May 2024

Margot Fonteyn and Rudolph Nureyev

LE CORSAIRE Margot Fonteyn and Rudolf Nureyev Stock Photo - Alamy

Margot Fonteyn & Rudolf Nureyev

“At the end of Swan Lake, when she left the stage
in her great white tutu
I would have followed her to the end of the world.”

(Rudolf Nureyev)


Swan Lake

I  was lucky enough to attend a London performance of the ballet ‘Swan Lake’, with music written by Tchaikovsky, in the early 1960s. It was performed by the magical ballet dancing duo Margot Fonteyn and Rudolph Nureyev.  It was a birthday present. My dad came with me as he loved the music. It was magical and I’ve never forgotten it. Margot performed the role of Odette and Odile. The original version of the production was performed in the first part of the season. However, Rudolph’s revised choreography began on the 12th December 1963 and finished at the end of the season. My birthday was in January so that was when I attended the performance. 

There is a reason why Swan Lake has remained the world’s most loved classical ballet for over a century. It is a stunning, beautiful fairytale told through its unparalleled virtuosic choreography and Tchaikovsky’s wonderful score that has long since surpassed the test of time. It tells the story of young Prince Siegfried who falls in love with Princess Odette. Odette and her companions transform into swans under the spell cast by evil sorcerer, Baron von Rothbart. Their days are spent gracefully gliding on a lake only to return to their human form at night. The only thing that can break the spell is true love and Baron Rothbart will do anything in his power to stop it.

Margot Fonteyn (1919-1991) - Dame Margot... - Les Chaussons verts


Margot Fonteyn

Dame Margaret Peggy Hookham is better known by her stage name Margot Fonteyn .She was born on May 18th in 1919. Her family home at that time was in Reigate in Surrey. She died on February 21st in 1991, in Panama City. She was one of the greatest British ballet dancers. She trained at the Royal Ballet School in London. Considered one of the best classical dancers of her time, she was also one of Russian ballet dancer Rudolf Nureyev's favourite partners.

She began dancing at the age of 4 when her mother enrolled her in classical dance classes, along with her brother. At the age of 8, she left England to live with her family in Tientsin and latterly, Shanghai, where she studied dance with Russian emigrant teachers. She returned to London at the age of 14 with her mother. In 1933 she entered the Royal Ballet School. By 1939, she had joined the company and had already performed roles such as Giselle and Aurore in ‘Sleeping Beauty’ . She was named ‘Prima Ballerina Assoluta’ during the war. She married Roberto Arias, a Central American diplomat originally from Panama . In the 1940s she danced with Robert Helpmann , resulting in an extremely prolific relationship. Their tours lasted for several years.

In 1956 , she was ennobled with the title of ‘Dame’ by Queen Elizabeth II . Three years later in April 1959, Fonteyn was arrested, held for 24 hours in a Panamanian prison, and then deported to New York !! Her husband Roberto Arias had staged a coup against President Ernesto de la Guardia , possibly with the support of Fidel Castro

In 1961, Rudolf Nureyev was invited to make his London debut at the annual gala organised by Margot Fonteyn for the Royal Academy of Dancing. He asked to dance the "Spectre de la Rose" with her but she was already committed to do this with John Gilpin, and anyway was not sure how well she and “this young Russian” would suit each other. Nureyev therefore danced Black Swan with Hightower and a solo, Poème tragique, made especially for him by Frederick Ashton.The gala led the Royal Ballet to invite him to dance Giselle with Fonteyn the next season, also Swan Lake, the Don Quixote pas de deux, Les Sylphides and Sleeping Beauty.

Margot znd Rudolph are immortalised on screen in ‘Swan Lake’ . Despite their age difference, the couple created magical performances. They became one of the most talented pair in the history of twentieth century dance.

Following this breathtaking pas de deux, the groundwork was now laid for Rudolph’s subsequent career: a lasting link with the Royal Ballet, frequent appearances with other companies, the beginning of his activities as producer and choreographer, and perhaps above all his partnership with Fonteyn. Both of them danced with many other partners but they were most proud of what they achieved together. He at the age of 23 gave her, at the age of 42, a new burst of energy and understanding. She inspired him and helped him settle down.

Rudolph danced his last performance with Margot in "Le Spectre de la Rose", on June 23rd 1979, bringing to an end the perfect harmony of a legendary couple that lasted 17 years. Margot, then aged 60, decided at the last moment to go back on stage that evening for the last time.

In Panama City in November 1989,  Roberto Arias, 72, a former Panamanian ambassador and Margot's husband  died a day after undergoing surgery for cancer. Mr. Arias had been partially paralyzed since a political opponent shot him in 1964. A law graduate of Cambridge University and the son and nephew of Panamanian presidents, he was a former ambassador to the United Nations and Britain.


n 1955, a year after he married Margot, then a dame commander of the British Empire, Mr. Arias was charged with attempting to smuggle guns into Panama from a yacht as part of a scheme to overthrow Ernesto de la Guardia Jr., then Panama's president. He took refuge in the Brazilian Embassy until the government changed and the charges were dropped some months later. Dame Margot, who also had been charged, was deported to Britain. The couple later returned to Panama. In 1964, Mr. Arias was elected to the legislative assembly, the country's congress. He was shot during an argument with Alberto Jimenez, a former political associate, in a suburb of Panama City. He spent the rest of his life in a wheelchair. Mr. Arias was the owner of the newspaper La Hora and was director of the daily Panama America, which are no longer published. Since 1981, he and Dame Margot had lived on a 500-acre cattle farm on the Pacific Ocean near the village of El Higo, 60 miles southwest of Panama City. Since retiring from her dancing  in 1979 at the age of 60, Dame Margot had helped care for the farm and had acted as an adviser for the National Ballet Company of Panama. 

Margo is considered to be one of the most graceful dancers of the time. This is agreed to be due to the purity of her line and the solidity of her technique. 

In later life, she was the Chancellor of Durham University from 1981 to 1990. The main hall of the student building now bears her name. Margot Fonteyn  eventually retired to Panama City to care for her sick husband. She died of cancer at the age of 71.

Margot Fonteyn — Wikipédia


Rudolf Nureyev 

Rudolf Nureyev is considered one of the greatest classical dancers and one of the greatest choreographers of his time and nicknamed the “lord of dance”.

He is considered by many to be one of the best performers of the classical repertoire. Nevertheless, he also expressed his talent in contemporary dance and was one of the first dancers to take a new interest in the baroque repertoire. His notoriety, due not only to his talent but also to the extraordinary course of his life, went beyond the world of dance.

He marked the history of ballet by forming one of two legendary couples. The first was

with Margot Fonteyn, his partner at the Royal Ballet . Together, they form one of the most mythical couples in the history of ballet. The other was with Sylvie Guillem of the Paris Opera ballet during the 1980s. According to Pierre Lacotte , on stage “these two are one person”. Rudolf Nureyev and Sylvie Guillem still danced together even after Sylvie had left the Paris Opera ballet to join the Royal Ballet. Even when Rudolf Nureyev became frail due to the advanced stage of AIDS which he had sadly contracted in 1984. 

Rudolf was  also director of the Paris Opera Ballet from 1983 to 1989 and ballet master and chief choreographer until 1992. As a choreographer, he revisited all the great classical ballets, giving a very important place to men in ballet.  He felt that male dancers were often confined to being only the foils of ballerinas. He introduced variations for male roles, notably for Swan Lake .

Rudolf's years at the Paris Opera are considered a "golden age" for ballet and his choreographies are regularly performed there today.

The Nureyev family was from Ufa in Russia. Rudolph’s grandfather's surname was Fasli but a registration error at the town hall made the surname “Nureyev” the family name. Khamet Nureyev literally means “Khamet son of Nour” meaning “light” in Arabic.  He was the youngest of three siblings. In his autobiography, Rudolf recounts his birth on March 17th, 1938 in a third-class carriage during a train journey !!

He said he had no memories of his father from his childhood. Indeed, his father was mobilised at the time of the invasion of the USSR by Germany in 1941. Rudolph did not see his father again until 1946. 

In 1941, the family was evacuated from Moscow and found refuge in Ufa , where Rudolf Nureyev grew up. Living conditions are precarious. The home was without water or electricity. The climate was very harsh, cold and dry. Food was rare and consisted mainly of boiled potatoes.

However, Ufa had a good theatre. From an early age, Rudolf was passionate about music. He had a revelation on New Year's Eve 1945 when he attended a patriotic ballet entitled ‘The Song of the Storks’ with the star dancer Zaïtouna Nazretdinova. He found his vocation and began dancing the same year, at the age of just seven .

He began dancing folk dances at school in amateur groups and with the Pioneers. Later, he was recommended to Anna Oudeltsova who, after eighteen months, referred him to Elena Vaïtovitc. They both make him understand that dance is not just a matter of technique. Seeing his potential, they suggested that he continue his training at the Leningrad State Choreographic Institute , considered by them to be the best school in the world. 

In 1953, at the age of 15 , Rudolf Nureyev began acting as an extra in the city's theatre shows. He was only paid a little, but it allowed him to learn with the company. Progressing quite quickly, he joined the ballet troupe. The company was invited for a ten-day tour to Moscow . Nureyev is pleased to be part of the journey, replacing an injured dancer at short notice in a characterful dance solo. He didn't know the steps, didn't have time to repeat and it was the first opportunity for him to draw on his memory where everything he saw was recorded instantly. Unfortunately, he was injured during a performance.

While he was recovering, he got the opportunity to audition at the Bolshoi dance school in Moscow. He was accepted, but he did not enter the school and refused to join the troupe in Ufa which offered him a full-time contract. Rudolf preferred to audition to join the Leningrad State Choreographic Institute . After having followed eleven years of dance lessons, particularly in folk dance, in Ufa, he entered the sixth of eight divisions in 1955 at the age of 17. He was accepted with the following comment: “Either you will be an extraordinary dancer, or the model of failures, and more probably the model of failures”.

He spent three years at the Kirov Ballet Academy in Leningrad . In the second year, he was promoted to the eighth division, the final class. In the third year, Rudolf repeated the final year. He maintained his spontaneity and hard work.

As a graduate of the Academy, Rudolph joined the Kirov ballet in 1958. He spent three years there. He quickly became a soloist and played the leading roles in Le Corsaire , Don Quixote , Swan Lake and Sleeping Beauty .

Rudolf Nureyev in 1961, the year he requested political asylum.

Europe discovered Nureyev one evening in May 1961 during a tour of the Kirov in Paris. Nureyev angered the Soviet authorities with his escapades, his hours spent at the Louvre, in Montmartre and by roaming the Parisian nights after performances in the company of dancers from the Paris Opera and the choreographer Pierre Lacotte , as well as Clara Saint , a mutual friend of Chilean origin and daughter-in-law of André Malraux . Rudolph was ordered to return to Moscow whilst the ballet left for London.

On June 16, 1961, at Le Bourget airport, Rudolph left his KGB guards with the help of Clara Saint. She alerted the inspectors on duty present and told them: “There is a Russian dancer downstairs who wants to stay in France.” They came close to Rudolph and this gave him time to rush to them asking for political asylum .

Following his defection , Nureyev was hired to play with Nina Vyroubova in Sleeping Beauty. They fell out for five years after he added a few measures to Vyroubova's last solo 28 .

Rudolf accompanied Maria Tallchief to Copenhagen where he met the Danish dancer Erik Bruhn , whom he greatly admired after having seen him in an amateur film. They maintained a romantic relationship which only ended with Bruhn's death in 1986 .Rudolph at the time speaking little English, met a compatriot in Copenhagen, Vera Volkova. She gave him his first dance lessons outside the USSR and they remained friends throughout their lives .

Rudolph made his American debut with Sonia Arova in collaboration with Ruth Page 's Chicago Opera Ballet in 1962. Together they performed the grand pas de deux from Don Quixote in New York.  Early in 1962, Rudolph made his television debut in America, dancing the pas de deux from Auguste Bournonville 's "Flower Festival in Genzano" with Maria Tallchief for the Bell Telephone Hour show.

From 1962 onwards, Rudolf  danced for several years at the Royal Ballet , Covent Garden in London .

The star of the Royal Ballet at that time was Margot Fonteyn. She was then aged 42 and became his partner. The two formed the most famous couple in the world of classical dance. They maintained close friendly relations for the next thirty years.

Margot Fonteyn and Rudolf Nureyev performed Giselle together for the first time in February, 1962. When the curtain fell that evening, the audience was so stunned that there was silence for a few moments before applause rang out, It was followed by 23 encores !

In 1964, Rudolf Nureyev created his first choreography of Swan Lake for the Vienna State Opera .In this ballet he played the role of the prince alongside Margot Fonteyn who played Odette and Odile. At the end of a performance, there were 89 curtain rises ! This was a unique event in the history of ballet.

“Nureyev had unparalleled footwork ,” explained Mathias Heymann , star dancer at the Paris Opera. On stage, Rudolf Nureyev bursts out, as if mounted on springs !.For Brigitte Lefèvre , ballet director of the Paris National Opera from 1995 to 2014, Rudolph had “a way of doing that, the beauty of the lines, the requirement, this way of dealing with great difficulties, a technique, this crowd, this knowledge and this curiosity 1 . »

Besides ballet, Rudolph  was also engaged as an actor. In 1969/1970, the “Nijinski” 40 project was launched based on a script by Edward Albee . Nureyev was to play Vaslav Nijinsky. The director was Tony Richardson , but producer Albert Broccoli later shelved the project, which mainly focused on Nijinsky 's homosexuality. In 1976, he played Rudolph Valentino in the Ken Russell film Valentino and in 1982, he co-starred with Nastassja Kinski in the thriller Overexposed .

Rudolf Nureyev in 1968.

Rudolf Nureyev performed on the stage of all major international companies. He earned $7.9 million a year, the highest salary a dancer has ever received .

In July 12, 1967, after a performance at the Royal Ballet in San Francisco, Margot Fonteyn and Rudolf Nureyev are invited by young “hippies” to join them in celebrating the Summer of Love , with its share of LSD and marijuana. Arrested in the “hippie” neighbourhood of Haight-Ashbury by the police who suspected them of drug use, they were not prosecuted !

In 1977, Rudolph was offered the position of director of the Royal Ballet. He refused, preferring to continue his career as a star dancer. 

In the 1980s, Rudolf Nureyev danced regularly at the Paris Opera .

He was appointed ballet director of the Paris National Opera in 1983 by Jack Lang, then Minister of Culture. His first years as director aroused criticism even within Opera No. 3 He made the Paris Opera ballet more attractive and internationally known. He brought a large number of choreographers to the Paris Opera such as William Forsythe and Maguy Marin . Rudolf held the post of director until 1989.

Retrospectively, in an interview, Sylvie Guillem responds to David Lister, journalist and co-founder of the newspaper The Independent. “Ah yes,” she said “the funeral where all the people who tried to dismiss him for years said what a great man he was.”

Rudolf Nureyev in 1991.

Also a choreographer , admirer of the French school and unconditional fan of Bournonville and Petipa , Rudolf produced numerous ballets based on Petipa in Europe. These great ballets were for the most part unknown to Westerners at the time. He introduced the Parisian public to Act III of La Bayadère in 1961, then edited his own versions after Petipa . It was in Vienna that he produced his first Swan Lake (1964) and his first Don Quixote . Later, he returned there to produce Sleeping Beauty (1966), The Nutcracker and Raymonda .

In 1982, Rudolf Nureyev became an Austrian citizen and was made an honorary member of the Vienna Opera .

He appeared in 1977 under the direction of Ken Russell in the lead role in Valentino , which received a mixed reception from critics and the public despite some remarkable scenes, notably that of Valentino's tango and Nijinsky played by Anthony Dowell.

After numerous requests, he finally obtained from Gorbachev , at the end of 1989, a forty-eight-hour visa to Leningrad to see his mother. He returned for the first time to Saint Petersburg, to visit his dying mother. From this trip he brought back a photocopy of the complete score of La Bayadère by Minkus with the intention of reassembling it with Petipa's original notes.

Biographie de RUDOLF NOUREEV (1938-1993) : Avec Margot Fonteyn -  Encyclopædia Universalis

Margot and Rudolph continued to dance together. The question of whether they were lovers has always fascinated fans. It was certainly a fairy tale partnership.

Margot Fonteyn died in February 1992. Fighting his last illness, Rudolph Nureyev died in January the following year.

Rudolf Nureyev And Margot Fonteyn - An Evening With The Royal Ballet - DVD multizone


April 2024

Maud Gonne

Portrait of Maud Gonne 

I first came across Maud Gonne when, as part of my English degree, I studied the work and life of William Butler Yeats. I began to appreciate what an amazing woman Maud was.

Maud has been described by those who knew her as a well-educated, tall, red-hair beauty with a rebellious spirit. She was called the "Irish Joan of Arc", yet others called her "Helen of Troy"

The ‘did they, didn’t they’ discussion goes on, talking about the nature of their relationship. Maybe we shall never know the full truth ! On January 30th, 1889, while in London, she met the young poet William Butler Yeats. So began their thirty-year off-and-on ‘romance’.  Apparently, he fell in love with her at first glance with a passion that can be read in the lines of his poetry. For example:

“But one man loved the pilgrim soul in you.” – Happy Birthday, Maud Gonne."

Maud Gonne’s impressions of Yeats in that first meeting:

“… a tall lanky boy with deep-set dark eyes behind glasses, over which a lock of dark hair was constantly falling, to be pushed back impatiently by long sensitive fingers, often stained with paint – dressed in shabby clothes …”

WB Yeats

One of Yeats’s ‘Gonne' poems

Aedh wishes for the Cloths of Heaven

“Had I the heavens’ embroidered cloths,
Enwrought with golden and silver light,
The blue and the dim and the dark cloths
Of night and light and the half light,
I would spread the cloths under your feet:
But I, being poor, have only my dreams;
I have spread my dreams under your feet;
Tread softly because you tread on my dreams.”

Maud and “Willie’s” correspondence is fascinating. It’s interesting that, over the years,he kept every one of her letters while she, living a more peripatetic lifestyle, and often “on the run”, enduring police raids on her various abodes did not keep his letters. So the correspondence, as it stands, is mostly her side of it. A couple of his letters to her survive, but not many. I think it is a great loss.

Maud’s letters give a good feel for the openness of their relationship. They were not polite with one another. They did not stand on ceremony, they barged right in. Maud thought Yeats was wasting his time with the Abbey Theatre. Her negative hassling about the Abbey is a constant theme through literally decades of correspondence. She could not let it go. “Willie, who cares about that silly theatre. Do more important work.”        I think history has proved her wrong. She HATED Yeats’ poem about the Easter Rising, and let him know in no uncertain terms !

This dynamic was a two-way street. He was also not shy in telling her what he thought. He was brutal about her decision to get baptised into the Catholic Church. He was dismayed and horrified. He thought her politics were fine, but the way she went about trying to achieve her goals was not. Theirs was a fascinating philosophical divide. Of course, we only have her side of the argument, his side can be guessed at from her responses. Their letters show true intimacy and a relationship of equal standing. Only really good friends can talk to one another in these tones of rough raw truth and remain friends ! I’m not sure I could !


Maud Gonne was born December 21, 1866 in Surrey, England. She died in 1953 in Dublin, Ireland. She became an Irish patriot, actress, and feminist. She was the daughter of a British army officer, Thomas Gonne and his English wife, Edith Cook. Two years after her birth, her father was posted to  Curragh, County Kildare. Sadly, her mother died shortly after Maud’s birth. She and her sister, Kathleen, were sent to live with an aunt in London when her father was posted to Austria. Her father was later posted back to Dublin, Ireland. Only a year later he died and the girls were sent back to London. 

Gonne acted as hostess for her father when he was assistant adjutant general in Dublin. Converted to Republicanism by an eviction she saw during the 1880s, she became a speaker for the Land League, founded the Daughters of Ireland (a nationalist organization), and helped to organise the Irish brigades that fought against the British in the South African War. She was one of the founders of Sinn Féin (“We Ourselves”), and was an early member of the theatre movement started by her longtime suitor, W.B. Yeats

In November 1886, at the age of 20, she travelled to France, where she met Lucien Millevoye , a journalist and radical politician with whom she fell in love and whose ideas she ended up sharing. At the end of that same month, his father died of typhoid fever, leaving him an inheritance of £20,000. In 1889 she first met the poet William Butler Yeats . It was the start of a long, ambiguous relationship.

William Butler Yeats was an Irish poet and playwright born in 1865 in Sandymount, Dublin, Ireland. He was one of the instigators of the revival of Irish literature and co-founder, with Lady Gregory, of the Abbey Theatre in Dublin in 1904 . He received the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1923. He was also a two-term senator for the Irish Free State ( Seanad Éireann). He had a strong connection with Irish nationalism. He evolved towards an uncompromising modern style of writing. Towards the end of his life, he turned to the language of the ordinary, working against a contemporary elitism of the time. He wanted literature to have poetic writing that was “as direct and natural as conversation”.

Maud became a noted actress on the Irish stage. In 1889 Yeats fell in love with her, and the heroine of his first play, ‘Cathleen ni Houlihan’  was modelled on Maud. She played the title role when the play was first produced at the Abbey Theatre in Dublin in 1902. (nb. I understand that a new production is planned this year)  The written version was first published in October 1902 on Samhain. Samhain being the first of the four major religious festivals of the Gaelic year, originating from the proto-historic Celtic year cycle, which used the word ‘Samonios’. It is a period of time as much as a celebration, the peak of which is around November 1st.


A Scene from the 1902 production

 The play centers on the 1798 Rebellion. The play is startlingly nationalistic, in its last pages encouraging young men to sacrifice their lives for the heroine Cathleen ni Houlihan, who represents an independent and separate Irish state. The title character first appears as an old woman at the door of a family celebrating their son's wedding. She describes her four 'beautiful green fields,' representing the four provinces, that have been unjustly taken from her. With little subtlety, she requests a blood sacrifice, declaring that 'many a child will be born and there will be no father at the christening'. When the youth agrees and leaves the safety of his home to fight for her, she appears as an image of youth with 'the walk of a queen,' professing of those who fight for her: 'They shall be remembered forever, They shall be alive forever, They shall be speaking forever, The people shall hear them forever.'

Maud refused Yeats’ many marriage proposals. After becoming involved in a love affair with French journalist, Lucien Millevoye in 1887 .  She later had two children by him, a son named Georges, and a daughter named Iseult. The death of their first child, Georges, at age two, helped to precipitate her interest in spiritualism

In 1903 Maud married a fellow revolutionary, Major John MacBride. After suffering physical abuse at the hands of MacBride, she legally separated from him in 1906 and gained custody of their son named Seán, who was later to become Foreign Minister of Ireland and a winner of the Nobel Peace Prize. Sean also became the co-founder of Amnesty International. His father, John MacBride, took part in the 1916 Easter Rising, after which he was executed by firing squad. Following his death, Maud began using MacBride’s name again to advance her standing in revolutionary circles. In fact, Maud and MacBride had been separated by the time the Easter Rising came along. No matter though (!) Maud wore mourning garb for the rest of her life, wedding herself – spiritually and actually – to Irish nationalism.She herself was imprisoned for six months in 1918 for her supposed involvement in a pro-German plot. A book of her reminiscences, ‘A Servant of the Queen’ (i.e., Ireland), was published in 1938. (nb -Sadly, much of the manuscript for this work was lost in the Blitz of 1941 when she had been living in London.)

In 1890, she moved to County Donegal in Ireland. She campaigned against the evictions of poor families. This action resulted in the construction of shelters and fundraising, as well as the writing of articles for various newspapers. Threatened with arrest, she had to flee to France where she gave birth to Georges. 

During her stay in Paris, she founded a monthly magazine, ‘Free Ireland’ , to attract sympathy to the cause of Irish independence. She financed the publication of a collection of poems by Ellen O'Leary. She eventually broke up with Lucien Millevoye and returned to Ireland, with her son Georges, who, sadly, died of meningitis on August 30th, 1891. 

In 1889 she first met the poet William Butler Yeats . It was the start of their long, ambiguous relationship. Her first meeting with Yeats was on the occasion of the funeral of Charles Stewart Parnell , nicknamed the “uncrowned king”. (of Ireland). Parnell (1846 – 1891) was an Irish nationalist politician who served as a Member of Parliament in the United Kingdom from 1875 to 1891, Leader of the Home Rule League from 1880 to 1882, and then of the Irish Parliamentary Party from 1882 to 1891, he held the balance of power in the House of Commons during the Home Rule debates of 1885–1886. He fell from power following revelations of a long-term love affair, and died at age 45.

William Yeats tried to console Maud for the loss of her son with magical rituals, but she mainly resorts to chloroform. She joined the ‘Hermetic Order of the Golden Dawn’ , a small group dealing with occultism, of which Yeats had already been a member for a year. In 1893, he organised a reading tour for her in Ireland and France. The following year, the couple stayed in Paris, where they experimented with hashish. In August 1894, she gave birth to a daughter, Iseult Gonne

In January 1897, she participated, with Yeats, in the creation of the Paris branch of ‘Young Ireland’. This was a political and cultural movement developed in the 1840s which committed to an all-Ireland struggle for independence and democratic reform. Grouped around the Dublin weekly  newspaper, ‘The Nation’, it took issue with the compromises and clericalism of the larger national movement.

 She became a Catholic early in 1897. She began a tour of meetings where she gave political speeches in Paris, Dublin, London, York, Glasgow, Manchester and Cork amongst others. From October to December of that year, she travelled to the United States to raise funds. At the end of 1898, she began writing, together with James Connolly, a manifesto on the problem of famine. It was entitled ‘The Rights of Life and the Rights of Property’.

Later, in 1900, Maud founded an activist group, ‘Inghinidhe na hÉireann” (Erin's Women) , which published a monthly magazine of the same name in which she wrote articles with nationalist and feminist connotations. This group was involved in the Irish cultural movement ( Gaelic Revival ) whose aim was to promote the Gaelic language and culture. The activities were diverse: education of women, Gaelic lessons, dances, Irish songs, distribution of free meals to poor children. She joined the ranks of Constance Markievicz, James Connolly and James Larkin in the fight to force authorities to extend the 1906 School Meals Act to Ireland, whilst also working to feed Dublin's poor children.

