Content Warning: Please be aware that this page includes some discussion of rape and suicide.
So far we’ve been looking at the purely historical and traditional attitudes towards courtship and marriage, specifically as rites of passage from the earliest evidence (in part one) through to the more recent, and more localised practices that are more recent (parts two to four).
To be able to truly appreciate the significance of what a marriage was meant to be, historically, we’ve looked at the laws that governed marriage, as well as the evidence we can find for marriage rites throughout the ages. We’ve seen that one of the most striking features about early marriage rites is the distinct lack of ceremony that went into it; from what we can see, the institution of marriage was primarily a legal, not a religious one – not until the Church ultimately got involved in the proceedings, anyway. As a result, the bulk of the ceremonial elements that were attached to marriage rites before the Church got involved (such as the offering and exchange of drinks between the couple) appear to have been based on legal procedures – symbolic as they may have been – or were perhaps more socially motivated (feasting, for example), rather than something more like a pagan version of a wedding ceremony that most of us are familiar with today. So basically, sorry folks: There’s no historical precedent for druids in floaty white robes presiding over matters in a picturesquely remote stone circle (where it never rains)… But if that’s your thing, hey, why not?
Anyway. We’ve looked at practicalities and legalities and technicalities, but the law, by its nature, lacks emotion or sentimentality. It doesn’t tell us much about the nitty gritty or the reality of love and relationships. It also doesn’t tell us much about anything that isn’t thoroughly heteronormative – one man, one woman, meat and two veg, all very vanilla. So in this section, we’ll be expanding our scope and delving into the passion and the romance, and, ultimately, sex as well as sexuality.
First, then, we’ll be dealing with matters of love, sex, and marriage in general, and then we’ll take a look at the evidence for attitudes towards sexuality and same-sex relationships.
As we’ve seen in part one, the view we get from the early Irish law tracts is that love was not a primary concern for many marriages. This is especially true in the eyes of the law, at least, since marriage was primarily concerned with ensuring the protection of assets, inheritance rights, and defining social status for the couples involved.1 For the most part, this was particularly important for those of high status, since there was far more at stake. As Lisa Bitel puts it:
“Free choice of mates carried all sorts of dangerous political implications in a society where elite unions were used as tools for crafting alliances, and deeply threatened a social order based on the orderly production of heirs and distribution of family property. As a result, rule makers idealized the married procreative couple formally approved by kin groups and other authorities.”
So as far as the law – and the law-makers – were concerned, love just wasn’t relevant when dealing with the technicalities of marriage, because the law was focused on material, measurable things, not something so unquantifiable as emotions. This is not to say that love was never a consideration in practice, however; certainly the laws, in outlining various protections for both parties involved, recognised that at times dangerous or undesirable unions were made – two people of vastly unequal status, for example, or of dubious character or motive – where love may have been the main driving factor (the practicalities of it all be damned!). While recognition was given to these less desirable types of marriage, the law effectively discouraged them by making the terms of such a union extremely unfavourable. This was intended to protect the families that were involved, as much as it was meant to protect the individuals themselves.
Likewise the more desirable types of marriage were heavily favoured in terms of the protections and prestige they offered to the couple and the families that were involved.2 In The Cattle Raid of Froech, then, Findabair could have allowed herself to be abducted by the hero of the tale, but she refuses because such a marriage would be beneath her – marriage by abduction was a far lesser kind of marriage than a marriage of equals that had been properly arranged. As the daughter of a king she should expect the most desirable form of marriage – a lánamnas comthinchuir (‘union of equal contribution’), not a marriage that is number six on the list.3 In narrative terms, Findabair sets the example that women should follow; she puts her status, and that of her family, before her emotions.
While the laws preserve an ideal of what should have been, reality is likely to have been at least a little different, compared to the rigid strictures set out in the legal texts. As much as love and passion could result in chaos from an unsuitable or illegal union (as in the case of Deirdriu and Noisiu, in The Exile of the Sons of Uisliu, for example), and was often seen as dangerous (in literary terms, anyway) love that blossomed within marriage could have the added advantage of creating a lasting and stable bond between not just the husband and wife, but their families as well. In this sense, while looking at the laws alone may give the idea that women were simply chattel, to be married off to whoever her family decided she could benefit them the most, a little consideration and common sense must have come into play, at least. As far as the social order was concerned, an unhappy wife was arguably just as potentially volatile as an inappropriate union.
One such unhappy marriage reached a very pragmatic conclusion in an episode found in Acallam na Senórach, which explains how carn Manannáin (‘the hill of Manannán’) got its name:
“It was a warrior of the Tuatha Dé Danann, Aillén mac Eogabail, that fell in love with the wife of Manannán mac Lir; while Aillen’s sister, Aine daughter of Eogabal, fell in love with Manannán, to whom she was dearer than the entire human race. Aine asked her brother Aillen: ‘what has made your great, regal shape to diminish?’ ‘On my true oath, girl,’ Aillen said, ‘I wouldn’t tell this to anyone in the world but to you alone,’ and he told her: ‘I am in love with Uchtdelbh [“Breast-shape”] Angus Finn’s daughter and wife of Manannán.’ ‘I have in my hand the cure for that!’ says Aine, ‘for Manannán is in love with me and, if he gives you his wife, I will sleep with him in exchange for his helping you.’ Aillen and Aine, came to this hill, and Manannán, along with his wife, also came here. Aine sat at Manannán’s right hand, and gave him three loving passionate kisses; then they sought news from each other. But when Manannán’s wife saw Aillen she loved him…so Manannán handed over his own wife to Eogabal’s son Aillen, himself taking Aillen’s sister Aine…”4
As MacQuarrie notes, this tale is not reflective of common practice in the real world, where divorce amongst those of high status, especially, was difficult because of its destabilising effects (in the sense that divorce would break political ties as much as it would dissolve the marriage ties).5 But clearly, love and happiness was a concern, if not the primary concern, on a personal if not legal level.
In spite of the constraints that were set by law and social convention, the tales tell a very different story of early medieval Ireland’s attitudes towards love and relationships. Unlike the laws, where women and their wants or needs are considered to be relatively passive, the women of the tales are often passionate, headstrong, articulate and independently minded.6 These qualities may often be to their detriment – in the case of Deirdriu’s ill-fated love affair and elopement with Noisiu, when she was already promised to Conchobar,7 or Medb’s ill-fated cattle-raid and fruitless pursuit to find a suitable consort in the Táin, for example. For some, like Emer, who effectively engineered her marriage to Cú Chulainn herself, as we see in Tocmarc Emire, these characteristics are definitely an advantage. The difference is, whereas Deirdriu flies in the face of social convention and law, Emer works within their bounds to manipulate them to her advantage. Deirdriu is ruled by her passions and her story ends in death and chaos; Emer channels her passion into a carefully negotiated matrimony. Unlike Deirdriu, Emer accepts nothing less than her status and desirability as a wife demands.
These kinds of tales serve as moral lessons, for what is appropriate and desirable – or not, as the case may be. Deirdriu, in struggling to break free from the constraints of her obligation to marry Conchobar – now an old man – is forced to use euphemisms in her conversations with the object of her desire, the young and handsome Noisiu. When Noisiu sees her for the first time he says, “A fine heifer that that is going by.” She replies, “The heifers are bound to be fine where there are no bulls,”8 – referring to the fact that her prospective husband is too old and past it; she has no worthy partner to take her attention, so she wants others to notice her.
Instead of stating matters plainly, Deirdriu and Noisiu talk in the language of the farmyard and animals – something that allows them to step outside of human concepts of society, morality, obligation, and ownership – which therefore gives them the freedom to discuss what really matters to them. But ultimately, this use of language defines them as being stuck in the very position they are trying to break out of. Deirdriu is betrothed to Conchobar, despite her wishes, and she is bound to him. Her fate is to provide Conchobar with sons and play the dutiful wife. She is just like one of the heifers she talks about, waiting to be put to the bull. Like the heifer, Deirdriu has no real freedom to choose or make her own decisions, and when Deirdriu is finally caught by Conchobar, he makes this point clear by turning her only means of freedom and escape – her language – against her: “…well Deirdriu, it is the eye of a ewe between two rams you make…”9 In the end, this language that offered her a glimmer of hope only serves to underscore the fact that Deirdriu and Noisiu are in the wrong, both morally and legally. Conchobar’s words are a quiet reminder that she is not free to choose a mate, but (effectively) property, who must go where she is told. An arrangement of her marriage has already been made on her behalf and it must be honoured whether she likes it or not. Ultimately, Deirdriu chooses the only freedom she can; she kills herself rather than marry Conchobar.
