Were There Women Poets in Ancient Ireland?

According to popular belief, the Brehon Laws were quite forward thinking when it came to equality between the sexes. This is certainly true of the divorce laws, but not so much in other areas, for example property and legal rights. It certainly seems to state that women could participate in all the same professional occupations as men, such as warriors, law-givers and poets.

However, what most people overlook, is that the laws represented an ideal, just like our laws of today.

For example, we believe our society is sophisticated, just and equal, when in fact, it is anything but. Legislation amounts to words on a page; it’s what we like to think our society looks like.

Meanwhile, as any woman can tell you, women are still discriminated against, particularly in the workplace, and the LGBTQ community face horrible prejudice on a daily basis, as do the disabled. I have personal experience of these.

How many women have been interrogated in job interviews about their plans to have children? I certainly have during my retail management days, and I still burn with anger and resentment that not one of my male colleagues faced the same ordeal. Firstly, it’s an invasion of my private life and no-one’s business but my own. Secondly, it has no bearing on my ability to do my job.

Similarly, my daughter, Carys, has faced horrendous discrimination as a disabled person, and I know several gay people who have had to cope with awful persecution, despite what the law states their rights to be.

What has this to do with women poets in ancient Ireland? Everything. We still live in a male dominated society. Example: if a man cooks, he becomes a celebrity chef; if a woman cooks, she is just a housewife.

Of course, there are exceptions, and this is where it all gets a bit tangled and gnarly (thanks, Éilis, for this brilliant word, I love it!) and thereby intriguing.

To understand the information we have, we need to look at the way it was obtained, and by whom. Antiquarianism, ie archaeology and the translation of Old Irish texts only came into its own really during the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries.

This period was a firmly male dominated era of western society. In all honesty, it still is. Hence we have seen the rise of feminist archaeology in recent decades, and yes, it really is a ‘thing’.

Perhaps you’re rolling your eyes now… bloody feminists, anarchists! But it needed to happen, because what was happening is this:

archaeologists were unproblematically overlaying modern-day, Western gender norms onto past societies’.

Margaret Conkey and Janet Spector, Wikipedia

And I can give you an example of this phenomenon. Archaeologists were dismissing all ‘Celtic’ burials where the skeleton was buried without a weapon as female, without further investigating the bones for gender, when in fact, the presence or absence of a weapon may have little significance.

At Wetwang Slack in Yorkshire, UK, one of the three graves revealed a female skeleton accompanied into the afterlife by a war chariot, a typical sign of a warrior, but no weapon. Grave 5 at Kirkburn revealed a male skeleton dressed in a fine chainmail shirt but no weapon.

Bettina Arnold claims that as weapons were so valuable, they were not buried with the owner but passed down through the male line. She also states that:

‘weapons were simultaneously status-, gender-, and age-specific grave goods’,

indicating that many categories of men in society, such as the very young, the aged, or lower status men may not have been identified as male by archaeologists due to the absence of weapons among their grave goods.

According to Margaret Conkey, male dominated archaeological fieldwork and analysis has led to approaches in archaeology which are:

‘unreflexively Western, normative, and heterosexual.’

In other words, interpretation of archaeology is influenced by current male bias towards the gender roles of men and women. As Hayes-Gilpin and Whitley say,

‘archaeologists… have projected stereotypes from the present into the past, resulting in interpretations of archaeological data resting on unsupported assumptions about sex roles and gender identity.’

Ok. Enough about archaeology. You may be wondering what this has to do with female poets of ancient Ireland. Well, I’m trying to show how our pre-conceived notions of gender roles colour our interpretations of the past, despite what the evidence actually shows us.

Consider this; when discussing the beautiful and overtly sensitive poem known as ‘The Old Woman of Beare‘, James Carney says:

‘When he speaks of drinking with kings and receiving presents of chariots, and horses, he is adverting, I would say, to his own experience as a poet. The difficulty I find in accepting the poem as a literary realization of the plight of an old courtesan who has given up the world (or rather, whom the world has given up) has to do with the Irish social scene c. 750. Little as we know about this, I have some difficulty in imagining a woman (whether courtesan or wife) continually carousing with the men folk. … the women at best got a token sip, and their main function (as in the sagas) was to serve and pour.’

