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Katie

In the summer before I left for Ireland, I got to hear Katie Donovan read from her books at the Tulane University Newcomb College Centre for Reseach on Women.  Many of her poems deal with legendary and powerful pre-Christian women characters: Medb, Macha, Brigid... She also read two poems about the sheela-na-gigs, which I had never heard of before, except for in a P.J. Harvey song.  I was immediately fascinated by the sheelas, and by Katie's story of trying to see the sheelas which are housed in the basement of the National Museum.




Interview with Katie Donovan, November 8, 1998

 

KD: I'm Katie Donovan. I'm a poet.  I've published two collections: Watermelon Man and Entering the Mare [both published by Bloodaxe Books].  And by day I'm a journalist.  I work for The Irish Times.

MT: I'm asking everyone I interview how they got their name...

KD: My mother is Canadian, and very keen on Irish names.  My name is Katherine Susan.  Katherine and Susan together means a pure white lily.  Which is a hard ideal to live up to.  As a baby I was called Katie.  When I became 12, I thought, I'm far too grown up now to be called Katie.  I want to be called Katherine.But this ideal of the pure white lily was always there to bamboozle me because I never really felt it fitted.  So after a few years I went back to Katie. So nowadays, it gives me license to be childish -- rather than trying to be pure.

MT: When I saw you read at the Tulane University Women's Center, you told a great story about trying to see the sheela-na-gigs in the National Museum.  Can you relate that story again?

KD: There was an intriguing correspondence on the pages of The Irish Times.  I'm always reading the letters pages to see if there's any rude letters about my articles.  And I noticed there were several American tourists who were interested in seeing the sheela-na-gigs.  And one of the most bizarre of the letters was a complaint that the sheelas were obscene and should not be on display even though there had been many requests for them to be on display.  And this letter writer felt that if they were going to be on display they should be swathed in nappies so that their nether regions would not be on view to the public.  I was intrigued by all this correspondence -- and I didn't do anything about it at the time but it was something that was at me for quite a while to pursue.

Sheelas, basement of
National Museum

So finally, I decided the best thing to do was to go to the museum myself, just to see what the story was.  And sure enough there were no sheela-na-gigs on display with or without nappies on.  And I asked where could one see them.  And I was told that I would have to make a special appointment to go down into the crypt, which is the storage area in the basement to see them.  Which I did.

I was brought down many stairs into a dark, confined area in the bowels of the museum.  But I was made to feel that there was something a little bit odd about me that I would want to see these creatures, because, after all, they were the kinds of things that had to be locked up and kept away from public view.  I was delighted to see them, and surprised that there were so many of them.  And I didn't feel myself that they were obscene.  They were certainly crudely executed.  They're not fine art.  But I think they're of immense interest to anybody -- not just medieval historians.

So I had a look at them, and I ended up writing an article for The Irish Times about the whole procedure I had to go through to see the sheelas .  And there were more incensed letters on both sides in The Irish Times.  A couple of years later I went back to the museum, and I noticed that there were two sheelas on display.  And there are still two on display.  They're not particularly good examples of sheelas -- they're quite worn -- and also, they're not very well displayed. There are detailed labels on all the other items in the room, which is called the Treasury Room.  The sheelas are sort of in the corner without any real labels -- looking very intriguing and challenging but without any real context given for what they might be, where they might fit into the patchwork quilt of Irish history that the room represents.

I was talking with the woman who runs the giftshop, and she said, Oh, people love the sheela-na-gig t-shirts.  Particularly the men love them.She said, If we sold replicas of the sheela-na-gigs, we'd make a fortune! But of course that's not on.  And she said, off the record, that apparently there's someone in Dáil Éireann, the Irish government, who finds the sheelas very distasteful, who would not like the replicas being on sale.

MT: What's the historical explanations for the sheelas?

