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"Rutherfurd is the current master of Michener-esque retelling of history, deftly bringing readers right into its flashpoints and showing them the consequences of those events."
Lughnasa. High summer. It would be harvest season soon. Deirdre stood by the rail and surveyed the scene. It should have been a cheerful day, but it brought only anguish to her. For the father she loved and the one-eyed man were going to sell her. And there was nothing she could do. She did not see Conall at first.
* * *
The custom at the races was that the men rode naked. The tradition was ancient. Centuries ago, the Romans had remarked on how the Celtic warriors despised the protection of breastplates and liked to strip naked for battle. A tattooed warrior, his muscles bulging, his hair raised in great spikes, and his face distorted in war frenzy was a frightening sight, even to trained Roman legionaries. Sometimes these fierce Celtic warriors in their chariots would choose to wear a short cloak that streamed behind them; and in some parts of the Roman Empire, the Celtic horsemen would wear breeches. But here on the western island, the tradition of nakedness had been carried into the ceremonial races, and young Conall was wearing nothing but a small protective loincloth.
The great festival of Lughnasa was held at Carmun once every three years. The site of Carmun was eerie. In a land of wild forest and bog, it was an open grassy space that stretched, green and empty, halfway to the horizon. Lying some distance west of the point where, if you were following it upstream, the Liffey's course began to retreat eastwards on the way to its source in the Wicklow Mountains, the place was absolutely flat, except for some mounds in which ancestral chiefs were buried. The festival lasted a week. There were areas reserved for food and livestock markets, and another where fine clothes were sold; but the most important quarter was where a large racetrack was laid out on the bare turf.
The track was a magnificent sight. People were encamped all around, in tents or temporary huts, whole clans together. Men and women both were dressed in their brilliant cloaks of scarlet, blue, or green. The men wore the splendid gold torcs-like thick amulets-round their necks; the women sported all kinds of ornament and bracelet. Some men were tattooed, some had long flowing hair and moustaches, others had their hair caked with clay and raised into terrifying warlike spikes. Here and there stood a splendid war chariot. The horses were in pens. There were campfires where the bards would tell tales. A group of jugglers and acrobats was just arriving. Throughout the camp, the sound of a harp, a bone whistle, or a bagpipe could be heard in the summer air, and the scent of roasting meat and honey cakes seemed to mingle in the light smoke that drifted across the scene. And on a ceremonial mound by the racetrack, presiding over the whole proceedings, was the King of Leinster.
There were four parts of the island. To the north lay the territories of the ancient tribes of Ulaid, the province of warriors. To the west lay a lovely province of magical lakes and wild coasts-the land of the druids, they called it. To the south, the province of Muma, renowned for its music. It was there, according to legend, that the Sons of Mil had first met the goddess Eriu. And fourthly, in the east lay the rich pastures and fields of the tribes of Lagin. The provinces had been recognised since time out of mind, and as Ulster, Connacht, Munster, and Leinster they would remain the geographical divisions of the island for all times to come.
But life was never static on the island. In recent generations there had been important changes among the ancient tribes. In the northern half of the island-Leth Cuinn, the half of the head, as they liked to call it-powerful clans had arisen to assert their dominance over the southern half, Leth Moga. And a new central province known as Mide, or Meath, had also come into being, so that now people spoke of the island's five parts rather than four.
Over all the great clan chiefs in each of the five parts, the most powerful usually ruled as a king, and sometimes the greatest of these would proclaim himself High King and demand that others recognise him and pay him tribute.
* * *
Finbarr looked at his friend and shook his head. It was midafternoon and Conall was about to race.
"You could at least smile," Finbarr remarked. "You're such a sad fellow, Conall."
"I'm sorry," the other replied. "I don't mean to be."
That was the trouble with being too highly born, Finbarr considered. The gods paid too much attention to you. It was ever thus in the Celtic world. Ravens would fly over the house to announce the death of a clan chief, swans would desert the lake. A king's bad judgement could affect the weather. And if you were a prince, the druids made prophesies about you from before the day you were born; and after that, there was no escape.
Conall: slim, dark, aquiline, handsome-a perfect prince. And a prince he was. Conall, son of Morna. His father had been a matchless warrior. Hadn't he been buried standing up, in a hero's mound, facing towards the enemies of his tribe? It was the finest compliment you could pay to a dead man in the Celtic world.
In the family of Conall's father, it was unlucky for any man to wear red. But that was only the beginning of Conall's troubles. He had been born three months after his father's death. That alone made him special. His mother was the sister of the High King, who became his foster father. That meant the whole island would be watching him. And then the druids had had their say. The first had shown the baby a selection of twigs from various trees and the infant had stretched out a tiny hand towards the hazel. "He will be a poet, a man of learning," the druid declared. A second had made a darker prediction. "He will cause the death of a fine warrior." But so long as this was in battle, the family took it as a good omen. It was the third druid, however, who pronounced the three geissi which were to follow Conall all his life.
The geissi-the prohibitions. When a prince or a great warrior lived under geissi he had better be careful. The geissi were terrible, because they always came to pass. But since, like so many priestly pronouncements, they sounded like a riddle, you couldn't always be certain what they meant. They were like traps. Finbarr was glad no one had bothered to lay any geissi on him. The geissi on Conall, as everyone at the High King's court knew, were as follows:
Conall shall not die until: First: He has laid his own clothes in the earth. Second: He has crossed the sea at sunrise. Third: He has come to Tara through a black mist.
The first made no sense; the second he must take care never to do. The third seemed impossible. There were often mists at the High King's royal seat at Tara, but there had never been a black one.
Conall was a careful fellow. He respected family tradition. Finbarr had never seen him wear anything red. Indeed Conall even avoided touching anything of that colour. "So it seems to me," Finbarr had once told him, "that if you can just stay away from the sea, you'll live forever."
They had been friends since the day, in childhood, when a hunting party that included young Conall had stopped at Finbarr's family's modest farm to rest. The two boys had met and played, and before long had a wrestling match and then played the game with stick and ball which the islanders call hurling, while the men looked on. A little while later Conall had asked if he might seek out his new acquaintance again; within a month they were fast friends. And when, soon afterwards, Conall had asked if Finbarr might join the royal household and train to become a warrior, this had been granted. Finbarr's family had been overjoyed at such an opportunity for him. The friendship of the two boys had never wavered. If Conall loved Finbarr's good nature and high spirits, Finbarr admired the young aristocrat's quiet, deeper thoughtfulness.
Not that Conall was always reserved. Though not the brawniest of the young champions, he was probably the finest athlete. He could run like a deer. Only Finbarr could keep up with him when they raced their light, two-wheeled war chariots. When Conall threw a spear, it seemed to fly like a bird, and with deadly accuracy. He could whirl his shield round so fast that you could scarcely see it. And when he struck with his favourite shining sword, it was said that others may give harder blows, but take care-Conall's blade is always swifter. The two boys were also musical. Finbarr liked to sing, Conall to play the harp, which he did well; and as boys they would sometimes entertain the company at the High King's feasts. These were happy times when, good-humouredly, the High King would pay them as though they were hired musicians. The warriors all liked and respected Conall. Those who remembered Morna agreed: the son had the makings of a similar leader.
And yet-this was the strange thing to Finbarr-it was as if Conall wasn't really interested.
Conall had been only six the first time he disappeared; and his mother had already been searching all afternoon when, just before sundown, he appeared with an old druid who quietly told her, "The boy's been with me."
"I found him in the woods," Conall had explained, as if his absence was the most natural thing in the world.
"What did you do with the druid all day?" his mother asked after the old man had left.
"Oh, we talked."
"What about?" his astonished mother asked.
"Everything," he said happily.