James Carney

He’s referring to the poem, ‘The Old Woman of Beare‘, and yes, he’s implying that the creator of the poem was a man. The highlighted parts are my own doing, which I think emphasis his particular male bias. As a women who has just slipped into her 5oth year, I so get where Digde is coming from, something I don’t believe a man can ever empathise with or capture, particularly a male monk from the ninth century.

My point is, that if such writings were created during medieval times, as scholars believe, then they represent medieval times, ie the Christian era, which as we know, is female-phobic.

If they are founded on earlier pre-Christian oral tales, they may have been doctored to suit Christian ideology. Modern interpretation, having inherited that male bias, subconsciously, or purposefully, reinforces that view.

Certainly, archaeology reinforces gender difference but not gender status. Although dealing with hard evidence of previous civilizations, it is just as subject to pre-conceived ideas and interpretation as any other aspect of the study of the past.

So, where does this leave us in terms of our female poets? Well, scholars say that  it is almost impossible to identify whether a text was written by a man or a woman, and I guess that is true.

Even today, we as writers and storytellers assume a ‘poetic mask’ or persona in telling a story. I have written stories from the viewpoint of a fourteen year old boy, for example, even though I am a 50 year old woman. Therefore, the use of ‘gendered language’ is not in itself sufficient evidence for identifying the gender of the writer..

As Thomas Clancy says:

‘The overt use of a persona by the poet must always cast into doubt whether a poem spoken by a woman is the creation of a woman. In general though, the assumption has been that all poems, unless proven otherwise, are created by men.’

So it’s possible that the poems said to be written by women may have been written by men.

You can read my interpretation of the Lament of the Old Woman of Beare here, and the Encounter of Líadain and Curithir here. It seems to me that these poems are so delicate, so nuanced to all that it is to be a woman in a male dominated society, that they couldn’t possibly have been written by a medieval male, let alone a medieval male monk.

But were Líadain and Digde real historical persons, or just legend? Well,  the prologue to The Lament of the Caillech Bérre states this:

‘The Old Woman of Beare, whose name was Digde, was of the Corcu Duibne, that is to say of the Uí Maic Íair Conchinn. Brigit daughter of Iustán belonged to them also, and

Líadain wife of Cuirithir, and Úallach daughter of Muimnechán.’

Now Úallach we know is a real historical person according to the Annals of Inisfallen (934) which recorded her death, ‘Quies Uallaige ingene Muinechain, banfile Herend – ‘the Repose of Uallach daughter of Muinechan, poetess of Ireland’. It clearly states her status not just as a poet, but as the ‘Poetess of Ireland’, suggesting high rank.

Also, within the territory of Uí Maic Íair,  Conchinn was a women’s monastery, now known as  Killagh in Co. Kerry. Liadain, in her poem, also claims to have come from this very same monastery.

You can read some verses from Líadain’s poem here, but basically the story goes that she meets Cuirithir, who is also a poet, and they fall in love, but Líadan becomes a nun (at Cell Aiched Conchinn). Cuirithir persuades her to come away with him, but they return and place themselves under the spiritual guidance of St Cummaine (seventh-century saint associated with West Munster) who imposes a restriction on them to test their chastity. Cuirithir is exiled from the monastery and Líadan dies of a broken heart.

It’s a truly beautiful poem, and Thomas Clancy is moved to say:

‘it seems likely that the personality behind this text is a woman’s, insofar as we can discern one.’

Fergus Kelly goes so far as to say :

‘It is clear, therefore, that a woman could be recognised as a fully-fledged poet, though it must have been regarded as unusual. It is probable that the admission of a woman into the poetic class occurred mainly when a poet had no sons, and a daughter showed some aptitude for the profession […]’

Hmmm… a very begrudging endorsement, if I may say so.

Taking all of this into consideration, it seems we can make a strong case that these poems were written by women, and that these women, if not the norm, were accepted in the enlightened and powerful role of banfílí, or women poets/ storytellers/ lorekeepers in ancient Ireland.

In fact, Liadain would have us believe that she traveled far and wide in her role as a poet, and Digde claims to have spent much time carousing in the presence of Kings while being adored as a poet, and quite intoxicatingly beautiful woman.

