Below is an incredible and unforgettable
presentation made by Padraigin McGillicuddy on her celtic music show on radio
station KPFA in northern California in the 1980s. It was also printed up as
a small pamphlet. I have a tape of the program, with wonderful music, and a
copy of the pamphlet. I don't think this work should be forgotten, so I am presenting
it here. Perhaps one day I will post the presentation audio, as it was beautifully
The bold face selections are my choices to highlight.
Posted on Samhain, November 2006. Blessed be, Padraigin.
The Pat' ri-arch Revealed: A Feminist View of St. Patrick
by Padraigin McGillicuddy
Of all the Celts, the Irish are the most off-the-edge people, the fringe people. They did not stop in France; they kept going till they could go no further, and then they figured out a way of going further, to Iceland, to Greenland, to the New World.
What were they fleeing from? Why were they moving? Why did they, more than any historic people I know, not do what the Slavs did, or the Huns did, move until they found a comfortable place and stay there?
Why did they keep moving, what is that westering? What were they, why were they, leaving? Answer: they were fleeing.
"What were the Irish fleeing, in their constant movement west? Answer: They were fleeing the Goddess.
They were fleeing the woman.
This was the way it was. To begin with, they were people of the Devi, the Goddess, or Numero Una Identity, Supreme Trance Dancer, whose feet were our facts and whose snood not even our stars could spatter or spangle, so far above She is than any. Eibhlin! She is supreme. They started in Central Asia, in Shambhala (Sean-bhaile, the Old City, our Old Home). Thence, moving by moon and by carpenter, carpet, faith flies and (ech!) horsie's another thence westering then south and easter too. Ate India. Urse Persia. Am Armenia. Gaelistines in Galestine. Gone Greek: of Dana Danaan. Kept moving - and wherever they came their white thighs and deep set malachite eyes giving them away, why people would come to watch them pass, and say, 'They are folk of the Goddess, they're running away from their owner, their Mistress, how dumb they are, how we wish we (mleccha!) belonged to Her too! Run, dumb rovers, run!' "
The Irish have always had a fondness for revelry. In the days of the old Gaelic order, over one quarter of the calendar year was given over to ritualistic merriment. In America, this fondness is crystallized in one day, a day devoid of any meaning deeper than a good drunk, a day theoretically devoted to the honor of Ireland's Patron Saint - Patrick, visually represented as locked in eternal struggle with the quintessential pagan symbol, the serpent.
An apt visualization, for the ease with which the old Irish embraced St. Patrick's teaching was only apparent. The persistent pagan culture engaged in a relentless struggle that lasted for centuries, the ancient creed that stressed the intuitive, natural, maternal, co-existing with the new doctrine that preached salvation through repentance, penitence and chastity. And the subjugation of women.
Present day attitudes towards women range from barbaric (wife beating and rape), through medieval notions of romantic chivalry, to Victorian concepts of inherent purity and virtue; all continuing variations on the not-age-old themes of virgin, whore and mother, all of which deny woman's <whole> personality.
Because the problems of women are becoming increasingly urgent. it is timely to examine early Celtic ideas on the role of women in society. Under the laws of ancient Ireland, women were treated with a respect and humanity that is a revelation to the modern mind; in their myths possessed of a power that is exhilarating.
This legal system grew out of the customs of the early Celtic tribes, and force of tradition assured their observance. Called the Brehon Laws, they were written down in the 7th century. It is astonishing that although codified in Christian times, this early tradition was strong enough to run counter to Church law.
So for the moment put aside the bilious green Guinness, the frolic some visions of obese or bony leprachauns, the pernicious Paddy and Mike jokes and other misbegotten versions of Irishness. Let me weave you a vision of another Irish world, a world when first I heard of it sent my head spinning and justified my errant behavior. My discovery, a world where women played an unrestricted part in the social, religious and military life. A time when they could become whatever their talents and fortunes permitted - warriors, horsewomen, educators, law-gives, workers, musicians, healers, seeresses, servants, priestesses, princesses, peasants, poets, queens.
