First of all, I want to say thanks and pay tribute to Maura Freitas, founder of the Irish Connection and Irish Benevolent Society of BC. Maura and her team have put together an excellent and impressive programme of speakers. Thanks to all the volunteers who made this possible, including my colleagues at the Consulate General in Vancouver, Jennifer Bourke and Frank Flood. Also special thanks to the sponsors for making this possible.
Brigid’s Day is going from strength to strength. It has met a need for women to be recognised and to connect. It brings balance to the celebration of our heritage in St Patrick’s Day which has traditionally been very male orientated, from St Patrick himself to the often male-dominated Irish societies over the centuries. Celebrations of our National Day have expressed great pride in being Irish. They sustained not only the fight for independence back home but inspired love and support for Irish heritage within our Diaspora.
St Brigid’s Day adds a whole new and vital dimension to the celebration of Ireland and continuing epic story of the Irish.
There seems to me to be a number of distinct phases in the celebration of St Brigid, well captured in this programme this week.
There is the goddess Brigid from pre-Christian times. Goddess of spring, fertility, poetry and blacksmithing. She was clearly a very powerful figure in Gaelic society. This reflects the fact that women had agency in Gaelic society and, accordingly, feature as key players in the ancient Irish mythology and sagas. Think Maebh in the Táin and the Morrigan, the great queen of the otherworld who commands war and fate. Marriage was a fluid contract: Divorce was available, relations were formed and reformed.
I think the fluidity of marriage, its dependence on the quality of the relationship, was because marriage was distinct from property. Property in Gaelic Ireland was held communally. You could not alienate it from your kin and their territory, the tuath. On your death, it reverted to the kin for re-division.
Then there is the Saint Brigid of Christian times. There is no doubt that St Brigid was a very powerful figure in early Christian Ireland. We know this from the fact that she is one of our three patron saints (along with Patrick and Columkille). The order she founded began modestly as a wooden building under a magnificent oak tree that Brigid loved it. This of course recalls Brigid’s intimate relationship with nature. So attuned was she to nature that it was said that she could hang her cloak on a sunbeam. Her cell was situated on a ridge overlooking the grassy plains of the Curragh. This was probably at the close of the fifth century. Her convent was a great success and soon expanded, and around it grew the the town of Kildare. Kildare as a place name means the Church of the Oak.
For centuries after her death in 523, the influence of Brigid’s religious order and its convents around Ireland endured. There are thirty-four townlands and parishes in Ireland called Kilbride, the church of Bríde. Indeed, the legacy of St Brigid was so powerful that the episcopal heirs St Patrick in Armagh refrained from imposing their will on her domain. When Armagh was trying to establish its position as the archiepiscopal head of the church in Ireland in the seventh and eighth centuries, it stepped back from a confrontation with Kildare because of the power of St Brigid. In the Book of the Angel (part of the Book of Armagh), the angel that appears to Patrick and grants him and Armagh leadership of the church in Ireland, says:
“Between St Patrick and Brigit, the pillars of the Irish, such friendship of charity dwelt that they had one heart and one mind. Christ performed many miracles through him and her. The holy man therefore said to the Brigit, your paruchia in your province will be reckoned unto you for your monarchy: but in the eastern and western part it will be in my domination.”
As the historian Kathleen Hughes notes, “Armagh would not forego her universal claims to sovereignty in these areas, but she recognised the area of central Leinster remained under Brigid’s authority and except from Patrick’s universal claims” (The Church in Early Irish Society, pp 113-114.)
Devotion to Brigid is then eclipsed by the cult of the Virgin Mary in the second half of the nineteenth century, in other words after the catastrophe of the Great Famine, 1845-51. Before this Irish Nakba, the peasantry of Ireland still revered the natural environment and all the invocations of ancient beliefs that came with it – the reverence for holy wells, trees, and sacred places with their immemorial traces of previous occupation, the old churches and pilgrimages.
However, after the Great Famine, the Marian cult takes hold, and St Mary’s popularity grows immensely in Ireland. Think of those iconic statues of St Mary in churches and grottos around Ireland. Mary was a new icon befitting the new social imperatives after the Famine. The brutal lesson of the Famine was that the unity of the farm was a matter of life and death. No more the subdivision among sons, no more the reliance on a single crop. Survival meant having a sustainable farm. Passing on the farm intact to one son was the highest desideratum. This imperative redefined marriage not as a relationship but as a critical mechanism for inheritance.
The Catholic Church, already active to secure for itself control of Irish education since the Act of Union of 1800 which abolished the Irish parliament, found a new and vital role for itself in policing sexuality morality and protecting the lineage of property and the integrity of the farm. This meant policing women’s bodies.
The iron relationship between property and marriage, and the influence this in turn provided for the Catholic Church, triggered a grim period for Irish women. It meant the repression of sexuality. Sex outside marriage was a threat to this new order. Pregnancy outside of marriage was a disaster. The very allure of women, the pull to form loving relationships was now a threat to the existential need to preserve the farm and to conform to the social dictates of the Catholic Church.
Thus begins a long and difficult period for Irish women. Eligible men are rare and older because they must wait for their fathers to retire to get the farm and marry. If a son is not to inherit the farm, he can join the British Army, the civil service, become a priest, or a barman. If not, he will most likely have to emigrate. For women, the options were far fewer. By the end of the 19th century, in the tidal wave of Irish emigration to America, more Irish women than men were emigrating.
In the 1911 census, my great grandmother, Mary Kirrane from Roscommon, is recorded as having had twelve children and she would go on to have another one. She was forty-five years of age and her husband Michael was sixty-eight. This was a very typical pattern of the time, late but fertile marriages.
For women who found themselves pregnant outside of marriage, their fate was grim, as was that of their children. Magdalene Laundries, Mother and Babies Homes, orphanages, adoptions overseas and industrial schools. The fathers concerned became the great invisible men of Ireland.
The partition of Ireland in 1921 meant a homogenous and triumphant Catholic Ireland after independence in 1922. It also created a new role for the Church and religious orders in the provision of health services. It was a hard and often cruel society for those girls, women and children outside of marriage.
Even in the liberal 1960s, the stigma and shame of relationships outside of marriage were powerful forces. Young women had to emigrate to find some form of freedom. Edna O’Brien became the voice and symbol of young Irish women. Irish women like Bernadette Devlin, Mary Robinson, Nell McCafferty, Nuala O’Faolain and countless others in the suffering rank and file of women led the fight for change. The Ireland in which I grew up is now no longer. Ireland is a better place across virtually all social and economic metrics. The weight of history has been removed but its impact and costs have yet to be assessed.
I am delighted to see Monica McWilliams on your roster of speakers, whom I know from Stormont’s Castle Complex during the negotiations leading to the Good Friday Agreement. The Women’s Coalition, like the women before them in the Peace Movement, played a key role in the Northern Ireland peace process. They were a vital ingredient in the successful negotiation of the Good Friday Agreement because they made sure everyone’s voice was heard, made sure the Agreement represented everyone’s hopes and aspirations.
Enough of me, I do not want to interpose myself as a white male in your programme and discussions. I am delighted and honoured to welcome you and to reiterate my thanks to all those involved in making this happen. Check out the festival’s programme for this week here