Gaelic society

The majority of people in Ireland still belonged to the old Gaelic culture and lived in the countryside. For food they grew oats, barley, wheat and rye from which they made littiu, porridges flavoured with honey, eggs, and butter. They made bread which they spread with butter, honey and various flavoured pastes. Potatoes would not arrive in Ireland until the seventeenth century.

Dairying was very important and they consumed vast quantities of sour milk, buttermilk, whey, curds, butter and cheese. They made ale and rich people imported wine, spices and other luxuries. They ate meat and fish which they might preserve by salting and smoking. Near the shore they could find seaweed and shellfish. Ovens were rare so cooking was done over an open fire, on the embers, a spit, a griddle or in a pot.

Their dress was described by Giraldus Cambrensis (Gerald of Wales), an Anglo-Norman who came to Ireland for the first time in 1183 and found much wrong with the Irish.

They use very little wool in their dress and that itself nearly always black … and made up in a barbarous fashion. For they wear little hoods, close-fitting and stretched across the shoulders and down to a length of about eighteen to twenty-two inches, and generally sewn together from cloths of various kinds. Under these they wear mantles instead of cloaks. They also use woollen trousers that are at the same time boots, or boots that are at the same time trousers, and these are for the most part dyed.
Giraldus Cambrensis, History and topography of Ireland, trans. by John J. O'Meara, Penguin Books, 1982, p. 101.

The mantle or brat, a kind of cloak, blanket or rug was worn by women, men and children. Mantles, often lined and dressed with fur, were exported to England and the continent. They came to be identified with the Gaelic Irish and the English in Ireland were forbidden to wear them and even fined if they did so.

The Gaelic Irish might trade food, clothes, timber and other goods with the people who lived in the Viking towns and the Anglo-Norman towns, manors, fortifications and castles.

Most genealogies emphasise male ancestors and the majority of references to people in the Irish Annals during medieval times are to powerful males. Few lives of female saints have survived either. The Ban shenchus, written by Gilla Mo Dotu, a monk in Devinish monastery gives a list of famous women in Irish history together with comments.

Women's History, which is not foolishness that should be concealed, gives half the race from Adam the one man.
Ban shenchus, twelfth century.

The women are mentioned mainly in connection with famous fathers, husbands or sons. The following sample from the list also shows how few traditional Gaelic names for women survived to our time.

Deictir, the sensible daughter of Cathbad, was the fair mother of stern Cú Chulain … Mongfind of the Ernai (a cunning offshoot) sister of Cremthand. She was inured to painful child-bearing. She gave her brother poison with a lie. Smirnat, Mongfind, Albi Gruadbrec, Badamair of undamaged fame: these are the wives of Find of the woods who fainted not from wounds. Ani, Find's daughter, was wife of Eochu. Her career with him was no pleasure. Murgel was mother of the King of Ailech named Glunralar, (he was a hero) and of Murchad Ua Lathbertaig who was full of ale, strongly fortified, wealthy and powerful. She was child of Tadg son of Concobar a plundering overbearing dictatorial and crafty man. The daughter of tall Aed Ua Cellaig chief of Uí Mane (he was not mad) was mother of Tadg son of Cathal of Cruachan.
Margaret E. Dobbs, (trans.), Ban shencus in Revue Celtique, 1931.

The list is a long one and the women themselves are praised or criticised for such qualities as being beautiful, stately, shining, long-haired, splendid-haired, affectionate, gentle, modest, chaste, without sexual guilt, discreet, sensible, honest, generous, well-bred, long-lived, famous, heroic, swift, strong, active, clever, eloquent, womanly, bitter, loathsome, evil, fierce, etc.

Liberal divorce laws seem to have allowed aristocratic men and women to change their spouses in the pursuit of power. One Derbforgaill, grand-daughter of the king of Ossory married six different men and had eleven children.

Derbforgaill is unique in the Banshenchas. No other woman is documented as having six husbands but women contracted three, four and indeed five marriages.
Muireann Ní Bhrolcháin, 'The Banshenchas revisited' in Mary O'Dowd & Sabine Wichert, 'Chattel, servant or citizen', Belfast, 1995, p.77.


  1. Gaelic people in Ireland made ______, porridges flavoured with _____, _______ and ______.
  2. Their mantle was a kind of ______, ______ or ______ and was worn by _____, ______ and _____.
  3. Discuss the view of Gilla Mo Dotu that 'Women's history is not foolishness that ought to be concealed.'
  4. What attitudes does Gilla Mo Dotu reveal towards women, in your opinion?


  1. Compose an entry for yourself in the style of the Ban shenchus.
  2. Role play an interview with Gilla Mo Dotu.
  3. Research the life of a medieval Gaelic woman in the local history of your own area.
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