This same kind of “farmyard” language is echoed at the end of the Táin, where Fergus comments “We followed the rump of a misguiding woman… It is the usual thing for a herd led by a mare to be strayed and destroyed.”10 Just as Conchobar did with Deirdriu, Fergus uses this sort of language to reduce Medb to nothing more than a brainless mare – deliberately dehumanising her – to de-emphasise her qualities as a queen and a fearsome leader. In both cases, the tales (in the form they exist today) show that Deirdriu and Medb fail themselves and their people by allowing their passion to rule their actions. They damage not only their own reputation, but that of their kin and their people.
Emer, on the other hand, takes a more calculated approach. Social convention dictates that her sister should marry first, but Emer has her sights set on marrying Cú Chulainn, come hell or high water. Ultimately, Emer ends up driving a hard bargain; in spite of her eagerness to marry Cú Chulainn she works hard to overcome the obstacles in their way (and helps Cú Chulainn do so as well) and she makes sure that the marriage contract gives her as good a deal as possible.11 Because she doesn’t let her passion rule her, and she shows the virtue and patience of a good wife, Emer’s outcome is for more positive than Deirdriu and Medb’s fate. For Emer, love is a nice side-effect of the arrangement she finds herself agreeing to, but making a good marriage is the best thing of all. Thus the moral of these tales is to abide by convention and law for the good of all, letting the head rule the heart in order to preserve the honour of one’s self, one’s kin, and one’s people.
In the eyes of the Church, celibacy was a virtue and sex was for the purpose of reproduction, not for satisfying lust.12 As we’ve seen, polygyny was was a common practice, even if it was frowned upon by the early medieval Church, and as we will see later on, the Church also frowned on homosexuality (to be fair, they frowned on a lot of things). The early Irish sources tend take a different view of all this, and we get the idea that pre-Christian attitudes towards sex – and sexuality – were far less stringent than the Church tried to impose once Christianity had become established. As Bitel puts it:
“Sex in and of itself was not a bad thing to the pre-Christian Irish. Celibacy never appears as a virtue in the secular literature. Almost all the heroes had wives – many more than one – and mistresses, as well as one-night stands. And sex for the sake of sex was without shame in the pagan Otherworld, as Mac Cana has shown.”13
In the Mythological and Historical Cycles, in particular, this is very true, and over all, ideas of “virtuous women” (explicitly synonymous with the idea of virginal, “pure” women) are an obvious Christian insert. Virginity, while synonymous with virtue in Church terms, was not emphasised in the laws; if anything, before Christian ideals came into play, proven fertility was not a bad thing when negotiating a union where children were wanted. The only potential problem, legally, when a man married a woman who wasn’t a virgin, would have been if there was uncertainty over the paternity of any children conceived early on in the relationship. Outside of the law, the Irish triads give us a sense that a cétmuinter (a “primary” wife – one who would have had a high-status marriage) – would ideally be expected to be a virgin upon marriage. It was not, however, a necessity.14
Otherwise, we see from the literature that sex is often a tool to be wielded – through sex, a goddess might make a man a king, or else, in the case of the Dagda with Indech’s daughter in The Second Battle of Mag Tured, he may use it to seduce a woman in order to secure her help.15
Medb, in the Táin, uses it to ensure the loyalty and aid of men. This is exactly what she does with Fergus, using her wiles to make him more willing to offer her the advantage over her enemy, the Ulaid. As a former king, now in exile, and as a former foster-father of Cú Chulainn himself, he possesses a wealth of information that Medb might use to her advantage. He just needs an incentive to loosen his tongue…
In The Voyage of Bran, Manannán casually tells the hero about the one night stand he’s on his way to:
“Manannán mac Lir will have fruitful
sex with Caintigern: his son will be
summoned into the lovely land;
Fiachna will recognize him as his son.”16
The woman, Caintigern, that Manannán mentions is the wife of Fiachna, a historical king of Ulster. His son, Mongán, was also a historical figure, who lived in the seventh century. Manannán is therefore announcing his intention to sleep with the wife of a king, with whom he will have a child that will be passed off as the king’s own – a princely son with secretly semi-divine heritage. There are certainly no hints of dire consequences for Manannán sleeping with another man’s wife, as he explicitly states that Caintigern’s husband, Fiachna, will recognise the child, Mongán, without hesitation. This is borne out by the story of Mongán’s birth, Compert Mongáin.17 Unlike the more cautionary tales we’ve seen above, adultery is all well and good when it results in a hero, it seems, when we see it in an Otherworldly setting where the rules are somewhat different.
In spite of the law and social convention, then, these tales of sex and love show that matters were not so black and white as the law would have it. Women were not passive objects, but people who desired and were desired by men. This is an important point: even in the tales that seem to flout conventions – casual sex, adultery, and so forth – these tales are between a man and woman, attractive, high-status individuals who either come together in an equal match or whose relationship falls apart because of the impediments of their status and prior engagements.
Just like the law, these loves, liaisons and lánamnas were promoted between man and woman, not man and man, or woman and woman. What, then, of same-sex relationships?
If we want to expand our horizons beyond the usual focus on heteronormative relationships, as far as matters of love and sex are concerned, we find there’s frustratingly little to go on… That’s in terms of anything especially concrete, anyway, particularly if we are looking for evidence of pre-Christian attitudes towards queer relationships. Even in dealing with what little evidence there is, our sources aren’t without their problems, thanks to a variety of reasons. For one, there’s the usual problem we have in that our sources are exclusively Christian in focus, and so there’s inevitably some level of bias that we have to deal with if we want to dig through it and find any hints of pre-Christian beliefs and attitudes. There’s also the problem that when it comes to matters like this – matters of sex and morality – sometimes we just don’t see it talked about because the subject is too sensitive, too uncomfortable, or just too scandalous to discuss.
Historically, matters of sex and sexuality are something that’s often been suppressed or glossed over; more conservative views towards sex have affected the way in which Irish literature as a whole has often been dealt with – from the sexual content of myths possibly being censored by the scribes themselves (changing the sovereignty goddess’ challenge to a prospective king to demanding a kiss, rather than sex, perhaps), to translators of the Victorian period just missing whole chunks of a story out (like the Dagda’s sexual exploits in Cath Maige Tuired). This sort of thing was still happening, even in academic sources, well into the twentieth century, doing. In cases where these “naughty” bits were included at all, they may be left untranslated, or else – as we see in Ludwig Bieler’s translation of the the Irish penitentials – the steamier bits may be translated into another language entirely, like Latin.18
At times there has also been the opposite problem here, however; where some have been reluctant to deal with overtly sexual content at all, others have gone the other way – usually for negative reasons; salacious gossip that is (quite literally) sexed up to demonstrate the immoral, uncivilised depravity of the Irish. In this case, the go-to culprits to focus on are bestiality, or homosexuality. Sometimes the two are considered together (as we will see below), as if they are on a par with one another. This is, sadly, still true today, when issues of equality are railed against by bigots and homophobes.
In historical terms, Giraldus Cambrensis (Gerald of Wales) is the most obvious example here, especially with his controversial account of ritualised bestiality with a horse during a king’s inauguration. The authenticity of his description has been called into question due to the author’s clear bias against the Irish and the fact that he couldn’t possibly have witnessed it with his own eyes. At the same time, however, there may be a kernel of truth to Cambrensis’ claim here, based on comparative evidence that shows a startlingly similar practice in Vedic sources. We also know that horses played an important part in the symbolism of sovereignty according to Irish tradition, so in general, their being featured in an inauguration rite wouldn’t be so unusual or incongruous. If Gerald’s description isn’t completely made up, then, it’s possible that he took some basic facts and perhaps over-egged to pudding to prove his underlying point: the savage Irish needed saving through Norman England’s civilising forces.19
Gerald’s work has also been at the heart of another controversy as well, though this isn’t necessarily completely Gerald’s own fault this time… Based on a nineteenth century translation of Gerald’s works, the historian John Boswell has claimed that the Irish performed, and recognised, same-sex unions within the Church, and since this claim was put to paper it has become something of an incontrovertible “fact” with little regard for the actual truth. The basis for Boswell’s claim comes from a passage by Cambrensis, where he describes a “pagan” ceremony that was a “novel form of marriage,” performed by two men:
“Among many other examples of their wicked way, this one is particularly instructive: under the pretext of piety and peace they come together in some holy place with the man they want to join. First they are united in pacts of kinship, then they carry each other three times around the church. Then, entering the church, before the altar, in the presence of relics of saints and with many oaths, and finally with a celebration of the Mass and the prayers of priests, the are permanently united as if in some marriage. At the end, as further confirmation of the friendship and a conclusion to the proceedings, each drinks the other’s blood, which is willingly shed for this…” 20
Since Boswell published his work, however, it has been pointed out that a more recent, and more accurate, translation was available to him (evidently he was not aware of this), which has some significant differences to the nineteenth century source that Boswell relied on. Most importantly, the ceremony described above is not a “marriage,” but a “treaty,” which was performed “as if it were a betrothal.” This makes it clear that it wasn’t a marriage, or anything like it; just that the way in which the treaty agreement was ratified was performed in a similar way to a betrothal.21 When we consider how a marriage contract was sealed in early Irish society – with the exchange of a drink between the husband and wife – and that this same method was also used when a warrior pledged his fealty to his king, the above description is not so surprising. The ritualised drink offering simply indicates a contractual agreement being enacted, and since both occasions – marriage or swearing fealty – is a contractual agreement of some kind, it must be enacted in a certain way. The same applies to Gerald’s description of this treaty, but it’s certainly true that he was laying on the innuendo heavily here; he wanted to be clear that it was like a betrothal, as if an intimate, sexual relationship was inevitable. As with the horse episode above (where his phrasing describes the king “embracing” the horse), he is never explicit and one must read between the lines.
