Medieval Ireland. Latter twelfth-century. In an effort to reclaim his kingdom, ex-King of Leinster Diarmait Mac Murchada has formed an alliance with King Henry II of England.

This is a pivotal time in Irish history and the beginning of the Anglo-Norman invasion of Ireland. In his novel Run with the Hare, Hunt with the Hound, Paul M. Duffy brings this period to life in an epic tale of courage, tragedy, loss and betrayal.

Alberic FitzJohan is the son of an Anglo-Norman slave and tied to a farmstead in the ancient kingdom of Meath. He is referred to as “Sméar” or “Blackberry” due to “the broad purple stroke of a birthmark from eye to forehead”. According to farmstead rules, his life holds as much worth as a sheep’s hindquarter.

He dreams of returning to his father’s birthplace in Chester Shire and sees the distant sea as a worthwhile means to escape his lowly status, despite his fear of the imagined creatures lurking in its green depths – “untold serpents, leviathans and strange fish with the faces of men”.

An intelligent boy, he has some awareness of political maneuvering from a young age and seeks a strategy by watching the actions of leaders.

His ability to speak multiple tongues sets him apart from his peers and is deemed useful to the Kingship of Meath in the face of an invading enemy. Nevertheless, Alberic secretly believes the English invasion could be his opportunity to escape Ireland and return to his people.

At its heart, the book is an homage to the classic adventure story. We follow Alberic from oppression in Meath to captivity in Dublin Castle. Through villages in upheaval and kingdoms in decline. Along cow trails to a raid on the ráth (fort) of tribal chief Áed Buidhe, where Alberic meets the beautiful raven-haired Ness.

The author is a field archaeologist who has lectured on excavations and projects in Dublin and further afield. His expansive knowledge of settlements and daily life shine throughout. We visit castleyards where weapons are sharpened and horsemen improve their skill by targeting straw rings with long spears. There are national assemblies to mark the death of a king or queen, with a platform constructed for the new ruler and grounds for horse racing, ball games and contests to showcase strength and horsemanship.

This is a complex time, where life in rural settlement is progressing at a different speed to the busy township. The church still holds great influence over the population but the Gaelic ruling class are under threat of new governance.

The cast of characters is expansive, covering all tiers of Irish society. Alberic crosses paths with knights, an abbot, a poet and a lord. In Dublin Castle, he meets Lady Rohese de Monmouth, the intelligent, steely wife of Hugo de Lacy, who protects her family as her husband protects the realm.

Characters like Tigernán Ua Ruairc, King of Bréifne, loom from the page in all their horrific glory. A giant of a man with left eye “gored from its socket”, his position was once considered immovable, like an “eternal crag facing the sea”. This king was supposedly stabbed multiple times in the head by the enemy, only to rise with his axe still in hand.

Tradition and religious customs of the time are seamlessly interwoven through the tale. The people of Ireland are ruled by belief and superstition as much as king or queen. The hawthorn bush is considered spiritual. Magical stones connect with the underworld.

When a poet or fil insults Ua Ruairc, the king orders the killing of this fil. The most important part of the task is to bury the fil quickly before his soul escapes and “peace can never be found again”.

As the old kingdoms crumble, Alberic’s sense of identity and goals are challenged, as is his loyalty to those who governed him in the past. Patient, beautiful prose recreates ancient Ireland in all its harshness and splendour, whether that be the vision of enemy carcasses hanging above boundary walls or Alberic’s wait “for a star to shake loose its mooring in the sky” and lead him “to somewhere of significance”.

It is no mean feat to rouse a world from mere fragments of the past. The author does just that and more. An ambitious blend of inventiveness and expertise, Run with the Hare, Hunt with the Hound reimagines ancient Ireland through a compelling tale, while staying true to the history and traditions of the time. A wholly rewarding read to boot.

Daniel Seery is a writer from Dublin. A regular contributor to RTÉ’s Arena, his work has appeared in a number of anthologies and magazines. His stage play Eviction was a winner of the Shadow of the...

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1 Comment

  1. Yes, this book is a great read for those who like their historical fiction more historical than fiction, yet with a compelling human story that captures the complexity of those times. A excellent read

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