Interview with Mary Condren

MC: I’m Mary Condren. I am now Director of the Institute for Feminism and Religion which is an independent educational company that was set up in Ireland. The aim basically is to reclaim religion by engaging theoretically and experientially with the issues of theology, ethics, ritual and spirituality. So that’s my main job. I also teach at Trinity College in the Centre for Women’s Studies and I earn most of my living through being a communications consultant.

MT: I am especially interested in the Institute of Feminism and Religion. Maybe you could give a little background to how you became involved with that.

MC: I started my journey you might say at the age of twenty when I entered an enclosed Carmelite order in England. It was a Dutch foundation. I stayed there for almost three years but at the end of it, it just became evident that my journey needed to move on a little bit. So I went to the University of Hull, where I did theology, sociology and social anthropology. And from there I went on to edit a journal of theology and politics for about five years and also was part of setting up the Women’s Project at the World Student Christian Federation which is still very much in operation throughout the world. And out of that, then, I was invited to go to Harvard to be a research associate in Women’s Studies in 1979. When I was there I thought it would be great to have a doctorate because everybody else over there seems to have those things, and I hadn’t thought about it before. So I eventually started the doctorate.

But then I was asked to write a book for women in the Irish church. So I started writing this book and I said to myself, "I better mention the goddesses," because I had heard that there had been Irish goddesses, and I started looking at the sources like The Táin or mythology and I was mind boggled by what I found. Because reading the stories and mythology through feminist eyes and through sociology and anthropology, you could see that there had been a vibrant matricentered society in Ireland before the patriarchal church and society. So I started writing that and 150 pages later after the goddesses I gave this to the press that had asked me to write this book and they weren’t interested. This was 1980 or something. So anyway we broke the contract and Harper Collins took up the book immediately. So, but that took me five years as a distraction from doing my doctorate. So, in the meantime I had come back to Ireland in 1986, and I worked in University College Dublin in the department of Women’s Studies there, all the time in a part time capacity. I applied for numerous jobs and I got I think two interviews. I also worked for a place called Mt. Oliver Institute in Dundalk for three years but then they closed it down -- that was a place for adult education.

In the end, together with some friends, we got together and thought that the best way of promoting a feminist perspective on religion was basically to set up our own institute. So, that’s what we did.

MT: And what kind of programs have you done so far?

MC: We’ve done all kinds of things. We put on a lecture series every year in Dublin for twenty weeks before and after Christmas and we would start with an introduction say to feminist theology or feminist spirituality or Celtic spirituality. In the last several years I’ve been developing the notion of a feminist philosophia on the basis of mercy. On the basis of the prophetic saying, "I desire mercy, not sacrifice," which is what Jesus and the prophets all the time said. So we have been working on that. I am also working on that in my writing at this point, on the theme of mercy and what that could mean for feminists across the traditions. But this year our main course will be on Irish women’s wisdom, and there will be about fifteen contributors to that course who would be poets and Celticists and theologians and scripture scholars and dancers and whoever.

MT: How have you in your life reconciled feminism with religion? In some ways people might think that those two things don’t go together. I’m really curious to hear from your perspective how they mesh and work together.

MC: Yeah, from a very early age I’ve been engaged in the study of religion at one level or another and also very compelled within a religious universe -- but also very disaffected. I can remember going into church at the age of seven and not knowing what these people were doing -- "Blah blah blah blah blah blah" -- and how God up there could possibly be listening to all of us at the same time and why I wasn’t getting the only attention. I mean there were just things that didn’t make any sense to me from a very early age, so I’ve always been a dissenter, and at the same time a dissenter who’s also compelled further and further into explorations as to what that might mean. Even when I entered the Carmelite order it was almost like I entered it as a sanctuary. Because I was profoundly moved by religion, profoundly moved by spirituality, but at the same time couldn’t put that together with what was happening with the churches. So there has always kind of been a parallel journey.

