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Medieval Ireland: My Research Favourite Five

EM THE LORD OF IRELANDToday, I have the pleasure of welcoming E.M. Powell to my blog. This lady is somewhat stuck in the Middle Ages as demonstrated by her books about Sir Benedict Palmer, knight in the service of Henry II. The third book, Lord of Ireland is about to see the light of the day, and as revealed by the title it is set on the Emerald Isle, which also happens to be E.M. Powell’s place of birth. The lord in question is the future King John, and I am looking forward to seeing how E.M. depicts this flawed, gifted man. Enough of all this: allow me instead to turn you over into E.M. Powell’s capable hands!
The past is a foreign country: they do things differently there.’ I don’t think anyone who loves history would disagree with novelist L.P. Hartley’s famous quote. Last in the Disagree Queue would probably be historical novelists. We know only too well how important it is to convey that difference, to make sure that we transport our readers back through the decades and the centuries and make them believe in our worlds. And how we do it is through our research. Lots and lots and lots of it. Writers of other genres recoil in horror at the amount of time we spend. Truth be told, so do we when we look at the tottering mounds of information we need to know and remember.
But a bit of occasional recoiling aside, we all, deep down, love it. My medieval thriller Fifth Knight series is set in twelfth century England. In the course of writing the first two novels, I’ve uncovered research gold along the way. I discovered that Knaresborough in North Yorkshire, where the knights who had murdered Thomas Becket at Canterbury had fled, had a tiny Jewish community at the time. I found a leopard at Henry II’s Woodstock Palace. I discovered that dried and pulverized vulture kidneys and testicles were considered a cure for impotence. All these and more found their way into the first two novels and hand on heart, ended up as being very important plot points.
In book #3 in the series, The Lord of Ireland, Sir Benedict Palmer travels to medieval Ireland in the service of John, future Bad King John and youngest son of England’s Henry II. In the course of writing the book, I found even more to gladden my novelist’s heart and researcher’s brain. And confession time: I’m Irish and so it was extra special to delve into the history of the land of my birth. I could fill up most of Anna’s blog space with it, but I don’t think she’d thank me for it. (Be my guest, Anna says. Splurge as much as you want!) So here, as they say to reality TV contestants, are some of my best bits.
Research Favourite 1: ‘Dwellers at the Earth’s Edge.’
In a seventh century letter to the Pope, Saint Columbanus refers to the Irish as the ‘Dwellers at the Earth’s Edge.’ Because as far as the millions of inhabitants of Europe were concerned, the Irish were. The island of Ireland occupied a unique place in the medieval world: nothing else existed to the west (sorry, Americas).
EM1 Ireland's Atlantic Coast, Co. CorkEven by the twelfth century, Gerald of Wales (of whom more later), royal clerk to England’s King Henry II, still confirmed Ireland as ‘the farthest western lands…Beyond the whole horizon only the ocean flows and is borne on in endless space.’ I loved this world view of Ireland as a scary frontier. It is of course the view of the suspicious outsider- the Normans who were traveling there to try and make it theirs. And it brought me right into the mind-set of the conquerors and was gold in shaping the goals, motivation and conflict of my characters.
Research Favourite 2: ‘One of the Three Darkest Places in Ireland.’
On visiting the wonderful Dunmore Cave in Co. Kilkenny, I was 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 one of the ninth century Irish Triads. Triads, the arrangement of ideas or sayings in groups of three, are common in ancient Irish and Welsh writing. While the hugely atmospheric three-chambered Dunmore Cave is indeed dark, it also has history.

EM 2 The entrance to Dunmore Cave, Co. Kilkenny
Dunmore Cave

It 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. With the help of a guide, the passages and chambers of the cave are fabulous to explore. So Dunmore Cave also made its way into The Lord of Ireland. I couldn’t resist such a great location. It’s only one of many, but I hugely enjoyed writing the scenes there.
Research Favourite 3: the tall tales of Gerald of Wales.
Giraldus Cambrensis, or Gerald of Wales, is one of the most famous chroniclers of the 12th century and as I mentioned earlier, served King Henry II as a royal clerk. Gerald visited Ireland and produced two major two volumes on it: the Topographia Hibernica (Topography of Ireland) and Expugnatio Hibernica (The Conquest of Ireland). Now, much of what Gerald wrote about is factual and useful and without his writings, we would be much the poorer in our knowledge of medieval Ireland. But Gerald also had a tendency to spin yarns and report as fact things that had no basis in reality. Some of the wilder highlights from the Topography are in the second part, The Wonders and Miracles of Ireland.
Royal 13 B.VIII, f.18Under Wonders, we have reports of a small island where corpses don’t rot. A priest who conversed at length with a wolf. A whale that was found with three gold teeth. Wonders, indeed, but the lake that was formed in a flood because the people were addicted to bestiality is probably the show stopper. Moving swiftly onto Miracles, Gerald includes (among several others), the fleas banished by Saint Nannan, a cross in Dublin that speaks the truth and the inextinguishable fire of Saint Brigid.
So, yes, Gerald might have had a bit of a distant relationship with the truth at times. But he also is a great research gift to me: Gerald accompanied John to Ireland on the disastrous campaign of 1185, the events of which I based The Lord of Ireland upon.
Research Favourite 4: Hugh de Lacy, Henry II’s first Lord of Meath.
It’s always something g very special when one discovers a real historical character who springs to life in the writing of a novel. That was the case for me with Hugh de Lacy, Henry’s first Lord of Meath and threat to Henry’s power in England. Gerald of Wales knew him and provided me with the following gems to start me off.
Physically, de Lacy was not the most handsome of men. Gerald says: ‘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.’
As for personality, Gerald tends to bounce from one opinion to another (and Gerald was always good for an opinion). He describes de Lacy as ‘resolute and reliable…restrained from excess by French sobriety. A man of great honesty and good sense.’ But less favourably when ‘after the death of his wife [Rose of Monmouth], he was a womanizer and enslaved by lust, not for just one woman, but for many.’
EM 4 Hugh de Lacy's Trim Castle, Co. Meath
Hugh de Lacy’s seat, Trim Castle

De Lacy might have been a thorn in Henry’s side but he proved to be an invaluable asset in Ireland. Even Gerald is pleased: he says de Lacy ‘made an excellent job of fortifying Leinster and Meath with castles.’ Trim Castle, his seat in Meath, still stands today and is remarkable in its size and scale. Again, it’s well worth a visit. As for my version of Hugh de Lacy, I sincerely hope I did him justice. And of course, there’s one more in my Favourite Five: the Lord of Ireland himself.
Research Favourite 5: John, Lord of Ireland.
By 1185, medieval Ireland was in a state of major unrest, with native Irish kings and Henry’s Anglo-Norman barons who had taken Irish lands fighting it out for power. This of course included the very able and very threatening Hugh de Lacy.
Henry had an ingenious solution: make his eighteen year old son John Lord of Ireland and send him over to sort it out. John landed at the Port of Waterford on the south east coast on April 25 1185, with three hundred knights in tow. Still standing tall on Waterford’s quay is the medieval Reginald’s Tower, part of the old city’s fortifications which date from the time of the Vikings. Not only is it an impressive building, it houses a huge collection of medieval artefacts inside.
EM 5 John, Lord of Ireland
John, Lord of Ireland

While the Tower would have looked a bit different in John’s day, we do know precisely what he did as he stood outside it. A group of powerful Irish chieftains came to pay tribute to him as Henry’s representative, greeting him as their lord. John’s response? Well, according to Gerald, John ‘pulled some of them about by their beards, which were large and flowing according to the native custom.’ Suitably angered and very unimpressed, the Irish made for the court of one of the Irish kings, where they reported back on the insults and how John was ‘a mere youth…a stripling who only listened to youthful advice.’ Worse, they decided that rather than make peace with John, they would ‘plot to resist [John’s force]…guard the privileges of their ancient freedom’ with their lives, and ‘make pacts’ to resist him.
And did they make pacts, did they resist? They most certainly did- and I put my Sir Benedict Palmer right in the middle of the warring factions. I’d done my research. Now the fun, the writing of my historical novel, could really start: prepare for historical thrills at the earth’s edge.

About the author:
E.M. PowellE.M. Powell’s medieval thrillers THE FIFTH KNIGHT and THE BLOOD OF THE FIFTH KNIGHT have been #1 Amazon bestsellers and a Bild bestseller in Germany. Book #3 in the series, THE LORD OF IRELAND, will be published by Thomas & Mercer on April 5 2016. Born and raised in the Republic of Ireland into the family of Michael Collins (the legendary revolutionary and founder of the Irish Free State), she now lives in northwest England with her husband, daughter and a Facebook-friendly dog. She is also a contributing editor to International Thriller Writers The Big Thrill magazine, blogs for English Historical Fiction Authors, reviews fiction & non-fiction for the Historical Novel Society and is part of the HNS Social Media Team. Find out more by visiting

9 thoughts on “Medieval Ireland: My Research Favourite Five”

  1. Hi again Anna,
    just popped in to check out your blog and I was thrilled to see you’re a booklover like me (understatement of the year, huh..?).
    I will write you an email presently, it’s just that is playing up!
    Talk SOON!
    //Your second cousin U

  2. But now we’re not lost anymore! Will be seeing you blogwise, but as soon as I’ll get my email sorted out I’ll write you a looong “mejl på svenska”! 😆

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