It’s raining butcher knives and my chest aches but Fiacail has a plan. That’s the way of it! Little more than two days’ comfort here at Ráth Bládhma and already we’re caught up in its people’s problems.
But … it’s a nice place, I’ll give them that. A secluded, V-shaped valley, deep in the folds of the Great Wild’s crinkled arse. Two forested ridges stretch north-west and south-east, a tight-curving cliff at one end to tuck it in all nice.
The expanse of pasture starts at the western woods – the single access to the valley. It stretches wide and green to a slight rise at the valley centre. That’s where the settlement of Ráth Bládhma’s located. In truth, it’s a secure position. The inhabitants have a clear view on every side. With the gateway bolted, any enemies who did manage to find the valley would not only have to cross that open ground but the barrier of the circular ditch. Then they’d have to climb the earth embankment and palisades to get at the people inside.
Yes, the people of Ráth Bládhma have strong defences.
But that’s not going to save them.
Fiacail says there’s a fian coming, a war-party more than fifty strong. The way he has it, their scouts are already in the valley for he’s seen their sign and suspects they have eyes on us. Within the ráth, we number three fighting men; myself, Fiacail and my cousin Tóla. But we’re visitors passing through. The population of Ráth Bládhma proper sits at seven inhabitants and only two of those – the woman warrior Liath Luachra and the youth Aodhán – are blooded warriors.
Liath Luachra: The Seeking has now passed 80,000 words – essentially the first eight chapters (and I’m currently working on Chapter 9). The book is planned for release later this year.
Above is a section of the new cover for this book. Below is the current draft of the back cover blurb.
In the bleak Luachair valley, the woman warrior Liath Luachra’s seclusion is disrupted by a desperate plea to rescue a comrade’s abducted sister. Raising her ‘fian’ to pursue the raiders, this ‘Seeking’ turns out far more perilous than first imagined.
Pursuing a mysterious war party across ancient Ireland’s Great Wild, she soon finds herself confronted on every side. Old enemies seek to undermine her, new allies can’t be trusted and in the deep south-east, a dark threat rises, roused by a chilling spectre from her past.
Faced with horrors she’d thought long forgotten, Liath Luachra must revert to the worst part of herself to survive the phantoms of her past and present.
Even in contemporary times, we continue to pass on mistakes and errors of record, particularly where it relates to Irish mythology. Sometimes however, these mistakes are quite entertaining in their own right.
One of my favourites is the famous ‘Tests of the Fianna’ – a set of difficult trials which ancient Irish warriors reportedly had to pass if they wished to enter Fionn mac Cumhaill’s famous ‘Fianna’ war band. This set of trails is most well known as a result of T. W. Rolleston’s book Myths and Legends of the Celtic Race (first published in 1911) but it’s highly likely he originally gleaned the reference from Seathrún Céitinn’s flawed ‘Foras Feasa ar Éirinn’ (completed in 1634). Rolleston couldn’t speak Irish so he anglicized ‘Fionn’ to ‘Finn’ and his ‘Tests of the Fianna’ goes as follows:
“In the time of Finn no one was ever permitted to be one of the Fianna of Erin unless he could pass through many severe tests of his worthiness. He must be versed in the Twelve Books of Poetry, and must himself be skilled to make verse in the rime and metre of the masters of Gaelic poesy. Then he was buried to his middle in the earth, and must, with a shield and a hazel stick, there defend himself against nine warriors casting spears at him, and if he were wounded he was not accepted. Then his hair was woven into braid; and he was chased through the forest by the Fianna. If he were overtaken, or if a braid of his hair were disturbed, or if a dry stick cracked under his foot, he was not accepted. He must be able to leap over a lath level with his brow, and to run at full speed under one level with his knee, and he must be able while running to draw out a thorn from his foot and never slacken speed. He must take no dowry with a wife.”
Generally speaking therefore, the ‘Test of the Fianna’ are usually summarised as follows: Candidates for the Fianna must display competence in:
1. Jumping over a branch as tall as yourself 2. Running under a stick placed at the height of your knees 3. Plucking a thorn from your foot as you run at top speed (assuming you stuck one in there in the first place!) 4. Running through the forest without breaking one single twig under your foot, or tearing your clothes/hair braid on a bush 5. Learning 12 books of poetry off by heart (despite the fact that this was prehistory and there were no books in the country, not to mind the actual skill of literacy) 6. Standing in a hole up to your waist and defending against nine warriors, using only a shield and a hazel stick (because trench warfare was … er, a thing) 7. And er, …. taking no dowry with a wife.
To this day, many Irish people still refer to these tests and most have at least a passing familiarity with them. Although, if you think about it for a moment, the tests couldn’t possibly have any kind of veracity, people continue to pass them on because:
(a) they enjoy the concept; and
(b) they like lists.