This leads us to another issue we have to consider – how matters of relationships and sex (in general) and sexuality (more specifically) were viewed back then, versus now, are very different. Times have changed, as has our understanding of matters like sexuality, and this is true when we compare the prevailing attitudes of today with those of a thousand, or two thousand years ago as much as we might compare them with the prevailing attitudes from as little as fifty years ago. Terminology has certainly changed, as have social attitudes (especially in terms of men expressing emotions and intimacy in platonic situations), and these are things that are constantly changing. Ultimately we have to be careful in navigating all of this and try – in as much as it’s possible – to consider the evidence on its own terms. We must also remember that a certain behaviour doesn’t necessarily indicate a particular identity; two people engaging in same-sex relations does not automatically mean they must be gay, or lesbian, or anything else.22
There is arguably a lack of visibility in terms of same-sex relationships in the literature and historical sources, not least because the Church actively disapproved of them, and it was the Church who were primarily in charge of writing anything down (especially in terms of our earliest sources). More than that, it may be that they were simply unremarkable… A same-sex couple couldn’t marry or have children, so there was no need to define such relationships by law, in order to protect inheritance rights, etc. In this respect, they were always going to be marginalised, but this lack of visibility skews our view of things somewhat. While same-sex relationships are far more than the sum of the sex that can be enjoyed within those relationships – as is true of any relationship – the main sources we have to look at are mostly preoccupied with the subject of sex and sex alone. Same sex relationships, then, are all but invisible.
In spite of all this, it is often popularly claimed that the pre-Christian Irish, and the early Christian Irish (even up until the Norman conquest, when Church reforms were introduced), had a relatively relaxed view of same-sex relationships. This is largely based on the fact that where we do have references to homosexuality, there is never any overt condemnation, or negative tones, towards it. In fact, from what we see, it’s treated like any other sexual activity – not something the Church itself was necessarily keen on within its walls, but it was a fact of life nevertheless.
Some of the earliest evidence relating to these attitudes can be found in the Irish penitentials. These were essentially ecclesiastical handbooks which laid out the types of penances that should be performed for admitting to certain sins, and they were aimed at ecclesiastics and lay people alike. These penitentials are obviously Christian documents, and were intended to address a Christian audience, but they are also relatively early in date, in comparison to others that can found in Europe (many of which were inspired by the Irish penitentials, in fact). The earliest examples we have date from around the sixth century onwards, and their production largely fell out of fashion by the ninth century.23 What we see in them can be taken to be both an explicit statement of what “proper” Christian behaviour was supposed to be at this time (an ideal, to be clear, not necessarily a reality), alongside anything that wasn’t. These proscriptions against certain behaviours weren’t necessarily railing against pagan behaviour per se, but certainly the penitentials challenged some of the social norms that were otherwise prevalent at the time: a time when the pre-Christian Irish were still around (to one degree or another), and society was not yet wholly Christianised.
Many of the Irish penitentials concerned themselves with proscribing against “deviant” sexual behaviour in general, for lay people as well as those who took holy orders where celibacy was (supposed to be) observed.24 They were concerned with all kinds of sex, including “fornication,” bestiality, homosexuality (including anal sex and femoral sex), oral sex, even heterosexual sex in the “wrong” position, or on holy days.25 Of the penances outlined regarding specifically homosexual behaviour, we see varying degrees of severity depending on the kind of activity being engaged in, the age of the individuals involved, and whether or not the behaviour was a first time offence, or a repeat offence – a sort of sliding scale, if you will.
It has been claimed that the penalties regarding homosexuality were relatively lenient in early medieval Ireland, compared to elsewhere, implying that it was something that was common and not regarded as being particularly dangerous to the moral fabric of (Christian) society.26 Looking at the evidence, however, things are not so simple. The Columbanus penitential, dating to c600 C.E. (so one of our earliest examples) gives a penance of up to ten years:
“But if one commits fornication as the Sodomites did, he shall do penance for ten years, the first three on bread and water; but in the other seven years he shall abstain from wine and meat, and [he shall] not be housed with another person forever.”27
The eighth century Bigotian Penitential outlines ten years as well, though the additional details of what to abstain from, and for how long, is not included.28 Ten years is a harsh penalty by any standards – putting it in perspective, the ninth century Old-Irish Penitential gives nuns or clerics who “lost their virginity” a penance of just one year, fasting on bread and water; nuns who got pregnant as a result got a harsher penalty of four years (Cummean, however, recommended an exile of seven years if a child was conceived – coincidentally, perhaps, the usual age the most children went into fosterage…),29 though this is still less than the penalty for anal sex between men (“fornication as the Sodomites did”) given by the Columbanus and Bigotian penitentials. Of course, however, these nuns and clerics were only “virgin” in the sense of their dedication and celibacy once they took orders. Whether or not they had previously enjoyed sexual encounters (virgin in the modern sense, that is) – inside or outside of wedlock – before taking orders was immaterial; St Columba’s mother, for example, was a noeb-huaga or “holy (female) virgin” even though she’d clearly had at least one child…30 Meanwhile, to give another heterosexual example, the sin of adultery received a penance of three years in Irish penitentials, which wasn’t keen on the Irish enthusiasm for polygyny and considered secondary marriages (and so on) de facto adultery by God’s law, regardless of their legitimacy according to the secular laws of the day.31
Other Irish penitentials do differ on the severity of their penances for same-sex “sins,” however. The penitential of Cummean (c650), which is only slightly later in date than the Columbanus penitential, takes a number of considerations into account when prescribing its penances, and is far more lenient; first offenders and youths are given lesser penances, with the penalties increasing with age and repetition. The type of sexual activity may be accounted for, as well.
For men, then, Cummean gives the following:
“Men guilty of homosexual practices, for the first offence, a year; if they repeat it, two years. If they are boys, two years, if men, three or four years; but if it has become a habit, seven years, and a method of penance shall be added according to the judgement of this priest.”32
In this respect, the penalties are more comparable with the penances given to the nuns or clerics who lose their virginity, or for adulterers, even (who, it seems to be assumed, are confessing to one “slip,” not many).
Cummean’s penitential goes into a lot of detail about the exact circumstances of the act, and the ages involved. The section begins with detailing the penances for “the (sinful) playing of boys,” starting with those who talk alone with one another, then those who kiss one another –the severity increasing if the act is licentious, and includes an “embrace,” or “pollution” (ejaculation).33 The penitential also advises that a boy “misused by an older boy, if he is ten years of age” should fast for ten days; twenty days if he consented (which is incredibly unfair, either way, given the fact that this is clearly a case of rape or sexual assault). “Boys” – the definition of which depends on the context, but here refers to young men of around twenty or so – who engage in mutual masturbation are required to do penance for up to forty days before they may take communion again, and the penance increases to a hundred days if they repeat the act. If they engage in such behaviour “frequently,” the pair are meant to be separated, and do penance for a full year.
While anal sex was considered to be the “ultimate” sin between two men, oral sex was regarded with a surprising degree of horror. Sticking with Cummean’s penitential, he says, “Those who satisfy their desires with their lips, four years. If it has become a habit, seven years.”34 Presumably this penance is mostly focused on oral sex between men, in the context of the section it appears in, but it could equally apply to any couple engaging in such an act, whether male or female.
