Interview with Dr. Mary McAuliffe, Historian
MT: The first task is to have you introduce yourself as if I didn't know you.
MM: My name is Mary McAuliffe. I'm a historian who specializes in women's history of the medieval period in Ireland.
MT: How did you become interested in history?
MM: I've been living in Dublin for the last ten years or so, but I actually grew up in rural Ireland, in the 70s, which is a very different time to now.
I grew up in North Kerry where there were are a lot of castles and abbeys, which were my playgrounds, especially one, Carrigafoyle. I spent my childhood climbing up to the top and pretending it was my castle and reenacting battles and wars and sieges that happened there. And also my mother was a great story teller, and she used to tell me great stories of things that happened in the area when she was young and stories shed heard from her grandmother. So I was interested from a very early age in the past and how it influences our future and our present.
MT: How did you first hear about the sheela-na-gigs?
MM: When I came to college. I actually never heard of them when I was younger. When I was studying medieval Irish history, I saw a footnote in which the sheelas were mentioned. There wasn't a lot written about them. I was studying architectural history as well, and I came across these figures which were high on castles and tower houses and churches... but I had to do a lot of searching to find any information on the sheelas. They're not written about in mainstream history.
MT: Could you give a brief description for someone that doesn't know anything about them?
MM: Sheela-na-gigs are medieval figures of naked women, usually carved in a fairly crude manner. Shes a naked figure, usually with the emphasis on the genitalia, with the legs spread wide and the hands opening up the genitalia.
The head is usually quite big, with grimacing teeth. And there are very small breasts and pronounced rib cages. And as I said they're found on castles and tower houses and churches. They're a medieval phenomenon, created from the 15th century onwards, but having an imagery from an earlier culture.
MT: And are they an Irish phenomenon?
MM: Well some of them are found in England as well, but mostly theyre found in Ireland. Some people connected them with the exhibitionist figures found in 12th century Europe. But there doesn't seem to be the same sort of origin for the sheelas.
MT: So have you come across any explanation of why they're in Ireland?
MM: There could be several explanations. A lot of people feel its a connection with early goddess figures from Irish mythology. But since they are medieval creations, there has to be an explanation from that time, and it would seem to be that they are protective figures. Maybe the people in medieval times, the owners of these castles and lands, felt they needed a protective symbol, or a protective angel maybe, high on their castles -- because Ireland at that time was a very warlike society. There were a lot of cattle raids, a lot of small wars, civil wars between neighboring landowners, and having a naked female on top of your castle seems to have given an extra edge on your neighbor.
MT: And theres also quite a bit of confusion -- like I know I was under the impression when I first started reading about the sheelas that they were pre-Christian. A lot of the time theyre written about as being pre-Christian or fertility goddesses. Where do you think people get that idea?
MM: I think its because of their physical appearance. They do look pretty early in date. But maybe it's because there's a pre-Christian element coming down through the medieval times. You have to remember in this time people still had bards in their castles. Storytelling was the main occupation, the main enjoyment, so they told a lot of stories about the Ulster cycle, the Tain Bo Cuillaghe. Queen Medb would have featured heavily, along with a lot of powerful female figures, many of them warriors.
There were stories about women exposing themselves to armies of men -- who would then run away in fear. The power of the female genitalia was certainly still talked about in medieval times, so this couldve been taken on board by the creators of the sheela-na-gigs. But they were definitely medieval in date.
MT: So what about this idea of them being linked with fertility goddesses -- where did that come in?
MM: Well I suppose it's because it's the naked female and the emphasis on the area where the child would be birthed. People would go and touch them, especially women who would like to get pregnant. That seems to have come down from the ages. I don't think it was part of it in medieval times. I think it came from an earlier idea that has been redeveloped by us in modern times. People go and they make the sign of the cross on the exposed genitals. It's kind of a mixture of pagan and Christian ritual. I suppose every bit helps if you're trying to get pregnant. You will find the sign of the crosses grooved into the sheela-na-gigs. It's great that people go see them and that they're a living symbol, but the genitalia are being worn away.
MT: It's a funny way of revering them but also obliterating them. Do you have any ideas about who might've built the sheelas?
MM: Well, yes. Of course there's no way of proving this because records haven't come down to us from the medieval times, but if you look at the sheelas theyre very crudely carved. A lot of them have out of proportion heads and then these tiny spindly legs and spindly arms -- and then huge genitals. They're very crudely put together. So it is one theory that it wasnt trained sculptors who created these figures but maybe a wise woman or a wise man who had a certain amount of power invested in them who would've made the figures -- and then transferred their power to the sheelas. It's a theory, but really, we don't know who made them.
MT: Are there any ideas about the sheelas that you've been wanting to
MM: The idea of the goddess harnessed to the power of men for their own gains is one thing I want to investigate. Perhaps it's one of the reasons that the sheelas were created. You do find them facing out in the lands that the castle would be built on, indicating that the sheela looked over and protected the land. And the lands were owned by men. So therefore its the power of women being harnessed for male purposes.
MT: What part of Ireland were they in?
MM: The largest concentration of them is in Tipperary and the midlands areas, especially in areas owned by the Anglo-Irish. You do find some sheelas in Gaelic Ireland, but not a whole lot. Again this would indicate, because the Anglo-Irish were under threat in later medieval times, that they felt the need for the protective powers of the goddess or protective powers of whatever they invested in the sheelas to help them -- because a lot of the Gaelic Irish were reclaiming their lands at this time. So maybe they were looking for help from the country they adopted and were -- to use an overused cliché -- becoming more Irish than the Irish themselves. They were adopting the old symbols, adopting the mythologies, the idea of the powerful goddess, and using them for their own purposes.
MT: That makes a lot of sense -- that maybe they would take the goddess symbol but use her in another way than in the way she was originally intended. Do you have any idea why they wouldve been on churches? I understand the idea of them being on castles, protecting the land...
MM: The church was part of this whole warlike society and would need protection. But also it could be that maybe there was a remnant of pagan culture left in the churches. From earliest times the churches were harnessing the pagan power to themselves -- so you could have your sheelas and you could have your Catholic faith as well. You could have the two of them looking over you. It's funny, you have these monks walking under naked women's bodies going into church. It's a strange juxtaposition of symbols -- the patriarchal church and a very female symbol.
MT: Is there any indication of how many there were?
MM: Well, a lot of them were destroyed. A lot of them have been stolen. Some of them are probably still covered up that we don't know about under the ivy of castles. But there's at least 200 that we know about -- and perhaps some more, lost. The church did send out edicts in the 17th and 18th century that these "vulgar female figures," as they called them, should be destroyed, especially from the waist down. Buried. Chipped to pieces.
MT: And are there still some on site?
MM: There are still a few on site. Unfortunately, a few have been stolen and taken out of the country in recent years. The National Museum has got quite a few, and some have disappeared, but you can still go to castles and churches and see an original in situ sheela. People still go, as I said, and use them as fertility symbols. And they leave offerings and things like that. You find little prayers stuffed into the cracks of the wall of the building itself -- or holy water bottles... So its like a combination of the two: Catholicism and worshipping the goddess figure or symbol. Covering all the bases I guess.
Sheelas, basement of National Museum
MT: Would you say that most people in Ireland have heard about the sheela-na-gigs or are they pretty obscure?
MM: If theres a sheela-na-gig in the locality, people have heard about it. But it's not in the mainstream culture. It's a facet of Irish history that's been pretty much forgotten. And maybe it's because it's womens history, which is only now beginning to be explored. But certainly in a locality where there is a sheela (and it's well known), people know about it, and they could call it the witch figure, or they could feel it's a good symbol. You know, they have different feelings in different localities. But if there isn't one there, people more or less don't know about the sheelas.
MT: And what about the name sheela-na-gig, where did that come from?
MM: Well, that seems to be obscure. It may come from the Irish, meaning sheela, or female figure, on its hunkers. A lot of them are squatting, so that the genitalia are quite obvious. But we really don't know what the name comes from.
MT: OK, I'm gonna move on to the next subject, unless you feel like weve
missed something about the sheelas...
MM: What about the morrigan?
MT: That's my next subject! So who was the morrigan or the morrigu?
MM: The morrigu is the triple goddess. The morrigan is one aspect of the triple goddess: the warlike aspect, the warrior, or the hag aspect. Which may be where the sheela comes from -- because it's the grimacing face -- and a lot of sheelas you find, they have these huge big teeth which look pretty gruesome. The morrigan was the warrior woman -- was the crow who landed on Cuchulainn's shoulder when he died. She was the woman who appeared on the battlefield after the battle, when all the dead bodies were lying around. It's the hag aspect of the triple goddess.
