The Gospel of Mary

by Philip Freeman

Reviewed by Margaret Tomlinson

The Gospel of Mary isn't really a mystery, though it follows Freeman's 2014 mystery St. Brigid's Bones and continues the story of the fictional Dierdre, a Druidic bard who is also a nun in the monastic community of Kildare. Readers interested in Celtic Ireland during its sixth-century transition from paganism to Christianity may find it worth a read, mystery or not. 

The story begins with an elderly nun dying after she reaches Kildare with an ancient manuscript in her possession. The big question is not how she died, but whether the manuscript is genuine. Guarded through the centuries by communities of Christian women who hid and preserved it, it's said to be an autobiographical document dictated by Mary, the mother of Jesus. It had to be hidden to keep male church authorities from finding and destroying it. The latest of these hostile authorities is Dierdre's enemy, the Abbot of Armagh, who hounded the elderly nun to her death. 

Dierdre, a scholar of languages, is the only person at Kildare capable of translating the document from Aramaic, the ancient Biblical language in which it was written. To protect Kildare, the manuscript and herself, she travels across Ireland with a single friend as her companion, knowing the Abbot's hired thugs will be doing their best to track her down and destroy the document.

Though well researched from a historical perspective, The Gospel of Mary falls short of depicting characters who feel emotionally and psychologically real. For example, while on the run, Dierdre and her friend easily manage to write a smooth translation of the manuscript as havoc follows close on their heels. Perhaps the most interesting aspect of the novel is the theology behind the fictional Gospel of Mary. Whether readers will find this a radical challenge to orthodox Christianity or a relatively conventional interpretation of it will depend on the readers' own beliefs. (2017, 188 pages including an Author's Note)

More about The Gospel of Mary at Powell's Books or The Book Depository

Other novels set in early Christian Ireland:

Saint Brigid's Bones by Philip Freeman (2014), the first in the Sister Dierdre mystery series. See review or more info at Powell's Books

The Sword And The Miracle by Melvyn Bragg (1996; titled Credo in the U.K.), about St. Bega, a seventh-century Irish princess who spreads the Christian faith in Anglo-Saxon England, helped by the miraculous power of a piece of the true cross. More info

Absolution by Murder by Peter Tremayne (1994), about a nun in seventh-century Ireland who must find out who murdered an abbess about to speak at a religious council; #1 in the Sister Fidelma series. See review or more info at Powell's Books

Nonfiction about early Christian Ireland:

Early Christian Ireland by T.M. Charles-Edwards (2000). More info

The Modern Traveller to the Early Irish Church by Ann Hamlin and Kathleen Hughes (1997). More info

Brigid: Goddess, Druidess and Saint by Brian Wright (2009). More info


St. Brigid’s Sacred Sites & Stories at the Kildare Town Tourist Office & Heritage Centre website

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