Keening community: Mna caointe, women, death, and power in Ireland
Chapter One Feminine Realms: The Early and Medieval Heritage of Mná Caointe 31
Chapter Two Mná Caointe: English Colonial Ideology, Irish Identity, and Protest 78
Chapter Three Eileen O’Connell and the Caoineadh Airt Uí Laoghaire 119
Chapter Four Mná Caointe and their Functions in Irish Death Customs 166
Chapter Five Widows, whiskey, luck, and strong farmers: a profile of Mná Caointe and their decline 220
Chapter Six Crying out a Community: Emigration, Identity, and the Legacy of Mná Caointe in the Irish Diaspora 277
My selection of this topic, intellectual path, chosen source material, and methodologies, have been inextricably tied to my experiences outside of the academy. When I was 17, I was crushed by the death of my brother Edward William Brophy (1966-1988). Eddie was a 21-year- old seminarian when he died of acute leukemia. I had just finished my first year at the College of William and Mary. My sophomore year, I became a religion major in an effort to find answers to questions in the wake of Ed’s death. (Later, and this is amusing, I tacked on a double major in history because I thought it might be more practical.) Towards the end of my time at William and Mary, and during a year of volunteer work at New York’s Covenant House (a shelter for homeless, abused, and drug-abusing youth), I became fascinated with women’s studies, feminism, process theology (applying theories of relativity to theology), and the problem of evil—basically, why awful things happen to undeserving people. To that end I pursued degrees in religion at Claremont Graduate University. My path changed again at Claremont, away from the highly theoretical theology I had planned to pursue, due to a few incidents—some within the academy, some without. While at Claremont, I had numerous jobs, among them teaching at an all boys high school, working for a domestic violence shelter, and for a large parish in Pasadena. At the parish, one of my duties was to deliver children’s homilies during one of the morning services. Frustrated by portrayals of religious women as docile, shrinking violets, I reached my limit upon hearing—one too many times—a song depicting the Blessed Virgin as meekly bowing her head and taking on a subservient role. That day I improvised a homily. I made up stories about Mary for the children—I said she was the heroine of the playground, that she handled bullies, protected those who were smaller than she, and boldly stood up for what was right. I told them that Mary was mighty rather than meek. I concluded my homily by having the children march in a circle chanting “Strong and Mighty Mary.” Later, a little girl named Katherine gave me a picture she had drawn subsequent to my homily. It was a picture of Mary wearing a blue dress and red boots, especially interesting was the large, Popeye-like, right forearm (complete with an anchor tattoo) and big fist. Underneath the picture, Katherine had written “Strong and Mighty Mary.” Katherine’s imagining forcefully brought home to me the power of stories in re-conceptualizing religious history and the women in it. (Of course, I don’t make up stories in my historical work.) Awareness of past might can inspire new ways of self-definition and empowerment. While studying under American Religious Historian Ann Taves at Claremont, I became further intrigued by the interplay of culture and theology. I was particularly inspired and challenged by feminist anthropologist Karen McCarthy Brown’s 1991 work Mama Lola: Vodou Priestess of Brooklyn. Brown not only observed the culture and people she sought to write about, but also joined in their activities and devotions, eventually becoming a full participant. This “participatory anthropology” provided immense depth and insight to Brown's study. One other aspect of Brown's work initially vexed me: she criticized her primary subject, Mama Lola, for claiming that she was both a Vodou Priestess as well as a devout Catholic. Brown failed to understand both Mama Lola’s self-definition as well as Catholicism’s highly ethnic, and therefore cultural, practice. For many Catholics, religious life is not a matter of doctrinal belief, rather, it is a way of life—of cultural identification and practice. I had known that I was ethnic and Catholic before reading Brown’s book but had not thought much about it, certainly not in the context of academia. I began to seek out that which distinguished the form of Catholicism I had grown up with from Roman Catholicism. Also, like Brown, I sought to discover the liberating elements in my own tradition. As it turned out, I found some of both.
