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Celtic Women in Ancient Ireland, Part I

Celtic Women in Ancient Ireland, Part I

In this post, Christian author Mark Fisher examines the role of Celtic women in ancient Ireland—Part I. What roles did they play? What were their lives like?


A Celtic Woman Warrior

Celtic Women—Emancipated or Not?

Opinions differ widely on this subject. The ancient legends are full of strong, Celtic women who were the equal of men, women who fought in battle and led their clans. There’s no doubt that in early Ireland women enjoyed a degree of equality with rights and freedoms unseen in the rest of the Roman and Greek worlds. On the other hand, the historical evidence strongly suggests that early Ireland was like much of the rest of the ancient world—a woman’s life was difficult. It was still a man’s world.

Beware the Celtic Woman Warrior!

Let’s look at the case for a different attitude toward women among the Irish Celts.

What we know comes mostly from the Roman and Greek writers who were often biased. But it’s interesting to read what they say about Celtic women. Ammianus Marcellinus  says: “A whole troop of foreigners would not be able to withstand a single Celt if he called his wife to his assistance. The wife is even more formidable. She is usually very strong, and has blue eyes; in rage her neck veins swell, she gnashes her teeth, and brandishes her snow-white robust arms. She begins to strike blows mingled with kicks, as if they were so many missiles sent from the string of a catapult.”

He paints a picture of fearsome lassies, indeed. Diodorus Siculus also adds this, “The women of the Celts are nearly as tall as the men and they rival them also in courage.”

The Story of Macha Mong Ruadh

The Irish chronicles tell us about Macha Mong Ruadh, a famous female ruler. Though a number of characters with her name appear in both legend and history, we’ll concern ourselves only with the historical figure. For seven years she ruled in 377 BC as “Queen of Ireland”. Her father, Aedh Ruadha, was the previous king and ruled with his cousins Dithorba and Cimbaeth. But after Aedh drowned, an electoral college composed of three generations of the royal family elected Macha as queen. In his book, The Celts, Peter Beresford Ellis tells us: “Dithorba and Cimbaeth disagreed with the decision and wanted to keep the kingship to themselves. Macha promptly raised an army and defeated Dithorba, taking his five sons as hostages. She made them and the prisoners of war build the ramparts of her new fortress of Emain Macha. She came to terms with Cimbaeth and, it is recorded, married him.”


Navan Fort, Site of Ancient Emain Macha

So not only was Macha’s rule powerful, she founded Emain Macha, which for generations was the seat of the kings of Ulster. Whether or not she and her father were truly queen and king of all Ireland, though, is up to debate. It’s questioned whether there was ever a true monarch ruling all of Ireland before the ninth century or even later.

Celtic Women’s Legal Rights

The later Brehon laws of Wales tell us something about Celtic women’s legal positions and how high in Celtic society women could rise. They talk about women as “war leaders”, “hostage rulers”, “female lords”, and “the chieftaness of a district in her own right”.

Julius Caesar, whose writings on the Celts were often biased, does agree with other sources when he says that when a woman marries she brings a dowry of equal worth. “A joint account is kept of the whole amount, and the profits which it earns are put aside; and when either dies, the survivor receives both shares together with accumulated profits.” This tells us that Celtic women could inherit and own property, rights which Roman or Greek women had yet to attain.

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

Next time, we’ll continue our look at the role of women in Celtic society with Part II.

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.

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The Mysterious Bog Roads of Ancient Ireland, Part II

The Mysterious Bog Roads of Ancient Ireland, Part II


An Irish Bog

In this post, Christian author Mark Fisher concludes his look at the mysterious bog roads of ancient Ireland. (Click here for Part I.)

Last time we saw how the center of ancient Ireland was covered with a great bog, a mire of peat, moss, quicksand, and ponds. To travel across that expanse was dangerous, indeed, until the ancient peoples built a network of wooden roads that criss-crossed the bog. Wide enough for two chariots to pass abreast, they were marvels of road building.

Building a Bog Road—A Massive Undertaking

Imagine building such roadways! They would have been massive undertakings, requiring a large labor force, enormous piles of timber, and extensive planning and organization. The sophistication of this endeavor should make us appreciate ancient Irish engineering in a new light.

Who Were the Greatest Road Builders?

Many assume the Romans were the first great road builders. But the linguistic evidence tell a far different tale. What we find is that the Romans borrowed heavily from Celtic road-building lore. Think about this: The Latin language adopted no fewer than nineteen Celtic words associated with roads and transport. And all of those words pre-dated the Roman empire. (Per The Earliest Wheeled Transport, by Prof. Stuart Piggott) So who knew the most about road-building, the Celts or the Romans? And who borrowed from whom?

The Romans also borrowed so many Celtic words for carts, carriages, and chariots, that we know Celtic transport technology also predated that of the Roman Empire.

Who Built the Roads?

In Pagan Celtic Ireland, Chapter 6, “The Invisible People”, Barry Raftery, tells us this: “The great Corlea road encapsulates the baffling conundrums of Irish Iron Age technology. Its construction was clearly a substantial undertaking which involved the time and energies of many people, perhaps the energies of an entire tribe. But of these people, apart from the road itself silently stretching across the Co. Longford peatland, there is no trace.”

Who built the bog roads? Mysterious, ancient peoples of old. Celts who carried on a busy trade, their horses pulling heavy carts and chariots, hauling heavy goods from here to there. But of their culture and history, we are left to wonder.

Laws to Maintain the Bog Roads

That these roads were important to ancient travel and commerce we know. The later Brehon Laws outlined bog road upkeep and maintenance. If a road ran through the territory of a local king, he was responsible to maintain it. If a traveler injured himself on a road through his lands, the king had to pay compensation. The local clan chief also had to make three yearly renovations: in winter, before the great fairs, and in times of war.

Besides the bog roads, the Celts also built a large number of bridges to cross rivers, streams, and ponds.

Sources for this post were The Celts, by Peter Beresford Ellis, and Pagan Celtic Ireland, by Barry Raftery.

Next week, we’ll begin looking at the role of women in Celtic life. What rights did they have? What were their lives like?

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.

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The Mysterious Bog Roads of Ancient Ireland, Part I

The Mysterious Bog Roads of Ancient Ireland

In this post, Christian author Mark Fisher looks at the bog roads of ancient Ireland and their builders.

The Bogs of Ancient Ireland—Impossible to Cross


The Mucky Mire

Central Ireland was once covered by an extensive, raised bog. Today, because of peat mining and tree cutting, much of the great Irish bog is gone. But in ancient times, it was a huge wetland area of peat, mosses, quicksand, and ponds. Forests of willow, birch, hazel, and alder surrounded the mire. Traveling through such a bog was risky business, indeed. Imagine you’re in the early second century. And you say you want to cross the mucky mire on horseback? Lads and lassies, beware! The bog will suck down you and your mounts, and you’ll disappear without a trace.

Ancient Roadways, Predating the Romans

As archaeologists began exploring the bog sites, they discovered a few ancient roadways made of wood. First in 1957. Later in the 1980s. Through carbon-dating, they learned the trees used for the construction of the bog roads were felled as early as 157 BC.  Then they found that ancient peoples had built an entire network of wooden roads that crisscrossed the country’s bogs.

In fact, five different roads converged on the ancient village of Tara and its legendary palace. Tara was the seat of ancient kings of Leinster and Meath. The roads were called slige. In Chapter 10 of The Celts, Peter Beresford Ellis tells us: “The Slige Cualan ran southeast through Dublin across the Liffey… The fifth road, the Slige Mòr, ran south-west from Tara to join the Eiscir Riada, a natural ridge running across the whole country from Dublin to Galway. Significantly the name means ‘Sandhill of Chariot Driving’.”

The Corlea Trackway


The Reconstructed Corlea Trackway

Because the bog roads were constructed of wood, few have survived. But sections of one road were found preserved under the peat, whose anaerobic environment prevented decomposition. It’s the Corlea Trackway near Keenagh, in County Longford, Ireland. (See the picture of a reconstructed section.) Known locally as the Danes’ Road it was constructed of oak planks up to 3.5 meters wide (11 feet), enough for two chariots to pass abreast. It was 15 centimeters thick (6 inches). The ancient builders even adzed the planks to make them smooth.

The Corlea Trackway is unusual in that it wasn’t built to last. It’s estimated it would sink into the bog in a mere ten years. It also ended at an island, and so the builders may never have intended it to connect to other roads. Some speculate it was only for ceremonial purposes. Or was used for some diplomatic function. But we know from other sites that their main purpose was for transportation. So this particular road adds one more mystery.

Next week we’ll conclude our look at the bog roads of ancient Ireland, with Part II.

Sources for this post were The Celts, by Peter Beresford Ellis, and Pagan Celtic Ireland, by Barry Raftery.

Also, if you’re interested in joining the Facebook launch party for my recently released novel, The Bonfires of Beltane, click this link to join:  https://www.facebook.com/events/291811927829446. It’s on Tuesday, June 28, from 3:00-5:00 pm, CST. There will be some giveaways of my book for anyone dropping in.