As March 17th rapidly approaches, many across the world are undergoing preparations to celebrate Saint Pádraig's Day. What a disconcertingly few of the individuals swilling various shades of green beer on that day know is that Ireland is a country with a very proud history of mythological and real warrior women. Ireland's feminist culture in more recent times is also worth a closer look this month, as these women continue the Irish tradition of resistance in face of oppression.
Prior to the arrival of Christianity in Ireland, the ancient Celts worshiped both gods and goddesses. For the ancient Celt, the essence and harbinger of all life was female. The portrayal of Celtic Goddesses in Irish myth shows a culture where women were the spiritual and moral pivot. Unlike the Greek Goddesses, who were idealized in myth but not representative of the reality governing the lives of Greek women, the Celtic goddesses occupied positions based on roles Celtic women would typically fill. Like the women they worshipped, Celtic women were free to bear arms (this was true in Ireland until at least the 7th century), engage in politics, and become Druids. As Moyra Caldicott aptly states in 'Women in Celtic Myth' . . . "one of the things I find so refreshing in the Celtic myths is that the women are honoured as much for their minds as for their bodies."
Two of these women that were popularized through the ages via Celtic Myth are Queen Medb of Connacht (meaning "intoxicating" or "she who intoxicates") and Aoife, (or Aífe, derived from the Gaeilge word aoibh, meaning beauty). Both are featured heavily in the Ulster Cycle, a group of legends and tales are set in the 1st Century BC. Queen Medb ruled Connacht, located in the West of Modern Day Ireland, in her own right, as the title of sovereign was passed to her through her father. Medb ruled for 60 years, and is the sole reason that her five husbands gained the title of "King." To be married to Medb was to be married to the land. Medb was a woman that was not to be trifled with. When a druid predicted that a son of Medb's named Maine would kill Conchobar, (Medb assumed the Druid meant her nemesis named Conchobar, who was also the King of Ulster), Medb promptly renamed every son she gave birth to Maine. Prophecy proved to be a double edged sword when her third eldest son killed a Conchobar...except the Conchobar that was slain at Maine's hand was not Ulster's King. Medb took many lovers during her reign, and is the main protagonist of the closet thing to an epic in the Ulster Cycle, a legend called "The Cattle Raid of Cooley," which describes a conflict between Medb's Connacht and Ulster. Medb was eventually slain by a man named Furbaide. Furbaide struck Medb with a piece of cheese while bathing, in reltaliation for Medb killing his mother. The exact location of Medb's burial mound is up to debate, as County Sligo, County Galway, and County Roscommon each claiming to be the site of Medb's burial cairn.
Aoife is another warrior princesses that was featured heavily within the Ulster Cycle. Aoife was constantly battling her sister, Sgathaich, who was said to teach the legendary Irish hero Cú Chulainn various battle moves and the art of war. Cú Chulainn and Aoife were well matched. Cú Chulainn only defeated Aoife by using a trick, (Cú Chulainn lied and said that Aoife's beloved horses and chariot were falling off a cliff, Aoife turned, and Cú Chulainn then promptly held a knife to her throat) securing peace between the two sisters. Although defeated, Aoife was indomitable, and soon seduced Cú Chulainn, eventually becoming pregnant with Cú Chulainn's only son, Conlaoch. Cú Chulainn then left Aoife and the newborn, but not before giving Aoife a golden ring in which to bestow upon their son when he got older, as a means for Cú Chulainn to recognize him later. Aoife expected Cú Chulainn to return. Cú Chulainn never did, and soon married another woman, Emer. As Conlaoch grew, so did Aoife's rage. Aoife soon sent Conlaoch from her Scottish home to Ulster, under the stipulation that he was never to reveal his identity, nor turn down a fight. Eventually, Conlaoch arrived at Cú Chulainn's court. Conlaoch's refusal to fight caused several of Cú Chulainn's men to challenge him in battle. Being raised by Aoife, an excellent warrior in her own right, Conlaoch defeated the men easily. Cú Chulainn's then challenged Conlaoch. Cú Chulainn's famous rage took hold of him. Cú Chulainn struck down Conlaoch, only to see the ring that he had gifted Aoife years before on Conlaoch's hand. Cú Chulainn could not cope with the loss of his only son at his own hand, and spent the rest of his short life in reflection of his passions, rages, and rash actions. Cú Chulainn was henceforth a broken man, and Aoife's revenge was complete. Scholars believe that these actions by Aoife are akin to the fusion powers bestowed to Celtic Goddesses; as fusions of fertility powers with those of war were common in the Celtic cannon. To the Celts, death came from life and life came from death; women opened the gates of life, and also could close them.
