This week I’m pleased to be interviewing fellow historical novelist Edward Ruadh Butler, the author of the Invader series, which is set in twelfth-century Ireland and begins with Swordland (Accent, 2015).
Ruadh recently ran a Q&A with me on his own website, albeit a Q&A with a difference. Instead of giving me a conventional list of questions to answer, he presented me with a selection of quotations from famous works of literature, including Moby-Dick and The Great Gatsby, which I was invited to reflect upon and respond to however I saw fit.
In this interview, I thought I’d turn the tables, offering up a range of quotes not necessarily from the great novels of the past, but simply from books currently sitting on my shelf. Without further ado, then, I’d like to welcome Ruadh to my blog.
“Small beginnings. The principle of the oak tree, and the secret of the successful artist, politician, sportsman. Nice and easy does it.” (From The Mighty Walzer by Howard Jacobson.)
It was never an ambition of mine to write a novel. I love reading. I have done for as long as I can remember and as a kid nearly everything I read had the grand backdrop of history; Herge, Goscinny and Uderzo came first, then Morgan Llywelyn, Mary Stewart, Walter Scott and Robert Louis Stevenson, before Bernard Cornwell came along and I became more than a little obsessive, reading and re-reading his books a number of times. It simply never occurred to me to write since all I really wanted was the next book of Sharpe, Starbuck and Derfel’s escapades!
It was only when I was studying journalism in London in 2007 that the kernel of an idea to write a novel took seed. I was staying with a cousin and came across a whole raft of journals about the Butler family, and, having only the vaguest knowledge of what that meant, I started investigating. They had come to Ireland in the wake of the Norman invasion of 1169, an invasion which had, for better or worse, changed everything in the country, across all strata of society. Surprisingly, it remains a period of history that has been largely unexplored by most people. I had found an untapped treasure trove of stories, of intrigue and adventure, of men and women, in a land so alien to modern eyes. They were stories of remarkable deeds and fascinating characters. I had to write about it. I didn’t know how, but I wasn’t going to let that stop me.
My first attempt was named Spearpoint. Told from the perspective of Dermot MacMurrough, an Irish king exiled from his throne by his enemies in 1166, it simply didn’t work, principally because Dermot proved a little too unsympathetic as a lead character. So I began again, this time from the angle of one of the real-life Norman mercenaries who Dermot had employed to help him reclaim his kingdom.
With a bit of patience – and a number of re-writes – a book called Spearpoint became one called The Outpost with the Welsh-Norman knight Robert FitzStephen as the protagonist for the first time. Further work and fine-tuning (for one hour during my work lunch break as well as a good few weekends and late nights) saw The Outpost become Vanguard.
It was only when I was certain that the book was ready for public view that I sent it to my father’s sailing pal, the late Wallace Clark, a respected (and much missed) travel writer, for his assessment. He loved it but suggested a name change. Thus, Swordland was sent out for the consideration of literary agents in late 2010. It found a home with Accent Press and was published in paperback in April 2016.
“You must understand, therefore, that there are two ways of fighting: by law or by force. The first way is natural to men, and the second to beasts.” (From The Prince by Niccolò Machiavelli.)
In the period in which I write it is true that the Normans employed both military and legislative force to overcome the Gael and so conquer much of Ireland. However, it was a much greater power than either ‘law’ or ‘force’ that would win out in the end. This was culture.
The Normans were, without doubt, superior to the Gael militarily but what the invaders met in Ireland was a far older, more vibrant culture to their own, and within two centuries most of the would-be conquerors had absorbed the traditions of those against whom they fought. They had famously become “more Irish than the Irish themselves”. I can think of few circumstances in history where the victorious invader adopted the cultural practices of the conquered to such an extent or so readily.
Of course this campaign was conducted principally through marriage. Wherever they ventured, the Normans married local women, usually well-connected ladies who would give them an advantage politically, but the effect was to inject new ideas into already complex mongrel lineages that the Normans had developed over the previous centuries of conquest.
Most of those who had taken part in the invasion of 1169 were of the second or even third generation living in Wales and as a result as much of their maternal pedigree was Welsh, Breton or Flemish as it was Norman. The central character in Swordland, Robert FitzStephen, was a real-life man and the son of a (presumably) Norman warrior, Stephen of Cardigan, and a Welsh princess, Nest ferch Rhys. It is interesting to imagine the impact that this hybrid background would have on Robert, how it affected his personal and public life, and how it influenced the decisions he made.
