By Alice Milligan
The worth and glory of a nation may well be measured and adjudged by the typical character of its womanhood: not so much, I would say, by the eminence attained to by rarely gifted, exceptionally developed individuals, as by the prevalence of noble types at every period, and amongst all classes of the community, and by their recurrence from age to age under varying circumstances of national fortune.
Judged by such a standard, Ireland emerges triumphant and points to the roll of her chequered history, the story of her ancient race, with confidence and pride. Gaze into the farthest vistas of her legendary past, into the remotest eras of which tradition preserves a misty memory, and the figure of some fair, noble woman stands forth glimmering like a white statue against the gloom. At every period of stern endeavor, through all the generations of recorded time, the pages of our annals are inscribed with the names of mothers, sisters, wives, not unworthy to stand there beside those of the world-renowned heroes of the Gael.
In the ancient tales of Ireland we read of great female physicians and distinguished female lawyers and judges. There were ban-file, or women-poets, who, like the file, were at the same time soothsayers and poetesses, and there are other evidences of the high esteem in which women were held. There can be no doubt, to judge by the elaborate descriptions of garments in the saga-texts, that the women were very skilful in weaving and needlework. The Irish peasant girls of today inherit from them not a little of their gift for lace-making and linen-embroidery. Ladies of the highest rank practiced needlework as an accomplishment and a recreation. Some of the scissors and shears they used have come to light in excavations.
In the stories of the loves of the ancient Irish, whether immortals or mortals, the woman’s role is the more accentuated, while in Teutonic tradition man plays the chief part. Again, it has often been remarked that the feminine interest is absent from the earlier heroic forms of some literatures. Not so, however, in the earliest saga-texts of the Irish. Many are the famous women to whom the old tales introduce us and who stand out and compel attention like the characters of the Greek drama. Everyone knows of the faithful Deirdre, the heroine of the touching story of the “Exile of the Sons of Usnech”, and of her death; of the proud and selfish Medb. the ambitious queen of Connacht, the most warlike and most expert in the use of weapons of the women of the Gael–far superior in combat and counsel to her husband, Ailill; of Emer, the faithful wife of Cuchulainn; of Etain of the Horses (that was her name in Fairyland); and of many others too numerous to mention.
It is with the introduction of Christianity into Ireland that the Irish woman came into her rightful place, and attained the preponderating influence which she, ever since, has held among the Celtic people. In the period which followed the evangelization of the island many were the “women of worth” who upheld the honor and glory of “Inisfail the Fair”, and women were neither the less numerous nor the less ardent who hung upon the lips of the Apostle of Ireland.
Amid the galaxy of the saints, how lustrous, how divinely fair, shines the star of Brigid, the shepherd maiden of Faughard, the disciple of Patrick the Apostle, the guardian of the holy light that burned beneath the oak-trees of Kildare! Over all Ireland and through the Hebridean Isles, she is renowned above any other. We think of her, moreover, not alone, but as the centre of a great company of cloistered maidens, the refuge and helper of the sinful and sorrowful, who found in the gospel that Patrick preached a message of consolation and deliverance. Let it be remembered that the shroud of Patrick is deemed to have been woven by Brigid’s hand; that when she died, in 525, Columcille, the future apostle of Scotland, was a child of four. So she stands midmost of that trilogy of saints whose dust is said to rest in Down.
Who that hears of Columcille will forget how He won that name, “dove of the Church”, because of his early piety, and that surely bespeaks a mother’s guiding care. Ethne, mother of Columcille, remains a vague but picturesque figure, seen against the background of the rugged heath-clad hills of Tir-Conal by the bright blue waters of Gartan’s triple lake. Her hearth-stone or couch is shown there to this day, where once in slumber, before the birth of her son, she saw in a glorious visionary dream a symbol of his future greatness. A vast veil woven of sunshine and flowers seemed to float down upon her from heaven: an exquisitely poetic thought, which gives us warrant to believe that Columcille’s poetic skill was inherited from his mother.
Ronnat, the mother of his biographer, St. Adamnan, plays a more notable part in history, for, according to an ancient Gaelic text recently published, it was to her that the women of Ireland owed the royal decree which liberated them from military service. The story goes that once, as she walked beside the Boyne, after some sanguinary conflict, she came upon the bodies of two women who had fallen in battle. One grasped a reaping hook, the other a sword, and dreadful wounds disfigured them. Horrified at the sight, she brought strong pressure to bear upon her son, and his influence in the councils of the land availed to bring about the promulgation of the decree which freed women from war-service.
Our warrior kings had noble queens to rule their households, and of these none stands out so distinctly after long lapse of time as Gormlai, the daughter of Flann Siona, and wife of Nial Glondubh. Her story has in it that element of romance which touches the heart and wins the sympathy of all who hear it.
