The Warrior Women of Ireland

Hurling and camogie are considered “warrior sports”. From its Ancient Celtic origins to the modern-day, the dedication, commitment, and sheer physicality needed to win the ball demonstrate how this spirit has never left these games. Watching modern camogie matches featuring players of the calibre of Ashling Thompson, Ursula Jacob, Rena Buckley and Niamh Rockett, it is fair to say that the warrior tradition continues.

We thought we would highlight four “warrior” women of Irish history and mythology on this International Women’s Day. We will not focus on GAA players this time around and instead look elsewhere for inspiration. The women highlighted in this piece include mythological and pirate queens to the “most dangerous woman in America” and the first female cabinet minister in Europe.

Ireland, throughout its history, has had its share of extraordinary women, and we look forward to continuing this series into the future.

Meadhbh – the Mythological Queen of Connacht

Queen Meadhbh (Anglicised as “Maeve”) is one of the most well-known figures in Irish mythology. She was a very tough woman that you wouldn’t want to get on the wrong side of…

When a druid told her that her son would kill “Conchobhar” (who she assumed meant her former husband, Conchobar mac Nessa), she asked which one. The druid told her it would be her son “Maine”. At the time, she had seven sons, and none of them was called “Maine”, so upon hearing the news, she proceeded to rename all seven of them “Maine”. Meadhbh meant business and was not a woman to be messed with!

One of her sons did end up killing Conchobhar; however, it turned out to be a different person from who she had hoped for…

Meadhbh is mainly associated with one of the great epics of Irish mythology, the “Táin Bó Cúailnge” (or “The Cattle Raid of Cooley”, whereby she oversaw the warriors of Connacht as they attempted to steal the “Donn Cúailnge”, (or the Brown Bull of Cooley). Meadhbh led the raid to prove to her husband (Ailill mac Máta) that she was his equal when it came to wealth, as when they compared their resources, the only possession that separated them was Ailill’s prize bull, “Finnbhennach”.

A retelling of the „Táin Bó Cúailnge“.

Her plan to raid Ulster to get her hands on the Brown Bull of Cooley involved putting the warriors of Ulster to sleep (whether by the curse of the goddess, Macha or by illness) while she brought her army north. However, one Ulster warrior was not affected by the issues facing the rest of the Ulster army, and that warrior’s name was Cú Chulainn.

Cú Chulainn is one of the great heroes of Irish mythology, and he deserves a separate article for himself. A reference point for Cú Chulainn would be the Greek hero, Achilles – a master warrior with some fatal flaws. To cut a long story short, using his semi-divine powers, Cú Chulainn was able to fight off the army of Ulster single-handedly for days on end and defeated several of Meadhbh’s champions (including his foster-brother, Ferdia).

My pretty battered copy of “The Táin”. It is the great epic of Irish mythology.

In the end, Meadhbh did get her hands on Donn Cúailnge (the Brown Bull). However, her costly victory proved to be in vain as, upon arrival in Connacht, the bull fought and killed his rival, Finnbhennach, but was mortally wounded in the process.

Meadhbh was eventually killed by her nephew, Fuarbhaí Fearbheann (also known as Furbaide Ferbend), in retaliation for Meadhbh killing his mother (and Meadhbh’s sister) Eithne. According to the myth, Fuarbhaí killed her by slinging a piece of cheese at her forehead…

As Ireland had an oral tradition (“Béaloideas” – from the words “mouth” and “instruction/teaching”), it is difficult to know whether the same stories as we know them are as they were back in Celtic times. It is doubtful. However, it is fair to say that Meadhbh has inspired many characters in today’s fantasy and fiction books and stories!

In the popular book and TV series, “The Witcher” there is a Queen Meve who is the Queen of Lyria and Rivia, while in Jim Butcher’s “Dresden Files” (a fantasy and detective book series) there is a Maeve who is the youngest of the “Winter Queens”. “The Dark Queen” (Fae Queen) Maeve also makes an appearance in the “Throne of Glass” series, as does “Queen Maeve”, a superhero with superhuman strength, speed and agility on the TV series, “The Boys”.

Whether Meadhbh is based on a real person, a reference to a Celtic goddess or a mythological character and was used for the service of stories, her name and influence definitely place her in the pantheon of Irish warrior women!

Granuaile – Gráinne Mhaol – the Pirate Queen

Unlike Meadhbh, we know that Gráinne O’Malley (known as “Gráinne Mhaol” or the Anglicised “Granuaile”) was a real person from 16th century Ireland. She would become known in history as Ireland’s “Pirate Queen”.