Having grown up in Chicago’s East Rogers Park, being a member of a large family, growing up with other inordinately large American Irish Catholic families, and being dragged to innumerable wakes and funerals by my father as a child, the study of death customs seemed an obvious choice. However, the omnipresent violence of my neighborhood and community— domestic and otherwise—also had to be addressed. The same semester I read Brown’s book and received the “Strong and Mighty Mary” drawing, I became enamored with one of Sinead O’Connor’s songs, “I am Stretched on your Grave,” based on “Táim sínte ar do thuama,” an anonymous seventeenth century poem translated by Frank O’Connor and put to music by Philip King. Sinead O’Connor’s voice is full of pain and passion, and the instrumental component of the song builds in intensity and continues after the lyrics end, so that while the verse is quite sad, the feelings engendered by the song are those of strength, defiance, and incitement to action. An Irish friend, John Murphy, explained that the song resembled verse used by mná caointe, or Irish keening women. The more I learned about keening women—their open grieving, the fact that they addressed domestic violence, and their impassioned performances—the more I knew I would have to write a dissertation about them. The study of mná caointe has allowed me to investigate the intersection of history, religion, and culture, as well as the exciting interplay of gender and power. It also affords me the opportunity to tell (true) stories about marginal women who were anything but meek. Funding and other academic support have been essential to the execution of this study. A four-year University Fellowship and a Women’s Studies Summer Research Grant, both from Boston College, were instrumental in initial investigation of this topic. The award of a Fulbright Fellowship facilitated extensive research in Dublin, especially in the Folklore Archive of the National University of Ireland, Dublin at Belfield. While the entire staff of the Folklore Department was incredibly helpful, Patricia Lysaght requires special mention. The writing of this dissertation was facilitated by the award of the Adele Dalsimer Memorial Dissertation Fellowship from Boston College. Special thanks go to my dissertation advisor, Kevin O’Neill, and committee members Virginia Reinburg, and Philip O’Leary, for their advice and insightful criticism. My work was immensely improved by their suggestions. Kevin Whelan and Gearóid Ó Crualaoich, especially when they were visiting scholars at Boston College, also enriched my work. In addition, the staff and students of Boston College’s History Department, especially those in the Irish Studies Program, were helpful. While writing this dissertation I lost both of my parents, Joan Edmonds Brophy (1944- 2000) and Thomas Clyne Brophy (1938-2005), to cancer. Writing about death customs while grieving is a tough business; fortunately, I had the moral support of numerous friends and family. Though many have helped me through the researching and writing of this dissertation, I must specially acknowledge: Kathleen Brophy Migely, Julie Badel, Angela E. L. Barnes, Kathryn Brophy Barnaby, Jenna Beck, Jessica Bertoldi, Thomas Edmonds Brophy, Eimear Chaomhánach, Elizabeth Collins, Fr. Michael Corkery, Fr. Francis Daley, Jennifer Draffen, Sr. Berenice Eltz, Jack Every, Heather Fryer, Helen Garrahy, Ruth Hallongren, Katie Schott Keogh, Ann Brophy Knight, Niamh Lynch, Bob Moyer, Brian Ó Conchubhair, Sandra Onofre, Margaret Preston, Kelly Brophy Pritchard, Patricia Skelly, and Ríonach Uí Ógáin. Finally, my two loves, mi esposo, Christopher Fredbeck, and our miraculous daughter, Fionnuala Marie Fredbeck Brophy, made it possible for me to finish this dissertation. This work is dedicated to them. My little Fionnuala, though I pray life gives you few reasons to grieve, when you do, I hope you will find the means to express yourself, and a community to hear and support your cries.
