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Uncovering the mystery of the 'thin places'

Since Secrets of the Land has been out in the world, I have had readers comment on the Irish notion of ‘thin places’ which they’ve encountered in the novel. The term means to walk between real and other or supernatural worlds . One reviewer said that the ‘thin places’ in Secrets of the Land provided a charming sense of mystery and intrigue throughout.

 My heritage is Irish on all both sides of my family;  my father emigrated from Ireland to New Zealand as a young man, and the generations on my maternal side arrived much earlier. But even so I had never heard of the phrase before. So I set off to find out more about it.

I soon learned it was the ancient pagan celts and later Christians who used the term 'thin places' to describe locations where the veil between this world and another is thin, thereby bringing us closer to that other world, with one definition describing it as,  ‘a spiritual portal,’ and another, ‘where heaven touches earth.’


The delineation between worlds was seen as more permeable in certain out of the ordinary areas in a landscape: these ‘thin places’ were sometimes signified by burial places or standing stones. Around the world many famous holy sites are described as ‘thin places’ as are the many ruins and unusual stone formations in Ireland. The Giant’s Causeway in Northern Ireland is one of many ‘thin places.’


When I first started working on the novel, my idea of one of the characters was that he was a ‘time traveller’ who entered another world and place via a swamp, a place that was full of bad smells and negative energy.

But some early readers and my editor viewed my time travelling character as a ghost. I realised this worked equally well for me. I wanted my character to reach out to redeem himself, to make reparation for what he thought he had done wrong. Of course, this also meant a lot of thought and discussion with my editor about how much physical action a ghost could undertake,  for example, intervening in a fight between two people.

Interestingly, before I learned of the term, 'Thin Places', I had one blogger comment in his review  ( a little disbelievingly) on the interweaving of the supernatural and the natural in the novel saying his wife was fully 100 percent Irish heritage and had never seen a ghost or had such experiences. His comments  prompted me to look at my own family background and the interweaving of supernatural  happenings – ‘coincidences’–  I had grown up hearing about.

One example was the occasion when  my father’s sister, a nun, called him not long after he was saved from being trapped down a well on the farm. She had been unable to sleep in Ireland on the other side of the world, worrying something bad was happening to her brother in New Zealand.

One cousin, who had lived all his life in Ireland, had also written to me about the numerous supernatural happenings in the ancestral O’Mahony home there. In Ireland, the Gaelic word for superstition was ‘piseogs’ and I wrote about such things in an article which appeared in Newsroom.    


 After seeing this article re-posted on my Facebook page a number of people responded with comments about the strange incidents and ghostly visitations which had happened in their own lives.

Sometimes you  start writing a novel and don’t realise what themes will come to play, for example an insight into a world in which supernatural happenings occur alongside real world events.  I like to think that my character, Michael, who began in my mind as a stranger a young girl comes across on a farm, had a story he wanted me to communicate. And so I told it.  

In the author’s notes at the back of the novel, you will see that Michael, a soldier in the New Zealand Wars, was based on a real person. His story in the novel, however, is fiction – based on careful research into the brutal events which took place in 19th century colonial  New Zealand.


Photo by Isabel Doody



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