It had been the same ever since his childhood. He would play games with the other boys, but then he'd disappear. Sometimes he'd take Finbarr with him, and they would wander in the woods or along the streams. Finbarr could imitate bird calls. Conall liked that. And there was hardly a plant on the island that the young prince couldn't name. But even on these walks sometimes Finbarr would sense that, much as his friend loved him, he wished to be alone; and then he would leave him, and Conall would wander away for half a day.
He always insisted to Finbarr that he was happy. Yet when he was deep in thought, his face would take on a look of melancholy; or sometimes when he was playing the harp, the tune would become strangely sad. "Here comes the man whom sorrow makes his friend," Finbarr would say affectionately when Conall returned from his lonely wanderings; but the young prince would only laugh, or punch him playfully and break into a run.
It was hardly surprising that by the time he reached the age of manhood at seventeen, the other young men should refer to Conall, not without awe, as the Druid.
There were three classes of learned men on the island. The humblest were the bards, the storytellers who would entertain the company at a feast; of a higher class entirely were the filidh, guardians of the genealogies, makers of poetry, and even sometimes of prophesy; but above them both, and more fearsome, were the druids.
It was said that long ago, before the Romans had come there, the most learned and skilful druids had lived on the neighbouring island of Britain. In those days, the druids used to sacrifice not only animals but men and women, too. That was long ago, however. The druids were in the western island now, and nobody could remember the last human sacrifice.
The training of a druid could take twenty years. He would often know most of what the bards and filidh knew; but beyond that, he was a priest, with the secret knowledge of the sacred spells and numbers and of how to speak with the gods. The druids performed the sacrifices and ceremonies at midwinter and the other great festivals of the year. The druids directed upon which days to sow the crops and slaughter the animals. Few kings would dare start any enterprise without consulting the druids. Quarrel with them and their words could be so sharp, it was said, that they raised blisters. A druid's curse could last for seventeen generations. Wise advisers, respected judges, learned teachers, feared enemies: the druids were all these things.
But beyond this lay something more mysterious. Some druids, like shamans, could go into trances and enter the otherworld. They could even change their own shape into that of a bird or an animal. Was there something of this mystical quality, Finbarr sometimes wondered, in his friend Conall?
Certainly he had always spent a lot of time with the druids, ever since that childhood encounter. By the time he was twenty, it was said, he knew more than most of the young men training for the priesthood. Such an interest was not thought strange. Many of the druids came from noble families; some of the greatest warriors had studied with druids or filidh in the past. But Conall's degree of interest was unusual, as was his expertise. His memory was phenomenal.
Whatever Conall said, it seemed to Finbarr he was sometimes lonely.
To seal their friendship, some years earlier, the prince had given him a puppy. Finbarr had taken the little fellow everywhere. He called him Cuchulainn, after the hero of legend. Only gradually, as the puppy grew, had Finbarr come to realise the nature of the gift. For Cuchulainn turned out to be a magnificent hunting hound, of the kind for which merchants came to the western island from far across the sea, and for which they would pay with ingots of silver or Roman coins. The hound was probably priceless. It never left his side.
"If ever something happens to me," Conall once told him, "your hound Cuchulainn will be there to remind you of me and of our friendship."
"You'll be my friend as long as I live," Finbarr assured him. "I expect it's I who will die first." And if he couldn't give the prince a present of similar value in return, he could at least, he thought, make sure that his own friendship was as constant and loyal as the hound Cuchulainn was to him.
Conall also had another talent. He could read.
The people of the island were not strangers to the written word. The merchants from Britain and Gaul who came to the ports could often read. The Roman coins they used had Latin letters on them. Finbarr knew several amongst the bards and druids who could read. A few generations ago, the learned men of the island, using vowel and consonant sounds from Latin, had even invented a simple writing of their own for carving memorials in Celtic upon standing posts or stones. But though from time to time one would come upon a standing stone with these strange ogham scratch marks, like notches on a tally stick, down its edge, this early Celtic writing system had never become widely used. Nor, Finbarr knew, was it used for recording the island's sacred heritage.
