Women and the Brehon Laws

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.

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.

7 thoughts on “Women and the Brehon Laws”

  1. Nerdish point: According to John Waters (Sinead’s erstwhile):

    “There is nothing in the speech about comely maidens, or dancing at the crossroads. And yet, most Irish people would stake their lives on the belief that it contains a mess of verbiage about both these concepts. Although the phrase ‘comely maidens’ did appear in the official text, the recording of the speech as broadcast has de Valera saying ‘happy maidens’.”

    This is in the badly titled ‘An Intelligent Person’s Guide to Modern Ireland’ – I have no idea if he’s right (nor am I arguing with the general assessment in your post), but it’s quite a thought provoking book on the stories Ireland tells to itself (and we expats tell to others).


  2. ‘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).’

    !! Get a grip, lads. I hope that doesn’t still apply…

    In one company I worked for, one of the key software engineers was a woman — and she got lots of respect, as was due. That was in Dublin though.


  3. J: I think you’re absolutely right that Irishmen are well capable of according respect where it’s due, especially when the setting is a familiar one(like your engineering colleague example: capable co-workers get respect).

    My own tedious experiences were usually in more casual or unfamiliar settings, like (groan) networking evenings for Irish tech expats in New York, where women just could not break into the conversation once it turned to business issues. Or say, the time some visiting IDA representatives who were selling their services to me and my boss asked me for a cup of coffee as we were about to get down to the technical discussion! (They also couldn’t believe an English graduate could have a career other than teaching or journalism, but that’s a another beef, and a more broadly European one…)

    That said, we’ve come a long way, don’t you think? You’re better qualified than me to assess that, since I’ve never held a grown-up job in Ireland.


  4. Gabriel: thanks for the link. I liked [Irish journalist John Waters’ earlier book] Jiving at the Crossroads a lot, though the odd Irish Times column I’ve seen of his since then seems to indicate he went a bit nuts after he went out with/broke up with Sinead (and wouldn’t we all?) I’ll have to find a copy of this one, as I’m very interested in our tendency to swallow our own myths.

    I’ve usually been reluctant to comment on Ireland much. I haven’t lived there since college, so who am I to talk about it? The country has changed enough in nine years that unfamiliarity jars me when I go home (though perhaps the distance helps me see the changes more quickly, too).

    The “comely maidens” speech example is a good one; yes, I believed that was the language he used, and it’s interesting Waters claims something different. But what is true, and disturbing to me, is that the Catholic Church’s influence was enshrined in the Irish constitution from the start. I’m all for freedom of religion. Just separate any church from my state, please!


  5. I’m half-way through “Granuaile”, Ann Chamber’s book on Grace O’Malley, and there is quite a bit on Brehon and pre-Brehon law. It’s amazing how egalitarian the Celts were.

    Of course, along came Christianity and most of that went out the window. What was left was finished off by Henry VIII and Elizabeth I .


    PS, the “comely maidens” quote is a misquotation.


  6. Oddly enough, I think it coexisted very well with Christianity, at least the Celtic Catholic church, which despite the charmless St. Kevin flinging women off mountains was a pretty good organization. The trouble came later when the Celtic Catholic church merged with the Roman Catholic church. Still, even if they’d had the sense to stay separate, like the Eastern Orthodox churches, less-enlighted English law and conquest would have finished off women’s rights anyway. It’s very sad.


  7. Hi.
    An excellent site on Irish history is http://www.ireland.org/irl_hist/hist1.htm.

    Some sites on Breton Law are the following:
    and http://ua_tuathal.tripod.com/testdefault.html.

    From http://www.ireland.org/irl_hist/hist8.htm here is justice:

    From his exile in Connaught, Cormac [Mac Art,who reigned in the third century AD] a green youth , had returned to Tara, where, unrecognised, he was engaged herding sheep for a poor widow. Now one of the sheep broke into the queen’s garden, and ate the queen’s vegetables. And King Lugaid, equally angry as his queen, after he heard the case, ordered that for penalty on the widow, her sheep should be forfeit to the queen. To the amazement of Lugaid’s court, the herd boy who had been watching the proceedings with anxiety, arose, and, facing the king, said, “Unjust is thy award, O king, for, because thy queen hath lost a few vegetables, thou wouldst deprive the poor widow of her livelihood?” When the king recovered from his astoundment, he looked contemptuously at the lad, asking scathingly: “And what, O wise herd boy would be thy just award?” The herd boy, not one little bit disconcerted, answered him “My award would be that the wool of the sheep should pay for the vegetables the sheep has eaten – because both the wool and the green things will grow again, and both parties have forgotten their hurt.” And the wonderful wisdom of the judgement drew the applause of the astounded court. But Lugaid exclaimed in alarm: “It is the judgement of a King.”

    Am a California and about a quarter Scott here.


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