At the start of the First World War, Maud campaigned against the conscription of Irish people into the British army. On May 5th, 1916, John MacBride was executed, after the Easter Rising. Two years later, in 1918, she was arrested and imprisoned for 6 months in Holloway Prison in London. Even there, she continued her fight against conscription. 

On her release, she returned to Ireland and became active in the ‘White Cross’. The Irish ‘White Cross’ was established on 1 February 1921 as a mechanism for distributing funds raised by the American Committee for Relief in Ireland.  It was managed by the Quaker businessman, and later Irish Free State senator, James G. Douglas. The White Cross continued to operate until the Irish Civil War, although its books were officially closed in 1928. From 1922, its activities were essentially wound down and remaining funds divested to subsidiary organisations. The longest running of these aid committees was the Children's Relief Association which distributed aid to child victims of this troubled period, north and south of the border, right up until 1947. 

 In 1922, together with Charlotte Despard, Maud founded an association to defend Republican prisoners, the ‘Women's Prisoners' Defence League’. Damning testimonies on police violence in Cork and Kerry were recorded.

In 1938 she published her memoir, A Servant of the Queen’. The queen being Ireland.

In August 1938, Maud met with Yeats one last time in Rathfarnham near Dublin, for tea. The same year Yeats wrote "A Bronze Head" about her frequent appearances at political funerals, a "dark tomb-haunter," a description so different from the light, gentle woman he remembered of years before. In the end, they became old friends that respected each other, yet they had grown very far apart in their religious and political thinking. Yeats died in 1939.

Her continued indifference to her daughter continued after death with no mention of Iseult in her will, yet she asked to be buried with George's baby shoes in her coffin. A book of her reminiscences, "A Servant of the Queen", was published in 1938. In this she refers to Iseult as an adopted child ! 

Maud Gonne in Old Age - late 1940s or early 1950s | Gonne

Maud Gonne in later life

Maud was over 70 when she wrote her book. Many of the she wrote about were dead. She was also seriously handicapped by the destruction of her papers during the civil war which meant that a lot of the chronology and details were vague. There were other pressures. Her son, Sean, did not want her to discuss the more scandalous parts of her private life, including her relationship with Millevoye and her children with him. She was forced to refer to Iseult as "the charming child I had adopted." Only 1,500 copies of the book were ever sold and as I mentioned, a quantity were burned in the London Blitz. However, some survived and eventually it was reprinted in 1950, 1974, and 1994. Maud started work on a sequel, The Tower of Age, but did not complete it. As with Servant, there was much that she could not write about. Maud died on April 27, 1953. She is buried in Dublin.


Maud Gonne's grave


March 2024

Elizabeth Cochrane

Elizabeth Cochrane, aged 18,  was living in Pittsburgh when the local newspaper published an article titled “What Girls are Good For” (having babies and keeping house was the answer, according to the article). The article annoyed Elizabeth enough that she wrote an anonymous rebuttal, which in turn so impressed the paper’s editor that he ran an advert, asking the writer to identify herself. When Elizabeth contacted him, he hired her on the spot. It was customary at the time for female reporters to use pen names, so the editor gave her one that he took from a Stephen Foster song. It was the name under which she would become famous - Nellie Bly.

Nellie Bly’s passion was investigative reporting, but the paper usually assigned her to more “feminine” subjects—such as theatre and fashion. After writing a controversial series of articles uncovering the working conditions of female factory workers, and subsequently being assigned once more to cover society events and women’s pastimes, at the age of 21, Nellie embarked on a hazardous and unprecedented, for a woman, mission to Mexico to report on the living conditions of the working-class individuals there. After her reporting got her in trouble with the local authorities, she fled the country and later published her dispatches into a popular book.

At the age of 23, having established a reputation as a daring and provocative reporter, Nellie was hired by Joseph Pulitzer’s ‘New York World’. This was a newspaper published in New York City from 1860 to 1931. The paper played a major role in the history of American newspapers as a leading national voice of the Democratic Party. From 1883 to 1911 under publisher Joseph Pulitzer, it was a pioneer in ‘yellow journalism’ (a style of newspaper reporting that emphasised sensationalism over facts, capturing readers' attention with sensation, sports, sex and scandal and pushing its daily circulation to the one-million mark).

It was there that she began the undercover project that made her famous. In order to investigate the conditions inside New York’s “Women’s Lunatic Asylum,” Nellie took on a fake identity, checked into a women’s boarding house, and faked insanity. She did this so convincingly that she soon found herself committed to the asylum. The report she published of her ten days there was a sensation and led to important reforms in the treatment of the mentally ill.

The following year Nellie undertook her most sensational assignment yet: a solo trip around the world inspired by Jules Verne’s ‘Around the World in 80 Days’. With only two days’ notice, Bly set out on November 14, 1889, carrying a travel bag with her toiletries and a change of underwear, and her purse tied around her neck. Pulitzer’s competitor, the New York Cosmopolitan, immediately sent out one of its reporters—Elizabeth Bisland—to race Nellie Bly, travelling in the opposite direction. As Pulitzer had hoped, the stunt was a publicity bonanza, as readers eagerly followed news on Nellie Bly’s journey. The paper sponsored a contest for readers to guess the exact time of her return (with the correct guess winning an expense-paid trip to Europe).

Seventy-two days later, Nellie made her triumphant return (four and half days ahead of Bisland), having circumnavigated the globe, traveling alone almost the entire time. It was the fastest any human had ever made the journey. Nellie Bly was now an international celebrity.

At age 31 Nellie married industrialist Robert Seaman, a 73-year-old millionaire, leaving behind her journalism career and her pen name. As Elizabeth Cochrane Seaman she helped run the family business. She patented two inventions during her time as an industrialist, but business was not really her forte and, unfortunately, under her leadership, the company went bankrupt. When World War I broke out, she returned to journalism, becoming one of the first women reporters to work in an active war zone.

Nellie Bly’s remarkable life ended on January 27, 1922, when she died of pneumonia in New York at age 57.


February 2024

A Partnership Made in Heaven ?

Michelle O'Neill and Emma Little-Pengelly

Picture source:


Northern Ireland experienced a historic event recently. After two years without a parliament or government, a woman took the reins of the region !  Her name is Michelle O'Neill and she is a member of Sinn Féin, the Nationalist party.

Michelle O'Neill was born Michelle Mary Doris on 10 January 1977 in Fermoy, County Cork. She has been a member of the Northern Ireland Assembly since 2007. In addition, she was also a member of the Northern Ireland Executive from 2011 to 2017 as a Minister.

This is the first time that this position of head of government has been occupied by a representative of Sinn Féin since the "Good Friday" peace agreements which, back in 1998, put an end to the civil war which had dogged the region for so long.

Sinn Féin is the former political front of the IRA. It is a nationalist party which means that it campaigns for the unification of Ireland. It came first in the last legislative elections, in 2022, but Michelle O'Neill did not take her post earlier due to a political block. The other major Northern Irish political group, the  Democratic Unionist Party (DUP), was committed to keeping the province in the British fold. However, it had nevertheless turned against London and decided to boycott the institutions. In fact, Michelle O’Neill did not accept the arrangement imposed by the United Kingdom after Brexit. It was the famous ‘quandry’ of the Northern Irish protocol to avoid the return of a physical border with Ireland, a member of the EU.

However, the new year, 2024, appears to have found a resolution. A new text was validated recently, which appears to have satisfied all concerned. As a result, the boycott has been lifted. Administrative formalities on the transport of goods will be reduced. The government in Westminster will release nearly four billion euros for public services and institutions will finally be able to restart.

So, Michelle O'Neill is finding herself as the Head of Government, but she will not be the only one to govern. As required by the power sharing agreement, an integral part of the Constitution, she will co-lead with a Deputy Prime Minister from the opposite camp, Emma Little-Pengely, a unionist, Protestant and member of the DUP. 

Two women then with great responsibility on their shoulders. Both inherit very heavy family liabilities. Emma Little-Pengely's father was arrested in France in the 1980s while trying to procure weapons for loyalist paramilitaries. Michelle O'Neill's father was imprisoned for his links with the Irish Republican Army and one of his cousins ​​died a hero, while preparing to assassinate a member of the British security forces !

Such a pair at the head of the Northern Ireland executive would have seemed unthinkable at one time and it still may be compromises along the way. However, both women have made it clear that they are committed to overcoming their differences and working together, particularly on economic issues. Michelle O'Neill does not renounce her political convictions, however. She believes that Ireland has entered what she calls "a decisive decade". Westminster, needless to say, does not see this very favourably.  Interviewed on Sky news very recently, Michelle raised the idea of ​​a referendum on unification within ten years !

Both women are in their mid-40s, so they both grew up in the troublesome 1970s and 80s.

Firstly then, a very brief picture of those times:

In the 1970s and 1980s, a group in favour of Northern Ireland joining the Republic started bombings and tried to remove British troops and British rule in Northern Ireland. This group was called the Provisional IRA. Many people were killed or maimed in the bomb blasts. Other groups like the Ulster Defence Force (UDA) fought the IRA and the nationalist population. These groups carried out shootings and killings. People were murdered just because they were from a certain religious group. These killings are known as ‘sectarian’ killings. Other people were murdered because they were members of the RUC police force, or in the British army, or because they worked for the security forces.

The year 1972 was the worst year of the troubles in Northern Ireland. In that year, 470 people were killed and there were almost 2,000 bombings. People began to think that war in the North of Ireland would never end. Following ‘Bloody Sunday’ in 1972, the British Government took power away from the Northern Ireland Government and began to rule the North directly from London. 

It was not until 1985, that the British and Irish governments agreed to co-operate to find a workable solution to the violence in the North. The Anglo-Irish Agreement was signed in 1985 by the Prime Minister of the United Kingdom, Margaret Thatcher, and the Taoiseach of the Irish Republic, Dr. Garreth Fitzgerald. For the first time, the Republic of Ireland was given some say in how Northern Ireland should be ruled. Some groups in the North, particularly the unionists, were very unhappy with this agreement in the beginning. That said, however, the 1985 Anglo-Irish Agreement did help to build peace in Ireland. 

In 1993, the Irish Taoiseach, Albert Reynolds, and the British Prime Minister, John Major, made another agreement named the Downing Street Declaration.The declaration affirmed both the right of the people of Ireland to self-determination, and that Northern Ireland would be transferred to the Republic of Ireland from the United Kingdom only if a majority of its population was in favour of such a move.

It also included, as part of the perspective of the so-called "Irish dimension" i.e. the principle of consent that the people of the island of Ireland had the exclusive right to solve the issues between North and South by mutual consent.

The latter statement, which later would become one of the points of the Good Friday Agreement] was key to produce a positive change of attitude by the republicans towards a negotiated settlement. The joint declaration also pledged the governments to seek a peaceful constitutional settlement, and promised that parties linked with paramilitaries (such as Sinn Féin) could take part in the talks, so long as they abandoned violence.

The Downing Street Declaration demonstrated to republicans and loyalists alike that political differences can be "negotiated and resolved exclusively by peaceful political means". Contrary to the suggestion that an inclusive settlement "would compromise no position or principle", the history of the declaration had already shown that compromise on all sides was the indispensable foundation of the Northern Ireland peace process.

The declaration, after a meeting between Sinn Féin President Gerry Adams and American congressman Bruce Morrison, which was followed by a joint statement issued by Adams and John Hume, was considered sufficient by the Provisional Irish Republican Army to announce a ceasefire on 31 August 1994] which was then followed on 13 October by an announcement of a ceasefire from the Combined Loyalist Military Command] This ceasefire allowed Sinn Fein to be admitted to the "democratic process".

The Downing Street Declaration was significant because it addressed major ideological and theological obstacles to peace in Northern Ireland, such as the right of the people of Ireland to self-determination and the principle of consent. The Declaration stated:

"The British Government agree that it is for the people of the island of Ireland alone, by agreement between the two parts respectively, to exercise their right of self-determination on the basis of consent, freely and concurrently given, North and South, to bring about a united Ireland, if that is their wish".]

The Declaration addressed the "boundary question" of who would be allowed to vote in a referendum, which it stated would be the people of the island of Ireland. Therefore, the idea of self-determination gave legitimacy to any constitutional decision taken by the people of the island of Ireland for the people of the island of Ireland. Subsequently, this meant that these issues were generally accepted by the time the Good Friday Agreement negotiations began, and did not significantly stall the 1998 peace agreement.

As of January 2024, the Democratic Unionist Party (DUP) has endorsed a deal to restore the devolved Northern Ireland Assembly and Executive. These have not been fully functioning since February 2022.

Britain has just set out its plans to ease the flow of goods to and from Northern Ireland. This satisfies a key demand of the Democratic Unionist Party in exchange for rejoining the region's power-sharing government. Some of the main points from the UK government's proposals set out in a policy paper are:

The smooth flow of goods - British Prime Minister Rishi Sunak's government said the changes will mean more than 80% of all freight movements from Britain to Northern Ireland will be treated as 'not at risk' of moving onwards to the EU via the soft border with EU member Ireland.

It says there would be an end to the so-called "green lane" for goods travelling from Britain into Northern Ireland, which requires a certain percentage of goods to be checked.This will be replaced by a "UK internal market system" where there would not be checks apart from those conducted as part of a "risk-based approach to tackle criminality, smuggling and disease risks".

There will still be a so-called "red lane" for transporting goods from Britain to Ireland or elsewhere in the EU, but steps will be taken to reduce the amount of goods that need to be included in this route. The UK government has said that the measures will reaffirm Northern Ireland's place within the United Kingdom.

The paper states that ministers will be under a legal requirement to assess whether any new legislation could impact trade between Northern Ireland and Britain.

The UK government adds that the measures will "future-proof the constitutional status of Northern Ireland against any future agreements that create new EU law alignment for Northern Ireland and undermine its place in the UK's internal market".

Michelle O’Neill has announced that the Northern Ireland Executive are ‘united’ to address the current financial situation. She has said that the new power-sharing Executive is presenting a "united front" in terms of Northern Ireland's financial situation. She said: "Today is a good day, we have an Executive functioning, we have an Executive in place who want to tackle all the issues that we are trying to tackle.

Acknowledging her Deputy, she said, "Emma and I stand in front of you today as First and deputy First Minister. We are trying to do our best to get to grips with some of these issues that we have ahead of us." She added: "Let's for today focus on the fact that we have presented a united front in terms of the finance situation that we face here. We are about to start this Executive meeting and we are all going to work together to do whatever we can to secure the best possible financial situation that allows us to deliver good public services."

Michelle O'Neill said, after her appointment, that the prospect of a nationalist first minister "would have been unimaginable" to her parents' generation.She also added that she was "sorry for all the lives lost during the conflict - without exception".

In an interview with the BBC, O'Neill was asked if this was a "coded apology" to those who were killed by the IRA. "I wanted to acknowledge the difficulty of the past that we've had," she replied. "My eyes are fixed on the future, I want to ensure that we try to heal some of those wounds of the past and that we don't burden today's generation with yesterday."

Elsewhere in her maiden speech as First Minister, there was an overarching theme of reconciliation. She said that despite her support for a united Ireland, she would "serve everyone equally". She has promised inclusivity and respect for all, as ministers "deliver and work together" as the public "rightly demands".

"To all of you who are British and unionist - your national identity, culture and traditions are important to me," she added.

Emma Little-Pengelly congratulated Ms O'Neill on becoming the First Minister and said she will be diligent in the role. She also promised to "work tirelessly" to ensure they can deliver for all. “This is an opportunity to shape Northern Ireland for the better,” she announced.

Mrs Little-Pengelly said the path to a prosperous future can only be taken by walking that path together. "I love Northern Ireland. I am deeply proud to be from this place we call home, despite our often troubled history and divisions of the past, I know that we have incredible potential," she commented.

As new deputy first minister she states, " the assembly must learn from the lessons of the last seven years, whatever path we are going to take".

I hope these are positive signs and the appointment of these two talented women will help and strengthen the island of Ireland.


January 2024

A sad note - Maureen Flavin Sweeney who I wrote about in my December 2023 blog has recently died. RIP Maureen.


Brigid the Goddess, (known as the Exalted One)     

Brigid is the Irish goddess of spring, fertility, and life.Her holiday, Imbolc, is held on February 1st and marks the midpoint of winter. Many of Ireland's wells and waterways are devoted to her. Brigid appears in Irish mythology as a member of the Tuatha Dé Danann, the daughter of the Dagda and wife of Bres, with whom she had a son named Ruadán.

She is associated with wisdom, poetry, healing, protection, smithing and domesticated animals. ‘Cormac's Glossary’, written in the 9th century by Christian monks, explains that Brigid was "the goddess whom poets adored" and that she had two sisters: Brigid the healer and Brigid the smith. This suggests she is a triple deity.

Saint Brigid (c451 - c525) shares many of the goddess's attributes and her feast day, 1st February, was originally a pagan festival called Imbolc. It has thus been argued that the saint is a Christianisation of the goddess, or, possibly, that the lore of the goddess was transferred to her.

Saint Brigid


Cormac's Glossary, written by Christian scribes in the 9th century based on earlier sources, says that Brigid was a goddess and daughter of the Dagda. It describes her as a "goddess of poets" and "woman of wisdom" or sage, who is also famous for her "protecting care". It says that Brigid has two sisters: Brigid the physician or "woman of healing", and Brigid the smith. From these, all goddesses in Ireland are called Brigid (or Brigit) suggesting that it "may have been more of a title than a personal name".

The Lebor Gabála Érenn also calls Brigid a poetess and daughter of the Dagda. It says she has two oxen, Fea and Femen, from whom are named Mag Fea (the plain of the River Barrow) and Mag Femin (the plain of the River Suir). Elsewhere, these are named as the two oxen of Dil, "radiant of beauty," which may have been a byname for Brigid.  It also says she possesses the "king of boars", Torc Triath (from whom the plain of Treithirne is named), and the "king of wethers", Cirb (from whom the plain of Cirb is named). The animals were said to cry out whenever plundering was committed in Ireland. This suggests Brigid was a guardian goddess of domesticated animals.

Cath Maige Tuired’,is the name of two saga texts of the Mythological Cycle of Irish mythology. It refers to two separate battles in Connacht: the first in the territory of Conmhaícne Cúile Tuireadh near Cong, County Mayo,] the second near Lough Arrow in County Sligo. The two texts tell of battles fought by the Tuatha Dé Danann, the first against the Fir Bolg, and the second against the Fomorians

Brígid is the wife of Bres and bears him a son, Ruadán. His name matches several words in Indo-European languages that mean ‘red’ or ‘rust’, perhaps a reference to his hair colour, red being commonplace. The story says she began the custom of ‘keening’, a combination of wailing and singing, while mourning the death of her son Ruadán in 584. After his death, he was venerated as a saint and also one of the "Twelve Apostles of Ireland". His feast day is on 15th April. 

In her English retellings of Irish myth, Lady Augusta Gregory (1852- 1932) describes Brigid the Saint as a woman of poetry, and poets worshipped her, for her sway was very great and very noble. She was a woman of healing as well as a woman of St. Brigid is said to have made the first whistle to be used for calling to one another at night.

Historians suggest that the goddess Brigid was syncretised with the Christian saint of the same name. According to medievalist Pamela Berger, Christian monks "took the ancient figure of the mother goddess and grafted her name and functions onto her Christian counterpart, Brigid of Kildare.”

The goddess and saint have many of the same associations. Saint Brigid is considered a patroness of healers, poets, blacksmiths, livestock and dairy workers, as well as serpents (in Scotland) and the arrival of spring.

The saint's hagiographies "are mainly anecdotes and miracle stories, some of which are deeply rooted in Irish pagan folklore" wrote  Dáithí Ó hÓgáin (1949 - 2011). He also wrote that the melding of pagan goddess and Christian saint can be seen in some of the saint's miracles, where she multiplies food, bestows cattle and sheep, controls the weather, and is linked with fire or thermal springs.

In the late 12th century, Gerald of Wales wrote that 19 nuns took turns keeping a perpetual fire burning at Kildare in honour of Saint Brigid. He said this fire was kept burning since Brigid's time, and it is suggested it originally belonged to a temple of Brigid the goddess.] The Roman goddess Vesta and the Greek goddess Hestia had perpetual fires tended by priestesses. According to Gerald, it was ringed by a hedge that no man was allowed to cross, lest he be cursed.

Saint Brigid is also associated with many holy wells and ‘clootie’ wells in Ireland and Britain, where small strips of cloth or ribbons are left as part of a healing ritual. Celtic healing goddesses, such as Sirona and Coventina, were often associated with sacred springs. A clootie well is a holy well, or sacred spring, almost always with a tree growing beside it, where small strips of cloth or ribbons are left as part of a healing ritual, usually by tying them to branches of the tree (called a clootie tree or rag tree). Clootie wells are places of pilgrimage usually found in Celtic areas. It is believed the tradition comes from the ancient custom of leaving votive offerings in water. In Scots, a clootie or cloot is a strip of cloth or rag.

Saint Brigid's Day is 1st February. It was originally Imbolc, the first day of spring in Irish tradition. Because Saint Brigid has been linked to the goddess Brigid, some associate the festival of Imbolc with the goddess. 

Saint Brigid's Day or Imbolc is traditionally a time for weather prognostication:

Thig an nathair as an toll
Là donn Brìde,
Ged robh trì troighean dhen t-sneachd
Air leac an làir.

The serpent will come from the hole
On the brown Day of Bríde,
Though there should be three feet of snow
On the flat surface of the ground.

In Neo-Paganism, Brigid is an important figure for some modern pagans, who emphasize her triple aspect. She is sometimes worshipped in conjunction with Lugh  or Cernunnos. Middle Irish ‘Brigit’ came to be spelled ‘Briġid’ and ‘Brighid’ by the early modern Irish period. Since the spelling reform of 1948, this has been spelled ‘Bríd’.The earlier form gave rise to various forms in the languages of Europe, starting from the Medieval Latin ‘Brigida’  The name comes from Proto-Celtic Brigantī and means "the high one" or "the exalted one". It matches the name of the ancient British goddess Brigantia, with whom Brigid is thought to have some connection. 

Brigid's cross or Brigit's cross (Irish: Cros Bhríde, Crosóg Bhríde or Bogha Bhríde) is a small variant of the cross often woven from straw or rushes. It appears in many different shapes, but the most popular designs feature a woven diamond or lozenge in the centre. The cross is named for the Christian saint Brigid of Kildare. Brigid's cross is typically woven on 1st February, her feast day, as well as the festival of Imbolc as in pre-Christian Ireland. Hanging Brigid's cross from the rafters of your house is believed to bring the blessing and protection of the saint for the remainder of the year. The practice of crafting Brigid's crosses declined in the 20th century.

Saint Brigid's Crossundefined

In addition to the shamrock and Celtic harp, Brigid's cross remains a national symbol of Ireland. From 1962 to 1995, it was incorporated into the Raidió Teilifís Éireann logo. A collection of Brigid's crosses collected by the Irish Folklore Commission is on display at the National Museum of Ireland.

The arms of the cross are not parallel to one another, giving the impression of motion.

Brigid's crosses broadly refer to a type of cross woven out of straw or rushes. They are defined by building material more than appearance, and the exact shape of a Brigid's cross varies greatly. The National Museum of Ireland has identified seven basic categories of cross: diamond, which is subdivided into single or multiple; "swastika" type, with four or three arms; wheel type; interlaced type; traditional Latin crosses made from straw or rush; bare wooden crosses in the Latin or Greek style which are bound with straw; and a final "miscellaneous" category. 

There are several variations on the Brigid's cross, including a three-armed version as above.

The most popular of these is the diamond or lozenge cross, the dominant variant throughout Munster and Connacht. Two sticks are crossed over one another to provide a wooden framework for this cross, and at its centre, straw is woven into the shape of a diamond. Sometimes, additional woven diamonds are added to the four arms of the cross. Some historians have compared the lozenge shape at the centre of the diamond cross to that of the Mexican god's eye or the Eurasian "magic square".

Another popular variant is the "swastika" cross. Rather than being set parallel to one another like a traditional cross, the arms of the swastika cross are set at right angles from a lozenge or diamond at the centre. These offset angles evoke the image of a wheel in motion and may have originally represented the sun, or "the great wheel in the sky". In certain regions of Ulster, this wheel spinning in a circle imagery is evoked with a three-armed woven cross.This three-armed variant has been compared to the triskelion, a popular motif in Celtic imagery. In rare cases, Brigid's cross may be set fully inside a circle; this is known as a "wheel cross" or "St. Brigid's Bow".

Unlike other Brigid's crosses, which were typically made of straw, the interlaced cross is often made of rushes. Unlike other forms of the cross which contain a woven shape in the centre, the interlaced cross consists only of rush or straw strands woven into a Christian cross shape.While straw is the more popular weaving material for most variants of Brigid's cross, the interlaced cross is more frequently made from rushes. An even simpler variant is the bare cross, which consists either of two bound plaits of straw or of two planks of wood bound together in the centre by straw.  Occasionally, no straw is used at all: the Sheaf-Cross, located in eastern County Galway and County Roscommon, involves two small sheathes of unthreshed corn are bound together by a split thatching branch.

Unlike her contemporary, Saint Patrick, Brigid left no historical record, and most information about her life and work derives from a hagiography written by the monk Cogitosus some 200 years after her birth. The prevailing Christian folklore surrounding Brigid's cross involves the deathbed conversion of an Irish pagan chieftain, in some stories, her father. While telling the pagan about the Crucifixion of Jesus, Brigid collected rushes from the ground and wove them into a cross, after which the chieftain requested a Christian baptism. In another story, Brigid was given a poisoned drink by a woman of ill intent, and she wove the cross to neutralise the toxins.

Many of the folk attributes ascribed to Brigid of Kildare bear similarities to the pagan grain goddess Brigid, and it is likely that the legends and rituals attributed to the goddess were later mapped onto the saint. In pre-Christian Ireland, 1st February, later Brigid of Kildare's feast day, was the date of the Imbolc festival, a holiday associated with agrarianism and the beginning of spring.  It is possible that diamonds and lozenges were Celtic symbols associated with Imbolc, and that Christian missionaries added arms to evoke the shape of a cross, appropriating these symbols with a Christian meaning and attributing them to the saint.