Let's look first at that institution of fundamental ambiguity: marriage, which we denounce as isolating we surreptitiously, subconsciously, desire it. Marriage, that bedrock of the patriarchal order! For argument's sake, we'll agree that marriage is a social and economic activity, designed to guarantee the permanence of our society through the protection it offers children.
Under the Brehon Laws, marriage was a wonderfully flexible institution. Not a hint of the sacrosanct, it was a contract only, and the laws were quite specific on who could enter into such a contract. Excluded were men who were barren, impotent, property-less, very fat (being too obese to do IT) and indiscreet men who babbled the secrets of the woman's bed. Now you know women had a hand in devising that list! Very similar to one I'd propose in the wisdom of my forty years.
The fundamental concept was that fluctuations occurred in sexual affections (nothing novel there), but rather than make them illegal or pretend they didn't happen, it was better to legislate for them (and there's where their sensibleness outshines us). Therefore they compiled no less than ten different contracts for marriage for:
- unions of equal rank
- women supported by the man
- men supported by women
- a concubine or "loved one" as the Gaelic would have it
- women and men keeping company, but not living together permanently and neither wholly supporting the other
- the abducted woman (she and her child had legal rights)
- the wandering soldier and his spouse
- forced or deceitful unions
- union between the insane
The simple stunning fact . . . there was no such thing as an illegitimate child.
One of the most sentimental of modern arguments for our style of marriage is "there is nothing lovelier than the sight of a mother taking care of her child." This is in spite of the stark reality that we must sacrifice our very personalities for the exclusive benefit of the children, the "future of the race." Hold your breath. Under the Brehon system (look I swear this isn't a Commie plot), parents never raised their own children. They sent them off to foster parents who were responsible for their upbringing and education. Apparently the results were very beneficial, both to the child and the society at large. And it's easy to see the benefits of such a practice in rape or abduction, where the union was not sealed by contract, because the child was raised by foster parents regardless of origins. The children stayed with their guardians until they were 17 years old, the laws spelling out clearly the terms of their support and methods of discipline.
Customary law, then, offered protection to people engaged in varied types of sexual and marital relationships. A corresponding flexibility pertained to divorce, and two categories of divorce were recognized and practiced. A "blameless" divorce, whereby no special compensation was required, was permitted in cases of illness, long term absence from the territory by one partner, serious physical injury, insanity, barrenness, and death (the laws of kinship extended beyond the grave). The second category of divorce, whereby woman could claim her full coibche (bride-price) was permitted if her husband circulated false rumors or satirized her, struck her a serious blow, repudiated her for another, seduced her by magic, or deprived her of sexual intercourse (for the charms of a young boy, the text reads!).
Wouldn't you say Amen! to all those (except perhaps the magic, which sounds intriguing).
A woman retained her personal property throughout marriage, and this was added to by the yearly payment of the coibche to her father, of which she kept an increasing amount each year up to 21 years. Presumably the marriage was considered stable then and no more guarantees needed. A neat little next egg, should hubby decide he preferred the company of a younger woman.
(Ah, the bitterest of ironies - modern Ireland, alone amongst the Western nations, does not permit divorce, enjoying no happy continuity with its Gaelic past.)
Responsibilities as well as privileges were spelled out in minutia in the Brehon Laws, emphasizing protection for the woman from exploitation from her man or his kin. They covered it all, even adultery, cuckoldry, abortion, and abduction. Their tolerant attitude expressed in the old Irish saying, "the fertile womb is free to bear the body," meaning no law can rule a woman's fertility.
The enforcement of the Brehon's (lawyers) decisions was left up to the kin of the aggrieved party. There were no jails, indentures or capital punishment. Societal pressures secured compliance, for there was no sense of the "individual before the law" as we know it.
Not steeped in Roman jurisprudence or severity, marriage was a plastic formula. Its success depended upon time and circumstance, its structures never final, the "family" a stage of development. Significantly, in a society divided into classes, the laws were written for all the classes, nobody was outside the structures. There is of course, no way of determining to what degree the laws were followed. But they represented the ideal, as did Irish myths, which we read to get a picture of how they put these notions of love and sex into practice.
