were there women poets in ancient ireland?
Updated: Aug 1, 2020
According to popular belief, the Brehon Laws were quite forward thinking when it came to equality between the sexes. This is certainly true of the divorce laws, but not so much in other areas, for example property and legal rights. It certainly seems to state that women could participate in all the same professional occupations as men, such as warriors, law-givers and poets.
However, what most people overlook, is that the laws represented an ideal, just like our laws of today. For example, we believe our society is sophisticated, just and equal, when in fact, it is anything but. Legislation amounts to words on a page; it’s what we like to think our society looks like.
Meanwhile, as any woman can tell you, women are still discriminated against, particularly in the workplace, and the LGBTQ community face horrible prejudice on a daily basis, as do the disabled.
How many women have been interrogated in job interviews about their plans to have children? I certainly have during my retail management days, and I still burn with anger and resentment that not one of my male colleagues faced the same ordeal. Firstly, it’s an invasion of my private life and no-one’s business but my own. Secondly, it has no bearing on my ability to do my job.
Similarly, my daughter, Carys, has faced horrendous discrimination as a disabled person, and I know several gay people who have had to cope with awful persecution, despite what the law states their rights to be.
What has this to do with women poets in ancient Ireland? Everything. We still live in a male dominated society. Example: if a man cooks, he becomes a celebrity chef; if a woman cooks, she is just a housewife.
Of course, there are exceptions, and this is where it all gets a bit tangled and gnarly (thanks, Éilis, for this brilliant word, I love it!) and thereby intriguing.
To understand the information we have, we need to look at the way it was obtained, and by whom. Antiquarianism, ie archaeology and the translation of Old Irish texts only came into its own really during the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries.
This period was a firmly male dominated era of western society. In all honesty, it still is. Hence we have seen the rise of feminist archaeology in recent decades, and yes, it really is a ‘thing’.
Perhaps you’re rolling your eyes now… bloody feminists, anarchists! But it needed to happen, because what was happening is this:
‘archaeologists were unproblematically overlaying modern-day, Western gender norms onto past societies’.
And I can give you an example of this phenomenon. Archaeologists were dismissing all ‘Celtic’ burials where the skeleton was buried without a weapon as female, without further investigating the bones for gender, when in fact, the presence or absence of a weapon may have little significance.
At Wetwang Slack in Yorkshire, UK, one of the three graves revealed a female skeleton accompanied into the afterlife by a war chariot, a typical sign of a warrior, but no weapon. Grave 5 at Kirkburn revealed a male skeleton dressed in a fine chainmail shirt but no weapon.
Bettina Arnold claims that as weapons were so valuable, they were not buried with the owner but passed down through the male line. She also states that:
‘weapons were simultaneously status-, gender-, and age-specific grave goods’,
indicating that many categories of men in society, such as the very young, the aged, or lower status men may not have been identified as male by archaeologists due to the absence of weapons among their grave goods.
According to Margaret Conkey, male-dominated archaeological fieldwork and analysis has led to approaches in archaeology which are:
‘unreflexively Western, normative, and heterosexual.’
In other words, interpretation of archaeology is influenced by current male bias towards the gender roles of men and women. As Hayes-Gilpin and Whitley say,
‘archaeologists… have projected stereotypes from the present into the past, resulting in interpretations of archaeological data resting on unsupported assumptions about sex roles and gender identity.’
Ok. Enough about archaeology. You may be wondering what this has to do with female poets of ancient Ireland. Well, I’m trying to show how our pre-conceived notions of gender roles colour our interpretations of the past, despite what the evidence actually shows us.
Consider this; when discussing the beautiful and overtly sensitive poem known as ‘The Old Woman of Beare‘, James Carney says:
‘When he speaks of drinking with kings and receiving presents of chariots, and horses, he is adverting, I would say, to his own experience as a poet. The difficulty I find in accepting the poem as a literary realisation of the plight of an old courtesan who has given up the world (or rather, whom the world has given up) has to do with the Irish social scene c. 750. Little as we know about this, I have some difficulty in imagining a woman (whether courtesan or wife) continually carousing with the men folk. … the women at best got a token sip, and their main function (as in the sagas) was to serve and pour.’
He’s referring to the poem, ‘The Old Woman of Beare‘, and yes, he’s implying that the creator of the poem was a man. The highlighted parts are my own doing, which I think emphasise his particular male bias. As a women who has just slipped into her 5oth year, I so get where Digde is coming from, something I don’t believe a man can ever empathise with or capture, particularly a male monk from the ninth century.
My point is, that if such writings were created during medieval times, as scholars believe, then they represent medieval times, ie the Christian era, which as we know, is female-phobic.