According to the penitential of Finnian, oral sex, or “sinning with the lips” should incur the same penalty as anal sex (or “fornication from behind”), while the Bigotian penitential considered oral sex to be so terrible it is described as “a crime even to mention” (while mentioning it, of course…). The Bigotian penitential does, however, give a lesser penance for oral sex than the ten years given to “one who often has intercourse with a male or with beasts,” – four years for the first offence, or else seven years.35 The Anglo-Saxon penitential of Theodore, on the other hand, referred to oral sex as “the worst evil”, with a penance of up to twenty-two years, to life.36 Compare this to a penance of seven years for the sin of sodomy in the same penitential (although the ‘effeminate man’ – the one on the receiving end – did the same penance as an adulteress).37
Femoral sex (the penis inserted between the thighs) was also proscribed against in the penitentials, but it usually resulted in a lighter penance than anal sex. The Bigotian penitential, for example, gives a penance of two years, as opposed to the ten years given for anal sex.38 The Old-Irish Penitential also gives penances to those who “fornicate between their thighs or from behind,” and, in our only reference to women engaging in similar acts, the same source comments that “women or girls who do the same thing among themselves” should do penance, too. This is the only apparent reference to women and same-sex practices throughout any of the surviving penitentials.39
As a general rule, fasting was the go-to penance for sexual sins because it was believed that lust was related to the amount of blood a person had in their body. Fasting was seen to reduce the amount of blood, which therefore had an effect on those lustful impulses.40 The act of fasting, as an act of denial, may have also helped with denying the sins of the flesh, but there was also a perceived link between the sin of greed and the sin of lust in the Middle Ages; thus fasting ensured chastity.41
Clearly, then, sex between men was frowned upon by the Church, just as any kind of sex was (officially speaking) within holy orders – no surprises there. What might be unexpected, however, is the attitude towards boys (presumably unmarried men and youths amongst the lay people, or else clerics of one form or another): They received far lighter penances, with the implication that such youthful experimentation was relatively trivial and something that most would grow out of.42 The expectation, of course, was that they would eventually get married and settle down, regardless of their sexual orientation, or else dedicate themselves to a celibate religious life.
If we are to assume that the light penalties for young men also indicate their relative commonality, then we might wonder what that means about the religious communities where it was happening. The fact that multiple penitentialists felt the need to focus on matters of sex, same-sex behaviours included, certainly suggests that these things were not unusual in communities that were otherwise supposed to be celibate. In places where people lived in close-quarters with one another, where there was very little privacy (by modern standards), things like this were bound to happen.
Besides the penitentials, there are snippets and glimpses that hint at this sort of thing in the manuscripts and ecclesiastical art as well. The Book of Kells contains more than a few images amongst its illuminated pages that hint at some sort of sexual behaviour between ecclesiastics in the monasteries. The title page of St Luke’s gospel, for example, clearly shows some “canoodling” monks, possibly fuelled by copious amounts of wine:
With regard to this particular scene, the curator of the manuscript at Trinity College, Bernard Meehan, has commented:
“The entwined arms of the two men facing each other within the second arch of [the letter] M may be simply an artistic device parallel to the more common interlacing of legs. The arms seem, alternatively, to be in such an attitude as to confirm the necessity for the prohibitions which were enacted in the Irish penitentials against homosexual practices.”43
The same page from the Book of Kells also depicts three sets of bearded men whose legs and arms are intertwined, in what appears to be a rather intimate manner (situated in the top-right corner of the page; the third couple are harder to spot). Elsewhere, on a medieval high cross at Clonca, Co. Donegal, a very striking scene can be observed where an ecclesiastical figure appears to be touching his own genitalia, while holding a companion’s hand (or possibly their genitalia as well? It’s difficult to see where the companion’s other hand his, given how worn the carving is there). Both appear to be male:
There are also examples of the famous “beard-pullers” that we can point to; the “beard-pullers” are a genre of iconography that can be found in numerous places in western Europe, but the oldest examples come from Ireland. They are all found in an ecclesiastical context, and this includes a scene from the Book of Kells (the oldest example, shown below), as well as a carving that depicts beard-pullers at Monasterboice. The scenes aren’t overtly sexual, but they are certainly suggestive, especially when considered in the context of the other scenes we’ve looked at so far. Whether this was intended, however, is hard to say; interpretations as to the exact meaning of these beard pullers range from representations of “anger and discord,” or as allegorical expressions of sin (sexual sins?).44
Unlike the Church, secular Irish law had very little to say about homosexuality; in fact, it is only mentioned once (as far as we can tell from the surviving body of the Brehon laws, at least). The reference to it – again in terms of male homosexuality – can be found in the Cáin Lánamna, where the various grounds for a woman being able to demand a divorce (and keep what she brought into the marriage, without penalty). The focus in the section here is largely on various sexual failings on the husband’s part, that allow the wife a no-penalty divorce. These include if the husband is impotent, sterile, or too fat to be able to have sex, for example, or else if he is indiscreet and shares the details of their sex life to the wife’s embarrassment. Another legitimate “no penalty” grounds for the wife to demand a divorce is if her husband joins holy orders (since celibacy would be expected; the husband might also be expected to leave his wife to live in a monastic order, and would thus be unable to support his household financially). More to the point here, a wife may ask for a divorce if she is “cheated of bed-rites so that her husband prefers to lie with the servant boys when it is not necessary for him to do so.”45 In other words, if the wife wants sex (presumably not just for her sexual fulfilment and enjoyment, but so that she might have children), but her husband refuses her because of his sexuality, then she is entitled to a divorce (the same goes for a situation where the husband forsakes his wife for another woman, which again denies the wife a sexually fulfilling life, or the prospect of children).
Either way, who the husband slept with wasn’t such a legal concern, provided he fulfilled his obligations towards his wife in the marriage bed. The phrasing of the law itself offers no overt moral judgement on the circumstances of such a divorce, only that the husband’s overt neglect towards his wife makes him responsible for the divorce. Otherwise, there is not much else to say, legally; the basis of laws was to protect heterosexual couples who could procreate, and as such, homosexual (or otherwise infertile) relationships were irrelevant to this – neither desirable or encouraged, but not condemned either.46
It may be worth noting, however, that the language of the law tract specifically singles out not just men, but men of a certain status – “servant boys” – in terms of the husband’s diverted affections. We’ve already seen that the definition of a “boy” in Irish doesn’t necessarily indicate someone who is underage, so there’s no reason to assume that the husband here is a paedophile, specifically. Instead, what seems to be implicit, here, is the understanding (or presumption) that a man (of the husband’s social status) would not have an affair with someone of the same status as himself – an equal, as such – but would instead engage in an affair with someone who is socially beneath him. In this respect, there does seem to be some sort of assumption, and implicit judgement, being made as to how same-sex relations should work here, which are strikingly similar to the kind of attitudes that were prevalent in the Classical world as well.46a
Moving beyond the law and the church, we might turn to other evidence out there, like literary representations. The role of the filid (professional poets) in society was an important one, and their job was complicated… Besides composing poetry, their gifts with words meant that they might work as envoys or diplomats in cross-border negotiations. They were also, to a certain extent, guardians of traditional history, and were well-versed in matters of genealogy for the king (or kindreds) they served. Mostly, however, besides providing entertainment, their job was focused on exalting and elegising their patron – the king himself. Through their poems, the king would gain a reputation and renown, which served to increase or consolidate their power-base. They were propagandists and PR people, par excellence.
As an extension of this sort of role, the poet was also often an integral part of the king’s inauguration ceremony, as John Francis Byrne argues; an important part of the inauguration rites was the proclamation of the king’s name and position – naming him and giving him his official title for the first time. The duty of making such a declaration appears to have fallen on the poet, and so they served an important role “as master of the power of the Word…”47 Their proclamation made the fact of the king’s accession a reality.
Traditionally, part of the inauguration ceremony saw the king literally (or figuratively, later on) marry the land he was to preside over. This was represented by his union with the sovereignty goddess, who is an important figure in many of the myths; in gaining her approval and acceptance, the king’s reign is legitimised. In effect, it is the goddess of the túath, and the land in which the túath resided, who gave the king his authority. In the absence of a physical presence of such a goddess, however, it has been noted the poet often placed himself in the role of the king’s new “wife.” James Carney has argued that this action was simply a conceit – a metaphor rather than a reality.48 At the same time, however, many poets fully embraced the idea and, as Lacey notes, the end result is that “there were considerable homosexual overtones about the relationship between poets and their chiefs, at the very least from the point of view of the poets.”49
Of course, not every poet in early Irish society was necessarily male, but many – perhaps even most – were,50 and examples of such poetry with heavily homoerotic overtones can be pointed to, which most definitely come from men. What’s more interesting in all of this, however, is just how long this “conceit” lasted in Gaelic society, in spite of the homoeroticism, which would presumably have been considered to be incredibly undesirable.