I suppose some of the influences on my life would be... When I was in college we were involved in an anti-apartheid demonstration, and we had a sit-in at the university, and one of the guys who was the leader of the sit-in, when the university basically betrayed us in the thing, he went out and committed suicide. And that had a profound effect in my life. And I really felt done with politics, done with education, done with religion, done with the whole lot of them, but that year, 1973, I had to organize a massive festival in England. It was called "Seeds of Liberation," where the theme was looking for the spiritual dimensions to political struggle. In other words, you know, how do you continue to struggle and struggle and struggle, against all the odds? Where are the sources? Where do you find the hope? And we invited people like Dan Berrigan, the Jesuit, Jim Forest, who works for the International Fellowship for Reconciliation and Bishop Colum Winter who had been kicked out of Namibia as a bishop. We had all these people who had also been kicked out of their own situations. And that really sustained me I think, that and the women’s community in Europe and beyond. Women have always been involved in justice struggles but have been supported and fed and nourished by stories, by meditative practices, by various ways of engaging in spirituality, and at the same time they have always been dissenters.

So I belong to the dissenting tradition of something or other, I am not quite sure which! But at the same time I don’t want to be saying that I’m always in opposition because really I am at the point in my life where I am more concerned with being constructive. And that’s why I am engaged in the work on mercy. Looking at what that could mean.

MT: I want to go back for a second to talk about the hundred and fifty pages which eventually became The Serpent And The Goddess. For years now everyone keeps referring me to that book. It’s almost like this bible of information about women in Celtic Ireland. And I’m wondering -- I mean obviously it’s been tremendously popular among women and Women’s Studies students, but I was just curious as to what kind of response you got in the academic world.

MC: Mostly silence. A lot of silence. Among the theological world it’s been largely ignored, and that I would have to say includes the world of feminist theology to some extent. The people who picked it up have been people like poets and artists, Women’s Studies people, anthropologists. It’s the required text in the Pacific School of Religion in the work on mythology.

Among Celtic Studies... When I was writing the book a guy called Sean Coileain who is now professor of Irish in Cork, he was at Harvard for the year and I used to go into him every week with a list of questions and he was great. He probably didn’t agree with the project at all but he maintained his rigour as a scholar. He was very, very helpful. And he would say, "Now that’s off the wall. Go and read that," or whatever. And he read the book for me, so he was very, very helpful and very supportive when it came out. And privately I’ve heard people say how much they appreciated the book. But I mean, the Irish academic world is a very timid world. I’ve literally seen, after a Celtic lecture, two of the professors having a boxing match, outside the lecture. Literally fighting. It’s a very bitchy world and it’s a very enclosed world and so... you know I don’t expect.... I’ve never been invited for instance to a Celtic department. And there was a very bitchy review in the Journal of the American Committee of Irish Studies by a woman, and that’s always disappointing, but at the same time, I don’t really care. I mean the whole point of my book was not to write the last word; the point of my book was to encourage people to do their own work. And even if they’re saying, "Mary Condren is horribly wrong, this is the real story," then it means they’ve got them doing their own work. And that’s fine.

MT: Well, the book certainly inspired me to follow up on Brigit, and Macha, and so I just want to thank you for putting it out there. For someone that hasn’t read the book, could you briefly describe what the book is about?

MC: The title of the book is The Serpent And The Goddess: Women, Religion And Power In Celtic Ireland. And in the book I set out to trace the story, and I use "the story" advisedly, the story of the rise of patriarchy in Ireland. I wouldn’t ever claim to do history. I’m not a Celtic scholar. I read the myths and I read the texts, and I’m looking at the discourse rather than the history. In other words, historians look at the facts; I look at what people said about the facts. And therefore the actual historical happenings are not as important to me as the stories about them.

So I set out to write this story about the rise of patriarchal ideas in Ireland, and I did that first by comparing the rise of patriarchy in Judaism, especially through the story of Adam and Eve in Genesis, chapter two. And I did that because the story of Adam and Eve is so powerful and also because the society that’s being described is so much more like Irish tribal society than Greek and Roman cities for instance. So I started there with "The Age of Eve". The book is in four parts: the Age of Eve, the Age of Brigit, the Age of Mary, and the Age of the Fathers. And in "The Age of Eve", I also traced the rise of what we call "male reproductive consciousness." You know, how they made the transition from women claiming their own children and raising their own children to men claiming the children and claiming their seed and basically erasing female genealogies.

