I was listening to a compilation of hits from the ’70s while sprucing up my kitchen last weekend. Of course, no collection would be complete without Helen Reddy’s smash I am Woman from 1972. I was only 5 then, but that song made a huge impression on me. My kindergarten brain instantly understood the strength of “woman-power.” My Gaelic foremothers would have been proud!
From Roman times, Celtic women were described as having equal prowess in battle as men. The Roman historian Ammianus Marcellinus cautioned, “…a whole band of foreigners will be unable to cope with one of them [a Celtic warrior], if he calls in his wife, stronger than he by far and with flashing eyes….” (McMahon, 1990, p. 31).
In Old and Middle Irish literature, such as the Immram Curaig Maíle Dúin (The Voyage of Mael Duin) and the epic Táin Bó Búailnge (The Cattle Raid of Cooley), Irish women enjoy significant freedom and power and are often portrayed as aggressive and equal to their male counterparts in social standing. In the Táin, King Ailill defers to his queen, Medb (Maeve), due to her dominant personality, and it is she who leads the Connachta into battle against the Ulaid. He also looks the other way as she indulges in sexual adventures. But Ellis tells us, “Medb of Connacht is recorded by the Irish chronicler, Tigernach (c. AD 1022-88), abbot of Clonmacnoise, as an historical figure who died c. AD 70. Some chroniclers say that she succeeded Tinne as ruler and married Ailill, who is stated to be the commander of …her royal bodyguard. However, the story of the Táin…has put the historical Medb beyond the reach of historians.” (1999, p. 94-95).
Eillis brings another legendary warrior queen, Macha, into focus. “The chronicles [he doesn’t say which ones] record that Macha’s father, Aedh Ruadha, was drowned in the cataract at Béal Atha Sennaidh (Ballyshannon), Co. Donegal. He had been ‘King of Ireland’ ruling alternatively with his cousins Dithorba and Cimbaeth. On her father’s death, Macha was elected ruler by the derbfhine, an electoral college formed from three generations of the royal family. Dithorba and Cimbaeth disagreed with the decision and wanted to keep the kinship to themselves. Macha promptly raised and army and defeated Dithorba, taking his five sons as hostages. She made them and the prisoners of war build the ramparts of her new fortress of Emain Macha. She came to terms with Cimbaeth and, it is recorded, married him.” (1999, p. 94).
Despite these two vivid and potentially historical examples of Irish women rulers, the position of women in Gaelic society was more subdued and less heroic. According to the law tracts, a woman could not act as a witness and give legal testimony and did not enjoy an independent legal capacity. For example, she couldn’t enter into a contract without her husband’s or kin’s permission. She could, however, inherit property.
Most of the law texts which address the status of women relate to marriage. In ancient Gaelic society, polygyny was practiced – at least by men of high status. “The large number of sons begotten by kings,” Kelly suggests,” indicates widespread polygyny among royalty” (1995, p.70). A man’s chief wife was known as a cétmuinter and was “under the rule of her husband unless he fails to carry out his obligation in the marriage.” Other wives seem to have been concubines. “Generally, the law-texts assign to the concubine [adaltrach] half the status and entitlements of the chief wife.” An adaltrach was able to choose “whether she [wished] to be under the rule (cáin) of her son, her kin or her husband.” (Kelly, 1995, p. 71). Separation and divorce were permitted for a number of good reasons – a topic we’ll explore in a future post.
In the event a man died without sons, his daughter could inherit the family land and would thus gain some independence. If she married a landless man – especially a foreigner – she made the decisions in the marriage.
Since most women could not act independently, a crime committed against them was seen as a crime against [the] guardian (husband, father, son, head of kin).” (Kelly, 1995, p. 79). The culprit was then forced to pay the guardian his honor-price, which was higher than the woman whom the guardian protected.
The early Celtic Church tried to make the murder of a woman a more serious offense than the murder of a man, but since no documentation of cases survives, we don’t know if the initiative was successful. The Church was also reluctant to endorse the putting to death of a woman as punishment for a serious crime. Instead, the law-text Cáin Adomnáin states, “if a woman commits murder or arson, or breaks into a church, she is put into a boat with one paddle and a vessel of gruel, and is set adrift on an offshore wind. Judgement on her is left to God.” (Kelly, 1995, p. 220).
Ellis, P.B. (1999). The ancient world of the Celts. New York: Barnes & Noble Books.
Kelly, F. (1995). A guide to early Irish law. Dublin: Dublin Institute for Advanced Studies.
McMahon, A. (ed.). (1990). Celtic way of life. Dublin: O’Brien.