The Abelard and Heloise of Ireland – sort of

One of the most beautiful and heart-felt poems ever written in the vast corpus of Irish literature was (reputedly) written by a woman. Her name was Liadan and the poem she wrote tells of her lost love, another poet, a man called Cuirithir. The poem is called Comrac Liadaine ocus Cuirithir (The Meeting of Liadan and Cuirithir) and has been dated to the 9th or 10th century. The poem describes how Liadan was torn between Cuirithir’s love and serving God. And, yes, it’s a medieval love story hence the ‘love of God’ theme. It’s a story that is compared to that of Abelard and Heloise but, as Abelard has always appeared to me as a craven sort of soul, I get the comparison but don’t fully welcome it.

Anyway this (almost) love story is the story of a woman’s difficulties when it comes to choosing between earthly and spiritual love. The poem reflects the difficulties of reconciling desire and duty for a woman; of choosing between a solitary but welcome path (as a poet and intellectual serving God) and a path shared (as a cherished wife and mother with a physically and intellectually compatible man). For a female poet like Liadan, the choice was undoubtedly a difficult one.  Let’s not forget, she was a writer. She was a woman used to composition and the time needed for that. At any time (and especially in early medieval Ireland) life as a wife and mother would have spelt an end to her creativity, her need to express herself through poetry.

Or she could choose marriage to a fellow poet. It is unlikely that his creative juices would have been dried up by marriage and children.  I can imagine her married to him, seething with resentment and frustration, churning butter, holding a baby, embroidering clothes (a very important job in medieval Ireland) staring at her husband as he gets ready for a ‘poetic tour’ and leaves her and all her creativity behind. It’s hard to believe that she didn’t also envisage a similar type of scenario but we are told that she did agree to marry Cuirithir but put off the wedding until after she finished her ‘poetic tour’ – a last flourish of her talent maybe? However, she is said to have become a nun (or taken a vow of chastity) on her return after which he visited her. He also took a vow of chastity, in despair at his lost love and in the hope they could still be in some way together. Following this both poets put themselves under the spiritual guidance of St. Cummine who gave them various tasks it seems in a bid to be ‘soul friends’ rather than lovers. One of them was to be put in bed with a novice between them to make sure that nothing happened. It seems that the saint was unaware that Liadan had taken the veil and the wannabe lovers found this task ‘difficult’. Eventually they were allowed to speak but not to meet and eventually Cuirithir went on a pilgrimage. It seems he was probably banished by his saintly mentor for asking could he and Liadan meet. When she, broken-hearted, followed him, he sailed away and she died on the stone on which he prayed. Later St. Cummine placed the stone over her grave as a marker. Small comfort for lost love 😦

Excerpts from Comrac Liadaine ocus Cuirithir

Without pleasure

the deed that I have done;

The one I loved I have vexed.

It were madness

not to do what he wished

Were it not for fear of the king of Heaven.

Not profitless

to him was that which he desired,

To reach past pain to Paradise.

A small thing

vexed Cuirithir against me,

My gentleness to him was great.

i am Liadan;

I loved Cuirithir,

It is true as is said.

A roar of fire

has split my heart;

For certain, without him, it will not live.

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