St. Brigit of Kildare

Brigit's cross

So in the "Age of Brigit," then... Originally, I was going to do my doctorate on Brigit, but I realized very quickly that you could not do a historical doctorate on Brigit because the history wasn’t there. What you had was a collection of myths, folk tales, saints’ lives and whatever. And so over four chapters then I traced the role of Brigit: her role as goddess and the remnants and traces of Brigit in the old literature; her rise as Abbess of Kildare or Christian saint; and then the demise of Brigit. Then in the context of the sexual politics of the Irish Church I began to explore what it meant. The Abbess of Kildare who was the descendant of Brigit was raped in the twelfth century and that basically brought an end to that powerful lineage of powerful abbesses. But I also argued then that that was only symptomatic of a much wider erasure of female power and female genealogies that had happened through the rise in power of male control of religious rites of which Ireland was a part. So that was the "Age of Brigit".

In the "Age of Mary"... You see it’s important to realise that up to the twelfth century there were more churches called after Brigit than there ever were called after Mary, because Brigit was the female principle. Christianity could never have succeeded in Ireland if it had not acknowledged Brigit to be the Mary of the Gael, which she was. She was the goddess. When Brigit first came to Ireland maybe two thousand years before Christianity, she had taken over all of the old Irish goddess shrines and there are stories from the Lives of Brigit that show that Derlugh Dacha, Blathnaid, Gobnait and Lassair gave their shrines to Brigit. So in the 1100s Brigit had more churches than Mary had. And it was only after the rise of monasticism that churches began to be dedicated to Mary. After the rise of the twelfth century church and the imposition of the dioceses, Mary became much more important as a symbol of virginity, as a symbol of control of female sexuality. And basically in the book I relate that to the control of land and the rise of patriarchal centralised power and the rise of the diocesan power structure.

In the last chapter then, I’ll skip a few centuries -- I had intended maybe to have written a sequel from the sixteenth century onwards but I haven’t done that yet and I don’t know that I ever will -- I just wanted to trace the implications of patriarchal consciousness today. What are the implications of male reproductive consciousness? Where do we see it? What are the implications? What are the implications for the nuclear industry and to some extent what are the implications for Ireland? I opened it up to the wider patriarchal mythology as that is operative in the world. In a way you see, I was only using Ireland as a case study being a very localised contained situation that you could focus on in depth to see the wider picture, and that picture has been replicated in different ways in different situations. So that’s what I was trying to do.

MT: I’d like to focus, for the next few questions, on Mary, and I’m wondering if you could talk a bit about what Mary’s special role is within Irish Catholicism.

from top: Clonard Monastery, Belfast; Knocknatobar, Co. Kerry; Galway church

MC: I think that Mary, within Irish Catholicism, has been the essence of mercy, in some way, and that’s an ambivalent position for her to have been in. Because on the one hand when things really got tough, for unmarried mothers, mothers in trouble, Mary was the one to whom they went. I mean, Jesus and the Father and the Church might have been a little bit too far removed from their experience, but Mary was always a great comfort. My grandmother would say she’d great devotion to the Black Virgin, great devotion to the Mother of Perpetual Succour, or whoever it happened to be. And whichever one, whether it was Our Lady of Lourdes or Fatima or Knock or whatever, everyone had their own special variation on the theme of Mary. So at one level it’s great because it offers a level of comfort; at another level it undermines the strict spirituality and theology of the Church.

And you know an example of that was, when I was a child in our local parish, which was Mount Argus run by the Passionists, every single May, four Sundays in a row, we had the May Procession. And we would dress up in these little white dresses and throw roses and sing all the Mary songs. And people came from all over Dublin and even abroad, outside Dublin, to these May Processions. And then when the Vatican Council came into vogue, they cut the May Processions. They decided that Mary was getting far too much attention altogether, to the detriment of Jesus. And the women were furious. They said, you know, they were not consulted. This was their festival. This was their procession. This was their time. And it took about ten years before they brought it back. One procession a year they would allow. But already the damage had been done and the tradition that was so sensual, involving music and smell and image, all those sensual parts of spirituality which Mary had embodied had been removed from the Catholic Church, in a very similar way that they were removed during the Reformations.

Of course, nowadays, Mary is seen very much as a colonised woman and as a colonising agent of Irish female sexuality, so among feminists in particular she would not be very popular to say the least. But that’s, you know, I think these things have a history and a life of their own, so they go back and forth.

MT: In a way it seems like she was used by every time and culture to fulfil whatever they needed her to fulfil at that time. You said a minute ago that there were more churches to Brigit initially, so how did Mary become the main woman?

MC: Well you see, Brigit was always a bit of a feisty woman. She was never the good obedient servant of the gods. I mean she’d a very independent tradition in relation to spirituality, in relation to how she treated the bishops. She was a very independent woman altogether. So when the monastic orders came to Ireland, particularly in the eleventh and twelfth centuries, the Cistercians, the Benedictines, they brought the cult of Mary with them. And into that cult they projected all of the unsublimated needs of male celibate sexuality. Mary became then the perfect mother, the perfect virgin, the perfect image towards which the male monastics would have been aspiring.

Julia Kristeva, who is one of the women that I now work out of as a philosopher, she draws a distinction between the semiotic and the symbolic. The semiotic is the pre-conscious, pre-linguistic, sign language. It’s the unconscious. The symbolic is the order of the word, what can be spoken. Now I think what patriarchal Christianity did was to divide the world up like that. On the one hand you had this highly theorised, logical theology of Thomas Aquinas and the monastics, based on the scriptures, based on philosophy, based on Aristotle. Very cerebral, celibate, dualistic, abstract philosophy. But, what did the monks do before they went to bed? They sang "Salve Regina" to Our Lady, to Mary. And the Salve Regina is, "Hail holy queen, mother of mercy. Hail our life, our sweetness and our hope. To thee do we cry, poor banished children of Eve. To thee do we send up our sighs, mourning and weeping in this valley of tears." The Salve Regina is the most extraordinarily haunting beautiful piece of music. And every night monks and nuns throughout the world still do sing this song, before they go to bed. And so Mary became the repository of the semiotic, the pre-conscious, the unconscious, the symbolic, the poetic. All of the things that could not be contained by logic, by theology, by abstraction, Mary held them. So that was the reason why her devotion and her cult became so important, because women were very much in touch with that.

Women, as Freud said, never quite made it into the logical order or the order of the symbolic. We never quite were civilised, thankfully. We still remain within the pre-conscious and the semiotic, and I think that’s why women can relate to Mary because we haven’t split. We haven’t made that split between culture and nature. And that’s why for women, even though the image of Mary is very problematic, it also has tremendous potential for the expression of female spirituality.

There was another dimension though. There was an economic underpinning to the rise of Mary, in the sense that land became very important after the twelfth century. In Irish society [under the Brehon Laws] when somebody got married they could marry up or down on the social ladder. There wasn’t just one contract of marriage there were dozens. And depending on whether a woman owned land or didn’t, or the husband owned land or didn’t, or both of them were likely to acquire goods, they entered into one or other contract of marriage. Now, under the feudal system [after England colonised Ireland] all that changed, because it was not in the interests of a man to allow his daughter to be married off to a guy of less wealth or economic standing than his daughter, because his land would have gone automatically over. And so virginity and the maintenance of virginity became extremely important. And you had to inculcate in your daughters the necessity for chastity. But that was really to preserve the land and to make sure that your land was not going to be split up. And in some cases when women became pregnant they were put into convents. In other places where they couldn’t afford a dowry they were put into convents. And so the cult of virginity became a means by which women were controlled. So that’s why the legend or the legacy of Mary was always very ambivalent.

MT: Would you see her as a positive role model for women today?

Clonard Monastery, Belfast

MC: It’s very hard to know which parts of Mary you could relate to, in the sense that most of the stories we know about her have been told by men to serve male purposes. I like the fact that she said: "Yes." There’s something great about this archangel arriving in your room and suggesting something utterly ridiculous to you and your having the courage and the conviction and the pride to say, "Yes, let’s go with it, whatever this mad, crazy thing happens to be." There’s something about that that is still there. And I’d like to encourage women to have the courage of their convictions -- and more courage and fewer convictions, rather than the other way around! For instance, I once said this to Nuala Ní Dhomhnaill about having entered the convent, and she turned on me and she was furious. She says, "Wasn’t that a marvellous thing you did, to follow your spirit?" And I think if more women followed their spirit...