MT: So how would you explain the triple goddess to someone who really doesn't have a clue?
MM: Well, the triple goddess is three aspects of the one female figure. You have the young woman, who's the beautiful princess figure or whatever; you have the mother, the more mature maternal aspect; then you have the old hag, whos usually associated with the older woman or the witch or the battle queen or warrior. It usually can be associated with kingship -- the hag would appear to the man who was going forward for the kingship, the candidate, and offer sexual favors. And if he was strong enough or courageous enough to indulge in this with such a gruesome looking person, she would then turn into the young woman, and he would be seen as the true candidate for the kingship. Also, it's about the man or the true king marrying with the female symbol of the earth: the woman, the goddess. So basically thats the triple goddess, the three different sides.
MT: So the triple goddess would represent the land or the country.
MM: Well, Ireland has always been represented in the female form, even down to Roisin Dubh today or Cathleen Ni Houlihan -- or the morrigan.
MT: What do you think about that?
MM: Well, in modern times, it's become a weak female figure, like the passive female waiting to be rescued by the male conqueror or warrior -- especially when associated with Irish and English history in colonial terms.
It was always Cathleen Ni Houlihan and Roisin Dubh lying there, weakened and dying, hence the strong man would come and rescue her
from the hands of John Bull, England. So its been a weakened figure. But in earlier times the morrigan was a very strong goddess warrior woman who certainly didnt need any man to come along and rescue her.
"Hibernia" fending off British Rule
MT: What is the Irish name for the hag figure?
MM: The Cailleach, the witch.
MT: We talked before about the fact that the hag and the sheelas are really gruesome images of women--
MM: Well, they can be if you look at them that way. But women today are looking at them as strong female symbols and accepting them as that -- the sheelas kind of becoming in a way the symbol of a more feminist view of Ireland. It's only today its being reanalyzed and looked at as a strong female figure.
MT: I was thinking that there might be a link between these frightening images of women and the witch trials.
MM: Well I suppose if you look at it in medieval times. The sheela might be a positive female image, but womens lives in medieval times were not. It was quite a misogynist society. The sheela was developed in a time when you had two cultures. You had feudalism and you had Brehon law of the Gaelic culture, which was more a positive one for women in terms of the legal situation. People think today that under Brehon law women had full equality. They didnt. It was a little better than it was under feudal law. However its under feudalism that the sheela was developed. So you had a pretty positive female symbol developed under a society that was pretty anti-women. Women couldnt inherit. Women were under the guardianship of their father,or their husband, or their son. A woman under law had no independent position in feudal life. So it could be that witchcraft developed under Anglo-Irish society, where a powerful woman like Alice Kyttler in Kilkenny was accused of witchcraft -- maybe it was jealousy of her independent position. It was okay to worship icons of powerful women but not okay for real women to exercise power. There were witch trials, not as many as in Europe, where they think anything between 200,000 and 2 million women were killed in a period of three hundred years. But in Ireland you had a few. There was this one famous one, in 1324, in Kilkenny. Alice Kyttler was an independent woman who had been widowed three times at least and was now living with another ailing husband. Each time shed been widowed, shed gotten more land and more money. She had one favorite child, William Outlaw, who shed given all her money to. She was also a money lender, so she had enemies everywhere. The step-children of the previous marriages and the people who owed her money, went to the local bishop, a papal appointee who had come from Avignon at the time when witchcraft was becoming a quite serious thing.
He came with these ideas that there were witches, and it was heresy, something that had to be rooted out. And of course when the children came and the enemies came and said Alice Kyttler definitely poisoned all her husbands, shes a murderess, he saw witchery immediately. He then accused her and 7 other people of having a coven. Alice herself and her son William and her maid Petronella were the ones we know of, and 6 or 7 other people. Alice, being fairly wealthy and well connected, was able to flee to Dublin and from there she fled to England we think -- and here she disappears from history. But poor Petronella was brought to trail, tortured and condemned by Richard de Ledrede the bishop of Ossory. She must have been tortured quite badly because she admitted to being a witch and said Alice Kyttler was the most powerful witch ever seen in the country.
She was accused of the usual things -- of having a familiar, who was supposed to be a black man, with whom she had intercourse. This was the person, the familiar, who negotiated between herself and Satan. She was accused of killing unbaptizing babies and boiling them down into an oil and using that in magic. Making potions in the skulls of executed thieves. And using all this magic to create power for herself -- and wealth -- and thats how she killed all her husbands. Petronella was burned at the stake the very next day after being tortured and admitting to being a witch. Of course William Outlaw was able to buy his way out of execution and had to relead the cathedral in Kilkenny and do penance for 7 years or so. The interesting thing about it is that all the things that Alice was accused of, having a familiar and all that sort of thing, become stereotypical accusations in witchcraft trials throughout European history after that. And it's one of the first ones. Richard de Ledrede wrote a report on the trial and about why he accused Alice -- it was really a defense of his own actions. Maybe it influenced witchcraft trials in Europe.
MT: And then were there other witchcraft trials here?
MM: That was the biggest one and the one that we have the most knowledge of. A hundred years later, theres just a line in a government report that says two women were accused of witchcraft and executed in Kilkenny. We know nothing else. Again, they were probably burnt. The government of the day, the Elizabethan government of the 15th-16th century, brought in anti-witchcraft rules and laws -- which havent been repealed since! But there were no other witchcraft trials until the 17th century, and there was one more. That was Florence Newton, in Youghal, in County Cork, who was accused of bewitching one Mary Langton. She supposedly kissed her and through that kiss she made Mary insane -- frogs supposedly rained down Mary, and hailstones of nails, and she spoke in tongues, she just generally had a bad time, and poor Florence was arrested and tortured. And then it ends when it says it was found out that she was a witch. We don't know whether she was killed or not -- but I presume she would've been dealt with severely.
MT: In the case of Bridget Cleary, werent there some implications of witchcraft?
MM: More recently, women were accused of being changelings rather than witches, and that happened in an Ireland that was more influenced by Gaelic traditions. The most recent evidence of that was in Tipperary where Bridget Cleary was burnt to death in her own kitchen because her family thought she was a changeling. A changeling is someone who's been spirited away by the fairies or the folk who live in the other world, and they leave a changeling or a changed person in their place, who in the case of a woman is usuallly sickly, and infertile -- although in the case of a man they usually have musical abilities conferred in them -- so the woman gets the bad deal again!
Bridget Cleary was accused of being a changeling by her husband and family, and I suppose, it wasnt exactly like a witch, but it was a woman who was different and whos seen outside of normal social things and who perhaps behaves in a strange sort of way. And you can't have women doing that -- whether they're witches or changelings -- so they have to be dealt with severely. So Bridget was burnt to death in her own kitchen by her
family. They thought that three days later the real Bridget would come back from the fairy kingdom. But she didn't obviously, because she was dead.
MT: And when was this?
MM: This was in the 1890s, only a hundred years ago. Her husband, when he was brought to trial, was tried for manslaughter and not murder because he really did believe hed killed a changeling and not his wife -- and he was released after 12 years or something. He emigrated to Canada and lived out the rest of his life there.
MT: You also said before that all witch trials were in Anglo-Irish areas?
MM: Yeah, it seems that there were no witchcraft trials in the Gaelic Irish areas. There isn't a tradition of witchcraft in the Gaelic Irish communities because people believed in magical women. Like the sheelas. It was a good thing, rather than being a witch and a bad thing. Whereas the Anglo-Irish were bringing traditions from Europe, where being a witch was a
bad thing and you had to die. Another interesting thing about the Bridget Cleary case was that it happened in Slieve na mBan, where the barrier between this world and the next is thinnest. Slieve na mBan means the "mountain of women." The other world is always associated with female power as well -- everything is upside down in the other world so that women are equal or have power.
MT: So that would be where "women of the sidhe" comes from?
MM: The banshee is the woman who cries when someones about to die -- you hear the banshee wailing. Certain families had banshees. I actually did a bit of research into my own family name, and apparently there's a banshee that cries when one of the McAuliffe family are about to die. But I've never heard it.
MT: How would you get your own banshee?
MM: It must come down from family mythology or family folklore... and they give it a name. Unfortunately I cant remember... Our banshee has a name as well. I hope I don't hear her!
MT: Would you say that there is some belief in the supernatural still alive?
MM: Well, there's still a belief in magic ... But it's fading. It's a pity -- we're losing a lot of our culture. But people would believe in piseogs and people wishing you ill. It would've been prevalent in rural areas -- like where I'm from on the West coast -- it would have been the last place to die out. People still believe in changelings and... there's still a saying if someone's behaving strangely -- you say they're away with the fairies -- which meant the fairies had taken the real person and left a changeling in their place. And I still hear people use that phrase: so and sos away with the fairies. And when I started studying fairy things, especially when I heard about Bridget Cleary, it's just a phrase that came back from my childhood, that people would say about women, especially when women were misbehaving. It could be when women were going through the change of life, going through the menopause... they were of course behaving strangely. And people would say they were away with the fairies.
MT: And what does piseog mean?
MM: I dont know. It's just an Irish word. Its a curse. It's kind of an annoying curse more than a really evil thing that a witch would be able to do. And usually you couldnt be killed with a piseog. But certainly still to this day, people do believe. They think that certain things, if they're left outside the door, its because somebody's wishing you evil. Women
always seem to be the ones being accused of putting piseogs on people. Piseogs are a way or getting revenge on a neighbor. It was a way of making a cow go dry or turning the butter sour or whatever.
MT: I just want to touch on this one idea that you already mentioned. It seems like this chic thing for people to say, "Oh Ireland used to be this matriarchal culture, women had all this power." But some of the historians I've met have been at the complete other end of things, saying, "Thats alla lie, women had no power." Would you pick one position or the other - or be somewhere in between?
MM: I'd probably be somewhere in between. There doesn't seem to be any proof that there was a matriarchal culture -- maybe a bit more matrocentric in that women had a better position, but they certainly werent the rulers. People expect that because this is a patriarchal culture, that there was one that was completely opposite to it. But there is no proof of that. Women did have certain positions of power under the Brehon Laws: they had better positions under the marriage laws than they had under the feudal system.
They could divorce a man if he wasnt providing for them, if he wasnt providing for them sexually, if he was homosexual. And there were several different ways you could get married as well. If the woman had more land or more money, the man was in a lesser position. She didnt hand everything over to him. Whatever you brought to the marriage, you retained that sort of position in the marriage. You also had practice marriages -- you could be together for a year and a day to see how you got on. And then you could do another year and a day or three years and three days and then you could decide, well, we'll stay together for life.
MT: That seems pretty sensible.
MM: And a lot of things were lost when feudalism was introduced. But women in Gaelic Ireland or under Brehon laws couldnt inherit. They couldnt be kings or chiefs or whatever -- they had no position as regards to lands. Any lands they held were held for their lifetime only. And then it went back to the clan or their sons or their family. Whereas under feudalism if there wasn't a male heir, the woman got the land.
MT: And who introduced feudalism?
MM: The Anglo-Normans, when they came in 1169-1170. They brought feudalism with them. It was more male oriented. A woman as I said had no position under law. She was under the guardianship of father first, then husband, then if husband died and she was a widow, under her son. So she was never allowed to stand alone by herself under law. She could inherit land. But a lot of the time, if there were only female heirs, the land would be divided up -- which would weaken the position of the Anglo-Irish. That was one of the reasons why, in the 15th century, or in the medieval times, when a lot of sheelas were being created, there happened to be a lot of female heirs at the same time. The great lands were being broken up and the position of the Anglo-Irish was weakened, and the native Gaelic Irish were attacking and reclaiming a lot of their lands.
MT: We've talked about the existence of a more matrocentric culture in early Ireland. What about strong women in your own family? What sort of role models did you have, and what womens histories did you look up to?
MM: In my own family histories, both of my grandmothers were very strong female symbols. My mothers mother had trained as a nurse in the 1920s, which was an unusual thing to do because women didnt usually have professions. And then when she was married she wasn't nursing anymore because then she came home and looked after the family. But I remember my mother telling me stories about her, how a lot of neighbouring women wouldn't have been able to afford doctors, so she would have nursed a lot of local people for free. And my mother said a lot of people said that she saved so many babies in the locality and helped them get over childhood illnesses, especially things like measles, which would've carried off a lot of children before medicine became more commonplace among poor people. I was very close to her -- she died when I was about thirteen -- she was probably one of the strongest role models in my early years. My other, my paternal grandmother, had been in Cuman na mBan, and I remember her telling me stories about her gun running during the War of Independence.