KD: There are many theories about the sheela-na-gigs and why they were carved in these medieval buildings.  And I incline towards the theory that they were carved by the stonemasons who were working on the buildings anyway.  And who would not have been Christian -- who were still pagan and who would've believed in a female deity or goddess who was ferocious and protective of a building.  I think they sort of knew that their belief in the deities was not the right thing to believe -- because many of the buildings they were working on were churches.  But they felt strongly enough to carve images of these female protective images on these large houses and churches.  The sheelas are always carved in not very obvious places, the lintel of a window or in a corner.  They're also done it seems to me in quite a hurry.  They are done quite crudely.  They're not supposed to be pretty.  They're naked women, not particularly attractive women, maybe very skinny or very fat, very distorted in some way, with their legs apart, showing their genitalia, with quite ferocious expressions -- not always though, some of them seem quite happy!  As if they're having a really good time.  But they're all carved on buildings, and I believe the stonemasons felt these images would protect the building in some way, that nothing else would work.  And when they were discovered by priestly figures, they were hacked off. They were seen as obscene and sacreligious.  There are other theories about the sheelas -- perhaps they were a warning of the sins of the flesh.  But that doesn't wash with me.  Because you see things like gargoyles and evil figures on churches, which are presumably warnings about hell or sin, all over the place -- Notre Dame in Paris for example -- but they're very prominent.  They're very easy to see.  Because if you want to warn the congregation, who are all piling in, about the sins of the flesh, presumably you're going to put a lot of effort into creating an image that's really striking and that people can see.  Whereas the sheelas were carved very quickly right on the surface on the stone.  So that's why I think my theory is correct.

[For more info on the sheela-na-gigs, see the history section of the links page; also see the interview with historian Mary McAuliffe]

It's great that we don't really know so that we can hypothesize.  Anyway it quite often happens to me that when I have an experience, I end up writing an article and a poem about it.  So I've written  a poem called "Woman Solstice."  It was interesting to me that the day that I went down to see the sheelas, it was the longest day of the year, the solstice, the 21st of June, which is associated with female energy. Therefore, I felt it was very much my day.  And I also had my period that day.  So I was feeling particularly womanly, too -- going down into the crypt to see the sheelas.  I'll have to be honest, when I have my period, I don't feel like a sex object.  I don't feel gorgeous and attractive and want loads of guys after me.  I feel a bit crampy and grumpy and grouchy.  I don't particularly want anyone around me.  So I could really identify with these women who had these expressions like, Get lost. So it was very nice to see these icons of women that were not women as busty blondes with silicone implants.  They were ancient symbols that were very powerful -- and quite scary.  So I felt empowered by them -- particularly as some of them were happy.  So I'll read the poem now and share how I felt.
 

Woman Solstice

On the longest day
head bursting with hidden thunder
I go to find icons.
I am bleeding
bruised red petals,
and thinking of old bones;
new cries.
The sheela-na-gigs
lie in a dank crypt
flanked by ogham stones
and carved shards,
tagged and crumbling.
The sheelas squat on shelves --
forgotten; defiant.
One opens her legs
in a glaze of red,
one mocks death
with a thick glare
and a thrusting tongue.
Another gives herself joy
with a finger
on her pleasure pulse.
Some are featureless,
breastless,
but all open knees
pulling wide labia
with large, insistent hands.

They dare the eye to recoil.

The longest day
throbs to an end
blue light fading slow;
as I watch the roll
of the moon's disc
behind gathering clouds,
I am lying on cool sheets
splay-thighed
and smiling.


I want to read another poem called "Gobnait's Shrine" which also mentions the sheela-na-gigs.  This was based on another experience of writing an article for The Irish Times.  It was on sacred sites around Ireland associated with pilgrimage.  And St. Gobnait whose shrine is in Ballyvourney, County Cork, was a powerful and revered saint.  She's also wonderfully larger than life.  And did many powerful things.  There's a stone down on her shrine which she threw at some guy who had the timerity to build a castle and blocked her view.  And this stone just knocked the castle flat.  So now when the pilgrims go to the shrine, they rub their hankies on this stone -- and if they have eye problems, they put the hanky to their eye and apparently it has healing powers.  It just gives you an idea of the sort of woman she was.  She wasn't a quiet little nun type.  Though she did have an order of nuns down there.  They were not nuns as we would think of them now.

Gobnait's shrine, Ballyvourney

And people go to her shrine a lot still, not just on her pattern day but every day of the year.  The day I was there, there was a big world cup football match on, and Ireland was playing in it, and there were four people there.  One of them was a young man, doing the pattern.  It's called paying rounds.  It involves prayers at different places in the site that are significant.  And the local priest was showing me around, and I said I wanted to see the sheela-na-gig -- because I had read in a  guidebook that there was a sheela-na-gig carved in the lintel of the ruin of her church, and he said, Oh no, that's just an old wives' tale.  There's no sheela-na-gig.So after a lot of hunting, because they're not obvious, I found the sheela, and I said to the parish priest, There she is. And he said,Oh yes, oh right, there she is.And I said, So it's part of the pattern that she gets rubbed and a prayer is said? And he said, Oh no, no, no, that doesn't happen. Anyway, I finally managed to get rid of him, and I watched the pilgrims, and sure enough when they came to the church, they went inside and stood up on the window and rubbed the sheela and said a prayer.