However, gendered language cannot be taken at face value. Relatively few ancient texts in Ireland were ascribed to particular authors, and even fewer of them to women. The evidence of female monastic sites during the early medieval era indicates that some women at least had access to an education, and that such women were more than capable of authoring fine poetry accepted in spite of their gender, but that these would have been very few and far between.

If you wish to reblog this post, please use the ‘PRESS THIS’ button.


Fergus Kelly, A Guide to Early Irish Law
Thomas Clancy, ‘Women Poets in Early Medieval Ireland: Stating the Case’, in The Fragility of her Sex? Medieval Irishwomen in their European Context, ed. by C. Meek and K. Simms (Dublin, 1996)
Bettina Arnold, 2012, Gender, temporalities and Periodization in early Iron Age West-Central Europe, Social Science History, Vol.36, No.1, Cambridge University Press.
Margaret Conkey, 2003, Has Feminism Changed Archaeology?, Signs, Vol.28, No.3, Gender and Science:New Issues, The University of Chicago Press.
The Encounter of Líadain and Cuirithir
Who Was the Old Woman of Beare?

thank you for visiting
Want more mythology straight to your inbox? Sign up to my mailing list.
Or try one of these…

34 Comments on “Were There Women Poets in Ancient Ireland?

  1. Pingback: Were There Women Poets in Ancient Ireland? – lampmagician

  2. Pingback: Were There Women Poets in Ancient Ireland? | Judith Shaw - Life on the Edge

  3. Women poets, what next? 🙂 This is a fascinating subject Ali, the layering of undoubted modern-day male bias onto history in general and literature and archaeology in particular. We have amazing female poets in recent history – why wouldn’t they have existed in earlier times?
    P.S. I’m really not into poetry but Galway’s Elaine Feeney is brilliant I think.

    Liked by 1 person

    • I agree with you. I guess in the past the education of women was so restricted that they weren’t actually capable of many things we now take for granted. No wonder there were so many women ending up in asylums… they probably went out of their minds with boredom and lack of stimulation!

      Liked by 1 person

  4. It must be really hard to get rid of bias, because you don’t necessarily know it’s there. In my last job we had training in unconscious bias and I was shocked by what I discovered about myself. As a fairly self-aware adult, I knew I had some biases and tried not to let them influence me, but unconscious bias was something else. I would probably make the same assumptions about the past until I found something to make me reconsider. On the other hand, women like Sappho and Hildegard von Bingen can’t have been the only ones in the whole of Europe over a millennium and a half.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Exactly! You hit the nail on the head with that last statement. I really believe powerful intelligent women were disliked and rebranded, if you like, into something more acceptable by religious or social norms. I think they were simply ignored or written out of history. Unconscious bias is something we are conditioned into. It is very hard to deal with. I realised that when I had my daughter, Carys, who has a rare syndrome. It changed my life, and literally brought me into contact with all sorts of disabled people, and made me realise how ignorant I had been. Now I’m aware of it, but it’s still hard to shake.

      Liked by 1 person

  5. Such an interesting post, dear Ali… Great!
    I can see and feel that we still live in a biased society… Even if women have improved so much their situations, there is still a path ahead.
    I had no idea that weapons were so symbolic in Ancient Ireland, and that they represented status and were basically associated with Masculinity.
    Monastic education could explain why certain (a very few) women might have had access to quality education. I am thinking of Sor Juana Inés de la Cruz, nun, feminist and acclaimed writer of the Latin American colonial period and the Hispanic Baroque.
    Líadain’s poem is beautiful. Cuirithir and her seemed to be meant to be together. But, love not always prevails. And it seems the restrictions imposed to them prevailed. Something here made me think of Shakespeare´s “Romeo and Juliet”, although maybe just perhaps the moral: that even if love might overcomes almost everything… “Rebellion and contempt” can´t defy rules to finally triumph. If you stop to think it both Shakespeare´s play and this poem are quite conventional, moralistic in that sense. 😉
    Love & best wishes, Ali… 🙂