Excerpted from The Princes of Ireland by Edward Rutherfurd Copyright © 2004 by Edward Rutherfurd. Excerpted by permission.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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Posted September 9, 2012
If you are Irish (yes, I am 1/2) this is a must read along with its sequel The Rebels of Ireland. Extremely in history taking you from the Ice Age, through the Druids, Irish chiefs and High King, Vikings, Strongbow, Brian Boru, King Henry(s) and more. Rutherford also is great at helping you understand why the history happened the way it did through the characters he develops. The last chapters are riveting. The great news is I am reading the sequel and it starts off even better than the first.
3 out of 3 people found this review helpful.Was this review helpful? Yes NoThank you for your feedback. Report this reviewThank you, this review has been flagged.
Though not my favorite of his novels, it was a pleasant, quick read. I absolutely love how Rutherfurd incorporates actual historical events with the family saga. From the druids, through St. Patrick, through English conquest, this saga uses real events to add mystery and drama to the story of a few families. Can't wait to read "The Rebels of Ireland."
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Posted January 2, 2010
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When I first began this book I almost immediately put it right back down. It's a quick read with not much of a creative writing style. I like my character development to go on for tons of pages and in this novel you get very brief biographs. With that being said, I kept with this novel and was very surprised how engaging it became. I have always kept away from Michener and other various writers who write long epics about a certain place's history. I must admit that I really started to fall in love with this novel. I knock the writing style, but Rutherford (is trying to write a complete Irish history) has a way of making you attached to certain characters. I particularly enjoyed the part about Brian Boru. I would have loved if Rutherford brought more of the Celtic mythology out in the opening of the novel. Cuchulain and such. Nevertheless I became fully engaged in this novel and am now in the middle of The Rebels of Ireland. I think 3 stars is a very fair rating, I might have ranked it a bit high for my tastes. Maybe if he separated this history into 6 novels like Clavell did I would have loved it a lot more. I still recommend it and particularly if you have an interest in a loose and quick history of Ireland.
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Posted February 2, 2010
I really enjoy Rutherfurd most times, but I found this book sort of bland. I was almost waiting for it to end. The characters were just not as interesting as in the others I've read.
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Posted July 3, 2013
Rutherfurd's two books on Ireland are my favorite out of all his novels. They made me extremely proud of my Irish heritage.Was this review helpful? Yes NoThank you for your feedback. Report this reviewThank you, this review has been flagged.
Posted November 8, 2011
A truly engaging and interesting novel about a geography that has always interested me. Long book, yes, but I did not want it to end. I was very sad when I finished the book but just found out there is a second book, going to buy it today! Wish he would turn his research and writing skills to write about Asian history now.Was this review helpful? Yes NoThank you for your feedback. Report this reviewThank you, this review has been flagged.
Posted March 27, 2010
This was an interesting & entertaining book of historical fiction. Any reader with a curiosity regarding Ireland, it's geography, it's culture, it's religion, & people will enjoy reading The Princes of Ireland.Was this review helpful? Yes NoThank you for your feedback. Report this reviewThank you, this review has been flagged.
Coming partially from Irish decent, I am glad I found this book. I realize it's not a history book, but when historical fiction / fact-based fiction is done well (as it is here) it's a great way to get a *feel* for the history of a country/region/people. It's not hard to appreciate the dramatic clash between Ireland and her neighbor, nor is it hard to sympathize with the Irish for what they lost to religion, politics, and greed. After reading this I find it hard to understand why we call it "civilization."Was this review helpful? Yes NoThank you for your feedback. Report this reviewThank you, this review has been flagged.
Posted August 15, 2009
Enjoyable tale of early Eire that brings fictional and historical characters together in an entertaining story.Well researched and interesting to readWas this review helpful? Yes NoThank you for your feedback. Report this reviewThank you, this review has been flagged.
Posted August 2, 2009
This is my favorite Edward Rutherfurd book. It was so hard to put down once it was in my hands. The one reason I enjoyed it so much is because I am half Irish and love my culture. To read the history of the early Celts was very exciting and lovely to do.Was this review helpful? Yes NoThank you for your feedback. Report this reviewThank you, this review has been flagged.
