Saturday, February 23, 2013


Review from January 15, 2013: Volume LXXXI, No 2

Delighted to get a very kindly assessment from the folks at Kirkus Reviews, who maintain a reputation for finicky taste in literature, mystery and otherwise. I certainly don't mind, especially as I am an almost-famously finicky critic myself.

It's always exciting to get the first few reviews from the trades before a book comes out, and a relief when they're not too bad. The review contains a nifty plot summary, positively exemplary in its brevity—nicely done!—and ends:

Hart’s foray into soggy Killowen has a rock-solid foundation of musical language and deft plotting."

Pub Date: March 5th, 2013
ISBN: 978-1-4516-3484-6
Page count: 352pp
Publisher: Scribner
Review Posted Online: Dec. 27th, 2012
Kirkus Reviews Issue: Jan. 15th, 2013

Thursday, February 14, 2013

Faddan More Psalter

All of my novels are inspired by real archaeological finds, and THE BOOK OF KILLOWEN is no exception. Things keep turning up in Irish bogs—gold, bog butter, wooden roads, even people—at this rate, I have enough inspiration to keep Cormac and Nora busy for for quite some time.

In July 2006, a workman named Eddie Fogarty was operating a mechanical digger in the bog at Faddan More, Co. Tipperary, located just a few miles southwest of Birr in County Offaly. He was cutting big blocks of turf, to be ground up for peat moss used in gardening.

Here's a view of turf blocks drying on Faddan More bog, 
taken when I visited in April 2011.

Eddie Fogarty had spotted a leather-bound book as it fell from the bucket of his digger into an adjacent trench, and immediately called the landowners, Kevin and Patrick Leonard, who had some experience with artifacts previously found in this particular bog. More on that later...

The Faddan More Psalter, in situ

The Leonards knew they had something unusual when they spotted some illuminated pages, and phoned the National Museum with the news that they’d discovered something almost like the Book of Kells.

A crew from the National Museum, including museum director Pat Wallace, archaeologist and Keeper of Antiquities Eamonn Kelly, and Keeper of Conservation Rolly Read, all rushed out to the bog site.

The manuscript in question turned out to be a Psalter, a book of Psalms written in the 9th century. Several lines of text were visible, and it was the museum's Head of Collections, Dr. Raghnall Ó Floinn, who managed to pick out a single legible phrase: ‘in ualle lacrimarum’—‘in the vale of tears.’ 

The Faddan More Psalter, still wet from the bog

After a bit of research, it turned out that the bit of legible writing was a line from Psalm 83, verse 7: ‘in ualle lacrimarum in loco quem posuit.’ — ‘In the vale of tears, in the place which he has set.’ 

The Faddan More Psalter

As you can see, the book wasn't exactly in great shape; many of the pages had been reduced to a sort of gelatinous goo, with only the edges preserved, but it was still an amazing find, unlike any other in the world. Judging from the style of writing and embellishment, antiquities experts estimated that it was written around the ninth century. There were many famous monasteries in the region around Faddan More—Birr and Clonmacnoise to name only two.


The Faddan More Psalter underwent more than two years of conservation work (more on that later as well...) and is now on permanent display at the National Museum of Ireland, part of an exhibit entitled The Treasury: Celtic and Early Christian Ireland. 

And I suppose you know how the minds of crime writers work—always looking for a body. I heard about this discovery of a ninth-century book of Psalms and immediately started to wonder about the person who'd carried it into the bog... Images of a scholar and his assistant began to percolate, and became the opening prologue of THE BOOK OF KILLOWEN.

Wednesday, February 13, 2013

Ancient wax tablets

One of the world's most fascinating bog discoveriesthought to be the oldest existing examples of Latin writing from Irelandare the Springmount Bog tablets. These are wax tablets on which are inscribed the Vulgate text of Psalms 30-32. They were found in a bog in County Antrim, Ireland, in the early 20th century, and are now preserved in the National Museum of Ireland, and some of the tablets are part of the Faddan More Psalter exhibit at the museum. More on the Psalter later...

Thou wilt bring me out of this snare, 
which they have hidden for me: 
for thou art my protector.  

