Mná Na hÉireann – Six Irish Heroines

Ireland's Queen of History

‘Mná na hÉireann’ (Women of Ireland) has become synonymous as a shout out to all good things achieved by the better species of Irish humankind!  Here we take a look at six of our favourite Irish women from Mythology, through history right up to contemporary 21st century.

Pride of Ireland

Mythical Queen Meadhbh of Connaught (a province in the west of Ireland) is one of the main characters in the Ulaidh (Ulster) cycle of Irish Mythology and Legend. Perhaps best known for her role in the legend of a great cattle raid, which resulted in the death of another hero of Irish legend, Cú Chulainn.

Back in Celtic times in Ireland, cattle raiding was almost a pastime. Money as a currency didn’t exist and the measure of your wealth was the amount of cattle you owned, so such raids were quite common.

The greatest cattle raid of all came about simply because Maedbh’s husband, Aillil, had one thing she didn’t – a great white bull.  And the only one to match or better it, was the Brown Bull of Cooley, over in the east of the country. 

Queen Maedbh’s pride and ambition led to her mustering her armies and leading them to capture the bull. Naturally the story doesn’t have the happiest of endings, as per the reference to poor Cú Chulainn, who single-handedly fought them off for days,  but you’ll have to join us on one of our great small-group tours to find out the full story (Editor’s note: Larry takes so long to tell it most people fall asleep before he’s halfway through!).

Still Upstanding on the Wild Atlantic Way

Even thousands of years after her death, Meadhbh lives on.. ..legend has it that she is entombed beneath a massive stone cairn (30 feet high and 190 feet across) on the top of Knocknarea mountain in Co. Sligo, overlooking the Wild Atlantic Ocean. Within, she is said to be  buried standing tall, facing her enemies, even in death.

Pirate Queen of the West of Ireland

While Meadhbh may be a character from Irish legend and mythology, another feisty west of Ireland woman, Grace O’ Malley, is noted in history from Elizabethan times. The daughter of a sea-faring Irish chieftain, she had a number of sobriquets – the ‘Pirate Queen’ amongst them.  She followed the family tradition of extracting ‘taxes’ from other ships that plied their way along the Wild Atlantic Way off her home of Clare Island. There are many true tales of her derring do (yep, you’ll have to come on tour to hear them). One our favourite’s relates to her schooner being boarded by Barbary pirates as Grace was resting in her cabin, having only recently given birth. Though she heard the commotion, she didn’t stir until one of her crew broke the news that they were in danger of losing the battle on deck.  Swinging into action she quickly rallied her crew to turn the tide and repel the boarders. We think that both the pirates and her own men were equally afraid of this feisty Irish woman and reacted accordingly!

The Pirate Queen Ireland

We spend two nights in Grace O’Malley territory on our 7 Day Northern Ireland and Best of the West tour, with our stopover in Westport, Co. Mayo. If you want to read more about the life of this amazing Irishwoman, we recommend the books of Anne Chambers 

Women of 20th Century Ireland

Jumping forward in time, may we introduce you to the first ever female Member of the British Parliament – Irish  revolutionary, close friend and kindred spirit of Irish Nobel Laureate, W.B. Yeats. Countess Markievicz, aka Constance Gore Booth of Co. Sligo (not far from Queen Meadhbh actually).  

A Heroine of Irish Independence

Born into a wealthy Anglo-Irish family, she married Polish Count Casimir Markievicz, hence the title and surname, though there is some doubt about the provenance of his ‘royalty’ tag. Constance  was not just a republican but a suffragette and tireless worker for the downtrodden. Having played an active role in the 1916 Easter Rising, she was only saved from suffering the safe fate of execution of some of her comrades in arms, by virtue of her gender. She was sentenced to life imprisonment instead but was released as part of an amnesty in 1917.   Her death, at the age of 59, in 1927 saw tens of thousands line the streets of Dublin to pay their respects to this truly heroic woman of Ireland.

All the Presidents’ Women

For the fourth in our list, we’re actually going to double up- as both these ladies held the highest office in Ireland with distinction – Mary Robinson became the first woman to hold the office and she was succeeded by Mary McAleese, who served two terms totalling 14 years.

Great women of Ireland
Former Presidents McAleese and Robinson together

Former President Robinson actually resigned her presidency just prior to the end of her seven year term, to take up a post as United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees.  Former President McAleese, a native of Northern Ireland, will be remembered for the binding and healing role her presidency played in the Northern Ireland peace process in the 1990s.

An Irish Jab

Undisputed women’s World Lightweight Boxing Champion and Olympic Gold Medallist, 35 year old Katie Taylor has been in the vanguard of Irish sport for many years. Katie is just one of a handful of boxers (male or female) to hold all four major belts concurrently. Since turning professional in 2017 she has been undefeated in 19 bouts.  As an amateur, she won Olympic Gold in 2012, when women’s boxing first featured as an Olympic sport. 

An Irish female sporting hero

Her fancy footwork was also noticeable on the soccer field.  Before putting it aside to concentrate totally on boxing, Katie represented Ireland at underage and senior levels, playing 11 times for the senior team.

Katie is also a devout Christian, and has ‘Psalm 18’ embroidered on her shorts. Her sporting behaviour inside the ring and on the field, allied to her humble modest demeanour, makes her an ideal role model for young Irish sportspeople. The ups and downs of her career were captured in this critically acclaimed documentary: Katie

A Song of Tribute to the Women of Ireland

In honour of these these and all Irish women, we’ll close this post with one of the most beautiful, haunting pieces of Irish music ever written. It’s been recorded, sung or played by many diverse musicians – from  Kate Bush, Sinead O’ Connor and the Chieftain, to rock guitarist Jeff Beck. However, we’d like to present you with this version of Mná na hÉireann (Women of Ireland), featuring Irish singer Sibéal Ní Chasaide and Steve Cooney (an Irish-speaking Australian who we’ve claimed for ourselves for many years now). The music was composed by Seán Ó Riada and this is a fitting tribute to him on the 50th anniversary of his death.

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Before you travel to Ireland

To learn more about these great women, Irish history, culture, people, music and ‘the craic’, check out our super Ireland Summer Sale

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