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As St. Patrick’s Day approaches, I’m recommending Thomas Cahill’s 1996 book How the Irish Saved Civilization. He’s been criticized for overstating his case, but there’s no question that Irish monks in late antiquity were responsible for preserving much of the the cultural legacy of the Roman Empire, even as its political structure crumbled.

A tenth-century tower and Celtic cross in County Louth.

Insulated from the barbarian incursions, the Irish remained literate and their libraries survived. And after the dust settled, they fanned out over Europe, establishing monasteries–and new libraries–everywhere they went.

Bobbio Abbey, in northern Italy, was founded by St. Columbanus in 614.

27. Sexy Devil

Tabitha and Rúairí had seats together on the overnight flight to London. Finnuala, he said, had wanted to come, but the dates of the trip fell on her mother’s birthday. “I’m afraid she’s cheesed off, because I wouldn’t ask you to reschedule.”

“Sorry about that. You could have gone another time, you know.”

“Now, where would the fun be in that, I ask you?” His voice was teasing. “Letting you have a go at the manuscript first, and hearing all about it secondhand? You haven’t shown me your transcription yet, you know. I think you’re tantalizing me on purpose.”

“I’m still working on it. There’s not that much to show yet. I’ll get it out and let you read it through as soon as they turn off the seatbelt sign.” Still smarting from Mark’s rejection, she savored the hint of flirtation in Rúairí’s conversation. But if he imagined that she was going to be a little something on the side, he’d better think again. Not that kind of girl, Lafferty, she thought glumly. It was a shame. First Dr. Liffey pressured her to talk about Corbin Crowe, and then Mark dumped her. She was in need of cheering up. If the circumstances were different, this Lafferty might well have been the best medicine. He’s very attractive. A sexy devil, in fact.

She stood up and dug through her carryon, which was in the overhead bin. “Here you go,” she said, handing him her transcription and translation.

“This is the life of the warrior Scivius, the son of Longilacertus and Aequa, the lady of horses,” he read aloud, and then fell silent, perusing the short paragraph. At last he said, “Tabitha, this reminds me of the Irish hero Cúchulainn. He killed a hound that attacked him when he was still a child. That’s how he got his name, the Hound of Culann. And he was trained by a woman warrior, Scáthach.” He pronounced the name Scáthach with a guttural sound at the end, like the Scottish word loch.

“Culann,” repeated Tabitha. “Scáthach.” They were names with meaning, but why did she know them? They’re in my dreams. I’m sure of it.

“The birth story seems different than the one I know,” continued Rúairí thoughtfully, “but I think there’s more than one version of how he was conceived. Several of the Cúchulainn stories occur in more than one version.”

“So you think it’s an Irish saga? I thought those were all in the vernacular, never in Latin.”

“Yes, that’s right. I’ve never heard of a Latin version, but… imagine some tenth-century Irish monk who goes to France or Italy or Austria and spends his time copying Classical books as well as Christian ones. What if he was homesick and wanted to share a native story with his mates? What if he thought Cúchulainn could compete with Achilles or Ulysses or Hercules?”

“I suppose it’s possible,” she admitted. “You know as well as I that Europe was full to bursting with Irish monks during the ninth and tenth centuries.” Rúairí was looking down at the page again. Suddenly he gripped her upper arm. “Bellator the magus took the child… Tabitha, he’s a Druid! Cúchulainn’s grandfather was the druid Cathbad, and his name means a warrior. So Bellator is a calque, you see?”

“Yes,” said Tabitha, very much aware of his touch, and trying to focus on what he was saying. Calques were created when people borrowed words from other languages by direct translation. Like the word superman, from German Übermensch. “How much Old Irish do you know?” she asked.

“Not much. I can get by in modern Irish, and the two languages are reasonably close. I took an introductory class so I could have a look at the sagas, but it was only one semester.”

“Do you recognize any of the other names?”

“Well, Longilacertus is Long-Arm. I suppose that could be Lugh, Cúchulainn’s father. Decima, the Tenth, could be Deichtire, his mother, or adoptive mother in this version. I’m not sure about Scivius himself, or Parata, his bride to be. In the saga, his wife’s name is Emer.” He pronounced the name Eh-ver and Tabitha shivered. “But Umbrosa could definitely be Scáthach. They both mean Shadow Woman.”