    Liked by 1 person

    • Yes, they are, Aquileana, and whilst being beautiful and enthralling stories, they serve a purpose, don’t you think? As if they are lessons on desirable and undesirable behaviours for those who maybe are themselves not literate, but can learn by listening to the storytellers and poets. Thank you for stopping by, and for your lovely comment! Hope you are having a great weekend! 😙

      Liked by 1 person

  6. Wonderful post, Ali. You sure did your homework on the topic. When I was in college women were burning bras. We’ve come a long way since then, but not so much as we should have. You make a good point that this is an ageless argument.
    How are you doing? And Carys? It is so disheartening to hear that sweet little girl has been on the receiving end of discrimination.
    I have been blogging sporadically and reading posts pretty much the same. Life has taken a busy, though good, turn and I find it’s hard to keep up with everything. However, I’ve missed reading so many posts.
    Love and Hugs.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Hi Michelle! Lovely to see you here. I know what it’s like… since I started uni I have really struggled to stay on top of my ‘old life’ is the blogging and writing. I try to do what I can and try to not feel guilty if I don’t get round everyone’s blogs like I used to. Carys is doing well. She just had two nights and three days at the respite centre… She’s never been away from us for so long. But seems she had a fantastic time! So proud of her… She is a little doll! It was nice to get some time with my boys doing things we can’t do with Carys, movies, I even went go-karting for the first time ever… normally I’m at home with Carys. Of course, I was last, but it was still fun! 😊 Hope you’re keeping well. 😙

      Liked by 1 person

      • Glad to hear Carys is doing well. Good for Carys, 2 nights and 3 days away sounds like a milestone. I’m happy to hear she had such a good time. ❤ It’s good you had some time with your guys. I’m sure they enjoyed some mom time. I’d have loved to watch the go-karting! 😆
        I’m doing well, thank you. I thought moving to a smaller house I would have a lot more time. I actually do, but I fill it up, mostly with my granddaughters. We are going to Boston later this month to visit our oldest son and his family. Our grandsons (age 18 and 14 1/2) are soccer enthusiasts, both on the field and off. This will be the last time we see the 18-year-old play soccer unless he plays in college. I can not wait to see them!
        Take care, my friend. I will try to be more diligent about getting around to read posts. Even though I’m not always here, I think of you and yours often.
        Love and hugs.


        • Have a great time with your family, Michelle. That’s what’s most important, it is so easy to get sidetracked by everything else. Your grandsons sound much like my boys, except their sport is rugby, although the youngest also plays Gaelic Football in the summer months, too. Maybe your oldest grandson’s college will have a soccer team. I hope so, its such a shame when they have invested so much of their life in a sport they love, that they should have to give it up. Don’t worry about reading posts… I would rather have you drop by once in a blue moon because you genuinely want to, than every week because you feel pressured into trying to keep up. Look after yourself. Hugs back. xxx😘😊

          Liked by 1 person

  7. As an archaeologist I suppose I ought to mount a defence of my profession. First it takes time and money to determine gender, so guesses are usually made based on grave goods. Weaponry (apart from knives) and some tools for men, jewellery (apart from dress fastenings) and tools that were seen as traditionally female such as spindle whorls for women. Indeed it was the discovery of a Scandinavian style spindle whorl at a Viking site in Newfoundland that was seen as confirmation that the sagas were correct in claiming that women had also voyaged to Vinland, such as the terrible Freydis Ericsdotter.
    The problem with feminist archaeology, as with Marxist archaeology, or any sort of –ist archaeology is that, by coming to the subject with a pre-determined mind set there is a tendency to bend facts to fit theories and then get very upset or angry when your theory is completely undermined by new fact. I always try to go with the evidence, if the laws imply there were female poets, then their might have been so look for other evidence. It doesn’t mean that you will find it. For example there were laws passed against luring ships onto shore in order to steal the cargo, but no one was ever tried or even accused of this type of wrecking.
    To end on a lighter note, have a look at this, https://gordonlepard.wordpress.com/2015/10/14/cheers-an-alcoholic-view-of-history/, it is my contention that the development of the great European empires, particularly the British, in the late nineteenth century was connected to the discovery of cocktails!

