MS Capstone Excerpt: The Role of Women in Celtic and Catholic Ireland

The following text is an excerpt from the introduction to Maeve’s Flaherty’s Capstone paper.  The Capstone Project is a compulsory, in-depth research project that allows every 8th-grade student to explore, write about and present on his/her passion.  In much the same way that we have featured a series of Global Thesis Updates from our 12th-grade researchers, over the next couple of weeks our hope is to highlight some of the insightful, globally oriented work that is coming out of the Capstone program.

By: Maeve Flaherty, 8th Grade

Celtic Ireland was an ancient society where woman experienced a rare amount of freedom, particularly in comparison to Ireland after the arrival of Christianity.  Looking at the myths and laws of the late Celtic world and the early Christian conversion of Ireland, it is apparent that the Celtic world was more open to women.  Although both societies were patriarchal, the mythology of the Ulster Cycle and the story of Ireland’s patron Saint, Brigid, show very different types of women, and the different societal roles that the two cultures accepted.  These mythological and historical characters were governed through Celtic law, the Brehon laws, and Canon Law.  Through comparison of the laws and stories of the two societies, it is apparent that Celtic Ireland was far more tolerant of women in positions of power and the workforce than the early Catholic times.

The legal system of Celtic Ireland codified into law a society where women were protected, educated, and given rights similar or equal to those of men.  The law of the Fenechus of Ireland, meaning “free land tillers”, was a very complicated but unified system of law governing Ireland.  They are more popularly known as the Brehon laws, coming from the word breatheamh, meaning “judge”.  Originally the Brehon Laws were transmitted orally, memorized by the Brehons who judged and served kingdoms across Ireland.  The earliest known written copy is located in the Book of the Dun Cow, although several other texts have survived the centuries in a fragmented state.  In 438, King Laoghaire of Tara established a commission to examine, revise and set the laws down in writing.[1]  In the Brehon Laws that King Laoghaire codified, women feature prominently.  Much can be found about the position of women in society from how they are regarded in law, and the Brehon Laws contain a wealth of information.


[1] Ellis, Peter Berresford. The Ancient World of the Celts. New York: Barnes & Noble Books, 1998. Print.

MS Capstone Excerpt: The Role of Women in Celtic and Catholic Ireland

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