A case in point here is the royal poet Eochaidh Ó hEoghusa, who lived in the latter half of the sixteenth century, into the seventeenth century. He is best know for his patronage by Aodh Mag Uidhir (Hugh Maguire), who became Lord of Fermanagh in 1589 and reigned until 1600. Eochaidh wrote many poems exalting and praising Mag Uidhir, and addressed him as “my darling spouse … the fine pure-white breast, the pillow on which I rest, the refreshing of my mind.” Upon Mag Uidhir’s death, Eochaidh declared himself “widowed” as he courted the patronage of Conor McDermot of Sligo – “You may take me if you like – I am widowed.”51 His proposition to McDermot is playful, and clearly flirtatious. To what degree Eochaidh was serious (and literal) in his overtures is impossible to say. Are his poems evidence of a romantic, even physical, relationship with Mag Uidhir, or was he merely invested in a “conceit,” as defined by a long poetic tradition, standing in as the goddess herself and speaking on her behalf? It would be easy for those who are uncomfortable in admitting the possibility to dismiss Eochaidh as just doing his job, but it has to be said that he was pretty clear in his desire, right to the end. The only real question here is whether his patron(s) reciprocated in kind, or to what degree…
When we look at the broader evidence, beyond this one sample, we do see that these kinds of intimate relationships between men were very common. If we turn to the mythology, we find more examples, though again the question must be raised as to whether these relationships were simply literary conceits, or reflected reality – or perhaps did so at one time, before the Church’s feelings on homosexuality and sex in general prevailed, and then became a literary conceit.
One of the most obvious examples here is the relationship between Cú Chulainn and his foster-brother Fer Diad, which underpins some of the most dramatic and emotional parts of the Táin Bó Cúailnge. To put their relationship into some context, before we continue, fosterage was a very common practice in Ireland (and Scotland and Man), well into the seventeenth century. It was mostly the preserve of the upper classes, and served as a way of forming or reinforcing alliances between various families – one family sent their child to another family, where they were raised, creating a connection and certain degree of obligation between them both. The arrangement was often mutually beneficial to both sides, and it also provided an education for the children involved – one that suited their status and their future prospects. A child like Cú Chulainn, who was the nephew of a king (Conchobar), would have had a number of foster-families throughout his childhood, to maximise the political advantages for his family.52
Part of Cú Chulainn’s time in fosterage was spent with the warrior queen, Scáthach, who took Cú Chulainn and Fer Diad, amongst others, and taught them how to fight. Their relationship, as we find it described in the Táin, was a close one. They appear to have had a very intimate connection, which has inevitably raised the question of whether or not they may have been lovers at one time or another. One of the clues here is in Cú Chulainn’s description of how they shared a bed in the Comrac Fir Diad episode of the Táin:
“We were loving friends. We were comrades in the wood. We were men who shared a bed. We would sleep a deep sleep after our weary fights in many strange lands. Together we would ride and range through every wood when we were taught by Scáthach.”53
The language here is ambiguous, perhaps deliberately so. They were loving friends who shared a bed, in the wilderness, as they went through intensive and exhaustive training. Clearly they share a bond, but the question remains: How intimate was their intimacy?
Two men sharing a bed and talking about how much they love one another may strike us as pretty romantic, by modern standards; it’s the sort of intimacy between friends that isn’t openly talked about, at least. To an early Irish audience, however, Cú Chulainn’s description of his relationship with Fer Diad isn’t especially odd, since it was extremely common for people of the same sex to share a bed with one another for a long time. For kings, those who shared his bed were given a formal title to describe their role: they were a fear éinleabtha, and such a position could be extremely influential due to the intimacy and friendship that could be fostered. St. Caillin, for example, offered the “bed-fellowship of a king” as a bribe (essentially), to encourage the O’Cathalains to submit to him. One story about St. Patrick tells of how a boy named Benignus who took such a liking to Patrick that he would cry if he could not sleep with him, and was forced instead to sleep with his parents. Benignus became a lifelong friend and companion of Patrick, and ultimately succeeded him as bishop of Armagh.54
So Cú Chulainn and Fer Diad’s “sleeping together” here isn’t necessarily meant in the erotic sense, although Fer Diad is clearly very dear to Cú Chulainn, and vice versa. Instead of a specifically sexual subtext being intended here, Cú Chulainn’s words could be interpreted as intending to show the shared history the two had; they relied on one another and sought comfort from each other during their time in a strange land. All the same, there is no doubt that the comfort they found together could certainly have been sexual to some degree or another.
The Celts, we are told by the Aristotle, “manifestly honoured sexual intercourse (synousia) among males.”55 Eusebius mentions that Gaulish men freely married amongst themselves, while Diodorus Siculus commented that, “Although they have lovely women, they scarcely pay attention to them, but strangely crave male embraces”56 – and notably, the criticism implied here is not that they engaged in homosexual practices at all, but that they did so as a preference over their women. This hyper-masculinised view of Gaulish men is one that focuses on their martial prowess as well – running into battle naked and all – and it does evoke the same sort of sense we get with Cú Chulainn and Fer Diad here. While it seems that there are some obvious exaggerations at play in the Classical commentary, the Gauls wouldn’t have been the only people who freely engaged in same-sex affairs under such circumstances at this period in time – the Greeks and Romans, to name two obvious examples, also did so.57 It would not be surprising, then, if Cú Chulainn and Fer Diad represented echoes of a typical sort of relationship that had at one time been common-place in a male-dominated setting like their fosterage and warrior-training had been.
The passage quoted above offers nothing especially conclusive on its own, but there’s a lot more to work with. Later on in the Táin, Cú Chulainn praises Fer Diad’s prowess as a warrior and extols his physical virtues, just as he might with a maiden (and just as a poet might have to his royal patron):
“Dear to me was your splendid blush, dear your perfect and fair form, dear your bright clear eye, dear your bearing and your speech.
There never strode to flesh-rending fight, there never grew wrathful in his manliness, there never held shield upon the wide slope, one like unto you, warlike son of Damán.
I have never met such as you until now, since the only son of Aífe fell; your peer in deeds of battle I found not here, O Fer Diad.”58
Here, it should be said, Cú Chulainn is effectively performing an elegy, lamenting the death of his good friend, before he has to kill him (with the expectation that of course it’s going to be Fer Diad who will die – it would be inconceivable for Cú Chulainn to think otherwise!). The whole episode here – not just Cú Chulainn’s emphasis of Fer Diad’s beautiful physique, or how dear he is to him – could be seen as a painful break-up between two lovers, as much as it is a prelude to a fight to the death. It may call to mind a passionate clash of lovers that is about to happen, as much as a clash between two warriors with nothing left to lose, though we’ll come back to this point shortly.
In a way, this “passionate clash” is exactly what happens – Fer Diad is as equal a match as Cú Chulainn’s ever met in battle, having both been trained by Scáthach. Ultimately, Cú Chulainn is forced to employ the gae bolga, a weapon that he is renowned for his skill in wielding, against Fer Diad. It is the one skill that Fer Diad himself never learned during their training together, but Fer Diad is wearing his conganchnes, an impenetrable armour, and so he thinks himself impervious to Cú Chulainn’s gae bolga. However, as Cú Chulainn flings the weapon at Fer Diad, it finds its mark and enters Fer Diad through the one area the armour can’t protect. The gae bolga enters Fer Diad’s anus before releasing barbs that permeate throughout his body, killing him.59 Again, the sexual implications are overt, but here such penetration by Cú Chulainn’s gae bolga would arguably be more analogous to rape – a violent, sexual domination – than one final, passionate, good-bye fling.60
The point of entry for Cú Chulainn’s gae bolga is explicitly stated in both recensions of the Táin, but where the first recension (the earlier version) has the exchanges between Cú Chulainn and Fer Diad shown as “a passionate articulation on a relatively small scale of heroic friendship,”61 it is the second recension that goes into more detail and ramps up the rapey and misogynistic elements of the tale, and as a result the homoerotic overtones become more overt here. It’s misogynistic because the second recension goes out of its way to emphasise the “feminising” of Fer Diad: Cú Chulainn goes to greater lengths to emphasise Fer Diad’s physical beauty, uses intimate terms of endearment, and so on, as he might in his empassioned praise of a maiden. In penetrating Fer Diad with the gae bolga, Sheehan sees Fer Diad taking on “the woman’s role” – passive, being penetrated rather than penetrating – a common view in societies that have (or had) sharply defined gender roles.62 The penitential of Columbanus states this idea explicitly, for example, describing men who engage in anal sex as having “sinned by effeminate intercourse with a male.”63
Tied in with the way in which Fer Diad dies (as does Cú Chulainn’s only son, Connla, in a different tale, and another warrior, Lóch, just to prior to Cú Chulainn’s meeting with Fer Diad)64 Sheehan sees all of this as a “signifier for Cú Chulainn’s pre-eminent masculinity.”65 In other words, the very act of penetration with the gae bolga is analogous to rape, and as the “feminised” hero, Fer Diad, is weakened, so he automatically loses.66 Cú Chulainn, on the other hand may be seen as a broiling mass of sex, death, violence, and the epitome masculinity. From an incredibly misogynistic, heterosexist point of view, anyway.
