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Sister Fidelma Is on the Case

April 19, 2023

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Another “Sister Fidelma” mystery (#34 in the series) will be published in July, and this makes me happy. 

 For nearly three decades I’ve been an enthusiastic fan of these historical mystery novels, set in ancient Ireland in the 7th century A.D.  Sister Fidelma, the red-haired, green-eyed title character, is a Celtic nun and a respected “dalaigh”, or lawyer.

She is also a smart fictional detective who uses her authority and knowledge of the law to solve dozens of whodunits with the help of her loyal companion, Brother Eadulf, a Saxon monk.

The Sister Fidelma mysteries, written by British historian and Celtic scholar Peter Berresford Ellis (under the pen name Peter Tremayne), give us a fascinating peek into the status of women in ancient Ireland, when many women had considerable influence and power.

Under the indigenous Brehon Laws, which were handed down orally from one generation to the next until they were finally written down in the 7th century, both women and men were Brehons who administered the law.  That legal system, scholars say, provided for equality between the sexes.

 Women had full property rights and greater freedom and independence than other European societies of the time.  Women were entitled to divorce, after which property was divided according to what contribution each spouse had made to the household, as well as any settlement considered fair.  And, the law protected them from rape and harassment. 

All in all, things were relatively good for women in Ireland until England conquered the Emerald Isle for good in the 17th century and replaced the Brehon legal system with English common law — and we know which gender that system favored.

My point here is that when women have power, they can ensure the passage of laws that meet their needs and the needs of their families.  Which is why women need to be continually encouraged to run for political office and to offer their talents to appointed boards and commissions.

A look at South Carolina’s wretched ranking in the number of women in elected office (48th among the 50 states), with women holding just 14.7 percent of seats in the state legislature, shows why we need more Sister Fidelmas.  (One could  argue that we  also need more women like Grace O’Malley, the fearsome 16th century Irish pirate who later became a “shrewd politician”.)

It is not only the S.C. state legislature, however, that lacks women.  With the age-related retirement of Justice Kaye Hearn from the S.C. Supreme Court earlier this year, and her replacement by a male jurist, South Carolina is now the only state in the nation with an all-male high court.  To say women’s lack of representation on the court during these contentious times is troubling is a massive understatement.

Sister Fidelma and Grace O’Malley understood the importance of having a seat at the power table. South Carolina Women in Leadership does, too, which is why we urge you to consider throwing your chapeau into the political ring in 2024 – and if you can’t offer for office, supporting the women who do.

Jan Collins 2021-circle-crop

Jan Collins is a Columbia, South Carolina-based journalist, editor, and author. A former Nieman Fellow at Harvard and former Congressional Fellow in Washington, D. C., she is the coauthor of Next Steps: A Practical Guide to Planning for the Best Half of Your Life (Quill Driver Books, 2009).