One of the customs associated with Brigid of Kildare's feast day was to hang Brigid's crosses in the rafters or over the entrance ways of buildings, thus invoking the saint's blessing and protection for the remainder of the year. Families would gather rushes on 31st January, the eve of Brigid's feast day. After an evening feast, the head of household would supervise the rest of the family as they wove crosses from the collected material.These crosses were left out overnight to receive Brigid's blessing, and on 1st February, crosses would be mounted in the main house as well as outhouses and stables. While the direction in which the crosses were hung remains unknown, that the centre shape is frequently described as a lozenge rather than a square suggests that Brigid's cross is properly displayed in a ‘saltire style’ rather than that of the Latin cross. Crosses were either taken down annually and replaced, or they accumulated between feasts.] If they were discarded, they were burned or buried, with burial preferred due to Brigid's associations with agriculture. 

The weaving of Brigid's crosses has been popular throughout Ireland, particularly in the north and midland, but its popularity dwindled during the 20th century.  Some families attributed the decline of Brigid's crosses to house renovations that inhibited the ability to hang them appropriately ! Outside of Ireland, Brigid's crosses are also customarily hung in Glastonbury, England, in accordance with a local legend that says Brigid of Kildare visited the town in 488. Families may also send woven crosses to their friends and relatives who live abroad, or they will carry a cross with them when they leave Ireland.  The weaving of crosses was not restricted to Brigid's feast day. Friends would often gift crosses to incur blessings and strengthen their friendship. Newlywed couples would often receive "womb crosses" to hang above their door, as Brigid was also a patron of fertility. ]

Although they take place at different times of the season, the weaving of Brigid's cross is associated with other rituals in which the last sheaf of that year's harvest is woven into an intricate shape.  In County Armagh, for instance, the harvest season involves the weaving of Harvest Knots and Harvest Stars, the former of which involves a lozenge shape similar to that of Brigid's cross. These "last sheaf" celebrations are collectively known as the Cailleach.

As a  national symbol, the first RTE logo was designed in 1961.

Shortly after the Irish Free State gained its independence in 1922, Brigid's Cross became one of several nationalist symbols, alongside such other motifs as the shamrock and Celtic harp, used by Irish artists in order to create a national cultural identity separate from that of Britain. In the 1950s, Brigid's Cross was incorporated into the logo of the Irish Department of Health] and the cross remains a part of the logo of the Nursing and Midwifery Board of Ireland, who frequently incorporate Brigid into their imagery for her associations with midwifery. 

Brigid's cross was selected as the first station identification marker for Raidió Teilifís Éireann (RTÉ) with Alice Curtayne writing that the cross was selected to evoke "the image of quiet, serene places in the springtime of our history, of rush-bordered rivers in a serene arcadian landscape". The RTÉ logo underwent nine re-designs between 1962 and 1987, with the cross taking varying levels of prominence compared to the station name. It was removed from the RTÉ logo in 1995 in favour of "a clean striking piece of modern design", a decision which Carol Coulter of The Irish Times said that "Saint Brigid's cross has lost its place as a symbol of our national identity, well at least as far as our national broadcasting station is concerned.”

In 1942, the Irish Folklore Commission created a questionnaire regarding the Feast of Saint Brigid, during which they collected several hundred Brigid's crosses. In 2022, the Commission selected a sample of 21 of these crosses to be displayed at the National Museum of Ireland – Country Life in Castlebar. The display coincided with an announcement from the Irish government that 1st February would be declared a national holiday. 


December 2023


Maureen Flavin Sweeney and the Blacksod Bay lighthouse.

Blacksod Bay, in Irish: Cuan an Fhóid Duibh, is a bay of the Atlantic Ocean in Erris, North County Mayo, Ireland. The wide bay is bounded on its Western side by the Mullet Peninsula. Its Eastern side includes Kiltane Parish, which extends southwards from Belmullet towards Gweesalia and Doohoma.

Blacksod Lighthouse, which dates back to 1862, occupies the Southern end of the Mullet Peninsula. It was built from locally cut granite taken from the quarry at Termon Hill. Blackrock Lighthouse lies 12 miles offshore on Blackrock Island. Maureen was in charge of the weather station and was only 21 years of age at the time of D.Day. The famous English Channel crossing and landing was delayed by a day because of a severe storm forecast, provided by Maureen. Blacksod is now famously known as the lighthouse that the Allies used for the critical weather forecast on D-day in 1944.  

Maureen Flavin Sweeney is a retired postmistress. She grew up in County Kerry but moved to Blacksod. A near relative, an uncle, ran the pub at Blacksod, County Mayo. He offered Maureen accommodation. She travelled for two days to reach Blacksod to answer an advertisement offering a position as a clerk at the Department of Posts and Telegraphs local post office in County Mayo. She was 18 years old. 

One of Maureen’s duties was to make weather observations that were then reported directly to Allied forces during the Second World War. Blacksod's position on the West coast made it one of the first stations to report Westerly storms. On 3 June 1944 Maureen made the first observation of a coming storm that threatened Allied vessels in the English Channel. Following her observation, US commander Dwight D. Eisenhower agreed to postpone the invasion of France for 24 hours. After the war, Maureen took over the post office, running it until her retirement in the 2000s. She received recognition for her wartime role from the US Congress in 2021.

It was only after being accepted for the post by postmistress Margaret Sweeney, that she discovered that the post office also operated a weather station. This was extremely important for forecasting as it lay on one of the most Westerly parts of Ireland. Under an August 1939 agreement the station was one of a number in Ireland that provided daily weather readings to the British Meteorlogical Office via telegraph. Measurements were taken from instruments which were housed on a corner of the nearby lighthouse.

After the outbreak of the Second World War the station, important as one of the first to warn of approaching Westerly weather systems, was asked to make hourly weather reports.The Allied forces planned Operation Overlord, an invasion of German-occupied France for June 1944. In the approach to this the Blacksod weather station was asked to make more detailed measurements.

On 3 June 1944, her 21st birthday, Maureen got up at 1am to make the hourly reading. The station instruments showed a slight drop in air pressure, a 7-mile-per-hour wind from the South-West and a slight drizzle. The drop in pressure was the first indication of an incoming severe storm that could make hazardous conditions for any crossing of the English Channel. Maureen woke up Ted Sweeney, the postmistress' son, to confirm the readings as he was more experienced with the instruments. Margaret and her daughter Frances also made readings at other times during the war. Maureen confirmed the readings and the report was sent on to Britain. Measurements made over the following reports from 2 am to 7 am showed a continuing drop in pressure, with a steady wind and worsening rain. This was also confirmed by nearby stations.

Royal Air Force officer James Stagg was the chief meteorologist to General Dwight D. Eisenhower, in charge of the invasion. At around 11 am Stagg had his office call the Blacksod post office direct to confirm their readings, bypassing the usual liaison office at Dublin. As a result of the weather reports Eisenhower agreed to a postponement of the invasion by 24 hours, from 5 to 6 June, potentially saving lives from stormy waters.

Maureen went on to marry Ted Sweeney a few years after D-Day. They continued to operate the weather station at Blacksod until it was automated in 1956. It was at this point that the pair were first made aware of the important role their weather reports had on the planning of Operation Overlord. Maureen Flavin-Sweeney succeeded her mother-in-law as postmistress at Blacksod. Her son, Vincent Sweeney  took over the lighthouse as keeper at Blacksod. 

By May 2020 Maureen was at the Tí Aire nursing home in Belmullet, County Mayo, when she survived a COVID-19 infection. In June 2021 she was honoured by the United States Congress for her role in the Second World War. Her name was entered into the ‘Congressional Record’ and she received a medal from the House of Representatives. US Congressman and former US Marine Lieutenant-General Jack Bergman said "her skill and professionalism were crucial in ensuring Allied victory, and her legacy will live on for generations to come."  Maureen also received a certificate from the National WWII Museum in New Orleans.On the occasion of her 100th birthday this year, Maureen Flavin Sweeney received cards from Bergman and Irish President Michael D. Higgins.

     Picture above: Maureen Flavin Sweeney on the occasion of her 100th birthday. this year (2023)

Blacksod Lighthouse is vastly different from the usual pictures we see of tall, round, slender lighthouses. Square lighthouses are rare and the one at Blacksod can be counted amongst them. Above the house a tower holds the beacon which has safely guided mariners for the past 155 years. The building looks quite unassuming despite the incredibly important role it has played down through the decades. Blacksod Lighthouse is the property of the Commissioner of Irish Lights and is under the management of Comharchumann Forbartha Ionad Deirbhile (CFID), a development co-operative in the nearby village of Eachléim. CFID was granted funding from the Department of Rural and Community Development, Roinn Oidhreacht, Cultúr agus Gaeltachta and Údarás na Gaeltachta for the establishment of a tourism hub in Eachléim. The first stage of the project is the opening of the lighthouse as a visitor attraction. Despite delays to its opening caused by Covid-19, conversion works to the building were eventually completed and the lighthouse finally opened to the public on July 30. Two rooms inside the building have been converted into galleries with informative displays about the four lighthouses of Erris. Here you will see how each of the lighthouses situated at Blacksod, Blackrock Island, Eagle Island and Broadhaven has its own key role in shepherding boats safely around the jagged rocks off the Mullet Peninsula. Tour guides Fergus Sweeney and William Duffy give tours of the lighthouse, including upstairs to where the light is positioned. There’s a lot of interest in north Mayo’s newest tourist attraction and groups are kept in small pods to comply with Covid-19 regulations. Evin Walker, tourism officer at Comharchumann Forbartha Ionad Deirbhile, said tours must be booked online in advance. “We have seen huge demand and we are only opened a few days,” he explained. As well as being a navigational aid guiding marine traffic safely through the Erris waters, Blacksod Lighthouse was also a family home for its lighthouse keepers. In 1933 Ted Sweeney was made keeper, and the lighthouse became the family home to successive generations of the Sweeney family. Ted’s son Vincent Sweeney has been attendant at Blacksod since 1981, and another son, Gerry Sweeney, served at a number of lighthouses, including at nearby Eagle Island. The lighthouse tradition continues with Fergus Sweeney, Ted’s grandson being one of the tour guides for the new Blacksod Lighthouse tours.


September 2023


(c 26 AD – 61 AD)

A profile view of Queen Boudicca on horseback donning her sword with a shield and spear in-hand!

As a child I learned about Buddug (Boudicca) by chance, from a book I chose from the local library. Since Victorian times, she has been a British heroine, romanticised because she fought off Roman invaders from her land and launched attacks on them, some greatly successful. Much of what was written about her, generations after her death, was recorded by Roman sources who presented her as a barbarian enemy of Rome. Since then she has become more of a British heroine. As a girl, I imagined Boudicca as larger than life. I had been to the cinema to see the film ‘Ben Hur’ and imagined Boudicca riding a chariot, rather like the one driven by Charlton Heston ! 

I have always loved the story of Boudicca. Boadicea was her name when I was first introduced to her in a story book. She seemed my kind of girl. Along with my sisters, if we played games which were traditionally labelled as ‘boys’ games’, we were called ‘Tomboys’. Little girls in the 1950s were expected, by many traditional thinkers to play with dolls, dolls’ houses, etc. I preferred Teddy bears ! My dad helped us make a go-cart which we delighted in riding down a hill next to our house and smashing into a metal gate which prevented us hurtling into the road. My mam was different. Most mums at that time didn’t go out to work, but stayed at home, keeping house and looking after the children. Ours loved us. She was a strong-minded Irish Celt from County Cork. She had trained as a nurse early in the Second World War and, at the age of 18, had been tending the wounded who returned from Dunkirk. A powerful life lesson. Mam taught us to stand on our own two feet and be independent. Hence my fascination and respect for Boudicca. The tale of her revolting against and fighting the arrogant and misogynistic Romans was thrilling. Still is. I remember the first time I saw her on the banks of the Thames. She stands tall and proud in her chariot with her two daughters. The gaggle of three !. The two horses pulling the chariot rear up threateningly. It sent a shiver down my spine to see those knives pointing outward from the centre of its wheels. (Latterly, I was disappointed to discover they may well have been the sculptor’s artistic licence.) But, at the time, I was uplifted and my imagination ran wild. She was a heroine. This is now changed to hero. I suppose to symbolise equality of the sexes. Yet, now it occurs to me that the feminine noun is more appropriate because she was a female proving that she was a woman noted for courageous acts and nobility of character. Not a pseudo-man. She was a woman who, in the opinion of others, had achieved great deal. Her abilities and personal qualities made her special. For me she is the principal performer in the play. She is also regarded as a role model, even an ideal woman. 

Boudicca, or Boadicea is the name given to this Celtic heroine. In her lifetime she had the Celtic name of Buddug. This latter name has Welsh origins as a feminine given name. It means ‘victorious’ and is associated with traits such as leadership, intelligence and optimism. As an adolescent, Boudicca would have been sent away to another aristocratic family to be trained in the history and customs of the tribe, as well as learning how to fight in battle. 

 Buddug is now considered a folk hero. She is one of numerous women in ancient times, right through to the medieval age and beyond, who led their troops into battle. She bravely led an uprising against the conquering forces of the Roman Empire in AD 60/61.

Boudicca’s statue in Westminster, London.    

                  Fichier:Boudicca Statue Westminster Bridge, London (7269525940).jpg                                                                   .

Boudicca’s husband, Prasutagus, was king of the Iceni as a ‘client’ under Roman suzerainty. He has also become known as 'King of Druid Britain'. Boudicca ruled jointly with him. When Prasutagus died in 60 with no male heir, he left his private wealth to his two daughters and to the emperor Nero, trusting thereby to win imperial protection for his family. He left behind a will whose provisions had no legal precedent under either Celtic or Roman law. Instead, the Romans annexed his kingdom, humiliated his family, and plundered the chief tribesmen. 

When Boudicca’s husband, Prasutagus, died, she became sole ruler of the Iceni. She expected that her daughters, or the eldest, would follow when they came of age. Despite Boudicca’s status, the Romans did not take female rulers seriously and sought to take advantage of what they considered to be the weakness of the Iceni at this time. Catus Decianus, the Roman in charge of collecting Rome’s share of the inheritance, insulted the Iceni through a series of horrific acts. He ordered his troops to loot their property, flog Boudicca in public, and rape her daughters repeatedly. 

Boudicca took her revenge. She led a revolt of her people’s forces and those of several other tribes that had grown resentful of the invading Romans. Boudicca’s ability to unite her people in revolt was remarkable because Celtic warriors usually preferred individual glory. In fact, some historians believe that this lack of unity in other areas of Celtic Europe continually raised its head and was, finally, a precipitating factor in the fall to Roman expansion. Unfortunately, despite the unifying force of Boudicca’s leadership, bringing in other tribal warriors, as well as her own, the revolt was short-lived.

 Her death remains a mystery. Roman writers, such as Tacitus, writing a generation later, suggested she may have died by her own hand in order to avoid capture after losing a battle. Others, such as Cassius Dio, have suggested she died of some unnamed illness. It may be that she had word of her husband’s death on Mona and chose to take poison. It is clear from written accounts that the Romans were keen to give Boudicca a miserable or sorry end in order to knock her off her pedestal of Celtic heroine who gave the Romans a run for their money ! It has to be remembered that those who wrote about Boudicca did so from a Roman perspective. It was in their interests to try and erase her from history as a failed barbarian enemy who came to an inconspicuous end.

In AD 60/61, the Roman governor Gaius Suetonius Paulinus was campaigning on the island of Mona (modern day Anglesey) off the north-west coast of Wales. Boudicca’s husband, Prasutagus, is believed to have died sometime during the attack on Mona or its aftermath. 

Prasutagus may have been one of the eleven Celtic kings who surrendered to Claudius following the Roman conquest in 43 AD. Alternatively, he may have been installed as king following the defeat of a rebellion of the Iceni in 47 AD. He and Boudicca may have been married during this time.

As an ally of Rome the Iceni tribe were allowed to remain nominally independent. Although to ensure this, Prasutagus named the Roman emperor as co-heir to his kingdom, along with his two daughters, his wishes were ignored. Of course, the fact that he had actually been engaged in battle against the Romans would not have boded well ! Tacitus explained that Prasutagus lived a long and prosperous life, but when he died, the Romans ignored his will and took over, depriving the nobles of their lands and plundering the kingdom. Catus Decianus carried out his threats and Boudicca was flogged and their daughters raped. Roman financiers called in their loans. All this led to the revolt of the Iceni, under the leadership of Boudicca in 60 AD.

Coins have been found in Suffolk inscribed SVB ESVPRASTO ESICO FECIT. ( (Esuprastus Esico made this”) Some archaeologists believe that Esuprastus was the true name of the king that Tacitus refers to as Prasutagus. Others think he was a different person. Some interpret Esuprastus as a compound name, with Esu deriving from the god Esus and meaning lord, master or honour and Prasto- being an abbreviated personal name. if this was the case, the coin inscription would mean ‘under Lord Prasto’. 

In 60 AD, taking the opportunity of Paulinus’ absence fighting on Mona,  Boudicca led the Iceni in revolt. She enlisted the help of the neighbouring Trinovantes tribe, as well as other Celts en route. The Trinovantes tribe’s territory was on the north side of the Thames estuary (modern Essex, Hertfordshire and land now located in Greater London. 

The Celtic army destroyed the town of Camulodunum (modern Colchester). This act represented revenge for the Trinovantes as the town had once been their capital. It had been stolen from them and made into a colonia. (a settlement for discharged Roman soldiers and site of a temple dedicated to the former Emperor Claudius). A later Norman castle was built on the ruins of the temple, but remains of the Roman architecture can still be viewed on the site.

During Boudicca’s attacks, the Iceni performed sacrifices to the Celtic Goddess of revenge, Andraste. Dio Cassius describes a scene in which Boudicca released a hare from her gown - "Let us, therefore, go against (the Romans), trusting boldly to good fortune.”

Upon hearing of the Celtic revolt, Gaius Suetonius hurried to Londinium, (modern London) a Roman commercial base, which was to be the Celts next target.  The Roman leader lacked sufficient numbers to defend the settlement. He was obliged to evacuate and abandoned Londinium to its fate. Boudicca’s army increased in size as those who wished to rid their territory of Roman rule joined their band. Boudicca successfully led the large army of Iceni, Trinovantes, and other supporters against a detachment of Roman Legio IX Hispana. Once the Romans were defeated, the Celtic army set about burning the towns of Londinium and Verulamium (modern St. Albans).

It’s estimated that between 70,000 - 80,000 Romans and Celts were killed in the battle over the three towns which had been attacked.  

Unfortunately for Boudicca, Gaius Suetonius regrouped his forces and despite being heavily outnumbered, he defeated the enemy. The crisis caused so much concern, that the Emperor Nero considered withdrawing all Roman forces from Britain. However, Gauis Suetonius's victory over Boudicca and her army once again confirmed Roman control of the province. The Romans, having eventually crushed the revolts, proceed to execute thousands of Iceni people and took the rest as slaves.

Boudicca's death is a mystery as it it not recorded. The Romans claimed she had been defeated, possibly wounded and left to die. Whatever the cause of her death, she remains a hero for women across the ages and up until  and includingtoday.


August 2023

See the link below to read the fascinating account of 'The Women Behind Magna Carta' by Sharon Bennett Connolly

Magna Carta


August 2023

High Status Anglo-Saxon Women

High Status Anglo-Saxon Women

Emma of Normandy - wife of two kings of Anglo-Saxon EnglandAn illustration of Queen Emma of Normandy receiving the manuscript of her Encomium.

Despite being an island, Britain was not insular in the 7th century. The consolidation of the new religion, Christianity, was helped by missions from prominent Italian and African Christians. With these contacts came unequal access to social advancement, influence and wealth. It is no coincidence that virtually all items bearing Christian iconography from England in this early period are dripping with precious metals and gems !

From the first Germanic settlement of England back in the 5th century, right up until the Norman Conquest in the 11th century, Anglo-Saxon society underwent dramatic social, economic and political change. Women as a whole were affected by these developments, but it is also clear that high-ranking queens, abbesses and intellectuals could be the instruments of change. One such example was Emma of Normandy. She was the wife of two kings of Anglo-Saxon England – Æthelred the Unready (reigned 978–1016) and Cnut (reigned 1016–1035). She was the mother of two other English kings and was a key political figure in her own right and a major force in the turbulent politics of 11th-century England.

Such Anglo-Saxon women were the owners of jewellery and bejewelled gospel-books, and they were the patrons of the earliest known poetry written in English and some of the most complex poems composed in Latin. At various times, women were the subjects of epic literature. For example, in the case of Judith, part of the Beowulf manuscript), of narrative accounts, such as in the case of the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle, and, in one case,  a political biography. Even women from the lowest ranks of society, such as slaves, came into contact from time to time with written culture.

Unfortunately, any surviving evidence from that time throws little light on the lives of most Anglo-Saxon women, such as how old they were when they died, or which diseases they experienced. Mention of women of lower status is often particularly hard to find in the fragmentary sources.

The first known English speakers, who lived in southern Britain from the 5th century onwards, came from a pagan Germanic culture. Most evidence for this period comes from archaeological discoveries, among which are the graves of a number of wealthy women. For example, the ‘runes’ (letters from the ancient Germanic alphabet) found on the Loveden Hill cremation urn are one of the earliest examples of writing in English. They are believed to include the female name ‘Sīþæbæd’. Other female graves sometimes contained ornate necklaces, sets of keys, combs and brooches.

Analysis of early Anglo-Saxon cemeteries shows that different groups of women had very different levels of wealth and life expectancies, and that these varied between regions and over time. One example which exists is a cremation urn, one of over 1800 found in an early medieval cemetery at Loveden Hill, Lincolnshire, bears an inscription cut in runes. About 20 objects with runic inscriptions dating before c. 650 are known from England, making this urn one of the very earliest pieces of evidence for the English language. Comparison with similarly shaped cremation urns from other cemeteries suggests that the Loveden Hill urn dates from the second half of the 5th century.

Anglo-Saxon kingdoms converted to Christianity around the late 6th and 7th centuries, beginning with the mission of Augustine (d. 604) to Kent in 597. The wife of King Æthelberht of Kent (d. 616) was Bertha (d. around 601). Bertha was a Christian princess from Paris. She may have been instrumental in helping the Christian missionaries from Rome to establish themselves at King Æthelberht’s court. Pope Gregory the Great (590–604) wrote to her, as recorded in 731 in Bede’s ‘Ecclesiastical History’ , urging her to make her husband sympathetic to Christianity. Many other women throughout the early Anglo-Saxon kingdoms helped to promote Christianity and influence social and cultural change.

The conversion to Christianity of elite members of Anglo-Saxon society brought about massive social change. Christianity was associated with the spread of new writing technologies and knowledge of Latin. At the head of this movement was a group of women of high status, who presided over ‘double monasteries’. These ‘double monasteries’ were managed and run by both men and women, based on the ‘Frankish’  model. They were the major economic and intellectual centres of their day. For example, the monastery at Whitby, N. Yorkshire, England, was governed in its early years by Hild (Hilda) (d. 680), a member of the Northumbrian royal family.  Hild acted as an advisor to several princes and she helped to train no fewer than five bishops ! She also promoted the work of Cædmon, the first-named English poet, a cowherd at Whitby and author of Cædmon’s Hymn. (Cædmon is mentioned by Bede.)

The earliest surviving law-code in English which was issued by King Æthelberht of Kent, throws light on the role of women and on attitudes towards them. At least eight ranks of women are listed in this law-code, from ‘grinding slaves’ to free women of ‘the foremost noble rank’.

This is similar to the ranks recorded for men, with the exception that women alone were divided by marital status: unmarried women or maidens, widows and married women. A woman was not entitled to receive compensation for any injuries done to her: any such compensation would instead be paid to her husband, father, guardian or slave owner.

Women are also under-represented in the later Domesday Book (1086) which focuses on landowners (mostly men) and male workers. Great Domesday (the largest volume of the Domesday survey) mentions only 479 named women, as opposed to 16,667 individual men.

So was there a surge of powerful women during the Anglo-Saxon period which changed with the onset of the Norman period from after 1066.

The Anglo-Saxon women we know most about are, unsurprisingly, those at the highest levels of society. Queens didn’t always wield significant power at this period. In his biography of King Alfred, Asser (d. 909) claimed that: “ West Saxons do not allow a queen to sit beside the king, nor to be called a queen, but only the king’s wife [because of] a certain obstinate and malevolent queen [from Mercia], who did everything she could against her lord and whole people.”

Cynethryth, the wife of King Offa of Mercia

The earliest known Anglo-Saxon king is probably the one we call ‘Alfred the Great’. There is also at least one example of a powerful queen from the kingdom of Mercia. The only surviving coinage issued in the name of an Anglo-Saxon queen is that of Cynethryth, the wife of King Offa of Mercia (757–796). At the same time, it is possible that Cynethryth’s coins were minted in order to promote the status of her son, Ecgfrith, who succeeded Offa briefly as king. After Offa’s death, Cynethryth became abbess of the monastery at Cookham.

The only woman known to have ruled in her own right was Æthelflæd (d. 918), lady of the Mercians and daughter of King Alfred the Great. Æthelflæd’s exploits are recorded in one manuscript of the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle. After her husband died, she led armies against Welsh and Viking forces, and fortified major centres throughout the Midlands, including Tamworth, Warwick and Stafford, eventually extending her authority as far as York.  An account of Æthelflaed’s victories from a 10th-century manuscript of the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle exists in the British Library.


Worcester Cathedral Library and Archive: Æthelflæd, 'Lady of the Mercians' ( d. 918)

Æthelflæd’s conquests paved the way for the creation of the kingdom of England by King Æthelstan (924–939). She was succeeded by her daughter, Ælfwynn, but within a few months Ælfwynn had been deposed by her uncle, King Edward the Elder of Wessex (899–924).

One of the most prominent figures in 11th century English politics was Emma of Normandy (d. 1052). Emma was the wife of King Æthelred the Unready (978–1016), and then of King Cnut (1016–1035). After the Danish conquest of England, she provided crucial advice to Cnut as he tried to establish his authority over his new territory. Emma and Cnut are shown together in a miniature at the beginning of the Liber Vitae (‘Book of Life’) of the New Minster, Winchester, standing before the altar in the church at that monastery. A record of the names of members and friends of monasteries or convents was included, the belief being that these names would also appear in the heavenly book opened on the Day of Judgement (British Library, Stowe MS 944, f. 13r)

Emma was also the mother of two kings: Harthacnut (1040–1042), her son by Cnut, and Edward the Confessor (1042–1066), her son by Æthelred. In 1041–42, she commissioned the biography known as ‘In Praise of QueenEmma .to justify her decisions and her political career.