Cú Chulainn and Fer Diad are pitted against each other in the Táin, in spite of their love for one another, because Fer Diad has thrown his lot in with Medb, the enemy of the Ulaid: Although their time as foster-brothers has given them a lasting bond, they are now enemies by default.67 Cú Chulainn’s overt “feminising” of Fer Diad (and, effectively, his rape as well) in death – if we take the episode to illustrate such a point – takes on an added misogynistic element in the second recension; Fer Diad dies directly as a result of the fact that he threw his lot in with a woman. This connection is then emphasised in the manner of his death, and in this respect, it is a sort of dramatic irony.
As noted previously, women rarely receive a mention in same-sex situations, and neither the Church nor the secular laws seem to have considered lesbian sex to be an especial problem.68 The Anglo-Saxon penitential of Theodore decreed that any woman who engaged in fornication with another woman should do penance for three years; more if aids were used, which is relatively lenient when compared with the penances for men engaging in sex with one another (see above).69 In a convent setting, just like in the monastery, there must have been some concern that inappropriate sexual activity was happening, but in a specifically Irish context there is very little to go on.
Given the comparative lack of ecclesiastical condemnation against sex between women, we might assume that it simply wasn’t seen as being as threatening to the well-being of the túath (or the Church) as relations between two men may have been. For most women, their fate was marriage and babies, or otherwise it was off to the nunnery – options that were primarily dictated by their father, or other senior male authority figure within the family.70 Some women did take on a profession, such as the female professional poets mentioned above, but as a general rule they were not likely marry if they wanted to carry on working; the nature of the profession meant that they had to travel a lot, something that was not conducive to raising a family and so forth.71 This fact in itself may have made such professions, besides holy orders, an attractive refuge for the non-conformists of the day, in terms of sexuality, gender, or whatever else. Ultimately, though, women having sex with other women couldn’t (usually…) result in unwanted pregnancy, or confusion or concern over who the father might be, so perhaps that was the bottom line: It was nowhere near as potentially damaging to an individual, or their kin, as a heterosexual affair might be.
We do see at least one reference to a woman having sex with another woman being explicitly mentioned – in a rather wry and clearly humorous kind of way. This is the tale of a king, Niall Frossach, who is presented with a pregnant woman who wishes an audience with him, so that he might help her. As a king, it is Niall’s job to give sage and true judgements to those who come to him; it is his sacred duty as sovereign, and should he fail in this capacity, he will have to forfeit his position (so no pressure, like). So the woman is brought before him, and she is distraught. She explains to him that although she’s pregnant, she has no idea who the father of her child is, because she hasn’t actually had sex with a man. It shouldn’t be possible! To the audience, they might begin to wonder if she is carrying the Second Coming, but the woman’s more immediate concern is that in situations like this, there are matters of responsibility and financial support that need to be arranged in order to raise the child.72 Since she has no idea who the father is (and God doesn’t pay child support…), she therefore asks Niall to give his judgement and pronounce who the father might be, in order to make sure that her child is properly taken care of. As king, a crucial element to his reign was the ability to be able to enact the principle of fír flathemon – the ruler’s truth. This was, in effect, the ability to make true judgements, based on the fact of the king’s innate and true sovereignty. If a king was unable to make true judgements, then, he would be shown to be an illegitimate ruler, and he may be forced to abdicate. In coming to Nial with this problem, then, Niall’s job is on the line.
So Niall Frossach mulls the pregnant woman’s predicament over and he thinks for a moment, a little bewildered and stumped for words. Finally he has an idea, and he asks the woman if she has recently had any bouts of “playful mating” (lánamnas rebartha) with another woman. The woman replies straight away that yes she has, and so the king announces his judgement: He tells the woman that prior to their bout of “playful mating,” her partner had recently had sex with a man. During their “tumbling,” the woman’s partner had therefore passed the semen from the man she’d had sex with, to the woman who then got pregnant. Niall instructed her to talk to her partner and see who the man was, so that the necessary issues of paternity and child support could be worked out.73
The humour is evident is the story – as a result of Niall hearing the woman’s problem and then having to make a judgement on it, he turns red (though whether it’s embarrassment or arousal, or maybe both, it’s not clear). Whatever the reason for this “redness,” it sends a “vapour” up into the sky, and it so happens that there are some demons flying above Niall right at that point. Niall’s “vapour” disperses them, freeing a priest that the demons had trapped with them in the air in the process. The priest falls back down to earth and thanks Niall Frossach profusely: his true judgement – and of course (by less direct means), the women’s illicit tryst together – have saved his poor soul.74
Clearly, in this case at least, a bit of “playful mating” was not considered to be a threat to the moral fabric of society. Niall Frossach tells the woman to be truthful when he asks if she had engaged in “playful mating,” implying that the woman might lie to cover her potentially embarrassing or immoral behaviour. Ultimately, however, Niall offers no condemnation or punishment, even though her “tumbling” with her partner has now become public knowledge.75 We might expect some sort of warning, at least, against engaging in such behaviour if it was indeed seen to be so wrong.
The very term used for her tryst with another woman is telling, though – “playful mating” makes it seem trivial and non-threatening, but at the same time, again, it offers no overt moral judgements or condemnation. Certainly we might expect to see such in a penitential, but here, in a more secular setting, it’s taken as something that is rather a fact of life; something that happens sometimes, and even so the earth doesn’t shake, the seas don’t rise, and nor does the sky fall in. Although in speaking of it, sometimes priests are inadvertently freed from the hands of low-flying demons…
Besides a brief mention in the penitentials (as mentioned above), Niall Frossach’s story is the only instance in the literature where women having sex with each other is explicitly referenced. Otherwise, lesbian or bisexual encounters between women are all but invisible. Again, though, we might turn to subtle hints or innuendo to see if that can help us. As we noted above, it was very common for people of the same sex to sleep with one another as “bedfellow” – especially in religious communities. Patrick isn’t the only saint and ecclesiastic to have had a devoted bedfellow; Brigid did, too. The intimate friendship between Brigid and her follower Darlugdach nearly faltered at one point however, and the events that underpin this story has led to some speculation as to the nature of Brigid and Darlugdach’s relationship.
As the story goes, in spite of her devotion to Brigid, and to her religious work, Darlugdach fell passionately in love with a man and she resolved to elope with him. On the night she was meant to leave, though, Darlugdach began to doubt herself, and so she put her head in Brigid’s lap and told her everything, unburdening herself. She also put her feet onto the burning embers of the hearth until it miraculously took away her burning passion. Depending on the version of the story, she may have put the burning embers in her shoes, and after praying, she stood on them and put the embers out, with the same result; in some versions Darlugdach’s contact with the burning embers is a punishment ordered by Brigid, in others, it is simply a sign. Either way, Brigid miraculously healed Darlugdach’s burned feet, and they remained together until Brigid’s own death.
When Brigid died, Darlugdach was grief-stricken at the prospect of Brigid’s passing, and she wanted to die with her. Brigid, however, told Darlugdach that she had to stay behind, so that she could serve as the abbess of Kildare for the next year. Darlugdach did so, reluctantly at first, but she fulfilled Brigid’s dying wish and served as abbess for the year, dying exactly a year to the day after Brigid had, on February 1, 526 C.E. As a result, they now both share the same feast day.76
Peter Beresford Ellis is the first person to have commented on the seemingly romantic and possibly sexual overtones to the story of Brigid and Darlugdach (as it is described in a number of Brigid’s hagiographies, or “saints’ lives”). He writes:
We seem to be left in little doubt that Brigid had a lesbian relationship with another member of her community. She certainly shared her bed with Darlughdacha, whose name means ‘daughter of the sun-god Lugh’. It is recorded once that Darlughdacha had the temerity to look appraisingly at a passing young warrior. As a punishment, Brigid made her walk in shoes filled with hot coals. As Darlughdacha became Brigid’s successor as abbess at Kildare, one presumes that, after this penance, she dutifully returned to Brigid’s bed. One could also argue that Brigid’s sexual inclinations become clear in that she maimed herself rather than marry a male but was content to share her bed with a female over whom she displayed signs of intense jealousy.77
Christina Harrington, however, vehemently disagrees with this assessment, and concludes that Brigid and Darlugdach’s relationship has been “badly misconstrued” by Ellis.78 In fairness, Ellis is certainly wrong about the meaning of Darlugdach’s name (and his claim that Lug is a sun-god…), which seems to have been intended to imply that there was a secretly pagan undertone to their relationship as well. The first element, dar, certainly does indicate a “daughter,” but Lugdach is a genitive form of Lugaid, a common Irish personal name that was also used in some dynastic names in early Ireland, such as the Síl Lugdach (“the Seed of Lugaid”). The name Lugaid derives from Lug and the element *dek-, which means “to show respect.” It therefore gives a meaning of something like “he who venerates Lug,” and so it does have a connection to Lug, albeit in a more roundabout way than Ellis suggests. It certainly may have had a specifically devotional meaning at one point, but that doesn’t automatically mean that’s the case here; the extent of its usage passed well into the Christian period, when it is unlikely to have had any pagan significance to those who bore it as a personal name.79
Whatever the case, Harrington argues that the jealousy and punishment that Ellis sees in the story is not really there. The only part of the story that could support his interpretation is the motif of Brigid and Darlugdach sharing a bed, but in Harrington’s mind it is just that: a motif. As we’ve seen already, bed-sharing was especially common with kings, and the literature often depicts other important people, like saints, as doing the same thing. In Harrington’s mind, the practice shows simple favouritism, not sexual favours, or the implication that Kildare was a place notable for its “openly-admitted lesbian liaisons”.80
Once again, then, what might seem homoerotic to us now wasn’t necessarily intended to have been then; there were different standards of intimacy between people, and different ways in which affection was expressed. At the same time, however, to discount the possibility of a sexual relationship out of hand would be shortsighted, especially when such matters have been so thoroughly downplayed and ignored throughout the ages.