When a local man had been shot dead by the black and tans, there was a big funeral for him, and she apparently hid a rifle up her skirt at the funeral. And at the appropriate time it was taken out and a volley of shots fired over the coffin -- and then, back under the skirt again. Its funny -- most of my female ancestors were involved in the war but men werent. They stayed home and farmed while the women were off gun running. My grandmother was a very very strong woman, certainly more dominant than my grandfather who I only vaguely remember, but when she died her Cuman na mBan medals went to her oldest grandsons rather than her granddaughters. So she was a woman who saw the men as the more important in the family -- rather than the girls -- although she was very proud of her all of her children, including her granddaughters.
Women above the Asgard, 1916
MT: And what kind of a situation did you grow up in? What did your parents do?
MM: Typical rural Ireland, a little bit of everything. My mother was a teacher, a primary school teacher, and my father, we had a pub, which I grew up in, and also a construction company, renting out scaffolding and that sort of thing, and of course there was a farm as well.
MT: You said something really interesting that I was transcribing the other night about how maybe your fathers mother would've carried on the patriarchal traditions, but it was really your mother's generation that was responsible for changing things.
MM: I think my grandmothers would've carried on looking to their sons to carry on the family name and tradition, but my own mother, she went back to college when I was about 8 and became a teacher. She brought up her daughters to be more independent -- not to see going through secondary school and then getting a career for a short time and then getting married as the ultimate aim. My mother would've told us, myself and my sister when we were growing up, that we could do whatever we wanted, that there was no limitations on our lives. Whatever we wanted to was up to us, and we had to make what we wanted out of life.
MT: Do you think that was unusual?
MM: No, I think my mother would see herself as a feminist. And that wouldve changed around the 70s in Ireland. Perhaps not in every family, but a lot of women started bringing up their daughters to see life as a series of possibilities and not limited to, "you get married and then you settle down to have a family."
MT: So I wonder what happened in her lifetime to sort of, if youre thinking that she was sort of the pivotal person, to come around to that way of thinking.
MM: I think Ireland in general was opened to a lot of new ideas with the arrival of television. Ireland before the 60s and 70s was a very insular and closed society. No new ideas came through. The church dominated all aspects of society. Women were kept in their place. And that was the way of the world and that was the way people accepted things. But with the coming of television and mass communication, new ideas came through and people took to this. I think my grandmother may have had a little effect as well because my mother and aunts were more educated than the generation prior to that. So they wouldve been more open to new ideas, and they accepted them and passed them on to their daughters.
MT: It seems like there's been dramatic changes here since the 70s. Do you think its gone far enough -- in terms of the possibilities that are open to women? A lot of young women that I've interviewed on the street have been like "Oh yeah, boys and girls are totally equal, everything's fine." I'm a little wary of that. What do you think?
MM: Well, I don't think it's gone as far as it could. It certainly has improved a lot in the last decade or two decades. If you want to see limitations you can. Certainly the church still has a long way to go, however it doesnt dominate society the way that it did. For me the church will have joined equality and society when there are women priests. But I think in lay terms, under the law, women are equal. There are still a lot of old ideas that have to be gotten rid of, but I mean it takes a generation or two for them to die out.
MT: What about when you started learning about history, did your mother encourage that?
MM: Oh yeah, I was always encouraged to read books, whatever I wanted, and I used to ask her questions about old times and the castle in Carrigafoyle, and what happened there. She always answered me and told me the stories -- I mean some of them were invented. I think she made them up herself. But... it certainly sparked my interest. I have always been personally encouraged to do whatever I wanted -- and when I started studying history that was fine.
MT: You said something last time that I thought was great, about being from Kerry and how there was so much history wherever you looked.
MM: Well, every big field has a name at home. Somebody will know about it. It has a name. If it had a stone standing in the middle of it could have some prehistoric association. There are castles all around the place. Just anywhere you looked, a battle had happened or some story from mythology had occurred. It permeated the air -- it was all around me. It was something I was fascinated by and wanted to know everything about. Because if we dont know our past, we may continue on the same circle, whereas if we know our past, we may not make the same mistakes again. And as well knowing the past, knowing the stories of our foremothers might inform our future. It's good to know that there were strong women in history.