Emma of Normandy

Emma of Normandy - Wikipedia

Other Anglo-Saxon queens and princesses played an important dynastic function. No fewer than five of King Æthelstan’s sisters were married to powerful nobles in mainland Europe. Two of them had been offered in marriage to Otto, the future king and emperor. of Germany (936–973) Otto chose Edith (Eadgyth) (d. 946) as his bride, and to mark that occasion he probably presented a Frankish gospel-book to Æthelstan, now known as ‘The Coronation Gospels’. Royal women were important in establishing diplomatic links through marriage and family networks.

All of these powerful women described above were extraordinary, but the fragmentary nature of the surviving sources means we know little about the lives of the majority of the female population.

Technological advances are enabling us to recover more information about women from the lower levels of Anglo-Saxon society, particularly slaves. Slaves were occasionally granted their freedom, and sometimes this was recorded in writing.

The freeing of slaves was often recorded in the margins of gospel-books, such as the Bodmin Gospels, created in Cornwall. These records – known as ‘manumissions’ were often erased by later owners of the manuscripts. However, in the case of the Bodmin Gospels, modern, multispectral imaging has been able to reveal parts of the erased text. These include a record of a woman called Guenenguith, a slave who belonged to Bishop Comoere of Cornwall (d. after 981). Guenenguith and her son, Morcefres, were freed on the altar of St Petroc at some point during the 10th century. This newly-revealed text is our only evidence for their existence. Multispectral image of some erased manumissions from the Bodmin Gospels, including the record of Guenenguith and Morcefres being freed. (British Library)

Even for powerful women in Anglo-Saxon society, we do not know much about many aspects of their lives. For instance, we know relatively little about childbirth in early medieval England. Medical remedies in manuscripts such as ‘Bald’s Leechbook’ and the ‘Old English Herbal ‘included charms that promised to help a woman give birth to a healthy child, while some medical recipes may have provided forms of contraception.A large collection of medical remedies in Old English can be found in the British Library.

Old English Herbal  - illustrated

An illustrated Old English Herbal - Medieval manuscripts blog English Illustrated Herbal


There is evidence that Anglo-Saxon manuscripts were on occasion made for, or owned, by women, including nuns and noblewomen. For instance, five of the six surviving prayer books from Anglo-Saxon England had female owners. One of these, known as the Book of Nunnaminster, probably belonged to Ealhswith (d. 902), wife of King Alfred the Great of Wessex (871–899), because its final page contains a description of her property in Winchester.

Perhaps the most spectacular examples of books owned by a later Anglo-Saxon woman are the 4 gospel-books made for Judith of Flanders (d. 1095), the sister-in-law of Harold (d.1066), the last Anglo-Saxon king of England. The jewelled covers of Judith’s books may be of Continental workmanship, but it is likely that their finely illuminated pages were made in England. These books give us a glimpse of how luxurious the libraries of Anglo-Saxon noblewomen could be.

Judith of Flanders GospelsJudith of Flanders Gospels | The British Library

Judith of Flanders is known to have owned a series of spectacular gospel-books with gilded illumination and jewelled covers as illustrated above.

Female Readers and Writers

Women in the Anglo-Saxon kingdoms occasionally had texts written specifically for them, or were the writers themselves. For example, Bishop Aldhelm of Sherborne (d. 709/10) composed one of the most complex Latin poems ever written in Anglo-Saxon England, ‘On Virginity’, which he dedicated to the abbess and nuns of Barking. Meanwhile, abbesses such as Hild of Whitby addressed letters to contacts throughout Europe, which also serves to show the networks of communication between England and countries overseas.

Wills and other documents provide evidence for female literacy in Anglo-Saxon England. One-third of all the surviving wills from this period were made on behalf of women. Wynflæd, a wealthy noblewoman who lived in the 10th century, left a variety of possessions in her will, including two highly skilled slaves, ‘a woman-weaver’ and a ‘seamstress’. To Eadgifu, her granddaughter, Wynflæd gave two chests, her best bed-curtain, her best tunic and cloak, her old filigree brooch, a long tapestry and a cook.

Wynflæd’s will

 Wynflæd made her will as a widow, detailing arrangements for the disposal of her lands and livestock, her clothing, chests, bed-linen and even her ‘best holy veil’ .

At the same time, women do not appear equally in all surviving forms of Anglo-Saxon writing. For instance, the witness lists of charters are usually dominated by the names of men, even when the property in question was being given to a woman.

Inscriptions on jewellery and similar items are another important source for female written culture in Anglo-Saxon England. For example, the gold and garnet brooch found at Harford Farm in Norfolk was made for a woman who lived in the early 7th century, at a time when the English were beginning to convert to Christianity.

This brooch was inscribed with writing in runes. Its gold and garnet decoration resembles items found in other places such as Kent, Francia and the Low Countries. It shows connections between members of the upper levels of society who lived in the regions surrounding the North Sea.

Harford Farm brooch

The Harford Farm assemblage by Unknown Artist - Art Fund

This brooch was found in a grave at Harford Farm cemetery, near Norwich, Norfolk, where it had been buried with its wealthy female owner towards the end of the 7th century (Norwich Castle Museum, 1994.5.78)

The Ædwen Brooch was made for a woman of that name in the 11th century. In contrast with the Harford Farm Brooch, Ædwen’s brooch has writing in the Latin alphabet and the text includes references to the Christian God.The inscription reads ‘Ædwen owns me, may the Lord own her. May the Lord curse him who takes me from her, unless she gives me of her own free will.’ (British Museum)

Its decoration also bears witness to the changes that had taken place in East Anglia in the intervening centuries. The animals incised on the front of the brooch resemble motifs found in Scandinavian art, since that region had been invaded by Viking forces and had experienced Scandinavian settlement in the 9th century.

Also on this brooch is foliage which resembles manuscripts made in Wessex, reflecting the fact that by the 10th century, East Anglia had come under the dominion of the West Saxon kings, now rulers of all England.

(Source: Alison Hudson - Project Curator of Anglo-Saxon Manuscripts at the British Library, working on the Anglo-Saxon Kingdoms exhibition. Her doctoral research at the University of Oxford focused on the English Benedictine reform movement in the 10th century.)

Further Evidence of Anglo-Saxon women’s lives.  

An archeological site at Harpole, a village 4 miles west of Northampton, England, had been a very straightforward excavation for the small team from MOLA (Museum of London Archaeology). In March and April 2022 they moved on to targeted excavation of the features identified by this preliminary work. For some weeks, they had been uncovering Iron Age and Roman remains: fairly typical domestic evidence, including ditches, pits, a couple of enclosures – not the main focus of a settlement, but traces of very everyday activity on the fringes of occupied areas. As the project drew to its end, there was nothing to indicate anything unusual – and then, on the penultimate day of digging, everything changed. A burial site was discovered, representing a different, specifically feminine and overtly Christian phenomenon.

 Graves are more likely to reflect what the surviving community wanted to think of the deceased than what they thought about themselves. Funerals can knowingly be used to transform the dead into symbols of their community. They mark an ending but they also create ancestors. Those directing the Harpole funeral were aware of the memories and the monument they were creating. To mark this they apparently placed the burial in a prominent position on a slight rise. This location could be important. At Streethouse on Teeside, in NE England, for example, a single feminine burial lay at the centre of more than 100 other graves. This woman had spectacular gemstone jewellery and was buried in a bed, underneath a barrow. (a ‘barrow’, in England, being an ancient burial place covered with a large mound of earth.)

The burial of a 7th century teenage girl at Westfield near Ely in Cambridgeshire was also found, around 15 years ago, buried under a barrow. She too wore Christian jewellery and was surrounded by other burials.

In death these women became symbols of their community, resting under substantial monuments in important locations that stood for generations.. So, who were these women ?

Harpole would have been in the Anglo Saxon kingdom of Mercia at that time. It was growing fast as a settlement and laid the foundation of many rich Christian monastic houses. One was at Weedon Bec, about 6km East of Harpole, where St Werburgh, daughter of the first Christian king of Mercia, resided. 

An illustrated reconstruction of the Harpole burial. MOLA - Hugh Gatt

Harpole burial reconstruction © MOLA (Hugh Gatt) -

It was common for royal women to enjoy society’s highest status. For example, abbesses and nuns. St Werburgh was one such woman.

The fact that so many wealthy female burials belong to this period may not be coincidental. Some have already speculated that the woman from Harpole was an abbess or princess. Her mourners clearly acknowledged her special status. But the fact that her grave lay outside any known monastic complex rules out any automatic argument that she was an abbess. Speculation that she was of royal status should also be considered, though not proven.

Though extraordinary, the repurposed clasp, eight gold coins and four garnet cabochons of the Harpole necklace hardly represent royal wealth, nor the kinds of riches that monasteries of this period would have amassed.

The discovery of the Staffordshire Hoard in 2009, demonstrates that it is easy to underestimate the quantity of wealth in circulation in this period.

What the burial at Harpole does tell us, however, is that it was not uncommon for women to reach considerable levels of influence in this period and in death become symbols of their communities. Whether within or beyond a monastery, their exceptional status was associated not only with a display of their devotion to the new religion but also their femininity. These women forged their own pathways to considerable wealth and status and in doing so, shaped what it was to be a Christian at that time.

  Westfield Farm, Ely, Cambridgeshire, UK - a high-status Anglo-Saxon burial of a ‘princess’

 At Ely in East Anglia on a property known as ‘Westfield Farm’ a 7th century cemetery was discovered. It represents an important, yet under-appreciated, piece of Anglo-Saxon  funerary archaeology”, i.e. a cemetery focused around a single very lavish female burial. Large-scale male 'princely' burials from the early 7th century already exist at Sutton Hoo and Snape in Suffolk and Prittlewell in Essex. These have been primary sources in terms of richly furnished burials of high-ranking people. They are archaeologically significant sites and have important things to say about power and status. However they only give one side of the story.

 Such rich male burials are grouped around the first quarter of the 7th century. By the end of that century, they had all but disappeared. In their place emerged their female counterparts. These burials centred on the latter part of the century. By the 660s, lavish furnished female graves had ‘taken over’. This change in focus seems to suggest a movement in society towards a new focus on how power and legitimacy was both conferred and re-enforced.

This trend can be demonstrated in the richly furnished female burials found at Westfield Farm, Ely.

The cemetery appears to centre around Grave 1. It’s possible this grave was originally covered by a mound.Archaeological evidence from skeleton bones suggests this is a female aged 10 to 12, and clearly an individual of notable social status.

So what was found in Grave 1 ? It is central to the site. The explicitly Christian context of the grave would seem to be firmly established by a cruciform pendant.

A set of green glass palm-cups were found and are associated with the body. The presence of glass vessels is usually interpreted as a sign of impressive prestige and status. There is a glass claw-beaker found at Snape in Suffolk.

The remains of iron bindings appear to illustrate the initial presence of a lockable casket or box, and this is confirmed by the presence of a padlock key.

Alongside other sites like the bed burial at Swallowcliffe Down, quite a well-established corpus of lavish elite female burials has been discovered. The question remains, why was there a shift from elite male lavish burials in the first quarter of the 7th Century to female equivalents in the latter half of the century ?

It has been suggested by some archaeologists that the shift to women was the result of it no longer being acceptable to bury men with weapons in a Christian context. Others disagree with this. They suggest that it is the symbolism of women that is being brought to the fore within a new system of power and legitimacy. It recognises women's roles in creating dynasties and also being religious specialists.

Historians now conclude that Anglo-Saxon noble women were relatively independent through their land-holding rights while, by contrast, later Anglo-Norman noble women lost some of their independence when land ownership became closely associated with the new military-based society that followed the Norman Conquest in 1066. Women who had inherited family land because their husbands or fathers had been killed at Hastings in 1066, were only allowed to keep their family land if they married a Norman or Frenchman !! In a sense such marriages were alliances, established to further the post-conquest social order and ‘peace’ in England.



Hamerow, H., 'Furnished female burial in seventh-century England: gender and sacral authority in the Conversion Period', Early Medieval Europe 24/4 (2016)

Lucy, C., Newman, R. et al., ‘The burial of a Princess? The later 7th-century cemetery at Westfield Farm, Ely’, The Antiquaries Journal 89 (2009): 81-141.

Newman, R. (2007). Westfield Farm, Ely: An archaeological excavation. Cambridge: Cambridge Archaeological Unit. (

Whitehead Anne (2021) ‘Women of Power in Anglo-Saxon England’

Despite being an island, Britain was not insular in the 7th century. The consolidation of the new religion, C_______________________________________________________________________________________________________________________

July 2023

Alice in Wonderland

After 150 years, we still haven't solved the puzzle of Alice in Wonderland

Many of us will have read Lewis Carroll’s wonderful stories as a child, but perhaps not returned to the texts as an adult. Re-reading the books as an adult certainly brought out many elements for me which I hadn’t been aware of as a child, yet come to light now when re-reading and interpreting the stories. 

Lewis’ first told the story orally on 4th July 1862 direct from his amazing imagination. He related it  during a boat trip on the river Thames which he had organized for the amusement of the young Liddell sisters. Alice Pleasance Liddell, was ten years old at the time. Her family were known to Carroll. and Alice had been the subject of photography by Lewis Carroll.

 In his poem that introduces the published version of the story, the result of his  oral version is memorialized as having taken place on what he described as a “golden afternoon”. Realists have since pointed out that the weather was not sunny that day, but I like to think that both Carroll and the sisters did experience a lovely day. Venturing into the Otherworld of the spirit and the emotions, the sky was not cloudy. Maybe because of  the innocence and child-like nature of his passengers, they all remembered it as they wished it to be.

Carroll’s idealisation of the childhood of Alice Liddell at a particular moment in time actually changes in the written version. The Alice stories have many mentions of the passage of time, for example,  in the White Rabbit’s nervous cry “Oh dear! Oh dear! I shall be too late!”.

Death itself shows itself  in the Queen of Hearts’ mania for beheadings. Also, in the story there are  repeated references to the threat of extinction. In fact, Alice fears she might disappear altogether if one of her size changes was to go horribly wrong. 

Images of decay creep into the story of Wonderland, in spite of its summer location. Alice wakes up to her sister’s hand gently sweeping away “some dead leaves that had fluttered … upon her [Alice’s] face”. “Watching the setting sun”, the elder Alice takes part in her sibling’s adventures in a vivid daydream of her own.

This daydream ends with a bittersweet vision of Alice as a grown woman, still keeping “through all her riper years, the simple and loving heart of her childhood.” She shares Wonderland with a new generation of children. Carroll suggests that the best we can hope for is for our spirit to remain young. Speaking for myself, our bodies won’t be so lucky !!  One popular approach to Alice’s story has been to read it as a political allegory, with Wonderland a symbolic England, ruled tyrannically by the Queen of Hearts, who of course would be based on Queen Victoria.

Through the Looking-Glass’, the sequel to the Alice story was published in December 1871. The initial poem to this winter-based narrative has a distinctly melancholy tone, spelling out the exact cause for such a change in mood: “We are but older children, dear, / who fret to find our bedtime near.”

As for Alice, in the garden of live flowers, she is told that she is “beginning to fade”. This is a point emphasised in a roundabout way in Humpty Dumpty’s suggestion that she “might have left off at seven”, instead of reaching the “uncomfortable”, grand old age of “seven years and six months”.

It’s true that later changes in Alice’s body, and her confusion about her own identity, lend themselves to being read as the turmoil of puberty. However, in reality, the seven and-a-half year-old Alice would not have to worry about puberty or adulthood – even at a time when the age of consent was twelve !

It’s interesting to note also that Alice is mostly in charge of her own changing incarnations. Of course, we have to allow for a certain margin of error, but that’s only fair. In Wonderland, ‘precise’ instructions are very short and to the point. For example, “Drink Me” or “Eat Me”, or the Caterpillar’s cryptic advice about the “two sides” of the mushroom he’s sitting on. One makes you grow taller, the other shorter but, to Alice’s puzzlement, “which is which?”.

Her problem-solving skills are further hampered by the fact that the mushroom is “perfectly round”. It is devoid of clearly identified sides. That said however, she is not daunted. She stretches her arms wide in an imaginative and successful attempt to get a bite of both !

Alice shows her strength, unlike many of her female contemporaries, by taking strange things in her stride. She proves to be exceedingly capable of making sensible decisions, especially when it comes to the appropriate size for her to become at each point of her journey.

In ‘Through the Looking-Glass’, there is a loosely directed narrative both by spectacular , otherworldly principles - which can be free and flexible - and by the factual rules of chess. Alice is not intimidated by the game. She is confident. She “would like to be a Queen, best”. For me, this demonstrates confidence and a declaration of willingness and eagerness to develop.

 When I was a child, like many children, I couldn’t wait to grow up. The Peter Pan syndrome doesn’t generally get started until puberty and beyond when the ship of childhood has well and truly sailed. Modern voices have argued that many people have trouble dealing with responsibility, and behave childishly. They may choose therapy in order to teach them how to help them reach emotional maturity. Could this ‘syndrome’ be true of Lewis Carroll ? Peter Pan syndrome (PPS), while not a recognised medical diagnosis, is a popular term used in psychology used to describe an adult who has difficulty growing up. The term is derived from the later fictional character of Peter Pan, a magical boy who never grows old, created by J.M. Barrie in 1902. People with this syndrome exhibit a series of social behaviours, ideologies and traits that are considered immature. In most cases, they may struggle with commitment, maintaining employment, doing chores, keeping up with responsibilities and having purposeful direction in their lives. Much like Peter Pan, such individuals experience a failure to launch into adulthood or a refusal to grow up. There’s a kind of egocentric nature to them and they continuously avoid responsibility and commitment and don’t take on those adult responsibilities that most people do. 

Why wouldn’t Alice want to grow up when she is, in the story, factually little ? In recent times there has been psychoanalytic interpretation of writing in the ‘Golden Age’ classics , ie - Alice, Peter Pan, and The Wonderful Wizard of Oz. Case writing on children’s literature undertakes to educate the reader, but also give a broader critique of innocence, ignorance and/or immaturity. With both Alice and Peter Pan, critical case writing takes a cue from psychoanalytic case writing and from a broader anxiety about human-child sexuality, also discernible in popular retellings and adaptations. The Wizard of Oz has also been assumed as having a repressed adult history. These and other Golden Age texts are addressed to adult as well as child subjects. The stories can be approached from either perspective.

In both Lewis Carroll books, Alice is constantly bossed around by authority figures, each as despotic and certain of their right to have the last word as the other. Tellingly, on the one occasion, when Alice changes size unexpectedly, it’s during the trial at the end of ‘Wonderland’. Towering over the cards, she finally shouts out all the anger that she’d previously tried to curb in deference to the social mores of her day, namely politeness and adult authority. Back to her full height, she won’t take any more nonsense. So size does matter !

The problem with an exclusive focus on the texts’ concern for the passage of time, or on Carroll’s nostalgia for an idyllic past, is that such readings obscure the child’s perspective, be it Alice’s or her young readers’.

Some see the Alice books as so successfully part of the child’s world in that historical context, that modern children may find them of limited interest. It has been argued that they may be too true.” They do capture children’s frustration with the perceived arbitrariness of the grown-ups’ rules. A significant part of the appeal of adulthood is the idea that, once we reach that state we will be able to cry ‘Rubbish’ to other people’s rules and create our own. In reality this doesn’t work ! Follow the rules of your society or risk becoming an ‘outsider’ if you pursue a different path.  

How many times do you hear older adults saying “it was better in my day”, meaning when they were young. Children certainly do not share our nostalgia for the past. We might do well to learn from Alice in this respect as she declares matter-of-factly: “it’s no use going back to yesterday because I was a different person then.”


July 2023

Hidden Figures

Do you know how three black women helped send astronaut John Glenn into orbit ?

When John Glenn was waiting to be fired into orbit aboard 'Friendship 7' back in 1962, there was one person he trusted with the complex trajectory calculations required to bring him down safely from his orbital spaceflight.That woman, Katherine Johnson, was an African-American mathematician who worked in Nasa’s segregated 'West Area Computers Division'.This was a period in time where, in America, racism was alive and well. The idea of women, far less black women, working in such an environment was unheard of. Many of their colleagues were sceptical to say the least. 

The film, 'Hidden Figures', made in 2016, follows the fate and eventually, final recognition, for the 3 women.

“Get the girl, (Katherine Johnson) check the numbers,” Glenn had said before boarding the rocket. “If she says they’re good, I’m good to go.”

Katherine Johnson was one of the three female African-American mathematicians known as the “computers in skirts” who worked on the Redstone, Mercury and Apollo space programmes for Nasa. Now, thanks to an award-tipped movie, Katherine Johnson, Mary Jackson and Dorothy Vaughan are about to become more widely celebrated.

John Glenn died at the age of 95 in 2016 and this, coupled with the film industry’s desire to correct and celebrate how the women broke through the racial and gender discrimination of an all-male flight research team,  The film had  the momentum to launch itself forcefully into the film awards season. It demonstrated the determination of the three women to break through and change the face of a white male profession. Mary Jackson fought through the courts to join courses that would allow her to even be admitted to the NASA programme. These women were told that their dreams were not valid because of their gender and the colour of their skin,  These were two things they could not change – and would not want to – because they were proud black women. There was by 2016 a breakthrough, that being Hollywood’s willingness to make a mainstream film about African-American women. “Most of the time we’re portrayed as the maid, the nanny or the secretary,” said Mary Jackson. “To be portrayed as brilliant-minded, outspoken, to dress sharply and be the voice of a new generation of women means that now audiences are going to see a different side of us.”



May 2023

Irish Wolves (Wolves na hÉireann)

Gray Wolf - Pictures, Facts, and Map

The howl of a wolf is thought to be a message between wolves in a group to call them to a location or send a message across a distance.


                         It was wild, untamed music and it echoed from the hillsides and filled the valleys.                                                         It sent a queer shivering feeling along my spine.                                                                                                                    It was not a feeling of fear, you understand, but a sort of tingling,                                                           as if there was hair on my back and it was hackling.

(Alda Orton, Alaskan trapper) from Barry H Lopez in ‘Of Wolves and Men’)

For centuries people have anthropomorphised wolves. Both in children’s stories such as ‘Little Red Riding Hood’, adult books and films and in mythological tales. Often people are transformed into wolves and vice versa. There are even recorded examples of children being raised by wolves. Maybe they had been deserted by their parents or left to die ? One such was the case of Dina Sanichar. He was discovered amongst wolves in a cave in Sikandra (near Agra) in Uttar Pradesh, India in 1872, at the age of about six. He went on to live among humans for over twenty years, but never learned to speak. One of the most well-documented cases of children raised by wild animals is that of Kamala and Amala, better known as the "wolf children." Discovered in 1920 in the jungles of Godamuri, India, the girls, aged about three and eight, had been living with a she-wolf and her pack.

Wolf Wallpaper" Images – Parcourir 31 le catalogue de photos, vecteurs et  vidéos | Adobe Stock

In ancient Irish mythology, wolves were often associated with bravery and loyalty, and were considered to be protectors and guides, especially of children and young people. In fact, many of the great Irish heroes were said to have been raised by wolves, including the legendary hero Fionn Mac Cumhaill.

Fionn Mac Cumhaill is a legendary warrior from Irish Celtic mythology. He is also known in Scotland and the Isle of Man . The stories of Fionn and his companions, the Fianna , fit into the Fenian Cycle, also known as the Ossianic Cycle after its narrator Oisín. It is one of the four main cycles of Irish Celtic mythology alongside the Mythological Cycle, the Historical Cycle and the Ulster Cycle. The stories would primarily be narrated by Fionn's son, the warrior and poet Ossian .The name Fionn is a pseudonym which means ‘Blond’ (hair), Handsome, Gold and of Good Race. It also means White, Whiteness and Purity. His childhood name was Deimne, and several legends tell how he changed his name when his hair turned grey early in his life.

The Celts believed that the wolf was a powerful symbol of the moon, and they associated it with transformation, intuition, and the hunt. They also believed that wolves had the ability to communicate with the spirits of the dead, and that they were therefore able to act as intermediaries between the living and the dead. It is my belief that our forefathers understood the wolf much better than in more recent times. The ancient Celts, as well as other groups, such as Native Americans, felt that they were an integral part of the natural world. However, with the arrival of Christianity in Ireland, the wolf began to be seen as a symbol of evil and darkness. The Bible refers to wolves as predators and destroyers and this negative view of the animal began to permeate Irish and other American and European societies. By the Middle Ages, the wolf had become a symbol of fear and terror, and many people believed that they were agents of the devil.

As a result of this fear, the wolf was hunted to extinction in Ireland. By the 17th century, the last wolf was believed to have been killed, and the animal disappeared from Irish folklore and mythology. However, in recent years there has been a resurgence of interest in the wolf, and many people are now working to reintroduce the animal to Ireland's wild landscapes.

The Fenian groups, named after Fionn and formed in Ireland, claim to have an unbroken lineage that stretches back to the Tuatha de Dannan, a supernatural race in Irish mythology who are immune from ageing and sickness and who have powers of magic.  Originally, the Fenians wandered around the Celtic islands, trafficking with the fae (fairy folk) and defending their people against the Fomori, a type of Possessed Beings aligned with the Wyrm, a gigantic parasite that arrives in the form of an egg and nestles in the roots of the Eternal Tree. Fomori are corrupt in mind, body, and spirit. Their abilities stretched as much from linear magic as it did from their faerie blood, allowing them to transform into animals, see chimerical reality, act as great bards, and fight with extraordinary strength.

Fomori are created when a Bane possessed a human or an animal via a spiritual ‘hole’ left by some form of sin or spiritual corruption. A Bane was a wholly malevolent and brutal deity that distanced himself from mere mortals, preferring to reign over his followers from afar. He savoured the terror he instilled in others and the hatred that formed in mortals' hearts, utilising this conflict to gain greater control over the Realms. The Bane was able to slowly gain more and more influence, until they were completely fused with the host and could not be separated. Fomori powers vary wildly, but are usually based strongly on the type of Bane and/or their method of creation. For example, a typical Bane of Lust will result in a type of Fomor known as an Enticer.

