Though men dominated early Irish society, women dominated the supernatural. Goddesses of war, fertility, and sovereignty ordered human destiny. Christian monks, in recording the old stories, turned these pagan deities into saints, like St Brigit, or into mortal queens like Medb of Connacht. The Morrigan, the Great Queen, war goddess, remains a figure of awe, but her pagan functions are glossed over. She perches, crow of battle, on the dying warrior CuChulainn’s pillar stone, but her role as his tutelary deity, and as planner and fomentor of the whole tremendous Tain, the war between Ulster and Connacht, is obscured. Unlike the Anglo-Irish authors who in modem times treated the same material in English, the good Irish monks were not shocked by her sexual aggressiveness. They show her coupling with the Dagda, the ‘good god’ of the Tuatha De Danann before the second battle of Mag Tuired, but they conceal that this act – by a goddess of war, fertility and sovereignty – gives the Dagda’s people victory and the possession of Ireland. Or they reduce the sovereignty to allegory – when Niall of the Nine Hostages sleeps with the Hag she is allegorical of the trials of kingship!
With the English invasion and colonisation, the power of the goddesses diminishes further. The Sovereignty has no kingship to bestow. In the aisling poets she becomes unattainable sexually, a vision of Irish independence. She no longer legitimises the king, but dreams of a Jacobite rescue. Yeats’s Cathleen ni Houlihan combines this inaccessible vision-woman with the hag, the Poor Old Woman. She offers only death for a dream, though she has the walk of a queen. The Great Queens juxtaposes early Irish texts – such as Tain Bo Reganina, Togail Bruidne Da Derga, and many others – with Anglo-Irish treatments of the same themes by Standish O’Grady, Lady Gregory, James Stephens, and W. B. Yeats. The book shows the fall in status of the pagan goddesses, first under medieval Christianity and then under Anglo-Irish culture. That this fall shows a loss in the recognition of the roles of women seems evident from the texts. This human loss only begins to be restored when, presiding over the severed heads in Yeats’s The Death of Cuchulain, the Morrigu declares, ‘I arranged the Dance.’More info →