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Contact: Monastery North of Ros’s Farmstead

While writing “Contact,” I had a scene in which a couple of my (not-so-nice) characters discussed the acquisition of local “assets” north of Ros’s farmstead (the location of modern-day Dingle, Ireland).

The few farmsteads to the north have been stripped of food and fodder. But even this side will soon be barren unless we obtain more thralls to work the land.

But, from a tour of Ireland, I knew there was a Monastery in the same region, hence I knew I had to add a line to that paragraph:

The few farmsteads to the north have been stripped of food and fodder. Even the small monastery is now barren. But even this side will soon be barren unless we obtain more thralls to work the land.

So what did/does this Monastery look like? Here is an encompassing view showing the surviving church:

Gallarus Oratory

Monastery North of Ros’s Farmstead

No doubt, the stone church was surrounded by less permanent structures such as residences, cattle pens, storage buildings (made of wattle and daub), and fencing.

It’s quite interesting that the church’s door and the only window line up:


Looking East through Gallarus Oratory

The construction is also of interest. No mortar. Only gravity holds it together:

Gallarus Oratory's Stonework

Morterless Construction

An interior view showing the intersection of ceiling and walls:

Gallarus Oratory's Stonework

Interior View of Stonework

A much more elaborate religious structure stood a few miles away. But as it was built in the 1200’s, it didn’t make it into the story:

Church of Kilmalkedar,

Church near Gallarus Oratory

Collapse: status

I’ve got a rough outline of the main plot. But as I write (I’m only at 9000 words…90,000 is typical book length), all sorts of sub-plots are slipping in.

This is a complicated story. Especially since the Maya civilization is so alien to us/me.

Also,  they had larger cities than Europe in the middles ages. And larger populations. And they are one of the few civilizations that developed (on their own) the concept of “zero” in their number system.

Need a read while waiting for Collapse? May I suggest:

“1632” by Eric Flint

From Amazon:

In Flint’s novel of time travel and alternate history, a six-mile square of West Virginia is tossed back in time and space to Germany in 1632, at the height of the barbaric and devastating Thirty Years’ War.

Oh, and the eBook version is free on Amazon.

“Island In The Sea Of Time” by S. M. Stirling

From Amazon:

It’s spring on Nantucket and everything is perfectly normal, until a sudden storm blankets the entire island. When the weather clears, the island’s inhabitants find that they are no longer in the late twentieth century…but have been transported instead to the Bronze Age! Now they must learn to survive with suspicious, warlike peoples they can barely understand and deal with impending disaster, in the shape of a would-be conqueror from their own time.

Finally, my all time favorite (and rather weird) series:

“The Eyre Affair: A Thursday Next Novel” by Jasper Fforde (not a typo!)

From Amazon:

Fans of Douglas Adams and P. G. Wodehouse will love visiting Jasper Fforde’s Great Britain, circa 1985, when time travel is routine, cloning is a reality (dodos are the resurrected pet of choice), and literature is taken very, very seriously: it’s a bibliophile’s dream. England is a virtual police state where an aunt can get lost (literally) in a Wordsworth poem and forging Byronic verse is a punishable offense. All this is business as usual for Thursday Next, renowned Special Operative in literary detection. But when someone begins kidnapping characters from works of literature and plucks Jane Eyre from the pages of Brontë’s novel, Thursday is faced with the challenge of her career. Fforde’s ingenious fantasy—enhanced by a Web site that re-creates the world of the novel—unites intrigue with English literature in a delightfully witty mix. Thursday’s zany investigations continue with six more bestselling Thursday Next novels, including One of Our Thursdays is Missing and the upcoming The Woman Who Died A Lot.

Hey, any story in which Jane Eyre is kidnapped from her book has gotta be great…

For questions, comments, and general BS, please drop me a line at

PS…link to information on the Monastery:


Thatched Roof

So I’m writing away (or trying to) in my alternative version of 11th century Ireland., when my characters had to thatch a shelter. Yikes, so how does one thatch a roof?

Screen shot 2013-12-24 at 5.06.01 PM

Note the straw/reeds are cut side down. Ahh…the aluminum ladder may be a bit difficult to find in 11th century Ireland…

A common reed (phragmites communes) is one typical plant used for thatching. Also wheat straw is used but care must be taken not to damage the straw during threshing (removing the grain from the stalk).

Modern construction:
Was surprised to find that the bottom (thicker) end of the reed is placed “downhill”.

And when you get done, you can trim the roof:

Sulfur and Alternative History

Gunpowder played a critical role in history of warfare. In European history, it resulted in the decline of importance of mounted and armed Knights as a “commoner” with a matchlock could take out the medieval symbol of wealth and power.

Along with the Knight, the stone castle fell before the onslaught of cannon fire and explosives.

A blacksmith hammers a white hot iron ingotTwo factors limited in the development and use of gunpowder. The first concerned the metallurgy required to fabricate the guns and cannon. This will be the subject of a future post.


The second factor was the acquisition of gunpowder components, which consists of a mixture of 75% Saltpetre (Potassium Nitrate), 15% Carbon (charcoal) and 10% Sulfur.

Remains of saltpeter miningSaltpetre (Potassium Nitrate) can be found in caves, the result of nitrate in the soil being dissolved and percolating downwards to anaerobic soils. There it is converted into ammonium. If caverns are present, it can evaporate at the cave surfaces, where it can be oxidized to potassium nitrate by bacteria (1).

In the absence of the appropriate geology, this process can be artificially produced by letting wood ash and organic material soaked in urine age in a barn or other shelter (2). These sources are limited. But with the event of global trade, Saltpetre could be obtained from India and South America.

The making of charcoal is a well known skill, the only question being the choice of wood. Dogwood, willow and alder are commonly used (2).

Hot springs with sulfur depositesSulfur is an element. This ingredient was probably the limiting factor in the use of gunpowder in European history. Two main historic sources were Sicily and, later by the 14th century, Iceland. The source in each location being volcanic vents.


Of Metallurgy, Charcoal, Saltpetre and Sulfur, it would be hard to control the first three. Sulphur however is extremely localized resource. If a group or state could exert dominion on two relatively small regions of Europe, they could control gunpowder and thus warfare.

An excellent scenario for alternative history would be introducing the technology of metallurgy into pre-gunpowder Middle Ages. Access to one of the sources of sulphur would insure the availability of gunpowder. Exclusive access would insure domination. From there, it’s an adventure story.

1. “Geology and History of Confederate Saltpeter Cave Operations in Western Virginia”, Virginia Minerals, Vol. 47, November 2001, No.4.

2. “The Big Bang: A History of Explosives” by George Ingham Brown, November 1998, Chapter 2 “Making Gunpowder”

3. General reference: