They might be a work of fiction, but the Fidelma Mysteries are gripping an international audience, writes Seán Laffey.

Fidelma is a woman for all time, absolutely a role model for ladies of the 21st century. She is a sister to a king, but she isn’t a princess, a nun, but she’s married, and she is a trained lawyer who is also a detective. A feisty red-haired colleen, a brilliant advocate, she is right at the center of the great debate of her age: should the Celtic church adopt the Roman year and all its trappings?

That’s Sister Fidelma, the 7th-century Irish religieuse and Brehon lawyer who has been solving crimes in print since 1994. Her stories are anchored in Cashel County Tipperary and there are around thirty of them, with the latest Blood in Eden, due in July 2019.

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Their author Peter Tremayne (the pen name of Peter Berresford Ellis, a Celtic scholar, prolific writer, and expert on the 1916 Irish Rising), got the idea for the character of Fidelma after talking to students at Dooley’s pub in Toronto in the mid-1980s. He’d been giving a series of talks at the city’s University on the role of women in the ancient Celtic world. He told students the period between 432 and 1172, from Saint Patrick to the Normans, was Ireland’s Golden Age. Back then Irish society created a legal system, called Brehon law that gave women so much power and freedom, it might be ancient history, but it is a post-Feminist marker for the modern world.

His books mix fact with fiction, for example in the seventh century Cashel was the power base of the Eóganacht Kings (modern-day Hogans and Grogans in their anglicized forms), this reference to reality adds to the story’s believability. So much so that the books have a huge international readership

Cover art for the "Fidelma Mysteries" by Peter Berresford Ellis.

Cover art for the "Fidelma Mysteries" by Peter Berresford Ellis.

Here is the American twist: The International Sister Fidelma Society is based in Little Rock Arkansas, run by David Robert Wooton, where he produces the official fanzine called the Brehon. The stories are popular in continental Europe too, been translated into many languages, there is even a graphic novel produced in Holland, which is drawn by an artist living in Spain. That internationalism is at the heart of the Fidelma stories, all set in the time when the Irish had huge cultural influence in the Christian world.

Not only are the stories a fascinating peek into the political and religious world of pre-Norman Ireland, they are a window into the complex international relationships Ireland had with cultural centers in Whitby and Canterbury in England and the eternal city of Rome. The titles of the novels, such as Absolution by Murder, The Valley of the Shadow, The Monk that Vanished, leave readers in no doubt that this is crime fiction. There’s chemistry too between Fidelma and her husband, Brother Eadulf, a Saxon monk with a strong allegiance to the Church of Rome, at odds with her Celtic Christianity. How’s that for tension?

Every other year fans travel to Cashel, for the Feile Fidlema, a weekend of talks, lectures, site-visits, good food, and wonderful Irish hospitality. It is an integral part of The Cashel Arts Fest and is overseen by Séamus King, the noted GAA historian, and author, he told me there’s a small committee who put the Feile together, all volunteers, all smitten by history and heritage.

The next Feile Fidlema is in September 2019 and this year’s theme is Sex and Marriage in Fidelma’s Ireland. Speakers include Professor Nancy Marck Cantwell, chair of English Department, Daemen College, Amherst, New York. Dr. Kevin Murray (University College, Cork) an authority on Brehon law and Medieval Irish manuscripts. John G. O'Dwyer, author and travel consultant, who will talk on the ancient pilgrim paths of Ireland. Queen's University, Belfast academic Dr Patrick Gleeson will outline the most recent archaeological surveys at the Rock of Cashel.

The Feile is held at the Brú Boru cultural center, just yards below the Rock of Cashel. The Feile has until the 1st of March to hit its modest 35 attendees target and Emily Kirwin who tracks the booking says things are already looking good. The local tourist guide even has Sister Fidelma on its cover; Olivia Quinlan who manages the Cashel Heritage Centre and who once set up a B&B called Brúdan Fidelma tells me Feile Fidlema is one of the most intimate and interesting fan festivals in the world. “It is a small event, yet to hit 100 visitors at any Feile, numbers do matter of course, but once 35 people sign up for the festival it will run, it’s a break-even non-profit venture. This small form factor means you can chat with Peter Tremayne over a Guinness at the 17th century T.J Ryan’s pub and quiz him on the latest Fidelma who-done-it.”

Talking to Peter over a few pints, isn’t that where it all started?

Fidelma might be fiction, but for her fans the Cashel Feile is a wonderful slice of Irish reality.

For more details and to sign up for Seventh Feile Fidelma check outcashelartsfest.com.

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Rock of Cashel, Tipperary.Sean Laffey & Catherine Stapleton