• Ali Isaac

daughter of Ireland, builder of churches

Updated: Mar 19

In 2018, I visited the early monastic site of Clonmacnoise. You can read about that HERE. But this wasn't just a place for men to gather, worship, and devote themselves to their beliefs; women lived and worked here too. They had their own church, their own role in the community, and by all accounts, they prospered as much as their male counterparts.

The Nun's Church occupies a key position at Clonmacnoise, just outside the inner central enclosure. It is located on the Eisker Riada, the route followed by the Pilgrim's Way, and by which visitors to Clonmacnoise approached the site.

Here, pilgrims would pause their journey in order to prepare and purify themselves before entering the sacred inner sanctum. It is thought that they obtained food and perhaps lodgings from the nuns, that they washed and received medical services, perhaps even spiritual services or blessings. All of this would have provided a means of income for the nuns.

But what is most interesting to me is that the building of this church was commissioned by a woman in the twelfth century, a woman who, despite her good works and religious devotion, has unjustly been cast as the most notorious woman in Irish history.

As you can see from the 3D model above, not much remains of the Nun's Church today. Measuring 13m by 8m, and completed in 1167 AD, the structure features intricately decorated arches in Hiberno-Romanesque style to both the entrance and the chancel, with finely worked carvings of monstrous creatures, animal heads, foliage, and geometric designs including Greek key. The foundations of two earlier churches have also been identified in the surrounding grounds.

some details of the carvings on the nun's church

You may not have noticed the ‘exhibitionist female’ (Anon 31), or Sheela–na–gig, on one of the arches, and you can be forgiven for that; she bears little resemblance to the grotesque style in which this female character is normally depicted. Here she is in close-up:

sheelanagig on arch of Nun's Church, Clonmacnoise

You can see here she is in classic pose, legs drawn up on either side of her face, hands on buttocks, vulva exposed. It has always intrigued my why these carvings appear on or above church doorways; as Rosemary Brown puts it, 'To a modern eye there is considerable incongruity between the holiness of the site and this explicit female figure'.

The purpose of the sheelanagig is not really known; it is possible, and widely-believed, that she may represent a pre-Christian goddess or fertility figure, adopted by the church, much like Brigid, when the people refused to give her up. Scholars disagree, stating that the sheela only began to appear on churches in Ireland following the Anglo-Norman conquest.

But this cannot be true. The Nun's Church was completed in 1167, yet the Anglo-Normans did not land in Ireland until 1169. This means that this sheela pre-dated the construction of Anglo-Norman churches in Ireland. Was this female figure already known in Ireland, perhaps copied for the first time in stone, rather than a material more perishable? Speculation on my part, but an interesting line of thought, nonetheless.

According to Brown, this particular sheela is quite unusual, in that she is to be found on the inside of the church on the chancel arch, rather than the outside; typically, they are positioned 'most frequently... on the outer walls of churches, usually at a gable-end, window or door'. The Nun's Church sheela is tiny and unobtrusive; you wouldn't know she was there unless you were specifically looking for her. She clearly wasn't designed to frighten people from lustful thoughts, but the fact that she exists within a building created to give space to female religious who dedicate their virginity to God must have some significance.

So, who was the builder? Well, according to the Annals of the Four Masters, the Church of the Nuns was constructed under the patronage of none other than Dearbhforgaill, daughter of Murchadh Ua Maeleachlainn (Celt M1167.16), she who changed the course of Ireland's history.

Her name is thought to mean either 'daughter of Fal' - fal is an ancient poetic name for Ireland, or 'daughter of destiny' (depending on which site you look at; perhaps someone with knowledge of early Irish can confirm or deny). If true, this is quite interesting considering she was a princess of the chiefdom of Meath, the location of the Hill of Tara and the Lia Fail/ Stone of Destiny. Her destiny was certainly tied with that of Ireland, as we shall see.

The story goes that she was abducted in 1152 AD by Diarmuid mac Murchadha, King of Leinster (Celt M1152.10), and although she was restored to her husband, Tighearnan Ua Ruirc of Breifne, the following year (Celt M1153.21), her abduction sparked a feud between the two men, setting off a chain of events which resulted in the Anglo-Norman invasion of Ireland, the consequences of which can still be felt in Ireland today, all these centuries later.

However, the manner of Dearhfhorgaill's departure is much debated; the Annals of Tigernach, for example, report that she was 'forcibly carried off' with all her wealth, while the Annals of the Four Masters claim she was 'brought away... with her cattle and her furniture', and that this was done on the advice of her brother. According to the Annals of Clonmacnoise, she was taken away by Diarmuid and kept 'for a long space to satisfie his insatiable, carnall and adulterous lust'.