The modern Fenians claim to have preserved their potent lineage by inviting terrible curses on those that dilute their blood. Only less than thirty family members have the gift of sorcery, making the Fenian tradition as much a family secret as a sorcerous society. Protected through pacts with the Fae, the Fianna werewolves and the ghosts of their ancestors, the Fenians, managed to survive the centuries. They are always threatened by Fomori, who can sense their lineage and attack them instinctively with a murderous frenzy.

The modern Fenian have also preserved their lineage with potent ‘Geasa’, inviting terrible curses on those that dilute their blood. A Geas can be compared with a curse, or paradoxically, a gift. If someone under a Geas violates the associated taboo, the violator will suffer dishonour or even death. Conversely, the observing of one's Geas is believed to bring power. Protected through pacts with the Fae, the Fianna werewolves and the ghosts of their ancestors, the Fenians, managed to survive the centuries. They are always threatened by Fomori, who can sense their lineage and attack them instinctively with a murderous frenzy.

Werewolf The Apocalypse png images | PNGEgg

“It may be reasonable to expect most people to dismiss the notion of a nurturing wolf as a naive person’s referent, but that doesn’t seem wise to me. When, from the prisons of our cities, we look out to wilderness, when we reach intellectually for such abstractions as the privilege of leading a life free from nonsensical conventions, or one without guilt or subterfuge—in short, a life of integrity—I think we can turn to wolves. We do sense in them courage, stamina, and a straightforwardness of living; we do sense that they are somehow correct in the universe and we are somehow still at odds with it. As our sense of sharing the planet with other creatures grows—and perhaps that is ultimately the goal of natural history—the deep contemplation of wolves may be seen as part of an attempt to nurture the humbler belief that there is more to the world than mankind. In that sense, the wolf-mother is just now upon us, in a role a quantum leap removed from Romulus and Remus.”

Barry H Lopez in his book ‘Of Wolves and Men’.)

The Irish Faoladh is a type of werewolf that is very different from the traditional European or Teutonic werewolf. In fact, it is different in the sense that these werewolves are not considered to be savage monsters or even monsters at all. In fact, I had an ‘imaginary’ werewolf childhood friend whose name was Faoladh. He came to me at night and floated above my fireplace. I could speak to him and tell him my worries and concerns. He would give me advice, or the answer to problems.

Many accounts of the fabled werewolves of Ossory are recorded in Medieval Irish, English and Norse sources. The legends most likely originated from the fact that warriors in ancient Ireland are often referred to as having wolf-like characteristics due to their wearing of wolf skins and wild, fur-like hair .

The adjective to “go wolfing” was a term used by warriors as they went on raids. These wolf warriors or luchthonn (wolf-skins) were most likely the basis for background to the Irish stories surrounding werewolves.

Until the 16th and 17th centuries, Ireland was still a densely wooded country and, despite a population of around a million people, wolves were still plentiful in the wild areas. As more land was farmed, wolves became a threat to livestock. During the 1650’s bounty hunters were paid large sums of money to hunt and exterminate wolves. The last recorded account of the killing of a wolf occurred near Mount Leinster in County Carlow in 1786. The wolf was found to be killing sheep. One of many examples of how people change the lives and distribution of wildlife which threaten human interests.

The ancient Irish kingdom of Ossory comprised largely of what is now counties Laois and Kilkenny. This kingdom was established well before the Normans arrived in Ireland in the late 12th century. The kings of Ossory claimed descent from one Laignech Faelad who was said to be a shape-shifter and the first to adopt the wolf-shape. His brother was called Ferdach Mac Duach.  Laignech Faelad was recorded in a medieval genealogy as the king of Ossory and the ancestor of the subsequent generation of kings up until the Norman Conquest.

The medieval writer Gerald of Wales in his book ‘Topographia Hibernica’ (Geography of Ireland) recorded one of the most famous accounts of the Werewolves of Ossory. Gerald relates the story of an unnamed priest who was travelling from Ulster when he encountered a wolf in the woods. To the priest’s astonishment, the wolf begins to talk to him and told the priest not to be afraid. The priest in turn asks the wolf not to attack him and to explain his story.

Gerald of Wales - Medieval HistoriesGerald of Wales

The wolf began.

 “There are two of us. We are in reality a man and a woman. We are natives of Ossory, who through the curse of Saint Natalis the abbot, are compelled every seven years to put off human form and to depart from the dwellings of man. Quitting the human form, we then assume that of wolves. At the end of seven years, if we survive, two other people will take our place. Now we have returned to our country and our former shape. Alas, now, my wife lies dangerously ill. Our prayers for her recovery have not been answered. Please will you give her the last rites ?”

The priest agrees and gives the last rites to the sick female wolf. The male wolf pulls down her wolf skin to reveal an elderly human woman underneath. He does this to prove that he is not committing blasphemy. The priest gives communion to the she wolf and the male wolf leads the priest safely from the woods. The wolf finally makes a number of prophesies concerning the future of Ireland and the Norman invaders. The priest is later summoned before the Bishop of Meath and, on Gerald’s advice, is ordered to travel to meet the Pope to present his story.

Catherine Karkov in her book “Tales of the Ancient: Colonial Werewolves and the Mapping of Post-Colonial Ireland”, has argued that the story of the Ossory Werewolves could be seen a political metaphor for the Norman settlement of Ireland. She argues that the Irish people, thought to be bestial in appearance by the Normans, were still ‘redeemable’ from their pagan beliefs through the Christian sacrament. They needed to understand that they had been made in the image of God underneath their fierce appearance. The old dying female wolf could be seen as a personification of Ireland and a symbol of the passing of the old Irish, Celtic religion with its different character to the new English church brought with them by the Normans.

The 13th Century poem, ‘De hominbus qui se vertunt in lupos’ (Men who change themselves into Wolves) describes how men are able to leave their human bodies behind and assume to shape of a wolf. Their human bodies were vulnerable while they were away as wolves and any injury on the wolf form would be reflected on the human form. Their friends and family were told not to move their bodies as any disturbance and they would not be able to return to their bodies.

‘Wolfwalkers’, is a 2020 Irish animation film ,directed by Tomm Moore and Ross Stewart, which borrows from the story of the Werewolves of Ossory especially the accounts where they become wolves by leaving their bodies while they are asleep.

The story is steeped in earthly magic and ancient lore. The main character, Robyn, is the daughter of an English hunter. Unhappily, as it turns out, she moves to Kilkenny in 1650. At this time, it is a town under the repressive rule of a wolf-hating Lord Protector (clearly based on Oliver Cromwell !)

The Wolfwalkers’ story  is set in times when Christianity had taken a hold in Ireland and paganism was thought be evil and devilish. This story is set before Christianity emerged when animal and human spirits are like tendrils intertwined. There are tensions between the town which is created in hard angles and strong, harsh, pikestaff lines and the wilds of the forest, presented as soft, wafting curls and twists of leaves and light.

Robyn makes a new friend named Mebh, a feral, forest-dwelling Being.  Robyn finds herself caught between the two situations. To create such an effect, the filmmakers use restlessly shifting frame shapes and sliced split screens. The story and its brilliant presentation has its roots firmly planted in Irish folk art and traditions stretching back to the beginning of time.

Wolfwalkers. Robyn and Mebh by WhiteWolf24 -- Fur Affinity [dot] net

Robyn & Mebh

Overall, the wolf has played a significant role in Irish mythology and history, with its symbolism and associations evolving over long periods of time to reflect the changing beliefs and values of Irish society.

The meaning or symbolism of the Wolf is reflected in, for example, the wearing of  Irish wolf pendants. Strength, resilience and power being the three most important qualities.  Wearing such a pendant as a talisman is believed to give the wearer a sense of inner strength and courage.

Wolves are social animals that live in packs, and they are known for their fierce loyalty to their family members. A wolf pendant may represent the importance of family and the bond between loved ones as well as a symbol of a close connection to the spiritual realm. In Celtic cultures, wolves are seen as spiritual guides who can help individuals tap into their intuition and inner wisdom.

Wolves are also associated with freedom and independence, as they are skilled hunters that roam and hunt on their own. A wolf pendant may be worn as a reminder of the importance of individuality and self-reliance.

Overall, the symbolism of a wolf pendant can be personal and meaningful to the individual wearing it, depending on their own interpretation and cultural background.

In this modern capitalist and materialistic world, we have distanced ourselves a sympathetic and empathetic view of animals. Their spiritual and emotional bonds with humans have been broken. The issue of climate change and global warming demonstrates our rejection of care for our natural world. The mystical concept of our connection with animals has been lost. Where, in the wild, animals interfere with modern humans and our control of the planet, they are perceived as a threat. They are considered less important than people. This is a mistake for the worth of the animal should not be measured by us and our selfish desires.

In a spiritual world, creatures such as wolves, are far older than mankind. They have a closer relationship with the natural world because they are an integral part of it. We ignore the call of the wild at our own peril. We have lost that connection. Those lucky people who seek it and find it, gain extra senses that humans have, in the main, lost.

Once upon a time, the Wolf ranged right across the northern hemisphere in all terrains. The Wolf was so widespread in Ireland that the country was once nicknamed “Wolf Land”.

 The Irish People respected and revered the Wolf. They feature very strongly in our ancient stories and mythology.

The Wolf is now extinct in Ireland due to persecution by humans. The European Wolf is still found in the wild areas of mainland Europe .The Wolf is persecuted all over its territory. The European Wolf’s future still remains uncertain.

The Irish countryside today bears little resemblance to the wilderness that it was just a few hundred years ago. Formerly clothed with a thick forest, that created a haven for Wolves, it was only when this forest was cleared that the Wolf became an endangered species in Ireland. 

As I have said, wolves hold a special place in Irish legend, The mythological character named  Cúchullain, meaning ‘Hound of Culann’, is what we might think of as the ultimate hero. He is one of the most important characters in Irish Celtic mythology, a quasi-god . Queen Medb, decided to attack him. She was helped by witches. Even  though Cuchulainn is invincible in combat, he is, nonetheless, not invulnerable. The day before the battle, Medb orders the witches to shape-shift and roast a “dog”, (which may have been a wolf), as Cuchulainn passes by. He is then obliged to obey his Geis and he must stop to taste the food. By doing this he breaks another Geis which is not eating such creatures. From the first bite his powers begin to diminish. Later, when fighting the Mag Muirthemne or Grand Carnage, he is so weakened that he receives a mortal wound. He was hit by a javelin and the hero's entrails spilled over the cushion of his chariot.

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A contemporary of Cuchulainn, named Conall Cairnech, was hunted by the ‘Three Red Wolves of the Martini’. They were a tribe who inhabited his lands in early times. These may have been those warriors who dressed in wolf skins, or even, shape-shifters.

The earliest recorded scientific information about wolves in Ireland was by Augustin in 655 AD.

Shakespeare refers to the wolf in Ireland in ‘As You Like It’ when Rosalind compares her lover’s plaints to the “Howling of Irish wolves against the moon”. Rosalind mentions Ireland twice in rejecting Orlando’s incessant overtures of love. These two references use England’s discomfiture over Ireland to emphasise the abstract quality of Orlando’s language that Rosalind sees as problematic.

The two passages compare Orlando to the beasts and magic men of Ireland as similarly abstract and, consequently, undesirable. This fits with England’s relationship with Ireland in Shakespeare’s time. Although King Henry VII claimed Ireland for the throne of England in 1541,even by the turn of the 16th century, England had not yet solidified its control over the entire region. Shakespeare probably wrote ‘As You Like It’ in 1599. This was right in the middle of the Nine Years War, an uprising against English authority led by Hugh O’Neill, an Irish Lord. Because of England’s inability to fully control Ireland demonstrated an unwelcome uncertainty amongst England’s colonial controllers. Ireland, in the eyes of colonial English society, remained a mysterious and dangerous place !

In Act V, Rosalind cries out against Orlando, who directs his love to the ‘non-present’ Rosalind:

Orlando: To her that is not here, nor doth not hear

Rosalind: Pray you no more of this; ‘tis like the howling of Irish wolves against the moon. (5.3.103-5)

Rosalind balks at Orlando’s attempt to love a woman, who (to him) is not present. She suggests that Orlando’s object of expressed passion is as unattainable or non-present as the wolf’s distant moon. The designation of the wolves as “Irish,” suggests that not only is the howling useless, but that it is also mysterious and thus barbaric.

Earlier in the play, Rosalind makes a more complex reference to Ireland. Finding the countless love poems that Orlando posts in the forest of Arden in Act III, Rosalind compares her situation to that of an “Irish rat”:

 “I was never so berhymed since Pythagoras’ time that I was an Irish rat, which I can hardly remember” (3.2.172-4).

This passage is somewhat confusing because it makes two separate allusions. The basic gist of it is that Rosalind claims to have been a rat in a previous life who underwent torture and execution by Irish sorcerers. English folklore suggested that Irish sorcerers could kill both animals and humans by reciting magical rhymes upon them, with the rat as their favourite victim. The reference to Pythagoras is an allusion to Pythagoras’ theory of metempsychosis, or, the transmigration of the soul from animal to animal. But how do these two separate references work together ? Maybe Rosalind said that Orlando makes her feel like an Irish rat, rather than claiming to have actually been one in a previous life ?

Rosalind Telling Celia that Orlando is in the Forest Painting by Edward  William Rainford - Pixels

Rosalind & Orlando

The connection between Irish Druids and metempsychosis - the supposed transmigration at death of the soul of a human being or animal into a new body of the same or a different species -  has historical foundation in Julius Caesar’s de Bello Gallico:

“They [the Druids] wish to inculcate this as one of their leading tenets, that souls do not become extinct, but pass after death from one body to another, and they think that men by this tenet are in a great degree excited to valor, the fear of death being disregarded.”

The same Irish sorcerers that could ‘rhyme a rat to death’ also believed in the reincarnation and transmigration of the soul. Thus, by saying that she really was a rat in a previous life, Rosalind puts herself under the influence of the magic of Ireland. This suggests a metaphorical invasion of Irish culture into English courtly society, with all the underlying tensions and anxieties that implies.

Rosalind references to Ireland makes the quality of Orlando’s wooing abstract because she believes that love should remain founded in the concrete. The fact that she uses Irish animals to describe what is fundamentally difficult to understand reveals the underlying worry that England had at the time, ie. their lack of physical control over Ireland. This makes sense given the play’s promotion of a controlled pastoral society. The idealised relationship of the shepherd to his pasture and his flock is that of mutual dependence. However, England wants to undo this bond and take ultimate control of people and land, just as it had done to all its colonies. Ireland, however, existed outside the realm of England’s control, and therefore to the English powers signified what they saw as an undesirable relationship between man and beast. Pagan rather than Christian. In this way, Ireland is used to negatively appraise the intangible quality of Orlando’s conception of love.

Evidence of the wolf’s physical presence in Irish lands still exists. Large ring forts like Grinna Ail each were built to protect livestock from packs of wolves. Our native Irish Wolfhound, the largest breed of dog in the world, was originally bred to hunt wolves, The Old Irish Goat grows magnificent horns which would have been a great defence against a hungry wolf. Wolves are keystone predators that play a crucial role in maintaining the balance of ecosystems. They have a significant impact on prey populations, plant communities, and even the physical geography of landscapes. The most useful modern reintroduction of wolves to the countryside is the regulation of its prey populations Wolves are known as ‘apex predators’, which means that they are at the top of the food chain. They primarily hunt large herbivores like deer. By doing so, they keep the populations of these animals in check, preventing overgrazing and protecting the vegetation. When wolves hunt, they tend to target the weaker or older members of a herd, which in turn improves the overall health of the prey population. Also, by restoring an ecological balance wolves help to restore ecological balance. By keeping herbivore populations under control, this also benefits other species that rely on the vegetation for food and habitat. For example, when wolves were reintroduced to Yellowstone National Park in the USA in the 1990s, they helped to restore the balance of the ecosystem. The elk population was reduced, which allowed the vegetation to recover. As a result, beavers returned to the park and began building dams, which created new habitats for fish and other species. This has set a good example for other countries to follow.

Wolves also play a role in controlling disease. When herbivore populations become too large, they become more susceptible to diseases that spread more easily in crowded populations. By keeping the populations of these animals in check, wolves can help to reduce the spread of diseases.

Wolves also support scavengers and other predators. When wolves make a kill, they don’t eat the entire animal. They leave behind scraps that are then scavenged by other animals. This provides a food source for these species and supports the overall ecosystem. Additionally, wolves help to keep other predators in check.

Wolves can also have an indirect impact on soil and water quality. When herbivore populations are too large, they can overgraze, which leads to soil erosion and water pollution. By keeping these populations in check, wolves help to prevent overgrazing and improve the quality of the soil and water. This, in turn, benefits other species that rely on these resources

In this modern world one species can dominate an ecosystem. Wolves promote biodiversity. By keeping prey populations in check, this allows for a greater diversity of plant and animal species. For example, when wolves were reintroduced to Yellowstone National Park in the USA, they helped to increase the population of aspen trees. Aspens are a crucial habitat for species like beavers, songbirds, and moose.

These benefits highlight the importance of preserving and protecting wolf populations in their natural habitats.

In Ireland, the owner of a wildlife park in County Donegal wants wolves reintroduced to the wild in Ireland to cope with the rising deer population across the country.

Killian McLaughlin, who founded and runs the Wild Ireland Wildlife Park in Inishowen, spoke publically after a number of accidents involving deer and motorists.

Mr McLaughlin believes the reintroduction of the wolf as the “apex predator” in Ireland will help control the increasing number of deer. ​In his wild animal sanctuary, he has wolves and bears, lynx and wild boar as well. He says the reintroduction of wolves could not only prevent road accidents but also prevent the spread of Lyme disease and TB as well as save the many hundreds of acres of crops damaged by deer each year.

ika deer numbers are causing particular alarm among wildlife enthusiasts as they chew the bark from trees, damaging Ireland’s dwindling native woodlands.

“We are only seeing the impact of deer in Ireland now that they do not have a predator. Something has to be done to stop the deforestation they are causing, as well as the spread of Lyme disease, the damage to crops and of course the increasing number of road accidents we are seeing in places like Donegal,” said Mr McLaughlin.

He explains that he is not simply talking about releasing a pack of wolves into the wild to allow a “free-for-all” but suggests a managed approach, pointing to similar programmes across Europe and the USA. Wolves now exist in the wild across most of mainland Europe including Belgium, Italy, Poland, Spain and France. They are not considered a danger to either animals or humans.

Mr McLaughlin assured the public that there are very few recorded incidents of wolves attacking people, as the creatures prefer to stay away from humans.

He points to the increase in Lyme disease in Ireland and suggests sick deer are a major part of the spread of the disease.

“With respect, I would much rather be in a car accident with a deer than be struck down by Lyme disease. It is a terrible disease. The tick bites the deer, then bites the person and can spread this awful disease.”.

Sick and lame deer that are easier to catch will be the animals first taken by wolves if reintroduced into the wild in Ireland. This would mean that diseases such as TB will also be kept under control by a carefully planned and managed reintroduction of the species.

Mr McLaughlin added that a study in America in which wolves were introduced in Wisconsin showed a decrease of 75 per cent in road accidents involving deer, because wolves were shown to hunt along the highways and byways of the road system.

“I appreciate that there is a historic fear of wolves and what they stand for and the fairy tales such as Little Red Riding Hood but that couldn’t be further from the truth,” he said. “The data is there to prove that wolves can co-exist in countries like Belgium which has over 11 million people and a smaller area size than Ireland.

“Could you imagine the benefits for eco-tourism for a place like Donegal if wolves were reintroduced? It could have huge benefits not just from a financial point of view but also from an education perspective.”

However, getting people to open their minds and hearts to wolves could be a difficult prospect . There has been a divided reaction. One local county councillor has already shut his door to the proposed plan. Another comment from a Michael McClafferty from Falcarragh said the idea was a “non-runner” as far as he was concerned. He said farmers had enough problems with domestic dogs worrying sheep, never mind wolves.

“No livestock will be safe or the public alike,” he said. “I will fight this idea all the way. We can fix the fences in Glenveagh National Park and bring in plenty of shooters to cull the deer and that will go a long way towards keep the number of deer under control. Wolves won’t.”

We shall have to wait and see !

____________________How the Wolves Change the Forest - Scientific American___________________




April 2023

Irène Joliot-Curie

I have known about Marie Curie since I was young. She is famous as a Polish physicist, chemist and feminist. She carried out detailed research on radioactivity. She was the first woman to win a Nobel Prize. In addition, she was the first woman professor at the University of Paris. I hadn’t known about her daughter Irene, who worked closely with her mother and helped to develop her mother’s research.


  Marie and Irene working together.

Imagine being a fly on the wall when Albert Einstein met Irène Joliot-Curie.

The two Nobel Prize laureates met in March 1948 at Einstein’s home in Princeton, New Jersey, USA. Irène Joliot-Curie’s mother, Marie Skłodowska Curie, was a friend of Albert Einstein. In 1911, Irene’s mother, Marie Curie (1867 – 1934) had won the Nobel Prize in Chemistry for her work on polonium and radium . Einstein was awarded the 1921 physics prize for his work on theoretical physics.



“Nothing in life should be feared, everything should be understood.”

 Marie Curie had told her daughters this. This advice expresses all the passion that fuelled these exceptional scientists and female research pioneers.


Irene’s Life.

Irène Joliot-Curie was born on September 12th 1897 in Paris. She died on March 17th 1956 in Paris from acute leukemia which related to her exposure to polonium and X-rays , the same disease that had taken her mother.

She was a chemist , physicist and politician . She was the daughter of Pierre and Marie Curie and was awarded the Nobel Prize in Chemistry in 1935 for the discovery of induced radioactivity and artificial radioactivity , jointly with her husband, Frédéric Joliot-Curie . She was also one of the first three women members of a French government, becoming Under-Secretary of State for Scientific Research , under the Popular Front in 1936.

In 1945, she became one of the six commissioners of the new Atomic Energy Commission (CEA) created by French President Charles de Gaulle and the Provisional Government of the French Republic. 

On April 19th 1906, Irene’s father, died in a traffic accident. Her mother, Marie Curie, was reticent about the teaching methods used in public education She organised a teaching co-operative for her daughters and the children of her university friends. The children received original teaching given by these academics. Their education combined an education of the pragmatic spirit, practical ideas such as experiments, discoveries, visits, shows, etc. This combined with gymnastics for physical fitness. The young Irène then completed her studies with some courses taken at the Sévigné college. She became a very good student in science and mathematics and obtained her baccalaureate in July 1914.

At 17, when the First War came, Irène wanted to make herself useful. Marie Curie agreed to allow her daughter to accompany her to the fighting front. There they took x- rays of wounded soldiers, using cars equipped for this purpose. At the same time, Irene graduated in nursing in March 1915. Despite the initial apprehension of the military doctors she trained in use of the x-ray equipment, Irène was able to inform them of the precise location of the projectiles (bullets, shrapnel) and thus saved many of the wounded.

After the war, she resumed her higher education in mathematics, physics and chemistry. whilst also being responsible for training nurses in radiology at the Curie laboratory of the Radium 9 Institute. She worked there as her mother's assistant from 1920 onwards. She began to write a thesis on the alpha rays of polonium, which she defended in 1925 . In 1926, she married Frédéric Joliot who entered the radium institute at the end of 1924. They had two children,  Hélène born in 1927 and Pierre born in 1932 .

After her marriage, Irène Curie continued to practice the activity of mountain hiking in the summer. Both very athletic, Frédéric and Irène indulged in many activities. In Paris, for example, in 1937, Frédéric went to practice judo at the Jiu-Jitsu Club de France. They also practiced sporting activities during their holidays until their deaths. These included tennis, swimming, sailing, hiking and skiing.

The couple spent their summers in Brittany at Arcouest. Irène had been going there since 1912 with her sister Ève Curie and her mother Marie. The Curies met many of their Parisian university friends there. This meeting of academics in this place gave it the nickname of Fort la Science or Sorbonne-Plage. On the occasion of the village festivals, Irène collected traditional songs .

From the 1930s onwards, Irène had to regularly stay in a sanatorium, suffering from TB.

At the beginning of the German Occupation of France during World War 2 - from June to September 1940 - Irène stayed in the health centre of Clairvivre , in the Dordogne, as an "out-of-staff patient". Although she was suffering from tuberculosis, this stay was not due to her illness but to the retreat of French scientists into the ‘free zone’. She was careful not to undertake research whilst there. Indeed, her priority was to hide both her work on nuclear fusion and her equipment from the Germans.

Faced with the risk of reprisals against his family, Irene’s husband, Frédéric Joliot, decided to shelter his family. Irène was smuggled into Switzerland with her children on June th1944.

Irène was very close to her Polish cousin Maurice Curie .Throughout her life, she remained in contact with the Polish branch of her family. She went to Poland several times and helped them in the difficult times after the Second World War. She also asked a female sculptor from Warsaw, Maria Kwietniewska, to make a bust of her parents, Pierre and Marie Curie, which was offered by Poland to the ‘Institut du Radium’ in Paris in 1950. The bust is now in the garden of the ‘Laboratoire Curie’ - at the foot of which President François Hollande came to bow when he took office.

Irène died on March 17th 1956  of acute leukemia linked to her exposure to polonium and X-rays, the same disease that had killed her mother, Marie Curie, in July 1934. A state funeral was held on March 21, 1956.


Irene’s scientific career

In 1932, Irène Joliot-Curie was appointed head of work at the Curie laboratory. When her mother died in July 1934 , she continued her research at the Radium Institute, under its new director André Debierne .She also became a member of the International Commission of the Radium Standard. Irène and her husband had both worked at the Curie laboratory since 1925. In 1929, they began working together on ‘natural radioactivity’ . Their discovery, in January 1932, of the phenomenon of projection of protons by radiation of a then unknown nature, was a major step towards the discovery of the neutron by James Chadwick in February 1932. After the discovery of the positive electron by Carl David Anderson in the summer of 1932, Irène and Frédéric published their research on a new process for absorbing gamma rays by creating pairs of electrons . Their results on the existence of possible "transmutation positive electrons" were disputed at the Solvay Physics Council in October 1933. Resuming their experiments, they discover that these electrons are produced by a new type of radioactivity, by emission of positive electrons. They provide,15 days later, chemical proof of the existence of the first artificial radio element, ‘phosphorus 30’, as well as a second, ‘nitrogen 13’. Irene’s mother, Marie Curie, was able to attend the discovery before her death in July 1934. 