    Liked by 1 person

    • Hi Gordon thanks for dropping by. I agree, applying a pre-conceived mindset to archaeology, or any subject actually, is likely to skew the results, and that is why typical assumptions ‘re assigning gender to burials needs to be challenged. There are enough examples now which demonstrate that. And as I say in the post, living in a male dominated and patriarchal society it’s hardly surprising that those values influenced the interpretation of archaeological findings. How could it not? My post is not intended as an attack on all male archaeologists, I hope it did not come across as such. Ist-archaeology is much like Ist-anything else, it can lead to extremism. But it also challenges traditionalism, and provides updated knowledge, which has to be a good thing. If anyone is against the advancement of new ideas in their field, then they are trying to hide something, or there is a bit of and old school network thing going on. Concerning the laws, the implication is that there must have been a problem, otherwise the laws wouldn’t have been needed. The fact there is no evidence proves only one thing… that there is no evidence! Not that it never happened. Half the judges, landowners etc were probably involved in the smuggling! In the Brehon Laws there were laws which prohibited rape of women. Do we have any evidence that rape took place? No. So does that mean rape never happened? No. So while I take your point, I don’t quite agree with you, because reality is just never that black and white. And now I will hop across to your post, which sounds like fun! 😀


    • Gordon, above, points out that “it takes time and money to determine gender, so guesses are usually made based on grave goods.” Archaeology itself takes time and money, so it seems that the budget for any given project should always include a plan to acquire additional funding for whatever tools may be needed to do it right, depending on what is discovered at the site.
      This weekend, the news was full of articles about the high-status Viking warrior shown to have been female by DNA testing: https://qz.com/1074133/dna-tests-of-a-viking-warriors-remains-confirm-female-fighters-existed/ Accusations of researcher bias followed: http://mashable.com/2017/09/12/female-viking-warrior-military-leader-doubts-debunk/#6HvhX7mdbmqX so interpretation will probably remain contentious, as has happened with the meaning of the Egyptian tomb of Niankhkhnum and Khnumhotep: http://www.nytimes.com/2005/12/20/science/a-mystery-locked-in-timeless-embrace.html?mcubz=3
      I just want to add to Gordon’s comment about the “ists” in archaeology, that the problem is for the individual archaeologist to attempt to recognize their personal, perhaps unnoticed “-ist”. This is especially difficult for people who consider themselves “normal”, because what one might consider “normal” in our society, such as a gender expression or a family, is, after all, only one kind of possible gender expression or family in our society, and may have been one of a variety of possible gender expressions or families in a past culture.
      Those interested in pursuing this topic might want to read “Handbook of Gender in Archaeology”, edited by Sarah Milledge Nelson, Rowman Altamira, 2006. Preview available at Google Books: https://books.google.com/books?id=EtIQUpgo2cEC&dq=heterosexual+bias+in+archaeology&source=gbs_navlinks_s
      Thanks for a great article. Ali!

      Liked by 1 person

      • Thank you for your great comment, and for opening my eyes to the Viking She-warrior. I didn’t know anything about it. It’s amazing what people will come up with to try and disprove new opinions… they are so afraid they will look a fool for getting it so wrong. I can understand that, but I would rather admit the truth… everyone gets things wrong now and again. The original archaeologists should not have been so sloppy in assigning gender. Then we wouldn’t have such a problem. I guess it will never now be proved one way or the other. Kind of the same thing happened with the ‘Princess’ of Vix. She was buried with wealth and grave goods equivalent with male chieftains yet it was claimed that she must have been a wife of, or a shaman, or anything but a woman who had achieved high status and great wealth and power in her own right, especially as she was physically disabled… talk about projecting current beliefs and prejudices onto the past! I don’t think anyone is claiming it was the norm, but minds are so closed to the possibilities. I find the same attitude in your link to the two Egyptian brothers… How anyone can think that images of two men embracing is a more realistic interpretation of conjoined twins, rather than a representation of gay lovers, is quite beyond me! In every society there are always exceptions to the rule, because people are human beings, not robots, and just because our modern society doesn’t like people who are non-white, Muslim, gay, disabled, in other words, in some way different, it doesn’t mean that societies in antiquity felt the same. This is definitely an interesting topic of conversation, thank you for your enlightened contribution. 😊

        Liked by 1 person

  8. I agree with you that the voices of women for thousands of years have been either ‘hidden’ or disguised. Among all your wonderful research and comments I will add one aside here. Anyone who dares to say the Christian era is OVER is simply blind to what is happening in our 2017 world.

