Tag Archives: Ireland

Independent Women: Poetry, power, art and looking for love in medieval Ireland


ImageI have mentioned before how, after women married in the Irish tradition they could control the goods they brought with them to the marriage. A favourite way for women to dispose of any such income was to commission poetry. The (grateful) bards, who lauded these women’s personal wealth, celebrated the extent to which Gaelic wives could control their possessions (and the extent to which that control could benefit the bards – natch). Here’s a fourteenth century poem addressed to Sadhbh Magauran makes explicit reference to her personal wealth. The poet states that:

Every poet-band shares her wealth nor is there any whose

desires she grants not; Sadhbh, Branch of Gabhair, has

attained high fortune but not higher than her excellence1


Another woman who was typical of these wealthy patrons was Margaret the daughter of Conor O’ Brien and wife of O’ Rourke, lord of Breifne. When she died in 1513 she was lauded as the;

‘…radiant paragon of the Gaels, to whom God gave prosperity and royal state and great wealth; hearth of hospitality and maintenance, humanity and charitable entertainment for scholars and ollavs, the weak and the wretched and all, whether mighty or outcast, who stood in need thereof; one who never as long as she lived denied any man craving a boon; died after Unction and Penance and was buried in the monastery which she had herself built to the honour of God and St. Francis, namely the monastery of Creevlea.2


The Gaelic Irish wives who encouraged and supported poets left behind them a legacy of poems, which praised them in life and eulogised them after death.3These women upheld a tradition of the Gaelic world that was often carried on by their daughters. A mid fifteenth-century poem makes reference to Fionnghuala, the daughter of Calvach O’ Connor Faly and his wife, the famously generous Margaret O’ Carroll. The poet also indicates the status and power of Fionnghuala as a wife as well as her wealth.

Equally balanced are Brian’s son and his wife; so that neither

scale sinks down, a hero like Aodh being weighed against



Fionnghuala’s splendour is so great that no woman

can be set above her


From her girlhood-high praise! – her mother’s nature shows

in her; ‘ere she came to a husband she was pregnant with


The ‘mother’s nature’ referred to was that of Margaret O’ Carroll. She was a remarkable woman, who was lauded at her death as,

Mairgreg (Margaret) … was the best of the women of the Gaedil, and the one who made most causeways, churches, books, chalices and all articles useful for the service of a church; and she issued two general invitations in one year, at Killeigh at the feast of St. Sinchell and at Rathangan at the first festival of Mary.5


Margaret’s fame rests on the two general invitations referred to there, which she issued to the learned men of Ireland in 1433 and which are mentioned in her obituary. These were essentially huge feasts for poets.6 A description of the feasts can be found in the annals where Margaret is described as sitting at the feast clad in cloth of gold and surrounded by friends as well as judges and clergy. Her husband is described as overseeing the orderly dispensation of provisions and seems rather sidelined as all the emphasis is on Margaret as principal patron.7


Because of all this lavish spending, Margaret was, of course, a favourite of the poets. A poem by Seithfín Mór, which celebrated the martial exploits of her husband, also included her in its acclaim.

Margaret’s fame has established her protection; palm-branch who

breaketh not her words; a lady who has not learned to refuse; darling of

the blood of earls; flowing tresses whose fosterer is Jesus; heart bounti-

ful and pious. To drink feasts she never forsook her prayers – a woman

who lives by rule. She protects herself against our art, her words are on

our side’.8


Gaelic wives patronised poets for a number of reasons; to show off, to display one’s largesse and cultural leanings but, most importantly, because it served a very important function in Gaelic society. Bardic poetry acted as propaganda for the chief and his family and it was an important duty of the wife to see to it that the right type of poetry was written about her (i.e. her husband’s) family. The great fear was that poets would be displeased and a disaffected poet satirising those who had offended him could ruin a family’s reputation. It was also believed that a poet’s curse could have a serious debilitating effect on one’s health and wellbeing so there is an element of blackmail going on here with the interactions between patrons and poets.


The wife needed the poet to make both her and members of her family look good and the poet needed her patronage for him to survive and prosper. This symbiois was mutually beneficial most of the time. Personal attributes of the lady were often topics of great praise in poems commissioned by them which, frankly, isn’t a surprise. A poem addressed to Gormlaith, the daughter of Brian Magauran, spends most of the time praising her hair for example. Gormlaith’s husband may have been dead by this stage and such concentration on her physical attributes may have been signalling her readiness to find another husband.

Brian’s daughter has hair as Eimhear’s, a young maid

Braiding it, her head of hair is like a bright gold bracelet;

Like too (to Eimhear’s) is the arrangement of the curls in

the back of it


In her plundering of gold (from her husband) for young

Poets, in her brow with its curling dark crest, in her noble-

glancing eye, in her blushing face showing no anger at

rough word’.9

Medieval Irish poetry….the online dating game of its day 🙂


1 Lambert McKenna, The Book of Magauran (Dublin, 1947), verses 19, 20 and 23, p. 414.

2 A. Conn., 1513.2

3McCauley, Roisin, Female Patrons of Bardic Poetry ( M. Phil dissertation, University of Dublin, 2000) pp 20, 24.