This discovery of so-called artificial radioactivity earned the couple the award of the 1935 Nobel Prize in Chemistry “in recognition of their “synthesis of new radioactive elements. ” 


                                                                                       Irène and her husband, Frédéric Joliot-Curie in their laboratory in 1935.

The two scientists then continued their work to identify the radio elements or isotopes likely to be useful in medicine , geology or chemistry 

Irène undertook research at the Institut du Radium on:                                                        “the phosphorus and radioactive isotopes created by neutron bombardment in the heavy elements, thorium and uranium” .

The results she obtained with her collaborator, Pavel Savitch, in October 1938, on an artificial radio element whose chemical properties are extraordinarily difficult to distinguish from those of lanthanum led them very close to the discovery of the fission of the uranium nucleus. In connection with Lise Meitner, an Austrian-Swedish physicist and  the Germans, Otto Hahn and Fritz Strassmann, the pair resumed their own experiments. They announced the discovery of the phenomenon of fission of the nucleus of the atom in January 1939 .

In 1945 , Irène was appointed commissioner to the new Atomic Energy Commission (CEA). It carried out their mission until December 1950 , after having contributed to "diverging" (working) the first French atomic pile - ZOE (Z zero energy, O uranium oxide, E heavy water) in December 1948

Unfortunately, as part of the fight against Soviet espionage, Irene’s husband was dismissed in April 1950 because he was a member of the PCF and Irène's mandate was not renewed by the government in December 1950 because she shared her husband's ideals, although without being a member of the Communist Party .

After the Second World War, Irène resumed her research work. She was interested in the new technique of nuclear emulsions and used it to search for possible natural radioactivity and published an article on the dosage of carbon in steels.

 In 1937, she had replaced her husband and was appointed professor at the Collège de France. She later held the Chair of general physics and radioactivity at the Faculty of Sciences of Paris .

In September 1946 , Irène succeeded André Debierne as director of the Curie laboratory of the Institut du Radium and thereafter was Chair of general physics and radioactivity, a post previously held by her mother. Irene followed this direction for 10 years . working near Orsay in the French department of l’Essonne in the region of Île-de-France. Here, she prepared the installation of a new Institute with larger laboratories to be equipped with particle accelerators . At the same time, from the creation of the Atomic Energy Commission in 1946 until 1951, she held the post of Atomic Energy Commissioner.

In 1954 it became essential for research to have accelerators for nuclear physics and high-energy physics (later called particle physics ). The prospect of French participation in CERN in Geneva (the European Organization for Nuclear Research), raised fears at the same time that the parliamentary debate to be held on the means granted to finance these instruments, would end without a decision for the French laboratories. (nb:CERN is now one of the world's largest and most respected centres for scientific research.) 

 On June 11th 1954, Irène published in the French national newspaper, Le Monde, a free forum demanding that the government commit itself to this research and its funding for her scientific experiments . Agreement was reached. Irene discovered in Orsay , a large piece of land then under sequestration (because it had belonged to the Bunau-Varilla family of the collaborating newspaper Le Matin  ) on which the future Orsay Research Centre of the Institut Curie and the future Orsay Institute of Nuclear Physics (IPNO) came into being. Among the very first constructions, the building which is planned for the installation of the synchrocyclotron requested for the Radium Institute by Irène became the future IPNO . Sadly, Irene was becoming increasingly unwell and work had just begun on the site when she died.


Irene’s Political Career.

On February 6th 1934, after the riots of extreme right wing leagues, Irène, already weakened by illness, decided to become actively involved in politics. After a stint with the SFIO  ( the French Section of the Workers' International, a political party in France that was founded in1905 and succeeded in 1969 by the modern-day Socialist Party.) Irene participated in the Vigilance Committee against Fascism , founded in particular by the communist physicist Paul Langevin , a close friend of hers:

The Manifesto of the SFIO stated, "We have come to declare to all the workers, our comrades, our resolution to fight with them. To save against a fascist dictatorship what the people have conquered in terms of rights and public liberties.”

She then moved closer to the French Communist Party (PCF) and took part in the World Congress of Women Against War and Fascism .

In 1936, Irène was appointed by Léon Blum as a member of the Popular Front government. She served as Under-Secretary of State for Scientific Research. Her co-workers were the socialist Suzanne Lacore and the radical Cécile Brunschvicg. These were the first three women to sit in a French government.  French women still did not have the right to vote This was not obtained until 1944. 

Irene accepted this position, for a predefined limited period, solely to support the cause of women and that of scientific research. As agreed, Irène resigned after three months, leaving the post to her mentor, the 1926 Nobel Prize in Physics, Jean Perrin. However, during that short time, Irene was to oversee the definition of some major guidelines for a public research policy. This included, an increase in salaries and scholarships for researchers.There was to be an alignment of the status of normaliens de Sèvres with that of normaliens d'Ulm, as well as an increase in the research budget. The creation of the CNRS, to which Jean Perrin attached his name, had begun. Briefly a member of the SFIO, she moved away from it because she disagreed with the non-intervention of the Blum government to defend the Spanish Republic.

Irene,was subjected to the misogyny of the time. For example, Despite being a  Nobel Prize winner in 1935, the Under-Secretary of State in 1936, her supervising minister, Jean Zay, nevertheless prohibited her from speaking in the National Assembly !

An anti-fascist activist, she tries to convince Léon Blum to join the Spanish Republic, threatened by the Francoists. She was keen to support Spanish refugees.

In the edition of ‘French Women’, on November 30th 1944, Irène wrote to defend women's right to vote in France.

In 1945, Irene attended, together with her sister Ève Curie, the trial of María Teresa Toral (1911-1995) , a Spanish woman who was a chemist and admired the work of Irene. The two sisters wanted to support this Spanish Republican during which time the Francoists demanded the death penalty for her. Finally, Maria Teresa was exiled in Mexico. 

Irene was invited in March 1948 by the New York Committee for Aid to Antifascist Spanish Refugees, as a speaker. However, her husband Frédéric's close connection with the Communist Party caused Irène to later be arrested and detained on Ellis Island as an ‘undesirable’ during her third trip to the US when she was going there to speak in support of Spanish refugees, at the Joint Antifascist Refugee Committee's invitation.

Both Irene and her husband had continued Pierre and Marie's policy of publishing all of their work for the benefit of the global scientific community. However, they became afraid of the danger that might result should it be developed for military use. They stopped publishing on 30 October 1939. They then placed all of their documentation on nuclear fission in the vaults of the French Academy of Sciences, where it remained until 1949.

As a peace activist, Irene protested against the military uses of nuclear energy i.e. atomic bombs and won the International Peace Prize from the World Peace Council in 1950. Irene signed the Stockholm appeal in 1950 against the military use of atomic energy and then the Russell-Einstein manifesto for peace in 1955.

 A feminist activist, she was a member of the Union of French Women . Rejected at the Academy of Sciences in 1951 , she decided to represent herself at every opportunity in order to denounce the exclusion of women from this institution. However, It was not until 1962 that a woman, Marguerite Perey , a pupil of Marie Curie and Irene’s collaborator in fighting for women’s rights; enters for the first time, as a corresponding member, at the Académie des Sciences .

Other distinctions and tributes.

In addition to the Nobel Prize in Chemistry in 1935, Irène Joliot-Curie received, alone or with her husband Frédéric, numerous French and foreign prizes and distinctions, including the following examples:

In 1932 , with Frédéric Joliot-Curie, she received the Matteucci Gold Medal from the Italian Society of Sciences.

On November 26 1935, she became a Knight of the Legion of Honour .

In 1937 she received an honorary doctorate from Oberlin College in Ohio ,United States.

In 1939 , she was promoted to Officer of the Legion of Honour .

In 1950 , together with her husband, she received the title of doctor ‘honoris causa’ from the Marie Curie-Skłodowska University .

In 1951 , she received, at the same time as her husband, the title of doctor honoris causa from the Jagiellonian University of Krakow .

In 1966, the toponymy commission of the Kerguelen islands named a summit of the Rallier du Baty peninsula culminating at 1,005  metres , ‘Joliot-Curie Peak’ , in homage to the couple .

 A Venusian crater , Joliot-Curie , is also named in her honour  .

There are many "Joliot-Curie" schools, associating the names of Frédéric and Irène: high schools in Nanterre , Rennes , Romilly-sur-Seine , Sète , Hirson , Aubagne as well as colleges in Wittenheim , Pantin , Fontenay-sous -Bois , Bagneux , Le Havre , Lallaing , Châtillon-sur-Indre , Reims , Vivonne, Carqueyranne and others.

 In 2015, Irène and Frédéric Joliot-Curie were thus the 19th and 20th most celebrated characters  in schools, colleges and high schools. A primary school bears the name of Irene alone in Saint-Cyr-l'École (Dept. 78).

Her name is engraved on the Radiology Memorial in Germany, which commemorates the pioneers and martyrs of radioactivity  - physicists, chemists, doctors, nurses, laboratory technicians, etc. Who were victims amongst the first users of X-rays worldwide. The memorial which originally had 159 names was erected in the garden of the former St. George's Hospital  in Hamburg and was inaugurated on April 4th 1936.

The ‘Irène Joliot-Curie Prize’  was created in 2001 by the Ministry of Higher Education and Research. This prize rewards women scientists for their work in three categories: young scientist, confirmed scientist and woman in business. Since 2004 , the EADS corporate foundation has been associated with the ministry. Since 2011 the Académie des Sciences and the Académie des Technologies have been responsible for constituting the jury.

Irene has also featured in works of fiction. She appears in the comic book series La Brigade chimère (2009–2010), in which she seeks to get the Radium Institute back on its feet with her husband Frédéric Joliot .She also appeared in the comic strip Les Découvertes .


The Moral of the Story

'Now I am become Death, the destroyer of worlds'.   (Robert Oppenheimer's infamous quote.)

The line, from the Hindu sacred text the Bhagavad-Gita, has come to define Robert Openheimer but its meaning is more complex than many realise.

As he witnessed the first detonation of a nuclear weapon on July 16, 1945, a piece of Hindu scripture ran through the mind of Robert Oppenheimer: “Now I am become Death, the destroyer of worlds”. It is, perhaps, the most well-known line from the Bhagavad-Gita, but also the most misunderstood.

As wartime Head of the Los Alamos Laboratory, the birthplace of the Manhattan Project, he is seen as the “father” of the atomic bomb. “We knew the world would not be the same,” he later recalled. “A few people laughed, a few people cried, most people were silent.”

Oppenheimer later followed the Hindu faith.

Hindus and spiritualists may accept the outcomes of war more readily because they believe that the souls of their friends and foes alike will live on regardless in the next world. But Oppenheimer felt the consequences of the atomic bomb acutely. His apparent inability to accept the idea of an immortal soul would always weigh heavily on his mind.

Although they didn't work directly on the Manhattan Project, Irène and Frédéric's research was instrumental in nuclear science and creating the atomic bomb. Irene was what might be called a ‘peacenik’. She wanted her research to be used for good, including x-rays and, in more recent times, cancer treatments. Both were completely against the use of nuclear science as a weapon. Of course, the power of nuclear science can be seen as a two-sided coin. Radiation kills cancer, but it also causes cancer. Artificial radioactivity on a grand scale can create clean energy for all, but it can also decimate cities. Irene and Frédéric just wanted to build a reactor.

.I can’t say whether without their work we would have been better off. It’s pretty certain that other scientists would have been in the race and nuclear weapons would be built regardless of consequences.

Irene and Frederic were talented and dedicated scientists. It’s your choice to decide whether they were goodies or baddies !


April 2023

“ We must never conceal from ourselves that our concepts are creations of the human mind which we impose on the facts.”

(Arthur G. Tansley, 1871-1955 - English ecologist)

Marietta Parris

Born to a Greek family in Bombay, India,  Marietta Pallis (1882-1963) grew up in Liverpool, England in the 1890s, and aspired to be a ‘New Woman’: an educated, independent, feminist woman !

As a teenager, she bought herself a bicycle, a symbol of liberation in itself, which she kept carefully hidden from her parents. When her father found it, he was so angry, he broke it with his bare hands. Her relationship with her father remained strained, but she was allowed go to Liverpool University to study botany and then on to Newnham College, Cambridge, in 1909, where she studied ecology.

Whilst in Romania undertaking a comparative ecological study of the Danube and the Norfolk Broads, her field study was interrupted by the Balkan war. She spent some time in her father’s native country, Greece,  nursing refugees, before returning to England.

Meanwhile, her family remained troubled by her ‘unfeminine’ behaviour. In an era where dress codes for men and women were strict, Marietta preferred to dress in trousers, tie and a field coat ! She continued to challenge conventions around gender and sexuality, eventually meeting her life-long companion Phylis Clarke.

Marietta planned to expand her comparative study of wetland ecology to the distant Amazon, but, unfortunately, could not get funding for her expedition. The First World War followed. During that time, she turned away from science and focused on painting instead.

Later, she became noted for her research in aquatic botany, especially the Norfolk Broads and the Danube Delta as well as her creation of devotional landscapes.

From 1904 to 1907 she studied botany at Liverpool University and attended Newnham College, Cambridge from 1910 to 1912.

Marietta rented and later owned Long Gores farm, a marshland property in Hickling, Norfolk. Here, she set out to use her knowledge of ecology to restore the Broads biodiversity. However, this was not appreciated by local landowners at times, especially during the Second World War. Instead of creating productive farmland to feed the British people, Marietta was what we would call ‘rewilding’.

Pallis studied the plav, floating reed systems of the Danube Delta. She wrote a paper for the journal of the Linnaean Society in 1916.

Following her father's death in 1935, Pallis travelled the eastern Mediterranean with her partner Phyllis Clark. Having purchased the Long Gores property in 1935, she planted specimens that she had acquired during her travel, and constructed a studio and garage. Pallis created at Long Gores a devotional symbolic Greek landscape, featuring the Double Headed Eagle Pool. This was a pool with an island shaped in the form of a crowned, double-headed Byzantine eagle featuring the Papal Cross, the cross of the patriarch of Constantinople and her own Greek initials. She continued to write on Greek history and created pamphlets in the late 1950s and early 1960s concerning what she referred to as "philosophical biology".

Her works included results of her studies of the river-valleys of East Norfolk and their aquatic and fen formations.   She also wrote results of studies of the general aspects of the vegetation of Europe (1939), ‘Tableaux in Greek history’ (1952), ‘The impermeability of peat and the origin of the Norfolk Broads’ (1956)

She is best known today for her work on the origins of the Norfolk Broads, which were thought to be a natural landscape, but which we know now are the result of Medieval peat excavation. Much of the research on this came from Newnham College Fellow, Joyce Lambert. Marietta was initially very sceptical, but decided to kill two birds with one stone by creating a vast natural swimming pond, using Medieval techniques. The result was both a scientific publication supporting the manmade origins of the Broads – and a swimming pond in the shape of a double-headed eagle and the initials MP !

Marietta Pallis died in Norwich, aged 81. She is buried with her companion and partner Phillis Clark near the Norfolk Broads on the central island of the Double Headed Eagle Pool. The tree named ‘Fraxinus pallisiae’ , a species of flowering plant,  is named after her.

Marietta’s mode of engagement with nature in The East Anglian Fens and The Norfolk Broads demonstrates to me the specific involvement of aesthetics. She believed that the history of the land and the animals that had once lived there, should be incorporated into the landscape. Where this was not possible, nevertheless, such landscapes could be created by conversion of existing ones. This would involve restoring an area of land to its natural uncultivated state. This could include the reintroduction of species of wild animals that have been driven out or exterminated by people. The reintroduction of wolves, for example, is being planned in areas of America and in Europe.

Painting of Marietta by Artist, Barrie Morris.

You see, Marietta had a very individual view of the cultural boundaries of science. Whilst working on the Danube Delta, she explored what she referred to as a ‘vitalistic’ biology. Vitalism is the belief that living organisms are fundamentally different from non-living entities because they contain some non-physical element or are governed by different principles than are inanimate things. Marietta believed the theory that the origin and phenomena of life are dependent on a force, or principle, which is distinct from purely chemical or physical forces. An extra force based on a more spiritual element.  Unfortunately, for her though, in pre-war Britain, this idea was not accepted by scientists of the day and her views led to her being discredited and isolated from the scientific community.”

As well as a researcher and writer, Marietta loved painting. She was both an ecologist and a botanical artist. Especially interesting for me is that she is noted for research in aquatic botany. In her creation of devotional landscapes, she aimed to mix scientific knowledge with a spiritual, artistic and religious perspective to the beautiful and amazing landscapes of our world. This approach fascinates me. Working as a scientific researcher, yet also appreciating the stories, legends and magic surrounding such a remote location as The Broads. There was certainly a spiritual dimension to her studies, as well as scientific appreciation of our far-flung environment.

As a young woman, Marietta studied at Liverpool University and afterwards at Newnham College at Cambridge University from 1910 until 1912. At this time, women were not allowed to matriculate or to graduate. They were allowed to attend lectures, take examinations and even gain honours in those examinations. I also attended a Cambridge college and am ashamed to say that Cambridge University did not allow women to be awarded a degree or to become a member of the university until 1947, only two years before I was born ! In Cambridge University, I attended Homerton College which then came under the auspices of Newnham College. (both ‘ladies’ only) In fact, Homerton did not become a fully independent Cambridge College until 2010 ! Shows that Education courses were not held in high esteem by such a prestigious institution.

I have developed an affinity with Marietta, both as a scientist and as an educated, independent woman. Women of her generation rarely chose, or indeed had the opportunity, to study in this way. Whilst at Liverpool, she became one of a survey team who focussed their attention on the Norfolk Broads. In 1909, their team leader introduced their work to the Central Committee for the Survey and Study of British Vegetation, which later became the British Ecological Society.

She joined ecological researchers, working in the Danube Delta and in Greece. She wanted to go to the Amazon, but her father forbad this. She transferred her interest to her art work and attended the Slade School of Fine Art in the mid-1920s. Some years later she had a successful solo exhibition of her work.

From 1918, Marietta usually spent the winter in London and the summer in Norfolk. From 1921 onwards, she owned property in Chelsea, an area of London. She was a passionate swimmer and even had a swimming pool installed there - inside the house !

Whilst at her home, ‘Long Gores’ in Hickling, from 1918 onwards, she purchased other local cottages and marshland.

She developed her unique, some might say eccentric, studies by constructing a large, thatched studio for herself in 1937, where she recited the Christian Orthodox liturgy beneath a corona (a kind of crown) hung from the ceiling !  In 1953, on the 500th anniversary of the fall of Byzantium, she commissioned a builder to create a three-quarter-acre symbolic bathing pool in the peat at Long Gores. It incorporated islands shaped as a double-headed Byzantine eagle with papal and patriarchal crosses and crown, and the Greek initials MP, translated as ‘Mother of God’.

Much of Marietta’s work was focussed around this pool, which she had designed as both a swimming pool and a symbolic site. The pool also became a scientific experiment in landscape, through which Marietta pursued general ecological principles and specific theories on the landscape history and ecology of the Norfolk Broads. The digging of the pool coincided with the publication of research establishing the Broads’ origin as a site for digging peat in medieval times and, no doubt, long before that.

Marietta used her pool as a model for the Broads in both origin and development. She created a discussion about the relationship between her pool, the marshland and the North Sea.  As well as a broader scientific view, Marietta developed a connection between her work and local scientific culture, notably the landscape of that part of Norfolk.

Marietta was an enthusiastic swimmer all her life - another interest which has a parallel with me.  I was only 14 when she died, but I understand that in old age she became more bohemian. For example, swimming naked in the marsh.

The pool also formed a symbolic landscape. Its construction followed the publication of her ‘Tableaux in Greek History’, a homage to Byzantium expressing her own, unorthodox version of Greek myth, history and Orthodox Christianity. This work was influenced by the performances of theatrical tableaux. Although Marietta spent most of her life in England, she was, nevertheless, from a wealthy Greek family and considered herself Greek. She was influenced by the myths and legends of Ancient Greece. This clearly influenced the design of her Norfolk pool.

When Marietta died, she was buried on her island, alongside her companion, Phyllis, who had died 10 years previously in 1953.

Before the establishment of UEA ( the University of East Anglia) in Norwich in 1963, Cambridge was Norfolk’s local university, and Norfolk was one of its key sites for research in the areas of its local botany, geography and history.

All her life, Marietta had to deal with the ‘problem’, as seen by male academics, of being a female in a man’s world. Nevertheless, her site did become recognised as a site of scientific interest. The pool became, alongside its symbolic, swimming and memorial roles, an experimental field space and a private laboratory. Marietta was in control of this environment. She had a strong inclination to be like Prospero on his island in Shakespeare’s play, ‘The Tempest’. Interestingly, Prospero is powerful, as through his magic, he has control over people on his island. However, nature has a great impact on his abilities. Prospero realises this and knows that he is not omnipotent. He is therefore respectful of nature. Marietta is also deferential to nature, yet is able to integrate it within the space she has created. In that sense she is powerful because she has chosen and created her own environment. She controls it and is able to carry out her work without interference from others.

She drifted further away from traditional science as she progressed in her work. She didn’t seem to mind rejection of her research findings and appeared to take pleasure in her unorthodoxy. She was happy to be outside the mainstream.

Marietta was very aware of living as a foreigner, a Greek, in the England of Empire. She had a personal life with a female lover which fell outside the conventional boundaries of the day and, therefore, she was not accepted as a serious academic. Nevertheless, she was prepared to engage with the mainstream such as the Natural History Museum in London, Cambridge University and, local to her home, the Castle Museum in Norwich.

‘Long Gores’ was both her home and her private space for research. Understanding the concept of ‘‘place’ as a network of relations, her regional focus showed how considering, and including, international dialogue, travel and interchange in research enriched the understanding of good ecological practice. The Broads has become a recognised site for ecological research since the early part of this century. Part of this recognition is thanks to Marietta’s work. For instance, one of the earliest accounts of the vegetation of the Broads was produced by her. She delighted in introducing others to this little known, but wonderful, watery landscape.

As well as the pool and the island, Marietta owned the 76 acres of marshland she had bought, adjacent to Long Gores. She monitored her environmental spaces over time, seeing how they developed and changed. Part of the study took into account human influence over natural processes.

As the owner of the site, Marietta had the capacity to control the research. This enabled both her artistic, as well as her scientific, sense of experimentation to work. She could experiment with the consequences of taking certain actions or not. She relished the ways in which supposedly general biological principles became manifest only through the local particularities of her site. She made the universal evident through the study of a small, local environment. Such emphasis on her own, very personal, scientific landscape, led other scientists to see her as idiosyncratic and not a serious scientist.

I like Marietta’s idea that she could use her knowledge and abilities, in terms of her very personal geographical space, to inform the world of science and extend human understanding of its history. She wanted us to see how science shapes our perception and understanding of places. Geographical language, whether local, regional, national or international, should become a live cultural form, be active in social process, and be partly, albeit not fully, informed through scientific research.

The rethinking of early ecology involves addressing the language of nature and the politics of what was considered  ‘natural’. What we consider as ‘natural’, is always based on the historical and relational; it is shaped within the bounds of representational and social practices. Because the pool represented the Norfolk Broads, Marietta used the site in relation to contemporary research on the Broads’ artificial origins. She considered the relationship between the pool, the marsh and the North Sea. In terms of the pool, she studied its salinity and its place within a landscape threatened by sea flooding.

I always understood that the Broads were a man-made accident. They were formed by the flooding of medieval peat excavations which provided fuel to Norwich and Great Yarmouth. As the sea levels began to rise, the pits began to flood. By the end of the 14th century, the pits were abandoned and the Broads were thus formed. Amazingly, it wasn't until the 1950s that this was realised. Research by local academic, Dr. Joyce Lambert, revealed that the sides of the deep lakes were vertical and not gently sloping as would be expected of a naturally formed lake. This, coupled with the historical evidence of the peat demand for fuel, proved irrefutable.

In my own limited, though enjoyable, experience of sailing on the Broads, I learned that the rivers on the Broads are tidal, so their water levels rise and fall twice in every 24 hours as a result of the gravitational forces of the moon, just as the tides of the seas and oceans do. The Broads flow out to the sea at Great Yarmouth where the tidal effect is most noticeable and the rise and fall can be up to two metres !

Whilst digging the pool, Marietta believed she had proved Lambert’s work correct. She published her findings that the impermeability of peat explained how the Broads could have been excavated by hand without immediately filling with water. Subsequently, they filled with and retained water when not connected to a river system. In 1961, Pallis cited pool maintenance as evidence. She wrote that in 1956 she had a striking confirmation of the impermeability of peat. On her site, a dredger was used to get rid of the sludge that had collected since 1953. She commented that it was a curious sensation to see the peat coming bone-dry out of the midst of the water.

Her work was often seen by others as ‘esoteric eccentricity’. In this context it meant that being eccentric is not at the centre of general belief. Her work was seen as different, often not acceptable, not fitting with the current scientific thinking of her day. The esoteric element was that her beliefs were most likely to be understood by a limited circle of people with only a specialised knowledge or interest. She might be considered to operate only within an enlightened inner circle who accepted and understood the mystical or religious connotations within her ecological studies and contained within her writings.

Interestingly, Marietta’s view paralleled the work of continental philosophers, who generally rejected the view that the natural sciences were the only, or most accurate, way of understanding natural phenomena. They were unlike analytic scientists or philosophers who only saw natural sciences as the way to understand natural phenomena. Continental philosophers often argued that science is dependent on an underlying substance or layer providing material on which an organism lives, grows, or obtains its nourishment. Scientific methods are seen as inadequate to fully understand such conditions of intelligibility. I have empathy with these views.

Edmund Husserl (1859-1938) was a philosopher who invented the word, 'lifeworld'. He meant a grand collection of ‘things’, which are arranged in space and time according to each individual’s perception of them. These ‘things’ are always present and form the basis for all shared human experience.