Mary Daly said it recently, she said, "I wanted to throw my life out as far as it would go." And she did, and she has. Now I think if more women were willing to throw their lives out as far as it would go you know there wouldn’t be the necessity to have as many martyrs as there are at the moment.

MT: I can see, reading your work and talking to you about Mary, you can see all these great things about her. But what about the way in which she is offered maybe to young women as they’re going through school? Are those aspects, the ones you discuss of her, actually talked about or is that something that women would have to reclaim and seek out on their own?

MC: I think women would have to reclaim and seek them out on their own, because certainly when I was growing up Mary was used to control our sexuality. You know, the big stick that was held over you was that you would not be made a member of the Mary Sodality or the Legion of Mary or whatever it happened to be. Mary was certainly the ideal of womanhood, but she was a very safe, colonised, boring kind of woman. And most of the women that you hear about in Irish life today would probably have been thrown out of the Sodality or were never made Children of Mary. That was it, a Child of Mary. That’s what you became if you were perfectly obedient and submissive and passive, you could become a Child of Mary. Now who would want to subscribe to that? So that’s the image we’ve been left with.

MT: I was really interested, in the book, about the way that you talked about Mary and Eve as different figures that had been presented to women as being opposites. I wondered would you talk a bit about that.

MC: The kind of juxtapositioning that has been put forward in Christian theology between Mary and Eve really goes back to the Salvation Theology. It has been taught that, "I am Eve, great Adam’s wife. It was me who took the apple. I am responsible for sin. I am responsible for everything that possibly went bad in the world, from death to whatever." And of course then Mary is the counterpart. Mary is the one who brought life back into the world through being willing to give birth to her son Jesus Christ. Now I would read that at several different levels. At one level it sets up divisions between women you know. It suits the patriarchal society to have two polarities. One is Mary, the perfectly passive, submissive woman who keeps saying, "Yes, yes, yes," but not yes to her own spirit, yes to the patriarchal spirit. And the second one is Eve who’s the bad woman. And both ends of the spectrum, I call it today the "Mother Teresa and the prostitute" spectrum, are two sides of the one coin. One sells her soul, the other sells her body. But from a feminist perspective, which of them, which of those images actually serves the enabling of women today? I think both of them are a function of patriarchy.

So at one level I was saying that that is the problematic of the Eve and Mary thing: it sets up two polarities that normal woman don’t aspire to or should not aspire to because neither of them serve women’s true interests. So that’s one level. The second level is that it plays into "divide and conquer," which is a strategy of the colonial power. "How can we divide and conquer women?" They do that by setting up false images of Eve and Mary. And the third part has to do with the Salvation story itself.

Elizabeth Cady Stanton said in the nineteenth century, "If you take the snake and the fruit tree out of Christian Theology, the bottom falls out of Salvation theology." And that is why scholars never touch the question of Mary. In other words, whereas the monks would say, "Oh happy fault that merited such a redeemer," in other words, if it had not been for the fall of Adam, we would not have had Christ, feminist and womanist theologians are saying the opposite. They’re saying that that kind of salvation story is a set up. It’s a set up for women. It’s a set up for men. And it’s a set up that supports a particularly patriarchal understanding of spirituality and theology. It’s anti-earth, it’s anti-body, it’s anti-sexuality, and it’s anti-empowerment for both male and female. What it does do is serve the patriarchal structures in the Church and those social structures that the Church legitimises. That’s what the problem is.

MT: One more question about the Mary stuff. I guess I’m just really curious about the growth of the cult of Mary and the history of Ireland and surely... It seemed to me there’s some relationship between the fact that there was, as you discovered, evidence of a matricentred culture, and the fact that a woman became elevated within the new religion to an unusual position. So I’m wondering if you could talk about whether or not there’s any credence to believe that Mary had a special role here because there were already women that were very high up in the existing religion.

MC: I think in Irish culture women have always had a special place. That there has been a matricentred society and that both Brigit and then later Mary basically fit very easily into occupying symbolically and representing symbolically what that place might mean. I think you have to distinguish though between what role Brigit and Mary might have played after the sixteenth and seventeenth century and what happened after the Devotional Revolution.

