This book is set in the period when the Church moved in and took over Ireland.
Gwynneve trains as a Ban-druí (druidess) under a surly and disillusioned druid who is watching his order pass into history as the tonsured monks and priests swarm over the land.
But two different stories run concurrently, in alternate chapters. One is Gwynneve’s story of her childhood with her wonderful mother –
My father accused my mother of starving me by filling me up with stories instead of food. Everyone in my túath was hungry, especially during the months of thick frost. But I did not want food as much as I craved her stories, which soothed me. I listened to my mother weave words together and create worlds, as though she were a goddess. Words came from her mouth and dispelled my loneliness, even when she was not with me. She began every story with the phrase “It was given to me that “
– and then, when her mother has died, the story of her life with Giannon the druid.
And meanwhile, in the other chapters, we learn about the life she leads now as a nun among other Christian nuns who are drifting helplessly under the authority of a monk, Brother Adrianus, one of a small band who originally joined the nuns at the shrine of St Brigit on equal terms but who has now assumed the title and dignity of Abbot.
It is, let me say at once, depressing in parts. How could it not be? But as Gwynneve the nun, in the convent that is becoming daily more like a prison (and longing for her druid lover) writes her story on her treasured parchments, it is also very moving, and even uplifting.
Take some of Gwynneve’s views and comments (recorded in the secret diary).
Faced with unbelievable ignorance and stupidity, she writes: “I admonish myself and all who read this not to be ignorant on any matters of which knowledge is available. Do not be afraid of the truth “
And later: “For we both were weak in doctrine and strong in questions. But we both loved effort and knowledge, though I saw Giannon become weary in his eyes. I do not understand a man who does not want to know all that he can know.”
On the loneliness of incarnation: “Among all the wisdom and facts I learned from Giannon, I also learned the loneliness of incarnation, in which there is inevitably a separation of souls because of the uniqueness of our faces and our experiences.“
On God and nature: “I cannot see that any religion is true that does not recognize its gods in the green wave of trees on a mountainside or the echo of a bird’s song that makes ripple on a shadowed pool […] This land is full of holiness that I cannot describe. Brigit knows this. Brigit to me is the wisest of all the saints. She knows the value of ale and the comfort of poetry.”
On Christ and kindness: “That Christ fed fish and bread to the poor and spoke to the outcast whore makes me want his company on this dark night. The world is full of immortals but sorely lacking in kindness.”
It is indeed. And the end is truly shocking. Not depressing, no, on second thoughts. Tragic.