It is 1170 a tumultuous time for the people of Wales, England and Ireland. Raymond de Carew is in love, but the woman he desires is an earl’s daughter and so far above his station that he has no hope of ever winning her.
However, Raymond s lord has a mission for him: one that if it succeeds will put an Irish king back on his throne and prove Raymond worthy for in Norman society, a man can rise as high as his skill with a sword can take him.
With only a hundred men at his side, Raymond must cross the ocean to Ireland ahead of his mercenary lord’s invasion. There he will face the full might of the Viking city of Waterford… and either his deeds will become a legend or he will be trampled into dust.
Ruadh Butler was born in Northern Ireland. He worked in newsrooms, bars and laboratories, and as a security guard, musician and lifeguard before his acclaimed debut novel, Swordland, was published by Accent Press in 2016. Charting the years of the Norman invasion of Ireland Swordland, and its follow-up, Lord of the Sea Castle, published in 2017, are a tribute to his ancestors who carved lands for themselves as part of the conquest in the 12th century.
Q&A with Ruadh Butler
Please tell my readers a little bit about yourself and your publishing journey before the questions that would be super. Plus anything else you wish to tell the members.
I grew up during the Troubles in Northern Ireland. It seems strange, given that there were daily bombings and shootings, and soldiers on every street, but it really didn’t have a direct effect on me or my family. I put this down to my dad being a bit of a posh ‘blow-in’ from south of the border. No one knew how to deal with our ‘English’ sounding accents and frequent holidays to the Republic! It is probably because of this background that all my work so far has circled the subject of identity and a questioning of nationalism (in all its guises).
It was never an ambition of mine to write a novel. I love reading. I have done for as long as I can remember and as a kid nearly everything I read had the grand backdrop of history; Herge, Goscinny and Uderzo were first, then Morgan Llywelyn, Mary Stewart, Walter Scott and Robert Louis Stevenson, before Bernard Cornwell came along and I became more than a little obsessive, reading and re-reading his books a number of times. It simply never occurred to me to write since all I really wanted was the next book of Sharpe, Starbuck and Derfel’s escapades!
My first attempt at writing was a book called Spearpoint. Told from the perspective of Dermot MacMurrough, an Irish king exiled from his throne by his enemies in 1166, it simply didn’t work, principally, I suppose, because Dermot was a little too unsympathetic as a lead character. So I began again, this time from the angle of one of the real-life Norman mercenaries who Dermot had employed to help him reclaim his kingdom. With a bit of patience – and a number of re-writes – the book once called Spearpoint became The Outpost with the Welsh-Norman knight Robert FitzStephen as the protagonist for the first time. Further work and fine-tuning (mostly during my lunch break at work) saw The Outpost become Vanguard. It was only when I was certain that the book was ready for public view that I sent it to my father’s sailing pal, the late Wallace Clark, a respected (and much missed) travel writer, for his assessment. He loved it but suggested a name change. Thus, Swordland was sent out for the consideration of literary agents. I soon found a good one in London and a little while later it found a home with Accent Press. Swordland was published in paperback in April 2016.
Describe yourself using three words?
Talkative, redheaded, upbeat
What inspired you to write your first novel?
It was only when I began studying journalism in London in 2007 that the kernel of an idea to write a novel took seed. I was staying with a cousin and came across a whole raft of journals about the Butler family, and, having only the vaguest knowledge of what that meant, I started investigating. They had come to Ireland in the wake of the Norman invasion of 1169 and had won a large estate at the point of a sword. The more I read, the more I wished to find out, and not just about the Butlers, but about all the people who had become embroiled in the invasion. I had found an untapped treasure trove of stories, of intrigue and adventure, of men and women, in a land so alien to modern eyes. They were stories of remarkable deeds and fascinating characters. I had to write about it. I didn’t know how, but I wasn’t going to let that stop me.
What time of day do you like to write?
Mornings are for editing and re-reading, evenings are for writing. Although coming up to a deadline that schedule goes out the window! I used to be a journalist and spent a lot of time sitting down at a computer screen. At lunchtime I would work on the novel, my feet up on the desk, sandwich in my hand and laptop on my knees. It wasn’t long before I developed a very sore back. Because of this trouble I began standing up to write when I got home. It’s the best change I have made! It forced me to improve my posture and you would be shocked to learn how many more calories you burn up just by staying upright. Another benefit of standing is that you are forced into taking regular breaks rather than just continuing on working when you really should stop for a bit. It takes a bit of getting used to, but I thoroughly encourage all to stand while writing.