Gerald of Wales, that well-known anti-Irish propagandist and all-round not-very-nice-person, in his Expugnatio Hibernica, lays the blame squarely at Dearbhfhorgaill's feet: 'she, who had long entertained a passion for Dermitius, took advantage of the absence of her husband, and allowed herself to be ravished, not against her will. As the nature of women is fickle and given to change, she thus became the prey of the spoiler at her own contrivance', and goes on to say, 'Almost all the world's most notable catastrophes have been caused by women'.

But could she really be to blame? After all, women held little power or influence in early medieval times, according to current schools of thought. Women, especially royal women, were reared with the sole purpose of securing wealth, power and allies for the menfolk through marriage and the producing of heirs. And yet, the fact that Dearbhforgaill brought all her wealth with her coincides with Brehon Law, in which a woman may retain her dowry and a portion of their joint property when she divorces her husband. For this reason, there are those who believe she was indeed complicit with her abduction, others who claim this was the elopement of lovers.

However, Lahney Preston-Matto proposes that love or agency had nothing to do with it; this act was all about the taking of political hostages. Hostage taking was 'an act of surety' in medieval times, and functioned in a similar way to fostering; one family entrusted members of their clan to another as a guarantor of alliance. He notes that in 1153, when Ua Ruiarc regained his wife, that he had given many other hostages, that in other words, he 'gave captives to ransom his wife from hostageship'. You might think this was for his love of her, but in fact, Dearbhfhorgaill had suddenly become more valuable; her father had died, leaving the succession to the kingship of Meath up for grabs. According to Brehon Law, the existence of a 'marriage by abduction' rule meant that Diarmuid could lay his claim, and Ua Ruiarc did not want that. No wonder he was willing to hand over a bunch of other hostages to get her back.

It is hard to get a sense of who Dearbhfhorgaill was, even though she is, unusually, mentioned so many times in the Annals. She was born in 1108 AD, so she was not a young woman when she was abducted in 1152. This makes elopement unlikely; one could argue that she had a lot to lose. However, it is clear that she came from a powerful family, and held a great deal of wealth in her own right, if she was able to commission the building of churches. A Queen of that age must have had children; it was her duty to provide heirs, yet although her husband and abductor are both credited with children, it is not clear which of them, if any, are hers. On the other hand, a barren woman would most likely have been set aside.

Clearly, she was a patron of the church and of the arts. At the consecration of Mellifont Abbey in 1157 AD, the first Cistercian Abbey in Ireland, she gave a gift of nine altar cloths, one for each altar (Celt M1157.9). This donation of textiles was a generous gift, but not an unusual one. However, for the ninth altar, the altar of Mary, she also gave a golden chalice. This particular gift is significant; Jenifer Ní Ghrádaigh claims that this chalice, 'which would hold Christ’s blood, symbolically allowed Derbforgaill to participate in the most sacred aspects of the Mass', a role which was probably denied women at that time, and that, '[m]ore

suggestively, her gift would contain Christ as the Virgin’s body had', perhaps thus bringing her closer to God, or to Mary. Not only that, but, as Ní Ghrádaigh suggests, 'her gifts both prepared a place for her in the community and assured her continuing presence in its liturgy after her death'.

In 1186, Dearbhfhorgaill retired to Mellifont, as many Queens did after the deaths of their husbands, where she lived a quiet life until her death in 1193.

It seems to me that Dearbhfhorgaill was a victim of circumstance, buffeted by the machinations of men greedy for power and war. The building of a stone church for women, the donation of precious gifts with hidden significant meaning are her subtle attempts at combating the patriarchy and establishing her own agency in a world where women typically had none. These are the clues she left behind to tell her story, one which differs from the harlot who brought about Ireland's downfall. And I like to think that the little sheela in the Nun's Church is a secret symbol of female power, her two-fingers to the rule of ruthless men.


Anon. 2009 The Monastic City of Clonmacnoise and its Cultural Landscape Candidate World Heritage Site. World Heritage Site Draft Management Plan 2009–2014. Department of Environment, Heritage and Local Government/ Office of Public Works, Dublin.

Celt: The Corpus of Electronic Texts, The Annals of the Four Masters, https://celt.ucc.ie/publishd.html.

Halpin, A., and Newman, C. 2006. Ireland: An Oxford Archaeological Guide to Sites from Earliest Times to AD1600, Oxford University Press, Oxford.

Brown, Rosemary, 2012. 'Iona's Sheela-na-Gig and its Visual Context', Taylor and Francis Online.

Ní Ghrádaigh, Jenifer. 2015. 'The occluded role of royal women and lost works of pre-Norman English and Irish art (tenth to twelfth centuries)', Taylor and Frnacis Online.

Preston-Matto, Lahney. 2010. 'Queens as Political Hostages in Pre-Norman Ireland: Derbforgaill and the Three Gormlaiths', The Journal of English and Germanic Philology , Vol. 109, No. 2, pp. 141-161