The Devotional Revolution is something that some scholars say happened in the nineteenth century after the Famine, when many, many people had to leave the land. Before the Famine farmers subdivided the land, like if a farmer had four children he just split the land in four and four children had the land. After the Famine they could no longer do that because they had to pay rent to landlords and because of all sort of reasons I won’t go into. What that meant though was that there was a tremendous new interest in celibacy and virginity. And that it was also in the interests of the farmer’s wife, to use old terms, to maintain the sexuality of her children, because as soon as the new wife moved in she was, in folklore, "banished to the West wing." Now this woman could be forty. Like, say if you’re forty, your eldest son is twenty, he gets married. This young woman of twenty comes into the house. She is now the new owner, especially if the woman’s husband has died. So the woman of forty is "banished to the West wing." So now, that’s why it was in the interests of Irish mothers to control the sexuality of their sons. Many of them didn’t marry until they were fifty or sixty. Ireland has the latest age of marriage in Europe. It still has and that is why. And that gave rise to what we call the priest-mother nexus, where priests and mothers conspired together to control the sexuality of their children because it was in the interests both of the priest and of the mother to do so. Now that kind of Irish mothering is quite different to the images and the history and the place that women occupied before that. And they really need to be carefully distinguished.

MT: In the last bit of the book, you mentioned that Ireland really embraced Catholicism because it was different than the coloniser’s religion. So when Ireland had a revolution and was free from England, Catholicism obviously became a really important part of the identity. I’ve always been interested in the fact that Ireland was a neutral country. But now they seem to be losing that and seem to be moving closer and closer to NATO. You talked in your book about how war actually was becoming a way that countries’ identities were built up. So I’m wondering how you feel about the fact that Ireland is now becoming more and more entrenched in a warring part of Europe.

MC: What happened at the time of the Reformations was that Ireland, because England colonised Ireland and because the agent of colonisation appeared to be Protestant, Ireland did not join in with the Reformation of Europe. For the Irish, Catholicism became part of national identity. The priests celebrating mass, (even though they weren’t allowed use their churches and they still celebrated mass on the altar rocks and all this kind of thing), and the ability to celebrate sacrifice or to perform sacrifice, became a powerful symbol of resistance. Now, one of the issues that was very important for the Reformation was the question of sacrifice. Who performs it? Who celebrates sacrifice? Is it the Pope? Is it the Church? Is it the King? And the question of sacrifice was related to power. In other words, whoever controls sacrifice in any society also controls the political apparatus. And that’s an important point to grasp.
So when the Reformations split from Rome, they also took to themselves the right to sacrifice, which meant that sacrifice moved effectively from the altar to the battlefield. The battlefield became the place where the rites of political legitimation were now established. In other words, in medieval times you know, only the feudal knight went to battle or the king might have gone to battle and everybody else kind of followed the feudal knight. But in more recent history warfare has become a powerful political rite of legitimation. So, "Did you fight in the First World War?" "Did you fight in Vietnam?" "Were you in the GPO in 1916?" All of these are questions about your political legitimacy.

Ireland is now moving into the new phase. When I was growing up my grandfather had fought in the First World War on behalf of England, because he was poor and that was the only way he could get work. He "took the King’s Shilling" as it were. When he came back to Ireland, after the First World War, the 1916 Revolution had happened. And he had been wounded in the war, which meant that he couldn’t work. He couldn’t get work in Ireland and he spent the rest of his life in England basically working and sending money home to my grandmother to feed the six children at home. And for the next forty or fifty years, political life was dominated by one question, "Where were you in 1916? And on which side did you fight in the Civil War? Was it on the side of Fianna Fail or Fine Gael?" And that split is still operating. And anybody who had fought in the First World War was simply not part of the equation. They were out of the picture.

Now in the last ten years that has changed dramatically because Ireland is now joining Europe and all of a sudden the question of political legitimacy is being raised again. And where is it being raised in relation to? The First World War. And for the first time since 1918, we find the graveyards of the First World War being renovated. We find the President and the entourage having ceremonies, celebrating all those who died in the First World War, including the Irish. Men who’d been forgotten up to that point, even though more Irishmen died in the First World War than ever died in 1916. But they were forgotten until such point as Ireland joined the European Community. And therefore to establish our credentials in the European Community, we too had to have fought in the First World War. And so they resurrect the graves. It’s a wonder they didn’t resurrect the bodies at the same time. I mean that’s what they did in Celtic times, they resurrected the old heroes. So what’s happening is a powerful rite of legitimation and retelling of mythology that would enable Ireland to enter Europe not with begging bowl but as a co-warrior as it were. You know, "We defended Europe. We were there when Europe was being established, at the rites of legitimation."

What’s happening now is very insidious because on the one hand Ireland is a partner in Europe. Ireland has gone beyond the begging bowl stage. We are now, to use a dreadful cliché, the Celtic Tiger and we can stand on our own two feet. Now what do big boys do when they stand on their own two feet? They join the army. In ancient Celtic society a child stayed with his mother until such time as he could slay a man. And when he was big enough to kill a man and maybe even when he had proven it, then he went and lived with his father. That’s what’s happening in Ireland. We’re grown up. We’re big enough. And now we can join NATO. Now the problem is, you know, it’s a difficult thing because on the one hand, with the collapse of the Soviet Union, you have these ethnic wars breaking out all over the place and clearly Europe does need some kind of force that can contain that kind of ethnic violence. But what is not going on realistically at any level in Europe, or anywhere else for that matter is: what are the other ways of containing that? How can we approach the question of conflict more creatively, more effectively and get out of that kind of patriarchal, perpetual state of opposition?

And that for me is the question of mercy, which is the direction my work is going in now. How do we create our identity without having to create it at someone else’s expense? The sacrifice does that. We sacrifice the other to establish our own purity, our own strength. If we evolve a spirituality, a practice of mercy, how do we evolve new spiritual practices, new political practices in which we can be inclusive? In which we can be playful, tragic, comic, all at the same time, and that can diffuse the potential for violence by opening up the question of identity into a more playful wholefulness.

MT: Are there any particular women in history or mythology or your family that you would consider heroines?

Brigit's well, Kildare

Women's fire ritual, Feile Bride, Kildare

MC: I suppose one of my heroines is Brigit. At first, when I started working on Brigit I thought she was another colonised woman because that was her image in Ireland. But as I get to wrestle more and more with the symbolism -- and in the Institute that I direct we’ve run Brigit Weekends for the last six years, all the time working with the images, the symbolism, the stories, the folk traditions -- I can see that Brigit actually encapsulates the old Irish wisdom tradition. And so as we move on in our work, we’re also trying to excavate that. You know, the stories of Brigit are actually quite different to the normal saint’s stories. They are more like the archaic goddess stories. And so I’m trying to work with that and see, "Well what are they saying? How can this speak to us today?"

There are other heroines. A woman called Eva Gore-Booth who was a sister of Constance Markiewicz. She was a fabulous woman. And I’ve only in the last couple of years got to know of her work and got around to reading it. At the turn of the century there were a number of very good Irish writers -- people like Eva Gore-Booth, Ethel Mannon, Susan Mitchell -- Irish mystics in that tradition. Helen Waddell would have been another one. I really would like to spend a bit of time wrestling with their work because I think a lot of the insights that they have for theology and wisdom have largely been lost. So hopefully in the work we’re doing in the Institute this year we’ll get to look at a few more of them.

MT: Everyone I’ve interviewed I’ve asked about their first names because I think women have such an interesting relationship to their first names. So I’m wondering how you feel about being named Mary?

MC: I haven’t thought about it. I suppose that I was annoyed by it originally because of Mary... You know, growing up with images of Mary everywhere as the good, obedient woman and I was never wanting to be good and obedient. So it was difficult. But Mary also means "bitter" so that’s another element to it. That gave me the clue that she wasn’t all that she’s made out to be. It gave me certain permission to be something else.

Actually I’m Mary Teresa. A double whammy. I grew up with the Virgin Mary on one side of the bed and the Little Flower on the other one. They were my role models. And then the first book I ever got to read, my father gave it to me, was The Life of St Rose of Lima. And her great achievement was that she had long pigtails and she hung them up on a nail and hung out of them in imitation of the cross of Jesus and carved the name Jesus across her breast. So I’d great role models. Do you ever wonder why I had to establish another identity?

MT: That brings me to another thing I wanted to ask you. When you started doing your research for the book and you started finding all these great women in Celtic mythology, what did that feel like? I mean, did you have any idea they were there? Or was it just like a whole other world opened up?