Gráinne was born into the powerful O’Malley family in 1530. The O’Malley family was based around Clew Bay, County Mayo in the west of Ireland. Although the Norman invasion of Ireland, which started in the 1160s, had placed the English Crown in nominal control of Ireland, Gaelic lords maintained much of their power and influence over the centuries. This was especially true in areas outside of the more English-dominated areas around Dublin. However, during Gráinne’s lifetime, English control in Ireland increased dramatically.

Fun note: This area around Dublin (from Dalkey in the south to Dundalk in the north – and as far west as Naas) was known as “the Pale”. It is possible (though not conclusively proven) that the English expression “beyond the pale” (which means for something to be unacceptable or “outside agreed standards of decency”) originates from this time.

The O’Malley family demonstrated their power and influence through seafaring with a significant trading operation. From their base in Mayo, they traded with France and Spain; they also taxed those who fished in their territorial waters. With their fortifications along the coastline, such as Carrickkildavnet Castle (on Achill Island) and Clare Island, the O’Malleys were a power in the region.

A video about the life of Gráinne Mhaol.

Gráinne “Mhaol” may have received her nickname due to cutting her hair short to hide the fact she was a girl (“maol” meaning “bald” in Irish) and therefore, ensured she was allowed to join in a trading expedition to Spain. Alternatively, it may be due to her family territory in Connacht being known as “Umhaill”. Based on other stories relating to her life, and the respect she gathered, it should not be a surprise if it is the former!

Gráinne married Dónal O’Flaherty in 1546. Dónal’s family dominated around the area of modern Connemara, and the couple had three children together. However, Dónal was eventually killed in an ambush, and unusually for the time, many of Dónal’s followers decided to follow Gráinne from then on.

Gráinne was developing her reputation at this stage, and she placed herself on the ships she controlled. Gráinne was known to participate in the raids and attacks given on her orders. In fact, according to legend, she gave birth to her son, Tibbot ne Long Bourke, while onboard a ship engaging in a skirmish with Algerian pirates. Tibbot (or “Theobald”) was born to her second marriage, this time to Risdeárd an Iarainn Bourke (Richard “Iron” Bourke).

During this time, the English Crown was paying more attention to Ireland and were establishing more robust control in traditional Gaelic-controlled areas, such as in Connacht. This encroachment brought Gráinne into conflict with the English-appointed governor of Connacht, Sir Richard Bingham. Bingham’s pressure on Gráinne made life very difficult for her, and in 1593, he was able to capture Gráinne’s sons Tibbot Bourke and Murrough O’Flaherty, and her half-brother, Dónal na Píopa.

The Irish traditional song “Órò’ sé do bheatha abhaile” concerns Gráinne Mhaol.

Gráinne did not take this lying down and instead made her way by ship over to London to meet Queen Elizabeth I to petition her for their release. She met her queen to queen, and they conducted their negotiations in Latin. Gráinne agreed to not support the Gaelic chieftains who had risen in rebellion against the Crown (the Nine Years’ War), while Elizabeth agreed to release the captives, and Bingham was briefly removed from Ireland.

Gráinne died around 1603 and is supposedly buried at Clare Island Abbey. According to her biographer Anne Chambers, Gráinne was

“a fearless leader, by land and by sea, a political pragmatist and politician, a ruthless plunderer, a mercenary, a rebel, a shrewd and able negotiator, the protective matriarch of her family and tribe, a genuine inheritor of the Mother Goddess and Warrior Queen attributes of her remote ancestors. Above all else, she emerges as a woman who broke the mould and thereby played a unique role in history”

Anne Chambers (historian)

For more information about Gráinne Mhaol, “the Irish History Podcast” by Fin Dwyer has a recent episode dedicated to her (07.03.2022) where he discusses her life with Anne Chambers.

Mary Harris, known as Mother Jones – the Most Dangerous Woman in America

Mary Harris is better known in history as “Mother Jones”. She was described as “the most dangerous woman in America” for her success in organising mine workers and their families against mine owners. She has inspired a progressive, political magazine which is named after her (Mother Jonesmagazine), an annual festival in her home city of Cork – the Spirit of Mother Jones Festival – and is one of the inspirations behind the famous song “She’ll be Coming ’round the Mountain”. Mary Harris had a truly extraordinary life and should be seen as one of the most influential Irish-Americans.

