Saturday, August 22, 2015

The Medieval Irish Religious Women's Community

by Kristin Gleeson

Women religious communities in early Christian Ireland were of a slightly different nature than the nunneries founded across Europe and Britain in the same time period and perhaps more prolific in number as a result.

The basis of women’s religious communities in Ireland was founded on the key concept of kinship and marriage and influenced the relationship to their male religious. The religious women operated as surrogate wives, mothers, and sisters or were directly kinswomen to individual monks.

They performed the same tasks, except reproduction, as secular women. The nuns would be responsible for the men’s clothing, obtaining the wool, weaving the cloth and making the clothes, sometimes embroidering them as well as washing them. They cooked and baked and laboured to feed the men like any good wife. They also fostered young boys, giving them an elementary education before they moved onto the higher learning in the men’s community. The women also provided the friendly companionship found in any community.

In return the religious women expected a partnership in which they paid for what they received, offering their communities and estates in clientage to male religious authorities. Their settlements and communities joined others in a network of subordination and rule. A very few venerable women gained authority and fame like St Bridget, St Ita and a few others. With very few exceptions like Cil Dara (Kildare where St Bridget had her community) very few women’s or genuinely mixed-sex communities (as opposed to men’s communities with separate enclosures or related settlements for women) claimed authority over men’s communities.

It wasn’t unusual to have actual kinship relationships between the men’s and women’s community. A mother might live with her daughters in a religious community adjacent to her son’s. Property laws often influenced that arrangement. A woman might have her own parcel of land as a bride gift from her tuath (extended family/clan), and she would choose to use that to establish a religious community later in life. When she and her kin died, however, the property reverted back to the tuath and the community would dissolve in this situation.

My latest novel took me to the fascinating world of 6th century Ireland in which a woman with appalling wounds and no memory is taken to a religious community of women to recover while around her a political storm is being waged. The novel weaves in the powerful story of St Gobnait, the patron saint of bees and of the community in which I live. There are many legends and traditions surrounding St Gobnait who came to Ballyvourney, probably around the late 6th or early 7th century and established a community of religious women after seeing nine white deer.

During the course of her life in Gort na Tiobratan St Gobnait became known for her healing, using the honey the bees produced. She also performed many miracles, including sending a swarm of bees after cattle rustlers, throwing a bulla or heavy ball to raze a stone structure built by intruders, and catching the gadai dubh, the robber who tried to steal her horse and the stone mason’s tools (the robber’s image is inscribed on a stone in the church ruins at St Gobnait’s shrine).

Unlike many of the other women’s religious communities in Ireland St Gobnait’s community was established independently of any kinship ties and the community continued after her death, at least until the late middle ages. The site was recognized by the Pope in the late 13th century as place of devotion and healing, and the power and reverence given to the site of her burial and the community is still recognized today. A late medieval wooden statue of St Gobnait is displayed in the church on her feast day in February, and the parishioners visit and ‘take her measure,’ wrapping a ribbon around her breadth and length. The ribbon is kept or given to someone who is sick. And many people come from all over to recite prayers in a stipulated pattern of ‘rounds’ to ask for healing for themselves or for others. In these ways and others the site that once held this community of women still lives on.


Originally from Philadelphia, Kristin Gleeson lives in Ireland, in the West Cork Gaeltacht, where she teaches art classes, plays harp, sings in an Irish choir and runs two book clubs for the village library.
She holds a Masters in Library Science and a Ph.D. in history, and for a time was an administrator of a national archives, library and museum in America.
    Kristin is also a part of Famelton Writing Services giving manuscript critiques, copyediting, proofreading and other services for writers.
For more information go to:

My Website
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  1. Sisters were doing it for themselves way back when. Fascinating post, Kristin. Thanks.

  2. Very interesting read...thank you!


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