The Fascination for Sister Fidelma

PETER TREMAYNE tells Sarah Cuthbertson how his tales of a 7th-century Irish lawyer and detective resonate around the world

Peter Tremayne, pseudonym of Peter Berresford Ellis, was born in Coventry, Warwickshire, on March 10, 1943. His father, from Cork City, was a journalist and writer for the ‘pulps’. His mother, from an old Sussex family, worked in the London theatre and published a memoir about her childhood. Tremayne admits to a ‘peripatetic’ education. Studying in London, he received a first class honours degree in Celtic Studies and then a master’s degree. However, he decided to follow his father into journalism. He started his career on a weekly newspaper in Brighton, became deputy editor of an Irish weekly newspaper and then editor of a London weekly book trade magazine. His first book, a history of Wales, was published in 1968. He became a full time writer in 1975. He has guest lectured at universities in the UK, Ireland, Canada and the US etc.

He has received several honours for his work and is a Fellow of the Royal Historical Society, a Fellow of the Royal Society of Antiquaries of Ireland, and was recently made an Hon Life Member of the Irish Literary Society (founded by W B Yeats in 1891, and whose current president is the Nobel Laureate Seamus Heaney). Other honours include an Irish Post Award in 1987, inauguration as a Bard of the Gorsedd Kernow for his work on The Cornish Language and its Literature (Routledge, Kegan Paul, 1975); an Hon Life Membership of the London Association for Celtic Education (of which he was Chairman in 1989 and Vice-President 1990-1995) and Hon Life President of the Scottish 1820 Society etc.

He has published 34 titles under his own name (mostly non-fiction but 2 are historical novels); 42 titles as Peter Tremayne and 8 novels as Peter MacAlan. Additionally, he has published 80 short stories, several academic papers and countless signed articles in newspapers and magazines. His work has appeared in nearly twenty different languages.

A new non-fiction work will be published on March 17 entitled Eyewitness to Irish History (John Wiley Inc).

The 14th in the Sister Fidelma series, Whispers of the Dead (Headline, hardback, March), is actually the second collection of Sister Fidelma short stories. The Fidelma series are also published in the USA and in nine other languages. Some of the stories have been broadcast on radio in Ireland and Canada.

Did you write fiction before Fidelma?

Yes: I wrote two historical novels under my own name and I’d written many novels and short stories as ‘Peter Tremayne’. One of the historical novels under my own name, The Rising of the Moon (1987), reached number four on the Irish bestseller fiction lists for several weeks and was optioned for filming almost immediately. It was a story set against the famous Irish Republican Brotherhood’s attempted invasion of Canada in 1866 – when 25,000 Irish veterans of the American Civil War tried to occupy part of Canada to force Britain to quit Ireland. It was this ‘invasion scare’ that caused the provinces to unite as the Dominion of Canada in 1867. Alas, the option never reached the filming stage but for a while, in the later years, I was earning more from the option than from sales of the book. Most of the other fiction would be classed as fantasy based on themes from Celtic myths and legends together with a few thrillers.

Presumably, the Sister Fidelma mysteries arose from your studies of Celtic, specifically Irish, history and culture. Which particular aspect(s) gave rise to Fidelma?

I was lecturing at Toronto University on the subject of the role of women in the ancient Celtic world. This was back in the mid-1980s when Umberto Eco’s The Name of the Rose had just been published in English translation but before the film was made. Also, Ellis Peters’ Brother Cadfael books were becoming popular. After I had talked to the students about the role of women in Ireland, the ancient Irish law system, how women could be judges and lawyers and about the conflicts of the Irish, or what we now called the Celtic Church, and Rome, we adjourned across the campus to Dooley’s Bar. One of the students, knowing that I wrote some fiction, said the subject of my lecture that day would make good background for a murder mystery in which the sleuth was a female Irish lawyer of the Celtic Church period. The idea was put to the back of my mind. In fact, I did write a non-fiction study, Celtic Women: Women in Celtic Society and Literature (Constable, 1995), which explored the matter from the academic viewpoint.