What is your favourite book and why?
Cripes! That’s a tough question. How does one get it down to just a single book? Under duress – and discounting several novels for the most minor reasons – I think that I can get this impossible task down to two: Kidnapped by Robert Louis Stevenson and The Riddle of the Sands by Erskine Childers.
The former is one of the best adventures in literature and has one of its greatest heroes – Alan Breck Stewart. Kidnapped is packed full of intrigue and really serious themes including nationalism, loyalty, murder, slavery, love, and, above all else, hope in spite of all the odds. Stevenson also gives the reader a wonderfully evocative journey around the Highlands and Islands of western Scotland, its flora and fauna, its people and their beliefs.
Childers’ book is simply the best spy novel ever produced (although there are a few others that I really love). Two more unlikely heroes you could not hope to find, and I don’t think anyone else would’ve made their setting amidst the mud and shifting sands of the Frisian Islands. Childers’ love and knowledge of sailing in that region is obvious and infectious. If I can do even half the job portraying the Irish coastline as he does the continental, I think I’ll be really happy with the final outcome in my books.
How did you pick the title of your book?
My first book, Swordland, went through a number of titles until my father’s great friend, Wallace Clark, a writer himself, suggested the final word of the novel as a better name than the one I was using. I trusted to his judgement and thankfully it worked out very well!
When it came to writing my second, I already had the title before I committed a single word to the page. I wanted something that continued the theme of war as well as signifying my lead character, Raymond’s ambition to rise through Norman society. When I visited Baginbun Point in County Wexford as part of my research, the name came to me. Baginbun is remote and not well known, its importance to the history of Ireland marked only by a small plaque. I found it incredible. I fancied that I could feel the presence of my ancestors on that windswept headland. Better than that, I could stand upon the Norman earthworks and could see why they had elected to make Baginbun their landing site. It was a castle designed by nature and augmented by Raymond’s warcraft. It would be the scene of my climactic battle and Raymond’s glory. The book would be called Lord of the Sea Castle.
Are the characters in your book based on real people?
All the characters are lifted from history, but their activities are given a fictionalised twist. The story is based on the writings of a Welsh priest, Gerald de Barri, as well as the 13th century epic chronicle, The Song of Dermot and the Earl. There are a number of inconsistencies between the two accounts and that, to me, gives me licence to embellish and enhance some of the story, but I do admit all my changes at the end of the novel. One instance of this is the back story for my protagonist, Raymond de Carew. Nothing is known about him before he landed in Ireland in the summer of 1170 and so I have attempted to discern what might have been in order to flesh out the character. The same is to be said of Alice of Abergavenny, a woman who comes into Raymond’s life during the book and really drives the entire story. Some writers in my field aim for historical accuracy. My objective is period authenticity.
What’s your favourite word?
If you were a colour what would it be?
Burgundy – lovely colour, smashing region, delicious wines
Do you plan your story beforehand or go with the flow?
A bit of both actually. As a story set in history there are elements that have to remain the same. However, I tend towards the ‘fiction’ side of the argument and have often found gaps in the historic record which I feel need to be filled (without moving the story too far in the direction of alternative history). This may be as simple as placing a point of view character at a historic event which I know they did not attend, or even combining two people whose stories are similar to streamline the account. In Lord of the Sea Castle I saw an opportunity to give Alice of Abergavenny a much bigger role than the one afforded by history and I leapt at the chance to do so.
Who is your favourite author?
Oh no! Another impossible question to answer! My favourite writers include Robert Louis Stevenson, Bernard Cornwell, Joseph Conrad, Simon Scarrow, Ben Kane, Arthur Conan Doyle, David Gilman, H. Rider Haggard, Conn Iggulden, John Buchan, Giles Kristian and Henning Mankell. To choose one over the others is next to impossible.
You are attending a dinner party with four fictitious book characters who would they be and why?
That is a stressful undertaking at the best of times! But inviting our literary heroes? My mind immediately goes to what to serve – Argentinian-style steak and Malbec perhaps. The big question, however, is if you choose guests you think might get on, or people with different personalities and backgrounds, hoping that they will find something to talk about? I’ve decided that two ladies and two gents would make for the best night’s craic.