I have to admit, the naive simplicity of the ‘Test for the Fianna’ has always appealed to me as well which is why it’s used in my own Fionn mac Cumhaill Series (although, to be fair, I take it all far less seriously).
[Pic: Lagertha, from the television series: Vikings – often misrepresented as a ‘Celtic’ or ‘Oirish’ woman warrior online]
There’s a lot of fantasy out there when it comes to women warriors, particularly where it relates back to those in the Irish or “Celtic” realm. To be fair, the subject of women warriors is hardly a new one. Since the development of literature itself, writers (usually male) and readers have been enamored by tales of fighting women (particularly Herodotus with his notes on the inaccurately-named Amazons), probably because they’re such a rarity in ancient warfare, an area generally dominated by men.
The role of women in ancient warfare certainly differed between different cultures but in ancient Irish, Scottish, Welsh and Manx societies – a far more physical society than today – warfare was generally left to the men. That’s not to say that women didn’t fight, of course. The histories of these countries are full of examples of women fighting to defend themselves, fighting to protect the ones they love, or fighting each other. In terms of recognised warrior status warrior in actual warfare context however, this would have been a rarity indeed.
When it comes to women warriors in the ancient Irish mythological context (i.e. not historical), we certainly seem to have more references in the surviving literature than other contemporary societies of the same period. Some people mistakenly use this fact to argue that female fighters were common in early Irish society and that it was a far more ‘gender equal’ society but that’s a pretty big leap to make.
As an Irish person I’d LOVE to boast that ancient Ireland was the role model for gender equality but I think it’d be pretty dishonest of me if I did. At their most basic level, people don’t tend to change too much. Human societies have always been based around the established holders of power and, in ancient Ireland, most of that power was held by men.
Whatever you believe, the mythological tales still have to be treated with caution and never treated literally. The writers/recorders of that time were not above a bit of creative licence or prejudice and people often forget that just because something was written a long time ago, it doesn’t necessarily mean it’s true.
The Pattern of Women Warriors in Irish Mythology
If we look at Irish mythology then, the most well-known women warriors referred to in the literature tend to include:
Scáthach– a woman warrior who appears in the Ulster Cycle who was based in modern-day Scotland. She instructs the hero Cú Chulainn in a number of martial feats and (depending on the version) when he catches her with her guard down, is forced to take him as a lover
Aífe– a rival of Scáthach who Cú Chulainn forces to lie with him at swordpoint and who subsequently bears him a son
Neasa (Ness)– a woman warrior forced into marriage at swordpoint by the warrior/druid Cathbad and future mother of the famous Conchobhar mac Nessa
Liath Luachra – a guardian of the young Fionn mac Cumhaill, briefly mentioned in the Fenian Cycle
The surviving literature is very limited when it comes to these characters but with the first three, there’s an overpowering impression that the character of the powerful woman warrior was created specifically to highlight the sexual domination and military prowess of the male ‘hero’ who subsequently overpowers her (a pattern also found with other women warrior characters in mythology).
The final figure (Liath Luachra) is probably the only one that doesn’t follow this pattern. This is predominantly because as a guardian to the much younger hero (Fionn mac Cumhaill), any relationship between them is desexualised.
Other figures in Irish Mythology cited as Women Warriors
Other female figures from Irish mythology occasionally offered up as examples of women warriors include:
Meadhbh (also spelt Medb, Maeve etc.) – Queen of Connacht in the Táin (The Cattle Raid of Cooley)
The Morríghan (or Mór-ríoghain)
Again, if you look at either of these in any detail, you’ll immediately find that neither actually make the cut. All of the literary and archaeological evidence to date indicates that these figures were personifications of female deities as opposed to warrior women. Articles or literary works suggesting that they were warriors usually indicates that the authors haven’t even done the most basic of homework or they’re pushing an argument driven more by wish fulfilment than fact.
Irish Women Warriors in Literature
For a long time, Irish women warriors pretty much lingered as an ‘interesting’ footnote in the republications of old academic works on Irish mythology. Over the last thirty to forty years however, representation of women warriors has become far more prevalent in commercial fiction, particularly in the fantasy genre where mythological characters occasionally end up “borrowed” for contemporary stories.
The final products are usually fine from a basic entertainment perspective even if, from a cultural perspective, things can get a little … ‘iffy’, when creators miss the underlying cultural context. Unfortunately, with Irish warrior women, this can particularly result in works that are not only overly romanticised but which ignore some of the strong negative gender undercurrents associated with the characters, something of which the authors often seem – disturbingly – unaware.
Note:This is an updated version of an older article published on this website and later published on the Fantasy Hive.
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