5 Inspirational Irish Women in Irish History

In Ireland, women have always played a pivotal, if sometimes unrecognized role, in the country’s development over the years.

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In pre-Christian Ireland, women actually had more power than any other time in early Irish history.

The Brehon Laws, which are Ireland’s earliest legal system, has a reputation among modern-day scholars of being quite favorable to women, with some describing the laws as providing equal rights for both sexes.

The ancient laws consisted of accumulated decisions handed down by Brehons or judges, who could be either men or women.

An example of an ancient Irish manuscript that would have been used to record the Brehon Laws. Photo: Public Domain.

Some of the laws were even recorded in the earliest Christian texts in Ireland.

The Brehon Laws continued to be somewhat operational in Ireland until the early 17th century, at least in Gaelic areas of the country.

The area in black was known as The Pale, which was directly under the control of the English government in the Late Middle Ages. Photo: Public Domain.

By the time Elizabeth I came to the throne, they were considered by many, especially in areas of Ireland’s Pale (on the east coast) to be old-fashioned and unreasonable.

They were consequently banned by the English and Ireland slowly came under the rule of English Common Law.

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It was under this ancient legal system that the first of the 5 inspiring Irish women highlighted here was born.

Brigid of Kildare

Most will associate Brigid of Kildare, more commonly known as St. Brigid, Ireland’s female patron saint, with the reed crosses made in her name.

The real St. Brigid, known for her generous nature, was much more of a powerhouse than most people imagine.

A statue of Saint Brigid is located at St. Brigid's Holy Well in Kildare. St. Brigid is one of 5 inspirational Irish women that are important to Irish history. Photo: David Joyce, https://www.flickr.com/photos/bobba_dwj/

Born in Dundalk in 450 A.D., she is actually credited with establishing two monasteries in County Kildare, one for men and the other for women.

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The former Kildare Abbey, no longer there, is the place where Brigid created her first monastery, later establishing a small oratory, which expanded into a large double monastery serving both sexes.

The site in its day was an important center of religion and learning, developing into a kind of cathedral city.

All that remains of this site today is a round tower.

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St. Brigid's Cathedral in Kildare. The cathedral is on the site of the monastery founded by Saint Brigid. Photo: Tourism Ireland.

However, you’ll find the beautiful St. Brigid’s Cathedral nearby, which honors the saint, as well as a heritage trail where you can learn more about Brigid and her good work.

Brigid is also credited with founding a school of art that focused on metalwork and illumination.

The iconic St. Brigid's cross can be found in many an Irish household and serves as a tribute to Ireland's female patron saint. Photo: Vitocork, Getty Images Pro

In fact, the Book of Kildare, similar to the Book of Kells, was created there.

Unfortunately, it disappeared during the Reformation and has never been recovered.

Some experts also believe that Brigid was an expert dairywoman and brewer.

Indeed, Brigid is known as the patron saint of many things and people, including midwives, newborns, Irish nuns, fugitives, blacksmiths, dairymaids, boatmen, chicken farmers, cattle, scholars, sailors, and who knows how many more!

She most definitely deserves the pedestal that she has been given.

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Queen Maeve of Connaught

A heroine of pre-Christian Ireland (sometime around 50 BC), some might wonder if Queen Maeve ever existed.

The Irish £1 note included an image of Maeve on the front. Ireland's currency is now the Euro. Queen Maeve is one of 5 Irish inspirational Irish women that are important to Irish culture. Photo: Colette Connolly.

However, if you were to read the ancient text titled, “Tain Bo Cualing,” which translated into English means “The Cattle Raid of Cooley,” you would be convinced that yes, she did indeed exist.

The narrative was copied by monks in the 8th century and is based on a period of Irish history when high kings ruled the land.

The story concerns a conflict between the ruler of Ulster and Maeve over the possession of the brown bull of Cooley.

Queen Maeve's Cairn on top of Knocknarea in Co. Sligo. Photo: Baca12 – Own work, CC BY-SA 4.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=43138612

Maeve was responsible for leading the warriors of Connaught into Ulster to claim the famous bull. She successfully captured it after a bloody battle.

Reported to have had five husbands, this steely woman ruled over Connaught for over 60 years.

She is reputedly buried standing upright at the top of Knocknarea in County Sligo, a popular tourist attraction.

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Grace O’Malley (Granuaile)

No list of influential Irish women could leave out the legendary Grace O’Malley, otherwise known as “The Pirate Queen.”

Born into the powerful O’Malley clan of Co. Mayo, Grace was born on Clare Island in 1530.

Always a tomboy, Grace is known to have cut her hair after her father refused to allow her on a voyage in case her long hair would get caught in the ropes.

The statue of Grace O'Malley outside Westport House. She is considered one of the 5 inspirational women in Irish history. Photo: Suzanne Mischyshyn, CC BY-SA 2.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=76744787

Interestingly, Grace is not mentioned in any of the Irish annals, which were typically created by monks to determine feast days and notable political events.

Most of the documentary evidence of Grace’s life and escapades have been drawn from English sources, in particular the 18 “Articles of Interrogatory” questions that she posed to Queen Elizabeth I.

Grace is also mentioned in the English State Papers and in other such documents.

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The O'Malley Castle on Clare Island in Co. Mayo. Photo courtesy of Tourism Ireland.