Her father was king of the Meathan branch of the Clan Nial, and ard-ri of Ireland for thirty-seven years. Nial Glondubh was king of Tir-Eoghain, and heir of Flann in the high kingship, for at that era it was the custom for the kings of Meath and of Tyrone to hold the supreme power alternately. In order to knit north and south, Flann betrothed his beautiful daughter to Cormac macCuillenan, king of Cashel, an ideal husband, one would have thought, for a poetess like Gormlai, for Cormac was the foremost scholar of the day; but his mind was so set on learning and religion that he took holy orders and became bishop-king of Cashel, repudiating his destined bride. Gormlai was then given as wife to Cearbhail, king of Leinster, and war was waged against Cormac who was killed in the battle of Ballymoon. Coming home wounded, Cearbhail lay on his couch, and while tended by Gormlai and her ladies told the story of the battle and boasted of having insulted the dead body of King Cormac. Gormlai reproached him for his ignoble conduct in such terms that his anger and jealousy flamed up, and striking her with his fist he hurled her to the ground.
Gormlai rose indignant and left his house forever, returning to the palace of King Flann, and on Cearbhail’s death she at last found a true lover and worthy mate in Nial Glondubh, who brought her northward to rule over the famous palace of Aileach. In 916 Nial became high king, but the place of honor was also the place of danger, and soon he led the mustered hosts of the north against the pagan foreigners, who held Dublin and Fingal, and he fell in battle at Rathfarnham.
A poem, preserved for us ever since, tells us that Gormlai was present at his burial and chanted a funeral ode. Her long widowhood was a period of disconsolate mourning. At length it is said she had a dream or vision, in which King Nial appeared to her in such life-like shape that she spread her arms to embrace him, and thus wounded her breast against the carven head-post of her couch, and of that wound she died.
Many saintly, many noble, many hospitable and learned women lightened the darkness that fell over Ireland after the coming of the Normans.
I pass to the time when a sovereign lady filled the throne of England, “the spacious days of great Elizabeth,” which were also the period of Ireland’s greatest, sternest struggle against a policy of extermination towards her nobles and suppression of her ancient faith. Amid all the heroes and leaders of that wondrous age in Ireland, there appears, like a reincarnation of legendary Medb, a warlike queen in Connacht, Grace O’Malley, “Granuaile” of the ballads. Instead of a chariot, she mounts to the prow of a swift-sailing galley, and sweeps over the wild Atlantic billows, from isle to isle, from coast to coast, taking tribute (or is it plunder?) from the clans. First an O’Flaherty is her husband, then a Norman Burke. In Clare Island they show her castle tower, with a hole in the wall, through which they say she tied a cable from her ship, ready by day or night for a summons from her seamen. She voyaged as far as London town, and stood face to face with the ruffed and hooped Elizabeth, meeting her offer of an English title with the assertion that she was a princess in her own land.
The mother of Red Hugh O’Donnell, Ineen-dubh, though daughter of the Scottish Lord of the Isles, was none the less of the old Irish stock. Her character is finely sketched for us by the Franciscan chronicler who wrote the story of the captivity and mighty deeds of her son. When the clans of Tir-Conal assembled to elect the youthful chieftain, he writes: “It was an advantage that she came to the gathering, for she was the head of the advice and counsel of the Cinel-Conail, and, though she was slow and deliberate and much praised for her womanly qualities, she had the heart of a hero and the soul of a soldier.” Her daughter, Nuala, is the “woman of the piercing wail” in Mangan’s translation of the bard’s lament for the death of the Ulster chieftains in Rome.
Modern critics like to interpret the “Dark Rosaleen” poem as an expression of Red Hugh’s devotion to Ireland, but I think that Rose, O’Doherty’s daughter, wife of the peerless Owen Roe, deserves recognition as she whose
“Holy delicate white hands should girdle him with steel.”
The record has come down to us that she prompted and encouraged her husband to return from the low-countries and a position of dignity in a foreign court to command the war in Ireland, and in her first letter, ere she followed him over sea, she asked eagerly: “How stands Tir-Conal?” True daughter of Ulster was Owen’s wife, so let us henceforth acknowledge her as the Roisin dubh, “dark Rosaleen”, of the sublimest of all patriot songs.
In the Cromwellian and Williamite wars, we see the mournful mothers and daughters of the Gaeldom passing in sad procession to Connacht, or wailing on Shannon banks for the flight of the “Wild Geese.” But what of Limerick wall, what of the valorous rush of the women of the beleaguered city to stem the inroads of the besiegers and rally the defenders to the breach? The decree of St. Adamnan was quite forgotten then, and when manly courage for a moment was daunted, woman’s fortitude replaced and reinspired it.
And fortitude was sorely needed through the black years that followed–the penal days, when Ireland, crushed in the dust, bereft of arms, achieved a sublimer victory than did even King Brian himself, champion of the Cross, against the last muster of European heathendom.
Yes, her women have done their share in making Ireland what she is, a heroic land, unconquered by long centuries of wrath and wrong, a land that has not abandoned its Faith through stress of direst persecution or bartered it for the lure of worldly dominion; no–nor ever yielded to despair in face of repeated national disaster.