If they are founded on earlier pre-Christian oral tales, they may have been doctored to suit Christian ideology. Modern interpretation, having inherited that male bias, subconsciously, or purposefully, reinforces that view.
Certainly, archaeology reinforces gender difference but not gender status. Although dealing with hard evidence of previous civilisations, it is just as subject to pre-conceived ideas and interpretation as any other aspect of the study of the past.
So, where does this leave us in terms of our female poets? Well, scholars say that it is almost impossible to identify whether a text was written by a man or a woman, and I guess that is true.
Even today, we as writers and storytellers assume a ‘poetic mask’ or persona in telling a story. I have written stories from the viewpoint of a fourteen year old boy, for example, even though I am a 50 year old woman. Therefore, the use of ‘gendered language’ is not in itself sufficient evidence for identifying the gender of the writer.
As Thomas Clancy says:
‘The overt use of a persona by the poet must always cast into doubt whether a poem spoken by a woman is the creation of a woman. In general though, the assumption has been that all poems, unless proven otherwise, are created by men.’
So it’s possible that the poems said to be written by women may have been written by men.
You can read my interpretation of the Lament of the Old Woman of Beare here, and the Encounter of Líadain and Curithir here. It seems to me that these poems are so delicate, so nuanced to all that it is to be a woman in a male-dominated society, that they couldn’t possibly have been written by a medieval male, let alone a medieval male monk.
But were Líadain and Digde real historical persons, or just legend? Well, the prologue to The Lament of the Caillech Bérre states this:
‘The Old Woman of Beare, whose name was Digde, was of the Corcu Duibne, that is to say of the Uí Maic Íair Conchinn. Brigit daughter of Iustán belonged to them also, and Líadain wife of Cuirithir, and Úallach daughter of Muimnechán.’
Now Úallach we know is a real historical person according to the Annals of Inisfallen (934) which recorded her death, ‘Quies Uallaige ingene Muinechain, banfile Herend – ‘the Repose of Uallach daughter of Muinechan, poetess of Ireland’. It clearly states her status not just as a poet, but as the ‘Poetess of Ireland’, suggesting high rank.
Also, within the territory of Uí Maic Íair, Conchinn was a women’s monastery, now known as Killagh in Co. Kerry. Liadain, in her poem, also claims to have come from this very same monastery.
You can read some verses from Líadain’s poem here, but basically the story goes that she meets Cuirithir, who is also a poet, and they fall in love, but Líadan becomes a nun (at Cell Aiched Conchinn). Cuirithir persuades her to come away with him, but they return and place themselves under the spiritual guidance of St Cummaine (seventh-century saint associated with West Munster) who imposes a restriction on them to test their chastity. Cuirithir is exiled from the monastery and Líadan dies of a broken heart.
It’s a truly beautiful poem, and Thomas Clancy is moved to say:
‘it seems likely that the personality behind this text is a woman’s, insofar as we can discern one.’
Fergus Kelly goes so far as to say :
‘It is clear, therefore, that a woman could be recognised as a fully-fledged poet, though it must have been regarded as unusual. It is probable that the admission of a woman into the poetic class occurred mainly when a poet had no sons, and a daughter showed some aptitude for the profession […]’
Hmmm… a very begrudging endorsement, if I may say so.
Taking all of this into consideration, it seems we can make a strong case that these poems were written by women, and that these women, if not the norm, were accepted in the enlightened and powerful role of banfílí, or women poets/ storytellers/ lore-keepers in ancient Ireland.
In fact, Liadain would have us believe that she travelled far and wide in her role as a poet, and Digde claims to have spent much time carousing in the presence of Kings while being adored as a poet, and a quite intoxicatingly beautiful woman.
However, gendered language cannot be taken at face value. Relatively few ancient texts in Ireland were ascribed to particular authors, and even fewer of them to women. The evidence of female monastic sites during the early medieval era indicates that some women at least had access to an education, and that such women were more than capable of authoring fine poetry accepted in spite of their gender, but that these would have been very few and far between.
Fergus Kelly, A Guide to Early Irish Law Thomas Clancy, ‘Women Poets in Early Medieval Ireland: Stating the Case’, in The Fragility of her Sex? Medieval Irishwomen in their European Context, ed. by C. Meek and K. Simms (Dublin, 1996) Bettina Arnold, 2012, Gender, temporalities and Periodization in early Iron Age West-Central Europe, Social Science History, Vol.36, No.1, Cambridge University Press. Margaret Conkey, 2003, Has Feminism Changed Archaeology?, Signs, Vol.28, No.3, Gender and Science:New Issues, The University of Chicago Press.
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