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Celtic Women in Ancient Ireland, Part III

Celtic Women in Ancient Ireland, Part III

In this post Christian author Mark Fisher continues his look at Celtic women in ancient Ireland with Part III. (Click here for Part I,  Part II or Part IV.)

Women’s Early Rights

We’ve seen how the ancient Celts gave women certain inheritance and property rights, how some early Celtic women led their people, and how marriage laws gave women some rights. Women were also able to abandon their husbands after the first year of marriage if she wasn’t satisfied with her spouse. So a Celtic woman in ancient Ireland had more rights and privileges than their counterparts in Rome or Greece. But until Patrick brought the Christian idea of equality between the sexes, it was still a man’s world. It’s a truly Christian idea that every person  is considered equal to every other.


Celtic Woman

Women Had a High Honor Price

When we look at slavery, we must temper our ideas about how many rights women had in early Ireland. Slavery was such a part of early Irish life that a basic unit of currency was the cumal, or woman slave, equal to six heifers. On the other hand, Peter Beresford Ellis tells us: “A girl under the age of seven years of any social class in the Irish system had the same honour price as a cleric.”

Note that “honor price” in ancient Ireland was a measure of a person’s worth. If someone was killed, the restitution paid by the offending clan might be the dead person’s honor price, offered in cattle or slaves.

Children Were Often Raised by Foster Parents

Raising children was a woman’s primary task. But here we stumble on a custom that seems foreign to us. Under the Irish system, they would send out their children, even babies, to foster parents until their teenage years. To whom would the children go? To close relatives. Or to non-relatives with whom the clan wanted to cement alliances. The foster parents loved and cared for these children as though they were their own. During the fosterage, the children would visit their real parents. When the time came to return to their birth parents, the foster father would send them home with parting gifts. In this way, alliances were formed and families created friendships across clans. This might also have served to unify Irish culture.


Polygamy was probably prevalent in ancient Ireland. Because of the multi-tiered Celtic marriage arrangement we saw in my previous post, men could claim more than one “wife”. When Christianity came along,  it discouraged this practice. Celtic tradition said a man could “marry” a woman under one form of marriage, but then bring home a second wife. The first wife then became the chief spouse and for three days, was legally entitled to beat the newcomer. After that, she had extra help with the field work.

More Moral Than the Romans?

Celtic women apparently had more freedom to choose who their men were, as noted by this paragraph from The Celts by Peter Beresford Ellis:

“The Romans seemed preoccupied with the ‘liberated’ attitude of the early Celts. Dio Cassius comments on the fact that the empress Julia Augusta criticized what she saw as a lack of morals in the way Celtic women were free to choose their husbands and lovers and did so openly without subterfuge. The object of her criticism was the wife of a north British chieftain name Argentocoxos. The encounter took place early in the third century AD. According to Dio Cassius, the wife of Argentocoxos turned to the empress and replied with dignity, ‘We Celtic women obey the demands of Nature in a more moral way than the women of Rome. We consort openly with the best men but you, of Rome, allow yourselves to be debauched in secret by the vilest.’ It is not recorded how the empress reacted.”

Touché, empress.

Sources for this post were St. Patrick of Ireland, by Philip Freeman, and The Celts, by Peter Beresford Ellis.

Next week we’ll conclude our look at Celtic women with Part IV.

Mark is the author of The Bonfires of Beltane, a novel of Christian historical fiction set in ancient, Celtic Ireland at the time of St. Patrick. To learn more about his book, follow the link above.