Pride Month: Medieval Ireland

With Pride Month kicking off this week, those of us here at the Association of Celtic Students thought we should celebrate it in a way that only we can: with obtuse amounts of very niche academic knowledge! Since we have already covered LGBTQ vocabularies for Celtic languages, today I am here to talk to you all about two of my biggest passions, medieval Ireland and historical queerness.

Historical queerness is often a topic that is challenging to engage with, especially as a non-academic. While there have always been transgender people, intersex people, people who are attracted to the same sex, people who don't experience sexual attraction, or have gender expressions outside of modern binaries, tracking down examples of these historical figures can be challenging. Some wheres and whens, people like this couldn't (or still can't) publicly express themselves for fear of reprisal in one form or another, leaving historical attestations rare and uncertain. In some wheres and whens, we have laws that reference people like this in any one of a number of ways, but deducing exactly how reflective laws are of a society that has them is often a challenge. The most accessible historical scholarship to members of the public also tends to be considerably out of date, with the 1950s not being known for their tremendous positivity towards these people. Even the normal saving grace of archeology struggles to draw certain conclusions.

Furthermore, modern identities can't be imposed on the past. While we might have historical figures who can be firmly established to have sexual or romantic relationships with people of various genders, we cannot call them bisexual, both as this is imposing a label on someone without their consent, and also because modern conceptions of bisexuality might make no sense in their historic context. If it is aggressively mundane to have partners of different genders in a time and place, a modern Western term will be an imperfect and ultimately misleading fit.

But! With that out of the way, it isn't to say that we can't find people in the past that modern members of the LGBTQ community can identify with. For instance, medieval Irish literature provides two women in a sexual relationship with each other, two characters who change sex, and one man who has sexual relationships with women and appears to have one with another man. While we cannot call, for instance, these two women lesbians, they can certainly show us that people like us have always existed, have lived and loved, and leave their fingerprints on history.


The story of these two women is a Middle Irish poem that was incorporated into a late sixteenth or early seventeenth century poem modernly titled 'Niall Frosach’s Act of Truth.' The story tells us that the 8th century king Niall Frosach was sitting at Tara when a distraught woman with a baby approached him. She explains that she has never had sex with a man, but gave birth to this child and is now unsure who can be named as the father, which ties into medieval Irish kinship law which relies on paternal lines of descent. Niall, with the wisdom of a just ruler, which in this case seems to include an exceptional gaydar, immediately asks if the woman had “engage[d] in [fore-]play with another woman; did she ever place her body side by side with your fair body, or did she ever lie between your thighs?” The woman says that she has, and Niall explains that her partner's husband must be the father of her child. On saying this, a priest crashes to the ground beside the pair, who springs up and exclaims that what Niall just said was utterly true. The priest explains that he was being carried around Ireland by demons, high in the air, and the utter truth of Niall's statement had weakened them so that he was dropped.

This is an exceptional story, with this homosexual relationship serving as a legal puzzle for a clever ruler to solve, but without casting any judgement on the women involved. While this is a work of fiction, part of a praise poem for a long dead king, what this can show us is that homosexual relationships existed in the cultural imagination of the scribes producing these texts. While concluding any positive or negative associations the medieval author may have is challenging if not impossible, we can see that while the medieval author was comfortable including this, modernity has not been as kind. As noted by Damian McMannus, while this text was first partially translated in 1938 by Tomás Ó Raghllaigh in Fíli agus filidheacht Chonnacht, the story was censured. The sections of the tale including this homosexual relationship are not given, as McMannus says, likely due to the Censorship of Publications Act of 1929 which banned the sale and distribution of any work that fell afoul of its rules, such as by being "suggestive of, or inciting to sexual immorality or unnatural vice". Fortunately, due to McMannus, we have this story in multiple variants and fully translated without censorship in 'Niall Frosach's 'Act of Truth': a Bardic Apologue in a Poem for Sir Nicholas Walsh, Chief Justice of the Common Pleas ( 1615)' in Éiru 58 (2008): 133-168.