During Grace’s early years, King Henry VIII reigned and despite being Lord of Ireland, he left the Gaelic clans pretty much to their own devices.

That would change over time, of course, with the Tudor conquest of Ireland.

Truly unusual for her time, Grace has been known for her determination and bravery. An attack against an enemy clan, the MacMahon's, was swift and merciless, with Grace taking the castle in Ballycroy, Co. Mayo, by storm.

A depiction of Grace's meeting with Queen Elizabeth I. Grace O'Malley is one of the 5 inspirational Irish women that made her mark on Ireland's history. Photo: Public Domain.

It was Grace’s meeting with Queen Elizabeth I, however, that shows her true audacity.

After the capture of her two sons and half-brother, Grace petitioned Elizabeth for their release.

The story goes that Grace refused to bow to the queen because she didn’t recognize her as the “Queen of Ireland.”

At one point, she sneezed during the meeting and a handkerchief was given to Grace by one of the noblewomen in Elizabeth’s court.

The onlookers were horrified.

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Rockfleet Castle near Newport, Co. Mayo, reputed to be the place where Grace died in 1603. Photo: Arthur Ilkow, Tourism Ireland.

After using it, Grace threw the tissue into the fire, claiming that in Ireland a used handkerchief was considered dirty and always thrown away.

The two powerful women conducted their conversation in Latin given that Grace spoke no English and Elizabeth did not speak Irish. In the end, the pair came to a somewhat amicable agreement.

In her day, Grace commanded three galleys, 20 ships, and over 200 men. Both she and Elizabeth died in the same year, 1603.

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The Clare Island Cistercian Abbey where Grace O'Malley is reputed to be buried. Photo: Pat O'Malley, https://www.flickr.com/photos/sailor_smb/ https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-nc-nd/2.0/

She is buried at Clare Island Abbey.

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Constance Georgine Markievicz

Perhaps the most famous of Ireland’s female revolutionaries, Constance Georgine Markievicz was born into Ireland’s landed gentry but the common people of Ireland and their efforts to gain freedom were always close to her heart.

A portrait of a young Constance, one of 5 inspirational Irish women who made an impact on Irish history. Photo: Public Domain.

She was also a staunch supporter of a woman’s right to vote.

She was born in London in 1868 to the Arctic explorer and adventurer Sir Henry Gore-Booth, who was a landlord in North Sligo and owner of Lissadell House, a popular tourist attraction.

Her mother was Georgina Gore-Booth.

While Constance’s life could have been filled with parties and all of the other niceties granted to upper-class young ladies of the 19th century, she instead filled her mind with politics and finding ways to help those less fortunate than herself.

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The interior of Sligo's Lissadell House, where Constance Markievicz spent much of her life. Photo: Derek Cullen for Failte Ireland.

In 1908, she became involved in nationalist politics in Ireland, joining Sinn Fein, the Irish democratic and socialist party that still plays a major part in Ireland’s current political landscape.

Constance was jailed for the first time in 1911 for speaking at an Irish Republican Brotherhood demonstration.

She was also imprisoned following the 1916 Rising, but unlike her male counterparts who took part in the event, she was spared execution.

Constance has the distinction of becoming the first-ever female MP elected to the House of Commons in 1918.

In addition, she was elected Minister for Labor in the First Dáil, the first parliament of the newly created Irish Republic, and subsequently, the first female cabinet minister to be elected in Europe.

Maria Edgeworth

Forget Jane Austen.

Maria Edgeworth was one of the best Regency fiction writers of her day.

Sadly, most people are unaware that this very talented young woman sold more books than the more renowned Austen.

In fact, Maria was such a prolific writer of adults’ and children’s books, that she is considered a leading figure in the evolution of the novel throughout Europe at the time.

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A portrait of a young Maria Edgeworth, one of the 5 inspirational Irish women revered in Irish history. Photo: John Downman (1750-1824) – http://www.nancycudis.com/2012/03/irish-short-story-week-purple-jar-by.html, Public Domain, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=19240285

Born in England in 1768, Maria relocated to her father's estate in Edgeworthstown, Co. Longford, after her mother died when Maria was only 5 years of age.

Throughout her life and until her father died, she would act as his assistant in managing the estate.

It was from Edgeworthstown House (now a nursing home) that she did most of her writing.

Many of Maria's works described the plight of the Irish, as well as women’s issues, politics, and education.

While her novels certainly celebrated Irish culture, they also highlighted the obvious Anglicanization of Irish society.

Ahead of her time, Maria believed in the value of education for both individual improvements and as a way to enhance Ireland's lot in general.

She believed that boys and girls should be educated equally and together and that women should only marry the one they chose.

Interestingly, Maria never married.

In addition to being an accomplished writer, Maria was also a generous person at heart, working for the relief of the many famine-stricken people living in her local area during Ireland’s Great Famine.

By asking for help from the Quaker Relief Committee in the United States, Maria was able to get much-needed aid for the poor and destitute.

Find out more about the author at the Maria Edgeworth Centre.

Are there other famous Irish women that you admire? If so, let me know in the comments below.


Colette is a County Sligo native who created Ireland on a Budget to provide her readers with money-saving tips on how to get to Ireland and then save even more when they're there. She's a professional copywriter who lives in the New York area with her husband and two children.

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