It was this fidelity to principle on the part of the Irish Catholic people which won for them the alliance of all that were worthiest among the Protestants of north and south in the days of the Volunteers and the United Irishmen. What interesting and pathetic portraits of Irishwomen are added to our roll at this period! None is more tenderly mournful than that of Sarah Curran, the beloved of Robert Emmet. The graceful prose of Washington Irving, the poignant verses of Moore, have enshrined the memory of her, weeping for him in the shadow of the scaffold, dying of heart-break at last in a far-off land. No more need be said of her, for whom the pity of the whole world has been awakened by song allied to sweetest, saddest music. What of Anne Devlin, Emmet’s faithful servant, helping in his preparations for insurrection, aiding his flight, shielding him in hiding, even when tortured, scourged, half-hanged by a brutal soldiery, with stern-shut lips refusing to utter a word to compromise her “Master Robert”?
What of the sister of Henry Joy McCracken, Mary, the friend and fellow-worker with the Belfast United Irishmen? An independent, self-reliant business woman, she earned the money which she gave so liberally in the good cause, or to help the poor and distressed, through the whole period of a long life. Some still living have seen Mary passing along the streets of Belfast, an aged woman, clad in sombre gown, to whom Catholic artisans raised their caps reverently, remembering how in ’98 she had walked hand in hand with her brother to the steps of the scaffold, and how, in 1803, she had aided Thomas Russell in his escape from the north after Emmet’s failure, had bribed his captors after arrest, provided for his defence, and preserved for futurity a record of his dying words. Madden’s History of the United Irishmen, as far as it tells of the north, is mainly the record that she kept as a sacred trust in letters, papers, long-treasured memories of the men who fought and died to make Ireland a united nation.
And now a scene in America comes last to my mind. Wolfe Tone, a political fugitive who has served Ireland well and come through danger to safety, is busy laying the foundations of a happy and prosperous future, with a beloved wife and sister and young children to brighten his home. An estate near Princeton, New Jersey, has been all but bought, possibilities of a career in the new republic open before him, when a letter comes from Belfast, asking him to return to the post of danger, to undertake a mission to France for the sake of Ireland. Let his own pen describe what happened: “I handed the letter to my wife and sister and desired their opinion…. My wife especially, whose courage and whose zeal for my honor and interest were not in the least abated by all her past sufferings, supplicated me to let no consideration of her or our children stand for a moment in the way of my duty to our country, adding that she would answer for our family during my absence and that the same Providence which had so often, as it were, miraculously preserved us would not desert us now.”
Inspired by the fortitude of this noble woman, Tone went forth on his perilous mission, and similarly the Young Ireland leaders, Mitchel and Smith O’Brien, were sustained by the courage of their nearest and dearest. “Eva,” the poetess of the Nation, gave her troth-plight to one who had prison and exile to face ere he could claim her hand. Other names recur to me–“Speranza”, with her lyric fire; Ellen O’Leary, fervent and still patient and wise; Fanny Parnell and her sister.
And what of the women of Ireland today? Shall they come short of the high ideal of the past, falter and fail, if devotion and sacrifice are required of them? Never: whilst they keep in memory and honor the illustrious ones of whom I have written. The name of Irishwoman today stands for steadfast virtue, for hospitality, for simple piety, for cheerful endurance, and in a changing world let us trust it is the will of God that in this there will be no change.
On Ethne, mother of St. Columcille: The Visions, Miracles, and Prophecies of St. Columba (Clarendon Press Series). On Ronnat: S. Mac an Bhaird, Life (in Irish) of Adamnan (Letterkenny); Reeves, St. Adamnan’s Life of St. Columba; The Mother of St. Adamnan, an old Gaelic text, ed. by Kuno Meyer (Berlin). On Gormlai: Thomas Concannon, Gormflath (in Irish; The Gaelic League, Dublin). On Granuaile: Elizabethan State Papers (Record Office Series); William O’Brien, A Queen of Men. On Ineen-Dubh: O’Clery’s Life of Red Hugh (contemporary), ed. by Denis Murphy, S. J. (Dublin, 1894); Standish O’Grady, The Flight of the Eagle, or Red Hugh’s Captivity. On Rose, wife of Owen Roe O’Neill, see references in Father Meehan’s The Flight of the Earls, and in Sir John Gilbert’s History of the Confederate War (Dublin, 1885). On the wife of Wolfe Tone, see Wolfe Tone’s Autobiography, ed. by R. Barry O’Brien (London, 1894). The American edition has a fuller account of Tone’s wife, her courage and devotion in educating her son, and her interviews with Napoleon, and life in America. The women of the United Irish period are fully dealt with in K. R. Madden’s Lives and Times of the United Irishmen. On Mary McCracken, see Mrs. Milligan Fox, The Annals of the Irish Harpers. On the women of the Young Ireland period, see C. Gavan Duffy’s Young Ireland (Dublin), and John O’Leary’s Fenians and Fenianism. On the women of Limerick, see Rev. James Dowd, Limerick and its Sieges (Limerick, 1890). For the women under Cromwellian Plantation persecutions and the Penal Laws, see Prendergast’s Cromwellian Settlement, Rev. Denis Murphy’s Cromwell in Ireland, and R. R. Madden’s History of the Penal Laws.