This is a study of mná caointe, 1 Irish keening women. Ranging from the semi- professional to the more casual or occasional, mná caointe performed the caoineadh 2 (Irish women’s lament) at wakes and funerals and led their communities in the public expression of grief. Their performances included extemporaneously composed, sung oral elegiac poetry interspersed with choruses of wailing cries. Non-professional women in attendance at wakes and funerals added their voices to the crying chorus and sometimes contributed verses to the caoineadh. In Ireland, the practice of the caoineadh originated prior to the Christian period and ceased in the twentieth century. 3
1 mná caointe =
Historiography While written observations of the caoineadh have existed since the seventh century, the practice has only recently been investigated in the academy by a small number of scholars. 4 A few scholars have been primarily concerned with the music and meter of the sung verses. Breandán Ó Madagáin and Seán Ó Coileáin have examined the practice from an ethno-musical standpoint, studying the similarities between the caoineadh and other folk songs. Ó Madagáin notes that the caoineadh has the same basic structure as other songs of Irish verse that deal with death or other forms of alienation such as emigration and eviction. 5 Ó Coileáin argues that the caoineadh is inseparable from its context, i.e. death and obsequies, and that the social context in which the caoineadh was performed had direct and determining influence on its construction. 6
Seán Ó Tuama conducted a study of the meter used in lament verse. He found it to be composed in Rosc meter, an ancient form used prior to the eighth century but persisting in Ireland and in Scotland. 7 Other scholars have been intrigued by the literary, folk, and social context of the caoineadh. In her literary study of lament poetry, Rachel Bromwich examined the caoineadh in
4 For descriptions and/or references to the caoineadh beginning in the seventh century see: “Tírechán’s Account of St. Patrick’s Churches (c. 670),” excerpts of Patrician texts from the Book of Armagh, trans. Ludwig Beiler, ed. John T. Koch and John Carey, The Celtic Heroic Age: Literary Sources for Ancient Celtic Europe and Early Ireland and Wales (Malden: Celtic Studies Publications, 1994), 196-7; and “An Chaointeoireacht in Éirinn—Tuairiscí na dTaistealaithe,” Gnéithe den Chaointeoireacht, ed. Breandán Ó Madagáin, (Dublin: An Clóchomhar Tta, 1978), 20-29; Rachel Bromwich, “The Continuity of the Gaelic Tradition in Eighteenth Century Ireland,” Yorkshire Celtic Studies (1947-8): 17; “An Irish Penitential,” ed. Edward F. Gwynn, Eriu 7 (1914): 170-1; The Rennes Dindshenchas, ed. Whitley Stokes, Revue Celtique 16 (1895; repr.,, 1966), 276-7. Citations are to the 1966 edition. The Metrical Dindshenchas, ed. Edward Gwynn, Todd Lecture Series 10 (Dublin: 1913; repr.,, Dublin: Dublin Institute for Advanced Studies, 1991), 3:24-25, 50-51. Citations are to the 1991 edition. 5 Breandán Ó Madagáin, “Ceol an Chaointe,” Gnéithe den Chaointeoireacht, ed. Breandán Ó Madagáin, (Dublin: An Clóchomhar Tta, 1978), 30-52; “Irish Vocal Music of Lament and Syllabic Verse,” The Celtic Consciousness, ed. Robert O'Driscoll (Dublin: The Dolmen Press, 1981), 311-32. 6 Seán Ó Coileáin, “The Irish Lament: An Oral Genre,” Studia Hibernica 24 (1988): 97-117. 7 Seán Ó Tuama, Caoineadh Airt Uí Laoghaire (Baile Átha Cliath: An Clóchomar Tta, 1961). Regarding rosc meter and the caoineadh see also Breandán Ó Buachalla, An Caoine agus an Chaointeoireacht (Baile Átha Cliath: Cois Life Teoranta, 1998).
