Position of Women and Children

From A Smaller Social History of Ancient Ireland 1906

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CHAPTER XV....continued

2. Position of Women and Children.

In ancient Ireland free women (as distinguished from slaves) held a good position: and it may be said that as to social rights and property they were in most respects quite on a level with men. Husband and wife continued to own the respective shares they brought in at marriage, such as land, flocks, household goods, &c., the man retaining his part and the woman hers, each quite independently of the other. Of this custom we find illustrations everywhere; and there are many records of married women taking legal proceedings on their own account against outsiders, quite independently of the husband, in defence of their special property.

But notwithstanding this separate ownership, as both portions were worked more or less in conjunction, and naturally increased from year to year, it was generally impossible—even if so desired—to keep them distinct, so that a part at least of the entire possessions might be looked upon as joint property: and for this state of things the law provided. It is from the Brehon Law we get the clearest exposition of the rights of women regarding property. The respective privileges of the couple after marriage depended very much on the amount of property they brought in. If their properties were equal at marriage, "the wife"—says the Senchus Mor—"is called the wife of equal rank"; and she was recognised as in all respects, in regard to property, on an equality with her husband.

That the husband and wife were on terms of equality as to property is made still more clear from the provisions laid down to meet the case of separation. If the couple separated by mutual consent, the woman took away with her all she had brought on the marriage day; while the man retained what he had contributed. Supposing the joint property had gone on increasing during married life: then at separation the couple divided the whole in proportion to the original contributions. Husband and wife stood on equal terms in a brehon's court, so that if the husband gave evidence against his wife, she was entitled to give evidence against him. But a father could give evidence against his daughter, whether married or single, and she was not permitted to rebut it by her evidence.

The testimonies hitherto brought forward are mostly legal and historical. But the general popular conception of the position of married women may be also gathered from the old romantic tales and legends, including those of the Dinnsenchus, in which women hold as high a place as men. We read of great female physicians, some of whom are mentioned in last chapter; and of distinguished female brehons or lawyers, such as Brigh Brugaid, whose decisions were followed as precedents for centuries after her death.

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