4 Aithdioghlum Dana, ed. Lambert McKenna, (Dublin, 1939) i, pp 73-4; ii, p. 44,

5 A. Conn., 1451.2.

6 Katharine Simms, ‘Guesting and Feasting in Gaelic Ireland’, J.R.S.A.I., 108 (1978), pp 91-2.

7 A. F. M. 1451, note t.

8 Osborn Bergin, Irish Bardic Poetry (Dublin, 1970), pp 284-5.

9 McKenna, Book of Magauran, pp 312-6.



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Don’t mess with a medieval Irishwoman

Don’t Mess With A Medieval Irish Woman: Discovering Female Agency in Gaelic Ireland


The question of agency and of how medieval women exerted it is a topic that interests me. One bonus of studying the history of medieval Ireland is that, during the later period (post 1170) there were two very distinct societies on the island. The society of the Gaelic Irish and that of the English in Ireland. I am particularly intrigued by the status of women in these contrasting societies as expressed through the laws and traditions governing women’s behaviour during this period. These different societies assigned different methods (and levels) of exerting agency to women but what I am (very briefly) going to look at today is the phenomenon whereby Gaelic women could keep control of their dowry upon marriage which allowed them (I think) a measure of said agency in conducting their own and their family’s affairs.

In Gaelic society dowries usually consisted of movables (cattle etc) and at the top of society women could be given valuables, sometimes soldiers (including galloglass/mercenaries) as their dowry.


Galloglass (on the left) nonchalantly chatting but always tough, note how everyone else is keeping a distance 🙂

Yes, that’s right, a Gaelic bride could go lovingly to her new husband escorted by a crack team of soldiers who were hers. The Annals of Loch Cé, for example, refer to the thirteenth century marriage of Aedh O Conor and Ailin, the daughter of Dubhgall MacSomhairle, upon which the young wife brought as her dowry one hundred and sixty galloglass.1 In the early fourteenth century Angus Óg, Lord of the Isles, married Agnes, the daughter of Cú Mhuighe O’ Cathain of Ulster, and he is said to have received a dowry (or a tocher, as it was known in Scotland) of 140 men of every surname in O’ Cathain’s territory with his new wife.2 This made for interesting situations when women chose to exert their control over these ‘dowries’ of soldiers.

One famous situation stands out. In 1315 during the Bruce wars Dervorgilla [Dervla] who was the wife of O Donnell joined her husband in making war on Rory O Connor in Carbury. She is recorded as leading galloglass (mercenary soldiers) in an attack on a church. It is not clear as to whether they are hers but, they may well have been. The following year Rory O Connor made peace with O Donnell. However, Dervorgilla refused to acknowledge the peace her husband had made and hired another band of galloglass to which she offered a reward for killing Rory. It is interesting that she hired different galloglass as one gets the feeling that this is how she circumvented being asked/told not to use her own men. Importantly she had the means to pay the galloglass she hired, independently of her husband. The galloglass did their job and Rory was killed in direct contravention of the wishes of her husband.3


Here’s a woman attempting to beat up a monk, it seems (*Dervorgilla-lite)

Gaelic wives’ independence and willingness to join their resources with their husband’s in making war ensured that some were formally acknowledged by the authorities as being both troublesome and dangerous to both Church and State. In 1315 Donal O’ Neill, his wife Gormlaith and their son, John, issued Letters Patent, in which they promised to the harassed Archbishop, Dean and Chapter of Armagh that they would no longer make any demands upon ecclesiastically owned lands and tenants for themselves or their allies’ troops. They also promised to restore all church lands, which they had seized and to deliver pledges for good behaviour.4 The following year, in 1316 the Justiciar of Ireland was ordered to ascertain whether the release from prison of Mór, the wife of O Hanlon, who was being held in Drogheda, would be prejudicial to the keeping of the peace, or injurious to the interests of the king.5 High ranking women in the Gaelic world were, therefore, active in the political happenings and associated crimes of their day. Their continuing control of their own assets (dowries) enabled them to exert agency in their and their family’s affairs.

Now if you look at the situation of the ‘English’ women in Ireland, a very different picture emerges but that’s for another blog post!

1 A.L.C., 1259.

2 Rosalind K. Marshall, Virgins and Viragos: A History of women in Scotland from 1080-1920 (London. 1983), p. 29.

3 A. Conn., 1315.20, 1316.2.

4 ‘Calendar of the register of Archbishop Fleming’, ed., H. J. Lawlor, Proceedings of the Royal Irish Academy, 30 C (1912-13), no. 170,

5 Brendan Smith, ‘The Medieval Border’ in Raymond Gillespie and Harold O’ Sullivan (ed.) The Borderlands; essays on the history of the Ulster-Leinster border (Belfast, 1989), p. 50


October 16, 2013 · 12:42 pm