MT: Who are some of your favorites?
MM: Grace O'Malley of course, because its such a brilliant story.
MT: So pretend that we dont know it.
Catherine (camera): We don't know it!
MM: Well, Grace O'Malley, or Granuaile as she's more properly known, was living in Ireland around the time of Elizabeth the first, late 16th century, and she was one of the O'Malleys of Connacht, of Mayo. They were pirates who sailed up and down the West coast demanding tithes and taxes from ships plying their trade along the coast. And she being a very powerful woman ended up being the leader, which is very unusual, of the OMalley clan. And she married a couple of times, and one husband she divorced simply by saying, "I divorce you" three times. She got sick of him. One great story about her is she went to London to visit Elizabeth the first. She regarded Elizabeth as an equal -- and would think that Elizabeth regarded her as an equal. They were two queens, two women in power. There's a great story about the two of them meeting. One of them spoke English, the other spoke Irish -- so they spoke in Latin. And apparently Granuaile had a little bit of a cold, and Elizabeth gave her a handkerchief, and she wiped her nose and threw it in the fire. And Queen Elizabeth was very perturbed that she would throw away such an expensive lace handkerchief. Grace O'Malley said, "The O'Malleys never use a dirty handkerchief a second time." She saw it beneath her dignity. She was a very powerful woman who lived her life on her terms. And she's one of my favorite characters from history.
Of course theres Maire Rua OBrien in Clare, who's got very bad press. She's supposed to have killed 12 husbands off the cliffs of Moher and things like that in the Cromwellian times, in the 17th century. But if it wasn't for her, the O'Briens of Thormond, who are still a fairly well known family today, wouldn't have perhaps kept on to their land. When the
Cromwellians invaded Limerick, Maire Rua apparently went into Limerick and said, "I'll
marry one of you if I can keep my lands." And she did. She married one of the soldiers and she succeeded in keeping her lands for her children. But then, maybe it's because she was such a powerful women that after her death, mythologies and folklore grew up about her that she was this evil witchlike husband-killing woman who was not liked at all by the common people.
MT: That seems to be a common theme, women who get rid of their husbands. One thing I want to ask -- since this project is called "Mary, Mary, a Documentary" -- is I'm asking women about their first names. Were you named for anyone in particular, like someone in your family?
MM: Yeah, I was named for my aunt Mary, who lives in America.
MT: And how do you feel about sharing the name with the Virgin?
MM: I suppose I never actually thought about it -- I mean I'm just used to being Mary. But what I find strange is that Irish girls aren't being called Mary anymore. I think my generation was the last of so many Mary's.
MT: What are they being called now?
MM: Oh, Crystal and things like that, soap opera names. I found out when I lived in Canada that Marys were gay men. I never realized that. I've discovered as well -- I met a woman from East Wall, and apparently in Dublin working class areas, to have your Marys is to have your period.
MT: That's brilliant, I love it! Why do you think there are so many Marys here?
MM: Well, Mary was the Queen of Ireland. She's called that, the Virgin Mary. One of her titles is the Queen of Ireland. When we were kids in school you had to say all the titles that Mary had: Queen of the Sea... There was a prayer and can I remember it? No. But you know she had different titles: Queen of the Sea, Flower of the Sea, Queen of the Land, and one of them was Queen of Ireland.
MT: Why would that be?
MM: Well there has been a particular devotion to Mary in Irish Christianity from the very beginning. Mary and Brigid. And it's funny, my sister's name is Brigid. We have the two strong Irish associations. And they become interchangeable. Like Brigid was the first female saint, but she also might have been an amalgamation of the goddess, Bride, and the Saint, Brigid, who became the powerful female saint that we have today. But Mary and Brigid became interchangeable and the two powerful female figures in Catholicism. Brigid, Catherine, Mary, Nóirín... those are the usual names.
MT: Why is it that there was this special devotion to Mary in Ireland?
Mary Shrine, Knocknatobar,
Caherciveen, Co. Kerry
MM: Well, in medieval Europe, Mary started getting a very strong place in the Catholic hierarchy of saints and whatnot, and she became the intercessor. She used to intercede between God and man through her son -- so people would feel that there was a sympathetic female there in heaven. You could pray to Mary and maybe she would get you in good with God or whatever. So maybe it came from Europe, but it seems from the very beginning in Irish Christianity that Mary had a very special place. Maybe it's because there had been strong female figures. Mythological types who wouldve been seen as strong. Maybe Mary replaced them when Christianity came to Ireland. I wouldnt know a lot about the theology of it.
