Book Title: Defiant Irish Women
Author: Eddie Lenihan | Publisher: Mercier Press (2019)
See this book on Amazon.com – https://amzn.to/3qgCilx (affiliate link, fyi)
[Reviewers Note: This book in the updated version (2019) is available on Amazon, but also directly from Eddie Lenihan on his own website, which will be better for supporting the author! Find it here – https://eddielenihan.weebly.com/store.html]
As I originally wrote this it was Paddy’s Day here in Ireland, and I wanted to impart something of that flavour, but also move away from the green slurry of fake Oirish shite with which we are bombarded at this time of year. So it made sense to turn to my favourite Bannerman and Seanchaí, Eddie Lenihan.
His book ‘Defiant Irish Women’ promises:
“… the story of five Irish women who were unusual in a variety of ways – mostly because of their ruthlessness, political cunning or merely because they rebelled violently against the repressive mores of their times. These five women – Aoibheall the Banshee, Máire Rua McMahon, Lady Betty, Moll Shaughnessy and Alice Kyteler – each have their distinct place in history. Eddie Lenihan, in telling the stories of their lives and the legends that grew up around them, ensures that we will not forget the prominent part played by these women in our Irish heritage.”
And sure he doesn’t disappoint.
Now, I must admit, it was a whole long time since I read this book. First published in 1991, with the title Ferocious Irish Women, the copy I have is from a few years after that time. Mine includes a fiery/bloody vibed red cover with interior illustrations by Mich Lenihan, who I can only presume is a relative of the author. It’s definitely not the most illustrious artwork I’ve ever experienced, and gives the book a kid’s cartoony feel that I don’t think is warranted by the quality of the text.
Inside, we get some acknowledgements which make it clear Eddie has been doing his homework – including University College Cork, and the County libraries of Roscommon, Clare, and Kilkenny, which hold the most accurate and relevant local information on some of the main women he has been researching here.
The Introduction is short, but voices the desire to re-examine the view of women of the past as “voiceless, subservient creatures”. I approved of that back when I first read it, and of course even more so now!
We then move into a chapter per ‘Defiant Woman’: Aoibheall the Banshee, Máire Rua McMahon, Lady Betty, Moll Shaughnessy (Spioraid na mBearnan), and Alice Kyteler.
Aoibheall is actually an ancestral spirit I work with personally, through my ties to the O’Brien Tuath, and I was a bit hesitant to re-examine the entry in that light, given my need not to offend or upset a woman of the Otherworld (Bean Sidhe) who is also known as a Fairy Queen.
The story here focuses though on the historical accounts of Aoibheall’s appearance to Richard De Clare before the battle of Dysert O’Dea, and to Dúlaing Ó hArtagáin of the Dal gCáis with a message for Brian Ború before his disastrous battle with the Danes in 1014. Here, she is acting in true ‘Banshee’ fashion, and they are tales worth hearing or sure.
The other stories continue in similar fashion, an excellent mix of historical accuracy and impassioned storytelling, making it a lively and enthralling read. We learn of:
- Máire Rua (Red Mary) McMahon, born in 1615, or possibly 1616 in County Clare. Her father was Torlach Rua MacMahon, Lord of Clonderlaw and her mother was Mary O’Brien, daughter of the third Earl of Thomond. We follow this one through tales of courtship and marriage for power and position, and politics aplenty in the time of Cromwell. I’m surprised a period drama hasn’t been made out of her life yet, being honest. The story of this formidable, fearless (and possibly murderous?!) woman would grip me far more than that currently popular English royalty shite ever could.
- ‘Lady Betty’ of Roscommon was Elizabeth ‘Liz’ Sugrue, or Éilis Uí Shiochrúa, woman who ended up in prison charged with murder (I’ll not spoil the rest for ya) in 1789. The role she began to play there is grim and a bit gruesome, and definitely worth the read of it as told by Eddie Lenihan here.
- The next tale contains elements that were sadly all too common back in the 1800s, of a woman forced into and stuck within a loveless marriage, getting desperate. In Barna, County Limerick, they still tell of Spiorad na mBarna, who was Moll O’Shaughnessy while living. She was hanged there for murdering her husband, in a rage that was completely out of character to her, by all accounts. The author’s telling puts a lot more story behind the whole thing, from the perspective of the ghost as well as her victims, and is completely fascinating.
- Perhaps my favourite though is that of Alice Kyteler, the witch of Kilkenny town, whose history is an incredible story of a woman defying the patriarchal norms of the 1300s, including the might of the Church, and making her way in the world… possibly with a bit of magic and murder for good measure.
This book does not disappoint in delivering us some of the finest examples of Defiant Irish Women (who are also Ferocious), with the inimitable talents of one of Ireland’s finest storytellers. I hope you enjoy it as much as I still do, even after all these years!
Where To Now?
If you think that these Defiant Irish Women are fascinating, and might even be something you’d like to explore further, you can always: