The Title is the Story


I am often asked about the title of my first published book, Aroon. Where did I get that name? What does it mean?

The answer seems, at first, mundane. But as you will see, the story takes a surprising turn. It’s not one of my plot twists. It’s—well, decide for yourself.

On my trip to Ireland in 2005, I visited a wonderful book store in Dublin. Chapters, I believe it was. In any event, it was vast and magnificent. I bought several books. It’s rare I visit anywhere that sells books and leave empty-handed, and this was that on steroids.

One was Irish Words & Phrases by Diarmaid O’Muirithe. Once I returned home, I was spending a lazy afternoon scanning the book and I came across ‘arun,’ which is Anglicized as ‘aroon.’ It stated the definition as ‘my secret’ or ‘secret love.’ While my story is not a romance, the word had significance to the plot. Plus, I liked the sound of it.

The more the word rolled around on my tongue, the more I liked it, until I locked it in as my book’s title. Ta da!

But that wasn’t the end of it. Three months ago, I contacted a local Tipperary historian who has helped me with my research, particularly for Book Two, Harps Upon the Willows. I’d bought Ed O’Riordan’s comprehensive book on Father Nicholas Sheehy, the basis of my novels, and received a signed copy. Which I treasure. My latest communication was to tell him I had finished my stories.

To my great pleasure, he responded, “I LOVE the titles and I am sure I will love the contents.”

Ed O’Riordan and his ancestors have made it their passion to honor and maintain Father Sheehy’s gravesite and keep his 250-year-old story alive. Just four years ago, eight years after my own visit to the sarcophagus, Mr. O’Riordan arranged for a new plaque for the tomb.

On it, he had etched ‘Sagart Arun.’

This couldn’t be true! I quickly clicked on Google and searched for a translation: Dear Priest.

No, Ed O’Riordan explained. That translation was too weak.

“I suggest Beloved Priest,” he wrote. “It’s a powerful title you have on your book!!”

This still raises the hair on the back of my neck. How did I scan a phrase book so long ago and come up with a title because I liked its sound, while the caretaker of the very man I was writing about used that same word on his tomb?

Coincidence? Maybe. Somehow, it feels like much more. What do you think?

conserved fr Sheehy Tombaroon

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If you touched an item belonging to someone long deceased, would you sense his spirit? Could you experience her presence? My encounters tell me sometimes yes, sometimes no. I invite you to share your views on this subject.

The historical figure on whom I base my book, Aroon, is Father Nicholas Sheehy of Clogheen and Clonmel, who was executed on March 15, 1766 for treason. It’s not simple, but basically, like Martin Luther King, Jr., he urged the poor Irish to stand up for themselves as men.

I visited the tomb of Father Sheehy in 2005. Did I feel something? Yes. Was it overwhelming? No. Nevertheless, standing in the ancient graveyard on that misty day, while unseen ravens squawked from overhanging trees, I felt something. I was there for a reason, I believed, called to be in this place, and I would return.

Since then, I started this blog, which has put me, via the internet, in virtual contact with Father Sheehy. As I wrote in my last post, a descendant of Mr. Billy Griffiths confirmed that a cure Father Sheehy reputedly left to the Griffiths did indeed exist, even to this day. She could not confirm its effectiveness, but she assured me that, as late as the 1970s, folks still sought it out.

I have had other encounters with Father Sheehy’s footprint on this earth. A young Irish student from Clonmel, County Tipperary, the very town that held the priest’s trial and execution, contacted me seeking more information about the historical figure. I told Ciera what I knew, sent a few photos, and in return, she emailed pictures of the museum’s artifacts. Relics of which I was unaware.

These items included Father Sheehy’s signature, which once again, caused me to speculate on this legend as a flesh-and-blood man. In what ways was he just like us? How was he exceptional?

Ciera was permitted, by appointment, to view this and his purple stole. She sent me the photo she took. The symbol of his station among the common people whom he died to defend. Even gazing at the item on my computer screen, I was in awe of his courage and commitment.

On this very day, I’ve received more information from an historian from Clogheen, County Tipperary, the village to which Nicholas Sheehy ministered. I will share that in another post.

The man was real. His mission was righteous. And he paid the ultimate price.

Father Sheehy’s Secret Potion

The mausoleum that Father Sheehy hid in.

The Irish are known for their whimsical stories that some even believe are historical truth. While researching the martyred priest, Nicholas Sheehy, I found my share of questionable “facts”. For instance, the landowner I based much of Aroon on, Sir Thomas Maude, wore a donkey’s tail, they say, indicating his high level of jackass-iveness. (If Shakespeare can invent over 1000 words, surely I can conjure up one.)

Another interesting account, told to me by local Clogheen historian John Tuohy, pertained to the time Father Sheehy was a fugitive from the law. Considered treasonous for his associations with the Levellers, Sheehy went into hiding. By day, he huddled in a mausoleum found in the Shanrahan Cemetery where he now lies. By night, he emerged, then crawled through a small window in the adjacent farmhouse to be fed and pampered by a Protestant couple, Mr. and Mrs. William Griffiths. There, he was permitted to secretly perform his priestly duties.

The farmhouse is still there.

 When Father Sheehy finally decided to give himself up, with the provision that he be tried in Dublin rather than locally, he had little to give his gracious hosts. So, as the story has it, he bestowed upon them a secret cure for eczema and various other ailments, with the condition that it be shared freely with the common people in need. Father Sheehy’s other stipulation was that the recipe be handed down through Mrs. Griffiths, whose maiden name was Baylor, to the women in the family.

While this is a very kind account of Father Sheehy’s love for the poor and gratitude to a generous family of another faith, I was skeptical of its truth. It sounded like the exaggerations I’ve read too many times on this journey with Father Sheehy.

Then, a most unexpected communication arrived. An American woman who’d read my accounts on this blog contacted me, hoping I had more information about Father Sheehy. But she enlightened me far more than I had her.

The woman is the descendant of the Griffiths couple who hid Father Sheehy. I was stunned when she informed me that two members of her family still hold the recipe of which I’d read, known by them as “the cures.”
Father Sheehy’s grave–a double tomb
holding him and another priest.

While she did not own the recipe herself, she wrote that as late as the 70s, one relative was “actively concocting and distributing the cures. They were known throughout the region and … people were coming to the door all day and all night to request various things” which her relative mixed for them, refusing any payment. Just as Father Sheehy had specified two hundred years previously.

The hairs on my arm raised as I read her email. The story was true and, quite possibly, Father Sheehy’s gratitude is still helping the common people all these decades later, to this very day.

My new friend wrote, “I can’t speak to whether they actually could be scientifically proven to work, but I certainly can confirm that they are real and that people believed that they work.” She went on to say, “We were always told that they were given to the family by a priest who the family concealed, but we hadn’t realized what a famous and interesting priest it was until recently.”

For me, this new knowledge brought Father Nicholas Sheehy out of the realm of legend and into the real, flesh-and-blood world. I felt closer to him. And more curious. If this was true, what else actually happened? (Surely not the ass’s tail.)

Thanks to another reader, I was able to learn more of the tangible existence of this fascinating man. Look for that in next week’s post.

"I Felt a Funeral, in my Brain"*

                                                                                     Photo Credit: Herr Olson

During this month of swirling dead leaves and the zombie-like stalks of once-lush corn, the days shorten in anticipation of All Hallow’s Eve, an ancient festival of the dead.
The perfect month to research archaic burial practices, right? That’s right where I am in my book, Aroon. And boy, did I find some strange customs.
Ghosts and ghouls reflect the age-old fear of disturbing the dead lest they unleash their supernatural powers upon us. Many practices through the years stem from this fear which, have no doubt, is still found in many people today. I’ve recently moved next door to a cemetery and have been looked at suspiciously by more than one person.
Medieval churches throughout Europe were charged with caring for the dead, and before the services of CSI: Miami, it was the duty of the clergy to determine whether or not the death resulted from foul play. Before Christianity took hold, burials were not to take place inside the limits of the town. It wasn’t until the year 752 that the pope authorized the establishment of a churchyard where the deceased were buried in consecrated ground.