When did she first appear?

The first four Fidelma short stories were published in October, 1993. Many years after that talk in Toronto, an old friend, the anthologist and author Peter Haining, contacted me to say he was looking for an Irish detective tale for an anthology that he was putting together. I wrote the first Fidelma story, Murder in Repose, as a response to his request. In trying to get a name for my sleuth, I decided to use a 7th-century Irish name – Sister Buan. Peter came back delighted with the story but pointed out that Sister Buan reminded him of the character of ‘Smiler Bunn’ from the early 20th-century crime novels of Bertram Atkey. The name, he pointed out, sounded comical to English ears. I thought for a while and then the name Fidelma came to mind. It, too, was an ancient Irish name but is still used in modern Ireland and is not too ‘alien’ to English ears. So, thanks to Peter …!

Word of my character spread. So in October 1993, four different Sister Fidelma short stories came out in four different anthologies. A short time later my agent phoned saying Headline wanted to know if I could write a novel featuring the character and were prepared to offer me a three-book contract. The first book, set against the famous Synod of Whitby in AD 664, appeared from Headline in September, 1994. The rest, as they say, is history.

The 14th title is about to be published, the books have sold to the US as well as UK, and in nine other languages to date, and there is a thriving International Sister Fidelma Society based in Arkansas, USA.

In what ways did the Irish Celtic church differ from the Roman church in Fidelma’s time?

One could write a book on this; many have, including myself. I wrote Celtic Inheritance (1985), which was more a general introduction to the subject. The entity, which we now call the Celtic Church, had developed from the early Christian ideas which had been married into a Celtic cultural ethos. It was not a centralised entity like the Roman Church. Rome was developing new concepts of Christianity – you have only to look at the debates of the early church councils, the new dating of Easter, and also it was becoming feudalised with its bishops exercising authority as temporal princes. But the Celts, including the Irish, adhered to the early philosophies and forms of ritual and dating. There was a marked contrast between Rome and the Celts in terms of asceticism, monastic extremism, the social order, views on land tenure, which were opposed to Rome’s feudal structures and hereditary rights. That brought the Celtic Church into conflict with Rome.

Let’s clear up an old myth. The Celtic Church did not disappear after the Synod of Whitby in the 7th century. I’d like a pound, even a euro, for every time I have been assured of this. While King Oswy (of Northumbria) came down in favour of Rome, his cousin Hilda, the abbess of Whitby, actually remained a supporter of Celtic usage until her death. Irish missionaries continued to work in the Anglo-Saxon kingdoms and the church usage in the Celtic countries remained for a long time thereafter. In Ireland, for example, the absorption by Rome didn’t really take place until the Synod of Cashel in 1172. But the absorption is long after Fidelma’s period, which is the mid-7th century.

The church of Fidelma’s age was marked from Rome by a different tonsure for the male religious, by the ritual of service which had more in common with the Eastern Orthodox Church, even the holding up of different fingers (first, second and fourth) to denote the Trinity, with the priest facing the congregation behind the altar instead of before it and so on. Even Greek was in more use as the language of the ‘sacred texts’ than Latin. As for the conflict of philosophies, you only have to examine the teachings of Pelagius (a Celt), who was in conflict with Augustine of Hippo over Fate and Free Will. Pelagius was labelled a heretic and it was claimed he was trying to bring back Druid forms of worship. Over the following centuries, Rome accused the Celtic Church of following Pelagius’ heresy. All they were doing was keeping to their own cultural outlook.

Celibacy was not a rule in the Celtic Church but then neither was it in the Roman Church until the time of Pope Leo IX (1049-54). But the Celtic world seemed to have more ‘mixed houses’ (conhospitae) than other parts of Christendom. These were religious houses in which men and women lived raising their children in the service of Christ. In Fidelma’s day the religious, of whatever rank, could and did marry.

