I think of Ireland as a country slowly recovering from a long misogyny infection it picked up from foreign visitors.
Irish Catholicism reveres Mary, but held contempt for women who couldn’t achieve acquiescent virgin motherhood at sixteen. Women were the labourers of the Church; organising the fund raising, cleaning the churches, ironing the vestments, making the tea, giving sons to the priesthood. They were not expected to have a voice, unless it was raised in support of loud church campaigns against the legalisation of contraception, divorce and information on abortion.
Our constitution enshrined the “special position” of that church. De Valera, its architect, wittered on about building an Ireland that returned to days of “comely maidens dancing at the crossroads”. Ireland’s history is pockmarked with the names of punished women–like Anne Lovett–and unnamed ones, like the X Case victim, the women of the Magdalene Laundry, and the thousands who emigrated because they were pregnant or separated or abused.
Until the 1970s, female government workers had to resign as soon as they got married to free a job for a man. More recently, I found Irishmen visiting the US, even young ones, to be the worst offenders when it comes to patronising female technology workers (especially those of us who don’t have engineering degrees–and they are quick to ask). “Make us a cup of tea, love.” The men who move to the US, on the other hand, adapt fast.
And yet, and yet. There has always been a tradition of the strong woman in Ireland, of stout-hearted women running the farm and raising a brood. If a TD(member of parliament) left his parliamentary seat due to death or illness, it was considered natural for a wife or daughter to be elected in his place; many long-running female politicians got such a start. Irish women in politics never had to compromise their femininity, and I believe they were listened to respectfully by their male colleagues and by the press. Women were also among senior political journalists when I was growing up: no one messed with Olivia O’Leary or Emily O’Reilly. And men and women managed to socialise together (often down the pub) in a jolly, friendly way, with none of the alternate holding-the-door-open-and-then-leering special treatment that I associate with say, parts of England.
We had a folk memory of strong women, buried under the layer of later constitutional and church law. It’s not surprising. The ancient Irish Brehon Laws are progressive and enlightened for women even today. Women had full property rights, and were expected and encouraged to enter any profession, whether law, poetry, or soldiery (our folk hero, Cú Chulainn, fought Queen Maeve leading her Connaught armies. Grace O’Malley, a 15th century pirate from Co. Clare, was as feared as Boadicea.) In marriage women were equal partners with their husbands. They were entitled to divorce, retaining their property as well as any settlement deemed fair. The law protected them from rape and harrassment. Long before Gloria Steinem fought for equal pay for equal work, an Irish wife tending the sheep was entitled under law to annual payment for the work of two lambs a year from the flock. That all adds up to wider recognition of women’s rights than any western system of law until very recently.
Brehon Law was in place from the first century AD until the English finally conquered Ireland over two centuries, beginning in the 1500s, and wiped out the use of this ancient legal code. The Midnight Court could not have been written later than the 1700s–the joyous, lusty freedom of Merriman’s women, even as they complain about the shortcomings of their men, was lost soon afterwards (and in fact it is that loss they are mourning). The people soon forgot that women had ever had a right to demand equality and satisfaction in marriage and elsewhere.
Ironically, it was under a female pirate queen that Irish women lost equal rights for centuries: Queen Elizabeth ordered that English law be imposed on a territory that was to be settled for once and for all. The harshness of these conquests led to great support for the Church, which comforted a people being destroyed. But the old Celtic Church of St. Brigid was by this time drawing ever closer to Rome’s imperious doctrine, and by the time Ireland was self-governing again, she had forgotten what she once knew about equality and justice. We are remembering now.