knew it was almost as ancient the hills themselves.

“Important,” said Liam. “Older than druids. Me father…stand here, by the stone, the Lia Fáil. His signal starts the fire.”

“Let us be sure to stand close to him, Liam. I know he will be angry. You and Torin must stand ready to respond.”

He put his arm around my shoulder and brought me close against his body. “Not worry, Cat. Torin comes. I see Father, and a crowd. We…almost ready.”

The sun had not yet set, but I saw that we were only minutes away from seeing its shining orb disappear under the far hills. Leary stood with a score of white-robed, bearded priests—his latest collection of druids. Torin and Swallow joined us. “When the druids drop their hands,” Torin said, “Father will take his cue. He in turn will signal, and his order will be carried along the entire distance, passed along to those tending the fire.”

  I saw that not only those from the mead hall, but thousands of people had already converged on Tara’s twin hills and spread over the surrounding area. Unusually for such a large crowd, there was absolute silence. It was as though everyone awaited the druids’ signal, and Leary’s royal command.

The druids, dancing around the Lia Fáil, had their hands raised to the setting sun. But before their hands dropped to their sides, a loud shout escaped Leary’s mouth, and I looked where he looked. I saw a blaze not on the site pointed out by Liam, but beyond, on the distant hill of Sláine, ten miles away. It seemed to light the entire sky, and I began to tremble.

Just then, the druids dropped their hands, and Leary shouted again. This time, after the space of a score of heartbeats, another huge blaze tore at the evening sky. This was the king’s fire. It was, in a sense, the rival fire, the adversary of Christ.

Was it bigger, and better, than Patrick’s? Who in the world would know? I knew only that the king was wild with rage. I pulled at Liam’s hand, and we ran to where the king stood with his small army of druids.

I heard a brief exchange among them, and I turned to Torin, who stood at my other side. “Tell me,” I implored him.

Torin’s eyes were clouded. “Father asked who would so dare defy the law. His druids spoke as one. ‘The priest called Patrick. And unless ye stop him now, the fire ye see before ye will never be quenched.’ And then Father called for his immediate arrest. He is to be brought here shortly.”

I bowed my head, and the sobs began deep in my stomach and rose to my throat, stopping my words and my very breath. The last thought I remembered was, “O God, bless Patrick.” And then my world went dark.

 Watch for The Wakening Fire coming Tuesday, May 15 from SirenBookStrand.com