The patriarchal disdain for women comes from the Near East. Christianity exacerbated and tried to refocus in several ways on the cult of the Blessed Virgin, (with partial success, but only at the expense of polarizing into the whore vs. Goddess phenomenon). The Irish more than any other people I can think of are trapped by that. They have a different precept in their minds - a total and comprehensive vision of feminine identity. They have a vision, as my own revelations suggest, of the primacy of woman. Not that woman is somehow the nobler, wonderful Goddess who is thereby capable, as we know from looking around us, of being unenobled and condemned and despised and abused and exploited. Their sense is of the primacy of woman. That the human organism is female, that the woman is the first human, and the male is simply and radically a departure from the human norm, created by woman at an early prehistoric time, as a servant type.
Woman created man, and like all creators, tends to fall in love with that which she has made. And in one of the most beautiful of all love stories, the one that has never been written, woman looked upon what she had made, found that it was fair, and fell in love with it . . .
Traditions of repressed religions or mythologies tend to become confused, but some very definite conclusions can be drawn from reading Celtic myths. The paramount observation: in Celtic cultures God is a She. She usually appeared in threes, as Goddesses or war, magic, agriculture, arts, festivals, love, motherhood, depending on the circumstances.
With the advent of Christianity and the passage of time. She passed from a real divinity to a half literary, half folklore figure, then to a human with exceptional magic powers, eventually becoming one of the people of the fairy mounds - the sidhe (pronounced she).
What a satisfying experience to read about these women. The magnificent (if psychotic, as were most leaders then as now) Maeve of Connaught, whose story was written down in the 11th century, dates from the far earlier Iron Age. A domineering figure, she initiates a war when her possessions prove less than her husband's. She controls the army, plans the strategies, gives the orders, negotiates the terms, takes part in the fighting, and uses her sexual flavors both to gain political power and for the sheer pleasure of it. "I never had one man but another stood in his shadow," she boasts to her husband, and he has to accept it. She has an official lover Fergus MacRugh, several suitors and yet she loves her husband. Fidelity, as it is preached to you and me, did not exist; it was primarily a matter of fidelity to a freely chosen partner, and sexual desire permitted temporary liasons.
Women warriors abound, teachers of the arts of war, love, healing and prophecy, Irish heroes trained with warrior queens, Scathach and Aife, in the highlands of Scotland.
The Romans met Maeve's Celtic cousins in Britain when they invaded in the 1st century. Tacitus tells us the British were accustomed to women commanders. The Romans encountered a great federation of Celtic tribes, the Brigantes, under the leadership of Queen Cetimandua, who waged the military campaign, and changed husbands without losing status. Queen Boudicca organized the revolt of the Iceni, leading the army herself, and almost succeeded in destroying the Roman power in Britain.
The Romans never conquered Ireland. It took another variety of onslaught to bring the Roman ideal across the Irish sea . . .
Onto the scene comes Patrick. Rough-hewn, confident, decisive, God within him, God beside him. In his personage the symbol of the new order that was to break the strength of the Druids and the old ways. He traveled along the southern bank of the River Boyne, to Slane, across the tide to the hill of Tara, choosing his path well, a daring choice, to where stood the three great tumuli of the glorious dead, knowing full well the significance of the earthen geometry. Blending his message with enough pagan ritual to make it palatable, but chanting as he came:
Against idolotry's wares and heretical snares
Against the spells of women, smiths and druids . . .
Christ keep me today.
In due course Patrick undertook the revision of the Brehon Laws, and included the axiomatic, "All the world died for one apple . . . Eve had contracted corruption." The synod of St. Patrick began the first attack against the tolerant society that shaped and was shaped by the Brehon Laws:
- virgins who take loners shall be be excommunicated, and after penance and the dismissal of her lover, she may not even live in the same village as he
- any woman leaving her husband is excommunicated
- any father accepting a daughter's decision to leave her husband is excommunicated
- any priest whose wife's hair is uncovered shall be separated from the Church (the clergy then could marry)
Merciless penitentials for sexual transgressions were listed, more demanding a year on bread and water, with intercourse also forbidden for the year. Not content with that, rules were laid down forbidding sexual intimacy for 120 days of the year, every Saturday and Sunday, and during pregnancy. A wonderment where these clerics acquired their understanding of human nature.
