A history of Ireland in 100 objects

Sat, Feb 4, 2012, 00:00

Processional cross, 1479

What’s most interesting about this cross is that it was given to the Franciscan friary at Lislaghtin, Co Kerry, by Cornelius Ó Conchobhair and his wife, Avilina (Eileen), daughter of the Knight of Kerry. It marks a new prominence of high-status women in 15th-century Ireland.

The cross, the finest of its kind from medieval Ireland, is of gilt silver. The elongated figure of the crucified Christ is surrounded by the symbols of the four evangelists. That for St Matthew, at the foot of the cross, is now missing. Figures of Franciscan monks decorate the base.

It is in late medieval Ireland that high-status women begin to appear as patrons of monasteries and abbeys. The shrines of the Book of Moling and the Stowe Missal record the names of female as well as male patrons. The 1451 obituary of Margaret O’Carroll, daughter of Tadc O’Carroll, lord of part of what is now Tipperary, describes her death as a loss to “all the Learned in Ireland”, including “both philosophers [and] poets”. It also has her “preparing high-ways and erecting bridges, churches and Mass books”, suggesting that she could deploy considerable financial and organisational resources. Margaret took part in a large-scale Irish pilgrimage to the shrine of Santiago de Compostela, in northern Spain – an episode in what seems to have been a broader religious revival in the 1480s.

There is some evidence of women being literate and formally educated in the late 15th century, especially in the English-controlled areas. Six monastic schools on crown lands are mentioned in 1539 as educating “both gentilmen childer and other, both of man kynd and women kynd”. It is not clear how long these schools had been established, but they suggest the new humanist idea of giving girls access to formal education had some purchase in Ireland.

Within the colony, women could achieve significant status. Townswomen could trade and make contracts on their own behalf. Some Anglo-Irish women managed huge estates while their husbands were away, often for very lengthy periods, on military service. Equally, the status of women of the landowning class was somewhat enhanced by the provisions for inheritance under English law. Under Irish (Brehon) law, women were not allowed to inherit collective property. English (feudal) law allowed a woman to inherit property if there was no male heir. This created in Ireland a degree of inheritance shopping, with rich families using whichever system suited their own circumstances best.

Yet, for both the Irish and the Anglo-Irish, marriage seems to have been a moveable feast and divorce easily available. It remained normal for upper-class men and women to have a succession of spouses. Dubhchabhlaigh Mór (“the Great”), daughter of the king of Connacht, who died in 1395, was known as “Port-na-dtrí-namhad” (Meeting Place of the Three Enemies), because she married in succession three sworn foes. It is striking that when, after about 1400, the Irish adopted the common European practice of requiring a new wife to bring a dowry, it was with the proviso that the dowry must be returned in the event of a divorce.


Where to see it National Museum of Ireland – Archaeology, Kildare Street, Dublin 2, 01-6777444, museum.ie