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Rebellious Witches, Healers & Wise Women from Ireland

In this blog, I share stories about rural Irish women from history who were powerful healers, keeners, wise women, and midwives, despite the oppression they faced. It seems that being a “witch” has always been a rebellious act against hierarchical power and systems of oppression—how can we do the same?

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Rebellious Witches, Healers & Wise Women from Ireland

In this blog, I share stories about rural Irish women from history who were powerful healers, keeners, wise women, and midwives, despite the oppression they faced. It seems that being a “witch” has always been a rebellious act against hierarchical power and systems of oppression—how can we do the same?

As winter solstice draws near, I feel myself naturally drawing inward and reflecting on the calendar year. The season of deepest darkness always beckons me into the realm of rest, renewal and dreaming. But this midwinter feels different, in the wake of all that has happened in the world since October 7th.

I’ve been deeply changed by these times of heartache and grief, like so many others. I continue to let myself be moved by these times as I call my reps, boycott, and take whatever actions I can.

My wintertime dreaming this year is focused on how to bring Ancestral Activism into the center of my work in ways that uplift life and liberation for all. My ancestors are with me in this dreamingespecially my rebellious witchy grandmothers from Ireland

These grandmother guides are reminding me that without community care and activism against injustice, spirituality becomes self-serving in ways that weaken our moral integrity and our connection to the all. Without standing firmly against systems of supremacy, our medicine becomes tainted by complacency.

Being a “witch” has always been a rebellious act against hierarchical power and systems of oppression.

The Irish Times published an article in 2017 about Ireland’s most famous witches, noting that these powerful women had one thing in common… “they were women who refused to conform.” 

And my question is—how can we do the same? How can we be louder and bolder in our refusal to conform, as we divest from systems of supremacy?

In this blog post, I want to introduce you to some powerful Irish women and their rebellious nature, in hopes they’ll inspire and activate you. If you claim titles such as “witch”, “healer”, or “priestess”, I invite you to pay especially close attention and engage with my self-reflection process at the end.

It’s important to begin this conversation about Ireland’s witches, healers and wise women by clearly stating that these women were actively being oppressed and undermined by the British Empire, the Church, and men in positions of power.  But they continued to serve their communities nonetheless, sometimes in rebellious ways.

I’m going to talk specifically about three kinds of women in this blog post:

~ Mná feasa: the healers
~ Mná chaointe: the keeners
~ Mná ghlúine: the midwives

Mná feasa: the healers

The Irish medical tradition, until the fall of the Gaelic era, was in the hands of hereditary medical families. Healers were trained in a family lineage from a very young age, and relied upon plant medicine, physical manipulation, charms, prayers, and rituals for healing. They also used otherworldly powers to aid their cures, and a bean feasa was often gifted with the second sight. Some of these healing traditions have continued to this day.

Biddy Early is perhaps the most well known witch/healer from Irish folk history, who had a famous blue bottle. This bottle was said to be the source of her healing, though she certainly had her own magical healing powers, and she also implored spiritual help from the Fairies. She was a great healer of her time and tended her community, becoming known as “The Wise Woman of Clare”. She accepted no monetary payment, but accepted animals, foodstuff and alcohol in recompense for her services.

But her fame was not based on her healing ability alone: she was in frequent conflict with the Catholic Church, the medical profession, landlords, the police and the judiciary, which made her something of a folk hero.

In one story about Biddy, she allegedly helped a local man known as “Mick the Moonlighter” to escape to America after killing one of the English landlords, who was oppressing Mick and others like him. Ireland was entirely owned by English landlords at this time and the Irish had virtually no rights to their native lands, suffering greatly at the hands of the predatory elite. The landlord had evicted Mick from his house and burned it to the ground, which is what prompted Mick’s retaliation.

Mick was already being hunted by officials when he arrived at Biddy Early’s house. Her advice was to take the road to Liscannor, speak to no one, then go down along the west coast to Kilrush where he could get a ship to America. It’s believed that she aided him magically on his journey.

The priests of the local region were so against her that they put her on trial for witchcraft in 1865 (she was the last in all of Ireland to be accused in court). Many local people supported her, and at the last minute, all of the witnesses refused to testify. She was released for lack of sufficient evidence. When she died in 1874, twenty seven priests reputedly attended her funeral.

Image credit: jenikirbyhistory.getarchive.net.

Mná chaointe: the keeners

Keening women exist in many different cultures throughout history, holding a very important role in society as the ones who perform sacred grief rituals at funerals. In Ireland the keening women are known as the mná chaointe (which means ‘keening women’) or bean chaointe which is the singular (keening woman).

The Irish keen (caoine) is very ancient, with its origins lost in the mists of time. The “Funeral Wail” is documented in a very ancient text called Cormac’s Glossary, and there are some medieval keens that have survived through the ages and are still sung today. There is also a strong connection between the keen and the pre-Christian bardic traditions. 

