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Celtic Women in Ancient Ireland, Part IV

Celtic Women in Ancient Ireland, Part IV

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

We’ve seen how Celtic women had more rights and privileges in ancient Ireland than in the rest of the ancient world—rights to property, inheritance, marriage, and choosing partners. We’ve also seen how, under the multi-tiered Celtic marriage system, they might have had to endure a second wife.

A Woman’s Daily Life

But what was daily life like for the Celtic woman? What did she do all day? Her primary task, of course, was to raise the children. And as we said last time, these might be foster children from relatives or from another clan. Her own children most likely would have been sent, for a time, to foster parents elsewhere.

Besides raising children, a Celtic woman would have spent much of her time helping with agriculture, the lifeblood of Celtic society. The men sheared the sheep. But who combed the fleece and wove the wool it into tunics, pants, and capes? The women, of course. And who went to the barn to milk the cows or goats? The women. And they turned the milk into butter and cheese. We so often take for granted our modern conveniences. Life in the ancient world often involved hard, back-breaking work.

Divorce—It Was an Option

What if a woman simply tired of a man and wanted to abandon him? Before the first year of marriage, she could just walk away. After that, she lost all marital property rights. Yet Irish law provided certain valid reasons for divorce:

  • If a man left her for another woman. In this case, she could take her property and return to her father’s home.
  • If her husband spread vicious rumors about her, or wrote a satire about her.
  • If he spilled intimate details about her without asking her permission.
  • If her husband struck her, leaving a bruise.
  • If her husband grew too fat, or became impotent, she could also leave him.
  • Oddly, if she wanted children, and her husband was unable to provide her with them, she could legally seek out another man to perform the deed, yet still remain married.

So guys, be careful with your witty poems about her. And when you’re out in the field practicing with the sword, no loose guy talk about your wife. And if you suck down too much mead or ale, like your beef too much, and grow fat, she’s got a right to leave you.


Queen Medb of Ireland

Virgins Were Valued

For a proper marriage, the Celtic woman had to be a virgin. And virgins were highly valued assets for a family.

Philip Freeman, author of St. Patrick of Ireland, says this:

“The strategic marriage of a king’s daughter could even settle border disputes, increase a tribe’s land, or end years of bloody hostility. One of the most engaging passages in Patrick’s letters tells of such a daughter:

‘One of these Irish women was of noble birth—full grown and quite beautiful really—whom I had baptized. A few days after this, she came to me with something important on her mind. She said that an angel of God had appeared to her and told her she should become a virgin of Christ if she wanted to be closer to God. Thanks be to God—six days later she joyfully and wholeheartedly chose that path which all virgins of God take.’”

Such a decision, of course, would have been a shock to a father who had arranged a marriage for her, whose plans to gain strategic advantage by the union were probably upset.

But this points out a new course for women in ancient, Celtic Ireland: They could become “virgins for Christ”, making sacrificial vows of chastity, thereby gaining control over their lives.

Chastity Was a Difficult Path

Patrick goes on to say this about such women:

“Many of them do this against the wishes of their parents. Indeed, their families sometimes punish them cruelly and make all sorts of horrible accusations against them…. The number of such virgins who have chosen this new life continues to grow so that I can’t keep track of them all.”

The idea of making a grand sacrifice through a vow of chastity was often readily accepted by the early Irish, not only by women, but also by men. Witness the rise of the monk enclaves. For women it meant withdrawing from the rest of society. But if the woman was a slave, her Christian vows might not have meant much. She was still property, and if her master was not a Christian, she was still subject to rape and abuse. The path of a woman slave who followed Christ by taking a vow of chastity was difficult, indeed.

On the whole, the Celtic woman seemed to have more rights, with more choices, than the women of similar ancient cultures. Some women became druids. Sometimes they fought in battle. And sometimes we even find a Celtic woman as a clan leader.

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

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.