Why did you choose a female protagonist, and a nun in particular?

I chose a female protagonist because this was the most intriguing aspect of the 7th-century Irish system which placed women in a co-equal role to men. A fact that seemed forgotten. And it was inevitable that she had to be a religious for, as Fidelma has explained in the stories, in pre-Christian days all the professionals and intellectuals were part of the Druid caste whereas, in the early days of Christianity, the vast majority of professionals simply became members of the new religious. It is not something Fidelma particularly likes because her first and main love is law – she is a qualified lawyer and law is her life first and foremost and not religion. She did give up life in the Abbey of Kildare for the reasons explained in the title story of Hemlock at Vespers.

What was the position of women in 7th-century Irish society generally and the church in particular? Did women have more rights in 7th-century Ireland than subsequently?

Under the ancient Irish law system, women occupied a unique place. Simply, the Irish laws gave more rights and protection to women than any other western law code at that time or until recent years. Women could, and did, aspire to all offices and professions as co-equal with men. They could be political leaders, command their people in battle as warriors, be physicians, poets, artisans, local magistrates, lawyers and judges.

Women were protected, under the law, from sexual harassment, against discrimination and against rape. They had the right of divorce on equal terms as their husbands, with equitable separation laws and could demand part of their husband’s property as a divorce settlement. They had the right of inheritance of personal property and the right of sickness benefit when ill or hospitalised. They remained the owners of any wealth that they brought into a marriage. Indeed, it was automatic that on divorcing their husband, if he were at fault, they took half of all the joint property accrued during the time of the marriage. The Irish law system was very ancient and sophisticated. While we have fragmentary texts from the early period, the first complete surviving texts do not survive until the 11th century. This law system was finally suppressed following the Tudor Conquest of Ireland at the beginning of the 17th century. During the Penal Years it meant death or transportation to be caught with one of the Irish law books.

It was thanks to Charles Graves, grandfather of the Nobel literary laureate Robert Graves, that many of the Irish legal texts were finally saved. Charles Graves (1812-1899) was President of the Royal Irish Academy, as well as being Anglican Bishop of Limerick. He was an expert on Ogham, the ancient Irish form of writing, and on Brehon Law. He persuaded the British government to set up a commission to rescue the surviving legal books and texts and to edit and translate them. These were published in six volumes from 1865-1901.

It seems from the detail and sense of place that you do intensive research for each novel. How do you go about it?

Accuracy is the first principle. My characters can do nothing that is not consistent with the time, place and social system. I would say that I have probably done the bulk of general background research during the many decades I have been writing of this period of Irish history. When it comes to the setting of each individual novel, I will only write about places I know – places that I’ve been to. Spirit of place is very important to me. On the technical side, I have to ensure that any law that Fidelma quotes can actually be verified in the ancient law texts. This is something that happens as I go along. An argument on law might arise in the story … then I have to start checking my library to see what the interpretations are. I can neglect writing for days, like Edgar Allan Poe’s protagonist, ‘while I pondered… over any a quaint and curious volume of forgotten lore’ – I try to pay particular attention to all aspects of life in 7th-century Ireland so that my characters exist comfortably in it and are not modern characters placed against a fictional background and set of events. Once, at Oxford, I was accused of ‘an anachronism of attitude’ – that I had tried to place my modern attitudes in an ancient time when such attitudes could not, according to my accuser, exist. I had to depart from a prepared text to give a lecture on the reality of life in 7th-century Ireland.

Do you map out the plot of each novel before starting to write?

Each novel seems to have its own genesis. I try to make a plan and more often the characters take over from me and write the story. I start off thinking that this person is the villain and by the end of the story I find that they have become the hero or heroine. The person that I thought was going to be the victim or the nice person has become the villain. Several times I have given up planning and let the characters, who I now know so well, write the story by their reactions and let the thing work out by itself. That, I know, is not the recommended form, but several times it has worked for me.

