You know what I love about what I do?
One of the things, in any case? (Because there are many!)
The research trips.
I sit here in my study, pulling together what I know about the 6th century so that I can imagine how my characters might have felt and thought and acted. Columba of Iona and Aedan mac Gabran were real people after all, and their lives changed the world. Aside from the love of it all, there’s a responsibility to try to get it right.
But there’s only so much written sources can reveal to you. At the end of the day, the history of the early mediaeval period is about people in landscape. How physical realities shaped experiences, limiting them, or opening them up. While writing, I am always thinking: how would this scene work, in situ? And that scene? If I had been standing there at that time, what would I have felt, heard, noticed?
Invariably, the time comes for a road trip. Out come the hiking boots, the Barbour jacket, the Ordnance Survey maps, and the completed manuscript. And off I go to check the novel against my memory of the places in which the real history happened. And to understand those sites more deeply. And to scout out new settings.
In this case, it meant a revisit to a part of the world I already know a little and love a lot: Northern Ireland. The early heartland of the Dark Age kingdom of Dalriada, and a major setting for Book III in my series, Island-Pilgrim.
What a fabulous week! I flew into Dublin and drove north, with a first stop at Dundrum Castle in County Down.
The site has always impressed me. Picture a great hill fort on a ridge overlooking a vast bay, a natural harbor. And that inner bay leading out by way of a narrow channel to a magnificent outer bay. Estuarine sands and shale, shifting. High dunes. Mud flats. Sea birds everywhere. The constant call of the ocean. The stark, unreal mountains of The Mournes just south of you, looming over you; keeping silent watch. To the north, farmland, undulating and fertile: the thing you are protecting.
It’s a special landscape, and is of immense strategic importance. You can peel back layers of history here, just as you can all over the North of Ireland. (The producers of HBO’s Game of Thrones film here for that reason. It’s authentic.) The Gaels called Dundrum home. Then the Normans. It passed to the Earls of Ulster, and then back to the Irish, and so on.
All because of where it sits. County Down is St. Patrick’s wheelhouse, but also home to St. Columba and his friends who founded a network of monasteries that acted like hubs of the internet of their age. Through these thought-leaders, these ambassadors of peace, the world was connected, north, south, east and west, and a cultural revolution swept across Europe.
I love that I can incorporate Dundrum into Island-Pilgrim.
More importantly, I have fallen in love again with Northern Ireland and its people. I was met everywhere with kindness, wit, and generosity–literally, open doors: a people with their eye on their past, yes, but also the immense possibilities in their future.
Next up, the magical town of Portaferry on Strangford Lough, and the beautiful Ards peninsula …