Posted June 14, 2009
This is the story of Dublin, Ireland from the time of Fergus, the Irish chieftain whose farm was at the forks about 400AD to Silken Thomas in the mid 1500AD's when the English and Henry VIII started to try to govern by force. It is the story of the different generations of several families who had an influence on the people and the place. Fortunately there was a family genealogy at the beginning because several times I got confused as to who was who and related to whom. But all in all, it was an exciting book. Very informative about the times, places, and the Celtic culture which has always interested me. The characters were strongly portrayed and I could totally see where they were personally strong and weak. It was interesting how Mr. Rutherfurd kept some of the traits running throughout the generations to both the benefit and detriment of the person. I liked that the women were portrayed in more than just a servatile position. They were strong or weak as needed in order to impact their generation but they did have an impact and that's what is important. He seems to be more inclined to have physical characteristics handed down through the generations though rather than some of the strong character traits. The middle chapters didn't seem to develop the characters as much as the first and last but were good reads if not totally enthralling. He definitely left the story hanging in order to promote the sequel. It is a good book but not as good as his London or Sarum. 3 stars.Was this review helpful? Yes NoThank you for your feedback. Report this reviewThank you, this review has been flagged.
Posted June 13, 2009
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Posted April 7, 2009
I am preparing to take a trip to Ireland. I picked this book up during Barnes and Noble's St. Patrick's Day celebration. It is wonderful. I have learned so very much about the history of Ireland. The glossary in the back provides pronunciations and definitions of words used in the book. The people of this book are real to the reader and you care about them. The Potato Famine (or the Starvation, as they refer to it) was a shock to me. I had no idea of the cruelty of the English to these Irish farmers. Wow!
0 out of 1 people found this review helpful.Was this review helpful? Yes NoThank you for your feedback. Report this reviewThank you, this review has been flagged.
A Could Not Put It Down Book! I never thought I wanted to go back that far in Irish history, 400 AD, but the skill of the author makes it a most entertaining and eye-opening adventure, eye-opening in the sense that it explains so much about Ireland and its people through generations of families that come to life as they live and endure their country's history. The characters' very human reactions provided me with a fascinating yet scholarly journey, a worthwhile journey for those who enjoy historical fiction and especially for those who like me have Irish roots and much curiosity about these roots.<BR/><BR/> Part Two, The Rebels of Ireland, continues this same author's journey through to 20th century Ireland and once again, I'd say....A Could Not Put It Down Book!Was this review helpful? Yes NoThank you for your feedback. Report this reviewThank you, this review has been flagged.
I absolutely loved this book! It started off slow but the beginning was still my favorite part. It's also a bit long and I had to keep checking the family tree but it was still one of the best books I've read.Was this review helpful? Yes NoThank you for your feedback. Report this reviewThank you, this review has been flagged.
Posted July 5, 2006
Rutherford is an amazing writer. Although it is long, he paints such an incredible picture that the reader feels he is living the story while reading it. His sequel, 'Rebels of Ireland,' keeps the story going into the 20th century. I highly recommend both of them.Was this review helpful? Yes NoThank you for your feedback. Report this reviewThank you, this review has been flagged.
Posted August 22, 2006
A really enjoyable account of the old history of Ireland entwined with family issues, romance and every day living. Easy to listen to and follow. Cant wait to read Rebels of Ireland.Was this review helpful? Yes NoThank you for your feedback. Report this reviewThank you, this review has been flagged.
Posted March 3, 2006
I loved this book. It is true that it starts off a wee bit slow, but quickly picks up and keeps going strong. The characters were interesting and the plot was skillfully woven around actual historical events. I found it to be a very enjoyable way to learn early Irish history.Was this review helpful? Yes NoThank you for your feedback. Report this reviewThank you, this review has been flagged.
Posted October 1, 2005