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THE BURREN MYSTERIES: My Lady Judge, Michaelmas Tribute and The Sting of Justice
by Cora Harrison
Reviewed by Jane A. Jones

On April 21, 1509, Henry VIII became king of England and Lord of Ireland. His ascension to these titles mattered little to the Irish living in Western Ireland in the kingdom of Thomond ruled by King Turlough Donn O'Brien, descendant of the famous warrior King Brian Boru. Although the English had made inroads into Ireland under the Norman kings, and Dublin was ruled by English lords, Thomond was well beyond the Pale of significant English influence. And in the Burren, the northernmost part of King Turlough's kingdom, the person who was responsible for administering justice was the king's Brehon—investigator, judge, scholar and professor of the ancient Irish laws, Mara O'Davoren.

In Mara O'Davoren, Cora Harrison has created a thoughtful and intuitive sleuth who operates in a most intriguing milieu. The daughter of a Brehon, Mara is steeped in the traditions and rituals of ancient Irish law. She not only administers the justice in the Burren, but also educates the young students at the law school at Cahermacnaghten, who will follow in her footsteps. Thoroughly independent, she has long ago divorced her husband (scrupulously following Brehon law) and raised her daughter, now married to a wine merchant in Galway, but Mara is courted by the widowed King Turlough who would make her his queen.

Mara loves her home and school in the Burren. It is a wild land — covered with limestone rocks, etched with grykes full of wild flowers and forage for cattle, hollowed by caves and dotted with ancient megaliths. The residents follow the ancient rhythms of ancient Celtic ritual interspersed with Christian tradition. Each of the novels occurs during the celebration of a communal holiday during the year 1509. In My Lady Judge (2007), Mara's assistant master, Colman Lynch, is found with a knife in his throat after the bonfire celebrations of Beltane (May 1). At the September Michaelmas Fair, the greedy steward of the MacNamara clan is beaten to death in the churchyard—a deadly Michaelmas Tribute (2008: published in the USA as A Secret and Unlawful Killing). And on Samhain (October 31), the wealthy silversmith, Sorley Skerrett, is stung to death by a swarm of bees as he attends the funeral service of the local priest. Mara must pursue The Sting of Justice (2009).

Aided by her students, Mara carefully uncovers the truth behind each death and renders justice so the peace of the community may prevail. As described in The Sting of Justice, the ancient Irish Brehon law is civil, not criminal: "There were no prisons, no savage punishments. The Brehon delivered judgement; the fine was paid. The clan tradition of responsibility for the family ensured this obedience from its members."

In Cora Harrison's Mysteries of the Burren series, the reader is invited to explore 16th century Irish life, law and history with an engaging set of recurring characters. I look forward to reading Writ in Stone, the fourth novel in the series, which has just been released.