Sheela, Gobnait's shrine, Ballyvourney

Gobnait's shrine comprises several different elements. There's her well for example, and there's a tree where people go and tie rags on the tree.  And the rags are there to represent people in their family that they want to be healed, hopes that they have, prayers that they have.  They want their child to do well on state exams, that sort of thing.  There's also Gobnait's kitchen, where presumably the nuns did their kitchen work and eating.  There's a ruined church where they would've worshiped and a graveyard.  And at various points at the shrine, people stop and say a prayer.  It's called paying a round, and there are different rounds that you pay.  As part of this ritual, which involves stopping at different places, stopping at the kitchen, stopping at the well, stopping at the church, people also stop at the window sill  of the church and reach their hand up to the lintel over the window where there is a sheela-na-gig carved.  And I would assume that one of these superstitious stonemasons would've carved the sheela-na-gig on Gobnait's church (the remains are there, it wasn't the original church), because they would've felt that the sheela represented the same ferocious protective spirit that Gobnait also represented.  Which is not at all the Christian ideal of the quiet little nun.  And which I relish, when I think of that image being there at Gobnait's shrine, because it seems very much of Gobnait, to be very much of the kind of woman who would've thrown the stone to knock down someone's house who was in her way. A sheela-na-gig is an image suggestive of the ferocious power of a female deity, which doesn't exclude her sexuality, which in fact uses her sexuality as an image of her power.  Good, bad or indifferent, but not cute or sexy in any way.  And I'm sure Gobnait was that kind of woman.


Holy well, Gobnait's shrine

So this was very much a part of the whole ritual that they were doing.  Amazing because it brought in all this pre-Christian belief -- of touching this sacred image -- which was a naked woman.  Again, I felt like I had come to a place of power, for all the reasons I have tried to explain, and hopefully will explain better in the poem.

 
Gobnait's Shrine

The pilgrims are paying rounds
to Gobnait:
their lips
murmur over her grave,
their feet
scuffle past her church.
They bring their hopes to her well,
tie scraps of cloth to her tree,
slide their hankerchiefs
across her mighty bowl.
Standing on her sill,
they reach
to the sheela-na-gig
who dances over Gobnait's window:
pilgrim fingers touch her
with sudden intimacy, bare arms
reaching up through the narrow arch
to caress the stone sheela,
whose happy centre is worn away
with rubbing.

I watch the man's forearm
and reaching hand,
and feel myself
firmly grasped, my own parts
reverentially fondled, praised;
the overture of a dance inside:
Gobnait is whirring in the foxgloves,
the fragrant grasses,
the moving stream.
I drink from her waters,
taste her in my mouth:
her rising white trout;
her nine deer;
her magical bees
-- whose avenging stings
drove away cattle thieves --
her agate bowl
that razed the invader's castle;
the sorry head of the man
who stole her horse
and was hung after.

Gobnait, my heart is toasted
in your kitchen;
in you I find a place
I felt I could not claim,
where I can reach my hand,
dip my cup, hum
my own incantation.


All right, so that's the sheela stuff.  I've got Medb, Macha, and Brigid if you want.

MT: I wouldn't say no to any of them!  I'm interested in the overlap between different woman saints or different women icons.

KD: This is a poem for Brigid.  Before she was ever a saint, she was a pagan goddess.  And then she became a very revered saint who had some of the trappings of what the goddess must have had.  In other words, like all these early Irish female figures -- they're all very important to me -- she was larger than life.  And when she wanted a place to create her convent, she went to the man who owned the land and said, Give me some land,and he said, That's fine.  I'll give you as much land as your cloak will cover.And her cloak sort of miraculously stretched out in a very Disney-esque fashion and became huge.  So she got a very large site.  She was also associated with hospitality, and I don't mean just taking in poor people in off the side of the road and giving them a bowl of soup.

She loved beer.  There's an early poem written in Brigid's voice with a wonderful line: I'd like to give a lake of beer to God.And she just is the sort of character who gives me great hope, not only in a time that I enjoy very much, that could've taken on a character like this, pre-Christian Ireland, but also in Christian Ireland.  She is the best known Irish saint -- because Saint Patrick is not Irish.  And she's still very much loved today.  And you see her crosses everywhere on the first of February, which is the first day of Spring.  She's associated with many things.  If you put one of her crosses in your house, it means it will not be burnt down.  It's a protective thing, a little like a sheela-na-gig in itself.  It's particularly supposed to protect your house against fire.  Brigid is also associated with the very fertile image of the cow, which I think is marvellous.  And with apples.  And when I was travelling last year, I was in Florida and feeling quite homesick, I wrote this poem to Brigid, hoping my own little home, far away, was safe.