Based on the evidence we’ve explored above it seems clear that the pre-Christian Gaels did not have any virulently negative attitudes against same-sex relationships, or sex in general. There were societal norms and expectations, for sure, but they were motivated by culture, not religion (specifically) until the Church got involved. It seems pretty clear that up to that point, these considerations were simply not a religious issue until the Church itself made them so.
It’s from the Church’s influence that we see concerns about virginity, purity, sin, “holy matrimony” and attitudes towards adultery, pre-marital or extra-marital sex creeping into early Irish society. It’s also from the Church itself that we see the main drive in condemning queer relationships in our sources (e.g. the Penitentials). And yet even here, there was – to a certain degree – a more permissive attitude towards certain sexual “transgressions” in the earliest sources, which suggest an underlying point of view that hadn’t yet set into the virulently homophobic attitude the Church later promoted (and, sadly some of its proponents still do today). Perhaps ironically, however, it was within the Church that many of those who did not conform to the “societal norms” found refuge.
It must be said, though, that the evidence is somewhat limited. What we do see, however, must be considered in the context of its time. We must take into account the fact that early Irish society have very different views regarding questions of intimacy and privacy than we do today, and they also had different attitudes towards sex and sexuality in general. Cultural expectations were also different, being focused on the kin-group rather than the individual. As such, an individual’s obligation towards their kin (paternal kin, especially) was often more important than the individual’s own desires or needs, per se. Arguably there was more freedom for those of lower status in these matters because there was far less (financially) at stake. Inevitably, though, all of this means that the focus of the evidence is mostly weighted towards the average, “normal” family, rather than those who didn’t conform. For the non-conformists, their experiences are marginalised and largely unseen. That doesn’t – and shouldn’t – mean that they should be viewed as less than, and it doesn’t justify any kind of bigotry today.
When it comes to subjects like sexuality and religion, people often ask about historical attitudes relating to same-sex relationships and how that might affect our view of the matter, as Gaelic Polytheists. It is assumed (or feared) that if it was frowned upon in the past then we should frown upon it now. Questions about sexuality tend to come up a lot – in terms of queer relationships, at least – but nobody ever seems to apply the same logic to straight relationships. Questions about the rights or wrongs of premarital sex and Gaelic Polytheism, based on historical attitudes, are rarely – if ever – asked, for example. Why? (Because it’s not a current political issue?).
In Ireland, the laws prohibiting sex between same-sex couples – introduced in the nineteenth century – were only taken off the books in 1993 after a long legal struggle (though it should be said that the laws largely targeted men, as they did in most countries with this sort of legislation at the time). In Scotland, it happened a little earlier, in 1981, and civil partnerships for same-sex couples were legalised in 2004. Marriage equality, however, was only introduced in Scotland in December 2014. It was enshrined in Irish law after a referendum in 2015 but Northern Ireland has yet to legalise same-sex marriage or even recognise same-sex marriages performed in other countries. The issue is a devolved matter (as it is in Scotland), to be determined by the Northern Irish Assembly. The struggle for equality and basic human rights are ongoing.81
This page is somewhat limited in focus, concentrating only on what we can see as far as matters of sex and sexuality are concerned. When it comes to matters of gender, things get a lot more complicated. For one, it’s an area of history that’s only really becoming a focus in more recent decades, and there is a distinct lack of reliable research that specifically relates to the Gaels. For some general reading, I would recommend this article that deals with the question of Were there Transgender People in the Middle Ages? (spoiler: yes). Book-wise, Sarah Sheehan and Ann Dooley’s Constructing Gender in Medieval Ireland (2013) may be useful, and also Jacqueline Murray’s article ‘One Flesh, Two Sexes, Three Genders?’, which you can find in Gender and Christianity in Medieval Europe, edited by Lisa Bitel and Felice Lifshitz (2010). A brief overview of the content for both can be found here. Further resources will be listed as/when I find them.
1 Bitel, Land of Women: Tales of Sex and Gender From Early Ireland, 1998, p41.
2 See: Part One.
3 Findon, A Woman’s Words: Emer and Female Speech in the Ulster Cycle, 1997, p37. See Part One. The further down the list the marriage was, the less desirable or prestigious it was.
4 MacQuarrie, The Waves of Manannán, 1997, p225.
5 MacQuarrie, The Waves of Manannán, 1997, p226.
6 Bitel, Land of Women: Tales of Sex and Gender From Early Ireland, 1998, p56.
7 See The Exile of the Sons of Uisliu.
8 Gantz, Early Irish Myths and Sagas, 1981, p260.
9 Gantz, Early Irish Myths and Sagas, 1981, p267.
10 Kinsella, The Táin, 1969, p251.
11 Findon, A Woman’s Words: Emer and Female Speech in the Ulster Cycle, 1997, p49.
12 Bitel, ‘Sex, Sin, and Celibacy in Early Christian Ireland’, in Frykenberg and Hollo (Eds.), Proceedings of the Harvard Celtic Colloquium Vol VII, 1987, p65.
13 Bitel, ‘Sex, Sin, and Celibacy in Early Christian Ireland’, in Frykenberg and Hollo (Eds.), Proceedings of the Harvard Celtic Colloquium Vol VII, 1987, p72.
14 Kelly, A Guide to Early Irish Law, 1988, pp72-73.
15 See The Dagda.
16 MacQuarrie, The Waves of Manannán, 1997, p35.
17 The Birth of Mongán.
18 Bieler, The Irish Penitentials (1963).
19 This has been discussed by many academics; see, for example Byrne, Irish Kings and High-Kings, 1973, pp17-18, and for a more recent analysis, Charles Doherty’s ‘Kingship in Early Ireland,’ in Breathnach (Ed.), The Kingship and Landscape of Tara (2005).
20 Lacey, Terrible Queer Creatures: Homosexuality in Irish History, 2015, pp43.
21 Lacey, Terrible Queer Creatures: Homosexuality in Irish History, 2015, pp43-44; John Boswell’s The Marriage of Likeness: Same-Sex Relations in Pre-Modern Europe (1996) draws on Thomas Wright’s The Historical Works of Giraldus Cambrensis (1881) while Lacey points to John O’Meara’s The first version of The Topography of Ireland by Giraldus Cambrensis (1951; revised 1982).
22 Although not specifically related to the Gaels, this lecture, titled ‘Holding it Straight: Sexual Orientation in the Middle Ages,’ by Dr Bob Mills of UCL, gives a fascinating perspective on these points, along with some general background, and it’s well worth a watch. Probably NSFW for most people…
23 Tanner, ‘The Irish Penitentials and Contemporary Celtic Christianity,’ p64.
24 Of course, this didn’t stop the higher echelons of ecclesiastics from marrying, keeping mistresses, and having myriad children; monasteries and bishoprics were often a family affair, and a very lucrative one at that. Those in charge would want to pass on their legacy to a son or nephew, usually to ensure control was kept within the kin-group. In this respect, they were rather like kings, in their own way. This practice was the norm – for men, of course, not for the women in holy orders – up until Church reforms were instituted in the 12th century. Even after that, married bishops and abbots weren’t exactly unusual, for some centuries afterwards.
25 Bitel, ‘Sex, Sin, and Celibacy in Early Christian Ireland’, in Frykenberg and Hollo (Eds.), Proceedings of the Harvard Celtic Colloquium Vol VII, 1987, p77.
26 Bitel, ‘Sex, Sin, and Celibacy in Early Christian Ireland’, in Frykenberg and Hollo (Eds.), Proceedings of the Harvard Celtic Colloquium Vol VII, 1987, p77.
27 McCann, ‘Transgressing the Boundaries of Holiness: Sexual Deviance in the Early Medieval Penitential Handbooks of Ireland, England and France 500-1000,’ p38.
