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Page 13 of 32
The Murderers' Tale

Don't talk of peace to me. More precisely, don't talk to me of peace talks.

My father warned me. Cucogry's father warned him. Did that stop us? Not at all. What if peace talks had always failed? They just required the proper touch, the proper setting. That was our belief.

Oh, there was a long history of failures. Back in the Age of Christ, 1160, don't the annals record:

"There was a pacific meeting at Eas-Ruaidh between Ruaidhri Ua Conchobair and Muircheartach Ua Lochlainn; and they separated from each other without concluding a peace or armistice."
Who brought them together? The annalists don't say. The setting was fine. None better. Assaroe on the Erne. Rich in history. Celebrated from the beginning of recorded time. In prose, in poetry, in song. In the saga of Finn and the Fianna, "These were the joys of the comely son of Cumall--to hearken to the soft breeze upon the Red Ridge, to slumber by the fairy hill of Assaroe, to hunt the lands of Galway of harbours."

If not the setting, what went wrong? The touch? The planning? The cultivation of mood? The uprooting of suspicion? The nurturing of good will? "Peace on earth to men of good will." Not "good will to men." Men intent on mayhem and murder won't welcome any wish for peace. The same goes for women. Look what happened here. Which was worse, the man or the woman? You be the judge. One thing is certain. They were a matchless pair, not a perfect match.

Three months ago they came to us, to Cucogry and me. Well prepared. They knew the laws, the brehon laws, laws handed down by our ancestors. A written law. Text book law. Case law.

Scholars from over the water tell me brehon law contains the first copyright law in the western world. Wasn't it our own Colmcille here in Tirconnell was the cause of it all, copying the gospel book of the holy Finian, and that without permission? Caused a war, he did. Got himself banished from Ireland, he did. That's another story, for another time, another place. But the judgement remains--"To every cow its calf, and to every book its copy." Let the fly boys try to twist the tale, but "to every book its copy" will someday spread its net over the civilized world. I digress.

"Honoured ollaves," they began, "you know the trouble we've seen. The O'Donnells and the O'Gallaghers. For years now. At each others' throats. Killing and raiding, raiding and killing. It's time it ended."

"Honoured ollaves," they said, "You know the law and your place under it. With your consent and under your protection, we're going to invite Donnell to Saimer. For peace talks."

"Mind you," they said, "it's up to you to arrange a truce."

Oh, they were wily. Talks held under the protection of the bards could not be refused without loss of face. If Donnell refused, we were duty bound to satirize him throughout the length and breadth of Fodhla's fair land. Never again could he hold his head high. Never again show his countenance in the company of chiefs. All Tirconnell would be shamed.

Cucogry and I consulted widely. Everywhere we turned, the answer was the same. A tricky business. Not easy. No guarantee of success. Suppose the talks failed, what then? Precedent was cited. And yet we pushed ahead.

Donnell was wary. Why Inis Saimer? Why face-to-face with Owen? Why not send emissaries? Above all, why go unarmed? Who could trust the Gallaghers? What geas, something much stronger than a promise, would they respect?

Patiently we answered him point by point. We were his surety, his protection. Inis Saimer was small. No room for armed arrays. Trust had to begin somewhere. He would be the bigger man for it. The wrath of heaven would fall on anyone who negotiated falsely.

Gradually, we won him over. Finally, he ordered a truce. Reluctantly, he agreed to meet.

Cucogry and I came shuttling back to Assaroe, and were ferried down to Inis Saimer. There we supervised the erection of a meeting shelter. Small. Inside we placed a table, just big enough for Cucogry and me. Owen and Donnell would stand. Chieftains they might be in their own lands, but once on the island they would be supplicants for peace, willing to humble themselves in God's eyes and men's eyes.

At the last minute Donnell had more misgivings. Why meet in a shelter? Why not in the open? If his men couldn't be there, if his men couldn't hear what was being said, let them at least see what was taking place.

"Is this the great O'Donnell talking?"

"Is this An Dalach speaking?"

"Do my ears deceive me?"

God forgive us. We wore him down. An appeal to his honour. An appeal to his pride.

Next morning he was ferried across, unarmed. Stepping from the row boat, sending it back to the Buillebawns to await his call, he presented a fine figure. Fair haired, ruddy faced, big boned, an O'Donnell of the O'Donnells.

From Portnasun came O'Gallagher, his wife with him in his boat. He stepped ashore. His wife followed. Their rowboat pulled away.

O'Donnell was livid.

"One on one, you whoreson! No women!"

"Is it a woman you're afraid of, big Donnell?"

"Me afraid? Me!"

"Yes, you---"

An inauspicious start, but somehow we got them calmed down. Somehow we got them inside, away from their followers' long-range gaze.

Then trouble. Big trouble! From the sleeve of her gown came the scian. Hilt to the hand of Owen. Blade in the side of Donnell. Murder most treacherous!

That day there was sorrow in Tirconnell. That day was marked with rage. That day, weeping and wailing washed over the land. That day's infamy will be remembered for ever, and ever, and ever.

"The Age of Christ, 1546. Donnell, the son of Hugh Duv, son of Hugh Roe O'Donnell, was treacherously slain, on the 20th of April, by O'Gallagher (Owen, the son of Edmond) and his wife Honora, daughter of Tuathal Balbh O'Gallagher, after they had invited him to Inis Saimer, under the protection of God, of MacWard (Godfrey), and Cucogry, the son of Dermot, son of Teige Cam O'Clery. The death of this man was the cause of great sorrow for, of all the descendants of Connell, the son of Niall, there was not one of his years from whom more was expected by the multitude."
     (The Annals of the Four Masters).
Owen and Honora escaped the island but not the hawk of the Erne, circling and circling, a compass in the sky to their avenging pursuers.

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