                                                                                      Photo by: Dean Ayers
In the thirteenth century, cemeteries were ordered to be securely enclosed, so that animals could not graze there. But that did not stop them from becoming a playground on festivals and holidays. Many medieval people felt that the dead were still with them on some level and would enjoy the party, so to speak.

And party they did. Rough games, dancing, and drinking led to the inevitable brawl which too often resulted in the deaths of a participant or two. As you can imagine, there was a fair amount of damage to the gravestones as well.
According to Bertram S. Puckle (really?) in his 1926 book, Funeral Customs, “the poor Vicar of Codrington, in 1862, found people playing cards on the communion table, and when they chose the churchwardens, they used to sit in the sanctuary smoking and drinking.” Ah, remember when.
Puckle wrote that as far back as the Iron Age, people were buried with their feet facing east, perhaps as a custom of sun-worshippers. Later, Christians have been buried facing the same way since from that direction, they surmised, will come the final summons to Judgment.
Another interesting custom was that people were buried to the west, east, and south of the church itself, but rarely to the north. The only graves found there were of murderers and other criminals. This is because structure of the church, like its deceased members, also faced east. Therefore, the north or left side of the altar is the Gospel side, which calls on sinners to repent. Was anybody listening?
It could get right crowded.                   Photo by: Bogdan Mugulski 
Sometimes a person was interred face down. If it was a first-born child, this would prevent further children from being born in the family. A very ghoulish form of birth control.
Witches were often buried this way in an effort to keep their spirits from causing trouble. During a serious cholera epidemic in Hungary, they determined the cause to be a particular witch’s curses. Her body was quickly exhumed and she was re-buried face down. Oddly enough, that did not curtail the spread of the disease. They dug her up again and turned her clothing inside out. Even that didn’t work! Once again, she was brought up from the grave, this time to cut out her heart and divide it into four pieces, each of which was burned at a corner of the village. I’m assuming that did the trick.
At times, criminals and other sinners were forbidden from the consecrated burial grounds of the righteous, so they were planted at a crossroads. Apparently, this was an effort to confuse the vengeful spirit (who was hopefully directionally-challenged) and prevent him from returning home to torment family members. His heart was anchored with the ever-popular wooden stake to keep him firmly in the grave.
As a final effort to keep this pissed-off ghost off kilter, the funeral procession would arrive at the burial site from one direction, only to return home a different way. That ghost would have to be one smart cookie to have found his way back after all those safeguards.
This is one of my favorite old traditions. It was believed that a “newcomer” to the cemetery was to act as watchman until an even more recently deceased person showed up to take his place. In some parts of Ireland, a pipe and tobacco were left so the person could have a smoke during his watch. Always hospitable, those Irish.
Nobody wanted this post, so if two new occupants arrived at the cemetery simultaneously, the funeral processions would rush to get their guy into the ground first. This led to harsh words, which developed into the inevitable free-for-all, the corpse set aside until the matter was resolved. No occasion is too solemn for a good fight.
Also in Ireland, if you were plagued with warts, you need only grab a handful of dirt from under your right foot and throw it on the funeral procession. Voila! No more warts. But you might get a mighty beat-down from the mourners.
In Brittany, France, it was believed that once dead, you must eat as much dirt as the bread you had wasted during your lifetime. That’s one way to get the kiddies to eat their crust.
“Eat yer grub.”   
*Emily Dickinson, The Complete Poems
Photo Credits:


I love onomatopoeia.

You remember, words that sound like their definition. In writing my book, I needed my character to wail in anguish. I needed a really strong onomatopoeia.

The internet is a wealth of amazing information. Yet, I have to wonder who puts in the countless hours in front of a screen plugging in this drivel–I mean, data. I don’t know who you guys are, but I’m grateful for your time and personal sacrifice.

Here are a couple of interesting websites that helped me this week. First, check out “Written Sound: How to Write the Sound of Things” at You can peruse an alphabetical listing of all the collected “words that imitate sounds.” Or you can search them by topics such as Weather, Music, Explosions, or Gas.

Check it out. These words can be fun. You’ll find the old stand-bys you studied in fifth grade such as buzz, giggle, and hiccup. And a couple I would challenge as onomatopoeia at all, like oops or cliche. (Really? A worn, played-out phrase sounds like cliché?I can’t see it or hear it.)