Brigid's cross


 

Prayer of the Wanderer
(to Brigit)

Racoons shriek
and alligators creep
beneath my window.

Trees are lapped
by waterlog,
their arms bearded
with the tangled grey
of Spanish moss.

My hands
are wrinkled
and lost.

I wish for a mooncow
to carry me home
to the land of apples.

I would lure her
to my house
with sweet grass.
I would press my face
against her fragrant belly
and try for milk.

I have left her sign
of woven rushes
over my door,
while I roam this place
of swamps and broken shells.

I pray she keeps all safe
'til my return:

let my house be not fallen,
nor eaten in flame,
let my loved ones flourish,
and my garden thrive.

One glimpse
of the white star
on her great head
would give me peace.

Even her hoofprint
in the night sky
would tell of home.


MT: I'm so happy that you told the story of the cloak -- I love that.

[Additional info about Brigid can be found in interviews with Mary Condren, Margaret MacCurtain and Sister Mary Minnehan; Brigid links can be found in the religious organizations section of the links page.]

KD: Queen Medb is another wonderful pre-Christian character from the area of Celtic myth and lore that was for many generations an oral tradition where these tales were told and passed on from one generation to the next.  She crops up in a story called the Táin which is the Irish epic.  It's sort of our equivalent to the Odyssey.  Like all stories, well, like many stories in Ireland, it has to do with a cattle raid -- to do with one person wanting another person's property.  Queen Medb decides that she would like this bull that is owned by the King of Ulster.  And the messengers she sends to the King of Ulster make a complete hames of trying to bargain.  And they say in a drunken fit, Well, if we can't borrow or buy this bull, then we'll invade Ulsterand steal it.

Path to Knocknarea

View from Knocknarea

So a battle royale ensues,  In which Queen Medb leads her men to capture the bull, and in which she is ultimately successful.  She was known for her determination to get her own way.  She was described in larger than life proportions.  She was a very lusty lady.  She enjoyed sex very much.  She also had a large bladder, which in Celtic lore that meant she was big and powerful.  Cú Chulainn, who was our epic warrior figure, had a wife named Emer who was also known as large bladdered Emer.  Emer was also large in stature.  But Queen Medb could beat anyone hands down.  The contents of her bladder could mould the landscape.  She's buried at Knocknarea, very near to where Yeats is buried.  And I went to the cairn which is said to contain her remains, and I paid my own special tribute to her.  Again, she is very much a role model to me.

[For more info about Queen Medbh and the Táin, see the history section of the links page.]
 
 

At Queen Medb's Cairn

They buried you upright.
Your friendly thighs
and capacious bladder,
all your largesse of limb
now lost
under a windscored heap of stone
which sits, like a button,
on the upturned belly
of Knocknarea.

As we climb to pay tribute
the mossy slopes trickle
with a gushing generosity
like your juices
after love;

the hilly stream
has hewn its little way
through rock and earth
like a miniature
of your bladder's waterfall
that delved the land.

At the summit
I struggle out of layers
to bare my buttocks
in the airy howl;

squatting with
a hesitant squirt
on the grey cairn,
a worshipper at the shrine,
a hopeful apprentice
of your mighty wave.


I always get a lot of laughs and shocked intakes of breath when people realize what I was doing on the cairn.

MT: How appropriate.  I read somewhere about her having a gush of blood. That it carved several rivers.

KD:  That's actually a bad translation.  It wasn't a gush of blood.  She was actually peeing.  I took a course at Berkeley of all places with a scholar who had studied that passage. This was the late Brendan O hEithir.  And the best translation he could find was actually gush of piss,not gush of blood. Because as all menstruating women know, menstrual blood does not gush.   We used to have these great conversations in class -- these eighteen year old American kids arguing about did menstrual blood gush.  Could it gush?  Was this the right translation? Brendan O hEithir said that Thomas Kinsella had deliberately chosen the version that was the most misogynist.  And he said this monkish scribe who was writing down the Táin was obviously very misogynist and instead of saying, Medb pissed, he said, Medb passed a foul thing. And it's forever known as Medb's foul place.  And Kinsella translates it as Medb got her gush of blood.  But we know that blood doesn't gush when one is menstruating.  It kind of oozes.  Whereas urine actually comes out with a lot of force, especially in Medb's case.  It came out with spectacular force.  Three rivers worth.

MT: And that's the most popular translation, the Kinsella?