Usually the mná chaointe are described as being unkept, wild, often barefooted with their hair down, and sometimes they wore a cloak or scarf around their head and shoulders. Interestingly, they often served their communities as midwives as well.

These women would create a ritual performance at Irish wakes, especially in rural communities, up until the 21st century. The ritual was a way of helping the community to grieve, and the women also took up the role of psychopomp, helping the spirit of the dead to transition to the other side by surrounding the dead body in a cacophony of sound.

During the wake, the mná chaointe would be at the head and foot of the corpse. Often there were three mná chaointe who would work together. The lead bean chaointe would stretch her hands over the dead body, then lift up her hands suddenly over her head and begin to keen, and then the other mná chaointe would join in. 

Sometimes there was clapping that accompanied the keen, which was largely improvised. There are some medieval keens which have survived which are not improvised, and would have been woven into the ritual. The important thing about this ritual is that it was a performance, it was theatrical. The keen would rise and fall in cadence back and forth over the body. There would have been hand movements and body movements, including rocking the body back and forth.

The keening rituals have largely died out in Ireland over the past two hundred years. A big reason why the keen has died away is because of the Church. The Church saw the mná chaointe as very threatening, usurping the role of the priest in funeral rites. The wildness of these women and their connection to the Otherworld was viewed with great suspicion, and the keen became seen as ‘heathen’ and ‘barbic’ in nature. 

Between the 1600s and 1800s the keen became outlawed. Priests would actually hunt down the keening women and whip them, and people would be excommunicated for attending a keen. But despite these acts of violence and oppression the mná chaointe persisted, and I’m told that there are still some rural places in Ireland (such as the Gaeltacht) where these traditions live on.

A big heartfelt thank you to my mentor Mary McLaughlin for teaching me about the Irish keen.

Mná ghlúine: the midwives

Until the late eighteenth century in Ireland, childbirth was exclusively under female control, and principally within the jurisdiction of the female midwife. Traditionally the midwife was a local married woman who oversaw the labor, directed events in the birthing room, and supervised the lying in period, and only called upon ‘medical men’ on rare occasions.

However, by the late eighteenth century, male practitioners challenged the norms surrounding childbirth, and undermined the esteem in which female practitioners had been held in Ireland. These men were university educated, applied “modern” obstetric techniques, and excluded the female midwives.

This gave rise to “medical midwifery” inside a male-dominated public health system, and encouraged the centralization of maternity services in hospitals, especially in Irish cities. Despite this, however, traditional female practitioners continued to dominate midwifery amongst the rural poor, refusing to let the birth process be put exclusively into the hands of men.

There are some interesting references to midwives in Ireland’s National Folklore Collection, which can give us some insight into the nature of these women. Here’s an example:

“The midwife was an unqualified person but she was very ‘Knowing’. In this district there were two such women. Mrs Judy Sheehan and Mrs Peig Collins. Peig was…was a bold brazen and quick-tempered woman but a very successful midwife. There was no question of a doctor and when a doctor was summoned among the fairly well-to-do in those days people threw up their heads – there was no hope. Often, indeed, in serious cases the priest was summoned before the doctor.”

 

One midwife in the Folklore Collection is described as a witch. Another is described as a kind of fortune-teller who does ‘cup tossing’.  There are also lots of stories in the collection about midwives who have encounters with fairies. For example, there’s a story about a midwife who goes to a well to fetch some water and is spirited away by the ‘good people’ (the fairies). 

 

In my podcast episode with Nicola Goodall (Midwifery, Motherhood & Scottish Folk Medicine) she describes midwives as community carers. They traditionally served the community in a variety of ways, beyond birthing, which is still true of some midwives today. 

Nicola also mentions her favorite bible verse which states that, “The midwives disobeyed”, which brings me back to the Irish Times article about Ireland’s witches who “refused to conform.”

Self-reflection

What all of these women have in common is that they used their power to serve their communities, despite oppression by Church and Empire. They were bold, brazen, and rebellious by nature, demonstrating true spiritual leadership.

If you’re someone who claims titles such as “witch”, “healer”, or “priestess”, or you work in the “spiritual wellness industry”, I invite you to connect with the wise grandmothers of your ancestry and dream with me…

How can we divest from individualism and colonial patriarchal notions of success? How can we practice collective care and dismantle systems of supremacy? Instead of manifesting money or personal goals, can we get serious about working together to protect and restore the earth? 

 

Can we focus more on our sacred responsibilities than our social media presence? Can we focus more on speaking truth to power than protecting our brands? Can we focus more on leadership than popularity? How can we organize with others and make a bigger impact? How can we be the medicine that’s needed most, and call upon the strength of our ancestors to guide us?

 

These are the kinds of questions that have been coming up for me these past few months. I would love to hear your reflections on these questions in the comments, and the ways that you’re practicing Ancestral Activism in these times.

Le grá,
Tara

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Meet Tara

My name is Tara Brading and my passion is connecting women to the wisdom of their ancestors, specializing in ancestral feminine wisdom traditions from Ireland & England.

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