Gwuf, gwuf
But then there are the unique and intriguing ones like …

           Flibbertigibbet: a flighty, gossipy young woman          
       Gwuf, gwuf, gwuf: footsteps (Can’t you hear them?)
           Kish, kish: ice skates during a hockey game

And, although I’ve never been on a subway during an important announcement, I can imagine the loudspeaker sounds like “thisshig rrrerrk.”

But what about wailing in anguish? I found “argh,” which according to one entry on Urban Dictionary (, is “the correct version of an expression of frustration or anger.”

The sample sentence given is “No brigette, argh is spelled with an h and not just arg.”

You would think someone so concerned about the correct spelling of a word like argh would know to capitalize a proper noun. More than that, as it turns out, the word arg or argh has more spellings than you can possible imagine.

For that, may I direct you to “The Aargh Page” at On that page is an impressive chart of all the possible spellings of aargh, along with how often and where each spelling has been found in print—from argh to (I kid you not) aaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaarrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrgh!!!

Whoever put this together, I commend you while I urge you in the strongest possible terms to get out more.

As for my story, I had my character cry, “Aarrrrgh,” showing he is obviously in pain without being, you know, too splashy.

Ahem. Anyway, in order to avoid too much babble and blather, descending into gibberish—you know, yadda yadda yadda–I believe I’ll close. 

Eighteenth Century Desperate Housewives

You’re a Christian in eighteenth century Europe. Life becomes so unbearable that you don’t want to live. According to your religious beliefs, however, when you commit suicide, you are damned for all time. What to do?

But wait! Not if you murder someone else. You may be hanged for homocide, but you can repent on the gallows, obtain absolution, and spend eternity with Jesus in heaven. Voila!

This was the reasoning of a number of people from around 1612 to 1839. They no longer wanted to live, but in order to avoid an eternity of hellfire, they decided to commit murder instead.

But these were not uncaring people. In their “kindness,” they often killed an innocent child, one whose pure soul would enable him to go straight to heaven himself. (One woman slit a boy’s throat so severely, she said she could “look down into his neck,” in her own words.)
Once the deed was done, they immediately went to the authorities to report their crime, and await execution. A win-win.

I first heard about this convoluted thinking on PBS’s This American Life. Last August, the episode entitled “Loopholes” featured Kathy Stuart of the University of California Davis who has researched this phenomenon known as “suicide by proxy.”

Stuart discovered about 300 of these cases that occurred over 200+ years, usually committed by women. Some, she noted, did not even express regret over what they did. So how did that work? If they were not sorry, how could they be forgiven and escape damnation?

The priests or ministers at the gallows would often ask, “Do you think God can be fooled in this manner? You know that by doing this you actually have committed suicide.”

The perpetrators agreed, according to Kathy Stuart. But the accused merely confessed these crimes as well—and then repented. Problem solved.

Officials were frustrated by this trend and, in 1702, made the executions more painful and shaming. Nope. Didn’t work. These people were looking to die; they didn’t care.

In 1767, courts went so far as to take away the very incentive for the horrific crime—they removed the death penalty altogether. That should have stopped the behavior in its tracks. And yet, it continued.

Beyond understanding, the practice did not end until the next century. “It really seems like people didn’t get the memo,” Stuart says.

Sooo, they killed a small child, confessed, repented, and spent their even more miserable lives in some hole of a prison. Obviously, these “desperate housewives” were not as clever as they thought. The “dumb criminals” of yore. 

Who You Calling a Paunchy Toad-Spotted Harpy?