Sadly, what seemed to the Roman church to be promiscuous behaviour was actually an intricately regulated system whereby a husband was considered to be married to his wife's sisters, and she to his brothers. What they called incest were practices essential for tribal cohesiveness and the protection of property.
The truly extraordinary thing is that Brehon practice and Church practice co-existed up through the 12th century (remnants in the Gaelic west of Ireland till the 19th). The amazingly resilient old customs, beliefs and manners surviving though pitted against a society organized to diminish them. In a brilliant piece of research and analysis of a 15th century Scottish poem about three women still on about the same thing, A. D. Hope concludes, "they are not simply complaining about their husbands or husbands in general. They are in revolt against marriage itself considered as a permanent and unbreakable bond, requiring strict monogamy and giving the wife . . . no power to decide anything . . . In the end the theme of the poem is not the problem of marriage but the problem of power; sensuality is not the driving force of these women but the gratification of the will."
But the real casualty in this revolution of the world order is the "supremely noble feeling," love, now trivialized to 'pop' sentimental romanticism. Our present concepts force men and women into 'loving' for their entire lives. It attempts to force the elusive, ecstatic, the blindly instinctual, sublime, even anti-social into marriage rigid, static and defined.
And, oh, how the Celtic women loved, (you'd expect that by now though!). The French discovered us in the middle ages, bedecked us with Christianized notions of chivalry. But even now, they're inspirational - Guinevere and Lancelot, Tristan and Isuelt. How much more vigorous the originals, Diarmuid and Graina, Deidre and Naoise, Eorann and Sweeney, Elain and Midar . . .
My love is a thistle
it is strength and violent desire
it is like the four quarters of the earth
it is infinite like the heaven.
It is the breaking of the neck
it is a drowning in water
it is a battle against a ghost
it is a race towards the sky
it is an adventurous race under the sea
it is love for a dream.
The 6th century story of King Muirchentach and his love for the mysterious and disturbing heroine Sin (pronounced Sheen) says it all - the poignancy of the conflict between the Pagan and Christian worlds, the intensity of a doomed love, and the power that the Church had attained in one short century. Muirchentach was possess by love for Sin, never had seen her equal in beauty and refinement. The bride-price she asks is from the earlier age - power over the King, for she is one of the fallen divinities, the initiators, the purveyors of sovereignty. He takes her as his concubine, the "loved one." But his first wife calls on the new order, summons the cleric to expel her rival. The priest places a curse on the House, a strong action, the first time that the Church meddles in the private life of the King. The King, concerned, asks her origins. She replies:
I believe in the same god
of my body against death's attack;
ye cannot in this world work a miracle
of which I cannot work the like.
Never believe the clerics
for they chant nothing save unreason;
follow not their unmelodious stave,
for they do not reverence righteousness.
Cleave not to the clerics of the churches
if thou desirest a life without treachery.
Better am I a friend here;
let not repentance come to thee.
But history's tide flowed against them. His very father had been blest by Patrick himself and promised Kingship. The tragedy ends with their deaths, and she cries out, I myself will die of grief for him / The noble King of the western world.
The King of Tara died through "Sin," the moral was pointed, the idea established. From then on the Celtic image of noble woman, of the Goddess brilliant in beauty and terrible in power is replaced by Eve corrupt, beguiling an innocent Adam. The gentle yoke imposed by women on men tainted by "Sin," exquisite beauty and youthful grace but a snare to entrap; women were seen in naked lust, as devouring and dangerous females; they lost their human rights, their right to testify, their right to bride-price, became questing dependents.
Amerigan made a pact with the Goddesses, and with the people who were there. It was that Amerigan would order the civic world. Men are good at ordering, and following orders. That's the male intellect. They would be allowed to order the civic world. And in return for that, and in precise ecological balance for that, the elemental world would be given over to the feminine.
This gets cheaply reduced and sentimentally reduced to the Mother Goddess. This is much bigger than that. This is elemental power. This is the REAL world. And it was to the Goddess' approval that the men ordered their little towns and ordered their little outside reality.
But it was never forgotten. And indeed sacrifice was made every year for four thousand years, and is still made unknowingly by people in parts of Ireland, to the re-establishment and the re-ritualization of this order. The elemental order, the psychic ecology of Ireland would be maintained, and it continues to be maintained. You can find people puttering around in fields over in Ireland, and what they're doing is acting out a ritual of this original pact that was made four thousand years ago.
It was known that the Goddess of war, of the elemental powers are considered to be . . . we can't get it. I can't get it from an English language base. It's not cheaply feminine or masculine. We're talking about great spiritual powers here, that transcend any easy definition of masculine or feminine which we would have the <English> language throw up in our faces.
Modern family structures are not working, and all the pronouncements of the Moral Majority will not solve its problems. It contains the seeds of its own destruction, and its failure makes marriage, sex, and love suspect too. The problems of nuclear power, the arms race, and the declining economy aside, the average man and woman is intimately concerned with this failure in basic human structure, and the deterioration of personal relationships. This is the source of our discontent.
It is obvious "that a new creature slouches towards Bethlehem to be born." We are at the nadir of a gyration. To the old Celtic cyclical mind, it would all be in the natural order. Today's products of linear Roman thought panic blindly, grasping to halt the wheel, retreating obsessively from fundamentalism. Practical lessons can be learned from history, and put to use changing mental attitudes that will shape judicial and societal structures which again allow voluntary maternity that is consciously sought and responsibly assumed; for marriages that are more than simply a legitimization of sex or a consecration of love.
Celtic civilization is not ours. It was communal, pastoral, agricultural, and warlike. Ours is industrial, urban, bureaucratic, individualistic, theoretically peaceful. But the very fact that written proof exists for a society where, within the confines of their culture, women once controlled their lives and bodies is a cause for real celebration.
Forty million Americans claim Irish descent. They and many others with sentimental donkey-and-thatched cottage images of Irish culture, need to know there are other older, more vigorous, more relevant traditions of the ancestors; that every St. Patrick's Day they unknowingly evoke the name of the Celtic High Goddess each time they chant, "Erin Go Bragh!"
Chant for the Morrigan:
I am the corpse on the ridgepole
I am the raven of battle
I am the breastless virgin
I am the well
I am the pit
I am the woman with the twisted mouth
I am the hag who sleeps with heroes
I am the cup
I am the door
I am the fire of the poet's brain
I am the holder of nine cow fetters
There is no justice but my justice
There is no courage but my gift
All Kings call me wife and bow before me
There is no power without my gift
There is no terror like to my terror
And no passion like to my passion
I am frenzy
I am drunkenness
I am the millstone of the earth's root
Grind your soul in my quern
And spill from the cauldron of immortality
As liquor of eternal life.
NOTES ON THE CONTRIBUTORS [from the printed pamphlet - much of this information is now out of date]
Robert Kelly, scholar, teacher, writer and poet has published over 50 books, the latest being the award-winning Kill The Messenger. Erin Tantra America will be published in the Summer of 1981. He lives and teaches in upstate New York.
Bob Callahan, writer and poet, author of Algonquin Woods, and director of Turtle Island Foundation. His latest book Dear Harp: Poems of 1978-1980 will be published in the Spring of 1981. He lives with his wife and family in Berkeley, California.
Ann Connally is founder and director of the Well Woman Clinic in Dublin, Ireland, where she lives.
Sharon Devlin, mother of three children, harper, healer and teacher, performs with the traditional Irish music group Sheila na Gig. She lives in Oakland, California.
Women of the Celts, Jean Paul Markele: Gordon and Cremonesi, London, 1975.
Celtic Civilization, Jean Paul Markele: Gordon and Cremonesi, London, 1976.
Sex and Marriage in Ancient Ireland, Patrick Power; Mercier Press, Dublin, 1976.
The Tain, Thomas Kinsella (translator); Oxford Press, Dublin, 1969.
A Midsummer's Eve Dream, A. D. Hope; Australian University Press, Canberra, 1970.
End of printed pamphlet.
Mau yu bai, fei fei kung.
Om jyoti haowm swaha.
Keywords: Goddess, feminism, feminist, women's status, Ireland, Irish history, celts, celtic history, Brehon laws.