His excitement was infectious, and so was his smile. “You’ve convinced me. I’d better get back to work on the transcription. I was holding off on it.”

“Why?”

She was tempted to confess everything. I’m having dreams about warriors and warrior-women, and they’re probably Irish, or at least Celtic, and the dreams are highly sexual, and they use the same names you’re speaking to me. No. The dreams were personal. And weird. Her self-esteem was too fragile at the moment to sustain a raised eyebrow from him, or any other man. “Um, Nigel gave me some other work,” she muttered. “So Rúairí, tell me about Finnuala. She’s very lovely.”

“Huh?” he was frowning, still working through the names. “Oh yes, she’s great. All four of her grandparents are Irish. That was important to me, finding someone with Irish heritage.”

“I see. She has beautiful long hair.” Another entry in the list of your requirements?

“Yes, she does,” he agreed. “But she’d really be a stunner if she cut it short, like yours.” Her mouth dropped open involuntarily, and he laughed. “Say Tabitha,” he said slyly, “I don’t suppose you have any Irish blood? I don’t remember many lasses named ‘Hill’ from the land of Éire, but one might say that… we have a particular fondness for hills.”

“No, my mother’s family are mostly English,” she replied. “Gran’s a proud member of the Daughters of the American Revolution, who are famous for not allowing Marian Anderson to sing at Constitution Hall. They’ve since updated their racial policies, but that’s why I never bothered to join,” she said.

“And your father’s people?” he asked.

She flushed in embarrassment. “They’re not really in the picture.” In fact, she knew nothing of Corbin Crowe’s family. It had never even occurred to her to wonder whether she had cousins.

“Oh. I’m sorry. None of my business to pry like that.” He looked chagrined.

“It’s all right.”

“Are you sure? You look cast down today.”

“If you must know, the person I was seeing dumped me this week.”

The beverage cart had reached them now, and he said to the flight attendant, “Do you have the Labouré-Roi Merlot? Good. For both of us, please.” As she poured the wine and handed it over, he said to Tabitha, “There. And if you ask me, you’re well rid of the mouldy git.”

She sipped her wine, and ate her meal when it came, and Rúairí began to explain to her about Cúchulainn. “He’s often called the Irish Achilles, the hero of the Táin Bó Cuailnge, the Cattle Raid of Cooley. Holds off a whole army from Connacht all by himself. Wins eternal glory, but dies young.”

“He dies young? At what age?” Looks like my animus won’t be bothering me for long. But the thought of her hero dying, of his beauty fading from the earth, brought sudden tears to her eyes.

“Tabitha me lass, you’re really broken up over this shite hawk, aren’t you?” Rúairí looked genuinely concerned. He thought she was upset about Mark.

She shook her head, wiping her eyes. “No I’m not. I’m fine.”

“Why don’t you try to get some sleep? Tomorrow I’ll take you to Filthy McNasty’s, my favorite pub in London. You’ll love it.”

She covered herself with one of the thin blankets from the overhead bin, and composed herself for sleep, but it was a long time coming.

Copyright 2017 by Linnet Moss

Notes: Looking back over my fiction, I notice that I have written more than one scene in which the female protagonist has an absorbing conversation with an attractive man during a transatlantic airplane flight. If only actual flights were this much fun. At least they have wine.

I gave Rúairí a couple of colorful Atlantic Isles expressions. The term “shite hawk” has its own Wikipedia entry, and is “derogatory slang for an unpleasant person.” It originally referred to scavenging birds accustomed to eat carcasses. “Mouldy” seems to be a flexible pejorative meaning anything from “drunken” to “disgusting.” “Git” denotes someone who is stupid, annoying or incompetent, and it comes from “get” meaning “offspring,” with the implication that one is misbegotten, or illegitimate.

Filthy McNasty’s was a real pub, which closed in 2013. It was known for serving “the second best Guinness in London,” (I have no idea who claimed top honors) and was home away from home to “poets and dustmen, philosophers and gardeners.”