On a Female Stone Head at Tuamgraney
‘Gráinne and her sisters’
In every village in Ireland, the church is often the oldest and most prestigious territorial landscape marker. Tuamgraney boasts of an antiquity second to none due to its construction in approximately 950A.D, making it the oldest one in uninterrupted use in Ireland. The Church is built on the site of an earlier monastery founded by St. Cronin in the 7th century. The Vikings repeatedly raided the monastery in 886 and again in 949. Cormac Uí Cillín, the Abbot of Tuamgraney, re-built the Church and erected a Round Tower, prior to his death in 964 A.D and although no vestige of the Round Tower remains, it has the merit of being the earliest of which there is a written testimony. Brian Boru arranged for the repair of the steeple of the church in 1012A.D and he probably often walked through its ancient doorway for an audience with Marcan, his brother. According to the annals, ‘Brian constructed many fortresses namely, Cathair-Cinn-coradh, Inis-Gaill-duibh, and Inis-Locha-Saighleann,’ all building testaments to his power in Thomond.1 Some years earlier, he financially manipulated Armagh’s ecclesiastical claims of superiority to suit his declaration of imperator Scotorum or ‘emperor of the Irish’ symbolising power over all of Ireland and thus showing that the world of church and secular rule were twin stakes hallmarking the corridors of power in medieval Ireland. 2
Yet, it was a world resting on the local, where a man might always be a stranger twenty miles from his home.3 A decentralized world symbolised the church institutions though clear European influences penetrated the local through its mobile clergy and rulers. Saints such as Patrick, Brigid, and Ciarán represented popular Christianization.4In Ireland, the adoration of female saints renowned from the ninth century was basically unparallel elsewhere in Europe.5 However, the discovery of another important feature in Tuamgraney church point towards other influences.
One of these is patronage. The head of what has become known as Gráinne bears witness to other important factors in ecclesiastical history spanning the centuries from the middle Ages.6 This factor is the power of women within the institutions of the medieval Irish church, often reflected in their superior access of economic resources. Gráinne, possibly the head of a female figure has been lovingly restored by Ger Madden but was hidden for centuries, obscured and ravaged by the elements and located within the exterior walls of the church. As Gráinne revealed herself from an inanimate sphere of stone, the clarity of what seem to be a female’s facial features startled all who expected to find a male figure within the dominance of a patriarchal church. Yet should we be all that surprised?
Unlike other European countries, Ireland has no Roman influences. This often exemplifies itself with the evidence of vernacular architecture, which has been totally eclipsed in other countries. Often when looking as statues as text, Ireland can also be seen as being isolated and uninfluenced with the radical changes occurring within the papacy in the eleventh century. Such vernacular architecture belies local forces at work and translates itself into material culture. Gráinne’s head is made of sandstone, a material found locally to Tuamgraney and symbolises a pre-industrial eras where transportation influenced the existing building culture incorporating church architecture, statues and any existing buildings in this region. It might also divulge the signature of a local craftsman, comfortable in the knowledge that his work pleased a local female patron, long forgotten now but controlling a pictorial apparition in a pre-literate age in this region, belonging then to ‘an age of memory rather than of written record’.7
Gráinne’s age is uncertain at present but should she be of eleventh century origin, she represents the radical changes involved in the creation of new histories; in this case, a church history under the triumphalism of the papacy. These changes involved the use of canon law, papal power and ecclesiastical male dominance. Did this papacy ensure that women would no longer hold as important space as they once had? In other words, in this flurry of change, whose history was it? Was Gráinne, perhaps a patron whose importance was denied, conveniently forgotten consigned to a place within which all the Irish were ‘so barbarous that they cannot be said to have any culture’ in the twelfth century.8
Yet, evidence shows that Ireland in the twelfth century had recovered from its Viking age, enough to display a promising return to the old days when it was synonymous with renowned as ‘a land of saints and scholars’. From the twelfth century onwards, evidence though sparse proves the power displayed by women in matters of patronage of religious institutions, founders of nunneries in medieval Ireland, and their involvement in convent building. Such power only dissolved with the Henrican dissolution of the Irish convents in the sixteenth-century. This history evokes the strength of the Anchoress, women whose solitary kind of spirituality and the literary form of romance developed together in the twelfth and thirteenth centuries generating what became known as an individual soul.
The ‘Anchoress (the feminine form of anchorite, from the Greek anachoretes, "one who lives apart") refers to a religious recluse who, unlike a hermit, lives in an enclosure, attached to a church, from which she never emerges. The enclosure symbolizes the grave, and the funeral service was celebrated at the time of enclosure as a sign that the anchoress was dead to the world.’
The growths of anchoresses in the twelfth and thirteenth centuries acknowledge the right of pious women to attain religious fulfilment.9 This right clearly disappeared and often ignored in later centuries. Was Gráinne a wealthy anchoress, allowed a visibility devoid of latent suspicion or a patron expected to fulfil her obligations towards the upkeep of the church?