the context of the larger Irish poetic tradition, beginning with Emer's lament for Cú Chulainn and Deirdre's Lament for the Sons of Uisneach, and culminating with Eileen O’Connell’s keen for her husband Art O’Leary in the late eighteenth century. According to Bromwich’s examination of Scottish texts, it appears that by at least the mid-seventeenth century, mná caointe drew from a shared repertoire of verse, metaphors, and stylistic features. 8 Tomás Ó hAilín studied a number of folk traditions surrounding the caoineadh. 9 More recently, Breandán Ó Buachalla questioned the genre and the very concept of an extemporaneously composed women’s oral lament tradition through his examination of Caoineadh Airt Uí Laoghaire. 10 I am greatly indebted to all those who have preceded me in the study of mná caointe, but most especially to Seán Ó Súilleabháin, Gearóid Ó Crualaoich, Angela Bourke, and Patricia Lysaght; they have investigated the social, cultural, and political meanings of the caoineadh and of mná caointe. Seán Ó Súilleabháin collected numerous descriptions of the caoineadh, detailed church polemic against the practice, and theorized as to the possible meanings of the custom.
Gearóid Ó Crualaoich examined mná caointe in the context of the “merry wake” and funeral of eighteenth and nineteenth century popular Irish culture to better elucidate their religious functions. 12 Angela Bourke provided a feminist and sociological interpretation of the caoineadh. 13
8 Bromwich, “The Continuity of the Gaelic Tradition,” 2-28; “The Keen for Art O'Leary, its Background and its Place in the Tradition of Gaelic Keening,” Éigse 5 (1948): 236-52. Using folkloric decoding techniques Bourke explained how women were able to 9 Tomás Ó hAilín, “Caointe agus Caointeoirí,” Feasta (Eanáir 1971): 7-11. 10 Breandán Ó Buachalla, An Caoine agus an Chaointeoireacht (Baile Átha Cliath: Cois Life Teoranta, 1998). 11 Seán Ó Súilleabháin, Irish Wake Amusements (Dublin: The Mercier Press, 1967). 12 Gearóid Ó Crualaoich, “Contest in the Cosmology and the Ritual of the Irish ‘Merry Wake’,” Cosmos (1990): 145-60; “County Cork Folklore and its Collection,” Cork History and Society, ed. Patrick O’Flanagan, Cornelius G. Buttimer (Dublin: Geography Publications, 1993), 919-40; “The ‘Merry Wake’,” Irish Popular Culture 1650-1850, ed. James S. Donnelly, Jr. and Kerby A. Miller (Dublin: Irish Academic Press, 1998), 173-200. 13 Angela Bourke (Patridge), Caoineadh na dTrí Muire: Téama na Páise i bhFilíocht Bhéil na Gaelige (Lament of the Three Marys: Themes of the Passion in Gaelic Oral Poetry) (Baile Átha Claith: An Clóchomhar Tta, 1983); Working and Weeping: Women's Oral Poetry in Irish and Scottish Gaelic (Dublin:
achieve social freedom through their performances. Bourke located the social power of mná caointe in their marginal or “mad” behavior and in the essential function of the performance for the grieving community. Patricia Lysaght provided an overview of the Irish Lament, historically contextualizing the practice and painting a picture of its performance. She has addressed how mná caointe mediated the transition of the deceased from this world to the next and facilitated reconciliation between the deceased and the grieving family. In addition to her work on keening, Lysaght has written an important book on the bean sí, “banshee” in English, the Irish supernatural death messenger, with whom mná caointe have often been compared. 14 At the center of my study is the understanding that ideas about the transcendent both reflect and affect the lived experience of historical actors. In using the term “transcendent” I mean all that transcends human experience; for this work that includes divinity, the otherworld, the bean sí, fairies, and the dead. I explore the interplay of the transcendent and lived experience by situating mná caointe in a number of historical and cultural contexts, as well as by elucidating moments of innovation involving women and understandings of identity, community, death, and power. I explain why in Irish cultures it was women who led public grieving and did so with cries, song and assorted unusual behaviors. I address the culturally specific symbolic language of keening women’s performances as well as the culturally specific symbolic language surrounding their performances—that of wakes, whiskey compensation, Whiteboys, and the bean sí. It is the My work is different from other scholars in that I contextualize the caoineadh and mná caointe within a number of periods of Irish history and use the practice to better understand those periods as well as the dynamics of colonialism, communal identity, and gender relations.