"The tablets are c. 75 x 210 mm, c. 7 mm thick, and appear to have been lashed together as a group of six, waxed sides together" (Stevenson, "Literacy in Ireland: The Evidence of the Patrick Dossier in the Book of Armagh," — McKitterick (ed) The Uses of Literacy in Early Mediaeval Europe [1990] 20).
"These are an unusual survival, given the climatic conditions of northern Europe; they were preserved owing to loss in a peat bog, and they convey graphically the obligation of the priest to be ‘psalteratus’—to have memorised and be able to recite the Psalms, in the tradition of the Judaic priesthood—and recall exhortations to ordinands to spend whatever time possible learning them, even when travelling (as the person studying these extracts may have been)" — Michelle P. Brown, Preaching with the Pen: the Contribution of Insular Scribes to the Transmission of Sacred Text, from the 6th to 9th Centuries [2004]).


A wax tablet was often in the form of a diptych, a small two-paneled booklet, usually bound with a leather thong. Writing was done with a stylus, a pointed instrument made of metal, bone, or wood.

Here's a bone stylus featuring a human head, discovered during excavation at Kells Priory, in County Kilkenny. The archaeologists' report describes its possible uses:
An expertly carved bone parchment pricker or stylus with an anthropomorphic head was used either when laying out the script on parchment or for writing on wax tablets. 
The wax tablet and stylus were important in monastic life. The Rule of Saint Benedict, which dates to the sixth century, included the tablet and its stylus in its list of necessary accoutrements of the monastic life: "et ut hoc vitium peculiaris radicitus amputetur, dentur al abbate omnia quae sunt necessaria, id est cuculla, tunica, pedules, caligas, bracile, cultellum, graphium, acum, mappula, tabulas..." ["In order that this vice of private ownership may be completely uprooted, the abbot is to provide all things necessary: that is, cowl, tunic, sandals, shoes, belt, knife, stylus, needle, handkerchief and writing tablets..." 

Some Roman styli from Shrewsbury in England. 
The pointed end was used for writing; the flat end 
was used to smooth out the wax for re-use.

Saint Aldhelm (639-709) was famous for his riddles. He composed one about wax tablets, or pugillares, as he would have referred to them in Latin, in the late seventh century:

     Of honey-laden bees I first was born,   
     But in the forest grew my outer coat;   
     My shoes from tough hides came.  An iron point    
     In artful windings cuts a fair design,  
     And leaves long, twisted furrows, like a plough...

Oak galls and iron gall ink

Because I know many of you are as geeky about historical detail as I am, I thought I'd share some pictures of the people, places, and artifacts that inspired the story of THE BOOK OF KILLOWEN.

When I thought about writing a story about ancient manuscripts, some of the first objects that snagged my imagination were oak galls, used since ancient times to create ink for writing.

Here's an oak gall, a common growth on oak trees around the world, and a source of basic dark ink from medieval times right up to the 19th century. Many of the monks who created Ireland's ancient manuscripts used iron gall ink. It's not much in favor these days (too acidic - eats through paper), but in the days of calfskin vellum, the tannic acid in the ink bit into the page and made the lettering indelible.

Oak galls are formed when a gall wasp lays her eggs on the tip of an oak branch, and the tree begins to secrete a fluid that ends up enveloping the egg, and ultimately becomes a food source for the developing wasp larva.

Here's how oak galls are described in an old medical text, A History of the Materia Medica, by John Hill, M.D., published in 1751:

[From galla.]
***Galls or galnuts are a kind of preternatural and accidental tumours, produced by the Punctures of Insects on the Oaks of several Species; but those of the oak only are used in medicine. We have two kinds, the Oriental and the European galls: the Oriental are brought from Aleppo, of the bigness of a large nutmeg, with tubercles on their surface, of a very firm and solid texture, and a disagreeable, acerb, and astringent taste. The European galls are of the same size, with perfectly smooth surfaces: they are light, often spongy, and cavernous within, and always of a lax texture. They have a less austere taste, and are of much less value than the first sort, both in manufactures and medicine. The general history of galls is this: an insect of the fly kind, for the safety of her young, wounds the branches of the trees, and in the hole deposites her egg: the lacerated vessels of the tree discharging their contents, form a tumour or woody case about the hole, where the egg is thus defended from all injuries. This tumour also serves for the food of the tender maggot, produced from the egg of the fly, which, as soon as it is perfect, and in its winged state, gnaws its way out, as appears from the hole found in the gall; and where no hole is seen on its surface, the maggot, or its remains, are sure to be found within, on breaking it. It has been observed, that the oak does not produce galls in cold countries: but this observation should be confined to the medicinal galls; for all those excrescences which we find on this tree in our own woods, and call oak-apples, oak-grapes, and oak-cones, are true and genuine galls, though less firm in their texture. The true reason of the hard ones not being produced with us, seems to be that we want the peculiar species of insect to which they owe their origin, which is a fly of the ichneumon kind, only found in hot countries. The species of fly that occasions, by its punctures, the soft galls of France and Italy, is different both from the Syrian one and from ours, though still of the ichneumon kind; and we find the several kinds, which occasion the different galls in our own kingdom, produce different kinds, and those of different degrees of hardness, on the same tree. Galls are used in making ink, and in dying and dressing leather, and many other manufactures. In medicine they are very astringent, and good under proper management.

