Defiance and “The Warrior Woman” in Irish Myth and Art

Co-Authored with Komil Rehill.

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Before travelling to Ireland both of us were very interested in the role of women in shaping modern and historical Irish society and culture. While reading The Tain and Cuchulain of Muirtheme we found a reoccurring theme of very strong, powerful, and independent women that were known to be great fighters and warriors. We noticed this first in the characters of Aife, Medb, and Scathach.

We felt connected to this strong female presence while touring Carrowmore; the idea of Medb being buried like Cuchulainn, upright and in full battle gear struck us as a powerful image that gave women a dignity and strength. When we looked at the Roscommon famine memorial, where a mother stood like a warrior prepared for battle, we felt the same kind of strength emanating from the work. The woman reminded us of a warrior such as Medb, fighting for what she thought was necessary. The woman in the statue stands right in the centre, very strong and shielding her two young children. This idea of standing in the centre was very symbolic to us because leaders and warriors are typically the centre of their entire army. This reminded us of Medb because she was also in a sense the “centre” and leader of her army in the war. Even though the woman in the famine statue was not fighting a war per se, she was in a battle for her life. This again, reminded us of Medb because she was in the battle for the brown bull. The woman was very strong and her chin held high, even though you could see her bare bones and scars from her struggle. Her stature was strong and it portrayed a real sense of perseverance. This was similar to Medb who was also very perseverant in her battle, and was constantly working to advance her army.

In Christine Dwyer Hickey’s 2015 novel, The Lives of Women, the childless protagonist revisits her early life in a small Irish town. Decades ago, her blind best friend died giving herself an abortion in a final act of defiance against what society expects of her. We noticed that Agatha was a warrior similar to those previously discussed because she does not compromise her beliefs, and would rather die than conform to expectations. The way she dies is similar to the way Medb is described as being buried; in her battle costume. Agatha dies holding the abortion tool; with her weapon in her hand.

We also felt a strong connection between these warrior women in myth and Constance Markievicz. Her early life mimics Medb’s in that she was not born into poverty or obscurity; both figures grew up with a certain amount of privilege and influence, and in later life became warriors for causes they believed in. Though the conflicts were very different (The War for the Bull of Cuilagne vs. The Fight for Irish Independence), they were both political battles, whether the battle was for personal power (Medb) or collective power (Markievicz). Markievicz named her daughter Maeve which was another resemblance to Medb. In our opinion, no one would name their daughter Maeve unless they expected her to represent a powerful and independent woman. This was later represented when Maeve was primarily raised by her grandmother. Although Markievicz never abandoned her, their relationship was not strong and Maeve eventually had to fend for herself. Since Markievicz named her Maeve we feel that she was in a sense expecting her to be able to protect herself and thrive independently from her mother. Markievicz was also responsible for the founding of Fianna Eireann, which was a paramilitary organisation that instructed teenage boys on the proper use of firearms. In this sense, Markievicz resembled Scathach, who’s role in myth was to teach the greatest warrior men how to fight in battle.

Constance Markievicz is a pivotal figure in recent Irish history, though she does not receive the acclaim that men such as Padraig Pearse do. For example, we looked at many murals in both Derry and Belfast, and have seen many exhibits commemorating the Easter Rising. We haven’t seen many artistic portrayals of women in the same volume as we have of the men who fought in the same wars. One of the only significant murals was one that we briefly visited in Belfast. The mural was of Markievicz, and we only stopped to take a photo while returning from the market. The mural was on the side of a non-descript building showing the importance of women to the Rising, but it was very removed from other artworks displaying resistance and rebellion; we feel that it was effectively segregated from work about men, as though the women’s contribution was not as important. We think that there is a fear engraved in people’s heads that if we allow women to become warriors they would be neglecting their families, because they will not know how to maintain the balance. This is a simplistic idea about women; we are much more complex and valuable than our ability to mother or to not mother. A mother trying to protect her children in famine is making a valid decision, as is a revolutionary who is putting the good of many before the good of the few, or a woman choosing abortion over motherhood. A woman’s worth should not be defined by her ability to mother, and these myths and historical people and events may lead people to think that revolution and motherhood cannot coincide, or shouldn’t coincide.

This leads us to another theme we noticed about the women warriors we looked at; they compromised or sacrificed their children in some way in order to advance their war efforts. We do not feel that women should ever be obligated or forced to raise a family, but it was very interesting that all of these warrior women were portrayed as neglectful mothers. In The only son of Aife, Aife can be thought of as a neglectful mother because she militarizes motherhood by raising her son to kill the child’s own father. In The war for the bull of Cuilagne, while in war Medb tries to sell her daughter Finnabair to many different men in order to push forward her army. In Cuchulainn’s Training in Arms, Cuchulainn discovers the teacher, Scathach, who uses her daughter’s sexuality to decide just how worthy Cuchulainn is.

We have learned that Irish mythology is very important to the people of Ireland. However, we were confused because we noticed all of these powerful women in myth, but few representations of women in battle in Ireland’s history. After touring the Apprentice Boys’ Museum we were both very upset and shocked that women were unable to join even in 2016. We realized that the culture surrounding the fight for the independence of Ireland was much more male-oriented and that the society and culture as a whole typically left women in homes to take care of the family.

Men were more likely to be found out in the war, while the women were more likely found in the houses attending their children and familial duties. It made us wonder if the portrayal of these warrior women in myth as neglectful mothers played a part in women being confined to their homes during “battles” in Irish history. Personally, we think that the myth may have instilled a fear in people that if women were to go into battle they would likely neglect their children. For example, Eamon de Valera did not want women fighting in the rising, but over 300 women participated anyway. These women used not only weapons, force, and strength to fight, but they used their wit as well. Winifred Carney was said to be as equally dangerous with a typewriter as she was with a revolver. Learning this made us think about how the women in Irish myth, such as Scathach and Aife, often do not employ their own force when attempting to conquer their enemies. Scathach utilized her daughter as a weapon, and Aife utilized her son. They exploited their unassuming position as mothers and women to go forward into battle.

The Lives of Women explores the role of women in modern Irish society, and focuses on the segregation of women to their homes. Women simply do not work in the early days of the novel; they are confined to their homes and the sitting rooms of their friends, and again we see a discomfort with the idea of women making decisions and succeeding on their own. We think that the portrayal of women in myth as “bad” mothers may have contributed to the discomfort with female autonomy that we see in Irish society even today. We think that warrior women in myth and history can be perceived as a threat to traditional gender roles.

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