Holy Island on Lough Derg in the river Shannon war is not far from Tuamgraney. It was a site of pilgrimage and is famous for its monastic remains. There are six churches, two of which are dedicated to women, St. Brigid and St. Mary’s. Surely this island or ‘Jewel of the Lough’ would have influenced its nearby surroundings. Unique among Holy Island’s archaeological treasures is the “Confessional”, or Anchorites’ cell, showing that such religious practice would not have been unusual for this region. Why might these ‘wild- eyed anchorites’ who often made the church nervous be forgotten?
These feminine influences and rights in medieval times included a woman’s freedom to go on pilgrimages should she have the economic resources to do so have been greatly ignored by later historical writings. Yet, examining contemporary available sources show that women were travelling to Jerusalem since the fourth century and while segregated later on, they are clearly visible in historical accounts. Furthermore, pilgrimages were ‘gender-neutral’ as both men and women had equal rights to this activity in a legal sense and were ‘miserabliles personae’ entitled to available resources and protection irrespective of gender. 10
By the fourteenth century, women’s participation in pilgrimage and other church institutions became fraught with difficulties. Pilgrimage became a highly evolved type of tourist industry. Their acceptability became uncertain and women often found themselves excluded from the safety of medieval travelling groups, only tolerated if they were silent and invisible. If such a change occurs in pilgrimage, does this mirror the obscuring of the female presence within ecclesiastical architecture? Perhaps women no longer belonged with church institutions. In an age of literacy authors could only accept them if they were silent. This might have obscured the previous roles they played in a pre-literal period where the ‘bible of the illiterate’ encompassed a vocabulary of stone works, paintings, and pictorial references reifying the Christian world.11
However, on looking closer at Gráinne’s head, an unsettling damaged left eye is clearly revealed. The command of the evil eye (fascinatio) or bewitchment has been believed in for a long time, and is still feared in many countries. The evil eye belief is that a person can harm you, your children, your animals, or your property, by looking at them jealously and then praising them. It can also involve a form of constant supervision, which meant that the look has remained too long upon the desired object, person, or animal. The consequence of the evil eye is misfortunate and is entirely based on envy. Belief in the evil eye goes back 5000 years before Christ and in a superstitious world it often provided an explanation for the unexplainable.12 Was this eye deliberately damaged at a later date to provide a negative label to a powerful female figure in the medieval world?
Does this fit into a more sinister later era underpinning women’s history? A period symbolised by which witch-hunts which were gender specific and related to the rise of a literate age threatened by female power and female lay devotion. However, in Ireland accusations of witchcraft never materialized with the same increasing trend as in other countries, namely Scotland and England for the same period.13 But it does mark the entry into a rejection of any equivalence within ecclesiastical institutions and signifies the demise of Gráinne and her sisters in the early modern period of the sixteenth and seventeen century because:
If there was only ‘one sex’ then women could become dangerously
‘masculine’ or men threateningly ‘effeminate’. The ideology of
patriarchy…was about ensuring that women and men behaved within
the proper, prescribed ways.14
Clearly, the role of women within the church is often enigmatic because of the unpredictable range of activities available to women, which were often specific to certain localities. Gráinne’s tacit history might have been concealed because of its non-textual nature, which would have been vital in an illiterate age and region.
We almost have to assume that every small town had its own recluse.
In the oral culture of medieval Christianity they fulfilled a role that for
the most part eludes us, dependent as we are on written sources.15
Females like Gráinne often found a location where they could dedicate themselves completely to the love of God, without orthodox rules and without an institutional form of life. They sometimes selected cells near the main church of a town or some other strategically landmark. Females of this genre gained extraordinary respect and empowered religious life for women in the later Middle Ages. Hundreds, of devout women converted to this way of life. Recent studies highlight the leadership roles held by such women from the Middle Ages up to early modern times. Yet, history continually disregards these relevant figures and events.
The church outlawed events like festivities in the seventeenth century, often because of the disorder they represented.
One account of a festivity, by Sir Arthur Chichester, in a letter written to the Privy Council in 1609, talks of 15,000 people foregathered on the island (of Clonmacnoise) "and some say there were many more". Incidents occurred at Inis Cealtra on Lough Derg. At the annual pattern held at Whit weekend "three brothers of a family of O'Briens, who resided in the county of Clare, within view of the island, used to frequent the patron at which they conducted themselves, it is said, in a most disgraceful manner. On one occasion, one of them carried off a young girl by force from it; whom he afterwards detained till he had three children by her.16
Such customs or what became known as pattern days had been a fusion of the pagan and the ecclesiastical originally designed to ideologically manoeuvre an easy passage from the heathen to a Christian way of life. By the seventeenth century such rituals were obsolete having outlived the purpose largely
Because of the overlap of venues - wells, lakes or high ground - calendar dates, customs and the willingness of the early Christian church to integrate Celtic festivals into religious ones (the feast of St Bridget is an often quoted example), there is wide acceptance that these festivals gradually became patterns, parish religious ceremonies with associated 'secular amusements’.17
With the growth of the centralized state, the local world consisting of custom, superstition, powerful female figures and events became obscured and subsequently largely forgotten. Ireland is unique in its ecclesiastical past, and combines a literature unsurpassed in other European countries. Figures such as Gráinne could easily have been written out as their only testament was in memory which has long been forgotten, a remnant, ‘A shattered visage…tell that its sculptor well those passions read, which yet survive, stamped on these lifeless things’.18
Annals of the Four Masters. Annals of the Kingdom of Ireland / by the Four masters, from the earliest period to the year 1616. Edited from mss. in the Library of the Royal Irish Academy and of Trinity College, Dublin, with a translation, and copious notes, by John O'Donovan (New York: AMS Press, 1966)
Gerald of Wales, History and Topography of Ireland, trans. J.J. O’Meara (Harmondsworth, 1982),
Sir Arthur Chichester. ‘Letter to the Privy Council 1609’.