Mary Harris was born in the northside of Cork City. She was baptised on the 1st of August 1837 at the North Chapel (the Cathedral of St. Mary and St. Anne). She grew up in the Rebel City during the Famine years, before her family emigrated to Canada in 1847. Her story of hunger, poverty and emigration was all-too-familiar at this time in Irish history.

Over time, she moved to the USA and ín 1861, she married George E. Jones, with whom she had four children. They were settled in Memphis and enjoyed a period of domestic stability in a city where one-quarter of the population at the time were Irish. However, six years later, George and the four children died during a Yellow Fever epidemic that ravaged the poorer Irish neighbourhoods in the city. Mary was now alone.

“All about my house I could hear weeping and the cries of delirium. One by one, my four little children sickened and died. I washed their little bodies and got them ready for burial. My husband caught the fever and died. I sat alone through nights of grief. No one came to me. No one could. Other homes were as stricken as mine. All day long, all night long, I heard the grating of the wheels of the death cart”.

Mary Harris, „The Autobiography of Mother Jones“

Following this tragedy, Mary moved to Chicago and sought to establish a dressmaking business. However, four years after losing her husband and children, she lost her business, house and possessions following the breakout of “The Great Chicago Fire” of 1871. The fire resulted in the deaths of up to 300 people, destroyed 17,000 buildings, including most of the business district and left 100,000 people homeless. At 34, Mary had endured enough tragedies and setbacks to ruin most people. However, Mary was only just getting started.

She claims in her autobiography that this led to her joining “the Knights of Labor”, who were an American labour federation active in the late 19th century. She started organising protests and strikes and travelled around the USA for decades, supporting strikers and those looking for better pay and working conditions.

“My address is like my shoes. It travels with me. I abide where there is a fight against wrong.”

Mary Harris: Mother Jones

As she got older, she adopted the persona of “Mother Jones”, whereby she wore outdated black dresses and referred to the mineworkers that she helped as “her boys”. She claimed to have been born in 1830, making her appear older than she was. During this time, she was mainly involved with the UMWA (United Mine Workers of America), and she played a central role in protests against wealthy mine-owners and other employers. In 1903, she organised the “March of the Mill Children” as a protest against child labour. She had the protesters march from Pennsylvania to the summer house of President Theodore Roosevelt in Oyster Bay, New York.

Mother Jones continued to “raise hell” well into her later years. She was arrested in 1913 (at the age of 75!) and again a year later. She never stopped pursuing improved working conditions and pay for “her boys” and encouraged their wives to protest alongside her.

A video of Mary Harris, “Mother Jones”, speaking. This video was made in 1930, during what she claimed was her 100th birthday.

On the 30th of November, 1930, Mary Harris eventually died and was buried in the Union Miners Cemetery in Mount Olive, Illinois.

To try and recount the life of Mary Harris, “Mother Jones”, in a few short paragraphs is a difficult task. If you would like to learn more about her extraordinary life, please watch the video below – “Mother Jones and her Children” by Framework Films – or look for the book “Mother Jones: The Most Dangerous Woman in America” by Professor Elliot J. Gorn.

“Mother Jones and her Children”, a film by Frameworks Film.

However, I can leave you with some quotes from and about that warrior for social justice, Mary Harris – Mother Jones:

  • „There sits the most dangerous woman in America… „She comes into a state where peace and prosperity reign … crooks her finger [and] twenty thousand contented men lay down their tools and walk out.“ West Virginian district attorney, Reese Blizzard.
  • “Pray for the dead and fight like hell for the living.” Mother Jones.
  • “I’m not a humanitarian, I’m a hell-raiser.” Mother Jones.
  • “I asked a man in prison once how he happened to be there and he said he had stolen a pair of shoes. I told him if he had stolen a railroad he would be a United States Senator.” Mother Jones.

Countess Markievicz – Revolutionary, Politician, Suffragette.

More famously known as Countess Markievicz, Constance Georgine Gore-Booth is another Irishwoman with an extraordinary story. She was an Irish politician, revolutionary, nationalist, suffragist, socialist, and the first woman elected to the Westminster Parliament. If that wasn’t enough, she was also elected as Minister for Labour during the First Dáil in 1919 and thus became the first female cabinet minister in Europe.

