“I was elected by the women of Ireland who, instead of rocking the cradle,
rocked the system.”
– Mary Robinson, President of Ireland, 1990 – 1997
Several months ago, when 2016’s presidential campaign launched with more hoopla than has been seen in U.S. politics for more than a century, a Dublin-born friend told me he was placing his bet that, for the first time in American history, a woman would be elected to the highest office in the land. When I questioned Paul’s confidence, he said, “Just look at all the television shows and films that have been released in recent years. Many, perhaps even a majority, portray a woman or women in decision-making lead roles. Even the newest episode in the Star Wars franchise features a heroine saving the day rather than the traditional hero!”
It got me thinking. American history does not lack female archetypes. Chief among them is maternal Lady Liberty who has been offering shelter and sustenance to the world’s impoverished and persecuted since the late 19th century (although the current deportations of women and children to Central America must make her weep). The rallying cry of WWII was “For Mom and apple pie,” and Rosie the Riveter symbolized women’s crucial participation in the war effort. At about the same time, our first female super hero appeared – Wonder Woman, followed by Bat Girl and Clark Kent’s cousin, Supergirl.
The renowned psychologist Carl Jung identified certain universal concepts – among them birth, death, separation from parents, initiation, marriage, and the union of opposites – that underlie all human experience and behavior. Similarly, he singled out certain unique personages that are also universal: the maiden, the great mother, the child, the wise elder, and the shadowy dark side, which appear in the mythology of all cultures.
The concept of an all-powerful mother goddess is one of humanity’s earliest archetypes. Carved figures and drawings depicting full-figured but faceless female forms have been found at numerous neolithic sites, especially in central Europe where the Celts originated. There the mother goddess was called Danu, and her name was given to the mother of the continent’s eastern rivers – the Danube.
The Lebor Gabala (the “Book of Invasions,” transcribed oral history, 1000 AD), records that when the Tuatha de Danaan (literally ‘“Tribe of Danu”) arrived in Ireland they encountered an earlier Celtic population, the Fir Bolg. According to the saga, the Fir Bolg met defeat at the Battle of Moytura, at the Galway-Mayo border on Bealtaine. Now fixed on May 1st, but originally celebrated during the three-day full moon midway between spring equinox and summer solstice, Bealtaine was celebrated with fertility rituals to insure an abundant harvest.
Unlike other invaders who had come from the sea, the Tuatha de Danaan arrived magically in airborne vehicles, bringing with them four miraculous treasures: the Lia Fail (Stone of Destiny) which shrieked when touched by the rightful monarch; the Spear of Lugh and the Cliam Solais (Sword of Light) which brought victory to the warriors who wielded them; and the Cauldron of Dagda from which no one ever walked away hungry.
Despite their powers, the Danaan were defeated by the next wave of invaders – the Milesians. Even so, the Book of Invasions records they magically plagued the Milesians by rotting their crops and sickening their cattle. Finally, a truce meeting was arranged between Amergin, bard and spokesman for the Milesians, and three sister-queens, all daughters of Dagda, the greatest ruler of the Danaan. It was agreed that although the Milesians would rule and the Danaan would retreat to live in fairy raths (hills), the land would forever be known by the name of the youngest Danaan queen – Eire.
But Eire and Danu are not the only female archetypes to have figured prominently in Irish myth. Celtic goddesses presided over battle, nature, healing, and fertility. Many times, they exhibit Jungian opposing concepts of virginity and sexuality, fecundity and destruction, war and peace, life and death. Partnership is a prominent theme, and in these relationships, the female is frequently the dominant partner, an indication of the independence afforded women in early Irish society. Divine and semi-divine, they were often believed to have the power of shape-shifting into animals: horses, birds, wolves, and dogs.
Like the Christian patriarchal concept of Father, Son, and Holy Spirit, several Celtic goddesses are associated with triplicity, implying the three ages of woman: maid, mother, and crone. Bríd, or Brighid, is a classic example. A triple goddess, her dominion encompassed the elements of earth, water, and fire (planting, caring for, and preparing food). Her dual opposing nature is expressed by her patronage of both smiths (those who fashion killing weapons) and midwives (those who bring new life to the tribe). As nurturer, she protected the Celts precious cattle, especially cows – the replenishing resource that supplies dairy products, known in Ireland as “white food.” As patroness of poets, she provided the Irish with the gift of language and communication. As healer, she was the wise woman who taught the use of medicinal herbs and guarded the holy wells.