In Middle Irish text, Feis Tighe Chonáin, from the Finn Cycle, we are told about a nameless man who changes sex every year, alternating back and forth between binary states. This man is presented in a list of three wonders, following with the broader medieval European literary concept of wonders as miraculous or abnormal things, persons, or events. The other two being a wife of Finn's who is alive during the day and dead at night, and a spear that cannot kill anyone with its head, but will kill anyone with its haft. What is particularly interesting is that the text specifically identifies this character as a man, no matter which of his two forms he is in, which the text also feels it important to tell us that he is fertile in both.

Similarly, though not strictly a medieval text, the story of The Abbot of Drimnagh tells a similar tale. Going back to several late medieval manuscripts, as identified by Barbra Hillers, the story survives in folklore from Ireland and Scotland, and talks about the eponymous abbot of Drimnagh. In Hillers' translation, which is based on editions by Meyer, we are told that on Easter the abbot prepares for a feast and goes and takes a seat on a hill (that Hillers identifies as being a hill somewhere between the modern Dublin suburbs of Drimnagh and Crumlin) where he falls asleep. Waking up, they are distraught, finding that their body had been transformed into a female one, but also their men's clothes had been transformed into women's clothes, and their sword into a distaff. A woman encounters the abbot and asks what they are doing there, to which the abbot replies in great distress that they cannot go home because they will not be recognized, and express revulsion to their transformed body. The abbot travels away from the hill to a town that neighbored their own, where a man falls in love with them, they get married, and the abbot bares seven children. After these seven years, they happen to sit on this hill same hill on Easter, fall asleep, and wake up in their original body, back in their original clothes, with their sword returned. Returning to their original home, the abbot was welcomed by their wife. With the matter of the children, now the legal curiosity of having two fathers in the eyes of the law, are divided up between the abbot and their, seemingly now ex, husband.

Both of these stories are part of a broader European literary tradition surrounding shapeshifting and transformations, which in turn is shaped by theological and metaphysical theories at the time. In both of these cases, the stories give us insight into medieval Ireland's perception of sex and gender. While a more in-depth study of all variants of the stories and scrutinizing the use of gendered language throughout the texts would provide clearer insights, we can see that people like this exist within the cultural imagination of medieval Ireland. Particularly note worthily is the abbot's panic and revulsion of their transformed body, which may be based in misogyny but is also reflective of dysphoria. 

While these three characters are fairly obscure even within academic circles, the last one we will discuss is one of, if not the most widely known character from the Irish sagas: Cú Chulainn himself. As a seventeen year old boy who can't grow a beard, is mistaken for a pre-teen girl, is often described as being physically small, while simultaneously striving for extreme expressions of his masculinity, something is going on with Cú Chulainn. This exact topic was discussed by Finn Longman at our 2020 conference in 'A Beardless Boy: Exploring a Transmasculine Reading of Cú Chulainn in Táin Bó Cúailnge'. If you want to read all about that, you should keep your eyes out for our upcoming conference proceedings! And, for more from Finn on Queer Theory in Celtic Studies, check out their blog here. For now, we will focus our discussion on the relationship between Cú Chulainn and his foster-brother Fer Diad.


Illustration from Eleanor Hull's The Boys' Cú Chulainn, 1904.

During the events of the Táin Bó Cúailnge, after Cú Chulainn has slaughtered every warrior sent to fight him, including several foster-brothers of his, Queen Medb of Connaught sends for the Connaught warrior and prince, Fer Diad. Protected by an impenetrable skin of horn (or, his skin is like horn, it isn't necessarily entirely clear) and an exceptional warrior trained in the same warrior school as Cú Chulainn, Fer Diad seems to be the only hope to defeat Cú Chulainn. While Connaught has sent many of Cú Chulainn's foster-brothers against him, he and Fer Diad are presented as being exceptionally close, leaving the only solution to be subterfuge and duplicity. After manipulating Fer Diad by plying him with alcohol and lying to him that Cú Chulainn was boasting himself as the superior warrior, Fer Diad is tricked into promising that he will fight Cú Chulainn. When he wakes up the next morning, he is distraught over what he has promised to do, which is only redoubled when he speaks to Cú Chulainn before his duel and it is revealed that Medb had lied to him.