The Song of Dermot and the Earl – written in the first half of the 13th century – has Maurice FitzGerald, Robert’s half-brother, upon the walls of besieged Dublin in 1171, just two years after the Normans arrived in Ireland, stating:
“Is it succour from our country that we expect? Nay, such is our lot that what the Irish are to the English, we too, be now considered Irish, are the same. The one island does not hold us in greater desperation than the other. Away, then, with hesitation and cowardice, and let us boldly attack the enemy, while our short stock of provisions yet supplies us with sufficient strength.”
While Maurice is unlikely to have said such a thing, it does give an idea of how his descendants identified themselves during the 1220s. By 1366, these Hibernicised Normans were referred to as “the middle nation” and as a result the English government tried to impose the Statutes of Kilkenny to prevent further degeneration of the settlers. They didn’t succeed. Gaelic culture proved more persuasive than either law or force.
“Tonight the curtain that separates the dead from the living will quiver, fray, and finally vanish. Tonight the dead will cross the bridge of swords.” (From Enemy of God by Bernard Cornwell.)
I’m not a religious person but I do believe that one way for a person to ‘live’ beyond their lifespan is through storytelling. In the future I plan to write about fictional characters, but at the moment it gives me great pleasure to write about the deeds of men and women who really existed (albeit in a fictionalised manner). My characters are people almost forgotten by history, but, by telling their story with as much authenticity and passion as I can muster, I hope that they will be in a sense ‘resurrected’ and the curtain separating their time from ours will indeed vanish – if only in the mind of the reader.
My most recent novel, Lord of the Sea Castle, is currently with my editor and I’m very much looking forward to hearing what he thinks. I really enjoyed writing it. The story picks up right after the end of Swordland and is based around the siege of Baginbun in the summer of 1170. The battle is not terribly well-known today, even in Ireland, but Richard Stanihurst, the celebrated Tudor historian, claimed in 1577 that “by the creek of Baginbun, Ireland was lost and won”. If he is to be believed Baginbun should be remembered as Ireland’s version of the Battle of Hastings. My host, James, will know that this hardly tells the whole story of the conquest of England and it is much the same with its Irish equivalent.
Without giving too much away, the main character in Lord of the Sea Castle, Raymond de Carew (or Raymond the Fat, as he was more commonly known), leads an advance force of just 120 warriors to Ireland to establish a bridgehead for his lord, Richard de Clare, ahead of his invasion of Ireland. With no hope of aid from home, Raymond is confronted by an alliance of Waterford Vikings and Gaelic tribesmen who outnumber him by at least twenty to one and are bent upon wiping out his small company. The part set in Ireland is lifted almost totally from 12th- and early 13th-century sources. Some of the acts of bravery are so incredible that you might truly believe them to be fictitious! They are deeds worth remembering and I hope I can do them justice.
“Maps and mazes. Of a thing which could not be put back. Not be made right again. In the deep glens where they lived all things were older than man and they hummed of mystery.” (From The Road by Cormac McCarthy.)
One of the great losses to Ireland was Brehon Law. These ‘laws’ came about over several thousands of years before the Norman invasion and are, in their widest terms, a set of ‘fair dinkum’ principles and customs to which all 140 ancient petty-kingdoms in Ireland adhered. They managed to survive and thrive during the Norman colonial period before being stamped out during the second half of the seventeenth century. I find it tantalising to imagine what form it would’ve taken if it had survived and developed through to modern times.
Unlike the rest of medieval Europe which for the most part took on a Romanised form of laws, under the Brehon system the responsibility of law-making and taxation was taken out of the hands of kings. Neither could they create new laws to subjugate their people. Outlandishly for the time, the laws of the land were derived from the bottom of society rather than the top.
Kings could not sit in judgement over the people below them in society and they were subject to the law just like everyone else. Kings were elected from amongst a group of suitable males and they acted as figurehead, particularly in times of war while also being expected to finance judges and poets from an area of land given over to him by the tribe to support him during his time in position. The next holder, considered the most capable at that time, might easily be his brother, son, uncle, or distant cousin.
