Trina Robbins,
Wild Irish Roses
(Conari, 2004)

Long before the Equal Rights Amendment was even a twinkle in anyone's eye, Irish women were asserting their place in the world -- sometimes with a well-placed word, and sometimes with a well-aimed sword.

Trina Robbins provides a delightful, educational look at some of Ireland's most famous mothers, sisters and daughters in Wild Irish Roses. Subtitled "Tales of Brigits, Kathleens & Warrior Queens," the book is packed with stories about women dating back to the far reaches of legend and as fresh as the early 20th century. Whether lusty or greedy, passionate or political, scholarly or savage, these are women with a positive, independent outlook on the world around them.

Robbins saves the tales from being dry biographies and historical anecdotes by injecting a modern woman's perspective into the prose. The dialogue she employs in her stories sounds modern, not ancient; for instance, when the goddess Macha implores her husband, Crunden, not to go to the Ulster fair, he whines, "All the other guys are going. If I don't go, they'll say I'm henpecked." (He goes anyway; bad things happen.)

Other featured characters of legend include Queen Maeve, whose desire for a powerful bull led Connaught into bloody conflict with Ulster; Skathach of Skye, the mighty warrior who trained the hero Cuchulain in the arts of war and love; Deirdre, who defied the high king of Ulster, Conor Mac Nessa, and ran off with the studly fighter Naoise; Grania, who similarly fled the wedding bed of aging warrior Finn Mac Cool with young lover Dermot; and many more.

Although the Christian church took a dim view of uppity women in later years, the coming of Christianity to Ireland didn't diminish the Irish women's strength and independence, as later chapters show. Take for example Kathleen O'Shea, who reportedly sold her soul to the devil to save the people under her care, or the Meath princess Dervorgilla, whose preference for one man over another led to England's invasion of Ireland. (OK, that turned out badly for the Irish.) The Clare witch Biddy Early defied church laws to help people as a mystical healer and seer, while Grania O'Malley, who made her home on Clare Island, grew to be Ireland's fiercest pirate queen.

There's also the goddess Brigit, whom the church made into a saint to help with its conversions, and Eliza Gilbert, who fooled the world into believing she was the Spanish beauty Lola Montez. By the 19th century, Lady Jane Wilde (Oscar's mom) was writing columns fomenting rebellion, and Lady Isabella Gregory was resurrecting Ireland's mythic past and Maud Gonne was inspiring Yeats to greater literary heights (while thrice spurning his more familiar urges). In 1916, Countess Constance Markievicz, who grew up in Sligo and married a Polish count, fought in the Easter Rising, while across the ocean, Irish Americans like Mother Jones, Elizabeth Flynn and Margaret Sanger were redefining the boundaries of equal rights.

And there are more. Robbins has compiled an enoyable collection of Irish history, lore and mini-biographies that will delight those with an interest in Ireland's past as well as the bold strides women have made to seize their place in the world.

- Rambles
written by Tom Knapp
published 2 July 2005

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