KD: It's the only one available.  So anyway, the tale is told with this sort of moralistic slant.  Again, according to Brendan O hEithir, probably as a result of the monk interfering, saying that no army led by a woman could possibly succeed.  But that doesn't make sense because she does capture the bull -- so she does succeed.  Do you want me to read the Macha poem?

MT: Yeah.

KD: It's sort of a larger progression of the Medb one.  The story of the Táin involves a sort of prequel.  There's a supernatural character called Macha who was extrememly fleet of foot.  She arrived at the doorstep of this very ordinary guy one day and moved in with him and became his wife and became very heavy with child.  Macha to me seems to be obviously an evocation of the horse goddess.   Because the pre-Christian Irish worshipped an embodiment of the earth goddess who was a horse.  The Welsh, who were also Celts, had their equivalent, Epona, who was a horse goddess, too.  And various rites and rituals that we read about from early visitors to Ireland would corroborate this.  But anyway, back to Macha, who's our main woman here.  She was expecting and was very large.  And her husband went off to the court.  And said said, Have a lovely time, my beloved husband.  But whatever you do, don't talk about my amazing capacity to run fast.

So her husband went off to the court.  And what does he do but immediately starts to boast about how wonderfully his wife can run.  And nothing will suit the king then better than to have her come to demonstrate her prowess.  So her husband came home and said, There's a race on tomorrow and you're to race the king's horses.And his wife was extrememly upset and said, I told you not to do that.  I'm pregnant.  Can we not postpone it?But the king said, No, I want to see you beat, if you can, my fastest horses on the race track.So there was a big hoo-ha, and everyone came to watch, and Macha ran the race.  And this poem is about what happened.

She won the race.  She gave birth on the finishing line.  And she cursed all the men of Ulster that for nine generations they would feel the pangs of labor.  This was her revenge for what they put her through.  It's a wonderful story.  I love Macha and I love the idea of a woman getting her revenge because women aren't supposed to have low thoughts like this.  And of course when Medb went to capture the bull, the men of Ulster were writhing in agony because of Macha's curse.  Which is a very nice little link I think between the two women.

 
Macha's Curse

She knew why
he did it:
he was a small man
with nothing
to speak of,
so to give himself
a leg up,
he boasted about her;
how she could beat
all comers
with her fleetness,
faster than any horse
in the royal stable.

After he gave away her scent,
the noses came sniffing
at her hem,
and the king decreed
she show her colours,
or show the world
her husband was a fool.

She was carrying his name --
the name of a simpleton
she rued the choosing of --
in her puffed out belly.
But the king would not wait
even for another month,
when she'd be lean again.

She went alone
to the track.
She saw her husband,
watching,
among the men
to whom he'd spilled
her secret.

She set her teeth,
knowing that the race
was all about his reputation:
he had put his pride
like a crouching,
sharp-kneed rider
on her back,
urging her to win
for her sake,
even as she ached
with the tiny spurs,
pressing her
from within.

She took her place
between the horses,
a small woman
in a plain dress,
dodging the hooves
and jostling haunches.

The whip cracked:
her bones leapt.
Her jutting belly,
and bloated ankles,
her tired spine --
all disappeared
in the might of her stride.

She shook her dark hair
opened wide her breath
in the sweet pounding
of the track;
she smelled the sweat
of the horses
as she passed them by,
it sang in her nostrils
of long fields
starred with clover,
of vaulted hedges
full of birds,
and tails frisking in the dusk.

And then it was all
behind her;
the mayhem
of the crowd, the panting foam
on the horses' lips,
the dim world
of her husband's house.

She fell
on the finishing line,
and in a giant shiver
her body opened
to pour out
her twin young,
their damp new heads
flushed red
with the speed
of the mother's gait.

She lay, empty,
sticky in her blood;
the men
were quieting the horses,
the women
were tearing strips of cloth
to wrap her babies in.

She took the lifestore
of her placenta
and put it
between her teeth,
swallowing back something
of all she'd given.

A great curse
began to gather
out of the ravage
of her torn flesh,
and she let it grow
until her voice
was strong enough
to make it heard:

ÎI curse all you men
who forced me
out upon the track,
knowing my time
was near,
just wanting
to see me bested.
You'll never have
the winning strengh
I had today.

'Whenever strangers come
to fight you
for your land,
you'll find yourselves
cast down by the pangs
of a woman
in her labour,
and then you'll know
what your bets and boasts
have done to me this day.'

Lasting nine days
and passing down
nine generations,
the curse came on them:
whenever they had most need
of strength,
they found themselves
laid low
by Macha's word,
all their gallop stopped
in the heave
of her scarred birthing.