When the wasp is mature, it bores a hole through the flesh of the gall and escapes, and the gall dries up, leaving a nut-like body rich in tannic acid, the substance that makes them suitable for ink.

Monks and other ink-makers would gather oak galls, and devise an ink using this ancient recipe, taken from a Booke of Secrets:

Iron gall ink was used as the basic dark black/brown ink for countless books, including the Book of Kells and other Irish manuscripts, including the Cathach of Saint Columba, the oldest surviving Irish manuscript.

If you'd like to read more about a modern artist's attempts to make ancient iron gall ink, check out John Daniel's very interesting blog about insects in art, THE ENDLESS SWARM.

BOOK OF KILLOWEN Giveaway on Goodreads

Finished copies of THE BOOK OF KILLOWEN arrived the other day... There's no getting over seeing a realy book for the first time. 

And I have to say, this one looks even better in the flesh than it did in mockups or galleys. I really love the smudgy, shadowy manuscript effect, and the way the artwork wraps around the spine is particularly spectacular. 

To celebrate the new arrival, Scribner is giving away 15 copies of THE BOOK OF KILLOWEN on Goodreads. All you need to do to enter is to click on the link below, and enter your mailing address so they can send the book if you win...

Goodreads Giveaway-THE BOOK OF KILLOWEN

Only three days left to enter the drawing!

Saturday, February 9, 2013

Wait, how do you say that again?

Thanks for asking. That last word in the title of THE BOOK OF KILLOWEN, is pronounced 'KILL-OWEN,' as if  you were saying, 'Arrghhhh! I'm going to kill Owen if he does that one more time!'

I'm hearing a lot of people say 'KILLOW-en,' with the emphasis pronounced to rhyme with 'WILLOW-en,' but the place name is originally two words in the Irish language and that's why it's pronounced the way it is.

'Cill' in Irish means 'church', and the full place name in the story is Cill Eoghain, or Owen's Church. You'll understand how it got that name after you read the first chapter of THE BOOK OF KILLOWEN. And that's all I'm going to say about that!

As pointed out in THE BOOK OF KILLOWEN, the country was fairly rotten with churches and monasteries in the early middle ages. There were chapels around every bend in the road. You can still see a fair number of them, thanks to the Irish attachment to crumbly stonework. Thousands of place names in Ireland begin with 'kill,' and now you know why. 

My farvorite reference book on all this is IRISH PLACE NAMES, by Deirdre Flanagan and Laurence Flanagan, which gives detailed information on certain common constructions in Irish place names, and then translations for hundreds more. Here's what they say about 'cill':
Means 'church' and is the form which most frequently occurs in Irish place-names. It is the dative singular of the word ceall, derived from the Latin cella, which in Classical Latin referred to a 'room within a building', one of its special applications being to a 'shrine of a deity within the pagan 'templum'. In place-names it has a range of associated meanings: 'church, monastic settlement or foundation, churchyard, graveyard'. Of these,  in place-names, 'monastic settlement' is the commonest reference, particularly where the name can be shown to pre-date the ecclesiatical reforms of the twelfth century.
If you're interested in the interesting and poetic place names in Ireland, you'll

My favorite ancient churches and chapels are places like Dysert O'Dea in Clare (pictured here), which has the most fantastic carved heads around the archway at the main door to the chapel. It's worth the visit, and cutting through the pasture and climbing over the stile in the stone fence to see this beautiful place.

The Nun's Chapel at Clonmacnoise (you have to cut through another pasture to get there!) is another great example of an intricately carved Romanesque doorway, and the interior of Cormac's Chapel at the Rock of Cashel is another, though it's badly damaged from too much moisture these days, and covered in scaffolding much of the time.

Another wonderful ancient church worth visiting (again, if you like climbing fences and hiking) is Teampall Chrónáin in the Burren region of County Clare.