Earn Fire notes

Mallory Dock is a focal point in Key West, especially for its Sunset ritual, which has become extremely commercialized since the time of the events in this novel, some of which occur here.

Mallory Sunset


The Harp Macalla has a significant part to play in the action. Its design is somewhat like the Black Harp that I made and sold many years ago and the Chestnut Harp, which I still have, and the Welsh replica below.

Chestnut Harp

This is a replica of an old Welsh harp that a Breton friend, Brigitte Kloareg, let me play.

Replica of old Welsh harp


Reynir’s adventures take him to the Isle of Man, among other places.

An Ounce of Precaution

 The family I stayed with in the fishing village of Peel on the Isle of Man explained the crosh-cuirn – rowan-cross. Two twigs of rowan, preferably gathered on May Eve, are tied together with raw wool and hung on the inside of the front and back doors of a house to ward off evil spirits and prevent fire. It is the Manx equivalent of the Brigit’s Cross that Irish people make of rushes on Saint Brigit’s Day, the First of February.

“Of course, it’s only a superstition,” they told me. “Maybe some of the country people still believe in it, but we here in Peel don’t.”

A young Peel fisherman, Dave Fisher, freely admitted that he and others of his trade took certain precautions. It is considered unlucky, for example, to say the name of a priest when you are on the boat, or to see a priest or a red-haired woman on the way to the boat.

One morning, Dave left his house late and saw the local priest on the way to the boat. He could have taken the precaution of going back home and starting out again, but being late already, he didn’t. However, as the boat was chugging out of the harbour for the day’s fishing, Dave’s conscience began to bother him, and he decided to confess to the captain.

“I saw someone this morning,” he said.

“Who was it?” the captain asked.

“The man with his collar turned round.”

“I don’t know what you’re talking about,” the captain said. “Who was it?”

“I saw Father Brown on the way to the boat,” Dave blurted out.

“That’s double bad luck, then, to see the priest and to say his name,” the captain said. ”There’ll be no fishing today.”

And he turned the boat around and stayed in port the rest of the day.

Dave told me he had been having a run of bad luck one time, and he decided to apply an old remedy in case someone had put a curse on him. If a bargain is not struck after haggling over the price of an animal, it is an old precaution in these islands for the would-be seller to pick up some dirt from the footprint of the non-buyer and sprinkle it over the back of the unsold animal. That way, if the frustrated buyer puts a curse on the animal, it will bounce back onto him. The problem was that Dave had no idea who might have put the curse on him. He explained his version of the remedy:

“You go to a busy crossroads where everyone has probably walked recently, scoop up some dust, and throw it over the back of the next person who passes by. That way the curse will be transferred to that person. You have to do it after midnight under a new moon, and you can’t speak to anyone until you get home.”

Dave scooped up a dustpan full of dirt from the crossroads and threw it – and the dustpan for good measure – over the back of the first car that passed after midnight. Unluckily, it was a police car. Of course, Dave couldn’t explain his strange actions because he couldn’t speak until he got home, otherwise the curse-breaking spell wouldn’t work. He spent the rest of the night in jail, until the police decided they weren’t going to get any answers out of him.

Many fishermen, not only the Manx, avoid saying the name of any land animal – some say only certain animals, but all agree that “rat” is especially taboo – on board a fishing boat. I met Dave at a party where he was trying to tell a joke about a game of golf, Jesus Christ, and a water rat. Every time the word “rat” was mentioned, everyone in the room stamped their feet, shouted, knocked on wood, or touched cold iron.

I said nothing at the time, but the following day I decided to ask an English couple who had been teaching in Peel for a few years if people really believed that saying the word “rat” would bring bad luck on land. They had also been at the party.

“When Dave was telling the joke about the water rat …” I began, but my question was interrupted by the two teachers shouting, stamping their feet, knocking on wood, and touching cold iron. They had gone native. The man said he had tried to read The Wind in the Willows to his pupils once, and he could never get past the mention of a certain central character.

When I left the house in Peel where the people are not superstitious, I noticed small crosh-cuirns mounted inconspicuously inside the front and back doors – an ounce of precaution, just in case.


On the Isle of Man, Reynir relates: “I come out of the woods to a clearing with a large hill in the middle shaped like a wedding cake. This is Tynwald Hill, the historical exhibit next to it explains, formed by soil from all parts of the Island, and it is the scene of the Island’s one-day legislative session each July.”


Tynwald Hill


In Earn Fire, Reynir explains about Guinness stout to Pops: “The Cubans put an extra label on the back: ‘Cerveza Cabeza de Perro – Dog’s Head Beer.’”

“Cabeza de Perro” seems to refer to the picture of the head of a dog on the label, but Cabeza de Perro was a real-life pirate of the Caribbean. Ángel García was born about 1800 in Igueste de San Andrés, Tenerife, Canary Islands, with a severe deformity of the head. Bullied and rejected in childhood, he left Tenerife as soon as he reached adulthood and carved out a trade as a merchant, slave-trafficker and pirate, making his headquarters in Havana, Cuba. More details on Cabeza de Perro here.

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