The law was the realm of the Brehon class. These professional jurists studied the customs of their petty-kingdom and settled disputes. Elsewhere in Europe (and up to the current day) if you committed a crime it was not an offence against your victim, but against the law of the land. In Ireland, the state (represented by the Brehons) was merely the adjudicator between disputing parties. Their rulings were based solely on compensation rather than punishment (even for the worst crimes such as murder) with the ultimate aim being to attain a position of mutual agreement and of resolution. Responsibility for every crime was shared around a kin-group rather than by the offender alone. It was the entire family who put forward monetary sureties and this led to the family unit most commonly trying to rehabilitate unruly members in order to avoid further liability. Only the most wayward in society lost this protection, becoming outlaw and therefore susceptible to killing without risk of legal reprove.
These laws were thousands of years old yet surprisingly modern in many aspects. They were comparatively liberal and compassionate towards women, offering certain protections and independence within marriage and divorce, as well as towards the disabled and children (particularly those of illegitimate birth). Inheritance was equal amongst all the sons rather than having everything inherited by the eldest.
The Normans who came to Ireland were initially subject to English Law but they slowly began to adopt the Brehon customs. Why would they do this rather than look to Dublin or for the king’s judgement? Is it because they found the older laws more fair-minded and impartial than the centralised and distant governments with the monopoly on power?
As a journalist, I spend a great deal of time in court rooms and have seen just how isolated young people can become caught in the criminal justice system, unable to break out of the circle of offending, while going through the list of ineffectual punishments to overly severe sanction that impacts the rest of their life. It seems to me that many caught in this life have devolved personal responsibility to a district judge rather than take it on themselves.
The Brehon Laws put responsibility squarely on the shoulders of those accused of crimes and put them face to face with their accusers. They were asked what it was worth for them to stop aberrant behaviour. It bound their future and finances up with that of their entire family. It caused them to be part of something bigger and more powerful than themselves rather than in opposition to it. The ancient Irish didn’t have to look to the government (or the church) as the adjudicators of good conduct within society. They constructed it themselves and were proud of it.
“I have a story to tell you. It has many beginnings, and perhaps one ending. Perhaps not. Beginnings and endings are contingent things anyway; inventions, devices.” (From The Algebraist by Iain M Banks.)
I’m not a historian. I write historical fiction. Despite writing about people who, for the most part, actually lived, I have no problem changing a few historical details if I think it pushes forward the story. My aim is to make any changes feel authentic to the period and I always try to come clean in the historical note!
One instance was when I had both Dermot MacMurrough and his daughter Aoife able to speak French in Swordland. This was not because I have any evidence that they could, but because it would have been infuriating to have them converse with the Normans through an interpreter at every turn (I also tried everyone speaking in Latin but that didn’t quite work).
Similarly, at the end of the novel I had a major engagement between the High King’s vast army and Robert FitzStephen’s thousand-strong force at Dubh-Tir. This fight never occurred. Instead, the High King is said to have taken one look at the Normans’ newly constructed defences and decided that discretion was the better part of valour, sending forward emissaries to negotiate rather than his spearmen to make battle. That wasn’t an exciting enough conclusion for me and so, having just watched the Bastogne episodes of Band of Brothers (again), I decided to construct a battle in the mountains in the depth of winter for the big finale. I hope it was an exhilarating conclusion to the story, but more so, I hope it came across as truthful to the period in which it was set.
I have taken some liberties with the first half of my next book, Lord of the Sea Castle. In this case it was more out of necessity than choice! Next to nothing is known about the main character, Raymond de Carew, before he landed in Ireland in the summer of 1170 and so I made up a backstory for him, dragging him places he almost certainly never went and allowing him to interact with historical figures that he almost certainly never met. He even gets to attend events to which he undoubtedly would never have been given an invitation! The changes permitted me to look into various aspects of the Welsh Marcher lands, the Viking colony cities in Ireland, and the court of King Henry II which, had I stuck to what is definitively known about Raymond, I might not have had the chance to investigate.
Edward Ruadh Butler’s debut novel Swordland is available now, published by Accent Press; the second book in the series, Lord of the Sea Castle is forthcoming. You can find him on Twitter (@ruadhbutler).