UCD Women's Studies Forum, Working Papers, No. 7, 1988); “The Irish Traditional Lament and the Grieving Process,” Women's Studies International Forum 2 (1988): 287-91; “More in Anger than in Sorrow: Irish Women's Lament Poetry,” Feminist Messages: Coding in Women's Folk Culture, ed. Joan Newlon Radner (Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 1993), 160-82. 14 Patricia Lysaght, “Caoineadh os Cionn Coirp: The Lament for the Dead in Ireland,” Folklore 108 (1997): 65-82; The Banshee, The Irish Supernatural Death Messenger (Dublin: The O’Brien Press, 1986).
culturally symbolic language of their performances, replete with references to the transcendent, that gave mná caointe their position and power, made villagers wary of them in situations outside death rituals, and made them adversaries of Catholic priests. It is what empowered them to curse, to bless, to express rage—even against their social and economic betters—and, at least until the mid-nineteenth century, to do so with impunity. In the mid-nineteenth century, the religious and cultural underpinnings of the caoineadh deteriorated due to opposition from strong farmers and clergy as well as the decimation of the rural laboring class, the community in which mná caointe were most vigorously supported. 15 I also show how mná caointe and their performances allow for a better understanding of a number of periods of Irish history. I contend that the caoineadh and its history reveal the prominent role of women in Celtic religion and society, as well as the specifically Irish assimilation of other peoples and Christianity. During the colonial period, the caoineadh was used by Irish and English alike in the construction of oppositional identities. The lament played a central role in rival definitions of community during a time of colonial redefinition. The caoineadh figured in the English ideology of colonization of Ireland. British travel writers, trying to make their Irish neighbors more exotic, likened them to other peoples they considered savage by comparing them to Turkish Scythians and American Indians. The caoineadh was identified in particular as proof of the uncivilized nature of the Irish. Colonizers judged the loud and dramatic performances of hired professional mná caointe as emblematic of the barbaric Irish. For the colonized, mná caointe and the bean sí were only supposed to cry for the “Irish,” an ethnic, linguistic, and religious identity that shifted continually. In the hands of Eileen O’Connell, the caoineadh was employed to resist and protest British tyranny. The assorted compensation of mná caointe and other female folk specialists demonstrate opportunities for survival and status
15 “Strong farmers” were Irish Catholic tenant cultivators who held farms sufficient to produce a secure livelihood.
available to otherwise marginal women in eighteenth and nineteenth century Ireland. The sources also indicate the lament’s place in reshaping the Catholic Church in Ireland during and after the Devotional Revolution. 16 A study of the caoineadh also has much to offer women’s history. As a tradition of poetic song passed from generation to generation, the lament provided women with a special mode of communication and an opportunity for community. As a vehicle for making the larger society aware of both their suffering and their power, the caoineadh offered women a culturally sanctioned voice and some status. Further, in their performances mná caointe took on almost priestly roles, provided an essential religious function, were recognized for their talents and compensated with cash, agricultural produce, as well as assorted honors. As mná caointe, their words and gestures had power; they accomplished the passing of the deceased from the world of the living to the world of the ancestral dead. Mná caointe played prominent roles in death rituals in which communities reaffirmed their continuity as well as their cultural and religious identity. While the caoineadh was condemned in the earliest medieval Irish synods and continued to be disparaged by church authorities, English persecution of Catholicism meant that the Catholic Church was not able to combat the practice until the end of the Penal Era c.1800. Under the leadership of Cardinal Paul Cullen and with the cooperation of affluent Irish families, the caoineadh and other distinctly un-Roman customs of the Irish rural poor, such as the wild wake, were discouraged in the strongest terms. However, more determinative in the decline of keening were nineteenth century demographic shifts and the rise of strong farmers. Finally, because the caoineadh was sometimes performed at the departure of emigrants and due to close association of mná caointe and the bean sí in folklore, mná caointe played a role in the redefinition of community in the nineteenth and twentieth century Irish Diaspora.