Constance Georgine Gore-Booth was born in London in 1868 as the elder daughter of the Arctic explorer and adventurer Sir Henry Gore-Booth, an Anglo-Irish landlord, and Georgina, Lady Gore-Booth. Constance was a childhood friend of the famous Irish poet, W.B. Yeats, who dedicated a poem to Constance and her sister Eva called “In Memory of Eva Gore-Booth and Con Markiewicz”.

"The light of evening, Lissadell,
Great windows open to the south,
Two girls in silk kimonos, both
Beautiful, one a gazelle.
But a raving autumn shears
Blossom from the summer's wreath;
The older is condemned to death,
Pardoned, drags out lonely years
Conspiring among the ignorant."

Constance studied to be a painter at the Slade School of Art in London and later moved to Paris to join the Académie Julian. During her time studying, she became more politically active, and she also met her future husband, Casimir Dunin Markievicz.

Casimir was from a wealthy background, as his family held significant lands in the Malopolska Province, situated in modern-day Ukraine. He had studied law in Kyiv before becoming an artist and moving to Paris. Constance and Casimir married in 1900, and the couple moved to Dublin in 1903.

Through her involvement with the artistic community in Dublin at the time, including John B. Yeats, Constance came into contact with the Gaelic League. The Gaelic League was a group founded by future Irish President Douglas Hyde, whose goal was to preserve the Irish language and culture. However, there were substantial overlaps between such goals and the growing desire for an independent Irish state. Through meeting important members of the Irish independence movement, such as John O’Leary and Michael Davitt, Constance became more involved.

In 1908, Markievicz became actively involved in nationalist politics in Ireland, as she joined Sinn Féin and Inghinidhe na hÉireann (‘Daughters of Ireland’). Constance had demonstrated an interest in politics from an early stage, particularly in female suffrage, as she had joined the National Union of Women’s Suffrage Societies while studying in London. From 1908 onwards, Constance became heavily involved in the struggle for Irish independence.

The life of Constance Gore-Booth (Countess Markievicz)

In the coming years, she went to political meetings, was involved with political protests and founded Fianna Éireann (an Irish “Boy Scouts” style movement but one where many of its members joined in groups such as “The Irish Volunteers” and “The Irish Republican Brotherhood” once they were old enough). She was also jailed a couple of times for political actions, including when she handed out leaflets at an IRB-organised demonstration, participated in stone-throwing at pictures of the English King, and attempted to burn the giant British flag taken from Leinster House.

Constance joined James Connolly’s Irish Citizen Army, and in 1913 played a critical role in the Dublin Lockout. She recruited volunteers to prepare food for the strikers while she and others worked on distributing the food. She financed this food from her own pocket.

Her membership in the Irish Citizen Army led to her involvement in “the 1916 Rising”. She fought at St. Stephen’s Green and was amongst the troops that held the Royal College of Surgeons for six days. They eventually laid down their arms when the British Army brought them Pádraig Pearse’s surrender notice. Constance was placed in Kilmainham Gaol for her involvement in the Rising and then moved to several other jails. She was released in 1917, following a general amnesty for those who were involved in the Rising.

Dress suitably in short skirts and sitting boots, leave your jewels and gold wands in the bank, and buy a revolver.

Countess Markievicz

In the 1918 General Election, Constance was elected in Dublin St Patrick’s constituency, as she gained 66% of the vote. However, she did not take her seat in Westminster and instead was part of the First Dáil – a breakaway Irish government. In the Dáil, she served as the Minister for Labour from 1919 until 1922. She was re-elected in 1921. Although she did not take up her seat in the UK Parliament, she was the first woman elected to the House of Commons.

Video footage of Constance Gore-Booth – Countess Markievicz

Constance was an opponent of the Anglo-Irish Treaty and was on the side of the Republicans during the Irish Civil War. She left the Dáil due to her opposition but was re-elected in 1923 following the end of the conflict. In 1926, she joined Fianna Fáil, Eamon de Valera’s new party, and was elected again in the 1927 general election. However, she died of complications after two appendicitis operations on the 15th of July 1927, before she could take her place in the Dáil. She was 59.

Countess Markievicz lived an incredible life. In her own words, “I went out to fight for Ireland’s freedom and it does not matter what happens to me. I did what I thought was right, and I stand by it.”

The four women above are just some of the extraordinary women of Irish history and mythology. Make sure to check out documentaries, books and other resources that go into greater detail about their incredible lives, activities and achievements!

Top Image: Suzanne Mischyshyn / County Mayo – Westport House Grounds – Statue of Grace O’Malley (1530-1603) 

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