The ‘lifeworld’ can be thought of as the horizon of all our experiences. It provides the background upon which all things appear and have some meaning for each of us. The ‘lifeworld’ doesn’t stay still. It’s a dynamic horizon. Nothing can appear in our lifeworld except as something we, ourselves, are living, or have lived.

It’s possible for us all to change. We have an idea, we carry it out and see what happens. We have the ability to transform. We can absorb new ideas and learn from experience. We can interpret the world and try to change what we think is wrong or mistaken. We can study what we see, analyse and record our findings. We also need to be open-minded and reflect on what we have found and discover things to fill in the gaps. The traditional views of any science at a particular time in history will alter and develop as new understanding comes on board.

A phrase used by the title character in Shakespeare’s play, ‘Hamlet’, comes to mind. Hamlet suggests that human knowledge is limited:

“There are more things in Heaven and Earth, Horatio, Than are dreamt of in your philosophy.” (including science ! )

Each person has a lifeworld, but this doesn't mean that the lifeworld is purely individual. We can communicate and share with others. That said, the ideas and views of others can only be understood within the constraints of our personal lifeworld. It’s often hard to understand others, as their lifeworld might be alien to us. We tend to stick with those with whom we agree, or those we may be able to persuade to our views through debate and discussion.

One of Marietta’s scientific visitors to Hickling Broad said afterwards:

 ‘‘the three days spent in the Norfolk ‘Broads’ revealed the general features of a fascinating succession with an unusual number of structural and developmental problems…It would be difficult, if not impossible, to find a region quite so favourable for such work, owing to the labyrinthine nature of the ‘Broads, beside which the fabled labyrinths of Crete seem mythical indeed.’’ (Frederic Clements, 1874-1945 - plant ecologist and pioneer in the study of vegetation succession.)

Clements’ mention of Crete here may have been paying homage to the Ancient Greeks as an honouring of Marietta and her work. Other such visitors were amazed at the vast amount of wild and open countryside to be found in what he had imagined was the densely populated country of England. The extensive areas of the Broads, sand-dunes and saltmarshes, as well as heaths and moorlands, were more widespread and far more natural than some had expected them to be. Marietta was praised for her role as a knowledgeable and efficient guide.

It was, however, pointed out more recently that these visitors and their hosts had gained only a single aspect of the sense of ‘place’ during their visits to the Broads. The area had begun to be developed as a tourist attraction as early as 1912. Marietta’s later fieldwork embraced, what some might call a moralistic vision. She remained concerned with the natural, but was more open about what she referred to as the ‘‘degradation’’ of the Broads, caused by human intervention. The Norfolk Broads landscape of the early 20th century was represented and appreciated by Marietta and others as a remote, unpeopled land, untouched by the modern world. This is could be a way of seeing the environment. Indeed, when I think of the coastal towns and countryside of my childhood, things have changed quickly. Nature takes a slower path, but as the 20th century has progressed, this takes place in parallel with the flipside of taking in the Broads, including holiday cruising and day-tripping.

The scientific visitors of this 21st century time have adopted a way of seeing which does not take account of tourist activity. For example, cruising on the Broads causes disruption for wildlife, particularly in the Spring when birds are nesting and eggs are hatching. In Arthur Ransome’s story, ‘Coot Club’, a group of local children spend their Spring holidays protecting the birds and their eggs from pleasure boats.

In respect of my own research, the role played by humans in shaping elements of the landscape, including the oceans, is of vital importance if we are to avoid destruction of species through negligence or pollution.

In contrast to her fellows, Marietta Pallis relished private publication as a chance to migrate across domains of study and research. On a card inserted inside a copy of her 1958 paper on the Vital Unit, she wrote:

“Likely to be my last paper. When I publish on my own I do what I like and when I add an appendix I become positively licentious.” !! 

That’s a bit like writing an account or an entry in a personal diary. Be independent. Be brave.

I find it interesting that Darwin, like Marietta Pallis, was a scientist, yet he also accepted traditional stories and anthropomorphism. Many later scientists reject the mixing of the two. Animals are sentient. Darwin wrote about insects playing together like puppies. Pets play and respond to affection. Animals communicate. They care for their young. If humans and animals possess emotions, denying this means that we risk missing something fundamental, about both animals and ourselves. And what about the creatures that we know little of, or have not yet discovered ?

Even within the plant community, there is evidence to suggest they may seek what could be a mutually beneficial way of living. They can have a symbiotic relationship where different plants, even animals, on land and underwater, could live side by side without harming each other’s living conditions. There is evidence of creatures and plants living in co-relationship with one another. An obvious example is Brittle Stars, which cohabit with the coral.



Philomena – Part One.

The name, or a variation of it, first appears in the history of Ancient Greece - referring to the years 700-480 B.C.

Recently, I got interested in my namesake Philomena.  Philomena was a recognised saint and martyr of the Catholic church. That's why the name is / was popular in Ireland and I have since discovered in Scotland as well.
Before the onset and spread of Christianity in Europe, the name ‘Philomela’ had originated in Ancient Greek mythology. Philomela was the younger of two daughters of Pandion Ist, King of Athens, and the ‘naiad’ Zeuxippe. A ‘naiad’ was a female deity, a nymph, associated with water, especially a spring, stream, or other fresh water. The name ‘nymph’ being from the aquatic larva (nymph) of a dragonfly or damsel-fly. Also from any of various aquatic plants of the genus ‘Najas’.

Her sister, Procne, was the wife of King Tereus of Thrace. Philomela's other siblings were Erechtheus, Butes and possibly Teuthras. 

In the Greek legend, Philomela was raped by her sister, Procne’s husband, Tereus. He had visited their father, Pantheon 1st and promised to take Philomela to visit her sister. However, upon arriving in Thrace, he forced her to a lodge in the woods and there he raped her. After the assault, Tereus threatened her and advised her to keep silent. Philomela though, was defiant and angered Tereus, saying she would reveal what had happened to her father. In a rage, he cut out her tongue and abandoned her in the lodge.

Rendered unable to speak because of her injuries, Philomela wove a tapestry that told her story and had it sent to her sister Procne. Procne was furious. In revenge, she and her remaining sister killed her son, Itys. She then boiled him and served him as a meal to her husband. After Tereus had eaten Itys, the sisters presented him with the severed head of his son. As soon as he became aware of their conspiracy and his cannibalistic meal, he grabbed an axe and pursued them with the intent to kill them. They fled, but were almost overtaken by Tereus at Daulia in Phocis. In desperation, the pair prayed to the gods to be turned into birds and escape Tereus' rage and vengeance. The gods transformed Procne into a swallow and Philomela into a nightingale. Subsequently, the gods would transform Tereus into a hoopoe.

In Ovid's ‘Metamorphoses’, Philomela's defiant speech is rendered (in an 18th-century English translation) as:

Still my revenge shall take its proper time,
And suit the baseness of your hellish crime.
My self, abandon'd, and devoid of shame,
Thro' the wide world your actions will proclaim;
Or tho' I'm prison'd in this lonely den,
Obscur'd, and bury'd from the sight of men,
My mournful voice the pitying rocks shall move,
And my complainings echo thro' the grove.
Hear me, o Heav'n! and, if a God be there,
Let him regard me, and accept my pray'r.

From an ancient picture - Procne and Philomela sitting opposite each other, circa. 630-625 BC   -


Philomena – Part Two

The name, Philomena comes from a young woman, born in Greece c. 291 AD and moved to Italy where she died c. 304/5 AD. She is believed by some to have been a Christian martyr, hence her later being classified as a saint.

The discoverers of Philomena’s tomb on May 24, 1802, in the Catacombs of Priscilla on the Via Salaria Nova  had described an inscribed ‘loculus’ (a space hollowed out of the rock) On the following day it was carefully examined and opened. The loculus had been closed with three terracotta tiles, on which was the following inscription: ‘lumena paxte cumfi.’ It was and still is generally accepted that the tiles had not been positioned in the sequence of the words, and that the inscription originally read, with the left-hand tile placed on the right: “pax tecum Filumena “(Peace be with you, Philomena). Within the loculus was found the skeleton of a female between thirteen and fifteen years old. Embedded in the stone was a small glass phial with vestiges of what was believed to be blood. In accordance with the assumptions of the time, the remains were taken to be those of a virgin martyr named Philomena.  The tomb was decorated  with a palm, one of the symbols of martyrdom.

Philomena, in Christian society known as Saint Philomena, was a later use of the name, which translates in English as Philomel. The name originated in the legend from Ancient Greece and meant ‘nightingale’ and ‘beloved’.  

Those who believe in the sainthood of Philomena believe that originally, she became the only person recognised as a Saint solely on the basis of ‘miraculous intercession’ -  i.e. praying for a Holy figure, Saint, or God to help you. A prospective candidate is made a Saint by being canonised through a formal papal decree that the candidate is holy and posthumously rests in heaven with God. The Pope makes the declaration during a special mass in honour of the new Saint. A formal request for an individual to be considered for sainthood is submitted to a special Vatican tribunal.

It is believed, by some, that information about Philomena’s role as a Saint was received in a private revelation to her by God.  Nothing much from historical sources is known about Philomena, except her name and what is thought to be the evidence of her martyrdom and subsequent Sainthood. She is believed to have been martyred at about the age of 14 in the early days of the Church.

What  is known about St. Philomena's life comes from a Neapolitan nun's vision. Sister Maria Luisa di Gesu claims St. Philomena came to her and told her she was the daughter of a Greek king who converted to Christianity. When Philomena was 13-years-old, she took a vow of consecrated virginity. After her father took his family to Rome to make peace with the Emperor Diocletian, the Emperor fell in love with Philomena. When she refused to marry him, she was subjected to torture and finally death.  According to the story, her death came on a Friday at three in the afternoon, the same as Jesus. Two anchors, three arrows, a palm symbol of martyrdom, and a flower were found on the tiles in her tomb, interpreted as symbols of her martyrdom. Her fate was, apparently, gruesome. After nearly 40 days in prison, Philomena was tied to a post, flogged, and left to die in her jail cell. But angels appeared from heaven and healed her wounds with a miraculous balm. So, the Roman Emperor then ordered to have her drowned with an anchor tied to her neck !!.

Those who believe in the sainthood of Philomena believe that originally, she became the only person recognised as a Saint solely on the basis of ‘miraculous intercession’ -  i.e. praying for a Holy figure, Saint, or God to helpyou. A prospective candidate is made a Saint by being canonised through a formal papal decree that the candidate is holy and posthumously rests in heaven with God. The Pope makes the declaration during a special mass in honour of the new Saint. A formal request for an individual to be considered for sainthood is submitted to a special Vatican tribunal.

Nothing much else from historical sources is known about Philomena, except her name and what is thought to be the evidence of her martyrdom and subsequent Sainthood. 

In my novel relating to an Irish girl, Aoife Ryan, I refer to her life both in the modern world of the mid 20th century and her links with characters from The Celtic Otherworld. From childhood Aoife meets with characters from the Otherworld – the Goddesses Aoife (after whom she is named) as well as Banba, Epona and Aoife’s lupine protector, the shape-shifting wolf, Faoladh.

Aoife spends a school summer holiday with her Mam’s sister, her Aunt Brigid, in Norfolk. There she learns of Brigid’s former lives, both as a goddess from The Otherworld and as the 5th century Saint, Brigid. The name Brigid was used in Irish mythology and Irish people were familiar with her and her qualities as a Goddess. As Christianity took hold (after St. Patrick arrived on the shores of Ireland), the name became associated with a holy woman who became a Catholic saint. The link between the ancient pagan world and the modern world was helped by reference to characters such as Philomena and Brigid, who were, by name, associated with both cultures.

My Catholic mam and myself (aged 12) were horrified when in 1961 Philomena was, apparently, ‘de-canonised’ by the Catholic church. There were claims from scholars of that time that the proof of her existence as a 3rd century virgin Christian, was lacking. Since then there have been arguments on both sides which continue until this day. I am amazed at the wealth of information available. Partly, because of the debate around her sainthood, I like to believe that at least she existed ! A question seeking an answer iis: Are the subsequent miracles, which are been believed to have happened, thanks to her saintly intervention or just in the recipients’ imaginations ?

PICTURE: Impression of Philomena's tomb - artist unknown


Part Three

The Miracles of Philomena

The plaster cast of Saint Philomena in the Museum Gherdëina in Urtijëi, Italy.

The picture of the plaster cast shows St. Philomena with her attributes: anchor, two arrows, palm, lily and whip. The figures on the stone are believed to be symbols of her life story :

  • The first is an anchor; the symbol, not only of strength and hope, but also of martyrdom.


  • Two arrows, arranged so that the first one points upward and the other, downward. The repetition of this symbol might mark a repetition of the tortures to which Philomena was subjected. The discovery of many of the instruments of torture employed to worsen the sufferings of the martyrs, gives us some idea of what they had to endure.


  • The third is a palm, placed almost in the middle of the stone. It is the sign, and herald of a brilliant victory gained over the cruelty of the sentence for Philomena and its results.


  • A lily, the symbol of innocence and virginity.


  • A whip – a kind of lash, used to scourge criminals, which was made of thongs of leather, loaded with lead.

The explanation of the symbols comes originally from the 19th Century by an unknown author and is now published in ‘The Life and Miracles of St. Philomena, Virgin and Martyr (p. 48). Joan and Thérèse Publications’.

We know that Philomena’s remains were moved to Mugnano del Cardinale in 1805. In that year, Canon Francis de Lucia of Mugnano, Italy was in the Treasury of the Rare Collection of Christian Antiquity (Treasury of Relics) in the Vatican. When he reached the relics of Saint Philomena he was suddenly struck with a spiritual joy, and requested that he be allowed to enshrine them in a chapel in Mugnano. After some disagreements, settled by the cure of Canon Francis following prayers to Philomena, he was allowed to transfer the relics to Mugnano.

There, the remains became the focus of widespread devotion. Over subsequent centuries, several miracles have been credited to Philomena's intercession.

This includes the much publicised case of the healing of Pauline Jaricot in 1835. 

PICTURE: (Pauline Jaricot - 1799 – 1862)

Miracles began to be reported at the shrine including cures of cancer, healing of wounds, and the Miracle of Mugnano in which the Venerable Pauline Jaricot was cured of a severe heart condition overnight. After being miraculously cured Pauline Jaricot insisted that Pope Gregory XVI begin an examination for the beatification of St. Philomena, who was to become known as the "wonder worker". After hundreds of other miraculous cures, she was beatified in 1837. Beatification is a recognition, accorded by the Catholic Church, of a deceased person's entrance into Heaven and capacity to intercede on behalf of individuals who pray in their name.

Her popularity soon became widespread, with her most memorable devotees being St. John Vianney, St. Madeleine Sophie Barat, St. Peter Eymard, and St. Peter Chanel.

The first of these, John Vianney, was a French Catholic priest. He attributed Philomena’s intercession to the extraordinary cures that others attributed to him. The spread of devotion to her in France, as well as in Italy, was helped when he built a shrine in her honour. He became venerated as Saint John Vianney. In this role he became the patron saint of parish priests. He is often referred to as the "Curé d'Ars" (the parish priest of Ars in France). He became internationally known for his priestly and pastoral work in his parish. In this work, he was believed to have caused the radical spiritual transformation of the whole community and its surroundings. Catholics attribute this ability to his saintly life, mortification and his persevering ministry in the sacrament of confession, as well as his ardent devotion to the Blessed Virgin Mary. His feast day is August 4.


PICTURE:  John Vianney (1786 – 1859)

From 1837 to 1961, celebration of Philomena’s liturgical feast was only approved for ‘some places’, but, interestingly, was never included in the General Roman Calendar for universal use. The 1920 typical edition of the Roman Missal included a mention of her, under August 11th, in the section headed “Missae pro aliquibus locis” (Masses for some places), with an indication that the Mass to be used in those places was one from the “common virgin martyr’, Philomena, without any direct reference her as a Saint. This is why the question of her sainthood arose.

On 8th June 1805, Canon Francesco De Lucia of Mugnano del Cardinale had requested Philomena’s relics for his oratory. He did obtain the remains that had been discovered in May 1802. However, sadly, by then, they had been reduced to dust and fragments. The relics arrived in Mugnano on August 10th, and were placed in the Church of Our Lady of Grace. A new Church of Our Lady of Grace was built, containing a chapel to where the sacred relics were moved on September 29th, 1805.

In 1827, Pope Leo XII gave to the church in Mugnano del Cardinale the three inscribed terracotta slabs that had been taken from the tomb. Filomena da Roma is mentioned in an account written in 1833, ‘Relazione istorica della traslazione del sagro corpo di s’. In it, a Canon De Lucia recounted that wonders accompanied the arrival of the relics in his church, among them a statue that sweated some liquid continuously for three days.

A miracle, accepted as proved in the same year, was the multiplication of the bone dust of the saint, which provided for hundreds of reliquaries (relics) without the original amount experiencing any decrease in quantity !!  In some accounts there was a quotation from the bible:

"Ye dry bones, hear the word of the Lord. Thus saith the Lord God to these bones: Behold, I will send spirit into you, and you shall live." Ezechiel. xxxvii. 4, 5. (i)

(i)The prophet Ezekiel is the author of the old testament book of Ezekiel. Writing from a first-person perspective, Ezekiel recorded the visions and revelations he received from the Lord. Ezekiel was a priest who was among the Jewish captives carried away to Babylon by King Nebuchadnezzar in approximately 597 B.C.

On December 21, 1833, the Holy Office declared that there was nothing contrary to the Catholic faith in the revelations that a Sister Maria Luisa di Gesù, a Dominican tertiary from Naples, claimed to have received from Philomena herself.

According to Sister di Gesù, Philomena herself had appeared to her and told her she was the daughter of a king in Greece who, with his wife, had converted to Christianity. At the age of about 13, she took a vow of virginity for Christ's sake. Sister di Gesù told her own version, as told to her by Philomena in a vision, of the life and fate of the young Philomena when she refused to marry the Emperor Diocletian.  Philomena also revealed that the symbols that had been found on the tiles in her tomb were to be interpreted as signs of her martyrdom.


PICTURE: Sister Maria Luisa di Gesù (1799–1875),

In the nun’s account, Philomena also revealed that her birthday was January 10th. Her martyrdom occurred on August 10th. This was also the date of the arrival of her relics in Mugnano del Cardinale. Her name "Filumena" meant ‘daughter of light’. This was from the Latin words ‘filia’ and ‘lumen’. However, it is more usually now taken to be derived from Greek φιλουμένη (philouménē ), meaning ‘beloved’. The publication of this nun’s account gave rise to critical study both of her account itself and of the many archaeological finds, leading to uncertainty as to whether Philomena’s supposed tomb was that of a martyr at all.

Devotion to Philomena includes the wearing of the "Cord of Philomena", a red and white cord, which had a number of indulgences attached to it, including a plenary indulgence on the day on which the cord was worn for the first time. There is also the chaplet of Saint Philomena, with three white beads in honour of the Blessed Trinity and thirteen red beads in honour of the thirteen years of Philomena's life. A sacramental associated with the hallow is the Oil of Saint Philomena, which is used for the healing of the body and soul. These indulgences were not renewed in ‘Indulgentiarum doctrina’, the more recent, 1967, general revision of the discipline concerning them.

Philomena’s Canonisation

 Statue of Saint Philomena in the Church of Our Lady (Obere Pfarre) in Bamberg, Germany.

On January 30, 1837, in the aftermath of the cure of Pauline Jaricot, Pope Gregory XVI authorized liturgical celebration of Philomena on August 11th, first in the Diocese of Nola (to which Mugnano del Cardinale belonged), and soon in several other dioceses in Italy.

On January 31, 1855, Pope Pius IX approved a proper Mass and office dedicated to Saint Philomena.

In August 1876, the first issue of ‘Messenger of Saint Philomena’ was published in Paris, France. On October 6, 1876, Father Louis Petit founded the Confraternity of Saint Philomena in Paris. In November 1886, the Confraternity was raised to the rank of Archconfraternity by Pope Leo XIII.

On May 21, 1912, Pope Pius X raised it to the rank of Universal Archconfraternity with the Apostolic Brief Pias Fidelium Societates stating, with regard to the historical authenticity of Philomena, that: "The current statements (regarding St. Philomena) are and remain always fixed, valid and effective; in this way it has to be judged as normative; and if it is proceeded in another way, it will be null and void, whatever its authority".

The name Philomena was not included in the Roman Martyrology, the official list of saints recognized by the Catholic Church and in which the Saints are included immediately upon canonization. In a 1920 edition of the Roman Missal, Philomena is mentioned, under August 11 as her feast day.

On February 14, 1961, the Holy See ordered that the name of Philomena be removed from all liturgical calendars that mentioned her. This order was given as part of an instruction on the application to local calendars of the principles enunciated in the 1960 Code of Rubrics, which had already been applied to the General Roman Calendar. A section of this document ordered the removal from local calendars of fourteen named feasts, but allowed them to be retained in places that had a special link with the feast. It then added: "However, the feast of Saint Philomena, virgin and martyr on11th August, is to be removed from all calendars. No suspension or prohibition of the Archconfraternity was issued. The explanation given was that there was insufficient evidence to prove that Philomena had once existed. In the light of this, they were worried that her life story, martyrdom and sainthood could be conceived as being based on mere superstition. This went against the Church’s belief that saints had to have been real, devout Catholic people. Characters seemingly based purely on tales from legend or mythology could not be included.

Despite this, there were many who continued to believe in her saintliness. For example, a priest, Damien of Molokai,(1840-1899) who had a strong devotion to Philomena, named his church at Kalawao, Hawaii, in honour of her.

Many other saints have also been devoted to Philomena, including Peter Julian Eymard, Peter Chanel, Anthony Mary Claret, Madelaine Sophie Barat, Euphrasier Pelletier, John Neumann and Anna Maria Taigi.

I have mentioned that I was myself, in 1961, as a 12 year old, along with my Irish mam, shocked when the Holy See instructed to remove the name of Philomena even from local calendars. She was, we believed, in effect, de-sainted. My mother was not pleased either ! The decision had followed the raising of questions by certain scholars, whose interest had been drawn to the phenomenon of the revelations of Sister Maria Luisa di Gesù.

 Questions were raised in particular by Orazio Marucchi (1852 – 1931). He was an Italian archaeologist and author of the Manual of Christian Archaeology. He was regarded as a prestigious source. He served as Professor of Christian Archaeology at the University of Rome and was director of the Christian and Egyptian museums at the Vatican Museums. He was also a member of the Pontifical Commission of Sacred Archaeology and was a ‘scrittore’ (writer) in the Vatican Library.

His conclusions won the support of Johann Peter Kirsch (1861 – 1941), an archaeologist and ecclesiastical historian from Luxembourg, who was the author of an article on Philomena in the Catholic Encyclopedia.

However, according to more recent sources such as Mark Miravalle (born 1959), their conclusions have been rejected by others. Historian Michael S. Carter , another modern historian, professor at the University of Dayton, USA,  supports Miravalle's position. He has written about devotion to Saint Philomena within the broader context of veneration of "catacomb martyrs" and their relics in the history of the United States. Obviously, a contentious subject, leaving readers to draw their own conclusions !

In her 2013 paper, ‘Why is Saint Philomena no longer considered a Saint ?’ Cathy Caridi discusses why Catholics are mistaken in believing that Philomena is, or ever was, a Saint. She maintains that Papal law is clear that canonisation cannot be based on dreams or visions alone. There has to be solid, physical evidence to enable canonisation to take place and this is not available in Philomena’s case. Caridi explains that from the 12th century onward, only The Pope can create saints. Prior to that (as in Philomena’s case) from the 1st century onwards, Christians could be considered martyrs, therefore saints, because of them dying for their Christian faith –usually by being ordered to be killed by Roman leaders. One of Caridi’s arguments against Philomena’s sainthood was that the bodies buried in the tomb in Rome were Christians, but the authenticity of their individual identities was never confirmed.

One argument is that the inscription on the three tiles that had provided the Latin name "Filumena" belonged to the middle or second half of the second century. The body that had been found and named, Philomena, is believed to be of the fourth century, when the persecutions of Christians had ended. Not only the name but also the leaf, the two anchors and the palm that decorated the three tiles, and which had been believed to indicate that Filumena was a martyr, had not necessarily related to the person whose remains were found. The disarrangement of the tiles was something fourth-century sextons regularly did when re-using materials already engraved, with the aim of indicating that it was not the same person who was now buried in the place. Opponents of this view though, suggest that the necessary connection between these symbols and Philomena’s martyrdom has been denied despite evidence to the contrary. In fact, in April 2005, at the Conference of Philomenian Studies from 1805 up until 2005, the findings of a study carried out on the tiles by the Opificio delle Pietre Dure e Laboratori di Restauro (Factory of Hard Stones and Restoration Laboratories) of Florence were made public. The analysis confirmed that only one type of mortal lime could be found on the tiles, thus giving strong support to the theory that the tiles had not been re-arranged.

The Rector of the shrine in Mugnano del Cardinale disputes these findings. After reporting the decision of the Sacred Congregation of Rites in 1961 as resulting from the studies of scholars, recorded in the ‘Enciclopedia Dei Santi’  the Rector says that there still remain the miracles that occurred and the official recognition that the Catholic Church gave in the nineteenth century, the personal devotion to Saint Philomena of popes and people who were later canonised, and the widespread general devotion that still persists, particularly at Mugnano del Cardinale in the Diocese of Nola, where pilgrims from all over the world continually arrive, demonstrating an open display of intense popular devotion.

The website of "The National Shrine of Saint Philomena, Miami, Florida" sees the action taken in 1961 as the work of the devil in order to deprive the people of God of a most powerful Intercessor, particularly in the areas of purity and faith at a time when these virtues were so much being challenged by modern society as they continue to be up until the present time in our selfish, money-orientated societies.

In his book ‘It Is Time to Meet St Philomena’, Mark Miravalle says that Pope Gregory XVI "liturgically canonised St. Philomena, in an act of the ordinary Papal Magisterium". This contrasts with the usual view that canonisation is an exercise of infallible magisterium declaring a truth that must be "definitively held".

