Female figures are often absent from narratives, stories and history. And when they are present, they are often side characters, the archetypal ‘damsel in distress,’ or simply an unnamed extra.
In this series, we want to highlight some of the west coast of Ireland’s powerful female characters. Some are taken from the pages of history while others have starring roles in oral folk tales. Some female characters have attained legendary status, while others risk falling into obscurity.
As the first in the series, we’re going to introduce several powerful, intriguing and inspiring Irish women, with later articles delving deeper into their unique stories.
A powerful and adventurous woman, Niamh is the most famous female figure from the Tír na nÓg pantheon. Niamh is from the Tuatha De Danaan tribe, who were seen as divine, spiritual entities living in an otherworldly realm. The Tuatha De Danaan are understood as the primary deities in pre-Christian Ireland. Niamh embodies the divine feminine back when ancient Celtic societies saw both the male and the female as sacred, divine entities.
She is most famous for her tragic love story with the warrior Oisín of the Fianna tribe of Ireland and her presence is still felt across Irish pop culture and folklore.
If you would like to immerse yourself in Irish folklore, why not join a coastal trip through Kerry and Clare?
In pre-Christian times, Celtic civilisation once revered the Divine Feminine – best epitomised in Ireland’s namesake, Ériu. Today more commonly known as Éire, the Irish name for Ireland is named after this powerful female goddess. Her name became twined with Ireland’s when she represented the magical pantheon of gods and goddesses to negotiate the future of Ireland. This negotiation is said to have happened atop the Hill of Uisneach, where Éire was later buried.
Ériu’s influence is strong. Uisneach is meant to be the meeting point of the five ancient Irish provinces, with records showing that Ériu’s burial site has remained a powerful meeting point for thousands of years. In fact, many Irish leaders have delivered inspired speeches and hosted meetings at this powerful point of confluence.
Her existence reminds us that in Celtic civilisation, female goddesses were recognised and respected, with powerful women revered as leaders in bygone communities. Ériu’s legacy of leadership and the power of the feminine is still inspiring Irish culture and leadership to this day.
Learn more about visiting Ireland’s Ancient East on a self-drive journey through the region.
Born on November 1st amid the ancient festival of Samhain (whose origins gave rise to the day we now call Halloween) the Hag of Beara, or the Cailleach in Irish, is a powerful female figure from Irish folklore. Said to grow younger and stronger during winter, by the spring feast Bealtaine (held May 1st), she resembles a young woman before her powers start to wane. Tradition states that this divine hag is thought to bring winter, forever a time of great struggle in Ireland.
Her presence heralds the coming of spring, traditionally starting on February 1st – if the day is bright, she is out gathering firewood to make winter last longer. However, a dark and gloomy day means the Callieach is asleep, and winter will soon end (marking the one day a year that the Irish cross their fingers for poor weather!).
Though there are stories and monuments attributed to her across the island, largely on the west coast – often, Neolithic tombs and Bronze Age stone circles were said to be built by her, as the medieval Irish didn’t understand the origins of these ancient places.
But the place most associated with the Hag of Beara is Cork, where there is a rock said to be her petrified self, standing over Coulagh Bay on the Beara Peninsula, in the southwest of Ireland, forever awaiting the return of her husband, the god of the seas.
Today, because she is a strong and powerful female figure, she is said to represent the women of Ireland.
Visit Cork and the Beara Peninsula in southwest Ireland while island hopping in Cork and Kerry.
Affectionately known as Ireland’s Pirate Queen, Grace O’Malley or Granuaile was a powerful and enigmatic leader from Clare Island, off the west coast of Ireland. Daughter of a pirate and born into the powerful O’Malley clan, she was a force to be reckoned with, even from a young age.
Though her father was originally hesitant to allow her onboard his ships, she lopped off her hair, dressed as a ship-boy, and stowed away on one of his ships. From then on, nothing could separate Grace from the sea. Demonstrating a strong will and good business acumen, she took over the family trade after her father’s death and ruled the seas from Clew Bay to Galway Bay for over three decades.
She famously met with the queen of England, Queen Elizabeth, who grudgingly recognised her as another strong woman, and gave in to her demands.
Granuaile’s home base was on Clare Island, but the coasts and islands of Mayo and Galway were long under her dominion. Join our island hopping tour to meet the Pirate Queen and learn more about her legacy.