Compelled by social expectation, the two warriors are bound to fight to the death, but their duel that spans several days is interspersed with dialogue and poetry. Recension II of the text extends this scene, with Cú Chulainn lamenting the combat, reminding Fer Diad that "We were loving friends. We were comrades in the wood. We were men who shared a bed. We would sleep a deep sleep after our weary fights in many strange lands. Together we would ride and range through every wood when we were taught by Scáthach." Recension I has the two men kiss multiple times throughout their duel, and in the Stowe version of the Táin, Fer Diad recites a poetic lament where he describes his relationship with Cú Chulainn:

    Truagh a Dhé,
    Teacht do mhnaoi eadrom agus é;
    Leth mo chroidhe in Cú cen col
    Is leth croidhe na Con mé.
    Alas, O God,
    That a woman should come between me and him;
    That the faultless hound is half my heart,
    And I am half of his.

By the end of their duel, these homoerotic undertones reach a dramatic height. In both Recension I and II, Cú Chulainn struggles to defeat Fer Diad due to the protection offered by his impenetrable skin. Finding a clever loop hole in this supernatural protection, Cú Chulainn takes his magical spear, the Gáe Bolga, and impales Fer Diad through his anus. As the spear grows through Fer Diad's body, filling his veins with bone as is the property of the spear, Cú Chulainn holds Fer Diad and cries. He laments the loss, in Recension II, lamenting that his loved one would have died in combat with him, with a particularly heart-wrenching section being:

    All was play and pleasure until I met with Fer Diad in the ford. Alas for the noble champion laid low     there at the ford.
    All was play and sport until I met with Fer Diad at the ford. I thought that beloved Fer Diad would        live after me for ever.

The relationship between Cú Chulainn and Fer Diad is more elaborate and expressly loving than between Cú Chulainn and any of his other foster-brothers, with these relationships normally ranging from mild contempt (Fer Báeth) to a younger brother making trouble for his older brother (Conall Cernach). While it is obvious that we can interpret these characters through a queer lense, reading their relationship as homosexual, or homoromantic, or both, exactly how we should read their relationship in the context of the culture that produced the texts is less clear. Thomas O'Donnell in Fosterage in Medieval Ireland: an Emotional History has argued against this interpretation, while scholars looking at the influence on Classical Literature on the Irish sagas see potential inspiration for Cú Chulainn's character in Achilles, which leaves the relationship potentially having some sort of connection with the relationship of Achilles and Patroclus. Sarah Sheehan has argued in favor of a more martial or violent reading of the relationship in 'Fer Diad de-Flowered: Homoerotics and Masculinity in Comrac Fir Diad'. Ultimately,  we will not know for certain until a dedicated study emerges looking at the relationship, taking into account all these various elements, and working through the glut of untranslated legal texts to attempt to get a better grip on the medieval Irish perception of homosexual relationships.

But, for now that is the end of our discussion! I hope that you have enjoyed this little discussion of medieval Irish literature, and I especially hope that if you are LGBTQ, you can see something of yourself in these characters. While seperated by centuries, oceans, and tremendous cultural differences, there are still people who are, in a way, like us. Have a great Pride Month, and, say safe.

- Emmet Taylor (They/Them)

Further Reading:

Hillers, Barbara. 'The Abbot of Druimenaig: Genderbending in Gaelic Tradition.' Proceedings of the Harvard Celtic Colloquium 15 (1995): 175-97. 
O'Donnell, Thomas. Fosterage in Medieval Ireland: an Emotional History (Amsterdam, Amsterdam University Press: 2020).
Runge, Roan. 'The Case of the Abbot of Drimnagh: A Medieval Irish Story of Sex-Change (Ó Síocháin)' in Celtica 32 (2020): 274-279.
Sheehan, Sarah. 'Fer Diad de-Flowered: Homoerotics and Masculinity in Comrac Fir Diad.' in Ulidia 2 (2009): 54-65.


Popular posts from this blog

LGBTQ Terminology in the Celtic Languages

Learning Breton / Deskiñ brezhoneg

Carantes Announcement