Another Irish woman that bled over from history into myth was Granuaile, or Grace (Gráinne) O'Malley, who lived in the 16th century. Queen of Umaill in County Mayo, and chief of the Ó Máille clan, Granuaile's story is one of legend. Gráinne was born in the West of Ireland in 1530, when Henry VIII was reigning in England. Although Henry VIII was Lord of Ireland in name, under English government at the time, the princes and lords of Ireland still had some semblance of autonomy, and were allowed to own devices, lest they were hostile with the English provinces in Ulster. This slowly began to change, as the Tudor conquest of Ireland took place. Gráinne's father, Eoghan Dubhdara Ó Máille, was King of Umaill. One of the few seafaring families on the West Coast, Eoghan had a row of castles along the shore to protect his territory. Upon his death, Gráinne inherited Eoghan's lucrative shipping and trading business. This business was said to be by some a piracy trade. Allegedly. Legend goes, that Eoghan wouldn't allow a young Gráinne onto his ships, lest her long hair get caught in the rigging. Gráinne, seeking a solution, promptly chopped her hair off, and began to tag along. Gráinne proved to be so adept on the high seas, that she rose amongst the ranks on Eoghan's ships, becoming his second in command, ranking higher than some of her own brothers. At some point, Gráinne found the time to be formerly educated, due to the fact that she spoke Latin with Queen Elizabeth I; more on that later.
Eventually, Gráinne married Dónal an Chogaidh, who was the Tánaiste (heir to the Chief) of the Ó Flaithbheartaigh title. This was a good political match, which would have allowed Gráinne to rule Iar Connacht, or roughly modern day Connemara. Gráinne bore Dónal three children (two sons, one daughter) and upon his death, returned to her homestead on Clare Island, taking many loyal Ó Flaithbheartaigh followers with her. Gráinne then married Risdeárd an Iarainn Bourke for a year, (solely to get possesion of Rockfleet Castle, which was in a strategic spot along the coast, near sheltered harbors where a pirate...er...shipping or trading ship could hide). After the year, (and the birth of another son) Gráinne and her followers camped out in the castle, and Gráinne unceremoniously ended her marriage by shouting out the window:
Richard Burke, having been served, left Gráinne to her own devices. Since Gráinne was in possession of the castle at the time of the divorce, she kept it, and Rockfleet remained in her family for centuries. Rumor of Gráinne's sexual conquests also flourished, including a dalliance with a lad 15 years her junior.
So, about the alleged piracy. After Gráinne's first husband's death, a slew of complaints to the English Council in Dublin began flying in, saying that her ships were behaving like pirates. In actuality, Galway imposed taxes on ships that traded there. Gráinne decided to impose a similar tax on ships traveling in waters off of her lands. Piracy? Or sound business decision? You be the judge. Mháille's would board ships and ask for currency, or a portion of cargo, for safe passage through their waters, and the rest of the way to Galway. Resistance was met with violence and, occasionally, murder. (OK, that sounds a little like piracy).Upon receiving their toll, Mháille ships would vanish into one of the many bays in the area. On top of her ships, Gráinne owned land through both her father, and her mother, along with horses and cattle with an estimated total number of 1,000. This meant that Gráinne was also very wealthy. In addition, Gráinne was somewhat of an Irish freedom fighter, using every bit of her power to limit the sovereignty of the Kingdom of Ireland in her lands in the West. This includes, but is not limited to, defending Hen's Castle by pouring boiling oil on the English when they attempted to take it from her.