She wrung them out
like dripping shirts,
and hung them up
to dry in flitters
on the cutting line
of her cantering curse.


KD: Yay, Macha!

MT: You seem to take a lot of pleasure in reading that one.

KD: Yeah, well. I like gallopping along with some of the lines.  It's especially good on a day like today.

MT: Triumph!

KD: Revenge!

MT: One of the questions that's evolving for me with this project is... for the longest time it seems like the stereotype about Ireland was that women were in the home and under the thumb of the church.  And then in the past ten years, all these women were elected to government and finally getting power.  But now I'm like, No, they're just getting back around to the power they had in the past.

KD: Yeah.

MT: So could you comment on that?  Whether or not you think Irish women today have more power than they used to?

KD: I can sort of try -- I'll waffle a bit because I'm not a scholar.  You need to talk to Mary Condren.  I think women in pre-Christian Ireland are very inspiring.  They've been extremely empowering for me to discover.  Women like Brigid, like Macha, like Medb.  I just love the fact that they existed, that they were very physical women, that they like to enjoy themselves.  They had bodies, they had sex, they got their periods, they had babies, they negotiated for power, they got power, they looked for things that were important for them and they got them by hook or by crook.  They seemed to have good, fun, lusty lives, and they seemed to enjoy their men.  They weren't man haters.  But they negotiated with men and they jostled with men and they got their revenge on men, and they dismissed men -- in a way that seems very healthy and to do with the bantering between people who basically like each other but don't want to sacrifice power or respect to the other either.

And then there are other women in early Ireland, for example the pirate queen Granuaile, who are inspiring.  Because Granuaile did essentially what she wanted.  She had several husbands.  One of them she got tired of after a year so she dismissed him.  She went pirating as much as she liked.  She negotiated with Elizabeth, the Queen of England.  And it sounds to me from the report of their discussion that she did very well for herself.  She also organized things very nicely for her son so that her dynasty would continue and so that the power wouldn't be lost with her.  She just brings a smile to my lips.  I have a friend called Mary O'Malley who hopes that she is of the same O'Malley family and who has found in Granuaile a very empowering being.  So I just know that these early women are very special to women in Ireland today.

[For more info about Granuaile, see the history section of the links page.]

Ireland has benefitted since the 70s from the sort of general feminist movement that came to us from England and America, and we've done extremely well.

And because we've been a member of the European Union, we've had to sort of modernize along with other countries.  We've had to, for example, allow our women civil servants to keep working even after they get married -- because there was a time when as soon as they got married they had to leave their jobs.  We've had to look into the issue of equal pay for equal work.  We've sort of suddenly begun to realize that we can have women politicians, that they're very powerful, that they work hard, that they're people we can look up to, and that they're equally as deserving of being elected as men. We still only have a small proportion of women elected to the government.  But it's growing.  And we have a woman who's the head of a political party.  And we have our second woman president.  And certainly when I was a little girl, this would've all seemed like a fairy tale.  It's amazing to me now in my mid-30s to think that so much has happened in my own life span.  So that's very exciting.  I think we have quite a ways to go still if we are going get to the real liberation that I see in these pre-Christian women.

Now I know they're mythical creatures, and perhaps it's wish fulfillment on my part to think that we could be as lively and as bold and larger than life as Medb or the pre-Christian Brigid or Macha.  But what worries me a little bit with Ireland becoming so modern and so much part of Europe and very much influenced by the United States, is that we're buying into a lot of that culture which doesn't involve women luxuriating in their bodies.  It involves women looking at their bodies and thinking, Not good enough.And, for example, worrying, If I express my sexuality, will I be seen as a tramp?And I think that still goes on.  I know it goes on in the States and England, so why would we be any different?  I think we have a stage further to go and I think ironically if we look really far back into our own past, we'll find it.

And what gives me great hope is that I feel, all through history, not just in pre-Christian Ireland, Irish women have been gutsy, have done their own thing.  They've just maybe done it quietly.  A hundred years ago there were an awful lot of women doing extremely interesting and exciting things.  We have the feminist Hannah Sheehy-Skeffington, Constance Markiewicz, who did an awful lot of work for the poor as well as taking an active role in 1916, Maud Gonne, who also did sterling work with starving children as well as being Yeats' muse.  All those women were around.  We had Lady Gregory, who did wonderful folklore research, wrote terrific plays, and was a fantastic supporter and role model for writers like Yeats and Synge.  They were all around.  We like to think of Lady Gregory as being this sort of permanent widow who had no sexuality at all.  But she was busy having affairs and doing exactly what she wanted. She maybe wasn't making it too obvious.  I mean she did publish love poems quite openly about this man she was having an affair with.  I just think that these women were doing exactly what they wanted.



