When farmers cutting turf in an Irish peat bog make a grisly discovery—the perfectly preserved head of a young woman with long red hair—Irish archaeologist Cormac Maguire and American pathologist Nora Gavin must use cutting-edge techniques to preserve ancient evidence. Because the bog’s watery, acidic environment prevents decay, it’s difficult to tell how long the red-haired girl has been buried—two years, two centuries, or even much longer.
Who is she? The extraordinary find leads to even more disturbing puzzles. The red-haired girl is not the only enigma in this remote corner of Galway. Two years earlier, Mina Osborne, the wife of a local landowner, went for a walk with her young son and vanished without a trace. Could they, too, be hidden in the bog’s treacherous depths, only to be discovered centuries from now? Or did Hugh Osborne murder his family, as some villagers suspect? Bracklyn House, Osborne’s stately home, holds many secrets, and Nora and Cormac's inquiries threaten to expose them all.
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With a sodden rasp, Brendan McGann's turf spade sliced into the bank of earth below his feet. Had he known all that he'd turn up with the winter's fuel, perhaps he would have stopped that moment, climbed up onto the bank, and filled his shed with the uniform sods of extruded turf that a person could order nowadays by the lorry-load.
But Brendan continued, loosening each sopping black brick with the square-bladed turf spade, tossing it over the bank, where it landed with a plump slap. He performed his task with a grace and facility that comes from repeating the same motion times without number. Though his father and grandfather and generations before had taken their turf from this same patch of bog, Brendan never thought of himself as carrying on an age-old tradition, any more than he considered the life cycles of all the ancient, primitive plants whose resting place he now disturbed. This annual chore was the only way he'd ever known to stave off the bitter cold that crept under his door each November.
Chilblains were the farthest thing from Brendan's mind this unusually sun-drenched late-April morning. A steady westerly breeze swept over the bog, chasing high clouds across the watery blue of the sky, and teasing the moisture from the turf. Good drying today, his father would have said. Brendan worked in his shirtsleeves; his wool jacket, elbows permanently jointed from constant wearing, lay on the bank above his head. He paused, balancing his left arm on the handle of the upright sleán, and, with one rolled-up sleeve, mopped the sweat from his forehead, pushing away the damp, dark hair that stuck there. The skin on his face and forearms was beginning to feel the first pleasant tightness of a sunburn. Hunger was strong upon him at the moment, but just beyond it was an equally hollow feeling of anxiety. This might be the last year he could cut turf on his own land without interference. The thought of it burned in the pit of his stomach. As he clambered up the bank to fetch the handkerchief from his coat pocket, he searched the horizon for a bicycle.
Forty yards away, his younger brother Fintan made a comic figure as he struggled against the weight of a turf-laden wheelbarrow. Fintan dumped his two dozen wet sods at the end of a long row, one of many that lent the surface of the bog the temporary texture of corduroy. For a good square mile around them, little huts of footed turf covered the landscape. Here and there on the neighbors' allotments, large white plastic bags bulged with sods dried as hard as dung.
"Any sign of her yet?" Brendan shouted to his brother, who raised his shoulders in a shrug and kept at his work. The two men had been hard at it since nine, with only a short tea break midmorning. Their sister Una was to bring them sandwiches and tea, and pitch in with footing the turf. It was cumbersome, backbreaking work, turning the sods by hand so that they dried in the sun. It would be another month before this lot could be drawn home.
Tucking his handkerchief in his back pocket, Brendan descended once more into his gravelike void, noting with a small grimace of satisfaction the angled pattern his sleán had made down the wall of the bank. He was reaching the good black turf now, more appreciated in these parts for its long-burning density than for the fact that it had remained in this place, undisturbed and undecayed, for perhaps eight thousand years.
He set to work again, trying to drown out the rumbling in his belly by concentrating on the sound and the rhythm of cutting. He was used to hard physical labor, but there was no doubt about it, something in the bog air put a fierce hunger on a man. What might the day's lunch be? Chicken sandwiches, or egg, or perhaps a bit of salty red bacon on a slab of brown bread. Each stroke became a wolfish bite, a slug of hot sweet tea to wash it down. One more row, he thought, heaving each successive sod with more violence, just one more row and then his blade stopped dead.
Fintan's head poked into view at the edge of the cutaway. "What's the matter? Strike a bit of Noah's ark down there?"
"Ah, no," Brendan said. "Only a bit of horsehair."
There were four things, their father always said, that could stop a man cutting turf. Brendan could hear the old man's voice: Wig, water, blocks, and horsehair. Then he'd hold up four fingers in front of their faces. Meet any of them, boys, and it's your Waterloo.
"Hand us down the spade, will yeh?"
Fintan obliged, then leaned on the handle of his fork to watch. Though these things typically turned out to be tree trunks and roots, other wonders turned up in bogs occasionally rough beams of oak, ancient oxcarts, wheels of cheese or wooden tubs of butter. Stores buried for keeping in cool wetness and long since forgotten objects caught and suspended outside of time by the watery, airless, preserving power of the bog.
