The Burren mysteries
Reviews of Cora
Harrison's Michaelmas Tribute, (the second Burren mystery)
Published by Pan Macmillan May 2008
From Monsters and Critics.com
Book Review: Michaelmas Tribute by Cora Harrison
By Angela Youngman
Nov 14, 2008
Sixteenth century Ireland. The independent kingdoms are
constantly threatened by the presence of the English domains.
Two very different cultures are in existence.
Brehon Mara is both judge and lawgiver within the kingdom
of the Burren. At the Michaelmas Fair, her skills are tested
to the utmost. The new lord of the MacNamara clan has raised
the tribute and his greedy steward Ragnall MacNamara is not
making himself popular. When his body is found in the
churchyard Mara has to investigate.
Ascertaining the cause of the murder proves just as hard as
finding the perpetrator - greed, revenge, old scores and
hatreds all play their part. Underlying it all is the clash
between two cultures.
A fascinating mix of good storytelling with informative
historical background. Mara is a believable character; she
really becomes alive as you read the book. Her own internal
conflicts and problems add an extra flavour to the story.
This is the second in what is set to be a brilliant new
series of history mysteries. If future volumes live up to the
reputation set in this one - then we are in for a real feast.
© Copyright monstersandcritics.com.
"Don’t Worry About Anything… I Will See That Justice is
Mara is back. The year is 1509 and the place is Ireland’s
Burren. Mara is in her late 30’s, tall, with dark hair, smart
The king appointed her to maintain peace and to provide
impartial justice in one of his kingdoms. She is Brehon over
the whole area of the Burren.
In Gaelic Ireland the Brehon, or judge, was a position of
prestige, respect and power. The Brehon dispensed humane
justice, was the visible representative of justice in the
area, and advised the king on legal matters.
A Secret and Unlawful
is the second mystery novel Cora Harrison has
written about the Ireland of the early 1500s with Brehon Mara
as the main character.
The Burren area is about thirty miles from Galway city. (I
have travelled in this impressive area.)
Right, the USA title and cover for the second Burren mystery
Most of the land is covered by limestone bedrock. Life is
difficult but the stony geography is beautiful, Rare, colorful
plants and animals live there in the cracks and fissures of
For the people who live there, their word is not only their
bond but their worth. They are hardy, tough, self-reliant and
quick to help each other.
There have been two murders and Mara must solve them. The
murders are not only shocking, but affronts to the law and to
the king’s authority.
Mara is tolerant and kind with people, but she is also
relentless in pursuit of the killer or killers. She is so
implacable, in fact, that the book reads like a "police
As she thinks about possible solutions to the murders, she
sees some spider webs that were damaged as birds fed on bushes
where the webs were located. She observes: "… already some of
them were repairing the damage. She watched them for a moment,
admiring how unerringly the gossamer threads from their bodies
formed the complicated wheel-like pattern, all leading to
where the juicy fly could be trapped in the centre. This was
what she had to do now: see the pattern and, trace back the
filaments that could attach the murderer to the murdered."
Being Brehon was delicate and difficult position to occupy in
Irish society. The Brehon had to be not only completely
knowledgeable of the law, but must be able to understand
people, and be observant of human strengths and foibles.
As Brehon, Mara needed all of those qualities because Irish
judges had to gather the information to bring to court: almost
like a district attorney today.
Like most mystery novels, the facts, or clues, are presented
so the reader can solve the mystery. I couldn’t solve it. At
the end of the book, I was astonished. A Secret and
Unlawful Killing is a gripping mystery that also shows
life in Gaelic Ireland. It describes the Irish legal system
that worked for hundreds of years. It was humane and fair,
unlike the legal system introduced by the English. The English
system was often harsh, arbitrary and easily swayed by money.
There were no jails, dungeons or soldiers needed to enforce
You’ll enjoy this mystery and learn much about our Irish
These are some quotes you may enjoy.
• "Justice was [the Brehon’s] affair; let the king order his
political power base as he wished… she might have been
appointed by the king; but she was appointed to administer the
kingdom according to the laws that had been laid down over
hundreds of years…"
• "For over fifteen hundred years they and their ancestors had
lived by this system of justice that relied on the good will
and the cooperation of the clans to keep the peace within its
• A merchant, who cheats his customers, is brought before
Mara. She thinks that if this occurred where English law
existed, the innocent wife of the merchant "would be arrested
and thrown into prison and brought before a court…" Imagine,
she thinks, throwing a poor unfortunate woman into prison and
probably torturing her, just because of some [missing coins].
• Mara "had long practised the art of thinking only of what
she could remedy."
• "… the rain was over now… The day would be fine tomorrow.
That was the way it went on this western seaboard, one day
wet, one day fine: the weather and sky and the landscape
continually changing and shifting between light and dark. She
sometimes thought that it made for a quick-witted, alert and
flexible people, used to taking each day as it came, without
bothering themselves by too much fruitless planning."
A Secret and Unlawful
Killing by Cora Harrison. St. Martin’s Minotaur, New
York, 2008. 326 pages; $24.95. www.minotaurbooks.com.
Publishers weekly: "The International News Magazine of Book Publishing and
In Harrison's captivating second mystery set in the
16th-century kingdom of the Burren in western Ireland (after
2007's My Lady Judge), the murder of an arrogant steward,
Ragnall MacNamara, leaves a wide field of suspects, as does
the suspicious death of another surly citizen.
