Brigid, Dymphna, Fanchea and more

Staying In

Book review
Bríd Conroy

The six ancient virtues of Irish womanhood were wisdom, beauty, musical ability, gentle speech and embroidery skills, according to a lovely new book entitled ‘Saint Brigid and Other Amazing Irish Women’, written by Lorraine Mulholland, illustrated by Matthew Jackson and published by Colomba Books.
I myself was called after Saint Brigid, but that is where my own virtue ends it would seem, sadly. That aside, it is so lovely to see a book being published that covers the stories of virtuous Irish women from ancient times. It appears they are finally getting their day in the sun, along with the celebration of our new bank holiday in honour of Saint Brigid herself.
Mulholland has aimed the book at young readers who have an interest in learning about ‘Old Ireland’ and its female heroes, although it is suitable for all ages really. There are 24 chapters about 24 of our most amazing women. Each chapter is beautifully illustrated and finishes with interesting facts and a task to learn more about each heroine.
In the chapter on Saint Brigid, we learn that it’s thought she was born between 436AD and 468AD and she spent some of her childhood in Connacht. Her mother was a slave and she herself was borne into slavery. She was a chieftain’s daughter borne out of wedlock but was raised partly by a pagan druid. She earned her freedom and set about establishing her first monastery, and many more followed. Brigid was renowned for feeding the poor, fighting poverty and caring for the lonely, saying ‘a person without a soul friend [‘anam cara’ in Irish] is like a body without a head’.
We also learn about Dymphna, known as ‘the demon slayer’, who ran away from her father to a village in Belgium. There she became known as a ‘lily among thorns’, helping particularly people with sadness and anxiety. Dymphna was martyred at the age of 15 when her father caught up with, her she but has remained a symbol of hope for those suffering with mental illness.
And then there is the fantastic Fanchea, born around the time of Brigid to a royal family in Fermanagh. To escape marriage it is said she dived into Lough Erne and the Shannon and swam all the way to Inchcleraun, an island on Lough Ree, halfway down Ireland. She set up a convent eventually in her home Fermanagh and travelled to Rome on pilgrimage, dying on her return journey.
Another book just out starts with Imbolc, the feast of Saint Brigid on February 1 and 2, set at the midpoint between the winter solstice and the spring equinox. A memoir called ‘In Ordinary Time’, by Carmel McMahon, published by Duckworth Books, it talks about the passing of time when Saint Brigid lived, when it was not governed by clocks but by nature and a connection to the ethereal.
McMahon interweaves her own story of emigration to New York in the ’80s and the effect on her family of the loss of a child not long before she herself was born. She talks about how the body remembers what the mind can’t and the importance of the healing and restorative power ‘in the intimate exchange of speaking and listening and being heard’. Her story follows our Celtic year from Imbolc through Bealtaine and Lughnasadh to Samhain and connects individual stories to that of our history and collective consciousness. McMahon has since returned to Ireland and is currently living in Mayo.
There is much beauty and wisdom in both the books this week (but if you’re looking for  insights on embroidery as a virtue, best look elsewhere!).

Bríd Conroy and her husband Neil Paul run Tertulia  – A Bookshop Like No Other at The Quay, Westport.