MT: Are there any women academics that have really inspired you?
MM: When I studied history for my BA, almost all the historians I read were white males, and usually dead white males -- a lot of women didnt write history. However there was a woman who had just finished lecturing in Trinity when I started there, Jocelyn Othway Ruthven, who wrote a medieval history of Ireland. And I think seeing that she had written this made me realize that women were out there, researching and writing history. Also a lot of women like Margaret MacCurtain from UCD have written on Irish history and Irish women's history -- which has been very inspiring -- that there are women out there who are finding out what the role of women was in society before the modern times -- things that have been overlooked. Most of the things that you study in history in college is politics and war and economics, all of which is associated with men, and the women just fade intothe background. So it's good to see it being brought to the forefront again, the role of women and what they did.
MT: One last question... You were talking a while ago about the changes that have happened in Ireland in your lifetime. Are there any specific issues that you feel need desperate attention for women today?
MM: Well, when I came to college in the late 80s, I was very involved in the right to divorce and the right to information and the right to choose on pregnancy and abortion topics. I feel that that's something that still hasn't been dealt with -- it's been dealt with in the Irish way -- kind of glossed over. We're still exporting our problem to England and mainland Europe. If a woman has a problem pregnancy here, well... she can get information now. For a long time, up to very recently, you couldnt actually get a phone number to get information on all options available to women. But still women now have to take the plane or the boat to another country to get a resolution to their problem. I feel -- nobody thinks abortion is a solution to any problem -- but it certainly isnt a solution to start hoovering it under the carpet and send it away to other countries either. I mean if were going to have it we may as well have it in this country so women can get proper medical attention and proper psychological help or whatever sort of help they need. And I think that's an issue that still hasn't been addressed and which people skirt around because it's very emotive. I think women still find it hard -- theres still a struggle to make it in professions. You're still trying to break through that so called glass ceiling that's there -- it's getting easier but there's still a little but of a struggle left.
We have achieved a lot in the last 20 years. But there's still a few little fights left. Childcare is another issue. It doesn't affect me personally but certainly, it might do. There aren't a lot
of crèches, there arent any real state sponsored childcare facilities in the country -- so a lot of women would find it hard if they've had children to continue with their careers. Socially it still seems that a man and a woman, if theyre in a relationship, can have similar careers, but when they come home in the evening its still the woman who will cook the dinner and clean up the house. There hasnt been equal sharing of the workload either.
MT: I'm sorry, I keep saying one more thing... I swear this is the last one. I know this isnt your area of specialty, but one thing I've been really curious about in history, because I've read so much around the 1916 period and how women were so involved--
MM: You just want to know about Constance Markiewicz don't you?
MT: Anything you add about her would be great, but... it strikes me as odd that women were very active around that time, and then they sort of... it's not like women just dropped off the face of the earth, but what happened to them?
MM: Well, it's not my area of specialty. What I feel from the reading I have done -- and this is a personal interpretation, without a huge amount of research behind it -- was that women... I mean the suffragettes were active then, and women were looking for votes for women and equality for women -- but they kind of subsumed their fighting for women's rights into rights for the Republic or the rights for Republicanism.
And they were told once we have a free Ireland, a Republic of Ireland, we'll deal with womens issues. And they agreed to this. But then we got the Republic or the free state in 1922, and womens issues were just forgotten about. And the church of course was powerful as well. So the government of the day, mostly made up of men, bowed the knee, and the result you have is the 1937 constitution -- which says that a woman's place is in the home. I mean there is one article of the constitution which says that a woman, by economic necessity, should not be forced to work outside of the home. So what happened... even though women were involved in the fight for Irish freedom, between 1916 and the 1920s -- they were very active in this, for example even my grandmother, gun-running, like other ordinary women doing what they could for the fight for freedom -- after that they seemed to have gone back into their kitchens and given up. Well not given up -- but the fight for women's equality does not seem to have been as effective as the fight for the Republic.
Proclamation of the
Irish Republic, 1916
Top of Page
Visit Mary's site: http://www.morrigan.com