It has been my good fortune in life to meet many writers during my career – from James Baldwin to Tom Keneally and from Alex Haley to Hammond Innes. Each will give you a different work method. I used all methods – however the story comes to me.

Do you have much to do with the International Sister Fidelma Society on the Internet? Where abroad is Fidelma particularly popular?

The International Sister Fidelma Society came into being at the end of 2001 in Arkansas, USA, and has members in over a dozen countries. A local businessman, David Wooten, had asked me back in 2000 if he could put up a Fidelma website. In the first year, so many people contacted him that he asked if I had an objection to forming the Society. I gave it my blessing and am, of course, the patron of the Society. As well as the astonishing website, the Society issues a printed magazine three times a year entitled The Brehon. I think the 8th edition of the magazine is shortly to appear. This is a ‘members only’ publication of 16 pages an issue with photographs. The Society even puts out its own sweatshirts, mugs, mousepads and other items. Many of the US members go on trips to Ireland to look at the Fidelma locations, especially Cashel, which is a spectacular place to visit. I am more than happy to answer questions, supply what I can for the Society and its members. They are, after all, the people who pay my wages.

The Fidelma books appear in nine languages and of course the American market is the biggest area where Fidelma is popular. Of the European markets, I find Germany’s interest astonishing. Aufbau publishes the series and many of the titles are into their sixth reprint in paperback since they first began in 2000. They have done eight titles to date. I think what particularly warms my sensibilities is that the series appears in Greek from Themelio and has a good Greek following.

What satisfactions does it give you to write fiction about a culture and period you’ve studied and written about so intensively?

What gives me the most satisfaction is the resonance that Fidelma and her background appear to have had among people in many parts of the world. She and 7th-century Ireland have crossed cultural frontiers. I have had fan letters from a lady in Peking, a professor in Japan, and others from Norway to Argentina, from Canada to France, from New Zealand to Spain. But thinking more about your question, I suppose I would consider myself a simple storyteller, an incurable romantic weaving stories mainly, in the first place, for my own entertainment. I would probably be found in ancient times trying to sell literary wares in some market place; in ancient Ireland, I might have tried to be the official bard of the High King or even one of the lesser kings. Admittedly, in that entertainment, there comes the desire to pass on information, to inform, to educate. I am enthused by knowledge and expect other people to be.

Have other writers influenced you?

We were a very literate household. On my mother’s side of the family we boast the poet, playwright and friend of Ben Jonson, Thomas Randolph (1603-1635). On my father’s side we have several Irish Ellises who turned out the odd book or two including Henry Ellis (1721-1806), who was an explorer and wrote a bestselling account of one trip in A Voyage to Hudson’s Bay (1748). My 3-times-great-grandfather was actually publishing books in the 1820s. I think I was reading before I began to walk. Where does the influence start? Of course, writers have influenced me. All writers are influenced by others. But the last person to know of that influence – unless they are consciously borrowing style and so forth – is the writer. The real answer to this question might have to be left to some learned professor or, more probably, an eager graduate student doing a PhD, in analysing my work.

Are there any historical fiction authors whom you particularly admire? If so who – and why?

I used to devour fiction by the metric tonne and still do. It would be impossible for me to start naming names because the list would become endless. I just have to confess to being a voracious reader and in all genres – from ‘popular’ literature to ‘serious’ literature, although I do dislike those labels. There are too many pretensions and prejudices that lie behind those categorisations. To start mentioning names would mean that I would have to produce an almost unending list. It would have to start somewhere around Dumas (père et fils), J Meade Falkner, R H Dana and then where? From Tolstoy to Walter Macken and from Sholokov to Baroness Orczy to Rafael Sabatini, to Rider Haggard and William Faulkner, Quiller Couch, Elizabeth Gaskell, the Brontës, Norah Lofts, … no, the list could go on and on.

Why do you think historical crime fiction is so popular?