Since time immemorial women have figured prominently in Irish history and myth. Ireland is Eire’s land. Eire was a queen of the Tuatha de Danaan. The Tuatha de Danaan was “the Tribe of Danu.” Danu was the Celt’s Mother Goddess.
With its wealth of female archetypes, it should not be surprising that Ireland was the first nation in the world to elect two women in succession to serve as President: Mary Robinson (1990 – 1997) and Mary McAleese (1997 – 2011). If Paul’s theory that the current abundance of iconic decision-making women in American film and television can impact political outcomes is correct, we may see a similar result in our own 2016 presidential election. Only time will tell. Slainte!
WOMEN OF MYTH AND HISTORY
A “triple” goddess, whose sphere of influence includes fertility, birth, and death. The Morrigan is also known as Badb Catha (Battle Raven), Macha (Sovereign Queen), and Nemain (Terror). On the bank of the River Unshin, County Sligo, she is said to have seduced the All-Father Dagda at Samhain in an annual renewal of the life and death cycle. The Morrigan is best known for her warrior nature especially when her favored people, the Tuatha de Danaan, were threatened. In the tale Cath Maige Tuireadh (The Battle of Mag Tuired) she shape-shifts into an immense raven, swoops over the battlefield shrieking “kaaas” so fearful the enemy drops dead on the spot, and carries off her valiant fallen to their eternal reward. Since the Morrigan always knew in advance the outcome of any battle, the Irish proverb “has a Raven’s knowledge” means the person it describes can see into the future.
Macha Mong Ruad (323 – 283 BC)
According to medieval legend and historical tradition, Macha Mong Ruad (the Red Mane) was the only queen in the List of High Kings of Ireland. Her father Aed Ruad rotated the kingship with his cousins Díthorba and Cimbáeth, seven years at a time. Aed died after his third stint as king, and when his turn came round again, Macha claimed the kingship. Díthorba and Cimbáeth refused to allow a woman to take the throne, and a battle ensued. Macha won, and Díthorba was killed. She won a second battle against Díthorba’s sons, who fled into the Connacht wilderness.
Disguised as a leper, she pursued the men alone, overcame them when they tried to rape her, and carried them to Ulster. The Ulstermen wanted to kill them, but Macha instead enslaved them and forced them to build the stronghold of Emain Macha (Navan Fort near Armagh), to be the capital of the Ulaid. Macha married Cimbáeth, ruled together with him for seven years, and after his death, another 14 years on her own.
Tain Bo Culainge (The Cattle Raid of Cooley), an epic tale set in the first century AD and the centerpiece of the Ulster Cycle of Irish mythology, recounts how a war erupted over the theft of a bull. At that time an Irish person’s wealth was measured by the number of cattle one owned, and Queen Medb of Connaught demanded that her wealth be equal to that of her husband Ailill. Alas, his herd contained a fine white bull and hers did not. Vowing to best him, she set out to steal Ulster’s even finer brown bull. Despite the fact that Medb’s army was slaughtered by the Ulstermen, she succeeded. When Medb returned to Connaught, her brown bull defeated Ailill’s white animal and peace was restored to the royal household.
Saint Brigid (453 – 523 AD)
Like many women in the early days of Christianity, Saint Brigid was named in honor of the ancient goddess Bríd. Sired by a Celtic chieftain to a slave girl and foster raised by a Druid priest, Brigid was beautiful, gifted, and so strong-willed that when the Druid attempted to marry her off, she refused, choosing instead baptism by Saint Patrick and a life dedicated to charity. Saint Brigid was warm-hearted, hospitable, and one of history’s earliest liberated women. She traveled widely, entertained with charm and grace, and was an excellent business manager, competently running an abbey which she built in Kildare on the very hill where Bríd’s sacred fire had burned for centuries.
Grace O’Malley (c.1530 – 1603)
Born to a wealthy seafaring County Mayo family, Grace O’Malley’s father was chieftain of the Ó Máille clan and on his death Grace inherited her father’s sailing ships and international trade. At a time when women were only expected to be docile wives, Grace defied tradition by going to sea. After her first husband died, she wed “Iron Richard” Bourke under the early Irish marriage law of “one year certain” at the end of which, Grace not only divorced Bourke but kept his property. In retaliation to taxes imposed on vessels by the English Council in Galway, the O’Malley fleet regularly boarded and demanded similar payment from any ships traveling in County Mayo waters. When her harassment of shipping so vexed the English that her sons and half-brother were imprisoned by the English governor of Connacht, Grace sailed to England where she met with Queen Elizabeth I and negotiated their release. Other parts of the agreement, however, were not honored by the English, so Grace resumed raiding ships and supporting insurgents to the English occupation of Ireland, which earned her the lasting title of Ireland’s Pirate Queen.