A warrior of great strength, resilience, and even ruthlessness, Queen Maeve wielded enormous power and sway during her reign. Maeve is infamous for her “pillow talk” debates with her husband Aillil, where they challenged each with who held the most wealth.
The consequence of this conversation? The epic Cattle Raid of Cooley, as detailed in the Irish epic tale, Táin Bó Cúailnge.
A daughter of the High King of Ireland, she was placed on the throne by her father and married King Conchobar of Ulster. As often with arranged marriages of royalty, it was not a happy union, leading to destruction and eventually war.
The Ulster Cycle of Irish mythology details dozens of stories about Maeve’s exploits as Queen of Connacht. One of the four traditional regions of Ireland, the northwest province of Connacht has some of the most dramatic landscapes, coastlines and weather.
Read more about Queen Maeve here.
Explore Connacht’s rugged backcountry on a small group tour while hiking the mountains of Connemara and Mayo – learn more below. Or visit Sligo and climb to Maeve’s cairn yourself on a self drive trip.
We’re sneaking St Brigid onto this list of powerful women of the west. Technically, St Brigid is from Kildare, a small county in the eastern region of the country. One of the three patron saints of Ireland, she also has the distinction of lending her name to Ireland’s most recent bank holiday (and the only one named for a woman).
But St Brigid may or may not have been a real person. Or rather, the saint may be a Christianisation of a pagan princess also called Brigit. Sharing attributes such as wisdom, poetry, healing, protection, smithing and domesticated animals, the same feast day – February 1st – a connection to the start of spring, the same name and a similar time period, it’s impossible not to connect the two women. Christianisation of pagan elements was a common way to convert the populace gently and quietly to the new monotheistic religion.
Regardless of whether the saint and the princess were two individuals or one and the same, there’s no denying the mark that Brigid’s legacy of wisdom, healing, rejuvenation and spring has left on Irish pagan and Christain culture. Read more about Brigid here,
A well-known writer and storyteller from Dunquin on the Dingle Peninsula in Ireland’s southwest, Peig Sayers moved to Great Blasket Island as a young bride. Though illiterate, she became an animated and elaborate storyteller and repository for folklore, history and island life. Her house was never without fanfare and the sound of stories shared. She played an important role in preserving oral storytelling and the Irish language, particularly the form known as seanchaí.
She later dictated her life’s story into a memoir. As required reading in schools for decades and known for its dense nature and the difficult Irish language, Peig Sayers doesn’t have the best reputation for many Irish readers. She is slowly returning to public presence with a section dedicated to her and other literary greats of the Blaskets at the Blasket Centre. (Want to know more about books and the Blaskets? Read more here).
Visit the remnants of the Blasket island cottages and get a feel for the island she once called home while island hopping through Cork and Kerry. Learn more below.
Revolutionary, suffragette, politician, feminist, inspiration. Born to a wealthy Anglo-Irish family, from a young age, Constance Markievicz, né Gore-Booth, played a pivotal role in the Easter Rising, the vote for women, the establishment of the Dáil (the Irish parliament), and Irish independence.
Training as a painter, Constance developed a deep empathy for the plight of the poor and underprivileged – rare traits for a woman of her social status at the time. Her interest in improving life for those less fortunate led to a torrid political career during one of the most tumultuous periods of recent Irish history.
From the beautiful coasts of Sligo where she was from, to the rioting streets of Dublin, Constance Markievicz has left her indelible mark on Irish political history.
Journey through the wilds of Sligo at your own pace on a self drive from Sligo to Westport.
Lady Gregory was a brilliant writer, dramatist and folklorist who played a vital role in establishing and operating Ireland’s national theatre. She helped, supported, encouraged and inspired other influential writers and was a champion of the arts.
Her legacy lives on today in her works and the ongoing success of the Abbey Theatre. The grounds of her lifetime home at Coole Park are open to the public, so bring your pen and paper and prepare to be inspired on your next visit to this tranquil nature reserve.
Also of note, at the start of 2023, Lady Gregory was one of four women whose busts were chosen to become part of Trinity College’s Old Library (location of the Book of Kells). These are the first female statues in the famous library, which previously held only men. Her bust, with three other women, will sit amongst male luminaries such as Shakespeare, Homer, Jonathan Swift, Wolfe Tone and others. Read more.
This overview of powerful women of the west coast of Ireland was written with the assistance of Ruth O’Meara. As an introduction to a new series featuring some of Ireland’s most inspiring female figures, stay tuned for more information about each of these women.
May 20, 2023
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