The Role of Mothers in Ancient Gaelic Society - the Story of Mongfind

Is it possible that, in the Celtic worldview, stories about warrior-women were closely linked to the Celtic concept of motherhood?  Or were a subset of stories and expectations related to mothers?  Just how far would Celtic mothers go, or were expected to go, to protect their children?  To help begin to frame answers to some of these questions, this article examines the story of Mongfind, ancestress of the primary branches of the Connachta, in the saga called "Echtra Mac nEchach Muigmedóin / The Adventure of the Sons of Eochu Mugmeadón".

 

The Story

 

Mongfind is said to have lived at the beginning of the 5th century A.D.  In our famous story called ‘The Adventure of the Sons of Eochu Mugmeadón’, she was the primary-wife of Eochu Mugmeadón.  He was the King of the Connachta, and he had other women at the same time as Mongfind.  (The Gaeil were polygamous at that time, and down to the 17th century.)  Mongfind was the mother of Fiachra, Brion, Ailill, and Feargus.  Our Seanchas details how I descend from Fiachra and therefore from Mongfind on my mother’s side.

 

Eochu had a concubine called Cairinn.  A son was born to her – Niall.  When he was grown into a king, he was called Niall Naoighiallach.  But at this time, Mongfind was very cruel to Cairinn and Niall and no one was brave enough to help them except the prophet-poet Torna.  One day, Mongfind urged her sons to kill Niall but Torna stopped that.  When Niall grew to maturity, he was able to protect his mother from Mongfind by himself.  According to our Seanchas, I descend from Niall and therefore from Cairinn on my father’s side.

 

When Eochu died, Mongfind wanted one of her sons to become King of the Connachta.  But the Connachta instead elected her brother Crimthann.  Given the youth and inexperience of her sons, who were young men at the time, she protested but made no other overt show of opposition.  Eventually, Crimthann went on a circuit of Ireland at Scotland.  Once Crimthann sailed for Scotland, Mongfind encouraged her sons to gather their forces and take the kingship.

 

As soon as Crimthann heard of this, he returned and a civil war began.  Skirmishes and ambushes raged across the mountains and forests of Connacht.  Crimthann was an experienced and able commander.  The sons of Eochu Mugmedón were no match for him in open battle.  Mongfind feared that they would go down before Crimthann.  Soon, Mongfind offered peace and the submission of her sons to Crimthann.  But she knew that it was likely that Crimthann would eventually try to kill her sons. 

 

Therefore, at the feast celebrating the reconciliation of all the Connachta, Mongfind offered her brother a cup of wine in order to welcome and bless the days ahead.  Crimthann declined.  He was worried that it would be poisoned.  Mongfind drank half the cup.  Then, seeing that the wine was safe, Crimthann drank what was left.  Crimthann died on his way home that night.  Mongfind died the next day.  Mongfind had poisoned the wine and knew that Crimthann wouldn’t drink unless she did, too.

 

And that’s how the sons of Eochu Mugmeadón survived the civil war of the Connachta.  In time, Fiachra was elected to the Kingship of Connacht and became the ancestor of the Uí Fhiachrach.  Later, Brion replaced Fiachra as King of Connacht and became the ancestor of the Uí Bhriúin.  All thanks to their mother.

 

To Conclude

 

Did our Celtic ancestors have a concept similar to that of the Chinese 'Tiger-Mother'?  We should remember that famous Celtic warrior-women like Scáthach and Boudica were also mothers.  Furthermore, it appears that our ancestors understood well that there are more ways for a woman to fight than with spear, sword, shield, and chariot, and that mothers are sometimes the best-motivated to resort to such alternative means.  Like Mongfind.

 

 

Copyright © 2015 by Gerald A. John Kelly

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