Hanna Sheehy-Skeffington, Maud Gonne

When it came to the war of independence in 1916, women fought alongside the men.  They were nurses alongside the men.  They were respected equally.  And the early draft of the constitution reflected that respect.  When Yeats was a senator in the very early part of the century he was arguing in favor of divorce.  Things were quite liberal then.
 
 

Proclamation of the Irish Republic, 1916

And what happened was suddenly we became this emerging state and we thought we had to have our own identity -- and part of that meant we had to really honor and respect our religion which was predominantly Catholicism. And I think we went way over board on that. In that we allowed it to completely dominate our lives in a very sort of rigid and puritanical interpretation of what it was. Because if we look back to those early churches that were built in early times, they had sheela-na-gigs carved on them.  So you know Catholicism in Ireland was not interpreted in a very narrow and prudish way it seems to me up until very recently.  And it's very sad to me that we had to really dive in there and take it all so seriously and pretend that we weren't sexual at all and punish ourselves for any sexual thoughts -- for several decades.

And there were offshoots to all this.  There was the Irish Censorship Board, which for example banned the work of Kate O'Brien -- one of her novels because there was a confession of love between two women.  In another scene there's a young woman who has an adulterous fling with a married man.  The books were literature; the books were popular as well.  And yet the Irish government saw fit to ban them along with other zillions of other books.

And people talk about, Oh, we were kept in the dark ages,but the dark ages were far more liberal than anything like this. This was really a total aberration.  And we're slowly beginning to come out of it.  And only because of all these scandals involving Irish priests, the most famous being bishop Casey and the fact that he actually made love to a woman and she got pregnant.  And she had a son.  What a desperate scandal that was and trying to cover it up.  And after that the most incredible amount of priests who were paedophiles.  And whose nasty deeds have been being covered up for years.  And for all of this to happen in my lifetime, it's like a revolution to me.  That the church is just another human institution -- some of whose members are corrupt, some of whose members who are weak and human, some of whose members are perverts -- we get paedophiles in every walk of life. So I think this has forced us now to put the church in context.  We don't have to throw it out.  But we don't have to let it rule our lives as we did for those few decades of our emergent nationhood when we were trying to look for some sort of reference that was not Britain.  Because obviously we were reacting against that.  So we sort of went too far in our very rigid interpretation in what it meant to be Roman-Catholic.  Because if you go to Rome and talk to Italians, they don't live like the way we were trying to make ourselves live. They're into birth control.  They allow divorcee. And I think we're suddenly beginning to see that, Okay, we can have our religion, and we can also have bodies and we can allow ourselves our frailties.

MT: You said something like, We've come a long way but we have a ways to go. What issues do you feel still need work?

KD: I think in politics, we're only beginning to see that women can be active politicians.  It was wonderful that we had Mary Robinson as a president, but she was really only a figurehead.  She didn't have a lot of power.  And everytime she tried to take power into her hands,  for example, the celebrated handshake with Gerry Adams, which was extremely important and exciting and necessary thing for her to do, she was roundly slapped for being a bold girl by all the male politicians down in Dublin -- who, as soon as they realized that what she had done was the right thing, started to emulate her and take all the credit for it.  She was not really allowed to do what she wanted.

And Mary McAleese, although she's also a woman in that same job, is also very limited in terms of what she can and can't do.  There's always a furore if she tries to do something a little bit different, like trying to take communion in a Protestant church -- that caused an absolute scandal.  So these women, they are trying to push out the boundaries of a role that is that of figurehead  But they're never going to get very far.

So the real way for women to go is to get actively involved in politics. And because they've only really started to do it, with any number, there are still very few women who are very active in the Dáil. We have Mary Harney who's head of the PDs [Progressive Democrats], a very small party, but she is highly respected and very active and an extremely important role model for a lot of other women. And there are other women politicians like Liz O'Donnell and Liz McManus and Mary O'Rourke and Nora Owen who are all doing very important work -- and who are seen to be active, to be creating change, which is extremely exciting.  There was a woman minister of justice, Máire Gheghogan-Quinn, she's now retired from politics unfortunately. But while she was minister for justice, this is just an example of what women can do when they're active in politics, she decriminalized homosexuality.  And that was a really groundbreaking thing to do. And it was very exciting that it was a woman who was doing it, that it was a woman minister of justice.   Because you know when women became a minister, it's usually education or health or the things that women do.  But we're just beginning to see now that a woman can be mininster of justice and that she can do something radical and exciting which will change the face of Irish society, which is what Máire Gheghogan-Quinn did.