Working deliberately, Brendan dug around the perimeter of the fibrous mat, probing for its edges, and scraping away loose bits of peat. He knelt on the spongy bank and pulled at the strands that began to emerge from the soaking turf. This was not horsehair; it was tangled and matted, all right, but it was too long, and far too fine to be the rooty material his father called horsehair. Brendan worked his broad fingers into the dense black peat he'd pried loose with the spade. Without warning, a block in his left hand gave way, and he cast it aside.
"Holy Christ," Fintan whispered, and Brendan looked down. Almost touching his knee were the unmistakable and delicate curves of a human ear. It was stained a dark tobacco brown, and though the face was not visible, something in the line of the jaw, and the dripping tangle of fine hair above it, told him at once that this ear belonged to a woman. Brendan struggled to his feet, only dimly aware of the cold water that was seeping through the knees of his trousers and down into his wellingtons.
"Sorry, lads. You must be perished with the hunger." Una's breathless apology carried toward them on a bit of breeze. "But you should have seen me. I was literally up to my elbows..." Her voice trailed off when she saw the faces her brothers turned toward her. Brendan watched her stained fingers tighten their grip on the flask, and on the sandwiches she'd wrapped hastily in paper, as Una stepped to the edge of the bank beside Fintan and looked down at their awful discovery.
"Ah, Jaysus, poor creature" was all that she could say.
Copyright © 2003 by Erin Hart
Table of Contents
Reading Group Guide
Reading Group Guide for Haunted Ground by Erin Hart
1. Consider the title, Haunted Ground. In what ways are locations and people in the story haunted by the past? Near the end of the book, Cormac is thinking about all that's taken place around Bracklyn House: "It was a mistake to imagine the past simply buried underground. There was that element, yes, but it might be more accurate to think of it living, breathing, and walking upon the earth as well." How and why do various remnants of the past remain, and what pieces of the present day do you imagine will survive into the future?
2. Because they provide a practically anaerobic environment, Ireland's peat bogs suspend ordinary processes of decay-preserving for hundreds or even thousands of years organic materials and objects that would otherwise disintegrate and disappear. How is the bog used as a metaphor in this story?
3. In ancient Irish literature and folklore, the war goddess Badb often took the shape of a hooded crow an appropriate guise, since Badb was well known as a harbinger of death and devourer of battlefield corpses. How is the presence of crows woven through the narrative, and what are some of the other themes and symbols that occur throughout the story?
4. Each section of Haunted Ground opens with a quotation from a 17th-century historical source and describes conditions in Ireland during the Cromwellian resettlement. Did the quotations provide any hints or clues about the identity or history of the cailín rua?
5. Cormac compares his own work to that done by detectives "sorting through evidence and piecing together clues to unlock the secrets and the lives of those long dead." Both police work and archaeology use forensic science to answer questions, not only about causes of death, but also about the motivations and actions of the living. In what ways are archaeology and forensic pathology linked in Haunted Ground?
6. The three main characters (Cormac Maguire, Nora Gavin, and Garrett Devaney) are all initially unwilling to allow anyone else access to the painful experiences that have shaped their lives. How do these inner demons drive each of them to become involved in the death of the cailín rua and the disappearance of Mina Osborne?
7. How are the two parallel mysteries intertwined in this story? In particular, how does the life of the cailín rua intersect with the lives of the present inhabitants of Bracklyn House and the people of Dunbeg, and what are the parallels and the dissimilarities between the stories of the cailín rua and Mina Osborne?
8. Discuss the many ways in which history is conveyed through songs, tunes, traditional folklore and folkways, memories of local inhabitants, written documents and how all of these elements are necessary in solving the puzzle of the cailín rua. Science also plays a large part in unraveling the riddle; what are the scientific discoveries that lead Nora to the final proof of the red-haired girl's identity?
9. Even though she was born in Ireland and feels a strong connection to its musical traditions, Nora feels somewhat cut off from Irish culture. Is this a common experience for immigrants, and is it a gap that can ever be bridged? Garrett Devaney also experiences a kind of cultural disconnect from his children, and though this split is more generational than geographic, is it just as difficult to overcome?
10. Nora and Garrett Devaney both worry about how much traditional culture is lost each time a person who is a repository of that culture expires. What do you think of Cormac's theory that old ways are never completely lost, but are embedded within the subconscious of each succeeding generation, and only rise to the surface under certain conditions? Is there any such thing as a collective unconscious?
11. Nora has a very strong emotional reaction to the sight of the red-haired girl, and again experiences a disturbing jolt while alone with the girl's head in the museum conservation lab. She knows that expecting to discover the identity of the red-haired girl goes against reason and all her scientific training, and yet her conviction is real. Have you ever had such a strong emotional connection with someone or something, or experienced any similarly strange convergences of coincidence like those that lead to the discovery of the red-haired girl's identity?
12. A common device in crime novels is the use of so-called "red herrings" to led the reader astray from the actual perpetrator of the crime. Who and what are the red herrings in Haunted Ground, and how did each of them seem to point to possible suspects?
13. Do you think Nora's brother-in-law really killed her sister? And does solving the mystery of the red-haired girl give her a sense of closure about her sister's death, or increase her desire to find justice? Is it possible for Hugh and Jeremy to have a successful relationship, and, given the harrowing events he's experienced, do you think Jeremy will ever be able to lead an ordinary life?