Aquaro, George, R.A. Death by envy: The evil eye and envy in the Christian tradition. (New York, 2004)
Craig, L.A. ‘Stronger than men and braver than knights; women and the pilgrimages to Jerusalem and Rome in the later middle ages’ in the Journal of Medieval History 29 (2003) p.157.
Cunningham Colin, Stones of Witness: Church Architecture and Function. (Gloucestershire: Sutton Publishing Ltd, 1999)
Davies, Wendy, ‘Celtic Women in the Early Middle Ages’ in A.Cameron and A. Kuhrt (eds.), Images of women in Antiquity (London, 1983)
Eisen, Ute E, (trans, Linda M. Maloney), Women Officeholders in early Christianity: Epigraphical and Literary studies, Collegeville, MN (2000)
Gillespie, Raymond, ‘Women and Crime in Seventeenth-century Ireland’ in Margaret MacCurtain & Mary O’Dowd, (eds,) Women in early modern Ireland. (Dublin, 1990)
Golding, Brian ‘The Church and Christian Life’ in Barbara Harvey (ed), The Twelfth and Thirteenth Centuries. (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2001)
Leyser, Henriette ‘Cultural affinities’ in Barbara Harvey (ed), The Twelfth and Thirteenth Centuries. (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2001), pp.169-189.
MacNeill, Máire, Festival at Lughasa. (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1962)
McNeill, Tom. Castles in Ireland: Feudal Power in a Gaelic World. (London, 1997)
Mulder-Bakker, Anneke B. Myra Heerspink scholz. Lives of the anchoress: The rise of the urban recluse in medieval Europe. (Pennsylvania: University of Pennsylvania Press, 2005)
Pryce, Huw, ‘The Christianization of society’ in Wendy Davies (Ed,) From the Vikings to the Normans. (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2003), pp.151-167.
Shelley, Percy Bysshe(1792-1822). Ozymandias
1 1012A.D. Annals of the Four Masters. John O’Donovan, (Dublin,)
2 Huw Pryce, ‘The christianisation of society’ in Wendy Davies (Ed,) From the Vikings to the Normans. (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2003), p.151.
3Tom McNeill Castles in Ireland: Feudal Power in a Gaelic World. (London, 1997) p.5
4 Huw Pryce, ‘The Christianization of society’ in Wendy Davies (Ed,) From the Vikings to the Normans. (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2003), p.151.
5Wendy Davies, ‘Celtic Women in the Early Middle Ages’ in A.Cameron and A. Kuhrt (eds.), Images of women in Antiquity (London, 1983) p.151.
6 ‘Gráinne’ is the name given to the head recently revealed as part of the structure of the church. She was named by the East Clare Heritage Committee at the meeting in May (2005) and the statue awaits further verification and study.
7Henrietta Leyser, ‘Cultural affinities’ in Barbara Harvey (ed), The Twelfth and Thirteenth Centuries. (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2001), p.169.
8 Gerald of Wales, History and Topography of Ireland, trans. J.J. O’Meara (Harmondsworth, 1982), pp. 101-2.
9 Brian Golding, ‘The Church and Christian Life’ in Barbara Harvey (ed), The Twelfth and Thirteenth Centuries. (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2001), p.154.
10 L.A. Craig. ‘Stronger than men and braver than knights; women and the pilgrimages to Jerusalem and Rome in the later middle ages’ in the Journal of Medieval History 29 (2003) p.157.
11 Colin Cunningham Stones of Witness: Church Architecture and Function. (Gloucestershire: Sutton Publishing Ltd, 1999), p.24.
12 George R.A. Aquaro. Death by envy: The evil eye and envy in the Christian tradition. (New York, 2004) p.7.
13 Raymond Gillespie, ‘Women and Crime in Seventeenth-century Ireland’ in Margaret MacCurtain & Mary O’Dowd, (eds,) Women in early modern Ireland. (Dublin, 1990) p.45.
14 Review article on Anthony Fletcher’s Gender, sex and subordination in England 1500-1800 in Journal of Ecclesiastical History. p.114.
15 Anneke B. Mulder-Bakker Myra Heerspink scholz. Lives of the anchoress: The rise of the urban recluse in medieval Europe. (Pennsylvania: University of Pennsylvania Press, 2005), p.4.
16 Sir Arthur Chichester. ‘Letter to the Privy Council 1609’.
17 Máire MacNeill. Festival at Lughasa. (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1962)
18Percy Bysshe Shelley (1792-1822). Ozymandias.