View from Medhbh's cairn, Knocknarea

MC: A whole other world opened up. I left school in Ireland at fourteen, but when I went to history classes we heard about the Fir Bolgs, "the big men," the Fomorians and all the invaders, the Fianna and Cú Chulainn’s men. There were no women in there. The only woman that they might ever have mentioned would have been Medhbh and then it was just to make a fool of her, as she was made a fool of in The Táin, Ireland’s epic saga. So there weren’t strong female figures there. There was nobody there. There was Deirdre of the Sorrows. I mean they loved victimised women. So what’s new about that?

MT: She was the one who bashed her head against a rock?

MC: Yeah. They love those ones. Tragic heroines. They don’t like women who win.

MT: So who were some of the first women you came across, that got you really excited?

MC: The story of Macha got me very excited because I had never read that story and when I read it I was reading through the lens of Marija Gimbutas. I was reading it through the work of the women at Harvard that I had been with, who were all working with Greek and Roman and other mythologies. And so I just felt that I was one of several women looking at the mythological heritage that we had. I had permission to look at these stories through feminist eyes, but even more so through anthropological eyes, because that was part of my early training, and to understand that all the stories that were told about the women were stories that told about their overthrow. They had to be knocked off in order for patriarchal culture to arise.

There’s also a huge body of material called the Dindshenchas which is not generally available, but when I was at Harvard I had access to it, through the libraries. I also photocopied a lot of it. But these would have say six different versions of how Armagh got its name or how the Shannon got its name or how the Liffey got its name. And that’s the main body of stories about women, the women mythological figures. That’s where you’ll find the real stories about Medhbh as priestess or as goddess. And those stories have never been worked with. They’re one of Ireland’s unclaimed treasures.

MT: That reminds me -- what is the etymology of "Ireland?" I think you talked about that in your book.

MC: Yeah, I’ll tell you that story. Ireland had a series of mythological invasions, and in

View from Loughcrewe, Sliabh na cailleach

one of those invasions the invaders landed on the shore and they met three goddesses, the three goddesses of Ireland: Banba, Fodla and Eriu. And they asked one after another if they could enter the land. And the goddesses said, "Yes, provided you call the land after me." And they said, "Yes of course." And they agreed that the goddesses would live under the earth and the men would live on top of it, a little bit like the Furies in Greek mythology. But one guy said no. He refused to call the land after the goddesses, and so as soon as he went out on the sea he drowned. The moral of the story is that the way to do things in Ireland is not to be in opposition but absorption. That if you respect the goddesses and the land in which they live you will prosper but if you don’t you’re going to perish.

Ireland originally was called Scota because Scota was also one of the triple goddesses, and when the Irish made a major migration to Scotland, then Scotland became known as the land of Scota and Ireland became known as Ireland, the land of Eire or Eriu.

MT: You talked about the relationship between Brigit and the goddesses, and Brigit and Mary. Is there a relationship between Mary and the goddess? Would there be any connection between them?

MC: I think there is a female principle that takes different forms. For the poets it can be the muse, for monks it can be Mary, for contemporary feminists it’s called "the goddess." I think it’s some kind of energy that’s out there. I basically come from the mystical tradition which holds that we know absolutely nothing about very much of anything, and that all of our language in which we try to capture reality is so limited as to be ridiculous. In that sense I belong to the tragic-comic tradition of Joyce or Beckett or any of those figures. So Mary, yeah, I mean there are relationships between Mary and goddess imagery, but I think all of our language is very, very limited. We know nothing.

MT: Are you planning to do another book, maybe on the sacrifice material?

MC: I did my doctoral thesis on it. It was called "The Role Of Sacrifice In The Construction Of A Gendered Social Order And Gendered Systems Of Representation." Originally it was supposed to be on 1916 but five hundred pages of theory later my examiner says, "Mary, that’s enough, that’s all right." So we rounded it off and just did one chapter on 1916. That was several years ago. I’ve published some of that in article form in the Journal of Women’s History, the Irish Journal of Feminist Studies, and places like that, but I’m hoping eventually to get some time and money together to spend time working on that. But I’m also moving on from the notion of sacrifice to the question of mercy. I really want to do some constructive work around mercy because I think that contains the key to understanding a way forward both politically and spiritually.

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Irish Goddesses and Mythology:


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