    Liked by 1 person

    • I have to agree with you there, Faye. We are seeing a resurgence of fundamentalism and extremism in many religions, including Christianity, which breeds hatred, intolerance and bigotry, and which is taking us right back into the dark ages. The Christan era is not over, but neither is the Muslim one, the Hindu one, and the Pagan era is still going strong and is older than many of the more mainstream religions. We will never live in a secular world.


  9. Pingback: Were There Women Poets in Ancient Ireland? | We Are Star Stuff

  10. Excellent post and a lot to take forward…. am glad someone has pointed this out as its needs to be re envisioned in early Irish literature as well…. the interpretation are missing some of the points. Thanks for this.

    Liked by 1 person

    • I absolutely agree with you about that. If it can be found in archaeology, which is such a new young science, then it must pervade other areas too. The ‘fraternity’ of scholars on early Irish literature, and early Irish studies in general, seem quite old school and don’t take kindly to new blood and new ideas, apparently. Thanks for your comment… medieval literature seems to be your speciality, am glad to meet someone who shares that interest.


  11. Yeesh. You would hope that scientists (i.e. archeaologists) wouldn’t bend to gender biases, but that show just how ingrained they are. Ugh. It breaks my heart to hear that Carys is subject to discrimination. We have a long long way to go as a species.


    • Diana, Carys is fine, she doesn’t give two hoots, its my heart that gets broken.The worst thing to happen was when the Health Service Exec. refused to give her a medial card last year… she’s had one all her life, as if she has suddenly been miraculously cured and no longer needs access to special care, medicines, equipment. It took over a year of Conor and I fighting for her rights before she finally got one last month. It’s disgraceful, and well worth a blog post… when I’ve calmed down! Lol! And that might take a while! But gender biases, they’re far too deeply ingrained, I think.

      Liked by 1 person

      • In the US, too, having family members that advocate and won’t take “no” for an answer becomes more and more important. She’s a lucky girl to have parents who will fight for her rights. ❤


  12. It doesn’t surprise me that in archaeology, a male who was elderly, of low status or very young, and was buried without a weapon was deemed to be a woman and therefore unimportant! Things still haven’t moved on from this quickly enough for my liking!

    Liked by 1 person

  13. Absolutely we still live in a male dominated society but it has a different twist. In the past the greater strength of the male was very significant and the strongest males become leaders of the tribe. Today it’s business that dictates our world and runs the show. Women can drive lorries operate computers sit on board meetings etc but they can prove costly , hence business pays them less. It’s market forces at work and those forces dictate not legislation as you rightly point out. Legislation is for lawyers , it is their living and if it were carried out they would be penniless. Women have the unfortunate quality of having babies and that upsets business as it seeks 100% dedication to the job in hand. In fact anyone who treats a job as just a job is viewed with suspicion.
    When it comes to the arts like poetry and prose men are conceited enough to believe they have the secret of lasting greatness. There was recently a suggestion that some of JS Bach’s music was penned by his wife my goodness it threw a spanner into the works and venom was spitting in all directions. Charles Darwin believed women were inferior in every respect when it came to abilities and he makes that very clear in his ‘ Descent of Man’. I expect today he would be arrested times have changed so much. I think Jane Austin can match any male author you care to quote and Elizabeth Haskell was a match for Charles Dickens. I’m not too sure if the day will dawn when we can match a female boxer to Muhammad Ali.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Haha! No, she may be skilled but physically she could never pack the power into her punch to match him. I think if childbearing wasn’t so looked down on in modern society, it would make the inequality in the workplace more bearable. Either way, you’re damned if you do (have children) and damned if you don’t. That’s hilarious about Bach’s wife! I love that idea. Gives credence to the saying ‘Behind every great man there’s a great woman’. 😊 As for Darwin, well it’s there in the title. Perhaps it’s only men who evolved from apes, Haha! Thanks for your fabulous comment, have a great week.😊

      Liked by 1 person

Please feel free to join in the conversation...

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.