16 The phrase “Devotional Revolution” was a coined by Emmet Larkin to describe the dramatic shift in Catholic practice in Ireland away from causally adhered to folk-influenced Christianity, to widely observed Roman Catholic outlook, custom, and sacramentals. Emmet Larkin, “The Devotional Revolution in Ireland, 1850-75,” American Historical Review 77 (1972): 625-52.
Taking center stage in these family and community dramas, mná caointe raised their status beyond them. My goal is to discover who mná caointe were, how they behaved, how their performances were interpreted, and how they were viewed outside the situation of death and grieving. To these ends, I examine mná caointe in a number of different contexts. In Chapter One I locate mná caointe in Celtic, early and medieval Irish religion and mythology, specifically exploring the feminine otherworld, seer-poets, and sovereignty-goddesses. In Chapter Two I investigate the place of the caoineadh in late sixteenth to early eighteenth-century English colonial ideology, Irish identity, and elite and popular resistance to colonization. In Chapter Three I analyze the most famous bean chaointe and caoineadh, Eileen O’Connell, and the Caoineadh Airt Uí Laoghaire within the politics of eighteenth century Cork. In Chapter Four I examine nineteenth century wild Irish wakes and funerals in an effort to further contextualize keening women’s performances and to understand their many functions. In Chapter Five I sketch out a socio-economic profile of nineteenth century mná caointe and other female folk specialists as well as their assorted compensation; I contextualize mná caointe in nineteenth and twentieth century Irish folklore regarding women, luck, and butter-stealing to better understand their power; and, I examine the seismic nineteenth century demographic shifts that proved the undoing of mná caointe as well as the assault on the caoineadh by Catholic priests. In Chapter Six I discuss the legacy of mná caointe in the nineteenth and twentieth century Irish Diaspora, specifically in ritualizing emigration, transatlantic identity, and bean sí manifestations.
Sources, Their History and Methodology Because the focus of my study is a cultural practice, the source material required is necessarily varied and diverse. Primary texts include observations of Greek and Roman
historians and military adversaries of the Celtic-speakers; Irish and Latin religious texts; law tracts; secular Irish and English literature; synod records; accounts of British travelers and colonists; nineteenth and twentieth century newspaper and journal articles; and manuscripts held by University College Dublin’s Department of Irish Folklore. While I have relied upon a wide variety of sources in this project, the most significant are the Irish folklore manuscripts held in Dublin. Before explaining my reliance on these materials it is important to understand the historical development of the concept of folklore, both generally in Europe, and specifically in Ireland, and how that concept shaped the archive. Folklore emerged as a topic of interest in Europe during the early modern period when the educated elite withdrew from popular culture. Historian Peter Burke writes that in 1500, while the educated elite of Europe largely reviled common people, they shared the same culture. However, by 1800 the elite had so distanced themselves from popular culture that they now found it exotic and intriguing. 17 Burke asserts that at the beginning of the early modern period there were two cultural traditions in Europe: the great tradition, i.e. high culture of the educated elite; and the little tradition, or popular culture. The great tradition (which included medieval scholastic philosophy and theology) was formally relayed in Latin by way of grammar schools and universities to those with means. The little tradition, which included everything that was not part of the great tradition (folksongs, folktales, broadsides, festivals, etc.), was conveyed informally in the vernacular and available to all. Most Europeans were quite distant from Latin texts and formal learning. In contrast, the elite minority was bi-cultural, possessing access to both traditions. 18