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.

Caitríona Reports From Tehran

Need a fix of a lovely Irish accent? Here’s the bodacious Caitríona’s first radio report from Tehran. (Incidentally, the RTÉ introduction is by another college contemporary of ours, Philip Bouchier-Hayes. It is strange to hear these familiar voices from Tehran and Dublin in a cabin in northern Ontario.)

The piece is fascinating. Fifty years ago British and American governments toppled the last democratically-elected government in Iran for the crime of nationalising the oil industry and effectively taking control of Iranian oil from the British. It was nominally done to prevent a Soviet invasion, and led to the re-instatement of the Shah’s poisonous regime. I had no idea. Listen well.

Anne Lovett

Anne Lovett was fifteen when her body was found in a grotto for the Virgin Mary in Granard. It was 1984. She died from exposure and childbirth trauma four hours after the birth of a child whose existence she had hidden for nine months. The local papers didn’t want to report the story, out of respect for the family. The national papers didn’t pick it up for a few weeks after that, but then the country was shocked out of its usual torpor. We twelve and thirteen-year-olds suddenly found ourselves scrutinized by teachers and parents. They gave us hesitant, oblique lectures.
“Now, you know…you wouldn’t…would you tell me if..?”

It turned out that local people had known about Anne Lovett. It’s not easy to hide a pregnancy, even under the baggy jumpers of a shy fifteen year old. They may have known for months that she was in trouble, in every sense. But no one interfered or intervened, no one asked if she needed help. Out of respect for the family.

I think about her often. She would be 32 now; her daughter would be 17, coming of age in a country where, like the rest of Europe, more than fifty per cent of babies are born outside marriage, and no one seems to mind any more. No hellfire sermons are preached about bastard babies, and welfare mothers are not the demons they are in the US. Many of these women are not welfare mothers anyway; rather, they have simply chosen not to marry their partners. That they can do so shows that Anne Lovett, with her gentle name and her perfect tabloid instinct (that grotto!) changed the country more than any referendum.


Back in July, I met a woman who has no sense of smell. She shook huge quantities of salt and pepper onto her salad to prod her tastebuds, but most flavors were lost on her. I couldn’t imagine being deprived of my wine-loving gluttony, but she’d never known anything different.

Barbara Kingsolver has a piece in The Poisonwood Bible where Adah returns to America after years in the Congo. She marvels at supermarkets, which have a massive, odorless arrays of food, and misses the smell assaults of her African market.

The US is terrified of smell, I think. Procter & Gamble has warned us about all the nooks that harbor body odors, and we’re careful to hunt them down with the right products. There are too many people in New York to escape smells completely—our garbage ripens on the sidewalk, and Chinatown smells of raw fish and cooking all winter long. For the most part, though, you can persuade antiseptic Americans to bond over hushed stories of the guy in the office who had B.O., or the time they rode the Paris metro.

I wonder, what’s the big deal?

My friend Mark is taking steroids for a particularly nasty sinus attack, and can now smell properly for the first time in years. The experience seems traumatic. He’s being mugged by a sense he’s ignored until now. He sends me plaintive notes about previously unremarked smells and tastes—cleaning fluid, garlic breath, Diet Coke.

“I’m particularly concerned about the cat’s ass,” he says.

I realize that compared to him, I’ve been living in the olfactory equivalent of Pepys’ London, all chamber pots and reeking fish. I kind of like it. Nostalgie de la boue.

Could we launch a serious threat to P & G by offering sinus cauterization as a cosmetic procedure for the sensitive? No more need for Shake ‘n’ Vac, scented tampons, or Diptyque candles at $45 a pop.

On second thoughts, the economy might collapse altogether.


When I first moved to Manhattan, almost everyone I knew was between 25 and 30. The school you’d been to seemed much more important than your Old Country. In fact, some of the new arrivals seemed to regard Kentucky or Michigan as the Old Country, and the extreme cases thought that Harvard was.

Carroll Gardens is different still, despite all the chi-chi restaurants that opened for yuppies like me. Most people at Saturday’s party were Irish, Italian, or ‘half-and-half’, as Dominick says. Each side told jokes about the other. Matt, my Santa Claus neighbor, says:

“The Irish people and the Italian people, that can be a real beautiful mix for a marriage.”

Everyone wanted to know what part of Ireland I was from. Matt told me that his friend, Damian, who was killed in the Trade Towers, was one of nine kids of a family from Donegal. They all grew up in Inwood in the ’70s, when it was still an Irish neighborhood. Matt’s from the Bronx, but his family had a summer house in the Catskills next to all these Inwood families. Four Green Fields, they called it. Matt’s father would put on a brogue when talking with the rest of the Four Green Fields men, and the kids would tease him for it. Matt was a year or two younger than Damian and was dying to hang out with the bigger boys.

I realized I’d read a huge New York Times feature about Damian and Inwood a few weeks back. Sonuvagun, If Isn’t Dominion. The article isn’t online any more, but I remember that the whole family was crazy for Gaelic football. Damian was the youngest boy, and his father used to put him down to bed doing commentary on an imaginary match where the brothers all played on the same team.
“And Michael passes the ball to Sean…and Sean passes the ball to Eugene…and Eugene heads it over to Paul….”
The ball always ended up with Damian, and he always scored the winning goal. Lucky kid. He was golden, Matt says.


On the walk home from Max’s reading last night, we stopped off at a playground in Park Slope. I’d been tempted by the swings here two Saturdays before. These are cool municipal swings, not like the truncated little set in our back garden when we were growing up. Long, solid chains, wide seats, and smooth tarmac underneath. I knew these swings would let me be a safety-harnessed Tarzan, but I didn’t want to be near the bored, jostling 14 year olds who claimed them that day.

At 1.30 last night, though, they were mine. At first, I felt exhilarated. Then I couldn’t go much higher and I started to realize I was going nowhere. Back and forth, back and forth, an endless revving up for nothing. Drunkenly, I tried to calculate how drunk I was, which made me nervous. I imagined what would happen if I let go at the top of an arc. There were butterflies in my stomach as the swing dipped each time.

Someone said that a fear of heights is really a fear of our impulse to jump, and it’s true.