Celtic women

It is not known when or how the Irish language came to Ireland. It belongs to a group of languages called Celtic, once widely spoken in parts of the Continent and in Britain. Those areas also shared certain cultural characteristics in the centuries before and after the time of Christ.

The concept of Celticism is quite vague however and some modern archaeologists and historians argue heatedly about the means by which Ireland came to have a Celtic language and some aspects of Celtic culture. They have not yet been able to agree on how to interpret the sources available.

Names of deities associated with Celtic cultures have survived on the Continent, as well as figured sculptures. Greek and Roman writers described courageous and aggressive Celtic women. It has been suggested that their accounts are exaggerated and that they reflect scornful attitudes towards women they judged to be uncivilised and barbarian when contrasted with their own ideals of womanhood. Readers may judge for themselves.

A whole group of foreigners would not be able to withstand a single Gaul (Continental Celt) if he called his wife to his assistance who is usually very strong with blue eyes; especially when, swelling her neck, gnashing her teeth, and brandishing her sallow arms of enormous size, she begins to strike blows mingled with kicks, as if they were so many missiles sent from the string of a catapult.
Ammianus Marcellinus, writing in the sixth century basing his material on Timagenes, an earlier writer. Quoted in Nora Chadwick, The Celts, London, 1970, p. 50.

Boudicca, queen of the Iceni in Britain led a revolt against the Romans in 61 AD.

She was huge of frame, terrifying of aspect and with a harsh voice. A great mass of bright red hair fell to her knees; she wore a twisted golden torc and a tunic of many colours over which was a thick mantle fastened with a brooch. Now she grasped a spear to strike fear into all who watched her.
Dio Cassius writing about Boudicca. Quoted in Nora Chadwick, The Celts, London, 1970, p. 50.

An Irish text called Táin Bó Cuailgne records the exploits of the legendary Queen Medb of Connacht, another powerful woman. The story was preserved in the Book of the Dun Cow compiled in the monastery of Clonmacnoise in the twelfth century and it is difficult to know whether it was based on remote historical events, myth, legend or a mixture of all three. Medb is constructed as a vigorous and daring woman with leadership qualities. However, some modern scholars suggest that the surviving versions of Táin Bó Cuailgne make her appear ridiculous in many ways and they think that the monks who committed the story to writing wanted to issue a warning about the dangers of following a woman leader. Others disagree.

Early Irish written records mention women wood-workers of high status, as well as women healers, druids, poets, prophetesses and women who could 'turn back the streams of war' - possibly peacemakers.

Researchers are discovering more and more details about the everyday lives of the early Irish. Many women worked in the fields with livestock and crops as well as grinding corn in the quern, making butter and cheese, spinning and weaving.

It is clear from Cáin Lánamna that it is regarded as normal for a farmer's wife to be involved in the major tasks of the farm, such as ploughing (ar), reaping (búain), looking after livestock in enclosures (croud), and fattening pigs (méthad). Literary sources likewise assume that it is regular for a husband and his wife (perhaps with older children) to be working together in the fields.
Fergus Kelly, Early Irish farming, Dublin, 1998, p. 449.

Most houses were built from mud and wood and roofed with thatch. Excavations show that royal and noble families lived in considerable splendour. Their clothes were dyed with bright colours made from roots, berries, leaves, seaweed and lichen. They owned valuable ornaments made from gold, bronze and other precious materials embellished with Celtic design.

A female poet is imagined as follows in Táin Bó Cuailgne:

She wore a speckled cloak fastened around her with a gold pin, a red-embroidered hooded tunic and sandals with gold clasps.
Description of Fedelm, poet and prophet, in The Táin, translated by Thomas Kinsella from the Irish, Dublin, 1969, p.60.

Broighter collar

Broighter collar
Probably 3rd century BC.
From Co. Derry
National Museum of Ireland

Near the end of the story a warrior called Cethern relates how he came by one of his terrible wounds:

Cethern said, 'A tall, fair, long-faced woman with soft features came at me. She had a head of yellow hair and two gold birds on her shoulders. She wore a purple cloak folded about her, with five hands' breadth of gold on her back. She carried a light, stinging, sharp-edged lance in her hand, and she held an iron sword with a woman's grip over her head - a massive figure. It was she who came against me first.'
'Then I'm sorry for you,' Cúchulain said. 'That was Medb of Cruachan.'
The Táin, translated by Thomas Kinsella from the Irish, Dublin, 1969, p.208.

The early Irish imported pottery, wine and oil from the Mediterranean area and the skull of a Barbary ape from Africa was found at Emhain Macha near Armagh.


  1. The Irish language belongs to a group of _________s called ________.
  2. Greek and Roman ______s described ________ and aggressive _______ women, but these accounts may be _____.
  3. Name three characteristics held in common by the women described by Ammianus Marcellinus and by Dio Cassius.
  4. Name five occupations followed by early Irish women.
  5. What evidence do we have for wealth and foreign travel in early Irish society?


  1. Role play a mock interview with a woman in early Irish society.
  2. Role play a girl from early Irish society discussing her lifestyle with a modern girl.
  3. Draw or paint any woman described in this section.
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