Portia from The Merchant of Venice would be the first to arrive, almost definitely on time and bearing a well-thought out gift. She comes across as intelligent and level-headed, good company with an ability to talk to anyone. If we are playing after-dinner games I definitely want to be on her team.
Alan Breck Stewart from Kidnapped might still believe the Hanoverian fuzz are after him so I’ll leave the back door off the latch so he can slip in as he pleases rather than use the front door. I am certain he will like the food and drink, but might put the pressure on everyone to make a donation towards the cause of the King-over-the-Water. Note to self: do not mention “The Red Fox” around Alan. It will only set him off.
Say what you like about Cersei Lannister, but she will add a bit of class to proceedings. I think she might be difficult at the start. Liberal glasses of wine will loosen her up. A night away from her cadre of court officials and all that intrigue and back-stabbing in King’s Landing will be good for her too. I’m betting she is a hoot if you can keep her off the subject of politics (and her family).
Why do I think that Cersei and Jay Gatsby would get on like a house on fire (if we can prise him away from the Long Island shoreline that is)? I’m not usually a matchmaker, but I think they would make a healthy couple. He could worship her as she wishes to be worshipped. And he could get access to her world of high grandeur and ancient prestige (albeit in Westeros rather than West Egg) that he so desires. If not, well I presume we can still all get a taxi over to Gatsby’s house and see in the wee hours there!
What book are you reading at the moment?
Trespass by Anthony J. Quinn, a noir literary crime story set in post-Troubles Northern Ireland. I’ve read the first three in the series and this one is the best yet. They are all beautifully written. I’m very much looking forward to the next which is out in November.
Where in the world is your happy place?
I’ve travelled a bit and have been some wonderful places, but few have the impact of Kilkenny. When my family first came to Ireland in 1185 they settled at Nenagh in County Tipperary and it wasn’t until 1391 that they moved into Kilkenny Castle. My branch of the family split off from the senior in the early sixteenth century, and the castle has since been given to the people of the city, but it still evokes strong feelings in me. My last visit was a few years ago. I did a summer research trip all around the south-east with the last stop in Kilkenny before heading back north. Sitting on the parkland in front of the castle in the summer sun, seeing people from the city enjoy the open space was just wonderful. It isn’t home but I do take a great deal of pride in the place. Completely silly!
If you had one superpower what would it be?
Consistent good luck, I think. I’ve had a bit of good fortune, of course, but it is not something you can rely upon. Having it on tap would be most welcome! Invisibility is one that a lot of people might choose, but you can’t stay invisible all the time. You might lose control with super-strength and hurt someone. The world would become a bit of a blur if you were constantly moving at Flash-like speeds. Good luck could only improve the experience of life. And some of it has got to rub off on those around you!
If you could give any literary villain a happy ending who would you chose?
I like the thought that somehow Professor James Moriarty managed to survive his tumble over the Reichenbach Falls, just as did Sherlock Holmes. Perhaps he had always wanted the opportunity to retreat into obscurity, leaving his criminal past behind. I actually have a cousin who is called Professor Moriarty, in his case Chris Moriarty, and this no doubt affects my choice. No more pleasant a chap could you hope to meet than my Professor Moriarty. It makes me grin to think of him, a mild-mannered world-renowned expert in eels as an undercover Napoleon of Crime!
Are you working on a new project?
My next novel is called The Earl Strongbow and will follow on from the events of Lord of the Sea Castle and the tumultuous events of 1170. It is scheduled to be released in April 2018. I also have an idea for a film script which I would like to try and write. I’ll not say too much about it, but I will require a trip to Sligo for research purposes.
Do you have any upcoming events our members can attend?
I will be appearing at the Kildare Town Medieval Festival in August and hope to get a few more events organised too.
Sneak Peak ~ Extract
Extract from Lord of the Sea Castle by Ruadh Butler
Danger lay upriver. That, Raymond could feel in his bones as Waverider glided up the brown waterway where vegetation circled slowly and sank beneath her plunging wooden oars. On each side of the ship, trees hung limply, the longest branches dipping into the river from the bank and blanketing the land beyond from the Norman’s view. The sails had been robbed of wind by the tangle of trees and the summery conditions, and so the men rowed, their dipping oars the loudest sound on the slowly swirling river. It was stifling, this country and the sensation was not helped by the heavy armour which clad each warrior who journeyed north.
‘See anything?’ Fionntán asked. William de Vale hissed at him to quiet down. Everyone aboard, except the smirking Gael, conversed in hushed tones as they floated towards Cluainmín. Those who had been on ship during Amaury de Lyvet’s foraging trips told tales of darts, arrows and stones arcing suddenly from the shore from assailants unknown and striking down men as they toiled. Oddly Raymond had yet to meet anyone who had been wounded whilst sailing on the River Banneew despite the oft-told tales.
‘I can see nothing out there,’ Raymond squawked back at the Gael. His turn rowing was over and so he had taken up a position in the bows of Waverider, keeping watch on the shoreline for dangers unseen in the shallow riverway. Bright sunshine turned still pools of water on deck into vapour and more steam hung from dripping green leaves on shore. Beads of sweat ran down Raymond’s brow and he could feel more beneath his mail. The strong summer sunshine danced off shimmering surfaces and dazzled his eyes. As they rounded another bend in the Banneew, he espied a small homestead and farm carved from the forest. Two shirtless fishermen with long beards paddled coracles in the river, sweeping sculls in small circles to propel the ungainly craft forward. Both men gawped as Waverider swept past and began paddling with all their might for the riverbank. Raymond laughed at the men’s effort, their unwieldy vessels providing no speed for their getaway. The little coracles rocked as the wake from Waverider struck them and the fishermen clung onto the animal hide sheer-strakes as they span towards the reedy shallows.
‘How are we for depth?’ Amaury de Lyvet called from the starboard quarter. The steersman’s question was echoed up the boat by several men at the oars to the warlord’s earshot.
Raymond looked over the side into the brown, sandy river and began swinging the sounding line around his head. The hollowed out lead weight spun as it flew, dragging the thin knotted rope from his hand and forward over the bows of Waverider. As the lead hit the water, Raymond began doubling the line between his outstretched arms. He felt the weight impact with the riverbed and, as the line ran alongside the boat, he began counting the fathoms. He did not get far.
‘Less than three fathoms,’ he shouted back at Amaury, earning another appeal from William de Vale to keep his voice down.
‘Slow oars,’ the steersman shouted to the crew of Waverider. Happy to stop the work, the men complied immediately and sat back on their benches, swiping sweat from their faces.
‘What is her draught?’ Raymond asked Amaury as he walked down the length of the ship.
‘Two yards and a bit,’ the sailor replied. ‘Enough, I hope.’
‘But you have been further up river than here,’ Raymond said. ‘Haven’t you?’
Amaury raised his eyebrows, but did not answer.
‘No time like the present for a bit of exploring,’ Fionntán interjected. ‘The Ostmen can get up the river, so we can too. What is the bottom like?’ he asked.
Raymond swung the wet sounding line and caught the lead weight so that he could study a thick wad of tallow which he had pushed into the space where the rope was tied. As it had been dragged along the bottom the sticky material had picked up debris.
‘Nothing but sand,’ Raymond said as Amaury and Fionntán swapped concerned glances. Raymond had learned that the Gael was also a sailor and knew the waters of Ireland’s south coast as well as any man. The two launched into a conversation about whether or not they should continue upriver on foot or by ship. After a few minutes of discussion between the two, Fionntán sat down at his bench and Lyvet gave the order to continue rowing.
‘And you,’ Amaury added with a finger pointed at Raymond. ‘Keep your bloody eyes open. I don’t want to ground her on this damned sand.’ The journey continued as slowly as before with the noise from the sounding line falling in the water the only thing interrupting the squeak of wooden oars on the rails of the ship. The men continued to toil as the sun shone above them.
‘Two fathoms,’ Raymond shouted as the river began to narrow and sweep westwards. Amaury pulled the tiller into his stomach sending Waverider into deeper water closer to the eastern bank.
‘Keep bloody casting,’ he shouted at Raymond, but the warlord was no longer listening for, over a vast expanse of rushes and mud flats, were the masts of many ships. And beyond that, the Ostman longfort of Cluainmín came into view.
Raymond inhaled sharply as Waverider slid into enemy territory.
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