The learned Mara, the sole woman Brehon (or judge) in
Ireland, is responsible for all crimes on the Burren as well
as for deciding such delicate questions as inheritances and
even, in certain circumstances, approval of a marriage
Harrison depicts the intricacies of Irish law so clearly
and marries them to her plot so adroitly that despite their
unfamiliarity they are easily understood. Engaging characters
from the honorable King Turlough Donn O'Brien to Mara's eager
law students add to the pleasure.
Mara's quest to solve the murders and “to restore peace to
the people of the Burren” makes for compelling reading.
Two linked murders pose a pretty problem for the Brehon of
the kingdom of Burren, in 16th-century western Ireland.
Mara, a Brehon judge who runs a school of law, is the
beloved of King Tur-lough Donn, whose marriage proposal she
has yet to answer. When Ragnall, the clan MacNamara's Steward,
is found murdered in a churchyard, it's Mara's duty to
discover who killed him and claim the murder price. Ragnall
had recently col-lected a greatly increased and unpopular
Michaelmas tribute for his lord, Garrett MacNamara, a man
feverishly seeking more money to support the spending habits
of his new wife.
After Aengus the miller follows Ragnall into eternity,
there is no dearth of suspects for both crimes, including the
highborn Donal O'Brien, who's in love with Ragnall's daughter,
and Aengus's bastard sons. Care-fully questioning the many
witnesses, Mara winkles out bits of information. As the King
presses her to marry him, he must deal with the grave illness
of his older son and the problem of his younger, who's become
so closely involved with the English that the clans will not
accept him as a future leader.
Mara makes several momentous and unpleasant discoveries on
her road to a just verdict.
Mara's second (My Lady Judge, 2007, etc.) features
well-drawn characters, a tantalizing mystery and an intriguing
look at the surprisingly complex and lib-eral laws of 1509
Cora Harrison's Michaelmas Tribute has been chosen as one of
the Historical Novel Society's 'Editors' Choice' novels
exemplifying "the best in historical fiction":
"For each quarterly issue of the Historical Novels Review, the
editors will select a small number of titles they feel
exemplify the best in historical fiction.
"These novels, which come highly recommended from our
reviewers, have been designated as Editors' Choice titles."
TRIBUTE (UK) / A SECRET AND UNLAWFUL KILLING (US)
Cora Harrison, Macmillan, 2008, £16.99, hb, 326pp,
9781405092258 / Minotaur, Sept. 2008, $24.95, hb, 336pp,
The Brehon Judge, Mara, returns in this second historical
murder mystery set in the Burren in north-west Ireland.
It is 1509 and people are gathering for the Michaelmas Fair,
but an angry undercurrent is marring the celebrations. Ragnall
MacNamara, the unpopular steward of the MacNamara clan, is
found murdered and Mara is called upon to investigate. Another
death soon follows to complicate the picture.
needs all her professional wits about her – especially since
an unexpected marriage proposal is distracting her thoughts –
to get to the bottom of this knotty case. And, when she
finally pinpoints the awful truth, it seems that she must
inevitably hurt the person she loves the most.
Once again, Cora Harrison brings 16th century Ireland
beautifully to life and her Brehon detective, Mara, is a
fantastic protagonist – an absolute one-off and yet
refreshingly real. Her dignity and intelligence are beacons
that guide the reader through a murky story of greed and
vengeance. -- Sara Wilson
Genre Go Round Reviews
MONDAY, SEPTEMBER 1, 2008
In 1509 everyone in the Burren region of Ireland looks forward
to the Michaelmas Fair until Steward Ragnall MacNamara raises
the annual tribute. Even before his avaricious spin, the
pompous nasty Stewart was an unpopular individual with many
wanting him dead. Someone however decides to do the deed
beating MacNamara to death in a churchyard.
The only LADY JUDGE in Ireland, Brehon Mara leads the
investigation into the homicide and the murder of another
unlikable chap, Ragnall’s enemy Aengus the miller. However, as
she expected, seemingly everyone residing in the Burren had a
motive to kill the odious Steward and disliked the Miller. The
case seems to be going nowhere, but the Brehon continues her
inquiries, knowing the people need resolution.
The key to this excellent sixteenth century legal
investigative thriller is the insight into Irish law during
that era. The cast is strong with key players developed enough
to enhance the exciting plot. Especially fully developed is
the heroine whose intelligence and courage enables her to
break through the gender barrier; in fact men somewhat fear
her. However, the tidbits cleverly interwoven into the
Brehon’s inquiries so that they may seem odd today make for a
fine refreshing historical tale.
New Mystery Magazine, July 2008:
November 1509 brings the Michaelmas Fair to the kingdom of
Burren. It is also time for the citizens to pay tribute, in
coin or goods, to their clan lords. When the steward of clan
MacNamara, who collects tributes for his lord, is found
murdered, Mara, the Brehon responsible for enacting the laws
of Burren, calls for the murderer to come forth. When no one
does, it is up to her to uncover the killer.
fascinated by this series and the idea of Brehon law, which
existed in west Ireland until it was displaced by English Law.
This is not only a very good mystery, but a look at a different
legal system and a time when woman played a significant and valued
wonderfully depicted as a strong, responsible woman, who does make
mistakes and is torn by her love life as it is weighed off against
the proposal of the King. The secondary characters, the boys in
her school and her servants, give dimension to Mara and to the
story. Bridget, the cook and housekeeper, is particularly
historical and geographic setting is so well written, you feel a
part of the time. I am delighted to have found this series and
look forward to the next book.
Reviews of Cora
Harrison's 'My Lady Judge'
Reviews of Cora
Harrison's children's books