Countess Markievicz (1868 – 1927)
Constance Georgine Gore-Booth, known as Countess Markievicz after her marriage to a Polish aristocrat, was a nationalist, suffragette, and socialist politician. For the part she played in the 1916 Easter Rising, she was sentenced to death but the sentence was later commuted to life imprisonment and she was released in 1917. In December 1918, she was the first woman elected to the British House of Commons, though she did not take her seat and instead, along with other Sinn Féin members of the lower house of Irish Parliament, formed the first Dáil Éireann. Markievicz served as Minister for Labour from April 1919 to January 1922, in the second Ministry and the third Ministry of the Dáil becoming both the first Irish female cabinet minister and only the second female government minister in Europe. She was the only female cabinet minister in Irish history until 1979 when Máire Geoghegan-Quinn was appointed to the cabinet post of Minister for the Gaeltacht for Fianna Fáil.
Lady Gregory (1852 – 1932)
The youngest daughter of Anglo-Irish gentry, Isabella Augusta was born at Roxborough County Galway, the 6,000 acre Persse family estate. Educated at home, her nanny, a native Irish speaker, laid the foundation of her future interest in Irish history and legends. After her marriage to Sir William Henry Gregory, the couple traveled widely in Europe, Egypt, and Asia, and when at home held weekly salons frequented by famous figures of the art and literary world. A prolific writer before and after the death of her husband, a visit to the Aran Islands reawakened her interest in the Irish language and folklore. In 1896, an introduction to W.B. Yeats, who became her lifelong friend, led her to collaborate on the founding of the Irish Literary Theatre which inspired the Irish Literary Revival. Yeats wrote numerous poems about Lady Gregory, her family and homes, and George Bernard Shaw once described her as “the greatest living Irishwoman.” ♦
Note: In times gone by, women made honeycakes on Bealtaine Eve and placed them in the garden as treats for the Tuatha de Danaan fairy folk.
1⁄2 cup sweet white wine
2 tablespoons sugar
2⁄3 cup flour
1⁄8 teaspoon cinnamon
1⁄8 teaspoon salt
oil for frying
1 cup honey
1⁄8 teaspoon nutmeg
Beat the wine and egg in a medium bowl. Combine the flour, cinnamon, salt and sugar in a small bowl. Stir into the egg mixture. Let stand 30 minutes. Combine the honey and nutmeg in a small bowl. Heat 1/2-inch of the oil in a frying pan until hot, but not smoking. Drop the batter into the oil 1 tablespoon at a time; fry until golden brown. Drain on paper towels. Dip into the honey. Makes 1 1/2 dozen. (Personal Recipe)
Note: Circular oatcakes were made for Bealtaine to symbolize the return of the sun and the start of a new agricultural season.
3 cups regular oatmeal flakes
3⁄4 teaspoon baking powder
1 1⁄2 teaspoon salt
3 tablespoons butter
3 tablespoons water
extra oatmeal flakes
Whirl the oatmeal in a blender until it is reduced to flour. Combine oat flour, baking powder and salt. Melt butter with water in a microwave. Add butter-water to dry ingredients and stir until a thick dough forms. Place dough on a flat surface liberally sprinkled with extra oatmeal flakes and roll it around until completely covered. Press with a rolling pin or your hands until the dough is 1/4-inch thick. Cut circles (I use a whiskey glass) and place on a parchment lined cookie sheet sprinkled with more oatmeal flakes. Combine scraps and repeat cutting process until all the dough has been used. Heat oven to 350F. Bake oatcakes for approximately 10 minutes. When the oatcakes are a light brown, turn off the heat and open the oven door. Leave the oatcakes in the oven for four or five minutes, or until they become firm and crisp. Remove to wire racks to cool. Serve with cheese or butter and jam. Makes several dozen depending size of circles. (Personal Recipe) ♦
<a href=“https://irishamerica.com/archives/2016-archive/june-july-2016/“>June / July 2016</a>
This article was published in the June / July 2016 edition of Irish America.