‘The Roman Martyrology’ contains the names of all the saints who have been formally canonised, since "with the canonisation of a new saint, that person is officially listed in the catalogue of saints, or Martyrology and, as soon as the beatification or canonisation event takes place, the person's name is technically part of the Roman Martyrology". It does not now contain, in fact never included, the name of Philomena, which can be seen to be absent in the 1856 edition published some twenty years after the 1837 decree. Supporters of this argument state that canonisation is a ceremony of the highest solemnity, in which the Pope himself, invoking his supreme authority in the Catholic Church, declares that someone is a saint and inserts that person's name in the catalogue of saints. They argue this ceremony has never taken place with regard to Saint Philomena..............

.The debate continues...........


PART FOUR - Philomena Today

Philomena - Feminist or Victim ?

I was born in 1949, the eldest of three girls. My mam was an Irish Catholic and Dad was an English member of the Church of England, albeit not a regular church-goer. He had a good relationship with the local ‘Rector’ and, as Headmaster of the village school, he conducted daily assemblies when the children sang hymns and generally got ‘sermons’ reminding them about good behaviour and loving your neighbour.

We three children were sent to Mass every Sunday and also attended a Catholic Convent. I think when we were young my mam presented herself as a ‘good’ Catholic, but sometimes took the Church and its teachings with a pinch of salt !  I believe now that our attendance at Mass and being pupils at a convent school was ‘keeping our options open’. Just in case there was a God and Heaven existed we could be proved to be worthy, rather than burning in the fires of hell and being tormented by the devil !!

 Looking back I see my mam as a bit of a feminist, although that word did not exist in our vocabulary at that time. As soon as my youngest sister was 5 years old and began attending school, mam returned to nursing, which had been her career during the War (WW2). and up until I was born. She continued working until 1976. She had begun working as a trainee nurse just before the war broke out in 1939. As an 18 year old she was subjected to having to care for the ‘lads’ that returned from the beaches of Dunkirk in 1940.There were many horrific injuries. She never spoke of this work to us and I only discovered this experience when I was an adult. To me, therefore, as an independent woman, my mam could be described as a feminist.

Pope Francis, born 17th December 1936, is currently the head of the Catholic Church, the bishop of Rome and sovereign of the Vatican City State. Francis is the first pope to be a member of the Society of Jesus, the first from the Americas, the first from the Southern Hemisphere, and the first pope from outside Europe since Gregory III, a Syrian, who reigned in the 8th century.

Pope Francis took the name from Saint Francis of Assisi to honour the saint’s focus on the welfare of the poor. To date, many think he has proven to be a kinder, gentler pontiff than some of his predecessors. Voted TIME’ magazine’s ’Man of the Year’, he preaches a gospel of peace, tolerance, and charity. He has rejected many papal luxuries. However, if I consider how rich the Vatican actually is, I believe he could put his money where his mouth is !! His words and personal sacrifice are difficult to take on board if you’re still disenfranchised. Some of my gay friends, for example, will accept nothing less than full credence to their rights —including marriage. Other friends take issue with a man who talks about poverty while the institution he leads holds unfathomable wealth. And then there’s the issue of women.......

After Pope Francis’ recent New Year’s message, with its emphasis on “brothers” and “brotherhood,” many feminists felt that this ‘New Age’ pope was still leaving women out of the picture. Did he actually mean “brothers and sisters” in the way that the word “man” is often used to denote humans of either gender?  Perhaps. Francis has championed allowing women a more active voice in the Church. However, he recently excommunicated an Australian priest, Father Greg Reynolds, for teaching women to ordain themselves. Although Francis believes that women are “fundamentally important,” he stresses that “Women in the Church must be valued not ‘clericalised’.” Why not ?

Failing to empower women in this way enables the narrowing of the church’s’ vision’ and makes it less likely to be a force for good in the world.

In 2020, the Catholic Church took two small (note the word “small”) steps for womankind. Pope Francis named the first woman to a managerial position in the Vatican’s most important office, the Secretariat of State. Later that year, the world’s bishops suggested that the Pope should reconsider a commission he had created, after pressure from nuns, to study the ordination of women as “permanent deacons”. However, before we get excited, these church ministers are only able to perform some of the duties of priests. They are not allowed to say Mass or hear confessions.

Unfortunately, these recent reforms only demonstrate how little power women actually hold in the church. This is despite the fact that they constitute about half of the Catholic church’s 1.2 billion followers ! Not only are women barred from ordination to the priesthood, they are not even allowed to vote at Vatican synods. These important events are held to advise the Pope about current ongoing challenges which face the church.

Some women see this as a slap in the face, ie - increasing hopes for a better deal for women and then pretty well reneging on the promises.

In a recent New Year’s sermon, Pope Francis declared that women “should be fully included in decision-making processes” in the church. Many popes have spoken highly of Catholic women, but by repeatedly speaking warmly of women’s gifts and the church’s need for them, Francis raised our expectations that women would actually be given power. He hasn’t lived up to their hopes.

Catholicism is relegating women to second-class citizenship in the church. Failing to empower women narrows the church’s vision, and makes it less equipped to be a force for good in the world.

The Catholic Church has a long and storied tradition of keeping women in their place—even in relatively modern times. If you have any doubt, I encourage you to read the book and see the movie ‘Philomena’.

‘Philomena’ is based on the ‘lost’ child of Philomena Lee, a 2009 book by BBC correspondent Martin Sixsmith. Lee was just a teenager when she met a boy at a fair. Motherless from a young age, she had been raised by nuns and knew nothing of sex or birth control. When she became pregnant, her father, on the advice of nuns, sent her to the convent at Roscrea, where she was forced to give her son up for adoption (the babies and children were actually given to wealthy U.S. families, presumably because of large donations. No investigations were made as to the suitability of these potential foster parents. Philomena was forced to work for four years in a laundry to repay her keep and that of the child. The most terrible thing was that her son was not ‘sold’ until he was 3 years old. By which time Philomena and her child had formed a strong bond.

Eventually, building a life and family for herself, she never forgot her child. Fifty years later, with the help of Sixsmith, she uncovered where he was taken and who he had grown up to be. But it was too late. Her son, Michael Hess, a closeted gay man who had risen to be chief counsel to President Bush, had already died of AIDS.

The new film has created controversy, with some decrying it as a hateful attack on the Church and others complaining that it marginalises actual atrocities committed.

If you’re interested in a much darker study of the Church’s less-than-Christian treatment of unmarried mothers, watch 2002’s horrific film, ‘The Magdalene Sisters’.

 ‘Philomena’ is sensitively directed by Stephen Frears. The screenplay, based on Sixsmith’s book is by Steve Coogan and Jeff Pope. Coogan also plays Sixsmith. But the star of the movie is Dame Judi Dench as Philomena. She plays the part perfectly. She captures the audience’s hearts with her gentle and tender portrayal.

Steve Coogan, mainly thought of as a comedian, plays his part touchingly, Throught him, Martin Sixsmith serves as the voice of modern thinking about the issue. This is  in sharp contrast to Philomena’s continued Catholic faith.

Sixsmith persudes Philomena to travel to Washington, USA. There, they meet with her son’s co-worker and eventually with his partner. The spirit of the story takes the viewer/reader back to the terrible events at Roscrea, At the end, we see Sixsmith acting upon all the anger we feel on Philomena’s behalf. However, she, as victim of the wrongdoing and the perpetrators, urges him to forgive and move forward. I’m not so sure whether in real life Philomena could be so generous of spirit. I know I couldn’t !

Because her son is dead and there can be no happy, tearful reunion, there is no answer or resolution at the end. The real story is different. Philomena Lee never went to America. In interviews, she says she’ll carry anger and guilt about her child all her life. Questioned by the media, she says she understands why the film had to alter the real events. She explains “It is hard to believe what it was like back then. What we had done was seen as so shameful.”

The Magdalene Laundries were founded following the foundation of the Irish Free State in 1922. What I find incredible and horrific is that they existed until 1996 ! During that period in time at least 10,000 girls and women were imprisoned, forced to carry out unpaid labour and subjected to severe psychological and physical maltreatment in Ireland's Magdalene Institutions. When the places were eventually closed, some older victims actually chose to stay with the nuns as they had been there for decades and knew no other life.

We will have to wait and see how and if Pope Francis will bring women into the priesthood. Although, I can’t see that happening any time soon. Meanwhile, Philomena Lee’s story and the movie raise the question of both the reality of the time of the events and the context in which they happened.

Since the film and other investigations have highlighted the horrors of these actions in Ireland, much more has been revealed. Babies murdered and thorn down wells for example. It probably will never be known how many innocent children died and how many women were scarred for life by their experiences.

T he Commission of Investigation into Mother and Baby Homes and Certain Related Matters - which was set up to investigate what happened in 14 mother and baby homes and four county homes announced the 10,000 deaths as part of the final findings of its nearly six year inquiry.

Around 56,000 people - from girls as young as 12, to women in their 40s - were sent to the 18 institutions investigated, where some 57,000 children were born, according to the report.

One in seven of those children (15 per cent) didn't survive long enough to leave the homes, yet no alarm was raised by the State over the high mortality rates, even though it was "known to local and national authorities" and was "recorded in official publications," the report found.

Prior to 1960, mother and baby homes "did not save the lives of 'illegitimate' children; in fact, they appear to have significantly reduced their prospects of survival," it said.

The report called the infant mortality rates the most "disquieting feature of these institutions."

The Church today has apologised in respect of these appalling acts. Nevertheless, regardless of any ‘important’ roles that women may play in the Church, women still cannot be priests.




What’s so great about virgins ?

Many Catholic women, including nuns, view the world through a different moral lens than church leaders. The Leadership Conference of Women Religious, which represents the majority of nuns in the United States, has consistently stressed social justice in its public positions and priorities. Catholic bishops, in contrast, have often emphasised sexual morality in their pronouncements.

In one particularly notable case in 2010, Catholic nuns, including a Sister Carol Keehan, then head of the Catholic Health Association, strongly supported the passage of the Affordable Care Act. She believed in the law’s potential to expand access to health care, considering the healing ministry of Jesus a key part of her gospel values. Keehan even accepted, albeit reluctantly, a compromise with the Obama administration that gave employees of Catholic institutions coverage for birth control. Provided, of course, that the institutions did not have to pay for, or administer it, themselves !

According to Catholic doctrine, priests are supposed to represent the likeness of Jesus, a male figure. The Catholic argument is therefore that women are not suitable to represent the male figure of Christ. Within the Catholic institution, the Pope reinforces what he views as Biblical law, demanded by God. How convenient !

In recent years Pope Francis may have put a woman in a top Vatican role thus apparently demonstrating a greater emphasis on values and beliefs. but this very publicised move, supposedly to demonstrate that ‘times are ‘a’changin’, merely serves to demonstrate how little power all Catholic women as a group hold. Failing to empower women narrows the church’s vision in the 21st century. Also, recently, the world’s bishops suggested that Pope Francis should reconvene a commission he had created, at the urging of nuns, to study the ordination of women as permanent deacons. These are not priests, but church ministers who would be able to perform some of the duties of priests, but not to say Mass or hear confessions. Some would argue that such reforms only demonstrate how little power women hold in the church, bearing in mind that they constitute about half of the Catholic Church’s 1.2 billion followers. Not only are women barred from ordination to the priesthood, they are still not allowed to vote at Vatican synods, convened to advise the Pope about challenges facing the Church.

For female believers, upon his election, Pope Francis raised their expectations that women would actually be given power. Six years later he hasn’t lived up to their hopes. Women are still regarded by the Church as second-class citizens.

Many Catholic women, even including some nuns, appear to view the world through a different moral lens than church leaders. Going back to my convent school days and as a young woman in the 1960s, any talk of sex was not permitted except in a derogatory context.  ‘You’ll go the hell’ was a usual response to any suggestion of such a thing. We were taught that when women married, they were to be subordinate to their husbands ! When I worked for a bank in the late 1960s, only unmarried women were employed. As soon as you married you were expected to leave and be satisfied with home and hearth. In those days, a woman couldn’t enter a pub alone. She had to be accompanied by a man. Otherwise, it was assumed that she was a prostitute touting for business and she would lower the tone of the establishment. So much for social justice and female rights within both business and religion. Even to this day, Catholic bishops have often emphasised sexual morality in their pronouncements.

The split caused between nuns and priests over the issue was so deep that the Vatican, under Pope Francis” , predecessor, Pope Benedict XVI, criticised the leaders of the majority of American religious orders of Sisters for espousing “radical feminist” views and ignoring issues such as abortion and gay marriage.

It was Pope Francis who eventually stopped the Vatican’s investigation of the American nuns. That said, today, even with an apparently progressive Pope, women’s priorities are still not fully reflected in long-standing Vatican positions.

So, going back to Philomena, a young 4th century woman. She was only about aged 14 at the time of her death, so we might say of her today, she was a girl, a child. Of course, life expectancy would have been much lower at that time.

The Catholic Church  has told women to emulate such women in terms of protecting their virginity until they were married and being subservient to their husbands when they did.

Several hundred years before Philomena was born, we know of Mary, the Mother of Jesus. She has always been portrayed as a woman of purity and lack of sin. This was a model for all women to follow, but makes it difficult to relate to for the 21st century woman. In paintings over the centuries, Mary is often portrayed as a meek and mild lady holding the baby Jesus. She apparently had a virgin birth. This rather suggests that Joseph was not the father, but that God had selected Mary for this purpose. Mary comes across as the supposed ultimate model for women. Self effacing, obedient and serene. I’m sure that Philomena would have perceived her as a role-model.

Mary with Jesus

So, who was Mary ? She was a young Jewish woman living in the Roman Empire. In line with Jewish customs of the time it is believed that she was ‘betrothed’ to Joseph when the angel Gabriel appeared to her. This puts her age at around 14, or younger, rather as the later, 4th century Philomena was betrothed  to the Emperor at a similar age.

Mary was not from a wealthy background. In the Gospel of Luke, (Luke 2:24) there is an account of Mary and Joseph’s presentation of Jesus in the temple which records that they offered a sacrifice of “a pair of turtledoves or two young pigeons,” which according to Mosaic law was only allowed if the woman was unable to afford a lamb to sacrifice.

From what we can learn about her, Mary did not have much power in her society. Being young, female, Jewish and not wealthy, all these characteristics placed her fairly low in the social hierarchy of the time. 

Catholic tradition tells us that Mary was “immaculately conceived” in her own mother’s womb. Somehow, her mother as a virgin, made Mary free from original sin. This ensured that she would be an appropriate woman to one day bear the baby Jesus and bring him into the world.

So, as in my case and that of millions of other women raised in Catholicism, this goodness and chastity was the highest state we could aspire to.

These qualities could be seen as good traits that we women should try to emulate. But the problem lies in how far women are asked to go in order to keep up this image in their public persona. Are they being asked to betray their own individual needs and values in order to win other people’s approval. “Sugar and spice and all things nice” was (still is in some cases) the example to follow. As long as you’re neatly turned out and polite and charming that’s good enough.  As a result, we are taught that our external appearance and good manners are more important than any internal feelings. Keep quiet. Still, sadly, today there are many cultures which still control women in this way – worst examples like covering your head and face and child brides.

In the bible story of the Nativity, Gabriel tells Mary, “Do not be afraid,” before explaining to her that she is to give birth to a child named Jesus. Mary says, “Behold, I am the handmaid of the Lord. May it be done to me according to your word.”  Conditioned to be meek and mild it seems. Everything that the angel Gabriel says comes across as an order, or at least a statement of fact: “you will conceive in your womb and bear a son, and you shall name him Jesus.” (Luke 1:31) and “The holy Spirit will come upon you, and the power of the Most High will overshadow you.” (Luke 1:35). 

If you were 14 year old Mary, you’d probably feel there was no option but to obey this scary, intimidating being in front of her who claimed to be sent by an all-powerful God. Mary wasn’t given a choice. She was highly unlikely to stand up for her own needs in front of this intimidating being. She was willing, as still many are today, to ignore her own doubts and to win approval from others, in this case, God. 

Yet, after Gabriel’s assurance to “be not afraid,” Mary doesn’t act as if she was afraid. She does have enough courage to ask the question, “How can this be, since I have no relations with a man?” (Luke 1:34). At the end of their interaction, the fact that she felt the need to say “let it be done to me according to your will” suggests that she sensed that the angel was waiting for some sort of consent. When she went to visit her cousin Elizabeth shortly after the angel’s visit, both women joyfully celebrated their pregnancies, and Mary describes how God “has done great things for me” in the prayer that is called her “Magnificat” (Luke 1:46-50). I could admire Mary in one sense, that she demonstrated amazing courage in the face of such a terrifying experience. She decided – without the permission of her father or her betrothed – to bear a child into the world in a way that would necessarily cause disbelief, conflict and potential physical harm.

In becoming pregnant before she had gone to live with her betrothed, Mary was breaking a huge social norm in her society. She must have known that her pregnancy would upset the people around her. Until Joseph himself was visited by Gabriel himself, he would have thought that she had slept with another man, committing adultery. This was an offence that was punishable by stoning under Mosaic law, which is why Joseph had “decided to divorce her quietly” so as to not “expose her to shame.” (Matthew 1:19). No one she encountered, other than those who had also interacted with the angel, would have understood that this baby was, apparently, conceived by the Holy Spirit, so that Mary remained a virgin.

So, is Mary brave or merely compliant ? Interestingly, if I compare Mary’s situation with that of the young Philomena, the latter, apparently, did not have a vision of an angel or any other heavenly creature to make her decide to remain a virgin. As far as we know, she made that decision alone, even though it meant disobeying her parents, not to mention upsetting the Emperor of Rome ! In this, she demonstrated her free will to choose her own path. So with Mary, ordered to have a child who would be the son of God, does her compliance suggest that God does not actually care about women’s free will ? Is God merely the puppet master who controls our lives on a whim ? Are we just puppets ? If we go our own way will we be punished in the afterlife ? (if we agree that that exists).

Some might argue that God sent an angel to Mary with the intent of providing a being who would act as a gentle mediator to bring God’s message and to await Mary’s response. If that was the case, is God is a loving parent, who, although he knows what is best for us, he still allows us to make up our own minds ? Catholic theologians of different persuasions argue that Mary did, actually, have a fully free choice. Were both Mary and Philomena free to make their own choices ? You decide.

 Pope Benedict XVI wrote that the entire mission of Jesus is dependent on us having this freedom. Was Mary demonstrating her strength as many Catholic women might believe ?

In her book “Truly Our Sister : A Theology of Mary in the Communion of Saints”, Elizabeth Johnson writes:

This young peasant girl discerns the voice of God in her life, commissioning her to a momentous task. Exercising independent thought and action, she asks questions, takes counsel with her own soul. In a self-determining act of personal autonomy, she decides to go for it. This is her choice and it changes her life. A woman of Spirit, she embarks on the task of partnering God in the work of redemption.”

Mary is presented as a courageous woman by the Catholic faith. She chose to dive headlong into conflict in order to do what she believed was right. She broke social norms and didn’t let a desire to please other people stop her. She celebrated how God worked in the world, upsetting the status quo by being a threat to her elders and ‘betters. It is believed that when she participated in that work of disruption, from that time onward, “all ages will call [her] blessed” (Luke 1:48).

Personally, I don’t see this as a possibility, even if it really happened that way. If Catholic women are still regarded as lesser people than men, not being allowed to play a full role in the Church’s activities 2000 years later, how does this tie in with Gabriel’s manner of address to Mary ?

For me, Catholicism is about being a kind of “goodie, goodie gumdrops”. Sacrificing free will and the ability to manage women’s own lives in order to remain compliant with the teachings of the Church.  It’s basically about control. Taking your own path outside the confines of the path of righteousness makes women dangerous because they can’t be controlled. From an early age, the Church tries to ‘tame’ us. Many Catholic women in the 21st century see this as a force in their lives which is unfair and undeserved.

I think the Church must come to realise that women being independent as well as following the Catholic doctrine is not impossible. It will only prove possible though when women are shown as equals. Looking at the lives of Mary, Philomena and other well known Catholic women from the past shows the need for a rethink and transformation of perceptions and ideas by both male and female believers. If the Church wants to re-think and take a more constructive path with input from both ‘sides’ it needs to understand the essentials of feminism. Questions such as:

  • How and why the current religious, social and symbolic order of the Church has made the embracing of feminist philosophies difficult ?
  • How can the elders of the Church take on board the issues at stake ? Looking at both struggles and tensions hat currently exist.
  • How can bias in the Church’s teachings be addressed ?
  • How, ultimately, can agreement be reached ?

During the 1990s, the then Pope (later Saint) John Paul the second, did apologise to women for the wrongs they have experienced throughout the history of the Church.

“Unfortunately, we are heirs to a history which has conditioned us to a remarkable extent. In every time and place, this conditioning has been an obstacle to the progress of women... And if objective blame, especially in particular historical contexts, has belonged to not just a few members of the Church, for this I am truly sorry.”  (Saint Pope John Paul II, Letter to Women, 1995)

Nevertheless, as I write nearly 30 years later, there is still a long way to go, although some issues have been resolved more recently.

Going back to virgin martyrs, in order to better understand their religious value, some historical context is important. The ‘age of the virgin martyrs’ lies between the apostolic era (33 -100 AD) and the time of the Church Fathers (from the late 1st to mid-8th centuries AD) , flourishing in particular during the 4th and 5th centuries, when Christianity was in the process of establishing itself as the state church of the Roman Empire. Knowing the social and cultural backdrop of the early Roman Empire in which such women lived helps us to appreciate exactly what the Church honours in the case of the virgin martyrs.

Roman law forbade a woman to remain unmarried. She was the property of a man, either of her own father or, later, of her husband. She had to marry. As property, she could also not own her own property or manage her money. Even a widow was not free to remain unmarried. She had to remarry !

Into that Roman world, the Church actually introduced radical ideas about a woman’s dignity. From the beginning, the Church insisted on a woman’s right to remain unmarried, and created some space for women to join early monasteries where they could live out what they saw as a mystical marriage to Christ.

“The early virgin martyrs were seen as heroes. They were women and girls who believed that they were daughters and brides of God. They didn’t accept that they were second-class citizens, only fit to be a man’s property,” ( Mary Pezzulo, a Catholic author who writes the “Steel Magnificat” blog on Patheos.)

The Christian virgin martyrs in the 1st century Roman world had what might be called the ‘revolutionary idea’ that they could belong to Christ as much as a man could, but in their own way. Like my namesake, Philomena, they stood up to the most powerful empire in the world, and suffered horribly because of it, including being martyred in the most gruesome ways.

Rich and powerful Roman noblemen, who were non-Christians at this time desired these virgin martyrs. They pursued them and offered them marriage, even as the Emperor  had done to Philomena. When the martyrs refused their proposals the men handed the Christian women over to the authorities to be imprisoned, tortured and killed.

Historians have suggested that we need to see these saints being martyrs first and virgins second. Since those early days in the Church’s history, the commitment to Christianity of these virgin martyrs, could be seen as both radical and courageous. Unfortunately, over the centuries, they have been frequently held up as examples for young girls especially, to hold on to their chastity and sexual purity ! The Church has, more recently changed its position in this respect, but, nevertheless, there’s still a gap to fill.


 St. Anastasia, (Died A.D. 304)

I chose to look at the life of St. Anastasia . She was a contemporary of St. Philomena. Little is known about her life. The story goes that after her mother died, Anastasia’s father planned to give her in marriage to a pagan Roman named Publius. However, Anastasia, who had been baptised as a baby. Her Christian mother wanted to preserve her virginity in this way.

During the persecution of Christians at that time, Anastasia visited and cared for imprisoned Christians around the Roman Empire. She was later arrested and killed by either being beheaded or being burned alive. She is now the patroness of martyrs, weavers, widows and those suffering from poisoning. Her feast day is Dec. 25th, believed to be the date Jesus was born.

In the Church, especially in its earlier days, virginity and purity were understood  to be great spiritual gifts. Both were praised as some of the highest ways a person could imitate Christ and devote themselves to serving him.


St. Lucy (A.D. 283-304)

Another contemporary of Philomena was St.Lucy. Lucy was born to rich and noble parents in Syracuse. At a young age, she consecrated her virginity to God and hoped to distribute her dowry to the poor. Concerned for her, Lucy’s mother arranged for her to be betrothed to a young man from a wealthy pagan family.

Legend has it that St. Agatha, who had been martyred around 50 years earlier, appeared to Lucy in a dream to tell her that her mother would be cured from a bleeding disorder. In thanksgiving, Lucy had her mother distribute a large portion of her riches amongst the poor.

Unfortunately, the news of this act angered Lucy’s pagan betrothed. He reported her to the Roman governor. Lucy was sentenced to death for refusing to burn a sacrifice to the Emperor’s image. She was killed by the sword, and is the patroness of the blind, related to a legend about the governor ordering her eyes to be gouged out ! Her feast day is Dec.13th.

Many female virgin martyrs have been canonised over time for dying to defend their chastity.

The modern Catholic Church beatified two 20th century women – now known as the Blesseds Veronica Antal of Romania and Anna Kolesarova of Slovakia. They were killed while fighting off men who tried to sexually assault them.

Properly understood and carefully presented, the ancient and more recently canonised virgin martyrs bear great value for evangelisation. The stories of all these women is told in a positive light – dying in the name of Christ was the ultimate sacrifice and proved that Jesus Christ was the centre of their lives.

If we look at the situations and fate of these virgin martyrs, it would seem that The Church wants its flock to believe that these women were saints mainly because they managed not to be raped !  Looked at in a modern context, particularly that of non-believers, martyrdom could be said to send the message that a girl or woman who survives a sexual assault would have been better off being killed for the sake of purity and the state of her soul ! This definitely doesn’t sit well with the modern feminist !

Nuns and priests are still celibate. According to the Catholic Church's Code of Canon Law, celibacy is a “special gift of God” which allows practitioners to follow more closely the example of Christ, who was chaste. (or was he ?)  Another reason is that when a priest enters into service to God, the Church becomes his highest calling. Aspiring nuns and monks are required to reject private property, marriage and biological family ties. Celibacy is implicit in the rejection of marriage and procreation and has always been central to the monastic ideal. In modern times, some celibates argue that they are not distracted by physical desire or family life. This allows them to focus more fully on the spiritual side of their existence.

The floor is open for discussion. Let me have your opinions.

Philomena  - March 2023.