Being a woman of a certain age, and a mother, I was wondering what it must have been like to be pregnant in ancient Ireland, so I decided to do some digging, and guess what? There’s hardly anything out there on the subject. For a society that was all about the fertility of the land, of the people and animals, that struck me as a little strange.
Then I got to thinking; all the stories of ancient Ireland we have were written down by Christian male monk scribes. Not only was the business of birthing children considered a female only ‘thing’ they might not have known much about, but they bumped women a few notches down the hierarchy scale whilst they were at it. Women were pretty much considered as lustful, evil creatures that had to be kept in their rightful place… a subservient place, that is.
The names of women in the old stories were forgotten or not considered important enough to remember (ie. the mother of Etain; the wife of Lugh wrongfully accused of an affair); or they were repainted as an insipid virtuous Christian ideal of femininity (ie Cuchulainn’s wife, Emer was said to possess the six gifts of womanhood: beauty, a gentle voice, sweet words, wisdom, skill at needlework and chastity. Hmmm… now does she sound much like a spirited Celtic Irish woman to you?); or they were branded as a lewd and crude, sex-crazed, egotistical harlot (ie Queen Medb).
So perhaps it’s not quite so surprising after all to find such a black hole of information. However, women were good enough for one thing, and that is for birthing heroes and kings. In fact, according to the ancient stories, they were quite good at that, although often, conception did not come about through the act of sex at all, but from swallowing something they shouldn’t.
Ok… settle down. I know, far too many puns for one paragraph. But someone really should have explained the birds and bees to those poor misinformed monks! 😂😝😉
Anyway, onward: here are some stories from Irish mythology about unusual conceptions, pregnancies and births.
nessa, mother of king conchobar
Nessa was the daughter of Eochaid Sálbuide, king of Ulster, and was married to Cathbad, a druid and warrior. One day, she asked Cathbad what the day was good for, and he answered, “Conceiving a king.” So they did.
Nessa goes into labour on the banks of the River Conchobar whilst she and her husband are travelling to visit friends. Cathbad tells her if she can hold on till the following day (Huh? Really???), her son will be born on the birthday of Jesus Christ. So Ness dutifully sits on a flat stone like a good little woman, and held in all night the child which was ripping her apart to get out. Maybe she crossed her legs, or something. The next morning, she pops out a son she names Conchobar, after the river he was born beside.
Bear in mind that this is the same Nessa who prior to her pregnancy, single-handedly as a woman raised a war-band of 27 warriors and took off after her father’s murderers with them, intent on revenge and killing. What a creature of contrast she is!
macha, mother of twins fir and fial
Macha, daughter of Sainrith mac Imbaith, was the wife of a farmer in Ulster named Cruinniuc. One day, while watching a chariot race, Cruinniuc bragged that his wife was so fleet of foot, she could outrun any of the King’s horses.
The King was not happy to hear this, and called Cruinniuc’s bluff. A race was set up. Despite being heavily pregnant at the time, Macha duly raced the horses and won. Well, of course she wouldn’t have wanted to make a show of her husband in front of the King over a trivial little thing like pregnancy, now, would she? It is a natural state, after all. Like a good wife, she did as she was told.
However during the race, she went into labour and collapsed on the finish line, giving birth to twins, a boy and a girl, whom she named Fir and Fial, meaning ‘True’ and ‘Modest’. Sadly, she died soon after, but not before cursing all the men of Ulster to suffer with her labour pains in the future… I like her style! This was later to have dire consequences when it came to the battle of the Cattle Raid of Cooley.
dechtire, mother of cuchulainn
Cuchulainn was the champion of the afore-mentioned cattle raid, but the tale of his conception and birth is a curious one. Dechtire, half sister of King Conchobar mac Nessa, was married to an Ulster chieftain named Sualtam.
One night, a mayfly landed in her cup of wine, and she swallowed it without realising. She fell into a deep sleep during which Lugh Lamfhada, God of Lightning, visited her, and claimed that he was that mayfly and had impregnated her. He then transformed her along with fifty of her serving women into a flock of birds and flew them to Bru na Boinne (Newgrange).
She gave birth to a son there, and named him Setanta. The men of Ulster then came for her and escorted her home. Setanta grew up to become the hero, Cuchulainn.
the nameless mother of etain
Dechtire wasn’t the only woman to become impregnated after swallowing something; Irish mythology is rife with it. When Midir of the Tuatha de Danann falls in love with Etain, his jealous first wife, Fumnach, transforms her into a butterfly. After many adventures, Etain falls into a cup of wine in the hand of the wife of Étar, an Ulster chieftain. Unaware, the woman drinks the wine and swallows the butterfly. She then becomes pregnant, and Étain is reborn, one thousand and twelve years after her first birth.
findchoem, mother of conall cernach
Findchoem was barren for many years, until finally she sought help from the Druids. The Druids raised their magic and sang spells over a well. Findchoem then bathed in the well and drank from its enchanted waters. With the water, she accidentally swallowed a worm, and thus Conall was conceived.
shapeshifting and birth
In the Tale of Two Swineherds, Friuch and Rucht are minding livestock belonging to the Gods Ochall and Bodb, when they begin to quarrel. A fight breaks out, in which they assume many animal forms in order to gain mastery of each other, finally becoming two worms. These are promptly swallowed by two cows grazing nearby, which then give birth to the two bulls Finnbhennach and Donn Cúailnge, around whom the Cattle Raid of Cooley was fought.
So there you have it… weird and wonderful pregnancy tales from Irish myth! Which was your favourite?