In my book, Aroon, there’s a heck of a lot of animosity between the characters as there is in any self-respecting plot. Hence, I need tons of insults and they had to be current in 1750. You’d be surprised which of our libelous vocabulary is relatively recent.
A mild word like “jerk” has only been around since 1935. “Jackass,” meaning stupid person, only came to prominence in 1823. Can’t use it.  “Bastard” has been in use since the thirteenth century, but I need some variety in my abusive language.
Imagine my glee when I googled “Medieval insults” and found the Shakespeare Insult Kit at Check it out. They give three columns with words in each taken from the Bard’s various plays. Start with the word “thou,” then choose one phrase from each column. It’s fun. Here are two I’ve put together:
Thou frothy flap-mouthed foot-licker. (I love alliteration.) OR
Thou yeasty onion-eyed pignut.  (Now I didn’t actually know what a pignut was, so I looked it up. It’s the tuber of some European plant. Which isn’t bad either: You yeasty onion-eyed tuber!)
If this isn’t fun enough—and it is—try the Shakespeare Insulter at Here you hit a button that says “Insult me again” and a bonafide slight straight from one of Shakespeare’s plays comes up. And let me tell you, he was the master of mockery. Here are a couple I got:
“Thou loathed issue of thy father’s loins!” compliments of Richard III
“We leak in your chimney.” from Henry IV, part I (Now I’m not positive what that means, but it certainly sounds gross and demeaning.)
“Thou wouldst eat thy dead vomit up, And howl’st to find it.”Henry IV, part II (Ewww)

And you thought Shakespeare was too highfalutin for you. His plays have been around for four hundred years for a reason. Needless to say, our modern-day mud-slinging now seems mundane and repetitive. Where’s our flair? Where’s our creativity?

As in all areas of life, when in doubt, turn to the master.

"Poetry in the Raw"

Do you have children? If so, you have been awarded the delicate task of naming a human being. This seems so simple to middle school girls; they can discuss the names of their future sons and daughters for hours. In the fifth grade, my daughter was to be named Abigail. I had three chances to use that name and it never happened.

One thing little girls forget is that their child will have a father, who may not have sat around his boy scout campfire comparing names with his buds, but who has definite ideas about the names of his own children. And sadly, he does have a say.

For better or worse, people have impressions about who you are as soon as they hear your name. As a kid, I once lamented to my mother that no famous person had my name, Mary Beth.

“Oh yes,” she said. “There was an actress named Mary Beth Hughes. But she didn’t fit the name.”

Mary Beth Hughes:
the Anti-Me

Me: “What do you mean?”

Mom: “She was very glamorous.”

Thanks, Mom.

According to Confucius, “If names are not correct, language will not be in accordance with the truth of things.” So I guess my Plain Jane name is in accordance with the truth of things. Sigh.

A quote from W.H. Auden: “Proper names are poetry in the raw. Like all poetry they are untranslatable.” I like that, too. It emphasizes the important task one has when naming someone.

It is not trivial, then, to consider the names of the characters of your novel. This chosen name will carry a piece of their personality to the reader. There are blogs and websites galore to help authors choose the perfect name, and an entire book (Character Naming Sourcebook) on the matter. When I googled it, I got over twelve million hits.

So I took it very seriously last week when a member of my critique group questioned the name of one of my main characters, Margaret or Marg with a hard G. It sounds too close to her antagonist, Maeve, for one, and the female lead should have a softer sounding name, for two.

I brought this up to my husband, who said, “I never liked that name.” Oh.

I first went to Ancestry.Com to look through the names of my paternal ancestors, almost all of whom were Irish. I came up with Ann. My husband vetoed that. Too plain, he said. The part he did like about Marg was that it was not ordinary.

Next, I googled “Irish girl names” and found This is a very marvelous site. Not only do they have lists of girls’ and boys’ names, they have the Gaelic version (with far too many consonants. sorry.), as well as the English versions, and their meanings. As a really cool bonus, they have Frank McCourt, author of Angela’s Ashes, read each name so you can get the actual pronunciation. I love it!

My husband and I agreed that, of my short-list names, the best is Eveleen (pronounced Ay-Vleen). It is not too strange since Evelyn is another version of it, but has enough of the exotic to be, as Auden says, poetry. And it has no hard sounds; it is soft and melodious. So Marg becomes Eveleen. Um, it also has the benefit of being close to the name of my sister, Evelyn, and I owe her. But that’s a story for another day.

iPod Research

Mumford and Sons

I am going to confess to a guilty pleasure: I am enthralled by American Idol contestant Joshua Ledet’s performance of “When a Man Loves a Woman.” Maybe a better verb would be ‘obsessed.’

Since his Wednesday night performance, I have watched it online more times than I can comfortably admit. If you haven’t seen it, it’s worth the five minutes. Click here.