28 Lacey, Terrible Queer Creatures: Homosexuality in Irish History, 2015, p27.
29 Harrington, Women in a Celtic Church AD450-1150, 2002, p89.
30 Harrington, Women in a Celtic Church AD450-1150, 2002, p89.
31 McCann, ‘Transgressing the Boundaries of Holiness: Sexual Deviance in the Early Medieval Penitential Handbooks of Ireland, England and France 500-1000,’ p87.
32 McCann, ‘Transgressing the Boundaries of Holiness: Sexual Deviance in the Early Medieval Penitential Handbooks of Ireland, England and France 500-1000,’ p41-42.
33 Lacey, Terrible Queer Creatures: Homosexuality in Irish History, 2015, p28.
34 Lacey, Terrible Queer Creatures: Homosexuality in Irish History, 2015, p29.
35 Lacey, Terrible Queer Creatures: Homosexuality in Irish History, 2015, p27.
36 Frantzen, Before the closet: Same sex love from Beowulf to Angels in America, 2000, p176.
37 Frantzen, Before the closet: Same sex love from Beowulf to Angels in America, 2000, p176.
38 Brundage, Law, sex, and Christian society in medieval Europe, 1990, p167.
39 Lacey, Terrible Queer Creatures: Homosexuality in Irish History, 2015, p29.
40 Harrington, Women in a Celtic Church AD450-1150, 2002, p88.
41 Holding it Straight: Sexual Orientation in the Middle Ages
42 Brundage, Law, sex, and Christian society in medieval Europe, 1990, p167.
43 Quoted by Lacey, Terrible Queer Creatures: Homosexuality in Irish History, 2015, pp40-41; see also the intertwined men at Meigle, Perthshire.
44 Endoltseva and Vinogradov, ‘Beard Pulling in Medieval Christian Art: Various Interpretations of a Scene,’ p1-2.
45 Lacey, Terrible Queer Creatures: Homosexuality in Irish History, 2015, p34; Kelly, A Guide to Early Irish Law, 1988, p74.
46 Bitel, Land of Women: Tales of Sex and Gender From Early Ireland, 1998, p58.
46a As Brian Lacey has noted, attitudes towards homosexuality in societies where gender roles are otherwise heavily defined have typically – historically – emphasised gay relationships as being between an older ‘dominant, active’ male and a younger person who takes the ‘passive or female’ role. This is of course a vast generalisation, but it’s an attitude that’s prevalent in Classical literature and poetry, for example. Lacey, Terrible Queer Creatures: Homosexuality in Irish History, 2015, p14; pp54-55.
47 Byrne, Irish Kings and High-Kings, 1973, p21.
48 See Carney, The Irish bardic poet: A study in the relationship of poet and patron as exemplified in the persons of the poet, Eochaidh Ó hEoghusa (O’Hussey) and his various patrons, mainly members of the Maguire family of Fermanagh (1967). On the subject of sacral kingship, see Bart Jaski’s Early Irish Kingship and Succession (2000).
49 Lacey, Terrible Queer Creatures: Homosexuality in Irish History, 2015, p35.
50 Clancy, ‘Women Poets in Early Medieval Ireland: Stating the Case,’ in Meeks and Simms (Eds.), ‘The Fragility of Her Sex’? Medieval Irish Women in the European Context, 1996, pp45-46.
51 Lacey, Terrible Queer Creatures: Homosexuality in Irish History, 2015, pp49-50.
52 See Ní Chonaill, ‘Child-Centred Law in Medieval Ireland,’ in Davis and Dunne (Eds.), The Empty Throne: Childhood and the Crisis of Modernity (2008).
53 See ‘The Encounter with Fer Diad’ from the Táin Bó Cuailnge.
54 Lacey, Terrible Queer Creatures: Homosexuality in Irish History, 2015, p36.
55 Sheehan, ‘Fer Diad De-flowered: Homoerotics and Masculinity in Comrac Fir Diad’, Ulidia 2, 2005, p58.
56 Sheehan, ‘Fer Diad De-flowered: Homoerotics and Masculinity in Comrac Fir Diad’, Ulidia 2, 2005, p58.
57 Catullus? Sappho? Anyone?
58 See ‘The Encounter with Fer Diad’ from the Táin Bó Cuailnge.
59 Sheehan, ‘Fer Diad De-flowered: Homoerotics and Masculinity in Comrac Fir Diad’, Ulidia 2, 2005, p56-57; p60-61.
60 Dooley, ‘The Invention of Women in the Táin’, in Mallory and Stockman (Eds.), Ulidia, 1994, p127; Sheehan, ‘Fer Diad De-flowered: Homoerotics and Masculinity in Comrac Fir Diad’, Ulidia 2, 2005, p61.
61 Dooley, ‘The Invention of Women in the Táin’, in Mallory and Stockman (Eds.), Ulidia, 1994, p126.
62 Sheehan, ‘Fer Diad De-flowered: Homoerotics and Masculinity in Comrac Fir Diad’, Ulidia 2, 2005, p62.
63 Lacey, Terrible Queer Creatures: Homosexuality in Irish History, 2015, p28.
64 Sheehan, ‘Fer Diad De-flowered: Homoerotics and Masculinity in Comrac Fir Diad’, Ulidia 2, 2005, p62; Dooley, ‘The Invention of Women in the Táin’, in Mallory and Stockman (Eds.), Ulidia, 1994, p127.
65 Sheehan, ‘Fer Diad De-flowered: Homoerotics and Masculinity in Comrac Fir Diad’, Ulidia 2, 2005, p62.
66 Dooley, ‘The Invention of Women in the Táin’, in Mallory and Stockman (Eds.), Ulidia, 1994, p127; Sheehan, ‘Fer Diad De-flowered: Homoerotics and Masculinity in Comrac Fir Diad’, Ulidia 2, 2005, p61.
67 Sheehan, ‘Fer Diad De-flowered: Homoerotics and Masculinity in Comrac Fir Diad’, Ulidia 2, 2005, p65.
68 Bitel, Land of Women: Tales of Sex and Gender From Early Ireland, 1998, p61.
69 Frantzen, Before the closet: Same sex love from Beowulf to Angels in America, 2000, p176.
70 See Fergus Kelly’s A Guide to Early Irish Law (1988) for more on this; Dáibhí Ó Cróinín has a good chapter on the subject in his Early Medieval Ireland: 400-1200 (1995, though recently re-released as a revised edition).
71 Clancy, ‘Women Poets in Early Medieval Ireland: Stating the Case,’ in Meeks and Simms (Eds.), ‘The Fragility of Her Sex’? Medieval Irish Women in the European Context, 1996, p70.
72 According to the early Irish laws, in most cases parents took equal responsibility in terms of the financial burden that child-rearing brought with it (exceptions here include instances of rape, or where the child has been conceived during a union that did not have the express permission of the woman’s family). This assumes, however, that the father of the child was known; where there the identity of the father was unknown, or in doubt, full responsibility fell on the mother alone. This would have been a primary concern for the woman in the story, then. Ní Chonaill, ‘Child-Centred Law in Medieval Ireland,’ in Davis and Dunne (Eds.), The Empty Throne: Childhood and the Crisis of Modernity, 2008, pp8-9; Kelly, A Guide to Early Irish Laws, 1988, p71.
73 Bitel, Land of Women: Tales of Sex and Gender From Early Ireland, 1998, p61; for a translation and discussion of the tale see Dan Wiley’s article ‘Niall Frossach’s True Judgement,’ in Ériu Volume 55, 2005 (available on JSTOR: http://www.jstor.org/stable/30007973).
74 Bitel, Land of Women: Tales of Sex and Gender From Early Ireland, 1998, p61; for a translation and discussion of the tale see Dan Wiley’s article ‘Niall Frossach’s True Judgement,’ in Ériu Volume 55, 2005 (available on JSTOR: http://www.jstor.org/stable/30007973).
75 Bitel, Land of Women: Tales of Sex and Gender From Early Ireland, 1998, p61; for a translation and discussion of the tale see Dan Wiley’s article ‘Niall Frossach’s True Judgement,’ in Ériu Volume 55, 2005 (available on JSTOR: http://www.jstor.org/stable/30007973).
76 O’ Neill, Passionate Holiness: Marginalized Christian Devotions for Distinctive Peoples, 2010, pp90-91.
77 Ellis, Celtic Women: Women in Celtic Society and Literature, 1995, p149.
78 Harrington, Women in a Celtic Church AD450-1150, 2002, p89.
79 McManus, A Guide to Ogam, 1991, p178; Williams, Ireland’s Immortals: A History of the Gods of Irish Myth, 2016, p18; Lacey, Lug’s forgotten Donegal kingdom: the archaeology, history and folklore of the Síl Lugdach of Cloghahaneely, 2012, p9; p11.
80 Harrington, Women in a Celtic Church AD450-1150, 2002, pp90-91.
81 Of course, matters are very different today; marriage is no longer about inheritance rights or heirs.