The challenge of sources

Sources for recreating the experiences of women in early modern Ireland are scarce but enthusiastic historians have taken up the challenge to use whatever is available.

Archaeologists make new discoveries about the material lives of people in the early modern period through excavation. Their findings may sometimes be more reliable than written or pictorial sources and an improved picture of the lives of women in the past may emerge from their discoveries in habitation and burial sites.

Irish Annals are mainly concerned with military and church matters. They may be explored for the adjectives they use about women who are often described as religious, charitable and hospitable and occasionally as patrons of poets, givers of alms to the poor and builders of churches. The following entries from the Annals of the Four Masters for the year 1592 are fairly typical.

More, the daughter of Donough, son of John, son of Mulrony-na-Féasóige, son of Teige O'Carroll, and wife of Mac-I-Brien Ara, died. She had spent a good life, and departed this world without disgrace or reproach.

Catherine, the daughter of Donnell, son of Fineen, son of Dermot-an-Dúna Mac Carthy, and wife of Teige, the son of Cormac Óg, son of Cormac, son of Teige Mac Carthy, a sensible, pious, charitable, and truly hospitable woman, died, after having gained the victory over the world, the Devil, and the people.

But another entry for 1553 shows a resourceful woman negotiating for her family:

The daughter of O'Conor Faly, Margaret, went to England, relying on the number of her friends and relatives there, and on her knowledge of the English language, to request Queen Mary to restore her father to her; and on her appealing to her mercy, she obtained her father, and brought him home to Ireland; and other hostages were given up to the Lord Justice and the Council in his stead, namely, Rury O'Conor, the eldest of his own sons, and other hostages along with him.

Gaelic literature. Bardic poems often concluded with a verse praising the wife of the chief for her patronage and generosity to the poets - an indication that the chief's wife may have been the chief patron of the poet. Gaelic poets wrote love poems, complained about women's folly and celebrated generous and pious women. They provide some glimpses of how women actually lived their lives. Aisling poetry symbolised Ireland in the eighteenth century as a beautiful young woman in distress longing for a hero to come to her rescue.

English literature gives revealing insights into life in Ireland, especially in novels and stories such as those by Maria Edgeworth written in the early nineteenth century.

There was no reliable census of population in Ireland during this period. Historians argue about various methods used to make estimates and the following are only very approximate:

1500: About ¾ million.

1600: Over 1 million. There was much disturbance of population during the next hundred years. Many thousands were killed through war and famine and there was emigration to Continental armies but thousands of English, Scottish and Welsh immigrants came during the Plantations.

1700: Over 2 million steadily rising, increasingly poor and over-dependent on the potato.

1800: About 4½ to 5 million

Genealogies might be said to reveal a certain attitude to women in that female ancestors are sometimes excluded completely and, when included, are generally mentioned in relation to their fathers and husbands.

State records were kept by the English administration. Petitions from women members of wealthy and powerful families to the Crown and its officers have survived. They frequently dealt with women's property rights when widowed or with women seeking pensions and other financial support when impoverished. It might be noted that for fifty years during this period England was ruled by female monarchs: Mary I and Elizabeth I.

Emigration records. Archives abroad contain references to women who emigrated for various reasons. Many of those who accompanied soldier husbands abroad found themselves impoverished as widows and their petitions for assistance have been found in Belgian, French and Spanish archives. References to women who emigrated for economic, social, religious and other reasons may be found on the Continent as well as in America and Australia.

Legal records of early Irish or brehon law court sessions have not survived. In fact they may never have existed as it was customary law and decisions were based on arbitration. Vast archives of English law and administration in Ireland were lost when the Four Courts buildings in Dublin were destroyed in 1922 but some survived and are the subject of research.

Church records give valuable insight into the complexities of marriage law and practice during a period which included phases of extreme religious tension. While the state wanted to regulate the property transactions involved in marriage, church authorities wished to regulate most other aspects.

Military records give tiny glimpses of how women were affected by war and other military activities. Many significant military campaigns took place during the early modern period.

Medical texts may be explored for useful and fascinating information about women's lives.

Surveys, especially those carried out with a view to plantation, were mainly concerned with landed property. Most property owners were male, but widows and heiresses could also own property.

Private archives. Powerful and wealthy families such as the Butlers, Fitzgeralds and Boyles left extensive collections of documents of immense interest. Little survives written by women themselves from the sixteenth century but women become more visible later on. Family estate records of the eighteenth century can often provide a great deal of information on women from the lady of the house to the kitchen and scullery maids.

Contemporary printed material. Printed books, pamphlets and other material were available in Ireland during the early modern period.

Descriptions by travellers and officials are fundamental sources but must be treated with caution. Many of the English who came to Ireland did not speak Gaelic, considered the Irish a strange and foreign people with 'wild shamrock manners' and despised 'popery'. Condescending attitudes to the poor and to women were not unusual but most accounts are useful, interesting and frequently amusing when due allowance is made.

Pictorial sources are scarce but often give more information 'than a thousand words.'


  1. Select three of the above sources you think would interest you most. Give reason for your choice.
  2. Comment on the ratio of female to male names in the Annals of the Four Masters obituaries in 1592 for More O'Carroll and Catherine McCarthy.
  3. Comment on the fate of Rury O'Connor in 1553.
  4. In connection with aisling poetry, briefly suggest reasons for the comparison between Ireland in the eighteenth century and a young woman in distress.
  5. Discuss the advantages and disadvantages of novels and stories as sources for the history of women.
  6. Discuss the view that the two female monarchs (Mary I and Elizabeth I) might have granted a more sympathetic hearing to aristocratic women than would a male monarch.
  7. Suggest one or two reasons why the state wanted to regulate marriages.
  8. Suggest one or two reasons why the churches wanted to regulate marriages.
  9. Discuss the use of the private archives of powerful and wealthy families as sources for the history of women.
  10. Why do descriptions of travellers and officials have to be treated with caution?


  1. Find out from your teacher, librarian or local historian how many of the above sources would be available for your research and compile a list. Look up the bibliography at the end of this section for printed material which may frequently contain extracts from primary sources.
  2. Search the Internet for information on your own locality in the following sources:

    archaeological reports
    Annals of the Four Masters
    Gaelic literature
    emigration records.
  3. Research your own family tree. Most Irish people find some difficulty tracing back beyond the year 1800, either because names were not recorded or because records have been lost or destroyed.
  4. Study a selection of primary sources in the Documents at the end of this section.
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