Joshua Ledet

I am hypnotized by the passion in his voice, but also by his body language, and the intensity of his facial expressions. Every atom in his body is expressing the powerful emotion of this song. He brings chills to my spine and tears to my eyes.

It is my dream to engross my readers in the emotions of my characters in much the same way. Obviously, a very tall order.

While Google searches, interviews, books, and newspapers are great research tools for information, I find music is one of the best resources for the emotional tone of my writing. My iPod has African drumming for my Stono Rebellion research, Colonial music for my Revolutionary War story, and Gregorian chants for the Middle Ages.

As you can see in the sidebar, my story, Aroon, has the clash between the poor Irish and the English gentry as its primary theme. While walking this morning, I listened to the contemporary music of Mumford & Sons, introduced to me by my daughter. “They’re an Irish band,” she said. “You’ll love them.”

She got that half right. I do love them, but they aren’t Irish. They’re from West London, yet I believe they have an Irish flavor. My favorite song, “Dust Bowl Dance,” is speculated to have been based on Steinbeck’s Grapes of Wrath. Reportedly, the band has said they’ve been influenced by East of Eden, which I reviewed, ironically, in my last post.

However the writers were inspired, I find it speaks to my book and the struggles of the poor Irish during the time of the Penal Laws. The intensity of emotion in the song helps me imagine the suffering of my characters. Have a listen:

To me, both the music and the lyrics express the anger, despair, and even desperation of the oppressed in a way that cries out to the heart over the head.

That is why music is a critical resource. It immerses me as a writer into the feelings that create the emotional core of the story. In short, music will help me write the way Joshua Ledet sings. 

Execution by the State

Because he had expressed sympathy for the peasantry of their distress, Father Nicholas Sheehy was convicted on a trumped-up charge of murder, in the town of Clonmel in 1766, and was hanged, drawn and quartered. His grave in Shandraghan soon became and place of pilgrimage, and his death provided later generations of Whiteboys with a patron saint.
–“The Course of Irish History”, page 186

The above is the catalyst for my journey to discover Father Sheehy. That’s all that was written about the martyred priest in this history, but as I’ve told you before, my curiosity was piqued.

I had read the expression “drawn and quartered” before this, but to be honest, did not really know what that meant. What was the procedure for this form of state-sanctioned execution?

Well, if anyone tells you we are a more violent society now than the good old days, feel free to use the classic Joe Wilson line, “You lie!” We are justifiably squeamish about the electric chair (see The Green Mile) and unsettled over lethal injection. But a mere two hundred years ago, a more heinous method of legal extermination than many of us can imagine was performed before entertainment-hungry crowds.

If a person was convicted of high treason against the crown, he was first drawn by horse or sledge to the place of execution. He was hanged, but not until dead. Still alive, he was cut down so that his intestines could be pulled out and burned before his very eyes. I can only imagine the person became unconscious or dead at this point from pain and loss of blood.

But he then had his head cut off and his body ripped into four parts (quartered), usually with an arm or leg in each. Sometimes horses were tied to each limb and driven in different directions in order to tear the body apart. The heads were then spiked and left to rot in a prominent location–a grisly example to others.

Father Sheehy’s execution was held on March 15, 1766 (Beware!), the day after he was sentenced. According to an account by Jerry Griffin of Clogheen, he was brought out of the jail where he blessed the people and proclaimed his innocence. He also said of his persecutors and jury, “I forgive and pity them all, and would not change places with any of them.”

Since the hangman’s noose was directly across the street from the jail, it is doubtful he was drawn on a sledge. He was hanged until dead, so did not have to witness the burning of his entrails that followed. He was quartered and his head spiked before the jail for twenty years.

This horrifying death was typically reserved for treason. Yet, Father Sheehy had been charged, tried, and acquitted for treason. In evidence of the hatred toward this man, although the charge was murder, he suffered this most grievous punishment.

Below is a clip from the series, The Tudors, in which Catherine Howard’s “playmates”, Culpepper and Dereham, are executed. The first was fortunate enough to be decapitated, but the second endured the same terrifying execution of Father Sheehy. The clip portrays the horror of this death without showing the most gruesome parts.