[ For more info about the women politicians listed above, see the government section of the links page]

And I know from doing interviews with young women who were standing for election in the last general election, and I'm sure they'll stand again, that they are out there. They are only my age or younger, they are committed, and they have the support of the men in their lives, which is very exciting to see; they are determined to be elected and to join parties, or maybe to run as an independent, but to take part in the political system.  And the fact that parties are rallying around these women and have belief in them as active members of the political system is to me very exciting -- although it's really still in a smallish way.  Because the majority of men are quite traditional older men, and they are men.  But women are becoming more visible -- and they are movers and shakers.  And that's terrific.

What I would like to see is the excellent results that young women get in school and university translate into doing really well in the professions and business.  And again it is beginning to happen and I'm sort of watching it unfold.  I'm at that age, I'm in my mid 30s, where I'm beginning to see women of my age going somewhere.  But it's slow. And the institution where I work, which is The Irish Times, which flags itself as a very liberal institution, there is that sense that the young women are going places.  But right up there in the positions of power, there always are men.  There are no women in really senior positions in The Irish Times. Now, to give them their credit, they would like to see that changed. But they haven't actually changed it. So we're really at a huge point in Irish society.  There are all those positive developments, but we've got to bring it that little bit further.

And I think that in issues that affect working class women we have a long way to go as well. Because an awful lot of working class families are held together by a woman.  She probably has a part time job.  She probably has no job security.  She's probably paid very badly for that job.  She probably doesn't feed herself very well because she spends everything on her children and on her husband because he does not have a job.  I don't know what's being done for these women -- not much.  They're rearing children, they're sending these children to school and they're breaking their backs in the process. And those women need help.  Frequently those women are part of communities which are having problems with drugs, and they're out on the streets fighting with drug pushers.  They're not getting much help from the gardai. And I just really wonder where they get their oomph to keep going.  Some of these women are watching their children that they've raised die form AIDS as result of contaminated needles.  They're trying to bring up their grandchildren.  They're trying to keep home and community together.  And I really feel for those women because they're not getting much back up from anybody, not even their middle class sisters.

MT: Last point: Did you always want to be a writer?

KD: When I was four years old, I told my father I was going to be a writer.  I don't remember saying this, but he does.  And he actually believed me. And ever since then whenever anyone asked me what was I gonna do, you know, when teachers would say, What are you gonna be when you grow up? I always said I was going to be a writer.  And I didn't really know what that meant. I just loved reading.  And I did write my own little poems and plays and skits and stories all the time anyway.  And it was just something I loved doing. And I have always been highly imaginative -- probably too much for my own good!  And it was a way of channelling that. So it's just something I've always done and always believed I would continue to do.  And I have!  And I sometimes amaze myself, because I think, This was really just a dream when you were a kid but you're actually doing it.Sort of exciting. Let's see where it goes.

And I'm interested in all different forms of writing and -- obviously in my day job as a journalist I'm churning out words like any old hack every day on topical issues. So there's that aspect of my life.  But then there's the poetry, which is very personal, very subjective. And also involves the use of symbols or images or allegories.  Quite different from journalism.  It involves cutting down rather than adding on. And perhaps spending several days over one line and then chucking it because it just doesn't work. So the poetry is quite different.  But I'm also writing fiction at the moment, which I find very exciting because I can play God in my own little world.  And I can illustrate.  In journalism where I can only report on a situation and thereby make a point, in a novel I can actually illustrate something that I want discussed or highlighted and make a story around it, which is a lot more satisfying way of bringing it to people's attention.

MT: Great.  Thanks so much.  I just need to get a cutaway of the sheela replica that you were holding up earlier.  Could you hold it up for a minute?

KD: This is my sheela.  I don't know where she comes from.  She was given to me by a former boyfriend who was still in my life at the time I wrote that poem, "Woman Solstice," and I'd been down to the museum.  I don't really know if she's based on a real sheela.  She seems to me to be holding on to her leg rather than what she's supposed to be holding onto, which is her genitalia. But she's the closest I've got to a real sheela and I keep her in my bathroom.  And she's put there to protect the house really and to reaffirm for me that my body is not there to be a baby machine or be a sex machine.  But it's there for me.  And sometimes it feels uncomfortable, sometimes it feels grumpy, ferocious, powerful -- but it's there for me.
 



Katie Donovan's books, Watermelon Man and Entering the Mare, are available from Bloodaxe Books, P.O. Box ISN, Newcastle-Upon-Tyne NE99 ISN, England.

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