That being said, Gráinne couldn't withstand the encroachment of the English on her lands forever. In 1593, two of Gráinne's sons and her half brother were taken captive by the English governor of Connacht, Sir Richard Bingham. Gráinne decided the best course of action would be to sail to London to have an audience with Queen Elizabeth I in order to petition their release, so that's what she did. Gráinne showed up at court, dressed in finery, and refused to kneel to Elizabeth, because Gráinne did not recognize her as Queen as Ireland. Gráinne carried a dagger on her, (for her own safety) and was nonplussed and unperturbed upon it's removal. The most famous tale from this visit occurs when Gráinne sneezed, and was offered a lace-edged handkerchief by one of Elizabeth's women. After using said handkerchief, Gráinne threw it into the fireplace, to the horror of the English Court. Gráinne calmly explained that in Ireland, a used handkerchief was deemed unsanitary, and should be disposed of. Gráinne then demanded the release of her relatives. It should be noted that the conversation between Elizabeth and Gráinne was done in Latin, as Gráinne spoke no English, and Elizabeth spoke no Irish. After much conversation, Elizabeth promised that Bingham would get fired, and Gráinne's relatives would be released, and a castle and cattle that Bingham had stolen from her would be returned, as long as Gráinne stopped supporting Ireland's nobles and rebellions. Gráinne agreed, Bingham was sacked, and that's all she wrote.
Except that it wasn't. Some demands that Gráinne made remained unmet, namely the return of the castle and the cattle. In addition, Bingham was sent back to Ireland shortly after being removed from office. Because of this, Gráinne essentially said, "Girl, bye!" to the agreement, and was an ardent supporter of Irish Rebels during the Nine Years War. She supposedly died in 1603, the same year as Elizabeth, at Rockfleet castle, although the location and year of her death are disputed. In death, Gráinne continues to inspire songwriters, playwrights, and feminists to this day. So when you're by the sea, smelling the salt on the air, and enjoying the breeze, spare a thought for Gráinne. For if you don't, she just might sail up and claim it.
Second Wave feminists in Ireland followed in the footsteps of Medb, Aoife, and Gráinne, while fighting patriarchal oppression. The Second Wave feminist movement in Ireland is said to have begun in the early 1970's. Leaders of the movement included Mary Robinson (born Mary Burke), Nell McCafferty (who remains an active feminist figure in Ireland, and is an ardent supporter of gay rights), Mary Kenny (a founding member of the Irish Women's Liberation Movement), June Levine, and Nuala O'Faolain fronted the burgeoning Second Wave feminist movement in Ireland. Famously, in 1971, a group of women in the Republic of Ireland travelled to Northern Ireland in order to obtain contraceptives, which were illegal in the Republic at the time. Mary Robinson and her feminist sisters also openly opposed and rallied against the 1983 amendment to the Irish Constitution that banned abortion. Abortion remains illegal on request in Ireland, although thanks to recently passed legislation, a woman may obtain an abortion in Ireland if her life is threatened. In 1990, Mary Robinson was elected Uachtarán of Ireland. In 1997, Mary McAleese succeeded Mary Robinson as Uachtarán, making her the world's first woman to succeed another as President. McAleese is also the first Uachtarán of Ireland to be from Ulster (or Northern Ireland).
Although some this March may be focused on the craic and going out on the piss, March is also a great time to reflect on the powerful women that litter Ireland's history. Today, Ireland's feminists (like those in the Irish Feminist Network) still have plenty to fight for. When the battle is won, these modern day Irish women will take their place amongst the women warriors and feminists of Ireland's past, and shall transcend from history, to myth, to legend.