Lecky: Leaders of Irish Opinion; Mitchel: Jail Journal; Duffy: Young Ireland; O’Brien: Life of Parnell; D’Alton: History of Ireland.
By Alice Milligan
The worth and glory of a nation may well be measured and adjudged by the typical character of its womanhood: not so much, I would say, by the eminence attained to by rarely gifted, exceptionally developed individuals, as by the prevalence of noble types at every period, and amongst all classes of the community, and by their recurrence from age to age under varying circumstances of national fortune.
Judged by such a standard, Ireland emerges triumphant and points to the roll of her chequered history, the story of her ancient race, with confidence and pride. Gaze into the farthest vistas of her legendary past, into the remotest eras of which tradition preserves a misty memory, and the figure of some fair, noble woman stands forth glimmering like a white statue against the gloom. At every period of stern endeavor, through all the generations of recorded time, the pages of our annals are inscribed with the names of mothers, sisters, wives, not unworthy to stand there beside those of the world-renowned heroes of the Gael.
In the ancient tales of Ireland we read of great female physicians and distinguished female lawyers and judges. There were ban-file, or women-poets, who, like the file, were at the same time soothsayers and poetesses, and there are other evidences of the high esteem in which women were held. There can be no doubt, to judge by the elaborate descriptions of garments in the saga-texts, that the women were very skilful in weaving and needlework. The Irish peasant girls of today inherit from them not a little of their gift for lace-making and linen-embroidery. Ladies of the highest rank practiced needlework as an accomplishment and a recreation. Some of the scissors and shears they used have come to light in excavations.
In the stories of the loves of the ancient Irish, whether immortals or mortals, the woman’s role is the more accentuated, while in Teutonic tradition man plays the chief part. Again, it has often been remarked that the feminine interest is absent from the earlier heroic forms of some literatures. Not so, however, in the earliest saga-texts of the Irish. Many are the famous women to whom the old tales introduce us and who stand out and compel attention like the characters of the Greek drama. Everyone knows of the faithful Deirdre, the heroine of the touching story of the “Exile of the Sons of Usnech”, and of her death; of the proud and selfish Medb. the ambitious queen of Connacht, the most warlike and most expert in the use of weapons of the women of the Gael—far superior in combat and counsel to her husband, Ailill; of Emer, the faithful wife of Cuchulainn; of Etain of the Horses (that was her name in Fairyland); and of many others too numerous to mention.