This is a difficult one, as I have no idea. To be honest, I have never been a follower of ‘literary fashions’. In my own writing, I write about what I want to write about. I would hope the Fidelma books sell not because they just happen to be part of a general reading trend measured by market research – you know, this year yo-yos are the fashion and next year pogo sticks are in! That would be depressing. It would mean that publishers would be publishing only by market research criteria. Mind you, I recall in the late 1960s a Dr Mann doing such market research, mainly employed by Mills and Boon, and trying to forecast trends. No, I would hope people read the Fidelma series because they were first and foremost good entertainment.

What is your opinion on the current state of studies and research into Celtic history and culture?

Celtic Studies certainly lack adequate funding, especially in the area of Irish. An old mentor of mine, Professor Gearóid Mac Eoin of University College, Galway, once pointed out to me that what we know of Irish mythology is based only on translations of 150 manuscript stories. And yet, a further 650 manuscripts are known to exist – and had been identified as early as 1900 by Professor Kuno Meyer. These have simply not been transcribed, let alone edited and translated. In the Vienna repository, into which the vast library of the 11th century Irish foundation of Regensburg was transferred, there is a colossal uncatalogued archive of Irish manuscripts. Vienna is one of many such repositories of Irish manuscripts throughout Europe.

To give you an idea of what is probably lurking in these European archives, where Irish religious went as peregrinatio pro Christo during the Dark Ages, let’s take Bobbio in northern Italy. Although Umberto Eco (Name of the Rose) did not mention Bobbio by name, it was obvious to many of us in the field, that his monastic abbey was modelled on Bobbio, which was closed down in the 19th century. The clues were even carried into the film they made – just look carefully at the library scenes. Its great library and archive was split between the Vatican Secret Archives and some archives in northern Italy such as Padua and Milan. Now Bobbio was founded by St Columban from Ireland at the beginning of the 7th century. Columban is known, among other things, for his famous letter to Pope Boniface IV arguing about the Celtic Church’s date for Easter as being more accurate than Rome’s new calculations. He was arguing from an Irish calendar, also mentioned in other sources, but which modern scholars had accepted as having been lost for over a thousand years.

In the mid 1980s, in the Biblioteca Antoniana, in Padua, that calendar, the ‘84 Year Easter Table’, was discovered simply by accident. The very Irish calendar on which Columban based his arguments. An amazing find whose ramifications are still being considered by the academic world. Yet we don’t even have the funding to locate and catalogue all the ancient Irish manuscripts in European repositories, let alone work on them. And that is just one aspect of Celtic Studies.

A ridiculous development has recently happened in England, led by a group of academic archaeologists who want to denigrate Celtic Studies. They claim ‘Celtic’ is a 17th-century ‘political invention’ and want everyone to refer to the immediate pre-Roman period as ‘Iron Age’. For Celtic scholars this has become a joke. ‘Parlez-vous Iron Age?’ is the greeting now among Celtic scholars to one another. Celtic is a linguistic term to identify the peoples who spoke a particular branch of the Indo-European languages. Its use as a means of identification is ancient. For those waxing enthusiastic about ‘Iron Age’ people I would simply repeat the comment of Julius Caesar: ‘Qui ipsorum lingua Celtae…’ – ‘In their own language they are called Celts…’

At least, Celtic civilisation, in all its aspects, has been taken as a subject for serious study in many universities throughout the world – even in Japan; Nagoya University has a very respected faculty of Celtic Studies. In fact, the Germans led the way in Celtic Studies from the 19th century. Yet it is in Brittany and these islands that the Celtic languages have survived into modern times and supply the well of knowledge which should not be dismissed so cavalierly.

If I had any wish for a side effect of the international fascination for the Fidelma stories, it would be a hope that the stories encourage an interest in the study of a unique European civilisation and culture.


First published in Solander: The Magazine of the Historical Novel Society, v.8 no.1 (May 2004): 2-6.

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