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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

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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.

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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

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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

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October 16, 2013 · 12:42 pm